Saturday, June 27, 2020

Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

Lost Knowledge of the ImaginationLost Knowledge of the Imagination by Gary Lachman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am at a bit of a loss as to where to start with this book. To call it "life-changing" would be false, but I can clearly see how it could be life-changing to some. For myself, the term "life-restoring" seems most appropriate. I have not been so deeply affected by a book in a long, long, long time. I will be re-reading this book multiple times. Saying "I can't recommend it strongly enough" seems entirely inadequate.

The title Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, while catchy, doesn't capture, for me, what this book does or can do, or what it did for me. Restored Hope for the Inner Life just begins to approach my feelings.

As a child, I had, as they say, a wild imagination. Part of it was escapism - I was raised in the military during the Cold War. There were lots of reasons to not want to think about outside reality. So, I created a comfortable inner reality and often found myself retreating into it. Reading, drawing, long walks or bike rides by myself, music - these were all escapes for me. Life was not always happy, much of the time far from it (I suffer from occasional depression even now, but much more so as a child), but I was afforded the luxury of an escape route through the means I've already described. As a teenager, with more of a need for social interaction, I found myself among others who sought escape and found new means of escape, mostly through drugs and alcohol (though music and roleplaying games were also an important part of my self-medication). After a hard crash and facing the threat of a very long prison term, I became much more religious and gave up drinking and drugs. I found an awesome woman whom I married and we have raised four wonderful children. But life has been hard, as it is, I realize, for everyone. I'm not special in this regard: life is difficult, oftentimes almost unbearably horrific, for every human being. Realizing this, a certain amount of jadedness, subconsciously meant to protect my emotional self, I believe, crowded out a great deal of the innocence, wonder, and hope that I had in my inner life as a child. That's not to say I've become some kind of empty shell, far from it! But my inner life, my soul, has changed dramatically from my childhood. There's no going back, I know, but going forward can be, at times, excruciating.

The need to escape is felt by many. Look at the ever-increasing money pumped into the entertainment "industry" for evidence of this (the word "industry" is interesting, as it puts entertainment on the same level as food production, building houses, making machines that sustain our lives and livelihoods. It implies that entertainment is a life-need.) - we look to the outside world to feed our need to avoid thinking about the horrible things that happen to us and those we love. We apply a topical narcotic, supplied to us by outside sources, to make us temporarily forget our inner pain.

This escape into fantasy is explicitly not what Lachman is arguing for in this book. He is careful to make a distinction between Fantasy, collage-like constructions of what we observe coming into our sensory input from the outside, and Imagination, which is something that emerges from within us, rather than a collection of things from without. Imagination is the activation of the inner life, the life that plays out inside your consciousness every day, that place where no one else can go (though we intuitively know that others have a similar place "inside" of them). Note that imagination, as defined here, is more of a verb than a noun. It is always active and going on within us. Think of the difference between "thought" and "thinking". We can think thoughts, but to think about thinking, the actual mechanism of thinking, requires stepping beyond the mere acknowledgement that we have thoughts. "How do I think?" (not what do I think about is an important question to ask oneself when exploring the inner life.

Really engaging with that question opens up doors. One such door is the thought that there is a truth beyond the external inputs of data coming from the outside world, that the way you apprehend the world from your inner-self is every bit as "true" as all the scientific data in the world. The balance between these two truths is what Lachman seeks to restore. He argues, convincingly, that while science and hard data have provided one way of knowing, that there is another way, and that this other way of knowing arises, again, not as a construct of what we observe outside us, but from somewhere within us. We apprehend the world via our thinking, and all the extraneous data "out there" is simply that, until we observe and act upon it.

There is no outer world until we complete it with our inner one.

The idea here is not a rejection of science, but it is a rejection of "Scientism," where subdividing the world and explaining it purely from the viewpoint of measurable, explainable data has become a religion in itself. Scientism has become, since the Enlightenment, the predominant way of knowing, and it has crowded out all other kinds of knowing in the public sphere. Of course, this happened as a retort against the reductionist religious view of the world, often enforced by violence and murder, that was predominant in Western society until the Late Renaissance. But the worship of measurable data and step-by-step explanation of phenomena has simply stepped in and taken the slot left vacant by the churches.

