Caught by the River

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane | 4th June 2012

Robert Macfarlane reading from The Old Ways, at The Caught by the River Variety Show, Purcell Room, London 25/5.Pic by Neil Thomson.

The Old Ways is published today, by Hamish Hamilton.

Review by Rebecca Harvey

Literature is full of people who walk, descriptions of the paths they take and the people they meet. There are religious paths, paths of learning, new solid paths and, of course, old paths, old ways scarred into landscape by feet and hooves, marked by stone, story and memory. It is these paths that Robert Macfarlane travels in this, the last in his loose trilogy of life and landscape, presenting an extraordinary journey that takes you from place to evocatively-named place. The Broomway. The Icknield Way. The sea roads to the Shiant Islands. And further afield to the pass to Minya Konka. The Ramallah Hills. The Guadarrama Range. It is part history, part poetry. It’s a memoir, a story. A diary, an academic meditation.

For this isn’t just about the paths themselves, but about the people who have walked them before him – some of whom we’ve met before, others who become good acquaintances by the last pages. Edward Thomas (1878-1917) is “the most important person” in the book, who “ghosted my journeys and urged me on”. We meet Borrow and Belloc, WH Hudson and Henry Thoreau. Nan Shepherd and Eric Ravilious. But in spite of the liberal scattering of names and references, it never becomes overly academic. Instead it makes you want to find out more about the characters with whose writing he shares the pages – in the end my makeshift scrap-paper bookmark became, over the course of reading, a list of people and places that I wanted to explore more, my own pathway through the words, ideas and stories that helped to form the book.

In following these trails, this tale becomes both an archive of those who have walked before him and a record of his own journey over the paths that lead him from one writer or idea to another. “As the pen rises from the page between words” he writes, so the walker’s feet rise and fall between paces.” And later, “The paths are sentences, the shod feet of travellers the scratch of the pen nib or the press of the type”. Both could well be describing his own writing.

The Old Ways seems more personal than previous books, giving as it does a sense of Macfarlane as a man rather than an adventurous scholar who exists to gallivant across mountains, sleeping under the stars. We are taken to his Grandfather’s funeral, and are introduced to his friends. We learn that he has a family, and likes Tintin and Guns ‘n’ Roses. That he is 6’2”, wears size 11 (and a half) shoes and likes a drink. That he can still be reckless. That he is an insomniac. That he misses his friend, Roger Deakin, deeply.

Perhaps this intimacy comes from a closeness to the writers whose footsteps he’s following, whose ambulatory habits are so thoroughly associated with their works; the bond between walking and thinking, the progression of thought that accompanies the processes of putting one foot in front of the other, is known, and has been used widely by philosophers and scientists, poets and storytellers. He talks of Charles Darwin and his ‘thinking path’, around which the scientist would travel whilst cogitating, keeping track of time by knocking flints off a pile (thus Darwin’s “three flint problem” becomes a nice, neat, kinetic alternative to Sherlock Holmes’ ‘three pipe problem’). For many writers, Thomas (and Borrow and Clare) included, their walking (and, necessarily, much of their writing) was often the product of depression. Macfarlane talks of the “black dog” which threatened to crush these poets and, countless others – and how they sought solace from the act of walking; nature consoled them, didn’t judge them, but informed their writing, (although as he notes, there were times when it failed to do so: “…nor did the landscape always restore him to himself”, he says of Thomas).

That’s another theme that is explored well – the give and take of our relationship with nature and the paths marked through her. Very early on he remarks that “We are adept […] at saying what we make of places – but we are far less good at saying what places make of us”; and later, talking of the word landscape, he says:

” I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion-causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the course of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident.”

Writer and naturalist John Muir once wrote that “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks”; as well as shape, landscape gives us beauty, inspiration, comfort and consolation; in return it bears the marks of human traversal, takes its time eating coastlines, takes lives. For Macfarlane, it gives him comfort, a canvas, old stories and new words and, ultimately, a book to write. But in return he gives these paths a voice in a way that is unlikely to be replicated any time soon.

He makes no apology for omitting modern walker-writers (WG Sebald, Will Self), and he still has tendencies to get carried away with poetic passages that lose themselves to the romance of frenzied description. But once you embrace it, this is a wholly worthwhile book, and the glossary, notes, bibliography and index at the end are excellent. It leads you through the old ways (old paths, old ways of thinking, old ways for interacting, recording and travelling said paths) and lets you experience them, and the very act of walking, in a new way.

The narrative, if such a thing can exist in The Old Ways, follows Edward Thomas, Macfarlane’s inspiration and talisman of sorts – the book ends with an elegiac account of the man, charting his life to its end in France during WWI. Thomas had, he notes, a “double longing for travel and rest, for movement and for settlement.” A fine companion then for Macfarlane, who, after setting out from his Cambridge home in the first chapter, at the end of his journey still finds his feet facing away, to the north, while he looks “back along the track-line to my south.”

The Old Ways is available from the Caught by the River shop priced £15

Robert will be joined by Chris Watson for a reading from The Old Ways at Port Eliot Festival on 21 July.