Books – The Old Ways

Robert MacFarlane

The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane is a book about walking country paths.

I know, that’s what I thought, and I only bought it because writers of the stature of John Banville named it as one of the books of the year on its release last year.

But then I started reading it, and I was blown away by the writing.  He writes, near the start, of paths:

“Paths were figured as rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to weird morphologies, uncanny origami.”

The point of walking for him is suitably captured here:

“Walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing.”

The Klinchon people of Canada apparently have interchangeable terms for ‘knowledge’ and ‘footprint’, indeed, the latter spreads the former.  The Aborigines, more famously, have their ‘Songlines’:

“each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints.”

This wasn’t what I was expecting by way of insight into the nature of walking, and the role of paths, both literally and figuratively in our historical consciousness.

It’s not that he’s spiritual, far from it, and he hates pastoralists who glorify or wish to return to these old ways of living purely as a retreat from modernity.  It’s hard to succinctly describe his relationship to walking the old ways of England, Scotland and other lands in this book, but it seems not unlike a meditation simultaneously of self and the path.  He stops at many points to mark his path, often with small cairns as others are and were prone to do; to mark the path that is itself a mark, or at least mark one’s passing.

He introduced to me the fascinating notion that to remain a path, the path itself ‘needs’ walking, not to mention the poetically animistic view that walking isn’t just about what you make of the world you walk through, but what it makes of you.

The prose is excellent.  Technically he’s a very fine writer and numerous beautiful phrases litter the text throughout if you enjoy good craftsmanship;  flowers are ‘boiling’ with bees on a hot summer’s day, snow falls like “speckles on early film”, the sea like a “shaken tablecloth”, partridges with “Tin-tin like quiffs; three cock pheasants with their copper flank armour and white dog-collars (hoplite vicars); a grebe on a pond, punkishly tufted as Ziggy Stardust.” 

Oddly, he is less able to be as inventive and colourful about Tibet, Spain and Palestine, perhaps, being less familiar with these places, he struggles to find the context he is so richly aware of with Britain, and this points to an underlying assumption that walking the old ways of our country is the richer for knowing something about the places you walk through, that it isn’t purely a sensory experience, but a pilgrimage of a sort, where you follow for the purpose of following.

Along the way he will introduce you to a great many beautiful passages on the pursuit of walking and travelling, from all sorts of writers.  I’ve never wanted more to put on my walking boots, get up on the Sussex Downs and just head off along the chalk paths into a history and ancestors co-located with the present, my footsteps walking the onion skin of an earth that deeper down was trod by thousands of others, at exactly those points of footfall, going back through time to the earliest settlers of these lands.

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