Robert Macfarlane Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Robert Macfarlane. Robert is a British travel writer, literary critic, and the acclaimed author of The Wild Places, a New York Times Notable Book. He also wrote Mountains of the Mind, winner of the Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. His latest book is The Old Ways, a London Sunday Times nonfiction bestseller. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version of The Old Ways, narrated by Robin Sachs, simultaneously with the hardcover on October 11, 2012. Welcome, Robert. Thanks for joining us today.
ROBERT MACFARLAND: Thank you, Grover. Hello.
GG: Tell us about your new book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Give us a summary. This isn’t just about walking.
RM: Well, no. It’s a book about traveling in time, as well as in space, I guess. I’ve always been a walker and I’ve always been fascinated by old paths—some of the paths in Britain, the pilgrim paths, the holloways, and the druid roads. You have your versions in America. So, I wanted to set out along these and use them as a logic of navigation and a means of motion—a way of walking yourself backwards in history as well as across space and through the landscape. But I didn’t know what would happen to me, and strange things did happen. Paths led to other paths, and meetings with people occurred along the ways.
GG: What inspired the book, apart from walking? You talk about poetry. You mention George Borrow in the beginning of your book. There’s a tradition in England of people interacting with the landscape.
RM: I’m a literature specialist, I guess, in my day job. I’m a fellow at Cambridge. I read my way into places often before I walk my way into them. And you’re right that in Britain, there is a deep tradition of writing about place that goes back to the seventh and eighth centuries, with the writing of the early Celtic Christian monks who retreated to the wild places of this archipelago of ours. It goes back a fair way in America too, of course. And you have a great, lively nature writing tradition with the likes of Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard, most recently. So this idea of thinking about how we think about landscapes and even how we think with them, how our imagination and our memories are shaped by the places we inhabit and through which we move, these are questions that fascinate me.
GG: In America, there’s John Muir and—I won’t say it goes as far back as it does in England, certainly, because we’re so new here—but in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, there was an interest in conservation and nature, but it seems to me that the emphasis in America is on “look but don’t touch.” We have these awesome natural beauties and the idea is to leave as little imprint as possible when you say “stay to the path, please.” But it’s different in England. It much more involves history and people and how people leave an imprint on the land.
RM: This is a great point. I mean broadly speaking, America has been more animated by a wilderness tradition than Britain, and there’s a pretty good historical reason for that. We live on a small island group and we’ve lived there for a very long time, and so every part and every glen and valley and mountainside has been touched by human presence in this country. We are a deeply humanized landscape. This is the third book in a trilogy. The first of those was about that American idea, the not exclusively American idea, of the lure of high and untouched places, about mountain summits. Over the course of three books I’ve worked my way down to the beaten path, a place I would never have thought I’d be writing about ten years ago. Our landscape in this country, and indeed yours too, is really seamed by these paths of long usage and they tell stories. Landscapes are great archives of stories and paths are particularly good records of habits and customs of people and the places they move between and across. So I became fascinated by the saturation of history and memory that we have here. The book leaves Britain. It ends up in the Himalayas, in Spain, and in Palestine, though not, to my regret, in the United States.
GG: I think there are popular trails, especially here in Oregon, where the point is to go and see how man interacted with the land previously. For instance, you can follow trails and pass old mining camps or the cabin of a famous writer that still sits up on the hill above the trail. What could Americans take away from your book to dispel that sense of, “Oh, everything’s awesome and we mustn’t touch anything?”
RM: Well, paths are everywhere. They’re in every landscape. You only need to look at your local sidewalk and see the little trails that cut away from the asphalt and take the shortcuts across the grass. Our cities are filled with what architects call desire lines, the marks that humans have left on the landscapes they inhabit. Those are young paths, but there are old paths everywhere too, and as you say, the bison roads of the nineteenth century expansion, the Oregon Trail. There is a fascinating American trail culture that I only know of anecdotally. But more broadly speaking, this is a book about exploration. It’s about feeling the world with your body. It’s about knowing it with your hands and your feet and your skin, as well as seeing it with your eyes or reading about it in books. I guess it’s more broadly a book about how we relate to the natural world in a late modern context and that touches all of us I guess.
GG: Tell us a little about a typical day when you were hiking.
