22 October, 2012Issue 20.2EnvironmentTravel

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What Feet Know

Gabriel Roberts

The Old WaysRobert Macfarlane
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
Hamish Hamilton, 2012
448 pages
ISBN: 978-0241143810

Read Judyta Frodyma on The Old Ways


Robert Macfarlane’s latest offering completes a loose trilogy of books about nature and provides an opportunity for reviewing these works as a whole. In Mountains of the Mind (2003) and The Wild Places (2007), Macfarlane established himself as one of the most prominent figures in a new wave of writing about nature, which included weighty historical works, such as Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (1995), as well as lighter reads, such as Roger Deakin’s Wildwood (2007) and Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp (2012). Like most writers in the field, Macfarlane is driven by a search for adventure in a world which is mapped, cramped, and increasingly culturally homogenous, and, like most writers in the field, he faces a dilemma, that in discovering wilderness he makes it less wild.

Mountains of the Mind was an impressive first book, a readable history of Western attitudes towards mountains, beginning with Thomas Burnet in the 1690s and culminating in a superb account of George Mallory’s attempts on Everest. The history was punctuated with vignettes of Macfarlane’s own mountaineering experiences, which illustrated the attitudes towards mountains—aesthetic delight in them, fixation on their height, obsession with unclimbed peaks—which currently hold greatest prominence. The tone was sometimes rather macho, but the book succeeded in capturing the fatal attractiveness of mountains.

Perhaps in reaction to the globetrotting nature of his first book, Macfarlane’s eyes turned homeward in The Wild Places, a collection of essays about the few wildernesses remaining in the British Isles. The book was as engaging as its forebear, but its subject proved more difficult. In searching for wilderness, Macfarlane discovered that most of the wild places had been shaped by human activity; a conclusion which raised questions about why he was looking for wilderness in the first place, rather than exploring Britain’s fascinating managed landscapes. Nor did Macfarlane confront the question of why he was going to these places, and tacitly encouraging his readers to do the same, if he valued their wildness so highly.

In Macfarlane’s latest book, The Old Ways, he turns his attention towards walking. The book strikes a more balanced note than its predecessors, interspersing chapters on the British Isles with chapters on Palestine, Spain, and China, and finding a more moderate tone, as Macfarlane’s love of derring-do subsides. Contemplating a mountain in southern China, he describes himself pushing when young for the summits of mountains, longing to get into unmapped and unexplored territory, but now happier on the beaten track, following the footsteps of others.

The change in outlook is welcome, but there are other less successful innovations. Each chapter in The Old Ways begins with a set of words and phrases which, while presumably intended to resemble notebook jottings, are more reminiscent of undergraduate essay plans, full of the ubiquitous “x as y” construction: “Aerial photography as resurrection”, “mirage as authentic vision”, “Geography and history as consubstantial”, and so on. The faux naturalism of the device is indicative of the work as a whole.

The Old Ways also differs from Macfarlane’s earlier works in focusing more on his literary heroes and the people he meets along the way, but there is something of Macfarlane in everyone he meets. They all seem to inhabit mysterious lives, full of connections with the past and meaningful resonances:

I had first met Ian in Stornoway a year or so previously. He is – well, he is many things. A sailor before all else, determined by and for the sea, living mostly hand to mouth and with his eye always on the next adventure. His love of the sea is so keen that it might seem like greed, but it is more imperative than greed. […] He is now a sailor, an artist, a storyteller and a lyric poet of real worth.

Macfarlane rarely pauses to wonder if these attitudes are pretensions or (still worse) his own projections. This willingness to buy into (or perhaps to fashion) fantasies of authenticity and autochthony is at odds with the book’s presentation as an enquiry into our experience of nature.

The same suspension of disbelief is evident in Macfarlane’s enthusiastic moods. Describing the role of barefoot walking in Frank Fraser Darling’s investigations of deer, he writes:

Darling’s unconventional methods transformed modern ethology: instead of considering the deer as reflex creatures, displaying learnt but versatile reactions to their environment, he proposed a dynamic model of the herd in which each deer’s sensed experience of its landscape shiftingly informed their way of living. Darling’s contention, in short, was that deer ‘were capable of insight’, and his insight into their insight emerged from his decision to go sympathetically barefoot.

