Really, the only question to ask of a book about a walk is: Would I want to go for a walk with this writer?
When my friend and neighbor Paul K. St. Amour first recommended The Old Ways to me, we were bicycling, unsteadily, home from a bar. Paul’s the kind of cyclist with whom a drunken conversation about modernism is always enlightening. “Have you read Robert MacFarlane?” he asked: “He’s kind of the dean of the new British school of literary geography.” Or maybe it was literate geography.
Either way, The Old Ways is a delight, and I’m grateful for the tip. MacFarlane gets around. He walks in England, Scotland, Palestine, Nepal, Spain–and even manages a “wonder-voyage” by sea in the Outer Hebrides: “The boat we sailed down the sea roads was a century-old cockle-shell.” He’s a graceful writer and a polymathic companion, familiar with geography, history, theology, philology and old sea vessels.
MacFarlane’s old ways are often not on any map, sometimes not even across land. To walk the way MacFarlane does is to stay awake, alert and alive to the passing land- or seascape. I welcome his rare awareness of the old ways, the paths that people of, or in, the past–the old ones–have travelled before us. These are the”ghostly roads,” that the Anglo-Welsh poet-pedestrian Edward Thomas (1878-1917) described.
MacFarlane borrows heavily from Thomas, who, in his turn, was influenced by a great English wanderer and Bible salesman with the fitting name of George Henry Borrow (1803-1881). To walk is to borrow, as it is to write. A path is only a path because someone has already walked it; there’s no shame in repetition. In fact, “footstepping” a walker from a century before–as I will be following Herbert Welsh–is one of the delights of walking, and of writing, come to think of it. As he appraises the life and work of Thomas and his Modernism, MacFarlane might be said to be writing about literature, but I think he wants us to consider the old Ways of Seeing, too, in the simple but profound sense that John Berger had in mind, that “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”
The way that George Borrow, and Edward Thomas, and Robert MacFarlane, and even I see the world is informed by all the walkers who preceded us on this path, as well as the time of walking or writing. For instance:
Thomas sensed early that one of modernity’s most distinctive tensions would be between mobility and displacement on the one hand, and dwelling and belonging on the other–with the former becoming ubiquitous and the latter becoming lost (if ever it had been possible) and reconfigured as nostalgia. He experienced that tension between roaming and homing even as it was first forming.
Across the Atlantic in Thomas’s time, Herbert Welsh was feeling that tension, too, in response to the same world, and the same wars. But British walking literature differs from American in its ways of seeing nostalgia. (And also in the way that the usual American complaints about sore feet and bad weather are summarily dismissed by a Brit, like McFarlane, as “The travelers usual mix of excitement, incompetence, ennui, adventure and epiphany.”)
As Frederic Gros put it in A Philosophy of Walking:
To us Europeans, the wilderness is associated with origins: an immemorial fault,permanently open, an obscure starting point. It’s the ancestral place to which we may want to return, which sometimes comes up at us, but is our definitive past. For Thoreau the American,the wilderness is located in the West, before him. It is the possibility of the future. The wilderness is not the night of European memory, but the morning of the world and of humanity.
MacFarlane expressed it conversationally, in Patience: After Sebald, a film, about W.G. Sebald, the German-British writer-walker (More to come on Sebald) and his seminal Rings of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage (Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine Englische Walfahrt):
The British tradition is walking as recovery; and the American tradition is of walking as dis-covery: that striding forwards into the oncoming crisis of the world. For the Romantic tradition, the British Romantic tradition, it is to strip away the accretions of civilization, the hawking and hammering of time lived in cities, and return to some original state. In the American tradition, we travel to liberate ourselves, to discover new ways of being.
What distinguishes the British style of walking narrative from the American is visible to the naked eye. Look at the films they inspire.
MacFarlane’s British publisher was inspired by The Old Ways to sponsor a contest–“take your own walk–” that drew scores of video submissions. Here’s the winner.
The most popular recent American walking bestseller, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, (more on Strayed later) inspired Hollywood to tale of a young woman who walked “From lost to found on the Pacific Coast Trail.”
Of these three, whom would you choose as a long walk’s companion?