Bewteen the Woods and the Water

It looked like a dull and dusty road. Fifty miles from the Delaware to to the Hudson, over country that seemed flat and useless. I expected a desert of the imagination. I should have known better.

Screen shot 2015-03-19 at 10.49.58 AMLate last night, as I perused my favorite map, The Reaches of New York City 1939, an all-but-buried label caught my eye.  It’s a busy map, and well worth reading. (Some people read detective novels for pleasure, I prefer old maps.) This part of the world once was called “The Drowned Lands.”

Now that is a Romantic notion: Drowned Lands! I’m reminded of The Polymath, who warned Patrick Leigh Fermor in A Time Of Gifts that

“Everything is going to vanish! They talk of building power dams across the Danube and I tremble whenever I think of it! They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the East–they will never come back! Never, never, never!”

Fermo9781590171660_jpg_90x450_q85r returned to the Danube, and the prediction of The Polymath, in  Between the Woods and the WaterHe had continued his walk to the Iron Gates in 1938, but wrote this second volume at a time (1977) when “progress has placed the whole of this landscape underwater.”  The theme of the vanishing landscape haunts him, as if it were a blue Danube walk. He laments even that the dam-makers have carefully removed and reconstructed the drowned mosques and cathedrals on higher ground.

No imaginative or over-romantic traveler will ever be in danger of thinking he hears the call to prayer rising from the depths and he will be spared the illusion of drowned bells, like those of Ys, the cathédrale engloutie  off the Breton coast; or those of the legendary city of Kitezh, near the middle Volga, hard by Nizhni-Novgorod.  Poets and storytellers say that it vanished underground during the invasion of Batu Khan. Later it was swallowed up in lake and chosen listeners can sometimes hear its bells tolling from the drowned towers .

But not here: myths, lost voices, history and hearsay have all been put to rout, leaving nothing but this valley of the shadow.

I love the casual way Fermor encyclopedically tosses off a series of irresistible stories. He and The Polymath may be lamenting a sort of drowned land different from the formerly malarial miasmas of Orange County, New York. Drowned lands can also refer to riverine lowlands dammed and flooded, for flood control, power or drinking water. The Walkilll Valley was long thought to be a place that needed drying out. (Its history–and a fascinating contemporary controversy, are explained by Fred Isseks and his students in an excellent blog, called Garbage, Gangsters and Greed.)

The kind of flooded places that I know well, and plan to visit on my walk, are such underwater towns as Enfield, Dana, Prescott and Greenwich in Western Massachusetts where I went to school, or East Weare Village in New Hampshire where I grew up. But before all this modern dam-building, drowned lands meant seasonally flooded areas, like the Walkill Valley I’ll be passing through in May.

The swamps of North America, whether they have been dredged and drained or dammed and flooded today, were not always abandoned as lost lands. Hunting, trapping and fishing, the Native Americans swarmed these swamps. (Arrowheads and artifacts still abound.)  The early white settler-farmers did not consider the natural flow of the Walkill a good thing. Here is the 1875 report of the New Jersey State Geologist:

The extreme breadth of these lands is four miles,- and their area is 25,600 acres, of which 15,600 acres are in New York, and 10,000 acres in New Jersey. Through the entire course of the stream in these lands the fall is less than three inches to the mile, and the current is scarcely perceptible. After heavy falls of rain the stream becomes swollen and overflows its banks, and these lands are soon covered with water,remaining so for weeks together. In the present condition of the stream there is no chance for improvement; ditches are of little use for lack of an outlet, and nearly the whole of this area is ruined for the best agricultural uses. Some of the land is in swamp; other parts are attached to farms, and coarse and sour grass is gathered from them, when the seasons are not too wet. Along the borders of the upland, some of this ground is cropped, and fine returns are obtained, but the greater part of the area is utterly useless.

Screen shot 2015-03-19 at 10.36.38 AMBy November 1941, the drowned lands had found a new and less useless place, as recounted in the pages of the National Geographic Magazine.  Dorothea D. and Fred Everett contributed Black Acres: A Thrilling Sketch in the Vast Volume of Who’s Who Among the Peoples who Make America,  with photographs of their adopted home in The Drowned Lands.

The color plates display exotic peasants digging ditches, planting onions, blessing the onion seeds in their churches (no onion domes are depicted), eating onions, celebrating onions in old-world dances, and wearing costumes that Patrick Leigh Fermor would have described lovingly. These were recent European immigrants, mainly from Poland, who had drained the swamps and made the desert bloom. The Black Dirt Region of New York State–as it is now christened–had become a major producer of onions, the “wine-scented and poetic soul of the capacious salad bowl,” in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, whom the Everetts quote, romantically. They write

At night the toilers come home black with dirt but happy. Week ends they clean up and gather for a few hours dancing to their own Polish band music. For more than two years we lived across a small valley from their woodland park, and often the summer breezes wafted to us their sprightly tunes.

The swamps are being drained and cleared at an ever-increasing rate. In 1930 some 3,00 acres were in use; in 1939, 6,800; and in 1940 , about 9,000. At this rate the total area of 26,000 acres will soon be under cultivation.

