Outlandish—Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes: Nick Hunt

Published by John Murray Press

“…the idea that wonder, mystery, awe, new worlds and undiscovered realms might lie a train ride away, rather than on a carbon-intensive flight to the far side of the globe, opened up possibilities for a different type of travel. What other unlikely landscapes might be lurking out there, ready to snatch the unwary traveller into the outlandish?”

Nick Hunt lives in the UK, and his search for unlikely landscapes in Europe takes him to an Arctic tundra in Scotland, a primeval forest in Poland and Belarus, a desert in Spain, and the steppe in Hungary. He finds great natural beauty, but also sounds warnings of how we are damaging our planet.

In the Cairngorms in Scotland, Hunt hikes in an arctic-alpine tundra, which has more in common with Siberia, Greenland, Scandinavia, and northern Canada than the UK. Many millennia ago, there was a huge glacier—three miles thick in places—that ran from Scotland into England, and across to Ireland in the west. It also ran east, connecting what is now the UK and the Eurasian continent. “You could walk across it for a thousand miles and still not see its end.” This glacier carved out mountains, lochs and fjords and, when it melted, left behind a patch of Arctic tundra in Scotland.

Hunt then explores Białowieża, Europe’s largest remnant of primeval forest that runs across the Polish-Belarusian border. This forest is twelve thousand years old, “older than biblical time” and is “the closest thing that Europe has to a true jungle”. Białowieża once covered the European continent and is now home to wildlife, including wolves and bison.

From ice and forests—both nurtured by water—Hunt goes to the opposite extreme: a desert. Specifically, to Tabernas in Spain, Europe’s only desert. It was here that Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns were filmed, and you can still see the film sets. In Níjar, a town at the edge of this desert, Hunt visits the poignantly named Museum of the Memory of Water. The desert is dotted with cortijos, or farmhouses, which were abandoned when the land became impossible to farm. However, there is life here: the author sees ibex, “moving with impossible calmness up a perpendicular rockface”.

Hunt’s last stop is the Hungarian steppe, the Puszta, an exclave of the Eurasian steppe, “a piece of Asia stranded in the heart of Europe”. Over 300 square miles, the Puszta has a spiritual resonance for many Hungarians. An ancient tradition of herding dating from the first Magyar settlements is still preserved here, and the land is “a symbolic repository of the national origin story and a portal to the vaster landscapes of the east”. But in the early 1950s, during the communist regime, this area was also used as a gulag where between ten and fifteen thousand political prisoners were sent as forced labour.

Everywhere that Hunt travels, he finds evidence of how humans are impacting the planet’s physical environment. At a global level, glaciers are melting—not slowly, over millennia—but at an alarming rate: in the Arctic, the oldest and thickest ice has declined by 95 per cent; and the Antarctic ice sheet is losing 200 billion tonnes of ice each year.

The Białowieża forest is in danger from logging. In Poland, Hunt stays with a group that is fighting to protect this forest. The Polish government felled trees following an infestation of spruce bark beetles. However, it was not just the diseased trees that were being cut down but healthy ones as well. The movement managed to have the logging suspended in 2018, but people still remain vigilant.

The Hungarian steppe has been affected by drought, and water shortages have exacerbated the damage caused by human interference. The resulting desalination of the steppe has affected migrant birds in particular.

In Spain, Hunt comes across the Mar de Plásticos or the Plastic Sea, not far from the desert. The Plastic Sea is a maze of polytunnels where produce is grown by agribusinesses, ranging from family-run concerns to multinationals. Because they are not considered permanent structures, there is no restriction on their growth; they cover around 150 square miles and produce over two million tonnes of fruit and vegetables annually, or over half the produce sold in Europe. The food is grown in bags, “drip-fed with fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, the distribution of which is controlled by computers”. In this polythene hell, work “a precarious labour force of 100,000 migrant workers, mostly North and Sub-Saharan African, who sweat for thirty-five euros a day in conditions like a sauna so that people in colder climates can eat strawberries in December.” 

This is a fascinating book, proving that you can sometimes discover unknown landscapes closer to home than you had imagined. Hunt takes us on a journey, not only physically but also in time, showing us how the world has been shaped over millennia and how it is still changing.

This is a thoughtful and informative book which reminds us how precious and fragile our planet is.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

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