I’ve been reading “The Old Ways” by Robert MacFarlane in which he investigates how landscape acts upon us, how our experience of various places gets into our psyches and how we use it to make sense of our internal world. He starts by walking the Icknield Way, following in the footsteps of the poet Edward Thomas who walked it in 1913. The Icknield Way is at least 1,500 years old, possibly 5000 years and as MacFarland walks he has this experience of time folding back on itself. He talks about paths moving through us and how walking impacts on us.
In the lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5q1IK-O5Ypg, Macfarlane talks about Thomas’s stamina, along with Keats and Richard Long’s ability to walk long distances every day and the effect of a long and arduous walk on the psyche, himself covering many miles through rough terrain and sleeping outside. I have great admiration for people, who have such physical stamina, however, halfway through the book, I began to have a sense of inadequacy and a low-level FOMO. The desire for the altered state of consciousness led me to daydream about hiking the Ridgeway, roughing it on the Coast to Coast, bivouacking on the Pennine Way and wild camping on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path (PCP).
About 5 years ago in a particularly serious manic phase I covered 17 miles of the PCP in one day, it was followed by exhaustion and the predictable depression, another lesson in how not to managed energy. Nowadays, my maximum is 2 hours a day for 4 days with a break on the fifth and even when the desire is to push this, I daren’t. The idea of walking as some form of endurance and the suffering leading to a spiritual state isn’t something I can subscribe to, yes, release of endorphins does accompany physical exercise, as does being in the presence of impressive geological phenomena that reminds us of our transient existence and challenges our human arrogance and deluded ideas of control & importance but there are different and more accessible ways to get this.
I listened again to the walking interviews with women and the majority of them, through limitations of caring & work responsibilities, illness, age and safety issues, could not walk every day or longer than snatched hours here and there. This is the reality for the majority of people, they don’t have the luxury of putting down their domestic/work responsibilities and taking extended leave and I’m not saying that a pilgrimage is an unimportant or invalid thing to engage in but a regular walking practice, like a daily meditation or creative practice is another way to build a relationship with your inner world and something greater than yourself, whatever name you give to that.
Macfarlane’s theory that the landscape is absorbed by us is true, but whilst he emphasizes the effects of hills, wind, and wide open spaces, he doesn’t seem to explore the effect of buildings, council estates, bus rides, supermarkets, homes, flats and streets. And does the environment absorb us? We are profoundly influenced by where we live via our daily journeys and interactions. “Landscape” is a cultural idea and for a lot of people, going into the “wilderness” is not safe because culturally they are written out of that idea, and carrying a heavy pack is out of the question.
Where walking is precarious, the ability to lose yourself or “work things out in your head” takes second place over keeping safe. Romantic, pastoral and entitled, Macfarlane writes beautifully and the yearning for wildness has the postmodern travel industry booming in the search of even farther-flung destinations. For me, the experience of wilderness can take place in the streets by just paying attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of an abandoned and derelict patch of land. We don’t need to go too far or for too long, we just need to intentionally take time out and change how we focus on the incoming sensory data-after making sure we are safe. It’s that old mindfulness thing again.
On a creative level, it is making me think about how landscapes are embedded within and/or are forced on us and how we work with the tensions of negotiating our bodies in certain landscapes and how it affects our sense of self and the world. From an early age I have had surgical operations and so I have a sense of my body not belonging to me and having boundaries transgressed, the environments and landscapes of hospitals continue to have an enduring impact.