Robert Macfarlane’s most recent book, Underland, came out only months ago, took him several years to write, and must rank as one of the most personally taxing books of its kind (it’s filled with accounts of dangerous descents beneath the surface of the earth). So it’s no surprise that a new book should be as short, and comparatively unadventurous in terms of its destination, as Ness. Decorated with Stanley Donwood’s pen and ink illustrations, it also suggests a different kind of release for Macfarlane. While his previous books have laid their evocations of the natural world on a foundation of scholarship and reportage, Ness is a freewheeling prose-poem. As far as its poetry is concerned, it doesn’t offer much more than passages of irregular rhyming, broken-up lines, and the encouragement to read with an especially sharp eye for metaphorical rather than merely literal interest. But never mind: the book is a chance for Macfarlane both to take a breather, and to continue his conversation about the beauty, fragility and sheer strangeness of the world we inhabit.
The ness in question is an extremely strange place indeed: a 10-mile-long shingle spit running parallel to the shoreline at Orford on the Suffolk coast, which for much of the last century was a top-secret site for military research. Machine guns were tested there during the first world war, and during the cold war it was the site of important work on the mechanisms of nuclear bombs. When the site was abandoned by the military and taken on by the National Trust, the trust decided it couldn’t defend it indefinitely from the ravages of erosion. It thus became a place of several overlapping interests: the ness itself, with its rich flora and fauna; the buildings, and what they tell us about old threats and secrets; and the effects of climate change in our time of encroaching disaster. It is, as Macfarlane has said elsewhere, “a landscape produced by a collision of the human death drive and natural life”.
Ness meshes all this together in a narrative that is part fable, part mystery play; it invokes five “more than human” forces that Macfarlane refers to as “it”, “he”, “she”, “they” and “as”, and follows them as they converge on a Green Chapel situated on the Ness (for this Macfarlane and Donwood co-opt one of the abandoned MoD buildings). Here they meet the Armourer, a figure of existential nuclear threat, who ruminates with an array of characters associated with the history of the place: the Engineer, the Botanist, the Ornithologist, the Physicist. The idea (with a thematic glance at Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a stylistic debt to the disruptions of Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers and Lanny) is to create an imaginative vortex in which the forces of destruction can be tested and possibly restrained.
To this end, the book employs the image of a “hagstone” (a pebble with a hole worn through it) as a means of spying on the future, alternating passages in which the Armourer discusses how to realise his malevolent vision with interludes which map the efforts that “it” and the four other forces make to thwart him. “It”, for instance, is imagined as various types of “Drift”, including an acoustic ebb and flow which is “one of the most beautiful sounds in the world, as beautiful as listening to your child breathe in the darkness”. “He” is a protean congregation of birds; “she” is “lichen & her flesh is moss & her bones are fungi & she breathes spores”; “they” are versions of calm that “have the patience of granite & the ardour of lava & the speed of starlight”; and “as”, although composed of “nothingness”, is also “forgiveness”.
The book’s closing vision is of a world in which ruination of various kinds, including that caused by climate crisis, is interpreted as being potentially appalling, but also a possible means of salvation, because it restores the stewardship of the planet to Earth’s own non-human agency. There are places in the preceding pages where the structure of Ness creaks a little as it submits the wild forces it values to a firm (albeit fanciful) narrative pattern, and there are times when the governing idea of the Armourer et al and the “poetic” prose can seem somewhat twee. But the conclusion of the book is, in its bleak way, impressive, and constitutes another reason to be grateful that we have someone as inventive as well as erudite as Macfarlane continuing to address the most important subject of our time.
• Andrew Motion’s Essex Clay is published by Faber. Ness is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.