Robert MacFarlane is a poetic genius whose writing is akin to reading poetry in prose. I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying these books, but I would most strongly recommend them to readers of JRR Tolkein and George RR Martin, for Mr MacFarlane is writing about the real things, the ancient pathways and words that take us back to our beginnings. Not for him the fantasy landscape, but the earth beneath his feet; not for him the strange sounding invented words, but the old words that we are steadily losing or, worse still, deliberately abandoning.
In the three volumes that I have to hand, The Old Ways, Holloway and Landmarks these are all the matter. The Old Ways is a journey on foot from Cambridge, where Robert MacFarlane lives, across and criss-crossing Britain by the ancient pathways and drover roads and the canals and sea ways that connect Britain to the continent and Britons to each other. Going beyond these shores to Spain and France on the old pilgrimage routes and returning home, to that profoundly interior moment that is homecoming.
Not unlike another book, Bruce Chatwin‘s memorable Songlines this is a book about travelling on pathways that are being forgotten, lost in urbanisation, vehicular travel and falling into disuse.
During the journey, the people and places become alive to us through Robert MacFarlane’s magnificent prose-style. The path is not only the way, it is also an opportunity to discover how landscape, the earth beneath, the geology and everything combine to make each location uniquely precious and different. And how, these changes in landscape alter the practices and personalities that inhabit them. There are whole chapters on granite, chalk, limestone and flint; there are chapters on pilgrimage and chapters on rites of passage. Covering, in four parts, Tracking (England), Following (Scotland) and Roaming (Abroad) and Homing (England) this book will take you far afield in both experience and meditation, for it is as much about the inner journey as about the steps he took.
The Old Ways is part of a trilogy but can be taken up equally as a single volume. The theme of this loosely based series is the landscape of the mind as much as the view from the hills. Previous volumes include Mountains of the Mind and The Old Ways.
Holloway is rather different. The co-authors are Robert MacFarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards and is dedicated to the memory of Roger Deakin who had accompanied Robert MacFarlane on previous memorable walks and who died in 2006.
A holloway is a very ancient pathway, sunken through the passage of time by footfall, weather or traffic so that it becomes deeper and more mysterious. This is how it is described at the beginning of the book:
A sunken path, a deep and shady lane. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll & rain-run have harrowed into the land. A track worn down by the traffic of ages & the the fretting of water, and in places reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the level of the fields.
Now, tell me if that is not poetry?
This is a description of a particular pathway, one walked by Robert and Roger years before and re-trodden by Robert, Dan and Stanley as part of the making of this book. The path runs through an area of soft stone in Dorset. Holloways can only exist in areas of soft ground, granite and limestone are too unyielding. Throughout the book, the italicised passages are quotations from Rogue Male, a novel by Geoffrey Household about a man on the run who hides among these ancient, secret places while he plans.
Edward Thomas, the poet, also features in this book. He, too, walked these paths, thousands of them, observed and wrote:
The path, winding like silver, trickles on,
Bordered and even invaded by thinnest moss
That tries to cover roots and crumbling chalk
With gold, olive, and emerald, but in vain…
…and the eye
Has but the road, the wood that overhangs
And underyawns it, and the path that looks
As if it led on to some legendary
Or fancied place where men have wished to go
And stay; till, sudden, it ends where the wood ends.
But a path is more than a way. It is a connection between points and between people: the earlier people whose foot-fall, hoof-hit and wheel-roll have created it.
My volume is by Faber and Faber with the original illustrations by Stanley Donwood, but if you can find the First Quive-Smith Edition then you have a treasure indeed.
Finally, but most importantly I come to the latest in Robert MacFarlane’s books. Landmarks. It is my opinion that everyone needs to read this book before it is too late, for this volume above all is about losing things, losing ancient things that are disappearing from disuse, misuse or through our own deliberate fault.
Although titled Landmarks, this book is about the language that describes the landscape, it is as much about regional language, local ways of describing natural phenomenon, as it is about the ways in which we are losing these same words.
Much has been said and written recently about how our children are slowly being de-naturised. When my children were young, it was still thought to be all right to leave them to run around in the woods, walking to places and to and from school was the norm, not the exception.
For the child, nowadays cocooned in a buggy long after they can actually walk, shut in an air-conditioned car on the school-run, what chance to get down in the dirt and look at leaves, insects, plants, grass and worms at close quarters.
I had three children very close in age and yes, it would have been quicker if they were all strapped in and kept under control, but they would have become less the men that they are now; yes, they had a privileged childhood with access to the countryside but parks, even Royal Parks are free – it is the ice-creams and cappuccinos that cost money.
So it was with a sense of unease and growing sadness that I read in the introduction of this book a list of the words being culled from The Oxford Junior Dictionary, a dictionary aimed at 7-12 year olds. In the interest, very real, of keeping the list short and the book manageable some words have to be replaced, but imagine my horror when I read this:
The same year I first saw the Peat Glossary*, a new edition of The Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.
* a glossary of hundreds of Gaelic terms that describe moorland
I cannot bring my self to list the neologisms! Rest assured the definitions all reflect the growing consumerism of the young, an avid greed for the latest piece of electronic gadgetry and its associated lexicon of ephemera. A case in point for editors to note therefore: the 1988 edition of this dictionary includes such current obsolescences as floppy-disk and video-recorder – plus ça change – what will MP3player mean to the juniors thumbing their dictionaries in 2045? Whereas, it is to be hoped, that the acorn will be a mighty oak.