The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane

The wilderness within

Right in the middle of Robert Macfarlane's beautiful and inspiring book about the search for wilderness and its meanings, he quotes something written by Stephen Graham, one of the great English walker-writers of the 20th century. "As you sit on the hillside," Graham wrote 50 years ago, "or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens."

Macfarlane, a young English don at Cambridge whose first book was a much-heralded history of mountaineering, has here embarked on a wider and more various quest for the forms the great door can take. But as Graham recognised, its very existence is not always as obvious as it might be, and that is where Macfarlane begins. It seems as if the wild places in the denatured archipelago of the British Isles have largely disappeared. What are these islands now but a nest of motorways, a clog of cultivation? He must consult the experts, among them Roger Deakin, the author of Waterlog, a famous account of swimming through Britain, and a man greatly loved by the many who knew him.

Deakin becomes Macfarlane's educator and guide, taking him to his versions of the wild, acting the father figure, being old to Macfarlane's young. The power and poignancy of Deakin's advice is heightened by the fact that he is dying and that too becomes one of the underlying motors of the book. As Deakin's body weakens, even as his mind wanders, as his silences increase, Macfarlane absorbs his deeper and more mature understanding of what wildness means. Although the book is framed as a sequence of travel essays, visiting remote and beautiful corners of the British Isles, it is in fact what used to be called a sentimental education: an account of a sensibility changing, a conscious growing-up in the hands of a dying man.

It starts a little uncertainly off the coast of the Lleyn peninsula. Macfarlane is not at home on boats and gets them wrong. There is only one bow wave to a boat; no one says "eight knots over ground". The cells of the Irish monks on Skellig Michael, whom Macfarlane would like to take as his model, are not carved out of the rock but built on it. The form of the monastery was consciously urban, not submitting to the wild but imposing a Christian civilisation on it.

Skellig Michael wasn't a savage place but a cultivated one, which became the busiest pilgrimage site in early medieval Ireland. Irish nature poetry as a whole was written in mainland monasteries which were among the largest quasi-urban structures of that time. Nor is their art "among the earliest testimonies to a human love of the wild", because Gilgamesh, Homer, Hesiod, Theocritus and Longinus, to name a few, are all full of it.

But when Macfarlane moves into the realities of the landscape, he makes them sing. In part this is a hymn to the bivvy bag, to a man getting to know his country, and submitting himself to its many moods and moments. He looks at a northern river and sees that "The winter sunlight was so bright that it lay in ingots on the riverbed," and that level of engaged immediacy starts to ring through the pages.

It is in part a book about not wasting one's time, about making sure that you don't simply lie in bed at night but see the world when the moonlight and frost are falling on it; that you swim in the phosphorescence that gathers in unseen chains around the coast. The body here doesn't hold itself back at some refined distance but plunges in, gets cold and frightened, is terrified by the "fierce, chaotic, chastening kind of wildness" it thinks it loves.

Under Deakin's example, Macfarlane leaves behind this initial conception of the utter, outer form of wildness. "I thought about how the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys – inhuman, northern, remote – was starting to crumble from contact with the ground itself... The human and the wild cannot be partitioned. Everywhere that day I had encountered blendings and mixings."

Moving south, he begins to engage with "the restless changeability of the wild". Deakin and he are in the Burren, in south-west Ireland, looking down into a gryke in the limestone pavement, filled "with a tiny grove of ferns, mosses and flowers. This, Roger suddenly said... is a wild place. It is as beautiful and complex, perhaps more so than any glen or bay or peak."

In this way, the summit-hungry mountaineer moves on to something which Deakin taught him: that the wild is indistinguishable from what it is of its own accord. That is why, in a culture so deeply mired in ironic and borrowed meanings, wilderness has the ability to refresh and renew. Wildness is what it is. And its significance lies beyond what we think it might be. It is a baseline and also a summit

This is not a book of descriptive brilliance, but of controlled eloquence. There is no rage or anger, little that is actually wild, but delicate, conformist, careful. There is a certain disdain for the common man, for the crowds with their chocolate-bar wrappers on the barefoot pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick, for the vulgarity of popular religion. But that, perhaps, is the price to pay for the fineness of a sensibility which suffuses his account of a walk in Cumbria at night in 15 degrees of frost. "You become even more aware of landscape as a medley of effects, a mingling of geology, memory, movement and life. The landforms remain, but they exist as presences: inferred, less substantial, more powerful... Wildness is not only a property of land – it is also a quality which can settle on a place with a snowfall or with close of day."

It is in the end a deeply stirring book, in being able to find the vivid wild in places that are so trammelled with our sterile banks of knowledge about them. In using the body to step beyond the ironic into an immediacy of a tangible, audible, testable world. In reversing what Macfarlane calls "the retreat from the real". Wildness becomes not some fragmentary thing surviving in scraps and fragments which have to be fenced around with a busy protectiveness. It is much much more than that. "I had come to feel wildness as a quality that flared into futurity," Macfarlane writes. "The wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us." It is more than we will ever be. So buy this book and get a bivvy bag. I can recommend the "Jupiter" made by Terra Nova Equipment: expensive, but fabulously weather-proof and life-transforming.

Adam Nicolson's books include 'Sea Room' (HarperCollins)

Granta £18.99 (340pp) £17.09(free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone