Book review: The Old Ways: A Journey
THIS volume completes a rough trilogy – Mountains Of The Mind, The Wild Places and now The Old Ways – and confirms Robert Macfarlane’s reputation as one of the most eloquent and observant of contemporary writers about nature; although a new term is increasingly necessary.
The trajectory of the trilogy shows why. The books move from the inaccessible, to the unexplored and undiscovered and overlooked, to, now, routes that are millennia old.
Macfarlane is aware he is not the first to walk these paths and tracks. The “other” of nature has another other in, well, other people. Macfarlane walks with a range of people – the Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh, the sailor-poet Ian Stephen, Macfarlane’s friend David Quentin, “the only Marxist tax-lawyer in London, possibly the world”. Walking, even seeing, is best when not a solitary occupation: as Byron lamented in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage “I should see / With double joy wert thou with me”.
But there is a deeper reason for walking together. It raises ghosts. At the end of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, there are the haunting lines “Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you”. The figures of George Borrow, Nan Shepherd and especially Edward Thomas (who is a kind of presiding absent presence throughout), previous walker-writers, stalk alongside Macfarlane. Or rather, he stalks their traces as he investigates how landscape impresses itself upon humanity as much as what humanity does to landscape.
The journeys here are eclectic, and despite the title, not all are on foot. Macfarlane ranges from the Icknield Way to the Shiants (with a magical litany of the “sea paths” of navigation), and as far afield as the pilgrim’s way to Santiago and the holy mountain of Minya Konka in Tibet.
There are also voyages by ski and by pure imagination. Macfarlane seems to have honed his lapidary, imagistic style – pheasants have “copper flank armour and white dog-collars (hoplite vicars)” – and the almost tactile descriptions are not limited to the flora and fauna. In winter there is “low light, saturating the landscape with a dull glow that never thickened to a shine but still drew blues from the long-lying snow”. There is the “ghostly high carolling, intermittent and tentative” of the pylons.
In his description of walking the tidal causeway of Broomway, off the coast of Essex, the so-called “deadliest path in Britain”, Macfarlane’s prose becomes ecstatic, revelling in the paradox of this tactile and ethereal location: “everywhere I looked were pivot-points and fulcrums, symmetries and proliferation: the thorax points of a winged world. Sand mimicked water, water mimicked sand, and the air duplicated the textures of both. Hinged cuckoo-calls; razor shells and cockle shells; our own reflections; a profusion of suns; the glide of transparent over solid”.
Later he records Robert Frost’s meeting with Edward Thomas, where the American poet showed the English writer that he was already writing poetry behind the disguise of prose. The same might be said of Macfarlane’s own work.
There are two major shifts from the previous books. Firstly, there is a far more deliberate attention paid to “land art”, from references to Richard Long and Antony Gormley to meetings with Steve Dilworth and Miguel Angel Blanco to readings of Eric Ravilious. It makes me wonder if the next logical step in his writing would be for a full length study of the intersection of art and earth, the aesthetic rather than industrial intervention with landscape. It would be intriguing to read Macfarlane at length on Ian Hamilton Finlay, Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria and even the great visionary landscape painter, Samuel Palmer.
Palmer’s mysticism links to the other subtle shift. Time and again in the book the reader sees Macfarlane confronting the inexplicable. There is a jaguar-ish thing in the Downs, a trail of impossible footprints in the Grey Corries, a noise at night at Chanctonbury Ring. Macfarlane often defects these moments with humour (“reading that, I felt first a shock of recognition and then mild pride that I’d tolerated what had put a gang of hairy bikers to flight”) but the incidents clearly work away at him. Even his opening tumble from a bike becomes portentous, a possible omen (a friend later writes to him that this was a “toll-fee”, “bone for chalk” providing access to the old ways). This doesn’t teeter into fey leylinery or vacant paganism; rather it’s a kind of metaphysical pebble in the boot that can’t quite be worked loose.
The Old Ways progresses the debate about what the “New Nature Writing” really is (Macfarlane slyly quotes a Victorian guide to flowers, “herbs with stipulate, pinnate, serrate leaves and terminal bracteate spike-like racemes of small yellow flowers”, which though beautiful, shows how far description of nature has come).
Whatever he does next, I am confident readers will want to join him on the journey. «
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Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 18 June 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 10 mph
Wind direction: South
Temperature: 10 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West