Thursday, March 7, 2013

Walking the Chalk Downs

Over a strong cup of breakfast tea thick with sugar, Mick unfolded a wrinkled and many-times folded map of the surrounding countryside. He pointed to Avebury, to Savernake Forest, to the little cottage called Warren Farm Cottage where we were sitting, horses grazing over the fence, little chickens and geese making a racket out the windows, Aga stove heating merrily away while Heather made toast on its ever-hot burners. He got out a pencil, traced a way, explained a few landmarks and twists and turns on a route amounting to some ten miles or so, and we piled into the front of his bouncing red truck with Imogen the terrier in my lap, the map in the pocket of my black cape, some lunch in my backpack.

It is a winding tale, how I found myself sitting at that cozy table, down a country road outside the medieval market town called Marlborough, with the sister of an old British man who worked at a bookshop around the corner from the house I grew up in, and her husband Mick, six thousand miles or so from home. It was a beautiful journey, and a lonely one for me too, involving beds of soil to be weeded, raspberry canes planted, hedges clipped (they nearly swallowed me whole, all those thorns), sheep fed, goats milked, chapels in graveyards to be slept in, and also a tale for another time. 

Right now, I want to write about walking, and the gentle slopes of the chalk downs and forests of Wiltshire that Mick, giving me detailed directions on the worn out map, knows like his own hands, which have been cutting wood, building stone walls and picking bluebells on this land since he was a little boy.

We made a stop at the West Kennet Long Barrow on the way to Avebury, mist whipping at our hands, Imogen dashing off through the wet grasses on her old but quick little legs. It is hard to describe the experience of feeling such ancient human age above and around you, deep in the ground, where people were buried from 3700 to 2000 BCE in little graves and catacombs like the tunnels made by wise burrowing animals, such as moles, in the ground. The hair was up on my neck the whole time, truly it was, in that great and dark silence.

This is a stone cairn in Wales, not England, but this was my walking uniform everywhere I went, the adventurer's garb-- the Irish walking cape, all black wool, my aunt gave me for my seventeenth birthday (or thereabouts) which I'd been waiting several years to use for just such an occasion as this, lucky blue skirt from many hikes and picnics and nights under the stars at home, sturdy red boots.
I stepped out of the red truck at Avebury, on a little back road made of cobbled stone behind the site, thanked Mick for the ride and the map, laughed about whether or not I'd really make it back at all, the ten or so miles over rolling hill I'd never seen in my life, and off I went.

The peace of walking, and walking, on long straight gently sloping roads such as this, through great open rolls of country; it enters the bones and then the soul, and you are in a trance with fresh air cold in your lungs. The peace of walking, and walking, not knowing precisely where the turns will be, the newness of a path, a crossroads, a patch of wood, a little village--it expands the heart, even your very skin.

I can't tell you what I thought about, where my mind was those morning and afternoon hours, walking. This is not just because it was almost three years ago to the day that I found my red-booted feet and my black swinging walking cape ambling through the downs; I'm not sure I could have told you the next morning either. The land and the dirt roads seemed to swallow up my psyche into their psyches. I had aimless little thoughts, like ravens darting in and out, like fog. Mostly I think my mind was still, thumping gently with my feet, turning into chalk down, hill by hill. 

At that time, there was nothing I needed more than to be my feet, my walking legs, the cold air, the green tender rolls of hill, so subtle their motion and their shape came over you like a caress, and not my mind. I think there are times when we all need this; every day, in a sense, but there are also times in our lives when we need this very badly, like I did then.

Maybe the grey of the sky, the newly coming green of hills, the bare silver of trees, added to the soft lilt of my walking mind, my rambling feet, the dust and bootfall and cape-flutter I was becoming. I had a compass, a silver one my aunt (my lovely wonderful aunt, always feeding the adventure and the romance of my soul, even since I was a small girl and she talked of taking me with her to Egypt, where she had worked at an archaeological dig, riding camels, taking big old traveling trunks like they did in the old days) had given me for another birthday, another year. I had never really needed it before.

On these walks (two or three in all, I can't quite recall), I truly did need it. I think it was the only reason I got back before dark. I discovered that my sense of map-reading and direction wasn't great, particularly amidst all the slow-sloping chalky hills. I took half a dozen wrong turns, sometimes long ones down long wrong paths, and back-tracked, and asked the one or two souls I saw out on the roads for directions, a little nervous of being all alone, a woman in red shoes and a black cape with a silver compass, a sandwich and a bottle of water. Not much except my feet to get me anywhere, and the compass pointing north.

