Monday, August 27, 2007
The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane was published on Saturday 25th August and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I abridged it for BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week where it is featured for five days from 3rd September.
When I received the manuscript to consider whether to take on the job, I was on Skye, ending a week of school workshops by walking from Elgol to Camasunary on the south of the island, following the shore of Loch Scavaig. About twenty years earlier I had walked this route from the other direction, emerging from the Cuillin fortress of Loch Coruisk after several days' exploration.
This time it was a much needed breath of wilderness after too many days in schools, a bed and breakfast each night, living from the boot of my car. I still had five or six weeks of the tour to go, and should not have been adding to my workload. But when I opened the manuscript, there in Chapter 3 - Valley - was a description of this very place. As I scanned the pages, I could still smell Loch Scavaig's Atlantic swell, see the harlequin plumage of a pair of shelducks as they flew low to the shore at Camasunary. I had arrived on an evening of tumultuous cloud that stacked and exploded as it was torn on the high jags of the Cuillin summits, and that memory could still make me shiver. I recognised the landmarks Macfarlane noted on the walk - a stunted forest bent over the path by the wind, the bay-ful of storm-tossed rubbish with its array of languages that wrote of the currents. And his description evoked in me a memory from twenty years before, the secret interior of Coruisk. The book seemed to chime with my own forthcoming project. In short, how could I resist getting intimate with this text?
In The Wild Places Macfarlane searches for the last vestiges of wildness in Britain and Ireland, starting at its rocky isolated peripheries of north and west. He experiences these landscapes in visceral ways - walking, swimming, sleeping out in all seasons. He writes with great lyricism, but also stitches into his prose the musings of previous walking writers, new guides, thoughts about philosophy and the future. His vision of wildness changes in the course of his book as he moves south and east, back towards his own home in Cambridge, and towards mud and sand. This shift in understanding in the book is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of it - the growing realisation that nature coexists with human history, that 'wild' places are necessarily inhabited with ghosts, and that nature will reassert itself over ourselves, that it is indomitable.