Readers will not fail to appreciate Robert Macfarlane's beautiful and evocative prose, or doubt his love of wild locations. However after his excellent `Mountains of the Mind' I found this latest book a huge disappointment. The former was more visionary and it prompted mental exploration, whereas for `The Wild Places' I was left as a bystander to physical exploration - and yet the first was `merely' short-listed for the Boardman-Tasker Award in 2003, and though not a mountaineering or climbing book `The Wild Places' won outright in 2007. So what do I know?
I understand it was after writing `Mountains of the Mind' that Robert Macfarlane met Roger Deakin, a philosophical environmentalist also producing a book - `Wildwood'. I believe Macfarlane was influenced greatly by Deakin, and much is made of their friendship with homage paid to Deakin after his untimely death. Brief reference is made to Macfarlane's own family, but it is piece-meal and insufficient to know him personally. This is unfortunate as expectations, perceptions and responses to the wild vary with the individual. I suspect not all readers will agree with Robert Macfarlane's definitions of wild places.
`The Wild Places' is presented as a series of landscape essays headed `Beechwood', `Island', Valley', `Moor', etc. in which Macfarlane describes locations, introduces characters met, refers to earlier commentators, explains historical background, and makes literary connections. I enjoyed much of this - especially for locations known to me - but I do not comprehend his adverse reaction to a night on Ben Hope, a mountain I climbed recently [May 2008]. That apart, a pattern emerges throughout the essays and it is somewhat surprising how very different locations are dealt with in similar manner. There is considerable repetition, and I am unsure about coupling of wild places with numerous episodes of skinny-dipping in cold water, kipping out in storms, shinning up trees, or hoarding of momentos.
What I do acknowledge positively is Macfarlane's emphasis on wild places as quite different from wilderness. Indeed he provides evidence of how wild places do not have to be in the wilderness but can be found at locations with easy access from almost anywhere. Though readers are largely treated as observers to Macfarlane's actions, they should be inspired to re-assess locations they already know, and to search out something further.