Founder of the innovative Travel Bookshop that formed the setting for the movie Notting Hill, Sarah Anderson has written several travel books. At the age of 10, Anderson’s arm was amputated as a result of a rare but virulent strain of cancer. Published this month, Halfway to Venus dwells upon the author’s experience as a single-armed independent traveller, reflecting on other famous amputees and their prosthetic limbs in life and literature.
Halfway to Venus: A One-Armed Journey by Sarah Anderson is published by Umbrella Books.
“These are, in no particular order, my top ten books about wilderness. I’ve realised that there’s rather a heavy bias towards American writers – but whatever their origins they’re all superb.”
1. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
The contemporary writer whose writings about the wild I most admire. Robert Macfarlane stuck to Britain for this exploration and the way he weaves literature (he lectures in English at Cambridge) into his ramblings is seductive; he shows us that wilderness needn’t be on an epic scale but can be found almost everywhere we care to look. I can’t mention him without also recommending his previous book Mountains of the Mind: A History of Fascination (2003).
2. The Yosemite by John Muir
Born in Scotland, John Muir’s family went to America in 1849 when he was 11, and it was while working on the family farm in Wisconsin that he developed his love of wilderness and literature. Probably best known as the first president of the Sierra Club, his editor, Robert Underwood Johnson, described his writing: “He sung the glory of nature like another Psalmist, and as a true artist, was unashamed of his emotions”.
3. Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler
Antarctica is probably the ultimate wilderness – “The last great journey left to man” (Shackleton), but it is of course its interpretation that is most interesting. Sara Wheeler writes beautifully about Antarctica both as a continent and a metaphor, a place in the imagination with which we can all identify.
4. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
A keen observer of the environment in which she finds herself, Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for this book. My fantasies about going off and living in a remote place are fuelled by Dillard, and, quite simply I love her writing: “When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses”.
5. Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
Barry Lopez’s high regard for landscape translates into magical and poetical writing – “the innate beauty of undisturbed relationships,” as he describes it. He delves deeply into what it is in our imaginations that finds hostile environments so compelling. This book won the National Book Award and has since become a classic in its genre.
6. The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
Theoretically the object of Peter Matthiessen’s expedition with George Schaller was to observe the rut of the Himalayan blue sheep and to find the snow leopard. However quite early on you realise that the outer journey is an excuse for an inner exploration of the spirit with all its attendant ups and downs, and as Schaller says: “We’ve seen so much, maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see”.
7. The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
I love the range of subjects that Mary Austin wrote about; her books and articles include fiction, autobiography, mysticism, Native American culture and mathematics – but it is of course her landscape and wilderness writing that particularly appeal to me. Austin is barely known in the UK but her writings about the desert in the south west of the United States, an area she calls the “Country of Lost Borders”, are vivid and evocative and again prove that what at first can seem unwelcoming and unforgiving can actually be sustaining and life-giving. The desert is where she went to restore her sense of mystery.
8. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Walden chronicles the two years and two months that Thoreau spent in a cabin near Walden Pond, close to Concord, Massachusetts. Although this wasn’t real wilderness, Thoreau’s aim was to isolate himself from society and to become self-reliant. He rhapsodizes about the solitude and about living close to nature; he chronicles a battle between red and black ants, and when spring finally arrives he watches the birds flying north and the gradual re-greening of the pond area.
9. The Gary Snyder Reader
This chunky book contains far more than Snyder’s wilderness writings – but this mixture of prose, poetry, translations, Buddhism, essays, letters and articles is a wonderful introduction to his work. Often described as the “laureate of Deep Ecology”, Snyder has been writing about the environment since the 1950s.
10. A Sand Country Almanac by Aldo Leopold
Way ahead of its time, Aldo Leopold’s book, was hailed as a landmark book by the conservation movement. “Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility … It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise”.