by Tobias Thornes
Forgive me if I start at the beginning. You might prefer to know the ending first, and judge from the conclusion whether setting out was worth my while at all. Or perhaps you’d rather have a taste first of the adventure that lies between the outset and the end, that you might survey the prospect from the highest peak of this range of humble hills that is my tale, and know whether it will be worth your while to follow me there and back again. But the end can’t be judged rightly, nor will the view be clear from the top, unless the purpose of my travels is first unfolded to your mind. So you must forego for now these promised pleasures, trusting they’ll be worthy of the effort spent obtaining them, and I shall begin at the beginning of my journey, and tell you why I first set out at all.
I began in the city. It was a cold spring morning; the light was soft, and probably, beneath wider skies, the countryside was thickly daubed in frost. Not here. Here, dirty puffs of steamy smoke leaked from the exhaust-pipes of at least a hundred humming cars. They grumbled, like impatient dogs eager to be let loose but, for now, constrained to crawl as a snaking stenchy dribble through the over-congested, stagnant cityscape. I passed them briskly by, trying not to breathe the foul fumes or meet the eyes of the bored inhabitants – most of them alone in their little mobile spaces – sitting, picking noses, doing makeup, or simply frowning straight ahead at the long lines of angry red eyes peppering the road. Wasting time. Was it always this way, I wondered. Since when had the city become the habitat of these glugging, jugging man-made beasts of burden? Was it really comfortable, locked within those private little shuttles of steel for minutes or hours on end? Wouldn’t it be better to get up from those stymying seats and walk or ride together, in the open, to feel the wind and weather and to breathe the fresh air? At least, I reflected, coughing, they didn’t have to breathe each other’s fumes. Who knew what unnatural substances I harboured in my lungs, even now, collected over countless city walks?
I don’t know when it happened – the place as it was then was all I had always known it to be – but I realised that that part of the city, for all its light and noise and people, had been dead for a long time.
“They didn’t see the world around them; they didn’t see it changing, slowly slipping away.”
I wouldn’t dwell there in its putrid corpse for much longer. I crossed a grey and lifeless concrete bridge, and made my way up to the station. At least there was life here, amidst the bustle and hurry outside the main station entrance. A heartfelt burst of laughter peeled from a café. A litter-picking street-cleaner whistled as he passed, picking up another twenty-first century gem with his tweezers. So carelessly discarded, it would be destined, no doubt, for some hole in the countryside, where it could rest and rot as the centuries passed: a record in perpetuity of what we were today. But most people were locked up in their own little worlds, dreaming perhaps of people, places and ideas far away from that man-made desert of concrete and grime. Only a Big Issue vendor, alone in having nowhere else to hurry to, implored them all to come back down to this little patch of Earth. Ignored. They carried on in silence, or talking in their own small companies. They didn’t see the world around them; they didn’t see it changing, slowly slipping away. They were all too busy, without the time to stop and think of where that cigarette stub they’d tossed upon the floor would end up, or whence came that plastic bottle bought and drained and flung upon the pile growing by the minute atop the litter-bin.
But I had time. I’d left nearly an hour to catch my train. I bought a magazine, buoyed up by the friendly smile of one so pleased to sell it. Then I stood and watched on platform three while the trains came and went, and a thousand lives crossed mine just for a moment, waiting for the slow train to London and on to Paris. Yes, I had time. I was, as I call it, ‘travelling slow’.
The world – that is, both our human world, and the nature that surrounds us – wasn’t well. So I had been told. Not that I myself had ever known it significantly different, had known it to be ‘well’, so to speak. Nor had I witnessed personally the frightening changes reported to be taking place across the entire globe. But I did know by instinct – in common, I think, with all empathetic beings – what was most beautiful, most wonderful, most meaningful about our world. I knew, too, what was most alien and unpleasant but, for a time at least, to be endured within it. And the reports I was hearing certainly worried me. They suggested that the wonderful was losing out to the alien like never before. I hadn’t known a planet covered in forests, which is what I was told had existed millennia before. But I did know trees as beautiful beings to live alongside, I loved them for the peace, reassurance and life-giving air they exuded, and I knew that the net loss of billions per year could not be good. I loved the wonderful diversity of life on Earth, and I felt that the extinction of so many plants and animals that thrived in these forests as their paradise degraded into wasteland was a sorrow quite unbearable. For the climate in which all this fantastic life had flourished and adapted – not just in forests but right across our beautiful world – to change seemed a travesty; for once life-full, verdant lands and oceans to be littered with lifeless synthetic creatures seemed a disgrace.
Soon, the reports implied, humanity would be doomed to breathe an alien atmosphere with alien weather, walking on alien ground amidst alien seas, and the garden that had sustained us in lives of love and joy was to be uprooted. I could not take these tales for granted. I had to see and know for myself what was occurring to believe that such an apocalypse could really soon be unleashed. And there you have it, the purpose of my travels. But the tale of my beginnings is not yet quite complete.
“So I did not set out only to see the changing world; I set out to change it myself.”
Had I but wished to see the destruction of our planet at first hand, I had it within my means to soar from place to place by plane with the greatest speed. I could witness in a week the burning of the forests, the lives blighted by pasture become desert and slowly-rising seas beyond my control. But the greatest tragedy, of all that I had heard, was that the sickness in the world around me was not out of my control at all. I had caused it – we had caused it. It was bred of a sickness within my own society that had taken hold long before my birth and was driving us to destroy our very selves. The fact hardest to bear was that the lungs of the world were being shredded, the lands and oceans wasted, the air poisoned and the people made miserable not by natural accident but by active human hands, gripped by a fever of envy and greed. And the desire for instant, world-wide travel was, I realised, one of the most destructive symptoms of this foul disease. So I did not set out only to see the changing world; I set out to change it myself, if only in my own tiny, perhaps insignificant capacity, hoping that – like the flap of a butterfly’s wings that seeds an entire storm – my little choices might grow somehow in influence to have a large effect. So I wasn’t going to dash with greedy haste from place to place by air. I was going to travel slowly, reverently, over land and sea, and see for myself what the world is and was and could become from the point of view of the slow journeyman, who alone can live and breathes and truly know each landscape. This was my beginning down a slowly-trammelled path.