'Ness' by Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood
In the same way that walking through edgelands can inspire the observer of these obscure pockets of land to visualise something poetic in our urban landscapes, so too can immersing oneself in abandoned ephemera as it slowly becomes reclaimed by nature. Herein lies the premise of Ness.
Ness is a collaboration between writer Robert Macfarlane, known mainly for his body of work on landscapes and language, and artist Stanley Donwood, known for his artwork collaborations with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke.
The book is centred around Orford Ness in Suffolk. Orford Ness is a shingle spit formed over time by the process of longshore drift, meaning that the shape of the landscape is ever-changing and is a constant state of movement, challenging the notion of ‘solid earth’. It is this notion of ‘drift’ that permeates Macfarlanes written narrative in the text.
Once the site of an experimental bombing range, the old military installations now stand in varying levels of decay as nature slowly takes back ownership of the landscape.
Artistically, Donwood’s drawings, a series of sketches made with pen and charcoal, accentuate the bleak desolation of Orford Ness, a place he says was “colonised by the merchants of death” but is now “left with a melancholy, haunted feel.”
Narratively, Ness draws upon elemental powers of the natural world and the immediate environs of Orford Ness, to create poetic prose delivered in the style of a pseudo-mythological fable.
In the story, the narrative centres around a congregation of sinister characters in The Green Chapel, led by one named The Armourer, who are are engaged in a ritual. Unbeknownst to them, five forces or entities, named As, It, He, She and They, are in the process of converging on them to put a stop to their activities.
Knowing what we do of Orford Ness, the ritual is connected to the ghostly memories of testing ballistics as part of the Cold War nuclear weapons programme, albeit reimagined in an abstract form. The entities converging on The Green Chapel aren’t represented in clichéaic heroic language, but instead are themselves abstract and unquantifiable, therefore coming across as quite unsettling too.
The language describing these entities is as fluid and transient as the landscape they move through. At times there are moments of clarity and definition (“Her skin is lichen”), only for this to be subverted (“As is as scant as goodness in conditions of scarcity”).
Macfarlane, alluding to Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey, explains that “Orford Ness… has become a Tintern Abbey for the contemporary. It’s become this site of ruination, of violent history; saturating landscapes [with] terrible futures postponed, but not necessarily cancelled, [all] folded through with strange vitality of the living world.”
Ultimately, despite the destructive potential of those gathered in The Green Chapel, they don’t stand a chance. Something that has the power to destroy the natural world so freely is no match for the indefinable power of nature. Its very impermanence being its greatest strength.
There is a message of hope for us in there and, more vitally, for our natural world.
A more comprehensive review of the book, including some of the deeper mythological aspects of the narrative can be found on the Cunning Folk website: https://www.cunning-folk.com/book-club-posts/review-ness-by-robert-macfarlane