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October 25, 2012

Walking, across the pond

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — One of the best reasons to travel is to get out of one’s cultural skin for a while. It is also a great way to pick up some pretty useful ideas. I have never been comfortable with the much bandied about term “American Exceptionalism.” Actually, I find it distasteful, counter-productive, and condescending. We have a lot to be proud of, but if one gets around a bit one sees that some pretty interesting and innovative stuff is happening around the world, much of it worth emulating — or at least worthy of some thought and implementation within the context of our own cultural

lives.

We have just returned from a trip to Ireland, England and Wales. Beauty abounds in all, although each is different, which is as it should be. No country can escape the effects of the recent global economic meltdown and each country is certainly struggling its way back to a reasonable level of economic growth and stability.

There is an ages-old English idea that has a great deal of appeal. It would be nice if we could implement some version of it here. Ours was primarily a walking/hiking trip. England has miles upon miles of public footpaths, some networks closing in on a hundred miles or more. No matter where one goes one comes across green arrow-shaped signs pointing the way to these public walking paths across privately owned lands. Implied in such an arrangement is a completely different view of private property. Owners set aside clearly marked walking paths, normally on the edges of fields often connected by stiles, so that one moves from property to property almost seamlessly. Some stiles a more easily negotiated than others, but by and large minimal effort is required. If one is new to an area it can be a bit confusing and we did end up on walks appreciably longer than anticipated, but that made it all the more enjoyable. One day after taking several wrong turns we found ourselves about a mile from the village we thought we would end

up at. Shortly after starting to walk down the road in single file a car was pulled off to the side of the road and a man got out to consult a map. We asked him how far it was to the village and after a few minutes of pleasant conversation he offered not only to drive us to the next village, but to

ours, which was several miles away. When we protested, mildly, he said it was ONLY a mile out of his way and he would be happy to do it. Our weary bodies appreciated his kindness.

We managed to get lost a number of times, but always managed to reach our destinations albeit foot weary. While foot weariness can be trying, the feeling of accomplishment that comes from walking through lovely sheep dotted hillsides makes it worth the effort. Thoreau had it right when

he opined that the swiftest travelers travel afoot. The destination is not a place, but a state of mind.

The day after we got back home I headed out for a walk. Not long into the walk I started noticing yellow posted signs. It is uninviting enough to be reminded that trespassing of any kind is prohibited. Less neighborly are the threats of prosecution and the fear of having one’s jugular torn apart by a dog. Frankly, I have never actually seen a dog doing sentry duty but the promise of an encounter is enough to keep me moving in the opposite direction.

The ethos at work in England is that walking is a good thing and that while land is owned it is also, within reason, public space as well. Land is sharable space. That is a very different state of affairs than we have here. While land is owned, in every sense of the word, it is communal space as well. There is something very civilized about that. Here ownership implies exclusivity. Posted signs mean keep out, don’t you dare set foot on this land despite the fact that no one really owns land anyway. Nature owns itself and cannot be bought or sold. Our penchant for disrespecting nature, however, is quite another story. A friend said today that it would be nice if there were a public path along the shores of our beautiful lake. Perhaps that would be a start. Not a bad project to consider. Meanwhile I think I will pay attention to bright yellow stay off MY land signs.