Review: The Last Wilderness by Neil Ansell

Many travel books are about the quest for new, exotic places and the widest possible range of experiences; many nature books focus on the surprising quality and variety of life to be found by staying close to home. In that loose framework, Neil Ansell’s The Last Wilderness belongs on the nature shelf rather than the travel section: here he’s all about developing his knowledge of a particular place, the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, where he stays five times over the course of one year to give a panoramic view of the area in different non-touristy seasons.

Ansell’s visits have the flavor of a pilgrimage: his wonder at the region’s sights and sounds, and particularly at the creatures he encounters, is akin to what one would experience in the presence of the holy; he also writes about wildlife as if it is a relic of a fast-vanishing world. “It is that exploratory desire to possess the wilds for ourselves that has resulted in their disappearance,” he notes. A true wilderness is unvisited, and true solitude is hard to experience “if the world is only a click away.”

Depicted against this backdrop of environmental damage are the author’s personal losses: a heart problem and progressive hearing loss mean that the world is narrowing in for him. He mourns each sign of diminishment, such as the meadow pipits whose call he can no longer hear. Depth of experience is replacing breadth for him, though flashbacks to his intrepid world travels – an African safari, hitchhiking in Australia, time in Sweden and Costa Rica – show that he has tried both approaches. There’s a good balance here between adventuring and the comfort of an increasingly familiar place.

Like “a tale told round a campfire,” Ansell’s is a meandering and slightly melancholy story that draws you in. If The Last Wilderness suffers, it’s mostly in comparison with his Deep Country (2011), one of the most memorable nature/travel books I’ve ever read, a modern-day Walden about his five years living in a cottage in the Welsh hills. Solitude and survival are more powerful themes there, though they echo here too. Once again, he writes of magical encounters with wildlife and gives philosophical reflections on the nature of the self. I can highly recommend Neil Ansell’s books to anyone who enjoys nature and travel writing.

My rating:

 


The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence will be published by Tinder Press on February 8th. My thanks to Becky Hunter for the review copy.

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12 thoughts on “Review: The Last Wilderness by Neil Ansell

    1. Have you read either of his previous books? Deep Country is really the best — I read it earlier last month and it was my first 5-star read of the year. It was in comparison with that one that I struggled to be quite as enthusiastic about his new one.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You’ve got me thinking: stories that are meandery are often also rather melancholy. I feel like there’s a reading list lurking in that observation you’ve made!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting to consider, although in my personal experience the most restless people I’ve known have been the least likely to think upon anything for any length of time, whether broody-thinking or not-so-broody-thinking. But that’s just my small circle!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds beautiful. I’ve found myself increasingly attracted to stories of solitude, silence and deep experience. This, and his earlier book Deep Country, sound like they really fit the bill. Lovely review.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks. I’m a big fan of Sara Maitland but haven’t come across Gretel Ehrlich before, I’ll look her up. Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in the Polar Night is another spectacular book on silence and solitude.

        Like

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