Paths of enlightenment
‘Old Ways...’ is an iconoclastic blend of natural history, travel writing and much more, writes Rob Nixon.
In 1977, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Time of Gifts prompted a renaissance in British travel writing, which for 20 years would remain as pre-eminent in the United Kingdom as the memoir was in the United States. Jonathan Raban, Redmond O’Hanlon, Pico Iyer, Sara Wheeler and the Norfolk-based Iowan, Bill Bryson, all advanced that revival. Since the millennium, however, travel writing has become a dwindling force as digital access has eroded the exotic — while British natural history writing has soared, bringing commercial and critical success to writers like Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie, Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin.
The youngest of these figures, Macfarlane is the author of four works of non-fiction, most recently and triumphantly, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, an iconoclastic blend of natural history, travel writing and much more. The Old Ways takes us to some far-flung places — Buddhist trails in the eastern Himalayas, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the occupied Palestinian territories — but mostly Macfarlane stays closer to home.
Topographically and emotionally, his loosely assembled collection of walks is centered on two heartlands: southern England’s soft chalk downs and the unyielding Scottish north.
To describe Macfarlane as a philosopher of walking is to undersell the achievement of The Old Ways. His prose feels so firmly grounded, resistant to abstraction.
He wears his polymath intelligence lightly as his mind roams across geology, archaeology, fauna, flora, architecture, art, literature and urban design, retrieving small surprises everywhere he walks. In one such passage, he notes the power of what urban planners call “desire lines,” in which one person’s impulsive shortcut encourages others to follow, creating informal, unmapped channels through a city. Macfarlane is likewise fascinated by what geologists have termed “preferential pathways,” grooves carved by the solvent action of water on limestone. Those pathways in turn pull in pedestrians, “all of whom etch the track of their passage with their feet as they go. In this way the path of a raindrop hundreds of thousands of years ago may determine the route of a modern-day walker.”
Macfarlane upends the stereotype of the environmental writer as a surly, solitary misanthrope railing against human desecrations of the wild. His book positively teems with people. On most of his journeys he travels with a friend, but his wanderings are also informed by a deeper, historical sense of accompaniment. The Old Ways is a book of ghosts, a homage to those who have walked these routes before: “Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own. ... Like sea channels that require regular dredging to stay open, paths need walking.”
Two ghosts stand out from the rest. Macfarlane’s grandfather, a diplomat and mountaineer, instilled in him a love of roaming. An especially tender chapter recounts a ritual walk Macfarlane took across Scotland’s Cairngorm massif to attend his grandfather’s funeral. Here he recalls how that peak-obsessed man was forced in his 80s to yield to age: first driven down from the summits to the passes, then from the passes to the valleys, he in turn forsakes the valleys “for the limestone land around the house.” “Stride shortened to shuffle, shuffle to dodder, dodder to step. ... During the same years that my grandfather was losing the ability to walk, my children — his two first great-grandchildren — were gaining it. Step lengthened to dodder, dodder to shuffle, shuffle to stride.”
The other great haunting figure in this book is the Edwardian poet-naturalist Edward Thomas. “To Thomas,” Macfarlane writes, “paths connected real places but they also led outwards to metaphysics, backwards to history and inwards to the self.” Like many compulsive walkers, Thomas was dogged by depressions that he tried to slough off through punishing hill climbs, administered “to macerate and to forget himself.” But his sadness, in sending him out onto the road, also gave him the chance to become an astute observer of natural detail. Macfarlane is inspired by this poet for whom “the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.”
Macfarlane’s method recalls W G Sebald’s literary meander down England’s southeast coast in The Rings of Saturn. Like Sebald, Macfarlane loves side stories, chance encounters that become vital portals into historical feeling. But despite this shared passion, Macfarlane adds a singular physical awareness. He exudes curiosity about the physiology of motion, about the way moving legs move the brain. Recuperating on a ridge after an arduous day, he observes that “my legs preserved a ghost sense of stride, a muscle memory of repeated action, and twitched forwards even as I rested.”
If there’s a limitation to this lively, luminous book, it’s Macfarlane’s fundamental assumption about why people walk — and who gets to do so. In two brief pages, he offers us a shadow history of the wayfaring dispossessed, the “brigades of broken men” who, during the Great Depression, were exposed to the asperity of the open road. This treatment feels too glancing. On our embattled planet, most people walk not for romance or recreation or enlightenment; they walk because they’re too poor to do otherwise.
Moreover, the freedom to sleep rough (as Macfarlane does, on cliff ledges and beneath hedgerows) is unevenly distributed. This is surely an observation worthy of reflection. The black British photographer Ingrid Pollard once travelled to the Lake District on a Wordsworth pilgrimage. In her self-portraits, she is seen wielding a baseball bat as she wanders, not lonely as a cloud but lonely as a black woman in a white rural area, Wordsworthian or not.
That said, Macfarlane has given us a gorgeous book about physical movement and the movement of memory, one that resounds with stories told to “the beat of the placed and lifted foot.” The Old Ways celebrates the civility of paths, thin lines of tenacious community threaded through an “aggressively privatised world.” There is something sustaining about that tenacity, and something humbling too. Thomas understood as much when he wrote of this “brief multitude.” We are, after all, just passers-by.