I've been working at finishing off my book before the sap starts to rise in the trees and the year's coppicing needs doing. It is more or less finished now and I'm just doing some small bits of rewriting, editing and fact-checking, and then it will be ready for proofing, getting an ISBN and publishing. I don't have a publisher, so will probably just publish it as an ebook and then make some printed copies on demand. I'm not entirely sure how long that will take, probably a few weeks.
In the meantime I'm sharing with you the first chapter. To me this feels like jumping the gun a bit, but there you go. The book is about a journey I took at the end of last summer where I walked from Copenhagen and into Sweden. I ended up in an ancient forest and had a startling experience. Several unusual things happened to me and the book is an exploration of how we can adapt — mentally and spiritually — to the chaos that is now beginning to erupt around us. How does one face the world? was the question I had in mind as I walked. I wanted to get away from modern society and civilisation for a while and explore what other options we might have. I figured there must be some. I self-imposed a strict informational purdah, disconnecting myself from all gadgets apart from a camera, and took along two books of wisdom—one ancient and one modern: the stoic Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, and Bill Plotkins' Soulcraft — two entirely unrelated books that somehow ended up together in my backpack and shaped the narrative as I went along.
In the book I try to break free of the mind prisons of the modern world and find myself being pulled inexorably towards a sacred lake where the Norse god Odin — who gave his eyes for insight — was once worshipped. Hence the book's title The Path to Odin's Lake.
The story almost wrote itself. Perhaps it did. I had been working on a book about peak oil for some time but then the unusual things that are recounted in this story happened and the book seemingly morphed into this. It's not the kind of writing that you will usually encounter on this blog, but it is a story straight from the heart, so I hope you enjoy the first chapter.
Chapter 1. Pathfinding
“It is not the path which is the difficulty. It is the difficulty which is the path.” –Søren Kierkegaard
And so, one Sunday morning in late summer, just as a fire seemed to be taking a hold of the world, I looked down and saw sea creatures. They swam, either individually or in shoals. Some pulsated while others slithered as they moved between the black-slimed outcrops of concrete. Strands of seaweed waved gently in the ocean current and clusters of shellfish — mussels, limpets and clams — crowded the fissures and coated the rigid headless human bodies that littered the seabed like broken plastic starfish. Through these watery ruins there wandered ghosts. Their shadowy figures drifted aimlessly over the sandy sea floor, faces fixed in masks of calm equanimity or perhaps boredom as they moved in pairs or alone, some pushing children in pushchairs while others gazed at small barnacle-encrusted rectangles held at belly-height.
Around me were the sounds of the sea—the cry of gulls on the wind and the slooping roll of the waves as they folded upon the shore. But mingled with these sounds of nature were other sounds; the tinkling of porcelain cups and saucers, and the faint echo of dreamy music which the seaweed seemed to be moving its frondy arms to as if at some concert from another world or another time. I raised the camera and focused it on the scene below, although I knew the lens and the memory chip would not capture it.
“What are you doing?” said a voice. It was male, with a hint of aggression. I shifted my gaze from the scene around me and brought the man into focus. A security guard. He stood at my side and looked at me accusingly.
“I’m just taking some photographs,” I said, rather obviously. For, although it had crossed my mind that the simple act of capturing reflections of light on a microchip in this vast cathedral might be a tiny bit subversive, it had not stopped me from wandering around and doing so for the last half-hour.
“You’ll have to leave,” he said. “You’re not permitted.” I looked at him. Stocky. He was wearing a sand-coloured uniform with short sleeves that clung tightly to his inky biceps. His face was lined, but not with wisdom or age. A razor sharp line of beard cut down either side of his face and in one ear he wore a communications device which sprouted a spindly microphonic arm that reached towards his mouth like a spidery limb.
“Come with me,” he said.
I walked at his side, fiddling to put the lens cap back on my camera. “I’m sorry, I was just daydreaming,” I said, although this particular daydream had also been a night dream at other times. “I was about to leave.”
“Good,” said the guard. “One of the store managers called us about you.”
It was true. I had been wandering around this shopping mall—said to be the fattest in all of Scandinavia—taking pictures of the effigies. They were arranged behind the plate-glass windows, some with heads but many without, some with black glittery plastic skin, yet others with hard white faces lacking eyes, noses or mouths. In one store half a dozen headless children wore items from the autumn fashion collection as they hung from the ceiling on wires. Snap. There was astroturf in the window of the Body Shop on which a synthetic rabbit held up a sign saying Cruelty Free. Snap. Framed in another a plastic cow grazed on plastic grass beside a sign that ordered Get back to Nature! Snap. This place was like a hallucinatory dream.
