The Wild Places

Posted on: 29th March 2008  |
Author: Robert MacFarlane
Publication details: Granta Books, 2007 240 pages
ISBN: 978-1862079410

Are the covers on books that important? The picture of bird tracks across sand on this book didn’t attract me but the account of climbing a tree on the first page did.  It set the tone for the book brilliantly: The tree is on the edge of a city but comes to exemplify the desire in many of us to seek solace in pockets of wildness even in the most clogged of urban environments. This book is an account of a series of journeys made by Robert MacFarlane in search of some of those wild places in so far as they can still remain in Britain and Ireland.

MacFarlane creates a language of the wildness of places  which is often tied to quite specific regions for example the tarns of the Lake district in the English North or the turloughs of the Burren’s unique landscape in North West Ireland.  It is a book full of beautiful expression and sensation.  The subtleties of light in the landscape are captured astoundingly – the mists descending, the  ‘rain filled midday dusk’ embracing the view.  With the precise descriptions of crags, estuaries and hollows in dunes, the reader is allowed to imagine something of the journey taken and is perhaps grateful too at times that it is MacFarlane taking it on our behalf.

The account of finding an abandoned cottage in Strathchalleach, south of Cape Wrath in Scotland which is stocked with peat and candles and a note on the wall stating ‘a simple shelter maintained in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places’ was a romantic anecdote in an age when examples of such simple hospitality are hard to find.  However as much as I like to think the quest for space and silence is within me, I couldn’t appreciate the author’s desire to sleep on the summit of Ben Hope in winter, as an attempt to discover a place that conformed so closely to his vision of wildness.  What he found was not just harsh and bitter but indifferent. ‘Up there I felt no companionship with the land, no epiphany of relation’.  But this despair was extreme and tempered by some idyllic accounts of swimming out to tiny islands off the coast of Galway and being happily marooned, quoting Auden ; ‘Find beauty; be still’

There is much to attract a diverse range of readers from geology, history, literature ecology and biography to its novel approach to travel writing. The reader is taken on a journey through landscapes that pass through beechwood, then island, moor then to cape, grave, stormbeach, tor and concluding where s/he started.  The fifteen chapters in total are so rich in detail and insight and they are worth taking time over because of the number of levels and layers at which each speaks.

Apart from one hand drawn map in the inside cover there are no precise grid references to chart the routes taken by MacFarlane but one soon gets into the alternative approach to understanding maps.  He rejects the dominance of road maps which neglect the ‘physical presence of terrain’ and also refuses the ‘idea that long before they were political, cultural and economic entities these lands were places of stone, wood and water’.  He creates a story map, sometimes reflecting on his own relationships and memories or allowing testimonies of travellers from the past to speak of their journeys in the same landscape.

Poetry and literary references are plentiful in the book, as one might expect from a fellow of English Literature at Cambridge University, but given the book’s theme there is one obvious poetic omission, namely Hopkins’ Inversnaid.

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Robert MacFarlane doesn’t quite leave Hopkins’ places of wildness and wet alone but in his pilgrimage he unites with Hopkins desire to see such places thrive.  Apart from historical references to Celtic Christianity or a Dorset church with recusant connections, religion does not feature explicitly but it is rich with material for meditation.  Of course the analogy of maps and journeys can and should connect with the direction of our own lives and this reflection from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard illustrates how to begin that process:

Each one of us should make a surveyor’s maps of his lost fields and meadows. In this way we cover the universe with drawings we have lived. These drawings need not be exact. But they do need to be written according to our inner landscapes. (p232)

I have kept this book on the dashboard of my car, reading it in snatched moments when my children have fallen asleep in transit and I delay waking them.  So while I can’t claim to have read it from a tent in the Cairngorms or on a footpath in Wales it has provided a wonderful insight into the significance of wild landscapes in so far as ‘they remind us of the world beyond the human’.

Róisín Toner

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