Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways

Persist with this book, if you think it won't work.

Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways isn't self-indulgent, though the first chapter smells worryingly that way, but transformative. This body-full and mindful book of long-distance walks around the world, but especially the UK, takes you simultaneously inside the walking experience and the place being walked through, over, around, in, and so on.

I grew up in British Columbia, spending 45 of my first 48 years here, with only three weeks spent in the UK (1986: rugby tour, more than half the time spent using a cane), and I tell you what, this book has me wanting to just to visit but to move to the UK.

That's not merely reviewerly bluster, I should say, though of course it's also that. I'm struggling with how to live here, especially after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports were delivered, and The Old Ways is the first book I've ever read that made me think England might potentially be home after all. My life's been spent with my nose thumbed at people from eastern Canada, which begins at Alberta, goddammit, and I've been trying ever harder to make my settling more appropriate without disrupting my (inevitably complicated) family life.

Camas and Garry oaks, Mount Tolmie
Maybe it's escapist, but I could live in The Old Ways. The land functions under a different customary regime there than it does here, which means that in the UK, a foot-first relationship with the land is readily normalized in spite of being almost an extreme sport for settlers in Canada. The Secwepemc people, for example, whose relationship with the lands I grew up on have continued since time immemorial to this day, and into the future, had and have a foot-first relationship with the land that's not dissimilar to historic inhabitation and travel within the UK. That relation isn't available to settlers in the same way, here, not without an extraordinary amount of personal action, and I'm not talking about just walking a whole lot.
ATV driver, lying on logging road to photograph waterfall (!)
And so, genuinely, I don't think that it's either escapist or nostalgic to want to seek connection with my ancestors' relations with the land, on the land where they had such relations. If you're living on someone else's lands, and they haven't freely given complex permission to live that way, then doing so is just play-acting no matter how earnest you are. Wouldn't it be great not to be playing at it?

Plus The Old Ways is stuffed full of just flat-out beautiful prose: cracking paragraphs and crackling sentences and sharply drawn images and all the rest.

If I'm not calling it one of the best things I've read in years, that's only because it's incomparable. The Old Ways needs to be on everyone's unread books pile, and you need to get there.


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