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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Landscapes) Paperback – Illustrated, September 24, 2013
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“With a steady command of the literature and history of each place he visits, [Macfarlane] tries ‘to read landscapes back into being.’ His sentences bristle with the argot of cartographers, geologists, zoologists, and botanists.” —The New Yorker
“Macfarlane explores the meditative aspects of being a pedestrian…not so much a travelogue as a travel meditation, it favors lush prose, colorful digressions…if you’ve ever had the experience, while walking, of an elusive thought finally coming clear or an inspiration surfacing after a long struggle, The Old Ways will speak to you – eloquently and persuasively.” —The Seattle Times
“A backpack of assorted expeditions charted by a writer whose poetic and scientific skills are equal to one another…there are some splendid set pieces.” —The Wall Street Journal
“A wonderfully meandering account of the author’s peregrinations and perambulations through England, Scotland, Spain, Palestine, and Sichuan…Macfarlane’s particular gift is his ability to bring a remarkably broad and varied range of voices to bear on his own pathways and to do so with a pleasingly impressionist yet tenderly precise style.” —Aengus Woods, themillions.com
"Macfarlane seems to know and have read everything…his every sentence rewrites the landscape in language crunchy and freshly minted and deeply textured. Surely the most accomplished (and erudite) writer on place to have come along in years." —Pico Iyer
"Luminous, possessing a seemingly paradoxical combination of the dream-like and the hyper-vigilant, The Old Ways is, as with all of Macfarlane's work, a magnificent read. Each sentence can carry astonishing discovery." —Rick Bass
“In Macfarlane, British travel writing has a formidable new champion… Macfarlane is read above all for the beauty of his prose and his wonderfully innovative and inventive way with language…he can write exquisitely about anywhere.” —William Dalrymple, The Observer
“In this intricate, sensuous, haunted book, each journey is part of other journeys and there are no clear divisions to be made…the walking of paths is, to [Macfarlane], 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.” —Alexandra Harris, The Guardian
About the Author
- Publisher : Penguin Books; Illustrated edition (September 24, 2013)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 448 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0147509793
- ISBN-13 : 978-0147509796
- Item Weight : 11.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 0.86 x 5.25 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #135,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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In all three books, women are merely appendages or afterthoughts in his interactions/explorations. For example, in The Old Ways, he reads Nan Shepherd, but her insights are only valid as they confirm or are confirmed by men. Women do not physically or literally participate in his perambulations. This is an all-male pursuit.
Likewise, the ‘native’ is elided from consideration: becomes an object of observation and comment, but is not ‘one of us’: the white men making whatever trek he is involved in. An egregious example of this is in the chapter titled ‘Ice’. On page 265 he says, “There would be two tents, two ponies and four people,” one of whom is a Tibetan horseman. He then proceeds to describe the three white men, and we hear nothing more about the fourth man until page 271, where we get a westerner’s description of him and his household, after which he gets a a few more sentences about taking care of the horses and chanting mantras. Apparently he has nothing to contribute to the philosophical insights gained from the two white men.
Women also have nothing worth adding to the conversation. On page 226, as the Palestinian woman is explaining her connection to the land and her grief at losing it, he says, “I stopped listening. Down in the valley, a covey of partridges broke from cover...”
Even neolithic women are unimportant. He begins chapter 16, ‘Print’, “Footprints in the mud: two sets of prints, walking northwards. A man and a woman, companionably close, moving together...” The woman gets some acknowledgement in the first paragraph but by the second has been elided: “I set my foot by the side of the first print of the man, and then I walk north, keeping pace, and stride with him as he goes...”(359). “Northwards, the man and I...”(363).
He describes the couple, in the first paragraph, as “journeying, not foraging.” But apparently, she’s no longer needed on this journey.
As I said, I did, overall, enjoy these books, even though they are permeated with implicit race and gender bias. To give MacFarlane his due, he is likely unconscious of this and would likely be shocked and horrified to realize he is doing it. Nevertheless, despite the wonderful and inspiring things he has written in these books, the biases leave a bitter taste.
I will focus this review however on the chapter documenting his walks in Palestine, which was a huge disappointment. As a walker in Palestine myself, I felt he completely failed to capture the essence, beauty and magic of the place. Just like many orientalist travelers of the past he was too hung up on the stereotypical ‘otherness’ and the political dimension of the place to really be able to experience it at the heart and soul level as he does his walks back home. A limestone, impressionable landscape that has witnessed the feet and dreams of humble Canaanite farmers and thier modern descendents and of Roman warlords and their modern incarnations, the passions of prophets and the prejudices of the world is marked in a way that pierces any heart that is open to the lessons and messages it conveys and I am sorry he did not experience this. That is in addition to inaccuracies that kept nagging at me throughout my reading of the chapter like the 4 am mosque sermons that were supposedly getting angrier (there are no mosque sermons except on Friday afternoons, and the calls to prayer including the dawn one, are played from a recording so if they were getting angrier it is only in the imagination of the listener) and other allusions to armed “gangs” (more accurately policical groups who may be armed but only in a very underground way and certainly should not be described as gangs) and other stories about shootings and threats such as the one to the girl with Raja Shehahde which may have been true but sounded very suspect and uncharacteristic of the local population who go out of their way to be kind and hospitable to foreign strangers to the point of being complete throwovers (I personally suspect that if such a statement was made by them it was pulled out of them through a convulated, suggestive line of questioning and was not a proactive one). These painted a picture that is as un-representative as news casts anywhere are of daily life and seemed to explain his paranoid mood on his walks and his total inability to connect to the place and experience it as it really is rather than how its supposed to be.
Another reviewer asked for maps. I read this book, in retrospect, in the best way possible. Reading it in the Kindle app on my iPad, I could easily look up the flowers and birds he sees, and the geological and local terms he uses. When he writes a lengthy meditation on the art of a painter of the British Downs, I could Google the artist and see examples of his art.
Best of all, by far, I used Google Earth to not only track his path but to see what he saw. When he describes a mountain in Tibet as having three intersecting ridges, I could move around a three dimensional image of the mountain, and also of the valley from which MacFarlane was looking. When he walked across a Scottish Isle, I could track his path around a lake, past a mountain, and across the heath. When he talked about the terraced hillsides outside Ramallah and the Israeli settlements, I could see those, too: the hills circled by ancient terracing, and the subdivision-like streets lined with identical houses and lots under construction.
I'm now going to buy the hardcover version, because this is a book to keep and to re-read. But I highly recommend reading it with the Internet, especially Google Earth, at hand.
Top reviews from other countries
He tries to find religion in the landscape – alone, doing exactly what he wants with the self-assured satisfaction that his tiny observations of rock and birds will be enough. He hovers around a desire to lose his humanity, to erase it by going barefoot feeling the ground beneath his feet like an animal. He meets people on the way, an atheist in the Outer Hebrides who makes totems for a religion that doesn’t exist (think wicker man) and is snotty about the local faith. In Palestine, he meets a Palestinian lawyer and walker and holds his nose at the thought of its history. What of ancient pilgrim routes to Jerusalem? Charles Darwin is a favourite walking model.
In Ireland, he notes ancient funeral tracks and imagines the weight of the coffin and stopping for rest, but nothing of the wider beliefs about life and death and faith in a God. For him, there is no need for such untasteful piety, rather he anchors himself in the cosiness of his privileged selfishness (free to wander wherever he wants) and all is a self-conscious surface observation that leaves you cold in the end.
You might consider buying a pair of walking boots, too.