Robert Macfarlane’s self-imposed task sounded simple: “Would it be possible to make a series of journeys in search of some of the wild places that remained in Britain and Ireland?” The end result became The Wild Places (2007), an accounting of fifteen such journeys, several made with writer Roger Deakin, who died in 2006. But as the journeys unfold, so do the questions that Macfarlane comes to ask himself.
Like the best of those who choose to write largely about the natural world, Macfarlane expands the genre beyond pure science, embracing history, literature, the visual arts, philosophy. The Wild Places is a blend of personal quest, reportage from the front lines, and deep reflection on the elusive definition and meaning of “nature” and “wild.” For Macfarlane, there is no doubt that nature can provide many redemptive moments and unequaled insights to the receptive spirit. At the very least, he thinks, people routinely draw happiness from their daily encounters with landscape. At a much deeper level, Macfarlane suspects that we need nature to give us perspective, to remind us of our role – exceedingly minor and transitory – in the larger story of the universe.
We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger 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.
Traveling through the Lake District, Macfarlane reads Coleridge, who, in 1802-3, escaped depression by walking there relentlessly, experiencing the wildness of that countryside. “Wildness, in Coleridge’s account, is an energy which blows through one’s being, causing the self to shift into new patterns, opening up alternative perceptions of life.”
But Macfarlane is under no illusion about the real nature of Nature. Most of the places to which he journeys present him with forbidding conditions and relentless danger and it doesn’t take much to realize that nature is utterly disinterested in human existence.
The sea, the stone, the night and the weather all pursued their processes and kept their habits, as they had done for millennia, and would do for millennia 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….
There could have been nowhere that conformed more purely to the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys. I had been drawn here by a spatial logic, a desire to reach this coincident point of high altitude and high latitude. But now I could not wait to leave it…
All travellers to wild places will have felt some version of this, a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest. In small measures it exhilarates. But in full form it annihilates.
The question that keeps popping up during Macfarlane’s short journeys is this: What do we mean by wild? Do we mean remote and unforgiving or can the wild exist near at hand?
Lying there on the drifted sand, under the white stars, I thought about how the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys – inhuman, northern, remote – was starting to crumble from contact with the ground itself. No such chaste land exists in Britain or Ireland….The human and the wild cannot be partitioned.
Visiting the Burren, a desolate, rocky place in the north of County Clare, Ireland, Macfarlane and Deakin spent a day walking slowly over the area’s limestone, where they discover a small gryke, a minute crack in the limestone. As they lay on their stomachs and peer into it, they spy hundreds of different types of plants opportunistically growing in the sheltered, well-watered spot. So, maybe wildness comes in miniature sizes as well as on a national park scale. But the Burren also has a long human history and Macfarlane realizes that “five millennia of human activity in the Burren also means that buried in it are 5,000 years’ worth of the dead.” As W.G. Sebald wrote, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,”
I had passed through lands that were saturated with invisible people, with lives lived and lost, deaths happy and unhappy, and the spectral business of these wild places had become less and less ignorable. My idea of wildness as something inhuman, outside history, had come to seem nonsensical, even irresponsible.
Eventually, he realizes that Roger Deakins had it right.
“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. He was an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby.
…I had started to refocus. I was becoming increasingly interested in this understanding of wildness not as something which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpectedly around and within it: in cities, backyards, roadsides, hedges, field boundaries or spinnies….And it was there in the margins, interzones and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory and motorway verge.
By the end of The Wild Places, I was not surprised at the equanimity with which Macfarlane anticipates the eventual end of the world as we know it, as he contemplates the way in which the natural world quickly reclaims the places we have built, spoiled and abandoned – including poisoned places like Chernobyl.
I had spoken once to a climate-change scientist about the subject of abandonment. The study of her science had changed her perception of time, she said, and of the relevance of human beings within history. Though we are now among the dominant species, she said, our age will pass and our material legacy – unthinkable though it is now to imagine it vanished – will be absorbed by the land, becoming all but imperceptible.
Although Macfarlane never mentions Sebald (except to note The Rings of Saturn in his reading list), The Wild Places occasionally crosses over into Sebald territory, both literally and philosophically. Macfarlane visits Orford Ness (which plays a role in The Rings of Saturn) at which point he muses on Sir Thomas Browne’s concept of the quincunx, a curious natural pattern that Sebald also discusses. But in the end, Macfarlane and Sebald go their separate ways. The final page of The Rings of Saturn is marked by death, mourning, and the onset of blackness, while Macfarlane ends his book by climbing up into a tree and surveying the landscape that surrounds him.
Wildness was here, too, a short mile south of the town in which I lived. It was set about by roads and buildings, much of its was menaced, and some of it was dying. But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light.
Macfarlane has written about Sebald on several occasions – in the exhibition catalog Waterlog and a review of Campo Santo for the Times Online.