Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places is one of the most beautifully written and evocative books I’ve read. It is the sort of book that reminds one why we read (and should read) books in the first place, and it’s done for me what Joseph Banks and Captain Cook did for armchair traveller William Cowper.
MacFarlane is an English Literature lecturer at Cambridge – and in this book, he has gone in search for the last remaining places in the UK & Ireland that could genuinely be described as wild. In 15 chapters, he records his visits to the different wild landscapes to be found in the 5000 islands of the British archipelago. The descriptions are so compelling, and his references to literature, history as well as science so wide-ranging, that we feel as if we are learning and broadening our horizons with his every step. More importantly, I want to visit them all – and yet, conflictingly, yearn for them to stay wild.
Anyway – I found myself underlining bits on almost every page – a sign of an enjoyed read. Here, in the chapter called ‘Valley’, he visits the area around Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye (there are various photographs of it on Flickr, of which the one below by landscapepics is one of the best).
A hundred yards or so out across the loch was an island. Just a shallow hump of bare black rock, smoothed by the passage of the glaciers, and no more than a foot above the water at its highest point. It looked like the back of a whale, and its form reminded me of the outline of my beachwood.
I swam across to it, clambered out and stood there, dripping, feeling the roughness of the rock beneath my feet, and the warmth it had already gathered from the sun. Then I lay down on my back, tucked my hands behind my head and looked into the sky.
After three or four minutes, I found myself struck by a sensation of inverted vertigo, of being on the point of falling upwards. The air was empty of indicators of space or time; empty, too, of markers of depth. There was no noise except the discreet lapping of the water against the island. Lying there, with no human trace except the rim of my own eyes, I could feel a silence that reached backwards to the Ice Age. (The Wild Places, p60)
I love that concept of inverted vertigo – it is very suggestive: ‘falling upwards’ is exactly how it feels to look up into a deep blue sky. I just wonder though whether there is something here analagous to a relationship with God, who is higher, greater, more overwhelming and yet more magnetic than anything else in human experience. Isn’t that in a sense what worship is…? The gravitational pull towards the grace of the greater? Just as the psalmist feels and sings in the songs of ascent like Psalm 122.