The wind that shakes the barley

The first things I did after moving in with Mark and redecorating our bedroom involved 1. creating a sock-knitting area in the bottom of my wardrobe and 2. curating a shelf-load of books on my side of the bed themed around adventures and journeys. I organised my books and my sock-knitting books/yarns etc. in tandem so that these project areas are somehow two parts of the same idea. Socks and adventures pair themselves in my mind, and I wanted my books and my knitting projects for 2011 to reflect and develop this theme. The process of knitting objects provides an opportunity to mentally revisit places and knitted objects in turn – particularly socks – provide the clothing necessary for walking there again. For me, making links between socks and walking is a kind of never-ending loop encircling physical and emotional geographies, the imagination, and the body. Walking itself is the activity which draws together clothes, adventures and ideas.

Currently from my adventure shelf I am enjoying Rebecca Solnit’s fantastic book, Wanderlust, a history of walking.

The most striking sentence I have found so far in Solnit’s rich treatise on walking is this one;

When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back… Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.

A field of Barley, just West of the A4074, on the approach to Wittenham Clumps, Summer 2010

This sentence struck a particular chord with me this week as I have spent the time largely at BBC Oxford re-editing my radio show about the A4074 road – an endeavour which has been particularly satisfying and grounding. All being well, the show will go out on BBC Oxford at 6pm on Boxing Day!

As with making socks and walking in beloved places, making radio provides me with a rich opportunity to mentally revisit familiar geographies. Listening to the sounds I recorded whilst tramping around my commute throughout the Summer reminds me of the tones and textures of the terrain and of the details in the landscape which – once found on foot – remain instilled in my imagination forever. When I drive the road now, I have a sense of these details all around me, and a sense of myself moving through a place rather than simply driving on a road from A to B.

The A4074 road, snaking through the Chilterns, Summer 2010

I find Solnit’s metaphor of crops particularly apt when thinking about the A4074 because the land around it is almost exclusively used for large-scale agriculture. The changing colours of the landscape glimpsed from the car become immersive spaces filled with different insects and birds when wandered through. The spectacular show begins with yellow in early Spring when the oilseed rape blossoms then turns red and lilac in early Summer when the poppies bloom. Everything then slowly pales from green through to shimmering silvery gold as the barley and wheat ripen toward the start of Autumn. The fields sound progressively different when you walk through them too; the rapeseed becomes brittle as its flowers die and its fat seeds loosen in their husks, while the poppies and beans host colonies of droning bees during June. Barley produces a gentle shivering sound when it is soft and green in early Summer, and this becomes a percussive rattle as its fronds dry out in July and August. The wind shaking the barley was one of my favourite sonic finds around the A4074, and I have often wondered if folk tunes of the same name are so named because of the evocative nature of this sound. The wind shaking the barley is one of the many environmental sounds collected from around the A4074 that unfortunately didn’t make it into the final radio show, but I’ve put it here so you can hear it anyway.

At the moment those barley fields are still and white, blanketed under the powdery snow.

And a couple of weeks ago, Mark and I discovered new ways of walking around the end of the A4074 that lies closest to Reading in the first of our Berkshire walks. I loved this walk so much; it extended so many of the ideas that were important to me in the walks I did around the A4074 earlier this Summer, and it put me in touch with many other areas around where I live which I had only previously seen from the distinctly impoverished vantage point of my car windscreen.

Will Cohu’s wise words, quoted in more detail here in the early planning stages for the Around the A4074 project

The newly finished Junction 11 intersection on the M4, December 2010

One of the important voices in my Around the A4074 radio show belongs to Joe Moran, whose book On Roads provided important inspiration for my own investigations into the mundane landscape of my commute. In this post Moran touches on the non-place nature of Motorways. I think one of the main reasons that Motorways feel like non-places is that they are such hostile environs for the pedestrian. It is difficult to give to a landscape – and thereby to find oneself, as Solnit suggests we do when we walk – when that landscape is inhospitable and dangerous.

However, Mark and I have spent months witnessing recent changes to the intersection at Junction 11 on the M4, and I have been heartened by the substantial network of pedestrian bridges that has emerged through all the engineering works. It was amazing to explore this previously inaccessible Motorway landscape on foot; to mentally and physically draw a line through this previously uninhabitable space, leaving a trail across it with our feet and our muscles.

Looking down onto the M4 motorway from a pedestrian bridge, December 2010

The idea of leaving a line behind us reminds me of one of my favourite explorers; Georges Perec. His essay – Species of Spaces – is one of the finest adventures that I can think of. Beginning in the immediate environs of his bed and ending up in the furthest reaches of space, Perec demonstrates in this piece that adventuring and exploring are as much a process of conjecture and imagination as a physical act of moving through a place. Where knitting and radio are my chosen descriptors for adventure, Perec chooses words;

To write: to try meticulously to retain something… to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.

Mark walking through Hemstead Bottom, near the A4074 and the Northern County border of Berkshire, December 2010

I’m not sure yet what the full outcome of my socks/adventures/walking/radio amalgamation will be but I hope it will take me – Perec style – from the enclosures of my bedroom to universes of possibility. I love the idea that something as prosaic as a hand-knitted sock can be a vehicle for discovering the world in imaginative and adventurous terms, and that the route to discovering myself might start somewhere like standing on a road I know and wondering how many times I’ve driven on it.

Barley-inspired shimmer-sock, blogged here.

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