Book review: ‘The Last Wilderness’ by Neil Ansell

The Last WildernessNeil Ansell’s latest book is about revisiting one particular region five times in the space of a year. As he puts it:

I wanted to achieve a synthesis between the intensity of the new that comes with first sight, and the depth that comes with familiarity, by choosing a place that was relatively accessible and returning again and again, in all weathers and in every season.

The region Ansell chose for his repeated visits is the ‘Rough Bounds’ in the North West Highlands of Scotland: an area which is about as close as you can still get to true wilderness in the UK. His idea was to go there without any overarching plan; he would simply see what turned up during each trip. As someone who has written a book about over two decades’ walks on a local moor, this is an approach I heartily endorse.

I very much enjoyed the unplanned nature (pun intended, I suppose) of The Last Wilderness. Whereas many other nature writing books might, for example, dedicate an entire chapter to describing a single, almost magical encounter with otters, Ansell gets to describe several otter encounters in a more matter-of-fact manner: the otters simply appear, do their otterly stuff for a while, then disappear back into the Rough Bounds backdrop. The otters are a memorable feature of the particular walk, rather than its highlight.

During his repeat visits, Ansell gets to explore moor, hill, forest, river, loch, and sea-shore. His random encounters include eagles, divers, deer, gulls, waders and gannets. He also reminisces about similar encounters during his previous wanderings in ‘many of the wildest and most far-flung corners of the earth’.

A recurring theme of the book is Ansell’s deteriorating hearing, and how this is affecting his experiences of the natural world: ‘I could hear the chatter of fieldfares, but the redwings were gone to me’. Later in the book, he also has to begin to come to terms with an even more serious medical condition.

The Last Wilderness is a thoroughly enjoyable account of the sort of things that can happen when you take time to become more familiar with an already familiar place.

Highly recommended.

Disclosures: Neil Ansell is an online friend. He provided some front-cover blurb for my book On the Moor. I received a free review copy of The Last Wilderness from the publisher.

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
Buy my book: On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk
…wonderful. Science and history and geography and evolution and culture all tangled up in musings while walking about the moors around Hebden Bridge.”—PZ Myers
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