Walking into the wild once more
MOST OF us operate in a world of road maps. Big print, clear lines, motorways, junctions and tolls. Beneath this stylised network, however, lies another world altogether; a world of tracks and criss-crossings, blurry paths and half-remembered drove-roads, of walks in the forest and rambles in the hills.
At weekends and in our leisure time, this world is proving highly attractive to large numbers of us city-bound, shopped-out suburbanites – and there’s no better guide to its twists and turns than the landscape writer Robert Macfarlane. His latest book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, takes him out the door of his Cambridge home, along an ancient trail called the Icknield Way, on to the wild islands of north-west Scotland. It even, on one shimmeringly memorable occasion, takes him right out into the sea on an offshore track across the mud-flats of Wakering Stairs known as the Broomway.
Reports of Macfarlane walking on water would, frankly, come as no surprise to his legion of fans. He is already a phenomenon in the landscape writing business. His first book, Mountains of the Mind, netted him the Guardian first book award, the Somerset Maugham award and the Sunday Times young writer of the year award 2003. The follow-up volume, The Wild Places, won the Boardman-Trasker prize for mountain literature, a Scottish book of the year award and was a New York Times notable book of the year for 2008. It was also adapted into a film, The Wild Places of Essex, for the BBC’s Natural World documentary strand – which, naturally, won a Wild Screen award.
His three-book journey has taken Macfarlane from the vast, empty peaks of the Himalayas via the miniature jungle of a tiny gryke among the Burren’s limestone pavements to, um, the joys of a hedge in Essex. “Yeah, I’m losing altitude all the time,” he says. “It has gone from the mountain summit to . . . off the beaten track, really.”
How has his view of “wildness” changed over the past decade? “It has admitted the human,” he says. “That’s the great shift for me. It has gone from a desire to climb mountains and break fresh snow to the complicated – and simple – pleasures of following paths that have been beaten into the ground by un-numbered feet and unknowable people. It’s the idea that we not only shape our landscapes, but our landscapes shape us.”
There’s a romantic feel to this – and indeed Macfarlane fits quite happily into a tradition of the literary “sublime” which stretches from Wordsworth and Coleridge through Patrick Kavanagh to Richard Mabey, Iain Sinclair and Tim Robinson. One of the many joys of his books is that they’re full of other books, quoting his landscape predecessors in a way which makes the reader want to wander off along their intersecting paths.
The Old Ways contains an extended sequence on the life – and death, in the first World War – of the Welsh poet Edward Thomas. Mafarlane describes Thomas as a “guiding spirit”. He also highly recommends Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and JA Baker’s The Peregrine. “They are classics of writing about place and about mind, really. How we see and think of place and are thought by it in turn.” The biggest influence in terms of Macfarlane’s own development as a writer, however, has been Barry Lopez’s 1986 book Arctic Dreams.