- Series: Landscapes (Book 2)
- Paperback: 340 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books; First Edition Thus edition (June 24, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780143113935
- ISBN-13: 978-0143113935
- ASIN: 0143113933
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 7.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 25 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #130,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Wild Places (Landscapes) Paperback – June 24, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this eloquent travelogue, Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind) explores the last undomesticated landscapes in Britain and Ireland in a narration that blends history, memoir and meditation. Macfarlane journeys to salt marshes, mountaintops, forests, beaches, constantly expanding and refining his understanding of wildness. Walking a Lake District ridge at night, he observes that with the stars falling plainly far above, it seemed to me that our estrangement from the dark was a great and serious loss. Crossing a moor, he finds its vastness and resistance to straight lines of progress analogous to the inability of mere words to convey a landscape's variety and immensity. Nonetheless, Macfarlane's language is as surprising and precise as his environments, with such evocative phrases as heat jellying the air, ice lidded the puddles and descriptions of birds that gild a tree and the sky as a steady tall blue. His striking prose not only evokes each locale's physicality in sensuous, deliberate detail, it glows with a reverence for nature in general and takes the reader on both a geographical and a philosophical journey, as mind-expanding as any of his wild places. (June)
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“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 natural world swells with meaning through Macfarlane’s devoted observations.” – The New York Times Book Review
“Macfarlane delivers crisp, engaging scenes . . . by the end of his peregrinations he had won me over completely.” – Anthony Doerr, The Boston Globe
“In this eloquent travelogue, Macfarlane explores the last undomesticated landscapes in Britain and Ireland in a narration that blends history, memoir, and meditation . . . His striking prose not only evokes each locale’s physicality in sensuous, deliberate detail, it glows with a reverence for nature in general and takes the reader on both a geographical and a philosophical journey.” – Publishers Weekly
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The Sunday Times of London spoke of his precise prose. And so it is, as well as fresh. Right from the beginning, he draws the reader in with fresh expressions like "Rooks haggle." And he stirred some very dormant memories. How long ago was it since I'd routinely climb trees? Like most of us, just a kid, and for some inexplicable reason, I stopped. Macfarlane, in his thirties, can't resist, and continues, seeking out a favorite beech tree not that far from his home in Cambridge. Trees, and those who love them. Xerxes is normally depicted as one of the "bad guys" of history... a ruthless "oriental" despot, off to crush those freedom-living Greek states. Maybe so, but Macfarlane relates that he loved sycamore trees, and would stop his entire army on the march, to savor some particularly appealing ones.
Macfarlane structures his work around various geographical features, such as island, valley, moor, forest, river-mouth, cape, ridge, holloway, storm-beach, saltmarsh and tor. The seeming exception is "grave,", but in ways it fits, as the author describes a peninsula in County Claire, in the west of Ireland, and the limestone features, some composed of human bones from the millenniums of burials there, which includes those who died in the 1840's as a result of famine. The author presents a chilling account of the cynicism of the landowners that were indifferent to these deaths. Likewise, in the chapter entitled "River-Mouth" I found his depictions of "the Clearances" enlightening (the landowners in northern Scotland forcibly relocated entire villages in order to enhance their ability to graze sheep.) Seeing those "pleasant" pastoral scenes of sheep grazing today, Macfarlane notes: "a caution against romanticism and blitheness."
My first experience with a "Holloway" was walking a section of the Natchez Trace in Mississippi. Less than half a century of travel on the Trace had depressed the road surface at least 6 feet in some areas. With thousands of years of travel along foot and animal paths in Britain, Holloways literally crisscross the isles, but are also largely "invisible." He actively seeks them out, with his own "maps" of the terrain, so different from road maps that give us a very one-dimensional picture of the countryside.
The author sleeps out in the open, in remote places, and no doubt is more "alive" for doing so, truly feeling the natural world. He rarely complains about adverse conditions, and if so, only wryly and obliquely: "But you never mentioned the midges, Sweeney, I thought reproachfully..." (p.59). He quotes numerous American writers, including an icon of the American West, Wallace Stegner, on the importance of wild places to the human psyche.
Roger Deakin was a life-long friend, and many of Macfarlane's travels were in his company. Deakin was another glorious eccentric, who appreciated the natural world. His most famous book is Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain. Deakin left us far too early, a victim of an aggressive brain tumor, at the age of 63. An apt eulogy from Macfarlane: "He was an expert in age: in its charisma and its worth. Everything he owned was worn, used, re-used. If anyone would have known how to age well, it would have been Roger."
Macfarlane end his book, coming full-circle, as the beginning of this review suggests: coming back to the Beechwoods. He quotes a poem by T.S. Eliot whose message is that we may explore far places, and in the end, see the familiar places for the first time. Likewise, Macfarlane realizes that the wild places are not just in the far off Outer Hebrides, but can also be quite close to his home in Cambridge. Another 6-star impressive work.
In this book, MacFarlane visits a number of places in the British Isles, each of which is in some sense wild, in order to experience wildness and explore its nature. In each of them, the reader travels with MacFarlane, carried by his precise, poetic prose that gives us intimate access to his observations and feelings. Interspersed between MacFarlane’s detailed and illuminating descriptions are accounts of local history and thoughts that the landscape, wildlife, and his experiences have promoted. Each region that he visits is different: From island to tor, bookended by a favorite beech tree that stands near to his house.
There is a quiet continuity to the book. The journeys are described in the sequence in which he made them, over the course of a year. As the year passes, our understanding of wildness evolves, along with MacFarlane’s, from that of remote places separated from humanity to that of colonizing, evolving nature itself that can thrive in and around human spaces, in crevices, hedges, and ditches.
MacFarlane’s search for the meaning of wildness is interesting and thought-provoking but, for me, the wonder of the book lies in MacFarlane’s ability to feel the landscape and, through the beauty of his writing, to communicate those feelings to his reader. This book will nourish, delight, and inspire anyone with a love of the natural world.