Robert Macfarlane: Old Ways and Wild Places

I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods.

Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.

On this earth ’tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure:

The hill road wet with rain
In the sun would not gleam
Like a winding stream
If we trod it not again.

– extract from ‘Roads’ by Edward Thomas

Recently I’ve been reading several books that share Edward Thomas’s love of paths and walking.  This is the second instalment of a two-part post.  The first part is here.  This post is concerned with two books by Robert Macfarlane – The Wild Places and The Old Ways.

I thought I had read The Wild Places some time ago, but when I pulled it down off the shelf recently to compare it with The Old Ways I realised that I hadn’t.  I’ll come clean – I’ve reached that time in life when I stir my tea and discovering two tea bags there, realise that I have added a second bag to the mug in which I had placed one already.

The Wild Places begins with Macfarlane climbing a tree near his home in a gale (there’ll be more of this sort of thing later) and is filled with an irresistable desire for wildness:

to reach somewhere remote, where the starlight fell clearly, where the windcould blow me from its thirty-six directions, and where the evidence of human presence was minimal or absent.  Far north or far west; for to my mind this was where wildness survived, if it survived anywhere at all.

Macfarlane resolves to map the remaining wild places of the British Isles, places that conformed most purely to his private vision of wildness. He begins by heading west, out along the Lleyn to Ynys Enlli ‘where the first glimmerings of a wild consciousness’ might be found on an island settled by monks and sought by pilgrims of the early years of Celtic Christianity.  The chapters of the book are arranged by topography – Island, Valley, Saltmarsh, Moor, Ridge, Holloway and Beechwood.

But more than simply mapping the route of his travels, The Wild Places maps a change of heart. To start with, Macfarlane is convinced that if he is to find any remaining wild places in these overcrowded islands – places where he can ‘step outside human history’ – he must hike across distant moors and mountains and islands.  And so he attempts a perilous climb out of a hidden valley in the Cuillins of Skye, tramps across Rannoch Moor through a night and two days, and on a winter’s night, battered by a snowstorm, sleeps out with no tent on the summit of Ben More, the last mountain peak before Greenland or Siberia.

The essence of his case is stated in this passage from the chapter where, in deepest winter, he climbs a ridge in Cumbria, walking at night by moonlight and starlight, attempting sleep in a blizzard of hail and snow, and at first light plunging naked into a mountain pool:

We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity … On almost every front, we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.

The blinding of the stars is only one aspect of this retreat from the real. In so many ways, there has been a prising away of life from place, an abstraction of experience into different kinds of touchlessness. We experience, as no historical period has before, disembodiment and dematerialisation.  … We have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like. And so new maladies of the soul have emerged, unhappinesses which are complicated products of the distance we have set between ourselves and the world. We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its ices, textures, sounds, smells and habits – as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb.

But the fascination of  The Wild Places is that Macfarlane reveals how his idea of wildness changes.  The turning point is a walk in the company of the naturalist Roger Deakin on the limestone clints and grikes of The Burren. Deakin points out that a little crack in the limestone contains a wilderness:

Near the centre of the pavement, we reached a large gryke running north to south. We lay belly-down on the limestone and peered over its edge. And found ourselves looking into a jungle. Tiny groves of ferns, mosses and flowers were there in the crevasse – hundreds of plants, just in the few yards we could see, thriving in the shelter of the gryke: cranesbills, plantains, avens, ferns, many more I could not identify, growing opportunistically on wind-blown soil. The plants thronged every available niche, embracing one another into indistinguishability. Even on this winter day, the sense of life was immense. What the gryke would look like in the blossom month of May, I could not imagine.

This, Roger suddenly said as we lay there looking down into it, is a wild place. It is as beautiful and complex, perhaps more so, than any glen or bay or peak. Miniature, yes, but fabulously wild.

Macfarlane’s concept of wildness has changed by the time we reach the halfway point of his book. In Strathnaver in the far northeast of Scotland he realises that his original vision had ‘started to crumble from contact with the ground itself’.   As he reflects on the depopulation of the strath during the Highland Clearances, begins to realise that ‘the human and the wild cannot be partitioned’. The wilderness that he sees now is the consequence of emigration, conscription and displacement as Strathnaver, like so many of the valleys of Scotland, was emptied of its people, its families, in the words of an observer at the time, ‘utterly rooted and burnt out’, parish after parish turned into a solitary wilderness.

