THIS IS ROBERT MACFARLANE'S follow-up to Mountains of the Mind (MotM), one of the surprise hits of 2003 (see TAC63 p7 for Perkin Warbeck's short but enthusiastic review). The Wild Places is a mix of biography, social and environmental history, literary interjection and personal journal, straddling the divide between the popular and the scholarly - much the same as MotM. However, whereas the first book was structured according to temporal logic, describing the unfolding process of discovery whereby western Europeans came to know their mountains, The Wild Places is ordered by space. Macfarlane recounts a series of visits to various places in the British Isles intended to construct a "prose map" of the wild.
His choice of locations - and their "wild" status - is an obvious point of debate. Some of the usual suspects figure prominently: Coruisk, Rannoch Moor, Cape Wrath, Ben Hope. First Griff and Cameron (see pp4-5 - Ed.), now Macfarlane. Surely it's time for the paparazzi to set up permanent camp in Altnaharra? Some locations are less familiar: the Burren of west Ireland, or Ynys Enlli off the Lleyn peninsula. Others are rather more Country Walking than TGO. Macfarlane finds much to excite and inspire in lowland England: the beaches of East Anglia, the salt marshes of Essex, the woods surrounding his native Cambridge, and - my favourite chapter simply because it is the least predictable - the pastoral holloways, or sunken paths, of Dorset.
Each chapter follows a similar format, somewhat repetitive and contrived despite the obvious craft of the prose. Macfarlane visits his candidate wild place and undertakes a series of what soon become familiar rituals, presumably intended to bring him closer to the wild: drinks from stream, strips off and goes for swim, sleeps out under the stars. (He prefers a bivvy bag to a tarp.) Variety comes from the artistic and literary personalities, typically eclectic, sometimes esoteric, often eccentric. Of these, W H Murray is likely to be the most familiar to TAC readers. Wordsworth and Orwell make cameo appearances, but the rest of the cast, such as the scientists Vaughan Cornish and R A Bagnold, are less well known. Disappointingly, Macfarlane fails to mention Bagnold's role as founder of the Long Range Desert Group, although we do get a lengthy account of Murray's world war two experiences in North Africa as a prelude to discussion of his Highland writings. This apart, there is little suspense or action. The Wild Places is a gentle book, largely free of the tales of derring-do that carried the narrative of MotM. Macfarlane spends an uncomfortable winter's night on the summit of Ben Hope, but eschews a repeat performance on the Derbyshire moors. Sensibly, he bottles the In Pinn in wet, greasy conditions.
As his travels proceed, Macfarlane discards the more obvious candidates for wildness in favour of less spectacular, more secretive lowland locations. His central argument is that here the wild can be just as prevalent, but no less mysterious, dramatic or stimulating for those prepared to search it out. Thus he avoids the worst clichés of the Wildernista (see TAC70 pp8-9 - and also this issue p11 - Ed.). His wild is proximal, not peripheral, full of people as well as plants and animals. Sensitive accounts of the Clearances and the Irish potato famine destroy the big "American" myth of pristine wilderness. This is not a nostalgic lament for something close to extinction, but a celebration of what we still have. In this respect, Macfarlane's outlook is similar to that of Cornish - whom he incorrectly labels as a "monadist", or a "fearsome concentrator" (pp247-248); in fact, Cornish was not an obsessive, but something of a polymath. Macfarlane also misses Cornish's work for the Council for the Protection of Rural England: "For whereas every feature of wild landscape in Britain can be matched or excelled in other countries, the unspoiled parts of agricultural England have a beauty which is unique in the scenery of civilisation." (National Parks and the Heritage of Scenery, 1930.)
It strikes me that The Wild Places is a feature-length version of the Guardian's Country Diary: a column revered for the quality of its nature writing, its passion, sincerity, attention to detail ... and for quiet but insistent politics that resist the forces of change. Praise indeed, but a comparison that also highlights the book's weakness. As a youngster at breakfast I would tear the Guardian off my dad to read Harry Griffin's contributions on the Lake District (see TAC67 p3), precisely because the Lakes had proper, big hills, and that was exciting. The lowland Country Diary columns went ignored, and my dad was able to eat his cornflakes uninterrupted. TAC readers may respond similarly to The Wild Places. It is a "lovely" book (Jan Morris's dust-jacket quote), distinguished by Macfarlane's evocative language. But this will not work for everyone. I found nothing here as outrageous as MotM's use of the verb "deliquesce" to describe melting of glaciers, but some will prefer the more direct, humorous prose of the likes of Graham Wilson, Muriel Gray, Ralph Storer and maybe even Mike Harding's TGO columns. Macfarlane, by contrast, is the rising star of the literary establishment's naturalist wing - as the big names contributing to the dust-jacket bumf demonstrate: Bill McKibben (The End of Nature), Rebecca Solnit (Wanderlust), Iain Sinclair (London Orbital) and Wilf Self ... the least likely recruit to the burgeoning ranks of the wilderness literati.
Not all of TAC's audience will read the Guardian, let alone Granta. (Thank goodness; it's the Murdoch press for me - Ed.) There is a disturbing tendency in much of this recent writing to equate purpleness of prose with authenticity and authority (despite Macfarlane admitting that much personal experience is ineffable). This is illustrated by his conceit (pp141-143) that "story maps" - travellers' tales of specific journeys - are preferable to the modern cartographies of the OS. But fancy words are not everything - as those TAC readers who scour sheets for blank grid squares, debate the claims to Corbett status of Buidhe Bheinn and Sgurr a'Bhac Chaolais, or simply use the map to inspire their next adventure, will surely agree.
TAC 72 Index