A bit premature to call my ‘book of the year’ in February, but maybe, just maybe, The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane might be it.
The Old Ways is a series of ‘journeys on foot’; ‘Always everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering’ opens Macfarlane, quoting from Thomas Clark’s prose-poem In Praise of Walking, and this book is a re-tracing and celebration of those people and those pathways.
One person at the centre of much of these re-tracings is the English poet Edward Thomas, who died in World War I. I’ve written about Thomas before, one of my favourite ‘minor’ poets and of Rain, a particular favourite here.
Thomas is the ultimate wandering doomed walker, but there is nothing maudlin in this book that celebrates the journeys, rather than mourning the end of them. Thomas would set off along ‘indelible old roads … worn by hoofs and the naked feet and trailing staves of long-dead generations’ and Macfarlane wants to bring some of those old ways back. Thomas would make one-day walks in the design of a ‘rough-circle’, trusting that he might ‘by taking a series of turnings to the left or a series to the right … take much beauty by surprise and … return at last to my starting point’ (278)
In his own rough-circle, Macfarlane connects up with walkers like Wordsworth, Nietzsche, Wallace Stevens, Wittgenstein and the English watercolourist Ravilious. It’s a literary book for a walking book. Geological too, with its section titles: ‘Chalk’, ‘Silt’, ‘Peat’, ‘Granite’, ‘Limestone’, ‘Ice’,’Flint’.
I was reminded of other books I’ve been reading lately; The Old Straight Lines gets a mention and a much more recent English walking book: London Orbital. It’s a book about landscape ultimately, ‘and how the places we inhabit shape the people we are’ (187)
‘and everywhere I met people … for whom landscape and walking were vital means of making sense of themselves and of the world’ (32) And so say all of us.
You can read more about the Icknield Way here.
Download Edward Thomas’s ‘Icknield Way’ here.
You can read more thougthful and detailed reviews than mine here from NY Times, The Guardian/Observer, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent