Robert Macfarlane evolved a mission: to escape, for brief periods, his decidedly unwild Cambridge home, and to explore the wild places of Britain and Ireland. Initially he defines 'wild' as remote, unlit, and "where the evidence of human presence was minimal or absent". The effect of his travels, however, will be a new conception of 'wild' and a new appreciation of the qualities of wild places. In particular, he comes to see the "evidence of human presence" pretty much everywhere, and indeed this can be what makes some of the wilder places tolerable, even if the evidence is historical or archeological. And he comes to recognise the overlooked wildness of unexpected places: "The weed thrusting through a crack in a pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake". I'm always fascinated by the wildness in the edgelands, forgotten or abandoned places where nature's vigour is overtaking the signs of human endeavour, so Macfarlane's inner journey was designed to appeal.
Macfarlane is an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic companion, with a taste for sleeping out in a bivouac bag, swimming in cold water, and exploring some deeply inhospitable places. I quite often read books like this with a mounting envy of the journeys made and the things seen, but I read this book feeling quite sure that I don't want to spend a night on Ben Hope, or attempt to scale the well-named Inaccessible Pinnacle, and Macfarlane's account of swimming up a sea cave made my skin crawl:
I swam to the biggest of the caves. Holding on to an edge of rock, and letting the swell lift me gently up and down, I looked inside. Though I could not see the back of the cave, it seemed to run thirty or forty feet into the cliffs [...] As I crossed the shadow cast by the cave's roof, the water grew cold. There was a big hollow sucking and slapping sound. I shouted, and heard my call come back at me from all sides [...] Further back into the cave, the light was diffused and the air appeared powdery. The temperature had dropped, and I sensed the whole gathered coldness of the unsunned rock around and above me, pushing out into the air and water. I glanced back over my shoulder. The big semicircular mouth of the cave had by now shrunk to a cuticle of light. I could only just see out to the horizon of the see, and I felt a sudden involuntary lurch of fear.
You and me both, Robert. The powerful sense of claustrophobia this evokes is a good example of the way Macfarlane conveys a textured, detailed impression of the places he visits; sound, smell, temperature, surface and colour all combine in his writing to take the reader with him to the wild places. His language is also fresh and attractive; I love that "unsunned" and the "cuticle of light". He is also frank about his other lurches of fear; as it turns out, he doesn't want to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle either. Alongside his evocations of place are lots of detours into the history of the places he visits and of the people who frequented them. Some of these are famous - Coleridge, Ivor Gurney - others much less so, like W.H. Murray who wrote about the Scottish mountains, on blank loo paper, while a prisoner of war during World War II. His historical and biographical writing is detailed and confident, and balanced elegantly against his evocation of place.
A key figure in this book is Roger Deakin, author of Wildwood and Waterlog, and a cherished friend of Macfarlane's. They travel together to explore the Burren in Ireland and the holloways of Dorset. But the book pivots around Deakin's sudden illness and untimely death; he is in many ways the inspiration for Macfarlane's journeys, and the second half of the book is in some ways an account of recovering from this loss and a celebration of Deakin himself. I particlarly enjoyed the passing reference to the three different varieties of moss Roger Deakin proudly points out, growing in the footwells of his ancient car. Robert Macfarlane has a book just out called The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot which sounds very enticing and has just slipped onto my Amazon wish-list.