Why write about a landscape? Why not ‘just go’ and experience it, and remember it, rather than write it down? Is there a purpose to reflecting on how being out in a wild place makes you feel? Does trying to put it into words actually detract from a memory and render it less crystalline? At what point does writing about such places become waxing lyrical, or worse yet, boasting, at somehow having the time and the inclination to go in search of the wild?
These questions arose in a recent chat with friends over the idea of writing about landscapes, geology, and the natural world, as I am drawn to more and more. For me, there is joy in forging a memory from the visual, sensuous experience of being outdoors; etching it out in words if you like. Nor does the place in question have to be classed as ‘wilderness’ – landscapes of all kinds, in all places, pull me in and compel me to find out more.
Since childhood, I have wanted to know why something looks the way it does, why a landform is that shape or a rock is that colour. My visual memory is not always enough; writing it down helps me recall details of those shapes and colours that I would otherwise lose. I’ve almost given up taking photographs too, favouring written language scribbled in notebooks that I cart around wherever I go.
I was lucky enough to have a geography teacher at secondary school who appeared to be equally as fascinated by every landform and rock formation he came across as I was. He took us out in the minibus all over Fife and Tayside, off road at times, exploring off the beaten track. He encouraged us to see beyond the surface or the immediacy of what was in front of us; he encouraged us to question everything the landscape had to offer.
Writing about landscapes gives me a sense of preserving a moment or memory, so as not to lose it. Perhaps even more importantly, however, it gives me a chance to try and help preserve the place itself as well, by alerting others to its beauty or importance so it might be looked after long into the future. I realise this may be futile, in many cases, but I like to know I’ve tried. It is something I have effectively been doing all my life – attempting to capture a place as it is at that moment; to explain, teach, inspire, and above all to give something back to the land in the hope it is looked after as it should be. My recent work with the Scottish Geodiversity Forum has only enriched this idea further.
I do admit to working in blurred boundaries with my own pieces; writing about landscapes in a way that often bridges science and creative writing. This is almost entirely due to my own background – a former Master of Arts student with half a degree in geology and geography, and a wealth of self-taught knowledge in all manner of sciences. My current job is as a science writer: which can often by necessity be a very prescriptive, methodical way of communicating science. Yet somehow with my own writing I often find myself lost in ‘no man’s land’. The accurate and interesting communication of the details of landscape, geodiversity and how people interact with the land around them is crucial. Explaining ‘why it is the way it is’ carefully and correctly does not necessarily mean it has to be ‘academically scientific’ in style.
So, is writing about landscape and geodiversity just a way of showing people what you have seen when you can’t take them there yourself? Is writing about it the next best thing? There is the hope that your readers might seek out the places you describe, or at the very least begin to take notice of their own unique surroundings and try to understand them better. My main aim is, I guess, to try and help preserve landscapes through careful, engaging language on the page.
I would argue a definite place for ‘landscape writing’, and a purpose. If landscapes and wild places are to be safe from the encroachment of urbanisation, from being spoilt by tourism, or over-exploited for natural resources, these places need to be championed in as many ways, and by as many voices, as possible. Just as much as lesser-known but equally as beautiful or important places deserve to be recognised for what they are. We are privileged, in Scotland, and in the UK as a whole, to live and work within some of the most diverse and ancient landscapes in the world. Perhaps, at times, I will verge on waxing lyrical, but these pages are ‘my voice’ added into the mix.
All text and photographs copyright L. Reid 2015