Archives For Hiking

Desiring Silence

July 19, 2016 — 12 Comments

coptic quietDo you enjoy noise, or do your mind and soul long for moments of silence? If you appreciate escaping the cacophony of sounds that weigh against you, you’re in good company. The Inklings were men who respected the value of silence.

I attended a funeral for a former parishioner today. The fact that I did not conduct the service allowed me to sit beside my wife who shared my sincere fondness for the saint we were bidding farewell.

The service was comforting, being resurrection-focused as such matters ought to be. Despite our singing three hymns during its course, it was also quiet. Quiet in the sense of calm and peaceful like a deep brook that rushes along in relative silence, compared to its chattering companions that dance across the rocks in a shallow creek.

Joe was a humble man, though he was one of the rare breed who truly deserve the accolade of being part of the “greatest generation.” Though he never bragged about it, he served throughout the Second World War, and survived D-Day while landing in just the second wave at Omaha Beach.

It was a service that befitted a humble ninety-two-year-old man who faithfully ushered at his church up until his death. A man who had spent most of his life in activities serving others, and who kept his marital vows to his now widowed bride for seventy years.

Reflecting on that quality this afternoon, I recalled how silence was appreciated by the Inklings. C.S. Lewis expressed this thought on many occasions. One of the best known comes from The Weight of Glory.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

Lewis’ opinion of noise went beyond disdain. He even included a description in The Screwtape Letters of how noise itself could serve malevolent purposes.

My dear Wormwood: Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father [Lucifer] entered Hell . . . no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise–Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires.

We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

The world has only gotten noisier since Lewis wrote those words. And silence is in ever-shorter supply. That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, why I appreciate living in the forest, where even the tentacles of cable television do not reach. Their absence contributes to an involuntary amplification of the silence that resides around our home.

Tolkien Shared Lewis’ Opinion

Since I’ve been reading some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s correspondence recently, the following excerpt came to my mind.

Like many thinkers, and nearly all writers, Tolkien found noise distracting. In a 1964 letter, he wrote the following description of the sounds that assaulted him in his neighborhood. (The last sentence is particularly delightful.)

Headington is no paradise of peace. Sandfield Road was a cul-de-sac when I came here, but was soon opened at the bottom end, and became for a time an unofficial lorry by-pass, before Headley Way was completed. Now it is a car-park for the field of ‘Oxford United’ at the top end. While the actual inhabitants do all that radio, tele, dogs, scooters, buzzbikes, and cars of all sizes but the smallest, can do to produce noise from early morn to about 2 a.m.

In addition in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group.

What a vivid description. But one would expect nothing less from the creator of Middle Earth.

The same year as the Allied attack on Normandy, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was in South Africa earning his wings with the Royal Air Force. A veteran of the First World War, the concerned father knew all too well what might lie ahead. In 1944 he wrote the following:

I have the autumn wanderlust upon me, and would fain be off with a knapsack on my back and no particular destination, other than a series of quiet inns. One of the too long delayed delights we must promise ourselves, when it pleases God to release us and reunite us, is just such a perambulation, together, preferably in mountainous country, not too far from the sea, where the scars of war, felled woods and bulldozed fields, are not too plain to see.

Like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis was also a veteran of the “war to end all wars.” The Inklings, like all Europeans of their generation, were acutely acquainted with warfare and its costs. Still, because of their wisdom and faith, Tolkien and Lewis were confident the Allies would prevail. They trusted that the blessed silence of peace would ultimately triumph over war’s cries.

In that light, we continue reading from Tolkien’s letter to Christopher. Immediately after his suggestion to Christopher that the two of them take a walking tour, Tolkien describes the plans the Inklings had already established to celebrate the eventual end of the war.

The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it entirely in beer and talk, without reference to any clock!

I don’t recall reading about their intentions before, but it has made me curious as to whether or not these dreams were ever realized. If they were, I am certain that the absence of other guests, and the removal of all clocks, would have made for a calm, quiet and renewing week indeed.

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The image above comes from an eighth century Coptic fresco.

