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  • Writer's pictureTimothy Grieve-Carlson

(Super)Nature Writing, Pt. 1

In the first two Supernature posts, we looked at science books. Strange science books, sure, but science books nonetheless. In the next few posts, I want to look at the prominent place of the paranormal in contemporary nature writing. I was surprised, too. But many recent and major works of nature writing include a variety of experiences that can only be described as paranormal.

But first, what do we mean when we say something is “natural”? Recent work in ecological theory (including but not limited to Timothy Morton, Donna Haraway, and Bruno Latour) has revealed the dark secret waiting for us on every box in the grocery store: of course it is “all-natural,” "nature" is a hastily-constructed idea referring obliquely to the entire cosmos, or a dynamic creative and regulatory principle undergirding said cosmos, a construct which was operationalized throughout the Enlightenment to subjugate nonwhite people, women, the poor, and nonhumans (see Carolyn Merchant and Timothy Morton, again). Your oatmeal, mercifully, can be nothing but “all-natural,” unless it has arrived from another universe, and even then, I think the big oatmeal companies (there are such things in such dark times) would slap the label “all-natural” on that buzzing box of anti-matter.

So what, then, do we make of the literature that is called “nature writing”? I haphazardly take up the genre to refer to works in the lineage of people like Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, etc., in which the landscape of the writing and the other beings in this landscape serve as the subject of the author’s personal, philosophical, and cultural contemplation. And throughout the past few decades, nature writers have been more open to the feeling that their landscapes seem to be haunted.

Robert MacFarlane is a British nature writer, deservedly well-known for both his books and his twitter account. Today I want to look at a brief passage in his 2012 book The Old Ways, a best-selling and award-winning example of contemporary nature writing in which the author describes and reflects on his travels on the ancient pathways of Britain.

There are a few paranormal themes and events in The Old Ways, but today we will focus on just one. On this occasion, MacFarlane made camp one evening in the Downs north of Brighton in a place called Chanctonbury Ring, the site of Bronze and Iron Age fortifications and the ruins of a Roman Temple. MacFarlane unrolls his sleeping pad on top of the ring and slips into a merciful sleep after a long hike:

“I heard the first scream at two o’clock in the morning,” he writes. “A high-pitched and human cry, protracted but falling away in its closing phase.” MacFarlane tries to comfort himself, but fails: “A child in distress? A rabbit being taken by a weasel or fox? No, impossible, for the sound was coming from treetop height. A bird, then; an owl surely. But this was like no owl I had ever heard before: not the furry hoot of a tawny or the screech of a barn owl...” Suddenly, a second voice joins the first: “Also more human than avian, also unrecognizable to me, also coming from treetop height.” The screams begin to swirl in the darkness overhead, “still at treetop height, but circling around the tree ring, one clockwise and one anticlockwise, converging roughly on where I was lying...The cries met each other almost directly above me, twenty or thirty feet up in the dark. After fifteen minutes stopped and eventually, uneasily, I fell back asleep.” (318)

After the hike, MacFarlane takes time to research the folklore of Chanctonbury Ring. “I now know it to be one of the most haunted places in the Downs,” he remarks with no small amount of redundancy. MacFarlane had unwittingly made camp in the epicenter of the rural Sussex paranormal, and he cites sources ranging from the 1909 writings of Arthur Beckett (“if on a moonless night you walk seven times round Chanctonbury Ring without stopping, the Devil will come out of the wood and hand you a basin of soup,” which, to me, sounds like a nice way for the Devil to ask you to please stop walking around his ring), to the 1966 testimony of a group of bikers who decided to spend the night near the ring. This was an evening of events that paralleled MacFarlane’s rather precisely: “Things were quiet until after midnight, when a crackling sound started, followed by the wailing voice of a woman that appeared to move around the circumference of the ring.” (319)

What are we to make of MacFarlane’s nocturnal encounter? Better yet, what does MacFarlane himself make of it? He manages to avoid the two major mistakes that many writers make when turning to their own paranormal experiences: he does not dismiss or reject his own experience, nor does he take it too seriously or personally.

MacFarlane does not dwell on the experience in the text beyond his brief description of subsequent research. In his narrative, the screaming beings of Chanctonbury Ring are simply another presence in the landscape to be identified, like an uncommon bird photographed in the moment to be recorded later and checked off a list. Indeed, MacFarlane’s position as a more-or-less secular observer is obvious in his response to the scream: he just lays down, trying to identify it, and when he can’t he doesn’t flee in fear (like the bikers did in 1966, he notes with some satisfaction). He waits for it to stop, and then he goes right back to sleep. Whatever the presence(s) is/are, MacFarlane’s observational distance and relative ignorance seem to somehow protect him.

Furthermore, MacFarlane does not dismiss or exclude the encounter from his narrative. He records it, he researches it, and he avoids the major mistakes that many personal narratives of paranormal experience seem to fall into. I think that MacFarlane’s encounter on Chanctonbury Ring shows us a valuable model of interpreting paranormal experience: taking such experience seriously but not too seriously. He doesn’t claim to have experimentally verified the afterlife. He claims, following his own experience and subsequent research, to have had the same experience as many people have had on Chanctonbury Ring before him.

Nature writing has always had a curious relationship with religion. From Thoreau’s reverential and profoundly orientalist reading of the Bhagavad-Gita on the shores of Walden Pond to the contemporary connections between the environmental movement and the spiritual-but-not-religious, concern for the nonhuman world and the transcendent have been consistent historical partners. The concern for paranormal presences and phenomena as nonhumans of concern in contemporary nature writing is a new variation on an old theme. In the twenty-first century, paranormal presences might continue to edge out God in popular nature writing, so long as authors continue to immerse themselves in haunted environments.

There’s more to discuss in The Old Ways and throughout Robert MacFarlane’s corpus. We will keep looking at this pattern in the next few posts in the Supernature series. Since so many of us are cooped up in isolation, we are increasingly valuing our daily walks in our own neighborhoods, our immediate surroundings, and our homes. In the next post, I will take up a new author, wherein the connection between the practice of walking and the paranormal is our next subject, for which Macfarlane can blaze us a little path here: “...walking paths might lead ‘slip back out of this modern world.’ Repeatedly, these wanderers spoke of the tingle of connection, of walking as seance, of voices heard along the way.” (The Old Ways, 21)

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