Countryside Wanderings

It's amazing how things develop. After all, this blog started out as a news section for the rest of the website. With encouragement from readers, it has become a place for relating my countryside wanderings and musings about the world of outdoor activity. Walking, cycling and photography all are part of what I do out of doors and, hopefully, they will continue to inspire me to keep adding entries on here. Of course, there needs to be something of interest to you, dear reader, too and I hope that's the case. Thanks for coming.

Category: Books

A longer reading project

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

Over the years, I have been prone to buying books with good intentions and then hardly getting around to reading them. This has been known to apply as much to paper books as their digital counterparts and I have been getting through a backlog of the latter since last autumn.

The reading material itself has been varied with travel writing from the likes of Dan Kieran, Bruce Chatwin and Jack Kerouac seeing inclusion along with other subjects covered by the likes of Clive Aslet and Christian Wolmer. Amongst these have been works from Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, with the latter featuring through every month from last November until this one.

What I have discovered is that reading nineteenth century prose takes more effort than what is found today. Sentences feel longer and have more packed into them. The same applies to paragraphs that spread from one page to another. Even so, there are rewards in revisiting observations from another time for the sort of descriptive writing from centuries ago is more of a rarity today.

Returning to the Scottish naturalist and conservationist John Muir, my chosen task was to work my way through an extensive compendium of his collected works along with a volume in tribute and it is that which is the main subject of this post. In the U.S.A., Muir remains a revered figure and he is someone who appears to have fitted much into his lifetime too.

It was not just a childhood spent in Scotland prior to a move to Wisconsin either. Still, that childhood was a severe one with corporal punishment at home and school so go with schoolboy scrapping. Throughout all of this, there was a growing love of nature that was to define him. Engaging in that persuasion often got him punishment from his father yet he and his brother continued regardless. Such things were regardless as straying away from the path of Christian righteousness.

The hardship continued in North America with lots of hard work to build up a block of farming land from what was wilderness. Still, the appreciation of nature grew and there even was time spent inventing various clocks and other contrivances. That time was made by getting up part way through the night, an act that bewildered his own father.

The inventions were to see him heading away from home on an early trip to a fair and that was followed by four years spent at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Though a degree was not gained, there was plenty of mental enlightenment that preceded a time of factory working that was ended by an accident that nearly blinded Muir.

It after recovery from that incident that he began his long walk to Florida by way of Kentucky and Tennessee. Along the way, he had plenty of time for observing natural beauty before a bout of malaria laid him low. Though he made it as far as Cuba, the intended journey to South America had to be abandoned in favour of one to California that took him via New York.

It was his explorations of the High Sierra that would make his name. Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Hetch Hetchy and other such spectacular valleys would allow him to investigate the effects of glaciation. Mountain tops like Mount Shasta would see him climbing them, even when the weather was not that hospitable. One incident on Mount Shasta got a repeated telling. All the while, his health improved and his strength advanced as he observed grand fauna like the giant Sequoia trees endemic to California. Variations in weather were much experienced too with storms being relished; when most of us would stay indoors, he would be heading outside. Quite what people must have made of this and his other exploits would have made interesting reading not unlike what some write in our own times.

From California, he went north as far as Alaska while also visiting Oregon and Washington State too. The Grand Canyon was another place that he visited as was Yellowstone National Park. His trips to Alaska had him exploring glaciers with a view to seeing how their action related to what he saw in California. As well as Muir’s own published accounts, Samuel Hall Young also published his own tribute to the man with whom he too explore places such as Glacier Bay. Muir embarked on a summertime sea journey to the Arctic as well so he got to know Alaska and neighbouring parts of Russia better than many at the time.

There was one trip back to Scotland later in life and he also appeared to get to other parts of Europe as well as Asia and South America. Before all this, he married and settled down to run a fruit farm though that was not his real calling. His wife often sent him away to mountain country to get his fill of the wild places that he so cherished.

That love of nature must have turned him to conservation for he was one of the founding members of the Sierra Club, an organisation that continues to exist today. It also was reflected in his writing for he campaigned for National Parks and decried the effects of sheep grazing on wild meadows. Lumbering was not seen as a legitimate activity always nor was the building the railways. It was after an unsuccessful campaign to stop the building of a reservoir in Hetch Hetchy valley that he passed away.

His legacy has persisted with people still reading works like My First Summer in the Sierra, A Thousand-mile Walk to the Gulf or The Story of my Boyhood and Youth. These are just a small selection of what I ended up reading over the last few months. There was some repetition along the way but that probably can be found here too. The nineteenth century prose took some effort to read and things undoubtedly have changed since the times in which it was written but there was much to enjoy. In their own way, Muir’s books and other writings describe many parts of the world that I have yet to visit and the effort was worth it for all that. The enthusiasm and alternative approach to life percolated through the narratives too and the thinking has remained until our own time. Let’s hope that it does so into the future.

