Seeking Solace in Wild Places
One of my favorite books of all time is The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. In the chapter “Moors”, he recounts the story of the mountaineer W.H. Murray, who first ventured into the Highlands of Scotland in 1933, when he was nineteen. The wildness of the Scottish Highlands would quickly assume for Murray, “a near mystical importance; it would also, though he was not then to know it, save him from madness." Taken captive by the Germans during World War II, he became a prisoner of war at the Chieti Camp in north Italy, from where he could gaze out at the Abruzzi mountain range, a blue and white ghost floating in the sky. Mountains came to symbolize “freedom” for Murray. And in secret, on scraps of toilet paper, he began to write about his precious Highlands. Confined as he was, Murray imagination reached out to “high plateau and long rides and wide moors.”
Even after being transferred to Moosburg camp in Bavaria, a hell-hole of cramped conditions, wire fences, fleas and lice, still he wrote about his beloved highlands. Weak and skeletal, he despaired of ever being fit enough to climb again his precious mountains. And yet his starved body seemed to release its grip on his imagination so that “When he closed his eyes, the mountain and glens sprang to mind, vivid in every detail.”
During the final year of his incarceration he recalled, “I had not once thought of myself as imprisoned. I lived on mountains, and had the freedom of them.”
On May Day 1945, Murray’s prison camp was liberated by American troops. A month later, he dragged his weak and emaciated body up his beloved Buachaille, where he gazed out at those wide-open spaces that had captured his soul before the war “with all the suddenness of a conversion of faith.”
As Macfarlane shows us, through his recounting of Murray's story, our relationship with certain places can evoke passionate feelings. Places can shape who we are––even save us from madness when our lives are in shambles. And yet, how often do we take the time to really dwell on our relationship to place? What would happen if we did?
It seems to me that a strong bond with a place involves a deepening and strengthening of identity, so that we allow that special place to become part of us, as if the land itself was reclaiming us, much as ivy takes over a wall or the wind scours the mountaintops.
So what is the place you carry within you that can see you through the tough times? What about that place draws you? Strengthens you? Is a part of you?
Do you seek solace in wild places? Share your story below.
To explore your relationship with place in imaginative and creative ways please join me and colleague Kate Thompson in Colorado in July for two workshops: Literature, Landscape & Imagination and A Sense of Place.