In the later sections of the book, Macfarlane explores landscapes that are gentler and more hospitable, but still full of surprises. In the holloways of Dorset which he walks as a memorial to his close friend Roger Deakin, along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast, and on the saltmarshes of Essex, he discovers ‘a sense of wildness as process, something continually at work in the world, something tumultuous, green, joyous’.  The Essex chapter was subsequently expanded into a suberb Natural World documentary for the BBC in which he travelled the county’s strange and elemental landscapes of heavy industry, desolate beaches and wild woods, encountering peregrine falcons at Tilbury Power Station, water voles within sniffing distance of the municipal dump, deer rutting in earshot of the M25, barn owls, badgers and bluebells in Billericay as well as a large colony of common seals.

In the final chapter of this elegantly written book, Macfarlane returns to the wood near his home where the need to experience wildness betook him.  He realises that

the wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us. Human cultures will pass, given time, of which there is sufficiency. The ivy will snake and unrig our flats and terraces, as it scattered the Roman villas. The sand will drift into our business parks, as it drifted into the brochs of the iron age. Our roads will lapse into the land.

He concludes:

Then I looked back across the landscape before me: the roads, the railway, the incinerator tower and the woodlands.  The woods were spread out across the land and they were seething. Wildness was here, a short mile south of the town in which I lived.  It was set about by roads and buildings, much of it was menaced, and some of it was dying.  But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light.

In The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane was partly spurred on his way by a realisation that for most of us the map of Britain with whiich we are most familiar is the road map. He set out to create an alternative map that would make the remaining wild places of the archipelago visible again.  In The Old Ways he explores Britain geologically, walking its paths mapping the relationship between surface rock, people and place.  The book’s chapters are organised around geological textures: Chalk, Silt, Peat, Gneiss, Granite and Flint.

Fundamentally, though, this is a book about walking – it could not have been written sitting still, insits Macfarlane -and about the ancient paths that criss-cross the landscape of these isles.  Above all, it is a book about people and place – about the subtle ways in which our thoughts, ideas and art are shaped by the landscapes in which we live and walk.

At the opening of The Old Ways Macfarlane observes that ‘Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss’. The landscape is

webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets – say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

He sets out to explore these old ways, and though the subtitle of the book is ‘A Journey on Foot’, two of the best sections are about retracing the old sea roads that linked the islands of the Outer Hebrides with Norway, Iceland and Orkney. We think of paths as existing only on land, he writes, but the sea has paths, too, and for thousands of years these roads across the ocean brought closer far-apart places.

It is easy to fall in alongside Macfarlane as he walks these trails (though I suspect I wouldn’t be able to keep pace with him). He writes beautifully, and communicates an easy-going erudition that embraces geology, history, literature, art and many aspects of the natural world.  In this book, more so than in The Wild Places, he also brings alive the characters he meets along the way: the landscapes he describes are filled not just with rock, animals and plants, but also sailors, botanists, poets, archaeologists and crofters.  There’s a sailor skilled enough to cross the Minch to the Shiant Islands; a sculptor and a Tibetologist; a friend who knows the danger and importance of walking in Ramallah ‘discovering stories other than those of murder and hostility’. They are all important figures in a book about the ways people come to know places and absorb them into their bloodstream, their consciousness.

The Palestinian friend is Raja Shehadeh, author of Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape which, shamefully, I still haven’t got around to reading.  The Palestinian adventure is an indication of the somewhat unstructured bagginess of the book  – with chapters describing walks abroad – through the limestone wadis of the Occupied Territories, following the pilgrimage route through Spain with a detour to a strange library, and walking with Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims in the Himalayas.  The Palestinian walk revealed Macfarlane uncharacteristically ill at ease as he and Raja walk a path through a valley  overlooked by Israeli settlements. But his acute observation and fine writing remain in place:

Back in Ramallah that night, I walked the streets, enjoying the cool air andthe feeling of enclosure that the city and the darkness brought, after the exposure of the day. On waste groundby the side of a busy four-lane road, I passed a skip whose contents had been set on fire, and out of which rose and shifted a column of black smoke. A single trainer hung over the outside of the skip, hitched by its laces to its unseen partner on the inside. I waited to cross the road, while the pedestrian crossing flashed its orders: WALK, DON’T WALK; WALK, DON’T WALK.

