The Wild Places (Penguin Original)

The Wild Places (Penguin Original) by Robert Macfarlane

Book: The Wild Places (Penguin Original) by Robert Macfarlane Read Free Book Online
Authors: Robert Macfarlane
shells, pebbles, twists of driftwood from rivers and sea. For as long as I could remember, we had picked things up as we walked. Humdrum, everyday rites, practised by millions of people. Sometimes the collection was for a purpose: my father had specialised in making reed boats, and hours of my childhood had been spent on riverbanks and lake shores, constructing these craft, often to elaborate specifications - catamarans with pebbles for ballast and hazel leaves for sails, pinned in place with hawthorns or blackthorns - before setting them sailing in ones, pairs, flotillas.
    Now, though, collecting offered a way both to remember and to join up my wild places. Fifteenth-century mapmakers developed the concept of the ‘isolarion’: the type of map that describes specific areas in detail, but does not provide a clarifying overview of how these places are related to one another. At this early stage of my journeys, I still did not know what family resemblances would emerge between the places I would reach, what unexpected patterns and echoes might occur. The objects seemed to hold my landscapes together, without binding them too tightly.
    They also offered hints and clues. The pine shard suggested where I should go to next. It had come from the preserved root of an ancient tree, thousands of years old, that would itself have been part of the great northern pinewoods which covered the Scottish Highlands until around 3000 BC. Almost nothing still remains of this magnificent prehistoric forest - which vanished largely due to climatic causes; smothered by the blanket peat bogs that spread during the cold and wet Atlantic period - except for a few relict fragments here and there. The most extensive of these is the Coille Dubh - the Black Wood - which lies just to the east of Rannoch Moor.
    To move to the Black Wood after the Moor would be to follow a logic of opposition: from the wet to the wood, from the bog to the pine, from openness to enclosure. It would also be to travel backwards in time, for several thousand years earlier the Moor would have resembled the Wood. So in early December, three weeks after the first redwings had arrived in East Anglia, and when the hawthorns near my house were glossy with plump fruit, I travelled north again.
    I entered the Black Wood one morning, from its long loch-bound northern limit, passing under the eaves of the outer trees. Winter had lent an edge to the air, and the sky was a single blue. Light fell from a plain sun, and blowing sideways through the light was a cold wind. I carried no map of the Wood with me because it is impossible to get lost there. Its thousands of acres are spread over the northern slopes of a range of ancient, glacier-ground mountains: even in the worst of weathers, gravity will lead one out of the Black Wood, for all its fall-lines lead back to the loch-side, and safety.
    I wandered in the Wood all that day, tacking back and forth, following rides, moving through its dozens of covert worlds: its dense and almost lightless thickets, its corridors and passageways, its sudden glades and clearings. I leapt streams, passed over sponge-bogs of sodden peat, soft cushions of haircap mosses. There were big standing groves of green juniper, alders, rowans and the odd dark cherry. The pines, with their reptilian bark, gave off a spicy resinous smell, and their branches wore green and silver lichens of fantastical shapes: antlers, shells, seaweeds, bones, rags. Between the trees grew heather and bracken. I climbed a whippy rowan, scattering its orange berries in all directions, and a tall old birch that shivered under my weight near its summit.
    At times the forest was so thick that any sense of direction came only from the sense of slope. Then - as at the bealach above Coruisk - a vista would open, framed by branches, to show ground far above or glinting water far below. Often, the only noise I could hear was the creak of boughs rubbing against each other in the wind, like pipes

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