~ Posted by Simon Willis, May 29th 2012
Robert Macfarlane, who writes our new column "A Walk on the Wild Side", has just published a new book called "The Old Ways". It's about ancient paths—from the chalk landscapes of southern England to Minya Konka, a site of Buddhist pilgrimage in Tibet. Macfarlane reckons he walked more than 7,000 miles to write the book. All worth it, according to reviews: in the Sunday Times, John Carey, one of Britain's most prominent literary critics, said that it "sets the imagination tingling" and lays "an irresistible trail for readers to follow". Rachel Cooke wrote in the Observer that "Macfarlane doesn't stumble on enchantment; he creates it", while Scotland on Sunday said that he's "one of the most eloquent and observant writers about nature". According to The Economist, our sister magazine, the book invites readers to "wander and lose themselves; and it is hard to think of a more pleasurable way to do so without leaving one’s chair."
That review also noted Macfarlane's meditations on the relationship between walking and writing—that the word "learning" has roots in a word meaning to "follow a path", and that "write" stems from making tracks. In a chapter near the end of the book, about the poet Edward Thomas, the book's guiding spirit, Macfarlane writes that,
"Again and again in Thomas's imagination, text and landscape overlap: 'The prettiest things on ground are the paths / With morning and evening hobnails dinted, / With foot and wing-tip overprinted / Or separately charactered.' The paths are sentences, the shod feet of the travellers the scratch of the pen-nib or the press of the type."
The idea that walking, writing and reading are intimately connected, "expire into one another" as Macfarlane puts it, has also been expressed in a recent book about reading by the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst. In "What is Reading For?", the text of a lecture Bringhurst gave in the United States two years ago, he says that we read when we're out in the world and walk when we're deep in books. Reading, Bringhurst says, "means paying attention to what's in front of you and trying to make sense of it"—which goes for landscapes as much as print. Later he says that to make sense of books, "You have to walk through the text, and for that you need good eyes, good feet, and lots of time".