Saturday, May 02, 2009

The oldest road -- 3

The megaprojects of the Avebury area are today steeped in romance. New Agers consider the place holy. Your three merry trekkers felt the thrill of Neolithic mystery as we touched the massive stones and walked the high earth banks. I suspect it would all have been less romantic if you were one of hundreds of men pulling on ropes to move the 40-ton megaliths or lugging basket after basket of dirt to build the barrows. It is perhaps just as well that we know so little of the minds and motives of the builders.

Of more importance are the minds and motives of your trekkers, and by extension of all of us who are creating -- or destroying -- the world we will leave to future generations. Like the builders of the Avebury complex, we will be guided by a vision of our place in the great scheme of things -- that is, by an environmental philosophy. By the time our walk began, I had lived long enough in England, walked enough of her rural byways, and read enough A. A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame, Richard Adams and J. R. R. Tolkien, to suspect that I might learn something useful by immersing myself in the deep history of the countryside. The Ridgeway -- generally acknowledged to be England's oldest road -- seemed an ideal path.

But what would we find? Old Bilbo often said to Frodo -- before Frodo's epic trek began -- that there was only one Road, that it was like a great river, with springs a every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?"
In a sense, the Ridgeway -- the oldest road -- is every road, and we are all collectively walking it towards an uncertain future. Old Bilbo was wise in his advice to his younger nephew: Every time any one of us leaves her doorstep, she embarks on a journey that ultimately includes us all, and our children, and our grandchildren.

The Ridgeway begins on the outskirts of the village of East Kennett, snuggled in a quiet dell near Avebury, surrounded by tidy fields and woodlands threaded by public footpaths -- a place about as close in character to Hobbiton as you might find. We stayed the night in a B&B called The Old Forge, which preserves something of the preindustrial charm of its former self. An ancient parish church sits in a well-kempt churchyard. The village is unmarred by the tangle of overhead utility wires that clutter most rural towns in America. Every home in East Kennett, even among the newer ones, is in keeping with the storybook look of the place. Our first step onto the Ridgeway might as well have been from the stoop of Bilbo's house at Bag End.

Roads serve many purposes. It would seem that the original Ridgeway was a corridor for trade among the Neolithic peoples of central England. It also surely served a military purpose; it links a series of Iron Age hill forts along the high points of the Marlborough Downs. But trade or warfare did not bring us to England; our walk along the ancient track would be a pilgrimage of sorts, of a secular, not religious, nature.

In their book The Archetype of Pilgrimage, Jean Dalby Clift and Wallace B. Clift list fifteen reasons why people go on pilgrimages, from 1: To go see the place where something happened, to 15: Perhaps simply because one's neighbor did this and one wants to be among the privileged. My own motive partook of 2: To draw near to something sacred, and 10: To reclaim lost or abandoned or forgotten parts of oneself. I hoped to discover or confirm a way to enter the future without losing the best of the past.

The Clifts quote the theologian Richard R. Niebuhr:
Pilgrims are persons in motion -- passing through territories not their own -- seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal which only the spirit's compass points the way...Though we are born into families, we all must become what Melville's Ishmael calls isolatoes, islanders, and hence creatures perpetually searching for passages that promise approach to another shore -- a shore that will complete us...These physical passings through apertures can print themselves deeply into us, not in our physical senses alone but in our spiritual sense as well, so that what we apprehend outwardly becomes part of the lasting geography of our souls. The pilgrim in us begins to awaken.
I am not so presumptuous as to believe that any awakening I might have had along the trek might serve as a moral compass for our collective environmental future. But, as Bilbo suggested, every individual rivulet merges into a collective stream. Each of us can only direct our own feet outward from our doorstep, and shoulder one's own responsibility for the future as my sons and I shouldered our day packs and stepped out along a track that was impressed upon the land thousands of years before we ever appeared on the scene.