Lachman shows that the way of knowing as hinted at in Lost Knowledge of the Imagination is not at odds with science, but that the two are ends of the same pole. At times, it is more beneficial to lean toward the scientific end, at others, it is more beneficial to lean toward the imagination. Science and imagination are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, moments of Gnosis on one end often lead to a more nuanced understanding and increased output from the other.

As I said in my introduction, this book has had a profound effect on me. I feel that by reading and contemplating it, my sense of wonder has begun to rush back in, that sense that I had as a child when discovering new beautiful aspects of the universe that I had not known before. Along with that sense of wonder is a newfound hope I haven't felt in some time. Of course, this is my imagination being re-awakened. Will yours undergo the same restoration as mine? Only you can tell. Only you. YOU!

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

Dark Entries

Dark EntriesDark Entries by Robert Aickman

To say that Robert Aickman is a Master-Craftsman may be redundant. If you are unaware that I consider Aickman to be one of the best writers of the 20th-century, you haven't been reading my reviews. Or, perhaps, you think I'm engaging in hyperbole. Make no mistake about it: Go into Aickman's work with high literary expectations - they will be met and, many times, exceeded. I hate to rely on Neil Gaiman as any kind of authority, but even he states, about Aickman: "He really is the best". If that doesn't work for you, read the last section in here by Ramsey Campbell, who was a friend of Aickman's. Not only is it an intimate look at the author himself, it shows, quite clearly, the high standards of writing he set for himself (and expected of others).

This does not mean, however, that Aickman's greatness comes from an effusive use of descriptors or the perfectly placed "reveal". Quite the contrary. While Aickman's sentences are masterful works of art, they oftentimes only serve as a frame for what is missing. It is in what is not there, that which remains unsaid, that the horror of these stories festers and grows. Aickman creates voids that act as pocket dimensions of potentiality, as outlined in both David Peaks The Spectacle of the Void and Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie.

Take, for example, the first story in the collection Dark Entries, "The School Friend". Hear, about halfway through this story of old "friends" returning, one expects a jump scare as the protagonist, Mel, explores the strange home of her friend. The abandoned, then reclaimed house, the strange friend, Sally, who disappears and comes back changed in a twisted sort of way (and who currently owns the dilapidated house), the dismembered stuffed animals strewn on the floor - any reader can see these as signposts of some sort of abject horror about to reveal itself in full horror. Sally discovers Mel inside the house, and Mel hears ". . . and animal wailing above . . . [and] a noise resembling that of a pig scrabbling."

Sally, who is decidedly insane at this point says "Do you love children, Mel? Would you like to see my baby? . . . Let me tell you, Mel . . . that it's possible for a child to be born in a manner you'd never dream of . . .Will you be godmother? Come and see your god-child, Mel."

A scuffle ensues and then . . . no more mention of the baby. At all. Nothing. The potentiality that is left in the air, as it were, is positively haunting, a terrifying possibility out there, in the darkness, just around the corner, or upstairs . . . somewhere. The words in the final sentence, ". . . shall probably . . .," usually banal to the point that we don't even acknowledge that they have been read, have now become two of the most horrifying words in the English language.

And yet, in the next story, "Ringing the Changes," we get a sentence like:

Her expression indicated that she was one of those people whose friendliness has a precise and never-exceeded limit.

I cannot describe that expression to you, but I know it. I see it and, more importantly, feel it. That one sentence does more to explain the attitude of the character than paragraph after paragraph of blatant description could ever convey. It is exactly the right sentence to convey what Aickman wants us to know about this woman.

One must note here, also that "Ringing the Changes" must have had a profound effect on movie director David Lynch. Awkward, stilted conversation, the growing presence of a looming something, the unspoken, willfully-unacknowledged terrors felt by strangers in a community that seems to have "gone wrong," and the permanent, but unknown changes that come to those who have experienced true horror, are all Lynch's hallmarks. They are all present here.

