Right now people all around the world are hunkering down, travel plans cancelled, trips and events off. Those of us lucky enough to live among nature or close to wild places can still get out and about on solitary bird counts, or hikes where we distance ourselves from our companions. But some journeys or places we might have hoped to visit can now only be enjoyed from afar and preferably through a good book. Yes, you can watch nature documentaries or real-life adventure films but the are over in an evening and won’t keep you engaged for as long as a good book can.
From my recent Nature reading list, here are some recommendations for nature journeys, each told from a unique personal perspective. Experience the fungi in the woods of Norway, the migratory route of snow geese through North America, the wild Orkney Islands, a camel trek through central Australia and the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand.
The Way Through the Woods: of mushrooms and mourning by Long Litt Woon (translated into English by Barbara J. Haveland 2019)
The author describes The Way Through The Woods as telling “two parallel journeys: an outer one, into the realm of mushrooms, and an inner one, through the landscape of mourning.” Malaysian born Long Litt Woon has lived her adult life in Norway. While mourning the early death of her Norwegian husband, she found herself drawn into the European pastime of collecting edible fungi. ‘Mushrooms and mourning’ may sound like a strange combination, but this is no contrived book of an author seeking a vehicle for her story. It’s an authentic journey; interweaving strands of discovery both personal and about the natural world.
The epiphany Long Litt Woon describes of seeing with new eyes, will ring true for anyone who has started to learn the ways of nature. “A walk through the woods is a very different experience when undertaken armed with new knowledge, however limited it may be. Suddenly I was seeing mushrooms everywhere, fungi that I would have walked past before, blending as they did into the landscape. Now they were popping out at me in 3D, as if I’d been given special glasses to see them.” The Way Through the Woods is full of such insights and new ways of experiencing the natural world – a whole chapter is given over to the odour of fungi, for example.
While it’s possible to read The Way Through the Woods as an e-book, I’d recommend the printed book if you can get hold of it. It is beautifully produced with different coloured fonts alerting the reader to a shift of focus from her inner journey to the outer one, and also includes some attractive line drawings.
Long Litt Woon was in Wellington in March at the International Festival of the Arts.
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes (2001)
The author makes an extraordinary journey following the snow geese migration across North America, from Texas to Baffin Island. As with Long Litt Woon, William Fiennes was also in need of healing, he reveals that he suffered a long period of repeated hospitalisation and recuperation in his early 20s. A chance re-read of Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, was the beginning of his fascination with these beautiful migratory birds. Once he recovered from his illness, he set out on this trek. As the geese rest on their stages of the journey north, so must he, waiting in small towns of the USA or Canada for the geese to move on. These small towns and the people he meets are lovingly brought to life in extraordinary detail. In amongst his travel descriptions, the author weaves in information about the snow geese and bird migration.
I picked up The Snow Geese at Archway Books my local second hand bookstore, where there was more than one copy for sale.
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2015)
In this award-winning memoir, the author tells her story of growing up in the Orkney Islands, of her life as a troubled young adult in London and of her eventual return to the Orkneys. At times it’s a raw account of alcoholism and addiction.
Amy Liptrot’s return to the Orkneys and her immersion in its natural world marks the start of her recovery. Her descriptions of life in the Orkneys, the people and the wildlife are compelling. A beautiful and inspiring cover too.
This book was recommended (and lent to me) by a friend with a Scottish Isles connection.
Tracks: a woman’s solo trek across 1700 miles of Australia Outback by Robyn Davidson (1980)
This is a story you could watch as a movie. Released in 2013 the film is a pretty good retelling of the epic journey. I’m sure you will want to read the book afterwards, as the movie will leave you with so many questions – you’ll be asking yourself what got left out or glossed over to compact a journey of many months into less than 2 hours.
My copy of Tracks is old and battered. I’ve read this book at least once per decade since it was released. Each read I’ve been drawn to different aspects of her account. When I first read it, I was about the same age the author was when she undertook the trip. Her daring and courage took my breath away, opening up possibilities of what I too might achieve. A subsequent reading drew my attention to her reflections on how the community treats indigenous Australians. Later as I was beginning to spend more time in nature myself, I read with interest her experience of not just noticing different plants and animals more keenly but the way she came to ‘know’ the desert in all its connections, associations and patterns.
On my most recent re-read, I was drawn to her reflections on the impact the National Geographic coverage and sponsorship had on her journey. We now take it for granted that travellers will blog, tweet and instagram their trip. We don’t question how travelling with the purpose of finding Instagrammable views or the cliched “Ten Things to Do in…” alters the traveller’s experience. So it was refreshing to read of her misgivings about how the magazine coverage threatened to alter her experience. She reflects on an event when the photographer was present “I did not perceive at the time that I was allowing myself to get more involved with the article about the trip than the trip itself. It did not dawn on me that already I was beginning to see it as a story for other people, with a beginning and an ending.” Luckily she manages to avoid this problem for most of her trip – she travelled without any communication devices, something we find hard to imagine today. Writing the book was for her, I think, a reaction to the neat packaging of her trip by National Geographic. This honest account includes her fears as well as her success, and describes the dirt and the dust as well as the beauty of the desert.
I first read Tracks in the mid-80s, gave away my copy, bought another. I re-read it last month.
Bewildered by Laura Waters (2019)
The Te Araroa Trail goes almost right by my front door, and I’ve walked small parts of it over the years, so I was interested to read Bewildered Laura Waters’ account of hiking the whole trail.
Her wonderful (and so true) description of the nearby Tararua Range is trail writing at its best “The trees and rocks are furry, like green flock. Beds of damp peat moss grow thick and deep, punctuated with leaves that bend in on themselves like curled tongues drinking moisture from the mist. Every square inch is covered with life. I feel as though I am walking through a living breathing thing.”
As she progresses from North to South she shares parts of the trail that she found difficult, times when the weather changed for the worst and halted her progress, and the joy of good companionship. While there were a few occasions when she lost the trail, “Bewildered” refers, I think, to issues she has to sort out in her personal life. It can be hard for an author to get the balance of the inner journey and outer journey right, and different readers may have different perceptions of what strikes a good balance. I would have preferred more trail experiences and descriptions, but perhaps that is because I was looking for fresh perspectives on a landscape that is familiar to me. Still it’s inspiring to read the courage and confidence that she got from hiking the trail, and the choices she went on to make in her life.
I first saw Bewildered reviewed on Lotsafreshair.com.