After finishing Olivia Laing's To the River, in which the author walks the River Ouse from its source to the sea, my next re-reading project is to revisit two of my favorite books about walking -- Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane -- before moving on to another first-time read: A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.
What better time of year could there be for walkers' tales of holloways, hedgerows, green roads, ghost roads, pilgrim ways and nights under the stars? Every time I ramble through the woods with Tilly my feet want to carry me on and further on, the flag of her tail waving jauntily ahead...until I catch myself succumbing to the "rapture of the pathway," stop, give a whistle, and turn for home; work must be done and life attended to, as the clocks tick tock, and the telephone rings, and nevermind how sweetly the sun filters through the trees, nevermind, nevermind. Come along, dear girl. We must away.
But in my imagination, we don't turn back, we keep on climbing through ash, old oak, thickets of holly, tall stands of pine, while the little woodland grows large around us, becoming a proper forest now, and the trail and the tale wind on and the tree tops shiver and the story begins:
Once upon a time....
"I have long been fascinated," writes Robert Macfarlane, "by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place, and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thoughts, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot's phrase, can 'enlarge the imagined range for self to move in.'
"As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded by its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places -- but we are far less good at saying what places make of us.
"For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? and then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?"
Yes, those are, indeed, the right questions....but I'm troubled by Macfarlane's use of the word "vainly." What precisely can he mean by this? That the question is a narcissistic one, with its assumption that the land gives a toss about us? Or that it's a question asked in vain, to which we will never have an answer?
It's my belief that the second question can be answered, for it is possible to have a conversation with the landscape and to hear (at least to the degree we are capable of hearing) what the land around us has to say. Art is one time-honored way to facilitate such a dialogue; another, used by animist cultures around the globe, is through sacred rituals specifically designed to mediate between the human and nonuman worlds. The conversation requires a relationship with the landscape...and patience, time, the ability to truly listen, and a certain humility...but there's nothing extraordinary or supernatural about it. Young children talk to the land instinctively. It's only as adults that we forget.
"Tell me the landscape in which you live," said the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, "and I'll tell you who you are."