10 March 2016

Of Walking in Ice

Herzog on location with Fitzcarraldo, released in 1982.

In 1974 the German filmmaker Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man), heard a friend in Paris was ill. Herzog had a plan to save her from death.

I took a jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities. My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them. I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot. Besides, I wanted to be alone with myself. (foreword)

Herzog walked from Munich to Paris. The book Of Walking in Ice is the record of the journey. It is a route map in words. A scrapbook of images, signs, and encounters. One aspect of Herzog’s journey, that makes me feel a bit of a softy, is that he sets off in bleak mid-winter. Most of my Border walking is done in good weather. Looking at my bookshelves I find I am not alone in minding the weather. Iain Sinclair’s walks, such as those recorded in Edge of the Orison, are planned, short, and warm. Colm Tóibín, Walking along the Border, encountered some drizzle but never really suffered. He was never far from a B&B and a fry. In contrast, Herzog’s need to walk was so intense that he set off just when travelling was hardest. Even if this was just a stylistic choice, and I think it is not, then it would be a compelling and original one.

There is more. Herzog’s journey is continuous. No weekend hikes strung together artificially on the page. He walks three solid weeks on a low budget. At night he breaks into holiday chalets for a dry place to sleep. With aching feet, dirty hair, and soaking clothes Herzog starts to look, feel, and perhaps genuinely be, deranged.

Then snow, snow, rainy snow, snowy rain; I curse Creation. What for? I am so utterly soaked that I avoid people by crossing the sodden meadows, in order to save myself from facing them. Confronting the villages I stand ashamed. Confronting the children I change my face to look like one of the community. (36)

In one of his essays, Paul Auster remarks that to be truly engaged with a novel we have to feel the author was compelled to write it. The writer had no choice other than to write it. So it is with Herzog’s walk. He cannot wait until spring. He cannot plan a route. He does not even have a map when he leaves. He is gripped by compulsion. A compulsion powerful enough to reach from the page and grip the reader too.

Border apple tree on The Map of Encounters 1.0.

By the last week Herzog’s loneliness aches harder than his feet. Of Walking in Ice’s theme of loneliness is a direct result of travelling in winter. Nature will keep you very good company in the summer, but in winter it shrugs you off. A few years ago I wrote a short piece about finding an apple tree on the Border, green and fully loaded with fruit. It was an inviting, generous sight. Herzog’s meeting with an apple tree is very different. It says something of the difficulties that he faced and that I avoided. But I am not congratulating myself. I envy the stridency of Herzog’s journey.

Apples lie rotting in the wet clay soil around the trees, nobody is harvesting them. On one of the trees, which seemed from afar like the only tree left with any leaves, apples in mysterious cluster hang close to one another. There isn’t a single leaf on the wet tree, just wet apples refusing to fall. I picked one, it tasted pretty sour, but the juice in it quenched my thirst. I threw the apple core against the tree, and the apples fell like rain. When the apples had becalmed again, restful on the ground, I thought to myself that no one could imagine such human loneliness. (72)