Book Review: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane

13369533Book Review: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

by Robert MacFarlane
ISBN: 978-0-241-14381-0
Hamish Hamilton, 2012

‘[someone] . . . setting out on a walk whose purposes exceeded the purely transportational or the simply recreational, and whose destination was in some sense sacred.”  —Robert Macfarlane

The old ways: the paths people took from one place to another.
The old ways: the modes of transportation people used for the journey.
The old ways: the customs and cultures shaped by environment and hardships.

The title means each one and all three of the above, and in his book Robert Macfarlane walked, sailed, sauntered, and climbed through the many faces of the old ways.

Thank goodness he lived to tell about it. He undertook some surprisingly death-defying journeys on land and sea. He might have been washed to his demise by the tide, disoriented by “illusions of the spirit as well as of the eye,” shot at, thrown overboard, or left frozen in the Himalayas. Bless him, he didn’t turn back from daunting adventures even when travel advice included packing a hatchet so that “if you get stuck in the mud with the tide coming in, you can cut off your legs at the ankles and escape.”

Approach this book as you would a saunter down a forest path. Resist the urge to hasten through the beauty of it like a fitness-crazed runner. Macfarlane is a man who notices things: he takes the time to enjoy the flowers, he knows what kind of rocks surround him, and he appreciates the trees. Read this book slowly and take the time to visualize the paths and the countryside. Macfarlane’s description capture simply but clearly the images he wants to create for his readers.

Sometimes Macfarlane travelled alone, but often he moved in the company of the type of people who obsess about pathways and pilgrimages, which is to say, entertaining but not typical folk. (The kind of people who boil down animal bones and store boxes of candy on shelves next to jars labelled “4000-Year-Old Storm Water.”) His companions enlivened the stories and provided much of the historical and geographical information with which this book is so rich.

This book wasn’t what I expected. The paths travelled were more daring than I expected, the literary descriptions more beautiful, and the background information more interesting and in-depth. It didn’t make me want to go on a pilgrimage with Macfarlane—I’m not intrepid enough for that—but it did make me want to read more of his books.

Sanskrit word:  darshan “a face-to-face encounter with the sacred on earth; with a physical manifestation of the holy.”


About Arlene Somerton Smith

Writer, laughing thinker, miner of inspirational insights, sports fan, and community volunteer

Posted on July 24, 2013, in Books I borrowed, History, Nature, Non-fiction, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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