'The Old Ways': Walking as a way of 'feeling, knowing and being'
British writer Robert Macfarlane explores the meditative aspect of being a pedestrian in "The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot."
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot'
by Robert Macfarlane
Viking, 433 pp., $27.95
The new book by British author Robert Macfarlane ("The Wild Places," "Mountains of the Mind") feels like a throwback of sorts. Not so much a travelogue as a travel meditation, it favors lush prose, colorful digressions, inconsistencies of approach and no small portion of eccentricity.
Narrative tidiness is not its point. Experience is.
"The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot" savvily examines humankind's oldest mode of transportation: hoofing it. While investigating what happens to human consciousness when we're following a well-worn trail, Macfarlane takes us to the wilds of Scotland, the crumbling sand-dune coastline of East Anglia, millennia-old footpaths on the West Bank, and pilgrimage routes toward Santiago de Compostela in Spain and around the sacred peak of Mount Kailash in Western Tibet.
He also, rather oddly, launches us onto the "sea roads" of the Outer Hebrides for two long waterborne chapters. That may make poetic sense. But some readers may think, as I do, that sea journeys feel sufficiently different from putting one foot in front of another to belong in another book. (Even land-bound bicycling, which Macfarlane doesn't go into, has a different essence from walking.)
Macfarlane's thoughts on pedestrian travel are most concentrated in his opening chapters.
"Paths are the habits of a landscape," he writes. "They are acts of consensual making. It's hard to create a footpath on your own."
With reference to British writers John Clare, Edward Thomas, George Borrow and others, he states his belief in "walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing."
Macfarlane isn't just talking about day hikes, but journeys of a week or more where he sleeps rough, gets spooked by night sounds and, on some occasions, is transported in his imagination centuries into the past.
He has a gift for description (North Sea foghorns are "great bovine reverbs drifting up and down the coast") and he shares Annie Proulx's love of specialist and regional vocabulary: "guga," "kist," "zawn" and other terms. (Fortunately, "The Old Ways" comes with a glossary.)
Like Bruce Chatwin, with whom he has a certain affinity, Macfarlane sometimes hints at wrinkles in his personal life without quite spelling them out — for instance, when he speaks of "longing simultaneously for distance and for enclosure: a paradox understandable to anyone who has ever been in a certain kind of love."
At the same time, he can be penetratingly precise. Walking with a Palestinian friend near Ramallah, he nails the essence of trying to go for a stroll in a landscape of military patrols and checkpoints: "Everything here, including botany, is political."
If you've ever had the experience, while walking, of an elusive thought finally coming clear or an inspiration surfacing after long struggle, "The Old Ways" will speak to you — eloquently and persuasively.
Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: firstname.lastname@example.org