Non-fiction review: The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane


A follow-up to Mountains of the Mind, I grabbed the audio of this book to get more of the author's thoughts. Then I had to get the paperback because there were things I needed to read slowly, and flag, and return to.

Title: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
Robert Macfarlane. Read by Robin Sachs
Publication Info:
Blackstone Audio, 2012.  Original hardback, Hamish Hamilton, 2012, 433 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Blurb:

From the acclaimed author of The Wild Places comes an engrossing exploration of walking and thinking.

In this exquisitely written book, Robert Macfarlane sets off from his Cambridge, England, home to follow the ancient tracks, holloways, drove roads, and sea paths that crisscross both the British landscape and its waters and territories beyond. The result is an immersive, enthralling exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt old paths, of the stories our tracks keep and tell, and of pilgrimage and ritual.

Told in Macfarlane's distinctive voice, The Old Ways folds together natural history, cartography, geology, archaeology, and literature. His walks take him from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of the Scottish northwest, from Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas. Along the way he crosses paths with walkers of many kinds—wanderers, pilgrims, guides, and artists. Above all this is a book about walking as a journey inward and the subtle ways we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move. Macfarlane discovers that paths offer not just a means of traversing space but of feeling, knowing, and thinking.

My Review:
It's not a common thing for me to finish an audio book and immediately check out the ebook, let alone tracking down a physical book. But that's what I did with this one. I knew from early in my listening that I needed to re-read passages, mark them, and return to think about them some more. I am currently in the midst of doing just that.

Why does this book insist on being looked at more closely than most? Of course, that's a very personal thing, as much of what Macfarlane has to say about walking seems to resonate with what I've been thinking about so much for the last few months, if not years. Macfarlane's language is poetic and strong, but what he is saying about walking, the relationship between walking and thinking, and about the antiquity of paths of travel (maybe mental as well as physical) is also something to cogitate on at leisure.

He seems to me to capture perfectly the two ways that walking works on thinking: "Sometimes walking is the mind's subtle accomplice; at other times its brutal antagonist." Plenty of writers have talked about how a good walk can sort out the thoughts--and it can. But it's also true that when the walk turns long and strenuous, it can turn off the thoughts. And that's not a bad thing, either.

In addition to the philosophy, the book holds a good dose of history of a few places, the places with very old route, the "old ways" of the title. Macfarlane intermingles that history with his own walking (or, in a few cases, sailing) of the old ways, in a book that, at least for me, hit a lot of the right notes at the right time.

My Recommendation:
Take a look. Lots of food for thought here, as well as some cool history and a few intriguing walks.

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed an electronic copy of  from my library, and received nothing from the author or the publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”   

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2023
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