The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane is one of the people who has helped both revive and reinvent nature writing in the new century. If John Muir in the nineteenth walked out into the 'pristine' wilderness (though not always as pristine as he thought or wrote, having a tendency to airbrush indigenous people out), Macfarlane is as concerned with the nature that has been brought into being by our interactions. This is, no doubt, partly in recognition that virtually nowhere in this anthropocene age can we find the 'pristine' and if we are to find a renewed love for and in nature, we will have to see with and through the markings of our own hands and feet. Thus, we may find ourselves as likely in a suburb as a forest or on a well trod, marked footpath as making our own tracks in 'untouched' space.

Feet are the principal focus of 'The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot' where Macfarlane goes on a series of journeys, mostly on foot, to explore pathways, often encountering people who, in one form or another, are seeking to recreate 'pilgrimage' (if primarily in secular form). They do this in recognition that though we step into landscape, landscape does and can step into us, shaping us anew, making us more familiar to ourselves.

I was considering this today as I walked too quickly up the hill behind my house, out for a Sunday morning walk, and found myself wondering why do I do this, knowing that on one recent occasion ascending Montsegur in the Languedoc, I almost knocked myself out? Why can I not adjust my pace from my usual flat out pace on the flat? Why do I think time is at a premium when it is not? Relax, ponder, be more ponderous.

It is, also, a truism that walking stimulates thought, something about allowing the brain to fall into neutral as pace follows pace follows pace that allows the more than conscious to deliver compelling image and thought. Today I caught an image on the hop of why it may be that greater individuation of selves (and consequent separation) is required to ultimately find a deeper unity of self (as I continued to think about Gebser's speculations on the development, over time, of our consciousness or the structuring that consciousness takes at different periods of human history). I was reminded that most great philosophers were great walkers - whether the regularity of Kant's peregrination through urban Koenigsberg or Nietzsche's Alpine hikes - and here the different landscapes might playfully be seen to be reflected in the differing patterns of thought. Kant is on the level, pedestrian, Nietzsche soars.

Macfarlane takes us to many different locations and helps us think through the implications of walking both for the landscape and for ourselves. So, for example, he walks with a Palestinian friend on the West Bank where with the colonisation by Israeli military and settler, every way has become potentially contested, every step a political act of memory and communal assertion. Or finds himself at the base of Minya Konka in the Central Asian mountains poised between the sacred way of circumnavigation (as this is a Buddhist holy site) and the modern way of tempting (and highly testing) vertical ascent as a mountaineer. He settles for the latter, imagining, rightly or wrongly, this as a sign of maturing, discriminating age. He walks and talks with artists who are slowly either shaping a landscape anew, creating their own sacralising story or shaping art as memory of paths taken lifting the walking finds into new fields of constructed memory (as a Spanish artist creates 'books' of his walks from found objects symbolically rearranged).

It is a beautiful book of overlapping reflections on walking and being walked into; and, of the myriad ways, practical, psychological and spiritual, we make meaning as we pace, here and there.


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