Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Time was when cartographers embellished their maps with warnings to unwary readers. "Here be dragons," was one such advisory notice. For today's travellers, many of whom rarely venture beyond the reach of broadband, there's little chance of dragons. But, as Laurence Mitchell discusses, it is still possible to get a touch of wilderness.

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The Finns have a term, susiraja, which means ‘wolf border’ and describes the territory that lies beyond the city frontier. What it really signifies is wilderness. Beyond the safe confines of the city lies the realm of wolves and wildness, a danger zone populated by wild animals and outlaws. The notion of such extra-mural zones steeped in hazard is deeply entrenched in the human psyche.

For millennia the wild region that lay beyond the security of home was a territory to be avoided, a place to be ventured into only for hunting or foraging, for tribal warfare or colonisation. It was not until the modern era, in the wake of the cool-headed empiricism which followed the Enlightenment, that the wilderness which lay beyond the civilised city started to be appreciated as a place to be explored in its own right.

This new way of perceiving the region beyond the city prompted a steady flow of travellers venturing into the wild in search of wealth, fame and glory, or sometimes just out of plain curiosity. The modern tendency, of course, is to re-embrace the wild, a tendency spurred on by the drudgery of quotidian life and a widespread desire to escape its dreary confines.

This is nothing new but it is a trend that has been encouraged by the recent publishing phenomenon of so-called ‘new nature writing’ — a genre populated by a loose cabal of writers who tend to do much the same as what the old nature writers used to do albeit in a more knowing, postmodern sort of way. Several widely acclaimed books have been written in recent years on the theme of wilderness and what constitutes ‘the wild’. One of the trailblazing titles was Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (2007), a book which explored notions of untamed places and how ‘wilderness’ frames the Western imagination.

Macfarlane’s chosen wild places — all in the British Isles — were quite a conservative selection in many ways: the far north-west of Scotland, an isolated Welsh peninsula, northern English moorland. But some of the locations he selected were quirkier — places not normally associated with notions of wilderness, so they needed the spirit of wild to be consciously invested into them. They included the Essex coast and the sunken lanes (hollow ways) of Wessex — ancient places whose very character were shaped by human intervention over centuries.

Macfarlane’s approach to each of his chosen ‘wild’ territories was to hike, swim and perhaps climb a tree if he could find one — a nod to his innate explorer spirit. Another writer, Jay Griffiths, who published Wild back in 2006, went further in every sense.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 57.