Unseen Landscapes

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
By Robert Macfarlane
Hamish Hamilton, 2012, 448 pages

In The Wild Places, the second of Robert Macfarlane’s sweeping trilogy of books about “landscape and the human heart,” the author traveled to southern England to explore some of the region’s “holloways,” old paths that date back to the Iron Age. Carved into the soft sandstone by dray horse and carriage, pilgrims and wanderers, as well as centuries of rain, wind, and snowmelt, they are now largely forgotten, part of what the painter Paul Nash called the “unseen landscapes of England.” For Macfarlane, holloways (from the Anglo Saxon hola weg meaning “harrowed path” or “sunken road”) are part of a much larger world, one that does not appear on maps of the countryside, but that makes up what he memorably describes as a “sunken labyrinth of wildness in the heart of arable England.”

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“I would like to see a map that represented the country only according to these old ways,” Macfarlane wrote in The Wild Places, “and that was blind to the newer routes, to the roads which take so little notice of the shape of the land through which they pass.” Macfarlane’s newest book, The Old Ways, may be his attempt to draw that map – a map of ancient roadways, sea routes, and Mesolithic footprints preserved in silt. Lyrical and learned, The Old Ways completes Macfarlane’s trilogy and is his most ambitious work. Covering more than a thousand miles on foot and by boat with detours to Palestine, Spain, and Tibet, Macfarlane draws on the long history of walking as a way of revealing the landscapes we inhabit, both physical and imagined. Along the way, he examines our rapidly changing relationship to the natural world.

His muse and guide – the English poet and soldier Edward Thomas – is just one of the many remarkable figures we meet along the way. (Killed at the battle of Arras in 1917, Thomas covered thousands of miles during the course of his brief lifetime.) There’s a sailor and storyteller who has spent most of his life studying ancient seaways and the stories that animate them; a human rights lawyer in Palestine for whom walking has become an act of resistance; and a man named Miguel Angel Blanco who has created an Borgesian archive of his many pilgrimages – hundreds of wooden boxes each containing a record of his journey and the objects and artifacts collected along the way. Blanco calls his collection “The Library of the Forest.”

Reading Macfarlane you begin to feel as if you’ve entered into just such a library of artifacts. From the mysterious and ephemeral silt Broomway, known as the “deadliest path” in Britain, to the gentle chalk downs of the southern hill country, Macfarlane creates a map of a mostly forgotten landscape.

In all of his work, beginning with Mountains of the Mind, Macfarlane has ranged widely, bringing together the fields of landscape studies, memoir, geography, cartography, natural history, wayfinding, and travel writing. Throughout he has been interested in how places shape who we are and in the tension between love of place (dwelling) and the desire to travel (displacement). Reflecting his own sentiments, he quotes Edward Thomas, who wrote, “It is hard to make anything like a truce between these two incompatible desires, the one going on and on over the earth, the other that would settle for ever in one place, as in a grave and have nothing to do with change.”

If there is one thing missing from The Old Ways it is a deeper interrogation of how roads and paths have, over time, eroded our connection to particular places and environments. In the United States, the open road is celebrated as a symbol of freedom – but it’s also a path to a rootless way of life that can be destructive. As Nathaniel Hawthorne observed in 1855, “No people on earth have such vagabond habits as ours.”

Like Macfarlane’s first two books The Old Ways conjures a strong sense of place and of humanity’s connection to the land despite centuries of misuse, suggesting that there are other ways of “going on and on over the earth.” There is something about the persistence of old ways underneath the diversions of our modern world that, like mountains and wild places, captivates Macfarlane. They are part of that same unseen landscape that he began to consider when he visited the Holloways of Dorset. One can only look forward to where the next journey of mind and foot will take him.

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