Does all this mean that Aickman is absolutely comprehensible all of the time? No! I was left completely baffled by "Choice of Weapons". Is it a story of mesmerism? Vampirism? Hallucinatory madness? All of these? None? Lust and unrequited love, or a test of love, are at the heart of it, though there is an overtly political element to it, with its emphasis on caste and class. Despite my confusion, it is an engulfing story, especially at its twisted, unresolved ending. It left my brain churning. I loved this vortex. Or maybe it was lust?

At other times, his plots are pretty stock (though this is rare, I must admit). One of the more straightforward and predictable stories of Aickman's tales, "The Waiting Room" makes up in execution (pardon the pun, yes, it was intentional) what it lacks in originality. You know the plot (though I'm not going to reveal it), you've read it before, but you don't know with what exactitude and precision Aickman can write such a tried and true story until you read it yourself. His deft crafting adds a dimension lacking in other stories of its ilk, but it's not a mere embellishment of existing tropes. Aickman truly makes it his and his alone by the way he exercises his auctorial pen.

"The View" returns us to the labyrinth of imagination. There are few way-markers here, and the story roils in on itself, much as the house in which it takes place and the hostess of the house baffles the protagonist. We have here a house every bit as complex as the House of Leaves (though much less inimical). But, whereas Danielewski uses hypertextual methods to open the house to exploration and the reader's imagination, Aickman does so with a single sentence:

Apartments of the most various shapes and sizes led into one another in all directions without doors; and as no two apartments seemed to be decorated alike, the mirrors set up a chiaroscuro of reflections co-existent with but apparently independent of the rich and bewildering chiaroscuro of the apartments themselves.

Take a moment and digest that sentence. Who but Aickman could use the word "chiaroscuro" twice in the same sentence and make it feel like it's the most natural, sensible thing in the world? It enables the imagination without jilting the reader's thoughts. Yes, one may have to read it twice, carefully, in order to let the image fully bloom in one's mind, but it is worth a patient reading and meditation.

Even in describing the subtleties of the relationships between lovers, Aickman shows a deft hand:

. . . he . . . did not risk another of those so natural interrogatives she so lightly made to seem so heavy and unnecessary.

This sentence speaks volumes about the tension between the two characters of "The View," but also of the sensitivities of each character toward one another. One should not be surprised, then to find that "The View" is winsome and absolutely heart-rending. It has caused in me a genuine fear of growing old, something I have never really felt before. This is more from the sense of things past and lost than worry about future decrepitude. This is the empty hole at the center of nostalgia, a true existential dread. This story bit deep into my heart. It hurt, and I am better for it.

Finally, Aickman descends into decadence with "Bind Your Hair," a story about one innocent's introduction to what really goes on in a rural English village. This is folk horror with an Aickmanesque touch - the ending leaves us at a precarious point as to what to expect for the heroine; this unpredictability engendering a more lasting dread. Fear for her safety and innocence continue to rise after the last word is read. The potential is there for both good and bad in her future (short and long-term), and we agonize to know what she will choose, and which path she will go down, and what the consequences will be. We know the stakes are high, but the answers to all those questions are obfuscated from us.

Only the reader can supply the final narrative.

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Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Deepest Furrow

The Deepest FurrowThe Deepest Furrow by Jonathan Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As is always the case with Mount Abraxas Press, this artifact is beautiful. The woodcut cover by Matus Durcik is deceptively quaint and rustic. And while the narrator of The Deepest Furrow seeks solace in a return to the rustic, he finds it anything but quaint. Voluntarily leaving the drudgery of urban office-labor, with its demeaning social structure and seemingly shallow inhabitants, the narrator abandons civilization for the simplicity of life "among the peasants" so to speak. He finds that the simple life isn't so simple (especially when he interacts with the children of the rural folk) and that a return to the soil is, well, precisely that.

This is the second Jonathan Wood book I've read. I found this one a bit more accessible than The Haunted Sleep. Wood's facility with poesis is evident here, with just enough of an experimental edge to add zest, but not so much as to overwhelm. The subject matter kept things down-to-earth (at times, literally), and the narrator's voice, that of a mid-level office-worker, felt correct.

One must note the strong existential streak herein, as noted in my review of The Haunted Sleep. It is a prominent part of the fiction, though this is more of a working-man's existentialism, more Kierkegaard than Nietzsche. In the end, though, does it really even matter? I think Wood would argue "no".

