Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda Book Review: The Wild Places

the wild places coverTime on to-read list: Two years or more

Reason for not reading: Ehhhhh…. I think I want to try one of his others first. And then: Ehhh… I don’t think I can do the wonder it requires justice right now- HOW LONG IS MY TO-DO LIST AGAIN??

Reason for finally picking up: I read The Old Ways and loved it. I will be reviewing Landmarks, his promisingly gorgeous new book, for a publication in the fall.

Verdict: A somewhat reserved yes, but a yes all the same!

“When I woke in the corrie above Doo Lough that night, at some point in the small hours, the cloud had passed away, and the moon was pouring its light down on to the valley. I was thirsty, so I took my metal cup and walked to the side of the corrie and held the cup beneath the spill of one of the waterfalls. The water hit the tin and set it ringing like a bell. I drank and looked down over the dark valley. The shadows of the mountain on either side of the lough were cast over its floor in clear black shapes. The starlight fell upon the scene, old light from dead stars, and where it fell, the boulders and swells of the landscape cast dark moon-shadows, and I could see the night wind rippling over the grass of the valley, stirring into ghostly presence.”

-Chapter 9, “Grave”

There’s a process that every small human goes through. It starts when you’re a baby and open your eyes to see all the freaky beings above you and when you’re touched and realize what that is. From there, the work of discovering the world becomes the primary task of young childhood. That’s why we as teachers now know, tactile things and real experiences are the best way for children to learn. Children don’t think in the abstract for the most part, so it doesn’t make sense to teach them that way. Skipping over this experiential discovery to make them little adults, and give them symbols with no idea of their meaning (don’t ask them to add 2 + 2 when they don’t know what 2 really is), to make them look like little adults as fast as possible, is to take away something important and foundational that may never be reclaimed. Children will probably catch up eventually as to the meaning of the number 2, but they may never, in a real way, be able to understand how to face a problem and figure it out, rather than looking away until you’re forced not to. Just because you have all the feels welling up inside of you doesn’t mean that you know why or what to do with them.

I see the evidence of the symbolic, rather than experiential, understanding that people have of the world in a lot of national conversations, whether it is on the systemic nature of racism, trying to have a complex understanding of various Islamic societies, or, very notably, the climate change debate. There, there are just so many people who don’t want to look at something that’s hard to look at, and throwing facts, even symbolic evidence of the suffering of other beings, does absolutely nothing. It’s an intellectual brick wall that has thrown up its defensiveness and learned instinct to never ever be wrong in public so high that there’s no scaling it. (Yes, as I hear some of you saying, even when it is disingenuously supporting something for money- there’s nothing more angry or defensive or willing to deny it than someone who is in the wrong and knows it.)

This is why I think Robert MacFarlane’s writing, and in particular what he does with The Wild Places, is such a powerful thing to read. Because he doesn’t, despite all temptation, despite all reasons to do so, go for the facts-and-evidence-and-sanity-and-rage that we’ve seen from so many understandably desperate liberal pundits and leaders. Instead, he tries to slip underneath our childhood defenses in another way- with sheer beauty.

The Wild Places is, above everything, a catalogue. It is an attempt to create, as he tells us early on in the collection, a different kind of map, of the sort of “wild places” that are left in the British Isles. Every chapter focuses on a different land feature- island, valley, cape, moor, forest, holloway, storm-beach, summit, tor- and MacFarlane’s experience exploring it during one year, thus not only experiencing all the different topographical features on offer, but also all the different seasons and weathers and populations one might find there.

The book is, as others have mentioned, somewhat formulaic. But what a formula. He tends to open with a lovely set-piece of wherever he’s visiting now, woven through with poetic imagery and an enviable naturalist’s vocabulary that makes you long to look up every lovely word. He then moves to a diary-like description of everything he did in this location, interspersed with either a personal memory or a literary reflection of someone else who has walked here before. We’ll get an acknowledgement of environmental degradation or climate change, delivered in a mostly matter of fact fashion. And he’ll close it out by waxing poetic again, in a quiet sort of way, as if he’s waving goodbye to each place for the last time.

It’s a formula that works very well for what he’s trying to do here, which is to get people to experience what he experiences. It is an enthusiast’s work like any enthusiast’s work, but with a real purpose behind it. He wants to take us to the mountain top with us, to let us know what it is like there. That is his best argument about why these places should be saved.

And he chooses absolutely gorgeous, wonder-filled, chill-inducing, amazing places to make this argument. He sleeps on an island of rock on a “storm-beach”. He spends a night on Enlli, an island formerly occupied by retreating monks of the middle ages and now only birds. He visits the Burrens, a layered grave yard of thousands of years of Irish dead. He walks holloways that still haven’t been cleared away in Essex and rappels himself into Coruisk, perhaps the largest “secret garden” of a valley to be found in the islands. Each place is gorgeous in its uniqueness and some, depending on your taste in wildness, are unforgettable. Rannoch Moor and the Black Wood that lie just to the east of it were places that spoke to my deep places of myth, story and memory.

