The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, By Robert Macfarlane

From pathways on the land to channels in the heart

Frances Spalding
Thursday 07 June 2012 17:08
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Walking into history: the Icknield Way in Essex
Walking into history: the Icknield Way in Essex

Road maps make transparent the route a car driver needs to take, but they desecrate landscape. They focus on tarmac and ignore not only "wild places", the subject of Robert Macfarlane's previous book, but also "the old ways". These are ancient routes, paths and tracks, still discoverable, and kept in place by use. Hence those small sickles, or "hooks", which used to hang on posts at the start of well-used paths in 19th-century Suffolk, so that a walker could lop impeding growth and leave the hook at the other end for a walker coming in the opposite direction.

Our landscape is still webbed by walkways. Some are shaped by the need to connect place with place, others by habits of the terrain, including what geologists call "preferential pathways". In limestone regions, these begin with rainfall. Shallow channels, formed by the passage of water and carbonic acid, lead to hairline cracks, runnels, and eventually to the formation of an escarpment edge, around which humans and animals create their own ways.

Devised by human feet and needs, these pathways offer intimacy with nature. Macfarlane makes this evident the moment he sets foot on the Icknield Way. In the Romantic tradition, he connects inner with outer, and shows how place and mind interpenetrate. Not only is landscape, "a way of figuring ourselves to ourselves", but it can also be present in absentia: that which we bear within us. When crossing the Minch, en route to the Isle of Lewis, he spends time on the Shiants, a tiny cluster of islands where a single bothy is the only habitation. Adam Nicolson inherited these islands from his father, Nigel. He leaves them free for visitors and regards himself as no more than a temporary paper-possessor. Yet in his book Sea Room he admits of the Shiants: "This place has entered me, it has coloured my life like a stain."

Such quotations explain why Macfarlane is justified in linking The Old Ways with its acclaimed predecessors, Mountains of the Mind (2003) and Wild Places (2007), into "a loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart". Macfarlane is outstanding among the new naturalists in his desire to examine the full range of his responses, in this case, to these paths, their histories and legacy.

He grapples objectively with facts, identifying gneiss or granite, chalk or peat; and he is a respectful user of cartography, archaeology and natural history. But he is also fascinated by himself, his pleasures, fears, tiredness and the state of his feet. He is equally alert to the human history associated with these walks. The poet and walker Edward Thomas is his chief mentor, but he finds others in those he encounters, visits or travels alongside. And beyond them lie the anonymous walkers or pilgrims who, for centuries, have trodden the same ground.

Macfarlane, even when walking solo, is never alone. His pursuit of "old ways" is not confined to Britain. Friendships and connections give him opportunities to experience the disputed territories of Palestine, gain sight of the sacred mountain Minya Konka in Sichuan, and to travel part of a pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella. Then suddenly we are back in Britain, looking at Downland with Eric Ravilious and following Thomas to the trenches and his death. Macfarlane writes superbly. He sustains admiration from first to last, in spite of doubts about the book's structure and overall purpose.

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