Something on my mind

You know that experience when a piece of music gets embedded in your consciousness so it keeps cropping up every moment your attention isn’t fully fixed on a task or a conversation? It can be any kind of music according to your tastes.

 

Some years ago a classical orchestral tune got into my mind while I was on a long-distance trail (the English Coast to Coast). It was quite repetitive and went well with the steady walking. I tried analysing it, working out what kind of music it was, what period and who might have written it. I though possibly Sibelius. Then suddenly after days it came to me – not Sibelius but Beethoven, the March Funebre from the “Eroica”. In that instant the music vanished and I could not recall it. When I got home I played the CD and there it was. It was replaced at the time by an Irish folk song (The Two Sisters) from a Clannad collection with the very appropriate line “so then she sank in the rushy swamp”.

 

In the last few days I found myself trapped with Joan Baez singing “Silver Dagger”. I hadn’t listened to a Joan Baez recording for ages. I found the CD and played it. That took “Silver Dagger” out of my mind and replaced it with “Fare thee Well” (“Ten Thousand Miles”). After a couple of days of that in the background came a change. “Silver Dagger” came back.

 

Poems and Treks

So I promised I’d try to relate all that trudging over moors and hills to some poetry, starting with my own.

Here’s one for a start:

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-GB
X-NONE
X-NONE

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0cm;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:”Calibri”,”sans-serif”;
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

WATERSHED

 

Did you see, there where the cloud broke

Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft

Roughly in line with the uneven river

Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it

Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

 

The broken impatient river carved the way

We leave the many-angled rocks behind

And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;

And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.

With cunning and husbanded strength

We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind

Recovering from a slip is hard

Recovering from the task impossible.

 

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”

No throne or light or monument

Only the slope is inconsistent

The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order

There is no river

These barren pools are the only water

 

And then the ghost of a trickle

A few thin fingers feeling

Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:

We have passed the watershed

We have seen the birth

Of a new river.

Somewhere there is a new land

But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

 

There is no warning

No sign, no new music

Just the realisation and the standing still

The dropping, blocking hills

The unknown, long suspected

Alien valley ahead

But half-familiar, like a dream

The hidden end

You feel you ought to remember.

 

The descent from the murderous heights

To the soft valley is always more dangerous

Than the struggling up:

The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage

To the eggshell-crushing fall

And the way to the low glittering lake

May be many miles round.

 

But at least the first task of the explorer

Seems to have been fulfilled

To show what he wanted to explore

Was there at all.

America is found

Mars glows dully but more clear

In the dark waters, something moves after all

Down the strange valley our suspected

Alive waters fall.

I guess it’s pretty obvious this was written by someone with experience of walking the hills. A watershed is the point at which watercourses divide: in other words, step one way and you have a trickle going one way; step the other way and the water runs in a different direction and the two do not unite, at least for many miles.

This poem was actually influenced most by a day’s walk over a watershed in Torridon in the Western Highlands of Scotland – not on a long-distance trail – and by climbing Black Sail Pass in the Lake District, most recently during training for a long-distance trail. But the experience of seeing a pass, of seeing great distances from the hills, of the fascination of seeing the nature of the country change as you trudge forward, and the excitement of seeing the start of a new valley down which you will go – all those are influenced by long-distance walking.

Of course the poem makes this stand for other difficult, risky  and exciting discoveries.

Now just a short excerpt from a rather long poem (“Shadowlands”):

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-GB
X-NONE
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0cm;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:”Calibri”,”sans-serif”;
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

CROFT

 Here between the tumbled stones was the door:

Tired men passed seeking warmth, hot broth or a spade

Woman with a sickly baby in hope

The occasional visitor for a dram and stories.

Now the tourist wanders inside

The wet wind flails without a whimper.

This was provoked by an actual ruined croft a little off the old drovers’ road which is now the line of the West Highland Way round the edge of Rannoch Moor and the Black Mount. What is particularly poignant is the still-clear track that leads off the main track to the remains of the croft (small hill farmer’s dwelling).

And some bits from my longest poem, “Six Strands”, written bit by bit while on a long-distance trail journey (the Wye Valley Walk):

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-GB
X-NONE
X-NONE

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0cm;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:”Calibri”,”sans-serif”;
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

MOUNTAIN

 

Little grows here. A scratch of stunted grass

And one surprising flower almost hidden

Simple and small like man, one shrill small bird

Breaks from a tumble of rocks and disappears.

 

Everything starts from here. A drop of rain

Will find its way to a river, a grain of grit

Will join a field or a burial ground.

