In This Winter

Crossing the border from Bavaria to Austria, I passed through forests so deep in snow that the trees looked like melted candles. Dense growths of icicles hung from the roadside crucifixions, and frosted pine branches had been placed at the bleeding feet of the Christs like offerings to a pagan forest god. It was so cold that after walking half an hour my beard and moustache had frozen into knotted clumps of ice, and the water in my bottle was a solid undrinkable block.

The Alps, I knew, lay somewhere to my right, but for the past three days they’d been hidden behind a white murk. I was starting to think I might never see them, but just as my mind formed that thought, I looked round and there they were. It seemed amazing that things so huge could have appeared silently, and even more amazing that I’d been walking in their shadow all week without being aware of that massive presence. Over the course of the next two days they seemed to merge in and out of existence, sharpening into perfect focus and suddenly disappearing again, as if trying to make up their minds whether or not to establish themselves in solid form. It was like some kind of vanished kingdom, taking and losing shape before my eyes.

I noticed that the people I met who live in or near these mountains have a habit of talking about them in almost human terms. They imbue them with moods and personalities. ‘Sometimes we feel that the mountains decide to go away somewhere else for a day, as if they have a secret meeting place,’ said the couple I stayed with in Traunstein. And I found myself thinking similar thoughts during the day I spent in Salzburg, where the mountains seem to crowd around the city at different times of day, as if trying to nuzzle their way in.

At this temperature, there is no soft ground. Tarmac has become my friend again – hard and flat being preferable to hard and bumpy. Ploughed fields and frozen molehills are particular perils for the ankles. My body has to work twice as hard crossing open stretches of snow. Step-sink, step-sink, the schoosh schoosh sound of dry powder, a new rhythm to walk to. Trying to avoid a major highway, I took a shortcut through a steep valley where the snow was surfaced with a frozen crust that collapsed when I took too heavy a step, sinking me knee-deep. I could only proceed with tiny bird-steps, concentrating on keeping my body as light as it could possibly be, but whenever my mind began to wander – even starting to hum an old tune – I would crash back through the crust. The task seemed impossible. I was hardly moving at all. Exhausted, I threw myself down in the snow to gnaw at my half-frozen sandwich and drink the last of my mostly-cold coffee. Sometimes giving up is the best strategy – suddenly, out of nowhere, appeared two riders on horses as hairy as dogs. I leapt up from my snow-hole, brushing the crumbs out of my ice-beard, gesticulating at them like some sort of desperate goblin. I asked for directions, and I think that if they had raised their eyebrows or expressed any surprise at that point I might have despaired entirely – but the purple-faced man in the fur hat merely pointed me on my way as if I was doing nothing particularly unusual. Perhaps because Austria is a country of wintery, outdoorsy people, where the mountains are never far away and activities such as mine are not as rare as they might be elsewhere.

From Frankenburg to Ried I walked through a region of deep forest, again going cross country to avoid a highway. I entered the woods up a track of pure ice – a stream must flow down here in the summer – and once the track and the ice had ended, no paths lay ahead. It was the first time on my journey – and I’ve been going for two months now – that I was walking without the benefit of a road, pavement, footpath, cycle-path, railway-path, hiking trail, track, dike, canal, river, stream, embankment, verge or the border of a field to keep me going straight. There was nothing but rocks and trees, jumbled and disordered.

Trackless forests are not easy going. It’s extremely difficult to walk in a straight line – your eyes invent tempting trails to follow, which lead you in all kinds of wrong directions, and your legs automatically take you along the contours that suit them best, no matter how dogmatically your brain tries to keep them straight. I lost my orientation quickly. Everything looked the same.

A very different set of emotions took over in these woods. I felt a deep, fierce thrill to be in the wilderness at last, away from anything remotely human, but there was also an undercurrent of fear at the prospect of genuine aloneness. There was nothing and no-one to help me – all I could do was keep on going, and try to get out before dark.

After a couple of hours the trees thinned. Ahead was a clearing and telephone poles, half a dozen farmhouses scattered down a white hillside. I felt immediate relief at the sight of habitation – ‘there are people there who speak a language!’ – but also, with equal force, regret and disappointment. Suddenly the adventure had ended. Now I couldn’t go wrong if I tried. The whole forest walk felt short-lived, its wildness just an illusion – it seemed totally absurd that I’d felt anything remotely like fear, with civilisation just over the next rise.

