Robert Macfarlane

The Wild Places

“To reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside of human history.”

“That we do not know you is your perfection and our hope” wrote American poet Wendell Berry in his ode to the creature unseen by humans.

That there is nature untouched – even unseen – by humans is the essence of “wild” to both Berry and British nature writer Robert Macfarlane (born August 15, 1976).

Macfarlane’s search in The Wild Places takes him into spaces that answer that inaudible internal howl for an unknown.1

I could not now say when I first grew to love the wild, only that I did, and that a need for it will always remain strong in me. As a child, whenever I read the word, it conjured images of wide spaces, remote and figureless. Isolated islands off Atlantic coasts. Unbounded forests and blue snow-light falling on to drifts marked with the paw-prints of wolves. Frost-shattered summits and corries holding lochs of great depth. And this was the vision of a wild place that had stayed with me: somewhere boreal, wintry, vast, isolated, elemental, demanding of the traveller in its asperities. To reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Like the Welsh island of Ynys Enlli, which means Island of Currents. “The name is well-given” admits Macfarlane, “a tide race occurs when a rising or falling tide drives the sea rapidly through a channel.”

The water in tide races, especially at points where two or more races converge, behaves erratically. At the turn of tides, it can achieve a sleek calmness, but when the tides run, the water seethes and there is a submarine twining of currents. Where the races meet, waves stand up like shark-fins, and bubbles rise in gouts, as though the seabed itself were being stirred.

To step outside human society jostles and jolts things we take for granted about that society. “Each landscape had taken me by surprise” confesses Macfarlane, “I had behaved in ways I had not foreseen or sometimes even wanted.”

When I’ve done long hikes in expansive forests, I become acutely attuned to vibrations in the soil, a reconfiguration of the senses. In a naturally barricaded Scottish ravine, Macfarlane discovered a reconfiguration of time.

To be in the Basin, even briefly, is to be reminded of the narrow limits of human perception, of the provisionality of your assumptions about the world. In such a place, your conventional units of chronology … become all but imperceptible, and your individual gestures and impulses… acquired an eerie quickness. The larger impulses of the human world – its wars, civilizations, eras, seem remote. Time in the Basin moves both too fast and too slowly for you to comprehend, and it has no interest in conforming to any human schedules. The Basin keeps wild time.

This “wild time” allows one to reach that moment Mary Oliver called “the eternal,” and Henry David Thoreau and Hermann Hesse both described as a feeling of stepping beyond our corporeal and intellectual limits.

Acorns. Illustration by Jackie Morris in "The Wild Places" in the Examined Life Library.
“Acorn: as kindness is to good, so acorn is to wood.” Illustration by Jackie Morris found in her skillful, emphathetic collaboration with Macfarlane, The Lost Words.

Of course Macfarlane is hardly the first to venture to these spaces, he dutifully chronicles human interest over many millennia. Celtic, Christian and even pre-Celtic peregrines sought such spaces for communion or comfort. Macfarlane is also a pilgrim. Like many of his books, The Wild Places starts with longing, a journey, and ultimately, a discovery of an even larger question hitherto unseen.

The question Macfarlane arrives at in The Wild Places is not ‘what is wild?.’ It is ‘what do we think about what is wild?’. Is the wild to be coveted and ultimately civilized? Or cherished and respected?

Or, a less-human centric third category that brings us back to Berry’s poem “To An Animal Unknown” – is the wild merely to be left wild?

The etymology of the word ‘wild’ is vexed and subtle, but the most persuasive past proposed for it involves the Old High German wildi and the Old Norse villr, as well as the pre-Teutonic ghweltijos. All three of these terms carry implications of disorder and irregularity.

Holland Park oak. Featured in Robert Macfarlane's "The Wild Places" in the Examined Life Library.
“It is valuable and disturbing to know that grand oak trees can take three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live, and three hundred years to die.” writes Macfarlane. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Macfarlane, like Emerson, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, David Attenborough and so many more who have sought the deep mystery of nature, addresses the intrinsic value of the wild. Namely, that it should exist outside our value system simply because we have no value system that applies to it. Or, as Thoreau asserted in Walden “such things are beautiful, they have a high use which dollars and cents never represent.”

Even if we disbanded our capitalist systems, it is human nature to expand knowledge. Charles Darwin was gobsmacked when he arrived at The Galapagos Islands, and then he wrote about it, he told others, he even secured boatloads of specimens. He could have ruined the very thing he cherished.2 Macfarlane – a bit sheepishly one imagines – does the same.3

Like Darwin, Macfarlane cannot resist the urge to take a piece of that wild home, to gaze upon it and feel a promise that it still exists, out there.

collection of sand
Italo Calvino wrote a satisfying essay about a person who collects sand and concludes it is that otherness in a jar, which drives the habit. I collect sand like these crushed shells from a New Zealand beach. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In her beautiful chronicle of place and being lost, Rebecca Solnit once asked “How do we begin to know the thing unknown to us?” In questions of nature, of space, and of wild, I wonder if Macfarlane’s answer would be, simply, “We don’t.”