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433 pages, Hardcover
First published June 7, 2012
Her brow furrowed. "The Israelis have stolen this land from us, they are thieves. I once wrote a letter to Ronald Reagan, I knew it would go in the waste-paper basket, but I needed to get it off my chest. 'Dear President Reagan,' it began...And went on with his own thing. Like the president.
I stopped listening.
No hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Translation: There is no road, the road is made by walking. Antonio Machado
There are so many outstanding reviews of this book that there is little, if anything, new for me to say. Robert MacFarlane’s prose is as luscious as ever. He writes of the lore of pathways, of those who wrote just as eloquently about them, in particular Edward Thomas; he walks on the moor paths of the Isle of Lewis and sails the sea roads off its coast, walks across the Lairig Ghru in the Cairngorms, on the Broomway off the coast of Essex, allegedly the deadliest path in Britain and for good reason. He walks in Spain, China and Palestine - I could go on but these are the most memorable for me. I enjoyed learning more about geology and the book’s index, divided into topic rather than simply alphabetical, is a wonderful resource and reference guide.
If you have a particular interest in the writer Edward Thomas, you will enjoy the last sections of the book. As I haven’t, other than loving the poem Adlestrop (and doesn’t everyone?), and as I’m not very familiar with the South Downs in England, I frankly found these sections a bit of a bore. That’s purely on the basis of personal interest, however, and didn’t detract from the pleasure the rest of the book gave me.
I could relate to the euphoria he often experiences when walking by himself. One sentence particularly resonated with me and reminded me of a summer’s day years ago when I was sitting on top of Hen Comb, a fell in the Lake District, eating my lunch with a view through to Buttermere, not another soul in sight, my arm around my beautiful dog, Nell.
I felt uncomplicatedly happy to be in that place and at that time.
I have been affected by the life & work of Edward Thomas: essayist, soldier, singer, among the most significant of modern English poets--and the guiding spirit of this book. Born in 1878 of Welsh parents and from a young age, both a writer & a walker, Thomas made his reputation with a series of travelogues, natural histories & biographies, as well as poetry, prior to being killed at the age of 39, at dawn on Easter Monday 1917 during the WWI Battle of Arras.It seems that almost every word is accompanied by its etymology, with linguistic declensions abounding in The Old Ways. In charting a path, McFarland comments that...
knowledge became codified over time in the form of rudimentary charts & peripli & then in route books in which we see paths that are recorded as narrative poems: the catalogue of ships in the Iliad is a pilot's mnemonic, for instance as is the Massaliote Periplus (possibly 6th century BC).All of this can become rather tedious at times, rather like the adage about asking someone the time & receiving a long discourse on the history of watchmaking. However, when Macfarlane is actively putting one foot in front of the other, describing scenery & folks encountered along the way The Old Ways is quite definitely a distinct joy to read.
Word maps of sea routes occur in scaldic poetry & area also folded into the Icelandic sagas, containing Landtoninger (landmarks) in the 14th century Book of Settlements, whose 100 chapters tell the story of Iceland by the Vikings & include guides to the verstrveger, or western roads of the Atlantic that led from Norway to the Orkneys, Scotland, the Hebrides & Ireland as well as to the Faeroe Islands, Iceland & Greenland, using poetic logbooks or routiers & portolani for trans-oceanic passage crossings.
He loved landscapes passionately but he wasn't a landscape mystic. His considerable analytical powers were directed outwards to the explanation of geopolitics & historical tectonics. While I have always been more interested in the relationship between landscape, individual lives & how the places we inhabit shape who we are, my grandfather would have been hard pressed to explain why certain landscapes meant to him what they did.When Macfarlane describes the "Guga Hunters", groups that since the at least the 16th century have appeared for 2 weeks every year to cull the flock of Gannets (sea birds) on the island of Sula Sgeir, it is a memorable vignette of an age-old tradition, seemingly untouched by the passing centuries.
He reveled in the glory of high country in particular, the companionship provoked by passage through certain landscapes, the fortifying power of hardship experienced at nature's hands & the dignified tradition of the scholar-mountaineer, to which he made a significant addition himself--from the summits of the Himalayas, the Alps, up Kilimanjaro & Kinabalu, as well as all over the British ranges.
Her brow furrowed. "The Israelis have stolen this land from us, they are thieves. I once wrote a letter to Ronald Reagan, I knew it would go in the waste-paper basket, but I needed to get it off my chest. 'Dear President Reagan,' it began...
I stopped listening.
I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot's phrase, can 'enlarge the imagined range for self to move in'.
As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded in its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places — but we are far less good at saying what places make of us. For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself? (26)
The act of chart-reading, even more than the act of map-reading, is part data-collection and part occultism. Sailors, like mountaineers, practise their map clairvoyance based on intuition and superstition as well as on yielded information.
Wind-histories as well as wind-futures need to be taken into account, for the sea can have a long memory for past agitations. (124)
David is a former scholar of Renaissance literature, turned antiquarian-book dealer, turned barrister, turned tax lawyer. He is probably the only Marxist tax lawyer in London, possibly in the world. He likes wearing britches, likes walking barefoot, and hopes daily for the downfall of capitalism. He is 6'7" tall, very thin, very clever, and has little interest in people who take it upon themselves to comment without invitation on his height and spindliness. We have covered a lot of miles together. (66)
Short, nimble and bright-eyed, there is more than a hint of faery to Finlay. He has a crinkled smile and his shoulders shake when he laughs, which is often. He is constantly impious, though that doesn't stop him from taking things seriously. The only Christianity of which he approves was that which flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on the island, a pre-Reformation worship in which pagan habits were mixed with Christian rites. (145)
It has so far been a quarter of a century in the making, and at last count it consisted of more than 1,100 books — though its books are not only books, but also reliquaries. Each book records a journey made by walking, and each contains the natural objects and substances gathered along that particular path: seaweed, snakeskin, mica flakes, crystals of quartz, sea beans, lightning-scorched pine timber, the wing of a grey partridge, pillows of moss, worked flint, cubes of pyrite, pollen, resin, acorn cups, the leaves of holm oak, beach, elm. (239)