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4.3 out of 5 stars
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4.3 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 23 November 2007
Is it a coincidence that Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane were both writing a book with "wild" in the title at roughly the same time? Deakin, a friend of Macfarlane's, died shortly after completing "Wildwood", Macfarlane was completing his manuscript when Deakin died.

"Wild" is big book business at the moment and why not? 21st century European life seems to guarantee a divorce between self and environment and people turn to books, if not their walking boots, to fill the gap. Macfarlane visits the wild places of the British Isles and tries to capture their essence in prose for those of us who don't want to stir from our sofas (that includes me by the way). It is an admirable endeavour and an enjoyable read, but I reserve the fourth star for the following reasons:

It is repetitive - there are 3 things that Macfarlane does on every trip: bathe somewhere cold, pick up a stone and sleep in the open. There are only so many ways to describe this routine, without reader fatigue setting in.

There is a distance between the writer and the rest of us he does not care to bridge. Who is he? Why is he qualified to write about the wild? What relevance does it have to the rest of his life? Without answers to these questions, I can't connect with the writing and it becomes chilly and perhaps a touch preachy.

The anecdotes that provide the contrast with the description of place tend to be perfunctory and, again, repetitive. The Highland Clearances and the Potato Famine both figure. There seem to be several poets who keep mental illness at bay/achieve inspiration by walking in the countryside. There are probably general lessons about the historical reasons for some areas being people-free and our relationship with nature, but Macfarlane is coy about drawing them out.

In summary: worth reading, but Deakin is better.
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on 6 June 2010
I bought this book after catching the second half of an interview on Radio 4 with Robert Macfarlane. As part of it, he read aloud an exerpt - the first couple of pages, in which he climbs a favourite tree of his in local woodland - and I was immediately struck by his lovely turn of phrase, as well as being hooked by the subject matter (I have chlorophyll instead of blood!). The rest of the book is similarly evocative of what may sadly be a dwindling part of our heritage, and if it doesn't spur you to get OUT and look about you with newly clear eyes... then I'll feel that you have missed something profound, and may shed a (green) tear or two! For anyone who fell in love with Tolkein's landscapes, or Roger Deakin's Wild Wood.
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VINE VOICEon 16 September 2007
There appears to be a burgeoning body of writers/broadcasters who sense we are on the cusp of losing something we have always had , and maybe taken for granted . TV like "Mountain" and "Coast" and books from the likes of Mark Cocker and Alice Oswald urge us to re-connect with our landscape and nature itself as not only are we detached from what is around us but there may soon come a time when these opportunities become increasingly difficult to seek out.
The Wild Places is an attempt to put us back in touch with this elemental communication with our landscape but is also an attempt to physically seek out these places and see if they actually do still exist. If that sounds a bit "Star Trek" it's not meant to, but there is a tangible sense of discovering and exploring to this book so maybe its more pertinent than you thought.
Macfarlane travels the British Isles from his Cambridge base to the windswept wilds of Scotland ,the far west coasts of Wales and Ireland but also find places " where the evidence of human presence was minimal or absent" in lanes in Dorset, the Norfolk coast and the Peak District. He shows admirable commitment to his project bivouacking in woods, dunes , and rocky hollows. He even spends a frigid uncomfortable night in mid-winter on the summit of Ben Hope , one of the times he feels "no companionship with the land" and who can blame him.
This is also a book about ecological damage as well but comes across more as a lament than judgemental hectoring .Much of Britain's wilderness has been destroyed not only in reality but in the abstractions of our minds. We view the landscape through road maps and sat nav and we need he feels , a new cartography that links "headlands ,cliffs beaches, mountaintops, tors ,forests, river-mouths and waterfalls."
Like Mark Cocker MacFarlane is a gifted writer , able to conjure up scenes and images with vivid descriptive prose with out over doing it or resorting to florid overkill. He describes a flock of doves as "applauding in the sky" or the salt marshes of Essex as "tumultuous , green joyous" . This book asks us to consider that these wild places are not necessarily about "asperity but about luxuriance , vitality ,fun". With writers like McFarlane around it's unlikely we will lose our subconscious memory of these places but it makes you question what we have to lose and asserts "we have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like" . That's something that's difficult to argue with.
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on 17 September 2007
I really enjoyed Macfarlane's previous book "Mountains of the Mind" in which he explored the cultural and social view of mountains and highlands, how our perceptions towards wild lands has changed over time.

