(A walk)

I’m in the North, just inside the arctic circle, staying in a small cabin at the crooked inland end of Sagfjorden. Yesterday I walked up a hill. I am looking at it, sitting outside the small house squeezed tight with fourteen people. I just thought about what Kaeto said to me earlier, about Thomas being so kind to have all these smelly bodies in his home. Wet socks hanging over everything, their damp wool steaming.

It’s strange to be in so much company in an otherwise so remote place, but yesterday when I walked up the hill I felt the solitude properly for the first time. I was a little bit afraid at first and I went back and forth along the road before deciding the right stream to follow. It was hard to make a way through the trees and thick moss but I got an eye for it after some minutes and I thought I could see the ways the animals had made their paths through. I criss-crossed over the stream to walk on the drier side, which kept changing. I thought a bit about the impact of me being in this place, whether I was leaving any trace that the animals might notice. There were droppings from reindeer and moose. I imagined the creatures that had left them, what their business had been making their way through the birch and fir and sphagnum.

Part of the strangeness is in how different this is to all the places I have known back home, in the UK. In the south of England, nature is managed, framed - this is not necessarily a suppression, but an enduring involvement of people with the limited land they are on. Even in the west of Scotland, though, out in the mountains, there are paths to follow, there are websites which tell me in detail how to ascend each peak and in which valleys to watch out for grouse shooting parties. I have many times crossed Rannoch Moor by car or bicycle or train, notoriously hostile and wild, yet within an hour’s journey from Glasgow. Sagfjord doesn’t feel like that at all. I get the feeling that some of the ground I’m stepping on might never have felt a human foot.

Eventually I made a wrong placement of the aforementioned foot, and felt cold water rush into my shoe. It was very pleasant to feel something cool and crisp beside the dampness in the air and all my clinging layers. I realised it was easy to follow a stream and I was exhilarated by this, thinking about all the possible streams I could follow and still find my way back home. I was not afraid anymore and wished I hadn’t told Andrea I’d be back by 2pm.

I happened on a bright red mushroom, almost completely spherical on top and very shiny. It was a beacon in the moss, under an old tree, like something from a fairytale. The fickle friendliness of nature. I thought about time collapsing, how the present moment and distant past feel so connected when away from human activity. I felt like the same person as all my past selves. I remembered a conversation with Sveinung when he said that you form a conception of what you are doing and eventually it comes unstuck and it’s because you have to solve something within yourself, reconfigure. Wondering where I am in that process, I thought about advice I’ve had a few times, that if you paint you need to have a thick skin, to be stubborn. But as I sat on the rock by the stream and looked out at the trees and felt my edges were blurred into this place, I decided I would like to keep a thin skin. I’d like to stay porous. I’d like to let the mist soak me through and the mud coat my clothes and smell every bit of bracken and pine sap and grass seed. How lucky and rare it is, for city-dwellers like me, to be truly alone.

On the way down the hill I followed a trail made by an animal. There were droppings along the way. She or he had gone through the best path over and over until an impression was left. It seemed wonderful that the easiest path for the animal was the easiest path for me, too1. I imagined, fancifully perhaps, that my passing through here was symbiotic, that I was contributing to the gradual establishment of this way through. I wondered whether nature gives us this Romantic way of seeing the world, or if the Romantics gave to the world this way of seeing nature. In this moment I could believe both.
1. Paths made by animals and people by naturally choosing the easiest way are known as desire paths. I am reminded of a trip I took to Skye when I was living in Scotland. I pointed out the zigzagging, terrace-like lines across the grassy hillsides and my Dad explained to me that they are sheep-paths, made by the footsteps of sheep over decades. They teach the routes to their lambs and over time they change the land itself, creating what can look like steppes. This in turn is not unlike the Anglo-Welsh tradition, common before the Norman Conquest, of Beating the Bounds, whereby parish elders would pass on exact knowledge of their village boundaries by walking them, younger members of the group taking willow and birch boughs to beat the ground with. By repeating these walks every year an intimate knowledge of the land can be passed down without need for maps or markers.