Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday, 4 July 2008


I don't often rave over books (I don't often rant about them either, but don't get me started on The D* V*nc* C*de), but I'm about to now.

I've finally got round to reading Robert MacFarlane's The Wild Places, which I bought some time ago, and I'm loving it.

It's an exploration of different wild landscapes in Britain: he describes long walks, nights in the open and cold-water swimming, on an island that served as a hermitage for Celtic monks, on moors, mountains, rivers and coastlines, and so on, as a foundation for discussions of ideas and uses of wildness and wilderness through our history.

Thus far, it could be just another way for townies like me to feel a vicarious share in the wildness our cosy lives shield us from - and all, of course, without having to put ourselves to the discomfort of actually experiencing it, just as people snuggle up in bed with their cocoa to listen to the nightly recital of that secular litany, the shipping forecast.

But what grabs and holds me is not only the detailed observation of the naturalist, but the precision of language (he teaches philosophy), coupled with an poet's ear for the rhythm of a sentence. See what you think of these:

On swimming at dusk:

It was dark in the cove, and there was little loose light in the sky, and I realised I could not see myself, only the phosphorescence that surrounded me, so that it appeared as though I were not there in the water at all: my body was unclear, defined only as a shape of darkness set against the swirling aqeuous light.

In the Black Wood, near Rannoch Moor:

Around dusk, there was a drop in the wind, and coppery clouds pulled slowly overhead, their high cold bosses still struck with the light of the low sun. Then it started to snow - light flakes ticking down through the air, settling on every upturned surface. A flake fell on the dark cloth of my jacket, and melted into it, like a ghost passing through a wall.

On nights in the open, in different landscapes:

I awoke into a metal world. The smooth unflawed slopes of snow on the mountains across the valley were iron. The deeper moon-shadows had a tinge of steel blue to them. Otherwise, there was no true colour. Everything was greys, black, sharp silver-white. Inclined sheets of ice gleamed like tin.

I lay in the warm darkness, breathing in the scents of the field, brought out by the gentle dew that had settled after nightfall. I could hear the ongoing business of the meadow - the shifting of grass stalks, the shy movements of animals and insects - and again I felt a sense of wildness as process, something continually at work in the world, something tumultuous, green, joyous."

Enough: there's nothing more irritating than having gobbets forced on you. Read it for yourself.

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