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March 19, 2010

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The Wild Places 2: Putting us in our place

by Mark Meynell

Have already drawn from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – and I think I will do so a few more times. One striking motif from the book is the way in which the natural world, and especially wild places, puts us and our lives into perspective.

Natural Perspectives

I picked this up in his previously quoted experience of inverted vertigo – but he sums the whole phenomenon characteristically well: “To reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history.” (p7)  A few aspects of this struck me. This image below is of another place in Scotland Macfarlane visited.

Stob Coire nan Lochan and Bidean nam Bian (by Tony Simpkins) - click for Flickr original

1. Wild Time

So, here he is in the same valley of Loch Coruisk on Skye:

As we were walking the final miles back down the side of the loch, the weak sun seething in the water drops still on our skin, and the river beside us shaking out its own light, I saw that a rainbow had formed in the sky over the valley below us, joining both sides of the sanctuary. We walked on towards the rainbow, and as we advanced, it seemed always to retreat, keeping the same patient distance from us. I recalled a quotation I had once written down in a notebook, but for which I had lost the source: ‘Landscape was here long before we were even dreamed. It watched us arrive.’ (p59)

Then I just love this idea of wild time:

To be in the Basin, even briefly, is to be reminded of the narrow limits of human perception, of the provisionality of your assumptions about the world. In such a place, your conventional units of chronology (the century, the life-span, the decade, the year, the day, the heartbeat) become all but imperceptible, and your individual gestures and impulses (the lift of a hand, the swimming stroke taken within water, the flash of anger, a turn of speech or thought) acquired an eerie quickness. The larger impulses of the human world – its wars, civilisations, eras – seem remote. Time in the Basin moves both too fast and too slowly for you to comprehend, and it has no interest in conforming to any human schedules. The Basin keeps wild time. (p61)

2. Wild Scales

But it is not just the perspective of time that is important – it is also the way the wild pierces the pride of our autonomy.

[Wallace] Stegner argued that a wild place was worth much more than could ever be revealed by a cost benefit analysis of its recreational economic value, or its minerals and resources. No, he explained, we need wild places because they remind us of a world beyond the human. Forests, plains, prairies, deserts, mountains: the experience of these landscapes can give people ‘a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost.’

But such landscapes, Stegner wrote, were diminishing in number. The ‘remnants of the natural world’ were ‘being progressively eroded.’ The cost of this erosion was incalculable. For if the wild places were all to be lost, we would never again ‘have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.’ We would be ‘committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New world of a completely man-controlled environment.’ (p82)

3. Wild Life

The Hypnotist (by left-hand) - click for Flickr original

But what of the animals that fill these wild landscapes? They remind us of our reality as well…

So few wild creatures, relatively, remain in Britain and Ireland: so few, relatively in the world. Pursuing our project of civilisation, we have pushed thousands of species towards the bring of disappearance and many thousands more over the edge. The loss, after it is theirs, is ours. Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres: such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise, that live by voices inaudible to you. (p306-7)

Correctives and Convictions, Grandeur and Grace

I write this post, having read this book, in the heart of London W1 – an area that has been a thoroughly urban environment for centuries. You will hardly find a more ‘man-controlled environment’ on the planet. Which is why I love the stature and dignity of the trees growing in the grand Georgian squares; which is why I love the early-morning cries of gulls gathering on local rooftops; which is why I love to escape London from time to time (despite it being my home, my birthplace and my roots). And through this book, I can imagine being away from it all. Without these reminders and correctives, I will easily fall into the trap of thinking that I, a mere human being, might just be the master of all I survey. What nonsense… This is reason enough, surely, for doing all that we can to preserve the world’s wildness…?

But there is a flip side. We mustn’t fall into the opposite danger: of thinking that we are therefore irrelevant, helpless and hopeless, infinitesimal specks in the overwhelming, unfeeling grandeur of the cosmos. For the wonder of believing in a created order and a divinely imagined and imaged humanity is that we are both profoundly connected to the natural world while still, in essential ways, separate from it. We are neither indistinct from it nor independent of it. The miracle of grace is that we matter in this cosmos because we matter to the one who made it.

To be cut off from the wild and natural is to be insulated from the scale, grandeur, provision and power of God’s world. To be cut off from the wonders of divine grace in Christ is to be insulated from the meaning, purpose and sense of place within it. Which is why insulation is so dangerous…

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