Reading Notes: Robert MacFarlane

My initial high hopes for The Old Ways were dampened by its heavy-handed opener, but when MacFarlane started talking about his barefoot hike on the “Broomway” – a tidal public right-of-way between the Essex coast and Foulness (wonderful name) – he had me.

He had me, that is, but lost me again after two promising but poorly accomplished sailing expeditions, and after uncritically introducing us to an “artist” friend in the Hebrides whose masterpiece involves wrapping a human skeleton in calf’s flesh and putting it into a hollowed-out glacial erratic.

According to his publisher, MacFarlane provides us in this book with an example of “exquisite” prose artistry. Sometimes, it’s true, he finds a way between his words. Too often, however, MacFarlane’s breathy phrases, pet descriptors, and gushings over Edward Thomas’s awful poetry bog him down.

The Old Ways might have been a better book if MacFarlane had kept the purple prose in check; if he had more love for the complete sentence; if he was less of a landscape sentimentalist; and if he’d not tried to reproduce dialogue in novelistic style but kept to straight narrative.

Reading MacFarlane, I did feel encouraged to do some fresh walking in the hills, but for company I’ll take Thoreau.

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