A book that makes you want to get out and walk

Cheryl Strayed and her journey on the PCT have become so ubiquitous that (I hear) PCT hikers this year refer somewhat contemptuously to "Strayed gear" — all the crap you bring along out of ignorance and discard along the way.

A friend turns me on to a very different kind of book about walking, Robert McFarlane's The Old Ways. An astonishingly learned book: the author casually mentions that he's read "all" the old books about walking, and by God, I believe he has. As a reviewer for the Guardian notes:

Macfarlane is delighted to discover that the verb "to learn" links back etymologically to proto-Germanic liznojan, meaning "to follow or to find a track". The walking of paths is, to him, an education, and symbolic, too, of the very process by which we learn things: testing, wandering about a bit, hitting our stride, looking ahead and behind. That is the rhythm of learning in all kinds of disciplines and ways of life. Whether we are in the kitchen, the library or the laboratory, we are seeking out paths and deciding who to follow. So this is very much a book about learning. Macfarlane presents himself as a student in the ways of the land, taking lessons from those who have spent their lives negotiating particular kinds of path.

But that's not what makes the book special, I think, nor what has made it a bestseller. It's the beauty of his Macfarlane's prose. Here he describes walking the ancient Icknield Way, and falling asleep on a chalk hill:

I found my sleeping place at twilight, not far from the beacon's summit: a swathe of grass, the size of double bed sheet, overhung by a spreading hawthorn tree and hidden from the path by a ramp of gorse whose yellow blossoms lent their coconut scent to the breeze. A green woodpecker yapped in the distance. Planes flew past every few minutes, dragging cones of noise. Lichen glimmered on the trees. Three deer, black-furred roe does, stepped from the wood. One looked across at me, its eyeshine gleaming gold with the last light, then all three moved off westwards along the chalk tracks. As I was falling asleep, the image rose in my mind of white path meeting white path, a webwork of tracks that ran to the shores of the land, and then on and out beyond them.

Icknield_Way_271075k

A picture of the Ichnield Way…

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