Authors: Robert Macfarlane
For paths run through people as surely as they run through places. The American historian and geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson – a man constitutionally wary of romanticism – puts it well. ‘
For untold thousands of years
we travelled on foot over rough paths,’ he notes, ‘not simply as peddlers or commuters or tourists, but as men and women for whom the path and road stood for some intense experience: freedom, new human relationships, a new awareness of the landscape. The road offered a journey into the unknown that could end up allowing us to discover who we were.’
I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot’s phrase, can ‘
enlarge the imagined range for self to move in
As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or
, finite and bounded in its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places – but we are far less good at saying what places make of us. For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?
From my heel to my toe is a measured space of 29.7 centimetres or 11.7 inches. This is a unit of progress and it is also a unit of thought. ‘
I can only meditate
when I am walking,’ wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the fourth book of his
, ‘when I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.’ Søren Kierkegaard speculated that the mind might function optimally at the pedestrian pace of three miles per hour, and in a journal entry describes going out for a wander and finding himself ‘
with ideas’ that he ‘could scarcely walk’. Christopher Morley wrote of Wordsworth as ‘
employ[ing] his legs as an instrument of philosophy
’ and Wordsworth of his own ‘
’. Nietzsche was typically absolute on the subject – ‘
Only those thoughts
which come from
have any value’ – and Wallace Stevens typically tentative: ‘
Perhaps / The truth depends on a walk around a lake
.’ In all of these accounts, walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge; it is itself the means of knowing.
The proposition that cognition is both motion-sensitive and site-specific pre-dates Romanticism, though it was Rousseau who made it famous. It is now a familiar suggestion, and one which we are wise to be sceptical about when it is asserted as a rule. Sometimes walking is the mind’s subtle accomplice; at other times its brutal antagonist. As you will know if you’ve ever walked long distances for day after day, fatigue on the path can annihilate all but the most basic brain functions. After twenty miles you’re wall-eyed, inanely watching loops on what John Hillaby once called ‘
the skull cinema
In non-Western cultures, the ideas of footfall as knowledge and walking as a mode of thinking are widespread, often operating in particular as a metaphor for recollection – history as a region one walks back into. Keith Basso has written of how, for the Cibecue Apache, the past is figured as a path or trail (
), trodden by ancestors but largely invisible to the living, which has to be re-approached indirectly via the prompts of certain memorial traces.
– which include place names, stories, songs and relics – are sometimes called by the Apache
– ‘footprints’, ‘tracks’.
To the Klinchon people
of north-western Canada, walking and knowing are barely divisible activities: their term for ‘knowledge’ and their term for ‘footprint’ can be used interchangeably. A Tibetan Buddhist text from around 600 years ago uses the word
to mean ‘
a mark that remains
after that which has made it has passed by’: footprints are
, a path is
, and such impressions draw one backwards into awareness of past events.
The ideas that walking might be thinking or that feet might
are, at first encounter, foreign and puzzling. We don’t tend to imagine the foot as an expressive or perceptive appendage. The foot lacks the versatility of the hand. It has that irreversible big toe: the best it can do by way of grip is a clumsy scissor action with the second toe. The foot feels more of a prosthesis, there to carry us about, not to interpret or organize the world for us. The hand, surely, is always subtler than the foot – we speak of manipulation but never of pedipulation. Yet Richard Long – who once walked thirty-three miles a day for thirty-three days, from the Lizard in Cornwall to Dunnet Head in northern Scotland – signs off his letters with a red-ink stamp that shows the outline of two feet with eyes embedded in their soles, gazing out at the looker. Footfall as a way of seeing the landscape; touch as sight – these are notions to which I can hold.
For Ludwig Wittgenstein, following lines of enquiry on foot as well as in the mind was integral to his philosophy. Studying in Cambridge under Bertrand Russell, he would stride up and down Russell’s room in agitated silence, sometimes for hours, covering miles in a room of yards. ‘
Are you thinking about
logic or your sins?’ Russell asked once, half jokingly, of his striding student. ‘Both!’ answered Wittgenstein instantly. In 1913 Wittgenstein retreated to Skjolden, a tiny village on a remote Norwegian fjord, and spent a long dark winter there, contemplating logic and walking the paths that bordered the fjord and led up into the mountains. The landscape – ascetic, decisive – matched the thinking he undertook, and in the course of that winter he solved a major philosophical crux concerning the symbolism for truth functions. ‘
I can’t imagine
that I could have worked anywhere as I did there,’ he wrote to his sister years later. ‘It seems to me that I had given birth to new thoughts within me’: ‘
Es kommt mir so vor, als hätte ich damals in mir neue Denkbewegungen geboren
.’ The word Wittgenstein used for ‘thought’,
, is a coinage that might be translated as ‘thought movements’, ‘thought-ways’ or ‘paths of thought’: ideas that have been brought into being by means of motion along a path (
In one of Thomas Clark’s quiet poems, a walker along a seashore reaches a place where stone steps ‘
carved out of rock
/ go down to water’ next to a mooring. The poem accepts their invitation to descend, and the walker imagines ‘step[ping] down into the sea / into another knowledge / wild and cold’. The allusion is to Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem ‘At the Fishhouses’, which passes into the ‘
clear gray icy water
’ of a Newfoundland harbour; water that is ‘like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free’. Bishop in turn casts backwards, I think, to Wordsworth in 1815 writing of how one accesses ‘
the depths of reason
’: a profound realm ‘to which the mind cannot sink gently of itself – but to which it must descend by treading the steps of thought’. The three poems become restatements of each other – a print-trail or series of steps of their own.
