The Wild Places (Penguin Original) Paperback – Bargain Price, June 24, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
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The New York Times Book Review
Inspiring Macfarlane brings these landscapes to pulsing life His precision in apprehending the world is a salutary lesson in and of itself His descriptions have created a new map of Britain and Ireland in my mind. And like pebbles in a pond, those descriptions are now altering the way I look at the world immediately around me.. this is the final gift of Macfarlanes wild places: they illuminate the wild wonder of our everyday world.
National Geographic Traveler
The Wild Places boldly celebrates places that arent supposed to exist, and does so in prose that is at times very nearly as vivid and beautiful as the thing itself.
Prose as precise as this is not just evocative. It is a manifesto in itself. Macfarlanes language urges us to gaze more closely at the wonders around us, to take notice, to remind ourselves how thrillingly alive a spell in the wild can make us seem.
The Sunday Times (UK)
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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.
Top international reviews
provoking, inspiring and a damn good read.
I envied the author for going to places I can only dream of now that I am growing old. I evidence him for his ability to explore these wonderful places so completely, man ability that would always have been beyond me. I envy him his wonderful knowledge of so many things, both in the natural and literary worlds. But most of all I envy him his wonderful skill at writing about all these things and weaving them into this fascinating tale of the wild places in the British Isles. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Macfarlane writes in a comfortable, accessible style. Every paragraph is packed with fascinating information, not just on nature, geology and geography but about historic figures, other nature writers and personal friends. In particular he describes his friendship with the incomparable country writer Roger Deakin – author of Wildwood and Waterlogged.
To be balanced about this, if you live and work in the countryside, a similar pattern would emerge, beginning and ending every day with the first and last view being of a rural landscape.
But what about those who experience a mixture of the two?
I realised a few years ago that everywhere that I had lived from a child until now, although living in/on the edges of a town, I had always had a view of trees or hills or fields from my bedroom window. I might have lived and work (or gone to school) in a town, but the countryside was always a short walk away. I also realised that my parents individually/jointly had a similar experience when I thought back to where they had lived in their lifetimes.
In his book, Robert McFarlane feels drawn to travel from his urban home in Cambridgeshire to a selection of diverse rural environments of increasing challenge/contrast - hence "The Wild Places".
His experiences and reflections/connections made me think further about my relationship, reconciling urban living with a hankering for more remote rural environments, and whether this might be more than a random preference on my part.
Macfarlane's prose is as smooth and seductive as a gentle summer breeze and he manages to evoke a description of the wild places he visits so that they come alive on the page. But perhaps most significantly, he challenges the traditional concept of 'wildness' making us realise that we do not necessarily have to tramp Rannock Moor or spend a night out on Orford Ness to know what wildness is. The book traces a journey in both a physical and metaphorical sense and when I finished it I felt as if I had taken a journey too.
I now intend to buy a paperback copy for myself - I need it on my shelf - and it's going to be a Christmas gift for several of my friends this year. Cannot wait to read his other books. If only all impulse purchases were this good!
Ultimately, nature is best seen and experienced for yourself rather than read in a book which is a hurdle outdoor writing will always find hard to overcome. Nevertheless, Robert does a fantastic job and you will spend the whole time reading it and long after aching to visit these places.