For a book to make my Book of The Month it needs to have re-readablity. I’d always intended this slot to be a way of recording the most memorable novel I’d read in a month. But, for the third month in a row, I haven’t chosen fiction. For me, the most re-readable book this month was Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places.
In fifteen fairly self-contained chapters, Macfarlane recounts his search for wild places within the British Isles. Are there any truly wild places left? His locations include a deserted island off the Welsh coast, a loch-filled valley on the Isle of Skye, the Essex marshes, the Peak District, the Burren in Ireland.
At the start he explores the etymology of the word ‘wild.’ Yes, wildness is something to be feared, some dangerous force, but alongside this notion, he notes, is one that, ‘tells of wildness as an energy both exemplary and exquisite.’ As he sleeps out on a frozen lake, or trudges across a Scottish moor, or searches for the white hare beneath a rain-swept Tor, it is this sense of the sublime he brings to us, safe and warm reading at home.
But when exploring the holloways of Dorset or the marshes of Essex he revises his view. He begins to see wildness not far from urban life - ‘The weed thrusting through a crack in the pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these are wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake.’ Here, wildness is about the ‘sheer force of ongoing organic existence, vigorous and chaotic.’
His writing is compelling; fine prose that often has the spine-tingling quality of poetry and yet always readable and accessible. The book is part of that growing genre, the so-called, New Nature Writing. It’s a genre that is post-pastoral; writing that pays close, subjective, attention to the natural world now so dominated by humans. As Macfarlane has said, this kind of nature writing ‘needs to admit to the poison in the system.’
But the book isn’t preachy; far from it. Each particular location, and his journey within it, provides a frame for much more than field notes or eco politics. Here you’ll find dramatic storytelling, history, memoir and meditation. He moves effortless between evoking the intensity of his physical experience – sleeping out on a cliff top; a history of place – the famine roads in Ireland; memoir – his boyhood experiences of camping and hiking; cultural meanings – maps as both useful grid and human story; meditations – what is the nature of time?
Macfarlane is no hopeless Romantic either. He admits to feeling, ‘the draw of the city, my own routines, my need for libraries, luxuries, connection, variety.’ I know what he means. Much as I love the idea of sleeping out on that frozen Cumbrian lake, I’m glad Macfarlane has done it so that I don’t have to. But I will re-read his account of that, and other adventures, again and again.