Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: July, 2014

Walking around Oxford

Oxford is warm and sunny and full of tourists and quite lovely. Most of the older university buildings are made from a soft yellow stone that my guidebook calls “Bath stone” and it catches the light very nicely. There are gardens everywhere, of course, since this is England. For some reason, Christ Church College has large lavender plantings, which smell wonderful.

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We’re staying in Mansfield College, which was established in 1886 to train non-conformist ministers after the law barring anyone who wasn’t a member of the Church of England from studying at Oxford was changed in 1871. That only took 15 years. Now apparently it’s the college for students who aren’t well off. There’s a resident cat who isn’t particularly friendly but doesn’t bite (at least, he hasn’t bitten me yet).

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We eat breakfast in a dining room set up in the college chapel, where the stained-glass windows commemorate various philosophers and saints and, oddly, several Popes.

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Most of what one does as a tourist is walk around. The first day here was spent strolling to various landmarks in central Oxford: the Carfax Tower, Christ Church, the Old Bodleian Library, the Botanic Garden (where half of the gardens were closed because a large tree had fallen down–there must’ve been a big storm before we got here. Then Christine’s conference started and I decided to get a little more organized. I bought a book of self-guided walking tours and I’ve been following some of them. I’ve walked through the city’s west end, through Oxford Castle (once a prison, now a luxury hotel and restaurants), and past a memorial to three Protestant martyrs (Bishops Latimer and Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who were executed by “Bloody” Mary because they helped Henry VIII divorce her mother, Catherine of Aragon). The memorial was intended to remind people of the excesses of a Catholic monarch at a time when popular sentiment was becoming more sympathetic to Roman Catholics. One forgets how important religion was in the past, perhaps as a marker of identity more than anything else. That history helps to put contemporary events into perspective.

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I’ve walked past the Oxford University Press, through a neighbourhood called Jericho, and past Keble College. Made of red, yellow, and blue brick, Keble was considered by many to be an architectural monstrosity when it opened in 1870, and became the target of a university society, membership in which depended on producing a brick chiseled out of its walls. Signs of the past are everywhere here, not surprisingly, given the city’s age, but the Keble College story shows how change has been a constant feature of the city and the university.

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Today I walked out of the city, through a meadow where locals have been grazing their animals for more than 1,000 years to a village called Binsey. Outside Binsey, in the churchyard of St. Margaret’s Church, there is a Treacle Well that was the inspiration for the Dormouse’s story at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland. The village and much of the land around was and is owned by Christ Church College as part of its endowment, and the father of Alice Liddell (for whom Christ Church math don Charles Dodgson wrote, as Lewis Carroll, both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) was the Dean of Christ Church. The Treacle Well actually gets its name from a story about Oxford’s patron saint, a Saxon princess named Frideswide, who healed the sick while hiding from the King of Mercia, who wanted to marry her. In old English, according to my book, “treacle” means healing, but of course Carroll took the word literally for comic effect. I took a photograph but it’s not very good. Here’s a better one of a garden I passed in Jericho instead.

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I ate fish and chips at an upscale pub in Binsey, then carried on walking along the River Thames, through a village called Wolvercote (where paper for the OUP’s books used to be made, as recently as 1998), and then back into the city along the Oxford Canal. The river has geese and swans; the canal ducks and herons (if this is a heron–it waited until after I took its picture before flying away).

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My last walk today took me past Balliol College, Trinity College, the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre, All Souls College (the only one that doesn’t admit students), Lincoln College, Brasenose College, Jesus College, and Exeter College. It was the afternoon, so most of them we’re open, but I was too tired after walking some 20 kilometres to go inside any of them. maybe I should’ve summoned the energy. Tomorrow, though, is another day.

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Walk to Pense

Yesterday’s walk–the last “training” walk before we leave for the UK and the Cotswold Way today–was a 30-kilometre hike to Pense, a village west of the city. I’d heard that there was an operating bar there and I thought I could have a beer while I waited for Christine to pick me up. Besides, I’m still thinking about Trevor Herriot and the idea of making this landscape walkable, as it once was, so rather than walk inside the city limits I thought I’d strike out for somewhere I’d never been before.

The first leg of my journey was along the creek side path I’ve walked along so many times before. I thought about the post here where I complained about boredom and looked for differences or changes on the path. One was this little fellow, a fledgling barn swallow who was sitting on a railing. I hope he doesn’t fall off into the creek.

