The Old Ways
A Journey on Foot
by Robert MacFarlane
3 stars - because it's both 5 stars and 1 star
ALR Green - lots of delightful wildlife descriptions
I'm not a fan of traveling. I find the sudden displacement from point A to point B afforded by plane, train, and automobile to always be disconcerting. But walking, ah, now there is something to enjoy. The journey from here to there, the speed of the passing landscape, fast enough to offer variety, slow enough to examine, that's for me. I've always preferred to walk and before the fast pace of family life took hold of me, walking was how I got to many destinations, ran most of my errands (with the odd hop on the bus should my destination include the accumulation of packages).
And here we have the chronicles of a truly dedicated walker. A man who follows paths throughout the UK. Paths formed for reasons both historically important and arbitrary.
In The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane "sets off from his Cambridge home to follow the ancient tracks, holloways, drove roads, and sea paths that form part of a vast network of routes that crisscross the British landscape and its waters, connecting them to the continents beyond."
The pacing of his prose is much like a walk itself and one can almost feel the rhythm of one foot before the other, eyes scanning the countryside.
The snow was overwhelmingly legible. Each print-trail seemed like a plot that could be read backwards in time; a series of allusions to events since ended. I found a line of fox pugs, which here and there had been swept across by the fox's brush, as if it had been trying to erase evidence of its own passage. I discovered what I supposed were the traces of a pheasant taking off: trenched footprints where it had pushed up, then spaced feather-presses either side of the tracks, becoming progressively lighter and then vanishing altogether.
That's his walk across a golf course in the winter. I walk that way too. Eyes scanning the environment, trying to know what came before, what might come after.
He also takes more well known walks, as in the chapter on The Broomway. That's a walk I've heard of before. A path out to sea afforded by a sea level expanse, exposed between tides, strewn with mud holes that will suck you down, and known to have been the site of over a hundred deaths when unfortunate travelers get disoriented in the mist and the tide rolls in.
And yet, and yet...
I just couldn't finish. Much like an exquisite article of clothing that somehow just doesn't fit right, this book is magical, amazing, and, for me, ultimately, not readable. It just didn't fit.
Mr. MacFarlane's joy of walking, his thrill of nature, his writing style, all were everything I had expected. But, alas, he is significantly more enamoured with history, archeology, anthropology, than I am. So while there are passages of delight where he describes the sensation of the ground through his shoes, the feel of the wind, the flight of birds, there are also long passages devoted to geological structures and the history of the great walkers. And that, I fear, was my undoing.
Try as I might to seek out only the portions of the book that glittered for me, I had to admit that the entire endeavor was just weighing me down.