As I said in a previous post, Glenn Gould is by no means an open book to me but I do know that in 1967 he made a radio documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation titled “The Idea of North.” It featured overlapping voices talking about the far north of Canada. In the introduction Gould says of the Canadian north, "I've read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians I've had no real experience of the North. I've remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.” Good stuff, yes?
A few years later there was a PBS/CNC film directed by Judith Pearlman that, with much adaptation, used that radio program as a soundtrack. You can find it on YouTube easily enough. We see a certain amount of walking in the film, featuring Gould and others, although we do see rather more of people on trains.
Now, it so happens that I’ve been reading Merlin Coverley’s new book South which is indeed about the idea, or ideas, and certainly the lure and competing notions of, the South; from south London, to the American South, to South America, to Antarctica. A look at the names in the index gives an indication of the range: Borges, Scott and Amundsen, Kerouac, Sir John Mandeville, Captain Cook, Darwin, DH Lawrence and Angela Carter among them.
It’s by no mean a book about walking, but walking will keep lifting its pedestrian head, and the character who really caught my attention was John Muir, the Scottish-born, American naturalist and walker, and again a man who is not an entirely open book to me. That's him below in Yosemite.
Coverley is chiefly interested in Muir’s 1867 walk from Kentucky to Florida, what became the book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, though this wasn’t published until 1914, the year of Muir’s death. Coverley says, “It begins with Muir in an exultant mood, as guided only by the compass, he walks literally out of his front door and heads southwards. He quotes Muir “My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest and least trodden way I could find … Folding my map, I shouldered my little bag and plant press and strode away among the old Kentucky oaks.”
To which I think one might reasonably respond, “Plant press?” And yes indeed Muir was a great presser of plants. Here is a stunningly low res picture of that press, from the National Parks Service website.
There are also some much better images of the results, pressed plants that Muir made into Christmas presents, thus:
It seems to me that fewer and fewer walkers carry flower presses with them these days, which is possibly a shame.
Muir is one of those people that serious walking folks love to quote.
“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
And here he is on children, “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.” Not exactly Sesame Street, is it?
This all seems perfectly reasonable to me – and you know I’m no nature-hater - but it also seems to me that this applies equally to walking down Oxford Street or along Broadway or down the Champs-Élysées. Wherever you walk you receive more than you seek, you always go out but really you’re going in, and if you’re looking for life and death you’ll find them easily enough wherever you set foot.
John Muir was founder and first president the Sierra Club from 1892 to 1914. The club’s current mission statement is, "To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives." He was also one of the earliest supporters and activists for creating American Nation Parks. Here he is with Teddy Roosevelt:
Now … when I first seriously ventured into the American desert to do some more or less serious walking I took with me this book, published by the Sierra Club:
I have continued to walk (and I dare say adventure) in the California Desert but I haven’t used the book much lately – it’s quite big and heavy, and it covers a huge area, so I’ve tended to buy and use smaller, more local guides when I go adventuring. But since I’m now planning another smallish desert trip, I took another look at it. And I saw right away that when I first got the book all those years I turned over the corners of various pages indicating places I was thinking about walking, and they’ve stayed turned over ever since.
And it’s an odd thing, all the places I had in mind featured sand dunes. The Algodones dunes, the Eureka dunes, the Cadiz dunes, the Dumont dunes, the dunes in Death Valley – which I guess is fair enough. If you’re a desert newbie, as I was, you’re likely to think that sand dunes are synonymous with deserts. They most definitely are not, and yet I suppose they do remain the most recognizable and archetypal desert feature.
In fact, over the years I’ve been to all those dunes that I earmarked, and dog-eared, in the Sierra Club guide, but when I think of the American desert these days, then dunes seem a bit too obvious. I tend to think they’re just for the tourists and the day trippers which is probably very snobby of me. But wait.
The picture above taken in, oh good lord, the late 1980s, shows me walking off across the desert, heading for the Panamint dunes, which are that pale blur you see to the left of me in the far distance.
I got there. I even got to the top. And hell yes, now that I look at these pictures again I start thinking that maybe dunes aren’t ONLY for the tourists after all.
John Muir seems not to have been all that much of a desert-lover though he did move to the Mojave towards the end of his life for the sake of his daughter’s health. He stayed outside of Daggett (a pretty rough mining town) on a ranch belonging to fellow nature writer Theodore S. Van Dyke, and there Muir met John C. Van Dyke, Theodore’s brother. They did not get on very well apparently.
John C. Van Dyke wrote one of the great books about the desert (IMHO) although current scholarship believes a lot of it was "made up," called simply The Desert. It contains this passage: “The fancy has pictured one thing: the reality shows quite another. Where and how did we gain the idea that the desert was merely a sea of sand? Did it come from the geography of our youth with the illustration of the sandstorm, the flying camel and the over-excited Bedowin.”
Well, only to a certain extent. In my own case it came rather more from the movie Vanishing Point.