Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Old Ways

I received The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane for my birthday in November from a brother who shares my interest in walking and walking in Britain in particular.  I loved it, though I definitely liked some chapters better than others.  Also, this is one of those books that is best read one chapter and at time--meaning, read a chapter, digest it, give the book a rest for a day or two, then read another chapter.  Each chapter is too distinct, and each locale with its stories, people, history, and landscape deserves its own space to be enjoyed, pondered, and absorbed.  That's the way I read the book anyway.

Macfarlane has an immense vocabulary, and I found myself reaching for my iphone to look up words regularly. I also found myself looking up the artists, writers, voyagers, and other notable personalities that figure throughout the book.  In particular, he charts the course of Edward Thomas, a WWI English poet, who I had never heard of, despite being a friend of Robert Frost and as such intimately tied to the creation of Frost's great poem, The Road Not Taken

I had assumed I would come away from reading The Old Ways with a list of walks that I had to do.  While I did garner a couple for my list, most of the walks were in places too remote or too strenous for the likes of me.

I loved Macfarlane's turn of phrase and felt that his eloquent weaving of words made the reading of this book well worth the effort.

In the chapter titled "Granite," Macfarlane talks about Nan Shepherd's book The Living Mountain, which I've ordered from Amazon for reading later this year, and he says:

On foot for hour after hour, wrote Shepherd, one 'walks the flesh transparent'. 'On the mountain,' she remarks in the closing sentences of The Living Mountain, 'I am beyond desire.  It is not ecstasy...I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am.' This was her version of Descartes's cognito: I walk therefore I am. She celebrated the metaphysical rhythm of the pedestrian, the iamb of the 'I am', the beat of the placed and lifted foot.

I love that--the metaphysical rhythm of the pedestrian--the iamb of the 'I am'--the beat of the placed and lifted foot.

It's like breathing.

If you're not up for a whole book like this, I suggest this wonderful article by Macfarlane, published in The Guardian, June 2012: Rites of way: behind the pilgrimage revival

It's a great article in and of itself, but also encapsulates some of the themes and ideas explored more fully in The Old Ways.


  1. I love walking. I have never been to the UK but there must be so many terrific places to walk. Some of the remote walks that you refrence in this book sound fascinating.

  2. A lovely review, and I've just begun Macfarlane's book, and yes, it does well in separate doses. I find that, not really by design, I have been reading novels structured around long walks. The first of these was "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry," which I know you read and reviewed. The experience of walking was as much the subject of the book as the transformations wrought by the journey. And yesterday, I just started "A Soldier of the Great War" by Mark Helprin; I was surprised when the protagonist, a WWI veteran named Alessandro, ended up abandoning the cross-country trolley he was on and began to walk the trip with a young man who had missed the trolley himself. Once again, the rigorous nature of long walks is the subject, along with the evolving conversation between these two strangers. So perhaps "walking books," whether fiction or nonfiction, break down into solitary walks and walking with companions, and sometimes a bit of both. I'm not up to the physical challenges of following in their footsteps, but I love the reading trips!

    1. I'll have to check out A Soldier of the Great War - sounds really interesting. I admit that I am on the lookout for walking books these days--there's a reason the journey is an archetypal fiction type :)

  3. Thank you for your blog post I found it interesting, helpful and well written. I've added this book to my wish list and look forward to reading it. From what you've described about the book it sounds like this one will be best in its printed format to read slowly over time. I did the same with Sorrell Wilbey's "Tibet" and Peter Matthieson's Snow Leopard.

  4. I have to find this book to read. I am interested in walking books, and I like the quote you give from the book. Thanks, Jane. Even though I have a damaged knee and can only really walk on even surfaces (for now anyway), I love to imagine walking in far away places. I do walk often here, and there is a kind of rhythm to walking, and in and out that is like breathing. Yes, that is a lovely quote from the book!