The best sailing book I have read this season is subtitled “A Journey on Foot”. On the surface Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways (Penguin Books 2012 $16.00) is about travelling on foot. MacFarlane writes eloquently about the impact that journeying on foot has on both our souls and our civilization. However, two of his chapters move off shore and he follows the ancient sea roads among the Scottish northern isles.
For him “Sea roads are dissolving paths whose passage leaves no trace beyond a wake, a brief turbulence astern. They survive as convention, tradition, as a sequence of coordinates, as a series of waymarks, as dotted lines on charts, as songs and stories.” In a startlingly simple way he sets out the understanding that the sea roads do not set things apart, they bring them together. Before the train and car and plane a boat was the fastest way for long distance travel. The communities that were linked by the sea were outward looking communities, closer to the unseen lands over the horizon than they were to the ones behind them inland. The sea is “not a barrier, but a corridor”.
This is not an academic exploration of the concept of the sea, for MacFarlane, as he does with other pathways sets out to retrace and experience the “way” – the voyage, the journey. In his travelling he meets people who broaden his experience and ours and weaves throughout the observations and passions of poets and philosophers as well as postmen and priests.
For the two sea-based chapters alone The Old Ways is worth the cost of admission. The land-based journeys are a bonus. It took me weeks and weeks to read this book. It was not a book I could rush through and I kept putting it down to think about what I was reading and how it related to my experience. I know that next season when I am making my own trips on the sea roads I will be seeing them with different eyes because of this book. Do yourself a favour – read the chapters titled Water North and Water South. And read the rest as well.