Review: The Wild Places

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane


‘The wind was rising, so I went to the wood.’ As opening sentences go the beginning of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places is as existentially brilliant as Camus’ ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.’ Why, you may ask, does a rising wind necessitate a trip to the wood? What would one do when one arrives? And what wood, anyway? Well, in reverse order: a beechwood; climb a certain tree; because the air pressure is a kind of baby monitor to this great parent of wilderness.

Yes, it’s not so much a call of the wild as a great roar. Few people, for example, would be drawn to the summit of Ben Hope ‘in its winter moods’, or risk the currents around and then spend a night alone on Ynys Enlli. The point is not to embrace risk and danger gratuitously, but rather and simply to experience the wild side of Britain and Ireland. ‘I did not believe, or did not want to believe, the obituaries for the wild.’ That means rejecting the A-Z atlas view of this archipelago, for such a map gives the impression that the land is so dominated by roads that ‘petrol and asphalt are its new primary elements,’ when in fact there remains a significant amount of wilderness. In this mesmerising work, Macfarlane not only explores the savage spots, but also penetrates their history, scents and stalks their wildlife and writes about them beautifully.

That Britain and Ireland constitute an archipelago of hundreds of islands and islets was one of those obvious facts that I had not considered for a long time until I began this book. As well as improving your geography Macfarlane’s travels will also boost your vocabulary. In describing landscapes you perhaps didn’t know existed he swings from an exotic semantic branch: hag, crag, cairn, knoll, portcullis, skim-ice, tarn ice, tor. Even common words are mysterious. ‘The etymology of the word ‘wild,” Macfarlane explains, ‘is vexed and subtle.’

If wild places are few, wild creatures are fewer, but Macfarlane finds them. A tiercel in Essex, hares in Hope Valley in the Peak District, seals in Orford Ness. The animals are sometimes his quest, sometimes his fantasy and occasionally even a kind of guardian:

The rough blades of marram grass skittered quietly against one another. The honks of the sleeping seals drifted down to me, familial and soporific. There was the chatter of dinghy lanyards clacking on metal masts, from the boats moored in the marshes, tittle-tattling to one another. I fell asleep to these noises, and the drum-talk of the waves.

A travelogue, map, memoir, survey and history, The Wild Places is also an unplanned though fitting eulogy of Macfarlane’s friend and companion, Roger Deakin. ‘Roger lived in the most unusual home I had ever known.’ Dubbed Walnut Tree Farm, Deakin’s dwelling was as close to a living thing as a building could be. He let the doors and windows open in order to let air and animals circulate… the house seemed almost to breath.’ Deakin was the ultimate guide, the man to whom Macfarlane turned first when he wanted advice for his odyssey and the man with whom he shared many warm moments along the way. Sadly, not long after a trip together in the Dengie Peninsula, Deakin developed a brain tumour that killed him ‘appallingly quickly.’

Macfarlane may not want to believe the knells that ring for British nature, but in the awful death of his friend there is a grim metaphor and warning. Like litter on the land, other omens appear and disquiet throughout the journeys. Dwindling sea bird colonies here, shrinking coastline there. We have lost much already, and the little that remains is under grave threat. If ever a book could inspire us to protect the latter and restore the former then it is this one.

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