Monday 4 February 2013

Book Review: The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane

OK, so the eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted this is not a new book and has been out for some while – about 5 years or so, in fact. Indeed, I have owned a copy for well over a year and not got round to reading it before. Given that I was captivated by Macfarlane’s first book, ‘Mountains Of The Mind’, it might seem odd that I’ve delayed reading this for so long. But there are some things in life that are not rewarded by instant gratification, where the anticipation of discovery is enhanced by the denial of temptation: would this be worth the wait?

As the title suggests, the central theme of the book is wildness. Are there any genuinely wild places left in Britain? In order to search out the wild landscapes of these islands, Macfarlane undertakes a series of journeys across the length and breadth of the country, climbing, walking, swimming and sleeping out – in all conditions and in all seasons – through some of the most extraordinary locations across the UK and Ireland.

Although this is a journey through wildness, it is not confined to wilderness alone. As well as remote Scottish glens and Lakeland mountain tops, the author explores Limestone pavement, Beech woods, ancient holloways, hedgerows and coastal mudflats, providing an insight into some of the less obvious wild places about us.

As with ‘Mountains Of The Mind’, the quality of the writing is peerless. Throughout, Macfarlane manages to convey his love for the great outdoors and the awe and wonder his experiences provoke. The observations are acute, the arguments well formulated, and complex concepts are skillfully explained. What he describes is as much a journey of discovery for him as for the reader.

The other central theme of the book is how the concept of ‘wildness’ impacts on the human condition. He argues that it is of vital importance – we need ‘wildness’ about us as a contrast to ‘civilisation’, in much the same way as we need sadness to fully understand joy, or hate to appreciate love – and that without it we are diminished as human beings.

This is the sort of book that should appeal to all lovers of the outdoors, from summiteers to Sunday strollers: bird watchers to backpackers. It articulates a lot of what those of us who appreciate being confronted by nature actually already know – concepts and ideas that we can all understand and relate to – but in a language that is clear and coherent, and in a way that can engage even the most cynical of minds.

As such, I would recommend it to anyone who considers themselves even remotely interested in our wonderful countryside.

More importantly, though, I think it is the sort of book that could enlighten even those who don’t understand what the countryside means to people like us: those who gain something special from being outdoors that cannot be gained in any other way.

In fact I’d go as far as to say this book should be required reading for those in our society whose actions impact on our countryside – planners, politicians, landowners, developers, utilities companies and the like – and whose decisions directly affect the future of our wild places. What is lost when short-term gain is put ahead of the need to protect this dwindling resource is both irreplaceable and incalculable.

It is the greatest irony that only those who understand the integrated nature and delicate balance of wildlife and ecosystem can see the true impact of Man’s interference in such ecosystems. For an example of this, you need look no further than the report that concludes that wind farms built on peat moorland are net contributors of Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere. That’s right: not only do they not reduce overall CO2 emissions (as claimed), they actually add to them. And what kind of land are most wind farms built on?

Of course I don’t expect this book alone to inspire such unbelievers to born-again environmental zeal. But it might at least be enough to effect a minor epiphany: an acknowledgement that there are many people who see the few remaining remote spots of our tiny country as valuable for what they are, not simply a hitherto fore unexploited resource to own, desecrate and make money from in the name of Mammon.

In the end, this book has many plus points, not least of which is the fact that it concentrates on the positive aspects to be gained from connecting with wild nature rather than focusing on the negatives of citing specific examples, appointing blame or crusading campaigning. It celebrates what we have and why it is important, rather than bemoaning it’s loss and castigating those who are instrumental in that decline, and helps us understand why being out there makes us feel good.

It is a gentle persuasion rather than a clarion call, and for that reason it makes it’s point all the more emphatically.

Verdict: if you have any feeling at all for the wild places in our countryside, the effect they have on us, or their influence on the human psyche, read it!

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading it, and will get around to reading his others eventually, but I wasn't convinced by the narrative thrust wherein Macfarlane discovers through the chapters of the book a more nuanced understanding of what 'wilderness' is. The bibliography lists Richard Mabey's 'The Unofficial Countryside' and anyone who has read that book could not honestly profess the naive attitude with which Macfarlane apparently begins 'The Wild Places'.
    Still - there is some fine writing there.