This is the day I become clear about the purpose of my purposeless journey. Now the task is to express clearly what I see clearly. My path leads more to the past than the future, for “the past is my treasure” as an archaeologist might say.
previously published on Saturday March 13th, 2010
[I’m examining the imperfect layers of memory, typed notes and voice-recordings of two weeks ago—history already!—when I took to the road as a wayfarer, on a path meandering through a landscape whose views stretched to a far horizon of inner space.]
On this sunny morning in early March, the route I intend to take towards that place is not just some random dotted line on the map, some spontaneous navigation of public footpaths through town and outskirts; but to walk with an hypnotic rhythm, and slip into a mapless dimension. I pick up the flavours of the day: someone scraping up something with a shovel, the smoke of something indefinable burning, a distant siren, cars swishing past me, the sunshine smiling on the houses and workshops of this industrial valley, all built in the last 120 years; some kind of chemical solvent smell (peardrops? acetone?) combined with a hum of machines and fans. There’s a lightness in the air and it’s spring. I don’t hear birds singing but they ought to be, on a morning like this.
Like everyone I have a particular life amongst fellow humankind, with kin and friends and foes and allies and those whom I cannot trust. But on this morning, amidst the whiff of solvent and absence of birdsong, my soul seems to hover at a certain height seeing a different perspective, a wider scheme of things, where this lone biped, the only one I know from the inside, reveals himself a fragment of all, as portentous or insignificant as every other fragment. The hypnotic rhythm of my walking takes its rightful place in the totality. The fact of my walking without a purpose—I don’t know where I am going, when I am coming back or why I am doing this—somehow fulfils my destiny more gracefully than any declared intent. I don’t have to apologise for my apparent idleness to these workers amongst their solvents and machines. They and I complement one another. They work at their vats and lathes, while I stride past in a steady rhythm of walking which induces a kind of wide-awake trance.
Suddenly my trance is disturbed, for I notice the batteries have run out on my voice-recorder, this companion which loyally yet imperfectly captures my outpourings. Batteries running out—in these days the very symbol of mortality, in an age where everything is judged by whether it’s renewable, rechargeable, reusable. Scientists help us to project our anxieties on to irrelevances, such as how many years we have left before the sun goes cold. Shall Nature itself fail, in the end? Is Nature dependent on key components? Can Man wreck Nature? In the face of such questions I can sympathise with those who take refuge in the citadel of religion, grasping at any certainties and reassurances. In human truth, life breaks down into two great facts: mortality (which we see) and eternity (which we feel). And the fact is that Nature and Energy are indestructible in themselves, even when the sun goes cold and life as we know it goes extinct. This is the essence of religion, which rises like Phoenix just as reason lays waste with the fire of scepticism. I will die, yet the All goes on. Nature doesn’t need me. As a man swats an annoying fly, Nature, my own nature even, will squash me: Nature destroying its own with prolific exuberance.
I walk along an asphalt path through the recreation ground. On its verges, the Council have planted spring bulbs, now already in bud, I think miniature daffodils. It looks as though they used some machine to set them in slightly curved asymmetrical rows like the sweep of a brush on a water-colour board. The rhythm of my walking doesn’t stop me from appreciating all this, though it takes me above worldly preoccupations. In the last few months, engaged on a critical project (which had to be delivered on time) I did not feel capable of taking time out to reach this kind of directionless awareness. In those months, my walks had a different flavour. And it has been a hard winter, not conducive to outdoor flights of fancy. Let’s face it: every day, for everybody, the temporal interrupts the eternal. Every escape from mortal to transcendent is a miracle.
Eternal sounds a grand word. Perhaps I can make do with something humbler, and admit that today’s concerns sometimes move over and allow space for me to go foraging in the past, with memory as the main tool for my excavations. The archaeological metaphor is apt because memory presents only fragments; and these lend themselves to a spectrum of interpretations. When I lightly relive moments from the past, it seems to me I breathe new life into the dead. I flit between the present and the past so easily that the barriers of time seem to disappear, as if I exist at all ages simultaneously. To do this, though, I have to rewrite the past; in the sense of reinterpreting it by the standards of today’s wisdom, which may change again tomorrow.
I treasure this freedom to drift in and out of memory and thoughts of the present, whilst largely not thinking at all, just soaking in sensations of the earth, my mother. I blend with the scene in front of me, and wonder about plants and people and children and powerlines borne on pylons across the landscape, as well as the dirt and litter at my feet—all loosely held together by a philosophy which remakes itself from moment to moment. All these sensations and ideas drift in and out, uncontrolled by any conscious effort. I have no urge to discipline my thoughts. And in amongst them is something more continuous, an underlying rhythm. If I call it the Eternal, it sounds too vague or immaterial, as if in an abstract realm, far away from all this. But it’s not. It’s simply the sum of all that’s laid out before me: a dimly-perceived totality.
Now I’m on the fringes of a wilderness.The far-away squeals of children in a school playground reach me distorted on a gusty wind as I cross a field diagonally up to some hills. It’s an age-old sound, unchanged in all the years I’ve lived, and perhaps for centuries before that. From another direction comes a squabbling of birds in a tree; the voices of birds and the children almost echoing one another. And then the to-ing and fro-ing of trains over there in the valley, passengers and freight, sometimes sounding a horn as they go. Time and nature have accepted the railways as part of the rural scene, as something which doesn’t insult the idyll of these rolling hills and valleys.
I’m on a bridle-path now. There are fresh horse-shoe marks in the churned-up mud. A pile of fresh dung steams in the sunshine. To be on foot rather than horseback seems no inferior thing. For the privilege of sitting high in the saddle, I would have to take on the welfare of the horse, or of the servant who stables the horse. These things would circumscribe my leisure, not increase it; so I forswear both stable and servants, at least the animate kind. I do have a car and mechanical appliances which stand in as servitors. But even if I had a bicycle (something I’ve often thought about) the burdens outweigh the freedoms gained. Let me remain the humble wayfarer on foot. Then I can be as privileged as Le Seigneur de Montaigne; able like him to devote some portion of my days to reflective essays.
Yes, it’s back to the life of reflection: that immense privilege of having time and health to go out a-wayfaring. Not for any predefined purpose, but to discover my purpose, like a knight of old on a quest; a knight-errant who goes to see what noble thing he can do; not in my case to rescue maidens ensnared by dragons, at any rate not in any literal sense; but to find something, reflect, and report.