Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


Tears of Hope

Although it is Sunday I am up early, but to walk rather than work. As I drink my coffee I realise that my head is still full of images from the film I watched last night: The Weeping Meadow, by the Greek maestro Theo Angelopoulos. Planned as the first in another trilogy chronicling modern Greece, the film begins with the flight of the Greek community from Odessa in 1919, and follows the protagonists through to the end of the Greek Civil War in 1949. As it happens, The Weeping Meadow proved to be Angelopoulos’s penultimate film, since his life was cut short in a bizarre accident on 24 January 2012. During filming in Athens of the third instalment of the trilogy, provisionally entitled The Other Sea, the director attempted to cross a busy road and was run over by a motorcycle driven by an off-duty police officer. A story in the telling is left unfinished, the task of sense-making, of completion passes to the next generation. It might well be a scene from one of his films.

This morning the leading headlines are all about Greece. Make or break, high stakes, these are the words being used to describe today’s general election in Greece. The implication is that I should be anxious about the outcome, but it is not what I feel. In Europe there is plenty to be anxious about, but it doesn’t depend on the will of the Greeks.

Enough. I close the lid of my laptop, turn off the kitchen light and step out into the still dark day. The garden path crunches underfoot as I tread the woody seed capsules that have fallen during the night from the Japanese pittosporum, but once on the street my footfall softens. I look up at the waxing moon and feel content to be out at this hour, alone and quiet. For an hour or so that is all I do, walk alone and in silence, my only thought being how far removed this kind of walking is from displacement born of circumstance or fear. I walk through the woods and out the other side onto the tarmaced track that loops around beneath the hills that lie to the west of home. At the first fork in the road, I stop to drink from my water bottle and to eat a couple of the dried figs I had placed in my pocket before setting off. It is only then I notice that the place where I have stopped is marked by a mastic shrub. Until I came to live in Catalonia I’d never seen one of these evergreens, yet now I have become so accustomed to their presence in the coastal garrigue that I often pass them by unaware.


Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) near Sant Pere de Ribes

Until last week I was also unaware that despite being common throughout the Mediterranean it is only on the Greek island of Chios that Pistacia lentiscus trees produce the aromatic resin that is also known as mastic. In a recent article for The Island Review, Grove Koger explains how in early summer the inhabitants of the mastikahoria, or mastic villages, in southern Chios clear the ground at the base of the trees and cover it with a layer of white clay. Over the coming weeks they then make a series of small incisions in the bark of the main branches, thus allowing the sap to seep out. The droplets, which are also referred to as tears, fall to the ground and are left to harden before being collected for washing and sorting. The resin produced by these trees has been chewed as a gum for over 2000 years, and it is from the Greek mastichein (‘to gnash the teeth’) that we take our word masticate. Importantly for the island economy, mastic is also a key ingredient in various desserts and confectionery that are eaten throughout the Balkans and the Near East, and as a spice it is used to flavour the Greek liqueur known as mastika. I was once given a bottle of mastika by a friend who had just returned from Athens. Though it reminded me somewhat of grappa, mastika has none of the sweet fire of the Italian spirit, but rather a woody aftertaste that, if I’m honest, I found rather unpleasant. The next time you walk in a woodland after the rain, plunge your hand into the damp soil and then hold it close against your face, breathing in until the earthiness can be sensed not just in your nose but also at the back of your tongue. That, for me, is the trace left by a glass of mastika.

I take one more swill of water and head off down the right-hand branch of the forked track. The sun has risen now above the coastal ridge and in the vineyards to my right, countless corn buntings are jangling over and around the root stumps. This, more than the sun, is what warms me. Up ahead the track straightens into the distance, before disappearing as it rises into the copse of pine and carob that marks the south-eastern corner of Can Ramonet, the rural guest house in whose garden Paloma and I held our wedding party eight years ago. From out of the trees I spot three, maybe four figures coming towards me along the track. Gradually they come into focus and I see that the fourth figure is actually a bicycle being pushed by the older of the three men. As my puncture kit is at home in the garage, all I can offer him is a greeting: Bon dia.

In the opening scene of The Weeping Meadow a group of some forty or fifty persons walk slowly towards the camera across a sodden, grey landscape. The suitcases and trunks they are carrying speak of displacement, while their clothes suggest that a life of much greater dignity has been left behind. At the head of the group a man and woman are walking either side of two children. The boy is around five years old, the girl younger. She seems to be seeking his hand as they walk forward. Reaching the river’s edge the group stops abruptly, and the man begins to speak. We learn of their flight from Odessa and their arrival at the port of Thessaloniki. We learn too that the man and woman are not the girl’s parents, but that they found her amid the chaos, weeping over her mother’s body. As the man’s story comes to an end, the camera pans down to the water at their feet, and there we see the inverted reflection of a family suspended in time.

