Footfalls from ancient Albion
BRITISH nature writing is usually considered a bucolic genre: serene tones combined with nostalgic substance. We think of it as a form essentially conservative in its aims and ends. Recall Gilbert White, 18thcentury vicar of Selbourne, observing for decades the minute natural particulars of his Hampshire parish; or Laurie Lee, author of Cider with Rosie, whose drowsy Cotswolds summers were interrupted forever by the advent of the motor car.
Robert Macfarlane shares with such figures scientific exactitude or lyrical fervency, but he should not be mistaken for them: or rather, he should not be mistakenly included in a false version of what these representatives of the British tradition intended in their work. For the past decade this most physically vital and intellectually questing of Cambridge scholars has been renovating the canon of British nature writing: dusting off neglected figures, celebrating little-known contemporary practitioners, re-reading them in the light of contemporary ecological and social concerns.
This fresh back story, assembled through a decade of literary journalism, essays, introductions to reissues of classic texts, as well as three extended prose works of increasing breadth and sophistication, of which The Old Ways is the culminant achievement, reveals a tradition more radical in conception, more politically charged and philosophically urgent than we could have imagined. Collectively, it asks us to renew our compact with the natural world, to see ourselves as formed and informed by landscape, even as we continue to reshape it.
But there are barriers to this renewed awareness. Technological modernity has occluded older relationships to place. Hence the author’s return to first principles. As Macfarlane reminds readers in the opening pages of The Old Ways: Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk . . . We easily forget that we are track makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete — and these substances are not easily impressed.
In this new work Macfarlane gets off the unbeaten tracks of the present. Instead he records a series of journeys along older ways — pilgrim paths, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes — whether by land or water, that precede and still shadow today’s more obvious routes. It is a work that blends physical endurance (Macfarlane travels hundreds of kilometres by cycle, foot and boat), and imaginative recreation, since Macfarlane’s first-hand experience is laid over that of earlier travellers (his knowledge of these is encyclo- pedic). The result is a not a work of nature writing so much as an act of nature necromancy, where ghosts are summoned to travel alongside the living, helping chant the paths back into existence. This ‘‘ interweaving of footfall, knowledge and memory’’ allows Macfarlane to trace the songlines of Albion.
The journeys take Macfarlane along the Icknield Way, the most ancient land route in Britain, on chalk laid down across countless millennia throughout England, from Yorkshire to Sussex; across the peat trails of the Atlantic coast of the Isle of Lewis; and over the snowcovered Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire. In each instance the author shows an attentiveness to place that begins with the geology beneath his feet and then expands outwards to encompass place in all its aspects: topography and climate, flora and fauna are interrogated, surmised, captured on the wing.
The tone of these chapters is a variable as the weather. Sometimes the mode is amiably comic, as when the author is travelling with his friend David Quentin, ‘‘ perhaps probably the only Marxist tax lawyer in London, possibly in the world. He likes wearing britches, likes walking barefoot, and hopes daily for the downfall of capitalism.’’ At others, and particularly in those concluding chapters dealing with the soldier, poet and compulsive walker Edward Thomas, the author reveals a kindred melancholy, a darker current running beneath his light-footed adventures. There are also moments of pure gothic. The description of a night spent sleeping rough at Chanctonbury Ring (a haunted Bronze Age hill fort in West Sussex) is the eeriest thing I have read in years.
Yet all of these are welded together by Macfarlane’s prose. Even when he roams farther afield — to Palestine or the pilgrim routes of Spain — the writing has the measured cadences and flashes of brilliance typical of the author’s home-ground style: ‘‘ a hidden sun, shedding a weak and eely light’’; ‘‘ water a sea-silver that scorched the eye’’; ‘‘ green and grey moss that was as soft to the touch as jewellery-box velvet’’.
Not that Macfarlane is a selective painter of the pretty or rustic. Whenever aspects of the contemporary world intrude they, too, are folded into a voluptuous mix of simile and metaphor. When the author stands beneath an electricity pylon, he hears ‘‘ the spit and fizz of their energy, and the humming note that formed, with the other pylons nearby, a loose chord’’. Anyone who has seen Macfarlane’s BBC documentary from 2009, The Wild Places of Essex (regarded as the most vulgar, builtover county in England), will know how the author’s democratic apprehension permits mundanity and sublimity to coexist.
The cumulative effect of the chapters is unsettling in the best sense. When, in one portion of the narrative, Macfarlane takes to the sea by boat in order to investigate the searoads of Scotland’s outer islands, he asks the reader to invert their mental map of Britain: Blank out the land interiors of these countries — consider them featureless, as you might have previously have considered the sea. Instead, populate the . . . waters with paths and tracks: a travel system that joins port to port, island to island . . . The sea has become land . . . not barrier but corridor.
The book as a whole offers a ‘‘ photo negative flip’’ of the kind presented here. It asks us to see Britain’s old ways as a network that survives contemporary overlay. It describes — passionately, cogently — alternative means of passage that simultaneously suggest other ways of being in the world.
Robert Macfarlane walks The Broomway in southeast England