"'Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering,' writes Thomas Clark in his enduring prose-poem, 'In Praise of Walking.' It's true that once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways --- shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets --- say the names of the paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite --- holloways, bostles, shutes, drifitways lichways, ridings, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths."
(Robert Mcfarlane, in The Old Ways)
Many was the time as a young boy that I was deposited along with my younger sister with my grandmother for a time, for a day even, no doubt my mother, then in her early Forties, exhausted from the care of two young children. We swung in a bench swing suspended from the massive arm of an oak tree, soaring dangerously high, the swing's chains slack and slapping. We chased a multitude of cats around the barn, rolled in the fall leaves, played mother-may-i on the front stoop and lawn. Inside, we watched my grandmother cook --- rolling out dough for biscuits, heaping ample amounts of lard on the counter, snapping green beans.
Mostly, though, we walked. Donning her bonnet, we'd skirt the pasture, round the corner on a now impassable cartway, and walk or skip to the strawberry patch, eating our fill. Hands red with berry juice, we'd run the rest of the way, to the creek that pooled under the Southern Railway bridge, wading into the cool water as my grandmother watched from shore. Sometimes, dangerously I suppose, we'd walk a ways on the railway tracks, balancing on the rails, before turning for home, hearing the whistle of the deisel train behind us.
On those walks we visited an overgrown, intriguing cemetery, its headstones all higgledy-piggledy, Seuss-like, the names on the headstones near obliterated by the wash of rain. Even then it was a graveyard in a forest, trees pressing in. We took care not to step on the graves, on the long-lost relatives laying there. Even today, they lay there, though there is no sign of their occupation.
We walked. We walked through a then dry lake-bed, visiting elderly people, taking food to shut-ins. Occasionally, we traveled a dirt road, but more often we navigated a meandering footway. I took for granted our walks, and yet the wonder of discovery, of places and people, of the living and the dead, of what was and what was already past, stayed with me.
While the land remains, the paths and cartways are overgrown. The dirt roads are paved, curbed and guttered. Bends were made straight. Semi-wilderness has been tamed. And yet when I go there, something of that place and of those paths, of those walks and of that wonder, remain.
You don't have to read far in Robert Mcfarland's ode to walking and walkways, The Old Ways, to capture his sense of wonder in the landscape of journey. His poetic prose and ample ability to describe his surroundings are delightful. What he captures so well in this naturalistic writing is the spiritual quality of places and of the paths that link them. Citing a phrase used by ornithologist W.H. Hudson, he notes how walking such paths may lead you to "slip back out of this modern world," of how so many wanderers "spoke of the tingle of connection, of walking as seance, of voices heard along the way." There is peril as well as promise in that idea.
Certainly places and the paths that connect them are more than soul-less inanimates. Given their creation by a God who made them good, who actively in Christ holds all things together, and who will one day redeem all things, as well as their trodding by those made in His image, they are imbued with His mark. Seeing a familiar oak tree now, or setting foot on the remnants of a dirt path more than 25 years after my grandmother died and more than 45 years after walking it as a child, it's difficult to call them only dirt and bark. They're carrying history. They're bearing echoes of an older story, one God is telling and into which I walked but briefly.
I'm still walking. Even suburbia retains its pathways. Still, particularly for children, there is a path from here to there that doesn't involve sidewalks and streets but back yard detours and creekside trails, the faint furrowed impressions of the plowed fields that lay under backyards and forest remnants. Not everything vanishes. Bend down and touch the earth and know someone else trod there, behind horse and plow perhaps, before the pines moved in, before the hardwoods came, before I came.
I know I walk among dumb inanimates. I know they do not have souls. I know better than to worship the created thing and not the Creator. And yet they are not mute. Places and the old ways that link them call out to me. They testify to glory. Isaiah the prophet gives voice to creation when he prophesies of the coming Kingdom:
"For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Likewise he Psalmist also enjoins creation: "Let the rivers clap their hands, let the hills sing for joy together. . ." (Ps. 98:8). Poorly schooled as we are in spiritualizing scripture, perhaps we miss the physical reality that these words foresee: Perhaps rivers and hills and trees sing and clap even now, faintly, overcome by the din around us, by a world bearing the weight of the curse.
Sometimes I think I hear them. But whether I do or not, they will not forever be still.
My grandmother was a path maker, and we followed in her way. Flowers and bushes and trees were familiar neighbors to her, and had we listened we might have learned their names. I regret I did not pay attention, did not heed her introductions. Now, when I walk in an unfamiliar city, I write down street names, say them aloud to myself, fast, letting them form a poem or song if for no one but me. Even city streets sing and clap His praise. Streetlamps light up and call Him blessed. Tall buildings sway in time to His song. Old ways, even here.
But then, my grandmother might say I am only imagining things. But she'd say it, I am sure, with a twinkle in her eye and, then, turn to walk.