In 2008, the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie characterised the typical exponent of modern nature writing as ‘the lone enraptured male’. This was a more solemn, grown-up Basil Fotherington-Thomas, the effete schoolboy of the Molesworth books who prances about in puerile pantheistic ecstasy, saying, ‘hullo clouds, hullo sky’. Ten years on, there is barely a British landscape that has not been visited by the species. He sits in a car until he reaches the chosen spot. Then, winding down the window, stunned by emptiness and silence, he savours the momentary disconnection from global networks. The void is soon filled with childhood memories, poems learnt at school and Wikipedia articles. Wordsworthian plangency is provided by climate change or some ghastly development in the writer’s life — sickness, bereavement, midlife crisis or divorce — which leads him to consider all of Nature as a gigantic emotional support animal.
Donald Murray’s spartan trudge through peat bogs and moorland — mostly Scottish but also Irish, Dutch, German and Australian — has not a hint of Molesworth nor even of Wordsworth. Murray grew up on the almost ‘empty’ Isle of Lewis, cutting and stacking the oozing slabs of peat with his father, digging down to the layer of mòine dhubh (‘black peat’), ‘the one closest to coal both in its shade and its heat-giving properties’. With every year that passed, the black tide receded, leaving an ever bleaker landscape of gravel and rock. I was reminded of Ivor Cutler family nature walks in Life in a Scotch Sitting Room:
Then Father became instructive: ‘Look, a tree’, he would say, or ‘Look, a patch of grass’.
But on Lewis, the woods were swallowed long ago by the bog:
Sometimes there were the roots of the old trees that had once covered the island found within the peat there, burnished silver by its oil.
One fifth of Scotland is peat moorland. It grows, on average, one millimetre every two years, but it can be destroyed within a few generations or a few days, when the burning of heather flares out of control and whole regions suffer from the reek in which the inhabitants of Highland blackhouses lived:
If there was a quick change in wind direction, a gust might send smoke swirling into the kitchen, leaving everyone within range of the Rayburn coughing and spluttering incoherently.
As a poet, journalist, teacher and Hebridean, Murray’s raptures are muted and he has a genuine, respectful interest in other people’s lives. Most of The Dark Stuff is based on interviews and conversations with moor-dwellers and historians. Moor history tends to be either sad or horrific: some of the bloodiest battles were fought on moors; deserters and non-conformists fled to them, prisons and lunatic asylums were built on their barrenness. Peat-blades slice into the skeletons of sheep and the mutilated bodies of prehistoric criminals. Misguided reclamation schemes condemned whole communities to years of fruitless toil. Murray is reminded of Robert Garioch’s poem ‘Sisyphus’: ‘Sisyphus, pechan an sweitan, disjakit, forfeuchan and broun’d aff,/ Sat on the heather… houpan the Boss didna spy him.’
These bracingly dismal examples of moorland poetry are one of the delights of this lyrical ramble. A metropolitan reader might find them infectiously depressing, but Murray relishes the heartwarming spectacle of desolation. On a sunny day in the fens of Emsland in Lower Saxony, he longs ‘for rain, a lash or two of wind’. He marches along, ‘recalling the rhythm and words of an old song’: ‘Far and wide as the eye can wander,/ Heath and bog are everywhere./ Not a bird sings out to cheer us./ Oaks are standing gaunt and bare.’
The original song, ‘Die Moorsoldaten’, was sung by German prisoners in concentration camps in the 1930s. They were sent to reclaim the nation’s peat bogs for agriculture. Only here, near the end of the book, does the theme of conservation rise to the surface. ‘Succumbing,’ says Murray, to the Romantic nostalgia for moorland, Adolf Hitler issued an edict in 1941 which called for a halt to the process of ‘desertification’. Murray, too, is ‘tempted’ to ‘preach the gospel of peat conservation’, but he is also sympathetic to islanders who resent official interference with their peat-cutting traditions, knowing all the while that, one day, the peat will run out, as it already has on the Aran Islands, St Kilda and Tiree.
The peat-cutters may not need to worry. In Scotland, irreplaceable resources are constantly under threat from off-road vehicles, mismanaged grouse shoots, wind farms which will have to remain productive for hundreds of years to counterbalance the damage they cause to moorland and, of course, roads and parking places for all those lone enraptured males.