This is a book which took me over a year to read. Not because I disliked it, but because its reading takes dedicated time, energy and thought. It is not a book to read in bed when tired and hoping to relax into sleep. It is a book to read to be forced to think, to reflect, to actively spend time reading. Perhaps a very good choice right now, and one which will certainly transport you out of your home and to places remote, emotive and truly wild.
“I…decided that, as I travelled, I would draw up a map to set against the road atlas… This would be a map, I hoped, that would not connect up cities, towns, hotels and airports. Instead, it would link headlands, cliffs, beaches, mountain-tops, tors, forests, river-mouths and waterfalls.
This book is that map…” p. 17
When reading this book on a flight between hemispheres, I was engaged in conversation about it by my extremely friendly Canadian seat neighbour, who said that he thought there was really no such thing left in the UK and Ireland as a “wild place.” Forests have been replanted, native flora has been cleared. I thought perhaps the book was going to emphasise his point. But instead this book showed me how to look for the wild places under our noses, even in the midst of cities, where Robert MacFarlane’s adventures would normally seem impossible. This skill of finding the small wild places everywhere is a very special one, which I feel I share with a special few, and is something which can reach inside each of us and touch the wild animal who we all too often lock away.
I should not have been surprised to find Southampton mentioned in the book, given the richness of human history in this part of the world, but was indeed shocked to learn that elms once distinguished the countryside here, where I now live, and were all but wiped out by disease brought in with a shipment of logs to Southampton in the late 1960s. The book is not, however, as some of these facts suggest, a eulogy for wild places. I very quickly dubbed it a piece of “creative non-fiction,” for whilst it is an autobiographical account of journeys made, it is written like poetry, with beautiful, transporting descriptions that resemble art more than a factual record, although they are both. I will share a favourite scene here, although it is quite long, to illustrate.
“A hundred yards from the black-rock headland that marked the end of the island’s peninsula, I searched for a sleeping place. The night air was loud with the pennywhistle piping of oystercatchers and the gulls’ yowls. It felt exciting to be out there in the dark, among the birds, and with the sea surging and sloshing all around me.
The ground was uneven, and sloped down to a set of cliffs that were cleft by big wave channels. Finally I found somewhere I could sleep: a body-length patch of grass on a terraced bank, above a deep gorge-like inlet… I could make out the shapes of seals moving through the water… It was warm enough for me not to need the bivouac bag I carried, so I laid out my mat and sleeping bag on the grass.
The noise began at around midnight, or that was when I woke to it. Birds were falling through the air above me, screaming while they fell, leaving long curved trails of sound as they plunged. I could hear them landing with soft thumps on the ground around me.
Every few seconds, one of the plunging birds and one of the turning lighthouse beams would coincide, vertical through lateral. I began to see them, here and there, momentarily outlined in the light – birds, with arrow-wings swept back from their little bomb-bodies, so that even as they disappeared, my eye retained an image of their streaking forms.
Shearwaters.” pp. 32 – 33.
The author does at times run off on tangents, historical, emotional, introspective, and at times confronting; they are all true. There are grueling accounts of the Irish famine which will hurt your soul to read, and there are poignant comments on the loss of certain kinds of wildness, and on how human loss and nature are intertwined.
“I came to feel, during the days we spent there, that the significant form of the Burren was the circle. It was there in the ring forts, there in the mountains, with their stepped profiles. And there, too, in the closed chemical loop of stone and bone that made the Burren: the limestone of which it was composed being itself the consequence of the settling out of boned and unboned bodies; the richness of the limestone attracting humans to the landscape; and then the death and burial of those humans. Bone returning to stone.” pp. 172-173.
The detail in this book is both meticulous and rambling, and it is not for the reluctant reader. Nevertheless, I was awed by the true experience and the connectedness with the wilderness achieved by Robert MacFarlane in the events detailed in this book. How incredible to sleep alone on an island on a grassy ledge, swim with bio-luminescence, survive a night on a barren, frozen mountain, and disappear into a holloway below the ground’s level, where ancient traffic carved out a hidden road. What a magical thing to aspire to, to find these places. And for all that, to then see the wildness in a crack between rocks, and in the hedges and treetops between roads and towns. In the weeds springing up between bricks. Untameable, ever-present wildness.
“We have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like. And so new maladies of the soul have emerged, unhappinesses which are complicated products of the distance we have set between ourselves and the world. We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits – as well as genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb. A constant and formidably defining exchange occurs between the physical forms of the world around us, and the cast of our inner world of imagination. The feel of a hot dry wind on the face, the smell of distant rain carried as a scent stream in the air, the touch of a bird’s sharp foot on one’s outstretched palm; such encounters shape our beings in ways which are beyond analysis, but also beyond doubt.” p. 203.
Read this book in extended, devoted sessions, as a kind of study. Read with a thermos of something ancient, such as an un-polluted gunpowder green, and with a view out of a window onto the nearest thing you have to an area of wildness. I hope that like me, by the time you reach the end, you will see wildness outside that window that you have overlooked in years gone by. Rather than making you feel trapped in separation from the natural world, this book will open windows into the wildernesses all around you.