Foot­falls from an­cient Al­bion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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

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