By Robert Macfarlane


I’ve only heard good things about Robert Macfarlane’s writing so let me tell you: I must have picked up the wrong book.

The first Macfarlane book I read is The Wild Places, which was published in 2007 and if I had to sum up my reading experience in one word it would be ‘disappointed’.

I got off on the wrong foot with this book because of my interpretation of the title (which, to be fair, was also supported by the blurb). I thought this book was going to be about our last remaining wild places. I’m not sure anywhere untouched by humans exists in the UK anymore, but I expected a focus on areas where the natural world is able to thrive.

In fact, the book is a strange mix – it focuses on the ‘wild’ of the places, yet there is a heavy emphasis on humans and human history (not necessarily particularly related to the place), with long tangents about the anthropological past that are only very loosely related to the land.

There’s lots about the personal history of (mostly male) writers, and a lot of military and religious history, which isn’t my vibe. The narrative is a bit like The Salt Path in that it recounts his experience of camping in these places, and there are some nice passages of nature writing, but the places Macfarlane visits have a history of human interference, litter, and pollution – so the writing isn’t exactly the escapism I expected.

There are some useful titbits of natural history in the book but it’s not at all what I expected. From the title, the blurb, and the cover art I expected either a natural history book, or a book filled with descriptive escapism nature writing – this is neither, but rather something of a disjointed jumble.

I’ll admit I feel as if I’m missing something. The Wild Places has won numerous awards, including the Orion Book Award, which is an American award given ‘to recognise books that deepen our connection to the natural world, present new ideas about our relationship with nature, and achieve excellence in writing’ – I’m sad to say I can’t see how the book excels in any of these categories.

Perhaps my disappointment in this book is a case of my hurt expectations, or maybe it’s my disinterest in the history of individuals, religion, and military. I tend to find that I either absolutely love or absolutely hate books that win lots of awards; maybe the nature of award-winning writing is such that it divides in this way.

If you enjoy human history and you’re interested in religion and military history as well as the natural world, you’ll probably really enjoy this book. If, like me, you’re looking for books focused on natural history or nature writing, I’d give it a miss.

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