The paths led me through towns, the sort you'd never walk through in the United States, truly old towns that have always been passed through by these truly old walking and horse-riding paths. I wondered, passing through towns and out again, how long ago these footpaths were made; if there were traces of them as far back as four thousand years, when the men and women in the West Kennet Long Barrow lived and died, and if so, what stories, oh my, what stories their feet had told against the dirt and the dust of the chalk down trails of Wiltshire.

I passed houses older than the whole history of the city called Yerba Buena, (now San Francisco). The age showed in their sloping roofs, their uneven windows. I derive so much pleasure from old houses that are slowly giving way to the elements, that are slowly letting themselves be touched and moved by wind, by rain and blackberries, roosting doves and the mice in the walls. 

Walking through these chalk downs where for so long men walked their flocks of sheep, ringing bells, whittling the perfect crook for catching lambs, dreaming strange daydreams, maybe a little like I did, their minds somewhere quiet where the land under their feet started to seep in— robin, badger-set, woods where the bluebells would soon bloom—walking these long old roads from town to town and back to the little cottage where I was staying, this filled me with a very particular longing, one I've had since I was a girl.

I read dozens of books as a child set in some medieval landscape, European mostly, though some set further East, in desert lands or steppe lands or thick snowy lands. Always, people walked or rode the roads and paths to get from one place to the next. They had adventures every time they went the next town over, even if those adventures just consisted of a flask of tea, a sandwich, a new tree, a slip in the mud and a strange woman met by the roadside. Now, I know I'm being a hopeless romantic, an idealist; I know such roads were rife with highway men and bandits in trees, that a woman like me would barely ever walk such roads alone, that part of the reason I felt safe wandering ten or fifteen miles alone through the countryside was because barely anyone else walks them any longer, because it is novel and recreational. But I've always, since I was a little girl, wanted to get everywhere by horseback, with a picnic in my pack, or by foot. This isn't really convenient in the world we live in. Clocks, schedules, highways.

But I think about this a lot as I drive on Highway 101 (once called El Camino Real by the Spanish missionaries who carved it from San Diego through Sonoma, wanting a route to send the king's troops on in case the Russians, with their Fort on the Pacific coast from which they hunted sea otters, decided to expand their colonial efforts) to go see my grandparents, to buy bulk envelopes, to visit a friend in another city: imagine if I had to feel this journey, truly, bouncing in my joints, settling into my feet? What if the only way was by horse; what would I see? What would the air taste like, what thoughts would I have, how sore would I be when I arrived? How mellow would my thoughts be, compared to the frenetic static I feel in my head when I drive?

I know that when I walked from Avebury on paths whose names I don't know all the way back to Warren Farm Cottage, where Heather and Mick were having afternoon tea and toast, lost and aimless and found again, full of a pure joy when I realized that far down below, I could see the road to their house, almost back again, legs weary, stomach growling, nose cold and running and hair flying every way—I know that on that day, I felt very alive. I felt very truly human, in my walking feet, my sore legs which had carried me not on a "hike," but actually home again from Avebury, those sacred and mysterious standing stones.

That there are still paths like this in Wiltshire (and other parts of England), is a very special thing. Paths that skirt the human settlements but also take you through them; they are practical roads as much as they are recreational. They function both as beautiful lanes to stroll on, and routes through and around the village centers, older than any of the cement highways.

I spent the months of April and part of May in Wales, then Rome, but I came back again to Heather and Mick, my gatekeepers of this journey at once long and short, good for my feet and my soul. In May, Mick told me the best places for bluebells, and so I found myself walking again, looping through Savernake forest, utterly disoriented, taking random paths and roads, heady with the bluebells.

My thoughts felt different this time, in the woods and then the glowing iridescent blue electricity of bluebells; walking, I felt tenderness for all the new green beech leaves, I felt sweetness and also yearning for my love, who was far across the Atlantic and across the whole North American continent from me. 

My ears rang with bluebells, with the impossible yellows and blues and purples and greens that had pushed out of the land since I had been walking last. My eyelids were tattooed with the silhouettes of trees, my thoughts were leaf-shaped, bluebell scented, drifting like my feet in the green and the new mud.

When we walk a place, we get it into our lungs, into our moving bones, through the soles of our feet. Horseback riding, though four hooves removed, is similar, with that added layer of this whole being beneath you, breathing and watching and thinking as she clip clops along, graciously carrying you, skittering sideways now and then at strange noises in the bushes or sudden walkers coming around corners in bright clothing.

