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Unexpected Relationships

February 10, 2014

It might be a momentary psychic phenomena, or it could be happenstance, but I seem to be noticing chance juxtapositions of colors. The light on the screen of the mobile handset perfectly matches the cover of a Rhodia notepad.

On a chair is the book “Enzo” with its tan background color and black ink of the calligraphic circle called an Enzo on the cover. On the nearby table is the book “Holy Sh*t: a brief history of swearing” with nearly identical brown-paper-bag colors and a black asterisk instead of an Enzo.

There’s a tissue box echoing the font color on A.R. Ammons’ “Collected Poems, 1951-1971” and the beautiful blues on the cover of Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways: a journey on foot.”

Could a book with a lovely cover and the title of “The Old Ways” not be appealing? I think it’s remarkably good, but I examined the Amazon reviews after my eye caught the missing half of the fifth star in the rating.

Outlier one-star reviews on Amazon can be interesting. There were four for “The Old Ways.” One complained about the Kindle version rather than the content of the book; another complained of no maps. Another was a long rant about one fact: that the author mentions seeing a “panther” in Britain (in the presence of a reliable witness) and the reviewer says he might as well have been abducted by aliens and so on and on and on.

This kind of stuff merely reinforces the good sense of the many five-star reviews. Especially this: “I love travel books and was greatly disappointed with this book. I found this book to be exceptionally boring. I was expecting interesting facts, not poetry.”

Talk about praising with faint damnation. The writing does indeed border on poetic at times, but only just enough. It’s a beautifully written book and full of interesting facts, fascinating history and people met along the paths, and unexpected relationships of man and nature.

The book is notable for lacking a certain style of self-indulgent nature writing even as it pays exquisitely close attention to the world through which the author walks. Parts of it are more like Basho’s ancient travel journals than modern travel writing.

If you’re a walker, from daily walks in the hills to extended long-distance pilgrimages, I think you have to read this book. The author follows ancient paths across England, such as one that appears on maps but can only be followed at low tide.

In Scotland, the paths include water ways, some far to sea. He has walked in Palestine, and Spain, famous for the pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, and in Sichuan in western China.

A favorite walker-writer of the author’s is Nan Shepherd, who reflected that as a young woman she had longed for the “tang of height” and approached mountains for their “effect upon me.”

Over time, she learned “to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him.” She preferred to wander or “go round” the mountain instead. At the end of her book “The Living Mountain,” she wrote: “I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on a pilgrimage to a mountain.”

The author, walking very high near Minya Konka, a mountain sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, set his pace to a Spanish palindrome on the subject of pilgrimage: “La ruta nos aporto otro paso natural.” The path provides the natural next step.

Which for you might be to read this book.

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