A more modern image of silence, although originating all the way back in 1965, would be the “cone of silence,” which will be familiar to fans of the series Get Smart. For reflections on that theme, you might want to check out the this article.

If you aren’t familiar with the aforementioned cone, take two minutes to rectify that shortcoming by watching this video.

overtounDo not take your dog to Scotland. And, if perchance you do, by all means avoid the Overtoun Estate.

Its relatively short span masks its danger. The waters flow fifty feet below it’s arch, and they carry echoes of a terrible mystery.

What is it about the Overtoun Bridge that causes dogs to leap over its parapet to their deaths on the rocks below?

Before considering that question, it is worth noting how dearly dogs love to go for walks with their people. This comes as no surprise to those who have had dogs as members of their families.

Some people who have never lived with dogs, however, are unaware of just how powerful this drive is. There is but one thing a dog loves more than a good walk—and that is a good meal. (For a dog, a “good” meal is any and all meals.) In fact, some canines love walking so very much that they would willingly delay their repast if able to precede it with a vigorous hike.

C.S. Lewis was an avid walker. He often undertook long sight-seeing hikes with friends. And, during different periods of his life, he enjoyed the company of a canine companion.

In January of 1940 Lewis describes one such trek to his brother. Warnie, a “regular” officer in the British military had been recalled to active duty and dispatched to France. He describes an inter-species encounter his dog Bruce had recently experienced during an Oxford walk.

It seems almost brutal to describe a January walk taken without you in a letter to you, but I suppose “concealment is in vain. . . .” I was coming home from a walk and had just reached the Bourdillon’s hedge when I saw Bruce standing across the path with his head erect and his tail wagging furiously.

There is a very slight bend to the right in that path just after the Bourdillon’s, so that I could not see what he was looking at. Presently a cloud of steam in the frosty air appeared to descend towards him-to be followed by the long grave face of the mushroom-white horse who lives in that field.

Dog continued looking up and horse’s head leaned down till their noses almost touched: then they withdrew with every mark of mutual esteem. Now that I have at last written it down it hardly seems worth much: but it was an odd sight at the time.

Curiously, two months earlier (writing to Warnie) he had alluded in passing to the fact he was frequently accompanied by a pet on his walks.

Wednesday I lunched in College and attended a College Meeting, which was over by about 3.30-after that the rare pleasure of a dogless stroll & tea in our own rooms, glancing through Mammy’s old copy of the Water Babies, and after dinner the unusual pleasure of an evening to myself.

There is something about having a dog accompany one on a walk that makes it an even richer experience. Observing their frenetic joy at discovering some new scent is vicariously exhilarating.

When walking in certain locales, leashes may be required. Certain impetuous dogs demand their use even when not mandated. However, most people who accompany dogs on their explorations would prefer to leave them free to range a bit, if given a choice.

And it precisely this freedom that poses such a danger to those who enjoy the Scottish countryside and dare to cross the Overtoun Bridge.

Apparently, since the 1950s, more than fifty dogs have lunged to their deaths over the edge of the bridge. A 2006 article in the Daily Mail reports that during a six month period the previous year “Five dogs jumped to their deaths. All of the deaths have occurred at virtually the same spot, between the final two parapets on the right-hand side of the bridge, and almost all have been on clear, sunny days.”

Strangely, there are even several cases where dogs who had survived the terrible fall proceeded to dive from the same location during a subsequent crossing. Lacking nine lives, it is assumed their luck did not hold on the second occasion.

Due to the frequency of these “suicides,” the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sent a scientist to investigate the cause of the heartbreaking phenomenon. He determined it was nothing that the dogs could see or hear that would account for their fatal actions.

Various theories have been posed. Some attribute it to ghosts or the fact that “In Celtic mythology, Overtoun is known as ‘the thin place’—an area in which heaven and earth are reputed to be close.”

