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Over the last ten months, I’ve taken to walking a wooded trail along an old rail line at least once per week. The entrance is tucked away at the corner of a large public park, across a bridge with tall metal walls that rumble with the National Rail tracks below. The path is lined in a leafy canopy of trees shading the well worn dirt and gravel route until a clearing on a ridge with soft grasses covering a hill that leads down to the gardens of houses on either side.
I’ve always looked forward to this part of the walk, especially during the first lockdown in an abnormally sunny spring, when couples and friends would nestle in the grass for clandestine picnics, seeking respite from restrictions. But mostly I am drawn to how the space just seems to open up to the sky. Yes, the sky is always above, but sitting in front of my little computer in my little room, anxious over my little life it is often hard to remember to just look up. But there for about 20 meters in the middle of North London, the blue opens up in a pure and joyous way, like the euphoric steps running toward the embrace of a long lost friend.
The horizon, after all, is nothing without this height. The golden sunrises and sunsets scream to be the centerpiece, but the eye can’t help but travel upward from that line, tracing the sweeping ombre from turquoise to sapphire to cobalt into the night sky we’re heading toward or leaving behind. That blue is transient, yet consistent, and is key for orienting our place in the universe -- we perceive the sky to be blue because it is color on the spectrum of light that oscillates fastest, scattering more strongly in the atmosphere than the rest of the rainbow. It’s the visual representation of light that travels an unfathomable distance through the solar system to coax plants out of seeds, to wake us in the morning, to warm our skin on a breezy day. It’s the distance that sustains us.
This blue is the guiding force for Rebecca Solnit throughout “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” her book of essays on uncertainty and place, drawn to this “lost light” she knows she can never reach.
“I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away,” she writes. “The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains...Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.”
This, she points out, is a perfect representation of our constant desires and how we view these desires as a means to an end, signposts on the road to achievement. However, as we draw closer whatever we desire disappears only to be replaced by whatever else we want. In the end, it is the distance, the longing, that is actually the most real. “I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation in its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed?”
This year - the year no one is a stranger to longing - it has felt difficult to believe that any sort of distance has been crossed at all. Time is distorted in periods of prolonged stress, leaving many feeling both stagnant and unmoored. And yet throughout it it is not what we desire - a vaccine, herd immunity, a return to crowded bars - that has changed but the parameters within which we believe we can achieve these desires. It seems we are reacting most strongly to the awareness of the distance between our reality and the ever shifting future. The uncertainty, the shadowy shade of blue that we always lived alongside but don’t often stop to consider.
And yet this uncertainty is a tangible experience in itself, a lesson we learn over and over again as the years pass. Each day adds a layer to the selves we inhabit and the way we see the world, extra depths to explore and understand. These distances aren’t an obstacle but an inherent part of our existence and formation. “The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse and with the years of travel,” Solnit writes.
I’ve continued to walk this path through the lockdowns, through the intangible fears, a relaxed summer, and solo masked walks. Though I haven’t gone far physically, the world has continued to turn from periwinkle early mornings to navy twilights. Birthdays are celebrated, patterns are formed, bodies change, history continues to be made, while within us a shift is taking place that deserves as much attention as the end that we believe we are walking toward. Life doesn’t peak or valley, it simply winds in and out of the underbrush, always heading toward the sunny hill which German poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote about in his poem “A Walk”:
My eyes already touch the sunny hill
going far beyond the road I have begun,
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has an inner light, even from a distance-
and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.
-Karis Hustad is journalist based in London, usually covering debt, and co-editor of Place
A trip to the Arctic,
An exploration of night,
And the making of a Samurai
Join us next week for another journey.