One of the best things about having some time off work is the time to read, and write, more. One book that’s been beside my bed waiting for that time is Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. I enjoyed his earlier work, Mountains of the Mind, which traces the change in western notions of mountains from horrible, literally ‘awesome’ places to be shunned to places of beauty and the sublime, so I was looking forward to this and putting it off until I had real time.
This book is a little artificial in construct it seems to me; see if ‘wild places’ can still be found in Britain, and immerse yourself in them, but it’s no less enjoyable for that. It pays homage to Roger Deakin’s work Waterlog and indeed Deakin and Macfarlane were friends, but it also harkens back through the natural history lexicon: Thoreau, Edward Thomas, Constable, Saint-Exupery and others.
The structure is simple but effective; snippets of reflection on key landscape types: island, valley, moor, forest, river-mouth, summit, ridge, storm-beach etc. interspersed with detailed accounts of short visits to one of those places, making the connections. It’s hopelessly romantic of course, but gorgeously appealing as well, with Macfarlane’s adventures hiking in the moors, or swimming in remote lochs as evocative as you’d expect.
A reflection that connected with me, reading this book in the unvarying warmth of far north Queensland, was the idea that certain landscapes harbour thoughts or impulses somehow, that somehow, perhaps through ancient archetypes or ancestral memory, particular landscapes connect emotionally with us. When talking about valleys Macfarlane writes, ‘Of the many types of valley, by far the most potent is the sanctuary: that is, the sunken space guarded on all four sides by high ground or water. Sanctuaries possess the allure of lost worlds or secret gardens. They provoke in the traveller who enters them – cresting a ridge at a pass, finding the ground drop away beneath your feet – the excitements of the forbidden and the enclosed.’ (47) I’ve had that same feeling, coming into some of the river valleys of the north-east in Victoria, along the Ovens River, for example.
Macfarlane later writes: ‘… I had also learned from each place, had been brought to think by each in unexpected accents and shapes. Connections and patterns were emerging too, supplied by the land itself. It was starting to seem that certain landscapes might hold certain thoughts, as they held certain stones or plants.’ (115). It’s an interesting idea to me, that landscape might not only reflect but help form some kinds of consciousness. I like the way Peter Ackroyd put a similar thought in his book on the Thames: ‘There is no reason to doubt that human consciousness is changed by the experience of living above clay, rather than chalk’. Or beside warm tropical seas rather than a cold river.
Thanks again to blog reader John, who originally told me about this book.