Monday, November 4, 2013

Sketch for a Self-Analysis, by Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu, a philosopher by education, and an anthropologist and sociologist by choice, is one of the most esteemed names in twentieth-century French thought. With his election in 1981 to the chair of sociology at the College de France, he joined the distinguished ranks of the most respected French social scientists, Raymond Aron and Claude Levi-Strauss. Prolific writer, Bourdieu has published more than 30 books and 340 articles over the period 1958 to 1995. The Social Science Citation Index ranking from high to low in 1989 for leading French thinkers was the following: Foucault, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Althusser, Sartre, Poulantzas, Touraine, Lacan, Baudrillard, and Aron.

Although his subject was mainly Algerian and French society,  Bourdieu’s approach is useful in analyzing power in many more illuminating ways than offered by Foucault. While Foucault sees power as "ubiquitous" and beyond agency or structure, Bourdieu sees power as economically, culturally, socially and symbolically created, and constantly re-legitimized through an interplay of agency and structure. The main way this comes about is through what he calls "habitus" or socialized norms or tendencies that unconsciously guide behavior, choices and thinking. In Bourdieu’s stipulation, habitus is "the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them."
In his Sketch for a Self-Analysis, written shortly before his death in January 2002, Bourdieu offers a "self-socioanalysis," in only 113 pages, and provides a compelling narrative of his life and career, and insights from his lifelong preoccupation with sociology, including intimate insights into the ideas of Foucault, Sartre, Althusser and de Beauvoir, among others, as well as his reflections on his own formative years at boarding school and his moral outrage at the colonial war in Algeria. Please join us as at Brooklyn Book Talk, as we explore some of the most stimulating thoughts of one of the greatest sociologists of the twentieth-century.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Discipline and Punish, by Michel Foucault

Discipline and Punish (1975), is a genealogy of power based on particulars of penal history, and is considered Foucault’s “out-of-the-ordinary,” “intellectually charismatic,” and “soundly subversive” work, in which he also reveals his passionate empathy for the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, and a desire to trace the overt and covert networks of power, which underlie modern societies. Highly interdisciplinary and thought-provoking in its content, the book is at once a work of history, sociology, philosophy, penology, legal analysis and cultural criticism, therby making it difficult to categorize in any given literature or tradition.
Foucault, who is hailed as a “theorist of paradox” by highly acclaimed critics, was influenced by some of the greatest European philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Beaufret—Martin Heidegger’s major interpreter in France—and Louis Althusser. He earned his License de philosophie in 1948 and DiplĂ´me de psycho-pathologie in 1952, and taught in Sweden, Poland, and Germany before his appointment as the head of the philosophy department at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. The range of his creative (and massively subversive) thought knows no bounds but throughout his many studies, on subjects as varied as madness, medicine, modern discourse, sexuality, there is a definite tendency to reverse “taken-for-granted” understandings and to discover, not unlike Freud, the latent behind the manifest--especially when it come to the nature of power and its pervasive effects in the human condition.
Moreover, Foucault in his major works, has undertaken a sustained assault upon what he regards as the myths of "the Enlightenment," "Reason," "science," "freedom," "justice," and "democracy"--all these salient features of modern civilization, and has exposed their “hidden side.” Foucault has also argued that the hidden side usually stays hidden because the “production of discourse” in modern societies is controlled, selected, and organized according to certain behind-the-scenes procedures. He suggests that when an idea appears before us repeatedly through different modalities, we are unaware of the prodigious machinery behind, which is diligently doing discourse selection and dissemination.
To make sense of this incredibly crucial work for our times, please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk and share your views about matters of power and punishment, and their subtle manifestations, which ought to concern us all, if we are to leave this world a little better than the way we found it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

“And last are the few whose delight is in meditation and understanding; who yearn not for goods, nor for victory, but for knowledge; who leave both market and battlefield to lose themselves in the quiet clarity of secluded thought; whose will is a light rather than a fire, whose haven is not power but truth: these are the men of wisdom, who stand aside unused by the world.”
― Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

Considered one of the finest introductions to the lives and opinions of some of the world’s greatest Western philosophers, Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (1926), was such a huge success (it sold more than two million copies in less than three decades), that it gave him the necessary and sufficient leisure, for almost fifty years, to work on his critically acclaimed 11-volume series, The Story of Civilization. Given the contributions he had made for the writing of popular history and philosophy, and championing freedom and human rights, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

