In her bestselling debut, The Salt Path, Raynor Winn and her husband Moth walked 630 miles along a coastal path, sleeping in a flimsy tent and existing on rehydrated noodles. They began the walk as homeless, their farm having been seized by bailiffs, and distraught by a diagnosis that Moth was suffering an untreatable and incurable brain disease. They end the walk with a glimmer of hope: an offer from a complete stranger of an apartment in a Cornish village.
The Wild Silence picks up where The Salt Path ends. The couple are now living in a narrow apartment at the back of a chapel and Moth has embarked on a degree in environmental studies at a nearby university. But though they are glad to have a roof over their head, they struggle to settle into their new home. Raynor in particular feels hemmed in by four walls, unable to sleep and stricken with panic when she encounters people on the streets. It’s only when she’s out in nature, back on the cliff-top path that she feels safe.
At the end of the land and the start of the sea. In a space between worlds, at a time between years, in a life between lives. I’m lost, but here, at least for a moment, I’m found.
Another stranger provides a solution. City trader Sam asks the couple to take on a project of re-wilding his ancient cider farm thought to have inspired Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind In The Willows. The apple trees are gnarled and cankerous, the farmhouse is derelict, home to mildew and mice but the setting beside a creek and the glimpses of wildlife prove irresistible.
It’s a risky venture, particularly in the light of Moth’s condition. But Raynor sees it as a way to buy time for Moth and for her “to watch and hope.” Ultimately the peace and solitude of the farm and the physical effort involved in clearing decades of neglect prove restorative, both physically and emotionally.
The Wild Silence is a different kind of book to The Salt Path. It lacks the linear structure of the walk, instead looping back to Raynor’s childhood and her early years with Moth, reflecting on her complete immersion in nature and her devotion to an extra-ordinary man. The opportunity of the farm in fact doesn’t make an appearance until about page 140 and it doesn’t seem that we are there for long before the couple decide to embark on yet another adventure: a hike across Iceland.
What the two books do have in common however is Raynor’s constant anxiety about Moth’s health. The specialist who delivered his diagnoses advised him to “take it easy” and “not to run up steps” but on their coastal walk he’d grown stronger. Though his condition worsens subsequently he’s still capable of long days of hard labour at the farm. Exercise they conclude, is the key to staving off the deterioration – hence their decision to undergo a gruelling hike across Iceland.
Also evident in The Wild Silence is Raynor Winn’s ability to convey both the majesty of nature and its ability to bring an inner quietude. During their walk across the glacial fields and volcanos of Iceland, for example, she pauses to watch a bird glide on air currents above a ravine.
A high cliff face of red chevrons of rock forced up by huge tectonic uplifts was separated from where we stood by a cavernous ravine where a river rolled and boiled far below. … I watched the fulmar glide into the distance, following the ravine and the river away to the south. All that was left was the roaring, wild silence of an empty land without vegetation or animal life. A heaving, crashing chasm of noise and movement, overlaid by a veneer of stillness.
The elemental nature of the landscape seems to unleash her tension and give her hope but there are many other times when she is content to celebrate small moments of tranquility. An early morning glimpse of a pregnant doe on her way to a stream; the croak of a huge toad waddling among the plant pots on a moonlit night. And, the most gratifying of sights: the return of curlews (an endangered bird) in the half light of a November morning.
At what point, asks Raynor, do we lose the ability to enjoy the wonder of these simple pleasures.
When do we stop feeling the softness of rain on our face and start worrying about being wet? Stop marvelling at the wonder of a badger rooting through the grass in the twilight, stop listening to the sounds carried on the wind or the echo of ourselves inside it?
In a sense this is a story of love; a deep and abiding love for the natural environment and an appreciation of its ability to restore and heal. But it’s equally a testimony to love for another human being; a love that prevails despite financial calamity, ,hardship and sickness. It’s a fascinating and truly memorable book about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
The Wild Silence was published in 2020 by Penguin Random House in the UK. The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph in 2018, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.
This is book number 4 in my #21 in 21 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.