Writing the Landscape

I planned this piece in a Moleskine notebook. You see racks of them in most bookshops nowadays. In the late 1980s, the sole supplier died, supposedly ending the line. Their increasing scarcity had been noted by a British man, Bruce Chatwin, who ordered a hundred. For Chatwin, “to lose a passport was the least of one’s worries; to lose a notebook was a catastrophe”. Large sections of his notes appeared in full in his 1987 bestseller, The Songlines, and his legacy has reinvigorated the brand. Chatwin had been planning to write a book on nomads, before deciding to become one himself, a travel writer of crystalline prose and extraordinary narrative ability. His veracity has been challenged and his work has drifted out of fashion. Yet his books remain a testament to the creation of a landscape through words, and the ability of landscape to shape every aspect of human life.

Whilst he kept the notes, Chatwin burned the manuscript of his work on nomads and travelled to Patagonia instead. Inspired by the sight of a map of the region on an interviewee’s wall, and the scrap of prehistoric skin in his grandmother’s display cabinet, he set off in the footsteps of a distant relation, who had brought back the specimen after being shipwrecked in the Straits of Magellan. More importantly, Patagonia is a space for the creation of people and identity, including his own. Chatwin meets groups of Patagonian Welsh and Scots, marooned for generations, but retaining a strong sense of original place, their settlements echoing with bagpipes or male voice choirs. As Nicholas Shakespeare, Chatwin’s eventual biographer, points out in the introduction to the resulting book, In Patagonia, Patagonia is a place that intensifies personality and identity. It is as if people need to expand to somehow fill the expanses.

Chatwin meets an array of characters that reflect his wanderlust – and are doubtless shaped into the narrative, selectively fulfilling his needs. He meets a Scotsman who wears the kilt but has never been to Scotland, polite Englishmen in tweed, desperately poor Welsh farmers. And he threads in stories and myths into his myriad meetings. He investigates Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, following their debated trails and shifting identities. He discusses the King of Patagonia, a mad Frenchman who claimed his invented throne on a whim. He hears of El Dorado, hidden in Patagonia, the landscape giving birth to visions of Utopia. He muses on Coleridge and the Ancient Mariner, supposedly inspired by an ill-fated journey to South America. In many ways, Chatwin channels the Ancient Mariner, wandering with a strange urge to tell his story, to liberate himself through his account. Most of all, he chases his ancestor, Charley Milward the Sailor, his ill-fated voyages and his discovery of the beast, the giant prehistoric sloth, the mylodon. Chatwin is similarly chasing and fleeing monsters, and In Patagonia is a kind of modern sailors’ map – “Here Be Monsters!” You wouldn’t want to navigate with it, but poring over its evocative details inspires us to travel.

His exploration of the Aboriginal Songlines was a similar attempt to create landscape through language. The Aboriginal Australians’ creation myth was based around the singing into existence of the landscape and its inhabitants, and these songs are passed down through generations, navigation and lore combined. Some challenged Chatwin’s book on the subject, The Songlines, for its undefined fictionalised sections, but the blurring of fact and fiction is inherent in the discussion: the Songlines are both imagined and present. Chatwin also discusses humanity’s seemingly inherent nomadism, the itchy feet that drive our evolution. For him, movement and travel is natural, ingrained into our behaviour. He quotes widely both from his own journeys and from his research, questioning human nature and evolution. The book starts to share the ideas of the Songlines: creation and evolution shaped and remembered through landscape and our expression of thought.

The legacy of Chatwin’s work is clear – Rory Stewart has written that “The Songlines was one of the reasons that I left my job and spent a year and a half crossing parts of Asia, entirely on foot.” Stewart sought Chatwin’s insight from travel by walking, the expansion of the mind that comes with the tread of the foot. Stewart felt Chatwin neglected pain and the mundane, the difficultly of the nomadic lifestyle. But he recognises that, surprisingly, Chatwin does not romanticise the Aborigines he meets; instead he respects them, and develops their characters in the book. Robert Macfarlane, another contemporary writer who explores landscape and walking, admires Chatwin, but has written that he would not want to walk with him – “Those acid-blue eyes of his, his hunger for high-calibre talk and high-octane gossip: I would have felt too… tested, too slow and plain.” Chatwin has been repeatedly challenged, but his work should persist. It remains as a monument to the creation of landscape through language. His vivid use of colour – and little else – to invoke a landscape is reminiscent of the Aboriginal art he finds in Australia. It is not a map, and it is not a snapshot. It lies in the questionable ground, inhabited by monsters and nomads, where fact and fiction blur to create landscapes of the imagination.

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