The Old Ways

I went to the bookstore to buy Robert Macfarlane’s new book, Underland, and ended up with an older one instead — The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. One of the surprises of my recovery from a concussion has been the rediscovery of walking or rather, of following paths, especially paths through trees. There is something about the path winding it’s way along the embankment, with the dappled light coming through leaves or in winter the sequence of shadows made by the exposed branches. I am not sure why these walks are so healing, but there is no doubt in my mind that they are helping my brain knit itself back together.

So I was curious about Macfarlane’s journeys on old pathways and his understanding of the relationship between landscape, human body and human mind. I was not disappointed: I learned about the rock and earth he walked on, how the landforms came to be geologically and how animals (and humans) moved over it following their needs and desires.

The descriptions of the path and the experience of walking it are so immediate that I felt like I was there with the walkers, feeling the silt between my toes. I learned lots of words that come from specific landscapes — a Holloway is a path that has been worn down below the level of the surrounding terrain, speaking to very long usage. In Dorset there are holloways that lie twenty feet below the surface. Macfarlane keeps conversation with earlier writers about walking, especially Edward Thomas, who was unknown to me until this book, so I learned about their walks and their insights, too.

My one quibble is that it is a mostly male conversation; I valued the occasional female voice and would have appreciated more about gender, access and voice. I don’t think its necessarily a good idea to jump from one gender’s experience to discussing the “human” condition without at least addressing a notable absence.

I appreciated how well digested all the references were — this book could have felt a bit like an encyclopedia but it does not — everything is relevant and the flow of experience, information and insight is handled so beautifully it is barely noticeable. I kept wanting to read bits to my partner but felt torn about doing that because I was so eager to keep reading. (The summary at the beginning of each chapter and the index at the end are very helpful — thank you to the publisher for making space for these aids!)

But most of all what I gained was a fine tuning of own sensitivity to the landscape I walk in and how it affects me. Each time I read a chapter I felt my own longing to be putting one foot in front of the other, and my own curiosity to discover what thoughts and insights are possible to me because of the particular prairie landscapes that inhabit me. The Old Ways is the work of a master walker, writer and philosopher. I wish he was closer so I could attend some of his lectures. The books will have to do for now.

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