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THE OLD WAYS by Robert Macfarlane Kirkus Star


A Journey on Foot

by Robert Macfarlane

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-670-02511-4
Publisher: Viking

Macfarlane (English/Cambridge Univ.; The Wild Places, 2008, etc.) returns with another masterful, poetic travel narrative.

The author’s latest, focusing broadly on the concept of walking, forms what he calls “a loose trilogy,” with his two earlier books, Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places, “about landscape and the human heart.” As in his previous books, it seems nearly impossible that a writer could combine so many disparate elements into one sensible narrative. It’s ostensibly a first-person travelogue (of England, Spain, Palestine, Tibet and other locales), combined with biographical sketches (such as that of poet Edward Thomas, who died on a battlefield in France in 1917) and historical anecdotes about a wide variety of subjects (e.g., a set of 5,000-year-old footprints made by a family along the coastline just north of Liverpool). In the hands of a lesser writer, these divergent ideas would almost certainly result in unreadable chaos, but Macfarlane effortlessly weaves them together under the overarching theme of “walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.” While this notion may seem abstract, the author’s resonant prose brings it to life—whether he is writing about the mountains of Tibet, where a half-frozen stream is “halted mid-leap in elaborate forms of yearning,” or the mountains of Scotland to which he returned for his grandfather’s funeral, where he found “moonlight shimmering off the pine needles and pooling in the tears of resin wept by the pines.”

A breathtaking study of “walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape.”