 

Standing alone here on a better day

You can see steeple, orchard, river, inn

A sharp blue lake with bare scree shores,

But touching nothing, all’s another land.

Now the false friend of cloud is sidling in

Whispering to forget the distant things

But if you do, you’ll lose the near things too

It’s time to go.

 

FOREST

 

From a distance you can see the tracks, well beaten

Or largely abandoned, curving to the edge

And disappearing in the forest cover.

(and later:)

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-GB
X-NONE
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0cm;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:”Calibri”,”sans-serif”;
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

The curve and cleft of the land speaks of the river

Before you see it. Straggles of bush and tree

Mark out the living and the long-dead streams

That struggle towards the river.

(and later:)

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-GB
X-NONE
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0cm;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:”Calibri”,”sans-serif”;
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land.

All of these depend on a practical understanding of scenery: where there must be a river, for example, or how mountain environments differ from the valleys.

Enough, I think! Anyone else out there whose wild walking influences their poetry??

 

Treks

Last time I said a bit about long-distance trail walking, having just come back from doing the West and East Highland Ways. I set myself the aim of relating posts like that to poetry.

Well now, one thing at a time…

Here’s a brief Q and A on long-distance trail walking, bearing in mind that more poets than hill-walkers will be reading this.

Q: What’s long distance?

A: I wouldn’t call anything under 70 miles a long-distance trail. Even in Britain trails extend up to 630 miles (The South-west Coastal). In bigger countries it can be much more, like the 2,200 miles of the U.S.’s Appalachian Trail.

Q: What can you do in a day?

A: It varies person to person – and according to the nature of the country. My view is that pushing yourself to extremes like 40 miles in a day must mean you can hardly enjoy the sensations on the way. The most I’ve done on a trail in mildly hilly country is 27 and 30 in flattish country, but 20 in hill country is a good session. Take into account, as far as you can, not only the ascents, but the nature of the paths. You can make much quicker progress on a broad cart-track up a hill than on a narrow path going up and down between rocks, strewn with tree roots and rocks at all angles.

Q: They’re all in hill country, right?

A: A lot are, both because the scenery is impressive and because you encounter fewer areas you can’t walk through, fewer roads and fewer towns (navigating a trail through a built-up area of any size is really complicated). But most of the hill trails have lowland stretches and Britain has several coastal trails.

Q: Is it right you can have sherpas carrying your bags?

A: It’s not illegal, but in Britain sherpas of the sort that assisted Himalayan mountaineers it would cost the earth. The “sherpa” services contract to carry your pack from one day’s walking destination to the next by van, relying on the fact that many people will be walking the same stages and staying in the same places. This leads to fun walking, but to me it’s cheating. If you say you’ve walked the Pennine Way, you should mean you’ve done it carrying everything you needed on your back. As a Dutch businessman said to me at the end of the Coast to Coast, “It’s good to know that everything you really need in life you can carry on your back.” Deciding how you can cut the weight you carry, deciding what’s too important to leave out, is part of the challenge. And keeping the weight low is VITAL!

Q: Where do you stay overnight?

A: Some people camp (mainly “wild camping”, a term that’s quite new in Britain, though the reality isn’t). That gives you lots of flexibility and a nearness to nature, but it means you have to carry more food plus the tent. Crucially, it also means that if you finish the day with wet boots, they’ll be wet next morning (and this leads to foot problems). I prefer to stay in bed and breakfast, guest houses, inns or reasonably-priced hotels. Inns are my first choice and on many routes they’re quite numerous.

Q: What do you take with you?

A: NOTHING you don’t need – so I recommend no reading material other than maps and a guide book. I wouldn’t take a kindle either unless you can enter the guide book and maps on it, the display is really clear, which it wouldn’t be in black and white, and it doesn’t mind getting wet. On any walk of more than five days, count on washing some clothes and re-using them, but properly-washed socks are important. Even pared to the minimum, the list is too long here, but take insect repellent, sun screen and disinfectant (in the smallest, lightest versions possible) and two hats. Hats are useful against sun and rain, but they’re easily lost and it could be four or five days before you come to a place where you can buy a replacement.

Q: I’m pretty fit and can walk 25 miles in a day. Am I ready to take on a trail like the West Highland Way?

A: Probably not. You need to know what you can do over several days. If you count on repeating day after day for a week with a full pack what you know you can do for a day with a half-full pack, you’ll come unstuck. I always fit in a bit of practice before taking on a serious long-distance trail, ideally one or two weeks before. That might mean four days’ tough walking in similar country with a similar weight and the same boots.

Q: Are you a masochist?

