‘We’d been walking in the woods, with a real bounce to our step, in these most beautiful of days, with the light catching every breath and drifting cell of woodland being… We are entranced by the gentle strobing of the light between the trees, its funny so we laugh, the sound echoes in the trees, gently changing, not stopping, but continuing into the subtlety of a dreamed orchard, that greets us with pale and pulsating grasses and saplings of beech and lime besides cherry and wild berries of all descriptions. We notice beyond the forest, what we can see between the leaves and of the light itself is a dance, between the air and the plants and these incandescent diamonds that gleam between rivulets of green, like the fuse before it…
gentle and are given a breathing for a day of escape, the day of this day’s bliss, met with a kiss for befuddled toadstools everywhere…’
I happened upon this piece of writing called simply ‘We’ as I tried to upload photos, it had been saved in a fairly random folder on my computer from 2015. I had no recollection of writing and yet it seemed perfectly prescient, having returned from 5 days (most of which) in the Cevenne in France – spent out in the wilds of the national park, camping and walking the dense and lush forested hills. An experience and encounter which much mirrors the feelings and words of that writing, although there was no conspicuous ‘We’ on this occasion as this was a trip I undertook solo.
There’s always the part of such an undertaking (hiking/ camping out) which is like a shock to the system, especially where there are hills and mountains involved (and this terrain is known for the Gorge du Tarn and other steep cut valleys and ridges – although not for exceptional heights). When the difficulty of walking long and tough inclines (or declines) raises basic questions of fitness and capacity. This though, is almost always in some way a necessary hurdle – before the body generally remembers that it can do these things extremely well, even when there are not insignificant weights being carried. You are after all, bringing with you your nomad house, food, clothing, water, cooker and bedding. In some respects, like a snail – but essentially anything you will need to live on for the days and nights you are out there or will need to carry with you once located or sourced.
Water is almost always the singular item that commands frequent attention as to provision. The Cevenne is the area where Evian bottle (some of) their water, but when early on (and is often the case) I was reliant on what I could find among the woods, I decided to boil all collected water.
I was annoyed at one point however, when I had collected water for one of my bottles from a stream – noting that I still had 2 litres from Nimes in the other – to discover that I had left the valve open on that one (a drinking bladder) and all the water had leaked out – naturally wetting a portion of my plastic wrapped sleeping bag in the process.
But its necessary to resort only to practicality in the face of such things. So where’s the next source of water? How long before I need to get it etc? In some respects I was aware that for a day and a half I was close to being dehydrated, but as I had learned previously, the best way to deal with this is to take frequent, small sips of what you have to tide you over. It seems appreciated by the body, that the intake continues regularly and sustainingly, even while reduced from what any normal comparable circumstance would warrant.
Using the (IGN) 1:2500 map which I had purchased in Nimes (the french map while essential, definitely lacks some of the obsessive detail of UK Ordnance Surveys at the same scale) I was locating rivers and streams as near their origin as possible. On one such occasion coming along one of the long wooded valley paths, I propped the backpack against a tree just out of sight from the path and went up a hill for what became an hour long search up a steep incline for the source of a brook.
You become aware under these circumstances that there is something deeply necessary about isolating possible contaminants that might enter the water, especially in a forest where the density of material around you is greater than in say the unforested hills.
While climbing the route of the stream my mind inevitably goes to Ghibli and Miayzaki’s astonishing film Spirited Away, with the character Chihiro’s beautiful and beguiling unveiling as a river spirit that had lost his identity when his river was dammed. Such is the feeling that there is a continuity; a continuance and consistency at work in the act of pure – and yet utterly fluidic, self-contained, non-stop motion of flow and body, upon whose course you are journeying backward – to source (while remembering as per the Dao – that water is ‘nearly Way’).
Finding the source is always somehow magical, there the water comes and from inside the ground. We are so used to having things brought to us and for us (and for which we ‘pay’) that it feels like there is somehow a step required to get over the realisation that this is what we are always drinking. That the water is from the earth and the skies (and is of each of them) and we are simply another part of the planet that is upon its journey and transformation (as it is also for us in that we are like planetary rivers that constantly run through each other in worlds of abstraction and materiality).
We have been subtly and invisibly robbed of the realisation that our being and its sustenance is as much the planet; the earth, the land, the sky and the sea as we are ourselves. It is an understanding that it is essential to reclaim and now more than ever in order to wake our faculties of becoming with the planet and its mysterious depths that can wake beyond our widest reckonings.
In the context of lives and their content and the composition of our being, it could be said that there might be no dreamer as consummate as this world of ours and its productions. Partly derailed though we may have been along the lines of (comparatively recent) human history, it is as prescient and alive as ever, if only we could generate in our spaces the capacity to awake the awareness of this reality. Or as Deleuze might remind us using Spinoza, to wake the capacity for that thought and where it can lead.
