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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

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He discovers that paths offer not just means of traversing space, but also of feeling, knowing and thinking. The old ways lead us unexpectedly to the new, and the voyage out is always a voyage inwards.

Robert Macfarlane - Penguin Books UK Robert Macfarlane - Penguin Books UK

A wonderful evocation of Britain’s natural beauty and a reminder of our need to connect with the wilderness”― Times (London) Macfarlane's way of looking and describing is shaped by two men in particular. In one chapter he takes his bearings from the watercolourist Eric Ravilious, "a votary of whiteness and remoteness, and a visionary of the everyday". Taking to his skis somewhere north of Swindon, Macfarlane experiences the Marlborough Downs – via Ravilious – as a variation on the Arctic. Ravilious spent most of his working life not on chalk downland but in Essex; he is, to my mind, just as brilliant when painting cucumber frames in a greenhouse as when he renders the chill of ice. But Macfarlane's version of him brings out qualities I would never have seen. Felt pressure, sensed texture and perceived space can work upon the body and so too upon the mind, altering the textures and inclinations of thought.”

A Journey on Foot", reads the subtitle, but this is the story of many journeys. Fifteen of them are made by Macfarlane himself, along paths in the British Isles and, further afield, in Spain, Palestine and Tibet. He invokes, as he goes, hundreds of previous walkers, and hundreds of pathways – across silt, sand, granite, water, snow – each with its different rhythms and secrets. So the book is a tribute to the variety and complexity of the "old ways" that are often now forgotten as we go past in the car, but which were marked out by the footfall of generations. And it is an affirmation of their connectedness as part of a great network linking ways and wayfarers of every sort. Following Macfarlane's many travels, one understands why he thinks of his project as "a journey", singular rather than plural. In this intricate, sensuous, haunted book, each journey is part of other journeys and there are no clear divisions to be made.

The Old Ways: a Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane – review

For some time now it has seemed to me that two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I m in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” From my heel to my toe is a measured space of 29.7 centimetres or 11.7 inches. This is a unit of progress and it is also a unit of thought. 'I can only meditate when I am walking,' wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the fourth book of his 'Confessions', 'when I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.' Søren Kierkegaard speculated that the mind might function optimally at the pedestrian pace of three miles per hour, and in a journal entry describes going out for a wander and finding himself 'so overwhelmed with ideas' that he 'could scarcely walk'. Christopher Morley wrote of Wordsworth as 'employ[ing] his legs as an instrument of philosophy' and Wordsworth of his own 'feeling intellect'. Nietzsche was typically absolute on the subject - 'Only those thoughts which come from 'walking' have a value' - and Wallace Stevens typically tentative: 'Perhaps / The truth depends on a walk around the lake.' In all of these accounts, walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge; it is itself the means of knowing.”What I like about this is that it helps me to see the land and the biosphere, feel the land and its life in my body, to relate myself to the land, even in memory, and in the future. As Naomi Klein puts it in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, love will save this place. And for many of Robert's fellow British, who have been (what Klein, again, calls) rootless consumers for most of our lives, feeling connected to the land (other than in a proprietorial or nationalistic way I guess) might be something we can't even remember, something we have to learn like a new language... Beyond that, for Robert Macfarlane, a University of Cambridge professor & the author of numerous other books, including Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places,"the metaphors we use deliver us hope, or they foreclose possibility." I previously read Macfarlane’s Underland, and though I liked it, I found it more lyrical than science-based, and sometimes he got so deeply, personally involved in his subject that I was rolling my eyes in disbelief. He is a man deeply imbued with the spirit of high Romanticism. This book was better, more thoughtful and without so many flights of prose fantasy, and I was sometimes impressed by his ability to come up with evocative little gems, such as “Planes flew past every few minutes, dragging cones of noise,” (p. 55) or “Lift is created by the onwards rush of life over the curved wing of the soul.” (p. 303) On the other hand, sometimes he gets carried away by his words, writing phrases that would embarrass a Hallmark greeting card writer, as with “the sun loosed its summer light, as it had done for uncountable years, across the sea, the island and my body, a liquid so rich that I wanted to eat it, store it, make honey of it for when winter came.” (p. 112) Umm, sure….

The Old Ways - Penguin Books UK The Old Ways - Penguin Books UK

The Old Ways confirms Macfarlane's reputation as one of the most eloquent and observant of contemporary writers about nature' Scotland on SundayThis book is a meditation on how journeys are never just about getting from one place to another. Every land or seascape poses vistas to observe, problems to overcome, and reminders of deep time. Although most of the trips he describes take place in the British Isles, he goes as far afield as Palestine and Tibet. For me, in fact, those distant walks were the most interesting part of the book. In Palestine you have to break the law just to live, and in Tibet the sheer struggle for survival seems to highlight the majesty of limitless mountains and endless time.

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