Then there are the chapters inspired by art and poetry.  In ‘Snow’ he walks – actually, he skis – across the South Downs along the Ridgeway after a winter snowfall, taking his bearings from the watercolourist Eric Ravilious, ‘a votary of whiteness and remoteness, and a visionary of the everyday’. The snow and the skis neatly link the Downs with the Arctic – the two landscapes that most inspired Ravilious. For most of his life the Downs satisfied his landscape needs, but as time wore on he began to dream of the Arctic, the midnight sun and icebergs.  At the outset of the Second World War, Ravilious was appointed an official war artist, and in May 1940 he got the news he had longed for: he would sail to Norway and across the Arctic circle. For three months he produced work that Macfarlane ranks as perhaps his finest.  Then, in late August, he flew with a search party that took off from Iceland to locate a missing plane. He and another four men were lost in a plane looking for a missing plane.

Eric Ravilious: Chalk Paths

But the real guiding spirit of The Old Ways is Edward Thomas, walker, nature-writer and poet, who left the ‘South Country’ he loved and followed the chalk across the channel to northern France, where he died on the first day of the Battle of Arras. Macfarlane was inspired by the words that  Thomas employed to portray the old ways: ‘A white snake on a green hillside’ was one of Thomas’s descriptions of a chalk path’s motion through the land. He also wrote that, ‘The earliest roads wandered like rivers through the land, having, like rivers, one necessity, to keep in motion’.  Macfarlane attempts to understand Thomas by inhabiting the places where he walked and following in his footsteps.  He writes that:

Thomas ghosted my journeys and urged me on.  I set out to walk my way back into intimacy with Thomas, using the paths as a route to his past, but ended up discovering much more about the liviong than the dead.

Somehow the passages on Ravilious and Thomas are the least satisfying here: I think Macfarlane is at his best – as a writer and a thinker – when he is walking, and one of the finest descriptions of a walk in this book is his account of walking ‘the deadliest path in Britain’, the Broomway, a footpath heads straight out from the Essex coastline into the North Sea across Maplin Sands until, after three miles, it turns back in the direction before finally making landfall.  Macfarlane’s writing here is as crystalline as the shimmering seascape that he traverses:

Half a mile offshore, walking on silver water, we crossed a path that extended gracefully and without apparent end to our north and south. It was a shallow tidal channel and the water it held caught and pooled the sun, such that its route existed principally as flux; a phenomenon of light and currents. Its bright line curved away from us: an ogee whose origin we could not explain and whose invitation to follow we could not disobey, so we walked it northwards, along that glowing track made neither of water nor of land, which led us further and still further out to sea.

Macfarlane ends by tracking 5000 year old fossil footprints on the sands at Formby Point, north of Liverpool. Or does he? This chapter seems to me to be a bit of a fiction – the footprints of neolithic people have been found on this shore, but they are temporary and quickly washed away.  He writes as if he is tracking the footprints across a mile or more of sand, placing his feet in the fossil prints.  I can understand the poetry here, but after chapters which have described real walks, it doesn’t ring true.

See also

10 thoughts on “Robert Macfarlane: Old Ways and Wild Places

  1. Lovely to see some images with the writing – as none appear in the books! I think Wild Places was a better book all round. I liked Old Ways in parts much as you did. However Old Ways has made me read more of Edward Thomas – currently All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis, which I am enjoying.

  2. A wonderful post, I think the idea of wilderness is as much a matter of imagination as anything else, we have plenty of wilderness in the fens, if only one knows how to look for it.

    1. I think you’re right about imagination, Martin. Not only in sensing the wildness of unexpected places (take for example the idea of ‘edgelands’ in Paul Farley’s book) but also in the past of the places we inhabit today. I love to imagine, as Gillian Tisdall put it, in her book about London, ‘the fields beneath’ the streets of today.

  3. These have been on my list to read for ages…your post will spur me on. I love the description of the crack in the limestone – a wild world can be as small as this. You just need to look closer, slower.

  4. I’m just reading Wild Places and it has to be one of my favourite books. I thing McFarlane has just become a friend of mine on the definition of CS Lewis that friendships start when one person says to another, “Oh, you too? I thought I was the only one!” And maybe you are too! Good writing. Keep it up!

    1. Thank you for reading; I’m pleased you have found a fellow-spirit in Macfarlane, and grateful for your generous response to the post.

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