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Macfarlane's 'The Wild Places' explores ancient lands and cultural connections

Book review of 'The Wild Places'
Penguin Books

The Wild Places


'The Wild Places' Robert Macfarlane, Penguin, 2008, 321 pages.

We step outside of the United States with Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. We live in a culture of predominantly western thought, and the “mother country” of the British Isles (England, Ireland and Wales) carry, perhaps, little relevance to our sense of wonder. The Old World is often seen as paved over and ridden with a histories of human impact. England evokes images of Buckingham Palace and Tudor houses, while Ireland captivates with its castles and pubs. Surely, kilt wearers march and blow bagpipe down oddly-angled cobblestone streets in Scotland, while sheep graze pastures in Wales and tight-pants crooners like Tom Jones dream of hitting it big in the US. Macfarlane shatters the accuracy of these stereotypes as he tours the wild places that nurtured the development of western ideology.

The journey begins in a Beechwood tree. Macfarlane roosts in high branches, much like our John Muir’s thoughts flourish atop a Douglas Fir in The Mountains of California. Macfarlane imagines a journey and a book that will allow him to explore the wild places that “step outside of human history.” While the wild places are those few landscapes without human development; these wild places offer connection to the development of human culture. His tour quickly establishes itself at multilayered. The writing is dotted with references that blur the boundaries between prose and verse. In a remnant wood left from a prehistoric vast tract of Scottish Highland forest that was severely attenuated in 3000 BC ( by ancient climate shifts during the cold and wet Atlantic period), Macfarlane offers an account of walking the Black Wood in early spring:

“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 – the 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.”

Flakes and their accumulations in dark forests remnants throughout the British Isles inspired the Snow Queen of Narnia’s landscape, winter running wolves in John Masefield’s Box of Delights, and set the romantic backdrop to the 14th century literary quest to define chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Literary relevance accent accounts of starry sleep-outs, freezing tramps and phosphorescent swims in places like the valley of Coruisk on the Isle of Skye and the summit of Ben Hope in Scotland. At the Skellig Islands, we learn that while an Anglo-Saxon wrote a tale of wild bests to be conquered in Beowulf, monks on the Skelligs were writing the praises of wild abundance.

Read with an atlas nearby to enhance the travel adventure aspect of the book. Read with a journal nearby to record the thoughts this kind of layered literature evokes. Read with consideration of a need to continue your armchair travel of the wild world. Macfarlane has surely taught us that beyond the blend and clash of cultures in the UK and the US, our complicated US culture originates in unadulterated lands all over the world.

Amy Lou Jenkins is the award-winning author of Every Natural Fact: Five Seasons of Open-Air Parenting. Contact her at for inquires and information about how to forward review copies for consideration. This review first appeared in the Sierra Club's Muir View.

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