Book reflections: 'The Old ways' by Robert Macfarlane


've ducked out of doing a full review as it felt too daunting! So, here are some themes which stood out for me, having just finished reading Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways. It took sometime to read as: (1) I am a slow reader(!); (2) it is a book that needs to be thought about and digested, rather than it simply being an exercise in getting to the end; and (3) there were times when I was not the mood to read it due to point (2).

So, the premise of the book: Macfarlane travels to various places across the globe (although mostly within the UK) to retread paths which have been used from decades to millennia. He begins his walking with the ancient, chalk-pathed Icknield Way, which starts in Norfolk and runs through to Buckinghamshire. He goes on to walk other paths in England, including the Broomway (across the tidal sands in Essex), before moving onto Scotland. It was here that I began to be drawn into the book. This chapter describes his 'ritual walk' in the Cairngorms and beautifully weaves together his grandfather's life, the ritual walk, his grandfather's funeral, and his own emotional journey through it all (as I touch on later, this is a key theme within the book: the parallels between emotional, physical and life journeys.) Macfarlane seems to be more connected to Scotland. His grandfather's love of the Cairngorms, and Macfarlane's childhood holidays spent up there with his grandfather, brought his own emotional connection to the forefront. By contrast, in other chapters he was walking the paths trod by others in the past with whom he had not had a direct connection, and they felt less 'full'.

Chapter seven and eight, entitled Peat and Gneiss (pronounced nice!) respectively, resonated with my fantasy for an isolated island journey. Macfarlane recounts his journey across the Isle of Lewis and then Harris by foot. As well as the landscapes and paths that he follows, he describes the people whom he meets and stays with. In particular, he writes of their many modes of attachment to the outdoors, such as the symbolic, spiritual, historical, and personal. Steven Dilworth, a man with whom he stays on Harris, has a ritualistic, artistic and very personal relationship with the outdoor life of Harris. This was illustrated by the making of ritual objects from the natural world around him: "...a hollow case made of a shell of lignum vitae and a shield of whalebone, filled with loose dolphin tech and the whole bound with fishing rope..." p. 172; the taxidermy of animals that he finds (or eats!); and his carvings on a ring of megaliths which had been dropped by the last glacier to retreat from that area. Macfarlane brings with this humour, sensitivity and an openness to experience which is so refreshing.

A fundamental theme of the book is the way in which the natural landscape is actively participated in; it is not something to be viewed from the outside, but something to be immersed in and experienced. Macfarlane does not write in an overly romantic style, but rather in a subjective, experiential and academic style. The mix feels rich, and sometimes it is not the best thing to read before going to sleep! In exploring Thomas's experience of the outdoors, Macfarlane writes:

"He senses that the light-fall, surfaces, slopes and sounds of a landscape are all somehow involved in accessing what he calls the 'keyless chamber[s] of the brain'; that the instinct and the body must know ways that the conscious mind cannot...he recognizes that weather is something we think in- 'the wind, the rain, the steaming road, and the vigorous limbs and glowing brain and that they created...We and the storm are one' - and that we would be better, perhaps, of not speaking of states of mind, but rather of atmospheres of mind or meteorologies of mind." (Macfarlane; p.341; original italics).

Thus, we are not beings which objectively look into nature. We are an active part of the environment and hence shaped by the natural world. As a pebble is shaped by water and wind, so we are shaped by the natural world. I want to add that this must include our own creations such as cars, skyscrapers and iPhones, as well as the weather, hills and fauna. Suddenly, we are no longer civilised islands of humanity in a sea of chaotic nature. We are an imbedded in and an active part of that natural world.

As the book comes to a close, Macfarlane comes back to his inspiration, Edward Thomas. In analysing his own experience with that of Thomas, and having walked the paths that Thomas had walked, Macfarlane comes to see the link between the external (nature) and the internal (how we see ourselves). He emphasises the symbolic parallel nature of walking a path and our own internal journey: "This, I thought, had been the real discovery: not a ghostly retrieval of Thomas, but an understanding of how for him, as for so many other people, the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it." (Macfarlane; p.326; my own italics). Having recently been on a residential weekend looking at my relationship with the outdoors, this deeply resonated with me. Nature is something that we have a relationship with, and through this relationship nature is a window/mirror through which we can understand ourselves. I experienced this in being with an oak tree. The young shoots and old trunk co-existing together, as they do within me - the conflicted adolescent, and the responsible adult.


Macfarlane, Robert (2012): The Old Ways. The Penguin Group.