Most of our adventures, perhaps, are like this. Flirting with the wilderness but knowing you can’t be part of it. Wanting to lose yourself inside it like you lost yourself in childhood stories, in imaginary realms – yet always fearing to go too far in, so far you might not get back.

But walking, I think, brings adventure closer. And in this winter, walking alone through a snow-covered landscape still seems like the greatest happiness I could know.

The Way

Edward Goldsmith, who passed away a few years ago, was quite famous in Britain, where he founded The Ecologist in 1970 and was instrumental in the creation of the Green Party. The Way: An Ecological World-View is his grand summation; it took him twenty years to write, and with appendix and bibliography is 500 pages long.

It is not well-known in America, where the University of Georgia Press publishes it. I first saw the book mentioned in The Revenge of Gaia, by James Lovelock. Lovelock was listing plans to combat catastrophic climate change, including spraying particulate matter in the atmosphere and building a sunshade in space. After several increasingly terrifying proposals, Lovelock took a step back and said that, since we couldn’t possibly predict the consequences of such massive bioengineering projects, it might be better if we returned to the kind of modest, responsible lives our ancestors once lived, as his friend Edward Goldsmith recommended in The Way. I decided immediately to go out and read it, since this seemed like a saner strategy than blocking out the sun.

The Way is a book for determined readers. First of all, to get past the first few chapters, you pretty much need to already be convinced of several things: that we are on the brink of an ecological collapse; that the past two hundreds years of industrial development have been a doubtful blessing for humans and the environment; and that we need to learn a great deal from certain pre-industrial societies and their relationship with the planet if we want any chance at decent survival.

Even if you are convinced of these things, and I am, Goldsmith does not make your work easy. You have to push through a mass of neologisms – heterotelic, chreods, homeorhetic – which only gradually sink in and then begin to seem useful. The early chapters are filled with cross-references – one page in chapter two, for example, refers a reader to five other chapters as well as the appendix for further development of ideas. It can seem like a maddening tangle.

This tangle, even if it might not be the best way to attract an audience, does end up serving a function. I think The Way is trying to be non-linear, associative, and extensively inter-linked as a mirror of the ecological worldview it is trying to describe. Each chapter is named after a certain principle – for example, ‘Natural systems are homeostatic’ – that is less a link in an argument than a point in a constellation (most chapters are only a few pages long). Goldsmith wants to show how everything is connected – from the move away from early Earth-based religions to the breakdown of modern urban communities – and he jumps continually from one subject to another. The connections between these areas are not usually defended with statistics; they simply exist together in space, and the lines form between them (if they do) through a kind of intuition.

I eventually accepted that Goldsmith’s goal was not to convince skeptics or suggest a definite course of action. As with Thoreau, the goal is not intellectual coherence but the communication of a certain spirit – a way of approaching the natural world – that can embrace a variety of responses. It is closer to religious conversion than argumentation. To his credit, Goldsmith realizes this:

Science (he writes) has not banished faith. It has substituted faith in modern science for faith in conventional religion. Ecology, with which we must replace it, is also a faith. It is a faith in the wisdom of those forces that created the natural world and the cosmos of which it is part; it is a faith in the latter’s ability to provide us with extraordinary benefits — those required to satisfy our fundamental needs. It is a faith in our capacity to develop cultural patterns that can enable us to maintain its integrity and stability.

Unfortunately, Goldsmith forgets that certain citadels do not fall easily to the weapons of faith. He opens the book by trying to take down what he sees as the reductionistic assumptions of modern science. It is an attempt filled with logical holes that even a sympathetic reader can’t fail to notice. Goldsmith begins by bringing up various mathematical models used in ecology, and points out that they cannot capture all aspects of reality (no one expects models to do this). In criticising the Markovian mathematical formula used to predict ecological succession towards climax, he doesn’t bother to indicate just what crucial aspect of reality is being left out. He attacks the neo-Darwinian explanation of evolution brought about through random mutations, but can’t explain by what other mechanism it might take place.

