Post-Colonial Literary Theory and Robert Macfarlane’s “The Wild Places”

Hello, all!  Here’s a video, which explains post-colonial literary theory and how it relates to The Wild Places.  I’ve included a transcript below.

Hi guys, and welcome back to my blog!  This time we’re discussing the second half of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, and how it relates to post-colonialism literary theory.

To start things off, I’ll establish who the coloniser is, and who the colonised is.  In this book, humans are the colonisers, and the wild places of the United Kingdom are being colonised.  I’ll give you an example to show how this is the case.    Macfarlane, the author, visits a holloway on one of his journeys, which is essentially “[a] route that centuries of use has eroded down into the bedrock, so that it is recessed beneath the level of the surrounding landscape.  Most will have started out as drove paths, paths to market.  Some as Saxon or pre-Saxon boundary ditches.  And some, like the holloways near Bury St Edmunds, as pilgrim paths.” (135).  These paths are created out of the landscape by human actions.  The people responsible for creating these paths, pushed nature and the wilderness out of their way, and forced their will upon it.  This aligns perfectly with post-colonialism literary theory, because it is clear that there are two, distinct groups: the humans, the colonisers; and the wilderness, the colonised.  

This theme of the wilderness being oppressed and changed is frequently mentioned in the book.  I’ll give you another example.  Robert Macfarlane has a friend, Roger.  Roger has a farm, and has lived there for a considerable length of time, almost forty years.  At the time Roger first moved to his farm, “…he estimated there to be four miles of hedge within half a mile of his house, excluding his land, and a total of thirty-seven miles of hedge in the parish itself.  Now only one and a half miles were left in his vicinity, and no more than eight miles in the entire parish.” (Macfarlane 140).  This is just in one parish, but, “[s]ince the Second World War, the UK’s ancient hedgerows have dramatically declined due to removal to increase field size and to make way for development. By the 1990s, 121,000 km of hedgerows had been lost across the UK.” (The Wildlife Trusts 8).  This shows that the destruction of these hedgerows is very widespread, and has been occurring for quite some time.

In these two examples, you can see that there is a trend of almost hostility towards the wild, where humankind bends the wilderness to its will.  These two examples also show how this is done both consciously, and unconsciously, but both examples have the common fact that the colonisation of the wilderness benefits humanity.  Whether it is so that people are able to transport their goods to market more efficiently through the holloways, or for farmers to remove hedgerows to create larger fields, for more efficient farming, the destruction of the wild has clear benefits for mankind.  

Robert Macfarlane, in one of his travels, visits Orford Ness.  The Ness is a place consisting mainly of shingles, with sparse vegetation.  Its size and shape shifts with every tide and storm, and wind is constant.  Even in a place such as this, humanity has left their mark, with “…enigmatic military structures…protrud[ing] from the shingle – pre-fabricated barracks, listening stations, beacons, watch-towers, bunkers, [and] explosion chambers.” (Macfarlane 161).  The resilience of humankind, and our ability to build and shape nearly every location and landscape is remarkable, but it is also damaging.  Humanity often has little regard for the importance of the wilderness, typical of the colonisers for the colonised, and this importance is often not recognised until too late.

Nearer to the end of the book The Wild Places, there is almost a reversal of the theme of the book, where instead of the humans being the colonisers, and the wilds the colonised, humankind and its civilisation and legacies are shown to be colonised by the wilderness.  For example, Macfarlane mentions what happened with the wilderness around Chernobyl in the years after the disaster, and the establishment of the exclusion zone.  He mentions that “…silver birch now throng the empty streets and court-yards.  Flower meadows of exceptional botanical diversity have grown up through the paving stones.  Forests of pine and willow have populated the city’s outskirts…” (175).  This reversal of the roles of coloniser and colonised is unique, and interesting, as it is not evident in other works.  Macfarlane does not say that this reclamation by nature is happening soon, but rather that it is coming.  With global warming, and rising sea levels, settlements will be abandoned, and “[v]egetable and faunal life will reclaim them: the opportunist pioneer species first – dog-rose, elder, fireweed, crows…” (175).  Global warming and the rise of the sea can almost be seen as the revenge of nature for colonisation, and they are very real events, that are happening. Evidence such as “[c]ore samples, tide gauge readings, and, most recently, satellite measurements tell us that over the past century, the Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) has risen by 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters).” (National Geographic 1).  It is human activity that has caused this rise, and nature is fighting back, similar to the colonised rising up against the colonisers.

I hope I’ve outlined how The Wild Places demonstrates attributes of post-colonialism literary theory, and offered some insight as to how humanity interacts with the wilderness.  The wild is essential to the planet for a myriad of reasons, and how we use and treat this wild can have a significant impact on the environment, both short-term and long-term.  We must take care, and be mindful of what we use from the wilderness, for these reasons.  Thanks for reading, everyone!  See you soon!

Works Cited

Hedgerows | CPRE Herefordshire. Web. 20 July 2017.

CITiZAN – Blog – Orford Ness: An Amazing Landscape with a Rich and Varied History – and an Extremely Dynamic Coastline. Web. 20 July 2017.

“Dog-rose – Rosa Canina.” Dog-rose | NatureSpot. Web. 20 July 2017.

Douville, Amanda. “Inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” NY Daily News. 26 Apr. 2016. Web. 20 July 2017.

Faherty, Mike. “Symondsbury, Holloway.” Symondsbury, Holloway (C) Mike Faherty :: Geograph Britain and Ireland. Web. 20 July 2017.

Farminguk. “Farming Connect: Potential of Tree and Hedgerow Planting to Reduce Frequency and Impact of Flood Events – Farming UK News.” Farminguk. FarmingUK, 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 20 July 2017.

“FireweedChamerion Angustifolium.” Edible Wild Food. Web. 20 July 2017.

“Hedgerows.” Hedgerows | The Wildlife Trusts. Web. 20 July 2017.

Macfarlane, Robert. “The Wild Places.” Goodreads. Web. 20 July 2017.

Macfarlane, Robert. The Wild Places. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

“Orfordness.” The Crown and Castle. Web. 20 July 2017.

“Treasures from the Hedgerow: Elderflower Cordial.” The Teacup Chronicles. 15 July 2010. Web. 20 July 2017.

Warne, Kennedy. “Sea Level Rise.” National Geographic. 07 Apr. 2017. Web. 20 July 2017.

“The Circle of Life. The Little Elder Tree Mother. Elderberry Syrup and Tea!” Wildlettucegal’s Blog. 22 July 2015. Web. 20 July 2017.