 My musing and rambling point here, through all these twists and turns, is this question of transportation and how it affects our minds and our souls.

I know it isn't practical; I know I'm somewhat unreasonable, a total romantic, completely useless with implementing anything reasonable in the world in this regard, but what if those highways you drive were empty of cars? What if they were full of bicycles, not just men in spandex logo-ed suits, but people just getting around, not afraid of getting slammed into the gutter by a speeding car? Better yet, what if they were clattered with the hooves of horses? What if the hiking trails over Mt. Tamalpais, which can get you from Mill Valley (where I'm living now) to Larkspur, Mill Valley to Fairfax, Mill Valley to Point Reyes, if you really wanted to, were our only way of getting to the next town? It would take a lot longer, sure; some days you really wouldn't want to make the trek. You'd have to expect less in a day; everyone would-- how far you could go, how much you could get done.

But imagine, the softness of your mind and your walking feet. Imagine the dreams of redwoods and robins that might drop through the crown of your head. Imagine the things you might see—a deer, a hawk, now and then even a mountain lion. Imagine the blood moving from your feet to your face and down again, your living body moving through the living world, sole to sole, eye to eye, breath to breath. It is a dreaming thought, a walking dream.


  1. I can so relate to this, not having a car these days and using my feet for nearly everything. You've captured it perfectly... on one of my most recent walks, I encountered two little screech owls, wide-eyed and quiet and just watching me as I watched them. It was a sacred moment... There is so much that's missed in the tiny rooms of vehicular transportation.

    1. So special, the owls you saw! Yes, we miss so much in our zooming metal boxes. Not having one seems the best way to get yourself out walking--when you are tired, long day, the urge to drive instead of walk somewhere is huge, particularly if that walk involves a big uphill at the other end. I experienced this often when we were living in Berkeley way up in the hills. That milk got awfully heavy on the way up; I got so irritated with myself for my car usage, but I still used it. The most vivid memories I have are of course those days when I picked up our farmer's market box on foot at the bottom of the hill and balanced a melon on my head with one hand, the box at my hip, and sweated my way up the hill. Or saw a tiny hawk in a tree right by my face. A woodpecker on the the telephone pole. Special things, deep things. It is a change we can all make in small ways now; so much easier said than done, but it is! Instead of waiting for the highways to turn back to horse-paths. :) xox

    2. Oh my goodness, don't know how you balanced a melon on your head with a box at your hip! You must be so graceful.

      Special & deep indeed...

      "Waiting for the highways to turn back to horse-paths" sounds like the name of a rustic folk song. :)

    3. Haha, no way did I balance that melon on my head without the help of a hand! I'm actually quite clumsy :) it was just the best place for it. Yes, good name for a song, or album....

  2. Such a lovely post ~ thank you for sharing your beautiful words and thoughts! ~ Your photographs made me long for the green fields and Bluebells of England - in fact you have successfully made me homesick as I sit in my kitchen by the beach in California!

    1. Thank you Luisa! I know, with all the sweet beauties of California around us, the sight of a bluebell wood, well, it still just slays you doesn't it, right to the heart, that extraordinary purple mist... xo

  3. Oh. Thank you for the ride through of these stomping grounds. I married here 28 years ago in the highlands of Scotland and Avebury was a place we dreamed through long ago. Simply lovely and I am with you on the romantic dreams of the world...isn't that what we all need though, because if not the dreams of it, how can we envision it into being? I look forward to your lovely Gray Fox Epistles blowing its way to me soon....

  4. Well just WOW....
    I feel like i've been transported back in time a bit... for a number of reasons. When we walk the dirt roads in Maine, where houses and lives once were, I can feel the past enveloping me... I long to know the people and their stories.
    We went to England a long time ago, a dream trip... it was amazing; our entire history here in the US is so small and insignificant by comparison... I long to go back again, and walk and soak it all up into my soul again....
    and then I read you live in Mill Valley. Even longer ago, for a moment in time ~ I lived on a boat in Sausalito, and walked to work at Mill Valley Market each day. Walking does make you feel a connection with a place...even when you are far from what you know as home. We walked in the headlands, and along the beaches... and for a moment, I melted into feeling a connection to a new land on the other side of the country...
    Thanks for taking me on your walk; and also for the stroll down my own memory lane.

  5. I got my first electronic cigarette kit from VaporFi, and I recommend getting it from them.