|Issue 3:1 | Non-Fiction | Liza Field|
A Year’s Journey Through the
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning…
--T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
Last January, setting out on foot to school, I recalled a lesson from my mother.
Mama loved to walk the land, and took us kids along. Her idea of a good time, striding long miles up a dusty road or leafmealed mountain, baffled me as a child. I didn’t see the use of these long, unflashy dirt treks, gnatty and effortful, while my friends were indoors watching TV or lounging behind the 7-11, smoking cigarettes and flirting with boys.
“Why are we doing this?” I hollered from the rear, during a hot, ten-mile stint down the rockpile trail of Fulhart Knob. I was 12, heading for seventh grade, when Mama had decided that we would take a 60-mile trek from James River and Apple Orchard Mountain, back to Roanoke, Virginia.
The August trip, peppered with yellow-jackets, blisters, stinging-nettles and rain, heavy packs and stickers and thirst, seemed to me nothing that anyone sane would pursue.
Likewise, it had not been lost on me that this section of Appalachian Trail doubled back on itself a few times and curved vexingly on the map, and that in fact our whole winding, slow trek toward home could have been avoided if we’d simply ridden back there in the car with my father and oldest brother. “We’re not getting anywhere!” I persisted, sweat-crusted and cranky. “We’ll just end up back where we already were!”
“But it will be different,” Mama reckoned, pausing to face me on the trail. “Because we will be different.”
I remember blowing some hot hair off my face with a phfffft sound at such a stupid answer, but months later realized she had been right. Something changed during that long hike, which would affect me during the winter ahead in a school building.
Junior high schools in Virginia were tumultuous places full of resentful, bussed-in kids, during the mid-1970’s, and after the week’s trek through the mountains, I entered that chaotic environment with a certain strength, a feeling that I could walk through anything—and walk out, if necessary, into the quiet arms of our old mountains and the flowing life’s blood of the creeks.
Mama later told me that she had in fact hoped I would gain this sense of freedom by way of our excursion—a freedom from the prisons of what-people-thought as well as a sense of belonging to something bigger: the earth, water, stars, and sky. “Anybody needs a long walk before going through junior high, or any kind of school,” she said. “We need long walks in our schools, but until somebody sees that, you have to walk your own walk.”
If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.
--Henry David Thoreau
Death in this century is not the death people die but the death people live. Why do men settle so easily for lives which are living deaths? Why are people content to stand helpless while their lifeblood is drained away?
Walker Percy, The Second Coming
Walking, throughout the great spiritual and literary traditions, has often symbolized the powerful connection between earth and sky, matter and spirit, which leaps to life in the fusing of the human form. The very act invites us to ponder how to follow, foot on dirt, the great truths glimpsed by the mind and heart. In walking, we are able to reflect on our path as sojourners through a terrain, our relationship to the land.
American writers have a great deal to say about our landscape—in particular how we who people it can fall asleep to its aliveness. Amid some of the world’s most majestic natural beauty, pummeled by rivers and falls, flanked by mountains or beckoned by open sky, we can choose to live with shuttered senses, numb to the splendor of the place—and so ourselves and the Universe.
Our condition has inspired American writers from the long-walker Thoreau to Walker Percy to Alice Walker, in various ways, to describe our society as one of the walking dead. This year, on foot between lanes of traffic and trash, bluebirds and degraded creeks, I wondered at the irony of that description. Whiffing oil fumes from local streams full of truckstop and street runoff, watching a grove of songbirds give way to chainsaws on a spring day, I could see the deadly effect of our oblivious, comatose condition on the outer landscape.
But the walking dead? I had noticed, even through a year of funerals, that Westerners had constructed many means of insulating ourselves from death.
--William Carlos Williams, “Tract”
We had also centered an entire culture, economy, and landscape around not-walking. 100 years ago it might have seemed remarkable that a person could live, travel, work, and worship an entire day or week without even stepping outdoors. Today, one might do it easily, going from home to car-port to a parking garage at work, to restaurant or fitness center to meetings or church or mall, and back home—a whole day indoors, incubated and not rained-on.