In an article published in The Guardian three days after the film-maker’s death, Costas Douzinas suggested that for Angelopoulos “humanity survives in the memories and dreams of exiled, travelling people who never fully make it back to Ithaca”. Or in the words that Angelopoulos himself gives to the protagonist of his 1991 masterpiece The Suspended Step of the Stork, “We’ve passed the borders but we’re still here. How many frontiers do we have to pass to get home?”

As in the opening scene of The Weeping Meadow, it is with this question that the beginning of our journey ends.


A Short Walk By The Crooked River

Before I left the house this morning I travelled to the other side of the isle, from North Cornwall to Norfolk in the company of Helen Macdonald. In an article published just before Christmas in the New Statesman she recounts her annual pilgrimage to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney in Norfolk, the wintering site for thousands of whooper and Bewick’s swans. Her description of the spectacle is as vivid and original as anyone who has read her recent book H is for Hawk would expect. What does a thousand-strong chorus of Arctic swans sound like? Until this morning I couldn’t have told you, but through her words I can hear them now, I can hear what she calls a “vast amateur brass band tuning up in an aircraft hangar”. But what most caught my attention was something she expresses towards the end of the article: her delight, while watching the swans, that they are as at home in Norfolk as they are in the Arctic.

Home. As a child growing up in Wadebridge, one of the things I loved was to stand on the bridge across the estuarine River Camel and watch the mudbanks re-emerge as the water receded with the ebb tide. There was something reassuring about their reappearance. The world may have seemed different for a while, but at bottom nothing had really changed. Best of all was the grassy mound that sat just upstream of the bridge, and onto which a pair of swans would regularly clamber and there wait patiently for the river to return. When I left home aged 19, the swans and the river were among the few things I acknowledged missing.


Today the afternoon skies are heavy and grey as Paloma and I set out upstream along the Camel Trail. We’re not planning to go far. We’ll walk until the light begins to fade, and then head back for tea. But that will be enough, for this is rich terrain that is best taken in small amounts that can be savoured. We follow a south-easterly line below Treraven Wood and begin to cross the meandering river at Pendavey Bridge, led on by a gentle honking. Reaching the midpoint of the bridge we see there are twenty or so Canada Geese pottering around the riverside. They seem as unmindful of me as I am of everything else as I stop to photograph them.

IMG_0517Canada geese (Branta canadensis) alongside the River Camel

The woodland opens and the water, now on our right, flows straight for a stretch, belying its original Cornish name, Dowr Kammel: crooked river. On the far side bank, the strip of filamentous grasses seems to shiver in time to our own movement, as if it were a sound waveform capturing the music of this place.


It is then we spot the second skein of geese and begin to hear and see their announcement of imminent flight. Honk waddle, honk waddle, honk waddle, honk honK hoNK hONK HONK HONK… “¡Qué escándalo!” says Paloma, and there is indeed a considerable racket as the birds take to the air and head downstream. Quiet returns, and we decide to press on for another ten minutes or so, as far as Polbrock. There we climb the steps up onto the narrow road that runs along the top of the twin-arch bridge: one arch spanning the disused railway line along which we have been walking, the other the river itself. From our new vantage point we gaze upstream and marvel. At this distance and shorn of leaves the trees are impossible, with our knowledge, to identify, yet they are no less beautiful in anonymity.


What was it that the poet Neruda wrote in response to a world of too many names? Pienso confundir las cosas, I have a mind to confuse things. Or as one of my clinical supervisors used to say: Forget the diagnosis, listen to the patient! Sound advice, but not always easy to follow. And so, our vision prejudiced by training, we fill the lacunae with what we think we know. “See that tree there: don’t its branches look like Purkinje cells? And that spindly one to the right: isn’t that a motor neuron?” This is how we bring the anonymous trees into focus, by imagining the foundations of life.

The light is fading now, and we need to head home. As we descend the steps and start back along the trail I think of how my father loved this place, and of how in leaner times he had fished this stretch to put food on the table. For him it was not just a place of recreation, it was somewhere that through care and respect would continue to provide. In his own way, that is what he communicated to us as children. I realize, then, what it was I had felt up there on the bridge. A sense of permanence.

I quicken my step so as to catch up with Paloma, and together we stride out, hand in hand and singing into the dimming of the day. By the time we reach Pendavey Bridge it is almost dark, and that is why we almost miss them, there on the upstream side: six mute swans plopping patiently, one at a time, off the riverbank and into the rising water. A whiteness of swans. The collective noun is right in this light.

IMG_0539Mute swans (Cygnus olor) drift towards Pendavey Bridge

Despite their name, swans of this species are not actually mute, although they would never pass the audition for an Arctic brass band. But they are the swans I know, and they are doing what the River Camel swans have always done. They are moving between land and water, between two homes.

I watch them until they pass beneath the bridge, and then I turn to Paloma. “Come on,” I say. “És l’hora de tornar i fer les maletes. It’s time to go home and pack.”