The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane book jacket

Some of my worst reading habits include adding marginalia and/or scribbling page-numbered notes in a book’s end leaves. As a student, I did this in ink, sometimes slavishly underlining entire passages. Now, not just because there’s an excellent second-hand bookshop just a stone’s throw from our new abode, I use pencil. It’s a habit that offends some, seeming to be an act of disrespect. I have but a few examples of my father’s own pencilled marginalia which have survived various moves, and which I treasure; it’s not a habit that eBooks easily permit, a sort of handing over of a relay baton. These marks are a sort of track, a set of traces left during a good read which one can return to years later (to discover that the locus of value has shifted over time — or even deepened at the same spot), and this seems apposite for Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. He has subtitled it A Journey on Foot, even though several chapters concern journeys by lug-rigged open boat. Forty or so pages in, my end leaf notes filled up: space did not allow this system’s long continuance and page flipping back and forth to note down every instance of Macfarlane’s dazzling prose would have broken my ability to follow his trail faithfully. So instead my pencilled scribbles became dense vertical traces down both left and right margins, sometimes fuzzed to maximum width when the writer’s imagery trod especially deeply into my thoughts.

In the book’s opening chapter, Macfarlane writes:

For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?

This opening chapter sets out the premise that walking is both a journey out into the landscape and inwards to ourselves, that storytelling is indivisible from wayfaring, that – in etymology – to learn is to follow a track. Macfarlane’s successive chapters each take us with him on a walk (or boat journey), starting with an account of that path’s history and walkers, then his walk which he narrates to us turn by turn.

This is the third volume in what might be considered a trilogy. I have read neither Mountains of the Mind nor The Wild Places, but the writer is evidently mountaineer and climber, able to assess risk before exposing himself to it. The Old Ways comes in at over 400 pages, with the last 80 or so being taken up with references, bibliography and structured indexes that flesh out his erudition. This allows the text itself to flow easily and compellingly as each new journey out is matched by its journey in. The Icknield Way, Foulness’ Broomway, the Shiants, Sula Sgeir, Hebridean Harris, Palestine, towards Compostella, Tibet, Wiltshire’s Ridgeway, the South Downs, the Pas-de-Calais area of northern France and Formy Point are the destinations but the features of these landscapes are equally Macfarlane’s prose imagery, which has an unpedantic precision about it. Describing a path that ‘doubles round the head of a coombe’, it is a ‘boustrophedon path’. I first came upon this adjective in a metaphorical context, describing a reader’s visual progress down a page of text. Its literal meaning of as the ox ploughs is spot-on in this context. Puffins flying overhead are ‘banknotes being whirred through a telling machine’, the shooting stars of the Perseids are ‘bright dashes, retinal scratches’, the ‘white cliffs of the Seven Sisters are strung out like a line of washed and pegged sheets’ and a tractor ploughs ‘a distant field to corduroy’. Such devices help pull us through the act of reading, taking us out and alongside the writer on his various journeys.

The Old Ways is also explicitly a meditation on the thought and writing of the poet Edward Thomas, an established writer who came late to writing poetry. Between December 1914 and April 1917, when he was killed by shell blast at the age of 39, he wrote poetry of immeasurable wealth. At their simplest, these poems are observations of landscape and nature, written against a backdrop of impending and then actual war. Macfarlane shares Thomas’ fascination with – need for – walking, and each of his journeys references something about Thomas. His penultimate chapter, Ghost, shadows Thomas biographically. By following his track, the aim is to better understand him. Written in the present tense, it brings to life the coincidence that at the end Thomas found himself at the Battle of Arras on the eastern end of the same chalk deposit that begins as the South Downs that Thomas had adopted as his home, and which then dips into the English Channel before rising again in the field of battle in northern France. The similarity of the terrain did not escape the poet.

This is a book that made me envious of being one of the author’s own students. Here he is writing about one of Thomas’ late poems, Lights Out:

… for Thomas the past felt fissile, its recovery only partially possible at best. Memory and landscape were both in flux. There is dust on the phonograph needle: voices, if heard at all, reach us through a burr of distortion, or are snatched briefly from the static as we twist the tuning wheel.

In this book Macfarlane is not just a splendid guide to natural paths and byways, but to poets, writers and philosophers who have made walking and thinking about walking a singular occupation.

So is anything missing? I waited for T. S. Eliot to be mentioned, particularly The Four Quartets which explores the layering of place and history. I waited for a comical reference to one of Beckett’s tramps repetitively advancing towards an ever-receding horizon. But, no matter, the landscape of our literature is too vast to view in a single exploration.

I am now starting The Wild Places. I know: this is reading him backwards with a reversed direction of inward travel. Perhaps being aware of this will unearth some advantages.