The best-known connection between footfall, knowledge and memory is the Aboriginal Australian vision of the Songlines. According to this cosmogony, the world was created in an epoch known as the Dreamtime, when the Ancestors emerged to find the earth a black, flat, featureless terrain. They began to walk out across this non-place, and as they walked they broke through the crust of the earth and released the sleeping life beneath it, so that the landscape sprang up into being with each pace. As Bruce Chatwin explained in his flawed but influential account, ‘
each totemic ancestor
, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints’. Depending on where they fell, these foot-notes became linked with particular features of the landscape. Thus the world was covered by ‘Dreaming-tracks’ that ‘lay over the land as “ways” of communication’, each track having its corresponding Song. The Australian continent, as Chatwin put it, could therefore be visualized as ‘
a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys
, writhing this way and that, in which every “episode” was readable in terms of geology’. To sing out was – and still is, just about, for the Songs survive, though more and more of them slip away with each generation – therefore to find one’s way, and
storytelling was indivisible from wayfaring
The relationship between thinking and walking is also grained deep into language history, illuminated by perhaps the most wonderful etymology I know. The trail begins with our verb
, meaning ‘to acquire knowledge’. Moving backwards in language time, we reach the Old English
, ‘to get knowledge, to be cultivated’. From
the path leads further back, into the fricative thickets of Proto-Germanic, and to the word
, which has a base sense of ‘to follow or to find a track’ (from the Proto-Indo-European prefix
, meaning ‘track’). ‘To learn’ therefore means at root – at route – ‘to follow a track’. Who knew? Not I, and I am grateful to the etymologist-explorers who uncovered those lost trails connecting ‘learning’ with ‘path-following’.
In the months after my solstitial night-walk in the snow, I decided to make tracks of my own: to set out on foot along the old ways, and discover what might be learnt by following them. So on a late-May morning I left from my Cambridge home to walk what is often claimed to be the most ancient land route in Britain, the Icknield Way, which Edward Thomas had walked and bicycled a century earlier.
It was the first of my foot-journeys, most of which are recounted here, and they involved the traveller’s usual mix of excitement, incompetence, ennui, adventure and epiphany. The Icknield Way was my entry to a network of old routes criss-crossing the British landscapes and waters, and connecting them to countries and continents beyond. Along the way – along the ways – I broke more bones than I had in two decades of mountaineering, drank too much gin with a sort-of shaman in the Outer Hebrides, walked stride for stride with a 5,000-year-old man near Liverpool, followed
paths through occupied Palestine, and found myself – like many English walkers before me – tramping an arid branch-line of the Camino in Spain, under a vulture-filled sky. I traced a tidal path nicknamed ‘The Doomway’, which is allegedly the deadliest path in Britain but which turned out to be a cakewalk, I admired the celestial bling of meteor showers over the North Atlantic, I traversed an arc of the winter Ridgeway on skis and saw, I’m fairly sure, a black panther in Wiltshire. I spent nights out in copses, fields and beehive shielings, and on the haunted summit of a chalk down in Sussex where I underwent heebie-jeebies at the hands of ghosts that I now suspect were probably only owls. And everywhere I met people – usual and unusual, quiet and voluble, everyday and eccentric – for whom landscape and walking were vital means of making sense of themselves and of the world. I met dawdlers, dreamers, striders, guides, pilgrims, wanderers, stravaigers, trespassers, cartographers – and a man who believed he was a tree and that trees were people.
Of the dozens of people who feature in this book, Edward Thomas is the most important. He ghosted my journeys and urged me on. I set out to walk my way back into intimacy with Thomas, using the paths as a route to his past, but ended up discovering much more about the living than about the dead. In his memoir
Berlin Childhood around
1900 Walter Benjamin floats the idea of representing his own life cartographically: ‘
I have long
, indeed for years,’ writes Benjamin, ‘played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life –
– graphically on a map.’ I have come to imagine Thomas’s ‘sphere of life’ as a kind of way-map, and so I have retold it in this manner in the book’s penultimate chapter: not an act of biography, exactly, but perhaps one of biogeography. That chapter is the convergence point of the book’s various paths: the meeting of its ways.
The journeys told here take their bearings from the distant past, but also from the debris and phenomena of the present, for this is often a double insistence of old landscapes: that they be read in the
but felt in the
. The waymarkers of my walks were not only dolmens, tumuli and long barrows, but also last year’s ash-leaf frails (brittle in the hand), last night’s fox scat (rank in the nose), this minute’s bird call (sharp in the ear), the pylon’s lyric crackle and the crop-sprayer’s hiss.
of skylarks — Solid geology — Chalk dreams — The earliest paths — Departure — The accident — Bone for chalk — Path as direction of the spirit — Apocalypse & lockdown — A skylark’s egg — Blind roads & shadow-sites — Aerial photography as resurrection — The long-barrow sleeping place — Trench art — A ghost sense of stride — The wallabies of Buckinghamshire — An illusion of infinity — Late-day light — A strange collection of votaries.