Robert Macfarlane is currently one of the UK’s best-loved non-fiction authors. His recent book Landmarks is a tour de force of physical and metaphorical walks through the landscape – literal and linguistic – of Britain’s ancient physical language. In Landscapes Macfarlane writes about the word hoard that surrounds the ‘islands, rivers, strands, fells, lochs, cities, towns, corries, hedgerows, fields and edgelands uneasily known as the British Isles.” (Link to The Guardian book review).
I love Macfarlane’s writing, not least because it’s so physical. Reading a Macfarlane book is like an exploration into the language of the body and its interaction with the natural world.
There are a number of members of the CPN with a particular interest in phenomenology and the work of Merleau-Ponty, and these will be particularly interested in one section of the book where Macfarlane talks with passion about the writings of Nan Shepherd (see picture below).
In much of Shepherd’s writing, there is a strong sense of the physicality, and to emphasise this, Macfarlane talks about her essential phenomenological spirit.
Macfarlane argues that, for Shepherd, the mountain offers a ‘fabulous sensorium’ in which ‘a life of the senses is lived so purely that “the body may be said to think”‘ (ibid 73). In many ways, Shepherd’s ‘philosophical conclusions concerning colour-perception, touch and embodied knowledge are arrestingly similar to those of Merleau-Ponty’ (ibid), a fact made all the more remarkable because The Living Mountain was written in the same year as Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945), (even though Shepherd’s text was only published in 1977).
For Merleau-Ponty, post-Cartesian philosophy had cleaved a false divide between the body and the mind. Throughout his career he argued for the foundational role that sensory perception plays in our understanding of the world as well as in our reception of it. He argue that knowledge is ‘felt’: that our bodies think and know in ways that precede cognition. Consciousness, the human body and the phenomenal world are therefore inextricably intertwined. The body ‘incarnates’ our subjectivity and we are thus, Merleau-Ponty proposes, ’embedded’ in the ‘flesh’ of the world (ibid).
Consider this embodiment in the following passage from The Living Mountain:
The hands have an infinity of pleasure in them. The feel of things, textures, surfaces, rough things like cones and bark, smooth things like stalks and feathers and pebbles rounded by water, the teasing of gossamers…the scratchiness of lichen, the warmth of the sun, the sting of hail, the blunt blow of tumbling water, the flow of wind – nothing that I can touch or that touches me but has its own identity for the hand as much as for the eye.
Macfarlane, R (2015). Landmarks. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945). Phenomenology of perception. New York: Humanities Press.
Shepherd, N. (1977). The Living Mountain. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.
*There is a lovely 30 minute audio documentary in which Macfarlane celebrates Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. This is well worth the listen if you’re interested in more of her beautiful writing (link). In this piece, Macfarlane touches on another of Shepherds many radical notions, namely her belief that it had been the traditional masculine narrative that mountains were to be conquered, and the goal had always been to reach the summit. Instead, Shepherd was more interested in circling, meandering, being within and around, and engaging with the mountain and it’s innate physicality, rather than dominating it. It may be worth reflecting in which ways ‘mountains’ can function as metaphors for those of us thinking about how physiotherapy and health care might be ‘otherwise’ in the future.