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.