A nature memoir stays perfectly poised between southern excess and the Northern Lights in Orkney
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot | Canongate, £14.99
In recent years, it seems that there has been a subtle shift in what was once called “The New Nature Writing”. Books such as Malachy Tallack’s Sixty Degrees North, Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder and most conspicuously Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk fused narratives of trauma and loss with descriptions of engagement with the natural world and the culture inseparable from it.
One might point to WG Sebald’s The Rings Of Saturn or Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure as the origins of this surprisingly elastic form. It strips solipsism from the memoir at the same time as refocusing “nature writing” on the individual response to what is out there. There is a wonderful German word, Geworfenheit, coined by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, which is translated as “thrown-ness”, the condition of being thrown into an inscrutable world and a past we did not choose, and the alienation which that causes leads to the paradoxical possibility of freedom. It encapsulates the wonderful quality of Amy Liptrot’s contribution to this growing field, The Outrun.
Liptrot returned to Orkney after admitting herself to a rehab course in London. Although she was born in Orkney, her parents were English. Her father, a farmer, suffered from bipolar disorder, her mother was an evangelical Christian; they were, unsurprisingly, divorced. Throwing herself into a hedonistic new life in London had rendered her life precarious, so she went home – in the Robert Frost sense – “Home is the place where when you have to go there / They have to take you in”. She did not go in search of some hippyish “wilderness will heal me” shtick. She went because at the time there was nowhere else to go. When she had outrun herself, she returned to the Outrun, the high field behind the farm, and when she had reached a metaphysical edge, she returned to the literal and littoral edges.
The chapters interlace the spiralling chaos of her London life with the spiralling skies above Orkney. Helping her father on the farm rebuilding dykes and lambing, working for the RSPB on corncrake population levels and deciding to spend time on Papa Westray all gradually acclimatised her to her new life and the decisions she had made.
It is important to stress that the book is in no way a “recovery memoir”: Liptrot foregrounds the continuous difficulty of choosing to say sober. But her self-reflection on how the thrill of sea-swimming and the alien colours of jellyfish compare with the thrill of clubbing and psychedelia are hard-won, and have a beauteous clarity to them. There are very subtle and clever links in the chapters. To move from warehouse raves to the Aurora Borealis might seem contrived, but since the Northern Lights are referred to in Orkney as the “Merry Dancers”, ironies chime across the pages. A night drive in aural search of crex crex is counterpointed with inebriated rambles over an urban jungle.
The sanctimonious overtones of parts of the 12-step programme are countered with an affecting account of imitating the pilgrim path of Triduana. That the final chapter is called “Renewables” is smart and sad – the island, embracing renewable technologies, is changing; she, being renewed, is also changed. There is a great deal of frank, flinch-making writing in this book, but it is always balanced by a sublimity and graciousness that is rare. There is a boldness in being interested in everything: geology, agriculture, prehistory, astronomy, ornithology, and more, that stands in stark contrast to the monomania of her darker days.
It’s a strange kind of praise, but so much of this book could have gone massively and desperately wrong – Papay spoots beat Hoxton coke would have been the parody version. What saves it from self-indulgence, or from making glib pronouncements about the nature of addiction, is that the prose style insists this is one person’s voice. Or rather, it’s two: there’s the (often very funny) snarky, sardonic observer of London life, and then there’s the elegiac and poetic observer of small changes, in the outside and of the inside. “The last two years stretch and glitter behind me like the wake of the ferry” is perfectly poised. It’s from the end of the book and we’ve seen different kinds of straining and expanding, magic and spangle over the story, and they are all enwrapped into something outside oneself.
This is a bold-hearted and brave-minded book. It is both terribly sad and awfully affecting. That Liptrot wrote it in Orkney, where “the Orkney Disease” was once used on the Mainland of Scotland to refer to sottishness and melancholy, and that she both captured that sense and proved it could be transformational as well, is no small achievement. I look forward to its presence on some prize lists.