Thoreau on Walking

I recently read The Atlantic essay Walking by Henry David Thoreau, published in June 1862. Firstly, how thrilling it is to read that by-line set in the 21st century medium of the Internet. Praise The Atlantic for doing such a beautiful job – imagine Punch or The Times delving so deep into their archives.

Walking touches upon an almost scatter-brained variety of tangentially related topics. I’m never sure whether the 19th century mind was more nimble, or simply that writers of yore lacked the affection of competent editors.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety – if only for his enthusiastic side-swipes at the small-minded European mentality (even the moon looks smaller there!) – but I wanted to pick out three themes that particularly caught my eye.

The Value of Time Spent in Nature

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

The Inexhaustibility of Local Walks

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. … Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.

The Re-Wilding of Humankind

I saw one day a herd of a dozen bullocks and cows running about and frisking in unwieldy sport, like huge rats, even like kittens. They shook their heads, raised their tails, and rushed up and down a hill, and I perceived by their horns, as well as by their activity, their relation to the deer tribe.

But, alas! a sudden loud Whoa! would have damped their ardor at once, reduced them from venison to beef, and stiffened their sides and sinews like the locomotive. Who but the Evil One has cried “Whoa!” to mankind?

The Tomb of the Unknown Arbour

This photograph is a sideways look at the distinctive bark of a maiden sweet chestnut standing in an otherwise harmless green in Wanstead, East London. The tree is nearly 6 metres all around, making it a veteran, perhaps 275 years old. What were you doing in 1744?

One tree that won’t be making it into the next century was found sprawled across the high street in the early hours of the weekend. 50mph winds were too much for the pavement roots. Wanting to write some sort of eulogy, I asked the tree surgeon / coroner what kind of tree she was. He drew a hand across his stubble and shook his head. ‘I know, but I don’t know the name.’

The Hollow Pond: A Run

It was one of those March evenings where the sun lingers longer than you expect for a land that’s still expecting winter.

I had been writing all day, under the influence of a single dried psilocybe mushroom. In contrast to my sedentary workflow, I enjoyed the feeling of my legs pushing away the ground and graffiti.

I ran alongside Eagle Pond with its magisterial views of the Crown Court, dodging between two boys on push bikes, and brushing the shoulder-slung handbag of a schoolgirl who veered digital drunk into my path.

As I ran into the forest, the water table rose to meet my trainers with a soft spring. Mud sops and splashes. My eyes and feet worked together deftly, skipping over roots, sinking into the sand, to the edge of the mythological Hollow Pond.

The pond is the afterlife of a gravel pit and you can easily imagine how its undulating dunes and hidden beaches inspired a song by Damon Albarn.

It’s Swallows and Amazons in Central London, paradise for fisher fowl. The swans make perfect mirrors of themselves in the water. Moorhens and coots dip and defend their territory. Canada Geese make a fuss on the shoreline.

Two laps of the skirt of sand that rifts and riles the waterside: I pause on a beachy spit, lie on the scratchy ground and stare out at a forested island, a puff of traffic just beyond the tree line. Fractal oaks against the sundown. A crescent moon hanging among twisted ribbons of cirrus.

Looking around at the amphitheatre of trees, the beech, the oak, the willow and the birch, for a moment I wonder why we can’t see sense sometimes, and I think of a friend who is a very long way away.

On the other side of a lapping inlet, another man is drawn to the water’s edge, where he holds a telephone conversation. I decide to run another lap of the pond, and surprise a woman with a red scarf as I crest a bank of gravel. ‘Glorious evening,’ I say. She looks up from her phone. ‘Yes, it’s lovely.’

Domesday Trees

I’m not the first to notice that trees are operating on a completely different time scale to us puny humans.

Take this wild cherry, for example, just now coming into blossom in the park outside my house. She’s about as old as I, and yet still doesn’t have her own BBC radio sitcom.

Some trees – most trees – live lives that are unfathomable on our human scale.

What could I possibly have in common with a Norman gent of the Middle Ages? And yet, only twenty minutes’ cycle from my blossoming park is the Domesday Oak, a portly 8 metres in girth, perhaps trodden into the ground by one of the conquerors themselves.

There’s a yew in Wiltshire that’s been carbon dated to 2,000 BC.

We gaze in awe at the Pyramids, Stonehenge and other man-made wonders of the ancient world, but forget the astonishing ancient bark living and breathing beside us still.

‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Nothing beside remains, Shelley might have written, except a stand of oak trees, a churchyard yew, a scattering of larch, a copse of juniper and pine, a mighty beech and a 6,000 tonne quaking aspen.

34 Trees, 2 Magpies, and Me

There’s a small park less than a minute from my house. Squeezed between residential side streets and the A4032, it boasts no unbroken vistas, no soaring heights, nor even, in winter at least, a single startling flower bed.

This is, instead, a landscape for tree watching.

I count 34 living in the park and in the neighbouring playground. All but three have long since left their leaves to litter the lawn and their deciduous branches hold still in the dry air.

The sun splits the empty branches of a London Plane, and chases the shadows across the grass towards me.

In the playground stands a palm, its pineapple crown surprised to be here. Side by side in evergreen solidarity are a pine and a mature holly.

The pine’s cones have fallen barren below their mother, but the needles are shelved out of my reach, and well beyond my powers of identification. Scots or Black. No idea.

The gentle waxy leaves of the holly, on the other hand, wreath her unmistakeable berries. At her feet is a prickly child, keen on the shallow sunlight of the open parkland.

The sound of construction filters across from the street beyond the Plane. The workmen are from a company called Maple. The litter on the bench beside me is a bottle branded Oasis. Trees, huh.

But I’m not alone. A pair of magpies strut their way over the grass, turning over dead leaves, looking for lunch. The shoots of next month’s daffodils, meanwhile, go about their quiet business in the soil.

The dual carriageway bawls a background sludge of white noise, but I can still hear twittering hidden in the holly, while the magpies chatter companionably among themselves.

I’m less than a minute away from computers and phones and notifications and emails, but I could be on a different planet entirely.

I’ve only been here half an hour, but I could be a different person entirely.

My fingers grow cold, my Thermos runs dry. Sometimes we go outside to return indoors.