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The Wild Places

Nature writer Robert Macfarlane takes a modern trek through Britain’s changing lands.

By Todd Wilkinson / August 15, 2008



Besides being a seminal Romantic poet, sharing a feathered pen with friend and fellow bard William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge suffered from chronic bouts of the blues. When, at the dawn of the 19th century, Coleridge had fallen into another trough of depression, he set out walking through England’s Lake District.

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Aimlessly at first, he communed with the elements at the edges of waterfalls, disappearing into the moors and woods until at last the beauty of nature restored his spirit.

It’s debatable how Coleridge would respond to today’s sight of a crowded United Kingdom, with 61 million people inhabiting just 93,000 square miles.

In his book, The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane, nature writer and Cambridge resident, goes on his own healing trek across the remains of the British wilderness.

But what ails Macfarlane is modern anguish caused by ongoing, exhaustive resource depletion and heavy-handed landscape taming that has left Britain’s primeval forms of nature in a state of demise. “I did not believe, or did not want to believe, the obituaries,” he writes. “Like mourning for someone who was not yet dead, they suggested an unseemly longing for the end.....”

Despite the author’s gloom, this is an uplifting yet bittersweet story about the redemptive power and resilience of nature. But as Macfarlane (“Mountains of the Mind”) laces up his hiking boots, he must first confront the bleak statistics.

From Neolithic times on down through the Bronze Age, Iron Age, medieval period, and into the technological aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, the British archipelago has had its landscape picked apart; forests cleared for firewood and crops; streams fished out; beaches girded in steel against invading armies; and wildlife harvested to the point of annihilation.

Between 1930 and 1990 in England alone, more than half of the remaining ancient woodlands were felled or replaced with conifer plantations. Half of the country’s famous bucolic hedgerows vanished. Nearly all of the lowland pastures were carved up or paved over. Three-quarters of the famous “heathland” was farmed or developed, and millennia-old peat bogs drained.

Macfarlane aims to venture far away from these trappings of civilization to find evidence of wilderness, but even the most remote places left in Britain reside little more than five miles from a road. Deciding to toss the highway maps, he turns to Britain’s natural geography, comprised of 5,000 isles, 500 mountains, and 300 rivers for direction.

Part travelogue, intertwined with satisfying historic and literary references, “The Wild Places” yields enough epiphanies about the enduring richness of nature to fill a field journal. Lyrical and breezy, Macfarlane’s book doubles as a cautionary tale to those who take their natural heritage for granted.

“In a land as densely populated as Britain, openness can be hard to find,” he writes. “It is difficult to reach places where the horizon is experienced as a long, unbroken line, or where the blue of distance becomes visible.”

During his journey, the author sleeps under the stars to hone his night vision, baths in ice-cold brooks, camps near the precipices of cliffs, salt marshes, and hedgerows, and catches dramatic glimpses of avian-predator-and-prey scenes.

He does, however, express an ambivalence about solitude while exploring the outskirts of Strathnaver in the Scottish highlands, where once-huge Atlantic salmon runs have dwindled and the land itself was emptied of its people by means of government force. “The pasts of these places complicate and darken their present wildness; caution against romanticism and blitheness,” he writes.

Macfarlane has crafted an eye-opening book, no matter your place of residence. In a century with climate change pushing some ecosystems tighter against the margins, “The Wild Places” reminds us not to turn away, but to draw nearer to the green spaces – be they large or small. Where nature has not given up, we shouldn’t either.

Todd Wilkinson is a freelance writer who lives in Bozeman, Mont.

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