Overstepping the Line
An excerpt from Anna MacDonald’s Between the Word and the World
I read Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places and take the train from Edinburgh, where I’ve been working, to Rannoch Moor. “Many know the Moor,” Macfarlane writes, “but relatively few enter it, for it is vast and trackless and has a reputation for hostility at all times of the year.” I’ve spent the last two months crisscrossing the city, helping to coordinate the installation of the visual arts programme of the Edinburgh International Festival. I’m exhausted from lugging AV equipment between locations, from negotiating with artists and gallerists and installation crews, from trying to avoid the “free hugs” that are being meted out along the Royal Mile as a part of Fringe. I’m looking forward to a “vast and trackless” space. Instead, I find the cast and crew of Harry Potter, there to film the train journey to Hogwarts. It was here on “the mystical Rannoch Moor,” I later read on the Visit Scotland website, “where Death Eaters board the train in the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.”
But a week later, after the Death Eaters have moved on, after a bath and a peaty whiskey alone by the fire, after, finally, quiet and a good night’s sleep, I walk into the Moor. It’s drizzling, but I leave the hood of my jacket down so I can listen. I wish I could leave behind the sound of my footsteps. I’m so focussed on silencing the rustle of my waterproof that I almost miss the doe standing still a few meters ahead. I watch her, she watches me and I suddenly remember another journey, years ago, crossing Victoria’s Alpine National Park en route to Mount Bulla. It was off-season; I had the road to myself and I reached the crest of Mount Hotham in a brilliantly violet dusk. When, out of habit, I checked the rearview mirror, my eyes met those of a rabbit, standing by the roadside, as startled by my passing as I was at being seen. It wasn’t a comfortable encounter. We stayed like that, our eyes meeting, until the road curved and I was forced to look ahead. I carried on to Bulla, but I left a sense of trespass in my wake.
I go to the Natural History Museum in London to see a temporary display: Scott’s Last Expedition. There, I read about the Northern Party: the six men who, from January to October 1912, with only six weeks’ supplies, became stranded and were forced to overwinter in an ice cave they dug at Evans Cove. All of them survived. Afterwards, I can’t stop thinking about these parallel narratives: the death of Scott and all the members of his polar party, the stubborn lives of Victor Campbell, George Murray Levick, Raymond Priestley, George Abbott, Frank Browning, and Harry Dickason. I read what more I can on the Northern Party. I think about finding my way to Antarctica. But I hate gale-force winds, and I’ve heard rumours of the kind of “training” required for those who intend to accompany a scientific expedition — training that includes prolonged submersion in icy water — and whether or not these rumours are true, we’ve already established that I’m cowardly when it comes to personal comfort (remember the blood-tarnished eye of a wounded fish, redbacks and the husks of huntsman spiders). So I go to the archive instead.
I spend as long as I can spare — longer, really — in Cambridge. Every morning, I walk from my B&B overlooking Parker’s Piece to the Scott Polar Research Archive. I sit down at the desk I’ve booked (one of only two), don the white gloves, read the journals that Campbell and his party kept during their time at Evans Cove. March 1st: “If there is no sign of the ship this morning I must start killing seals for the winter.” April 28th: “No seals.” May 7th: “Today we are snowed in. L and B skinning and cutting up penguins in the outer galley while P and D have tunnelled out a shaft through the drift. P luckily has the old journal with him and reads aloud to us which is very interesting and brings everything back to us. L reads us a chapter of David Copperfield so altogether our evenings pass very pleasantly.”
The further I read, the closer Campbell’s writing becomes, the more his pages are smudged with blood and blubber. On one page, a perfect blackened fingerprint. I think of him building a fire out of seal bones, seaweed, and blubber. I think of him trying to preserve the matches, until there’s enough for only one hour of light a day, and sometimes not even that. Still, he writes. On the days when the cave remains unlit, unheated, Campbell’s writing is large and slanted, the script of a small child just learning to hold the pen.
In the archive, at 11am precisely and again at 3pm, a bell rings. Everyone leaves what they are doing, stands and moves out of the room. These breaks are compulsory. At first I resent being forced to leave the snow cave. Eventually, I look forward to the bell as one might a break in the weather. The archivist locks the door behind us and we tramp into the library, where tea and coffee are served on a trolley. There we find other people, researchers working in other parts of the building. I talk to one man who, in the 1970s, was stranded in Antarctica for two years. The teacup feels especially warm between my hands.
I read and re-read and read again W.G. Sebald: Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz. Eventually, I make the pilgrimage to Suffolk. To get there, I cross the Orwell River and drive past field after muddy field of pigs. Animal Farm suddenly makes a different kind of sense. I pass Walnut Tree Farm and think of Roger Deakin. There is a sign at the gate that reads: PRIVATE. Perhaps it’s the memory of this that, at the Southwold Sailor’s Reading Room, flicking through the Visitors Book and seeing one after another the messages left by other Sebald pilgrims, causes me to flush with shame. I feel that I have finally overstepped. That I have failed to respect the line dividing the work from the private human being who made it.