KENAN CHRISTIANSEN -
Published: January 2, 2014
“The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot” by Robert Macfarlane caps off a trilogy of books that examine the subtle links between landscape, history and the imagination. Having already ventured into wilds, high and low, this third book focuses on the ancient routes and countless communal pathways that mark the world, connecting people to places, one another and the landscapes they inhabit.
Below are edited excerpts from a correspondence with Mr. Macfarlane, 37, on traveling the old ways.
Q. What are the “old ways”?
All footpaths are “old ways” in that they’ve taken time to come into being, and have been formed by the passage of many feet. They’re communal landmarks in that sense. It’s tough, tending to impossible, to make a path on your own, save by walking it hundreds of times (as the land artist Richard Long has done). I chose to use the old ways partly because I was fascinated by this network of paths that joined with one another and covered much of the globe (a very different kind of worldwide web), and partly because they seemed to promise a way of walking deeply into, rather than just shallowly across, the landscape. That promise came good.
You’ve said you were “interested in wonder as a response to landscape.” What have the old ways taught you about wonder?
Over the years I walked, I was wonder-struck countless times by the sight of storm-light, sundown, high peaks or wild water, as well as by the behavior of creatures and people. But I was also brought to reflect on the darker relationship between walking and despair. Several of the long-distance walkers I write about — the Victorian George Borrow, who suffered from what he memorably called “the Horrors”; or the poet Edward Thomas — walked to outstride their depressions, and leave their black dogs behind on the path. It didn’t always work for them.
Are there particular routes renowned for producing mental or emotional states?
Among the most powerful old ways I know are the ancient routes of pilgrimage: the roads leading to Santiago de Compostela, say, or the paths that circle the sacred peaks of the Himalayas (Kailash, Minya Konka) and along which Buddhist pilgrims perform their arduous koras.
How else do travelers respond to landscape?
Everywhere I walked — in the Hebrides, the West Bank, Sichuan, Spain, the chalk downs of southern England — I met people for whom walking was a means of making sense of themselves and of the world. Scottish islanders who instead of feeling culturally marginal walked their way into intimacy with their remarkable home landscapes; Palestinians who used path-following to discover direction and worth in a political context of disorientation and disturbance. Conservationists for whom the “foot-transect” was an indispensable means of data collection.
Why not just drive?
Ha! Well, many of Chaucer’s pilgrims traveled on horseback; while the hajj to Mecca now involves air travel for the majority of pilgrims. But there are two obvious differences between walking and vehicular travel. The first is that walking is a full-body experience; mind and body function inseparably, such that thought becomes both site-specific and motion-sensitive. The second is that on foot you are unshielded from the world. There is no sheltering glass or steel between you and the weather, and whoever or whatever you might encounter. Walking a path, you greet or chat with the people you meet: I can’t remember ever having flagged down a stranger’s car on the other side of the highway to talk things over.
Which paths would you like to walk?
There are hundreds of them, and more suggestions come each week. Right now, however, I’m pretty much happily homebound by my son, who turned 1 year late last month. The day before I write this, though, he took his first two steps.