“This way,” said my ejector.
As far as I could see the only living organisms in here were the shoppers themselves. Even potted tropical plants were absent. The bacteria and viruses hid behind their microscopic masks, invisible, but present all the same.
I stepped onto the sleek metal escalator which conveyed consumers from the food court on the top level down past the fashion level and onto the ground floor. Down here, in the first circle of the mall, it was mostly shops selling gadgets and computer games. Teenage boys and men clutched shiny polythene bags as they wandered out, their faces rapt and expressionless. Have you bought your Back to School iPad? asked a giant blue cartoon shark. In another window a muscular cardboard marine wearing a death skull mask pointed an automatic weapon at me and said Coming Soon.
“Why are you carrying that?” asked the guard.
“It’s a staff,” I replied. “To help me walk.”
He uttered a disapproving snort. In fact he didn’t seem comfortable with me holding a six-foot piece of wood—perhaps he had watched too many kung fu movies. I told him how I had cut it that morning, that it was a rowan ash sapling and that it would grow back in time.
As we approached the big revolving doors he seemed to ease up a little. In a few moments I would be gone from his realm, vanished from sight and transformed into an SEP (someone else’s problem). “Where are you walking to?”
“Sweden,” I replied. We had reached the large revolving doors—the type that you are not supposed to touch as they move around as it will make them stop, although many people do. “God tur,” he said in Danish, meaning ‘have a good journey’, and ejected me from the sterile cathedral of consumption into the dirty but real dimension of fresh air, trees and unstructured time where plastic cows don’t eat plastic grass and flesh and blood rabbits somehow live with the cruelty of the world.
I hitched my pack higher up on my back and set out on the path that led to the south of the island. The sun shone high in the August sky and glinted off the glass and steel of the newly-sprouted buildings as I trudged along, staff in hand. That morning, early, I had kissed my two daughters goodbye as they lay sleeping, and silently left the house. The suburban streets had been silent and empty as I walked to the metro station. It was only a twenty minute walk away but my rucksack had already seemed too heavy. Had I packed too much? In it was a small tent, some clothes, food to last a few days and two books. There were some cooking and eating utensils, maps and a small blow-up mattress. A sleeping bag dangled free from the back of my pack and I had another small bag strapped to my front with a camera, waterproof clothing, a Swiss army knife and a hand-forged Swedish Gränsfors axe. The axe was there for firewood, and maybe security.
That morning, by the time I had reached the station a sea mist had rolled in, muffling my footsteps and cloaking the flat landscape in an eerie fog. Around a dozen other people were waiting for the futuristic driverless train to turn up. All were plugged into and absorbed by their smartphones—all except one youth who was dressed anarchically as a punk in black leathers and with a spiky dog collar around his throat. He was shouting obscenities at the ether as he took swigs from a bottle of vodka. Everyone ignored him. I thought it unusual to spot a punk in Denmark and I didn’t recall seeing one before. Perhaps it was simply a new fashion. The train arrived and people looked up from their smartphones. We got on it. The punk sat down nearby slumped on a folding seat, growling incoherently. People continued to ignore him, creating an invisible bubble around his presence. We glided smoothly on high rails past the modern symphony hall as it rose up out of the mist and the punk swayed to the rhythm of the train, muttering curses at his boots. The bottle fell from his limp hand and started to roll around on the floor. Presently a pretty young woman went over to him, put an arm around him with sisterly tenderness and whispered something in his ear. This seemed to calm him and he sat there looking at the space between his feet for the rest of the journey. The young woman went back to her seat and I was left wondering what kind of magic she possessed.
We pulled into the underground station at Kongens Nytorv and I ascended the steps into the daylight. This elegant and open square held so many memories for me. They rushed up from within and I had to spend a few minutes simply standing and allowing the feelings that they evoked to run their course. There was Hviids Vinstue, where I had spent so many evenings drinking porter ale with my newspaper buddies, and there was the office we had worked in—the same office where some cartoons had been published which had poured some more petrol on the flames of an indignant world. And there was the old opera house where I had bluffed reviews of things I knew nothing about, the canal district of Nyhavn where I had eaten raw herrings and drunk snaps made from wild berries, the cafe where we would bitch about our office colleagues, the imposing Hotel D’Angleterre where I had shaken hands with the Dalai Lama and felt a charge of energy run up my arm. There were good memories and bad ones, bittersweet ones and sweet bitter ones. I gave myself a minute more and then set off down Strøget, the pedestrian street, as the tolling bells of the Church of the Holy Spirit cast their spell over the city and called its denizens to Sunday prayer.
