There is a sense sometimes that, for a growing number of people, travel is becoming a necessity & a life choice. It is all over our public forums & aspirational social postings. Each new place, each far-flung vista, is a step on their road to enlightenment; a page in their book of life.
Travel can inform immeasurably, and expose us to views, feelings, ghosts & scents of huge impact and influence. It gives us context and colour when it comes to understanding cultures & communities; understanding ourselves & what touches us on subtle & profound levels. It makes us feel small, and feel that small is good. It gifts us ideas & memories, expansion of our scope & vision & dinner possibilities. The word ‘escape’ is used a lot, and I am considering what prison we are in. For real. I am interested, mostly, in what the need for escape says about our own sense of place, of belonging & our relationships with our native land.
As a traveller and a sometimes travel writer, I have been incredibly privileged & humbled to visit places & people that I will carry with me for as long as I live & it has certainly widened, freshened & contextualised my views and my global senses; at times like sinuses blown clear & the renewed ability to breathe. The glacial wilds of Patagonia; eco-exploring in the Peruvian Amazon; extensive travel in India alongside some voluntary work with children have certainly helped to develop me spiritually. By that I mean simply that they have lifted my spirits & taught me means by which to maintain their heights.
Where I have found travel to be most impactful & valuable in this respect, is in a local sense. It is in this sense also that I find the initial belief troubling. If each destination is a page in the book of life, then those who do not travel can view only one; indeed can write only one. Yet the great beauty of travel is in insights gained into loving & symbiotic communities & their further symbiosis with their land; the growing, the making, the smiling & the communing. People from places such as ours never fail to marvel at the great happiness & generosity of the world’s most humble people, whose aspiration does not, and cannot, leap beyond the scope of their days & the immediacy there; the work to be done, the food to be prepared, the fire to light. To me it is no marvel. Simple pleasures, those that do not cost – those not aped or bought – to smile without consideration – those sunrises & wood-fires – that freshly stretched bread – to sleep – to wake, alive & warm in air & nature – to eat a thing straight from the ground – to abandon projection, vain aspiration & ambition that belongs only to one; is life.
Travel is a pretty elitist pursuit after all. As citizens of ‘developed’ nations it is available to us if we can afford it, at our ease and on our terms. Many cannot even on credit. In many places of the world very few people travel, even outside of their region, some never stray outside of their village or community. Many people are impoverished by our standards in monetary & statutory terms, though they may not consider themselves to be so. Many face restrictions & impediments to travel; many do not have a passport; many have not so much as countenanced the idea of visiting another country.
Travel is also expensive, both in the price of flights or packages & in the external & more abstract expenses; the environmental costs, the emissions, the impact of tourism on destinations, the disruption of community & culture. If constant travel is a necessary part of spiritual development, then surely the chosen are the rich & privileged. We should consider the price of our personal enlightenment; the production costs of our book of life, however glossy, however artfully styled; who is paying and who is being paid.
I am starting to sound a touch vitriolic, and I don’t wish it. I am a born traveller & I understand entirely the draw, the thrill & the reward, if not the assumed superiority of spirit for the experience. Travel has transformed my life & outlook beyond recognition. A couple of things have happened recently though.
The first is this – about four years ago my wife, our first child and I moved to a little village in the Kentish countryside, flanked by woodland ringing with peace & birdsong, & I began to remember being a child, playing on our little cobbled slips & commons with our neighbours, sharing bonfire night with them, calling the shopkeeper by name. There is an extent to which I ‘escaped’ from this, and had no right of return. A few days in and we began to feel immensely fond of, and excited about, where we were and we sensed the possibility of community & symbiosis; local economy even. We visited the local farms, the local pub, the butchers, we breathed the air. We installed a wood-burning stove. We acquired a small allotment plot. Our children played with our neighbours’ children. Our neighbours looked after our rabbit and we their chickens when away for a weekend. We acquired a sense of place and fell into it. Things that I’d been doing for a long time before started to make sense; baking our bread, growing herbs & tomatoes on our polluted little balcony on the main road between Deptford & Greenwich. I have a fire going as I write this and it is my priority.
The second. I read a lot of Wendell Berry’s writings. This is a recent development and I won’t go too far into it, except to say that it cemented the view I had, quietly & instinctively, that our true rewards are in a true relationship with our own natural land & community, earth & air; in the small, simple, miraculous peace and levity of humble living, work & play. When I speak about ‘community’ I am not referring to type, race, creed or even species, but place. I am an outsider here by birth, and probably quirk and dress, but there is positive symbiosis with people, with earth & with nature & each season is distinct & pleasurable for what it brings and what we will do with it. I will refer everyone to Wendell Berry, for his understanding of white America that chimed with my understanding of many of us here. For many thousands of years Native Americans lived on the land without taking from it, living with it, understanding the limits and the nature of it, forming and nurturing a profound relationship with it. Within 150 years of white settlement tens of thousands of years-worth of topsoil had been eroded, plowed from hillsides, blown or washed away, because the settlers did not belong to the land and did not seek to. They did not seek a symbiotic relationship but saw bountiful resources & found no desire or capacity to exercise restraint or empathy with their surrounds.
