Robert MacFarlane: The Old Ways

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Sometimes books have uncanny ways of linking up, almost as if they talk to each other, and during my last holiday this happened twice. In this book, that basically talks about walking, and that I bought because I liked the old fashioned cover and the topic, it happened through a story about the Orkneys. The book mainly talks about paths, walking them and the need to keep them open. In a chapter about the sea roads that linked northern Europe with its long coasts and many islands he talks about the hwael-weg, the whale-way in Old English, or the roads of the sea, where winds, currents and danger make paths that are invisible to us as its traffic leaves no trace. They were memorised by songs and tradition, by texts and maps, and they are to the experienced seafarer as visible as a road to us.

When me and some friends visited the Orkneys recently and stood before the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness we asked ourselves the same questions as thousands of visitors before us: why here ? Why at the end of the world ? And why was this once an immense holy place far bigger and probably more important than we can imagine today. MacFarlane asks us to imagine us a map of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. Now turn the picture into itself, make all land black and eradicate the places and the roads. Do the reverse with the water and indicate the searoads that lead from Norway, Shetland and Iceland to Europe. What's in the middle ? Right, the Orkneys. According to MacFarlane the Old World, with the north as a centre (we are talking about 5000 BC), developed centrifugal forces as it grew, with matter and culture spinning to the edges (America, France, Spain...). And suddenly it all made sense.

It was absolutely strange to sit in a mediterranean garden and read about this. It seemed as if this book was explaining to me about the previous one, filling in gaps I missed, and in my imagination they talked to each other. I was just a listener.

The book itself is fascinating with many beautiful stories. Sometimes it gets a bit pedantic, as if only a certain kind of people really count, but it had a profound effect on me. Back in Belgium I started walking again, in my own neighbourhood, and looking for paths, and sometimes it was to me as if I discovered a new world (having lived here for 14 years now), once literally within half a mile of my home. I will be forever grateful for this gift.  


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