May 2015: My Reading

Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.

Robert MacFarlane

This is certainly true of Robert MacFarlane’s books. He is a perfect writer for me. His obsessions with authors, walking, literature, language, nature and landscape are just thrilling. That saying about reading one good book always leads to another does not hold true with MacFarlane’s; he leads to literally dozens of new authors and texts.

Landmarks is his latest rumination and focuses on place, literature and lost language. He opens with a list of words that have disappeared from the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow

and lists what was added:

attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail
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MacFarlane rues that the ‘language of the commons’ is being lost for that of the indoor and the virtual. He fears this loss of literacy and knows it is deeply representative of our lack of connection with the natural, especially children:

We live in an era of diminishing childhood contact with nature, and landscapes outside the urban. A 2012 ‘Natural Childhood’ report recorded that between 1970 and 2010, the area in which British children were permitted to play unsupervised shrank by 90 per cent. The proportion of children regularly playing in ‘wild’ places fell from one in two to one in ten.

MacFarlane is conscious that this is part of an unfolding text of a story that really commenced in the course of the nineteenth century as Britain became “…the country that ‘broke most radically with all previous ages of human history’, in Eric Hobsbawm’s memorable phrase, and its industrialisation was so drastic that in 1850 it became the first nation in the world with more urban than rural inhabitants (a tipping point that the planet is thought to have reached only in 2010)”.

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After finishing Landmarks, I re-read The Old Ways: A Journey by FootBoth books lead me onwards to discover more authors, or re-discover them anew. His anecdotes about walkers and poets, writers and books are only surpassed by his deeply reflective writing about words and nature. I keep thinking about some of his sentences long after the book is closed:

Nature does not name itself. Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say, ‘Wow.’

The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature – a walk is only a step away from a story…

MacFarlane delights in re-discovering lost words. Here’s two you are bound to enjoy:

Blinter: is a northern Scots word meaning ‘a cold dazzle’, connoting especially ‘the radiance of winter stars on a clear night’, or ‘ice-splinters catching low light’.

Kimmeridge: The light breeze which blows through your armpit hair when you are stretched out sunbathing.

 

Peregrines, Mountains and Meadows

The Peregrine is not a book about watching a falcon but a book about becoming a falcon.            Robert MacFarlane

His eyes were fixed on my face, and his head turned as he went past, so that he could keep me in view. He was not afraid, nor was he disturbed when I lowered and raised my binoculars or shifted my position. He was either indifferent or mildly curious. I think he regards me now as part hawk, part man; worth flying over to look at from time to time, but never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or to kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper.      JA Baker

Of the many books discovered on reading MacFarlane, JA Baker‘s, The Peregrine has excited me the most. The language, the story of Baker himself and the moments spent, often in the blinter of the countryside, is a place one wants to keep returning. Baker’s myopia – a definite challenge for a birdwatcher –  and worsening health make his efforts in many more remarkable than the language he uses to craft The Peregrine.

Helen MacDonald’s, H is for Hawk led to TH White’s, The Goshawk and if you found those thrilling, MacFarlane and Baker are also for you. If you do nothing else, read the first sentences of each one of Baker’s entries. Here’s some examples of his extraordinary prose:

The day hardened in the easterly gale, like a flawless crystal. Columns of sunlight floated on the land. The unrelenting clarity of the air was solid, resonant, cold and pure and remote as the face of the dead.

The silent east wind breathed white frost on to grass and trees and the edges of still water, and the sun did not melt it.

The poet Nan Shepherd is another discovery courtesy of MacFarlane. The Living Mountain is her long unpublished work about the region of Scotland she lived and loved. It made me keen to rug up and explore the CairngormsIn fact, I am seriously considering doing so, if I can find a keen walking companion who is familiar with area. I was not as enamoured with Shepherd as Baker but what is not to love about a woman in the first half of the 20th century who travelled widely, taught English passionately, lived in the same house her whole life and also writes:

(I have the)…heaven-appointed task of trying to prevent a few of the students who pass through our Institution from conforming altogether to the approved pattern.

and

It’s a grand thing, to get leave to live.