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Soon I was walking down a grid road heading out of the city. I walked past baseball diamonds where teams were getting ready to play in the North American Indigenous Games, past the northern end of the airport and a factory that makes farm equipment. Then I turned south and walked along a road used by truckers to get to the new Global Transportation Hub. What a name–both hyperbolic and banal. These days, what transportation hub isn’t global? When I turned west again, I discovered that a four-lane highway is being built across the fields to provide access to the GTH.

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What that will mean for the grid roads it crosses–roads that are essential to local farmers–is unclear.

From here, the road headed west, a straight line across the landscape, bisecting fields of wheat and canola that stretched to the horizon.

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The road deviated from its path only once, when it intersected with another straight line, the main CPR tracks. I passed a village-turned-suburb (no store, nothing to attract a passing traveller) and decided that, since I was at the halfway point, I could rest for a while and have a snack.I stopped again an hour later and sat on a bridge to eat lunch. Otherwise it was six hours of steady walking. There were lots of ducks and coots in the sloughs, but aside from the birds and dragonflies the only other wild creature I saw was a muskrat in the creek while I was eating.

No angry dogs this time, just an old yellow lab that came up behind me to see what I was up to. He was friendly, though. I was so surprised by him that I forgot to take his picture.

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I could see Pense on the horizon–its grain elevator, anyway, which for some reason escaped the orgy of demolitions of smaller, local elevators 10 years ago when the grain companies built a handful of concrete inland terminals to replace them–for a long time. When I finally got there,I discovered that the bar/coffee shop/motel is closed, presumably forever. So I bought a Coke at the gas station and waited in a park beside the railway tracks for Christine.

Would I walk this way again? I’m not sure. I loved the wind and the trance-like state I was in after five hours of walking, and walking around here always reminds me of walking the meseta in Spain. Pense, though, turned out to be just a spot on the map within a day’s walk. There’s no reason to go there, unless you live there. Is that necessarily a problem? Maybe not. Maybe I need to focus less on the destination and more on the journey. Or maybe there’s some other place within 30 or so kilometres of my front door that will prove to be more worthy of the journey. I don’t know.

And that was the last training walk. We fly to Heathrow this afternoon, and then next weekend we begin our Cotswolds sojourn. WiFi willing, my next blog post will be made from there.

Walking and Connection

A few years ago, writer and naturalist Trevor Herriot fell off of a ladder. Well, maybe it’s not the fall so much as what he was doing up on the roof of his house: killing pigeons. The pigeons were nesting in a hard-to-reach spot next to one of the dormers, and their presence had led to an infestation of bird mites in the second floor of the house. So the pigeons had to go. That’s what Herriot was doing on the roof of the house when his ladder slipped out from underneath him and he landed on the front lawn.

This accident led to a kind of mid-life crisis. What was a man who had written a book about prairie songbirds, who had a regular guest spot on the local CBC station answering questions callers asked about birds, doing killing pigeons? Was his loss of balance on that ladder a metaphor for a larger loss of balance in his life? Despite his attempts to live in harmony with nature and in communion with other people, was he really that different from those who don’t question our culture’s lack of connection and community?

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Herriot went on a vision quest–three days sitting on a prairie hill top without food or water–and then walked for three days on a 40-mile pilgrimage to his family’s weekend home, east of the city, in an attempt to answer these questions. (The Biblical echoes are accidental, I think, but important.) His recent book, The Road is How: A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire, and Soul, is a chronicle of his search for answers. The focus is primarily on his walk: not just the walk, but what he thought about as he trudged down grid roads and waded through sloughs. It’s a very personal book in which Herriot lays bare his various failures to live up to his ideals or his ethical standards. We learn about his relationship with his wife, Karen; about his friendships; about his past. I know Trevor slightly, and I was surprised to discover that he is so hard on himself and so skeptical about what he has accomplished. Perhaps this is simply a book about a good man who wants to be better.

