Cathedral Light


Twirl. Spin quickly. Lie with your ear to the ground. Your ten-year-old friend will tell you that what you feel going round and round is the earth.

The world shared secrets with you long ago but you chose to forget them.

I want to introduce you to (or reacquaint you with) an excerpt from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac:

But it seemed that I had seen the ancient afternoon of that trail, from meadow rocks and lupine posies, to sudden revisits with the roaring stream with its splashed snag bridges and undersea greennesses, there was something inexpressibly broken in my heart as though I’d lived before and walked this trail, under similar circumstances with a fellow Bodhisattva, but maybe on a more important journey, I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.

I never climbed a hill or walked in a forest till last year in Britain. Going to university in the South Downs was one of the best things that ever happened to me, for the hills always provided ready escape on slow days or happy days or in-between days. I never saw hills so gentle or quiet, rolling and curving into sprawling meadows with mostly docile sheep. We would climb into the hills over Brighton to look down at sunshine glinting off the skylights of neat brown houses, order everywhere but not quite monotonous.

But reading Kerouac put me in mind of the Himalayas; I can never explain the sense of familiarity I experienced amidst the snow-capped peaks, the conifers and the Buddhist shrines with coloured prayer-flags rustling over bridges across rapidly flowing streams. What Kerouac describes in the Sierra Nevada, I felt in the forests of the South Downs and near Loch Lomond. But it reminds me most of a walk we took to Devil’s Dyke on a very clear day with not a wisp of grey cloud appearing in the sky despite my secret invocation. Channelling Kerouac again:

A beautiful morning – red pristine shafts of sunlight coming in over the hill and slanting down into the cold trees like cathedral light, and the mists rising to meet the sun, and all the way around the giant secret roar of tumbling creeks probably with films of ice in the pools.

So it was- well, not the pools perhaps- but we started walking through thickly wooded hillsides, sunlight falling in shafts through tall, ancient trees that formed a high canopy, cathedral-like, whispering secrets and telling tales we couldn’t decipher for all our pretension to intelligence. How can you not believe in wood-dryads or the Cosmic Dance or disembodied ethereal voices when confronted by such unostentatious splendour? In a clearing, we stumbled upon a roughly-hewn wooden seat: did the Beings come here to celebrate love, shrouded in silver moonlight caught by the wise, all-seeing boughs? In the madness of the woods and the hills, quite anything is possible.

The trees ended abruptly as civilisation reared its head in the shape of a road; beyond which lay carefully cultivated slopes of the Downs, but oh, so green and spectacular! From the almost devout silence of the woods, we emerged to the carefree revelry of open breezes carried from the sea and the valleys. I would like to tell you it was plain sailing from there, an endless, happy jaunt over velvety slopes, but there were three slightly jarring episodes. One, a sudden charge by an enraged bull, which till the moment before we stepped into its territory had been grazing comfortably; it obviously didn’t welcome our intrusion. Two, a girl about five years old rolling up her clothes and dancing little raunchy dances by her parents’ caravan, before stopping to ask us if we were paedophiles.

These little mishaps overcome, we went on for a while, crossing into West Sussex and feeling rather proud of our feat of having come across a county border, when, right on top of a hill in the middle of our nowhere, our guides announced that we were lost. They pored over maps as five of us dug into a tiny packet of crisps and finished the last of our single bottle of Mountain Dew; then, they had us retrace our steps for a while and climb over a bramble fence into the edge of a golf-course. We were soon back in the heart of civilisation, walking past a field with strapping horses on one side, and a horizon brightened by the brilliant blue sea on the other. Devil’s Dyke was in sight, and the journey was soon to end with a marvellous vista of Sussex stretched out all around us, far below where we stood. The Iron Age excavation site the Internet consisted of one half-hearted structure, but I was beyond caring at that point. The long tramp through the hills, the sight of billowing kites in the bluest sky in ages, the friendship of the forests and a sense of never-ending freedom had given me more than I could have dreamt of.


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