Aldo Leopold once wrote, ‘There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.’ John Lister-Kaye’s Song of the Rolling Earth – his first book for many years and undoubtedly his finest to date – is written by one who cannot live without wild things, but makes essential reading for those who can. After a promising start in the early Seventies – The White Island (an account of his last days with the dying Gavin Maxwell) and The Seeing Eye were well received – Lister-Kaye’s writing career tailed off.
Now we know why. Part Wordsworthian memoir comprised of spots of time, part lyric Whitmanesque homily (the title is from Whitman), Song is inspired by Lister-Kaye’s love of nature, but underwritten by his bold entrepreneurial venture in setting up the first field studies centre in Britain. ‘How does an impecunious amateur naturalist convert a crumbling mansion into a field studies centre and make it work without any experience or much idea about what he is doing?’ he asks sheepishly. The inspiration for all this is a place called Aigas, located in the Highlands of Scotland ‘among hills above the 57th Parallel, north of Moscow and north of Churchill on Hudson Bay’, at the foot of Glen Affric (where some of the last remnants of the Caledonian pine forest survive). Lister-Kaye writes movingly of an extraordinarily beautiful place where, ever since the Ice Age retreated, ‘life has blown, crept, slithered, crawled, flown, tiptoed, plodded, galloped, walked, clambered and run in here to make its pitch for survival’. Song is not solely natural-history writing, for Lister-Kaye also elects to tell the story of ‘three centuries of incomprehensible grief and sorrow’, exploring ‘the mystery of this craggy, sparsely populated land’.
It is an Aigas resident, Hugh Fraser, who succumbs to the call of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and loses his life on the Culloden battlefield, leaving his family at the mercy of the ‘fearful retribution’ of the ‘Butcher’ Cumberland: ‘That night the blood and beliefs of generations who had lived in this glen since the Bronze Age soaked away into the soils of Aigas.’
Part of what distinguishes Song from more ordinary fare is its proximity to mystery and the magical, like the ‘cup-marked’ indentations ground out by Bronze Age inhabitants in a boulder of hard metamorphic schist: ‘They could be signposts, way markers, territorial flags, even sacred stones of mysterious religious or ritual significance, for touching, kissing, bowing to, or at which you mutter incantations as you pass.’ Potentially abstruse subjects such as geology and archaeology – certainly ornithology and ecology – are vividly brought to life and intimately related to the history of the Aigas site. Seemingly unrelated phenomena – the presence of swifts in the tower and the local 19th-century stonemason Hugh Miller’s discoveries of fossils in red sandstone – trigger a discussion of the conflict between creationism and evolution.
At the heart of the book, the finest chapter is simply entitled ‘The Night’. Lister-Kaye’s description of nocturnal navigation in the pinewoods, as he follows a narrow path down off the moors, is a master- piece: ‘When you no longer flinch at unseen foliage touching your face, or start at sudden night sounds like the shriek of an owl or the snapping of a nearby twig, another world begins to emerge.’ The writing propels us into a ‘world of roe deer tiptoeing out of the birchwood and of badgers snuffling and grunting in the dew’. Indeed, in a wood in which ‘there is always a beetle to crunch, ever a nest of wood mice to rootle out, always a tuber and a rhizome to gnaw and a patch of bluebell bulbs to grub up’, that narrow path belongs to a badger (they are ‘obsessively habitual’). The badger stumbles into Lister-Kaye’s boot: ‘There is a frozen moment of uncertainty. I hear his gut rumble and his short breaths. He is so close that I can smell him now, a dark, wild, organic musk like a tramp’s’ – before trundling up the path. If, as Gavin Maxwell wrote, ‘man has suffered in his separation from the soil and from the other living creatures’, then Song of the Rolling Earth is a tonic to ease that suffering. But it is not just an environmental classic to stand alongside Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water or Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. For in an age perplexed by experts Lister-Kaye, a Yorkshireman by birth, is that rarest of things – a genuine all-rounder.