Fields of Experience: Reading the Thwaites Wainwright Prize

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize

I wrote in my last post about reading the Thwaites Wainwright Shortlist as a way to further my understanding and engagement with landscape and the environment. (Not to mention the opportunity to read some very good writing). It’s going to take me a little while: This is resolutely unrushable writing in both form and content. Except, perhaps, for Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk which is a tumbling, headlong dive into grief, reconciliation, and the nature of wildness and the bond between human and animal. It contains some of the finest writing I’ve come across in quite a while. It’s won everything else, but I wouldn’t bet against it come the ceremony.

I wrote in my last post about naming, acquaintance, and experience: fitting, then, that I should start John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field, a book packed with latin and local names for the grasses, flowers, trees, birds, moles, rodents, bats, beetles, earthworms, and more which populate a Herefordshire field throughout the year. For example, in Lower Meadow one might find “of grasses alone, timothy, meadow fescue, cock’s foot, meadow foxtail, woodrush, sweet vernal, tufted hair-grass, crested dog’s tail and meadow grass.”  This way of looking, to echo John Berger, married as it is with a streak of hard-nosed romanticism, emerges from a farmer’s engagement with the land. As Lewis-Stempel writes, “There is nothing like working the land for growing and reaping lines of prose.”

What is so striking about Meadowland is the concentration of experience and knowledge poured into a single field and recorded over the course of the year. Lewis-Stempel emphasises from the outset that his is a record of a kind of affective experience (“I can only tell you how it felt. How it was to work and watch a field and be connected to everything that was in it, and ever had been”): something which can generate some remarkable moments enmeshed in the life of the meadow as well as the occasional platitude and odd turn of phrase as the writer overreaches in the search for expression.

Yet, if one candidate for beauty is what Monroe Beardsley called “unity in diversity”, then Meadowland succeeds admirably in capturing the variety within the web of the meadow, even as the grasses are strewn with dew-lapped webs of another kind. Lewis-Stempel doesn’t shy away from the death which pervades the landscape: there is a particularly unpleasant squashed baby sugar mouse incident and the writer walks out gun in hand more than once. But from the print of that mouse-breaking cow’s hoof is born a microclimate which supports specialised fauna: as an intimate portrait of a rich and potentially threatened rural space Meadowland succeeds admirably.

The moor ahead of me was a foaming, surging mass, a sponge squeezing itself, a waterlogged lung. I could feel its spume coming down on me, hear its roar.

Next up for me is William Atkins’s The Moor: Lives, Landscape, Literature which tracks the moorland of mainland Britain from the Southwest to the Northeast through history, fiction, and the author’s journey. Thus far, Atkin’s writing is very impressive indeed. At a recent Faber Social Robert Macfarlane discussed the problem of moving from qualia–or the texture of conscious experience–to style, to a form of expression that conveys something of our phenomenology. Atkins succeeds, I think, in evoking not just the sensory experience, but what–if we were that way inclined and aiming for pretension–we might call the “semantic cloud” of experience: the images, allusions, and atmosphere that we supply in our engagement with our surroundings. (There is a Sebaldian influence hovering in the background, emphasised by the occasional telescoping of time.) Atkins populates this cloud with moors murders, hopeless Victorian schemes to tame the landscape, Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, and the “black pits” of R. D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. It’s working for me so far.

The mist, secretly, had become fog, a deadening vapour that surged with the wind and seemed a presence as constant and primary as the peat underfoot. It was water with a rinsing of soap, an occlusion rather than a blinding. My cough sounded like an animal’s — in these conditions a noise lasts no longer than its cause.

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

I’m fortunate to be able to run a competition to win a set of the Thwaites Wainwright Prize shortlist. Why should you read these books? I asked the judges what draws them to the kind of writing the prize seeks to promote, why its valuable, and what they are looking for when judging submissions. More to come in my report on the ceremony, but here are the thoughts of two of the jury.

Chair of judges, Dame Fiona Reynolds

I can never get enough of nature writing. I love the way I am drawn, irresistibly, into the place or the subject of the author’s passion, inspired by the craft of writing and the quality of observation.

Fergus Collins, judge and editor of BBC Countryfile magazine

As a country boy living in London and then Bristol, I found the words of great nature writers such as Richard Jefferies or Ian Niall a wonderful escape from endless tube journeys and concrete skylines. They inspired me to be more observant about my wild neighbours even in the depths of the city. But as well as conjuring atmosphere and magical encounters, such exceptional writing should sometimes be as challenging and discomforting as the natural world so often is – and of which the reader is a part.

To enter the competition just leave a comment below, being sure to include an email address. The winner of the Thwaites Wainwright Prize is announced on the evening of Wednesday 22nd April. I will accept entries for the shortlist competition until midnight on Friday 24th April. I’m afraid that I can only accept UK entries. The winner will be chosen using a random number generator.

The competition is closed and a winner has been selected.

