A situation has arisen on Ben Nevis. I don’t mean a rescue, although as it happens the RAF and mountain rescue teams are bringing down a man and two boys who, the report says, ‘didn’t read the weather forecast’. The situation I have in mind has also arisen on Snowdon and Scafell, and it concerns the dead. Apparently, the biggest hills are covered in so many memorials – plaques and little cairns – that it’s becoming an issue. These are not memorials to people killed on the hills necessarily, though there are those too, but to those who felt some affiliation with the outdoors. Furthermore, so many people’s ashes are being scattered on the summits that it’s changing the chemical balance of the soil, fertilising it with phosphorus and calcium, to the detriment of rare alpine plants.
A delicate issue. The John Muir Trust and the other owners of the land around Ben Nevis have constructed a ‘Memorial Site for Contemplation’ at the foot of the mountain, and are removing the memorials from the open hill. As for ashes, well, the Nevis Partnership says: try throwing them into the air on a windy day, or into a corrie so they disperse more widely, or under a tree on the lower slopes.
I should imagine that people who want to scatter someone’s ashes on a mountain, or leave a memorial there, do so because they consider a ‘Memorial Site for Contemplation’ municipal and tame. It’s just what they’d be seeking to avoid. And the problem with the plaques? They’re being removed because they are ‘intrusive’. One person’s loving memorial, however discreet, is another person’s intrusion. What it intrudes on is the other person’s sense of ‘the wild’.
The John Muir Trust, which has now bought eight estates in Scotland, has a remit to ‘protect wild land’. By ‘wild’, I think is meant openness, expansiveness, that sense of land, as Willa Cather wrote, which is ‘nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made’. But does this ‘material’ exist any longer? Is there any ‘wild land’ in this congested country, if it’s on the scale of landscape and requires protection or, worse, ‘management’? The various quangos, charities and interest groups (the John Muir Trust, the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage, the National Trust, Natural England, all that kind of thing) are forever managing and intervening. Many of their interventions are designed to undo or ameliorate previous interventions: to remove footpaths, say, or dismantle cairns or plant forests or reintroduce species now locally extinct. (I think ‘nature’, ‘natural’ and ‘wild’ are almost synonymous here, though ‘wild’ ups the rhetorical ante. A dandelion poking up between paving slabs is natural and wild – and cheeky and subversive – but it doesn’t carry that special wide-eyed sense of ‘wild’. In the wild, size matters, or so it seems.)
It would be too easy to scorn this notion of the wild as precious and romanticised. In big landscapes, to see wildness might require a suspension of disbelief, like at the theatre. But, I admit, only those of us privileged to get there can bore on about how unwild the wild places are. Last year I took The Wild Places with me to St Kilda and to Mingulay. Both islands are now uninhabited and St Kilda is, of course, an icon of remoteness. But I never read a line, even when it rained. I was with friends and we were too busy. There were too many birds and basking sharks to watch, too many ruins to explore and projects to help with, too much conversation, too many general comings and goings, boats and helicopters. It’s different in winter, but St Kilda is busier on a summer’s day than many mainland places, what with the radar base and the cruise liners.
There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them. It’s turned into prairie, or designated by this or that acronym; it’s subject to planning regulations and management plans. It’s shot over by royalty, flown over by the RAF, or trampled underfoot in the wind-farm gold-rush. Of course there are animals and birds, which look wild and free, but you may be sure they’ve been counted, ringed maybe, even radio-tagged, and all for good scientific reasons. And if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.
Wild is a word like ‘soul’. Such a thing may not exist, but we want it, and we know what we mean when we talk about it. And yes, we’re drifting here towards the religious. When we want to scatter someone’s ashes in a wild place, we know the kind of place we’re looking for. Further: we know what the wild is because we’re making small acts of reparation towards it. It’s noble to reintroduce species once persecuted into extinction, albeit as part of a management plan. Once reintroduced, though, they might show signs of being a bit self-willed: white-tailed eagles have an eight-foot wingspan. Recently, one took a flight round the Asda car park in Dunfermline. People were so alarmed they called the police.
