Three Walks as One Person; One Walk as Three People
Back at the start of August I had an unexpected and unwelcome trip to hospital. I came out after a week, but was booked in for a return visit and abdominal surgery for some six weeks later. I was not only advised to take things easy, but found I actually had to take things easy (not always the same thing, in my experience). I'd had a fairly busy few months planned for late summer and early autumn; sailing, long walks, kayaking, travelling in Spain and Morocco, playing and recording music, as well as the usual running and partying and writing.
As it turned out doing anything reasonably active threatened to put me back into hospital, which in turn would delay surgery. I cancelled or postponed the stuff i'd been planning on doing. I was philosophical and reckoned it was a good chance to read through a huge pile of books, do some writing and generally mull quietly about life and such. And plan what I was going to do post-surgery when back to rude – obnoxious, even – good health.
So far so dull, both to read about and to live through. The downside of enforced malingering was boredom, and lack of motivation – if I couldn't run around, then why bother doing anything less physical, huh? – and sleeplessness.
I woke in the early hours one night and selected three books from the tottering and random piles beside my bed. Each seemed to offer the possibility of some kind of inspiration. Salvation, even. I read back and forth between them all for the rest of the night, through till dawn.
The books were:
Film-maker Werner Herzog's Of Walking On Ice.
Japanese poet Matsuo Basho's The Narrow Road to the Far North
The Collins Gem guide to Wild Flowers.
Herzog's Of Walking on Ice is his account of walking the 500 miles or so from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974. Film maker Lotte Eisner was ill and Herzog was convinced that a pilgrimage to her bedside on foot would save her. He left on November 23 and arrived in Paris on the 14th of December. He writes that he had new – uncomfortable – boots, a leather jacket, a duffle-bag and a compass [lost en route]; from the reading of his almost unedited diary I suspect he also had a sleeping bag and a few, very few, other things. He broke into houses, sheds and barns to sleep at night. The weather was vile; cold, wet and muddy, and then cold and snowing. Pubs gave rare shelter and warmth. He had very little money. And it's an unromantic and unprepossessing route to walk: there's the Danube and the Black Forest, true, but it's mostly claggy farmland and small unfriendly villages (though perhaps Herzog didn't invite much friendliness). His book is searingly honest, and quite batty. The further he walks the odder he gets, or at least the odder his perception of the world he's passing through becomes. This is understandable; he's cold, exhausted, driven, lonely, hungry. The things he sees, what he notes, also what he imagines he sees are all fascinating. And poetic. As is his account of the discomfort, the blisters, the cold, the fear of discovery when he's broken into somewhere to sleep, the boredom. It's one of the toughest, self-imposed walks or pilgrimages that i've read of. He makes it to Paris. He meets Eisner (though doesn't tell her that he's walked the whole way). She goes on to live for many more decades.
Matuso Basho's wanderings through 17th century Japan were inspiration for much of his poetry, and especially haiku – the 17 syllable [5-7-5] verse form he's given credit for refining, though in his prose-poem-travel-narrative he used other, more flexible forms – hokku and waka amongst them. He's the guy who wrote the exemplar haiku: Old pond, a frog dives in, water 'splash.' Following the narrow road to the far north took him on five month walk through the remote lands of the northern region of Tohoku; bad weather, bandits, few places to stay and poor food were part of the trip. Also like Herzog, he too had little money – replacement straw walking-sandals were a big expenditure – and carried little kit. He sold his house (read 'hut' – he was a simple-living, though famed poet) and made a will before leaving not being confident of returning. (He did return, though died on a later journey). Unlike Herzog his book is a less than completely honest account of the trip – he changed the order of some of the places he visited. And perhaps embellished or imagined up some of the events. Rather than writing a travelogue or unflinchingly recording exactly what happens mentally and physically on a long walk he was focused on creating poetry based on the idea of sabi, the human response to and connection with nature. Therefore it's not so much a diary as a Bruce Chatwin-esque work mixing fact, art and imagination. He also travelled much of the way with a companion, a disciple. The edition I have benefits from scholarly foot notes, introduction and comments, but is a clunky translation.
The Collins Gem book of Wild Flowers – written by Martin Walters, though he's a bit underplayed in the credits - I originally bought because I wanted a pocket-sized book of basic flower recognition. It was beside my bed because I thought I might use my enforced lounging around to brush up on various subjects; for a country lad i'm pretty rubbish at plant recognition and naming. That's compared with birds; i've always been interested in ornithology, both as a boy and since and so have put a lot of time into looking and learning, and it's given me skills in bird recognition that are almost instinctive; by that I mean that I know enough about the shape and habitat and habits of pretty much every Irish species and very many European and a good deal of South American and African species too, and certainly all the families. Even if I only glimpse a fleeting bird or see a species I don't already know, there's a good chance i'll work out what it is, or even 'know' it subconsciously. I can't do that with plants. I don't notice whether flowers have four or five petals, whether stalks are round or squared in segment, leaves are on stalks or straight from stem. It seemed it would be good to learn to notice these things.
