In The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Mcfarlane’s highly descriptive writing paints a visual picture of walks taken in England, Scotland, Palestine, Spain, and the Himalayas. As Mcfarlane notes, walking paths offer, “not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing” (p. 24). Pilgrims have used paths and “walking to make meaning for themselves” (p. 326) for centuries. One of Mcfarlane’s ideas I found most provocative is how we each navigate the tension between “roaming”, or mobility, and “homing”, or engaging in one place over extended periods of time. I’ve felt this tension during my extended walking (roaming) in Seattle at Olympic Sculpture Park, New York on the High Line, and Japan at art sites and gardens. I’ve experienced homing as I’ve explored the Ruston Way waterfront.
Mcfarlane’s reflections about walking made me consider how I have selected a very different place to walk than the landscapes he describes. While he explored remote “rural” landscapes, I chose to walk the “urban” Ruston Way waterfront. The Ruston Way waterfront is a busy hub of layered transport arteries for trains, cargo ships, migrating birds, cars, and people on foot. Current transport hubs have a long history—transport by foot, boat, and train have been used for centuries for the movement of goods, people, plants, animals, stories, and ideas.
Mcfarlane also discusses how some pathways make travel routes visible (e.g., clay, mud, and snow can reveal footprints), whereas other pathways obscure busy travel routes (e.g., water and cement do not leave a visible trace of boating or footprints). My walks on Ruston Way have left many invisible footprints along the cement pathway, yet the routine of walking is also a way of “feeling, being and knowing” (p. 24) with one’s self and with a particular place. Thus, the experience of walking leaves impressions in our hearts, bodies, and minds.
Researchers Bratman, Hamilton, Hahn, Daily, and Gross (2015) studied the impact of walking in a “natural setting” (a green space of grassland and oak trees) versus and “urban setting” (a busy street with 3-4 lanes in each direction). They found that a 90-minute walk in a natural setting reduced participants’ self-reports of over-focusing on negative thoughts about the self. Thus walking in a “natural setting” can impact mental health outcomes in an increasingly urbanizing world. As Mcfarlane writes in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, “Landscape and nature are not there simply to be gazed at; no, they press upon and into our bodies and minds, complexly affect our moods, our sensibilities” (p. 341).
As I continue to walk along Ruston Way I reflect on how this particular landscape can be viewed as both “urban” and “natural,” how walking this “old way”, or path, has consistently deepened my sense of place, and how walking can be conceptualized as a tool for inquiry.
Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (July 14, 2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, 112 (28), 8567-8572.
Mcfarlane, R. (2012). The old ways: A journey on foot. New York: Penguin Books