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4.3 out of 5 stars154
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 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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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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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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on 4 September 2012
I bought an already pretty battered copy of this book on a whim in a second hand book shop (sorry, Amazon!). I picked it up after my friend had dismissed it, and I am so so glad that I did. I honestly believe that this book is a life changer.
There is something about it that just says "and you could do this too!" As he wanders the British Isles in search of truly wild places, he discovers things about the world and himself in the process, and for anyone that has ever felt that they need a bit more wildness in your soul a lot of what he says will resonate with you.
It's an absolutely brilliant book, an adventure in itself, and I doubt that anyone that reads it will be able to stay indoors for long while doing so. I read it while camping in different wild areas of Scotland, and it made me go out for wanders and walks in places that I may otherwise have been afraid of doing, it's that inspirational. Read it, you won't regret it!
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VINE VOICEon 1 November 2011
Nature writer, journalist and University tutor Robert MacFarlane is an enthusiastic guide to the less tamed corners of Britain.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this enjoyable book is that its clearly stated aim: to "draw up...A prose map that would seek to make some of the remaining wild places of the archipelago.." is not what the book becomes.

In his wanderings around Britain, as well as mapping the wilder areas of the British Isles, Rannoch Moor, The Burren, Ben Hope, the Lleyn Penninsula, MacFarlane discovers, to his surprise, that even the gentler, tamer areas of this most urbanised Countryside can be wild. "in the deep grass of the upper meadow...I felt a sense of wildness...different from the sterile winter asperities of Ben Hope, and, perhaps, I thought for the first time, more powerful too."(p235)

This finding of a wildness so close to home, so accessible to everyone, is perhaps even more inspiring than finding it in remote places, as distant from civilisation as you can be in Britain.

There is little preaching, or even promoting of the conservation message. Instead MacFarlane points out that the power of Nature will outlast us, we need it more than it needs us. "Our roads will lapse into the land..."(p317).The striking desciption of the abandoned town around Chernobyl (p283)also makes this point. This makes the book as a whole, a prose poem in praise of Wildness, and, equally importantly, and movingly, to the author's friend, and fellow Nature writer, Roger Deakin whose death is described within this book.

MacFarlane's own prose is scattered, especially in the earliest chapters, with quotations from other authors. These are all well chosen and interesting, but at times they do threaten to drown out Robert MacFarlane's own authorial voice, which is a pity as his writing is lyrical and striking "a red admiral on a fence post let its wings fall open like a book"(p277), a peregrine's "eyeballs were the same shiny black as escalator handrails."(p296)"The past has a thickness in the Burren"(p163)

A slow and dense read to be savoured like a rich wordy stew.
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on 11 April 2014
I'm in love with this book and I know it will be one of those treasured writings on nature I will pick up time and time again. Macfarlane is a gifted writer and his experience of (and of being truly 'in') the natural world is thoroughly captivating. It's really made me think about the enclosed spaces in which we live our lives; the importance of open spaces; and of the wild places which do still, thankfully, exist. I fell in love with Roger Deakin's books long ago and Macfarlane (a close friend of Deakin's) has mastered the same art: of bringing the natural world into your living room and, more importantly, making you want to go out and find it for yourself. Deakin is sorely missed, but Macfarlane takes forward his message and many other insights of his own. Buy this book!
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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 17 August 2012
I stumbled on this book by accident when it was offered as a 'Kindle daily deal': as a fan of Bruce Chatwin and Benedict Allen I thought it sounded interesting, given that the 'wild places' Macfarlane was describing were more domestic than exotic. I wasn't expecting it to challenge, stimuate and change my way of looking at things quite so radically as it did.

Macfarlane's prose is as smooth and seductive as a gentle summer breeze and he manages to evoke a description of the wild places he visits so that they come alive on the page. But perhaps most significantly, he challenges the traditional concept of 'wildness' making us realise that we do not necessarily have to tramp Rannock Moor or spend a night out on Orford Ness to know what wildness is. The book traces a journey in both a physical and metaphorical sense and when I finished it I felt as if I had taken a journey too.

I now intend to buy a paperback copy for myself - I need it on my shelf - and it's going to be a Christmas gift for several of my friends this year. Cannot wait to read his other books. If only all impulse purchases were this good!
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