Herriot’s walk is relatively short, but it runs across country that is inhospitable to travel by foot–or is nowadays, anyway. It’s not that the prairies hereabouts are flat, that the mosquitoes are ferocious, that farm dogs are dangerous, that there’s nowhere to get water–although all those things are true. It’s that nobody walks in this part of the world. Nobody would consider doing what Herriot did. If you want to walk, to hike, you go somewhere else–to the mountains, or some sacred path in some other part of the world. But Herriot wanted to walk on the land he knows well, on the land he’s worked to understand over the last 30 years or so. And in many ways, his walk is a response to something the late Bob Boyer (a Métis-Cree artist famous for his blanket paintings) said during a panel discussion about the Qu’Appelle Valley, the subject of Herriot’s first book. “I don’t know what all this crap is about the valley,” Boyer had said. “What’s the big deal? It’s no holier than any other place. It’s all sacred ground. All of it.” Herriot’s walk is an attempt to take Boyer seriously, to treat this tamed and humbled landscape, this damaged ecosystem, as if it were sacred ground.

As he walks, Herriot thinks about the connection between men and women (his main example, of course, being the connection or lack thereof between himself and Karen), about the connection (or lack of it) between our culture and the environment, about the way most of us are disconnected from the food we eat and the places where it was grown or raised. But primarily he thinks about himself, his own behaviour, and the ways he is or isn’t connected to the world around him. “Any aspirations I may have to safeguard wild places, grow gardens, and build community stand little chance of success if I cannot do a better job of tending to the holiest of connections, my sexual bond with the feminine (a bond with one woman in fidelity is a bond with all women in forbearance), and then, falling out of that primary bond, all of the others: with family, community, land,” he writes. “If I can set aside transcendence and union on some other plane, I might find ways to receive the gift of peace hidden within forbearance and continence on this plan, the gift of freedom hidden within the paradox of self-sacrifice.”

I’ve read this book twice, and while I enjoyed it, there are times that I want to argue with its author, too. For instance, Herriot recalls taking two acquaintances out of the city to see the birds in a nearby slough. His companions were amazed at the number of birds. “I saw all that was missing and they saw all that was there,” he writes. “And instead of complaining, they were utterly grateful, part of them bowing inwardly to each creature, each field of cut hay, or barn, or row of fence. I don’t know if I have ever felt that deep receiving thankfulness, but in that moment it seemed like a faculty I had lost and wanted dearly to have back again.” Of course, he knows what is missing because he has been studying this place for ages and has seen the number of birds decline as their habitat disappears under the pressure of industrial agriculture. His companions could experience that deep gratitude because they only know what is there, not what used to be there. Their approach to the land is innocent; his is experienced. Perhaps the only way for Herriot to experience that level of gratitude would be to go somewhere he doesn’t know very well, to walk somewhere new and strange, like one of the sacred paths he describes as “spiritual tourism.” I know a little about this from experience. Here, if I’m walking and I see, say, yellow sweet clover, I turn away from its yellow blossoms, its scent, because it’s an introduced weed. But in Spain, if I saw yellow sweet clover, it didn’t matter. For all I know, it’s always been there. It belongs in a way it doesn’t on the North American prairies. And even if it doesn’t, I don’t know any better, and so I was able to enjoy it, to be grateful for it.

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But I like this book. In fact, in late May, after I finished it for the first time, I walked part of Herriot’s route, down a grid road known as Old Highway 16, past sloughs and pastures full of waterfowl and songbirds (undoubtedly not as many as there once were, of course). I encountered an angry dog and saw some roadkill and noted what Wascana Creek looks like when it’s outside the city. I walked as far as the gas bar owned by a local First Nation, where I bought some bannock and ate my lunch on the same bench where Herriot ate his. “You’re not that guy who walks out to Cherry Lake, are you?” the gas attendant asked me. “No,” I answered, “but I read his book.”

Walking and Trauma

I read a strange little book this afternoon: Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being, by Thom Hartmann, a psychotherapist who practices in Vermont. Hartmann theorizes that any side-to-side motion (like walking, or the movement of the eyes following a hypnotist’s finger or pocket-watch) is a “bilateral movement” that “causes nerve impulses to cross the brain from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere and back at a specific rate or frequency.” The “cross-patterning” that results from this movement, he continues, “produces an organic integration of left-hemisphere ‘thinking’ functions with right-hemisphere ‘feeling’ functions,” an integration that is “a necessary precursor to emotional and intellectual healing from trauma.” With many asides and divagations, Hartmann describes the rise and fall of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool in the nineteenth century and the development of techniques like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy before describing a simple way that anyone can use walking as a form of treatment for past traumas.

