Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways explores landscapes as realities in which we participate rather than scenes we look at. Through walking old footpaths and tracing the journeys of others - pilgrims, wanderers, poets, traders - he finds rich textures in the relationship between our imaginations and the lands we traverse. In particular, Macfarlane follows Edward Thomas's internal and external journeys, centred on his beloved South Downs with their chalky, ancient trails. His journeys were to lead to France and to the Battle of Arras, where he died.
Two of the remarkable features of Thomas's life, and they are probably related in some way, are that his enduringly compelling poems were all composed within the last months of his life, and that he chose to enlist and go to fight in a war which, in most respects, he detested. Macfarlane tries to unravel some of the questions behind these facts by walking in Thomas's footsteps over the Downs. Here are two of Macfarlane's insights about Thomas's mind which give some clues:
...for [Thomas], the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.
The paths offered Thomas cover from himself: proof of a participation in communal history and the suggestion of continuity, but also the dispersal of egotism:
Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.
It was, perhaps, Thomas's need to inhabit and traverse a place that drove him to France - he needed to be there and to participate in this all-consuming event, however awful. But it was also his powerful sense of connection to his own particular place that persuaded him that there was something worth defending.
Macfarlane has a powerful sense that we discover a correspondence between places 'out there' and places 'within' but that this correspondence is not static. Landscapes are not fixed entities but include the dynamics of weather, time and use. This means that our identities, formed in relation to place, are also fluid and constantly 'walked out' as we navigate old and new paths. In spiritual terms, I suspect that our repeated crossings lead us to find ourselves as the one who walks, the one who is aware of what surrounds us as we move, taken beyond our smaller concerns and anxious egos by a journey on a well-trodden path. We leave markings along the way because we know we must return again and again and because we want to show that we are present to something that is bigger than us.