Please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk, for a discussion on philosophy and philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Spencer, Nietzsche, Bergson, Croce, Russell, Santayana, James and Dewey, whose ideas have formed the enduring foundations of Western civilization. Philosophy, which has also been defined as  “what we don’t know,” comes alive in the delightful prose and passion of Will Durant who towards the end of his life was humble enough to admit: “Sixty years ago I knew everything; now I know nothing; education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Green Knowe Books & Multiculturalism in Children's Literature

Recently while listening to WNYC, I heard a segment about the lack of diversity in children's literature. While the US's population is becoming more diverse, it is apparently not reflected in children's books. Lucy Maria Boston was a head of the curve since four of the Green Knowe books could be regarded as multicultural since they contain not only Asian and African main characters but also a physically disabled character and deal with the issues of slavery and exile due to war.

Ping, a young refugee from Burma, is the main human character in A Stranger at Greene Knowe and a supporting character in The River at Green Knowe and An Enemy at Green Knowe. Ping has spent most of his life in a hostel for displaced children and goes to stay at Green Knowe during his summer holiday. He is eventually asked by Mrs. Oldknow to live with her and Tolly at Green Knowe. His experiences as a homeless child trapped in the grey world of the London home cause him to appreciate not only the natural world around the house but also to empathize with the escaped gorilla, Hanno. Boston wanted to dedicate Stranger to a gorilla keeper that she knew but was forbidden to do so by the zoo since it portrayed captivity for animals as cruel and harmful to the animal. When Green Knowe is under siege from evil in Enemy, Ping calls back Hanno with a traditional prayer to help save the house.

Jacob, in Treasure at Green Knowe, is bought as a child in a slave auction by Captain Oldknowe as a companion for the Captain's blind daughter, Susan. Susan's mother is uninterested in Susan since she views her as an unmarriageable burden. Susan's blindness puts her outside of the normal constraints for an upper-class girl so she can spend her time climbing trees with Jacob and learning how to write with him and their tutor Jonathan. Susan's brother Sefton views Jacob as less than human, buying him clothes patterned on those of an organ-grinder's monkey. Both Jacob and Susan rely on each other to navigate the rules of a society that views them as worthless because of their respective race and disability. They work together to educate themselves and lead successful adult lives despite their differences in race, sex, and station.

Despite the fifty or so years since they were written, the books still hold up due to the quality of the writing, the strong characterizations, and the universal themes. They are well-worth being placed on any reading list, multicultural or not. Good children's books should be read whether or not they are written by US authors.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Childhood and Exploring Nature

When I reread the Green Knowe books, what struck me most about them was how much time the children in the books - Tolly, Ping, Ida, Oskar, Susan,and Jacob spent exploring the outdoors. Tolly climbs the beech tree to pretend that he is a sailor boy on the mast of a ship:

He spends hours searching through shrubbery to find a lost tunnel, feeds birds, rescues carp, trims the chess men and pets the green deer:

In Treasure of Green Knowe, Tolly overlaps with Jacob and Susan, two eighteen-century children who also spend their days exploring the garden and the river.

Ping learns not only the secrets of the bamboo grove in the garden in A Stranger at Green Knowe, but also of the islands surrounding the house. In The River at Green Knowe, Ping, Ida, and Oskar spend their time exploring the River Ouse on a canoe. They wake up before dawn so that they can explore before the river is taken over by tourists, and map the islands surrounding the house. Much of their time is spent observing birds such as swans and owls, the terrain of the different islands, and the people who adapted their lives to live on them. In one episode, the three children take the canoe out after a storm and are rescued by River Patrol. Ida's aunt, when told that she will be presented with a bill for the rescue, comments only that it will be cheaper than three funerals. The writing in River is particuarly evocative since the children are not used to going outside at night, and are therefore sensitive to their physical environment.

The children themselves feel a sense of welcome and protection from the house. They know that they can go out and explore the unknown world around them, but always have the safety of the house at the end of the day. Tolly plays that the house is Noah's Ark in Children of Green Knowe, safe in the midst of the flood waters of the Ouse, which have caused the moat to overflow and turn the house into an island.

