Nick Hunt is a writer and editor deeply engaged in the role travel and wonder can play in responding to the climate crisis and its related social crises. We spoke with him about his latest book, Outlandish - another excellent addition to the world of slow travel literature.
Nick Hunt’s latest book, Outlandish, charts four journeys through unlikely European landscapes: The Cairngorms, Białowieża Forest, the Desierto de Tabernas and the Great Hungarian Plain, or Puszta. Mostly using the “investigative tool” of walking, although also by train, bicycle and horse travel, he travels through the ecologies, mythologies, politics and deep histories of four geographic “exclaves”cut adrift in time or space.
These journeys, Nick writes, are “pilgrimages into the imagination.” Awed by the existence of such unfamiliarity so close to home, in every chapter we nonetheless discover, with Nick as our perceptive guide, a darkness hiding beneath that awe. Outlandish is a chronicle of the shifting role wonder plays in the face of looming catastrophe.
Although folkloric beings haunt each landscape - from the Am Fear Liath Mòr, or Big Grey Man, of the Cairngorms, to a figure roughly translated as “Woody” in Białowieża - the real threat comes from more tangible stories.
The Cairngorms is a familiar name. But these mountains hold Britain’s only Arctic tundra. They are environmentally more Scandinavian than British, and home to reindeer herds reintroduced from Sweden in the 1950s. The story here is melting ice. Walking from Aviemore - as we have documented, a place already blighted by global warming - Nick ultimately hikes to the Sphinx, the UK’s most stubborn snow patch. This year, as COP unfolded, it melted completely for only the eighth time since records began. Through its microcosmic story, Nick tells the bleak tale of global ice melt.
Białowieża is an old-growth “jungle” of oak, hornbeam, spruce and lime on the Poland-Belarus border (and site of the deplorable ongoing refugee standoff between the two countries). Prowled by bison and wolves, Białowieża is the most impressive vestige of the great forest that blanketed Europe following the last ice age, over 10,000 years ago. It was once a hunting ground, a patriotic proving ground, for men of the ruling classes. It is now a deforestation battleground, as Nick discovers in a house of forest defenders: serious-minded activists and scientists opposing illicit logging activities and hostile locals. The threat to this remnant of great forest is palpable.
Spain’s Desierto de Tabernas is, depending on how you see it, Europe’s only desert, although the debate about this label (the flawed but often striking systems of geographic classification is a theme throughout) withers in the blistering heat wave that was engulfing much of 2019 Europe upon Nick’s arrival. This heat wave, essentially continuing this year in the wildfires that ravaged Greece and Turkey, takes Nick to the precipice of heat stroke, even as he takes refuge in deep, shady canyons for days on end. Deciding to continue his journey in the heat, he says, shows the “creative tension” of writing a book in action: like indulging in something as a child before realising you’ve “gone too far and opened yourself up to some experience that is bigger than you can handle.”
But the dominant cultural narrative in Desierto de Tabernas is not the heat, or the economic and environmental vulnerability of the migrant labourers toiling in the sweltering greenhouses of neighbouring Mar de Plastico. It is the Wild West - the mythical frontier story of good cowboys and bad Indians, embedded in this landscape thanks to Sergio Leone’s decision to film his Spaghetti Western Dollars trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood, in its arid valleys. Nick couldn't resist a gun show.
Finally, Nick travels to the Great Hungarian Plain, or Puszta - a great steppe redolent of Mongolia to the east, populated by traditional cattlemen, or csikós. Here the story he encounters is twofold. Firstly it is of ecological decline, which frames the book’s most poignant emotional moment, a late-night exchange between Nick and a German birdwatcher. Secondly, the steppe story is of a fight for identity. At Osök Napja, a festival celebrating steppe culture, Nick witnesses competing, often confused shades of nationalism, and in one instance an explicit, comradely Nazi salute shared between two men in a music crowd.
The big story underpinning these narratives is climate change. Not just its acute effects, but its progress over what Nick calls “deep time.” The glacial changes forging environments, entwining over millennia with human histories, tie the book together, even save it. “I lost faith in the book,” Nick confesses. “I was doing these journeys and they were all fascinating, but it wasn’t until I realised that I was writing about the deep slow changes … That’s what stitched all these different experiences together into one thing. I didn’t really intend the book to do that, but in the writing of it it became inevitable.”
'I lost faith in the book. I was doing these journeys and they were all fascinating, but it wasn’t until I realised that I was writing about the deep slow changes … That’s what stitched all these different experiences together into one thing. I didn’t really intend the book to do that, but in the writing of it it became inevitable.'
This story of deep time is glimpsed and pieced together through the microcosmic environmental “portals” Nick explores. Small observations lead to and sit within larger ones, eventually creating a nested sense of enormous scale (like the Russian doll spaceships in the new Dune film, for those who have seen it).
You can’t write honestly about travel, Nick argues, without discussing how places are changing because of climate change. So omnipresent are its slow forces in Outlandish that it seems, well, outlandish that it wasn’t intended as the unifying theme. But it can be difficult to know what a book will be. “I find it quite hard to write proposals,” Nick says, “because so much of the actual material comes from things I could never have planned and never have predicted.”
'I find it quite hard to write proposals, because so much of the actual material comes from things I could never have planned and never have predicted.'
Like his other books, Outlandish drips with solastalgia. The notion that climate change is a thing that happens elsewhere, already close to impossible to maintain, is thoroughly dispelled by its observations. Solastalgia is a symptom of caring, something we deeply need. The rituals of nature connection scattered through the book feel important here. “I don’t have a spiritual practice,” Nick says, “but I like acknowledging a place with a little bit of formality and courtesy." Silent acknowledgements, hand gestures and centering himself by turning a full circle with his eyes on the horizon are some of the simple ways he connects with landscape. He also, in the epilogue, returns to the Sphinx with offerings collected from his travels.
Although Nick undertook the journeys before the pandemic, Outlandish captures the travel-pandemic-climate zeitgeist perfectly. These forces demand a more local, sensitive mode of travel and wonder. Outlandish quotes Arthur Machen to this end: “He who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in places by the Gray’s Inn Road will never find those secrets elsewhere, not in the heart of Africa, not in the fabled hidden cities of Tibet.”
It feels symbolic that Nick’s Great Uncle, Sir John Hunt, led the 1953 expedition in which Hillary and Norgay became the first people to summit the tallest place on Earth. Nick’s work rejects the conquesting mode of adventure for which Everest has become the symbol. Outlandish is a book of sincere, humble observation, not heroism. Whether it’s his ecological grief, his failure to ride a horse or his inertia in the face of stepping outside into an unfamiliar environment, the fleeting moments Nick does take centre stage are moments of uncertainty. Even his moments of wonder are caveated. “The filter dropped, and everything rushed in,” he says of a moment in the Cairngorms in which he found the sense of awe he had sought, “and I didn’t like it as much as I thought I should … This is what I’ve come in search of, and I just want to go back into my little word hole for a while."
'The filter dropped, and everything rushed in, and I didn’t like it as much as I thought I should … This is what I’ve come in search of, and I just want to go back into my little word hole for a while.'
Uncertainty, humility, quiet and perceptive observation. These are qualities we need, both in adventure and in life, and beautifully constructed word holes are valuable ways to practice them. Outlandish is one such example.
To engage further with Nick’s work