Wednesday, June 24, 2015
I have always been a walker. When I was a child I would take long, rambling exploratory walks across the empty fields, open spaces, and forgotten little corners of patchwork wildness that has always defined that beautiful, enchanting and inevitably doomed transition zone between the developed and the soon-to-be. Even back then I found some vague, undefinable rightness in exploring lonely places, a palpable sense of detachment and distance from the rest of the world. I was a troubled kid, and rambling across the countryside offered me a form of solace that I didn't experience anywhere else, or by doing anything else.
Being where other people weren't was just my thing, my comfort zone, whether I was fishing, hunting, catching critters, or just seeing what was beyond. And many of those walks were taken at night. For whatever reason, I never developed an irrational fear of the dark, and in fact roaming the fields at night, under the stars and the faint bands of the Milky Way only heightened that comforting sense that I was here and everyone and everything else in the world was elsewhere, and that was as it should be, if only for the moment.
And I suppose that being where other people aren't is still very much my thing. I still take long, rambling walks whenever I get the chance, I still seek out lonely, forgotten places from which to ponder Life and Other Stuff, and I still regard humanity - despite all its seething, chaotic, amazing diversity and its endless wonder - as something to be taken in small, measured doses, lest it drive you batshit.
Apparently, however, long walks in the dark aren't solely my thing. While reading Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, I was struck by this passage about how walking the countryside became popular in Great Britain between the wars.
Despite the eccentricity of a hawk on his fist, what White was doing was very much of his time. Long walks in the English countryside, often at night, were astonishingly popular in the 1930s. Rambling clubs published calendars of full moons, train companies laid on mystery destinations to rural destinations, and when in 1932 the Southern Railway offered an excursion to a moonlit walk along the South Downs, expecting to sell forty or so tickets, one and a half thousand people showed up.
The people setting out on these walks weren't seeking to conquer peaks or test themselves against maps and miles. They were looking for a mystical communion with the land; they walked backwards in time to an imagined past suffused with magical, native glamour: to Merrie England, or to pre-historic England, pre-industrial visions that offered solace and safety to sorely troubled minds.
For though railways and roads and a burgeoning market in countryside books had contributed to this movement, at heart it had grown out of the trauma of the Great War, and was flourishing in fear of the next. The critic Jed Esty has described this pastoral craze as one element in a wider movement of national cultural salvage in these years; it was a response to economic disaster, a contracting Empire and totalitarian threats from abroad. It was a movement that celebrated ancient sites and folk traditions. It delighted in Shakespeare and Chaucer, in Druids, in Arthurian legend. It believed that something essential about the nation had been lost, and could be returned, if only in the imagination.
For some reason that strikes me as a particularly lovely but haunting image; an entire generation, restless and pensive, many of them soon to be dead, walking and searching for something felt but unknown out there in the misty English moonlight. And I cannot help but think that we could learn something from it; to unplug, get off our asses, and go take a long, lonely walk in the moonlight.
I suppose it's a natural reaction to the chaos and uncertainty of especially troubling times; to find comfort in the pastoral, the reflection of solitude, and to yearn for the simplicity of an earlier time. To reject - or at least try to reject - the dehumanizing social, political, and cultural institutions that suck us all in, divest us from the best parts of ourselves, and then blow out what remains like so much wheat chaff.
Of course, the inherent danger of the allure of the simple is that in reality, things aren't, and never were. The truth of all human history is that everything has always sucked, more or less,and simpler times were often the most awful times, especially for simple people. But that fact hasn't stopped demagogues throughout history (and today) from taking these collective yearnings for a simpler, better, and more wholesome past, and twisting them into all kinds of awfulness and shit-assery.
Still, on a personal or micro level, I can certainly identify with the sentiment. There are some obvious parallels - at least in spirit if not practice - between Britain's walking craze and the American back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, and perhaps to a much lesser extent the current (but perhaps fading) hipster locavore/tiny house movement. When things are seemingly going to hell all around you, you try like hell to latch on to the real, or at least what you perceive to be the real. In the 1930s they walked in the moonlight and conjured Druids, in the 1970s they homesteaded, and now they're planting community gardens, raising backyard chickens, and living in 200 square feet.
I'd say those are worthy and admirable responses to the mental illness of modern life, all of them.
Posted by Chad Love at 5:04 PM