Saturday, July 26, 2014

No other tent but the sky

Walter Crane's 1907 frontispiece to
Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879)

Here is Robert Louis Stevenson, settling down with his donkey for a night in the Valley of the Mimente.
A hollow underneath the oak was my bed. Before I had fed Modestine and arranged my sack, three stars were already brightly shining, and the others were beginning dimly to appear. I slipped down to the river, which looked very black among its rocks, to fill my can; and dined with a good appetite in the dark, for I scrupled to light a lantern while so near a house. The moon, which I had seen, a pallid crescent, all afternoon, faintly illuminated the summit of the hills, but not a ray fell into the bottom of the glen where I was lying. The oak rose before me like a pillar of darkness; and overhead the heartsome stars were set in the face of the night. No one knows the stars who has not slept, as the French happily put it, à la belle étoile.  [...]
All night a strong wind blew up the valley, and the acorns fell pattering over me from the oak. Yet, on this first night of October, the air was as mild as May, and I slept with the fur thrown back.
I was much disturbed by the barking of a dog, an animal that I fear more than any wolf. [...]  I was wakened next morning (Wednesday, October 2nd) by the same dog - for I knew his bark - making a charge down the bank, and then, seeing me sit up, retreating again with great alacrity. The stars were not yet quite extinguished. The heaven was of that enchanting mild grey-blue of the early morn. A still clear light began to fall, and the trees on the hillside were outlined sharply against the sky. The wind had veered more to the north, and no longer reached me in the glen; but as I was going on with my preparations, it drove a white cloud very swiftly over the hill-top; and looking up, I was surprised to see the cloud dyed with gold. In these high regions of the air the sun was already shining as at noon. If only the clouds travelled high enough, we should see the same thing all night long. For it is always daylight in the fields of space.
The young Richard Holmes, following the route described by Stevenson, spent the night at this spot in 1964.  'I made a little fire among the rocks by the river, and slept in the doorway of an isolated barn.  My diary notes "a solitary star below the door-lintel, a little rain, and an occasional blink of lightning over the oak trees"' (Footsteps,1985).  In an earlier post here I referred to the notion of the literary pilgrimage and Richard Holmes' practise of 'footstepping' his biographical subjects.  I also quoted another description of a night à la belle étoile from his travels on the trail of Stevenson: 'I slept out that night under an outcrop of pines, facing east on a slight incline, with the light of the Costaros far way to my left. ... Only once, waking, I drank two ice-cold mouthfuls of water from my can and, leaning back, saw the Milky Way astonishingly bright through the pine tops, and felt something indescribable - like falling upwards into someone's arms.'

Nowadays the path taken by Stevenson and Modestine can be followed on the chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson (GR70).  As one travel site says, 'Stevenson often slept out under trees in a prototype sleeping bag. You enjoy wholesome food in welcoming, en-suite accommodation as you trek across southern Auvergne and northern Languedoc with just your light backpack'.  A quick Google will take you to self-published travel accounts and shorter posts from tourists who have done this long distance walk (of course if I ever do it, you will be reading about it here).  Books too will continue to appear: as Nicholas Shakespeare wrote in The Telegraph, 'if you had visited the Cévennes in September 1994, you might have encountered a demented, rain-sodden Edinburgh schoolteacher whacking along a donkey and shouting out "lumps of poetry" about the effects of travel.  Christopher Rush was on a quest to recover himself after losing his wife to cancer a year before ...To Travel Hopefully breaks a 10-year silence to describe how Rush returned to "authorial normality" by following in the footsteps of his hero Robert Louis Stevenson.' 

And so the landscape is continually over-written by travellers carrying copies of the accounts of previous travellers.  But Stevenson himself was walking with a copy of Peyrat's history of the Protestant Camisard Revolt of 1702-05 (an episode with some parallels to the resistance of the Scottish Covenanters).  On that night of October 1st, 1878, gazing at the night sky from the 'hollow underneath the oak' , he could imagine two of the romantically-named historical figures from the Camisard wars looking up at the same sight.  'These same far-away worlds, sprinkled like tapers or shaken together like a diamond dust upon the sky, had looked not otherwise to Roland or Cavalier, when, in the words of the latter, they had ‘no other tent but the sky, and no other bed than my mother earth.’' The same is true today for all those who walk GR70 in the hope of getting closer to Stevenson, or the fresher, but now half-a-century-old footsteps of the young Richard Holmes: the stars at least remain unchanging.

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