This Christmas, the Spouse and I almost swapped copies of the same book. Robert MacFarlane’s third book in what he calls a “loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart” seemed like a logical and lovely addition to our library. Really, I wanted it, so I thought the Spouse should get a copy. (He’d love it, too. I am certain of that) We’re keen long-distance walkers and, though the size of our little ones has recently reduced the scope of our rambles, we both dream in hiking boots. Next best thing to 25 kilometres-a-day might be a book about them.
But then I was tempted away from the walking book by recipes. I’d heard about the DIY Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen, which sounded like a good mix of readable and practical for my burdened PhD student Spouse. He reads too much anyway, I thought. Better send that boy back to the kitchen. Wrapped, the DIY cookbook was wonderfully heavy and sat contentedly underneath the tree. Next to the wrapped copy of MacFarlane with my name on it. Christmas morning equalled win win all round.
A – because of course, the MacFarlane ends up in the house.
B- because the cookbook does, too.
And C- because the Spouse now has recipes for duck proscuitto. And home-made sriracha sauce. And sugar cones. And bacon jam. (I may not have included enough wins in my previous paragraph.)
I’ve only just started in on the MacFarlane book. This one is called The Old Ways: a journey on foot. I’m finding it’s one of those books that asks you to read it slowly and deliberately. Step by step. Which works. The book is an exploration of ancient walking paths across a wide collection of places – beginning from his own front door in Cambridge and then rambling throughout the UK, and on to places farther afield – Palestine, Spain, and the Himalayas. It is the intersection between walking and awareness that occupies MacFarlane; for him, setting out on foot opens the mind to ways of knowing that might be reach in no other way. I like that – the idea that we can walk our way into understanding.
Maybe it’s the walking itself – exercise that at once connects us physically with place and time, and also allows us somehow to slip away into imagination and memory. Maybe it’s the perspectives, familiar or utterly new, that awaken something in us as we stop to look around. Maybe it’s the sense of place.
Landscape often becomes a metaphor as we try to understand ourselves. We talk about paths and journeys when we look for meaning. We wonder about the way to go. Our own faith language is rich in this kind of metaphor, and we are drawn to stories of travelling people. Natural, I guess. With Abraham and Sarah as our grandparents, and Jacob, Moses, Miriam, and Paul all crowded round the family dinner table, we’re bound to think on our feet. We are, in many ways, a pilgrim people.
Here in Scotland there is a tradition of first-footing at New Year’s. The first visitor to walk into your house after midnight brings gifts of food or fuel (and preferably whisky) and also the fortunes of the year to come. We wait for luck to walk in. Or we walk it into others’ homes. When I was little, my mum always bundled us into our snowsuits after New Year’s and marched us to the Scottish granny who lived in the bungalow across the street. In our mittened hands, we carried well-wrapped baking and, as instructed and rehearsed, carefully and clearly proclaimed Lang may yur lum reek! Or something shouted to that effect. Long may your chimney smoke. May our footsteps bring you fuel and food and fortune. Blessings aplenty! Happy New Year!
I like the idea of walking into the New Year. I’m not sure if I’m hoping more for luck or understanding this coming year. Understanding for the Spouse, I’m sure, as he’ll start writing up his thesis, but luck, too, as he still has a lot of research to do. And luck for the kids – health and happiness and settled hearts and no misfortunes. School’s ahead this coming year for Blue, and Beangirl working through some of the difficult social side of school, so I guess they both need understanding, too. And sign me up as well. Heaps of understanding needed and a little luck and grace abundant. The necessary ingredients. As always.
At church yesterday, our minister closed the service with words by the poet Minnie Louise Haskins. I thought that they are good walking words for the New Year ahead, and so I give them to you.
Happy New Year, my friends. Walk well.
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.