Such a privilege may seem convenient, safe, unmessy, and time-saving to us. Yet, early last year, I began to suspect that the many isolation tanks that kept us from walking and death, also kept us from walking out alive. Perhaps to people from earlier times or more grounded cultures, we would seem less the walking dead than the hobbled and dazed—in a kind of trance, a condition ee cummings called “undeath.”
Evidence of undeath lies within and around us. Americans are depressed or taking anti-depressants, TV-addicted, attention-deficient, obese, stress-disordered, hyper-tense, sleep-starved, jaded or uninspired, living amid wasteland-scenery, depleted soil and wildlife and waters.
How had we come to such a pass, I wondered last year, as we stepped up the war-on-terrorism? Why did it not alarm us that we continued wiping out the earth’s wildlife? That we could not swim in our own rivers or eat fish from our oceans, that so little was being returned to the soil to support future life? What kind of funk had we fallen into, that these things did not send us howling onto the heath in a crashing storm like King Lear?
Wondering these things, I tried to think up a New Year’s resolution, some step to take that might make any difference to the larger picture. Perhaps for lack of imagination, I decided just to take a step. And another. And another and another, along the ground, leaving the car parked as long as possible.
After all, I had helped create the landscape of the walking dead, I figured. Perhaps if I could return to walking it literally, the place—and my understanding—might begin to come back to life.
What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.
Nor foot can feel, being shod.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins
Like many mountain-lovers and nature-freaks, I was already a walker, but generally drove somewhere to do it—then drove around to my jobs and meetings in town. I was, after all, a 21st century American, accustomed to using my car like a shoe—a thing to step into as I left the house to go somewhere.
For the new year, I decided to do without this giant, clumsy chrome boot when possible—to go, not barefoot, but a-foot, to work, meetings, church, county-board and town-council hearings, to get groceries or haircuts or hardware, to the post office and printer’s or up to see old Archie on his porch over the ridge. I would go in snow, rain, mist, cold, hot, smog, or fresh wind, as a kind of discipline independent of my lax, car-using whims.
Spurring me on remained the fact that, amid climbing gas prices and predictions of fuel shortages ahead, the average American was driving no less than usual.
“That’d be me,” I reckoned, heading out the door January 2 to fetch the groceries in my backpack. If I couldn’t ditch my car, who was supposed to? Others I knew had bad knees or no time or didn’t care; they had to commute an hour to work or haul babies or bricks, circular saws or grandmothers.
As for people in impoverished countries, without cars or clean water, computers or news, living twelve to a makeshift house in some mud—they had a fraction of the impact, responsibility and power a U.S. citizen had, to heal the planet. It was time for this American to make a difference, I resolutely told myself, realizing in the Food Lion aisle that I would also be purchasing less that year—not wishing to strap ice cream or bottled water or a beefsteak on my back to haul home.
It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.
--Ursula Le Guin
A year later, I have no idea if my original mission was accomplished. As I look back on my skinny path over the mound of turning seasons, I can’t say whether the lighter trail made any real difference to the earth.
Instead, what became clear early on was that the earth—meeting my foot and face—was making far more impact on me. Stepping along through weather and smoke, apple blossoms and gravels and stickers, opened the door to lessons, a daily peripatetic training in some kind of Universe-in-a-place I had ignored, skimming 12 inches and 40 miles-an-hour over the ground, missing so much and so much.
Afoot, I was an unschooled kid, back on the trail home behind Mama, getting trained in a wordless truth, exposed to sky, thinking new thoughts.
--William Butler Yeats “Among School Children”
Solvitur ambulando (It is solved in walking).
Setting out on foot burdened with troubles, confusion, some writing-gone-wrong, a political despair, a noisy mind—invites new thought. The gruff trees and cold, glinting shed roofs, the sky and updraft of air—all offer a rough broom to sweep out mental and physical crud, allowing fresh inspiration through the windows of the senses.
This struck me one day, skid-addling down the hill through the graveyard and bracken to the community college for class. I found, despite the inconvenience of setting out early to get to campus, and trying not to mash student papers in my pack or arrive with stocking-cap hair stuck straight-up, that class still went better if I came this way rather than by car. It seemed my priorities as a teacher shifted during the jaunt; I felt less concerned that students meet my demands than that they feel alive—that we all realize our aliveness in a living Universe. Wasn’t such awareness, after all, the main goal of a universe-ity?