This is all very positive, but it isn’t clear: “dynamic” and “shiftingly informed” sound like good things, though aren’t explained; “insight” may imply consciousness, though isn’t developed; and “sensed experience” looks like tautology. By combining a tone of frank explanation with studied vagueness, Macfarlane avoids subjecting his heroes to criticism. He also encourages us to do the same, sharing in his enthusiasm, but without subjecting him to criticism either. This is likely to split readers into those who are willing to go “sympathetically barefoot” with Macfarlane and those who prefer to stay shod.

Something similar obtains in Macfarlane’s gravitation towards lost ways of knowing which can be rediscovered on the old ways. “Walking”, he ponders, “might be thinking and […] feet might know”. Or we may, like the Scottish writer Anne Shepherd, come to understand ourselves as “in some way thought by place”. Interesting though such cases are, Macfarlane neglects to ask any difficult questions about them: what it is that feet know, how it is that places think, and so on. There are deep waters here, but Macfarlane declines (barefoot or otherwise) to get his feet wet.

Macfarlane’s celebration of the inexpressible also seems at variance with the smooth finish of his writing. While he invites us to imagine him striding over moors and mountains, it is sometimes easier to imagine him rifling the pages of encyclopaedias and geography textbooks, foraging for euphonious words, or counting out the syllables of his sentences. The glossary at the back of the volume seems like a giveaway in this regard and points to one of the problems with his prose: that its mellifluous, enchanting quality is disrupted by the esoteric vocabulary.

The glossary isn’t the only item of back matter which might raise an eyebrow. Four dense pages of acknowledgements are supplied, including such unexpected figures as Werner Herzog, Vladimir Nabokov, Johannes Brahms, and The Smiths. It’s hard to know what to make of this or to see what the reader gains from knowing that Macfarlane has a penchant for Brahms. But the rationale seems clear: because the mystique of Macfarlane’s writing arises from his gesturing towards inexpressible experiences, the processes by which these experiences are attained become paramount. Macfarlane’s artistic encounters, as well as his adventures, are relevant, as the means by which an aspiring postulant might follow him in experiencing the inexpressible.

But above all, Macfarlane’s writing is remarkable for the absence of judgements. There is little to offend and much to delight, but this is part of the problem. The reader never learns whether his love of nature is accompanied by a critical view of modern culture or by developed ideas about how the natural world should be treated. He says nothing about the commitments, choices, and self-denials which a life in touch with nature might involve.

Yet the wilderness Macfarlane celebrates is threatened. Urban and industrial development, habitat fragmentation, overcrowding by tourists, invasive species, and pollution (among other threats) pose severe dangers to the wild places he describes. There are serious questions to be asked about whether wildness can be reconciled with further development and about how we might manage landscapes to preserve or even cultivate their wildness. Macfarlane says nothing about any of this.

The same is true of his approach to wildlife. Macfarlane clearly takes pleasure in plants and animals, but he says nothing about their current plight. Yet by most measures, British wildlife is struggling. This year alone, the RSPB reports that British birds are in greater peril than at any point in its history. The charity Plantlife reports that 10% of woodland plants in Wales are facing extinction, and the charity Butterfly Conservation reports that most British species of butterfly, like moths, bees, and many other insects, are in terminal decline. Similar problems can be found around the world.

But it isn’t just that Macfarlane is reticent. Readers of his books, buoyed up by his engaging writing, may think that the nature is in fine shape, tucked away in the wild places, safe out of sight and mind. Or they may follow in Macfarlane’s footsteps by visiting Britain’s wild places, thereby making them less wild, or follow in his air-miles to the Himalayas, contributing to the retreat of the glaciers which he describes so well.

In declining to address these questions, Macfarlane may have hoped to restore an optimistic and romantic note to environmental matters. This would be an understandable objective. But his books might have been more valuable and more ambitious if they had combined inspiring writing about nature with some kind of environmental message. As it is, for all their eloquence and charm, they do little more than gild middle-class holidays with literary glamour.

Gabriel Roberts is reading for a D.Phil in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.