I’m not sure if it’s unconsciously deliberate, but this year – as last – I took a fascinating book about our countryside to read during my week’s holiday away from Cambridge. This year I went to the south end of the Lake District, to a part that was mercifully free of coachloads of trippers. Indeed it seemed devoid of even serious walkers and the paths around Broughton-in-Furness were frequently unwalked and poorly waymarked. Yet it was delightful countryside to explore and some of the paths we did locate were clearly ancient ways with mossy-covered drystone walls still in good nick on both sides and which conveyed a strong sense of past lives.
My book choice this year was The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane. It starts in a good place: up a beech tree looking out over the land, including a definitive description of a hospital chimney. That immediately told me he was Cambridge-based (which I hadn’t at that point realised), something I can obviously relate to: it turns out he is an English faculty member here. His book covered his travels to far-flung places in the British Isles, demonstrating a penchant for bivouacking under extreme geographical and weather conditions, in a search for the eponymous wild places that might still be left untouched. His conclusions were that in fact such places are a) not untouched anyhow, even if currently uninhabited and b) you can find wild places much closer to home if you look at the microlevel and broaden your ideas of what wild means.
I’d like to echo that second point following a recent close encounter of my own in the streets of Cambridge. Walking along the city’s Kings Parade, that well known wild place merely inhabited by hordes of tourists with selfie sticks and cyclists with scant knowledge of the Highway Code, I was assailed by a noise as of a very sick seagull. When I looked up I was surprised to find myself staring, a few meters away, at a peregrine falcon landing on the top of the front gate of Kings. There was no mistaking it (and just to be sure, a quick Google told me that they had bred this year somewhere in the town centre, although I had failed to catch up with that piece of news). But this, to my mind, is a bird of remote cliffs in Pembrokeshire and Devon, not a city bird. This is of course wrong. They are now breeding in many city centres (indeed I had seen them myself on Lincoln Cathedral a few years back). Yet still they are true birds of the wild, with their eerie cry and swift flight, although town pigeons may prove easier meat than the rock doves of the cliffs. For me, it was a delight to see one so close; you can be sure I’ll be looking out for further sightings in the city streets in the future.
But to return to the book and point a) above. Not so long ago I read George Monbiot’s Feral about ‘rewilding’ the land, letting it revert to how it was before intensive human interference took place. The idea being, without intensive sheep-farming or the creation of grouse moors, more and more diverse natural fauna and flora would return to land like the Lake District. As I walked around the hills above Broughton, I was confused as to what this landscape might look like without the sheep to graze everything down (although, to be fair, they’d done a lousy job of this, with many places overgrown with brambles and bracken). Certainly the landscape was pretty devoid of wildlife. Never mind the beavers and wolves Monbiot clearly would like to see reintroduced, there weren’t even many squirrels (and they were all of the grey variety) or rabbits in evidence; few birds beyond the odd buzzard, crow and raven. Not a single lapwing did I see all week, nor a ring ouzel, although I did hear skylarks and spotted the odd wheatear. It was disturbingly quiet and unpopulated with the wild things one might hope to see in the wild places.
MacFarlane’s book was a stimulating read. It was wide-ranging and I was pleased to see that he had many a scientific explanation for things he saw. He may be an English don, but he certainly didn’t shun the technical approach nor the scientific simile. As an example of the latter consider his description of hares:
‘zigzagging and following unpredictable deviations, like particles in a cloud chamber.’
Nor is it every literary scholar who would sit on a grassy bank, holding a stone trying to
‘list to myself the motions that were acting upon it at that moment: the earth’s 700 mph spin around its axis, the 67,000mph orbit about the sun, its slow precessional straightening within inertial space and containing all of that, the galaxy’s own inestimable movement outwards in the deep night of the universe’.
This guy gets my vote on being a well-rounded humanities scholar who clearly did not eschew science at the earliest possible moment, as I discussed here.
Where are the wild places of our souls? I think they could be anywhere. As MacFarlane says, we are too tied to the (literal) road map telling us about our world, and hence neglect the other kinds of maps we can make, either physical or mental. It is worth remembering we do not have to stray too far to find them. He realises this when looking down a ‘gryke’ in the Burren in Ireland, a crack full of plant and invertebrate life in the limestone pavement. But we can find it in spying a peregrine in the centre of Cambridge or, in another recent close encounter of mine, in the bat that mistakenly found its way into the Master’s Lodge here at Churchill (and then would not relocate the open window as egress as we tried to encourage it to leave late one night). We can find it by watching ants dart hither and yon on the pavement or the motley colours of the Virginia creeper on the wall. If I can locate wildness more easily in the Lake District than in Cambridge, it is because I have briefly divested myself of the chains of email and the feelings of guilt that assail one when stopping to look around instead of speeding off to the next meeting rather than because my own home town lacks its own especial flavour of wildness.
Holidays are good for giving balance. Holiday reading, in my case at least, seems good for refreshing the parts scientific (or policy or governance) papers can’t reach.