Saturday, 17 March 2012

'The Wild Places' by Robert Macfarlane

It is often said that the only true natural wildernesses in Britain are the tundra tops of Scottish mountains and the storm-battered edges of our rocky coasts. Every landscape in between is either man-made or so moulded that our mark is everywhere. Robert Macfarlane's book 'The Wild Places' is a journey; a search for wild landscapes in Britain and Ireland during which his notions of wildness were transformed.

He begins where we are habituated to look for the wild, in the far west and north: the bird and seal island of Enlli (Bardsey) at the tip of the Llŷn peninsula in Wales; the bays and limestone karsts of Atlantic Ireland; in Scotland, Rannoch Moor, the Cuillin of Skye, Cape Wrath and the wilds of Sutherland. These last are the emptiest, least inhabited places in western Europe. As such they come close to what we think the wilds should be. They are our North-West Territories, our Siberia, or as the Readers' Digest once put it without a trace of a smile, our Outback. But dig deeper, as Macfarlane does, and neither the histories nor our perceptions of these places make for such comparisons. The Highlands were cleansed of people for sheep and of predators for game, and much of Ireland by murder, famine, disease and emigration. Enlli was a place of pilgrimage, sought out by men. The high tide mark of even the farthest Hebridean shore is home to the empty Coca Cola bottle and the discarded trawl net.  Beneath and beyond the scenery, these landscapes too are the work of men.

While I sense he may regret this, Macfarlane accepts it and neither laments nor pines. Rather he begins to seek wildness where we have ceased to look for it; as the book progresses, he moves further south and east in search of the pockets of wildness that remain, and those largely manicured or desecrated landcapes in which to our eyes there is none.

In doing so he questions many of our accepted ideas about wildness. Where we have learnt to crave an ideal of distance, emptiness and the undisturbed in juxtaposition to our networked urban lives, he finds wildness in intimacy, profusion and flux: plant colonies bursting with unseen life in a limestone grint on The Burren; the choked and secret hollow ways worn in the soft rocks of south east England; an old garden reclaimed by nature in long-forgotten East Anglian acres just half a mile from a main road; while sheltering with arctic hares in the lee of a Peak District tor of which 30 million people live within two hours' drive.

'The Wild Places' is a work of imagination not a nature book, and is only partly descriptive. Although each chapter has a more or less precise location, it is titled as a type of landscape: 'Beechwood', 'Ridge', 'Cape', 'Saltmarsh'. Macfarlane also sets his thoughts within a number of contexts: history, folklore, religion, the musings of amateur scientists and eccentrics, and the history of cartography. One of the best parts describes the evolution of maps from creative stories of men's passages through a world of endless variety into the modern-day grids that reduce and restrict such terrains to pre-set symbols; less representations of nature than selective products of technology and distilled, timebound utilitarian need.

This, however, I would rather view as a warning about than a criticism of modern maps, which I think are one of mankind's most beautiful and fertile creations. As with books, what can be read between the contour lines of a map is as significant as and often more inspiring than what is printed on the paper. Macfarlane's message for me is that - whether you are high on the moors or reading one on the loo, as I have done for hours daily since boyhood, my poor mother banging on the ceiling below and demanding what the hell I was up to in there - we must learn to look into the nooks and crannies between and within what seems obvious, settled or merely familiar. So it is with nature, and the wild.

Perhaps the selection of locations - admittedly from thousands of possibilities - could have been broader, although Macfarlane makes no claim to be comprehensive. Perhaps I envy many of the good people the author meets, who can afford or have time to be potters, poets, hemp-weavers, lute-tuners and the like (no Irish names among them in Ireland; no Welsh ones in Wales!) - but envy is a nasty emotion of which I need to be more ashamed than I am, and churlishness is not something this invigorating book deserves.

So switch off - no: destroy, publicly - the SatNav, plan an extra day into both ends of your holidays, pack a picnic, muzzle the kids - no: hand them the map - and learn to travel as well as arrive. And read this book while you do.

'The Wild Places' by Robert Macfarlane, Granta Books

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