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Published: The Scotsman, 7 November

Two Ravens Press, 228pp, GBP 10.99

WHAT DOES “wild” mean? In his foreword to this anthology of writing about the wild places of Britain and Ireland, Robert Macfarlane worries entertainingly and at length at the etymology of the word, noting that since it entered the English language more than 1,250 years ago, its meaning has “bent, splintered, flipped and spasmed”.

“What are we to do with a word like this?” he asks in mock exasperation. “This unruly word for unruliness? A word that is impossible to define?”

While Macfarlane struggles to come up with a working definition for “wild”, Margaret Elphinstone, one of the contributors he is labouring to introduce, sidesteps the problem altogether by focusing on the word “wilderness” instead.

In an entry in her hillwalking diary, in which she recalls a late summer walk to Braeriach in the Cairngorms, she defines wilderness simply as “places where people are not”, and in that beautifully succinct bit of verbal reasoning (delivered in brackets, incidentally, as if she were almost embarrassed to state something so blindingly obvious) she effortlessly points the way to an understanding of what the writing in A Wilder Vein is really all about.

Here is a book in which 18 writers – poets, novelists, anthropologists and natural historians – visit the uninhabited regions of our crowded little archipelago and meditate on what these places mean; and while individually the results are often sparklingly written and utterly transporting, taken together they also reinforce a point Macfarlane makes in his introduction: that “certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places, such that when we lose those places, we are losing kinds of imagination as well”.

That’s not to say the thoughts provoked by wilderness experiences are always entirely original – perhaps just that they have more immediacy and meaning in a wild setting than they would in the middle of a city. Take this passage from Gerry Loose’s Ardnamurchan Almanac, for example, written as he looks out over moonlit mudflats and imagines the worms singing “songs… of dark and of crackling salt” beneath.

“I’m at the top of the chain that starts below the worms and their subterranean songs, a chain (rather a web) of mutual dependence, of symbiosis and clear ecological interdependence. That knowledge is a barn full of riches. It’s also the wealth on which cities are built, and it’s here [ie in the wild] that I fully engage with that.”

I could think these same thoughts in the middle of Sauchiehall Street, Loose seems to be saying, but they wouldn’t strike me with anything like the same power that they do here.

Some of the most interesting nuggets of contemplation thrown up by A Wilder Vein occur when its team of intellectual miners turn their attention to areas which were once inhabited or cultivated but have since been reclaimed by the wild. In “Sewing a Seam on the Spirit Line”, Lisa Samson sets out to walk the Corpse Way in Yorkshire – a path along which, in the Middle Ages, the residents of the village of Keld used to carry their dead to the consecrated ground at Grinton churchyard, 14 miles away. During the course of her journey, Samson passes the remains of abandoned mine workings – “open wounds… reclaimed by nature” – and observes how the scars in the landscape that remain symbolise “the symbiosis between people and the earth”. Noting that city dwellers now travel from miles around to walk the Corpse Way at weekends, she writes: “If ‘to consecrate’ means ‘to sanctify’, then by urbanisation of our country we have unwittingly sanctified that land which is still free.” This tension between the wild and the man-altered is most fully explored by Mandy Haggith, an academic-turned-environmental activist who lives on a woodland croft in Assynt. She and her partner enjoy a semi-nomadic lifestyle within their 11-hectare domain, shifting between various structures – two caravans, four sheds and an upturned boat – as the seasons change. In the summer they move closer to the water’s edge; in the winter, as gales start to blow in from the Atlantic, they retreat to the shelter of the woods.

Since the early 1990s, the couple have been trying to restore the ecosystem on the croft to its “natural” state, allowing what was once pasture to slowly morph back into woodland. Sometimes, though, they find it hard not to intervene in this process – righting trees blown over by storms and protecting young saplings from the unwelcome attentions of deer – and they worry: do these interventions help nature take its course? Or will they result in something artificial? A wilderness that is somehow also man-made?

They also agonise about what fuel to use. Rather than cutting wood on the croft, they prefer to burn wood from a nearby conifer plantation to stay warm in winter. They also cook with bottled gas.

“Given that these both contribute to climate change,” writes Haggith, “one of the strongest effects of which is an increase in severe weather events like hurricanes, the question of whether or not to burn windblown trees leaves us scratching our heads.”

Their dilemma – whether to focus on protecting their immediate environment or the environment at large – reflects in microcosm the much larger dilemmas facing humankind. And I don’t think it’s too fanciful to wonder if some of the answers to the environmental challenges we face in this scary new century might come, not from the ivory towers of urban universities, but from backwoods philosophers such as Haggith, more intimately in tune with the Earth and its mysterious rhythms than a city-based academic could ever be.

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