An education in Universe—the ground seemed to tell me as I stumped along—needed to include some gaps of wonderment—not crammed with information or entertainment or even words—in which students (including the teacher) might think new thoughts.
Brain researchers and quantum physicists were telling us that only in the blank space between old customary thoughts, could any new insight occur. Where had we left room for such a thing in our rush to acquire more and more information, to get here-and-there faster, with minimal—if any—gaps of blank silence, darkness, mystery, land?
Time is not a line, but a series of now-points.
One of my first “new thoughts” engendered by the peripatetic school, was to recognize a whole living world in what I had once considered nothing but a gap—the distance between two points.
How startling to my used-to-drive-there-awareness to realize that the no-man’s-land of road-kill and haste existed in space, not just time. Distance was more than a “be-there-in-five” and snatching of car-keys. It required thought, organization, respect for weather, arm-swings, air-on-the-face, and footfall.
Moreover, the gap between two points was a place. It had a life in its own right. To my habitual-motorist mind, used to a blur of landscape—the discovery of anything in this gap seemed jolting as the recent detection, by quantum physicists, of intelligence in the interstellar “void.”
Life in the void between door and destination: it made me stop at times, look around at the glittering snowy landscape and marvel. This interim place had something to say about mystery, and our journey on earth. The snowcrust smattered with seeds—just when little animals would need something unburied to eat. The chalk-white sycamores etched between a copper creek and dark sky. The purple bracken, the raucous crows, little chickadees eating in a scrubpine stubbled with black cones. Sun spanking off the ice, throwing hundreds of blue and ruby fires into the face.
So much color, water, light, height, and stir expressed a kind of power, and with my meeting it every second, a relationship with me. Each scramble over the snowy backbone of Pine Ridge, ducking through flabby rusted barbed wire and down past some water tanks, every step through March rain or summer weeds, spoke in ancient language something about the universe.
I had heard from a dozen parables or cards or posters that life was not a destination, but a journey. Somehow, motoring around to my destinations had never driven this lesson into my bones; going on foot, I could feel it.
“The way out is through the door. Why will no one use it?”
“Are we going out?” became the first question students would ask in English or philosophy class.
“Is your teacher not insane?” I would reply, looking joyfully around at the appreciative nods. Students who began the past semester complaining about the sweaty walks around the backsides of campus, the outdoor writing amongst the gnats and spiders and thistle, had come to wear shoes they could walk in and know the names of the nearby blue mountains, the chicory and milkweed, butterflies and songbirds and hawks and trees we read about in poems and history—yet which most of us never saw through car windshields or classroom walls.
“We never get to go outdoors in regular school,” said Kelly from Fries, Virginia, this summer. She was taking part in a gifted program for high school students on campus, and we were climbing out of the dank stairwell between buildings, into the bright sky.
“Never?” I wondered, reflecting on her landscape by the lovely, good-smelling, bird-thronged New River. What an amazing outdoor university lay alongside Fries, a cathedral of palisades and hemlocks, ancient geology, wildlife, and mystery. Visitors came from all over the world to walk that trail or visit the historic river, but our local children and teenagers were kept from it for the sake of education. “Why?”
“Too busy cramming for S.O.L.s,” shrugged her classmate Shawn.
“Right—I forgot,” I nodded on our way downhill, toward the spring-water pond and shrieks of killdeer.
Pressure to improve the Standards Of Learning test scores had lately swept the last trace evidence of young people off the Virginia landscape during daylight hours. Even the high-school agriculture students, who in previous years had helped me plant trees and restore riparian buffer and wildlife habitat and wade in the New River, now had to stay indoors learning the components of healthy watersheds for the S.O.L. tests.
“But why?” I asked their teacher Mr. Phipps last April, indoors. 800 bundled seedlings waited outside for human muscle to plug them into the ground—an activity these teenagers had accomplished quickly the year before, with much boasting and banging of shovels and joyful shouting and a daring cold plunge afterwards.