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21

The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21 by Stephen Quay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading of this clinamen for the uninitiated will prove a portal into the strange unscience of pataphysics. I will only go so far as to say that immersion only requires reading. Understanding will come later.

There is a corollary for those watching the Quay brothers’ cinematic art. There is much to understand, but most of it is obscured through symbols and signs, some of which are present merely to distract and lead one down . . . alternate paths. One does not watch a Quay artwork and simply traipse from point A to point B, noting the static scenes along the way. No, their cinematic space is more immersive and entrancing (in the most literal sense of the word), with side-tunnels and branches that lead nowhere and everywhere all at once. The primary experience in entering the Quays’ world with any degree of attentiveness is just that: experience. One does not watch Quay cinema, one is baptized in it and must be careful to hold one’s breath, at times, lest the initiate drown and come up vomiting brackish waters. One considers a Quay experience, but one cannot fully apprehend it. This is what is so inviting about their work – there is always something new, something previously occulted, that peeks out from the interstices.

Some have a difficult time getting “into” the Quays’ films. This remove is understandable, as the medium of stop-motion cinema is something outside of our normal experience. Objects do not, simply put, move like that. The Quays have an admittedly strange way of looking at things and bringing them to life.

But what is an object in this sense? According to physics – as pataphysical today as it was in the time of Lord Kelvin – objects are only partially accessible to the approximations of our sensory mechanisms, because they consist of no more than a constant flux of virtual particles. The philosopher Nelson Goodman summarized this situation with the phrase: “An object is a monotonous process.” So it is perfectly reasonable to consider the “persistence of objects” to be in every way equivalent to the persistence of vision that causes us to interpret a sequence of still pictures as a moving image. The cinematic illusion is indistinguishable in any meaningful way from our perception of the “real” world, because while animation creates a cinematic illusion of what we take to be actuality, its semblance of movement is not qualitatively different from the apparent stasis maintained within the “real world” by so-called actual objects that appear the way they do only because we perceive them that way, and, in the great scheme of things, only momentarily, like a still from a film. The Great Pyramid has persisted for thousands of years, but it is not categorically different [as an object] from a mayfly, only somewhat more “monotonous”.

Taking this cue from the prologemenon of this volume of The Journal of the London Institute of Pataphysics, one starts with a good idea of what the Brothers Quay are trying to do with their work. But this is only a beginning. One must go to the words of the Brothers themselves to gain further insight into the dark nooks and crannies that feature in their work. This comes as an answer to the (long dead) Heinrich Holtzmüller’s interview questions:

HH: I’m curious about the stories you were proposing to tell with your puppets? They don’t seem to be fairy tales per se or anything easily recognizable. Why?

QQs: I think initially we were merely trying to establish for ourselves just what puppets might be capable of; what kind of subjectivity, what kind of thaumaturgical murmurings, or pathological drifts were possible; and scenographically speaking, what cartographies and “voyages of no return” could occur and what places of the soul might be rendered explorable. And since we’ve always believed in the aesthetic power of the illogical, the irrational and the obliqueness of poetry, we didn’t exclusively in terms of “narrative”, but also of the parentheses that lay hidden behind the narrative. It is always generally assumed that narrative should dictate everything, but we wanted the domain of puppets and objects to have its own distinct “light”, and especially its own “shade”, so that the subject could pulsate with unknown possibilities – typhoons of splinters at 1/24th of a second.

This statement sheds light on what makes certain people so susceptible (nay, subject to) their art: It makes explicit what some love in the peripheral interstices of works they read (and write), the shadowed recesses that are not always explicitly "plot," but that make the difference between adequate writing and enjoyable writing. The Quays make peeking into those crevasses their primary concern, but these dark cracks, these interstitial planar windows, exist in all truly great work.

As one of those devotees to the Quays’ art, this volume comes as a sort of holy book in many ways.
The prologemenon is akin to the Rabbinical treatments of the Talmud, the explanatory notes and explications, the fables and allusions around the work that both expand the context of their work and, in some ways, fence it in. The constraints of pataphysical theory (are those really constraints at all?) provide a certain reading of the Quays oeuvre, but an expansive reading.

