A Lone Enraptured Male
- The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
Granta, 340 pp, £18.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 86207 941 0
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.