I recently reviewed Robert Macfarlane’s book, Mountains of the Mind, which is part personal essay and part cultural history. It asks a number of questions about mountains: What is it about mountains that draws us? How do mountains shape us? Why have we talked about mountains so differently over the centuries, and why have so many people sought their summits at the risk of their lives? Macfarlane’s lovely, thoughtful prose, his erudition, and his personal connection to his subject made a perfect combination, and I wanted to seek out more of his work.
In The Old Ways, Macfarlane discusses the old paths — some as old as the Neolithic age, some as recent as the 18th or 19th century — that still exist in the world, to be walked by the curious, the pilgrim, or the merely pragmatic. He talks about chalk paths across the Downs, drove-roads, holloways, sea-roads, shieling-paths across peat bogs, wadis, the Camino de Santiago, and much more. Famous walkers haunt his text: Hazlitt, Wordsworth, Thoreau. One whole chapter is dedicated to the life of Edward Thomas, an English poet whose work was deeply influenced by his walking.
One of the things Macfarlane posits in his text is that walking is actually a way of knowing, something that is other than, and beyond, thinking. Our feet press the earth, and the earth presses back; our feet are shaped by the earth, and we can know it differently by walking on it than we do by observing it in other ways. He explores various pilgrim ways: the Camino, as I mentioned, but also the Buddhist kora, or sacred circumambulation, around Minya Konka, a vast mountain in Tibet. This is the path as Way as knowledge, and Macfarlane plays with the idea that less-sacred paths — the ones where we encounter nature — are paths of knowledge and enlightenment as well.
In each chapter, Macfarlane tells stories of people he meets who are walking the same paths, people who are creating meaning out of connecting one place to another. Anne Campbell spends her days walking the peat bogs on the isle of Lewis, mapping the shieling paths and writing down the memories people have of those disappearing places before they are sucked into the peat forever. Ian Stephen is a sailor, also from the Isle of Lewis, who knows the sea-roads all around the Outer Hebrides, and can sail them in a tiny clinker-built two-man boat. Steve Dilworth is a sculptor whose work “makes ritual objects for a tribe that never existed,” and he works with a circle of erratic stones in the Outer Hebrides, connecting them with his materials of flesh, bone, metal, sinew, sand, blood, and fire. Miguel Angel Blanco has created a book for every walk he has taken, capturing its essence and shelving it in a thousand-volume Borgesian library of paths. These chapters are fascinating and also deeply personal: these are Macfarlane’s friends, his experiences. He meets these people, sails the sea-road with Ian, walks the Camino with Miguel — and then walks on, glad to have done it, glad to be alone again on the path.
This book was wonderful. It’s beautifully written and also neat and accurate, separating Macfarlane’s own experience from the history and cultural analysis with a precision that’s often hard to find. It made me want to go right out with my walking stick and a pair of good shoes (his praise of barefoot walking didn’t inspire me) and begin immediately. It was such a pleasure to read about things I didn’t know, or had heard bits about in literature but never the history. I look forward to reading more by Macfarlane, and soon.