Review: The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane

Jack Greatrex 24 January 2013

The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane

In the first book of his loose trilogy, The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane set out walking the British Isles with a singular aim: to find areas of wilderness still untainted by humanity and the human past.

In the book’s two dramatic moments, the first when Macfarlane despairs of the inhospitability and bleakness of the peak of Ben Hope, and the second when he and Roger Deakin overlook a crevice and realise the riotous immediacy of the wild in everyday locations, Macfarlane comes to appreciate that his Arcadia beyond history is essentially fictional. It is from this breakthrough that his latest book The Old Ways is built upon.

This is a book which explores the relationship between humans and the environments in which they live. Subtitled a Journey on Foot it follows Macfarlane’s own wanderings in, amongst others, the Icknield Way, the Broomway, the ‘sea-paths’ of the Scottish Isles, the contested paths of the West Bank, and the area just outside Cambridge. As he does so, Macfarlane combines natural description, snippets of the historical past, and reflection on the thinkers who had walked and thought these paths before him. He does all this in a vivid prose style which easily tackles the problem of how to write about nature without sounding twee, or cliched, and which frequently jolts the reader with an unexpected metaphor. The range of intellectual precedences Macfarlane finds for locations is vast; including Darwin, the trampings of George Borrow, Eric Ravilious, Nan Shepherd, and, above all, Edward Thomas. Thomas particularly is a staying presence throughout the work.

The Old Ways notes that much writing about humans and nature has been written by “delusionists, bigots and other unlovely maniacs”, Macfarlane avoids this trapfall completely. He remains profoundly democratic throughout, privileging the voices of those who accompany him on his travels and those who have walked before him whilst valuing good cheer. This is to his credit; the knowledge of urbanisation and ecological destruction can only too easily lead to despair. Certainly it’s there in two major models for Macfarlane: J.A. Baker, who practiced walking in Essex as an ascetic retreat from humanity and even in W.G. Sebald, whose interplay between imagination, nature and history shapes Macfarlane’s work; we find a bafflement bordering on the misanthropic when he comes to consider other people. Macfarlane’s book is remarkable, in humanity, in prose and in the tangled interplay of allusion and reference.

Jack Greatrex