Monday, 7 July 2008

The Wild Places - Book recommendation

The Wild Places By Robert Macfarlane.
340 pages. $15, Penguin Books; £8.99, Granta.

Robert Macfarlane is looking for his wild in England, Ireland and Wales, territory that for most of us evokes words like "manicured," "turf" or, at the very least, "domesticated." His book about a series of pilgrimages to the moors, islands, lochs, capes and holloways that season the British Isles might seem quaint or even confusing (a holloway?) to those whose notion of wildness demands "rock, altitude and ice," as he puts it.
Yet "The Wild Places" is anything but twee. It is a formidable consideration by a naturalist who can unfurl a sentence - poetry, really - with the breathless ease of a master angler, a writer whose ideas and reach far transcend the physical region he explores.
The same quiet optimism that inhabited his previous book, "Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination," makes Macfarlane unwilling to accept the "obituaries for the wild" put out by today's eco-punditry. Only occasionally does he cite examples of current environmental peril, like the minke whale that washed up on the Normandy coast in 2002 with nearly a ton of plastic packaging and shopping bags in its stomach. He leapfrogs certain aspects of the moment in pursuit of deeper, older truths.
Macfarlane sets out to create an unconventional map - a cartography not subject to the imperialisms of roadways or humanity or grid, but rather, a prose map that would "seek to make some of the remaining wild places of the archipelago visible again, or that would record them before they vanished for good." It would link headlands, cliffs, beaches, mountaintops, tors, forests, river mouths and waterfalls." Tree climbing is a preferred methodology. The 10- or 20-foot elevation (as well as all that he learns on the way up) gives Macfarlane precious perspective. At the outset, from his roost in a beech tree near his home in Cambridge, he experiences "the relief of relief" and explains tree climbing as "a way of defraying the city's claim" on him, though it was not an experience of "wild" as he originally defines it. Wild requires isolation, the elements, a stepping "outside human history," he tells us.
The more than a dozen accounts of starry sleep-outs, freezing tramps and phosphorescent swims - at places like the valley of Coruisk on the Isle of Skye and the summit of Ben Hope in Scotland - are ripe with scholarship and pleasantly egoless. The natural world swells with meaning through Macfarlane's devoted observations, which can be both minutely detailed and vast in scope. Few can finesse, as he does, the lickety-split life cycle of a midge and the grandiosity of lumbering geologic eras into the space of a couple of sentences.

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