Therefore, I was pleased to find a signed copy of his latest book "The Wild Places" in a local bookshop. He travels the length and breadth of Great Britain and Ireland in search of wilderness. In such over-crowded islands, is he able to find something which most would consider as wilderness? His travels take him from Scotland where he encounters what must be regarded as the classical view of wilderness - big landscapes far removed from population. He then discovers during his travel through the Burren in western Ireland and along the holloways of Dorset that wilderness exists much closer than he previously considered, that humans are as much a part of wilderness as the landscapes themselves and the animals and plants that live there.

One trip seemed to trouble him greatly; he decided to sleep at the summit of Ben Hope during winter, but having found true wilderness in the chill and remoteness of the summit he found himself retreating in defeat back towards the comfort of other people.

While his travels are admirable and purposeful, I couldn't help feel that he wouldn't cut it amongst real explorers to real wild places - if being frightened off Ben Hope then how would he cope surviving in somewhere truly remote like the Arctic? There was also the disappointment that he reached many locations by car - in this regard it could be argued that by reaching the locations so easily and for such short periods of time his experiences only had the surface appearance of tourist trips.

However, these niggles aside, I would still recommend the book and it's good to see someone writing in a literate style about our wild places and peoples' place in the landscape.
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VINE VOICEon 10 February 2014
Having enjoyed Mountains of the Mind, I snapped this up, but it's a much more personal recollection and, to be honest, offers the reader much less.

I'm sure Robert MacFarlane enjoyed his trips to the Wlid Places, but whereas Mountains of the Mind provides information to the reader, this book is all about his 'feelings' about being there and it didn't work half as well for me.

I finished the book, but it was one of those where I was checking how much more there was to read...
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on 2 November 2011
Can I have more stars, please? This was a wonderful book from beginning to end. Every chapter entranced me and so did the idea, so eloquently expressed, that wildernesses aren't only to be found up mountains or across vast terrains but in our own back gardens and under every hedge. I loved the pared-back elegance of McFarlane writing. I warmed to his commitment to experiencing wildernesses wherever they were to be found and, by the time I'd finished, I was looking at the world around me with new eyes.

This book was really special. And, being as picky a reader as I am a writer, that's not something I often say.
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on 12 August 2008
When I started this book it seemed to be beautiful, imaginative and intelligent. Unfortunately it became rather repetitive and irritating. The additional material - literary and historical was mainly interesting but then he talked about some rather odd folk who devoted a lifetime to wave patterns and sand dunes!!

I also began to dread him being near water because I knew he was going to strip off and jump in - not necessarily for a swim - on his winter night in Cumbria he got in and sat in the freezing water gasping up to his neck - why?????

I began to wonder what was the point of the book. It seemed to be trying to be something it wasn't, especially when compared with Mountains of the Mind which was excellent. I suspect it was the influence of Roger Deakin (Waterlog, Wildwood), a friendship that had developed after writing Mountains of the Mind. Whether deliberately or unconsciously I think he may have been trying to be similarly philosophical, one with nature, 'wild', rejecting conventional modern lifestyle etc Perhaps even more so since Roger died before this book was finished. I ended up skimming over the last chapters.
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on 1 May 2015
If you live and work in a town or city, I think that it would be easy to become engulfed in the cyclical nature of work and home, opening and closing the bedroom curtains every day, and gazing out on an urban landscape.
To be balanced about this, if you live and work in the countryside, a similar pattern would emerge, beginning and ending every day with the first and last view being of a rural landscape.
But what about those who experience a mixture of the two?
I realised a few years ago that everywhere that I had lived from a child until now, although living in/on the edges of a town, I had always had a view of trees or hills or fields from my bedroom window. I might have lived and work (or gone to school) in a town, but the countryside was always a short walk away. I also realised that my parents individually/jointly had a similar experience when I thought back to where they had lived in their lifetimes.
In his book, Robert McFarlane feels drawn to travel from his urban home in Cambridgeshire to a selection of diverse rural environments of increasing challenge/contrast - hence "The Wild Places".
His experiences and reflections/connections made me think further about my relationship, reconciling urban living with a hankering for more remote rural environments, and whether this might be more than a random preference on my part.
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VINE VOICEon 7 January 2014
This is a fascinating story of a journey around the wild places of Britain. The author starts off looking for wilderness but eventually settles for wild. He comes to realise that wildness can be found in small sizes as well as the big spaces. That wildness is as much an attitude as a state. It has inspired me to take a closer look at some of the local wild areas, the nearby estuary and forests, even my local 'country park' when you get off the well worn footpaths. Thought provoking and inspiring, what more can you ask?
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