RM: There was no typical day. My typical day was atypical. I can tell you about a day. One chapter tells the story of following the pilgrimage trails—first the tea trails, then the pilgrimage trails in the Sichuan Himalayas effectively to a great holy mountain called Mianyang Kanko, which is about seven and a half thousand meters high. It is probably the most awesome single structure I’ve ever witnessed. I went there with a conservationist friend and we walked for days in temperatures down to minus twenty at night. In a way, it was a winter expedition. We followed the pilgrim trails, these heavily sanctified Buddhist landscapes with the prayer flags snapping in the Mani stones, which you had to pass to the right. This is a mountain that has drawn mountaineers to it, but it has also, for many more centuries, drawn pilgrims to it. I became fascinated by these two ways of approaching the landscape: the pilgrims who were happy to go around and about and the mountaineers who were desperate to reach the summit, the point of fulfillment. Those days will stay with me. They were graven into my memory by cold winter sunlight and hard, long, high-altitude days.
GG: You’ve talked about walking in England on the older paths, meeting a lot of people, getting sidetracked by all sorts of different anecdotal things. What was one of the most interesting things you came across?
RM: Probably the most interesting thing are these neolithic paths that are arguably five thousand years old. But they still follow the same routes they probably did then, which stay along the chalk high ground south of England. This is a massive wreath of chalk, stretching hundreds of miles. The very oldest paths follow the high ground chalk. We think they were used in the neolithic. And so, walking these there’s a very strange rub between modernity. You pass mountain bikers in their lycra with their orange colored shades and their glove bottles and then you meet tramps who are kind of out on the bummel pretty much permanently. I met a guy who just sold his house, broke up with his wife, and just started walking, and he’s been walking for five years—longer—and that’s what he does. I know there are a lot of people on the long distance trails in America like that. And then I spent one night in Chanctonbury Ring, which is a high grove of beech wood mostly, up on the summit of the South Downs, and had a very alarming experience there with screams in the night which sounded very human. Probably owls, but when I read up about the lore of this place afterwards, I found a long history of night screams, night terrors, unseen presences, and other strange poltergeistal heebie-jeebies. I’m a rational guy, but I met some strange things along the old ways.
GG: Sounds like the topic for another book.
GG: Perhaps “The Eerie Experiences on the Old Ways.”
RM: It’d get me sacked from my university job, I suspect.
GG: What kind of preparations do you make for a trip like this?
RM: I read. I carry very little. I’m never away for that long, maybe three weeks at the most. I try to go as light as I can, eat relatively little, and just keep going. There’s a strange kind of high. If you’ve walked long distances, Grover, you’ll know that feeling as well, that weird high cognitive elation that comes from extreme tiredness, or at the end of a long day where, oddly, you feel as though you could keep walking almost forever, and the path ribbons on. And I love those late-day moments. So I do keep fit. But really, I’m fascinated by language as well, and by the lexis that we pick up, and the language of place and paths and people. So I’m always noting things down beforehand and when I’m away too, as a kind of treasure hunt aspect to the language I find.
GG: How much of the journey was mapped out beforehand and how much did you improvise?
RM: Well, (laughs) as much as possible. T. S. Eliot has a line about how exhausting it is to write with a blue pencil always behind the ear. And it’s pretty exhausting to walk with the black Biro always behind the ear. If you premeditate everything, nothing happens. One of the wonderful people I met, a Spanish artist called Miguel Ángel Blanco in Madrid, who I walked part of the Camino de Santiago with, he was wonderful on the subject of surprise and discovery, but how heavily they can be militated against by premeditation.
RM: I would come to forks in the path. I would meet people, spend time with them, and get taken in off the road. Such hospitality I met with. It’s amazing—the hospitality that’s extended to walkers—in a way that I’ve never experienced when driving a car, I must say.
GG: Why is that, do you think?
RM: Well, I think it’s because we’re not separated by glass and metal cases when we’re walking. We are two human beings often meeting in an open space. I think it’s because there’s a tradition of hospitality extended to the tired, who are walking ways. A lot of these ways that I walked were pilgrim ways at one time or another, which have a very old tradition of hospitality. And I think it’s because there’s conversations permitted and you’re not necessarily in a tearing hurry to get anywhere. We use cars for transit, we walk for travel.
GG: In America, things change so quickly. You can leave the town you grew up in and come back ten years later and not even recognize it. There’s a new mall. There, the gas station was torn down and they put up a Walgreens. But England is different. Things don’t change that quickly, right?
RM: (laughs) Wrong, wrong.
GG: Or do they? No? Is it all disappearing?
