Good books always provide good escapes, and since we’re without much of a winter this year, I’ve been dreaming of other times and places. Lately, at least in my imagination, I’ve been wandering about in the rainy British Isles.
The book is Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, which came out a year ago from Viking/Penguin. A best seller in Britain, the book recounts the author’s efforts to seek out ancient trails in England, Scotland, and elsewhere.
I always enjoy books about walking. It’s fun to see landscapes through the eyes of others, but as I read this book something else came into focus for me, something missing here that affects the way we think about nature and land.
In the walks that he recounts in The Old Ways, Macfarlane explores places that have been occupied for thousands of years. Make no mistake, these landscapes are rural, pastoral even, but they are not wilderness. The land is farmed, grazed, and has been deeply humanized over many generations of use.
As I read Macfarlane, it occurred to me that we have few comparable places in the United States to walk. There are several reasons for this.
One is that British property law is profoundly different from ours. The whole of the British Isles – England, Wales, Scotland, and (independent) Ireland – is crisscrossed by public rights-of-way set aside for walking. Such routes cross lands that in the United States would be considered private and closed. The trails wander along creeks, cross pastures, and parallel farmed fields. No permissions are required to walk them.
An other reason is the age of the trails involved. By any American standard, these walking routes are ancient, most of them dating back many hundreds of years. Some follow Roman roads from two millennia ago; others predate even the Romans.
This antiquity, I believe, does much more than merely place walking routes on the land. Unlike here in America, the landscapes of Britain are charged with stories. Because a single, continuous culture has occupied the British Isles since time immemorial, the land holds great significance. Every hill and vale, every flowing gill and burn, every agricultural croft and shieling – all evoke connections between past and present.
We have almost none of this. We are a pioneer people, only recently arrived (less than two centuries ago here in Tulare County), and we still think of land as a commodity, something that can be modified at will with little thought of either past or future. In short, compared to Britons, we have a very weak connection with the land that supports us.
Try to imagine the Kaweah River Delta if it were a British landscape. Our roads would follow not surveyed straight lines but winding medieval cow paths; farming villages many hundreds of years old would dot the landscape, each with its ancient stone church. Linking all would be public footpaths crossing private land but protected by law.
OK, that’s not our tradition. We’re a different sort of people. We prize our individual rights and our private property, and these American traditions are not likely to change anytime soon.
And we do have a wonderful tradition largely missing in Britain – our system of public lands, places like national parks and national forests that belong to and are open to all.
Yet, by having almost no sense of landscape history and no real commitment to either past or future, we all too often do grievous harm to things we ought to care about. I’m not naïve enough to argue that Britain, too, does not have its environmental problems, but people who have lived on the same land for dozens of generations undoubtedly look at it differently than we do.
In five hundred years – if we are still here – will our landscapes be both storied and loved?
© Wm. Tweed