4.5 stars. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is a story about the relation between landscape and people, and the ways that both leave their mark on the other. Robert Macfarlane conveys, through beautiful language, an appreciation of pathways, the feet that make them, and the terrain that directs their course. The journeys are set primarily in England and Scotland, with excursions to Spain, Palestine, and China. Along the way, Macfarlane discusses a variety of topics, ranging from the colorful people he meets to history to geology to literature.
This book is excellent as an inspiration for wanderlust. I particularly loved his descriptions of the Broomway, the pass through Lairig Ghru, his journey on the pilgrim’s way of Camino de Santiago, and the trek at Minya Konka–all of those seem like bucket list hikes!
Macfarlane is very talented with phrases. So many artfully-worded passages ring true:
“Paths are the habits of a landscape.”
“We easily forget that we are track-markers, through, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete–and these are substances not easily impressed.”
“Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. This discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting.”
So, why not 5 stars for a book that I enjoyed so much? Mainly for Macfarlane’s tendency to use prose and quotations not to enrich his passages, but to show how terribly clever and educated he is. Some parts of The Old Ways plod along, with erudite phrase after phrase, until my eyes glazed over.
I also found the chapters that concerned his journeys to be interesting, and those that concerned his ruminating to be less so. I was least taken with his capsule biography of poet Edward Thomas and his account of two sailing voyages in the Hebrides (this was, after all, subtitled “A Journey on Foot”). This is a “chapter a night” kind of book, not a “sit down and read it all the way through” book. Also, I’m a maphead–where are the maps? This book without maps is like a biography without a portrait of the subject!