Caring deep vs. caring wide

A reading note on “Landmarks,” by Robert Macfarlane

One of the ideas that has pawed at me after reading Landmarks: caring deeply about a small, chosen place doesn’t make you less.

It doesn’t make you less curious, less ambitious. It doesn’t mean you care less.

[Nan] Shepherd was a localist of the best kind: she came to know her chosen place closely, but that closeness served to deepen rather than to limit her vision.

Candidly, I’m still unravelling why this idea won’t leave me. It didn’t jump out during my first read, but in rereads, it has become quietly insistent. I am confused by my body’s surprising, physical reaction to the idea: profound relief.

Why?

The Living Mountain needs to be understood as a parochial work in the most expansive sense. Over the past century, parochial has soured as a word. The adjectival form of parish, it has come to connote sectarianism, insularity, boundedness: a mind or a community turned inward upon itself, a pejorative finitude. It hasn’t always been this way, though. Patrick Kavanagh (1904–67), the great poet of the Irish mundane, was sure of the parish’s importance. For Kavanagh, the parish was not a perimeter but an aperture: a space through which the world could be seen.

“…not a perimeter but an aperture: a space through which the world could be seen.” An edge, not as a prison, but as a generative constraint.

One day you look around you, and the equations of your life have so many variables (some of them abstractions of other variables). And you’re caught paradoxically between marvelling at the sheer scale of the constellation around you (this is what you prayed for), and missing the clarity of more bounded problems.

To be clear, it’s not that I believe that the people Macfarlane highlights have fewer problems. It’s that I envy the permission they’ve given themselves to invest a deep density of intention more narrowly.

So, relief first, that it’s possible to care more specifically, while not loosing curiosity. And then envy at those who are able to take all that focus that the rest of us disperse across several cares, and invest it powerfully. Like a glass lens held up to the sun, that focuses rays to a point.

[The mountains] were her inland-island, her personal parish, the area of territory that she loved, walked and studied over time such that concentration within its perimeters led to knowledge cubed rather than knowledge curbed.

How magical it must be to invest such a density of attention. What happens when such a concentration of loving accretes so deeply into a place? When you’re able to return again and again and again and again and understand deeply.

It must compound.

It must be, like Nan Shepherd describes “bursting out of its own ripeness … life has exploded, sticky and rich and smelling oh so good. And … that makes the ordinary world magical – that reverberates/illuminates.”