This freedom to explore is not something readily available to a twenty-first century child. Most parks are sanitized, with little shrubbery and playground equipment designed to produce the least physical damage. Children are rarely let out alone and unsupervised to play, even in yards; no child would be allowed to play alone for hours in the ramble at Central Park or the ravine at Prospect Park. While adults kayak on the Hudson, three children would not be allowed to do so without adult supervision; they would need an adult present even on the Staten Island ferry. While children in less urban areas might have some more freedom, they will still have little unstructured free time outside of school and extracurricular activities to just explore.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Visiting Lucy Boston's House, Part 2

Since we were early for our 2 PM house tour, we decided to explore the gardens. Lucy talks about designing and building the gardens in her memoir Memory in a House, which also contains some black and white photos of the gardens back when she published the book. However, I did not realize until her daughter-in-law Diana Boston gave us the tour how much of the gardens Lucy build from scratch. Apparently most of the yard was just meadow until she set to work.

What stunned me, Val, and Dave was how large the gardens were in size. We split up in the gardens, and they saw only the more cultivated side:


until I took them to see the the other side of the house, which has a  moat that surrounds three sides of it, a flowering meadow, and a bamboo thicket:

The bamboo thicket is where the gorilla Hanno lives in A Stranger at Green Knowe. The moat is a a constant presence in the books because when it floods, the house is cut off on an island, the way it was originally designed to be by its Norman builder, Payne Osmundson. The story of the builders of the house is told in The Stones of Green Knowe, which is the last of the series. The River Ouse features in The River at Green Knowe, and can be seen from the yard and the windows of the house.

One of my friends commented that the house and garden must be smaller than I expected since I had read the books first as a child and was now an adult. This is not quite true. Although the house was small - the walls are three feet thick so the exterior is larger than the interior, the gardens were bigger than expected. Boston gardened in the warm weather and wrote and created patchwork in the cold weather. It is amazing to see the variety of garden sections that she created. In my next post, I will discuss the gardens in terms of the books and of my experiences as a child both as her reader and as someone who grew up in a decent-sized yard and in fine public parks.

Visiting Lucy Boston's House

Two weeks ago, some friends and I toured Lucy Boston's house and garden. My friend Val had read Boston's books; her husband Dave hadn't heard of Boston but wanted to see the old house. We took a train from London to the nearby town of Huntington (pop 10,000), then a short taxi ride to Hemingford Grey (pop.230), a quaint small village on the River Ouse.

Here are photos of the town's main or high street:

Since we got to the village early, we walked on one of the two public tow paths along the river:


until we came to the church, the interior of which was being completely restored so we could not go inside:

The church runs the only coffee & tea room in the town, which is housed in an unused church that is currently also the post office. The old post office is a private house. The coffee shop is staffed by volunteers and serves home-baked cakes, pots of tea, and excellent espresso drinks. The quality of British coffee is much better than American because it is impossible to find drip (or filter) coffee outside of the Huntington train station cafe, so coffee options are espresso-based and therefore very fresh.

After we explored the town, we visited the gardens at Lucy's house.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Memory in a House - part 1

Lucy Boston had led an adventurous life for a woman of her time. She had dropped out of Oxford University to become a nurse during WWI and worked in a hospital in Normandy. She had married her cousin, had her son Peter, divorced her husband, and moved to Germany and Italy to paint. When Peter started Cambridge, Lucy also moved to Cambridge and began obsessively painting King's College Chapel. Then in 1939, she bought The Manor, Hemingford Grey.

In Memory in a House, Lucy describes the two years that it took to restore The Manor as "which were by far the happiest of my life, even in spite of the war that broke out as soon as the builders began." (p. 19) In fact, she views her realtionship with the house as a love affair. She was aware that the house, which was built as a Norman manor in 1120 by Payne Osmundsen, was very historic, and she eventually documented everything she found and all the changes she made.

The forced restoration was brought about by the fact that the house was structually unsound due to cheap and unskillful renovations over the years. Faced with unsupported structural beams, walls cracking from top to bottom, and drastically sloping floors, Lucy was had no choice but to fix these problems. She was lucky enough to get honest and competent builders and architects to help her with the delicate job of historical renovation.