Following this devotional is the iconography: a section of 13 photographic plates showing never-before-seen images of the Holy of Holies, the Quays’ London studio (which, since this volume was published, has moved – giving the whole an ephemeral quality bordering on the mystical).

Next is “The Embellished version of On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets”. It is “Embellished” from the original interview between Holzmüller and the Quays found in the original. This is a significantly deeper dive, a higher order of initiation, if you will, into the working of the twins’ minds. If you want to enter the inner creative temple of the Quays, this might be it.

Holzmüller’s Liber Perutilis, a primer on Renaissance calligraphy, is next. This is the volume from which the Quays draw the alphabet that they use in the title-cards for their films. Consider it a mystic alphabet, something akin to Grave’s Ogham alphabet, the symbols of evocation used to call up devils or call down angels.

The culmination of the experience is in the mysteries, here presented as portions of Alfred Jarry’s texts on marionettes and puppets, particularly Pere Ubu.

In all, this volume is a sort of esoteric experience, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But beyond the jocularity is a modicum of seriousness that demands reflection and adoration.

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Saturday, June 6, 2020

A Day Hike in the Cotswolds

Last summer, my wife and I took a trip we had wanted to take for a very, very long time. When we were young and very poor, we sometimes talked about what we would do if we had more money. We both agreed that we'd like to travel. Fast forward several jobs later, after our kids were adults, and after my parents passed away, leaving a little extra money behind, and the opportunity presented itself. Most of my childhood was spent overseas. I was born in Germany, baptized in Italy, and graduated High School in England. So, when my parents passed away and we collected my father's life insurance money, we thought that there would be no more appropriate thing to do than to take some of that money and travel, as we had talked about in leaner times. I'm certain it's what Mom and Dad would have wanted us to do, no doubt about it. My wife had lived in Austria for a year and a half, so Austria was definitely on the list, and I wanted to return to England, more than anything. We ended up spending a couple of days in Germany, as well, but the bulk of our time was in the Cotswolds in England and in Vienna and Salzburg in Austria.

Before we left, I prepped myself. I intentionally tapered down my social media presence and usage because, frankly, I wanted to enjoy my real-time experience of being in the moment in Europe and I wanted to be there with my wife. This was also a chance to get back in the swing of writing, which I badly needed to do. Writing is my drug, and because of the craziness with my parents both passing away within a couple of weeks of each other and the ensuing legal "fun" that came afterwards (and is still going on - don't ask), I had not had my fix for quite some time. It really was time to get away from it all, including the digital world.

I've outlined the overall itinerary elsewhere, but I promised that I would, at some point, do some blog posts about the trip. Well, the month in which I was going to do said blog posts, I got caught up in my esoteric denim project (which was incredibly therapeutic, and now I have the coolest denim jacket I've ever owned), so I ran out of time. Now, I mean to make it up. That might mean less time on social media, too. In fact, that's very likely. So much to do, so little time. I'll have to do these posts in chunks. No way can I do one after the other. We're way too busy getting ready to move to our new house for that (I should probably do a post or series of posts on that some time, too). So, I've decided to start off with our last day in England, where we took a long hike through the Cotswolds, around 12 miles in a day. Which might not seem like much, but for us middle-aged types, that's a pretty good hike. So, without further ado, here it is: Our day hike in the Cotswolds.

Our base of operations was Moreton-In-Marsh, the town that J.R.R. Tolkien used as his model for Bree. Of course, we happened to pick the third hottest day of the year that year to go hiking. 31.6 Celsius (88.88 F), which, for England, is blazing hot. And we felt it, right from the get-go.

What we also felt, not long after we left the market at Moreton, was . . . stinging nettles! Oh, yes, nothing like hiking in that kind of heat having walked through a patch of nettles. Luckily, I was just being inoculated against fairy mischief and black magic. Or, at least that's what I chose to believe. I needed to believe in something other than pain at that moment. English nettles seem somehow more potent than their American cousins. Or maybe I'm just getting to be a wimp in my dotage.

The first thing I noticed because of their contrast with the surrounding lush countryside, were some dead trees. Nothing spectacular, just notable for their lack of greenery among such verdancy.

