Sunday, 2 November 2014

misty mountain hop

I sometimes see myself as a wanderer
In the days before the road,
Avoiding all inhabitable contact
Afraid of the heavy load . . . 
. . . I'm afraid of the heavy load.

Walking along the Malvern Hills Ridge I became aware of the panoramic view below us.  I often find myself identifying with the character of Goldmund from Herman Hesse's Narziss and Goldmund in these situations. Goldmund realised that perhaps locking himself into a lifetime of being a monk may not be the only career path open to him, and wandered off to 'find himself' and realised his own artistic talent. Along the way he realised that he's attractive to women and embarks on various love affairs. Okay, well, the similarity certainly ends there but maybe I'm just aware of some vague sort of artistic talent. But the point remains. The song by Michael Chapman I quote above also reminds me of this particular novel -  a favourite of mine from the past (I must re-read it but that could prove fatal to my memory of it!). The call of the countryside and the call of the city is often as strong for Goldmund.

However, as I wandered along the ridge and stopped to admire the view of the patchwork quilt below us I realised that writers such as Tolkien and  C. S. Lewis had trodden in exactly these hills before me. Whilst not really containing mountains, this area rises and falls beautifully and one can see exactly why it had become the Hobbit's homeland, and in reality the beloved spaces of Tolkien's imagination. Maybe that's the sort of view Dave Cousins saw that inspired this:

 Could you only see what I've seen
You would surely know what I mean

I think I must have caught a glimpse of heaven.

Looking back across the early 21st Century landscape of the Shires I'm made aware by my guides and travelling companions - people who have lived here for about quarter of a century - of the huge impact of mankind here. The growth of human habitation on the landscape below us has not spoilt the huge panoramic view for us but I guess if you've walked these hills every week for the past twenty five years, you will have noticed less fields and more bricks and roads than when you first started wandering here. Worcester seems much closer nowadays.

My adopted home county of Suffolk is inextricably linked to Worcester and its environs historically - the reconstructed settlement of West Stow and Redwald's funeral barrow at Sutton Hoo, for instance. In his book The Real Middle Earth, Brian Bates paints a vivid picture of the reality of the world Tolkien attempted to recreate. However, Bates was trying to create a 'history' of a world that seems to be much misunderstood: a post-Roman world that mistrusted its own past and didn't really leave a trustworthy documentation of its own history. I notice that even in the section on plants and Middle Earth, little is really forthcoming. Whilst walking the ridge of the Malverns, I photographed this Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota Procera) standing proud with no pretence of hiding, and thought that this would be a real prize for any Middle Earther out foraging. I didn't pick it, of course, as I couldn't accept that it might be a good meal. I've read the warnings, thank you! I thought, too, of the Druid Getafix from the Asterix books and how such as he would wander the landscape only using what was needed and leaving only a footprint like some Gallic pothead pixie.

At some stage - and it may be sooner than we'd like to think - foraging and facility with a bow and arrow may be pretty useful if the prophecies of our rapidly declining natural resources are anything to go by. In the meantime, I'll buy my mushrooms from the farm shop and presume the meat I buy has traceable provenance.

I enjoyed looking out over the landscape unfolding beneath me. The farmland certainly seemed like the patchwork quilt Cousins sings about. It tells a story of many hundreds of years without too much pressure to change; and the story I was being told as I looked brought together that past and a future that was happier to change much more slowly. Unfortunately, I think that there are designs to change this landscape quickly and irretrievably.  This high above it you can see the brown field sites this government are so greedily desperate to sell off and build on.

So, we walk these footpaths and eat at the inns we find and take in the experience whilst we can. Finding a small pub that seems to run on 1970s time with delicious non-fast food, food that suggests another world, another time - whisper light wholemeal bread with the most gorgeous, soft goat's cheese and beetroot - reminds me that whilst I'm part of a digital world, it's a chimera at best. If the digital world disappeared, the organic world would continue.

However, I'm aware that we often accept our experiences without really taking full note of them. Whither Orwell's Moon Under Water? If I genuinely found it - his imaginary pub, that is - would I be able to guide someone else there? I can read a map and I can look out over a landscape and imagine a previous time - not a better one, but a more rural and less technically dependent one - and see myself as a wanderer in those times. Would I, like Goldmund, come back to discuss the ugliness of humanity  with an old friend, having refused to join the membership of a guild so that I could enjoy the freedom of being a man of the road? I tend to think that I'd be like Marco Polo in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and come back to describe my adventures - even if they are all enjoyed in the same basic places*  - much as I probably did when I used to come back off of holiday and tell my mother of my adventures. My mother seldom ventured out of her known world but enjoyed the stories, much like Kubla Khan in Calvino's novel.

hello trees, hello flowers . . . 
A few days away in a different environment can certainly work wonders. I love existing outside of my own experience for brief periods - these moments make me feel like Goldmund or some similar wanderer for a while. It's a good feeling to divorce yourself from the everyday once in a while.

*Every city Polo described to Khan was Venice.

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