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It’s all a little new-agey for me, and I’m skeptical, but I did enjoy learning about the history of hypnosis and the origin of the name “Svengali” in George du Maurier’s scandalous novel Trilby, which helped to create an intense backlash against hypnotherapy in the 1890s. And, despite my skepticism, I know that I did experience things while I was walking in Spain that weren’t completely outside the scope of Hartman’s theory. So maybe there’s something to it. Perhaps I’ll try Hartmann’s method of walking meditation on future walks and see what happens.

Walk to New York

In the spring of 2002, Thunder Bay, Ontario, writer Charles Wilkins had reached a crossroads. His marriage was over and his wife, Betty, wanted him out of their house. He was in a rut, he writes, and “needed risk, excitement–needed a journey, the oldest and still perhaps the best way of resetting one’s compass and reintroducing the idea of surprise.” For some time he’d been fascinated by the idea of a marathon walk, but he also wanted to make a long visit to Manhattan. “Why don’t you just combine the two and walk to Manhattan?” Betty asked. “The possibility took root,” Wilkins writes, “and with it a sense that in walking to the great city I would be exploring, a step at a time, the largely unexplored axis between rural culture and the more artful, articulated culture of big city civilization. Or, in this case, between the vast Precambrian wilderness (one of the most isolated and magnificent parts of the continent) and the centre of North American cultural and financial life.” And so, one day in late April, 2002, he started walking, accompanied by his friend, poet George Morrissette, who drove a van filled with supplies so that Wilkins didn’t have to burden himself with a heavy backpack. He was also supported by a number of sponsorships–Columbia Clothing, the Ontario provincial parks system, a cellphone company, the Warwick Hotel in New York–and by his publisher, which was interested in publishing the book that the long walk would produce. After stepping out of his front door that April morning, Wilkins ended up covering more than 2,200 kilometres in 10 weeks, losing 25 pounds and most of his toenails in the process.

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Walk to New York is partly a book about the thoughts the act of walking generated in Wilkins’s mind–primarily about the connections between past and present and the way that walking brings the two together–but it’s mostly about the process of making such a long journey: the people he met along the way, the things he saw, the various adventures he had. As readers, we learn what it’s like to walk along the shoulder of a highway in northern Ontario, alongside ditches filled with litter and car parts and dead animals and just a metre or so from passing cars and trucks. Later, Wilkins tried walking along the Bruce Trail in southern Ontario, but he abandoned that route because it wasn’t as direct as a southbound highway, and we read about his harrowing journey through Toronto’s suburbs, where the roads were designed without any regard for pedestrians. In comparison, his walk through upper New York state–over the Catskills and across a bridge over the Hudson River–was an idyll. Then he heads south along the Hudson, past the estates of robber baron capitalists (some now state parks) and the infamous Sing Sing prison, and through the Bronx and Harlem to his goal, the Warwick. By the time he arrives, he’s addicted to the endorphin rush of walking–yes, it can be that strenuous–and finds himself driven to walk all over Manhattan instead of resting his weary feet.

It’s a strange book about a strange journey, and it left me wondering what it might be like to walk out of my front door and start trudging towards some impossibly distant goal–like Toronto, maybe, or Vancouver. Or somewhere even farther away. Of course, I don’t think I could convince anyone to drive a support vehicle so, unlike Wilkins, I’d have to carry a tent and a sleeping bag in my pack and hope to find enough water to drink along the way. That would be the biggest difficulty, I think, especially in this part of the country, where towns and villages are very far apart. And I’m not sure I can imagine wild camping at the side of a highway–what would passing Mounties have to say about that? Still, I know it’s been done before, and I keep thinking about whether I could pull it off. Maybe I’m not quite crazy enough to try.

Nicolle Flats Marsh walk

Today’s walk was a relatively short (11 km or so) loop around the Nicholle Flats Marsh in Buffalo Pound Provincial Park. The walk covered two trails. One runs along the south side of the marsh, between the old stone farm house at Nicholle Flats and the dam on the Qu’Appelle River that forms Buffalo Pound Lake, the reservoir for the city’s drinking water. The other trail runs on the north side of the marsh, along a dike separating the marsh from the Qu’Appelle River, between the dam and the farm house. Together, the two trails form a loop around the marsh.

