Friday, January 24, 2020

Review: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
From The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane:

Open quote 

The literature of wayfaring is long, existing as poems, songs, stories, treatises and route guides, maps, novels and essays. The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature—a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells."

It's a nature book. And a book of geology, history, archaeology, literature, and poetry. It's a journal of walks in Britain, Palestine, Spain, and China. And a vocabulary builder to boot. B-

Grade: B-

In each chapter, Robert Macfarlane recounts a personal experience of his where he walked, alone or with local experts, a track or trail or footpath through various landscapes of the world. Most of his accounts are of following old footpaths in the British Isles, from the Channel coast in the south to the outer Hebrides in the north.

He tells of walking the Broomway, a three-mile path across the open sea that is walkable during low tide. It is said to be more dangerous than rock climbing, as fog and the changing tides can trap disoriented walkers who don't time their walks carefully.

He tells of sailing around the Hebrides north of Scotland and of a time when sailing routes from Scandinavia to Iceland to Ireland, Wales, England, and France tied all of these into a rich network of trade. They once were a bird paradise, and can be again, as long as they are protected.

He tells of walking in Palestine, over land that used to be filled with networks of trails connecting villages and olive groves but now is often empty, land whose ownership is disputed between Israel and Palestine.

He tells of walking around a sacred mountain in the Himalayas, where he learned that conquering the mountain by climbing it can be less satisfying than being at one with the mountain by circumambulating it.

He tells the story of Edward Thomas, a pre-World War I essayist-turned-poet who hiked Britain's many trails. Thomas enlisted in World War I and wrote scraps of poems and letters to his wife from France before being killed in action. It's clear that Macfarlane admires, even identifies with, Thomas.

One side benefit of this journal of Macfarlane's wayfaring is expanding one's own vocabulary. More sentences than not contain words that sent me to the dictionary. Mafic, zawns, bothy, machair, currach, shieling, teasel, friable, scurfed, marl, holloway, oneiric, boustrophedon, dupel, and deckled. By the way, dupel, or düppel in German, was metallic chaff dropped by German bombers in WWII to screen the bombers from British anti-aircraft radar detection.

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