Posts Tagged ‘hartsop dodd’

Pondering life, love, and meaning in  the Far Eastern Fells

I had a run up to the Lakes on Friday, just me and old Grumpy. I went to Hartsop, an idyllic hamlet where, in imagination at least, I spend the better part of my life in a sturdy little cottage, tending my garden – also writing, walking and pondering the meaning of it all. But in a denser level of reality known simply as “real life”, I was simply drawn back by memories of a walk I did from here twenty five years ago.

All of my Lake District walks exist outside of any normal time reference. I can remember each one as bright and shiny as the day I walked them, each sitting together in my mind in no particular order. So Hartsop Dodd and Stoney Cove Pike back in 1981, are every bit as relevant to me as that same walk last Friday, the revelations of each informing the other. The Buddhists would say I’m misguided in this, that the Michael Graeme who first passed this way in 1981 no longer exists, but I’m not so sure. I’ve only to come up here to find him again, and even across the gulf of a quarter of a century, we still recognise one another, still connect, and exchange notes.

 So, anyway… Hartsop Dodd was the first objective of the day, at just a shade over 2000 feet and about a mile away from where I parked old Grumpy, but the fells here are as steep as they get and the climb took me an hour. The weather wasn’t promising to begin with. I had rain and dark skies, and a mist that thickened as I climbed. I used to be afraid of conditions like this – the first hint of mist and wet sending me back to the mother-comfort of the valleys. But I think you’re fairly safe on the Dodd, and these days I’ve got GPS for an emergency fix if I should ever get hopelessly lost – also, while my self confidence at dealing with what I suppose I must call “society” has declined markedly as I’ve got older, here among the mountains, where I’ve only ghosts for company, I’m much less concerned now by impending disaster.

My legs were hopelessly sluggish as I made my start on the Dodd. I’d had a late night and rather too much of a potent red wine, and found it impossible to get going, but then I remember that time in ’81, I felt pretty much the same. Still, I thought years of Tai Chi training, and, more recently Kung Fu had built up the strength in my legs and the breath in my lungs like never before, but there was nothing there under the throttle on Friday. If you want to tackle the hills with a spring in your step, Michael, get and early night, and don’t drink so much.

 Anyway, as I made my pitifully slow progress, the mist began lifting ahead of me, and the rain stopped. It seemed my luck was in, so I pressed on. The landscape here is dramatically lovely from the valleys, gloriously desolate from the summits, a rough grassland speckled with crags and small tarns. There was no one else up here,… just me with my aching legs, and I was able to drop out of time, to reunite myself with that other self, the one who passed this way in ’81.

We were like brothers, I suppose, both looking for something – looking for love, I think – the kind of love that banishes an inner desolation to which I think many writers and poets at heart are prone. Back in ’81 I mistook it for human love and duly sought my cure in human places, but my older self realises that the desolation, that profound bone-deep loneliness, is a question that requires a different kind of answer, a different kind of connection. Yes, we all need human love, and I’ve been fortunate enough in finding it, but for the Romantic, human love is never going to be enough and it’s important not to confuse it with what, in the end, is a supernatural phenomenon, one that can only be found in supernatural places, places whose reflections we glimpse only at the frontiers of human influence, in the liminal zones. Seek it in life, in flesh, and you can be sure only of your own immolation and the ruin of everything you hold dear.

But what is it, this dangerous thing?

As you near the summit of Hartsop Dodd you pick up the line of an old drystone wall, which you can follow in any sort of weather, all the way to Stony Cove Pike. Your fears of going astray in the dark mists are groundless then,… there’s a reliable guide, but the way wends for ever upwards and you need strength to follow. It’s about another mile to the Pike, which sits at a shade over 2500 feet.

I caught up with the mists here. The fells rise up like a barrier between north and south and I’ve often noticed that foul weather gets held to the south while the northern valleys bask in sunshine. To the east of Stony Cove Pike, there’s a deep cutting called Threshthwaite Mouth, a dramatic pass through which the wind howls up from the south. You get drops in atmospheric pressure on the northern side of it and eerie mists forming as the air reaches dew point and the vapour precipitates out of it – classic mountain conditions that add a magical touch to the land.

My plan was to cross the mouth, a descent of some 600 ft, then up to Thornthwaite Beacon sitting atop the fells opposite Stony Cove Pike, on the other side, exactly like I’d planned in 1981.

For a while, the mists hid the depth of the mouth, also the enormity of the climb on the other side, but as I began picking my way down through the dripping, greasy rocks, the mist cleared and I was awestruck by the scale of things, also intimidated into settling for a safe descent and a return by the valley of Threshthwaite.

