How can the untamed natural world carry us and comfort us, and in turn, how do we reflect this care out into the world?
The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot. (Canongate Books, published 2016).
The words in the glossary at the front of Amy Liptrot’s book, The Outrun, were delicious enough that I read them out loud. These are words used only in Orkney: ‘Grimlins’ means midsummer night skies; ‘Hillyans’ means mythical hill folk; ‘spoots’ means razor clams; and, my favourite, the ‘Merry Dancers’, means the Northern Lights. The list acts as a mysterious transition into Amy’s world on Orkney.
Amy grew up in the Orkney Isles, but she had no romantic notions of returning to explore its wilderness, or find meaning in nature. These things happened, but she was not seeking them. They chose her, and slowly pulled her from a life that began to consume her in London: “The fresh air, the wind, was where I came from and, although there were buildings all around, the open landscapes of Orkney were still inside me and I was somehow always cycling to a hidden horizon.”
Amy grew up on a farm in Orkney, and the title of the book refers to a stretch of land on the farm that is wild and weather-beaten. At 18, Amy escapes to London to find excitement: life blurs into raves, relationships and alcohol. And as 10 years go by and friends leave, it is alcohol that becomes her reliable constant. She spends her nights roaming the capital, finding any opportunity to get drunk, seeking oblivion. Amy loses friends, jobs, boyfriends and flats, and narrowly escapes being attacked. She battles with herself, but eventually checks in to a recovery programme.
From here, Amy swaps the pounding of life in London for the pommelling of the elements in the Orkney isles, where she is frequently reminded of childhood moments. She spends her time in a cold cottage owned by the RSPB on an island called ‘Papa Westray’, and becomes involved with searching for the elusive Corncrake, and with exploring, roaming, thinking, writing, sea swimming. She finds new, wild highs.
Her new home is bleak, and big: “the sky gets bigger as the train travels further north”, and to get around she must catch small boats and aeroplanes that have their schedules dictated by the weather. Amy must now fill the void that has been left by her addiction, so she becomes engrossed in the details and tracking of weather patterns, birds, star constellations, asteroids, erosion, ships, archaeology and myth. Her digital connection to the world is important, and she shares what she learns with friends and strangers.
Each detour into her island discoveries are like mesmerising fractals showing us a small part of a bigger whole; like a wheel of fortune that has stopped by chance on an interesting curiosity, which Amy expands for herself, and for us. Her personal honesty and the grand, wild vista of the islands connects her noticings and encounters. The elusive, cautious hope she uncovers ties together all her experiences and pulls her forward, and she sees herself reflected back in her surroundings.
“I think of things I have lost: my compass, stolen laptop, two shoes - one in the canal, one out of the door of a moving car - my boyfriend. But I also think of the things I have found from the sea: the fishing boat, the seal, the ‘ambergris’. These things were worn out and washed-up but they were not always useless. They had tales to tell.”
As if under the influence of the moon and the tides, Amy experiences a pull between city and sea. She doubts herself and wonders whether she will give in to the past addiction that still feels so raw. As her time in Orkney unfolds, she feels “increasing certainty that she won’t go back”, though she admits the temptation. By the end she is resolute.
The Outrun fuses nature writing with moving and honest personal memoir - echoing Nature Cure by Richard Mabey, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which recounts the author’s immersion in falconry as she experiences loss and grief. Amy shares intimate realities alongside her absorption into the hard and sometimes heartless realities of remote weather-beaten islands. Her words go beyond peacefully poetic nature writing, and take on a raw, wild, glittering poetry of their own
“Rain on me. Strike me with fire. I feel like lightning in slow motion. I am one fathom deep and contain the unknown. I am vibrating at a frequency invisible to man and I’m ready to be brave….The last two years stretch and glitter behind me like the wake of a ferry. The powers are churning inside me.”
What do our uniquely personal journeys teach us about humanity and our planet? How do we see the best and worst of humanity and find a way forward? How can the untamed natural world carry us and comfort us, and in turn, how do we reflect this care out into the world? The Outrun offers reflections on these questions, and is a brave and mesmerising book. It deservedly won the 2016 Wainwright Prize, which “seeks to reward the best writing on the outdoors, nature and UK-based travel writing.”
If you have a book you would like to suggest for our ‘Learning from Nature’ book review series, please let us know.
Elizabeth Wainwright is Nature Editor for The Ecologist. Elizabeth spends her time between Devon and London. She also co-leads a global community development charity, Arukah Network. She tweets at @LizWainwright. (Elizebeth is not connected to the Wainwright Prize mentioned in the review).