The Wild Places

Front Cover

What does ‘wild’ mean to you’? Is it a ‘wilderness’ with high mountains, swollen streams and harsh weather? This is a perception common to many people, especially those who live in towns and cities, which make up an increasing proportion of the population of the UK. Robert MacFarlane, author of The Wild Places, began in this place as well; to him, wild meant:

Wide spaces, remote and figureless. Isolated islands off Atlantic coasts. Unbounded forests, and blue snow-light falling on to drifts marked with the paw-prints of wolves. Frost-shattered summits and corries holding lochs of great depth… somewhere boreal, wintry vast isolated, elemental, demanding of the traveller in its asperities.(1)

Consider the British Isles as they currently are, manicured by centuries of agriculture and consumed by encroaching suburbia; what remains of the wild? The Wild Places traces a journey from the North to the South of Britain, searching for the remaining truly wild places in the land, mapping them and exploring any links between them and how they make sense in their own right.

The world ‘wild’ has an interesting etymology. The precise origin and meaning of the word is disputed, but involves a mixture of old German, Norse and pre-Teutonic ancestry:

Wildness, according to this etymology, is an expression of independence from human direction, and wild land can be said to be self-willed land. Land that proceeds according to its own laws and principles, land whose habits – the growth of its trees, the movements of its creatures, the free descent of its streams through its rocks – are of its own devising and own execution. Land that, as the contemporary definition of wild continues, ‘acts or moves freely without restraint; is unconfined, unrestricted’.(2)

As I read the book, it captured several key aspects of wildness and I have chosen to examine three of these from the book. They are perhaps not the full extent of MacFarlane’s picture of what wildness is, but they contain a truth which resonates with my experiences.

One of the delights of The Wild Places is the rich quality of the language. As MacFarlane begins his journey proper, he makes a pilgrimage to Ynys Enlli (Island of the Currents) off the Lleyn Peninsula of North Wales to echo the journey of the peregrini, ancient, Celtic, religious travellers. They were monks and devout itinerants who made their way to the isolated parts of western Europe in search of retreat. The mere mention of ‘peregrini’ conjures the peregrine falcon – a superbly fast bird and one that inhabits mountainous hideouts. The name, in fact, derives from the Latin peregrinus, with the sense of wandering over a distance, from which ‘pilgrim’ in turn is derived. For the peregrini, these journeys were deeply symbolic:

These edgelands reciprocated the serenity and the asceticism of the peregrini. Their travels to these wild places reflected their longing to achieve correspondence between faith and place, between inner and outer landscapes… To migrate away from the named places (territories whose topography was continuous with memory and community) to the coasts (the unmapped islands, the anonymous forests) was to reach land that did not bear the marks of occupation. It was to act out a movement from history to eternity.(3)

This is to say nothing of the manner in which the peregrini made their jounreys in tiny, exposed coracles over storm-prone North Atlantic seas. They had a ‘dignity of motive and attitude’, searching not for human, physical gain, but ‘a hallowed landscape: one that would sharpen their faith to its utmost point’.(4) Moreover, through art and literature they left a witness to their intriguing web of attachment to, and detachment from, nature, which is one of the ‘earliest testimonies to a human love for the wild’.(5)

Further South, MacFarlane visits the Lake District, venturing out in winter onto the ridge above Buttermere – Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag. In a blizzard and with darkness falling, he climbs up high to experience how travelling by night impacts the senses in a way that is utterly different to daytime. MacFarlane argues that to walk by night in familiar surroundings is to know them differently, whereby the normal methods of judging space, distance and time are absent. This is because the dark night sky contains a limitlessness and depth, provided by the lack of colour and accentuated by the constellations – both alien to the daytime sky. One’s perspective is utterly transformed.