“Why should they care,” I asked Mr. Phipps, “—what makes up a healthy watershed of a river, if they have no why? And why will they care with no connection to the place? If they can’t dig the dirt, and breathe, and walk around, and stand on their heads and step in the river, why should they remember it?”
“I know, I agree!” exclaimed Mr. Phipps, beleaguered and exasperated. “They loved being out there last spring, but the principal says we have to stay in this year till those tests are done in May. He hates it, I hate it, the students hate it.”
Hate it, I marveled to myself later, jumping on my solitary shovel all afternoon among the wild geese. This was education we were talking about, the process so valued by sages and explorers, adventurers and healers and artists, astronomers and scientists and saints through the ages. What perversity had occurred in our time that we had turned the joy of learning—a potential lifetime of learning—into a loathed, grim, bloodless, indoor, sit-down, meaningless duty, costing us billions of dollars, years of incarcerated human life, and the vigor of being alive?
Walking Through Coketown
Mr. M’Choakumchild…knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains…all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, Mr. M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!
--Charles Dickens, Hard Times
Enrolled in the peripatetic school this year, I had time, ground, and sky enough to think about education at all. From pre-school to graduate school to continuing ed and elder-hostel, our academic methods seemed to share the same indoor, inbred, motionless, and airless characteristics I had not thought about much while zooming around between buildings to participate in them.
Education had not always been an indoor activity. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Jesus, many saints, Rumi and Shams, the Chinese poet-monks, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, Shelley and Keats, the Wordsworths and Coleridge, Black Elk and John Muir—they all walked about the ground with their disciples or friends or alone, conversing, creating poems, listening, praying, feeling air stir on their necks and sun enter their eyes, vulnerable and exposed-to-sky.
It dawned on me that Socrates had in fact pictured the unenlightened soul in a cave, taking second-hand shadows for reality. Only when such a soul could be led to turn around and walk up out of the cave, could it find the greater light of reason and truth.
I thought of such truth-seekers in American history—the great statesmen who had walked long miles across the landscape—lanky Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman. Each had an awake, vivid quality that honored and responded to both land and humankind.
Why, then, were we all indoors learning facts about these people, explaining verses about wildflowers and birds we had grown so unfamiliar with, the vocabulary had little meaning? How odd, if not insane, that we lived enfolded among the Appalachian mountains, oblivious to them as we sat in buildings to learn about the Appalachians. It was no less confounding than our position on a round planet of startling thrushes and fireflies and blackberries, revolving slowly backward through an infinite Universe and billion stars, while we sat in rooms each night, watching blue shadows in a box.
We flood our minds with words! They mesmerize and manipulate us, masking the truth even when it’s set down squarely in front of us. To discover the underlying reality, I’ve learned to listen only to the action.
Staring from Pine Ridge down at the dull-red complex of high school buildings, one winter day, observing no sign of life and a bare, tree-less landscape accented by dumpsters and asphalt, I felt I was looking at a ticking bomb surrounded by a dead zone.
Inside the walled container, hundreds of energetic spirits were being compressed in a clamp of disconnected M’Choakumchild facts. They suffered from inactivity, a lack of sunlight and fresh air, adventure and mystery. They had respiratory conditions, diabetes, attention-span disorders.
Worse, to my mind, many lacked a feeling of purpose and usefulness, any sense that the outer world needed them, their fresh ideas and love. Instead, their uninteresting role entailed absorbing and reproducing third-hand data in a container set-apart from “the real world,” so that some day, when real life began, they might become useful at making money.
Everything else within the academic buildings also remained cut-off from the larger meaning and flow. Food was a highly-processed, dead thing distinct from the soil and rain. Paper had no recycled content and did not return to recycling bins—even as we processed information about overflowing landfills and deforestation. Trash was something taken care of merely by throwing paper basketballs in a beat-up metal can, which magically emptied overnight. Student research on water pollution or songbird habitat received a grade and went into a folder (or the trash), with no outlet or application in the surrounding community.
Meanwhile, in that outer community, old people needed young arms and legs to walk with them. Gardens and trees needed planting and compost piles turned and creekbanks cleared of debris. The river needed love and attention.