He wants to make sure that we understand what we are losing when we lose these wild places. In lieu of being able to lead us on actual experiences, he tries to get us to imagine them into being as much as possible. And because we are eternally self-centered, he tries, like we all must do, to point out how wild places affect people in material ways (as he seems aware, pointing out their beauty, mystery and thought-changing capacities will not be enough).

His (oft-repeated, I must admit) major realizations that he comes to over the course of the year are lovely, and if a bit trite, are none the less full of truth. Wild places, he finds, are useful to us because they offer us a place to think and be differently, literally without the boundaries that divide us in the human created and maintained world. Wild places are, truly, probably not entirely “wild”, but filled with a history that is fascinating and layered and heartbreaking if we only knew how to look for it (and the heartbreak is just as much human as animal- just wait for his chapters on the Scottish Clearances and the Famine cottages). Wild places remind us of the truly communal nature of the world- touching things and feeling the reality of them is important for us to stay connected to our role as a member of not only the human race, but our planet as a whole. And, of course, “wild” places can be found everywhere, as he eventually figures out for himself- just look out your front door. Some of these truths, out of context, are precious. In context, they seem just the inevitable result of his journey:

“The blinding of the stars is only one aspect of this retreat from the real. In so many ways, there has been a prising away of life from place, an abstraction of experience into different kinds of touchlessness. We experience, as no historical period has before, disembodiment and dematerialization. The almost infinite connectivity of 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. And so new maladies of the soul have emerged, unhappinesses which are complicated products of the distance we have set between ourselves and the world. 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- as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb. A constant and formidably defining exchange occurs between the physical forms of the world around us and the cast of our inner world of imagination. The feel of a hot dry wind on the face, the smell of a distant rain carried as a scent stream in the air, the touch of a bird’s sharp foot on one’s outstretched palm: such encounters shape our beings and our imaginations in ways which are beyond analysis, but also beyond doubt. There is something uncomplicatedly true in the sensation of laying hands upon sun-warmed rock, or watching a dense mutating flock of birds, or seeing snow fall irrefutably upon one’s upturned palm.”

It is also one of the few positive examples I’ve seen of what can be accomplished by harnessing the power of national myth and national imagination to your own purposes. We all know the pastoral national self-image of English identity, no? It’s in all our fairy tale books (especially the sanitized ones): friendly meadows and streams where flocks of cows and sheep grow strong, and butterflies, cowslips and grasshoppers delight children in an eternal summer afternoon of Beatrix Potter characters. MacFarlane, scholar of the Romantic literature that helped to solidify this national self-understanding, does a great job turning this to his own purposes. Whenever he can make a connection to it, he reminds readers of all the connection’s Britain’s great writers and artists have had to the woods- Coleridge, Wordsworth, Edward Thomas, scientists and passionate little-knowns are all deputized to the task. He brings in WWI, and the conscious falling-in-love people did with this idea of traditional England after their time in the trenches. He goes to emotionally resonant places like the tor, where Arthur may rise again, to places of childish mystery like the holloways of the fairies and the deepwood. He evokes the Wild Hunt, and shows the marks of history all over the landscape, Scottish, Irish and Lake District. (The fact of its use is actually vaguely sinister, which I would not have thought of before I read about Helen MacDonald grappling with that fact in H is for Hawk: that is, that the nature that she loved was so frequently co-opted by the worst nationalists and that she might be taken to support them. MacFarlane does not reckon with this, and in his soft-pedaled version, perhaps he does not need to, but it is worth mentioning all the same.)

There are some flaws, however, as admirable I find it in its goals and its chosen style of execution, however many lovely images I re-read or felt the urge to underline. As I mentioned, it is rather formulaic, which can sometimes get tiresome when you want the formula to lead to the next thing. He also becomes repetitive- the same insights he comes to at the end of one chapter is repeated several times over (however lovely it is), rather than that insight leading him to a new insight and furthering his thought. In addition, while I admired for the most part that he didn’t define every naturalists’ term that he used for us, I think that a glossary in the back of the book would have helped readers who just didn’t have his knowledge of rocks and trees and birds and landforms. There were some pages whose meaning was entirely lost to me because the words themselves were lost to me (something, by the way, it seems that he also realized, given his latest book, Landmarks). And finally, the parts in each chapter where he recounts his own actual journey could be rather prosaic- I did fall asleep a few times while reading this.

However, I believe that if it is read in the proper fashion (which to me means reading one or two essays a day, rather than trying to push oneself through it like I did), a lot of these flaws are likely to bother you much less. I think this would make excellent before-bed reading, commuting reading, read-outside-in-a-hammock reading, or reading for a family vacation when you’re never sure how much time you’ll have to read. It is an ideal book to retreat into for an hour and then put down again and feel refreshed and restored. Beauty can be enough to change us- MacFarlane is the proof.