And so it is now, according to contemporary accounts. I want to explore this land myself, and also investigate the irony that the public health of the Drowned Lands is today more threatened by an out-of-control landfill than a malarial swamp.

From these lovable people we have heard many stories brought over from the Old Country, legends based on superstition. Favorite subjects are the balls of fire seen dancing through the swamps on dark nights. Scientists, of course, have an explanation, but to simple folk such phenomena are weird omens.

These ancient sorceries reminded me vaguely of the Danube–was it Patrick Leigh Fermor who told a chilling tale of the watery intervale on the old river below Vienna? No, it was a lesser light I recalled: Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), a master of the Edwardian ghost story, and author of “The Willows” (1907).images

“The Willows” is my favorite ghost story; it was H.P. Lovecraft’s, too. The horror is terrifyingly restrained. It is a simple story of two young men on a canoe trip on the Danube, who find a dead body among the the drowned islands of Austria-Hungary:

After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes. On the big maps this deserted area is painted in a fluffy blue, growing fainter in color as it leaves the banks, and across it may be seen in large straggling letters the word Sumpfe, meaning marshes.

In high flood this great acreage of sand, shingle-beds, and willow-grown islands is almost topped by the water, but in normal seasons the bushes bend and rustle in the free winds, showing their silver leaves to the sunshine in an ever-moving plain of bewildering beauty.

The only source of their dread is that dead body, and the sound of the incessant wind in the willows, But Blackwood is a master of the uncanny, of finding the fear in everyday events. Unseen and unseeable beings surround the lads–as one of them says, ” We happen to have camped in a spot where their region touches ours, where the veil between has worn thin.”

Herbert Welsh, whose footsteps I’ll be following in May, also dabbled in spiritualism, and sought to pierce that veil between worlds–there is a miscellaneous file of “Psychic Interests (1926)” among his collected papers, which I have yet to explore. It consists of letters from corespondents who have tell of weird omens of the other side.

No road, by the way, is dull, once you start down it.

 

A Time of Gifts

In the indispensable walk book A Time of Gifts 9781590171653_jpg_200x450_q85(1977) Patrick Leigh Fermor introduces a character he calls The Polymath. Fermor, eighteen years old and drummed out of his English school, set off on foot for Constantinople in 1933. It was as audacious as it sounds.

A voracious reader and autodidact, young Fermor commands enough language skills to complete his education along the way. He stops at the castles of Europe’s diminishing aristocracy–he himself is of the right sort and knows people–where his delight at discovering a library that holds the Encyclopedia Britannica, Meyers Konversations-Lexikon or the Larousse XIXème Siècle is only matched when he wanders into Danubian tavern and encounters a learned “man in loden.”

I had chanced on a gold mine! ‘Enquire within about everything’: flora, fauna, history, literature, music, archaeology–it was a richer source than any castle library…He had a delightful Bohemian scholar-gispy touch.

The Polymath tells Fermor the story of the Goths, the Vandals, and also the Macromanni and the Quadi in Central European history,, and, by extension, to the reader. This reader agrees with Fermor when he exclaims “This is the way to be taught history!” From an inhabitant of a Danubian castle, drawing maps of migrations on the tablecloth after a second bottle of Langenlois.

Fermor actually wrote A Time of Gifts forty years later. The Polymath may be a composite character of the kind common to memoirs; he may be a reflection of Fermor himself.  The adult writer had now learned some flora, fauna, history, literature, music, archaeology, but ascribed them to a character. (The contrast is sharp with a writer/walker such as W. G. Sebald, whose narrator in The Rings of Saturn simply watches his thoughts turn to, say, a detailed history of the Chinese silk industry as he wanders the coast of Norfolk.)

Truth be told, Fermor, like Sebald, like me, aspires to be a polymath, or, at least, a Bohemian scholar-gipsy. I want to know it all, and to write about it all. When Sebald’s publisher in England asked what category–fiction, travel, memoir, essay– he would like to put his book in, the author replied, “All of them.”

The Old Ways

Really, the only question to ask of a book about a walk is: Would I want to go for a walk with this writer?

British paperback cover. Note Old Type (Gill Sans) and Old Woodcut (Stanley Donwood). The Old Modernism.

When my friend and neighbor Paul K. St. Amour first recommended The Old Ways to me, we were bicycling, unsteadily, home from a bar. Paul’s the kind of cyclist with whom a drunken conversation about modernism is always enlightening. “Have you read Robert MacFarlane?” he asked: “He’s kind of the dean of the new British school of literary geography.” Or maybe it was literate geography.

Either way, The Old Ways is a delight, and I’m grateful for the tip. MacFarlane gets around. He walks in England, Scotland,  Palestine, Nepal, Spain–and even manages a “wonder-voyage” by sea in the Outer Hebrides: “The boat we sailed down the sea roads was a century-old cockle-shell.” He’s a graceful writer and a polymathic companion, familiar with geography, history, theology, philology and old sea vessels.

