In my last post, I was fumbling around with the concept of change, and my feeling of loss when I see the old ways going by the wayside. It got me thinking about a passage from Sea Room: A Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson. This writer never fails to take the time to explain something well and beautifully. While he was investigating the history of the islands which he owned, he was struck by the non-linearity of time.
This gathering of the Shiants’ sweet water, which has never, even in the driest summers, run out, always feels to me like an engagement with one of the oldest layers in the place. Where the materials like this are constant, and the uses to which they are put will always be the same whatever your beliefs, or language, or habit of mind, history collapses. It is as if time has not passed. This delicate sipping at an island spring is the same now as it must always have been...History does not move here in a single current, sweeping everything up into one comprehensive pattern of change, but in a laminar flow, different sheets of time moving at different rates, one above the other, like the currents in the sea. At the lowest level, the coldest and oldest, there is virtually no movement. Life down there is still. Gather the water at the well and you are performing a Bronze Age act. Dig over the peaty soil in the vegetable garden and you are doing what has been done here in the Middle Ages. Call Sarah on the mobile phone and you are doing something that wasn’t possible until the late 1990's. This is not, as people so often say of a landscape, a manuscript on which the past has been written and erased over and over again. It is a place in which may different times coexist, flowing at different speeds, enshrining different worlds.
On a couple of occasions on the Camino Frances in 2008, I was thinking somewhat similar thoughts, even (or perhaps especially ) on Day One!
As the afternoon went on, I came to the first village since the hilltop. Uterga reminded me strongly of England, with its stone walls along the main road, enclosing people’s gardens, and granting the privacy from the endless stream of pilgrims, its impossibly narrow street with parking on both sides, roses growing without seeming to require tending, not quite rampant, but obviously comfortable. There was a lovely fountain by which to sit, though I didn’t fancy taking water from it to drink, and a beautiful twelfth century arched doorway to the church, which sat without ceremony in the row of houses along the street, as if it were nothing special. My North American eyes nearly fell out of my head! I pretty soon realized that this was how it was going to be. Everywhere there was evidence of great age, and long occupancy, undisturbed by “progress”, an unremarked part of day to day life. I wanted to breathe that energy in too, the deep ease that comes from being in a nest of humanity; a place where going about your daily life is supported and underpinned by millenia of other people doing the same thing. It has a redolence of acceptance of you and what you are about, with the grace notes of the undoubted originality of thought from each individual who has participated, synthesized into a rich broth of comfort. I understand what it is that Nick misses about being in England. It is this. For me, its not worth retreating to this, as opposed to moving forward to see what we can make of the New World, but occasionally, it smells delicious.
That last sentence reminds me of what a flip-flopper I can be. Only last Monday, there I was bemoaning the loss of the (not so very) old. Perhaps my "moving forward" stance is a defence mechanism against the paucity of that comforting depth of time. It will take a very long time for us to have that here in the New World, if we ever do. Things change so quickly now, its hard to determine what to hold onto.
Later on in the journey, I decided to take the bus from Leon to Astorga. I was feeling sick, and really hated walking through suburbs so I became a bus-a-grina for a morning. Like Adam Nicolson, I was conscious of our shifting place in the continuum of life. Here's another extract from my account of my journey.
In my journal that night, I wrote about my state of mind as I watched barren landscape unfold through the window of the bus.
“I took the bus to Astorga this morning, and pitied the poor pilgrims I could see wending their faithful way through the industrial and suburban sprawl for20 miles. I applaud their grit. I have no wish to share it.”
At Hospital de Orbigo, one peregrina gave up the road for the ease of the bus. I didn’t blame her. After this we got back into open country again, but it was flat and tan-coloured and featureless, and even the hikers walking the alternate route away from the highway looked tense and unhappy to me. As I stepped out of my adventure, and watched them struggling along, it occurred to me that the pilgrims, and probably sheep, were the only constant in an ever changing landscape. People had been doing this for nearly 1200 years now. The fields might have been forests once, and the highway just a cart track, but for centuries pilgrim feet had been faithfully treading the same ground. The nature of the pilgrimage had surely changed, but the sense of purpose, the travails, and the camaraderie were the same. The feeling of being part of this tradition made me happy. But it took being out of it to see it.
As William Faulkner famously said. "The past is never dead. It's not even past." . I am comforted.