Ness by Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood: first thoughts

Anyone who knows me well knows that Robert Macfarlane is one of my favourite authors.  I mostly read fiction, but I love nature writing, and especially since reading his book The Old Ways, which has become one of my favourite books of all time – previously only fiction took my top five slots!

Any new book by him is anticipated with huge excitement chez Victoria.  Ness was published late last year, but I can’t afford to buy new books so didn’t get it straight away; however, my local library is brilliant at stocking nature books, and I have just managed to borrow it from them.  Hooray for libraries!  [Please support all libraries. -Ed.]

A few nights ago, unable to sleep, I read it out loud in one sitting (it’s only about 80 pages, including illustrations – more on that in a moment).  I was stunned by it.  It’s a book to read several times and absorb, and I have only read it once, so these are very much first thoughts.

The Armourer leads a sort of ritual in a derelict concrete building known as the Green Chapel.  He calls on The Engineer, The Physicist, The Botanist and The Ornithologist to advise as they plan to set off a missile, WW-177A.  As they plan and deliberate, five beings are approaching the Chapel: it, he, she, they and as.  The natural world approaches the Chapel and the human plotters are met by an unexpected challenge.

This goes in no way to conveying what the book is about or what it is like, as I have no skill with words, unlike the amazing Robert Macfarlane!  He is professor of English at Cambridge as well as a lover of and expert on the natural world, and in his other books these two worlds are beautifully fused; this is a different fusion, a poetic imagining of the clash between our technological aspirations and the power of nature.

Alongside his beautiful words and imagining are illustrations by the great Stanley Donwood – I am assuming they are drawings rather than prints.  The two have collaborated in the past, but this is the first book where their words and images have equal emphasis.  Stunning black and white evocations of the Green Chapel, the environment and the hagstones that are part of the story.

So: a description of the book rather than a review.  It moved me and left me still unable to sleep (!) but more because of its power than anything, though it is disturbing.  But not bleak.  Nature is ultimately more powerful than humans’ desire to destroy it: a message for our times.

A better review when I’ve read it a couple more times!

Posted on February 9th 2020

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