What can I say except that I love trees with character. Nothing says "I've temporarily abandoned electronics for this trip" like dead trees. They are the ultimate symbol of what it means to go analog.

As I mentioned earlier, this day was HOT! Seeing those trees, all parched and dead, right after walking through a bunch of nettles and having my calves peppered with stings, not to mention the incessant itching, did little to encourage me. But I've been hiking for a long time and what I lack in athletic ability, I make up for with sheer stubbornness. Onward we pressed.

First, we passed the village of Batsford, hidden away behind the barley and trees on a hill opposite our trail. We had been in the Cotswolds for nearly a week by this point, but I remarked, upon seeing the village: "Okay, now we are in the Cotswolds!"

Hills just south of Batsford

Three succesive views of Batsford. We hiked left to right, top to bottom, in these pictures. 

Near Batsford is the Batsford Arboretum. We skimmed past it, but were surprised by a herd of (Red?) deer that we didn't know was there. They were pretty skittish and did not like having us hiking so close to them. I can't blame them. They looked pretty tasty and I was probably drooling a bit.

One thing you'll see a lot of in this part of England is stone fences. No, these were not defensive works. They were meant to keep sheep in, rather than people out. Seeing the length and good condition of these fences (none of which seemed to be actually mortared together), one wonders how many hours went into building and maintaining them. They are beautiful and impressive and ubiquitous.

As some of you know, I am a big fan of weird fiction and have a particular like for folk horror. It was appropriate, then that I should be spooked by getting a glimpse of a church out among the trees to our left (west) as we journeyed this part of the trail. I had no idea it was there, only having really looked at the map for the shape of the trail, rather than for features (honestly, I was hoping we would get a bit lost - more on that later). So, when I saw this very old looking church suddenly pop up between some trees, I had visions of grim monks staring out from the belfry at us as we passed by.

Things got even weirder after we past the church, as we walked through what I can only call Faerie Tunnels - portals, maybe? I had the strangest sensation as I looked back on one of the trails, like Frodo has in the Lord of the Rings movies when he's being pursued in the Shire by the Nazgul. It was creepy and cool at the same time. Here, have a look:

Next, we walked past the arboretum's parking lot, I think? Not quite sure what the building was here, as it's not named on the map (and most buildings in the area, at least those of any historical significance) are named.

After this we turned west and climbed a killer hill. This thing just kept going UP! It was on a small road, the kind of road where you worry that someone in a mini is going to whip around the corner and smack you one. We stayed off the road as much as possible, which means we hugged another stone fence. I tried to walk along the top of it. Mistakes were made. I might have had to re-stack a few stones that had somehow fallen off disturbed by I-have-no-idea-what . . . (stupid American tourists).

I really wondered how two cars could go by each other on this road, as it was super tight. Thankfully, I didn't have to see a mishap, as traffic was very sparse. I think we might have seen two vehicles going up that (very, very long) hill.

We topped the hill and crossed the road, because that's what the map told us to do. We thought there should be a stile there, but there wasn't. There was a gate. So, we hopped it. We quickly found out that we had chosen poorly, and lost the trail. Or had we chosen wisely? Take a look at the views this opened up - which otherwise we never would have seen - and you tell me if we chose poorly.

Now, I believe the village in the last photo is Aston Magna (which is technically a "hamlet," not a village). Natives: correct me if I'm wrong on that. Quaint looking little town when you're spying it from the top of the hill, anyway.

After looking out on this and resting a moment (the hill with the wall alongside it is much steeper than it appears in the picture!) we were able to eventually find the trail again. The real trail entrance was about 40 feet down the road, but so surrounded by chest-high grass, that we didn't see it when we crested the hill. They say "it isn't an adventure until you get lost". This was the first time on this hike where we became lost. Definitely not the last time. I must say, though that the maps provided by the incredibly awesome Kooky Cotswold Tours (whom I *strongly* recommend!) were great. We got lost because . . . well, we got lost. The maps were right all along, even if our interpretations of it weren't!

We soon found that we were, thankfully, under trees again. It was sweltering hot, and it felt great to walk under the shade of some immense, old trees. I had visions of druids and faerie folk when we saw these trees.