A quarter of an hour later I was standing in the city hall square before the imposing Rådhus. Literally the ‘advice house’ the Rådhus towered above us mortals below, resplendent in its Italianate grandeur. I paused to orient my mind to the task I was about to undertake. The early fog had lifted, leaving behind a blue sky and crisp clean air as small groups of camera-toting Asian tourists walked past and a woman struggled to set up her mobile hotdog stall. Traffic on the adjacent Hans Christian Andersens Boulevard was light, and the joyfully ebullient facade of Tivoli Gardens reflected the morning sun back at me. It had been some eighteen years since I had first set foot in this square, and ten of those had been spent living not far from it. On my first visit I remembered being hustled into the Rådhus by my excited future father-in-law who said “Look, you must come and see, you are inside!” He was, it turned out, referring to the statue of Jason of Argonaut fame, created by the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen in Denmark’s long-gone golden age. I had laughed at the time, realising how unusual my name sounded in this unusual land.
But today I didn’t feel at all heroic, all I felt was that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing and why I was about to do it. All journeys must have a starting point and an end point, I had reasoned, and this starting point I had picked was to act as a mental anchor, a physical marker that I could definitively say I had set out from. I shouldered my pack, tightened the straps across my chest and clicked the plastic waist buckle into place. And then I set off.
I walked down the six lane boulevard. Cyclists wobbled lazily past me, some of them looking like they were on their way home from the night before. I had considered walking straight across the Langebro bridge which separates the main part of the city from the island of Amager, but now I chose to veer off to the south, keeping the narrow channel of seawater on my left. Had I not done so I would have been following the route I had taken to work on my bicycle over the years, but instead I chose to take the indirect route that would take me through the city’s red light district and eventually out into an area of wild scrubland on the far side of Islands Brygge (Iceland Quay). As the cyclists streamed past me I felt a pang. In all the time I had lived here I calculated that I had biked the city’s famed cycle lanes to an equivalent distance of pedalling all the way to Australia. In this city a bike was all you needed to get you from door to door for free, whether that door is your front door, an office door or a pub door. Perhaps I should be on two wheels now, I considered. It would certainly be easier than walking.
I carried on down the steps beside the channel and continued to the central train station, emerging out of the other side of its capacious hall into the seedier side of town. Drunks hung around on the steps and I walked up Istegade with its show windows crammed full of dildos and bondage gear. A few dispirited looking Nigerian prostitutes hung around and eyed me languidly. They didn’t approach me, or hiss ‘Good time mistah?’ as they had done sometimes when I was on my way to work wearing smart office clothes and carrying a laptop bag. A past life. I went by the ‘men’s home’ where there was always a posse of ragged-looking men outside drinking Carlsberg Special Brew and standing in a haze of street piss.
Further up Istegade, I took a left and swung past the meat-packing district where the office of the newspaper I had used to work had been relocated after the Mohammed cartoon furore. It had only been later that we discovered the former office had been targeted by truck bombers. I was lucky to be alive. We had relocated to an old slaughterhouse and it was this part of town that planners were desperate to turn into a post-industrial paradise for hipsters and moneyed young service sector workers. I didn’t have any desire to stop and hang around in Vesterbro—its junkies and its trafficked girls made me feel sad. And anyway I didn’t want to bump into anyone I knew as that would involve having to explain myself. Carrying on I walked to the waterfront shopping development at Fisketorv and crossed over the channel of a narrow bridge built for pedestrians and cyclists. On the other side I sat down and rested by the water.
It’s difficult to walk through the centre of Copenhagen and attempt to describe it without sounding like a travel guide. Everything, it seems, is for show and the bits that are not for show are rarely mentioned. Indeed, I had written pieces for in-flight airline magazines with remits such as ‘List ten reasons why Copenhagen is wonderful’. Everyone understood that this was an industry, an industry of creative illusions. But to me Copenhagen was more than its dull ‘wonderfulness’. It was a real place, and not just a city stuffed with PR flacks whose job it was to boost tourism and inward investment. It was here in this city that my two daughters were born, that I worked some of the worst jobs in my life, and also the best. I loved its cycling culture, its clean air and water, its beaches and its restaurants. But it always felt like a place to be passing through, a waiting zone where you dream of living life somewhere that is somehow more authentic.
