theoldwaysI live in the ‘new world’ of North America, and so often have to settle for short forays in Europe and watching Time Team on YouTube to sate my craving for a sense of history in my landscape. Occasionally it happens here: an old stone staircase overgrown in the woods near York Redoubt, a pitted road sinking under the Mactaquac headpond, or the remnants of a farm rock wall in the greenbelt behind my house. My heart leaps to see signs of human use, and the overwriting of landscape as needs change. We generally do this poorly in Canada, having so much space to use. I have just finished Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. He is drawn to old pathways in the UK and elsewhere, and meditates as he walks them on the feedbacks between humans and places, through the experience of travelling where others have trod. His writing is poetry, an immersive portal through time, about how culture changes but ‘desire lines’ persist and what we acquire from following them. A tantalizing sample from page 26-27, which relates to so much of my own research:

For 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. … As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded in its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places – but we are far less good at saying what places make of us. For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know somewhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?

A page earlier Macfarlane notes of Edward Thomas, UK poet and somewhat patron saint of The Old Ways, that “he was …. interestingly alert to how we are scattered, as well as affirmed, by the places through which we move” (p. 25). I keep coming back to this as I reflect on place-protective behaviour in cherished landscapes – how important it is to carefully negotiate landscape change such as required for climate adaptation and mitigation, to avoid an irreversible loss of ‘coherence’, a social jarring and dislocation from place.