If there’s a breath of wild at Asda, in the furthest flung places you might find sweet and poignant domesticity. On the beautiful, stormy, truly remote island of North Rona, forty miles north of Lewis, everyone died: there had been a community there for a thousand years, but all at once they died, possibly of starvation, possibly of smallpox, which was the scourge of the islands. But that was in the 17th century. No one has really lived there since. What remains on that tiny outpost catches at your heart: ruined homes, field systems, an ancient graveyard and a saint’s cell. Conversely, wild places can be surprisingly close. Willa Cather’s land was Nebraska: she had the settler’s sense of a country yet to be begun. In the UK, empty land could be material we’re finished with. My own forebears were coalminers. A couple of years ago I went to visit the settlement where they spent a long century, several generations of them, high on the Ayrshire moors. What astonished me was not the open-cast mines – there were those as well, great gouges in the earth – but the beauty of the place. Miles of sunlit moor, a huge sky, distant hills, marsh harriers, lapwings, everything. The settlement of five hundred people had been squalid, despite the women’s constant toil, and now it has been wiped, as they say, from the face of the earth, and the land restored.
Wild and not-wild is a false distinction, in this ancient, contested country. The contests are far from over. When the wild is protected by management, or re-created by the removal of traces of human history, you have to ask, who are these managers? Why do conservationists favour this species over that? Whose traces are considered worth saving, whose fit only to be bulldozed? If the landscape is apparently empty, was it ever thus? There is more to the history of Irish and Scottish emptiness than the piteous romance of the Clearances or the Famine. And if we read about ‘nature’ or wild places, it pays to wonder, who’s telling me this, who’s manipulating my responses, who’s doing the mediating?
Still, there are empty places, hill and moor and island out there, where, if you’re minded, you can meet no one else for a while, see nothing ‘intrusive’ and have all the challenging, solipsistic experiences you please. As more land is wrested from private ownership, more people can have more solipsistic experiences more often, if that’s what they want. But it’s only recently that we, with our (almost) guaranteed food supplies, motor engines, vaccines and antibiotics, have begun to make our peace with these wild places, and to seek recreation in land which was once out to kill us, where we can be reassured, in some way, by something we fancy is bigger-than-us, and which, unlike the Christian god, is indifferent to our antics.
So there are theatrically empty places, let’s call them ‘wild’ for short, but they’re also contested, politicised, occasionally dangerous, peopled by ghosts – miners’ wives or the wandering monks who capture Robert Macfarlane’s imagination in the opening pages of his book. Our push and shove with the land is far from over; in fact you might consider the whole present consumerist extravaganza to be rage against the land, the ties that bind.
All of this is preliminary to the admission of a huge and unpleasant prejudice, and here it is: when a bright, healthy and highly educated young man jumps on the sleeper train and heads this way, with the declared intention of seeking ‘wild places’, my first reaction is to groan. It brings out in me a horrible mix of class, gender and ethnic tension. What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words. When he compounds this by declaring that ‘to reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history,’ I’m not just groaning but banging my head on the table.
Is this fair? Well, no, of course not. The ‘outside human history’ bit was just an opening gambit – or a brave admission – and he will graciously recant in due course. But there is a lot of boldly going. Mostly alone, occasionally in the company of his friend and mentor the late Roger Deakin, Macfarlane made a series of highly researched journeys into the British and Irish landscape seeking those places ‘not on the road map’, seeking the ‘glimmerings of a wild consciousness’. These places range from the summit of Ben Hope in Sutherland, to the Cuillin of Skye, to Glencoe, to the Burren in the West of Ireland, to the sunken lanes of Dorset and the Essex salt marshes. It’s an exciting and liberating variety of terrain, the trips are well planned and thought through, an awesome amount of reading has been done. Everyone will find somewhere they haven’t been. I was intrigued by the Holloways, the old sunken lanes of Dorset, and by the beaches of Suffolk, because they’re faraway places to me; now I feel I know secrets about them. The book is organised in a refreshing way, which accentuates and almost deifies the land-types: moor, ridge, cape, salt marsh, beechwood etc.
Very fit, a highly competent mountaineer who certainly reads the weather forecasts, Macfarlane participates in these places by swimming, climbing, skulking under hedges, walking by day and night, in sunshine and snow. He sleeps outdoors wherever possible, on hilltops and tors and sand dunes. It’s dashing stuff – he admits to a liking for John Buchan.
