The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

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My Eyes Are in My Feet: On Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways

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Much has been written of travel, far less of the road.
–Edward Thomas, The Icknield Way

My apartment in Brooklyn is a 20-minute walk from the subway. Strange as it may seem, this constitutes a prohibitively long distance in New York terms. To traverse it involves an apparently tedious march past a medley of odd little bars, thrift stores, clapboard houses, churches, project towers, and forklift-busy warehouses. Skirt around the small triangular patch of ground commemorating World War I soldiers from the neighborhood before rushing through the waft of crushed leaves on Woodpoint Road, then the salty bang of Ho May Kitchen. Perhaps a momentary glance at the dog that watches quizzically from a third floor condo, and on the corner of Meserole a lithe young cat known, only by me of course, as The Hopester. All that variety in 20 easy minutes, and it sometimes seems that people would prefer, if given the choice, a couple of miles running nowhere on a treadmill.
Don’t get me wrong. If you can hammer out a mile or three on a treadmill I salute you. But it appears that the pleasures of ambling, dawdling, sauntering, strolling, and even straight-up walking have been subordinated to the means/end logic of appointments, schedules, and target bodies. Activities get slotted into temporal compartments so that maximum utility is gained and the humble walk is relegated to nuisance.

The Sunday Times has a section in its magazine called “A Life In The Day.” A couple of years back it covered a day in the life of a ninja. No kidding. Masaaki Hatsumi, grand master of the Togakue school of ninja. There, he remarked, “I make a habit of never having any sort of routine. It’s bad to have a pattern to your life, because the three easiest times to kill a man are when he’s on the toilet, when he’s in bed or when he’s eating.” I don’t know whether Masaaki Hatsumi would judge the walk from the subway to my door a long one, but I have long admired his idea of avoiding routines. It is true that I have no — or at least, very few — worries about being assassinated on the toilet. But beyond that, there is immense value in the suggestion of being alert to what is around you, of perhaps noticing now and then (in the words of Louis MacNiece) “the drunkenness of things being various,” and of being open to the possibility that something wondrous and wondrously brief might happen to you or I at any given moment.

It is true too that my brief strolls around hipsterville 11222 hardly constitute the way of the ninja, to say nothing of the 40 miles a day that a hardcore wanderer like Samuel Coleridge could muster in his time. But on reading The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane, a wonderfully meandering account of the author’s peregrinations and perambulations through England, Scotland, Spain, Palestine, and Sichuan, one is reminded over and again of the textured history and unpredictable beauty of routes themselves as opposed to mere destinations and (if this is not in fact a tautology) the infinite possibilities that come with cultivating an openness to chance.

Yet strictly speaking, Macfarlane’s book is not so much a story of movement as it is of metaphor. Leading the reader along the Icknield Way, for example — a centuries old chalk path across southeast England — the author takes as his guide the poet Edward Thomas, who, in a remarkable creative outpouring between 1914 (when the poet Robert Frost, a frequent Gloucestershire walking companion, told him his prose was verse in disguise) until his death in the trenches of 1917, wrote scores of poems about paths and ways and walking. While crossing the Cairngorm massif, a mountain range in the Highlands of Scotland, Macfarlane draws on the work of novelist Nan Shepherd, who once declared “my eyes are in my feet.” Other scribblers like William Wordsworth and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Roger Deakin and Henry David Thoreau saunter across the pages like truant ghosts, reminding us how many of those we admire are intimately tied to the places in which they moved — Glencoyne Bay, Walden Woods. Such connections between writing and motion are not incidental details here. Rather they constitute a key concern of the book, a consideration of the manner in which metaphors shape our experience and experience shapes our metaphors. In other words, an attempt to give a richness of appreciation to the fact that, in English and Latin, the basic metric unit of the poem is the foot.

Macfarlane is certainly not alone in celebrating the wonders of wayfaring. W.G. Sebald and Iain Sinclair are only two of the most recent figures in a tradition that stretches back through Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Louis Stevenson to the 17-century Japanese poet Basho and beyond. But Macfarlane’s particular gift is his ability to bring a remarkably broad and varied range of voices to bear on his own pathways and to do so with a pleasingly impressionistic yet tenderly precise style. Consider this sentence, in which time and sensation combine so that eons are gradually funneled down through years, days and minutes into the Now:

The waymarkers of my walks were not only dolmens, tumuli and long barrows, but also last year’s ash-leaf trails (brittle in the hand), last night’s fox scat (rank in the nose), this minute’s birdcall (sharp in the ear), the pylon’s electric crackle and the crop-sprayer’s hiss.

Or this, an account of walking the Broomway, a footpath barely visible and just about at water level during low tide, going straight out to sea for three miles before hitting high land again on the deliciously named island of Foulness:

Half a mile offshore, walking on silver water, we crossed a path that extended gracefully and without apparent end to our north and south. It was a shallow tidal channel and the water it held caught and pooled in the sun, such that its route existed principally as flux; a phenomenon of light and currents. Its bright line curved away from us: an ogee whose origin we could not explain and whose invitation to follow we could not disobey, so we walked it northwards, along that glowing track made neither of water nor of land, which led us further and further out to sea.