A: Not quite. On every trail I’ve done (except the West Highland this time – the low point came when I took on the East Highland straight on from that) I’ve paused for sweaty breath on a gruelling climb or retraced my footsteps having gone wrong on a particularly long stretch, or pulled myself upright from a glutinous fall in a bog, or forced myself forward into driving rain, and said to myself, “You don’t have to do this – so why ARE you doing it?”. But the answer always came in a day or two at most. The scenery is fantastic, the sense of moving from one kind of country to another by the power of your own legs is marvellous, reaching the end of the day’s stage with a soft bed to snooze on, a bar to have a beer in and the prospect of a good meal is wonderful, the sense of achievement on reaching the end is unrivalled – and there’s something more than that, particularly on the longer trails. You’ve become a nomad. Your home is not in Birmingham or Bremen, but in your pack and in your head. You move on each day. It begins to seem like a way of life.

The quiet, the beauty and the lack of much else to do at the end of the day can help produce poetry too!

Next time I’ll look at a couple of my poems and see how long-distance walking might have influenced them. Then maybe I’ll find a relevant poem or two by other people (Wordsworth?). Any suggestions for that?

Borderlands

BORDERLANDS

When you ride into the lawless borderlands

Remember the stones and the streams, for direction is easily lost

And the cross on the hill may not be the one you remember

And the bones on the slope may be your own

Do not travel in December

For January kills. Do not wear a crown or a smile

For the robbers will find you. If you keep a ring or an emblem

Be prepared to lose it, but not to the visible robbers

If you make a song or a fire, rake over the embers.

Just here two shining hosts attempted to clash in battle

And failed: the bones of one are secreted by the glacier

The others are covered by the wandering high sand dunes.

Leave signs and messages by all means

They are many: some were never read, some may be your own.

The bogs enfold the banners, leather, lace.

Do not be surprised if the fire flickers into a form

Or the gully-clutched wind wails like a mourning woman

Or the face in the bog-pool is another person’s

Be prepared for the sense of something at your shoulder

And do not be shocked if your shadow wavers for another

Do not ride by the rock-face faintly carven.

What is this place we have come to between the mountains

The shallow hollow just enough for a tent?

You may find a buckle or a tooth and the grey shades cluster

To answer them death, to ride away from them death,

Or maybe you dreamt them as the ravens rose in triumph

As the sun fell and the moon rose and the stars’ fire

Beckoned the wolves’ wail, quietened the hare’s breath.

Why have you come to this place where people have died

In a stream over stones? What have you put in the bag you carry?

Ride slowly, ride on, be wary

For the borders shift, the dark cave grows, the river runs faster

And the broken sword in the soil where once lay a lake

Shifts and unites, for the time of the borders is coming.

This was a poem written in a kind of fever and followed the same day by two others which I’ll post soon. I’d had the idea of borderlands knocking around for weeks until a poem coalesced around it like a pearl around grit.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

The hills

I live in a county that’s famously one of the flattest in England (not the flattest: that must be Cambridgeshire). I grew up in Hertfordshire, not known for its ruggedness. When I was about 16 we had a family holiday in the Lake District. I still remember my amazed joy at seeing waterfalls running down sheer cliffs. I was hooked.

 

I do a lot of hill-walking on holiday, including long-distance trails: every day you move on and every day you get up on the tops.

 

Coleridge said of Wordsworth that even if you read his poetry with no knowledge of where he lived or was raised, you could imagine bleak, open hill country from it. I don’t suppose my poetry is more of the hills than the valleys in nature, but images of hill country occur all the time. My poem “Watershed” describes the experience of struggling up a high pass on to the hilltops, crossing a watershed and discovering a valley on the other side. It’s partly a metaphor for other kinds of discovery, of course, but the specific description would ring bells for anyone who’d crossed a high watershed, as I have. When I don’t write about a type of scenery, but need a setting for the poem, I find it’s often moorland and mountainsides with small, fast-flowing rivers.

 

There is less distraction, less detail, in such scenery. It bears the marks of history clearly – a ruined watchtower, an ancient stone cross marking a track, signs of a cart-track leading to a farm that no longer exists. These things are built over or hidden faster in the lowlands. So up in the hills it’s easy to have a sense of history and of past inhabitants and visitors. I often write about that.

 

It’s also easier to see a long way and to perceive how the land is organised – hills, streams joining a river, the valley, the point at which a road or track can cross the river. I think my long poem “Six Strands” contains a number of examples of this kind of thinking.

 

The hills are harsh. They can kill by fall, by snow, by exposure. Often they’ve been disputed borderlands racked by raids. Life exists by impertinence.

 

Up in the hills, you’re more aware of the sky.