Sam Leith

Paths of enlightenment

Sam Leith enjoys some spell-binding poetic prose, and emerges a happier, lonelier and wiser man

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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

Robert Macfarlane

Hamish Hamilton, pp. 431, £

In which Robert Macfarlane goes for a walk, again. But, as admirers of his previous works will know, Robert Macfarlane never just goes for a walk. This book’s four parts, each divided into three or four sub-sections, tell the stories of 16 expeditions: their declared intention to investigate ‘walking as a reconnoitre inwards’. His theme is the way that walking can be not just the occasion for thought but, in some sense, the method by which it is done; the way in which our experience of ourselves is shaped by moving through a landscape:

Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion-causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take ‘landscape’ as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket-screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme) and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment.

Here is a book by a writer who, above almost everything else, and most valuably, is an enthusiast about what it means to put one foot in front of the other.

The ‘old ways’ of Macfarlane’s title are old paths — which is to say, habitual human accommodations with weather and geology and with previous travellers. His concern is to get inside what paths are for, what they have meant, and how they endure even when invisible to the Ordnance Survey. In his most extreme experiences of sublimity, Macfarlane describes the past and present — as in the closing walk: a retracing, footprint by surviving footprint, of a walk taken by a man 5,000 years ago — as entering a melancholy and ecstatic fusion. Perhaps the best footnote in the whole thing, hair-pricklingly, describes how pollen-dating allows us to pinpoint the laying of a walkway of alder, holly, hazel, oak, ash and lime rods across spongy ground in Somerset to the springtime of 3806 BC.

He spots what he and his companion are fairly sure is a black panther in Wiltshire.  He circumnavigates a mountain in Western Tibet, takes his chances with a stroll through occupied Palestine, has the willies scared out of him sleeping in a notoriously haunted stand of birches. He sleeps in a paleolithic beehive shieling in the Cairngorms and kips out, with two cracked ribs, on a barrow not all that far from Cambridge. He hangs out with a nice man — a shaman inventing religious rituals, as he sees it, for a tribe that doesn’t exist — who’s busily festooning a human skeleton with bits of dead cow in the hopes of hiding it in a hollow boulder, but whose proudest possession is the last box of Pic ‘n’ Mix from the Tarbert branch of Woolies’s closing down sale (‘He puts the box carefully on a shelf, in between an ivory tusk and a screw-top jar labelled 4,000-Year-Old Storm Water’).

Not all of Macfarlane’s walks are, whatever his subtitle says, journeys on foot. In the second section he travels the ancient seaways around the Scottish islands, spending a night on one of the Shiants and encountering the stony-faced guga-hunters of Lewis as they land on Sula Sgeir for their annual gannet massacre. Sea-paths are paths too.

Macfarlane — who as well as being a rhapsodic walker, mountaineer, rough sleeper and swimmer in water, colder than most of us would probably fancy is also a Cambridge don — is a very literary sort of tramp. He’s constantly picking at etymologies, quoting Whitman or Coleridge, reading text into landscape and landscape into text. ‘Legible’, applied to geography, is a key term. The tutelary spirit of this book, he declares early on, is Edward Thomas — and the penultimate section is a novelistic reimagining of Thomas’s last months fighting in France.

There’s little more tedious in a novel, let alone in non-fiction, than ostentatiously fine writing (or Fine Writing, as it’s properly capitalised). It’s normally bad writing. But fine writing — in the sense of precise, careful and original prose; lyrical without being pretentious — does exist. Macfarlane is an example of it. His virtuosity isn’t unobtrusive, but his tics of style become familiar without drifting, quite, into mannerism or gimmickry.

His default mode of description is a run of verbless, or participial, sentences, briskly juxtaposed:

Hairpins from Kangding to the pass of Zheduo, at nearly 16,500 feet. A chorten, and prayer flags lashing in the wind. Porcelain snow. Beyond us to the west was a wide river valley, dry and lunar, through which ran a river of white ice and blue water. Long hours through bare brown land. Snow lying in lines in fields, thawed from the summits of the plough-lines but holding white in the trenches. Groups of dung-tailed yaks.

Wildlife, particularly that of birds, is nailed to the memory with the studiously unexpected verb. Nothing tweets or chirps when it can yap or yabber: ‘Ravens muttered their hexes’; a lapwing lets out ‘wireless bleeps and twiddles’; ‘from the woods came the game-show buzzers of jays and crows’.

Macfarlane salts his prose with recondite vocabulary (a glossary, which contains a haphazard selection of them, is appended, along with a bizarrely idiosyncratic ‘Index of Selected Topics’) and well knows the evocative power of the bare list:

Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets [...] holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

Easy as it would be to spoof Macfarlane’s style, the fact is it does its job extraordinarily well. You see these trees and pathways; you hear those birds. And there really are few prose writers who take such a poet’s care with cadence. He talks with careful flippancy of ‘the metaphysical rhythm of the pedestrian, the iamb of ‘I am’, the beat of the placed and lifted foot’; but he writes ‘placed and lifted’ rather than ‘lifted and placed’ because the former scans better.



I saw a dipper in his pianist’s white bib hunting where water poured onto other water, heard the crash of rapids into plunge-pots. There were wide still pools where the water ran so deep that only the spin and glide of pine needles provided the current’s movement.

Look at the mimetic molossus in ‘wide still pools’; or the pleasing reduplication of ‘where water poured onto other water’. This is careful stuff.

Oddly enough, Macfarlane is very slightly better — by which I mean more evocative, more concrete, even more engaged — when it comes to landscape than to human beings. His travelling companions are all presented as wise and handy and brave and centred. He never seems to bump into a dickhead, which is in my experience odd. And the only passage in the book that struck me as actually phoney was an extended piece of reported speech containing phrases like ‘they arrived at the monastery in wrathful weather’, ‘it was a pilgrimage of a very different kind’, ‘in the surprisingly tender way of glaciers’ and ‘not returned from the grave but returned by it’ — all of which sounds to me like the literary writing of R Macfarlane rather than speech that would issue from a living person’s mouth.

But here we pick nits. This isn’t a book about other people: it’s a book about what we put into landscape, and what it puts into us. If you submit to its spell you finish it in different shape than you set out: a bit wiser, a bit lonelier, a bit happier, a whole lot better informed, and a bit more tempted to pop in to Millets.