City dweller Robert MacFarlane wondered if there were any wild places left in the British Isles, and he set out to find them. Often enough early Christian monks and hermits had been there before him; to islands and other inaccessible spots.
But what did he mean by wildness? Early in the book he discusses the idea:
‘Wildness … is an expression of independence from human direction, and wild land can be said to be self-willed land. Land that proceeds according to its own laws and principles, land whose habits — the growth of its trees, the free descent of its streams through its rocks — are of its own devising and own execution. Land that … acts or moves freely without restraint; is unconfined, unrestricted.’*
Town and city dwellers live in human directed lands, concrete, brick and glass, but also most of the British countryside is farmed, drained, controlled. Can we find wilderness, to use the old Biblical world, without travelling to distant places?
We have to look for it nearer to home, in pockets and cracks. There are the weeds that devise and execute their own growth and spread, like traveller’s joy rooted on railway land. Or there are remnants of countryside, like the plum tree that Abel likes to hide behind; it is surely a sucker from a rootstock left behind when the orchard was grubbed up for housing in the 1960s, since its fruit is insignificant and unpalatable. There are overgrown cemeteries, like that in Mile End, full of life that is quite unexpected in London’s East End.
The wild tries to return, perhaps we should salute it and follow its example to revisit the corner of our heart that moves freely, without restraint: that is open to love, growth and renewal.
*Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places, London, Granta, 2007, p30.