The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers
20th May 2021
(Matsuo Basho 1664-94)
During lockdown I discovered the joy of reading books about walking. Restricted to walking from my front door, I became engrossed in books about walking in different landscapes and nature. Books about walking in distant places excited the imagination for future trips, but I enjoyed much more the consolation gained from revisiting landscapes I knew quite well and longed to visit again.
I also enjoyed poring over my local Ordnance Survey map and seeking out new circular walks from my front door, linking up regular footpaths with sections of long distance paths which transect my bit of Oxfordshire; Shakespeare’s Way (running from Stratford-upon Avon to London); the d’Arcy Dalton Way (Wormleighton reservoir to Waylands Smithy in the Chilterns); the Oxfordshire Way (Bourton-on-the-water to Henley-on-Thames) and the Glyme Valley Way (Chipping Norton to Woodstock).
What surprised me most is how little I really knew of my local area beyond a few favourite places I had repeatedly walked and I felt a certain amount of liberation and sense of adventure just walking from my front door, with nothing but a small backpack filled with a few refreshments. These paths were as new to me as if I had travelled to a far distant shore, and my powers of observation concerning landscapes and nature became much more acute.
Our quotation today comes from a 17th century Japanese work in prose and verse by the writer Matsuo Basho. In English it is known as ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ and it tells the story of a poet’s journey to a cold and inhospitable, even dangerous region of early Edo period Japan. Basho takes on the role of wandering traveller and priest, exploring the land and its spiritual history. His book, one of the most popular works of classical Japanese literature, expresses a sense of personal freedom at a time when society was very regimented. Much of its appeal is attributed to his bringing together of travelogue, spiritual quest and its metaphorical reflections of life.
And that makes sense to me because walking has always provided me with thinking time and also no-thinking time, when the rhythm of walking itself can lead to a certain ‘in the moment’ mindfulness. During lockdown when personal freedom was so reduced, walking offered the opportunity to travel and move through ‘the months and the days’ with time to reflect.
Basho says we move through the days and weeks and months of our lives in the same way as travellers move through the lands they visit; stopping only briefly at times, meeting people, making friendships that cannot last forever and leaving a fleeting remnant of our existence. Our lives are but a transitory exploration of a small corner of our earth.
Of course some of us may travel geographically further than others in our lifetimes but what we gain from any travelling will depend on the mind-set with which we travel. All journeying can help us on our personal journey if we are open to new experience and learning from it. Whether far or near, there is much to explore!