Sunday, February 03, 2008

BOOKS | The Wild Places as Self-Willed Places

As my reading goes, 2008 started pretty well. I finished The Wild Places recently, where author Robert Macfarlane goes in search of the wild places in Britain and Ireland. It was a nicely described journey, full of erudtion, mixing anecdotes, history and memories. It is the sort of writing I associate with Rebecca Solnit -- her books goes in a general direction, along the way she picks up on any associative idea that comes up.

I am a city-dweller born and bred, but there are times when I feel the oppressiveness of the city. I am easily awed by wide open spaces. I am the sort that stares for hours at the open sea. I believe geography impinges on the mind. This may explain why I was drawn to Macfarlane's book. The purpose behind his search for the wild places is a challenge of a sort, a refusal to accept what is believed to be the inevitable:

I did not believe, or did not want to believe, the obituaries for the wild. They seemed premature, even dangerous. Like mourning for someone who was not yet dead, they suggested an unseemly longing for the end, or an acknowledgement of helplessness.

It sounds utterly romantic, and I like it.

But first: What are the wild places?

Macfarlane traces the etymology of the word, 'wild' to the Old High German wildi and the Old Norse willr, as well as the pre-Teutonic ghweltijos. All three of these terms imply disorder and irregularity, describing something wilful, uncontrollable.

Wildness, according to this etymology, is an expression of independence from human direction, and wild land is self-willed land. Land that proceeds according to its own laws and principles ... Land that, as the contemporary definition of wild continue, 'acts or moves freely without restraint; is unconfined, unrestricted.'

Wild places as "self-willed" land -- the idea interest me. It always seems to me one of our most idiotic assumption is our right of might. We believe, because we have access to power and technology, we have the power to master the land. The idea of a self-willed land -- a powerful, independent entity that rebels against our idea of modernisation by its very existence, is comforting.

Macfarlane tells the story of how between 1946-1948, George Orwell spent 6 months of each year living and working in Barnhill, an exceptionally isolated stone-built cottage set on the tawny moors of the northern tip of the Scottish island of Jura. It was during those years that Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It was clear that Orwell needed to be in that wild landscape to create his novel; that there was a reciprocality between the self-willed land in which he was living and the autonomy of spirit which he was writing.

The domination of human will always has a connotation of mechanisation to me. If we believe in our power and authority to dominate nature, it is only a small step to our belief that we have the power and authority to dominate human will. We need to learn to respect the wild places, because it is about us learning to value something different, yet powerful and vibrant. And maybe, by learning to respect and appreciate these self-willed places, we might learn something about ourselves, if we allow it.

If you're interested, come June 2008, Penguin will release a paperback edition of The Wild Places in the US.

1 comment:

Mark Fisher said...

Is this a book about wild places? In truth, and as Macfarlane admits, remoteness does not equate with wildness. Thus he readjusts from his early journeys, learning from Deakin in the Burren when he exclaims the verdant floristic of a large gryke in the limestone to be a wild place. His next lesson is also in the presence of Deakin when they explore a disused holloway to find it overshadowed by hedgeline trees above, and itself overgrown with bramble, hawthorn and nettles, giving home to spiders and unseen scuttling creatures. Macfarlane’s time with Deakin was always well spent since, if he only but knew it, he was being exposed to the wild virtue of three dimensional landscapes, not often apparent in the remote locations he first visited. This third dimension could be contributed by landform (holloway) or geology (gryke in limestone pavement) but it is wild in all senses when it is contributed as well by woody and herbaceous vegetation, the self-willed clothing of landscapes unhindered by the herbivore pressure from livestock (as in the gryke) or by our human management and disturbance (as in the holloway). Macfarlane does not register this, although intuitively he knows it can be close by. There is a second book if he wants to take this on. Meanwhile, you may wish to read Unmanaged Landscapes - Voices for Untamed Nature ISBN 1-55963-964-7. While this book is based mainly on the N. American experience, the essays very much explore what self-willed land means - as does my website