Even the schoolyard—an uninteresting, shadeless waste of acres that required mowing and offered no wildlife habitat, no blooms for pollinators or hedges for songbirds—had acquired an idle, disjunct role, untended and bereft of meaning.
How to reconnect and close this circuit, I wondered, walking past the dull red walls! If we could link again the inner mind to the outer world, the kids to the land, theory to practice—might we revive a power now lost, restore the circulation and health of both people and land? Perhaps we could again, even at the risk of acquiring less data, feel a gap, a gaping awe under the sky. At the cost of a few S.O.L. answers, we might ponder some questions, some wonderment over the mystery of being alive, feel life rush through us like a river released from a dam.
Never have I thought so much…realized my own existence so much…as in those journeys I have made on foot. Walking has something in it that animates and heightens my ideas.
--Jean Jacques Rousseau
Walking about to other functions and meetings, I realized every human endeavor was a school. Just about all of them were stuck indoors.
“Why are we in a building?” I asked at a land trust board meeting last year. We’d already sat inside for 90 minutes, and talk and paper were still forthcoming. “Seems like we could meet on some land once in a while.”
“It would be messy,” a member of the Water Control Board said, after a general blank silence. “The weather, the wind blowing papers away.”
And so we continued, in our windless, paper-piled condition, making decisions about the outside world from the usual position inside a building.
Open the window, Noah!
Open the window, let the dove fly in!
I want to walk in Jerusalem, just like John.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and we may walk in his paths.
In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.
In particular, during my year’s pilgrimage around the sun, I wondered why nearly all of our religious functions took place indoors. A Kingdom Hall had just been built on old U.S. 21, in view of the lovely mountains—without a single window a person could see through or open to a bird. “I’m a little suspicious of any church without windows,” said my friend Sister Clare, a tree-planting nun.
My own Episcopal church held every service indoors but that of Palm Sunday, when an outdoor processional moved its way, at dirge-pace, into the dark sanctuary. It seemed to me, as I left my bike in the bushes or changed out of my sneakers, the more proper direction would be to proceed out of the darkness, into the light.
I’d also considered this alongside Petunia Baptist church, on old Lee Highway, perched over a plummeting Reed Creek. A great deal of trash had blown down the banks, caught with old flood wrappers and flotsam among the sticks, but the rapids rang and clanged a joyful noise and pumped cool air up around the church.
Here was the right place for a service, I thought, watching parishioners disappear behind the brick walls where nobody would hear this water. The live creek offered opportunity for liturgy, scripture, baptism, and service on every level, as voices joined the symbolic waters and hands cleared away the trash and children noticed the blue kingfisher screeching his way downstream.
It occurred to me that most every biblical passage or scene took place in a river, a desert, a field or road—not inside a temple. The image of a roof being cut open, to allow a paralytic access to Jesus, came to mind—I felt air blowing into the dark place, a patch of sun falling on the floor.
How much healing could happen—for people and the land—if the church roof could come off frequently, if pilgrims could take to the open road or ramble the woods. Moses and Elijah and Jesus were often climbing mountains to pray and listen. Even God, in Genesis, walked his green garden in the cool of the day, apparently fond of the place and even asking humankind to tend it.
How remarkable, I reflected last year, that so many televangelists and evangelicals, in their indoor stadiums and studios, preached against ecology or care of the earth. It occurred to me that perhaps a lowly walk outdoors, foot-to-dirt, might bring these religious leaders—and all of us—back around from lofty goals of raptures and heavenly crowns and political coalitions, to remembrance of our humbler, happier role on this earth, as the prophet Micah summed it up.
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
In our day of loud religious politics and God-talk, our powerful broadcasting systems, high-speed information and transportation, in our impermeable landscape engineered for traffic rather than feet or quiet little paws or creeks, such a lowly walk may seem impossibly slow, naïve, and unproductive.
But as ecologist Father Thomas Berry has pointed out, when one is going—rapidly—in the wrong direction, turning around does not connote regression any more than does a return back home—a little wiser, a little humbler—after a long time gone.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
--T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”