The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane – Book Review

“Ideas, like waves, have fetches. They arrive with us having travelled vast distances, and their pasts are often invisible, or barely imaginable. ‘Wildness’ is such an idea: it has moved immensely through time. And in that time, two great and conflicting stories have been told about it. According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished, according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.”

The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane

Are there any wild places left in Ireland and Britain? In his book, The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane embarks on a journey through mountains, islands, moors, forests, salt marshes, and more, searching for ‘wildness’.  But Macfarlane must revaluate his own ideas and preconceptions about ‘wildness’ as he discovers so called ‘wild places’ in this well-researched book. His search takes him to a variety of landscapes, from the hostile pinnacle of Ben Hope to the fascinating Burren in Ireland. Each landscape is unique and layered as natural and human history entwine.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane is arguably one of the most well-known British nature writers with an impressive list of publications that enjoy some success even under the general reading public. It’s clear from this book that his knowledge and interests are wide-ranging, and I particularly enjoyed some of the historical sections on Ireland and Scotland. There are several memorable descriptions of his own experiences that stood out for me too, like the scene where he describes the ocean around Enlli shining with phosphorescence:

“I found that I could fling long streaks of fire from my fingertips, sorcerer-style, so I stood in the shallows for a few happy minutes pretending to be Merlin… I realised I could not see myself, only the phosphorescence that surrounded me, so that it appeared as if I were not there in the water at all: my body was unclear, defined only as a shape of darkness set against the swirling aqueous light.”

The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane

I like the way he unpacks certain concepts and themes as the book progresses. Maps are central to the book as Macfarlane aims to create a map of Britain and Ireland’s wild places. Pictured below is his own map and some of his observations on the art of mapmaking:

Map from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

“In its premodern expressions, mapmaking was a pursuit that mingled knowledge and supposition, that told stories about places, that admitted fear, love, memory and amazement into its projections…” He goes on to describe the difference between story maps and grid maps. Modern humans are more familiar with grid maps as they allow humans to navigate and make sense of abstract space. Story maps, however, precede grid maps, which would have included spoken cartographies, that relied heavily on the individual or culture moving through the space.

Macfarlane covers a wide variety of complex landscapes in a relatively compact book. My copy of The Wild Places is full of scraps of paper and notes marking quotes and topics I found interesting. I did find it a little disappointing that Macfarlane never dwells long on a subject: A theme emerges for each chapter and some background history is provided along with his own experiences and observations. He’ll then briefly linger on a historic story or scientific explanation before moving on to the next landscape. Even though I wanted to know more, which proves my enjoyment of the book, I believe his relatively brief and concise chapters appeal to a broad audience.

Despite enjoying the book, I couldn’t help feeling far removed from Macfarlane’s world. He ultimately concludes that wild places are not limited to barren and ‘untouched’ landscapes, and can be found all around us, but his focus is still mainly on remote and inaccessible places. He travels, climbs trees, sleeps under the stars, drinks cold mountain water, and casts off his clothes whenever he fancies a swim… it’s just not a life I can relate to. I’m fascinated by it, yes, and perhaps I’m a little jealous. Like most people who will read his books, my days simply don’t comprise of climbing trees or skinny-dipping. This is not the ‘wildness’ of my daily reality.

This sentiment is shared by Kathleen Jamie, another acclaimed nature writer (although I feel I should note that she’s not fond of the term ‘nature writer’) in her review of The Wild Places for London Review of Books:

“All of this is preliminary to the admission of a huge and unpleasant prejudice, and here it is: when a bright, healthy and highly educated young man jumps on the sleeper train and heads this way, with the declared intention of seeking ‘wild places’, my first reaction is to groan. It brings out in me a horrible mix of class, gender and ethnic tension. What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words. When he compounds this by declaring that ‘to reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history,’ I’m not just groaning but banging my head on the table.”

I could not help but smile as I read Jamie’s (self-proclaimed) ‘unfair’ review (and I immediately ordered some of Jamie’s books). She is right in saying The Wild Places is a conservative book – it shies away from the political. But, despite my gripes with Macfarlane’s relative ‘freedom’ to explore and experience wild places, I could not help but enjoy his way with words and careful descriptions. He weaves history, science, and personal observations into an easy-to-read book, and I think there’s immense value in this. He manages to bring an experience and understanding of nature to people who might not have easy access to it.

I conclusion, I liked The Wild Places. In fact, I listened to the audiobook version of Landmarks, also by Macfarlane, while I was reading The Wild Places. And I thoroughly enjoyed Landmarks too, perhaps more than The Wild Places. If you have any interest in the nature and history of Britain and Ireland, you will find this an enjoyable and easy to read book.

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Thank you for visiting the Wild Library blog. For more book recommendations, have a look at my Wild Reading List. Do you love nature? You might also be interested in reading about why I’m on mission to identify Ireland’s wildflowers.

Have a happy day,

Chantelle

4 thoughts on “The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane – Book Review

  1. This sounds like an interesting book attempting to “explore” a complex topic about what really is wilderness and who should be exploring and talking about it. I have some similar reactions as Kathleen in regards to the swarms of young people traveling the world, consuming it’s resources while raving about the beauty of nature and travel. It’s a privileged life and perspective that most of us can’t have.

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    • Its a complicated subject, I suppose, with no clear right or wrong answer. This kind of life, travelling and exploring, is definitely a privilege. And I agree with you, with environmental concerns more widely known and acknowledged,hopping on a plane and “seeing the world” can no longer be an innocent adventure. And yet, some people actually do good work this way, so might there be a place for it? But then who gets to travel/ explore and who sits at home to read about it…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie – Book Review | Wild Library

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