We continue to move outwards, and I continue to extrapolate and today most modern people in developed nations have no sense of place that is not violent or extractive. The violence may be carried out mostly by corporations and agribusiness now, partly in proxy, largely in a further violence, but we the people are complicit when we do not seek a sincere relationship with our place, land or community; if we seek no control, wash our hands in the drag of the tide or simply look to escape.
Wendell Berry has a book coming out soon, an anthology of his essays from different times titled The World Ending Fire. I urge anyone listening to read it from cover to cover. It is a book like Arundhati Roy’s Walking With The Comrades, that may lead a conscious person to serious thought & change within a few chapters: incisively intelligent; bludgeoningly, stubbornly brave & true. As with Gandhiji, when people have joyfully & willingly made their lives humble & founded on work, endeavour & truth, they are positioned to make change & to lead people listening for a sincere, visionary and unimpeded voice. It is the freedom they create that is key, and the great universal truth revealed & reminded – that collectively we are all powerful & alone we are nothing. Rich maybe, well heeled, well-travelled – still nothing. This ‘aloneness’ extends to our place in nature as well – when we stand apart from the natural world, it’s species & it’s clearly defined laws, as is the norm now in the developed, corporate world, we are increasingly displaced – literally unplaced; landless and incrementally more and more hapless – supplicants & dependents.
A conclusion then:
Since my very first taste I have been drawn to India. For others it is Bali or Cambodia, the Andes or the Himalayas and it has been all of these for me too. India has fed my love of travel & led me to seek other places where the threads of ancient culture, learning, healing, tradition, understanding & (most of all) community have been knitted & unbroken through the generations, despite unspeakable politics and unconscionable corruption. This is a delicate luxury, threatened increasingly & every day that the creep of corporate globalism advances, bringing modernisation, homogeny, dilution, displacement & wealth for the very few at the expense of all our land, resources & wherewithal. It is interesting to see that we are getting it. But maybe not quite getting it. We have seen what is threatened & looked to the ancient & the traditional, we have imported yoga, Ayurveda and masala chai into our UK mainstream; we have up-ed sticks and headed for the Himalayas. We have imported the healing herbs, spices & superfoods from India, China, Tibet & Peru & we insist on their daily incorporation into our experience.
Ayurveda is similar to our own naturopathy, our own herbal understanding, our own making of natural salve & medicine, our slow treatment & prevention of root causes rather than quick fix addressing of the most worrying symptom. We have rich woodland, medicinal flora & fertile soils, succulent grassland & ancient hills, tradition & lore. We have whipped & wonderful beaches, wood for the fire, places of peace, places of wonder; endless, mysterious natural resources.
We live differently when we travel. We move with a different energy. We embrace elemental, simple, transporting, connecting things in a way that we do not in our daily lives where we are screamed at by many corporate modes of advancement, many voices and many whips to action that do not belong to the air, the land or the celestial clusters, that do not serve our best interests.
I believe that we can travel at home, when we unplug more & turn off what is synthetic & for sale. We can heal ourselves with our indigenous herbs & a new relationship with our place. Big business – the corporate model – wishes us to be landless. When we cannot settle or produce, we depend & we consume.
As I have said, I am an outsider here in a way; a few hundred miles from where I was born, but it is reminiscent, maybe in the whiff of childhood. And I grow, and I commune. I enjoy simple things, humble pleasures & things that I have made and worked for – actual things that are not abstract, like a meal, good compost, a potato crop or a wood-fire – things that do not cost me or anyone else. I take to the woods with the three year old, after the school run, and we search for the perfect stick. We enjoy and we shatter the staggering quiet & we take in the beauty that can only be explained in presence. We take a few sticks in the summer or the autumn & we cook our dinner on them. We grow more food and we use our outstanding village butchers & the many farm-shops around, we source local flour & make our bread, including the chapatis that have long been a symbol in the back of my mind, of humble pleasure, of travel & true community. Because we have cooked & shared them in ashrams, in family homes and on driest sticks in the desert.
I will travel – but not to escape or to return to something less. I will travel consciously, I will offset & consider & think of my great privilege. I will seek out the humble & happy enclaves of the world & I will learn. My book of life will be a local one that I will write in praise of humility & in defiance of sad, ruthless peddlers & blind seekers. A seer will see anywhere. The conscious will discern over the noise and I will be happy, here.