Once, working as a taxi driver here, a maudlin German woman, stood up by her lover on what was supposed to have been a dirty weekend, asked me to take her to the ‘soul of the city’. I hadn’t a clue where to take her. Maybe there was some kind of soul to be found in the immigrant district of Nørrebro, where random shootings sometimes happened and riots would occasionally kick off, but probably not the kind of soul she had been searching for. If cities had faces, Copenhagen’s would wear a fixed grin. The real Copenhagen I had come to grow fond of was one of immigrants festering in tower blocks in bleak suburbs, gangland killings, dark secrets, and corporate malfeasance just as much as it was happy families at Tivoli Gardens, cutting edge design studios and the Little Mermaid. I had seen it all and yet I had grown tired of it. I had yearned to live in a place that didn’t need a continuous marketing campaign to validate its existence, and so we had said ‘farvel’ to Copenhagen, and to ‘the best city in the world’, and the ‘happiest people on earth’. We had bought a large trailer to put all our stuff in and drove and drove until we could not drive any further without falling into the Atlantic Ocean, and then we had stopped.
I gazed out over the blue water at the tapering brick towers and at the view of this low-rise city founded on a what was a piece of mosquito-infested swampland by a bishop. I hauled my pack up again onto my back and trudged onwards through new apartment developments towards the outer crust of the city. Soon I found myself in the hinterland of Amager Fælled, a large scrubby area of woods and fields criss-crossed with cycle lanes and footpaths. Sunday morning joggers overtook me as I traversed the tarmac surface threading itself between dense ranks of thorny bushes and small trees. Families were out walking with their dogs and their young children. It was like a commercial for life insurance.
I looked out of place in this environment. I confess that I didn’t cut a dapper figure, clad as I was in dirty cutoff jeans and old walking shoes, and with an unkempt beard, sunglasses and a filthy old baseball cap I had purchased from a market in Spain for one euro. To top it off I had a large open gash on my knee from falling off a granite wall in Cornwall a few days before, and this was surrounded by purple bruises and pinkish skin. When I thought about it I could probably have passed for one of the central station heroin addicts. An outcast in this tame wilderness. It was no wonder some of the parents were giving me suspicious glances.
After walking for another twenty minutes I dodged into a clearing between some bushes and put down my pack. What I needed, I thought, was a staff. A staff would not just help me to walk, it would indicate to others that I was a walker, rather than a hobo. I scanned the area and found a rowan ash sapling with a nice straight trunk. From my pack I took out the axe and cut the tree down a few inches from the ground. I apologised to the stump for this violation, but I knew it would grow back the next spring. I then proceeded to sned the side branches with the axe, which was more of a hatchet really, and before long I had a strong walking staff of about six feet.
I emerged from the clearing and carried on walking in an eastern direction. I knew that I would only be walking for an hour or so before I hit the outskirts of the new development of Ørestad. Indeed, I could already see the Field’s shopping mall in the distance, as well as the Daliesque double towers of the Bella Sky, which boasted that it was Scandinavia’s largest hotel. Before long the trees and bushes gave way to cement trucks and concrete bollards, and I was walking the immaculate and sparse streets of Ørestad and ascending the steps to Field’s shopping mall.
Half an hour later I was back on those same steps and the security guard was stood by the revolving door with his arms folded across his chest. I walked away and headed out across an area of wasteland where they were planning to build the new national football stadium. Out front was a large sign detailing the development, but despite there being several vans and trucks visible there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I wandered onto the construction site and sat down to make myself a cup of tea on what I figured would likely be the centre of the pitch. I made a fire from twigs and set my little sauce pan atop the metal stove ring I had brought with me. As the flames crackled and the water started to heat I lay back and looked around. It being late summer the wild plants and flowers had grown exuberantly and were tall enough to shield me from anyone looking. What’s more, they blotted out the various shopping centres, hotels and conference halls that had sprung up over recent years in the area. I picked a handful of sea buckthorn berries from a bush and popped them into my mouth. The tangy and sweet juice was beyond delicious and I picked more. As I ate them I looked around at the other plants. It was like being in a jungle on some alien planet. The sheer brightness and refulgence was dazzling, with multitudes of blues, purples, yellows and red vying for the attention of the bees which flew from flower to flower, their legs hung heavy with sticky yellow pollen. I drank my tea and marvelled at all this richness, considering that the only consolation of its impending destruction would be a future me watching some future international football match on television and knowing that I had drunk tea and communed with the bees somewhere within the circumference of the centre circle. With this thought in my head I packed up my things and began to walk south again. Before long I was at the gates of the Amager Fælled nature reserve, an area of fields, birch woods and reedy drainage ditches that had been reclaimed from the sea after the last world war. It would be a long plod going south over the next few hours as the sun beat down on me.
The path was straight and narrow. Cyclists zoomed past on carbon-fibre bikes. These weren’t the meandering, lazy city cyclists with their rusty bikes with wonky wheels. No, they were lycra-clad storm troopers with fixed faces, alien helmets and shaved muscular legs. I kept to the side of the path to avoid them. Sometimes the cyclists were interspersed with roller-bladders, skateboarders and several people on wheeled wind-surfing boards that flew past at a tremendous speed. I was the slowest moving human being on the circuit, it seemed.