While precisely occupied with the space as of each step in a journey and the constant thought as to navigation, camping spaces, water, the body, forms of the land – the time becomes transformed and transported into the rhythms of the terrain. While it takes a day or two to settle to this rhythm and the possibility of normalising such an exercise of transporting oneself – I reach a point where when I am making the journey towards leaving, yet this is when I am also most ready and capable to stay here and continue. The pack gradually lightens as you consume your food and the body toughens to the task (with some relish it turns out). Which meant that the final two days were where I walked the most and covered the most terrain, which over the years I have realised is not as important as simpy being there and being the experience of being there – but which nonetheless in the context of land, vistas, spaces brings a sense of widened reality.
For this returning path, it would have been possible to have kept to the dense forests of the first two days, shrowded as they had been in mist, but instead I chose an ambitious return climb and found myself reflecting finally that I felt I had been incredibly well looked after by the space and by the journey, even when things had been challenging.
While it had given the intense mystery of fog and mist over the first two days, which intermittently produced lengthy amounts of rain, I stumbled at the end of that second day upon a kind of French bothy. A maintained, communal stone hut (with an open doorway and no window) set into the granite bolders of the hillside in the middle of the forest. Like a hand of chance refuge where I could rest and light a fire, dry clothes and be out of the rain. To the third day, when the most beautiful weather of the trip arrived and I could relax among the beetles, crickets and lizards, resting on the granite that perched at the edge of the mountainside and out of which emerged this hut.
Similarly by choosing to push the route of the third day I was fortunate enough (in taking on a long and tough ascent) to find some views amid terrains that made me think of the images of Mexico I have seen. Still green, but with tougher brush and more arrid looking, punctuated by huge and characterful rock outcroppings and as bathed as possible in a full yellow light that crystalised with purity the clarity of everything and its aliveness. The sun felt piercing and loving simultaneously and as with all climbs, you realise it is special and what it is – as an act (gaining height, space, perspective) when you can look back momentarily and be blown away by how your footsteps and the space allow you to see and fleetingly understand the wrinkles, folds and glorious ulutations of the land in the ancient crusted lavas of rock and the tectonic formation of the planet’s dense but moving skin. Seen in a topography of life; trees and plants and covering, the proving fullness of the skies, the paths and routes, settlements and nests and homes, rivers and lakes of dwelling and their comings and goings of never ending movement.
I discovered (and had not noticed from the map) that having made that ascent to the plateau above this area, a handful of farm buildings nested in among the heath and rolling brush. That presence and the subsequent drop in intensity of this realisation and encounter. Yet it further crystalised the realisation that the woodland I had seen from the map a few kilometers further ahead would need to be my destination for the night and while I was tired at this point and twilight was rising, its sometimes the edges of these places that bring what is needed in terms of space, location, possibility.
As I approached the woodlands marked among ‘Le Dantau de la quartalade’ and saw a white jeep parked and visible, I was aware now that I would have to push deeper in again to find somewhere out of the way.
Wild camping in these kinds of places is never generally a problem, I was aware from reasearch that at the very least I could find myself in a situation where someone might lecture me on on not camping within certain distances of a road or a house, or being completely out of sight of paths and X, Y, Z. I realise now that the vehicle was there primarily because this forest is being worked and as I walked along the wide, vehicle made path – waiting for the pines to give way to less spatially restrictive decidous trees like the oaks, birches and limes, I could see areas freshly cut down. It is often a reality now that to have these kinds of forests and woods, some of them are worked in this way. Though I noted with zest that Germany will be investing many millions into returning some of their damaged woodland (a fact shadowed by a recent discovery that Wales was also investing to protect and repair some of the as-called ‘celtic rainforest’).
While reading about Germany, it caused me to take in the fact that a third of the German country is covered in woodland. What an amazing achievement, which brings to mind the brilliant W H Auden quote near the end of this song (and its fantastic video) by the awesome (and now defunct duo) The Books:
‘A culture is no better than its woods.’
I had been unnerved to see the truck, unoccupied, alone at the edge of a path which had the tell-tale of a double tyre run, with twilight coming in and in a way it was a kind of foreshadowing for the feeling of being – there in the place of a ‘working’ forest or forest ‘tract.’ I wonder also if it was a factor in respect of a relative lack of birds in the area. It was also punctuated by an encounter the next morning. I had noted again the previous night, my luck in the clearing cloud – to see expansively and brightly the night sky, unpolluted by the city’s clinging rictus.
Awaking in the morning, to a genuinely fear inducing sound that absolutely permeated the woods. In my head, I subsequently likened it to the sound of a giant engine moving, followed by an army beating metal pipes together. I was awoken in the tent by it early first time and managed to move my head out of the tent and observe its passing the second time, when it was returning five minutes later – from the direction of the unoccupied, parked truck I had seen the night before (which had not come back along the road during the night).
I watched with a now patrolled calmness while a large hauler moved along the road a few yards from my tent (the only flat point where I had needed to set the tent was relatively close to the de facto road), towing behind it two huge cage mounted trailers for felled trees, empty and clanging with an insane metal opulence and density. I realised as I watched a bird under the intervening tree run and then leap off in instantaneous flight as it passed, that there is sometimes a horror in the woods and that the horror is human.
