It goes without saying that Robert Macfarlane’s book is a substantial and significant achievement. Its accounts of treks undertaken at home and abroad urge us to look anew at familiar landscapes and open our eyes to places we would not have thought, or dared, to venture. The pathfinders and path keepers we meet in the process inspire admiration, self-reproach at our own laziness and wonder at their obsessive, sometimes courageous dedication. And these individual stories, fascinating in themselves, swell to an impassioned celebration of the beauty, consolations and wisdom that are made available by the act of walking.
You may think, after such an opening, that a ‘but’ is sure to follow. You may even, having read The Old Ways and been enslaved by Macfarlane’s message and prose, be wondering what reservations there could possibly be. Well, I have two but they are more queries than cavils and it is no criticism of any book that it sets the reader thinking.
Firstly, he says it himself: the paths he sets out to follow have been pounded by countless feet into the bare, impressionable earth, whereas the footslogging of city dwellers leaves no trace on tarmac or concrete. Yet we have become an urban race and those man-made surfaces are what the vast majority of us tramp for most of our lives. That in no way devalues the ancestral tracks or the attention he pays to them. However, there is a tendency in English culture (although it may be universal) to seek meaning and identity in rural settings rather than in the places where most of us actually live. The very first walk in the book is a quiet popping out into the surrounding fields. By making this sound both unplanned and unexceptional he sets the tone for what follows: these places are accessible to all of us, along with the experience they provide of mental space, dwarfing of the self and connectivity with nature and the past. But having these splendours a short stroll away is denied to most people. Compare Macfarlane with someone like Ian Sinclair who steps out of his front door to patrol the cityscape of Hackney and adjacent parts of London. This is a man-made world that offers not ancient states of being and timeless truths but restless change and contested meanings.
Don’t get me wrong. I live in the country, after even our small, attractive town became too noisy and congested, and I feel as strongly as anyone the pull of wild places. But I am also aware that the countryside, especially in England, is no less a product of human interference than the town, even while we praise it for being natural, and that the major challenge facing the planet is not the integrity of hedgerows or the fate of rural post offices but how to feed, govern and power conurbations. This brings me to my second, nagging thought about The Old Ways. Although never stated explicitly, there is an implied assumption that we can learn from the past – not in grand, conceptual ways (the inevitability of change, the limited shelf-life of certainties) but directly from those who lived in that far off land. And this raises a question about how we should view our history: as a place where things of value were mislaid or as a primitive precursor to our own advancement. I consider myself an agnostic on this point, inclined if anything to the second proposition. There are numerous reasons to learn about the peoples who traipsed and trampled the chalk uplands of southern England or the rocky fastnesses of the Hebrides, among them inherent interest, practical tips on survival, nostalgia for simpler times and the exercise of empathy. But going too far down this route implies a mistrust of modernity which, however tempting, has dubious political and cultural associations.