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There was a lot to see as we walked. On the south side of the marsh, the trail dips into wooded coulees and then rises into native grassland (a little weedy and in need of grazing or fire for rejuvenation). The water level in the marsh is higher than I’ve ever seen, and some of the coulees were flooded. Aren’t Gore-Tex boots great? We also saw a lot of waterfowl: pelicans, mallards, coots, cormorants, and a ruddy duck, something I’ve never seen before although I’m sure it’s not uncommon. The dike trail was less interesting. We did see a couple of kayakers on the Qu’Appelle, and I noted the point where the Moose Jaw River runs into the Qu’Appelle River, but for the most part it was a slog along a path overgrown with weeds (thistle and quack grass among them). That’s not surprising; weeds reliably follow bulldozers and ploughs wherever they go.

I found myself wondering what the valley had looked like before the dams and dikes had been built. Had the marsh been there? Did the two rivers come together at the same spot? What had the occupants of that stone farm house been able to see when they looked out their windows? I can’t complain about all the hydrological work that was done in the 1950s and 1960s–after all, before the city’s drinking water was piped in from Buffalo Pound, it was supposedly undrinkable, so like everyone else who lives here, I’m a beneficiary of all these changes–but still I wonder how things used to be. That’s one of the reasons I got interested in the flora of the Canadian grasslands; I knew that the land hadn’t originally been covered in huge fields of wheat and canola and flax and I was curious about what it looked like before ploughs and tractors changed it forever.

Walking the Creek

Today’s walk took me along the creek to the northwest suburbs of the city. I followed the paved pathway until it ended, then walked through the weedy grass at the side of the road until I reached the area’s main commercial artery. Then I walked east until I hit another major road and headed south. The noise of the traffic was bothering me, though, so I walked back to the recreational pathway and retraced my steps home. Total distance: about 30 kilometres (I can’t be more specific because mapmyrun.com doesn’t include all the paths that I walked in its database.)

The day was humid and airless, with a thick haze obscuring the sun for much of the walk. The sun still managed to get through, though; the bench where I sat to rest and eat some trail mix was uncomfortably hot. Maybe black isn’t the best colour for park furniture? I walked past the sewage pumping station that released who knows how much raw sewage into the creek during the recent flooding, when the waste-water treatment plant was too overwhelmed to cope. That was two weeks ago, and I would assume that everything is back to normal, except for the sewage pong along the creek by the station. Even upstream, the creek is the colour of chocolate; it carries a heavy nutrient load–mostly agricultural waste from farms and ranches southeast of the city–and the release of untreated sewage could only have made the situation much, much worse.

I stopped for a Tim Horton’s iced latté, which was way too sweet (do people really take that much sugar in their coffee?) and, later, sat at a picnic table in a shady spot and fell asleep! Maybe it was the nap, or maybe my endurance is improving, but when I got home I felt energized instead of exhausted.

What I really enjoyed about the day, though, was the rhythm of putting one foot after the other and the sense of quiet along the pathway: just birds and insects and the distant sounds of traffic and construction. Sometimes I could almost convince myself that I was walking through a Spanish village during siesta.

Of course, I wasn’t walking in Spain. I was walking a route I’ve taken many times before, and that means that the sense of discovery, of every step taking me through a brand-new space, was absent. Maybe that’s one of the major differences between walking around your home town and walking through a foreign country–that continuous sense of discovery. I thought about the story I’d heard about a Belgian man who knew that when he walked the Camino Francés he would be walking 30 kilometres every day for a month, so he trained for his trip by walking 30 kilometres around the town where he lived for a month. Okay, training is important, but that’s overkill, don’t you think? Not to mention boring.

I suppose I’m one to talk. Maybe I need to find some new places to walk, places where that sense of discovery isn’t completely absent.

 

Walking the Rowatt Loop

Yesterday I went for a long walk south of the city. My route was a loop, through neighbourhoods and the big park beside the lake, past the university, over the expressway, past the institute of applied science and technology, and down a grid road that the rural municipality has optimistically named “Park Street” in hopes that it becomes the centre of a future suburb. I walked south, past a famous pipeline . . .

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and a pumping station for yet another pipeline . . .

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and fields flooded by the wettest June on record, filled with ducks and other waterfowl.

