The wild places Robert Macfarlane journeys to in his new book aren't in deepest Africa or far Asia—they're in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In The Wild Places, featured in our Trip Lit book column this month, Macfarlane brings to life some of the last remaining storied wildnesses in Britain and Ireland, but also finds the wild just outside the busy city of Cambridge, where he lives and teaches at Cambridge University. He took the time to answer some emailed questions.
What was your first experience of the wild?
Storybook wolves, fairytale forests. We tend to meet the wild in print or on film before we meet it in person; or perhaps it's just we remember these encounters more clearly as adults. Wolves and wildwoods are everywhere in children's literature; dark, unknowable spaces filled with fierce, untameable creatures. But more literally, I spent my childhood holidays in the Highlands of Scotland—I remember the thrill of finding shed roe deer and even red-deer horns in the heather; and birthday picnics on mountaintops.
In the book, you journey to some of the most remote places in Britain—Ben Hope, the Coruisk valley—but one of the gifts of your book, as Don George writes in our review of it, is that you "illuminate the wild wonder of our everyday world." So what bit of wild have you encountered this week?
The book really is the story of beginning to explore—in John Hanson Mitchell's wonderful phrase—"the undiscovered country of the nearby." A recent bit of wild? I was told last Saturday about a new practice called allotment-forestry, which is where you plant ten-rod-plot allotments with hazels, with a view to coppicing them for wood. So in the middle of cities you get these miniature forests, only 20 yards by 30 yards, say. The woman who told me about this said her allotment-forest was now mature, and was loved and used by the children who lived nearby. She'd hung a sign saying "wildwood" on one of the edge-trees. I loved that story.
Any tips on how we can better experience the wild, without overwhelming it?
Refocus. Gary Nabhan tells a wonderful story about taking his young children to the rim of the Grand Canyon, to show them the view, only to find they're much more interested in grubbing about in the leaf litter and insects on the floor of the promontory. Children are micronauts, explorers of the tiny, disinterested in the grandstand visions of the wild that we're all conditioned to celebrate.
When you were doing research for this book, what sort of gear/souvenirs/must-haves did you take with you on your travels?
I carried a hooped bivouac bag—kind of a Gore-Tex cocoon, which is very light, and means that, snailishly, you carry your shelter with you on your back. Food was oatcakes, sardines, cheese, chocolate: I don't carry cooking gear as it's too cumbersome. But it was more what I took back than what I took out; every place I went, I picked up a stone, or bird skull, or feather, or piece of driftwood, and brought them home, and gradually assembled them into a kind of wunderkammer, or object-map, of the wild places of Britain and Ireland.
Your observations of nature are so detailed and novel, did you walk with a journal and jot observations down as you went, or did you write from memory?
I carried a notebook, made jottings in that when I was resting, or waiting, or during the long nights out. Then, once home, combined those records with recollection. Then revised, revised, revised. I spent a year revising; probably rewrote every sentence between 20 and 30 times.
You write that conventional maps, the road map in particular, "encourage the elimination of wonder from our relationship with the world", So I'm guessing you don't think much of the proliferation of GPS devices?
I refuse to carry GPS when I'm out in big mountains in Britain. The idea of compulsive position-fixing with reference to invisible abstractions (i.e., satellites) baffles me, being utterly at odds with what's worth experiencing in a landscape. And besides, getting lost is something worth doing that's increasingly hard to do in our fixation-fixated world. Thoreau wrote: "It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable, experience to be lost in the woods at any time. Not till we are completely lost, or turned round, do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Not till we are lost...do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations." Unimprovably well put. Rebecca Solnit also writes brilliantly about this subject in her A Field Guide To Getting Lost.
The idea of wildness flourishes in British literature, and you name several books in The Wild Places. Do you have one or two favorites that you'd like to pick out that especially inspire you again and again?
Yes: J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, which is a short book—a prose-poem almost—set in Essex, probably the most maligned of all English counties (its undeserved reputation is for alcoholism, violence and stupidity). Baker describes his obsessive pursuit of the migrant peregrines of Essex during the autumn and winter months of one year. It makes this heavily farmed, built-up county, less than 60 miles from London, feel as wild as the Pamirs or the Arctic.
Next wild place you'll be traveling to?
A sprawling 12 acres of Suffolk meadowland, with blackthorn hedges, and tawny owls in the ash trees, and a hornbeam wood. Next week, for a week, with my young children. Fairytale forests, yet again...
Photo: Colin Raw/Getty Images