It becomes clear while reading the book that restoring the house was as much a creative endeavor for Lucy as painting a picture, or writing fiction. She was extremely sensitive to atmosphere, and accepted the physical imperfections of the house as part of the character that it had developed as it aged. She was also willing to change her mind about the alterations and restoration as she went along; the dining room, which she had thought was hopeless and would be used just as a corridor, became the center of her life, connecting the interior of the house with its equally important exterior garden.

Introduction to The Children of Green Knowe

My first exposure to Lucy Maria Boston's Green Knowe series came when my older brother took a an introduction to children's literature class during his first year in college. He was required to read The Children of Green Knowe. I found the copy that he had checked out of our village library, loved it, and worked my way through the other books in the series:

  • The Children of Green Knowe (1954)
  • The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958) (published in the US as The Treasure of Green Knowe)
  • The River at Green Knowe (1959)
  • A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961)
  • An Enemy at Green Knowe (1964)
  • The Stones of Green Knowe (1976)

  • The last book was released after I read the series, and I remember how excited I was to find that the author was still alive and writing.

    What struck me the most about the books was the strong sense of place that Boston was able to create. The house and the grounds were as alive as the people in the books, and the past of the house was as alive as the character's present.

    Years later, I moved to Seattle and was able to take advantage of the wonderful collection of its original main library, which has subsequently been demolished. The library had copies of Boston's two memoirs Perverse and Foolish, and more importantly to me, Memory in a House. This second memoir is Boston's account of how as a 45-year-old divorced single mother whose son was at Cambridge, she heard about a house for sale by a river, bought it, renovated it, and began to write books influenced by the history and atmosphere of the house. The house itself is the Manor at Hemingford Grey, which is still open to visitors.

    For those who have not read the books, these links will provide more information: - Lucy's daughter-in-law still owns the house and gives tours of the house and gardens.

    The Children of Green Knowe miniseries - this was a BBC production in 1980's which was never released on DVD. You can watch it on Youtube at :

    Chimneys of Green Knowe was filmed at the Manor of Hemingford Grey. Directed by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) it was released in 2009 as From Time to Time.

    Exterior shots of the gardens from a  visitor who did not see the house:

    Friday, March 1, 2013

    "Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do." Aldous Huxley

    "When a person rediscovers that his deepest Nature is one with the All, he is relieved from the burdens of time, of anxiety, of worry; he is released from the chains of alienation and separate-self existence. Seeing that self and other are one, he is released from the fear of life; seeing that being and nonbeing are one, he is delivered from the fear of death." Ken Wilber 

    Ken Wilber is highly regarded by many contemporary thinkers worldwide, for creating an integration of unprecedented scope among a variety of schools of psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and religion. He is also the most widely translated academic writer in America, with 25 books translated into some 30 foreign languages. Michael Murphy the co-founder of the Esalen Institute, and a key figure in the Human Potential Movement, maintains that, along with Aurobindo’s Life Divine, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality is “one of the four great books of this [twentieth] century.” Tony Schwartz, former New York Times reporter and author of What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America, has called Ken Wilber "the most comprehensive philosophical thinker of our times." Jack Crittenden, the author of Wide as the World: Cosmopolitan Identity, Integral Politics, and Democratic Dialogue, has said that the “twenty-first century literally has three choices: Aristotle, Nietzsche, or Ken Wilber.” Larry Dossey, who is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on mind-body medicine, and author of ten books on the role of consciousness and spirituality in medicine, has described Wilber's book, "one of the most significant books ever published."
    When such praise is being offered by several credible authorities, it should be justifiable that Brooklyn Book Talk critically explore Ken Wilber’s thoughts, and evaluate their relevance for personal and cultural growth.  
    So please join us here for a discussion of his best-selling book, A Brief History of Everything, which contains wide-ranging topics--from Big Bang to Postmodernism--and perennial issues, which concern us all: truth, goodness, beauty, consciousness, growth, and development. 

    Monday, February 11, 2013

    Water - the Sea Roads

    "Invert the mental map you have of Britain, Ireland, and Western Europe. Turn it inside out. Blank out the land interiors of these countries - consider them featureless, as you might previously have considered the sea. Instead, populate the western and northern waters with paths and tracks:  a travel system that joins port to port, island to island, headland to headland, river mouth to river mouth. The sea has become the land, in that it is now the usual medium of transit: not barrier but corrridor." (p. 93)
    Britain as a whole has had a long history of seafaring. Daphne du Maurier decribes in Vanishing Cornwall how Phoenician ships would trade with the earlier inhabitants of Cornwall for tin. The earlier Irish story of Deirdre described how she and her lover fled over the sea to Scotland to escape her unwanted husband, the King Connor Mac Nessa. An Irish monk, St. Brendan, legendarily sailed from Ireland to America on his leather boat. The early Celtic saints frequently sailed on boats to remote islands and founded monasteries. The Vikings invaded Ireland, Scotland, and northern England by boat, and Viking kings ruled England. Even the Norman king, William the Conqueror, was a descendant of the Vikings and invaded using longboats.

