I realized there was another way of being human…the land itself could be your home. We were earth-born creatures. Why shouldn’t one be at home anywhere on earth?
Not many people know that I ever wrote books, and even fewer would know or care that I stopped writing them. Fewer still would be interested to know that in spite of stopping, I decided to un-stop long enough to write one more about why I had stopped—which might seem the height of tautology, or self-delusion, or hypocrisy, or narcissistic self-absorption perhaps. But I’m glad I did, no matter if it’s self- contradictory. Here’s why.
One night at the tail end of August, when I was twelve years old, there was a thudding on the back door of our summer home, a dilapidated cottage up the Cherwell Valley north of Oxford, England. Our mother opened up, and we heard her cry out in surprise and delight. It was a rainy night, and we gathered round to see what was going on.
“Come in, come in,” Mum called, and out of the weather stepped a windswept heap of a man wrapped in a damp, hairy overcoat, with two dogs at his heels. I guessed it must be Speedy.
We’d all heard of Speedy, and even caught glimpses of him on the far side of fields in his shaggy greatcoat the same color as his spreading ginger beard. Staff in hand, he’d be pressing along, the dogs weaving in and out of hedgerows in his wake. But I’d never seen him up close before, face to face.
He appeared in the valley each spring, putting up in the ruined mill, hidden in a lonely stand of giant willows. That place had an atmosphere. On sunny evenings it was enchanting. On dark afternoons it was ominous, with the long willow wands stirring at cross purposes, hissing like the ocean.
Speedy spent his winters on the south coast of England, where it was warmer. No one knew how it was he started coming to our valley, but every spring he would show up. No one minded, not even the farmers, even though he used his dogs, a terrier and a lurcher, for hunting rabbits and moorhen. He was a dab hand at smoking pike, which he hooked from the canal, and he buttered up the village women by bringing them yellowish sides of oily, smoky fish. Mum was thrilled when he brought her some.
This was the mid-1970s, when there were still bona fide tramps stalking the byways of England, old-school “men of the road” such as had been beating the footpaths for at least a century, or maybe much longer. We’d heard of tramps, with a mixture of fear and fascination.
The autumn evening Speedy rapped on our door, rain was lashing down. He stood under the little porch, his hairy coat dripping. He brushed himself down, opened up his front, and pulled out a little puppy.
“Well, you did say,” he said to Mum, and wheezed out a laugh.
“Oh yes,” she cried, in a mix of delight and nerves, and ran off to the kitchen to put together a bag of food, beer, and tobacco for him, as well as a banknote from her wallet.
While she was gone Speedy looked down at us kids. We’d never seen a face like it. First off, hidden between his beard, hat, and hair, it was hard even to see his cheeks. Then when you realized you were looking at them, it was a shock to see skin so ruddy and chapped that it looked more like animal hide. Then you landed on the eyes, shimmering, alive. They shocked you when you stole a glance at them, there was so much life and light in them. It was like having a wild animal in the room.
“So then,” he asked, “which one of youse’s she going to be?”
At first we didn’t know what he meant. His voice was a growl somewhere under his coat, and we couldn’t make head or tail of his accent—it was more like thunder heard two valleys off than speech.
“Eh, then?” he prompted us.
“Wha-at?” my sister asked hesitantly.
“Oose’s she gonna be? Yours or yourn?” he asked in a singsong.
“Oh,” we said as we both got it.
He was holding out the trembling puppy, yellow-brown, with a dark shining snout, like a baby African hunting dog, with black eyes that gleamed at us eagerly.
Even once we were understanding him, Speedy’s voice still sounded strange and muffled, yet the words rang clear in his body. You could understand him better if you listened to his chest.
“Who’s gonna yold her first then? Reckon it’ll be you,” he said, handing the puppy to my sister.
Mum came back in with the bag for Speedy, and he said, “Much obliged, ma’am.” We’d never heard anyone call her ma’am before.
“Thank you,” she said politely, and we sensed that he was somehow important. He stood up stiffly and was off, into the night and the rain, his dogs at his heels.
By the time Speedy walked away that night, I realized there was another way of being human. It was unlike anything I’d known. It was as if the room itself had just been shocked, and a stunned peace fizzed among the furniture. An aliveness that was new, and not my own, welled up inside me. An idea bloomed: the land itself could be your home. We were earth-born creatures. Why shouldn’t one be at home anywhere on earth? Just like Speedy and his dogs?
The next year happened to be 1976. It was a summer that would go down in British history, when haytrucks spontaneously burst into flame and traffic backed up for hours on the roads, when reservoirs ran dry, and in our valley the fields hardened into rustling savannas, and the cattle-trod mud either side of gates fired into terracotta. The woods turned dark and serious under the dome of natural sky, as if for the first time tasting a maturer life long denied them.
It was also the summer we got to know Speedy for real. He befriended us and taught us some of his tricks. How to make a snare out of garden twine and set it on secret rabbit paths. How to catch and smoke fish. He told us of his winters on the south coast, his life on the open road. Roped in his hairy overcoat, stringed into his boots, he liked to sit still and watch things, he said. You could learn a lot if only you just sat yerself still. Everybody else, the whole world, is rushing about all day long, they don’t have time to learn nothing, if they just stopped still a moment they’d be amazed what they’d learn.
He also talked of old roads that crossed the length and breadth of the land. These days, people didn’t know how to find them, but they were plain as a pikestaff if you knew what you were looking for, he said. “Most people can’t see the ghost roads”—another name he had for them. “They only show theyselves once you been walking a lot.”
We didn’t know what to make of that. But the open road was real enough. Speedy didn’t have a home, or kitchen, or bedroom. He basically just had himself. That and the land. He was at home anywhere. He was his home.
All through that long, hot summer we imitated him, slinging on backpacks stuffed with sleeping bags, tea, and bread, wandering the local valleys and hills, sleeping rough under the stars, drinking sweet tea made with stream water over open fires. There was a small, changing group of friends who would join us. We felt we were starting to live. We had also discovered the old poets of China by then, who wandered and wrote elegies to lost friends, to wine, to the gorges and cliffs among which they roamed. We dreamed of becoming wanderers, vagabond world lovers like them, finding every day a new life in the contours of the land, chasing the scent of a fulfillment always just out of reach.
All the above—that’s one story, one version. There is another.