BOOK REVIEW: The Wild Places by Rober Macfarlane – August 2020

Reviewd by Jane Tompkins

Robert Macfarlane is a British nature writer and conservation activist whose work I became of aware just a month ago. His first book, Mountains of the Mind, published in 2003, won three awards; his second, The Wild Places, won two and was shortlisted for several others. By 2019 his 8 most notable books had garnered no less than 15 awards, not counting the American Academy of Arts and Letters E.M. Forster Award for Literature in 2017. He has been involved in the production of 3 films and several of his books have become the subjects of TV programs. He co-edited A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife which was delivered to Whitehall by ten thousand people in 2018.

I knew none of this when I first began to read The Wild Places, which had been recommended by a friend. I was simply enthralled. Not so much by the descriptions of natural scenery in England and Ireland, as by the author’s reflections on what our detachment from the experience of wildness has done to us. These reflections arise from time spent in nature and from reading what other nature writers have said. That Macfarlane is a generous reader is one of the reasons I trust him. The other is, he lets us see his mind change. The Wild Places begins with accounts of blasted mountain peaks and wintry vistas, of swims in the frigid waters of lonely lochs, and nights spent in stony depressions barely sheltered from the wind. It celebrates long views of scenery that exhibit no traces of human life. An understated machismo lurks somewhere in the vicinity. By the end of the book this view of wildness, with its attendant prejudices, has altered completely.

Macfarlane first becomes aware of a different way of understanding wildness while traversing a part of England called the Burren with his friend Roger Deakin. They’re walking through the Burren’s relatively barren terrain when Deakin stops, pointing to a fissure in the land’s surface. The opening runs for a yard or two, is only few inches wide and not very deep, but it contains an abundance of life completely at odds with the vacancy of its surroundings. It hums with insects and other tiny beings and bursts with miniature grasses, flowers, mosses, and weeds. The formation is called a “gryke.” This, says Deakin, is wildness. In that moment Macfarlane’s realizes that wildness does not require remoteness or vastness or exoticism. Wilderness exists wherever life goes on by itself. “There is wildness everywhere,” Roger had written once, “if we only stop in our tracks and look around us.” To him, the present day and the close-at-hand were as astonishing as the long-gone and the far-afield.” Macfarlane takes the observation and runs with it.

There is no such thing as “the wild.” Or if there is, it’s only from the point of view of people who consider the domesticity of others as somehow alien.  All wilderness, so-called, is the domesticity of other beings than ourselves.  All animals are doing is going about their business, feeding themselves, grooming themselves, mating, taking care of their young, finding a safe place to sleep at night.  Nature is their home, and the built environment we have created is their wild—strange, unsafe, better left alone.

Macfarlane not only changes his definition of wildness—the very subject of his book—mid-course before our eyes, but, quoting the nature writer Val Plumwood, he also urges us to take a step further: “to end the opposition between culture and nature, the garden and the wilderness, and to feel ourselves at home in both.” To embrace these oppositions intellectually is no small feat. Think of a locomotive snorting steam, and then of a still forest pond. Where is the continuity there? To feel them as continuous is even more challenging.

Above all, MacFarlane is struck by the realization of how far we have become estranged from the natural environment.

We experience, as no historical period has before, disembodiment and dematerialization. The almost infinite connectivity of the technological world, for all the benefits that it has brought, has exacted a toll in the coin of contact. We have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like. . . . We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits . . . .

He lets the mountaineer Gustave Rebuffat (Starlight and Storm) finish the thought for him: “In this modern age, very little remains that is real . . . .  Night has been banished, so have the cold, the wind, and the stars. They have all been neutralized: the rhythm of life itself is obscured. Everything goes so fast, and makes so much noise, and men hurry by without heeding the grass by the roadside, its colour, its smell . . . .”

I was moved almost to tears by this passage, which brings home to me how much of our lives are spent in ignorance of the marvels that are all around us. It reminds me of Richard Louv’s book The Last Child in the Woods which observes that the vast majority of children no longer play in fields or brooks or woods. Given that, how will people become aware that they belong to something wonderful, intricate, and beautiful that is larger and more powerful than themselves, something that is even now disappearing as they stare into their screens?~