Don’t come here expecting a traditional travelogue. For one thing, the author admits he finds it hard to sit still and often can’t stop moving even when he’s arrived at a destination. Most of the time, however, he walks without destination – going without a plan and without an intention towards somewhere he can spend the night. More often than not he’s alone – this “solitary wanderer” really likes his isolation, which is why he has chosen to write occasional essays from trips to the remote corners of western Scotland. This was a wilderness he tried to explore in his youth, and he’s returning to it now. It’s a rare place where you can go miles without seeing other humans, but the title might refer to it being his last wilderness. For one thing, he’s going deaf, and month by month we see his inability to hear particular seasonal bird songs. For another thing, that’s not the only health problem he may be facing…
Replete with nature notes, and with a sense of a man perfectly at home, this is a memoir cum nature book cum travelogue of distinction. I will have to admit, though, that it sometimes has the same aimlessness as its author and subject. Seeing something can spark off a memory of a previous journey, and even in reporting on that we can get a remembrance of another sight – at times it feels this fractal of personal footnote within memory within reportage could go on forever. But that’s not to say this confuses, for this book is as vivid as you’d want. We’re really with the author alongside the birds, animals, and yes lichen, that he loves so much.
I doubt this would be on the radar of many book groups, but you could at least discuss the purpose of this short read. It comes with no maps, no point of arrival – this is not a true travel book. He speaks of finding “a wilderness of [his] own mind”, which implies he wanted to create a psychogeography of a nowhere, a chart of trackless isolation. Thankfully, as I often find such things too pretentious, I don’t think he quite succeeded. But he made me engage with him, not least because of his increasing physical problems. Mostly, however, I have to applaud this book for wanting experiences similar to the author’s, and to Google copious birds and sights. I’m not a one for camping en plein air, or not knowing where my next hot meal is coming from. But with writing as crisp and clear as this, I could almost wish to break the author’s isolation and be there with him, seeing the nature he has such an affinity for.
John Lloyd 4/2
The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence by Neil Ansell
Tinder Press 9781472247124 pbk Jul 2018