When I emerged at the southern end of the reserve I stood beside a small lake and considered my options. It was late afternoon and although the landscape was lit up with strong yellow light from the western sun, the eastern sky was dark and broody. Perhaps there would be a storm. Ahead of me the path rose up to meet the curving seawall that had been built by unemployed men who had nothing better to do at the end of the war. In this way the lower western part of the island had been reclaimed from the sea and now, over 70 years later, it was mostly salty marshes and birch forests. Local legend has it that the woods were full of land mines, and ‘Keep Out - Danger of Unexploded Bombs’ notices certainly put from my mind any idea of camping there.
The cyclists, wind surfers and roller bladers were still whizzing by every other minute or so and I felt that if I stood around much longer I might end up entangled with one of them in a messy heap on the ground. Should I head south and camp on the beach or should I veer off and put my tent up in an old oak forest? Turning around I could just make out the distant towers of Copenhagen to the north. I was far enough away from the city now to feel that I was escaping its gravitational pull, yet at the same time I had an uneasy feeling about my situation. It’s precisely these half-wild buffer areas around major cities where some of the darkest happenings occur, and this part of the island was no exception. For years, in the late 1980s when my wife was a teenager, a serial killer had roamed here. This, and many other evil deeds, linger on in the minds of Copenhageners and indeed, the lake by which I was now stood would be familiar to fans of the Danish noir TV series The Killing as the location where a car was dredged up. What’s more, Kongelunden, where I was considering pitching my tent, was the setting for the opening scene in which a young girl is brutally murdered.
All things considered I opted to head to the beach. It was only about a quarter of an hour’s walk away and I knew it to be a more or less deserted strand of crispy black seaweed. Somewhat flyblown, at least it would be peaceful. Or so I thought. I could see the kite surfers from some distance as I trudged towards the beach, aching to put down my heavy pack. When I reached the shore there must have been a hundred of them. I sat down by my pack and watched them. They stood on boards that sliced across the surface of the flat sea, propelled by the force of the wind in the sails to which they were attached. It seemed amazing to me that so many of them could be in action together without getting their strings entangled. Yet they moved with sublime grace, using nothing more than the energy freely provided by the elements to execute their spins, grabs and loops. Like human pendulums they moved hypnotically, swinging back and forth across the choppy grey waters beneath the darkening sky. One might have thought that such acrobatics would be enacted with playful yelps of joy, but in fact silence reined over the scene. Only the slight plop of the boards hitting the water could be heard and I was reminded of one of those ‘silent raves’ I had seen, where people dance wearing wireless headphones that deliver the same music synchronically to all. The faces of the surfers—men and women—were fixed in the same expressions as the cyclists: deadpan and serious. Maybe the business of extreme sports was a serious one—something to be ‘into’ to fill in the gaps between bouts of work, or as part of one’s keep fit regime. As such it seemed like an enactment of something sad, like a piece if performance art that was supposed to represent collective tragedy and alienation.
I got out my notebook and wrote down a few words. I had decided that this trip would be as low-tech as possible. Like many people, I had become far more used to typing words on a keyboard than writing them on a page, and my hand felt slightly clumsy as I wrote the words with a ballpoint pen.
Walked out across a Amager Fælled with the sun slanting down out of the west and dark thunderous clouds moving in from the east. Colours of the wildflowers and hedgerows illuminated nicely. So much to forage along the way! I have already eaten handfuls of sea buckthorn berries, a few hazel nuts and some damsons. I have my ‘tree eyes’ in now. Before they were just ‘trees’ — a kind of green background fuzz — but now they are hawthorn, birch, alder, elder, hazel, dog rose, sea blackthorn, willow and mountain ash. Knowing their names makes the world more interesting, somehow.
Feeling a bit anxious, like I'm doing something subversive. I stick out like a sore thumb with my sleeping bag and my staff. Perhaps I should have trimmed the beard a bit before I left and covered the gash on my leg. Nobody yet has smiled or said ‘hello’ to me—but then I remember this is the way here. Will I last out? My pack is very heavy—I must have brought too much food. I'm looking forward to tonight and for the rain. I wonder if I will be left in peace here. Yesterday, I went for a beer at Cafe Bizarro with Wes and Anna with their baby. Wes said ‘Watch out for the wild animals.’ But it’s not the four-legged animals I’m worried about, it’s the two-legged ones.
Headlines as I left: “And so it begins: Ukraine destroys Russia Convoy”. That and Robin Williams hanging himself.