Review: At the Water’s Edge by John Lister-Kaye

In At the Water’s Edge John Lister-Kaye charts the four seasons as he takes the same circular walk everyday from his home in a Scottish glen. Lister-Kaye describes the changes in his surroundings and the various plants and animals that he encounters. It is when he is describing these encounters, particularly ones with animals, that Lister-Kaye’s strength as a brilliant storyteller shines through. He had me genuinely gripped at times, for instance when he describes his attempt to stalk a stag, he really brings to life the tension of trying to find the stag without the stag sensing him first. Elsewhere there are beautiful descriptions of the animals he is observing that really give you a clear image of the individuality of each animal, as when he encounters a martin:

He stopped a few feet away, rose otter-like on his hind legs and looked around, dropped down again and shook. With a flick of his supple neck his pointed little face inscribed a short, sharp circle which set off down his back a tidal wave of muscular spasm engulfing him in a private geyser of water and mist.

If At the Water’s Edge had simply been a book that described his various encounters with animals and the changing landscape around him then I would be doing nothing but singing its praises. However, Lister-Kaye expressed some opinions that I found myself vociferously disagreeing with and it was this that slightly soured my experience of the book.

The first chapter is called ‘The Lie of the Land’ and it begins with a description of the geological formation of the glen that Lister-Kaye lives in and its surroundings. Having just finished The Unofficial Countryside by Richard Mabey (which I reviewed here), Mabey’s view on the inclusion of geological histories in nature writing came to mind:

The fact that polar bears once splashed about in the Thames or mammoths grazed on the site of the M1 is not very relevant to our experiences of nature now.

I read a lot of nature writing these days and so I notice themes that recur across a lot of nature writing books. Glaciers is one of these themes. It seems that every writer feels the need to describe the way in which glaciers formed the landscape they are looking at, and to be honest, most of the time I find it to be a little unnecessary and rather boring. It seems as though writers feel a need to go right back to the beginning, in order to set a benchmark for pristineness. As though the melting of the last glacier marked the turning point for the landscape, a point at which there was no human intervention and there was only perfect wilderness. However, as Mabey points out, this tells us very little about the way we experience nature now.

Lister-Kaye, having describes the formation and history of the land, goes on to say that the notion of wilderness that this landscape evokes is the lie – the deep-rooted and fundamental deception that nature alone has shaped this land. This lie was initiated by the Bronze age farmers who first settled on the land and broke into our precious Highland soils and it was accelerated by the Irish Celtic tribes that gave Scotland its name. The Scottii rampaged, pillaged, burned, constructed lowly hovels and formidable stone towers, cleared the land for grazing, and generally did not win favour in Lister-Kaye’s eyes.

However, this following paragraph offers an interesting insight in to Lister-Kaye’s view of what constitutes true wilderness:

I have always wanted to live with wildness. In another age I fancy I might have chosen to be a pioneer settler on the very frontier of real wilderness. Oh! To have felt the earth tremble beneath those masses millions of buffalo hooves thundering across the American plains, and to have heard the night howls of the thousands of wolves in constant pursuit. Oh! To have known the unknown – like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – a grizzly bear or an Indian camp around the next twist in the creek.

To be honest I’m not even sure whether to take this paragraph seriously or not. The exclamations of Oh! are a little over the top and it just seems to be at complete odds with what he has just been saying about the Highlands. The Bronze Age settler’s influence on the Highlands is called a lie, and yet an Indian camp is the unknown. It is as though the Indians are completely naturalised in Lister-Kaye’s mind and do not affected the landscape but are simply part of it. What’s more the explorers he is talking about, who forged new frontiers, helped in paving the way for the eventual destruction of a great deal of American wilderness. It seems strange that when he is talking about the Highlands it is a lie, but then he goes off in to this fanciful revery about being a pioneer explorer. I think it would be fair to dismiss it as simply that – a fanciful revelry that should have been edited out. However, the fact remains that Lister-Kaye uses the phrase – the lie – and it is one I have a problem with. I just don’t think it is necessary. Landscapes are layered and complex and that is part of what makes them fascinating to learn about and explore. It may be the case that a lot of people are not aware of the fact that the Highlands were once forested and not bare, but this is more of a myth, not a lie.

If he is troubled by the effects of humans on the landscape around him, the tangled world of city life seems to completely repel him:

…housing estates, shops, supermarkets, cars and warehouses. I go there when I have to, only grudgingly acknowledging my dependence. When I leave Inverness heading for home, I pass quickly through a farmed landscape of wide, arable fields of pasture, crops and plough, and the euphemistic, contrived greeness, which, with the complacency of drab urbanisation, we have come to accept as the countryside.

I can sympathise with Lister-Kaye here a little. I’m sure if I lived in a Highland glen I’d experience something like shock when driving in to the city and it would probably seem like an ugly monstrosity and the surrounding farm land would seem like a poor substitute for lochs and mountains. However, as he says, he is dependent on the city and the farmed countryside. Nevertheless, as he drives out of the city the farms dwindle away and become honest crofts. It seems a little unfair to say of the farmers whose hard work he so depends on that their work is any less honest than the crofters. Later on in the book he talks about the sheep that graze the Highlands. He doesn’t think very highly of them because of the effect their grazing has had on the land. However, he still maintains his respect for the honest crofters who care for the sheep in all weathers and at all hours. This is an interesting contradiction in his viewpoint. He doesn’t like what farming does to the landscape, but he likes the fact that there are people who are maintaining this traditional way of living.

