Robert Macfarlane: Where the wild places are

Robert Macfarlane: Where the wild places are

Robert Macfarlane was once described by a friend as "Ray Mears meets W G Sebald". It's a rather good description for the writer, academic and mountaineer who, as demonstrated in his debut Mountains of the Mind, which won the Guardian First Book Award in 2003, combines the ability to shin up risky peaks at high altitude on the one hand, with a lyrical sensibility and a probing thoughtfulness about our relationship with the natural world on the other.

Macfarlane's passionate feeling for Britain's wilder landscapes has a touch of The Dangerous Book for Boys about it. For his second book, The Wild Places (Granta, September), he has set out to explore the remaining wild spots in the British Isles: clambering up trees, hiking up mountains and sleeping out in remote spots in Wales, Cumbria, Connemara or Sutherland. He has also hunted out less obvious wild locations that are beautiful and inspiring in subtler ways— salt-marshes in Essex, for example, Dorset hedgerows, or stretches of shingle off the Suffolk coast.

Arriving for his Bookseller interview at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he teaches contemporary literature, the writer is fresh from a reviving dip in the outdoor swimming pool in the college gardens. Sitting in the shade of his favourite tree—a 200-year-old oriental plane, which bats him gently with a branch as he talks—he muses on the different expeditions he took for the book.

"I spent a wonderful night sleeping out in the Black Wood of Rannoch," he says. "The snow came overnight and I woke in these legendary woods, woods out of T H White or Gawain and the Green Knight. I would love it if Britain had a forest deep enough that you could walk for a day and not leave the trees; it doesn't—though it may do in the future—but it does have mountains and glens long enough that you can walk for days and not see another person. In Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye, there you encounter geological time—you are in a glacier-carved basin, and you are deep down inside time when you are in that very, very remote valley. Such places guard an old landscape wildness that I still find incredibly exciting to come into contact with.

"I did a lot of night-walking, by moonlight, in the Lake District and in Connemara and Essex, and you come into a completely new relationship with the landscape. It becomes this incredibly exciting, potentially treacherous, strange place, and you see the glowing eyes of birds and creatures."

But not all the experiences of wilderness were as lovely as anticipated: "I spent a winter night on the summit of Ben Hope, which is the most northerly of the Munros, and I was expecting to be exhilarated and think this was the perfect experiment in a kind of northerly, high altitude, wintry pleasure that I enjoy in my Protestant way. But actually it was just deeply uncomfortable and alarming to be on that very cold, frost-shattered summit and to see nothing, no evidence of human -presence at all."

Instead, he is starting to favour "a softer, more domestic wild, the wild of English parks and wasps in ears— 'the nearby nature' is the phrase that conservationists and ecologists use. John Hanson Mitchell, a beautiful writer, talks about 'the undiscovered country of the nearby'—it's all about this idea that there is wonder to be found in a beech wood a mile south of the city, as well as in the great vistas and remotenesses of Sutherland or Connemara."

Macfarlane is deeply interested in the relationship between people and landscape: he writes of Orwell's solitary years on the island of Jura, or of Wittgenstein disappearing to a remote spot in Ireland to finish his Philosophical Investigations, and he includes several touching stories of people separated from the landscapes they loved. One of those was W H Murray, the Scottish mountaineer and writer trapped in a series of prisoner of war camps during the Second World War. Murray suffered so badly in the camps that it seemed he would not survive; but by thinking about the Scottish mountain of Buachaille, which he loved so much, he was able to go on. "He writes very movingly about how his physical sufferings became relatively immaterial to him because he existed in this place which he dreamed into being."

Macfarlane collected objects on his walk—pebbles, lichen, pine—as well as words and images that he jotted down into his notebook for use in the book. He would think hard about exactly how to conjure up the features he saw, spending a month, he says, working on exactly how to describe blown sand moving over wet sand in an estuary mouth in the north of Scotland. ("Billions of particles of loose sand were being blown across the flats, giving expression to the wind, moving with such coherence and fluency that they seemed to form a rippling second skin, silky and supple. . .").

"For me, lyricism is in some sense a function of precision," Macfarlane explains. "I love to work on a sentence again and again and again until it finally comes right. I spent a long time trying to work out how to write about a snowflake landing on one's sleeve and then melting. It was only eventually that I realised it was like a vision of a ghost passing through a wall; it's almost as though the snowflake has preserved its shape—it hasn't actually melted, it has moved inside your sleeve and if you looked inside you'd find exactly the same shape. I also find a great beauty in the language of geology and natural history. Silurian, Ordovician, Devonian—that's a wonderful poem in itself, the geological eras."