Energetic and keen, his imaginative attachment is to the benign fugitive, and to the lone male. The book opens with a consideration of the early Christian saints who went off to islands in search of some spiritual resource. They were not the first to venture to these remote places, far from it. For thousands of years Mesolithic groups, extended families probably, came and went with the seasons, then Neolithic farmers, and so on. The early Christian monks would have been the first literate people in this country and the first we know of to seek out remote places qua remote for some spiritual quest. Literature began with them, and a tradition developed which has persisted ever since and remains largely uninterrogated: the association of literature, remoteness, wildness and spiritually uplifted men. It must be connected with the elevated tone characteristic of so much nature writing.
Here is Macfarlane swimming at Ynys Enlli, off Wales.
I dived in. Blue Shock. The cold running into me like a dye. I surfaced, gasping, and began to swim towards the cliffs at the eastern side of the bay. I could feel the insistent draw of the current, sliding me out to the west, back toward Enlli. I swam at a diagonal to it, to keep my course.
Nearing the cliffs, I moved through different ribbons and bands of temperature, warm, then suddenly cold again. A large lustrous wave surged me between two big rocks, and as I put a hand out to stop myself from being barged against them, I felt barnacles tear at my fingers.
I swam to the biggest of the caves . . .
And here – I open the book almost at random – in the Black Wood of Rannoch in Perthshire:
I wandered in the wood all that day, tacking back and forth, following rides, moving through its dozens of covert worlds: its dense and almost lightless thickets, its corridors and passageways, its sudden glades and clearings. I leapt streams, passed over sponge-bogs of sodden peat, soft cushions of haircap mosses. There were big standing groves of green juniper, alders, rowans and the odd dark cherry. The pines, with their reptilian bark, gave off a spicy resinous smell, and their branches wore green and silver lichens of fantastical shapes: antlers, shells, seaweeds, bones, rags. Between the trees grew heather and bracken. I climbed a whippy rowan, scattering its orange berries in all directions, and a tall old birch that shivered under my weight near its summit.
At Blakeney Point in Suffolk, where he has slept on a sand dune:
In the long silky dawn light, I crunched back over the rinsed shingle, calling out good morning greetings to the seals, who followed me cheerfully in the shallows . . . I passed two dead crabs, lying on their backs, claws locked behind their heads, pale stomachs presented to the dawn, like a couple of early sunbathers.
Such lovely honeyed prose. Macfarlane is delightful literary company, polite, earnest, erudite and wide-ranging in his interests. It’s rather wonderful – like an enchantment on the land. In place after place, the length and breadth of the country, there is ‘wildness’. There are no meetings, no encounters with intrusive folk. It is all truly empty, secret and luscious. From Sutherland to the Burren, even to Dorset and Essex, the book reveals a sense of beguiling solitude. There are no other voices, no Welsh or Irish or differently accented English. It has to be thus, of course, because if we start blethering to the locals the conceit of empty ‘wild’ will be lost. So there has to be silence, an avoidance of voices other than the author’s, just wind in the trees, or waves, the cry of the curlew.
The danger of this writing style is that there will be an awful lot of ‘I’. If there is a lot of ‘I’ (and there is, in The Wild Places) then it won’t be the wild places we behold, but the author. We see him swimming, climbing, looking, feeling, hearing, responding, being sensitive, and because almost no one else speaks, this begins to feel like an appropriation, as if the land has been taken from us and offered back, in a different language and tone and attitude. Because it’s land we’re talking about, this leads to an unfortunate sense that we’re in the company, however engaging, of another ‘owner’, or if not an owner, certainly a single mediator.
‘My sleepings-out, in cups and dips of rock and earth and snow; this was the habit of the hare. But the pull to the high ground, to the summits and ridges, to look down upon the land, this was in mimicry of the hawk.’ The author is everywhere, north, south, east and west. High and low. He is both hawk and hare. Is this a problem? Is it not just in the nature of books, of prose especially? I heard a woman on the radio discussing The Wild Places and she actually said: ‘Oh, he’s so brave, I couldn’t possibly do that.’ What’s being reduced is not the health and variety of the landscape, but the variety of our engagement, our way of seeing, our languages. There are lots of people, many of them women, who live in, or spend long seasons in places like Cape Wrath, St Kilda, Mingulay, thinking about the wild, studying its ways. Interesting people, with new ideas. It’s a pity we meet none of them.
Class comes in here. For a long time, the wild land was a working place, whether you were a hunter-gatherer, a crofter, a miner. But now it seems it is being claimed by the educated middle classes on spiritual quests. The land is empty and the saints come marching in.
