The Old Ways

Really, the only question to ask of a book about a walk is: Would I want to go for a walk with this writer?

British paperback cover. Note Old Type (Gill Sans) and Old Woodcut (Stanley Donwood). The Old Modernism.

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):TheRingsOfSaturn

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?

Walking to Vermont

When first I contemplated walking to New Hampshire, and writing a book about it, I wondered, “Has somebody already done that ?” This is the curse of baby boomer authors.

cvr9781416540120_9781416540120_hrEllen Stroud mentioned a book called Walking to Vermont in Nature Next Door.  She wrote that “When New York Times journalist Christopher Wren ushered in his retirement with a walk from Times Square to his summer home in Post Mills, Vermont…he had far more company on his walk [than Herbert Welsh], since he spent most of his four hundred miles on the Appalachian Trail…But Wren had it right: hiking from Times Square to the Green Mountain Forest is not so strange. The cities and forests of the Northeast are all of a piece.”

Stroud’s conclusion is profoundly simple: the unity of town and country. Between the woods and the megalopolis, the connections–of ownership and stewardship, watershed and foodshed, protectors and predators–are stronger than the distinctions. And at a plodding pace, Wren, like Herbert Welsh a hundred years ago, was able to connect the city, the suburb, and the land.

As curious a text as The New Gentleman of the Road is, I prefer Welsh’s prose to Wren’s. Of course, Wren tells more exciting stories: he was a foreign correspondent for 29 years, in  Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa and Johannesburg at the UN, and reported from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia, Africa, South America and Canada. The trouble with Walking to Vermont is Wren’s apparent resolve to include an anecdote from every outpost, even if it has nothing to do with his walk. His story wanders, and not in an enlightening or entertaining way.

Like every long-distance pedestrian I have read, Wren dropped several pounds and felt fitter and younger when he got where he was going. (Welsh himself published an affidavit from his physician in his book.) He draws no other moral from his story. All well and good. But when Colin Thubron observes that walking, like poetry, makes nothing happen–his wry conclusion seems more hard-won than Wren’s.

I note that Wren’s route is not exactly mine, and hope my passing thoughts are less, well, pedestrian, too.

To a Mountain in Tibet

The illusion that speed saves time is shattered, in the end, by death. When someone near me dies, I’m reminded that none of us has world enough, or time.

9780061768279When British traveller and storyteller Colin Thubron lost his 97-year-old mother in 2006, he went for a long walk.  To a Mountain in Tibet is the story of that walk, to isolated  Mount Kailas, the source of four great rivers of Asia and almost as many religions.The ritual pilgrim practice involves walking around the mountain–clockwise for Buddhists, counterclockwise for  Hindus–not to, or up the mountain. “Its slopes are sacrosanct,” Thubron notes, “and it has never been climbed.”

Thubron is not a believer, but the romance of that massif enthralls him, and he makes the circuit.

This is a breathtaking book, haunted by death. As Thubron walks, he remembers. Struggling to breathe in the thin mountain air, he recalls his mother’s breathlessness at the end. Musing on Buddhism and Hinduism or Himalayan botany raises memories of his father, who served with the British Raj in India. The sheer pyramidal faces of Kailas remind him of his sister’s untimely death, aged 21, in an accident in the French Alps.

Many walkers and writers try to meld memoir and travelogue; few do it well, because the way memory works on foot is not altogether as straightforward as prose. Thubron, also a novelist, dances gracefully bewteen now and then–from an exegesis of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to a memory of his mother’s grief at the loss of her daughter, to her hospital bed, to describing a vertiginous high-altitude monasteimgres-1ry.  The narrative structure is more like a vernacular temple than an architectural drawing. It’s a pleasure to explore, if you read slowly.

Maybe the apparently formless scaffolding of To a Mountain in Tibet just reflects the dizzying effects of altitude sickness; but it also feels like the way my mind works on a long walk. Thubron walks and writes with integrity and honesty, and maybe that’s why he never reaches any conclusions.

You cannot walk out your grief, or absolve yourself of your survival, or bring anyone back. You are left with the desire only that things not be as they are. So you choose somewhere meaningful on the earth’s surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage. Yet the meaning is not your own.

I am undertaking a secular pilgrimage myself, revisiting some of the haunted lands where my sister Sarah Elizabeth Statt (1959-60), my grandmother Elizabeth Wheeler (1900-1967), my mother Mary Putnam (1926-1999), and my brother John Charles Statt (1953-2007), were born and died.

In the last year, my ex-wife and my mother’s sister both died, in New Hampshire. I rented a car, filled a thermos with coffee, and jumped onto Interstate 95. New Hampshire is less than six hours away, that way. But I was responding to death.  Is a fore- and afternoon on the road an adequate show of respect? It seems too fast, just as the life that has brought me from New Hampshire to Philadelphia seems too fast–even though it has taken almost 60 years.

I don’t believe I need to hike a magic mountain to remember. But walking can be an act of mourning, too, moving slowly where I might hurry–that helps.