The Footpath to Yourself: Robert Macfarlane on Landscape as a Lens on Inner Life
By Maria Popova
“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are,” Pablo Neruda observed in his soulful Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But paths are more than metaphors — they do lead places and, along the way, do reveal us to ourselves in ways inconceivable at the outset, unattainable at home.
That is what the poetic nature writer (and spell-writer, and songwriter) Robert Macfarlane explores in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (public library) — the final book in his trilogy on landscape as a lens on inner life, exploring “the relationship between paths, walking and the imagination” through his experience of walking more than one thousand miles along ancient paths, only to find himself delivered more fully in the present.
Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own… Paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people. Paths are consensual, too, because without common care and common practice they disappear: overgrown by vegetation, ploughed up or built over (though they may persist in the memorious substance of land law). Like sea channels that require regular dredging to stay open, paths need walking.
In consonance with Thomas Bernhard’s observation that “there is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking,” he considers an ancient creative relationship:
The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature — a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.
This natural narrative undertone to paths has an even deeper effect on the fundaments of the psyche, for in walking we get to reexamine the story of the self as the landscapes we move through mirror us back to ourselves, magnified and transformed. Macfarlane considers the particular rewards of trodden paths which generations have walked as channels of self-discovery:
These are the consequences of the old ways with which I feel easiest: walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing.
Paths run through people as surely as they run through places… 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.”
Complement with the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark’s wonderful prose poem “In Praise of Walking” — which Macfarlane led me to through a fractal branching of the literary path he treads — then revisit Macfarlane’s splendid inquiry into the wonderland beneath our feet.
Published January 19, 2023