Can We Trust this Handwritten Map?
A Contrary review by Laura M. Browning

Robert Macfarlane opens The Wild Places evoking death. The book is dedicated to his friend Roger, whose shortened life (1943 – 2006) is hinted at in the first pages as a “powerful influence” in helping the author “change my understanding of wildness.” An eccentric character with a deep knowledge of Britain's wild remnants, Roger helps the author plot adventures to the wildest places in Britain, a country where “over sixty-three million people now live in 120,000 square miles of land… Only a small and diminishing proportion of terrain is now more than five miles from a motorable surface.” A promising premise for a story: the untimely death of a close and influential friend against the backdrop of the implausibly wild places they chose together.
        Yet Macfarlane’s wild experiences are often indistinct, and his friendship with Roger surfaces intermittently. Though he writes of Roger in a tone heavy with reverence and sadness, Macfarlane lets too little of Roger’s eccentricity and passion frame the story. One difficulty in writing about nature is finding a compelling story within the steel-hued mountains and deep-rooted trees: beautiful as a place may be, its lurid descriptions often get lost without a narrative anchor. It's hard to stay involved with a story that doesn't flirt back, and as Macfarlane moves deeper and deeper into the wildness of Great Britain, the narrative moves further and further away.
Taken individually, Macfarlane's descriptions of discovered wilderness are gorgeous, lush, perfect. Lying on a "shallow hump of bare black rock" in the Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye, he says, "I found myself struck by a sensation of inverted vertigo, of being on the point of falling upwards." Of an evening walk along Cape Wrath, he writes, "I walked up the long beach, passing between the big dunes that had formed there, and that grew, shifted or shrank with each great storm. The wind coming off the sea was so strong that, running and leaping with it at my back, I found I could take giant moon-steps, six or seven feet at a time, landing heel-first in the soft sand." Open to any page and find an equally perfect description of a bay, a cliff, a summit. But that is precisely the problem—the exquisite descriptions offer only glimmers of a narrative, and, strung together, the stories lack a coherent strength. When Macfarlane touches upon the history of a particular parcel of wilderness, he does so deftly and with characteristic sensitivity, but those histories, those places, are disconnected.
In between warm hikes and stormy swims, Macfarlane leaves too many questions unanswered. How did a country so dense with urbanism maintain reverence for these wild places? How did Roger, Macfarlane's friend, become his compass? How long will these hidden lochs and cloudy mountains remain wild? Macfarlane proposes to map his adventures into the wilderness, and offers The Wild Places as that map. Like an old, hand-inked map, its flourishes are beautiful—but perhaps not a trustworthy guide.

Laura M. Browning is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy in Chicago.

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The Wild Places
Robert Macfarlane
2008, Granta






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