That night and those three books got me back on my feet. Literally. Inspired by all three, in different ways, I began walking again. Sometimes a mile, often around three miles, occasionally five, once six. These are the kinds of 'local' distances I wouldn't normally consider as worth walking for their own sake. And certainly not slowly, each and every day, tramping and trudging and hobbling around the same routes. Some days I felt better after walking; some days I felt a little worse.
Walking produced the following random impressions – mainly taken from three walks before I went back into hospital, and then from a walk taken a week post-surgery, so just a few days ago. Walking, however short the route, is still good. And it was if I had the three authors along with me – Herzog, Walters and Basho – each jostling for my attention. It was companionable walking. Rather than thinking of each walk as an entity, all the walks seemed to run (odd word, in the context) into each other, and so i've just listed stuff under headings.
- Walking every day produced surprises. I've been staying, since August, in the area where I spent most of my boyhood years; over the decades i've ridden horses and cycles and walked and run and driven cars down – I would have thought – every road possible within a ten mile radius of where i've mostly been for the past two and a half months. Yet within two miles of the door I found myself walking a long road i'd never been on before. And on another day another road, nearly as close, that i'd also never travelled before. So much novelty, for the walking.
- As always the weather, once you get outside, is always better than it looks when seen through a window. It was a miserable late-summer, and mostly miserable early-autumn. But it was still better outside than looking on the outside from inside. I got rained on just three times in six weeks of walks, and never soaked.
- Often i'd slip into a road-side hillside wood of beeches, oaks, hazels and larch trees to sit for a while. I realised one day that the expression, 'can't see the woods for the trees,' is the wrong way round. One sees the woods all the time; from afar, when next to them and when inside them. It took a lot of sitting to realise that it's actually difficult to see the trees for the wood. And some more sitting to suddenly see the individual trees, as if they'd snapped into focus. Similarly, it's probably far truer to observe that one often can't see the individual people for the crowds they're in.
- Even if one can't see the woods for the trees you can saw the trees for wood.
- Stopping to look up into a line of ash trees along the road I heard a tzit tzit tzee bird call. Then saw a party of great tits darting from branch to branch foraging insects. Great tits have a huge range of calls; so, actually seeing a specific bird opening its beak as I heard a call that was new to me meant I was able to identify it for sure, and assign it to the great tit. A small pleasure. Observing something, then knowing it and then putting it into words is a kind of poetry.
- On the same warm edge-of-autumn day the last of the summer's swallows were gyring around in smooth, swinging loops until they entered a rising vortex of midges when their flight would suddenly become a series of jerky, fluttering zig-zags. They were like the points of pencils joining tiny black dots to trace out invisible pictures.
- Another day; a feeling of expectancy, on the road i'd never walked before. From behind a stand of trees a female sparrowhawk soaring up with an attendant retinue of small birds – finches, probably, but too distant to know – that darted in close and then veered away from the hawk. Then two rooks swept in to harry the sparrowhawk, flapping to get above it and then diving on it with a beating of wings. The spar kept turning lazily, occasionally side-slipping away from one rook or the other but always gaining height, turning to follow the contour line of a rising thermal. I tried to understand the dynamics of this little group – which bird might make a first move and the response of the others – but I failed. At a considerable height the small birds fell away back to the ground. And the sparrowhawk suddenly straightened its flight path and slid across to the horizon, leaving the rooks still turning circles behind it.
- Another day, well into autumn, with no sense of expectancy, first the rattle of a jay in a stand of oak trees. If you'd asked me a few months ago if there were jays around these parts, I would have said no. Since walking these same roads day after day i've seen and heard them many times. And spotted the dropped acorns from their passing. My attention was caught by a dark shape above the trees. Almost immediate identification; a common buzzard. Up until comparatively recently buzzards were rare in Ireland outside of the far north. I've seen two in the past few weeks. The first sighting on the coast. They're now an established breeding species in County Cork, but still exciting for me to see. If i'd spotted either of these as a boy, when a buzzard anywhere in the south of Ireland would have been a real rarity, i'd have remembered every moment for the rest of my life. As I still remember every detail of seeing a storm-blown hoopoe in a West Cork field when I was twelve years old.
- I just don't have an eye, nor a feel, for plants. So walking with the handbook in my pocket is a slow and frustrating experience to begin with; but rewarding too.
