Walking the Old Ways with Robert MacFarlane

Robert MacFarlane introduces me to a tree in Emmanuel College’s gardens, as the rain spits and sputters around us. The tree is a plane whose branches, “like lighting”, he tells me, have stooped down with the weight of their own arms, reached into the soil beneath, and drawn roots before re-emerging again. All around the main plane, a number of new trees have emerged roughly in a circle, making the whole thing resemble a huge umbrella, or perhaps an octopus.

MacFarlane is a leading author within what some call ‘new nature writing’, although he prefers to see himself as a “landscape writer”. He has written three books along these lines, Mountains of the Mind (2003), The Wild Places (2007) and The Old Ways (2012). MacFarlane’s prose, which frequently verges on the poetic, has been highly praised, and last year he was invited to chair the Man Booker Prize committee. His books are steeped in history, geology and landscape philosophy, drawing on the themes of people and place, as well as showing a deep natural sensibility and awareness which is captured by his narrative voice; gentle and composed, but also full of curiosity and enthusiasm for the places he describes. 

MacFarlane is also an academic. His PhD, which was later published as a book, Original Copy, deals with plagiarism in nineteenth century literature. He currently holds a fellowship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he teaches English Literature. Sitting in his office, surrounded by books, papers and other artefacts, I ask him whether his academic work and his writing sometimes converge.

“There was a time when I thought I would collapse my academic work into other writing – I’m so glad I didn’t, because I think it would have been neither fish nor fowl.

“I think really a much stronger moment for me was finding Arctic Dreams, by one of my great heroes, Barry Lopez, in 1997. I found it in a bookstore in Vancouver, where I was out climbing on my own in the Rockies for a while. I read it, and then I read it again and again and I’ve still got my battered-up copy. That book showed me that non-fiction meant nothing. It meant the ability to experiment, the ability to mix genres, tones and forms and kinds of knowledge and writing. Every sentence of that book was crystalline to me, and yet the whole had the narrative compulsion of a novel.”

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MacFarlane’s books are as much about landscape and place as they are about people. Whether it is following five thousand year-old footprints along the coast, narrating the life of Edward Thomas, walking with Raja Shehadeh in the Palestinian hills or sailing in the Scottish seas with his poet friend Ian, MacFarlane’s characters are inextricably linked to the places he describes. 

“I think, broadly speaking, The Wild Places is probably too solitary. A lot of the people who feature in The Wild Places are either dead or dying. And I think consciously when I began to write about paths and walking, I wanted to write a very populated book, because paths are all about meeting. I knew how language worked around landscape, but I wasn’t sure I knew how to write about people, and it was only really when I began writing about Roger [Deakin], with reluctance, or certain trepidation that I realised that I wanted to write about people. In The Old Ways, every chapter has a vital person in it, and I realised I loved writing about people. I became fascinated by this question of not just what we make of places but what places make of us, and how we are shaped by our landscapes.”

The emotions inspired by landscape, of course, are not always positive, and MacFarlane is very much aware of this.

“Extreme nationalism is one example. I sometimes worry that I find myself in this blithe role of talking about grace and beauty and orientation – language that starts to topple over into the pseudo-religious or the mindful, but of course it is important to bear in mind that places can oppress you, and inspire desperate brutality in you. We relate to place in as many ways as there are places and people.”

MacFarlane’s latest book, Holloway, is a collaboration with artist Stanley Donwood and poet Dan Richards, narrating a journey the three of them undertook to the holloways of South Dorset. The book is a fascinating concept which blurs the boundaries between prose, art and poetry, and I wondered how he felt about these new ways of approaching landscape. 

“There are people thinking in amazing ways – all the way from ultra-digital through to gorgeous analog, in six different media – about landscape.”

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“It’s a very exciting time to be working in the field of place, landscape, topography – whatever you want to call it. It isn’t nature, I don’t really self-identify in any way as a nature writer. I don’t really know much about nature, but I do think a lot about landscape and that feels a bit different.”

The recent reawakening interest in landscape writing has, however, not been without its criticisms. I ask MacFarlane about the contention that this genre of writing might be simply a middle class pastime.

“Landscape is involved in everyone’s life for good or ill and good relations with places – subtle, thoughtful relations with places, couldn’t be more vital. We’re living, famously, through an extinction pulse, through climate change, through environmental damage; the ways we think about our relations with place are vital to everything, really.”

However, MacFarlane’s writing is more complex than a mere defence of nature and its importance in our lives.

“I suppose I’m writing to be particular – to subtilise. The book I’m finishing now, Landmarks is an attempt to gather huge glossaries of the language for place that we might have forgotten that we possess. One of the reasons I’m so interested in these glossaries is that they’ve tended to emerge often out of working cultures. Where people have the most to do with their places – for instance when they’re working landscapes – they develop very specific languages for responding to it. So the idea that it’s only the middle class that can feel complex, spiritual emotions with places is itself highly offensive.”

As I walk back to the train station, I’m left touched by MacFarlane’s voice; a voice which comes across as soothing, calm and honest in real life as it does in his writing.