Hauntings: Terra Firma Triptych by J.M. Ledgard
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“We are now at a low tide in the powers of travel writing,” Grame Wood lamented in Foreign Affairs in 2010 in an essay morosely titled, “Travel Writing Is Dead.” “Where travelers once brought back invaluable stolen glances at places that the rest of us could only guess about, the new breed combines the worst of the traveler and the worst of the homebody,” Wood writes. “The writer goes overseas but brings back news about a tedious inner crisis, leaving undisturbed any insights about the places visited.”
2015 might be, finally, the turning of the tides, if it will allow itself to be led by the gravity of J. M. Ledgard’s Terra Firma Triptych, a three-part essay cycle penned and published as part of FSG’s Digital Originals series. Altogether, the book is a mere 40 pages long — the length of a few long commutes, if you’re casually reading on your phone, or on a lazy afternoon, but Ledgard is no homebody, no casual observer, no armchair traveler: A Scot from the Shetland Islands, Ledgard served as a longtime foreign correspondent for The Economist, with much of his time dedicated to Africa. As the author of 2011’s masterful novel Submergence, and 2006’s award-winning Giraffe, Ledgard makes his first foray into essay collections, but by no means his first stab at nonfiction, with Terra Firma Triptych.
The three panels comprising Triptych are “Terra Firma,” “The Connectome,” and “Red Liners.” While the essays are seemingly unconnected other than sharing the continent of Africa as a backdrop, the first of the collection, “Terra Firma,” is a gut-punch account of a trip through South Sudan, where the language spoken is violence and the earth seems to crumble to dust beneath Ledgard’s feet:
I had a feeling of being in a still point in a storm, the building sites and tunnels only increasing, perforating the earth, and unseen data blooming and going faster and faster until pooling and coagulating upon a device. At some point even the spot on which I stood would be tagged, but at that moment it was very quiet. The sound of my boots scuffing on the dirt was enormous. I coughed and it was like an interruption. I saw the curvature of the earth with the exactness of an etching by Hollar and I had a feeling of belonging to something massive and drifting. I think I saw my own transience more plainly there than at any of the treacherous moments in my life. How should I stand on the orb? How should I tread it? How many breaths should I take upon it before I stopped, and when I was expired and decomposed, what small shape of me would be left in the air? I thought it would have been a tender place, but it was harsh and it was gone in an instant. I saw an ostrich in the distance, moving away at great speed, its neck and head still and legs pumping, just as you imagine yourself sprinting in dreams.
In the second essay, “The Connectome,” Ledgard visits Rwanda, where he has the “queer feeling” of “being haunted by the future” while visiting a stretch of valley set to be transformed into a massive airport.
It was not good, neither was it awful. It was like a motor that turns over and catches and noise and fumes come and there is something lost for something gained. It was perhaps always meant to be, it was simple mathematics, this many humans need this many things, one connection begets another, and we move, we move, we are like sharks in this respect, we can no more stop ourselves than can a thresher shark or a mako shark lay its head down on the sea bottom and sleep, if we stop moving we asphyxiate, and so it was inevitable and right that Rwanda would want to make those connections, and that its citizens would want to board airplanes and receive and send goods. Rwanda was late, Africa was late, that was all.
The final panel, “Red Liners,” then, is the odd duck of the collection. While Ledgard’s first two essays could perhaps be united in their lyrical environmentalist or humanitarian concerns, “Red Liners” reads almost like a literary sales pitch for Ledgard’s Red Line cargo drone initiative, which he directs out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Illustrated with futuristic renderings of droneports and droneways (if you will), Ledgard lays out a vision of Africa serviced by drones that go, “uncomplaining and methodically like a pack animal along paths that wind up through wooded hills, cresting at a remote village, and then winding down the other side.” It’s a jarring, technical contrast to Ledgard’s mastery over depictions of landscape and the people and animals of Africa, who he describes with such lyricism and poetry that it’s hard to challenge comparisons to other geniuses of the prose form: Calvino, Coetzee. “Red Liner” is, rather, almost an act of journalism, studded with the occasional footnote, sprinkled with statistics; a return to an essay in its more rigid form.
But this from a man who told the New Yorker that, “While great journalism speaks essentially to the moment, literature has the long reach.” Even “Red Liners” is not without its more cosmic moments:
Cargo drones will fly routes that are geofenced in the sky at about the height of the Eiffel Tower. I choose this monument deliberately because it escapes gravity in a more breathtaking fashion than I think any other building on earth. It is arched on the ground and touches the sky at its narrowest point. It is the supreme surviving example of Victorian steampunk, and it is possible to imagine Red Liners passing over the top of it, silent in their sun power and sometimes hidden and emerging through the mist and in ribs here and there. The tonnage of the tower in any case is not weighed only in iron but in swagger that we are duty-bound within the limits of our science and technology now to imitate.
Ledgard’s is quite the dream — one he rather unconvincingly argues isn’t techno-utopianism, but this may be excused as a moment of allowed personal enthusiasm, for Ledgard’s travels aren’t a metaphor for his own transformation. Unlike authors of personal crisis who Wood blames for killing the travelogue, that most ancient of literary forms, Ledgard has returned to form as an observer, a set of eyes watching, retaining, reporting. “Life there was harsh, like a fairy tale,” Ledgard says, without judgment, without grief, but thoughtfully, intentionally. Taken as a whole, Terra Firma Triptych is a hybrid of journalism of the moment and something new, something transformative, something sui generis, even — travel writing not looking at the self, but out, at the long reach of a future haunting us all.
To purchase Terra Firma Triptych, visit the FSG Originals website.