Robert Macfarlane

The Old Ways

“I picked a trail and headed out, following those tracks to see where they might lead.”

Robert Macfarlane (born 1976) writes (and studies and walks and poets) at the intersection of landscape, humanity, and society.

With generous, meditative writing, he explores our intersection with mountains, wild lands, and, in The Old Ways, paths and trails.

These are the paths that make us wander, gather, root, and find ourselves through a journey.

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought but actively produce it.

Paths, as they transect space and land, become a measure of place and a witness to what transpires in that place.

Thames Path near Windsor, UK. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. © The Examined Life
The Swedish use the word gokotta to mean an early morning walk. Thames Path near Windsor, UK. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In my adoptive country, Britain, many trails date from Roman times. Paths are the traces of those who lived and forged their own ways. The freedom of the trail, the concept of “right of way,” is something historically owed to the British people, something we lack in America. Essentially, if a path is deemed to be of vital use to the public, it will go on being available as such despite private ownership of the land.

This public-spiritedness helped mitigate the abrupt carving up of land due to the 19th-century Enclosure Acts, a loss of common areas lamented in the poetry of John Clare and reimagined in the contemporary verse of Thomas A. Clark.

"Edge of the Wood, Broadchalke" engraving by Howard Phipps used in "The Old Ways" book entry.
“Edge of the Wood, Broadchalke.” Engraving by British engraver and print maker Howard Phipps.

I am certain only Britain could produce a writer of Macfarlane’s fortitude, curiosity, and almost pathological interest in language and tradition. (It is, after all, the same island that carved Stephen Fry, a wonderful logophile and historian.)

The Old Ways is part historical writing, part geological appreciation (Macfarlane goes deep into the land, so to speak, the chalk, granite, and gneiss) and, throughout, a journal of human settlement and movement.

importance of walking about
“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure” wrote Thoreau in essay on walking as freedom. Verging towards the bluebells at Petsworth House. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Listen now. Listen to the singing of the guga men on the bare rock of Sula Sgeir, hunched in a stone bothy on that little island far out in the North Atlantic, on an August morning nearly sixty years ago. If I could sing it or play it to you I would, but I cannot, so this will have to do.

The scene: a rough hut, six feet high at its tallest, built out of blades of gneiss, its cracks plugged with rags. In its center a peat fire, above which hangs a storm lantern that lends light to the space. Rough stone benches around the edges, on which the men are sitting, wearing tweed jackets and heavy wool jumpers. The mutter of the fire, the wind moving outside, testing the bothy.

Macfarlane ventures on the Icknield Way, sea roads in Scotland, a Western-Spanish pilgrimage trail, and an old tea route between Nepal and India.

"Interior Landscape" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1964.
“Interior Landscape” by Helen Frankenthaler, 1964. “I had the landscape in my arms when I painted it. I had the landscapes in my mind and shoulder and wrist.” Learn more. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Throughout The Old Ways, Macfarlane crafts convincing joinery between footfall and cognition, not simply by gathering a large collection of thinkers who have attested to such:

From my heel to my toe is a measured space of 29.7 centimetres or 11.7 inches. This is a unit of progress and it is also a unit of thought. ‘I can only meditate when I am walking,’ wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the ninth book of his Confessions. ‘When I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.’ Soren Kierkegaard speculated.

Thames Path near Oxford
Thames Path near Oxford, UK. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The thoughtful Nan Shepherd’s intimate portrait of place;

The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books – so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet – but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind.

From Nan Shepard’s The Living Mountain

One indeed develops the distinct impression that walking drives Robert Macfarlane – and Shepherd alike – mentally and emotionally. As it has with many others, like Vincent van Gogh, who found his artistic soul while walking about, or New York artist Maira Kalman, who walks the streets of her city as a way to see and notice others.

It was a ritual walk across the Cairngorm massif from south to north, and these were the things we met with in its course: grey glacial erratics, river sand, siskins, pine cones, midges, white pebbles, the skeleton of a raven, footpaths, drove paths, deer paths, dead trees, sadness rounded mountains and fire; and these were the many rock types over which we passed in its course: limestone, diorite, quartzite, granulite, granite, slate, phyolite and mica-schist.

The fire? Oh, the fire came in the late-day gloom on the summit of the pass itself—an episode of combustion in the gathering dark—and the fire, like the walk, was made in memory of my grandfather, who had died on the far side of the mountains, and to whose funeral I was walking as commemoration and recollection, following the old ways up across a watershed, over the great pass of the Lairig Ghru, and then down through the pine forest on the northern slopes of the massif. Wherever my grandfather had gone in his remarkable life, he had walked.

Illustration by Jackie Morris for "The Unwinding: And Other Dreamings" in the Examined Life Library.
“Two days short of the winter solstice; the turn of the year’s tide. All that cold day, the city and the countryside around felt halted, paused.” The calm, bright, wintery launch of The Old Ways. Illustration by Jackie Morris for The Unwinding and Other Dreamings.

“On springy heath, along the hill-top edge, wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance, to that still roaring dell,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who walked the same northern hills as Macfarlane. As our bodies press down onto footsteps created by others, we form a connection to those who came before and who will follow. Macfarlane unveils the most beautiful and connecting aspects of the human path.