tracks, ribbons, edges and boundaries…..
the dog tries to make sense of it all
underground the worms and moles have their routes and channels
In the mountain forest the path of the big ants cuts across our path. I hope to avoid them, but when I’m tired and hurrying down I sometimes tread blindly.
You follow a path through the woods and it narrows to a low ceiling; now we are the tallest animal around, we’ve done away with all the big ones. You stoop, branches and briars catch in your hair. That reluctance to give up and turn back leads you to almost crawl. But the dog can still sprint through.
The squirrels’ paths frustrate the dog. They may begin along the ground but they soon take off. Their paths are as free as the birds’, almost.
In my garden is a network of routes centred on the bird feeder. Like spiders they spin a complex but invisible skein of pathways between the feeder and the trees and bushes around it. Unrecorded choreography. The birds’ flight gives a structure to the garden centred on the bird feeder. Of course as soon as the birds stop flying or the fish swim away this structure disappears. It only exists while it is being made.
Spiders go their own way, they spin and weave their webs across a path. Most animals will simply go below them but we, up on our back legs, break the threads. I don’t know if they make their webs with a view to intercepting insects on their favoured routes, if so then they’re setting up road-blocks.
Rushing through the woods from one scent to another the enthusiastic dog is scribbling its own design.
Fishermen try to imagine the invisible routes of the fish.
At sea, leaning over the deck of a ship, I’m disturbed by the toss and flow of the water, the constant erasure of traces. I have no instruments of navigation.
The dog’s nose is an instrument of navigation. My sense of smell being so feeble I’m just peering in the dark, walking in circles. Lost, finding yourself back where you started is such a cliché of adventure that it seems ludicrous when it first happens to you. Winnie the Pooh does it.
Being long past the time when adventurous mammals are normally dead, my feet hurt with the bumps and slopes of uneven ground, my legs feel heavy, they begin to need the retirement home of level pavements. But I’m newly sensitive to the pleasure of firm sand after shingle, or certain rock formations: stepping from bog and tussocks onto more or less horizontal long slabs of Torridonian sandstone or limestone planed by glaciers.
Rights of way have been established for centuries but few people now plot their own route through them. Look at any ordnance survey map for an area where people like to walk: Explorer 163 for part of northern Kent gives us the Saxon Shore way, the Wealdway, the Harvel Hike, the North Downs Way, the Medway Valley Walk, the Centenary Walk Rochester, and a European Long Distance Route. Even though 1 to 25,000 maps have become the standard, and show excellent detail, making it so much easier to find your way through complex country than the 1 to 50,000 maps which we used to use always, and even though so many people carry some form of GPS to show them exactly where they are and where to go, we still prefer to use paths which are clearly signposted and designated as proper through routes. This often has the effect of condemning paths which don’t form part of a named route to neglect and decay. You my have the legal right to strike out through a field of chest high maize but you forgot your machete. You know that the barbed wire fence you’ve just come up against is illegal but you don’t want to rip your trousers.
Villages often lie at the centre of a network of paths. The sunday before last when we were staying in Beaford, insecure without a map, I found a walk which circled round the village and took me back to it. I like to explore and circle around mountain valleys, finding the detail, whereas most people like to put the miles away on a long distance footpath. When I write I’m always circling too. But when out on the pavement, stepping out on the level, I often think that before it gets too late, which could be soon, I would like to go on a long distance walk without mountains, without too many hills, on an established way, a pilgrim’s way, where you don’t need to think about where to go because it was fixed for you centuries ago. On that kind of walk you could think. And along the way there are pubs, cafes, gites, guesthouses. And at the end, a destination. A final destination, even, as the train announcements have it. A conclusion.
A die-happy-now conclusion?
when I’m out walking I don’t think much. Rousseau and Nietzsche and Wordsworth exercised and stimulated their minds creatively by walking; I give up words. But then earworms invade, hitching a ride on the rhythms of the walk. Out in the city though, then I think, then the words come, stimulated by the litter of illiteracy, the babble and flesh of marketing.
the same nagging ideas, the same reluctance to write.
Graham visited and stayed the night, sharp as ever in his rambling, rolling way. I tried to speak to him about Eden, and Mabey on the Burren1 – he seemed astonished that I could mistake the Burren for paradise because when he went there it was cold, stony, thorny and grey. He kept getting his feet stuck in the grykes (clints and grykes: slabs of limestone pavement and the fissures between them). Like romantic love, Eden always comes with its opposite, the Fall.
And when he went to Crete Jane suggested they walk back from a beach they’d taken a boat to, up over the hills. It took hours, Graham kept falling over, (he didn’t have a stick), he cut himself on the sharp rocks, was scratched by thorns. He was bloody and exhausted. (I imagine him looking a little like Christ after flagellation and before crucifixion.) He was rather vague about the time of year, but I’m sure it wasn’t spring.
I tried to show the connection between the apprehension of Eden and those glimpses of utopia that the commune afforded at special times. Special times in nature and in the commune. As Mabey says, “you should begin your exploration of the Burren in late May…”
This year I walked on Falakro in north eastern Greece at the end of May. At that time erythroniums, crocuses, vanilla orchids, alyssums, scillas, flax, three kinds of saxifrage, star of Bethlehem and stitchwort were all perfect and I was not too late for the last of the fritillaries or, on the very top, at the edge of the cliffs, the first of the mountain avens. A combination of luck and judgement.