Having been in North Wales, Skye, Rannoch Moor, the Black Wood, Cape Wrath and Ben Hope, we’re halfway through the book before we are taken to the Burren in the West of Ireland. The epiphany comes on the limestone pavements there. Before this it’s all been big lumps of land, big enough to hike or swim or climb through. But here is Macfarlane in the company of Roger Deakin, with the two of them lying on the ground gazing into a fissure or crack in the flat limestone called a ‘gryke’:
We lay belly down on the limestone and peered over its edge. And found ourselves looking into a jungle. Tiny groves of ferns, mosses and flowers were there in the crevasse – hundreds of plants . . . thriving in the shelter of the gryke: cranesbills, plantains, avens, ferns, many more I could not identify . . . This, Roger suddenly said as we lay there looking down into it, is a wild place. It is as beautiful and complex, perhaps more so, than any glen or bay or peak. Miniature, yes, but fabulously wild.
This is a lovely moment, I want to say a poet’s moment, the going down, deeper and still. The revelation comes that a wild place is not necessarily landscape-sized, and not necessarily an adventure playground. A wild place can also be mouse or beetle-landscape sized, and everywhere, and near at hand.
This alerts Macfarlane to what he’s decent enough to call his ‘myopia’. He discovers that, in pursuit of the wild, he’s been looking too much into the apparently empty distance. Wildness can be small, and is maybe better described as a process than a place. This provokes a rethink about his earlier definitions, and he realises that the notion that there was something, especially in Scotland and Wales, which was wild because ‘outside human history’ was ‘nonsensical’ and ‘improper’. With the new understanding that wildness can be close by and tiny, it’s time to head for home, and to discover eventually what he’ll come to call ‘English wildness’, which will be ‘something continually at work in the world, something tumultuous, green, joyous’.
The Wild Places will be much loved because, for all its wildness, it’s a deeply conservative book, and very English, in the long tradition of English settledness, whose pantheon includes Samuel Palmer and Edward Thomas, Wordsworth and Clare. It’s not what you’d call wild-minded. It’s a book about books: as much about the literature and reception of wild places as about the places themselves. To create texture and interest and avoid a constant look-at-me-swimming, it is full of digressions, explorations and asides which hugely enrich its texture. We learn about the Clearances and the Famine, of course, but also about the Chideock martyrs, the natural history of hares, cartography and glaciers, among much else. It is sensitive, courteous and above all comforting.
Why comforting? And why English? Because its shape, the wide arc north, west, south and east into the ‘wild places’ and then home, is a warm and familiar one, the shape of an embrace. Adventures, then home for tea. The strikes into Scotland or Ireland or Wales are just that – strikes, then retreats. Cambridge is still the centre of the world: we started there and will end there, albeit up a tree. It’s also politically comforting, for landowners: there will be no revolution. Macfarlane speaks of gravesites like Maes Howe and Sutton Hoo as ‘uplifting’. ‘The exhilaration you feel has something to do with the innocence of the assumptions embodied in such a gravesite.’ I’m afraid my hackles are rising again. Innocence? Sutton Hoo? Maes Howe? Thousands of years separate the two, but both speak of power and elitism, surely. These aren’t wee plaques on a mountainside. Contemporary power structures and land issues are not mentioned either. It’s reassuring, but the effect of ignoring all this is to put the wild places outside history again. There is even political reassurance to be had in the idea that there is an entity called ‘Britain and Ireland’. The concerned folk who join the Campaign to Protect Rural England will be glad to know that there is much wildness even in England’s green-and-pleasant. Not only wildness, but superior southern wildness: lying in a sunny Dorset field Macfarlane visited his new, post-gryke understanding and ‘again I felt a sense of wildness as process . . . This was a wildness quite different from the sterile winter asperities of Ben Hope, and perhaps, I thought for the first time, more powerful too.’ Ach weel.
Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation. A lifelong negotiation at that: to give birth is to be in a wild place, so is to struggle with pneumonia. If you can look down a gryke, you can look down a microscope, and marvel at the wildness of the processes of our own bodies, the wildness of disease. There is Ben Nevis, there is smallpox. One wild worth protecting, one worth eradicating. And in the end, we won’t have to go out to find the wild, because the wild will come for us. Then, I guess, someone will scatter our ashes on a mountaintop, and someone else will complain.