The path to enlightenment
TRAVEL:The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot By Robert Macfarlane Hamish Hamilton, 432pp. £20
LIKE HIS TWO previous works, Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways is the product of an obsession. In Mountains of the Mind it was climbing: in The Wild Places it was nature in the raw; here it’s the network of paths dating from prehistory that still criss-cross the earth.
Pathways were what enabled our species to people the globe. Macfarlane, however, believes they had more than simply a utilitarian function. He thinks the making and then the following of these pathways by mankind over thousands of years shaped the psyche. In other words it isn’t so much, as Descartes proposed, “I think, therefore I am” as “I walk, therefore I am”. Macfarlane also believes that by walking ancient paths one can access human ancestral material that still lingers on them, that they’re portals to our past.
Before writing The Old Ways Macfarlane walked at least 1,500km to gather the material presented here. He walked through the snow around Cambridge on a moonlit night. He walked part of the Icknield Way (a track that runs from south Norfolk to Ivinghoe Beacon, in Buckinghamshire). He walked the Ridgeway, which leads on from the Icknield Way and goes “through Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire – connecting Iron Age hill-forts, Bronze Age barrows and Neolithic burial chambers”. While on the Ridgeway he saw a panther. He walked the Broomway, which connects the Essex coast to Foulness island: it is available to walkers only at low tide and is generally acknowledged to be, he writes, “the deadliest path in England” on account of about 100 people having drowned while walking it.
He walked the isles of Harris and Lewes. He walked the Cairngorms. He walked a spur of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. He walked through the occupied territories around Ramallah, in Palestine. He walked around the most sacred mountain of Buddhism, Minya Konka. He also sailed (in an open boat) part of the Minch, which is the stretch of water between the Outer Hebrides and the Scottish mainland that is part of a much longer ancient sea lane connecting the Orkneys in the north to Spain in the south.
From this summary a reader might assume it’s just a case of one walk after another. But from the very first line – “Two days short of the winter solstice; the turn of the year’s tide” – you know as a reader that, however repetitive the actions described, the language is going to be exceptional – and it is.
For example: in western China boulders are covered in “ivory coloured ice” that looks like “the wax dripped from church candles”. On the Ridgeway a heron takes flight by means of “a foldaway construction of struts and canvas, snapping and locking itself into shape just in time to keep airborne”.
On the same journey, pools of water in a wood shine “black and thick as lithography ink”. On the Icknield Way “the track – of fine chalk, pure enough to write with” – is “pocked by butterscotch flints”. Near Beacon Hill a tractor is “ploughing a distant field to corduroy”. On Kingston Down he spots “a big field mushroom lying upside-down on its cap, its black gills like the charred pages of a book”.
This kind of spare, modest, highly exact and incredibly evocative nature writing gives pleasure and keeps you reading. It also controls the speed at which you read, forcing you to read slowly, literally at a walking pace.
In contrast to the flora and fauna, however, people don’t feature much. Occasionally Macfarlane meets other walkers, and now and again he’ll bring a companion with him, but people, or living ones at any rate, don’t excite or transport him as the natural world does. The dead, however, are a different matter: they do get him going, and the book is salted with wonderful biographical material on his heroes, indefatigable walkers all; these include George Borrow, Nan Shepherd, WH Hudson, Richard Jeffries, the English watercolourist Eric Ravilious and the poet Edward Thomas, whose guide The Icknield Way is Macfarlane’s primary inspiration.
Like his nature writing, Macfarlane’s pen portraits are precise, sharp, exciting and compressed. They also serve the useful function of reminding the modern reader that a proper respect for the natural world based on the close observation of how it functions isn’t something that has arrived lately courtesy of Greenpeace; this reverence for Mother Earth based on an understanding of her ways goes back at least to Darwin.
Besides reminding us of the long history of environmentalism, The Old Ways is also written with a view to correcting something much bigger: our negligent attitude to Mother Earth. I think most people would agree we’re not looking after our planet very well; we also know we’re despoiling it yet carry on regardless. We seem to have an unflagging capacity for self-destruction.
If the planet is going to continue to be able to support life, we need to adopt a proper attitude of respect. That’s the only thing that can stop us destroying our world. And the way to get this attitude, in Macfarlane’s opinion, is via the millions of kilometres of pathway that cover the globe. Because they were made at a time when a proper attitude was typical, he thinks we can reconnect with that proper attitude simply by walking them. Take to the old ways and get the world back. It’s good advice.
Carlo Gébler is a writer. He teaches at Queen’s University Belfast and HMP Maghaberry. Lagan Press will shortly publish his memoir, Confessions of a Catastrophist