Ever want a tree like Christopher Robin’s where you could send Pooh up in a balloon for honey? Robert Marfarlane starts The Wild Places by climbing up a beechwood, leaning against a sturdy branch, and surveying the lower forty. Not liking what he sees in urban Cambridge, he plans a quest to discover the wild places that still exist.
Macfarlane brings you with him, as he travels through remote valleys, moors, summits, holloways, and ridges, swims the rivers, and sleeps under the skies, in search of untouched beauty. Mapping his journey, he marvels that “ (the) landscape was here long before we were even dreamed. It watched us arrive.” He notes the history of places, and discards the notion that “wild places had to be…outside history.”
Reading Macfarlane’s The Wild Places is a welcome respite – written in calming, beautiful language and set in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland – with literary references to Thomas Hardy, Coleridge, Orwell, and others. In this nonfiction account of a journey to places still untouched and marred by civilization, Macfarlane becomes a modern Thoreau, with more attention to trees and birds than philosophy.
Only a few moments in the book bring back the reality of civilization: the dead seagull with oil on its wings, the mention of trees growing again at Chernobyl, and his travel companion and mentor dieing.
Ultimately, he comes back to where he started, with the understanding that life goes on and the wild places will hopefully survive: “…the weed thrusting through the pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake…”
The book is organized in a series of essays on sites visited on the journey: island, valley, river-mouth… You could dive into any chapter and get the feeling of poetic language and awe for the beauty of nature.
But, this is one of those books to read slowly, savor, keep on the shelf, and revisit. Especially, when you need to vicariously be Macfarlane ”…walking out of winter.”