Of course, dehydration may have had something to do with my dreams of fae and wizards. We brought and drank a *lot* of water, but should have brought half again more with us. I knew we had enough for a couple more miles, but after that, yes, we would survive, but we would both have a splitting headache if we didn't find some more water before too long.

Our trip through the old, gnarled trees took us up on a high ridge (someone needs to tell me if this is technically considered a "Down" - I'm not entirely clear on the proper usage of the word). The trees gave way, in places, to open hillside spilling down beneath us to the Village of Blockley.

I joked with my wife that some of the trees were "Blockleying" the view. I'm surprised I survived the incident, but she was a captive audience and I had the map . . .

The most prominent feature of Blockley was, as with many, if not most, Cotswold villages, the church. We later learned, on returning to the States, that this church is used as a set-piece for the Father Brown TV series on the BBC. I can see why they picked that location. It's a beautiful village, even from afar.

While it would have been nice to go down to the village, we would have had to have crossed several farmer's fields and, potentially, fields of nettle. I had had enough nettle for the day. So, we carried on.

After leaving Blockley behind, we were found ourselves trekking through farmland at the top of the highest set of hills for miles around. The are was rich, they sky was blue and very hot. Here the trail got tricky again, and we found ourselves meandering on the wrong side of the fence . . . twice . . . until we were able to backtrack and find the trail again. We trespassed on several farmer's fields, but no one seemed to mind. They were probably used to amblers wandering off the trail.

At times, the trail was very clear, bounded by walls and ferns. My wife didn't really want me to share too many pictures of her, but I'm sharing this one anyway, as it shows, around her, the beauty of these little stretches.

And, looking back up the trail . . . 

See, that's a trail you can't get lost on! But, like I said, we had already been lost a couple of times, so this was, by now, a full-fledged adventure!

We hooked around the other side of Bastford Arboretum, then downhill before taking a right turn to head, again, up hill toward the aptly-named Bourton-On-Hill.

Did I mention there were sheep? Lots of sheep? This one was marked, so we resisted the urge to steal it and turn it into a curry and wool sweater. Tempting.

We hiked up the hill on which Bourton is . . . er . . . on. And up into the village itself. We already knew it was quaint and lovely, as we had passed through it on our (harrowing left-hand-side) drive to our awesome airbnb. Still, seeing a village from the car is very, very different than seeing it on foot, especially after you've been hiking for 5 miles.

Here, we intentionally veered off-track just a bit, skipping the left-hand (south) turn on the map and continuing up-hill. The reason was, this:

I have literally never been so happy to see a pub (even in my old drinking days). We needed, more than anything, to sit down in a cool dark place get some sustenance. This was the place. And this was the meal:

I had tagliatelle, my favorite pasta, which I learned to love while living in southern Italy as a kid. Natalie opted for an American Cheeseburger. Note that, in this pub, at least, the burger was served without a bun. I don't know if that's how they're always served there (outside of McDonald's, which serve burgers in buns, or they did when I was a teenager) or if that was just a Horse and Groom pub thing. Regardless, it was all delicious. That was some smacking good tagliatelle. Makes me hungry just typing this. Not as fancy as some meals we've had, but, boy, did it hit the spot! We tanked up on water, as well. I think we ordered three large bottles of water, drank them all down, then filled out bottles again. We rested up a bit there, really enjoying the air-conditioning. We got strange looks from locals (in the room to my left, Natalie's right, in the picture) and a dropped and shattered glass (by our awesome and particularly busy hostess) turned heads our way even more. I think that the elderly regulars there didn't want to walk past us because we were so sweaty. Or maybe it was just because of me. I have that effect on people sometimes.