Indeed this is a theme that appears throughout the book – he seems to have little respect for anyone who doesn’t spend their time working outdoors. At one point he has a computer repair man come to his house: He turned out to be far less boring that I had feared – even human. Not long after this he needs a dry-tine wall to be repaired and he calls in someone to do so: Tim Neilson had (very sensibly) abandoned an accountancy career for the altogether more stimulating skills of a dry-stone dyker. At this point I found myself getting a little bit annoyed with Lister-Kaye’s judgemental attitude towards other people’s lives. There is nothing wrong with being a farmer or repairing computers or being an accountant. They are no less honest. Not everyone can afford or would want to work on the land and yet Lister-Kaye seems to judge anyone who doesn’t.

However, the part of the book that annoyed me the most was his talk to a group of A-level biology students about food chains. One of the students, Sammy, is less than enthralled by his story about an osprey, a trout and an otter:

Throughout the session an attractive blonde girl near the front looked bored. She chewed gum with an air of detached sufferance. She yawned provocatively. It was clear she had other things on her mind. A rampant sexual energy seemed to surround her in all directions, and she knew it. Her eyes were sultry with eyeliner and shadow, her blouse unbuttoned to expose a thrusting cleavage, and her skirt, in all conscience short enough when standing, as she slouched in her chair exposed acres of thigh. When it came to question time she glowered at me from beneath extravagant eyelashes. ‘If this energy stuff happens on your loch, doesn’t it also happen everywhere else all over the globe?’ she asked dismissively, as though the whole subject was thoroughly tedious.
‘Yes,’ I said, as calmly as I could. ‘It does. It’s happening as we speak. That’s the point; it’s universal’
‘Well, if it’s happening everywhere all the time, what’s the big deal and why do we need to know about it?’

His description of her appearance struck me as being rather inappropriate and somewhat irrelevant. Whilst she may have asked her question in a bored and disinterested manner, I actually think it is a good question and it’s one I find myself asking a lot. I enjoy spending time outdoors, watching birds, tramping along muddy pathways or sitting on a beach watching the sea. These are things I love and want to write about – but why should I expect anyone else to care? How can I persuade other people of the importance of nature? It’s something I ponder often and I feel a need to find an answer too. But Lister-Kaye fails to see the importance of the pith of her question because he seems to be too busy judging the girl based on her appearance and the way she chooses to dress. He gives an angry response to her question – not the one he actually gave, but the one he felt like giving – which paints her as vacuous and materialistic. Lister-Kaye does at least acknowledges that he is just as guilty of exploiting the earth’s resources, if not more so, than Sammy and the answer he does actually give to her question is actually really good and its clear that he has actually understood her. What I don’t understand is why he feels the need to include a rather irrelevant and unpleasant description of Sammy.

My opinion of Lister-Kaye was probably – perhaps a little unfairly – coloured by the fact that I read his wikipedia page and discovered that he is baronet and was born in to a landowning family. However, even without knowing this I suspected as much since there is an air of elitism about the book, particularly in the following passage:

There is…a valid argument that the hunting life, that of genuinely pitting one’s wits against wild quarry…brings the hunter into a deeper and more intimate, more objectively respectful relationship with the wild and with the quarry species than it might otherwise be possible to achieve from pure observation.

He hems around giving this argument his full support, but I get the feeling that it’s more out of sense of embarrassment than not genuinely believing in it.

Towards the end of the book he says: It has been a delight to lead my life in a wild and beautiful place without overcrowding or urban scrawl and all the pressures and complications that come with it. Indeed, it seems that Lister-Kaye makes the choice to ignore these complications. Rather than face up to them and try to do something about it, he simply drives away from the city and leaves those complications behind. I almost get the feeling that he wishes it would all go away, especially when he starts talking about overcrowding of the planet, which he argues is the biggest threat humanity faces.

I think this attitude towards humanity is a dangerous one. At one point he talks about nature’s long perspective set against man’s frantic, short-term bleating. Anything touched by humans seems to be tainted in Lister-Kaye’s view, bleating certainly doesn’t hold positive connotations. I’m not even sure that the sentence makes sense anyway. Surely the long perspective is ours because nature doesn’t really have a perspective as such. It can exist on much longer time scales that us – mountains, for instance – but it doesn’t really have a perspective. Rather, we are the ones observing it and recording it over countless generations. Even if our actions do not always take the long-term future in to account, we are the ones who are capable of having a concept of that future. If we see our place in that future as necessarily negative then we oblitrate ourselves from the picture, despite the fact that we are the ones who are best placed to appreciate it. Lister-Kaye is a dedicated conservationist and I can’t believe that this is actually his viewpoint, yet he does seem to verge on suggesting it by being so negative about urban spaces and about human activities on the landscape, like farming, or the Bronze age settler’s felling of trees.

So, Lister-Kaye is a brilliant storyteller and At the Water’s Edge is worth reading for that reason. I did find myself disagreeing with a lot of his viewpoints, however, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing because its nice to be able to engage with a book and have it challange your own views.

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