A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 25 June 2010


There is wildness everywhere, if we only stop in our tracks and look around us. ROGER DEAKIN

He [Roger Deakin] was an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby. ROBERT MACFARLANE

Throughout the course of his book, The Wild Places, and throughout the course of his ramblings in the British wild, Macfarlane comes to appreciate more and more that 'wildness' exists not only in the grand, majestic, panoramic places, such as Sutherland or the Cairngorms, but also in the close-at-hand, often-ignored topographies of small canvas, such as the plant-rich cracks and crevices in the Burren's limestone pavement, or the ancient, sunken holloways of the Dorset chalkhills. If you look carefully, these unseen landscapes can be found in the bend of a stream valley, in the undercut of a river bank, in copses and peat hags, hedgerows and quicksand pools ... in the margins, interzones and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory and motorway verge.

He also realises that you don't necessarily have to travel big distances from human habitation - to the Arctic tundra or the Siberian taiga for example - to encounter 'wildness'. It exists right there alongside human activity, bound up with human presence - such as in the 'cleared' valleys of the Scottish Highlands, which are haunted by the ghosts of former shielings and settlements; and in the earthworks and burial mounds, and tree rings and stone circles you find all over the British Isles, which speak eloquently of past human ritual and ceremonial.

He concludes that the uneasy opposition between culture and nature, between garden and wilderness, need not be the hard-to-reconcile division we may at first imagine. We can recognise and fulfil ourselves in both apparent polarities. But we do need them both. This is essential both for us and the planet. This is what it is to be properly human: to know what to cultivate and what to leave alone. I fear we have a lot to learn (or relearn) - before it is too late.

(My posts on Edward Abbey, and his book Desert Solitaire, also touch on this subject - if you are interested, click on 'Edward Abbey' under the LABELS widget on the right hand side of my blog.)

The photo was taken on Mount Etna in Sicily.


George said...

Great food for thought, Robert. Knowing what to cultivate and what to leave alone. How much better our individual and collective lives would be if we could answer this question wisely.

James Lomax said...

I'm not entirely convinced with what McFarlane says on this. He teaches English, and in his books I think what he does is undertake a literary-narrative construction based on the outdoors experience. That's fine - quite interesting - but it is an entirely different experience walking in high mountains compared to wandering quite mediocre landscapes as he does in Wild Places.

The Solitary Walker said...

Interesting comment, James, and thanks for dropping by.

Yes, Macafarlane does indeed teach English, and is highly literary and literate, and his writing may be considered 'a literary-narrative construction based on the outdoors experience' as you say. But would you not also call it 'art'? I think I would. It's writing of very high quality and originality.

I agree with you that walking in high mountains is a unique experience, an experience in which you can reallly touch 'wildness' (Macfarlane has done a great deal of walking in high mountains himself, both as a walker and as a mountaineer.)

But I would disagree that in the book he wanders through mediocre landscapes. Surely Loch Coruisk, Ben Hope and the Burren in Connemara are anything but mediocre?

All walking experiences are different - I think Macfarlane is simply saying that the wild can be within reach of all of us, in a microcosmic way, whether it be on a local flower-filled wasteland or an overgrown roadside verge. It's a question of philosophy and perception. Sure - you can't really compare striding over the Alps with dawdling over your local hills. But wild nature, left to its own devices, soon takes over - anywhere and everywhere.

James Lomax said...

Its a few years since I read WP - doesn't he also wander covered up tunnels snaking across farmland? And on TV, he's wandered the Essex marshes eulogising their "wildness".

I suppose it is a matter of 'philosophy and perception' and one could argue we get jaded compared to, say, young children for whom small discoveries in nature excite and delight them.

But then 'philosophy' is rather cerebral as opposed to the direct phenomenology of the walking experience, on which basis Ben Nevis or Pic du Midi d'Osseau are simply not the same thing, experientially, as marshes or farmland.

I guess none of this is conclusive, because if a) goes into wilderness rapture over their local park b) is in no position to contradict that. It simply is at is.

Its certainly interesting though to discuss the process.

The Solitary Walker said...

I find it hard to disagree with you, James - yes, he discovers the 'wildness' in Essex too, and yes, we can become jaded - when we attempt to see nature through the eyes of young children we can see things anew, as Macfarlane does through the eyes of his young daughter.

For me, however, Macfarlane's for more interesting argument - and this is a dialectic put forward by Gary Snyder, Jonathan Bate and many others - is the dialogue between culture and nature, between garden and wilderness. It's getting these in balance that's the overriding planetary concern right now - and so far we're making a complete hash of it.

Whether true wildness exists here or whether it's there seems immaterial when faced with the destruction of the rainforests, global warming, the near extinction of hedgerows, heathlands and marshlands etc etc.

Basically, though, and looking at your blog, I think we're coming from the same standpoint essentially - we both love the wild beauty of the high mountains...