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Enchantment and Acquaintance: Nature Writing and Knowledge

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

I have an odd relationship with nature and landscape writing. Naming, as any poet will tell you—I remember Carol Ann Duffy saying something to this effect—is a powerful thing. Through their parts or as wholes, names set off small semantic explosions in the mind of the reader as well as serving to anchor poetic abstraction in places, things, and people. Clive James’s Japanese Maple, Alice Oswald’s Severn, Heaney’s Mossbawn, miscellaneous Wordsworth: each by its naming puts out little tendrils which hold the world close. That, I think, is what I find attractive about writing on place, nature, landscape, and wildlife: its naming and exploration of things named.

Yet, this interest can feel like bad faith. It is because I am so poor at naming plants, birds, trees, and landscape—chalk hills? Clay? Limestone?—that I find this writing so fascinating, so enchanting. Of course, the history and human relationships bound up in landscape and wildlife are deeply interesting, and I love good writing about them; but, nonetheless, it is the power of naming, built on a way of perceiving I lack that lies at the heart of my worry.

Such writing has for me something of the allure of fantasy or science fiction: the exploration and evocation of another world, where most of the world-building has been taken care of by history and the environment, though interpretation and projection by the writer certainly has its part to play. Writers who can draw on language and knowledge I’ve never known or which seems to vanish as soon as I hear it. (Expressed in a rather flippant poem—but the anxiety is more substantial.) Roger Deakin wanders about discussing blackthorn, coppicing, insects, beetles, and really rather a large variety of birds; Robert Macfarlane springs up and down hills, across moors and tidal pathways, with a dictionary in tow: that’s how it feels anyway. Helen Macdonald and J. A. Baker name the birds and understand the goshawk and peregrine. I struggle to remember the difference between blue tits and great tits, ash and bay, which hills are where and what they are made of. (I’m beginning to grasp the South Downs.)

All of this bothers me because each of these writers hints at a way of perceiving that feels lost. If you can name things you can understand the relations between them—and vice versa—and that understanding can penetrate your perception of the environment and its history. This capacity enchants me as a mystery does: like a magic trick, I can’t see how it’s done, although I can think it impressive or beautiful: the bad faith worry stems from the sense that—as with the magic trick—learning how its done might lead to disenchantment. I don’t think that would happen; in fact, I expect it would be quite the reverse. Acquaintance would enrich rather than diminish, because naming and understanding aren’t sleights.

In order to deepen my acquaintance I’m going to be reading the Thwaites Wainwright Prize shortlist over the next few weeks. I’ve read the wonderful H is for Hawk already—and you really must—and the rest of the shortlist is a cross-section of the kind of writing I’ve been considering: place, people, wildlife, and their histories and crossings. I’m starting with Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel in my attempt to move beyond all that undifferentiated green.

  • Running Free: A Runner’s Journey Back to Nature, Richard Askwith (Vintage/Yellow Jersey).
  • The Moor: Lives Landscape Literature, William Atkins (Faber & Faber).
  • Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, Mark Cocker (Vintage).
  • Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field, John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld).
  • H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (Vintage).
  • Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, Philip Marsden (Granta).

Fooling Houdini: Adventures in the World of Magic – Alex Stone (William Heinemann)

Out in paperback 5th July.

I have a confession to make. When I was a teenager I was something of a magic obsessive. I used to spend hours practising sleights in front of the mirror and dying for someone to ask me to do a trick (or ‘effect’ – I cared about the difference) as I sat shuffling cards at school.  I’m also a philosopher who researches the nature of our perception of the world around us: how our senses operate and interrelate, how our attention affects what we perceive, and how this all jumbles together to constitute our experiences of everyday life. So when I heard about Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini I was rather excited. Stone is a PhD student in physics at Columbia University in New York, but he is also a magician whose ambition is to pass muster amongst the greatest practitioners the world has to offer. From abject failure on of one magic’s greatest stages to redemption on another, Stone interweaves the compelling narrative of his magical development under his brusque master Wesley James with an account of the cognitive, perceptual, and probabilistic underpinnings of the tricks of the magic trade, taking in the history of will to believe and the willingness of con-men to take advantage of human psychology. In the course of his investigation he discovers his identity as a magician and reveals the learning lying behind what many dismiss as mere trickery.

A card, freely chosen, perhaps signed, is returned to the middle of a deck of cards; that card appears on the top of the deck, is replaced in the middle, jumps to the top again, and does so in ever more mystifying ways. Perhaps the deck has a rope tied around it to prevent the magician meddling with it after the card is returned; perhaps a bend (a ‘crimp’) is put in the signed card to differentiate it from the rest: it nevertheless leaps, visibly this time, to the top once more. This is just one version of the ubiquitous Ambitious Card routine which all close-up card magicians have in their repertoire in some form. My version ends with the signed card appearing face­-up on the top of the deck, but there are many more impressive routines. It is, if you will excuse the pun, the calling card of the close-up magician. This is the effect with which the great Dai Vernon fooled Harry Houdini seven times one night in 1922. Flummoxing other magicians is the Holy Grail of legerdemain, requiring consummate skill and imagination. One of the most adept is Richard Turner. Blind from a relatively young age Turner is one of the greatest and most obsessive ‘mechanics’ in the history of magic. His sense of touch is so developed that when the United States Playing Card Company changed their production process he not only noticed but could tell them about alterations in texture, weight, and shape of which they were oblivious. They duly appointed him their ‘Touch Analyst’.