It came back to me as I struggled down from Stony Cove Pike, how I struggled in ’81. How my legs were like jelly by the time I reached bottom. I got crag-fast at one point. There’s a bad step on the route and I couldn’t work out a way down. But I’d committed myself to such an extent I could’t work out a way back up either. The pack was bulging with my wet-weather gear, and my walking poles, stowed on the back of it were grinding against the rock as I flattened myself against it for security. It was ridiculous; there is no bad step on this route, or least Fell-Meister Wainwright was never bothered enough by it to consider it worth a mention. Eventually, I worked out that it was just a question of dropping the sack six feet and hoping the camera didn’t break, then sliding off and hoping I’d enough spring in my knees to catch myself at the bottom without breaking a leg. I’ve had scarier moments in the fells,… but not many.

I made it in one piece, but felt suddenly very old and slow. Surely at one time I would have been down here like a rat down a drainpipe. It was enough. The mists enclosed Thornthwaite Crag, and the thought of that massive ascent was too much, so I turned north, and headed for the decent into Threshthwaite Cove.

What is it? This sense of desolation. Where does it come from?

Your first steps northwards from the mouth reveal desolation aplenty in the stupendous sweep of the cove. This is a world of inaccessible black crag, and coarse, acid grassland, frequented only by the hardy Herdwicks. It’s horrific in its scale and makes you focus in on little things, anything to give your universe a more benign face. I found several such things on the way down: a rock, a wind-blasted tree, a sparkle on the waters of Pasture Beck, and I photographed each one, playing with the exposures to give the right amount of contrast and framing them with an eye for the golden composition. But looking back at those pictures now I realise I failed to capture it. My pictures are pathetic, and I see in them now only what they appear to be on the surface: a rock, a wind-blasted tree, a sparkle on the waters of Pasture Beck. What I felt then, last Friday, as I descended on aching legs and bore witness to these things, whatever it was that granted me redemption in this wilderness,… came from inside of me.

There were ghosts here. I’d been inviting their company since setting out that morning, because I like talking to them, but they were keeping their distance. I wondered if it was my fault, if I was too agitated, too tired or if they felt I was simply too full of myself. I’d see them as a shadow off in the periphery of my vision, something moving but, when I turned to welcome them, they’d morph into a tree or a rock. I felt one take my arm for a moment, but she was a silly, light headed thing and didn’t have much to say for herself, except that I should forgive her silliness and take myself less seriously too, or I would never find it.

 But what is it?

What is the meaning of life? It’s a strange question. Does there have to be any meaning? There may not be of course, and the evidence of all the rational philosophies tells us that any talk of meaning is simply a delusion born out of a fear of death. Still, I’d like to think there is a meaning, but for all of my research, the nearest I can get to it is that our lives are a quest. We are navigating a way through our respective isolation, our personal wilderness, looking for things that reveal our connection with something, with it, We are looking for things that dissolve the desolation and make us feel deeply loved, deeply touched by the value of our apparently isolated and meaningless self, amid such epic vastness as the universe seems to present.

So,… this meaning,… You cannot buy it. It does not bear a label, and you will not find it in another person, nor in a place, no matter how holy. Like my ghosts, what it is is an aspect of our own nature, our own being. What we see when we look out at the world in this way is an image of our own self staring back at us.

Twenty five years ago, I hadn’t read a single book on metaphysics. I would have laughed at the thought of consulting the I Ching, or seeking the answer to life in the aphorisms of Lao Tzu. Maybe back then I thought the highest form of love was to be found in the soft valley of a sympathetic woman’s breasts. But I also descended the valley of Threshthwaite that day with my heart aching, aching for an unspoken and disembodied love, a love I saw reflected in the subjective details of this timeless desolation. I was aware of something other, something underlying the world.

 And now?

Now I’m older and I’m thinking the sages are right. The answer to life’s greatest mystery, isn’t really a mystery at all and the truth’s been known for hundreds, indeed probably for thousands of years, since the first conscious men and women sat down and looked seriously inside of themselves. What they found in there beggars belief, but you can’t just take their word for it and it’s no use them telling you about it anyway because it’s a thing so extraordinary it’s impossible to grasp it intellectually. You have to travel the miles, undertake the quest, weather the decades of your life,… the mists, the storms, the glorious summers, and the bitter winters, and then you begin to realise they weren’t mad, or that maybe you’ve finally become as mad as they, or at least mad enough to accept that there is no it, in so far as it is something separate from yourself. You come to realise that you are it, and it is you. And it’s a simple step, then, to the ultimate realisation that you are what you are looking at. And the biggest miracle of all is that while I am it, so are you. You are it too, you see, which means at some fundamental level of reality that’s impossible for me to grasp, we are the same, you and I.

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