The Sky was not a Sky of Earth -- Peter Leyland
The Sky was Not a Sky of Earth
Recently, last month in fact, I fell for about fifty metres, plunging down an overgrown grass slope at the side of a castle in Scotland. As I came round from what must have been a mild concussion, the above line from Wordsworth came into my mind, and once I had been dosed with arnica by friends and restored to some semblance of normality, I thought of all the other times I had been in elemental danger in the world of walking, something that I love to do.
The first memory was when as lads, five friends and I climbed Helvellyn in the Lake District. We had set out full of optimism, but being young had not heeded the weather forecast, and during the climb a heavy mist came down and we literally could not see a yard in front of us. Turning back, one of our group, Steve, lost his rucksack down a narrow crevice, and despite our entreaties, he insisted on going down to retrieve it. To my considerable astonishment and indeed relief, Steve was successful and came back with the rucksack and himself intact.
The mist was still thick, but we managed to find a stream bed and cautiously followed it back down the sloping rocks and scrub that we had climbed about four hours before. We did eventually, legs aching and breath beginning to be caught in gasps, reach the Youth Hostel from which we had set out that morning. The warden looked at us and said, jokingly, that they were thinking of sending out search parties.
The next memory was when on a solitary tour of the Yorkshire Dales I was walking between Malham and Settle. I had set off that morning at the same time as three Sixth Form Girls and I was confident that I could get there before them. However, in the poem that I later wrote:
‘I walked up the lane higher and higher
Until I found the turning for the moors.
Now heading West I followed a narrow
Winding track whose grass of darker green
Revealed where other feet had passed before.
As I went onward mist came down around;
Chill and wet, obscuring and surrounding
Me, until I was within a little world
Of solitude. I had never been more
Afraid, nor had I ever known such peace…’
Luckily, I had a compass and using it found North. I set my position and journeyed on until:
‘Now it was growing lighter, and though still
Far from home I could begin to see
My journey’s end. In the distance
White triangles of stone broke through the haze
That had for so long been my companion.
Again I sat, my back against a rock,
Straining my eyes into the lifting gloom,
And gradually the shapes of stone became
Sharper, took on the form of buildings, houses;
Farms that lay in the silent dale below.’
I reached the bottom of the dale and met up with the same group of girls, who had taken the metalled road instead of the steep one that I had so foolhardily assayed. We laughed as I recounted my exploits, more of which are revealed in the poem, Settle, which was eventually published in Iron magazine. I had survived what I think would now be called, an existential experience.
The final event, which opens like a stage setting in my memory, is a trip to Ladakh in the 1990s. The trip would never have happened but for chance: we were due to go to Srinagar, but violent protests had broken out there against rule by India, and our trek was changed at the last minute to an area also known as Little Tibet. Here, eight of us set out from Leh, and with porters, guides and ponies, trekked to a height of 17,500 ft., where the air became so thin you could only walk in very tiny steps. I kept a journal:
“Saturday’s trekking up Stok-la was long and difficult. It began as a slow climb which became steeper and steeper as we headed towards the, Ganda-la pass. It is while climbing up to this pass, my breathing being so extraordinarily shortened that I begin to realise how our bodies conserve energy. Every small movement, talking even, uses some of the energy that I need to walk up to this pass. I walk, or shuffle, for about twenty paces and then have to stop in order to take three long, deep breaths. The body then uses that oxygen to give me energy enough to take those next twenty steps. If I try to go too fast, I am left gasping for breath. Suddenly my whole concentration is bent on surviving: blood, bones and tissue; muscles all working together to keep me alive in this high altitude.”
When we reached the top, I stared down at the valley below us:
“What an amazing view,” I said to Anna, one of my companions.
In reply she swore and was violently sick. We had, you see, become subject to the effects of the altitude during our ascent of Stok-la. Soon the sickness also got to me and we both spent an uncomfortable night recovering in our tent. In the morning, however, there was a long, descending walk into the valley, which ended with a feast of cheese pakoras accompanied by lemon squash.
The people of Ladakh were wonderful. At the end of our walk to Shingo we were invited into the home of a Ladakhi woman who served us chai and then yak lassi, a kind of yoghurt which was delicious. Her house was like an underground cave, although it was in fact built above the ground and had tiny windows without glass. All along the back wall were rows of shelves containing a variety of pots, crockery, teapots made of brass, earthenware dishes, tin plates and even a thermos flask. The room itself was full of woodsmoke coming from the fire under the stove which was set into the floor in front of the shelves. The smoke was trying to escape through two holes in the roof.
The woman indicated that we should sit around the two walls facing the shelf of crockery and she brought round a tray of tea, placing two benches before us on which to rest our cups. While we drank two small children played on the earth floor in front of us. One was just crawling, the other about three years old.
If you want to know more about this marvellous country, you might read a book called Ancient Futures, Learning from Ladakh. This was a present from Anna to remind me of August 1990, thirty-one years ago now.
But I digress. At the end of my tumble down that slope beside the castle, which I have described above, my right trouser leg was in tatters, my knee having gone right through it, and the leg itself was a patchwork of bruises. I recounted this to my poetry group and read to them an extract from The Prelude. The lines from the poem resonated:
‘The sky was not a sky of earth/And with what motion moved the clouds.'
William Wordsworth: The Prelude Book First (1798-9)
Helena Norberg-Hodge: Ancient Futures (1991)
Peter Leyland: Settle in Iron No 32 (1982)