reading notes for The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane

a walk whose purposes exceeded the purely transportational or the simply recreational, and whose destination was in some sense sacred.

Thousands of these improvised pilgrimages seemed to be occurring, often unguided by the principles of a major world religion, and of varying levels of seriousness and sanctity. The hinterlands were filling with eccentrics, making their odd journeys in the belief that certain voyages out might become voyages in.

The library of Miguel Angel Blanco is no ordinary library. It is not arranged according to topic and subject, nor is it navigated by means of the Dewey Decimal system. Its full name is the Library of the Forest, La Biblioteca del Bosque. It has so far been a quarter of a century in the making, and at last count it consisted of more than 1,100 books – though its books are not only books, but also reliquaries. Each book records a journey made by walking, and each contains the natural objects and substances gathered along that particular path: seaweed, snakeskin, mica flakes, crystals of quartz, sea beans, lightning-scorched pine timber, the wing of a grey partridge, pillows of moss, worked flint, cubes of pyrite, pollen, resin, acorn cups, the leaves of holm oak, beech, elm

Spanish practices of senderismo, or ‘path-following’. There is an exceptional richness and variety of old paths in Spain. A network of cañadas or drove roads crosses Spain for nearly 80,000 miles, occupying almost a million acres of public land, shaping land-holding patterns across the country (especially on the plains), and still used for the transportation of livestock.

The pilgrimage to Santiago has its local and profane versions in the romeria, the traditional village community walk that originated in the pilgrimage to Rome, but which is now usually made from the village centre to a nearby sacred site, with drinking and eating en route to celebrate the revival of the land after winter. In the Cantabrian mountains, where bears and wolves survive, different rural relics can be found: nomadic shepherds moving their flocks and herds along pathways thought to date from the Bronze Age.

Camino Francés – the traditional route through the Pyrenees and across the Castilian plains

Over the course of several months he also established an alternative, pagan camino, which he named the Camino de Santa Minia. This path began and ended in an old wood where a great oak stood as altarpiece within the cathedral of the grove itself. Miguel first walked the route on the day of the full moon, 17 April 1998, and then repeated it daily until he had inscribed his own path.

Landscape’ is a late-sixteenth-century (1598) anglicization of the Dutch word landschap, which had originally meant a ‘unit or tract of land’, but which in the course of the 1500s had become so strongly associated with the Dutch school of landscape painting that at the point of its anglicization its primary meaning was ‘a painterly depiction of scenery’: it was not used to mean physical landscape until 1725.

Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum.* I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take ‘landscape’ as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme) and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment.

These two kinds of mountain-worshipper stand in strong contrast to one another. There is a humility to the act of the kora, which stands as a corrective to the self-exaltation of the mountaineer’s hunger for an utmost point. Circle and circuit, potentially endless, stand against the symbolic finality of the summit. The pilgrim on the kora contents himself always with looking up and inwards to mystery, where the mountaineer longs to look down and outwards onto knowledge.

Foot transects make possible an otherwise unattainable acquaintance with a region: the walker records and locates what he or she sees – species, scat, scrapes, weather, erosion – and the accidental encounters born of the transect’s line are part of its virtue as a method.

a Spanish palindrome on the subject of pilgrimage: ‘La ruta nos aportó otro paso natural ’ – ‘The path provides the natural next step’. Its chiasmic form cleverly acknowledged the transformative consequences of the foot-pilgrimage, which returns the traveller to his origin and turns the mind back upon itself, leaving the pilgrim both ostensibly unchanged and profoundly redirected.

that arc of the Ridgeway which curves over the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, from the White Horse at Uffington past mysterious Silbury Hill and Avebury. The Ridgeway is the name usually given to the hundreds of miles of chalk-down trackway of Neolithic origin, of which – depending on your version of prehistory – the Icknield Way is either a constituent section or a later extension. The Wiltshire section of the Ridgeway passes through arguably the most sacralized terrain in England. Between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, vast devotional interventions were made in the landscape here. Megaliths and henges were raised, sarsens were organized in avenues, earthworks were dug, and the cryptically simple edifice of Silbury Hill – a huge truncated cone of tamped chalk – was somehow constructed.

The archaeologist Christopher Tilley, in his pioneering work The Phenomenology of Landscape, argues that to understand many of the sacred landscapes of Neolithic Britain we need first to understand the importance of the ancient paths that both link and bypass them. Walking, both as approach and traverse, was crucial to the dramas of perception: what Tilley calls ‘the strong paths ’ of this region were used to ‘pattern’ the relationship ‘between sites and their settings’.



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  • Last modified: 2018-12-12 00:27
  • by nik