Journey to the Self
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
Hamish Hamilton, 2012
Read Gabriel Roberts on The Old Ways
In his latest book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane attempts yet again to bridge the formidable divide between academic and mainstream prose. Placed alongside Mountains of the Mind (2003) and The Wild Places (2007), The Old Ways completes MacFarlane’s popular ”loose trilogy” of books on the connection between landscape and the human mind. His lucid, non-fiction accounts meditate on what connects us with the places we live in and move through.
Macfarlane is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and a Senior Lecturer in post-war English literature, but his interests, as documented in his travel-writing books, are geographically vast and wide-ranging. They are interests that, judging from the numerous prizes and literary awards (including a nomination for the Samuel Johnson Prize this year), also attract a large reading public which perhaps wishes to live vicariously through his works. Yet the trilogy, and in particular The Old Ways, seems to fall rather flatly in its superficial descriptions of paths less trodden. Although he is a master of description, the book fails to entice even as a pastiche and tows the readers along a narcissistic path of self-indulgent prose.
Despite its subtitle, ”A Journey on Foot”, this book features a variety of non-walking forms of travel, including a network of ancient seaways. Macfarlane moves from the ”chalk islands of England” through the ”bird islands of the Scottish north-west”, and spends a third of the book on walking tours of Palestine, Spain and the Himalayas. In a deliberate attempt at originality, the book is unconventionally organised around substances travelled on, such as chalk, silt, peat, gneiss, granite, rather than geography or chronology. It relies on the sort of pleasure which certain works of modern art feature—that is, a deliberate lack of narrative in favour of a transcendental or aesthetic ideal, found, for example, in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Two Years at Sea by Ben Rivers, the work of Gregory Euclide or Richard Long, and, as Macfarlane mentions, Miguel Angel Blanco’s library. Macfarlane himself admits that it is a book that could not have been written sitting down, but follows the 15-odd journeys he made in order to write it. He sub-divides it further into sections entitled ‘Tracking’, ‘Following’, ‘Roaming’, and ‘Homing’, and allows the land to direct the narrative, such as it is.
One might take issue with the book’s lack of focus, though to do so might be to miss the point. Indeed, there is no main narrative, no ”story”, but rather a myriad of self-contained episodes that perhaps ought to be thought of as journal entries instead of chapters. For example, his entries on Palestine read:
The next morning, not long after dawn, we left from Raja’s house to begin the first of our walks, down a long curling valley […] The sides of the valley were formed of hundreds of receding terraces of limestone, scrubbed with olive and oak and streaked beige, cream and ivory by the heavy marl that mixed with the limestone. I felt very nervous.
On his trek in the Himalayas he writes:
Karim, our driver, wore a black leather jacket with an Eagles escutcheon embroidered onto its breast, and sang Tibeto-pop in a heliated voice. The landscape streamed past us. Terraced rice fields with intricate irrigation channels. Bamboo groves with individual stems spindling up like antennae.
He substantiates these entries with facts, such as here, describing the Fuenfria valley: ”There is a Roman road, the Calzada Romano, whose building was commissioned by the Emperor Vespasian between 69 and 79 AD.” It leaves no doubt that the book has been meticulously researched.
Though Macfarlane is not passing this off as an academic work by any stretch of the imagination, he does fit it with an abundant glossary, a very well-organised Index of Selected Topics, ample footnotes and an extensive bibliography, all neatly tucked into the last 68 pages of the 433-page book. However, one element of the design stands out: the front and back endpapers are of beautiful editions of 19th-century geological maps, in a gorgeously muted colour scheme. This is what one almost begs for: fewer mundane photographs, more characteristic, old maps drawing out the old ways which the author haunts on his walks.
Many reviewers have described the book as ”haunting”: Adam Nicolson in the Telegraph calls it ”an astonishingly haunted book, not only with hundreds of literary presences, but with screaming ghosts one night on the South Downs at Chanctonbury Ring”. Indeed, it is deliberately ”haunted” by two literary figures: Nan Shepherd and Edward Thomas, both of whom are called on for epigraphs. The penultimate chapter (titled ”Ghost”) offers a poignant mini-biography of Thomas. Macfarlane writes in the present tense of Thomas’s relationship with his wife: ”They’re sharp and bickery, then they quarrel openly, then she cries again, and then they are tender together.” And with the poet Robert Frost: ”In June 1915 Frost sends Thomas a draft of a poem he has written called ‘The Road Not Taken’. It was inspired, obliquely, by the memory of walking with Thomas in the Dymock fields: Thomas’s eagerness, his wish to walk every path and his frustration at crossroads. In 23 pages, Macfarlane paints a sad picture of the poet and his untimely death, but it seems somewhat out of place in a book about ancient pathways. Thomas’s presence over the author himself is indisputable, both personally and as an outcome of his academic background, and Macfarlane makes no effort to hide his romanticised feelings for Thomas; but Thomas’s presence over the reader is somewhat different: one almost hopes for either a more connected narrative between the landscape and Thomas’s personal story, or for Thomas to be allowed to remain an important figure for Macfarlane without the need for such explicit explanation.
Yet this is what Macfarlane seems to enjoy most: making the objective personal. He includes almost cutesy details such as: ”The next day, my birthday, was the most charmed of my life”, as if coaxing the reader to reply: ”Happy Belated Birthday, Rob!” Luckily, the details are not all about him. In fact, he has a way of embedding the stories of people into the land, showing himself to be an acute observer of human nature as well as of animal tracks and cairns. Some of the characters are his friends, some are well-known local artists, and some, conveniently, are global experts on a given topic. Of cartographer and archaeologist Anne Campbell, he says: ”She had dark hair and her eyes were set slightly wide, which gave her a look of wild surprise, though it soon became clear to me that she took the world very calmly indeed.” His perception of character and ability to pick out the most interesting ones mirrors his ability to find and describe interesting landscapes.
The Old Ways is an openly self-indulgent book. Macfarlane does not aim to seamlessly stitch together into one work geology, archaeology, natural history, cartography, and personal narrative. Rather, he allows them all to combine as they will, offering up a topographical buffet of sorts for one to dip into as one pleases. His multidisciplinary, though not always disciplined, approach relies on the mere pleasures of learning, especially local histories and stories.
Judyta Frodyma is reading for a DPhil in English at St Edmund Hall.