    In the Water section, Macfarlane sails around the Scottish Hebrides with a seafaring poet named Ian Stephen. Ian, who thinks of and describes himself as a poet, also sails the sea roads in order to support himself and because he genuinely loves doing so. As well as being a good poet (I prefered the excepts of Ian's poems to those of Edward Thomas) he also seems to be a fascinating man. He knows a wide variety of people, is an excellent sailor, and is as knowledgable about the history of the sea roads as he is of sailing on them.

    I found this section of the book disappointing as I was more interested in Ian Stephen and his life and writings than I was in Macfarlane's experiences on the boat and on an island. The narrative stalled and became dull when Ian was gone from it. I wished that Macfarlane, who is not a sailor, had focused more on his companion.

    To me, the best part of the Water section was when Macfarlane suggested that we look at an atlas in reverse and concentrate only on the parts of the world that are connected by water. As a result, the Hebrides, for example, become no longer remote islands cut off from the rest of the world, but way stations in a busy sea travel hub. Reversing the map shifts the perspective to one that is less land-centric.

    Saturday, February 9, 2013


    In chapter 13, Macafarlane and David Quentin follow the Ridgeway, a track over the chalk downs of Neolithic origin, using cross-country skis. They ski past two great Neolithic sacred sites, Silbury Hill (a giant mound) and Avebury, a giant stone circle that rivals Stonehenge. Macfarlane describes some vivid scenery - black horses against the white snow, a white horse that looks grey against its snowy white background. At the end of the trip, he and David Quentin meet a huge black cat with gold eyes that they are convinced is a panther as they are heading back to the Ridgeway. Since they are in a van and not on skis, they survive to tell the story.

    What I found fascinating about the snow chapter is that although Macfarlane is walking over an extremely ancient landscape and he sees animals - hares, horses, buzzards- that have existed in that area for centuries. He also sees hawthorns, ancient bushes that have been used for hedges for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Their red berries not only nourish birds but are supposed to guard witchcraft and evil. Macfarlane does not fully concentrate on this timeless landscape, but instead muses on the career of British painter Eric Ravilious.

    Ravilious, who died in WWII, spent much time walking the Downs, which he depicted in his watercolors and woodcuts. He was fascinated by paths, which appear in many of his paintings. I had never heard of him, and searched online to find images of his art. I find his woodcuts to be charming depictions of country scenes- snow, birds on wires - but his paintings to be disquieting due to his choice of color and depiction of light. Macfarlane describes the Down light as a flat light like the light of the polar regions (p.297). Ravilious, who was fascinated by the poles and the extreme north, loved the light and tried to show it in his art. I find the flattening effect to be a little eerie.

    Thursday, February 7, 2013

    Silt Part 2 - Fighting the sea

    On October 29th, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the tri-state area. I was lucky enough to be unaffected as I live on a hill in a central portion of Queens but I had two family members who lost power for a week. I also had co-workers who live in some of the most hard-hit areas of Brooklyn and Queens. Rereading Macfarlane's "Silt" chapter after Sandy was a sobering experience as I wondered what such a walk in parts of Queens or New Jersey would involve.

    In the aftermath of Sandy, I've listened to radio interviews with Dutch engineers who have advocated sea gates and houses on stilts. I've read proposals about sea walls.  In the past week, Governor Cuomo has suggested a buyout of homes in areas likely to flooded again in the future. Once the state buys the land, the homes will be demolished and the land left empty. To quote Governor Cuomo, "there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns...She may only visit once every few years...but she owns the parcel and when she comes to visit, she visits."

