The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane

Review by Sharon Blackie:

‘I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking’, said Thoreau in his essay on precisely that subject: ‘… that is … who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering .’ One suspects that Robert Macfarlane, as presented in his latest book The Old Ways, would have met with Henry David’s approval. For whatever else there may or may not be in this book, there is indeed a clearly displayed ‘genius for sauntering’, as Macfarlane sets off to explore a disparate collection of ancient paths by land and sea, in the British Isles and elsewhere.

Macfarlane’s saunters down the old ways are accompanied by a variety of characters, both alive and dead, for this isn’t the ‘lone and enraptured male’ of Kathleen Jamie’s 2008 review of Macfarlane’s previous book, The Wild Places, but a man very much in search of human company as he explores the depths of ‘landscape and the human heart’. The most persistent and sympathetic character is the poet Edward Thomas, described as the ‘guiding spirit’ of the book – for, as Macfarlane tells us, ‘to Thomas, paths connected real places but they also led outwards to metaphysics, backwards to history, and inwards to the self.’ And the core of The Old Ways is Macfarlane’s exploration of precisely those kinds of connections. In that sense it represents what has come to be known as quintessential Macfarlane: first-person accounts of his travels combined with interspersed digressions on geology, history, anthropology … and so much more.

Macfarlane’s entire ouevre is predominantly focused on place-consciousness, and on the ways in which our sense of place (including the language that we derive from place) affects the ways in which we see ourselves in the context of the wider biosphere. ‘The two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these,’ he tells us: ‘firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? Secondly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?’ And this is a recurring theme in Macfarlane’s work: the idea, as he noted in his Foreword to the anthology A Wilder Vein in 2010, ‘that cognition is site-specific, or motion-sensitive: that we think differently in different landscapes. And therefore, more radically, that certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places, such that when we lose those places, we are losing kinds of imagination as well.’

And yet, the ways in which Macfarlane himself approaches that sense of place can give a surface impression of seeming curiously ungrounded. Because he writes about the places in his books not from the perspective of dwelling in them, but from the perspective of a traveller, passing through them on one of his many walks. This of course is particularly noticeable to those of us who are deeply rooted in the places through which Macfarlane walks. (For us that place is, of course, the Isle of Lewis – and Macfarlane’s walk through the Lewis hills and moors in the chapter entitled ‘Peat’ begins just a five-minute stroll down the road from our croft and so from the EarthLines office.) That tension between living in a place and just passing through haunts The Old Ways just as surely as the ghost of Thomas haunts it. And the tension is an important one, because it is arguably not the fleeting landscapes we pass through that truly shape us – a one-off sea journey, or a walk through the hills in Palestine. It’s the landscapes we live in – whether we live in them for our entire lives or for portions of them. Macfarlane flirts briefly with this issue in the last-but-one chapter of The Old Ways, which is focused on Edward Thomas, and in which he refers to the melancholy induced by Thomas’ ‘double longing for travel and rest, for movement and for settlement’ – by the desire to travel and yet to ‘live long and faithfully in a single place’, to take root, to truly know a place in a way that isn’t possible for the passer-by.

Maybe, though, it’s in returning to Thoreau that we can gain some insight into Macfarlane’s perspective on this question, because for Thoreau ‘having no particular home, but [being] equally at home everywhere … is the secret of successful sauntering. … the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.’ And indeed there is a sense in which Macfarlane is very much at home in each of his fleeting landscapes, just as there is a very clear sense in which The Old Ways would satisfy Thoreau’s search for ‘the literature which gives expression to Nature’. For Macfarlane is precisely the kind of writer Thoreau wished for: ‘a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them — transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots.’

Macfarlane’s words for sure have earth adhering to their roots, but what also is presented to us in The Old Ways is the writer as an engaging and beguiling character, an insomniac haunted by ghosts of poetry and the land, who very much shares with Thomas that tension between the desire to dig deep and the curative possibilities offered by wandering. So that what we are left with in this book is a strong sense of Macfarlane walking in order to find himself and what is human in the landscapes of his own heart – stalking himself to catch the fleeing ghost of his own rootedness, just as Edward Thomas stalked his doppelgänger in one of his better known poems, ‘The Other’:

I travelled fast, in hopes I should
Outrun that other. What to do
When caught, I planned not. I pursued
To prove the likeness, and, if true,
To watch until myself I knew.

THE OLD WAYS A journey on foot
Robert Macfarlane
Hamish Hamilton 2012 £20 Hardback, 433 pp
ISBN: 978-0241143810

This review originally appeared on Earthlines – wonderful in both print and on the web, and we are extremely grateful to Sharon Blackie for the opportunity to re-publish it here.

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