Robert Macfarlane’s trilogy of nature writing comes to a close with The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot – an extended meditation on walking.
Explaining The Old Ways to someone who doesn’t typically delve into the travel writing niche is difficult—or at least, it is difficult to do without it coming off as pretentious or self-indulgent. Strangely enough, a book on walking sounds like something very stagnant. It is the very opposite. There is a lull, a charm, something mystical about Macfarlane’s third work, which gives it unparalleled life. “This book could not have been written by sitting still,” starts the author’s note, with a promise of ghosts, pilgrimages, song lyrics, prehistoric pathways, people, and above all, “the tales that tracks keep and tell.”
To be completely technical, The Old Ways takes us through the years Macfarlane spent on the road, travelling through South East England, North West Scotland, Spain, Sichuan, Palestine—all this under the aegis of Edward Thomas, a poet and writer who Macfarlane is undeniably very, very fond of. As someone unfamiliar with Thomas’ work altogether, I’ll admit this felt, at first, slightly alienating. Even now, I am unsure as to whether I will seek to read any of his writing, though I will say this: there was something very touching about Macfarlane using Thomas’ ‘guidance’ through his journey. In a way, Macfarlane’s fascination with the Anglo-Welsh poet gives his narrative a personal, revealing edge, which I’ve often missed in travel writing.
What I do love about this genre, however, I found plenty of. There is something beautiful to find on every page. Whether it’s an anecdote, an image, an encounter, a particularly painful tumble off his bicycle—there is always something to look forward to, which in the end comes together to create something special. It is tedious and slow at times, but it works. Macfarlane’s slow pace of travelling fits with what The Old Ways sets out to do. His gradual and introspective stride, combined with his lyrical prose, creates a meander of poetry and anthropology that leaves you feeling strangely at peace.
I will admit I had some trouble warming up to Macfarlane. He is a likeable narrator, but the faint feeling of over-writing persisted throughout the first few chapters – though that could have been due to the ominous chapter names, which felt slightly out of place. However, there is something genuine and intimate about Macfarlane’s writing which makes you want to be led by him. He is easy to trust and this is something particularly crucial in this genre of writing, as it makes the overall experience much more palpable and moving.
I have (in some ways unfortunately) started the trilogy with its final book, but The Old Ways has definitely made me look forward to Landmarks – Macfarlane’s next collection of essays on language and place. He is an author who, to me, has managed to personify the English countryside, paths and roads, and managed to make them come to unprecedented life, more vivid than ever. He has created something intrinsically special for the adventurer in every one of us.
Article by Julie Cornu