The Wild Places, like the other two books I’ve read by Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind and The Old Ways), is a delicious combination of personal essay, nature writing, and cultural history. I feel I could read his writing on any topic at all and he’d turn it into something compulsively, personally fascinating, but this book happens to be about his search for wilderness. In a place as small, as geographically bounded, and as densely populated as the British Isles, can there be any true wilderness left? Or is it, as Gerard Manley Hopkins fears, that
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Each chapter of the book takes Macfarlane to a different kind of wild space. The book begins with the kind of wildness you and I might immediately think of as wild: “Island,” a remote Welsh island called Ynys Enlli where monks and pilgrims scraped out a bare sort of living; “Moor,” the trackless, rocky Rannoch Moor near Glen Coe; “Summit,” the high and inaccessible peak of Ben Hope in Scotland.
But then his travels take him to other kinds of wildness as well. There is the Burren, in Ireland, made of limestone, whose deep crevasses harbor teeming life like a jungle. There are the holloways of southern England, where ancient, abandoned footpaths and cart-paths have been eroded into deep ravines that now harbor flora and fauna that live nowhere else.
Tucked into the descriptions of these wild places — wood, ocean, forest, mountain — are descriptions of eccentric men to whom wildness has sometimes meant everything. Macfarlane describes W.H. Murray, for instance, a nature essayist, who went off to fight in World War II. Nothing would have sustained him in his prisoner-of-war camp but his vivid memory of his home mountains, islands, and moors, and his writing about them — usually on toilet paper — whenever he could. Other men have been obsessed with tracking peregrines, or with sea life, or, like George Orwell, simply with living alone in these wild places. All of it is familiar to Macfarlane; these men love what he loves, so they are as good as friends.
Macfarlane’s writing is enchanting. There’s nothing I’d personally like less than to spend the night out on Ben Hope in a sleet-storm, but reading about the joy it brings him is utterly convincing. He finds that despite pollution, climate change, and population, “for all this, nature is never spent;/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;” and wildness is still to be found. If you’ve been looking for beautiful, connected nature writing, look no further.