Nature 2020 February

The road less ‘traveled’

Here are a few lines I came across the other day that got me thinking about something we all take for granted. The words are taken from a much longer piece of prose entitled: In Praise of Walking by Thomas Clark:

Walking is the human way of getting about.
Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.
There are walks in which we tread in the footsteps of others, walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves.
A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed, while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way. There are things we will never see, unless we walk to them.

Walking on two legs, head held high, is an innate ability we all take for granted. If you pause to think for a moment that whilst we might attribute the act of walking to a large range of other animals, both four and two legged, walking solely on two legs like us with upright stance is really a behaviour limited to humans.

Not even do our some of our cousins the Giant Apes, who may walk upright, rely on this for much of the time, preferring to amble along on arms and legs. I exclude here the birds which generally fly much more than they walk. Yes, I hear you say, what about the very large flightless birds like the emu? Well I choose to ignore these eccentrics who in fact rarely walk any distance but tend to ‘run’.

Even penguins, who do walk a lot, must swim much more than they walk and given the struggle they have traversing the Antarctic ice they must surely prefer instead to ‘fly’ through the briny seas.

The point I am trying to carve out here is that we choose to walk as our principal mode of non-assisted travelling, for not just vital and serious purposes but also for relaxation and pleasure.

Up until the Iron Age, track ways across these islands were, with minor exceptions, all created and maintained by our ancestors beating out and reinforcing pathways through walking repeatedly over the same ribbon of ground. Sometimes this might be as they accompanied flocks or herds of domesticated animals, like sheep, goats and cattle. Starting from the arrival of the
Romans 2000 years ago there has been a gradual but irreversible replacement of many such foot-originated tracks with those carved out by vehicles. However, many paths remain: pilgrim routes, green lanes, drove roads, corpse roads (the clue to their purpose is in their title!), trods (Old English for paths) leys (paths following a straight line), dykes, drongs and sarns (causeways) and snickets, holloways, shuts and finally a ‘walkabout’ (all self-explanatory).

In fact, once you start to look closely at any path you walk along you will begin to see more and more minor tracks, grooves across the earth that begin to emerge. Some that join, some that cross while others suddenly appear diverging from the track you are follow. For every path you go down there are others you pass by but will never follow. Having just written this I am reminded by that poem by Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Some paths are only obvious when the route normally followed becomes blocked. The story goes that in the time before few vehicles used the unmetalled stony lane down through the Vale from Hawridge to the outskirts of Chesham, this track frequently flooded in winter as a bourne (chalk stream) burst out and furiously followed it as a guide as it headed down to spill into an already swollen tributary of the River Chess. The lane became impassable and travellers turned to the higher ground to the west (known by locals as ‘the mountain’). This ‘high road’ was shunned and forgotten for the rest of the year as the determined traveller was more concerned about arriving as soon as possible in Chesham. Today we might occasionally prefer to walk that elevated path and in so doing contemplate the wonders of nature around us instead of concerning ourselves solely with the final destination.

As we have just started a new decade, with our collective futures and that of this country perhaps less well mapped out than at any time in our lifetime, we might just benefit from some timely nature-inspired 2020 vision. So, the next time you drive down The Vale take a squinty look up and to your right and think about your own ‘road less traveled’.

Chris Brown
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