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You can see a flock of mallards, frightened by the sight of a solitary walker, taking wing on the right-hand side of the photograph. The mosquitoes were ferocious–not surprising, given all the standing water in the fields–and for some reason they kept biting my right shoulder through my shirt, leaving an epaulette of blood splotches behind. Eventually a light breeze came up and gave me a chance to eat some bread and cheese while standing at the side of the road. Eventually the gravelled road became a dirt track.

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When the dirt track ended, I walked west along a gravelled grid road, past more canola fields and old grain bins and abandoned farm buildings . . .

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to the former village of Rowatt, which has lost almost all of its population and is now just a railway siding hosting an inland terminal and a fertilizer and seed dealership. Then I turned north and walked along the highway until it turned into the city’s main north-south artery. There’s a Starbuck’s in a bookstore there, and I was happy to sit down for the first time all day. I drank an iced coffee (which was, frankly, terrible) and ate a cookie and sat in an armchair for half an hour, cooling down in the overly air-conditioned air. Then I got up, stiffly, and slowly hobbled the last five kilometres home.

Total distance covered: 32 kilometres. I was very happy to finish this walk, because this route defeated me twice last summer: shaking and nauseous from heat exhaustion, I had called Christine and asked to be picked up. This time I walked in reverse direction, so that instead of going to Starbuck’s near the beginning of the walk, I got there close to the end, when I would get more benefit from a jolt of caffeine and sugar. Now that I’ve completed this route, I can find another, more scenic walk–hopefully a route, like this one, without any loose, angry farm dogs to contend with, and one without a long stretch of walking beside a busy highway, which is noisy and dangerous.

When I got home, exhausted, I poured myself a beer and thought about walking the Camino. I was amazed that I’d managed to cover similar distances every day for five weeks. How, I asked myself, was I able to walk like that? Almost a year later, it just doesn’t seem possible.

Walking Home along the Pennine Way

Several years ago, Christine went to a conference in Liverpool and I tagged along. The day she gave her paper, I took the train to Edale, a village in the Peak District National Park, and spent the day wandering around the moors and valleys. The weather was strange, a mix of sun and snow and rain, but it was March, after all, but I thoroughly enjoyed my ramble. I remember being particularly struck by the tangible evidence of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century enclosures I’d learned about in school–I saw stone houses that had been partially demolished to build dry-stone walls and sheep pens after the tenant farmers had been evicted–and by the eighth-century roadside cross I hiked to. Edale is also the starting point of the Pennine Way, a 431-kilometre walking path across the Pennine Hills, through Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland, ending in the Scottish border village of Kirk Yetholm. After my day in Edale, I vowed that some day I’d walk the Pennine Way.

English poet Simon Armitage grew up in the village of Marsden, located on the Pennine Way about 45 kilometres north of Edale, and he still lives nearby. Several years ago, he decided that he would walk the Pennine Way. However, since he’s a poet and therefore averse to doing things the way other people do, he walked in the opposite direction from almost everyone else who attempts the journey, from north to south–from Scotland to his home town, in other words, and against the prevailing winds that howl northwards through the Pennines. Armitage also decided that he wouldn’t take any money along with him; instead, he would survive on whatever he earned by reading his poems at prearranged events en route.

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The most successful books about walking journeys that I’ve read focus on the comedy created by the narrator’s mistakes–usually because he or she is woefully unprepared. Jack Hitt’s and Hape Kerkeling’s books about walking the Camino de Santiago are like that; Hitt gets lost trying to leave Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and Kerkeling finds himself hitching a ride in a tiny van with a farmer and a goat when he can’t manage the climb up the Pyrenees. Armitage’s book, Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey, is filled with similar comic moments: he loses his way in the fog, struggles against the rain and the wind, and meets a variety of interesting local characters. The book’s gentle self-mockery sometimes resolves into lyrical descriptions of the landscape and of the process of walking itself:

Because for the first time on this journey I realise that I’ve developed something of a regular pace, and not a slow one, a pace and also a rhythm of motion that feels very natural in relation to the weight in the rucksack, the ground underfoot, the angle of incline, the fuel in my belly and several other variables related to the scientific principles of bipedalism. At a certain speed everything feels to be working smoothly, the motor purring, the escapement ticking, the cogs turning, everything at its operational best; to slow down isn’t painful but it’s certainly annoying, and I find myself sympathising with those lorry drivers on the motorway who get to within a couple of yards of the car in front, flashing their lights and honking their air horns, who would prefer to plough through the back of a family saloon rather than lose revs and momentum.

