Liberation is at hand. Qualified liberation, that is. As part of the gradual loosening of lockdown regulations, our government has increased the permissible distance of our daily wanderings from two to five kilometres.
And we’re all ever so delighted and excited. How easily pleased we have become.
Our euphoria is akin to that of primary school students when released from school for the first day of the summer holidays. This is an indication, perhaps, of how Covid-19, and our communal response to it, have altered our collective consciousness. Stripped of our pre-virus delusion that we were all masters of our own destinies, we have been psychologically reduced to the status of supplicant children.
It’s great to get out and about, nonetheless. As Charles Dickens wrote:
The sum of the whole is this: walk and be happy; walk and be healthy.
I’ve always been a walker. I like to wander and ponder. To savour the smell of the sea or the fragrance of flowers and plants. To observe the birds, bees and all creatures great and small and let my thoughts run free. Therapy for the soul. The ancient Romans had a phrase for such sauntering: “Solvitur ambulando.” – “It is solved by walking”.
Prior to the onslaught of the Coronavirus, many of the people to cross my path in my wandering would have been power-walkers. Feet pounding, arms pumping, shoulders hunched, heads bent into the mission, virtually oblivious to the world around them. Always in a hurry and too busy to smell the roses, as, indeed, much of the world seemed to be. Back then.
Remarkably, the power-walkers are few and far between these days and the parks and beaches are rich with people enjoying a saunter. Times have changed. For how long, I wonder?
This morning, for the first time in a month that seemed like an age, I happily ventured down to St Anne’s Park, which used to house the mansion and estate of the illustrious brewing family, the Guinnesses, until they sold it to Dublin Corporation in 1939. With 240 acres of woodland, sports facilities and gardens, it’s the second-largest municipal park in Dublin, the Phoenix Park being the biggest. Called after the local St Anne’s Holy Well, it’s a venue for occasional pop concerts during the summer and its Rose Garden hosts the annual Rose Festival in July (unfortunately cancelled this year). Its Tudor red-brick stables, renovated in the 1990s by Dublin Council as the award-winning Red Stables Art Centre, contain artists’ residences, exhibition space and a café.
The place is a magnet for locals and tourists alike. One of my regular haunts at this time of year is a field near the Chinese Garden where, in early Spring, hundreds of daffodils bloom in a frenzy of gorgeous colour. It’s a sight that never fails to bring to mind Woodsworth’s lines:
A thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
Alas, I’m too late for the daffodils this year. They have bloomed and faded and been replaced by dandelions, so I head in among the trees for a bit of forest-bathing, as the Japanese call a walk in the woods.
According to the essayist Thomas de Quincey, Wordsworth clocked up some 180,000 miles over his lifetime, traipsing around his beloved Lake District and the Quantock Hills in Somerset; no doubt his walks were fundamentally intertwined with the reflective nature of his poetry.
I emerge well-washed from the trees and make my way to the rose garden. It’s a tad early in the year and the flowers have yet to bloom, but the sun is shining, the birds are singing and an aura of great peace prevails. I sit on a bench and soak up the ambience. Before me stretches a vast variety of breeds of roses, the names of which seem designed to inspire flights of fancy. Fragrant Cloud. Melody Maker. Anna Livia. Bella Rosa. Leslie’s Dream. Chinatown.
Wordsworth would have loved it here.
A contemporary of his on the opposite side of the Irish Sea, and another great walker, was the poet Antoine O Raifteirí, the last of the wandering bards of Ireland. Stricken as a child with blindness caused by smallpox, he constantly traversed the country and earned his crust by playing the fiddle and reciting his poems in the big houses of the Anglo-Irish gentry.
Mise Raifteirí, an file
Lán dóchais is grá
Le súile gan solas,
Ciúnas gan crá.
I am Raftery, the poet,
Full of hope and love
With eyes without light,
Silence without torment.
I wonder if he ever performed here in St Anne’s for the Guinness family and their guests?
With all that walking, he must have been as sharp as a tack. Studies have shown that brain power is increased while walking and so a righteous ramble will boost your ability to think through a problem. For the likes of Raifteiri and Wordsworth, a good hike was probably akin to a productive day at the factory.
Of course, the most legendary literary walk of all time was probably that undertaken by Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was inspired by Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. The story of Ulysses, which traces the physical and mental wanderings of its hero, Leopold Bloom, through Dublin City, takes place on one day, June 16. Joyce famously picked this date because it was the day on which he first rendezvoused with the love of his life, Nora Barnacle. June 16 has since become known throughout the world as Bloomsday and is celebrated as such in more than 60 countries. Of Ulysses, Joyce said, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared it could be reconstructed from my book.”
All in a day’s walking.
American writing has been much about journeying and wanderlust since the early days of the wagon train, when the catch-cry was “Go west, young man,”. Go west they did in their hundreds, then thousands, then millions, whether in search of fame, fortune, glory or simply a place to call home, or in flight from famine, poverty, the law or inappropriate matrimony. So was established a culture of movement and a literary tradition that spoke to it. Witness John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These great treks involved trucks or cars or boats or whatnot; the United States is a big country after all.
The Massachusetts-born writer/philosopher William Henry Thoreau, however, was a firm believer in shanks’ mare, regarding it as almost a spiritual obligation. In fact, he wrote a famous essay called Walking (sometimes referred to as The Wild), which published in Atlantic Magazine after his death. He had walking sussed:
Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.