Graham in the Burren – he was like a visitor happening upon the billiard room at Laurieston on a cold, damp morning after; silent, ash in the air, a plate encrusted with lentils, the sour smell of dregs, lost clothing underfoot, sticky stains on floor and walls, and being told that it had been amazing, amazing….
I’m now having lots of experience of looking for tennis balls. Today I found one by treading on it. It’s that time of year when the fallen sycamore leaves (a good year for sycamore colour, in spite of the rain) are not much brighter than the smudgy yellow of a tennis ball. Yesterday I walked round and round in circles deliberately, the ball being lost in an open space in Clissold Park; it hadn’t flown into tangles of ivy and brambles. I covered every inch of possible ground and some impossible ground and in the end I did find it. When I saw it I couldn’t believe I’d missed it for so long. It seemed so obvious. So of course you can walk along a path three, four, five times and still see flowers you didn’t see before. And on little visited mountains there are plants still waiting to be discovered.
I think I’ve developed quite a good eye for plants, but the tennis balls could prove me wrong.
Even as so many species become extinct, others are discovered. (the dying and the new born.)
I’ve spent a lot of time recently looking at my photos, mostly ones of flowers, on the computer, wondering if I can get better prints. I don’t do photoshop, but I play around with the exposure a bit, and I crop them, often not sure if I want to see more closely or from further away. I feel lucky to have seen so much, and I’m greedy for more. I often do it when words or thoughts seem beyond me, I just want to look. Many of the names escape me now.
Of course more often than criss-crossing a mountainside looking for plants I search for tennis balls in the park, or criss-cross this house, unable to remember where I’ve left a book or my wallet.
Now I’m looking for something I wrote the other day, about the parallel between walking in circles and thinking and writing in circles, with reference to my having repeated myself over and over again, my mind moving on deeply scoured paths. There are currently several documents that I write in: this one is called ‘for the blog’. But I could be writing in ‘landscape, walking’ or ‘gardening columns’ or ‘diary late november’. Or I might copy something from one document into another. Sometimes I have to look at each to find myself. But now I can’t find it anywhere, the sentence or two about paths and the connection between walking and thinking in circles. Not in the recycling spot either. Actually just about everything could be filed under recycling. Recycling means going round in circles.
I can still get lost, or not know exactly where I am in relation to one of the landmarks like Bank or London Bridge, in the City of London. I began walking through the City regularly (and here I’m interrupted by my annoyance at the upstart ‘on a regular basis’) when I worked for St Mungo’s on the other side of the river. Often I would get the tube or the bus straight through, or winding through, but often I walked, with the dog. She came to know the routes as well as I did, or better. There are so many different ways! This is because of the persistence of the medieval street pattern, all the lanes and alleyways which wandered through the ruins of the Roman grid. After the Great Fire there was talk of planning and reform, but it came to nothing. Putting the river in its place did allow the development of a new road following its bank. And after the war the street called London Wall was constructed, cutting through the ruins. But that’s about all. And because I got to know the City just at the time when it was becoming difficult to learn new things, I never quite got the pattern fixed in my brain. And my sense of direction began to let me down. I could feel as if I’d been blindfolded and spun around three times before I was allowed to see again. So even after several years of coming and going I could still be surprised. Nothing was ever completely familiar. One of the consolations of growing older is a sort of sheen of the new, a smudgy halo around familiar things.
The ladies’ slipper (Cyprepedium calceolus) corner of a wood in the Gasterntal (this is a link. or a link to a link maybe: Cypripedium calceolus ) hundreds of orchids in an area roughly 50 yards across mapped by strongly defined looping paths which get you close to all the flowers. What makes this place garden-like is the distinction between these well worn paths and the untouched ‘beds’. It seems that everyone who has walked here respects that distinction. The paths take you round and round in circles and clearly have no purpose other than to give views of the orchids. The circularity gives the place a cloistered, contemplative feeling. And the orchids are icons.
The place is unofficial in that it’s not organised or advertised or regulated, yet unspoken rules appear to be devoutly followed. But it is advertised by word of mouth. I think I must have been recognised as one of the devout, and so fit to be told of the whereabouts of the orchid hot spot. It’s not hard to spot us. Most people walk briskly, they keep going, they have their destination in mind. But we’re forever stopping, peering, deviating, getting down on our knees.
Laurieston: Those special times, when residents and visitors came together and entertained, stimulated and fed on each other, were like religious ceremonies, with story telling, coupling, confessions of faith, collective labour in the garden, the woods and the kitchens, feasting, music making and dancing.
Graham in the Burren – as if a visitor happened upon the billiard room at Laurieston on a cold, damp morning; silent, ash in the air, a plate encrusted with lentils, the sour smell of dregs, lost clothing underfoot, sticky stains on floor and walls, and they were told that it had been amazing, amazing....
1‘We lay on the ledge nearest the pool, and watched the burnet rose flowers opening in the sun. As their pure soft scent blew over us in the breeze, over the shining pool and white rock, we understood why this foreign place was so familiar. It was, in its balance of wildness and order, colour and form, the perfect garden (perhaps the Garden!)’