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.