    However, people who live in flooded and devastated areas such as Freeport, Breezy Point or the Rockaways are reluctant to say goodbye to their communities and shore-based lifestyles. Mr. Cuomo accepts that man cannot ultimately defeat nature, which is why, for example, parts of the English coast are crumbling away without the UK spending billions on sea walls or sea gates (although London is protected by the Thames Barrier). Inhabitants of New York and New Jersey seem more willing to fight nature with man-made barriers, artificially-created natural shorelines, and architectural changes such as in the Netherlands. In the end, residents of NYC will have to decide how much money they wish to spend to protect and maintain their current lifestyles and residences.

    Silt Part 1 - land and time under the sea

    Warning: The Broomway is unmarked and very hazardous to pedestrians.
    Warning: Do not approach or touch any object as it may explode and kill you.
    The "Silt" chapter of the book contains some of Macfarlane's most hypnotic writing. It is also the chapter that made me realize that I am not innately the adventurous type of person. Unlike Macfarlane, I'm just not going to walk over unmarked mud paths at low time while running the risk of accidentally being sucked into the undertow and drowned(since he did the walk on a Sunday, he didn't have to worry about being accidentally shot by the Ministry of Defense). But I admire him for doing so.
    The Broomway is called the deadliest path in Britain. It gets its name from 400 brooms which were used to mark the path to Foulness. When the tide comes in twice a day, other markers are swept away. Until compasses were affordable, people who walked the Broomway carried thread with them. As they passed a broom, they tied the end of the thread to the broom and continued walking. If they felt they had missed the next broom, they could follow the thread back to the previous broom.
    Macfarlane walked the Broomway with his friend David Quentin, a book dealer turned tax lawyer who prefers to walk barefoot. In the end the mud was bad enough that Macfarlane also walked barefoot to save his sneakers. He left them at their starting point and was able to refind them when they doubled back to the beginning of their path.
    As Macfarlane walked, he recollected that the land under the Broomway had once been called Doggerland, the home of Megolithic hunter-gatherers. This in turn made him recall the fact that the sea coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk in England are being eroded. Entire towns are being swallowed up by the sea, and houses that were once inland are now being abandoned because they are too close to the shore.
    Although Macfarlane remembers many historical and geographical facts as he walks, he is also sucked in by the queer atmosphere of the The Broomland. Not entirely land, not entirely water, it exists in a liminal state. To Macfarlane:
    "These borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them.Their traverse is generally unbiddable, and no reliable map exists of their routes and outlines. They exist even in unfamiliar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm, or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known placed outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within countries." (p. 78)
    Space, distance, and direction become distorted because of the light over the sands, the movement of the tides, and the constant erosion of the land. A simple walk over the sea shore is a trek that could easily end in disaster where Macfarlane joins the dead of a drowned country.

    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    The Old Ways and the Supernatural

    Macfarlane's journey begins on the Icknield Way, which runs over the chalk downs of Sussex. He starts out on a bicycle along an old Roman road that runs past an Iron Age hill-fort. As he cycles past the hill-fort he falls, damages his bicyle, and breaks a rib.However, Macfarlane gets up and continues his journey. He views the accident as

    A warning, I thought superstitiously, had been issued to me: that the going would not be easy and that romanticism would be quickly punished. It was only a few miles later that I remembered the letter a friend had sent me when I told him about my plan to walk the Icknield Way. Take care as you pass the ring-fort, he had written back. When I mentioned the fall later, he was unamazed."This was an entry fee to the old ways, charged at one of the usual tollbooths, " he said. "Now you can proceed. You're in. Bone for chalk: you've paid your due." It was the first of several incidents along the old ways that I still find hard to explain away rationally." (p.43).

    Throughout the book, Macfarlane risks meeting the supernatural. He spends the nights camping near Iron Age barrows. He sleeps in circular Pictish shielings. Finally he decides to sleep in Chanctonbury RIng in Sussex because author Laurie Lee had slept there while walking over England in the 1930's.

    I first learned about Chanctonbury Ring when I read about called Sussex Cottage written by Esther Meynell in 1936. The ring contains a temple built by the Romans on a previously inhabited Bronze and Iron Age fort site. According to legend, Julius Caesar and his legions ride around the ring. It is also possible to summon the devil by running around it a certain number of times. There are a number of internet sites with chilling stories of uncanny experiences in Chanctonbury Ring:

    Oblivious to the possibility that he may be rousing some kind of supernatural being, Macfarlane spends a night in Chanctonbury Ring, but gets little rest. First he walks around the ring, then beds down for the night. He is awoken by  human-sounding voices moving around the ring until two voices meet directly over his head. Eventually the voices go away and he is able to go back to sleep although he does not feel rested in the morning. Later in the day Macfarlane meets up up with an archaeologist friend and they discuss why it was a bad idea to sleep in the ring. However, it is not until he gets home that Macfarlane researches the folklore of Chanctonbury Ring and realizes that it is one of the most malevolently haunted spots in England.

