Evaluation: Robert Macfarlane’s “Ghostways,” 2 essays on strolling
On the shelf
Ghostways: Two journeys in troubled places
By Robert Macfarlane
Norton: 144 pages, $ 16
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Robert Macfarlane has been on this path before. Since the publication of his first book “Berge des Geistes” in 2003, he has followed the way in which humans do not so much redesign nature as we redesign it together and individually. “Ways”, he says in “The Old Ways” (2012), “are the habits of a landscape. They are consensual acts. It’s hard to make a footpath yourself. “This is dynamic terrain that has been shaped by the living and the dead for generations. “The Old Ways” is my favorite in Macfarlane’s work, not least because it is about walking: “This book,” he writes, “could not have been written if one had sat still.”
The same applies to “Ghostways”, in which two short illustrated essays “Ness” and “Holloway” are combined – collaborations with the artist Stanley Donwood, which were originally published in Great Britain as small independent volumes but have never been available in the USA. Contemplative, impressionistic and full of aspects of the mythical, these pieces sometimes seem like prose poetry and revert to a key setting of “The Old Ways”: the secret rooms of southern England, the focal points and the hidden paths.
Macfarlane leaves for the same reason I do: to be connected. On the landscape, yes, but also on its history. Every walk, whether in the city or in the country, follows in the footsteps of those who have walked these paths before. For Macfarlane, this adds weight to the places he writes about and allows his observations to reach beyond personal experience into the realms of ethnography and art.
“Ness”, for example, is set in Orford Ness, a slender headland on the Suffolk coast that “[f]or seventy years … was used by the UK Department of Defense to conduct secret weapons tests. “Holloway explores” a deeply sunken alley in Dorset … a “hollowed out road” that has been used by hikers and horsemen for so many centuries that it has worn well into the region’s soft golden bedrock. ” Together, they offer less of a guide than a series of insights, complemented by Donwood’s vivid sketches that resemble etchings in a fairy tale.
For Macfarlane, place interacts with us. Or even better: it develops. “Listen again,” he emphasizes early on in “Ness”, the longer piece that “Ghostways” opens. “Listen to Ness’s past. Inland, listen to the forest long gone. … Listen to the door key in the centrifuge dome. Listen to the rise of the still invading ocean. … Listen to the rumored movement of the rumored bodies on the rumored bank. “There is a sense of inference or influence in the heart here; the way the present is imbued with the past.
Although “Ness” is less of a walking narrative than “Holloway”, both works are based on heightened observation of the foot traveler. Walking is a passage through place and history. “In 1689,” the author muses, “the Japanese poet Basho followed his narrow path to the far north and often spoke to the long-dead poets of the past as he walked, including his ancestor Saigyo from the 12th century.” He came after to describe his travels as conversations between a spirit and a future spirit. “
A mind and a future mind? Every committed hiker knows exactly what he means. To walk a worn path means to travel with the dead. Macfarlane makes the idea clear in “Holloway,” which involves two visits to the same landscape – the first in 2004 with his friend Roger Deakin, the second with Donwood and Dan Richards after Deakin’s death.
The trips are constructed in such a way that they reflect each other. In each, the travelers carry “a hip flask, two penknives, matches and candles” and a copy of Geoffrey Household’s 1939 thriller “Rogue Male”. In this novel, a British hunter is knocked to the ground by foreign agents after attempting to kill a dictator modeled on Adolf Hitler. He escapes into a Dorset hollow. The book “was our guide to the location of the Holloway,” Macfarlane admits. But when he and his companions arrive, they find that the writer’s instructions were encrypted. “The landscape of the novel wouldn’t quite match the landscape itself.” It’s a stunning metaphor that reminds us of the elusive interplay between what we imagine (or remember) and what we see.
Such a balance is essential to Macfarlane’s conception of the path as a ghostway in which ignorance is essential to experience. Whatever connection we may have with those who went before us, we can only guess who they were and how they might have lived. That is part of the attractiveness of walking, but also its limitation: it offers closeness, but only so much. Like everyone else, we remain tied up in time. “The Holloway is absence,” explains Macfarlane; “A wooden path that is being worn away by buried feet. … walk, run, hide a man, crouched in the lee of a tree. “
This huddled man may be the protagonist of “Rogue Male”, but so do Macfarlane and his friends. In “Ghostways” they look back and forth over the decades as if through a hagstone – “a flint pebble,” explains the author, “with a hole that is naturally carried through it. In folklore all over Europe, looking through such a stone means looking into the future, the past or the afterlife. “In“ Ness ”Macfarlane returns to the stone as a motif, as a lens.
“Ness is a place to improvise,” he writes. “Ness is a realm with its own rules.” Crossing the spit is like crossing the Styx River: “Two flints on your eyes for the journey, cold on your lids, keep an eye out so you can’t find your way back.” It’s a landscape similar to the Holloway in Dorset, where we must first surrender and be lost to be found. Macfarlane calls this drift as in: “Drift will always be. Drift has unlimited potential. … drift happens to you sooner than you do, drift. “This is of course the central belief and principle of the walker, namely that the story emerges from the walk.
“Ghostways” is a strangely beautiful book that complements Macfarlane’s work rather than enhances it. But in their modesty and openness, these walks remind us that even the newest soil is ancient. The landscapes here may be remote, but they “run just as safely through people as they do through places”. In other words, as landscapes always do, they tell us who and where we are.
Ulin is the former book editor and book critic for the Times.