Look at the word that I used, though, quite unconsciously: ‘mechanism.’ These are the only kinds of explanations that most people accept as sound: cause-and-effect, the domino hitting the next in the line. But most natural processes do not work in this way. Goldsmith provides fascinating examples, like the relationship between salmon and mosquito larvae, and lays out the staggering array of complicated feedbacks and influences on what would seem to be a simple correlation.

His explanation is not intellectually satisfying; it is, in fact, not an explanation at all, but a gesture towards a mystery. A part of my mind – and most modern minds, I suspect – reflexively struggles against such mysteries and wants to do with away with them. When I encounter Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, or Goldsmith’s argument that an ecosystem carefully coordinates its own development, or a description of Cairnsian mutations, where bacteria seem to produce certain beneficial genetic changes in a non-random manner, I am constantly sputtering, ‘But how can these things happen? Who’s in control of it?’

Goldsmith cannot supply the kind of evidence that would satisfy this part of my brain. A similar sense of intellectual dissatisfaction occurs when theologians argue with atheistic philosophers, or intelligent design advocates with Darwinists. The former simply look stupid: they do not have an explanation to duel with the other one, only a sense that something crucial is being left out of the other’s world-view – and while I might still crave such explanations, I’m not so sure that they’re wrong.

So an ecologist won’t be able to say exactly what a new chemical will do to our bodies and to the natural world over the next hundred years. Instead, she might counsel a spirit of caution before we introduce substances with no precedent into our ecosystem. And she will inevitably seem muddleheaded in comparison to a scientist who has run laboratory tests that find no evidence of harm, until twenty years later people find that all of the earthworms are dying – or the bees – or the swallows – and that this is having unexpected and cascading consequences for the biosphere. It is only when the network begins to collapse that we can see how we have disturbed it. And then, maybe, we begin to learn a little humility.

As Tim Parks said in our old interview, people aren’t convinced by reasons; they become convinced when the bad news starts to pile up. As the modern belief in endless progress and constant development through technology yields increasingly useless marvels to go along with mounting environmental catastrophes, people, little by little, are beginning to consider other visions of being. Goldsmith’s instinct is to look back to what he calls ‘vernacular societies’ – from the ancient Greeks to Vedic Indians to African tribesmen – and draw inspiration from their ways of life. He doesn’t spend time considering the possibility of limitless green energy through various as-yet-uninvented technologies. He writes, quite reasonably, that it is presumptuous “to postulate an ideal society for which there is no precedent in the human experience on this planet and whose biological, social and ecological viability has never been demonstrated.”

Instead, the book provides examples of how philosophy and ritual helped keep these small human communities, both hunter-gatherer and agrarian, in balance with their environment for thousands of years. These models are not likely to suggest any practical steps to the modern reader – the divergence between the societies he describes and ours is simply too huge – but I’m glad that Goldsmith insisted on following his ideas to their natural conclusions. It gives the book a certain purity of spirit. Few people could hope to live up to this spirit (and certainly not a man typing away at night on a laptop) but it remains a true ideal, one that we can keep striving to make manifest in our various impure ways.

When I finished this book, and what began as confusion had turned to admiration, I remembered a passage from Chuang Tzu, when he describes Hui Tzu’s objections to his ideas:

I have a big tree called a shu. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them.

Remember, though, that animals love the hollows of a tree – a gnarled trunk will always be more full of life than a smooth one. The Way is stuffed with a lifetime’s reading, crankiness, and ideas both deeply felt and poorly defended. I finished it a month ago, and have found myself continually flipping back to odd spots and finding more and more to explore. If the world created by the carpenters and their measuring lines doesn’t strike you as a satisfactory place anymore, it is worth your time.

The Narrow Orbit of Our Belonging

It is eight o’clock on a chill winter morning, and my son is browsing over a bowl of porridge in the kitchen. He has woken to snow on the skylight of his bedroom, and is keen to be out at first light, watching the morning as it eases from the dusky remains of the night, seeing the birds as they splinter from shadowed hedgerows into the lightening sky.