But while this was a kind of affective blemish it didn’t really dent anything. I was simply aware that in these times of ontological rifling, forests as much as humans, animals and landscapes themselves can be fugitive gatherings and life systems, but its singular beauty and form and time remained and I felt fortunate indeed to have been allowed in spacetime and chance, the opportunity to be there and stay there.
In fact (and now writing the final elements of this piece a week and a half later) I recall the dream that I had during this night in the woods. I was travelling through a city, almost normal but on a futuristic train system that ran suspended in the sky beneath its high rail. Unlike some citites (London being one) it was also less encumbered with the egomaniacal erectionism of sky scrapers. In fact this city had some large, but futural and alien-seeming buildings or structures that would dominate their particular space or area, but would be otherwise uncluttered or uncluttering. I was travelling with some young people, a group who were friendly enough and in some way, professional. They were asking me about where I lived and I became aware that while I was telling them about it – I was downplaying every facet – I realised that these apparent negatives were in fact the reasons it was a good place to be (primarily tying into the fact that it did not have a ‘cool’ identity or label and was in some ways a near ‘non’-place). This led me to realise that I was actually trying to dissuade them from coming back there with me.
In the context of this feeling I had had, of being well taken care of throughout the excursion, it felt like seeing even these aspects of the working woodland, invasive and violent though they were – were instructive and perhaps in some way necessary. To share your being with the land and to see and feel in return of its own circumstances.
As this was the final but one day – the set up for my return, I had given myself a long loop back to Villefort and the train station that would take me back to Nimes and even here I had felt a subtle assistance. The first two days I had given myself long and late starts to the day, in fact, I didn’t start the second day until mid-afternoon after that initial shock of landing and ascending the monster hill of Plo de la Voulp south of Villefort. But this morning, after I had eaten my porridge and checked out some of the amazing rocks in the woods, it began raining – and while I was anticipating lightning and thunder from the advanced weather forecasts I had checked, it prompted me into a fast, effecient packing process, only to stop raining as soon as I had finished and was on the move. I believe for a moment that we were laughing together – the world of the day and I… Hahaha that got you moving… It was while on this path, through more beautiful and less trammeled woods and terrain switches upon the well marked and cairned GR paths, that I sat upon a rock and had a very strange interaction with a tree which can be understood simply in terms of its own interraction with the wind and myself. And yet at that point in time and space, on the day I knew would be my last (at least that I know for now) – it took on a strange and beautful meaning that added to the character of the trip in an ineffable way that could not be straightforwardly reduced.
It rendered me into a kind of solitude and silence that was like a profound contact of being and yet was as simple as the waving, and gentle movement of a tree on the wind.
Getting to Villefort reminded me that no return is without its return (it sounds like a tautology and yet I felt that sometimes we can return and not carry the awareness of the before in the same way). The path straight to the south of Villefort runs along the thin crest of a sharp ridge for several kilometers and as I finally re-joined the path I had begun on, I was gifted the visibility that I had missed when travelling previously through the evening fog and rain.
Just as upon the first day, walking from the station having taken the train from Nimes, the view either side of the ridge (and anything over five metres) obscured almost completely. As such, it had been like being deposited into a blanketted space, a gift that is the unknown – it felt like if anything, this was what that landing had been saying. And as with walking in mists and fogs generally- you are given the end of definition, the uncertainty of seeing and realisations out of proximity, a mysterious depth and shroud that promotes its own eeriness of presence.
While being dense enough and suddenly I am remembering the other fogs of wild terrain I have been in, Scotland and Wales and on the Isle of Wight or in Darwell Wood in Sussex. While there, ascending that first and second day, I am given occasional views out off the bladed ridge, of the valleys and neighbouring ridges, their beautiful shapes and characters emerge briefly through the opaqueness – revealing sudden scale and shape that capture the imagination. ‘This is why I am here’ I say to myself on that way out, knowing even still that if it is foggy all the time I am here, it will still be as revealing, but of different characteristics, occurrences and intensities.
But here and now and returning on the final day out in the Cevennes, when I was in the best condition and walking with purpose to try and get some tiny taster of provincial french life before departing, the sun once again emerges – bringing a doubled energy to my step. Not only is the sun glorifying the light of the day and its beautiful spaces, but I had mentally prepared myself for thunderstorms all day.
There is a feeling that the spiral is completing a turn (it is always completing a turn) in that now every nook and cranny of the valleys, hills and mountain ridges around this stunning thin blade of rock that slides out south from Villefort, can be seen and appreciated. Some are nested with hamlets, others just dense with the feral green of trees, but I realise just how it is a place I have been lucky to visit and see only a tiny fragment of.
And speaking of the working wood, a friend recently sent me this to remind me of the early work of Coldcut. I believe I reflected back to him that in its own way, this was brilliant. Seems to have a relevance now especially and in different ways.