“Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.” Thomas Clark, “In Praise of Walking”
London is officially a forest, according to the UK Forestry Commission, the body that studies people and trees, among other things. There are about eight million trees in London—roughly one tree per human inhabitant.
Does this mean we all have a personal tree? I have been looking for mine, and I have a few contenders. Oh, to be a tree in London, waiting to be claimed, noticed, loved.
I wait patiently.
“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” Helen Keller
The first day of the week was the earliest I awoke, around 4:30. Sleep parted drastically, and an invisible hook pulled my consciousness out from behind the curtains. Get ready, it’s time, go see the world!
I stepped out into the darkness. The solstice is upon us. It brings thick air of a country that rests in the thin part of the daylight wedge. There is fraternity in these hours. In the park, there were people with dogs and dogs with collars and collars with lights. What normally passes as raucously wild, hind-sniffing jamboree became a luminous display. Reds, blues, and yellows, moved in patterns of height and depth, speed and rest, left and right—abstract yet instinctual.
There is truth in the abstract. The lights—and, moreover, the movement—not only lighted a field of play, it defined the space of connection. Like a member of the unseen audience, I watched, and in doing so, communed.
Meanwhile, as natural light emerged from behind the earth, more bodies appeared. Those of owners, slouched by sleep, perhaps ache, dangling empty leads from cold fingers. They communed too, brought together by the exceptional things people do for the dogs they love, in the forbidden morning hours.
“That is how it was. It is not so any more. But the ghosts of these old hymns sing through us still.” Laurie Lee, “Harvest Festival”
The second day, there was a thick yet hollow fog. The kind that defines the isotropic space in which it is impossible to orient oneself. American artist and writer William Fox has spent his career studying how our consciousness forms land into landscapes. In particular, Fox believes that in such visual consistency of landscapes, “our natural navigational abilities begin to fail catastrophically.”
A viscous melancholy held sway. I longed to let go, to cut that which distresses and causes fear. To cling to those moments of deep, inner truth and one’s best self. Instead, I found my bench and anchored there, in the beginning of this December week.
The fog never lifted, but I reoriented once I stepped back into my apartment and saw my stabilizing and ordered artwork, one with corners, lines, and variety.
“I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau
On day three, I captured headless swans.
There is a point, apparently in the morning, at which Serpentine swans migrate in their wedge from one part of the park to the other. Today, I captured them, quickly, with my camera. I watched them for a while. They seemed leaderless and rudderless. Is there anything more terrible than fathomless depths of water beneath us? Yes, the terrible noise that comes from the throats of swans, stumbling through purgatory.
I did not linger long, not near the swans nor in the park. I returned home and crawled back into bed next to my still-warm husband. He grunted and fell into my shape. I felt alive again. I stopped thinking and slept. In the middle of this December week.
I only realized later, when I looked carefully at the photo, how headless and faceless the swans were. Reminds me of Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, where a man sits under bar lamps to avoid the great nothingness.
That not knowing, of our selves before birth and after death, is perhaps an irreconcilable aspect of human life and knowledge. We can but sit under a warm light. Or maybe, a tree?
“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you … I could walk through my garden forever.” Alfred Tennyson
The fourth day, I noticed that the Serpentine Sackler Gallery’s Zaha Hadid painting retrospective is open. Her detailed designs of form and space, created with the same irreverent passion and intelligence with which she designed buildings.
Of all the marks she left on this world, intellectual and structural, I am moved by this: “I started out trying to create buildings that would sparkle like isolated jewels; now I want them to connect, to form some new kind of landscape…” Again, this notion of landscape as a connected space we create. It is landscape that I try to achieve in my work. I will go to the exhibit, in the new year.
Right now, I want to sit again and stretch on my bench. It is firm but comfortable. Sturdy but has a natural, gentle give. Its beautiful frames lace spectacularly up one side like a gathering wave only to summit, break, and fall gracefully down the other in a froth of hard wrought iron. I could have traced it forever with my finger. I sit on this bench and imagine I am a lover. Nearby, a seasonally schizophrenic cherry tree blooms, springing eternally.
A man comes to sit next to me. I invite him warmly. He nods and we chat, looking not at each other but out. Is there anything more comforting than meeting a stranger with whom you share a view? Watching a stranger unveil himself to the sun, perhaps.
“We easily forget we are track-makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete—and these are substances not easily impressed.” Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways
Around this week—perhaps the first and third day, although I cannot be certain—I noticed some peculiar Victorian kerbstones near our flat as I walked to and from the park. The bumpy granite bears the marking “E.” Of course I was flattered and thought it rather clever. When I found two more, I decided to investigate. On the fifth day, I did.
Bristol stone mason Alistair Park writes on his blog that they are more than likely markings of the masons, even representing old meeting sites for the Masons themselves. In addition, Geologist Peter Dolan’s research into the matter, published in Geoscientist, finds that “E” is likely for electricity, not markings of the quarry company or an individual. Though, both gentlemen freely admit it is conjecture, and theory does not completely explain the nature of Victorian kerb markings.
Why “E”s exist is yet another truth unknown.
“That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, the happy highways where I went and cannot come again.” A. E. Housman, “The Land of Lost Content”
The week ends, the year ends. I found lighted dogs, tired masters, headless swans, a departed architect, myself in a kerbstone, hollowness, and a stranger who preferred the same view as I did, who reminded me of strangers everywhere and the gifts they bring. I delighted in these things, walked or was lead by them, and now, today, at the end of this December week, I leave them behind me as I depart.
But I have not found my tree.
Maybe if I relax, reflect, repent, renew, I’ll become the new me who can see it. Forming a landscape from the land.
Or, on the other hand, I can just continue existing as inimitable “E”, because that is all I’m given, and perhaps it will find me.
We all wait patiently, in hope.
I took the title of this post from a Delmore Schwartz poem, “Calmly We Walk Through This April Day.” Schwartz (1913-1966) was an American poet whose words and metaphors do not overly-challenge my cognition, that is, they make easy, beautiful – yet sublime- sense. Schwartz suffered a lifetime of mental illness and his poetry addresses numerous levels of perceived suffering and anxiety; internal, communal and among mankind at large. When I determined to write something similar to close out the year and imagine the next, the meager homage to Schwartz soon followed.
To keep up to date with all the latest news enter your email below.