MacFarlane’s old ways are often not on any map, sometimes not even across land. To walk the way MacFarlane does is to stay awake, alert and alive to the passing land- or seascape. I welcome his rare awareness of the old ways, the paths that people of, or in, the past–the old ones–have travelled before us. These are  the”ghostly roads,” that the Anglo-Welsh poet-pedestrian Edward Thomas (1878-1917) described.

MacFarlane borrows heavily from Thomas, who, in his turn, was influenced by a great English wanderer and Bible salesman with the fitting name of George Henry Borrow (1803-1881).  To walk is to borrow, as it is to write.  A path is only a path because someone has already walked it; there’s no shame in repetition. In fact, “footstepping” a walker from a century before–as I will be following Herbert Welsh–is one of the delights of walking, and of writing, come to think of it. As he appraises the life and work of Thomas and his Modernism, MacFarlane might be said to be writing about literature, but I think he wants us to consider the old Ways of Seeing, too, in the simple but profound sense that John Berger had in mind, that “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”

The way that George Borrow, and Edward Thomas,  and Robert MacFarlane,  and even I see the world is informed by all the walkers who preceded us on this path, as well as the time of walking or writing. For instance:

Thomas sensed early that one of modernity’s most distinctive tensions would be between mobility and displacement on the one hand, and dwelling and belonging on the other–with the former becoming ubiquitous and the latter becoming lost (if ever it had been possible) and reconfigured as nostalgia. He experienced that tension between roaming and homing even as it was first forming.

Across the Atlantic in Thomas’s time, Herbert Welsh was feeling that tension, too, in response to the same world, and the same wars. But British walking literature differs from American in its ways of seeing nostalgia. (And also in the way that the usual American complaints about sore feet and bad weather are summarily dismissed by a Brit, like McFarlane, as “The travelers usual mix of excitement, incompetence, ennui, adventure and epiphany.”)

As Frederic Gros put it in A Philosophy of Walking:

To us Europeans, the wilderness is associated with origins: an immemorial fault,permanently open, an obscure starting point. It’s the ancestral place to which we may want to return, which sometimes comes up at us, but is our definitive past. For Thoreau the American,the wilderness is located in the West, before him. It is the possibility of the future. The wilderness is not the night of European memory, but the morning of the world and of humanity.

MacFarlane expressed it conversationally, in Patience: After Sebald, a film, about W.G. Sebald, the German-British writer-walker (More to come on Sebald) and his seminal Rings of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage (Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine Englische Walfahrt):TheRingsOfSaturn

The British tradition is walking as recovery;  and the American tradition is of walking as dis-covery: that striding forwards into the oncoming crisis of the world. For the Romantic tradition, the British Romantic tradition, it is to strip away the accretions of civilization, the hawking and hammering of time lived in cities, and return to some original state. In the American tradition, we travel to liberate ourselves, to discover new ways of being.

What distinguishes the British style of walking narrative from the American is visible to the naked eye. Look at the films they inspire.

 

MacFarlane’s British publisher was inspired by The Old Ways to sponsor a contest–“take your own walk–” that drew scores of video submissions. Here’s the winner.

The most popular recent American walking bestseller, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, (more on Strayed later) inspired Hollywood to tale of a young woman who walked “From lost to found on the Pacific Coast Trail.”

 

Of these three, whom would you choose as a long walk’s companion?

Walking the Woods and Water

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) wrote three volumes that chronicled his 1933 walk across the spine of Europe to Istanbul: Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and the posthumous The Broken Road (2013). I have read the first two, and when I have read the third– in my literary preparation for my walk–I will write about the lot.

Inspired by9781857889536 “Paddy” Fermor, much as I have been by Herbert Welsh, young British journalist Nick Hunt walked the same route from Holland, up the Rhein River, across the Alps, and down the Donau to the Black Sea and Istanbul in 2011. Hunt walked and wrote Walking the Woods and the Water (2014) to see what had been lost since 1933, and what remained.

An astonishing change in Europe in those 78 years is that post-WWII Communism came, and then went.  Hunt sees that the rise and fall of the “Iron Curtain” was, in fact, a brief intermission, hardly an act or even a scene, in the drama of European history. The eastern legs of his journey are the most fascinating, witnessing the survival of folkways that were ancient on Paddy’s day, the ruins of “socialist utopias,” and return of Ottoman Islam to Europe.

Like many who walk long distances (I have experienced this as well as studied it), Hunt sometimes wanders into  a realm of hallucination, where he wonders if he’s entered real danger or just, for once, a real life.

Perhaps all adventures are like this: flirting with the wilderness but knowing that we can’t truly enter it, wanting to lose ourselves in imaginary realms like we once did in childhood stories, in the part-remembered,part-confabulated landscapes of Paddy’s books, but being afraid to go too far in , so far we might not comeback. 

Walking the Woods and the Water  is a wonderful read, a model of both a walking book and a walking-in-another’s-footsteps book

In answer to the question, “Why walk?,” Hunt cites Fermor, whose simple three-part goal should inspire all who walk and write:

“A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!”