For what seems like some years now, he has taken to wandering the lanes around our village, noting the changes of the seasons, the nesting habits of local birds, the arrivals and departures of migrants. It is a form of naturalism which places a high value on direct observation; one which owes more to Gilbert White than to David Attenborough, and which is increasingly rare. ‘If stationary men would pay some attention to the districts on which they reside,’ wrote White from his Hampshire vicarage in January 1788, ‘and would publish their thoughts respecting the objects which surround them, from such materials might be drawn the most complete county-histories. White’s diligence, his contribution to nature writing as a whole, is a reminder of the importance of patient, impartial observation, of noting changes as they occur, of making comparisons through a long acquaintance with a local territory. He expresses a rootedness in place which is all but unfamiliar to us now, a life lived entirely within the confines of one small English parish, a place which was all the world to him.

This identification with home, this yearning for the place which is most familiar, is the natural compass in our brains. Scattered as our lives are, we turn towards home for security, for familiarity, for shelter and rest. It is the ache which is better described in the Welsh word hiraeth; a longing for one’s homeland. Longing is the right word here: ‘Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distancesas the poet Robert Hass puts it. We each carry with us, in the kernel of our modern, fragmented souls, a yearning which may seem like wanderlust, but is in fact a desire for that which is most unattainable, that end to our restlessness which comes with finally arriving home. A longing not to do or achieve, but simply to be. Be-longing. Belonging.

In April 2010, the Eyjafjöll volcano in Iceland erupted, pouring clouds of ash into the skies above the North Atlantic. I remember the morning after it had happened, standing on my porch with a cup of tea, looking across to the familiar view of hills. Above them, skeins of alabaster cloud stretched across a spring sky of peerless blue. I was aware that, for the first time since I had lived here, the sky was not smeared with the vapour trails of aeroplanes. There were no airliners from Manchester and Schiphol, bound for Canada or the U.S., ferrying cufflinked executives from their first class lounges to their air-conditioned conference suites, the anonymity of place repeated from one confined space to the next. For a few days, the skies above Cumbria resembled those of my childhood, before the availability of cheap air travel commodified the world, before cheap breaks in Thailand or Turin consigned the Mini Traveller and seaside guest houses to a fogotten antiquity. I thought of the thousands of people stranded in airport lounges, the eerie silence which had descended on the vast acres of concrete beyond the glass windows. It was, very briefly, a world which had shrunk to a human scale, which forced us to look inwards, not outwards, to rejoice in the local and the immediate; most of all, to accept a limit on our ability to fly to other countries at low cost, whenever we wanted, whatever the impact.

The carbon produced when we take a short-haul flight to a destination in the middle of Europe – to Geneva, say, or Frankfurt or Milan – is around seventy-five kilograms, or the typical weight of an adult male. On the few occasions now when I am obliged to fly for work purposes, I imagine this dark mass of carbon on the seat beside me; a coal-shaped statue of a person about my height and weight, a shadow self. It is my dark conscience, my reminder of the impact of the western, modern freedom that I have, this privilege and power. As I rise to leave my seat, I feel the cold grip of his sooty hand on my arm.

I think of how the world was before we could make these journeys, of how the mysterious and exotic informed our sense of wonder. I think of my grandfather, who only ever travelled abroad once, as part of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, to the Western Front in 1917. As I was growing up, he would follow my own trips across Europe in his ageing copy of the Times Atlas, tracing the routes with his mottled finger. This ability to live inside our own homes and our own minds, to travel in our imagination, is the preserve of the young and the old, and of those denied their freedom; captives and refugees.

In the springtime of the ash cloud, I read Judith Schalansky’s exquisite book Atlas of Remote Islands. This is a book about not travelling; someone whose childhood in Eastern Germany had an enforced element of stability; a form of internal exile in which it was only possible to move beyond the Soviet bloc by travelling within one’s mind. A yearning for freedom and liberty became sublimated into a desire for the unknown allure of faraway places. She closes her introduction with a perfect reminder of the joys of such imagined journeys:

Anyone who opens an atlas wants everything at once, without limits – the whole world. This longing will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining what is desired. Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day. There is no more poetic book in the world.

It is a recognition that knowledge is a form of elegy, that to acquire something – a place, a memory, an object – is to abandon the yearning, to resign oneself to a small loss in mystery and uncertainty. In our insatiable desire to possess the world, we overlook the commonplace, the local, the immediate. We have seen the furthest reaches of distant continents, but will never know the seasonal stirrings of our parish, the way that Gilbert White did in Selborne, the way my son strives to do as he leaves the house, binoculars in hand, the morning light reflecting off the new snow.