How happy I am to be able to wander among bushes and herbs, under trees and over rocks; no one can love the country as I love it. Woods, trees and rocks send back the echo that people desire.
It’s finally here, one week until I leave to walk in the footsteps – at least metaphorically – of Beethoven and commune with nature, hoping to decipher her secrets and find inspiration.
The Te Araroa in Maori means “long pathway” and at over 1800 miles, that is a wee bit of an understatement. The TA is the Appalachian Trail of New Zealand and will take me an estimated five months to walk.
I lead a double life of two intense joys: as a classical music DJ at American Public Media and as a long-distance backpacker. Walking has always been my passion, my solace and my truest love. These two come together regularly, like in my earliest memory of singing while looking down at my feet carrying me along a sidewalk.
Likewise, when we moved from the New York suburbs to the New Hampshire countryside and having just learned to whistle, I was often lost for hours – and late for dinner – exploring the woods and fields.
Though it wasn’t until my dad took me to Yosemite when I was thirteen and I played my flute on top of Half Dome, that I realized just how far my feet could take me.
What a bliss to know that no one will come to interfere with my work, my reading, my walks.
I have hiked trails long and short, and have found my love growing only deeper over the years. A couple of my thru-hikes include the John Muir and Colorado Trails; La Grande traversée des Alpes, France; El circuito de Torres del Paine, Chile; the Baltoro Glacier to K2, Pakistan; and the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Traverse, South Africa.
And every day, rain or shine, heat wave or blizzard, I walk the two miles from Summit Hill down to the studio and back home.
When I have reached a summit, I leave it with great reluctance, unless it is to reach for another, higher one.
Walking is good for you – and for the creative mind as so many composers were fully aware of. Bach walked 250 miles to hear the greatest organist of his day, Buxtehude, give a concert. Wagner wandered onto trails in the Alps and orchestrated his walks most famously in Forest Murmurs from his opera Siegfried.
Tchaikovsky became so obsessed with his daily constitutional, he superstitiously timed his walks precisely for two hours each day, believing if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortune would befall him. But we forgive his obsession upon hearing the carefree Serenade for Strings that feels like one of those perfect walking days, a mix of sunshine and a light, caressing breeze.
I get up at six in the morning. I compose until eleven, then my day is over. I go out, I walk, tirelessly, for hours.
Morton Feldman, Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar and Gustav Mahler were all morning people, composing early and after lunch walking for several hours with notebook at hand.
I feel deep kinship with the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 filled with birdcalls. He tells the performers to play “like a sound of nature.” The melody, which seems to emanate right from the trees and grasses themselves, is one he used as a song to words that describe so many walker’s transcendent experience.
I walked across the fields this morning,
Dew still hung on the grass,
The merry finch said to me:
You there, hey –
Good morning! Hey, you there!
Isn’t it a lovely world?
Tweet! Tweet! Bright and sweet!
O how I love the world!’
I am convinced that there are universal currents of Divine Thought vibrating the ether everywhere and that any who can feel these vibrations is inspired.
Perhaps the most famous walker in all of music was Eric Satie. He lived six miles from Paris’ Montmartre district, where he set up his “office” in the local cafés and communed with the leading artists of the day.
He would purposely stay out so late that he would miss the last train home and be forced to walk all those miles. But he never rushed, and was said to take in whatever appeared before him with deep interest.
I imagine Satie and the great naturalist John Muir would have made good friends as Muir wrote he despised the term hike. “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’”
You can hear in Satie’s unusual wandering beat and tempo that he was a saunterer of the highest order and happy to be so!
What will I take with me to listen to while in New Zealand? Likely all of these composers and more, mostly in my head as I love hearing the sounds of nature myself. I have plans to meet up with a New Zealand native, composer Gareth Farr whose music has a deep, spiritual connection to his home, the people and the land.
My wish is that I can commission him to write music that might accompany my audio narratives bringing my two deepest passions together in full circle, classical music and walking the length of a brand new world.
There was this total silence and vastness – the horizon seemed ten times further away than anywhere I’d been. It was an amazing place, dangerous and powerful, but fragile.