The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

Adam Nicolson has written of the 'powerful absence[s]' that remembered landscapes exert upon us, but they exist as powerful presences too, with which we maintain deep and abiding attachments. These, perhaps, are the landscapes in which we live the longest,warped though they are by time and abraded though they are by distance

And all had, after long acquaintance, at last understood that familiarity with a place will lead not to absolute knowledge but only ever to further inquiry.

As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded in 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 place makes 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?

As the pen rises from the page between words, so the walker's feet rise and fall between paces, and as the deer continues to run as it bounds from the earth and the dolphin continues to swim even as it leaps again and again from the sea, so writing and wayfaring are continuous activities, a running stitch, a persistence of the same seam or stream.

Felt pressure, sensed texture and perceived space can work upon the body and so too upon the mind, altering the textures and inclinations of thought.

For pilgrims walking...every footfall is doubled, landing at once on the actual road and also on the path of faith.

From my heel to my toe is a measured space of 29.7 centimetres or 11.7 inches. This is a unit of progress and it is also a unit of thought. 'I can only meditate when I am walking,' wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the fourth book of his 'Confessions', 'when I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.' Søren Kierkegaard speculated that the mind might function optimally at the pedestrian pace of three miles per hour, and in a journal entry describes going out for a wander and finding himself 'so overwhelmed with ideas' that he 'could scarcely walk'. Christopher Morley wrote of Wordsworth as 'employ[ing] his legs as an instrument of philosophy' and Wordsworth of his own 'feeling intellect'. Nietzsche was typically absolute on the subject - 'Only those thoughts which come from 'walking' have a value' - and Wallace Stevens typically tentative: 'Perhaps / The truth depends on a walk around the lake.' In all of these accounts, walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge; it is itself the means of knowing.

...he suggested that paths were imprinted with the 'dreams' of each traveler who had walked it and that his own experiences would in course of time [also] lie under men's feet.

Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss.... We easily forget that we are track-markers, through, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete--and these are substances not easily impressed.

I felt a sensation of candour and amplitude, of the body and mind opened up, of thought diffusing at the body's edges rather than ending at the skin.

I felt my way up the cliffs to the south until I found a patch of machair a few yards long and a few wide, where I pitched my tent and settled to sleep. The stars stood sharp above. It felt odd to be on rock again, not sea, to think of the ground on which I lay extending down to the floor of the Minch. Lying there, I could still feel the day at sea, blood and water slopping about in my bag of skin, the tidal churn of my liquid body, a roll and sway in the skull. My mind beat back north against the current, thinking of the puffins' flight, the lines we leave behind us, the spacious weave, our wake, then sleep.

I remembered what Thoreau had written in his journal about thinking nothing of walking eight miles to greet a tree.

It felt at that moment unarguable that a horizon line might exert as potent or pull upon the mind as a mountain's summit.

Knowing another is endless,' Shepherd had written; 'The thing to be known grows with the knowing.

Landscape... can 'enlarge the imagined range for self to move in.

Lift is created by the onwards rush of life over the curved wing of the soul.

My grandparents... planted their land up with trees, both those native... and exotics which stood in memory of the countries where they had lived.

Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It's hard to create a footpath on your own...Paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people.

Paths are consensual, too, because without common care and common practice they disappear: overgrown by vegetation, ploughed up or built over (through they may persist in the memorious substance of land law). Like sea channels that require regular dredging to stay open, paths NEED walking.

Single trees are extraordinary; trees in number more extraordinary still. To walk in a wood is to find fault with Socrates's declaration that 'Trees and open country cannot teach me anything, whereas men in town do.' Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. This discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting. It is beyond our capacity to comprehend that the American hardwood forest waited seventy million years for people to come and live in it, though the effort of comprehension is itself worthwhile. It is valuable and disturbing to know that grand oak trees can take three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live and three hundred years to die. Such knowledge, seriously considered, changes the grain of the mind.

"Thought, like memory, inhabits external things as much as the inner regions of the human brain. When the physical correspondents of thought disappear, then thought, or its possibility, is also lost. When woods and trees are destroyed -- incidentally, deliberately -- imagination and memory go with them. W.H. Auden knew this. 'A culture,' he wrote warningly in 1953, 'is no better than its woods.'

The best-known connection between footfall, knowledge and memory is the Aboriginal Australian vision of the Songlines. According to this cosmogony, the world was created in an epoch known as the Dreamtime, when the Ancestors emerged to find the earth a black, flat, featureless terrain. They began to walk out across this non-place, and as they walked they broke through the crust of the earth and released the sleeping life beneath it, so that the landscape sprang up into being with each pace. As Bruce Chatwin explained in his flawed but influential account, ‘each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints'. Depending on where they fell, these foot-notes became linked with particular features of the landscape. Thus the world was covered by ‘Dreaming-tracks’ that ‘lay over the land as “ways” of communication’, each track having its corresponding Song.... To sing out was–-and still is, just about, for the Songs survive, though more and more of them slip away with each generation–-therefore to find one’s way, and storytelling was indivisible from wayfaring.

The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature -- a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.

...the instinct and the body (the felt smoothness of pebbles, the seen grain of light) must know in ways that the conscious mind cannot.

The miniature sandscapes of ridge and valley pressed into the soles of my feet and for days after the walk I would feel a memory of that pressure and pattern.

The whole foot is a document of motion, inscribed by repeated action. Babies - from those first foetal footfalls, the kneading of sole against womb-wall, turning themselves like astronauts in black space - have already creased their soles by the time they emerge into the world.

Touch is a reciprocal action, a gesture of exchange with the world. To make an impression is also to receive one, and the soles of our feet, shaped by the surfaces they press upon, are landscapes themselves with their own worn channels and roving lines.

Touch is a reciprocal action, a gesture of exchange with the world. To make an impression is also to receive one, and the soles of our feet, shaped by the surfaces they press upon, are landscapes themselves with their own worn channels and roving lines. They perhaps most closely resemble the patterns of ridge and swirl revealed when a tide has ebbed over flat sand

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...

We lack - we need - a term for those places where one experiences a 'transition' from a known landscape... into 'another world': somewhere we feel and think significantly differently. They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, recline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographics, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within counties.

We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places -- retreated to most often when we are most remote from them -- are among the most important landscapes we possess.

When the lark sing he feels invulnerable.