This is a special book. It begs to be read slowly, so as to savor each line. Not since reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in my early 20s have I experienced a book like this: one which offers a deeply intellectual, history and science-based analysis of place and of humanity’s experiences with it, but also a gorgeously-crafted narrative. Macfarlane is that rare kind of storyteller who unabashedly balances passion and creativity with academic insight: in The Old Ways, his intellectual pistons are firing on all cylinders.
I read this book over the course of weeks, marked it up with my pencil as I always do with books I know to be special. I underlined passages which struck me particularly or left me in awe; circled names of people, and terms I’d never heard before—words like “dolmens,” “tumuli,” “ogee,” “lacustrine,” “toponym,” and “mafic,” so I could look them up. I sticky-noted pages I couldn’t live without; passages which left me in awe, or struck me deep in that place inside which knows the things that are true. When he writes of the early 20th century poet and essayist Edward Thomas, I felt a homecoming.
Macfarlane says of Thomas that “… he experienced that tension between roaming and homing,” and that Thomas wrote that “‘It is hard to make anything like a truce between these two incompatible desires, the one for going on and on over the earth, the other that would settle forever in one place.’” Above these words, I wrote in pencil, “I know this tension so well.”
Macfarlane gives voice to that which I’ve always known to be true: that to walk in the footsteps of ancient others, whether by trail or highway or boat, “… is to sense nothing so simple as time travel.” And that some places, some landscapes, are so special to us that we “bear them with us,” and that they “are among the most important landscapes we possess.”
The Old Ways is a book I know I’ll return to again and again, much like the paths and trails I trod weekly around my small mountain town. (They, too, are old ways: places walked by frontier settlers, the Cherokee, and the people before them.) I know that, like those places, it will continue to reveal itself to me, and therefore reveal to me more of myself.