I have recently been living in Texas. You'd need to be like me, an apprehensive Englishman, to share or even understand the uneasy thrill I have felt when walking in its countryside (though countryside
is not a fitting word; it's far too tame for Texas — its wilds
, perhaps, or its terrain
A country hike — if you can find a stretch of land that isn't fenced or defended with "bob war" — is at best a risky affair in the Lone Star state. I've made mistakes. As the blundering innocent abroad, trusting everything I see, I have inspected a poison ivy too intimately on the seemingly innocuous Hike & Bike trail round Austin's Town Lake (the blisters stayed with me for weeks), and I have been fooled by seemingly smooth-skinned cactuses into grasping hold of their stems and then spent a week tweezering out a hundred tiny and invisible lances. I have tested my nerve by reaching a little too closely toward a lengthy alligator on the Gulf Coast and a saucer-sized tarantula in a Houston car park. I have failed to protect myself sufficiently against mosquitoes and ticks, and then had to spend the next few hours scratching off my skin with my nails and wondering which of the punishing insect-borne diseases now current in Texas — West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis, dengue fever, Lyme disease… a deadly and growing list — would be the one to end my days.
Even as I write now, back in the unheroic safety of my English study, a photograph above my desk reminds me of the living hazards and perils that bothered me — though clearly not any of my American companions — every time I stepped into the Texan boonies. I am pictured next to a Lion Warning sign at the foot of the Chisos Mountains in the Big Bend National Park. (DON'T FLINCH OR SHOW ANY FEAR if you are threatened by "the aggressive lion that has been frequenting this area," I am advised. APPEAR LARGE. And — the most testing instruction — ENJOY THE ENCOUNTER.) In my right hand, I am holding a sturdy and defensive stick; in my left, I'm clutching a snake bite kit with its "easy-to-use lymph constrictor"; there are rattlers and copperheads about. Just out of shot, a ranger is telling me about the black bear he'd had to "find, immobilize, and relocate" the day before. The bear had separated a German hiker from his rucksack and its stash of apples. Tracking that animal was "as easy as fried pie," he said. Its dung was full of Gore-Tex. Its droppings were waterproof and breathable!
Now that I am back in a country where the poet's phrase, "nature, red in tooth and claw," has little human relevance, I cannot help but wish that my local countryside could be as dangerous and mischievous as the wilds of Texas. Here the landscape is allocated and assigned — each last damp inch of it. Every ditch and hedgerow is named and spoken for and has been for a thousand years at least. There's not a patch of clod or turf where someone has not already planted their boot. Even at the top of Scafell Pike, England's highest peak which I was climbing recently, there's no escape from the din of distant traffic or the vapor trails (and uproar) of military jets. You are surrounded there by stone walls and cairns first built over 500 years ago. You're never out of sight of farms and cottages. And there are crowds of fellow hikers. Nowhere is remote for people here. And no one's Gore-Tex is in any danger from a bear.
The most I have to fear while hiking in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, the two historic British counties closest to my city home in Birmingham, is whether or not the mud awaiting me in the narrow lanes ahead is deep enough to foul my socks. The worst that can happen is a tumble into a patch of nettles or thistles, resulting in the briefest of rashes or the mildest of stings. The British countryside does not draw blood. We do not have a single harmful spider. Our most ferocious and our cruelest predator is the kitchen cat. Even our one truly venomous snake, the adder, has not succeeded in killing anyone for more than 20 years — it's more drowsy than aggressive, British to the core. Indeed, with our exasperating sense of fair play, there is a law protecting it from us.
I have, I must admit, despised the English countryside for much of my life, despised it and avoided it for its want of danger and adventure. But what I have finally come to appreciate as I've grown older and more inward looking — "stick in the mud" is the appropriate phrase, I suppose, for this English condition — is that a humdrum, highly allocated, claustrophobic landscape such as ours is also deeply brewed in narrative. Yes, every ditch and hedgerow has its mundane duties and its purposes, but every ditch and hedgerow has its story, too. You stand beneath the arthritic boughs of any English oak and you survey a thousand tales.
It was this general sense of historic and narrative richness — or more precisely walking across one particular Midland field still deeply scarred with the ridge and furrow of Tudor plowing to view the low and narrow gap in the hills where Roman Ermine Street, a medieval drovers' road, the Grand Union Canal, and the main Midland Railway all briefly shared their routes — that made me wonder whether, actually, this was as exciting and as complex as any landscape in the world. Perhaps, as a twin for The Pesthouse, my danger-ridden apocalyptic novel about the American wilderness, I could write an English adventure in which the safety and the clutter and the infuriating complacency of our countryside would provide a dramatic narrative, one which might explore and understand what it is about land and property — all land and property, whether it be in Texas or in Warwickshire or anywhere — that fills our kind with so much fear and hope, with so much love.
That idea would eventually produce my latest novel, Harvest. But first I had to find my English version of that Gore-Texan bear; I had to map in words a nightmarish, dreamy, archetypal British landscape, a terrain that could be mean enough to lance and blister all my characters, a countryside that would draw blood.