Time

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

2017 has at occasions been plagued by the same anxiety: having enough time for dealing with the aftermath of life changing events from the last few years. It is not just the events in question that have given me pause for thought but the also the new responsibilities that are my lot after inheritance. The result is a period of reassessment away from my main work profession after a five week sabbatical did feel long enough for a fuller recuperation.

There also is a need to reflect on how life is going because bereavement can refocus one’s thinking. A busy working life and the presence of deadlines make it too easy to delay the process of grieving and it may be that I have done just that. The combination of keeping a day job going while legal work was ongoing certainly can fill anyone’s mind with a lot to do but the emotional toll remains inescapable. The motivations are different too because you can feel a need to patch up your emotional state to progress whatever needs doing when you just need to allow things to take their own course.

It is that time for emotional healing that I crave and I do not want to rush things in case that causes trouble later. This kind of healing is not something that can be achieved satisfactorily using holiday allocation alone because it is so tempting to fill that with fleeting distractions from everyday living. Over the last few years, it may be that I have tried doing that when slowing down and making more space for myself was in order.

Outdoor activities like walking and cycling help so I hope continue wandering through countryside because those strolls help wherever they are, be it Scandinavia or Scotland. There is something about what is called slow travel that allows the space and time to work through life’s cares and I have been reading Dan Kieran’s “The Idle Traveller”. Kieran observes that many punctuate a working life with short overseas escapes when what you need is deeper immersion where your thoughts can be followed to their own ends without any deadlines or timetables. It is a thought that resonates with me.

There is another side to this apart from slow travel because I am discovering that other quieter interludes are needed too, especially as the speed of everyday life makes it feel you are in an emotional slow lane. That might be telling me that a less intense working life is in order and a fulfilling one would be ideal. It is a thought that I will hold as I navigate a new stage of life’s great adventure.

Thoughts on recalling distant memories

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

Elsewhere on here, I went about recalling a trip to France from my schooldays and found out just how much had faded. Life’s events have a habit of doing that to do as I have found over the past few years. Stress at work, worries about family and bereavement are all enough displace what went before and anything else that may have been going on at the time. It is just as well that I have an archive of photos for stirring my memories and some recent reading reminded me of this and how important it can be to look after those reminders.

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s accounts of his youthful excursion from Britain to Istanbul (or Constantinople as he called it) over the last few months amazed me with the powers of recall until the I came to last of the trilogy. This received posthumous publication following editing by Artemis Cooper (I too know what it is like to posthumous editing since I have website where my father’s writings on history are to be found and there is more to add to what already is there) and feels incomplete compared with what went before. In fact, it appears that Leigh Fermor often struggled with it only to have to stop due to the lack of inspiration. Those fruitless efforts must have led to the pained passages about the loss of diaries before the rediscovery of one got the whole narrative flowing again until it stops right in the middle of a sentence. Excerpts from contemporary diary entries bring matters to a close at Mount Athos in Greece with scarcely much said about the planned destination for his journey. It is not for nothing that the book got the name The Broken Road and, though initially disappointed by the lack of complete closure, I now reckon that the incomplete feel has more to say to me. That is not to say that the urge to do some editing of my did not seize me from time to time and I might have been tempted to get around what was blocking Leigh Fermor by adding in more of the times he spent in Romania and Greece afterwards with references to the last stages of the journey that took him to those places in the first place. It may not have finished things like a more conventional narrative but I could see something like that fitting together better.

The earlier books are more polished with the loss of a diary In Germany doing little to break up the narrative of A Time of Gifts, the first part of the journey that shadows the Rhine and the Danube before it stops on the Hungarian border. The same could be said of Between the Woods and the Water, which took up the story until the Iron Gates, and a rediscovery of a diary helped to to drive along nicely the writing of that. Hair-raising escapades litter the whole story and I suppose that meeting memorable characters helped ensure the survival of memories as much as retrieving a previously lost diary. Those escapades hint at a gregarious and inexperienced youth who charmed his way across Europe with his good company ensuring kindness along the way, a counterpoint to my own more cautious self. The observations of the cultures encountered along the way were as insightful as the descriptions of the histories that were learned from many a private library. As I was reading, I was being introduced both to a lost world and a part of Europe of which I scarcely knew very much at all.

It is twentieth century history that is to blame for that with the rise of communism creating an Iron Curtain across Europe that only fell in 1989 to make the 1990’s a largely hopeful time in which to be living. Leigh Fermor was encountering the upheavals of history too on his journey. The aftermath of World War I was being felt from Austria eastwards. The Nazis too were on the ascendant at the time and Leigh Fermor after all passed through a Germany not long under Hitler’s rule with news of the assassination of Austria’s prime minister emerging later. Amazingly, these worrying developments did little to intrude on the good moments of the journey and became a contrast to what World War II was to do later on. The war and its aftermath took its toll on Leigh Fermor’s situation since he lost access to diaries that he left in Romania while he returned to Britain to play his part. At times in his tale, he wonders what happened to the friends that he made on his crossing of Europe after the rise of communism and they already had lost much because of land reform before that.

