Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane is usually classified as a travel writer, and that's technically correct. His pace of travel may be slow, because he always writes about walking, but it's certainly moving from one place to another and describing what happens. So he's a travel writer, and an excellent one at that -- but I wouldn't read him if he was merely a travel writer. What's remarkable about his writing is that the case could equally well be made that he is a poet, and could almost equally be made that he is a science writer or an art writer (or both). In fact, it's only toward the end when he veers more into history and biography than describing his own experiences that his writing begins to lose its unique quality.

Macfarlane writes about rocks and geology, but also people and how they live among those rocks, why their feet scraped out the paths that he later follows.This is a book about the value of walking, from the UK, a country where walking is practically the national sport. Although perhaps the best chapters are not about walking, but about taking to the sea and following the boat paths. Close enough.

Here's two quotes that give a taste of the philosophical edge to Macfarlane's descriptions:

"The massif is a terrain shaped by what Nan Shepherd once called 'the elementals'. Mountain lanscapes appear chaotic in their jumbledness, but they are in fact ultra-logical landscapes, organized by the climatic extremes and severe expressions of gravity: so hyper-ordered as to see chance-made." -- p. 192

"'As I watch [the world],' wrote Nan Shepherd in 1945, 'it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles.' It is a brilliant observation about observation. Shepherd knew that 'landscape' is not something to be viewed and appraised from a distance, as if it were a panel in a frieze or a canvas in a frame. It is not the passive object of our gaze, but rather a volatile participant -- a fellow subject which arches and bristles at us, bristles into us. Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take 'landscape' as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme) and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment." -- p. 255

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