Within hours, though, Armitage has reached the top of a mountain and discovers himself lost in dense fog:

I know for certain that if Richard turns back now I will turn back with him, because I simply don’t have the bottle to go wandering into that mist on my own, and if I turn back, all the scheduled readings and offers of hospitality will collapse like dominoes, the whole project will unravel, and I will have failed. . . . Feeling the brunt of the wind, almost an updraught, I’m guessing we’re on some sort of escarpment or ridge, but no matter which direction we walk in we can get no higher or lower, just further into the rocky wilderness, deeper into the milky atmosphere. The melancholy comes over me again, the dismal misery of not knowing where I am, or perhaps losing any sense of who I am, as if the mist is bringing about an evaporation of identity, all the certainties of the self leaching away into the cloud. I don’t cry, but I could easily let it happen, if I wanted to, and I’m close to wanting to.

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Despite Armitage’s various moments of terror and confusion, the Pennine Way still sounds to me like a great adventure, although after reading his account of his journey I would approach it with a lot more respect, even trepidation, since my experience puttering around Edale clearly isn’t representative. That’s the great thing about reading books like this one: you get a sense of what the journey might be like and, if you’re lucky, you’re entertained by the personality and language of the narrator, your tour guide. And Armitage is definitely an entertaining character, worth spending some time getting to know, as well as a wonderful writer. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Community pasture walk

Yesterday’s walk wasn’t a walk. It was more of a stroll, really, through a community pasture about an hour south of the city with a dozen or so birdwatchers and native-plant enthusiasts, led by naturalist and author Trevor Herriot. The walk was a fundraiser for Public Pastures: Public Interests, a group that is advocating for the protection of community pastures in this province. There were lots of longspurs and sparrows and hawks in the sky, including some prairie species I’ve never seen before. Trevor pointed out that grassland songbirds sing while they are flying, which is somewhat unusual, I gather (I’m not a birder although I’m always curious about the birds I see when I’m out for a walk somewhere). These species are all under threat because of habitat loss, and if the community pastures are sold off and the land broken for crop agriculture, they are likely to become extinct. Some 99 percent of the native grassland in this part of the world has been destroyed; is leaving the remaining one percent alone for birds and grasses and forbs really too much to ask?

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I’m more interested in plants than birds, and so I hung out with a grassland biologist who was identifying various species of grasses and forbs. I saw a lot of my favourite grass–blue grama grass–and identified a seed head that had stumped the group as shining arnica.There was a huge prickly pear cactus, too, and many pincushion cacti, although all of their flowers had finished blooming. There were a few introduced weeds, but they didn’t matter very much, the biologist said. “A big patch of prairie has a lot of inertia,” he told us. “It can survive a lot of abuse.” The one thing it can’t survive, of course, is being plowed under.

A farmer across the road was out with a big spraying rig applying chemicals to a wheat field. Trevor gestured towards a nighthawk flying ahead of the machine and said, “Someone should take a picture of that–nighthawks are endangered now, mostly because of the effects of agricultural pesticides.” He continued, “You know, the government says that it’s unlikely that these grasslands will be plowed under because the soil isn’t that productive. But look over there, across the road: it’s the same soil there and it’s being farmed.” Even the richest soils have been exhausted of nutrients in over 100 years of farming. Modern agriculture depends on chemical fertilizers so the quality of the soil doesn’t really matter; it’s just something to hold the plants in place.

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The walk was cut short when a bull–one of a group of youngish animals in the far corner of the pasture–suddenly got upset that we were walking around in his pasture. As he approached, complaining loudly, we hurried towards the fence and the safety of the grid road beyond. We got back into our cars and drove down the road to look at a wetland, and then, as the sun (reddened from the smoke of distant forest fires) touched the horizon, we turned around and headed back to the city.

Trevor’s book about the plight of prairie songbirds, Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, has been in my to-read pile since it was published. I suppose I should get to it sooner rather than later, although I’m afraid it’s likely to be a depressing read. Nothing seems to matter anymore except making money, and if that means ground-nesting sparrows and pipits and longspurs disappear, if that means that the few scraps of native grassland that are left are destroyed by farming or resource development, so what? If such things don’t have a dollar value, they don’t have any worth. It’s such a sad, impoverished way of looking at the world, and yet it’s the only perspective that seems to matter these days.