Nevertheless, his being on foot for much of the journey caught my attention since that is my favoured means of exploration aside from cycling. The latter was never of a mode of travel for Leigh Fermor while episodes of travel in motor cars and on trains litter the narrative as well as on horseback across the plains of Hungary but it is those stretches where he is walking alone where the most acute observations were made. Rivers were followed and mountains encountered, much like my own wanderings, albeit in countries that I never have visited like the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Czech, Slovakia Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Even with my new-found taste for going beyond the shores of Britain and Ireland, some of these may continue to be surveyed from afar while others like Germany and Austria are on my wish list.

Thoughts of Killarney

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Earlier in the year, I was surprised to see a book on Killarney National Park featured in an issue of Outdoor Photography. It was Norman McCloskey’s Parklight. Though some of the images chosen by the magazine were not entirely to my taste, I still ordered a copy of the book for my inspection and there are photos in there that are more to my taste so it was a delightful acquisition. Deservedly, it got airtime on RTÉ Radio 1 in the home country of it’s Limerick born author so I hope it has had an audience for the gems found between its covers.

In fact, it brought back memories of day trips to Killarney made with my parents when they still were able to do such things. the last of these was on a scorching Sunday near the end of May in 2010. That had us revisiting delights such as Moll’s Gap, Lady’s View, Muckross Park and other familiar haunts. Looking back on it now, it was fortunate that the day came that the course that life has taken since then meant that such things are less thinkable than they were in those days.

During two decades of visits, there were a multitude of visits to the aforementioned spots but that was not all. There was a mad car ride (in the family Nissan Sunny no less!) on the gravel track through the Black Valley and the Gap of Dunloe in the heel of an evening while the jarveys were calling it a day. That was not all there was on that day for it was a long drive that was undertaken and cows needed milking after we got home. We celebrated our parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary with a boat trip on Lough Leane that started and ended at Ross Castle; the golden wedding anniversary sadly was beset by my father’s ever increasing frailty. Torc Waterfall was visited of a greyer and damper day but was none the worse for that and there have been many, many more.

Nowadays, gallivanting as far as Killarney or other beauty spots in Ireland’s south western corner have to be put on hold but McCloskey’s book got me dreaming a little of the hospitalities offered by a short hotel stay in the town. Ross Castle and Muckross Park are near at hand so old haunts could be retraced. Not having to worry about the patience of a parent not so interested in walking would be liberating too so trots as far as the Meeting of the Waters. Passing Torc Waterfall to follow the Kerry Way out around Torc Mountain and others surrounding it, such as Mangerton. Of course, there would be more than this near Ireland’s highest mountains, MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. For now, these are dreams in search of an opportunity but no one has excursions without there being ideas beforehand so that never is a bad situation.

The North

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Having been tempted by a recommendation from Simon Armitage (Yorkshire poet and author of Walking Home) on the cover of the hardback edition in a bookshop, I got a digital copy of Paul Morley’s The North and set to making my way through it. Anyone seeking something with a linear narrative will not find it here yet it lets one on a lot of the spirit of northern England in its own inimitable way. The mixture of memoir, digressions and side notes takes some acclimatisation and I found the sense of repetition in the  book’s early stages a little frustrating in that it felt as if not much progress was being made. Maybe that was because of the description of a young mind’s developing consciousness and sense of place and belonging to there. Later on, things grew more linear when it came to telling of how Morley worked out his place in the world and what trade was to allow him to pay his way in it.

Interspersed between these, there is a reverse chronology of notable events in the north of England, especially when those relating to the development of the place and those who come from there. These include politics, industry and the better known folk associated with these. The interjections complemented any explorations of the conceptualisation of what it meant to be northern English and how the north of England came to be how it is in the main text.

Because I read the book in fits and starts before longer journeys allowed me to spend more time with it and grow accustomed to its eccentricities, a few months elapsed before I finished it during that trip to Edinburgh a few weeks ago. The non-linearity of the narrative meant that that it took some work before I got used to it and the fact that I was reading it on my Nexus 7 made me wish for hardback so that I could see more progress (one came into my possession later so I can dip in and out of it during free moments at home). However, it was the electronic gadget that ensured that the book was with me when I could make time to read it, a common failing of mine when it comes to paper editions of books. Apparently, the inspiration for the book’s structure came from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and it was the familiarity of many of the places described within its pages that drew me along while filling me in on a lot of details that I otherwise would have missed. For one thing, I never realised how fluid the Cheshire-Lancashire county boundary has been over the centuries and there was but a single lesson found in those pages.

After the effort of working through The North, it’s time for a more leisurely read and Ramble On by Sinclair McKay is just that. The story of how recreational walking became what it is for so many of us today may be somewhat familiar to me but there always are other insights and these are to be found here too. Still, I am tempted to sample Tristram Shandy to see just how contorted its narrative is and test how it inspired the flow of The North. For now though, that can wait because it is best to take things easy while life’s events allow you to do so.


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