Contributing to the Path
All along this road
Not a single soul – only
– Basho (trans. Hamill)
I walked the path today, though I couldn’t see the path. Two or three times each year I have this privilege: to contribute to the path that leads to the village; to rebuild it from raw earth after harvest or ploughing has erased it from the ground. The path predates the road my house is on – and, of course, the house itself, which was built to the path as a farmworker’s cottage: one might say that the path which runs to and through the farm called my home into existence.
To contribute to the emergent path feels like one of the most vital connections I have to those who preceded me in this place. Every year, I have the opportunity to do as Belloc wished: ‘For my part I desired to step exactly in the footprints of such ancestors’ – although, no, not as he wished; something greater than he wished. For those footprints, at least in the literal sense, are erased each season-cycle – worked away – and we are given the opportunity to constitute a new path in the same place, to re-enact the tradition, with our own footprints.
Any of us. Each of us. All of us.
The geographer Tim Ingold said of landscape that it is, ‘The world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit its places and journey along the paths connecting them.’ What greater participation in – sharing of – landscape can there be than digging our heels into the earth to simultaneously inhabit a place, journey along it, and keep the promise of the path to our unknown antecedents and successors? Landscapes are messy things. They are muddled. The path I contribute to is a gumbo.
‘Landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time and space, or between nature and culture.’ – Barbara Bender (as remembered by Doreen Massey).
The path seems to be static – to be centuries old, a line drawn on the earth, when really it is only a line drawn on the map. It is an idea until we join together with our footprints to create new memories, add to its legacy. Its ancientness, and its humanity, these are jokes played on us by the landscape – jokes we can laugh with or laugh at, but jokes nonetheless.
The path doesn’t care whose boots dig into its soil, it just wishes to emerge. It called into existence my home, my neighbours’ homes, the road; eventually that path played its imperceptible part in creating what my son calls ‘the fast road’, which connects East Anglia to England. And every year, a few times a year, we collude once again – each of us alone, not seeing the others, not knowing their colour or creed or age or ‘local’- or ‘outsider’-ness, but still in silent conspiracy with one another – to remake this thing that gives us life as powerfully as home or hearth.