I am a bit of a walker though nothing like this man Robert Macfarlane -now he’s a walker! – but this book will delight walkers and non walkers alike. It certainly has me wanting to pull on my boots. A Christmas present from a good friend – I have been looking forward to this one.
Robert Macfarlane set off from his Cambridgeshire home to traverse the pathways, cartways causeways, ancient tracks, and even the sea paths that cross the British Isles, and many territories beyond. He explores the landscape and its formations, and resurrects old voices and ghosts that went before. His explorations recount pilgrimages and rituals that build to make a history of landscapes. He meets walkers and artists along the way – each of them made in some way by these landscapes they inhabit. Macfarlane has an acute knowledge and understanding of artists and poets and this book is filled with their voices and touched by their influence.
Macfarlane’s boots take him to Scotland, to Wiltshire and the South Downs, but his journey doesn’t end there. His journey takes him to Tibet and to the politically unstable Palestine, and to the old sacred pilgrim route in Spain, meeting Miguel Angel Blanco who has Macfarlane tells us, created one of the most astonishing libraries in existence – I tend to think it must be. A basement lined with shelves – boxes containing books a library in short sounding unlike anything I have heard of.
“A basement in Madrid: its wall lined from ceiling to floor with shelves. On the shelves: hundreds of wooden boxes, ranging in size from narrow cigar case to shallow treasure chest. The boxes were all open at their outwards-facing end, and the mouth of each box had an identifying number burnt into it. Held in each mouth was the plain linen-covered spine of what appeared to be a book, though some of these spines were thicker than the spines of any book I had ever seen before. Pinch-holes had been cut into the boxes so that the books they contained could be gripped and slid out, as one might pull loose a brick from a wall. The spines of the books were unmarked by text and were different colours: orange, mulberry, taupe, black, scarlet. The effect was postmodern baroque: Pompidou colours for a vast Wunderkammer.”
Macfarlane’s lyrical prose is impressive, it captures perfectly the beauty of the world, its vastness and complexities the different landscapes and the surprises that can still be found.
“Late in the afternoon, between the first and second peaks as counted from the west and the sixth and seventh as counted from the east, I came across a natural cave in a subsidiary granite outcrop, big enough to hold two people lying side by side. It had been part adapted as a shelter. One end had been blocked up with piled stones. There were two tea light candles, and a half full water bottle. I couldn’t have asked for better accommodation, combining as it did shelter and remoteness. I moved my belongings to the cave, and when dusk came I lit the candles, and my shadows flickered off the rock interior.
The night: a milk-white half-moon, cool air. Owls in the forests below, their hoots pushing through the dusk. The light soughing of wind in the pines. Sound drifting, two shooting stars.”
For me the most memorable figure of this book is Edward Thomas a First World War poet and a great walker – a man whose history and work has obviously had a profound effect on Macfarlane. The final chapter of the book which recounts Thomas’s life and death was particularly poignant and reminded me of another book I had wanted to read.
A while ago I saw a book review of As it was by Helen Thomas – wife of Edward Thomas – on Booksnob’s blog and reading The Old Ways made me want to know these people better – well I have ordered a copy of As it was, now from Abebooks.