Book review: The Sacred Combe meanders, but beautifully, through the Luangwa Valley

Matthew Adams The Sacred Combe Simon Barnes Bloomsbury Natural History Dh55 About 15 years ago, the English journalist and nature writer Simon Barnes found himself alone for five days in an upmarket hotel in Rio. He had been covering the latest developments in Formula One as part of his sports-writing duties for The Times, and […]

Matthew Adams

The Sacred Combe

Simon Barnes

Bloomsbury Natural History


About 15 years ago, the English journalist and nature writer Simon Barnes found himself alone for five days in an upmarket hotel in Rio. He had been covering the latest developments in Formula One as part of his sports-writing duties for The Times, and would shortly be making his way to Barbados and Antigua to write about Test match cricket. Rio, he had thought, would offer a break between stories. But once he arrived there he found himself “utterly lost and horribly alone”.

He had planned to spend his time going in search of wildlife, yet a sudden change in the nation’s currency (“no one would exchange my good dollars for Brazilian money”) left him confined to his hotel. So he decided to spend his time “walking by day and reading by night” – and what he read turned out to be transformative.

Peter Matthiessen’s The Tree Where Man Was Born is, he now feels, a study of Africa that is not of a particularly remarkable moment. But in those lonely days in Brazil, it proved a book “that contained the one great truth about where and perhaps even who I needed to be”: a man moving on foot among the wildlife of the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, a place that he had already gone once before (it had, he writes, established a “mighty hold” on him), and that he now vowed to visit for an extended stay.

It is this trip, and the deep love for the Luangwa Valley that it engendered, that is the prime focus of The Sacred Combe: A Search for Humanity’s Heartland – a peculiar and uneven, but occasionally inspiring and important, blend of nature writing, memoir, and reflections on literature and metaphysics.

Barnes opens the book with an account of his first night in the valley, during which he awoke to find half a dozen elephants eating the roof of his accommodation. “Being about a foot from a group of animals that could tear both me and my hut apart,” he writes, “was curiously soothing.” He felt “a profound sense of having arrived” and “changed forever”: “The world was no longer the same and nor was I.”

From this moment of awakening, over the course of 100 short chapters (none of which is more than a few pages long), Barnes takes us through the story of the evolution, and the remote genesis, of his love of the natural world. It is a meandering, episodic and often rather vague affair, and in addition to its reflections on the Luangwa Valley, it includes numerous digressive discussions about the magic of his childhood encounters with the natural world, his youthful loves and losses, and his early infatuation with the figure of Robin Hood, who taught him the value of “leaving civilisation behind to find a deeper and richer life behind the canopy of oaks”.

Yet most of his interest in escaping the built environment in order to find in nature a sense of fecundity and connection involves the story of his deepening love of the Luangwa Valley, and his growing desire to understand it. Barnes’s account of this relationship affords him the opportunity to relay many fascinating, dramatic and alarming encounters: he sees a leopard cub cornered by a colony of baboons; he is charged by an elephant (“She wasn’t that big … but she made herself big enough: ears spread, those two great maps of Africa filling our eyes”); and he sees, at terrible proximity, two huge male lions – “as if belched from the guts of the Earth” – attack a buffalo calf, turn in the excitement on one another, and then haul back the calf to despatch it.

Barnes loves these brushes with wildness and danger. He calls them “our last luxury”, an indulgence of a “nostalgia for peril” that is a part “of the modern human condition”. But not all of the encounters he describes are so violent (or so full of the potential for violence).

There are lovely and memorable moments in which he recalls drinking a beer at twilight with sated and tired lions resting only yards way; he writes wonderfully about happening upon groups of hovering pied kingfishers, idling elephants, and beautiful and fragile impalas with “huge melting eyes, legs of pencil slimness, tiny hooves of liquorice”.

In addition to these lovely evocations, the book is also full of arresting facts and details. Did you know, for example, that when hippos defecate, “they fan their tails like a propeller to ensure maximum coverage?” Or that, although they do so for territorial reasons, there is an old story that is told, that since God only allowed them to live in the river so long as they promised not to eat its inhabitants, their making of such a display of their droppings is a way of proving to Him that their diet contains no trace of fish?

Barnes’s book is full of such compelling details and descriptions, and he is occasionally adept at using them to illustrate his central arguments: namely, that the natural world offers a sense of connection and continuity that cannot be found elsewhere; that we should embrace it – not because of what it can tell us about ourselves, but for its own sake; that it is older and richer and more important than any one of us; that a world without wildlife is not worth living in; that we will only protect those life forms if we can learn to love them first. In order to get to the loving, he says, we need to embrace the art of noticing.

These are sane and noble points of view, and Barnes does much to support them. But his book as a whole is weakened by a sense of formlessness (it holds little narrative or argumentative shape), by his fondness for offering rambling and nebulous reflections on the nature of love and paradise, and most of all by the manifold irritations of his prose.

Sometimes it is desperately over-dramatic: “I walked on into my first day in the Valley. My Valley. Their Valley. Our Valley. Whatever: certainly magical. Sacred. Secret.” More often it is excruciatingly casual and possessed of a sort of hysterical machismo: “All you want is room to breathe, and you ain’t got none”; “There were no doors on the Land Cruiser; doors are for wimps”. It is as if you are being addressed by The Office’s David Brent.

This is a pity, for it detracts from the qualities of thoughtfulness and attentiveness that characterise Barnes when he is writing at his best, and that ought to characterise the entirety of his project. As it is, what had the potential to be a short, resonant and powerful book about the feelings of connection and continuity to be found in nature ends up feeling unfocused, lacklustre, at times frivolous. Barnes has set out to write an argument for the importance of wildness. That purpose might have been better served had he written with a commitment to keeping his more uncultivated tendencies firmly under control.

Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.

Source: art & life

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