Unfortunately, light pollution destroys this experience and is, MacFarlane writes, a dangerous, contemporary phenomenon:

We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is longer than our own capacity. We have come to accept a heresy of aloofness, a humanist belief in human difference, and we suppress wherever possible the checks and balances on us – the reminders that the world is greater than us or that we are contained within it. On almost every front, we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.(6)

MacFarlane continues this interesting vein later on, arguing for our modern ‘maladies of the soul’, which arise from a tactile disconnection with the natural world. Technology, city and modern travel, for example, have destroyed the old constant and unconscious interaction with the world through the senses of sight, sound, smell and touch: ‘such encounters [with the natural world] shape our beings and our imaginations in ways which are beyond analysis, but also beyond doubt.'(7) Perhaps this is the ‘uncomplicated truth’ expressed in the satisfaction for many ordinary people when they interact with nature and the landscape.(8) These new perceptions of self and surroundings are not new, for Coleridge, the famous poet who suffered from depression, his own malady of the soul, wrote of wildness too:

Wildness… is an energy which blows through one’s being, causing the self to shift into new patterns, opening up alternative perceptions of life.(9)

Ultimately, MacFarlane argues that wildness is ‘not about asperity, but about luxuriance, vitality and fun’, discovering it in the most unlikely places.(10) And, although I have no argument with the conclusion to his journey, the fierce asperity of his original vision of wildness is what truly captures my heart and mind. This is what seizes me as he narrates his journey to Ben Hope, the mostly northernly Munro, perched at the top of Scotland. It reminds me of my own struggle in winter recently, fighting to the top of Red Pike (Mosedale) in the midst of a snowstorm. I quote the most salient portions of the account:

Hope did not give itself up easily. The ascent was nearly from sea-level, and the huge summit cone, crag-bound, was steadily steep. By the time I reached the top, the air around me was dark and gritty, and the wind colder. The summit was bare, stripped by gales and frost-weathering. Rime ice had formed in feathery windows on shattered grey rocks, which were also marked with lichens the colour of lime and tangerine. Between the rocks, snow lay in stripes and furrows, dry and granular as sand…

The sea, the stone, the night and the weather all pursued their processes and kept their habits, as they had done for milennia, and would do for milennia to follow. The fall of moonlight on to water, the lateral motion of blown snow through air, these were of the place’s making only. This was a terrain that had been thrown up by fire and survived ice. There was nothing, save the wall of rocks I had made and the summit cairn, to suggest history, Nothing human. I turned east and south, straining to see if there was any flicker of light in the hundreds of miles of darkness around me. Even a glimpse of something lit, however distant and unreachable, would have been reassurance of a sort. Nothing. No glimmer…

The comfortless snow-shires, the frozen rocks: this place was not hostile to my presence, far from it. Just entirely, gradelessly indifferent. Up there, I felt no companionship with the land, no epiphany of relation… Here, there was no question of relation. This place refused any imputations of meaning.(11)

In the words of Stravaiger, wildness, wilderness and wild are ‘a state of mind, easily destroyed by the very act of measurement’.(12) My vision of wild and the exhilaration that it causes me differ to another person’s vision: ‘All travellers to wild places will have felt some versions of this, a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest. In small measures it exhilarates. But in full form it annihilates.'(13) I experienced the elemental indifference of winter and its power was mesmerising. And yet this is the beauty of our wild places, no matter how pristine they remain or entirely urbanised, wildness is ever lurking: a howling, icy wind or a plucky shoot breaking through concrete. I choose the austere and harsh route because it presents a challenge to me and I see something magisterial in that environment and through the trials of mind and body.

Whatever form of wildness grasps you, seek it out, enjoy it and marvel at it.

The Wild Places, which won the coveted Boardman Tasker Prize for mountain literature, is the second book from Robert MacFarlane, author of ‘Mountains of the Mind: A History of Fascination’. MacFarlane is a College Lecturer in English and Official Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

(1) MacFarlane, R., 2008. The Wild Places. London: Granta. p.7

(2) ibid. p. 30

(3) ibid. pp. 24-25

(4) ibid. p. 28

(5) ibid. p. 29

(6) ibid. p. 203

(7) ibid. p. 203

(8) ibid. p. 203

(9) ibid. p. 209

(10) ibid. p. 316

(11) ibid. pp. 155-157

(12) Stravaiger’s eBothy, 2010. Sun, Sea and high camping in the Blackmount. [Online] (Updated 12 April 2010)
Available at: http://www.stravaiger.com/blog/?p=473 [Accessed 7 June 2010].

(13) p. 157

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