What We've Been Reading: Returning to an English Landscape

by William Fiennes

‘We are tilted. This was the first thing to understand’. Earth’s tilted axis is a central motif in William Fiennes’ The Snow Geese – part memoir, part travelogue, part natural history narrative. It is an idea that is returned to time and time again throughout the text. The Snow Geese charts the author’s physical and psychological journey, following the migratory path of geese travelling from Texas to their spring nesting grounds on Baffin Island, Canada. It is a vast journey, spanning roughly 3000 miles, undertaken by Fiennes as he recuperates from an unnamed, yet serious illness.

It is our planet’s tilted axis that causes animals to have to make such colossal migrations, as they seek the hospitable climates and adequate food supplies needed for survival. However, as Fiennes writes, the tilt gradually becomes emblematic of something more profound. He is exploring something deeper: some mysterious instinct buried within the human psyche, some unfathomable longing for change, for exploration and yet also ultimately the innate need for roots, origins and home. The Snow Geese seems to suggest that there is something off-kilter within the human soul – in Fiennes’ case this is most literally apparent in the disruption caused by his ill-health. His migratory journey becomes at once a cleansing quasi-religious pilgrimage and an epic Homeric odyssey re-affirming balance and stability. In one of the book’s most striking images the white, snow-bound expanse of the Canadian tundra becomes a blank page on which the distant signs of human activity are nothing but ‘doodles’. It is this cathartic emptiness that the author seeks, as he tries to re-determine his own fragile sense of identity, direction and belonging.

 Such arresting imagery seems to come naturally to Fiennes and this book is full of descriptive moments that are genuinely startling in their unusual freshness and vibrancy. He likens the flush of a woman’s cheek in the cold to ‘the smudges left on bats by new cricket balls’; an inter-state bus-driver’s shirt ‘bulges like a laundry bag’; a man has ‘striking thick black eyebrows like two stripes of tar’. Despite the strength of Fiennes’ rich descriptions of the natural world, it is in fact when describing the people whom he meets and interacts with on his journey that his prose shines at its brightest.  Conversations between the author and his fellow travellers, whether discussing freight-hopping across America in the 1930s or trying to play tennis whilst living in a convent, are often illuminating, unusual and always enjoyable to read.

In spite of its largely American/Canadian setting, the heart of this book beats within a rural English landscape. Almost from the outset of his journey, Fiennes continually yearns for home. His thoughts often turning to childhood memories of his birdwatching father or simply reverential lists of British place names, rivers and landmarks. It is as though he somehow has some inerasable traces of the temperate British countryside flowing in his veins and, just as the restless snow geese instinctively know when they must return to their nesting grounds, some part of William Fiennes drives him homeward to find ‘the trees in full leaf, the grass rich and luxuriant, and so much green, green everywhere’.  



by William Atkins

The homely England that William Fiennes yearns for in The Snow Geese is suggestive of a rural English idyll. It is a romanticised, mostly imaginary place that is rooted in early English pastoral poetry, yet runs throughout English literature: from Sydney to Wordsworth and from The Wind in the Willows to Coming up for Air. It is frequently portrayed as beautiful, calming, wholesome and restorative – these ideas pervade the way we think about our countryside, subtly influencing the political narratives surrounding Green Belt Land, public housing projects and the construction of wind farms. It is this vision of rural England that William Atkins seems to be striving to break away from in his debut The Moor.

The book’s prologue describes Atkins’ childhood fascination with what he thought of as his local moorland landscape (it was in fact a fenland ‘carr’ or marshy woodland). Even at this early stage, the landscape being described is illusory and deceptive. Atkins relates the local history of the ‘Waltham Blacks’ – a band of 18th Century outlaws who blacked their faces with gunpowder, terrorising local landowners at night; seven of whom were taken to Tyburn to be hanged. This is a place in opposition to idyllic green pastures and quaint rural villages. Instead, it is an eerie, illusory landscape full of bogs and mires, seamed with hardship and violence.

Structured as an exploration of English moorlands, running chronologically from the South of England to the North, The Moor repeatedly conjures images of a fierce and severe land that powerfully resists attempts at human cultivation and appropriation. Atkins describes a flood in the Haworth Moors in the 19th Century that ‘was precipitated, with a violence and noise of which it is difficult to form an adequate conception’. It was most probably a ‘bog burst’ – a destabilising of the peat layers after heavy rain. For the locals at the time, however, this event seems to have taken on an almost apocalyptic significance, impressing upon a young Emily Brontë a sense of nature’s ‘wilfulness, its deep-lying violence’.

One of the most memorable sections of The Moor deals with William Hannam’s doomed attempt to cultivate the wastes of Exmoor in the mid-1800s. Working from Hannam’s own account History of Twelve Years of Life on Exmoor, Atkins’ develops an intense, highly readable chapter exploring one man’s ill-fated battle with the immovable force of the natural world. The moor is depicted ‘closing in around’ Hannam whilst he becomes embroiled in a bitter, consuming feud with his neighbour, Mr Robert Smith. Atkins creates such narrative drive and tension that you could be forgiven for thinking that you are reading Hardy or, indeed, Brontë.

The moorland, as captured by Atkins’ vivid prose, is often a lonely, desolate place: somewhere wild and striking that adds complexity to England’s geography, natural history and cultural imagination. It raises British countryside above the bucolic simplicity of the pastoral idyll. It sparks the imagination of its readers to look beyond pleasant, green pastures and explore the dark and brooding moorlands rising in the distance, so rich with human history and natural wonder.