John Lewis-Stempel won the Wainwright Prize for Meadowland: the Private Life of an English Field. I almost stopped reading, finding it more than a little twee. It is a little surprising the award was given for the book when MacDonald’s book was also in the running but even writing that that feels a little churlish. However, after a while it was one of those books where you enter the world of someone unfamiliar so completely that it becomes a pleasure of the highest order. Basically, you get Lewis-Stempel’s life as a farmer, father and keen observer of the seasons on his property. It is quite charming and a really reassuring read, especially compared to my next book, an essay

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Error in The War on Terror

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

                                                                                     Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886

So begins David Kilcullen‘s Quarterly Essay, Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic StateKilcullen is a counterinsurgency expert and his Wikipedia page gives you some more background. Here’s an extract:

“2005 to 2006, he was Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department.[3] Kilcullen was a senior counter-insurgency advisor to General David Petraeus in 2007 and 2008, where he helped design and monitor the Iraq War troop surge.[4] He was then a special advisor for counter-insurgency to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.[5] Kilcullen has been a Senior Fellow of the Center for a New American Security[6] and an Adjunct Professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.[7]“”

He seems more than well-qualified to assist a member of the general public to understand what is the most challenging of issues to unravel. Of course, the broad brush strokes of the last 25 years are easy enough but Kilcullen brings authority and expertise to the subject and makes some important points about policy blunders, that have been generally evident to many but without this level of insider knowledge and detail, throughout the essay. There is no Australian politician that has a narrative about the period from the early 1990s, through 9/11 and “The War on Terror”. All tend to simplify rather than lead any of their fellow citizens to any kind of sophisticated understanding of what has unfolded in these troubling times. More of us need to understand what is going on in our world.

The essayist’s 2.00 minute video overview is worth watching at this point to give you a sense of his argument:

One of Kilcullen’s conclusions is that “ISIS is fundamentally a state-building enterprise. Simply put, the Islamic State is, or is on the verge of becoming, what it claims to be: a state” and this is one of the ongoing consequences of the ill-conceived and executed, “War on Terror” that has resulted in a hard core of ex-Ba’athist professionals and AQI veterans being able to turn ISIS into a state: 

It has a hierarchical unit organisation and rank structure, populated by former regular officers of Saddam’s military. It fields tanks, heavy artillery, mortars and armoured vehicles by the dozen, reconnaissance units mounted in technicals that operate more like conventional light cavalry than guerrillas, internal security forces and infantry units of various levels of quality. It runs propaganda, intelligence and cyber-warfare activities, a recruiting network and training camps. There’s documentary evidence that professional soldiers, not terrorist amateurs, designed this structure. ISIS is now attempting to hold and defend cities using conventional urban tactics, seeking to control lines of communication, and trying to govern the area under its control and extract resources for its war effort. These resources are considerable, and include oilfields, refineries, industrial and agricultural facilities, access to strategically located water supplies, and millions of dollars a day in revenue.

Kilcullen acknowledges the hawkishness of his beliefs about what needs to happen (eradicate ISIS completely) but the essay is peppered with his concerns about the loss of freedoms in democratic states like Australia and the UK, or rather the potential loss of freedoms. He believes the USA is better placed, with their Bill of Rights, to avoid this but I am not so sure about that. He makes the point that the focus for many is on acts of domestic terrorism by radicalised citizens but:

It’s worth noting that the total death toll from these incidents is only about fifty – fifty-four, counting perpetrators – while the number of wounded is 319. This is utterly tragic for the individuals killed and maimed, and for their families, but it’s not a strategic-level threat to their countries.

His point that, “we have a choice: learn to live with this background threat level, or decide how much freedom we’re prepared to trade for security against it. This is likely to be a constantly shifting balance” seems important when coupled with:

…we need to make it clear that the values that define those societies – individual liberty, rule of law, religious freedom, gender and racial equality, free speech, equal opportunity – aren’t up for discussion. If members of our societies commit criminal acts, they need to be dealt with, just like anyone else, through the justice system.

Kilcullen makes the point that: “President Bush often argued that “We’re taking the fight to the terrorists abroad, so we don’t have to face them here at home,” or “we are fighting these terrorists with our military in Afghanistan and Iraq and beyond so we do not have to face them in the streets of our own cities.” What I found to be most interesting about the essay was his strong belief that, “…the militarisation of police, with heavy weapons, armoured vehicles, communications technology, military-style body armour, drones and training that inculcates the “warrior” mentality, has contributed to clashes in places like Ferguson, Missouri.” Kilcullen goes on to say that:

When militarised gangs, using techniques imported from overseas insurgents and terrorists, begin to confront militarised police forces employing counterinsurgency equipment and concepts from Iraq and Afghanistan in the cities of Western democracies, the War on Terror will truly have come home to roost.

One hopes that he is correct too about current strategy but that seems like a leap of faith at the moment. Read this next sentence closely:

Preserving and strengthening the political will of our societies, the will to continue this struggle without giving in to a horrific adversary, but also without surrendering our civil liberties or betraying our ethics, is not an adjunct to the strategy – it is the strategy.

All Australians should read this Quarterly Essay. If you are not intending to buy one anytime soon, I recommend you read an extract.

What have you been reading lately?

My reading so far for 2015.

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