- I do have a good enough knowledge of hedgerow, meadow, woodland and coastal plants - but it's haphazard and not joined. I might know an individual plant for some specific reason, but have no broader context to place it in. Stinging nettles, of course. And docks as an antidote for their stings. Buttercups and dandelions and daisies and honeysuckle and foxgloves because they're easy to identify and childhood, nursery-rhyme type flowers. Ragwort because it's poisonous to livestock and have hand-pulled sack loads in my time, so I see it everywhere. Burdock because of its burrs. Thistles, but not knowing enough to differentiate the many different kinds.
- I got the flower book out because I found a pretty – that was the most scientific word I could come up with; 'pretty' - white flower amongst ivy deep in the woods on a bank. It looked familiar but I didn't know what it was. I didn't think to count how many petals it had, nor to note the leaf shape; I just took a sort of general mental snapshot of it to look it up when I got back to the house. I couldn't identify it from one of several reference books. It was only after walking back to make more careful note of its identifying characteristics and then when I'd read painstakingly through all the written descriptions in a more detailed field-guide that I learnt that the sweet violet – portrayed in all the identification pictures as, well, er, violet – could also be white.
- I began referencing everything. And had to relearn all kinds of things. The berries that I'd always thought were the toxic black bryony were actually honeysuckle, which are far less poisonous or not poisonous at all or even edible according to some field-guides.
- In a stand of sycamores I found a mix of two-bladed keys and – fewer – three-bladed propeller-like seeds. The latter seemed to be incredibly exotic. And remained so as reading deeper and deeper on the subject made no reference to anything but two-seeded keys. Until a website shone a light; they are neither unknown to science nor that rare, just the other books and botanical websites hadn't thought to mention their existence.
- I began learning that vocabulary of identification that unlocked mysteries or gave names to things.
- As with birds I note wing-silhouettes and beak shapes and bars on tails and stance at rest and so know what 'type' each is, so with plants I was learning to count petals (so basic an idea and as simple as noting four, five or many, yet i'd never thought to do it consciously even though it's a short-cut to 'typing' many a species), note leaf shapes and see whether they were paired, alternate, on stalks or issued straight from the stems. All basic stuff but enough to make flipping through the book to likely contenders for an ID quicker and quicker.
- I got to know herb robert, meadowsweet, feverfew, knapweed, devil's-bit scabious, self-heal, hedge woundwort. And more and more new species with each day's walking.
- There was – if the names were to be believed – a whole pharmacopoeia of drugs and medicines and elixirs growing wild. Learning the medical properties of plants would give one a framework to place them in. My framework was and still is a mix of curiosity and the poetic desire to name things. The Latin scientific names gave me pleasure when they acted as a key unlocking some mystery in a plant's appearance or habits, or just in the way they sounded: Filipendula ulmaria;Atropa belladonna; Erica tetralix; Conium maculatum.
- Hemlock – the last named above, maculatum because of its purple blotched stem - has been the bane (pun intended) of my botanical life; it looks – broadly - like a great number of other plants including some which are edible; it's the ingredient of Socrates' death cup. I have been unfriendly to plants that even slightly resemble hemlock, and unfairly so, due to not trusting my identification.
- This year's weather has been so strange that I could find examples of plants responding to all four seasons at the same time; the buds of spring, the flowers of summer, the fruits of autumn and dead leaves of winter.
- Several weeks of walking and plant spotting and looking up unknowns and identifying new species, and learning how flora 'works' was like learning to read a new language.
- When I started a roadside verge and hedge was so much green babble with a few BIG PRINT words – species I knew – standing out. BlahblahblahblahNETTLEblaghNETTLEDOCKblaghNETTLEblaghblaghFOXGLOVEblaghblaghblaghblaghHONEYSUCKLEblaghNETTLEblaghSOMETHINGPOISONOUSblaghblaghblaghFOXGLOVE
- Now the plants make up sentences and paragraphs, with just the odd difficult 'word' amongst them; NETTLENETTLEDOCKHERBROBERTHONEYSUCKLEblaghblaghSWEETVIOLETGROUNDIVYMEADOWSWEETMEADOWSWEETHOGWEEDblaghHERBROBERTFEVERFEWblaghNETTLENETTLE
Of the three books, Herzog got me back out walking however uncomfortable and boring it seemed, and encouraged me to look honestly; and to trespass into woods and fields, too, and not care what people thought if I was caught peering into bushes, or down on my hands and knees, or trying a shuffling run or a skip or reciting poetry aloud as I walked. Basho's example led me to try to find something of interest in everything I saw and in every mile's walk, and to then find words for those things. And the flower book gave me something to find, and something to name, and something to do.
Two weeks since surgery today and I went on the longest, briskest walk since coming out of hospital. I fear that as I grow stronger and fitter that I might return to walking fast and far, and consequently see and experience less. That I would forget all I have learnt about - and have learnt from - slow walking over the past few months. That would be a pity.
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