We then headed back downhill and past the church, which was just stark and blocky enough that I thought it would make an awesome Black Sabbath album cover:

We passed the Church, took a right, as the map instructed, then found ourselves facing a sign that say "Private Road". We were at a "T" intersection on the road, with a path going straight on. But that sign was clear - it was a private road. We looked at the map, took our best guess and turned . . . right. We ended up walking up the hill (yet again) and ended up at a dead end house. So, we went back down. We stood, again, at the same spot, right in front of the "Private Road" sign, but couldn't make heads or tails of where we were supposed to pick up the trail. We just sort of stood there, dumbfounded, in the middle of the road, quite lost (again - adventure!) when an older gentleman who was walking his dog (a beautiful Setter) asked if he could help. We explained that we were trying to follow the Monarch's Trail, but that we had lost it at this point because where the trail should be, there was, instead, a private road. He sort of chuckled and said "Oh, that. You're standing on the private road." The sign was oriented such that it looked like it was announcing that the path beyond was private. No, it was the road that ran parallel to the sign that was private. Thanking him (with a great deal of gratitude and embarrassment), we set off down the path. He probably thought we were burglars.

Not far outside town, we passed Sezincote House, an architectural symbol of the colonialism (and Orientalism) that is such a part of English history. It was pretty, from a distance, but we were here to hike, not to gawk. Besides, it's a private home and it felt a little squicky even taking this picture of it:

The next stretch, from the outskirts of Bourton-On-Hill, to the village of Longborough, was, to this point, the longest uninterrupted stretch of countryside we had gone through. This was where the meditative calm of walking really kicked in for me. We talked a bit, of course, but mostly we were slogging our way across the countryside, past fields, over stiles, through gates, many of them "kissing gates" (yes, I kissed my wife through every one of them - she humored me, or maybe "tolerated" is the better word). Walking in silence (punctuated by the occasional kiss) helped me feel like I was "part" of the trail, a single particle in the long concourse of souls who had walked before me and those who would walk after me. One with the trail. This was what we had come for, on this stretch of our holiday. I cannot tell you how good it felt to lose myself in the walk. After my parents' deaths, it felt like my soul had been repaired a bit by returning to the land I loved (and I do love England) and simply moving my body through it. It was restorative and healing.

Through the fields, we entered the Village of Longborough. It was getting on evening time, so there were very few people about. In fact, I don't think we saw one living human there while we walked through, but we saw lots of memorials to dead ones. It's actually quite creepy when I think about it. Like something out of a Folk Horror movie

The next stretch, from Longborough to Moreton-In-Marsh, was the absolute longest leg of the hike. I don't have any pictures from that leg, as I just wanted to enjoy the walk, not to mention my phone was running out of juice by this point. If you look at the pictures above showing the fields between Bourton-On-Hill and Longborough, it was much of the same, with a twist . . . the twist is: we became lost several times on this stretch. I recall it was at least four times, possibly five, where we lost the trail and became seriously disoriented. We wandered over fields we probably had no business being in, through thistle patches, across barley fields that had been cut across by mowers in seemingly random crisscross patterns, over a creek (or was it two? Or was it the same creek meandering?), past bees and flies, under massive pylons, and, finally, into the outskirts of Moreton-In-Marsh. I will be the first to admit that I *loved* getting lost in this way. We always knew the general direction of Moreton, and before too long, we could see the clocktower at the market square peeking up above the trees in the far distance. But we most definitely carved a trail of our own. It was frustrating, hot, sweaty, achy, itchy, and totally worth getting lost for the sake of the adventure! I would definitely do it all over again. Maybe someday . . . 

Our hike was at an end. We stopped for dinner, for our last time on this trip, in the UK. We had started our trip with a meal of fish-n-chips in Oxford and Natalie, being a Culinary Arts teacher, wanted to have fish-n-chips again to get the English food experience. I opted for some delicious pork. Natalie ordered what I normally order for desert, chocolate cake, and I went out on a limb and had a lavender-infused creme brulee. A well-deserved meal and, besides, we could definitely afford the calories!

The people who were sitting behind Natalie were speaking German. An interesting correspondence (maybe magic?) since we would travel to Germany the next day. It's like we were being eased into the Germany/Austria portion of our trip (which I will blog about at a later date). But for the moment, I had one piece of unfinished business: Moreton-In-Marsh was the town that Tolkien used as his model for the Village of Bree. And The Bell, a pub on the market square, was the model for The Prancing Pony. So, I had to stop to take a picture. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. I gave up drinking a long time ago, so I wasn't going to have a pint there. And they didn't serve dinner that day, so I just popped over to get this shot. A fantastical end to a fantastical visit back to the UK.