    What's interesting is that while Macfarlane is aware of the many centuries of human history that his paths have run through, and of the theories that the paths exist throughout time, he does little research on the supernatural history of the places where he travels. These places seem to do their best to make him aware of their history and their special qualities. The supernatural seems to forcibly come to him although he does his best to remain ignorant of its existence.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    Walking & Depression

    In his starting section, "Path", Macfarlane admits that not all walkers are benign or appealing. While I think he is a little hard on Morris Dancers and people who walk in sandals (p. 23) he does mention that trampers can have more sinister motives than mere enjoyment of nature and movement. He mentions people who walk because they are delusional or racist.

    He also discusses two writers who walked to stave off depression -  19th-century walker George Borrow and poet Edward Thomas, who was killed in World War I. Borrow, who rode around on a black Arab stallion when at home, walked over not only England but also France, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and Morocco. He knew twelve languages and was acquainted with another forty. The activity of walking exposed him to new people and allowed him to exercise his mind as he exercised his body.

    Edward Thomas and his poetry had the most influence over Macfarlane. The author admits that Thomas is the guiding spirit of his book (p. 24) and his first walk in The Old Ways is one that Thomas took a hundred years earlier. Macfarlane says that while Thomas

    "was drawn to the romantic figure of the self-confident solitary walker, he was more interestingly alert to how we are scattered, as well as affirmed, by the places through which we move" (p. 25).

    Thomas appears throughout The Old Ways, and Macfarlane gradually tells the story of Thomas's life in the "Ghost" section of the book. Thomas suffered badly from depression and moved frequently in the hopes that his new house would help him battle it; walking was a similar way to stave it off.

    Interestingly enough, American poet Robert Frost knew Thomas. The famous Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken", was inspired by a walk that Frost and Thomas took together. When Frost sent Thomas a draft of the poem, Thomas decided that it was a sign that he should enlist in the British army. He was later killed in France in 1917.

    Monday, January 21, 2013

    Paths & Time

    Macfarlane begins the book with a brief overview of writers who wrote about walking and a short listing of different types of paths around the world and throughout history. He mentions that some paths, such as those in Ireland left over from the Famine, were created by people who had no choice but to walk, and who ultimately found nothing at the end of their path except death and loss.

    After the massive slaughter of British men in World War I and the resulting death of the civilian population from the Spanish flu, there was a renewed interest in 1920's and 1930's Britain in walking the old ways (p. 21). Walking the roads of the past were a way to connect with people and events from the past. The liminal quality of the path, which existed to connect two places and was not of these places, gave it the ability to connect its walkers with other times.

    The author himself has had experiences on paths where he has felt close to the past. At one time he had explored the sunken "holloways" of Dorset with Roger Deakin, paths so worn into the soil by time and use that they could be twenty feet below the surface of the land:

    "In the dusk of the holloways, these pasts felt excitingly alive and coexistent - as if time had somehow pleated back on itself, bringing discontinuous moments into contact, and creating historical correspondences that survived as a territorial imperative to concealment and escape.

    Two years after that visit, Roger died young and unexpectedly. Four years after his death I returned to Dorset to re-walk the same holloways and found myself tracking our own earlier traces...and experiencing startingly clear memory-glimpses of Roger himself, seen at the turn of a corner or ahead of me on the path." (p. 22-23).

    My own first exposure to the British belief in the ability of paths to contain past events is one that is familiar to anyone who has read the books of Susan Cooper. In her book The Dark is Rising the child hero, Will Stanton, spends much of the book wandering around the snow-covered landscape of his small English town just around the winter solstice. His local old way, known irreverantly as "Tramps Alley" but truly called "Oldway Lane" saves his life by calling on the power it has stored through its use for centuries by people fighting against the dark. Will is able to move between the present and the past when he walks Oldway Lane albeit in a more concrete fashion (since he is a fictional character) than that of Robert Macfarlane.