Psychic Mary Armour took her own [psychic?] labrador for a walk along the bridge to test the theory. However, she reported no unusual sensations. “Animals are hyper-sensitive to the spirit world, but I didn’t feel any adverse energy.” In fact, Mary said she experienced a feeling of “pure calmness and serenity” but admitted that her dog did pull her towards the right-hand side of the structure. (Daily Mail, 17 October 2006).

The SPCA investigator eventually concluded the most likely cause for the suicidal impulses of the canines was the scent of mink musk from the valley below. Apparently to some dogs the lure is irresistible, and they cast aside their normal wariness to leap into the unknown.

Whether or not this is the true cause of the mishaps or not remains debated. Some, for example, attribute the suicidal impulses to “picking up on suicidal or depressed feelings of their owners.”

Whatever the cause, it is probably wise to avoid the risk and steer very clear of Overtoun Bridge if you value the life of your dog. Still, when traveling to Scotland it may well be wise to leave your dog in the care of a family member or an approved kennel.

Dangerous Slang

July 2, 2013 — 15 Comments

toilet 2When we moved to Alabama, my wife innocently offended some of her young students by using a slang word that in our family simply meant “stuff,” but apparently is used elsewhere for more vulgar purposes.

In a reference to something such as things being in the way, she said the word “crap.” Obviously she was definitely not using it in the Thomas Crapper sense. But some of the Southern kids had never heard it applied in an innocent way, so they naturally assumed she was using it in a crasser sense.

She wasn’t. I grew up with the word meaning “junk, stuff or clutter” with the connotation that they were unwelcome, and “in the way.” My sainted mother—from whose lips I do not ever once recall hearing a vulgar word pass—used the word “crap” often.

And because the source of the word’s usage was so pure and unadulterated (my mom), I mistakenly assumed I fully understood the word’s meaning.

Still, old habits are hard to change, and I find myself occasionally using that very word. And, I must confess, I sometimes even use it as a minor expression of irritation. For example, I just used it in the subject line of an email I sent to some fellow students of ancient Roman history. “Crap, I Just Missed This” was the exact phrase, and the body of the message consisted only of a link to a fascinating conference held in Rome just a few days before I learned about it.

The link was to this site. . . and if you don’t have the time or inclination to check it out, allow me to share the fascinating subject it addressed:

It was sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome, quite a prestigious organization. No fewer than seven scholars who have been excavating Rome’s ancient latrines were slated to speak—I’m eager to learn whether or not their presentations will be published for the benefit of those of us unable to attend.* They generously offered “free seating” to members of the public desiring to attend the historic programme.**

C.S. Lewis apparently respected the Roman Empire enough to take the Roman name of an ancient Italian city for the name of fabled “Narnia.” While I’ve yet to find any references in Lewis’ corpus to Roman plumbing, I found this appraisal of a History of Rome which he noted in his diary (16 March 1924). During an extended country walk with two friends, he dined at an inn and browsed through its public library.

After some time we went on to Stanton Harcourt where we were to lunch. Before we reached it the sun suddenly disappeared and the sky got white and a cold wind sprang up. In the inn parlour we consumed large quantities of bread and cheese and draft cider. Harwood found a delightful book here—a History of Rome “related in conversations by a father to his children with instructive comments”. The children made such comments as “How pleasing is filial piety, Papa!” and “My dear Sir, surely you have been too indulgent in describing the vices of Honorius as weakness.”

One wonders what sort of refined comments the children would have made about the recent conference. Perhaps something like, “Most honored patriarch, it is enlightening to learn just how elaborate was the attention the Romans devoted to the facilities dedicated to their private bodily functions.”

Well, enough about such matters. We have terribly digressed in a post originally intended to serve as a warning about the dangers of using slang. I guess I am just so disappointed about missing the conference that I needed to vent that here.

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* One wonders how they were able to adequately address this complex subject in a one-day seminar.

toilet 1** The invitation does not expressly say whether it would consist of individual seats, or in a bench design, similar to that pictured below, from the workshop’s brochure. Speaking of pictures, the one at the top of the column, also from the promotional publication, is a fresco from the ceiling of a toilet on the Palatine. (And we think our bathrooms are fancy!)