On a recent winter evening, the British writer Robert Macfarlane rose from his writing desk, stepped into the crisp cold, and went for a walk. That first walk, which turned into countless other walks, eventually became Robert’s beautiful new book, The Old Ways, a journey on foot along the ancient tracks, holloways, cattle roads, and sea paths that crisscross England and points beyond. Robert spoke recently with Grover Gardner of Downpour.com about the new book and the ways paths connect us with the world they circumscribe.
The Old Ways is a book about traveling in time, as well as in space. I’ve always been a walker and I’ve always been fascinated by old paths—some of the paths in Britain, the pilgrim paths, the holloways, and the druid roads. You have your versions in America. I wanted to set out along these and use them as a logic of navigation and a means of motion—a way of walking backwards in history as well as across space and landscape. But I didn’t know what would happen to me, and strange things did happen. Paths led to other paths, and meetings with people occurred along the ways.
And paths are everywhere. They’re in every landscape. You only need to look at your local sidewalk and see the little trails that cut away from the asphalt and take the shortcuts across the grass. Our cities are filled with what architects call desire lines, the marks that humans have left on the landscapes they inhabit. Those are young paths, but there are old paths everywhere too: the bison roads of the nineteenth-century expansion, the Oregon Trail. There is a fascinating American trail culture that I only know of anecdotally. But more broadly speaking, this is a book about exploration. It’s about feeling the world with your body. It’s about knowing it with your hands and your feet and your skin, as well as seeing it with your eyes or reading about it in books. More broadly, it’s a book about how we relate to the natural world in a late-modern context, and that touches all of us.
Read the entire interview, here.
Here’s Robert speaking in 2012 about his journeys, his book, and how the landscapes we love shape the people we are:
Learn more about the Orion Book Award here, and stay tuned, next week, when the 2013 winner is announced.