Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways

Last updated: 10 March 2018

Finally completed Robert Macfarlane‘s The old ways, started last summer. A reading in the garden book.

Reviews: Amazon | GoodreadsLibraryThing | three and a half pages of quotes in the book itself

Nature writing fans for whom Robert’s fame precedes him love it, others find the writing tending to the flowery. Falling somewhere in between, the less nature tinged sections, in particular the account of his grandfather’s final walks and funeral (p202-205 in the Penguin edition) and the chapter on Edward Thomas (Ghost) are what made me linger, as did walks in the strange but familiar landscapes of the Hebrides, Palestine and the Himalayas, “improvised pilgrimages of varying levels of seriousness and sanctity” (p235).

The book as an artefact has received some care and attention. With a Keep Calm era style cover, the text is divided into four evocatively named parts. Tracking covers England, with one word elemental chapters (track, path, chalk, silt). Following ventures to Scotland (water – south and north, peat, gneiss, granite), Roaming takes Bob abroad (limestone, roots, ice). Finally, Homing brings us back to England (snow, flint, ghost, print).

The final 70 pages or so consist of a glossary, notes, bibliography, acknowledgements and index. This last is interesting. Fairly conventional in conception, it includes the following categories:

  • animals, fish and insects
  • artefacts and artworks
  • birds
  • books, writings, stories and film – includes “books that choose the reader”
  • buildings and stuctures
  • countries
  • flowers and plants
  • ideas and practices
  • illusions and mirages
  • institutions
  • islands
  • maps and map making (but no maps)
  • mountains and hills
  • paths and tracks
  • people
  • places
  • rivers and streams
  • rocks, minerals and earth
  • seafaring, sea roads and vessels
  • songs and music
  • towns, villages and cities
  • trees, woods and forests
  • weather

As an indexing experiment, I’d like to have seen the entries mirroring the poetical tone of the text, perhaps tying in with the synopses at the beginning of each chapter.

From the chapter on Granite/Scotland (p198):

We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in the memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places – retreated to most often when we are most remote from them – are among the most important landscapes we possess…these, perhaps, are the landscapes in which we live the longest, warped though they are by time and abraded though they are by distance. The consolation of recollected places finds its expression frequently in the accounts of those – exiles, prisoners, the ill, the elderly – who can no longer reach the places that sustain them.

Updates: on Front Row, August 2020…2 March 2015; Macfarlane’s new one, Landmarks (Amazon | Spectator | Gdn), is about to go large. Intriguingly, if wearingly, this is described as a “field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used to describe land, nature and weather”. See Macfarlane’s word-hoard, doubtless the first of many pieces (and an exhibition | another):

I organised my growing word-hoard into nine glossaries, divided according to terrain-type: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands…Each of the nine glossaries is matched with a chapter exploring the work of those writers who have used words exactly and exactingly when describing specific places.

It seems that there are several other word hoards doing the rounds – see this review of Uncommon ground, with accompanying glossary, and Manchán Magan’s Thirty-Two words for field: lost words of the Irish landscape.

As Macfarlane writes: “Smeuse is a dialect noun for ‘the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’; now I know the word ‘smeuse’, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.” And John Burnside points out, “Landmarks goes further by enriching, not only our vocabulary of land terms, but also our ways of seeing.” Having recently bought a tree book I’m in with the naming things meme, but re this book I think I’ll stick with this entry from The Digested Read:

Mon-biot: the early morning tweet of the excitable green finch that would have been better off deleted.

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