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guest review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, from Pops

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In The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane speaks to us as he walks countryside in a dozen British and international locales. That is simply said, but the depth and richness of this literary journey easily fills 360 pages. This is not a guidebook, although we get a close look at a variety of places. In parts, it is an adventure in words, history, literature, nature, personal inquiry, human behavior, and sense of place. Macfarlane describes his thoughts and observations as he walks, and that is a treasure. Also in parts: this is a collection of chapters, which could also each stand alone as an essay; even so, chapters proceed in a rough chronology over an indeterminate time period; more broadly, he shares segments of his life’s journey of the mind, enriching literary impressions as he wanders.

Macfarlane’s book shares its title with a Gary Snyder essay collection of the 1970s published by Ferlinghetti’s historic bookstore, City Lights; but the title senses are different, while still related. Snyder’s book could as easily been titled Staying Put (more recently adopted by Scott Russell Sanders) as his “Old Ways” took the typical American word-sense and put deeper meaning to it, as in: “the good old days”; a way of life, which encompasses cultural thoughts & values closely embedded in a place, spiritually and organically vital to the people living there.

Macfarlane’s sense of “Old Ways” considers the old and often veiled path-ways of England & Scotland, which in meaning embraces much: the physical path, historic connection, the chosen route and the legal rights thereof. Way is the root of so many common words (e.g. freeway, doorway, causeway, wayward, wayfinding, right of way) that Americans have lost track of that root in usage. Not so Macfarlane, who explores the etymology at length, both in literal & figurative senses. This includes Snyder’s “way of life”, as Macfarlane describes the essence of walking, for himself, his culture and people in general: in losing the stimulating practice of walking the old ways, we have lost important connections to places along that way. In his pedestrian passion Macfarlane welcomes numerous author allies, including Thoreau in his familiar “Walking.”

Above all else, the magic in these pages is Macfarlane’s way with words; I can hardly explain the eloquence. Description flows beautifully and wraps the reader in feeling, in myriad ways, a place described. His British English – and a commitment to precision, lost words, etymology and meaning – can mystify and charm. At one point he explores the word saunter in four languages, arriving at its best precise use. He refrains from analysis or proclaiming held-values or tragic history; his words translate observations so subtly and powerfully, we feel the implications ourselves.

Humility permeates his writing voice, and the characters he admires. He rarely includes himself in observation; as he is often walking and sleeping in harsh conditions, we do not learn how he does it, how he is equipped or how he feels about it. Rather he is ever looking outward to the pathway’s course, or to inward thoughts; his own circumstances are mere distraction.

Characters in his way-stories are sometimes friends walking alongside; sometimes other walkers, watchers or wanderers; but often they are writers, embodied in their words. He is absorbed by the words of others, and quotes freely from sources obscure to American or casual readers, yet revealing of his own thoughts. In one of many examples, by reference to several other authors, he is also describing what readers may perceive to be our humble narrator’s own path:

All of these people had been animated at first by the delusion of a comprehensive totality, the belief that they might come to know their chosen place utterly because of its boundedness. And all had, after long acquaintance, at last understood that familiarity with a place will lead not to absolute knowledge but only ever to further enquiry.

One of his favorite writers is Edward Thomas; though he died in 1917, Thomas’ physical & life’s journey is Macfarlane’s personal obsession, and a common thread throughout the book. Yet there are many others, and Macfarlane is widely read while not effete; variously, he also invokes Hansel & Gretel, Tolkien, Hiawatha and the Iliad. For this reader, for all that Macfarlane appreciates others, his own prose is unsurpassed and suffers companions only for amusement.

Macfarlane’s observations do not comprise a purist homage to nature or wilderness; these are walks through long-inhabited places, featured with relics and scars left by ancient ancestors of those who still walk today. Quoting the walking Thomas, while again seeming to reflect on himself: “He liked the evidence of human mark-making and tampering over the millennia… testifying to a landscape that was commemorative, tending to the consecrated.” Macfarlane places importance on staying connected to that past, with clear observation, nuance and consideration.

One is drawn to the impression, lulled by our guide’s example, that seeking too much grand meaning can obscure rather than reveal what these already faint tracks offer inquiring minds. Nonetheless, we may seek: for example, how different would perception of our past ways be, if the ancient marks and messages on American landscapes belonged to our own ancestors, rather than to native voices prematurely silenced?

Nearing the end of his walking tales, considering all he had seen, the literary characters he encountered and his obsession with one, Macfarlane reflects:

This, I thought, had been the real discovery: not a ghostly retrieval of Thomas, but an understanding of how for him, as for so many other people, the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.

I hope I get to read this someday…

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