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.”

(Days Thirteen through Fifteen) The Hudson River Valley

I have legal documents to prove I was born in the village of Websterin southeastern Massachusetts, in 1956, and that I enrolled the second grade in the New Boston, New Hampshire, Central School in the fall of 1963. The complex migrations of the intervening years–the Statt family Völkerwanderung–are as mysterious to me today as any second century migration is to European historians. The witnesses are all dead: father and mother, aunts and uncles, brother and sister. And I only am escaped to tell…

Fine NGS Interactive Map of the Hudson River Valley
Fine NGS Interactive Map of the Hudson River Valley

We spent my first few years here. The Hudson River Valley is the setting of my earliest memories; the familiar landscape of many of my dreams. The houses we rented that short decade dotted the map of Putnam County, New York: Mahopac, Croton Falls, Lake Carmel, Peekskill.  Low-ceilinged stone cottages; overhanging cedars and oaks; a faint smell of damp clay from a muddy stream–a kill— leading to a wide slow-flowing river.  The scent of mud in the leafy woods would be familiar enough for me to smell “home” here right away.  I haven’t been this way for fifty years; in the third week of May I’ll be walking through, moving at a pace that will try my sense of smell.

Erickson's Ice Cream Parlor and Marina
Erickson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Marina

Elizabeth Wheeler, my mother’s mother, lived on Lake Mahopac, in a apartment above Erickson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Marina, and we spent a lot of time there, eating, swimming and playing in boats. When my father was away, Grandma drove us–my mom, my brother, my sister and me–to Bear Mountain, Sterling Forest, Boscobel or the Croton Falls Reservoir for outings. At this time, my father was frequently incarcerated and institutionalized, in punishment for dark sexual crimes, which I didn’t understand then, of course, but even today I’m not sure what he did or with whom. My sister Sarah was born here in 1959 and died within six months; the cause was obscure. For my parents, it was no picnic.

W300px-Bear_Mtn_Bridge_crope did eat a lot of picnic lunches in the parks in those days. Crossing the Bear Mountain Bridge–a bridge built in 1924: in 1920 Herbert Welsh had to cross the on a “ferry that carried us over the lordly river…Let it be noted by the indolent among my readers that this was the only occasion in our long journey when we trusted to any artificial means of transportation.”–crossing the handsome Bear Mountain Bridge,  my brother John and I, in the back seat of Grandma’s Valiant, sang the first song I ever learned by heart:

The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see.

As a child I was pretty sure that the mountain that befuddled the bear must be Bear Mountain. This children’s song worried me to the bone. It spoke to a deep disappointment that I was feeling already, having lost my little sister, and wondering where Daddy was.  Four years old, I was aware our family was somehow amiss. All that I could hear, was a lyric that warned things might stay that way. The bear spoke to me of darkness, silence, and solitude: the dusky woods, the somber Hudson, and me, alone. That hopeless loneliness still haunts me, the fear that maybe I won’t find a pot of gold, or blue birds flying, on the other side of the mountain.

I think of this time and place as my Unheimliche Heimat (1995), a phrase I borrow from W.G. Sebald’s 1995 book of essays about postwar Austrian literature.  “Strange homeland” works as a translation, but misses the pun on “un-homely home,” and also Sigmund Freud’s well-known translation of  “unheimlich” as “uncanny,” Freud says the uncanny is “that class of the terrifying that leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

The English theater director Katie Mitchell, speaking in the film  Patience: After Sebald, has said, “the most uncanny place is one’s own home.” I will see what I can see.

 

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?