Culpable as one who experiences place through its being rendered literary, indeed, as one whose experience of place is deepened by the literature depicting it, (Is this perhaps the nature of a “romantic”?) I was very taken by Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places.
I can even admit to, nearing the end of the book in a teashop, being overcome by the desire, the need to be walking the country; forgoing the return half of my bus ticket and striding out several hours across the fields – a salutary effort at orientation – stuffing my handbag along the way with Shaggy Parasols, sloes from the blackthorn drooping laden to the ground, acknowledging the barking migration of the Brent geese, the egret sat white, lookout atop a once lightningstruck oak, the twining, fruiting hedgerows… navigating between round-towered church, quarry, rooftops on a near horizon, to wind my long way home.
Yet, is this what Robert Macfarlane intends in his book (labelled a ‘travelogue’) The Wild Places – that, struck by his inspiration we slip, skip off our cafe seats and plunge handbags and heels into the country, in search of the wild, those wild places, those wild experiences he writes? Is his a moral “Get the British walking” piece of work? Is he one of those screeching their “right to roam” in wellybooted marches across the countryside? For, he cannot be grouped with the Climate Change enthusiasts – although his work does acknowledge the degradation being done to the countryside and the climate – it is far from an activist rant. Nor, would one place him alongside John Clare and others alike in their celebration of the British countryside. In the bookshop, The Wild Places sits both in the Travel Writing section and in a Miscellaneous section with headings such as: Self-Sufficiency and Free Food, next to Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and Wildwood. Macfarlane was indeed great friends with Deakin, the latter who plays an inspirational role beside him in The Wild Places, accompanying him on several of his “excursions” and whose death occurs during the final chapters of the writing of the book. Deakin was known for his accounts of swimming across Britain, and surely his was the inspiration for the numerous wild swimming publications that have appeared since.
But Macfarlane is no Roger Deakin, of rambling Walnut Tree Farm. A fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, lecturer in English Lit with an ecocritical slant (think: pyschogeography, the philosophy of landscape, Gaston Bachelard…) As such, writing in The Guardian, MacFarlane considers how paths might be thought of as sculptures, “a kind of democratic art form” (May 23, 2009). Indeed he is on Radio 3 these evenings and I hear him now muttering about the “energy investment” in paths, now quoting Edward Thomas’ notion of “a sediment of sentiment”. His appreciation, his manner of thinking the countryside and the wild, is studiedly postmodern. One is not surprised to find him quoting Debord, Bachelard, the continentals are thirsting for their place in there amongst the traditionals. And, Macfarlane’s language gives it away as well – permitting himself certain neologisms, tacking words together in a Joycean whim.
“It is clear that these edgelands reciprocated the serenity and the asceticism of the peregrini. Their travels to these wild places reflected their longing to achieve correspondence between belief and place, between inner and outer landscapes.“(24)
Macfarlane is writing the wild and this writing is doubled with the self-conscious thinker’s awareness of a friction-ridden breach between the inner and outer landscapes, between the self and the land, between language and the land. “But we find it hard to make language grip landscapes that are close-toned, but that also excel in expanse, reach and transparency.” (78) He remains the explorer, hesitant to impose his own language upon a presence that is mysteriously, perhaps mystically other. Before or beyond language. Or perhaps not, he disallows a personification of the land: “The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented. It is indifferent to its pictures and to its picturers.” (10) He will not enforce a moral.
And yet, there is something underlying, some tongue enfolded in these dips of landscape that Macfarlane invokes. A sensitive nerve edging his sentences, refusing the pure eulogy, pure travelogue. The signs of a thinker, a theorist… When I rediscovered Seamus Heaney – years on, my disdain faded – I was delighted by the shapes, the landscapes built by those hardedged words, the landforms hunkered within the structure of the poems. I feel MacFarlane harkens towards a similar sense: the sense that the land does have a written form, the land can be thought without being warped. I have not read his first book, Mountains of the Mind, which won a flock of prizes… but the title suggests a similar line of thought. He is tackling the thinking of nature, the writing of nature, the experiencing of nature, the naming of nature. And, something evades him:
“Everywhere that day I had encountered blendings and mixings: the blown sand moving over the set sand, the sea water mingling inscrutably with the fresh. I recalled something the writer Fraser Harrison had said: ‘Our perception of land is no more stable than our perception of landscape. At first sight, it seems that land is the solid sand over which the mirage of landscape plays, yet it turns out that land too has its own evanescence… “Place” is a restlessly changing phenomenon.’“(127)
MacFarlane must take great pleasure in quotes such as this by Fraser Harrison. And yet, I fear he is only really (h)edging, hesitant around the question. He fails to develop the theme of “correspondence between inner and outer landscapes” and the sense of otherness, of something exilic, remains a nudging, unresolved and not-quite-silenced tension. Perhaps his academic research is more pointed? It is a “nice” book, I wonder has it been tempered for the book-club trade, pastoralised to pleasure the predominantly middle-aged female market? Although, published by Granta, one would think not. But, typical of the British, he is holding something back: the theoretical surmise, the blatant philosophical study. It would seem he is cowering behind the travelogue narrative. Unlike the continentals, whose contemporary philosophers continue to philosophise, without rendering the language/thought facile (I am thinking, for example of the French: Jean-Luc Nancy, Hélène Cixous, Jean-Christophe Bailly, Georges Didi-Huberman…) the British (think Alain de Botton, John Berger…) tend to soften their thinking to perpetuate instead the gentle British manner – somewhere between the novel, self-help and literary criticism? Rather than challenge their audience, they often hap to flatter it.
“Ideas, like waves, have fetches. They arrive with us having travelled vast distances, and their pasts are often invisible, or barely imaginable. ‘Wildness’ is such an idea: it has moved immensely through time and in that time, two great and conflicting stories have been told about it. According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.” (29)
Macfarlane, draws one in, tempting, evoking the old pros and cons of the Primitive. But his conclusions are drawn in far simpler terms: “Whatever the combination of causes, I had started to refocus. I was becoming increasingly interested in this understanding of wildness not as something which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpectedly around and within it: in cities, backyards, roadsides, hedges, fields, boundaries or spinnies.”(226) One must bear in mind that he is a fan of Richard Long, who he quotes in an interview in The Guardian: “I am content with the vocabulary of universal and common means; walking, placing, stones, sticks, water, circles, lines, days, nights, roads.” Thus demonstrating the archetypal intellectual desire to renounce the intellect, to know the stone as it is, as opposed to the stone as it is thought. While Robert Macfarlane knows himself other to this wild he yearns, he gives time and poetic thought to place, and delights, as the reader delights, in knowing the wild places still exist, and often much closer to home than one might imagine.
The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, published by Granta Books, 2007. ISBN : 978-1-86207-941-0