CROYDON COMMENTARY: Getting out and about has taken on added importance during lockdown, and given RICHARD PACITTI cause for thoughts…
For me, an unexpected pleasure brought about by the coronavirus restrictions has been the walks I have been taking with my eldest son.
In Croydon, we are fortunate to be within walking distance of some wonderful outdoor spaces. As well as local parks and recreation grounds, within a 15- or 20-minute walk from our house, we have Kings Wood, Selsdon Nature Reserve and Croham Hurst, a Site of Special Scientific Interest which also boasts a Bronze Age round barrow. Human habitation there goes back thousands of years.
As we walk, my son and I talk about all sorts of things and have the kind of conversations that, perhaps, in normal times, we wouldn’t have time for. Topics have included the arguments for and against the legalisation of drugs, whether it makes sense to vote, and a critique of the maths curriculum… Why do we learn obscure stuff like algebra, but not how to write a spreadsheet, or fill in a tax return, or work out the best rates of return on our savings?
Walking through ancient places gives time to think about all the thousands of people who have walked these places before us and whose footsteps we follow.
In particular, we have been thinking about how, prior to programmes to encourage mass literacy, knowledge would be passed from generation to generation on such walks, with parents showing and telling their children useful things to know, like how to forage for food, what things are safe to eat and what things are poisonous.
Learning via reading and writing is a relatively new development in the story of humankind and visits to old churches show how messages were passed on instead through works of art.
Of course, the clergy at this time were well-educated and could reinforce their views and the positions of power they occupied by literally putting the fear of God into people. If they didn’t behave themselves, parishioners would end up in hell – or worse.
On one walk, taking in part of the London Loop, we made a small diversion to Chaldon Church, which contains one of the earliest known English wall paintings, the “Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul”, sometimes called “the Doom painting”, complete with sinners being devoured by devils and being boiled alive, while the righteous ascend upwards to heaven. It’s pretty clear how a picture like this could be used to keep the common folk in line.
Learning by sending our children to schools is an even more recent idea and there are those, Paulo Freire, for example, whose view was that this kind of teaching is another way of oppressing the masses and keeping them in line. School is not a place to encourage young people to think for themselves and ask challenging questions – not much different from the murals in the church. Those of us who are parents recognise that in some schools, this still goes on. “Teaching to the exam”, or getting the correct grades to go to a certain university is the focus, rather than school being a place to learn about stuff for the intrinsic pleasure involved.
The other thing about walking in nature is, I hope, that it teaches us a bit of respect for the other things that live there. My son and I talked about that poem about the snake, by DH Lawrence. I read it as part of my English O Level in the mid-1970s and I still remember it.
In fact, whenever I’m standing quietly, listening to birdsong or watching a squirrel or a bird, lines from the poem come to mind. In the poem, the writer describes how the snake comes to drink from his water trough and he, “like a second-comer”, has to wait.
His “educated voices” says he should kill the snake, but the writer confesses how he likes the snake and, “How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough and depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless”. But the lines I really like are, “Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?”
In the same way I feel “honoured” when a robin comes to inspect my work when I am gardening, or when a deer crosses our path when my son and I are out walking.
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