Along that particular pathway, Macfarlane draws variously on the work of the early 20-century naturalist W.H. Hudson, poet and farmer Wendell Berry, and the visual artist William Fox. But just as illuminating are the people met and accompanied — Patrick Arnold, whose hand-drawn map of the Foulness coastline provides safe passage and who, because of an accident in 1857, believes he owes his life to the Broomway, or the author’s friend David Quentin, “the only Marxist tax lawyer in London.”

In this manner, Macfarlane treads pathways that before our eyes become repositories of lives and stories. A frequent activity along these journeys is the building of cairns — small  dome-shaped constructions of stones — piled up to serve as markers: of ways taken, of moments noted, of people passed away. On the westerly moraine of Minya Konka, Macfarlane constructs a pair of cairns that mark the sighting of the peak. But more than this, they mark the story of one Jonathan Wright who died there in 1980 and was buried by his climbing team in a crevasse in the glacier. Remarkably, almost 20 years later, his daughter made a pilgrimage to the spot where he died only to find his frozen and preserved body under the surface of the ice.

She was able to see him in the flesh, preserved almost as well as the day he died. She could touch his face, and she did so. She cut a lock of his hair. Shortly afterwards, they reburied Jonathan, 20 years on from his death.

Cairns for Macfarlane serve almost as poems made manifest and embedded in the landscape: elegies in gneiss, odes of mica, flint ballads. Of fishermen in the Outer Hebrides he tells us that “on a guga hunter’s last visit to the Rock, before he becomes too old to return, he builds a cairn to mark his relationship with the island.” On the Isle of Lewis, he searches for an elusive path traced on no maps, laid by a crofter called Manus MacLennan decades earlier, barely perceptible to the inattentive: “click. Alignment. Blur resolving into comprehension. The pattern standing clear: a cairn sequence, subtle but evident, running up from near the Dubh Loch shore.” Clicks, comprehension, subtle sequences. Are we really seeking trails in a landscape here or are we perhaps more accurately following the line of a lyric, the musique concrète of some immense epic written by a cattle herder across the hills and bogs of the Highlands? Is there a difference?

Paradoxically, the greatest virtues of Macfarlane’s approach to his subject matter — his openness to chance encounters and digression, a willingness to allow the material to shape the book, the eschewal of tight thematic structuring — are arguably at the roots of the book’s only real shortcoming, a certain studied aimlessness that can occasionally leave the reader weary of its 400-plus pages. Macfarlane’s first book Mountains Of The Mind, which explored Western culture’s changing attitudes towards the great peaks and ranges of the world, was an altogether more tightly controlled venture. Chapters dealt with particular issues and the book climaxed with a thrilling re-imagining of George Mallory’s doomed attempts to scale Mount Everest in 1921, 1922, and, fatally, in 1924. His second book, The Wild Places was a looser, almost mystical affair, but equally satisfying in its hunt for wild landscapes and places on the knife-edge of nature. The Old Ways assembles itself differently, in a manner that cedes virtually all authority to its materials. Here chapters have such titles as “Chalk,” “Peat,” “Ice,” and “Flint,” and are thematic only to the extent that each deals with a specific journey or set of journeys. Macfarlane does, however, repeat the strategy of concluding with the story of his guiding spirit. Edward Thomas’s story — his restless life and his tragic end by pneumatic concussion on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 in the battle of Arras — is told with poise and sensitivity. And a remarkable story it is. Here was a writer who saw himself “not as something rooted in place and growing steadily over time, but as a shifting set of properties variously supplanted and depleted by our passage through the world.” A poet who, upon being sent an early draft of Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” reads it as a personal rebuke of his indecisiveness in regard to joining the war effort. A few weeks later, in July 1915, he enlists.

However, a small amount of tedium seems only right when one reads of travels taken over days, weeks, and months; of the obsessions and compulsions that could lead a visual artist like Richard Long to walk a straight line dozens of times over and over again to create that most ephemeral of works: a path in the desert sand. And what better way to tell the story of pathways and roads, treks and rambles than through a book that refuses the easy satisfactions of end points and destinations? If I am pushed to find a point to The Old Ways beyond the immediate pleasure of the details, it is to be found in the sense that all the roads and paths contained in it converge to become one road. That the ways taken connect the walker to a whole manifold of ways and a manifold of wayfarers. That routes taken can be understood almost as physical poems, songlines of a culture. And although Macfarlane regrettably does not extend his journeying to the USA, one need only think of Highway Route 61, the “blues highway,” to remember all that lies waiting within the roads and pathways of America. As he so eloquently states in the final pages of the book, “The land itself, filled with letters, words, texts, songs, signs and stories. And always, everywhere, the paths, spreading across counties and countries, recalled as pattern rather than as plot, bringing alignments and discrepancies, elective affinities, shifts from familiar dispositions.” There is indeed much to be found when your eyes are in your feet.

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