I finished reading 'The Old Ways', Robert Macfarlane's joyous account of journeys on foot, on a plane to South Africa in January. But such is the book's power to transport this city-dwelling/nature-yearning reader to the great outdoors that there has been barely a day when I have not thought about it since and, thus, I still feel the need to eulogise three months later.
Macfarlane opens by blithely observing that “[t]his book could not have been written by sitting still” and some serious sole-leather was clearly consumed in its creation. The author needed to get out and about for reasons of personal soul searching – “the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know myself?”. But he also uses ancient pathways to study the history of how people live together: “[p]aths are the habits of landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It's hard to create a footpath on your own.”
At the outset, the chief focus of Macfarlane's historical enquiry is to trace the footsteps of the poet and travel writer, Edward Thomas, who somewhat maniacally walked the paths of southern England until he was killed in the First World War. It seems that had he survived, Thomas may have profited from a surge in rambling: “[T]he shock of the Great War provoked intense British interest in the old ways. Some of the returning soldiers, wounded in body and mind, retreated to the English countryside, hoping that by recovering a sense of belonging rooted in nature and place they might dignify their damaged lives (the wish that it had all been worth something).”
This connection between paths and ancestry appears universal. On the other side of the world, in Australia, Macfarlane quotes Bruce Chatwin's explanation of the aboriginal belief that “[e]ach totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints”.
These 'dreaming tracks' are perhaps the most ephemeral of the 'old ways' Macfarlane documents, but not the only 'old ways' that lack a recognisable physical form. In one chapter, for example, he searches for 'sea roads', noting that these could shift from day to day as ancient mariners would have used natural navigation techniques, like following the line of flight of land-roosting birds at dusk, to plot their route home.
Following birds is a theme and some of the most wonderful passages in the 'Old Ways' are the descriptions of the wildlife Macfarlane observes as he strides along. My favourite concerns puffins: “A sound came from above: an amplified riffle, banknotes being whirred through a telling machine. It was the compound wing noise of puffins, thousands of puffins, criss-crossing the sky with their busy roosting flights. More distantly I could make out sound of sociable puffin chirrups: evening gossip from the birds in their nests on the cliffs.”
Every year at Xmas I 'give' my partner a trip to see the puffins on the Northumberland coast when they arrive in the British spring. Busy lives have mean that we've never yet made it, but Macfarlane's writing has provided new resolve in 2014 and so I will make a public pledge to get there this year.
While the 'Old Ways' is in many other ways a book about nature, its primary focus is people in the landscapes they inhabit. All Macfarlane's paths have characters who have been that way before and stories connected with them. Many are associated with a particular place or area, often living remotely. “All these people had been animated at first by the illusion of a comprehensive totality, a belieft that they might come to know a chosen place utterly because of its boundedness. And all had, after long acquaintance, had at last understood that familiarity with a place will lead not to absolute knowledge but only ever to further enquiry.”
Many survive in harsh landscapes and a wonderful chapter about a Scottish fishing community and its annual, dangerous, journey to St Kilda to harvest the visiting gannets evoked for me the songs of British Sea Power and, particularly, their extraordinary soundtrack to the 1930's silent film, 'Men of Arran. I particularly loved the story about a kamikaze gannet, whose beak pierced a fishing boat's hull so fiercely that it both gashed a potentially fatal wound and then safely sealed it, so that the vessel moored safely, albeit with a large bird protruding from its hull.
Eqaully fascinating was a passge recalling Macfarlane's wanderings in Tibet, where he heard credible tales of a form of tantric yoga called tumo, through which practitioners can generate an 'inner furnace' that allows them to live comfortably in just one layer of white cotton cloth at altitudes above 4,000 metres. When soaked, said garments apparently emit steam even in the winter wind such is the residual body heat!
Reading 'The Old Ways' is an exercise in relaxation, creating something like the feeling I get when starting a trip on our narrowboat, The Silver Lining, becalmed by the knowledge that all I am going to be able to do for the foreseeable future is drift along at 3 miles an hour, watching the world go by. But it is also an education – I scribbled an entire page of words that I didn't understand and which required a large dictionary to decipher – and, like all great travel guides, 'The Old Ways' provides inspiration for future quests to be enjoyed. Now to book the puffin safari!