The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane:  book review by Alexandra Harris

“Leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets  bostles, shuts, driftways, lichways, ridings ” Macfarlane will have many of his readers dreaming in path-language this summer. Certain images keep glimmering in the dark when I close my eyes: fragments of white china clay scattered as a trail across the bogs of Dartmoor; marker stones on Bodmin guiding a parson safely around his parish; posts sticking up from the water in the monochrome mirror-world of flooded Doggerland where the narrow “Broomway” leads out to Foulness.

Macfarlane’s first two books, Mountains of the Mind (2003) and The Wild Places (2007), were published to huge acclaim and have achieved the status of modern classics. The Old Ways joins up with them to form what Macfarlane calls “a loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart”. That definition is striking. It takes some courage for a writer to say that his subject is “the human heart”. It sounds a little old-fashioned, a little out-of-step with modern detachment. But that is part of what makes Macfarlane’s voice significant. He willingly declares his love of things. He brings his powerful intelligence to bear on the need to express sentiments and sensations.

He keeps asking, “what does this feel like?” Walking barefoot on Lewis: “The peat was slippery and cool, and where I stepped on sphagnum it surged up and around my foot, damp as a poultice.” Or in Hampshire: “I was walking in a stormlight that made the linseed pulse a hot green  Dark shoals of rooks over the woods, and billows of rain like candle-blacking dropping into water.” He is wry about his own romanticism (“what I thought was the first star turned out to be the night light for a plane coming into Luton”), but he wants to make space for it.

One of the most compelling chapters is concerned with a path across the Isle of Lewis to shielings, or stone shelters, built by crofters near their summer grazing grounds. The path is detectable only by learning how to read the stony landscape. “Look for what shouldn’t be there,” Macfarlane is told, so he looks for minor disturbances in the lay of the land, dots that only become visible when connected”

“Macfarlane is delighted to discover that the verb “to learn” links back etymologically to proto-Germanic liznojan, meaning “to follow or to find a track”. The walking of paths is, to him, an education, and symbolic, too, of the very process by which we learn things: testing, wandering about a bit, hitting our stride, looking ahead and behind. That is the rhythm of learning in all kinds of disciplines and ways of life. ”

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