    Rudyard Kipling also explores the ability of a path to move between time in his poem "The Way through the Woods" from Rewards and Fairies. The poem comes just before "The Marklake Witches" story in the book. The story is a supposedly true historical tale told to Dan and Una, the two main characters based on Kiping's own children, by a teenage girl who had died of consumption over a hundred years earlier. The girl, named Philadelphia, loved to ride and appeared to the children dressed in a riding habit. Just as Puck gives her the ability to move forward in time to talk to the children, the overgrown woodland path contains the sounds of Philadelphia's rides out on her horse.

    Sunday, January 20, 2013

    Introduction to The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, continued

    Macfarlane likes to walk. In The Wild Places, he visits mountains, woods, water. In The Old Ways, he follows the ancient paths that cross the British isles, that go through wood, by the sea shore, and over the downs. His England (and Scotland) however, is multilayered; he is aware not only of the physical landscape surrounding him but of the history of the land through which he walks. A walk take him from point A to point B in physical space, as well as through centuries of time. In his author's note, Macafarlane observes:

    "It is an exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt ancient paths, of the tales that tracks keep and tell, of pilgrimage and trespass, of songlines and their singers and of the strange continents that exist within countries" (p.xi).

    While Americans are criticized for being such a highly mobile society, humans have always traveled. Early hunter-gatherers did not stay in one place, but roamed within a fairly wide territory. The early sea-farers such as the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans (marine archaeology has shown that they sailed more than we have associated with them) and the Vikings all traveled the roads of the sea. The medieval Crusades were holy wars, but they were also the mass movement of men, women, and children walking across Europe, then by boat from southern Italian ports to the Holy Land. Within Europe itself, bands of pilgrims walked from their homes along the tracks to Canterbury or St. James de Campostela. Merchants in ancient and medieval times traveled in caravans along the land and sea routes of the Silk Roads.

    The difference between the modern traveler of today and that of the past is that travelers today are less exposed to the world around them. When you are encased in a plane or enclosed in a fast car, you lose awareness of the physical world outside of you. The electronic devices that we use to distract ourselves during our journeys - our DVD players, Ipods, tablets and ebook readers, all cut us off from the landscape and  fellow travelers around us. Macfarlane deliberately chooses to travel on foot (and by small boat) to connect with the physical world around him during his modern secular pilgrimage.

    Saturday, January 19, 2013

    Introduction to The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane

    My first exposure to Robert Macfarlane happened a year ago when I picked up a battered copy of The Wild Places in order to shelve it. Instead, I checked it out from my branch and stayed up past midnight to read it. Thanks to Macfarlane, I was exposed to Roger Deakin's Wild Wood and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. I found photos of Walnut Tree Farm, the late Deakin's house, much visited by Macfarlane, while searching for more information about both of them online.

    I am from probably the last generation of American children to be raised on English children's books. I know that there is a generation of Quidditch-playing adults that were weaned on the Harry Potter books of British-born J. K. Rowling. While the Harry Potter books are gripping, they lack an essential British characteristic shared by many successful authors of British children's books:

    • Rudyard Kipling - the two Puck of Pook's Hill books
    • Rosemary Sucliff - all of her books
    • Elizabeth Goudge - Rowling helped get Linnets & Valerians and The Little White Horse republished
    • L. M. Boston - the Greene Knowe series
    • William Mayne
    • Robert Westall
    • Diana Wynne Jones - the British landscape of an alternative Britain
    • J. R. R. Tolkein -The Hobbit
    • Kenneth Graham - The Wind in the Willows
    • T. H. White - The Once and Future King
    • Susan Cooper - The Dark is Rising series
    I'm sure that there are many more. What these authors and books have in common is a palpable sense of landscape; the English and Welsh earth itself is as present and influential as any of the characters. In any Harry Potter book I had the sense that the only character connected to the land was Hagrid; the rest of the wizards were interested in nature only insofar as they could exploit it for magical potions or familiars.

    Both Macfarlane and his late mentor Deakin possessed the same sense of awareness of the land as these children's authors. Deakin kept his hedgerows alive to shelter birds and let animals wander at will through his house. Macfarlane travels, mostly on foot, as he did while he hiked and climbed in both The Wild Places and The Old Ways.