On one of the hottest days this summer, I am immersed in an account of walking across the Marlborough Downs in snow.There are two reasons for my immersion. First, I too have written about such a walk (A blog on the Og), so I am mentally comparing notes as I read. Second, the account comes from Robert Macfarlane’s new book, The Old Ways, which I have just bought after reading an exhilarating review in the TLS by Adam Thorpe. What follows is not a review (I only bought the book yesterday) but my own exhilarated first impressions of a book I already know I want to recommend to everyone in sight.
The Old Ways begins with a quotation from Emerson I have not come across before: ‘All things are engaged in writing their history … Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march.’ Footprints and footpaths crisscross every page of this book. ‘Paths’, says Macfarlane, ‘are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making.’ His own footpaths, and the walks about which he writes, start at his front door in Cambridge, and take him all over the British Isles and to the far - and often far-from-safe - places of the world: Ramallah on the Palestinian West Bank, for instance, or the high mountains of Western Tibet, where his walking companion warns him, “If we’re lucky, it’ll be dry and bright and fearsomely cold. If we’re unlucky, it’ll be blizzarding and overcast and fearsomely cold.” It is certainly cold: Macfarlane’s trousers freeze. But the views and the companionship are well worth it. “Darshan!” he exclaims, as he gets his first view of Minya Konka. (The book has an excellent, quirky, glossary which glosses Darshan as a Sanskrit word meaning ‘seeing, in the sense of beholding a divine vision’.)
Much about The Old Ways is quirky in the best sense: Macfarlane is masterly with words, making us see things in new ways. His companions in Tibet include Erik, who is ‘rigging-thin’, and Jatso, who ‘snored inspiringly’ for ten hours of night when the temperature was - 20°C. On another cold night, back in Cambridge, Macfarlane steals out of the house for a secret bike ride, but skids on the ice and has a nasty fall. His pride and his knees are badly bruised. No one could accuse him of being sentimental or self-pitying: ‘What a fool I’d been, biking like a dizzy vicar down the road, too full of the romance of the way.’
Perhaps ‘post-modern romantic’ is the description that fits him best. Here is his description of walking the Marlborough Downs under snow:
For those last short hours of daylight, we moved through a world drained of people and colour. Once a heron launched itself from low ground to our south, a foldaway construction of struts and canvas, snapping and locking itself into shape just in time to keep airborne, slowing time as it beat away northwards on curved wings.
I’m glad to have lived long enough to read such a description of a heron in flight.
It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Robert Macfarlane walks always in company with other writers. He quotes Edmund Blunden (“We have been increasingly on pilgrimage”) and follows Laurie Lee to Spain to explore the side tracks on the pilgrim way to Santiago. When I started to learn Spanish at school, we had an apricot-coloured textbook called Nos Ponemos en Camino, so this was the first sentence in Spanish I ever learned. The camino looms large in The Old Ways. Macfarlane quotes what he calls ‘probably the best-known line in Spanish poetry’: Marchado’s ‘No hay camino, se hace camino al andar – there is no road, the road is made by walking’. This comes near the start of a fascinating digression – well, no, not a digression: all the sidetracks in this book turn out to be part of the main path – about ‘one of the most astonishing libraries in existence’, the collection of Miguel Angel Blanco in which every book is kept in its own special box and turns out to be itself both book and box. ‘Each of my books,’ Miguel tell him, ‘records an actual journey but also a camino interior, an interior path.’ It is a library of personal pilgrimage. After choosing three boxes as disturbing and prophetic as the caskets in The Merchant of Venice, Macfarlane concludes, ‘I felt somehow known by these boxes, this vast mute library, these books which I appeared to open but which actually opened me.’
Of all the poets who accompany him, however, the most important is Edward Thomas. The Old Ways is, in some ways, both a commentary and a biographical essay on the greatest walking poet of the twentieth century. It is thus a counterpoint to Matthew Hollis’s 2011 biography Now All Roads Lead to France. In his Acknowledgements, Macfarlane writes:
Matthew Hollis and I discovered that for three years we had been following similar paths back into Edward Thomas’s life, without ever quite meeting or realizing the other was around. Such footstepping and way-crossing came to seem wholly in keeping with our shared subject, and I remain grateful for Matthew’s generosity of spirit.
Adam Thorpe describes Macfarlane as a ‘writer-naturalist’, which he manifestly is. But he is also an academic at Cambridge, a Fellow of Emmanuel and a much-in-demand member of the English Faculty. I don’t think I have ever before read a book in which a virtuoso demonstration of close reading is hidden in the Acknowledgements (pp.411-2), but here you will find Macfarlane’s keen analysis of a passage about writing and re-writing from Henry James’ foreword to the New York edition of The Golden Bowl. He admires the way ‘James strikingly figures the original writer as a walker who has left tracks in the snow of the page, and the revising writer as a tracker or hunter, following the original print-trail.’
Robert Macfarlane is both walker and tracker, and in The Old Ways invites his readers to be walkers and trackers too. Even before I have finished it, I can’t wait to start re-reading this book.
[Photo: the Marlborough Downs at Ogborne St. Andrew, January 2010
Read recent reviews of my book Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, (Lutterworth: 2012) here.