The Old Ways: a Journey on Foot
Hamish Hamilton, 448pp, £20
With the possible exception of memoir, no other literary form is more revealing of its author’s pretensions than nature writing. For some, the mere sight of a pine tree or a crossbill is sufficient excuse for reams of received eco-wisdom. And, given the opportunity to wander knowledgeably through native heathland or subtropical rainforest, few are able to contain an inflated sense of self-worth.
Murray Bookchin says it best in his essay “The Future of the Ecology Movement”, in which he castigates professional nature watchers who “‘abandon’ themselves to ‘the wild’, fitted out with costly knapsacks, bedrolls, binoculars, canteens, compasses, chic boots, campy clothing and, in many cases, book contracts from publishers in the ‘civilised’ world to disseminate their anti-civilisational ruminations to a breathless public”.
He adds: “None of this would be terribly objectionable as such, apart from its egoistic individualism and message of inward withdrawal, if it were not an ideological means to ignore the irrationalities that mark the present social order.”
In short, the best nature writers are those humble pilgrims who, with no particular competence to show off or prepared philosophy to air, wander – or rather saunter – into the world to see what it has to offer. As Henry David Thoreau says, the true “art of walking” is:
. . . sauntering: which word is beautifully derived from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going “à la Sainte Terre”, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer”, a saunterer – a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.
It is this ability to saunter, this sense of being always on the way, that marks Robert Macfarlane out as our finest nature writer. Intrepid and well-informed he may be, but there is no sense of ego here and, more often than not he mentions himself only to note what an encumbrance he is to the more competent souls who accompany, guide or sail him around the old ways – the footpaths and tracks, the sea lanes and ghost roads – that criss-cross the planet.
Even as Macfarlane sets out on his first major excursion, following the Icknield Way in the footsteps of Edward Thomas (whose ghost haunts this book through and through), he recounts a bicycling accident in which “the severest injury appeared to be to my self-respect. What a fool I had been, biking like a dizzy vicar down the road, too full of the romance of the way. I would have to limp home, not even two miles along my first path.”
And yet, a few pages later, he is striking out on the Broomway, a treacherous six-mile track over Maplin Sands that is visible only at high tide and is considered one of the two deadliest paths in England – the other being the constantly shifting and mostly invisible track, if it can be called that, which wavers across Morecambe Bay. (“If the Broomway hadn’t existed,” Macfarlane writes, “Wilkie Collins might have had to invent it.”)
That he and his companion continue with the walk after their local guide is obliged to drop out may seem rash, but it affords him “an hour I will never forget” as he enters the “vast revealed world” of the sand flats:
The serenity of the space through which we were moving calmed me to the point of invulnerability, and so we walked on. A mile out, the white mist still hovered, and in the haze I started to perceive impossible forms and shapes: a fleet of Viking longboats with high lug-rigged square sails; a squadron of feluccas, dhows and sgoths; cityscapes (the skyline of Istanbul, the profile of the Houses of Parliament).
This is walking as “soft lunacy, a passage beyond this world”; it is also sauntering at its best, a journey of discovery in which physical safety is wagered against a vision of the Holy Land.
From a perilous track over tidal silt to the sea lanes of western Scotland is a short leap. On his voyages across the Minch – another deadly path – and out into the north Atlantic to Sula Sgeir, Macfarlane travels with Ian Stephen, sailor, artist, poet and a local legend in those parts.
Macfarlane’s affection and admiration for his skipper illumines the pages of The Old Ways, as does his fondness for his other companions, including Jon Miceler, with whom he walks to Minya Konka “following the trails that once connected the tea-growing regions of Sichuan with Nepal and Tibet”, on an expedition that is a modern-day pilgrimage rather than a mere adventure. Just as the voyage with Stephen perfectly captures the sense of being at sea in the northern Hebrides, so this section of the book eerily invokes both the exhilaration and the occasional terrors of walking in cold mountain terrain.
The central subject matter of The Old Ways, however, is the land immediately around us, a land we too readily take for granted, and so
fail to see as holy. Here the author’s guides are the spirits of such former saunterers as Edward Thomas and Eric Ravilious, as well as the many nameless others who revered and cherished that land.
As he sets out to walk – or, rather, to ski – the Ridgeway, Macfarlane remarks that: “The Wiltshire section of the Ridgeway passes through arguably the most sacralised terrain in England . . . At Avebury and Silbury, as at Minya Konka, an ease of relation is expressed between topography and belief. And paths, tracks and cursuses were intricately involved with this Neolithic landscape theatre.”
The great achievement of The Old Ways is
to re-create this sense of the land as both holy ground and theatre, but there are other points – Bookchin’s “irrationalities that mark the present social order” – to be made and Macfarlane makes them quietly yet effectively.
For many saunterers, the search for the Holy Land is marred as much by political factors as by geographical or meteorological considerations, and these “irrationalities” are noted, in passing and sometimes rather slyly. On a walk through the deer forests of south Lewis and North Harris, for instance, Macfarlane simply writes that these hundreds of square miles of the last wild spaces of Britain are “privately owned”. A page later, finding himself “under surveillance” by an estate watcher, he moves into cover and proceeds, in a tacit counter to a system that allows such places to be owned at all, to pull off his boots and socks and continue his walk barefoot.
“Touch is a reciprocal action,” he writes, “a gesture of exchange with the world” – and The Old Ways constantly reminds us that we never stop searching for our place in this world, by touch and by feel, sometimes barefoot, and sometimes lost, but always on the way.
John Burnside’s latest novel is “A Summer of Drowning” (Vintage, £7.99)