The Mystery of Happenstance: Poets on a Path
I am a member of local book club and this month we are reading The Salt Path (2018) by Raynor Winn. It’s a memoir of a middle-aged couple who upon becoming homeless in 2013, and despite the husband facing serious health issues, decide to walk the South West Coast Path of England—all 630 miles.
As a walking meditation it shares similar themes found in previously published works; most notably Cheryl Strayed’s Wild account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods experience of The Appalachian Trail. Each backpacker discovers, or uncovers, themselves through resilience and determination of putting one foot in front of the other, while Nature offers a powerful and indifferent backdrop to their internal challenges.
The most striking difference, however, is Ray and Moth—her husband—are ever aware that they are homeless and the path must become their home. The homeless theme is even more pronounced because the path continually intersects with towns and cities keenly reminding them of where they stand apart from society and from the luxury of being a tourist.
“Our world had become this narrow passage, with half a mile of land to our left and a wet infinity to our right. The path covers vast tracts of English coastline and only a few places can be considered remote, but on that beach it was as clear as the saltwater running over the Bideford Black that civilization exists only for those who can afford to inhabit it, and remote isolation can be felt anywhere if you have no roof and an empty pocket.” p.112
What is remarkable about The Salt Path is the happenstance that two significant literary persons—Simon Armitage and Seamus Heaney, who are pivotal background characters in the book, also have their own personal journeys on the South West Coast Path.
Poet Simon Armitage was presumably unknown to Ray and Moth, but Moth was frequently mistaken for Armitage. And undeniably there were times they received hospitality and good fortune because of the mistaken identity. In September 2013, The Telegraph reported that Simon Armitage was walking a large portion of the Path to “test his body, his mind and – more unusually – his calling as a poet. Each day, he sets out to walk the unfamiliar South West Coast Path with no real sense of where he will stay that night, trusting in the kindness of strangers. The idea is to go without money, offering poetry readings in return for dinner, bed and breakfast and “a few butties” in the morning.” (07.09.2013, Cole Moreton)
I would introduce Ray and Moth to Armitage’s poem “About His Person,” in light of how they both had to make conscious choices to what they carried in their packs. What was the sum total of their needs as they walked?
About His Person
Five pounds fifty in change, exactly,
a library card on its date of expiry.
A postcard stamped,
unwritten, but franked,
a pocket size diary slashed with a pencil
from March twenty-fourth to the first of April.
A brace of keys for a mortise lock,
an analogue watch, self winding, stopped.
A final demand
in his own hand,
a rolled up note of explanation
planted there like a spray carnation
but beheaded, in his fist.
A shopping list.
A givaway photgraph stashed in his wallet,
a keepsake banked in the heart of a locket.
no gold or silver,
but crowning one finger
a ring of white unweathered skin.
That was everything.
On Moth’s person, his only luxury item in the carefully weighed backpack is a copy of Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. In one of the couple’s most dire moments of lost coins and empty stomachs, Moth pulls out his beloved Beowulf and begins an impromptu reading on a street corner a la busker style. People stop and listen, donations are collected, and warm gratitude of remembrance of Heaney is expressed by persons in attendance. Unbeknownst to Moth and Ray, Heaney had just died and Moth’s reading was received as a tribute to the iconic Irishman.
Simon Armitage likewise learns of Heaney’s death while walking the Path, when a reporter from the BBC news reached him by phone to share the sad event. On a previous walk, which Armitage wrote about in his nonfiction book Walking Home, he had included “an encounter with “a little old man” on a fell who says he bumped into the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney only a week before. Armitage fears “walking into the Old Nag’s Head in Edale in a couple of days’ time only to find Heaney sitting at the bar, having already got there first, Amundsen to my Scott, the story already told, the book already written.” (The Telegraph, 07.09.2013, Cole Moreton)
Ray does not make much of these intersections of their good fortune and the poets’ presence, but she is quick to highlight the sage advice offered by random folk they meet—showcasing everyone can embrace the inner philosopher and poet. My personal favorite was from an Australian surfer, who enthusiastically saw their grim circumstances as an opportunity of what is to come:
“Yeah, how good a wave is depends on what nature’s doing. It starts to pick up when the wind blows on the water, way out at sea, then it’s all down to how strong that wind is, how long it blows for and how far it travels across the water—we call that the fetch. A big wind, a long fetch, a good stretch of coastline and you’ve got it, you’re barreling. But you, you’re blown up by a fucking gale, man, and your fetch is still running, you’re heading for the biggest, cleanest barreling wave, man. Don’t you get it? You’re gonna swash in style!” (p188)
I appreciate the honest manner that Ray tells their story, rarely waxing poetic platitudes—they are focused on gaining ground on the path and in their life even while accepting Moth’s declining health. How good fortune comes to intersect with a person can contain a bit of mystery and timing, and perhaps good fortune can be felt more profoundly when one can recognize that the design was not contrived or controlled. Much like Nature and kindness. I would say that Armitage and Heaney’s presence on the Path symbolized how broad and collective Ray and Moth’s fetch truly was in creating a wave of hope and possibilities.
“Our world was changing, the edges fading as our journey drew us on between sea, sky and rock. Becoming one with the wild edge we inhabited, our fetch redefined by the salt path we trod.” -p. 191
Journal prompt: Reflect on a moment of good fortune in your life—can you deconstruct the variables that came together to create the moment? Have you ever “swashed” in style? Or what would be essential to carry with you—what literary sustenance would you permit yourself?