I’ve been thinking about nature writing and wild places for a lot of my career, but this year’s teaching has focused my mind in new ways. I teach a course called ‘Literature and Environment’ to undergraduates as well as running the MA in Writing, Nature and Place, and in both contexts I’ve found myself discovering again quite how much I dislike the idea of ‘wilderness’, of special places set aside for the special people who think they deserve more space than the rest of us. Many of the books by writers the MA students have started to call ‘the wilderness boys’ are just men exciting themselves about being higher up or further away than anyone else. The founding fathers of the wilderness boys are the Romantic poets and nineteenth century travels writers about whom I wrote my doctoral thesis, and my love of their writing has been wrangling with my politics for a long time, one of those writerly tensions that holds up my intellectual world.
I spent a week on Aran at the beginning of May, leading an MA field trip. I’ve spent time on Scottish islands before, but it was my first time on the west coast of Ireland. In some ways, the landscape was deeply familiar: gorse, cliffs, pale beaches with bright water, wild flowers thronging the paths – very much like Cornwall at this time of year, as well it might be, being more or less a continuation of Europe’s western edge. But behind the flowers and hedges were mountains muffled by cloud, and a kind of emptiness that you don’t get anywhere in England. Wilderness, I suppose. We climbed halfway up one of them. The wind sweeping the curve of a mountain, the sea seen across miles of land, a sprinkle of white dots like beads from a broken necklace that must be houses along a road, and myself and my companions high above it all, hearing nothing but wind and birds, peering round the earth’s curve. I oppose the idea of wilderness, of the superior position, but my feelings for the real thing are more complicated. I too can get high on altitude, on solitude, on being far away.
I wasn’t, of course, in solitude on Aran. I was responsible for risk assessment and health and safety, and lived in fear of someone falling off the cliffs that mark the final boundary between Europe and the Atlantic. All around the clifftop Celtic forts, I found settling places for the nervous and chivvied the brave away from the edge, instructing the group – competent adults all, and some with far more experience of these things than I have – to keep at least two metres from the drop and approach, if they must, on hands and knees. Trained by parenthood, I set a good example, stayed back, resisted the urge to look down. I lasted all of two days before my fascination got the better of me and I decided that the students were a sensible bunch of people and went and lay with my head over the abyss, watching the waves exploding a hundred metres below my flattened body. I began to find places to sit more or less over the void, where, in an on-shore wind and as long as I kept still, I could watch the final seconds of waves from America without feeling that I was being more than titillatingly irresponsible. I thought then that I don’t know why it’s so deeply gratifying to watch the sea smashing itself against the land, or why there’s such pleasure in holding myself out over a fatal drop. But of course I do know why. It’s the damn Sublime again, Burke and Wordsworth going round in my blood like iron years after I recognized them for the (gifted) male chauvinist pigs that they are.