One of the major contemporary debates within the philosophy of perception centres around how we should go about determining the nature of the senses: in other words, how we go about understanding each sense and thereby differentiating sight from touch, smell from taste, hearing from sensing vibration and so on. Turner claims that he can see objects – his cards – as he handles them. This allows him to perform astonishing feats, cutting to cards in the middle of the deck by feel alone. Scans of the brains of blind individuals reveal that they do indeed seem to see with their fingers: the visual cortex is activated in a way associated with viewing objects rather than touching them in sighted subjects. This cross-modal (inter-sense) interaction undermines the traditional model of five distinct senses inherited from Aristotle. It is not only the blind who can experience the world in this way. Indeed, all magicians – myself included – come to develop a greater tactile sensitivity as they manipulate their cards, coins, cups and so on. I once rather shocked some friends at school who had sneaked two or three cards from my deck by asking for them back. I hadn’t seen them; I could just feel the difference.

‘Magic, at its core,’ Stone tells us ‘is about toying with the limits of perception.’ In perhaps the most fascinating part of Fooling Houdini Stone delves into the quirks of our attentional mechanisms which make misdirection possible. Whilst we see a great deal of what goes on around us, we do not, it seems notice everything: we don’t respond to it, and we can’t recall it. Competing cognitive tasks – counting the number of passes made with a basketball in a video, for example – can mean we miss an intuitively obvious perceptual stimulus – a woman in a gorilla suit waving her arms in the midst of all the passing. It is this kind of perceptual and cognitive limitation which makes some of the most celebrated effects possible. Such intentional blindness is at play when Stone steals the watch from the wrist of a prominent researcher into attention. Misdirection is all about manipulating attention, rather than simple distraction, and takes advantage of the potentially misguided intuition most of us have that we perceive a lot more than we actually do.

One of the real strengths of Fooling Houdini is the way it communicates the depth of learning and dedication the greatest practitioners achieve. The individuals magicians admire are not simply the rich or famous, but the most creative, penetrating, and dedicated. It’s little wonder that so many scientists, mathematicians, and intellectuals turn out to have a side-line in magic. Magic allows one to toy with perception, probability, order, and, of course, people, in a way few ethics committees would allow. Alex Stone’s judgement was flawed when, as a teenager, he thought that magic would make him less of a nerd, but he has produced a compelling and deeply interesting book on magic and the mind. I’m just never letting him near my watch.

Darkness Visible – William Styron

Dante’s Dark Wood

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the descent into despair in William Styron’s Darkness Visible is the inexpressibility of suffering involved in depression.  He writes, ‘Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.’ This ‘veritable howling tempest in the brain’ resists all the art so powerful a writer can throw at it. This might be why so many approach mental illness through art and poetry. Indeed, Styron’s very title is from Milton,

As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d

Paradise Lost Bk I

So distant from the literal, allusion is all that is left, and the more severe his ‘melancholia’ the more poetic Styron’s prose becomes. The first quotation is one I used in my review of Jonathan Lee’s JOY and it was a strange experience reading Styron and then Lee. Both examine from quite different perspectives what Styron calls ‘the stigma of self-inflicted death’ and the resistance to reduction of suicide to any one explanation. It would be hard to argue that any character in JOY suffers from the kind of illness Styron was struck by, but suffering and self-destruction and unfathomable loss are shared concerns.

My wife researches the philosophy of psychiatry and she tells me that one thing that comes up again and again in accounts of depression is the sufferer’s loss of a sense of the world as constituting an arena for them to act in. Objects lose the penumbra of possibilities which normally surround them in our perception. So a cup, for example, is no longer perceived as an object we might manipulate, drink from, throw against a wall, and so on. Styron writes of this loss of the sense of oneself and one’s relation to the world,

I had now reached that phase of the disorder where all sense of hope had vanished, along with the idea of a futurity; my brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.

Styron’s writing is direct and intimate whilst being flowing and capacious. Such clarity of expression serves to emphasise the resistance of the condition to articulation. However, whilst the essence of the experience eludes him, Styron captures the rhythms of his experiences, the descent, the paralysis, and the utter loss of faith in deliverance which can result in the altered consciousness which admits suicide as a real possibility. However, such experiences can be endured, and Styron does endure them, finding time on the way to be rather scathing about both therapy and pharmacology: a debate that continues up to the present moment. Of his own Freudian approach to his illness we might be sceptical, but, as Wittgenstein noted, perhaps what is more important from a therapeutic point of view is not some strict and accurate causal account of mental illness, but a narrative that the sufferer can identify with, own, and integrate into their understanding of their situation, thus reintegrating the fragmented and distraught collection of mental shards they have become.

That depression is misunderstood, indeed cannot be understood; and that it is conquerable – or at least controllable – is the core of Styron’s message in Darkness Visible. This book should be read by everybody.

Buy Darkness Visible

Amazon: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Vintage classics)

Or at your local bookshop!