If you want to get anywhere today, you just… well… do it. You jump on a train or into the car and off you go, sat stationary as landscape whizzes past you. And let’s not talk about tube journeys where you disappear into a black hole only to emerge somewhere else. Journeys nowadays are uneventful. Yes, I know that sometimes there’s an accident and the landscape stops moving or you have to suffer a slightly different parade of landscape as you divert, but still, travel has become a passive thing. We don’t interact with the landscape any more, it’s just scenery.
If you’re on foot (or I presume on horseback though I do not ride), you have to interact with your environment. There’s no Highways Agency or Railtrack maintaining the routes. The ground underfoot can change from chalky rock to waterlogged grass. Weather can aid or hamper you. If you encounter a blockage, there’s not always another easy route. A diversion might take days. Travelling by foot is an adventure, with no guarantee of reaching your destination. I rarely go out for a long day’s walk without some injury (usually a twig in the eye due to Geocaching) or tale to tell.
Environment isn’t universal either. Go into any large wood and you’ll see it has places: that rocky outcrop, the clearing, the scary tree, the rotting log. Of course, urban environments aren’t universal either but they do tend to generally be LEGO sets of different architecture, mixed and matched in endless permutations. But with the urban you can just turn a corner and suddenly find yourself somewhere else. A few steps is often all that is needed for the architecture to completely change. The joy of the urban are finding those hidden places tucked away, a passageway that, in just a few steps, leads to somewhere so different to from where we’ve just come. The countryside is big and open. It blends and changes, and for me, it’s what fuels my wanderlust; knowing that what’s over the next hill will be unique and possibly unlike anywhere else in the world; that I don’t need to find a hidden passage to get to the wondrous.
And all these places both, the urban and the countryside, have histories and stories, from the shop that has been in the same family for generations, to that tree that lovers carved their name into. These histories overlap and intermix, just like the visuals. Landscape is a rich cake.
As suburbs extend and the amount of pure wilderness in the world diminishes, so I find less and less books where travellers interact with their environment. Instead, the chapter ends and the next one begins several days later with the protagonists arriving at their destination without injury or tales to tell. Most of the time, it’s down to the fashion of telling compact stories that avoid anything not directly related to the story (I talk more about this – and repeat and probably contradict myself – HERE). But it’s hard to incorporate well without it seeming like an info dump. Tolkien was a grand master of it, an author who understood landscape as well as he understood language. Few have dared to try emulate him, even fewer have been able to do it even moderately successfully.
Yet, still I crave it; that feeling that the book’s characters, or indeed the author themselves, has experienced that same sense of adventure of travelling by foot, has that same sense of environment. The landscape is alive and not just a slideshow you watch from a window.