Dear Readers, a while back I was waxing lyrical about Nick Hunt’s book ‘Where the Wild Winds Are‘ and so I couldn’t wait to read his latest book, ‘Outlandish’. In it, Hunt goes to four landscapes which are in places where you wouldn’t expect to find them – tundra in Scotland, desert in Spain, the steppe in Hungary and ancient forest in Poland and Belarus. He is a keen and curious observer, who takes delight in the quirky and who finds himself in a variety of ‘interesting’ situations during his travels.
In the section about the tundra, he meets some reindeer, descended from animals first brought to Scotland in the 1950s. He describes them in a passage which captures the otherworldliness of suddenly meeting an animal in its environment, where it is perfectly at home and you are the anomaly.
‘They approach on soft, splayed feet and cross the little bridge, expressing no more than mild interest in our presence….We stand quietly and watch as they bend their mouths to the montane grass, chewing rhythmically. Snowy ruffs sway at their necks. The silver-greyness of their hair is the colour of cooling metal. We count their antlers, furred like moss: two have two: one one: one none. Their sodden pelts are as matted as the land they eat’.
But underlying the sweetness of occasions like this is a sense of how the world is changing. The travelogue is book-ended by tales of The Sphinx, an ice patch in the Cairngorms that normally stays all year. When it first disappeared during the summer in 1933,
…’the Scottish Mountaineering Club declared the event to be so unusual that it was ‘unlikely to happen again’. But it did, in 1953, 1959, 1996,2003,2006, 2017 and 2019……. Snow patches such as these are not only scraps of winter but scraps of history, of deep time. Obvious symbols of endurance, of bloody-minded obstinacy, they are also thermometers that self-destruct as the planet warms. When their last smudges have dripped away, the national thaw will be complete. The British Isles will be entirely free of snow in summer’.
Will the Sphinx still be there when Hunt returns from his adventures, or will it have melted away completely? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
The theme of environmental change and the destruction of these fragile remnant habitats underlies the whole book. In Poland he stays with a group of ‘dirty-handed pseudo-ecologists’, there to defend the Bialowieza forest from government logging. In the desert of Tabernas in Spain, he walks in an unprecedented heatwave, headlined in the local paper as ‘Hell is Coming’. And in the Hungarian steppe country of Hortobágy, he meets a German man and, at the end of a long evening, the man shares what I fear a lot of us are feeling.
‘I do not have hope any more’, he says, this previously smiling man drinking palinka in a horse-drawn trap His voice is getting quieter, guttering with the candle. ‘These places……these places on earth….there are getting less of them. And no one seems to care. The birds are all leaving, and no one cares. What can we do?’
But I wouldn’t want you to think that this is a relentlessly depressing book. Hunt has a way of capturing a moment that I really enjoyed. Here he is, arriving at the guest house where he is staying in Belarus:
‘The village seems deserted apart from the place where I am staying, a ramshackle smallholding in which every resident creature stands out with the totemic clarity of a dream: the black puppy, the honey-coloured dog, the ginger cat, the ginger and white cat, the white geese with their orange beaks, the creamy brown clucking hens, the pair of white storks in their absurd, cartoonish nest. And Natalya, with her pale blue eyes, chapped red face and straw-coloured hair, in a green headscarf and red shoes, carrying eggs in a basket.’
And here he is, in the desert at Tabernas, trying to cope with the rising heat.
‘The heat of the afternoon flattens me, even in the shade. I cannot move or think, can only sit and breathe. The air is heavy, as warm as blood, windless, stultifying. I top up my internal reserves of sweat with sips of water.
The itchy rhythm of the cicadas switches on and off, an electric circuit being interrupted and reconnected. Impossible to locate, seeming to have no origin point but to be present everywhere, even in the rocks and the air, the manic drill – produced by tymbals, rib-like structures in the abdomen – stops abruptly whenever any creature gets within close range, like a reverse intruder alarm. Never laying eyes on one, I find myself thinking of their noise as a manifestation of the heat itself, as if the temperature has been converted into waveform’.
And in Hungary, he attends a gathering of the steppe-dwelling peoples from Central Asia and Siberia to China. Hunt describes it as ‘somewhere between a hippy folk festival, a medieval re-enactment fair and, as I will discover, a far-right nationalist rally.’
‘Later that night, during another performance of thundering guitars, I watch — with a hollow, dawning sickness- the unassuming man beside me raise his right arm at an angle of forty-five degrees, palm down, and hold it there. No one pays him any mind. His wife and teenage daughter giggle, a little embarrassed but not ashamed, and then a younger man joins in, smiling happily. The two of them keep it up for song after song until their arms grow tired; afterwards they embrace, as if a special moment has been shared between strangers‘.
Hunt has many gifts, but one is the way that he is able to pull all these disparate threads together. The book is both a celebration of Europe’s ‘outlandish’ places, a warning about the ways that they are changing, and a eulogy for what is already passing. I found it a fascinating and moving read. Highly recommended.