As penance for flying to Europe and thus bloating what had hitherto been a fairly trim carbon footprint, I chose to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden on the flight. I consumed it from cover to cover, including the introduction by Walter Harding and his 65 pages of notes. It was the Variorum edition, which claims to be the only one “based directly on the author’s own copy of the first edition” (Boston, 1854). This was a volume I had acquired a few weeks previously from the ‘Free Books’ cart at Santa Monica library. Its pages are deeply yellowed and crumbling at the edges; the once glossy cover is begrimed from fretting against other discarded volumes. The acidic wood pulp pages have that characteristic smell of old paperbacks - somewhere between urine and vinegar. Its purchase price at its publication in 1963 was sixty cents: one can thus hypothesize that it has declined in monetary value at precisely 1.2 cents a year for fifty years before flat-lining at zero in the spring of 2013. Thoreau’s wisdom contained therein, however, remains priceless.

Closeted in the pressurized fuselage of either a 777 (shortly to be replaced by the 787 Dreamliner) (east) or a brand new 747-8 (the last gasp of Boeing’s Jumbo) (west) I enjoyed every word but I felt chastened by Thoreau’s trenchant critique of the profligate life styles he observed in Concord – what would he make of the debt peonage I and my fellow passengers had undertaken for the privilege of crossing continents at an altitude of 30,000 feet?

His was an age newly introduced to high-speed travel and Thoreau considered himself to be living amongst the ‘sons of Tell’. “Men are advertised that at a certain hour and minute these bolts (steam trains) will be shot toward particular points of the compass…The air is full of invisible bolts.” In Upper Ojai we have a similar impression: our bolts being the airliners plying the skies above the Topatopas (Red Smudge).

Thoreau lived between two worlds: the vanishing agrarian economy of small-holdings which Jefferson understood to be the basis for an American democratic civilization and the emerging plutocracy powered by an industrial revolution that had come late to America but here would reach its apotheosis. Thoreau advocates, by his example, a third way: lives lived in isolation and self-sufficiency nourished by the delights of the wilderness – a lifestyle made possible, however, only by his living in the shadow of both flourishing agricultural and industrial economies, in the urban wildland.

During his era, it was the steam train that was the most visible (or, by its lonesome whistle, aural) evidence of the stitching together of industry and agriculture into what, even in the 1850’s was a nascent global economy. When a freight train rattles past Thoreau he notes the “Manila hemp and cocoa-nut husks…reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe”. His ‘Economy’ is dependent upon living in the hinterlands of this mid-century mash-up of land wealth and capital. Both his frugality and his adjacency to the mid nineteenth century Maine economy (he lived only a mile away from the town of Concord) assured him of a lifestyle where there was little need to work and plentiful opportunities to bask in reveries inspired by his wild environment.

Thoreau bought his nails, screws, lathe and lime in Concord and while he cut his own framing lumber from the local woods, the boards for the house siding and the recycled windows came from town – as either products or cast-offs of an industrialized rural economy. Any truly individual or family based, self-sufficient material culture must look to models (often deep in the past) that do not depend on industrial technologies such as those necessary for the manufacture of metal and glass – materials that became the pre-eminent trade goods during the European conquest of the stone-age peoples of the Americas.

Glass and iron are thus emblematic of the transition from pre-history to the pre-modern era: but although the Iron Age, from an archeological perspective, arose in the Middle East around four thousand years ago, it was not until the Romans that it became the sine qua non of Empire. The Conquistadors are lineal descendants of the Roman legionnaires not least because of their iron studded boots.

Some of those boots (Roman’s not Conquistador’s) strode across the flatlands of Norfolk in their customary linear fashion early in the first century. Opposition to these iron-clad marchers and everything they represented came from Celtic outlanders – Britons of the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudica (Victory). In terms of ousting the Romans she failed to live up to her name but her spirit was later co-opted by Queen Victoria as an avatar of the British Empire – which explains the grand nineteenth statue of the warrior queen on the north side of Westminster Bridge, remembered from my childhood.

The main artery across East Anglia was carved out by the Romans from the ancient path known as the Ickneild way. It now serves as one of Britain’s long-distance walking paths: few who walk it now pay much heed to those long ago Iceni enslaved by the Romans to build the road it follows. Lorrie and I stayed with my cousin Robert whose house is on a portion of this historic route known as Peddars Way. While in Norfolk, we also visited Hugh Lupton who has created a story and song cycle inspired by the layering of history along Peddars Way (A Norfolk Songline, Walking the Peddars Way, Hugh Lupton and Liz McGowan).

Earlier on our trip, we made a brief foray along Offa’s Dyke Path, another of Britain’s long distance walking routes, which was developed to follow a defensive ditch dug by order of the King of Mercia to protect his lands from the depredations of the Celts to the west (now Wales). After a couple of days of desultory searching (by car) we failed to find much evidence of this massive earthwork now reduced by time and circumstance.

Both routes are latter-day reconstructions that do not necessarily reflect the full historical realities of either the Welsh borderlands or of Norfolk’s ancient pathways. They are devices to satisfy the demand of growing numbers of walkers - offshoots of Britain’s Heritage Industry which attempts to add value to the natural world through the overlaying of sometimes spurious historical associations along particular routes.

There is a great deal to be said for Thoreau‘s approach which suggests that paying close attention to your immediate surroundings results in the creation of a sympathy between you as observer and the plants, animals and landforms observed. Out of this, Thoreau developed an almost Franciscan way with chipmunks, squirrels and the birds that surrounded his house. A walk in his woods, a circumnavigation of his pond or a stroll into Concord was all the travel he needed.

The coarsening of our sensory receptors has resulted in our seeking out more and more exotic travel experiences. One of the great gifts of living in the urban wildland for these past four years (twice as long as Thoreau spent at Walden) has been a greater appreciation of the subtleties of the everlasting yet ever-changing chaparral. Having fallen off the travel-abstinence wagon, I look forward to lengthy periods of stillness in emulation of Thoreau who was on a kind of long distance path that could be fully experienced within the confines of his hut, his pond and his woods. While planetary, global and personal time races on, our last refuge is spatial stasis - the ability to stay in one place and open ourselves to the unfolding of the infinite.