RM: Well, it’s all in flux. I mean landscape, wherever you are, is a dynamic. It’s not a thing. It’s not a painting. And it certainly isn’t in Britain. Landscape has its own ideas about how it will run itself in terms of its own ecology. But in terms of human development, no. We have a really active conservation lobby. It’s well funded, it’s historically minded, it’s very literate. And there are lots of areas that are very well preserved—as there are in America, though in America they tend to be very large-scale areas. But we have something called the greenbelts, which surround a lot of our towns and cities, which cinches them in and prevents development beyond that. So there are safeguards in place due to some very enlightened, immediately postwar banning legislation. Things change more slowly, but you know, we throw up our out-of-town industrial centers and our shopping malls as eagerly as you guys do.
GG: Yeah, I guess so.
GG: I guess it’s a bit of a cliché that nothing changes in England.
GG: Now, there’s a movement in America to encourage people to walk by creating greenways in some of the big cities. For instance, in New York they took an old El—an elevated railroad—and turned it into a walking district. And in Nashville and other cities where there was an overwhelming burst of careless development after the war and all the green space got sort of taken over—they’re now going back and trying to create paths through the city, green paths—they call them greenways—where people can walk. There’s one here in Medford, Oregon. We have a couple of small towns right in a row—Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, and then Medford—and there’s a twenty-six-mile path that they’re slowly piecing together. This is to connect the cities, but also to encourage people to bike and walk. So I think there’s hope.
RM: It’s really great to hear. We do that in conservation here for animals. We create what we call wildlife corridors, which join up some of the fragmented conservation areas and they double as greenways for human beings as well, and that’s ideal.
GG: What’s next? What are you thinking about next?
RM: I may start writing a book called Underland about underworld spaces, about subterranean, about caves and mines.
RM: This whole world beneath our feet. In England a few years back, a field fell in the Peak District in Derbyshire, and a cow died. They discovered the biggest cave in the country, which they’ve now christened Titan. And I’m just amazed that there is this unknown world beneath our feet of such magnitude and encryption that we can discover the biggest cave in the early third millennium. The idea of discovering Britain’s biggest mountain in 2003—unthinkable.
RM: But there’s the cave. You find it when a field falls in. So I want to get down into this last frontier of the earth line and get under.
GG: There was a film for BBC Two, an episode of the Natural World series, “The Wild Places of Essex.” Can you tell us a little about the making of the film? What that was like.
RM: It was one of the best years of my life. The BBC decided to adapt this book I’d written, The Wild Places, and they decided to focus it geographically on one county. And if your listeners don’t know anything about Essex, I can tell you that it’s legendarily the most derided of English counties.
RM: It’s relatively comparable to New Jersey…
RM: …not by me, but in this country. It has a terrible rep as a kind of overdeveloped suburb county which has got trashed up and—I’m not talking about New Jersey now, obviously, just Essex—and actually it’s a breathtaking county. It has a 350-mile coastline, astonishing medieval field patterns, and forest layouts. It is naturally remarkable and we wanted to make a film about how wild nature really survives cheek by jowl with modern life and indeed under our very noses. So there are bitterns, a beautiful member of the heron family with a famous booming call. It’s the real totem bird of the east of England, but it nearly went extinct. But now, these bitterns are back and inside the ring road of London and in Essex, and peregrines nest on coal-fired power stations. There’s an incredible, weird twining of the wild world and the industrial, modern world. And it all happens in Essex, as it happens throughout England. We wanted to make a film about Mother Nature, so we spent a year filming. We had a fantastic budget, great TV crew who moved into the county, spent 120 days on location, and we really got under the skin of this place and it was a privilege to work with TV people. Actually they are real artists.
GG: Thank you very much for joining us today. Your book is fascinating. I have it queued up. I dove into it a little bit to get ready and I can’t wait to get back to it.
GG: It’s so beautifully written.
RM: Thank you.
GG: We’re looking forward to that and thank you for being with us today from Cambridge.
RM: A pleasure to talk to you.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Robert Macfarlane. You can find The Old Ways and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in October 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Old Ways
From the acclaimed author of The Wild Places comes an engrossing exploration of walking and thinking.
In this exquisitely written book, Robert Macfarlane sets off from his Cambridge, England, home to follow the ancient tracks, holloways, drove roads, and sea paths that crisscross both the British landscape and its waters and territories beyond. The result is an immersive, enthralling exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt old paths, of the stories our tracks keep and tell, and of pilgrimage and ritual.
Told in Macfarlane’s distinctive voice, The Old Ways folds together natural history, cartography, geology, archaeology, and literature. His walks take him from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of the Scottish northwest, from Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas. Along the way he crosses paths with walkers of many kinds—wanderers, pilgrims, guides, and artists. Above all this is a book about walking as a journey inward and the subtle ways we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move. Macfarlane discovers that paths offer not just a means of traversing space but of feeling, knowing, and thinking.