“Following the tracks, holloways, drove-road and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes crisis-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert MacFarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imagination.”
Here I am reading another book on walking, handed to me by a friend, when I’m in full recuperation mode. I think MacFarlane would welcome my questioning as to whether this is at odds with recuperation, or perhaps inspiration for better days ahead.
Unlike Simon Armitage’s Walking Away, in The Old Ways, I found MacFarlane a welcome companion. He is generous with his observation, reflections and connections (cross-referencing to stories, legends, authors, poets). This makes for a rich read, and one that I was not expecting. I absolutely lost myself in his prose.
I didn’t know anything about Robert MacFarlane; never heard of this book (or the two that preceded it in the apparent trilogy). As an aside this begs another question – where are you keeping yourself current on haloed books? Is MacFarlane a Geographer like me? No! He is an English Academic. That explains the writing. It is luscious, heavy in metaphor, careful, lyrical and, at times, poetic in feel. I loved it, although others might find it tending towards ‘purple prose’ (although I’d argue when the ‘plot’ of the narrative is the journey, then he can be as lyrical as he damn well likes).
Along with the writing, I loved the structure. Tracking; Following; Roaming, and Homing. Within each section, chapters around different themes (elements, almost) – such as chalk, silt, water, gneiss, ice… I cannot even begin to describe how much this satisfies me.
It is not the kind of book to tear through, although it was also not a book for my bedtime. Sentences and whole paragraphs that invite thought, not dreams:
“I had set out to come to know Thomas by walking where he had walked, but he had mostly eluded me… And yet I had learned so much from the people I’d met along my journeys… This… Had been the real discovery: not a ghostly retrieval of Thomas but an understanding of how for him, as for so many other people, the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.”
It is exactly the kind of book that you put down and pause. Rest your stick, look at the landscape. Wonder. And then pick up again and continue the journey.
My favourite chapters were Silt, when MacFarlane traverses a pathway exposed only at low tide, carrying with it a degree of risk, and of Granite, where he walks across the mountains to attend his grandfather’s funeral. This was MacFarlane writing from himself, and not ‘following’ the poet Edward Thomas, who inspired the book. If Thomas inspired MacFarlane, then he inspires me to walk some long paths. The Old Ways is a keeper, and in order to do that, I shall have to buy it. It is that good. It is also shaping up to be the non-fiction book that I wish I had written… And that gives fuel for thought in itself. MacFarlane, what have you started?