The Last Wilderness: A Journey Into Silence

Neil Ansell

Tinder Press, £16.99

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Review by Rosemary Goring

ON the opening page of Neil Ansell’s captivating memoir of a year in the north-west Highlands – the area known as the Rough Bounds of Lochaber – he won this reviewer’s heart. Indicating that his title has a deeper meaning than at first it seems, he writes: “In a world where the air that we breathe and the waters that surround us are all contaminated by our activities, nowhere is untouched and wilderness is relative. A place can only appear to be less touched than others.”

This secluded, wild district is certainly about as untrodden as anywhere accessible by road and boat and foot – a day or so’s journey from Ansell’s Brighton home – can be. Starting out, if not exactly in the footsteps of Thoreau, at least echoing his philosophy of nature and our place within it, Ansell sets out to visit his chosen patch periodically throughout the year, marking its changes in creatures, scenery, and mood. A journalist and lifelong nomad, increasingly happy to roam alone, he is an informative but also contemplative companion, the sort of travel writer whose prose style matches the pace of conversation in a Highland bothy, as evening closes in.

In other words, he is not in a rush. Nor is he fanciful, or melodramatic. And while this makes for a lack of narrative drive, that is no criticism. Ansell’s meticulous account of each day’s walking and encounters, be it with sea eagles or a humble goose barnacle, feels honest, and uncontrived. The artifice behind all writing is minimal, and there’s no sense of exaggerating or contorting for effect. As a result, his journal has more impact. Wandering the Knoydart peninsula, and the fearsome landscape in which it lies, he allows readers to feel they too are there, the wind slapping their face, the sound of chomping deer around the tent lulling them to sleep in the dark.

Anyone familiar with this area knows that it is rich in history, wildlife and perils. First encountering it as a young man – “the wildest landscape I had ever seen” – Ansell is drawn back to it partly for what it represents, in this overpopulated, polluted age, but probably also because, if he could choose where to live permanently, it would look "very much like this".

Amiable and well-informed, he fills in background detail as he roams, adding notes on the geology, or biology or politics of what unfolds before him. For a man steeped in nature, which is no place for the sentimental, he nevertheless has an artistic and romantic eye. The colour of leaves, texture of skies, and smell of rain are the palette on which he draws for his portraits, vivid as photographs, yet sketched with something more profound than simple reportage. Description is his forte, as when he describes a merganser chasing off a predator: “The water behind him churned up in his wake as if he had a little outboard motor.” Behind all of this is the apprehension of his place in the scheme of things, an awareness made sharper by two pressing facts. The first is his worsening deafness. In the course of this year’s wanderings, the sound of birds is all but lost, and so too the chirps of baby otters, whose lips he must read. But there is worse. One of the most moving passages is the night when he wakens in his tent, almost unable to breathe, suffering an angina attack. He has travelled, ahead of an operation, and carries medication, but it has little effect. Alone, a long walk and a ferry ride away from the mainland, he walks the beach in pitch dark, waiting for daylight and keeping his eye on M31, the Andromeda galaxy, to ward off pain and fear.

That he travelled, despite being so vulnerable, says all you need to know about how much the wilds mean to him. The result is a book whose quiet tone is utterly misleading. Beneath the measured, knowledgeable, unfussy voice is a meaningful, and even important record: not just of a changing landscape, but of a man such places have shaped.