Tuesday, September 25, 2018
long walks and those who love them
Summer blew through so quickly, it seems. I feel keyed up and have subsequently been trying to make the most of everything, during this intense time. It helps counterbalance my anxiety about... (fill in the blank). I took three island painting trips in three months, and also participated in a painting workshop far inland, to be with some un-island nature for a change. My studio is full of new paintings, destined for the future exhibits which I will be piecing together over the winter. Fall activities are in full swing, now. The chimney sweep is on approach. New caps for the chimneys, check. Furnace cleaning, check. Firewood delivery on its way for next year, check (this year's is already stacked and dry and ready to burn). Cat beds for Hodge are deployed strategically throughout the house, in sunny windows and near the woodstove, for maximum kitty comfort as the cold encroaches. I just put a layer of peat moss in the compost pile, to work its magic over the winter and spring. Will add a thick layer of dried leaves whenever they finish falling off the maples in the front yard, next month. I repotted the house plants and brought them indoors for the winter. The garden was a bust this year - we only had some flowers and herbs and lots of weeds, since I decided to let things go for a season. I'll clean everything up once the first hard frost does most of the work for me.
Indoors, I'm still putting bookplates into my books. And I haven't been reading much but what I have been reading has been splendid. Back in May I bought a copy of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane (Viking 2012). I read it quickly, in thrall to the care he takes with his writing, and equally in thrall to the ideas he espouses, namely those relating to walking and pathways of all kinds. My intrepid stepfather walked 1200 miles on the Appalachian Trail this season (between April and August), and so around here we have been fairly obsessed with all things long-walk. I used to have a collection of books about very long walks and while some of that collection is no longer with me, I seem to have recently attracted more reading on the subject than I ever had in the first place. And Macfarlane's book is such a gem. Not least because he mentions many other authors and books I have loved for so long, and he then proceeds to take his place among them. A wonderful, rich, and wordy meander on tracks, paths, and traversable landscapes around Great Britain and elsewhere. This book is worthwhile for all that, and then too for its bibliography, which he begins by saying (p.395):
"Walking is among our most ancient of practices, and it has been undertaken for an irreducibly complex variety of causes and desires. The literature of walking and paths is extensive and wayward; this bibliography includes a selection of the books, essays and articles that I have read about these subjects, as well as those concerning the book's other broad preoccupations: archaeology, cartography, grief, joy, landscape, metaphor, navigation, orientation, pilgrimage, touch, tracking and toponymy, among others."
Thirteen pages of reading suggestions follow. He asterisks those he finds particularly interesting. I could read from this list for months. On it I find old friends and intriguing newcomers, both. One of the latter, well, I couldn't help but notice her, since throughout The Old Ways Macfarlane mentions her many times, in glowing terms. He even begins the book with an epigraph from one of her books. She is Nan Shepherd, and the book he goes on and on about is her quiet masterpiece The Living Mountain.
I can say masterpiece since I have now read it too. But I needed prompting to do so. And the universe obliged, as it often does. Here's what happened. I read Macfarlane's book, and paid attention, and took notes, as I always do when I read. I wrote down several of the instances when he gave Nan Shepherd's writing high praise. When he speaks of her, he places her in his paragraphs beside Gilbert White, and Lawrence Durrell, and Goethe. By the third or fourth time he mentions her, and quotes at length from her book, I am thinking, Okay, okay, OKAY. Get this book I have never heard of until now. I wrote the title down, to find a copy sometime soon. It's about her long walks in the Cairngorms in Scotland. Must find a copy. Then a month went by. And part of another. As they do. And I got busy, and I ignored my own note to self.
Now we come to the good part of this story. Remember I mentioned that this summer I took a painting workshop, inland? I didn't know the workshop teacher but he has a great reputation and I have loved his paintings for years, and I wanted to paint in the area where the workshop was being offered, so I signed up for his class. (Not having taken a class in 16? years or so, maybe more, eeek, nervous.) The class was the better part of five days. Early on the teacher and I were talking and I asked him what he was working on. He said that he'd been struggling with his painting over the previous winter but had made some small paintings based on a book he'd read. A book he'd in fact read five times in succession, it had made such an impression on him. Just a little thing, he said - pinching his fingers together - short, but so good. His wife would say to him, "Are you reading that book again...?" Yes, he was. Being a book person (he didn't know that about me, we'd never met), of course I asked him the big question. "What is that book?" And he said, "The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd." While looking at me, perhaps not expecting me to know or care about his answer. I looked at him. My mind became quite busy. I said, "...that book about the Cairngorms?" He looked at me. Perhaps suprised at what I had said. And said, "YES." I said, "I just read The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, and he goes on and on about Nan Shepherd." He told me he's read everything Robert Macfarlane has published. I suggested also reading Macfarlane's exemplary twitter feed, and resolved to get my hands on a copy of The Living Mountain as soon as I possibly could.
And I did. Right after the workshop I ordered a copy, read it, read it again, and I'm still thinking about it, nearly two months later. I wanted to write about it here, long before now, but today is finally the day. Robert Macfarlane wrote a 30+ page introduction to the reprint (Canongate 2011; the book was originally published by Aberdeen University Press in 1977, after sitting unpublished, in manuscript form, for decades). I suggest skipping the introduction, as good as it is, and going straight into the book itself. Then go back and read the introduction for Macfarlane's care-full parsing of her prose. He has read the book a dozen times, and places it on equal footing with other great books published in the 1970s, namely Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, John McPhee's Coming into the Country, and The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The difference being of course that their books were written, published, and lauded, and her manuscript sat in a drawer, after one rejection from one publisher, for about thirty years, before she tried once more to get it into print. Macfarlane read it when a friend recommended it as "a lost classic" of nature writing. He says alongside J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, "... it is one of the two most remarkable twentieth-century British studies of a landscape that I know." (p.xiii) But here I am not taking my own advice, and reading from the introduction, not the text itself! And all this makes the book sound like some kind of best-thing-ever-written, when it is just over 100 pages, and isn't really even about anything, other than coming to know a place. There is no story - just description, and experience, and that slow knowing. About the whole place - the elements, plants, rocks, animals, birds, other people in the landscape. Weather, light. Colors. Water. The senses. The book does remind me of a series of paintings, made over a lifetime, about a place so beloved that descriptions of it never come close. The opening sentences give us a perfect taste of the whole (p.1):
"Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge. To those who love the place, both are good, since both are part of its essential nature. And it is to know its essential nature that I am seeking here. To know, that is, with the knowledge that is a process of living. This is not done easily nor in an hour. It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age, not of immediate enough import for its desperate problems. Yet it has its own rare value. It is, for one thing, a corrective of glib assessment: one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it. However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them."
"The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped out by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books - so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet - but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind."
OH, so good. And these are just the first two paragraphs! They make me want to write. And walk. Which I have been doing a lot of, this summer. For one of the things that has kept me away from writing here has been walking, not just reading about walking. Ryan and I have walked many short sections of the Appalachian Trail here in Maine over the last five months, in solidarity with my stepfather, and the trail has taken me places and shown me things I would never have experienced otherwise. Sometimes I bring my paints along, sometimes not. Sometimes I just look and that is more than enough for that day. I'll read more about it (and paint about it, and maybe write about it too) when winter truly comes and I'm indoors for the coldest days. In fact, I think reading books about long walks might be a good winter reading project this year. I've already got some of the books listed in Macfarlane's bibliography, and I see many others I'd like to track down. More on all that soon, after the fall chores are finished and I'm in for the duration. Until then, the leaves have barely started turning here and the outdoors is still calling. October, here it comes! Maine's finest season? (Well, I love all the others too.)