… which was written during the closing years of WWII but wasn’t published until 1977, is making me restless to go hiking again.
This, for example:
The inaccessibility of this loch is part of its power. Silence belongs to it. If jeeps find it out, or a funicular railway disfigures it, part of its meaning will be gone. The good of the greatest number is not here relevant. It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness. (14)
The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insects (an intricacy that has its astonishing moments, as when sundew and butterwort eat the insects), the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin — that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension. I find I have a naïve faith in my scientist friends — they are such jolly people, they wouldn’t fib to me unnecessarily, and their stories make the world so interesting. But my imagination boggles at this. I can imagine the antiquity of rock, but the antiquity of a living flower — that is harder. It means that these toughs of the mountain top, with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots, have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age. The scientists have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know how it has been done. (59)
‘Knowledge does not dispel mystery’ — that’s what I keep coming back to. It doesn’t, but there is a way of writing about facts that does dispel mystery, that turns the unknown into the known and, in doing so, makes it mundane. Such writing, of course, has its place. But if I think of what happens when I read my favourite essayists, the process goes something like this: the more I learn from them about the topics they explore, the more I am filled with a sense of awe and mystery. This, I think, is something to aim for in writing. How to explore a topic so that, as its layers and intricacies open ever up, it becomes more mysterious?
I have also been reading about, in art, objects of recognition (these serve as vehicles for the already known) versus objects of fundamental encounter (these force us to think; they produce something new in themselves). The latter enact some kind of disruption of the given. It’s a good way of thinking about the kind of writing that interrupts convention, that offers up something brave and new and startling. It’s not about discarding what has come before, but knowing it enough to see a way through and beyond it.
And it’s such a different thought process as a reader, isn’t it, the encounter with an object of recognition (the following the clues, the ticking off the boxes, the relating this thing before you with the meanings it gestures towards) when compared with the confusion, the sometimes indignant feelings when confronted with a fundamental encounter: how to understand this? It’s harder work, and it’s confronting, and frustrating (why am I not equipped with the tools to unlock this meaning?) but, in the end, it’s much more rewarding because it involves, eventually, some kind of shift.