The joy of walking
The wanderer’s tale
Robert Macfarlane takes to ancient paths—and writes of place and pilgrimage
READERS of Robert Macfarlane’s previous books will not be surprised at how this one begins. Distracted on a snowy evening, unable to write, he leaves his house in Cambridge with a flask of whisky in his pocket, follows a field path, climbs a hill, finds a deer trail, tracks it through a hedge, comes upon rabbit prints, sees where they lead, and ends up lying on his back in deep snow, gazing up at the stars.
Though a fellowship at Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College ostensibly ties him down, this Boys’ Own world is where Mr Macfarlane longs to be—in the mountains or the wilderness. He is torn between homing and roaming, but homing gets short shrift. To write this book he walked, by his own estimate, 7,000-8,000 miles of paths: the prehistoric chalk tracks of England, the gneiss of the Isle of Lewis, the path that makes a kora, or sacred circle, round the pyramidal ice-mountain of Minya Konka in Tibet, a rocky forest branch of the road to Compostela and, most riskily, a network of wadi trails near Ramallah, in Palestine, under the eye of Israeli guards. He makes a strange, magical land-voyage (pictured) out along the shifting Broomway on the misty coast of Essex, where the watery silt mirrors his steps as if an ancestral double walks with him. Tenderly, he recounts a journey across the Cairngorm massif to attend the funeral of his grandfather, also a hillwalker, and to lay a small posy of granite-grown flowers on his grandfather’s favourite path.
Along these trails he notices everything. The rock he treads on, whether quartz, feldspar, limestone or sandstone; the birds above him, whether exulting skylarks, hovering kestrels or a rising heron, “a foldaway construction of struts and canvas”; the foil or spoor of animals, and their eyes glowing orange or green in the dark (even spiders’ eyes, he writes, show in the dark like tiny stars); trees, grass, fly-tipping, flowers. In an effort to get closer to the earth he sometimes walks barefoot, quite often coming a cropper. He ends up tweezering hawthorn spikes from his heels, or flossing sheep dung with grass from between his toes.
Whereas walking is traditionally a solitary’s delight, Mr Macfarlane often goes with friends, or makes appointments with strange characters obsessed with the land he moves through. In Lewis he meets Steve, who makes sculptures out of rock and bones. In Madrid he calls on Miguel, who has fashioned books-cum-keepsake boxes of every walk he has done in the Guadarrama mountains. His most frequent companions, though, are ghosts, such as the Neolithic men, women and children who scampered or hunted across the mud near Formby in Merseyside, leaving their footprints behind, or the previous walkers who have dropped along his route the white stones that weave a connecting pattern through the book.
In particular he walks with the tall, rangy, blue-eyed figure of a poet, Edward Thomas, whose tormented life first led Mr Macfarlane to pace the chalk of the “south country” in his shadow. The section on Thomas, towards the end of the book, feels slightly like an appendage. Expanded and interwoven with walking, it would make an extraordinary biography. But Mr Macfarlane’s feet were obviously itching to go on, beyond, elsewhere.
He does not pretend to have deep thoughts while walking. Walkers know it seldom happens that way. The tendency is to notice that tree, that stile, that passage of light (rionnach maoim, he tells us in a typically lovely aside, is Gaelic for “the shadows cast on the moor by cumulus clouds”). The priority is to pace the aching body. It is only later that the walker reflects that the process of walking is inward as well as outward exploration; that it is a way of connecting with his own past, as well as with the universal human past of crossing and recrossing the earth; and that even as the walker sculpts the landscape with his observing eye and tramping feet, the landscape in turn observes and shapes him. The word “learning”, Mr Macfarlane notes, stems from liznojan, to follow a path, and the word “write” from making tracks; when setting out, even on a familiar path, many walkers have imagined they may cross into visionary worlds. The acts of walking and wordsmithing are very close.
As the pen rises from the page between words, so the walker’s feet rise and fall between paces, and as the deer continues to run as it bounds from the earth, and the dolphin continues to swim even as it leaps again and again from the sea, so writing and wayfaring are continuous activities, a running stitch, a persistence of the same seam or stream.
Small complaints could be made. The middle section on sea-roads, while enjoyable, doesn’t really fit; one senses here the inveterate explorer’s unease with sticking to one subject, or one path. Several chapters cry out for maps; indeed, almost all do. But then Mr Macfarlane has always decried the use of maps, recommending instead the charts formed by memory, incident, fear or affection, and carried in our heads. Readers are invited, instead, to wander and lose themselves; and it is hard to think of a more pleasurable way to do so without leaving one’s chair.
from the print edition | Books and arts