Research: Goethean Observations: Old London Road
Puddles, water, reflections.
Old road surface, scattered cobbles and stones.
Tyre tracks, undulating surface.
Birdsong, the sound of distant cars.
Hedgerows on either side, mainly brambles.
Old trees, young trees lining the way.
Fallen trees laying by the wayside – the rings on the exposed, cut branches.
The sky, the clouds, the position of the sun.
My shadow stretched across the road’s surface.
The squelching of people’s footsteps.
The rippling of the surface of a puddle in a pothole.
The almost indistinct wind.
Last year’s leaves scattered at the edges of the road.
A blackbird flies low over the ground.
Conversations grow as a couple approach.
Fly-tipping off the road behind one of the hedges.
Old clothes, pots of used paint, broken glass, bottles, cushions, an old teddy bear lying face down on the ground, pipes and bits of wood.
More cuddly toys face down, pale and faded. Saturated and soggy.
Huge tracks gouged out of the surface. Within them the water gathers. Reflections move with the wind blowing down the road.
The rounded stones of the surface. Smooth yet irregularly placed. A plane flies above cutting through the sky.
Molehills. A ditch running beside the road on its left hand side (as I walk west).
Large stones separate the ditch from the edges of the road.
The ground on the left hand side is at a different level to the road itself which I can see is raised up.
A siren in the distance over towards the city.
The sound of the stones – silent today.
At this point I began to move into the second and later phases. I had thought for the purposes of clarity to keep things in strict stage order (i.e. 1, 2, 3 and 4) but I think it’s important to record my results as they came. I shall write them as they were written (in italics).
There is a point walking away from the city where the road turns a corner and heads off to the left. Here the shadows are gathered together. The road also narrows or rather the countryside around it encroaches. The shadows and the trees. Towards the city the countryside backs away.
The passage of time in the tracks left by the wheels.
I started again to look at the road itself, as it was ‘presented to me’. I measured its width and found that it was approximately four paces wide and then started looking more closely at the stones which made up the road’s surface. There were I noticed some stones which were larger and flatter than the others. I also noticed that the road itself seemed to be on a slight angle, with the right side slightly higher than the left. I noticed, as I observed the surface, the sun catching the puddles and the moist mud around them. Yellow, ochre puddles.
Lichen on the boulders on the left hand side of the road, like fat unmade gravestones.
It was as I walked back up the road towards the city that I began to sense something about the road that wasn’t to do with its material or physical quality (although it’s precisely its physical and material quality which causes this sensation).
Walking back towards the city there is the sense of going somewhere for the first time even though I’ve walked this path many times before.
Silver, green lichen.
The grass at the edges of the road [is] in patches encroaching on the roads itself.
In one section smaller stones have been used.
Many of the stones are either missing or covered with mud on which the grass then grows.
There was here a sense of the passing of time, the way of nature, as the mud and then the grass reclaimed the road. In the mud I saw the prints of horseshoes which made me think of its early years when horses and carriages, as well a pedestrians, would have used it. I thought back to the tracks left by wheels and found myself considering the road in terms of the changes in transport over the past few centuries.
Further towards the city, the stones disappeared all the more. They were covered in greater thicknesses of mud and consequently more grass.
As I have written, what is important to me in this kind of observation is noting everything that is going on around me, so as to give a more holistic view of the road, to not see the road as something which is separate from the landscape but a part of it (just as I was at that point not separate from the road but also a part of it). I became aware, through a gap in the hedgerow, of the blueness of the distance which I could see over the fields rolled out below.
Movements in the hedgerows (right).
The stones reappear like a spine running up the centre of the road.
It was on turning round and walking back up the road away from the city that I noticed very strongly a difference in the feel of the road. Almost straight away, I got the impression of leaving, of heading towards something familiar (even though for me the feeling should be reversed).
Walking away one can see the blue distant hills. To the left just the trees, parked cars and the radio mast.
A house through a gap in the hedgerow. Dark windows.
Walking away [East, away from Oxford] is almost like being in the past and walking towards the future, whereas vice-versa [West, towards Oxford] it’s like being in the present and walking into the past.
I appreciate that this may sound a strange thing to write, but with this sort of observation it’s very important to make a note of everything you see and indeed feel. This is all part of intuition, ‘seeing into’ the phenomenon being observed. As I said, I rather mix the stages together and in a sense some of the things I am recording here belong to the fourth stage (being one with the object [Intuition]).
The future is missing when walking towards the city. Curiously walking away from the city, one has the impression of leaving something behind, which I am doing by leaving behind something which is familiar.
The sense of leaving and going to a place which was evidently so much a part of this road is not something one finds so much on roads today. Roads today carry people through and around places, they are somewhat unattached to anywhere, whereas this stretch of old road is very much linked to places. It is very much a road which takes you away from somewhere and to somewhere else.
The undulating surface of the road… the divots and bumps… the stones, make it a slow road. It moves at the speed of thought and as such everything around it, the hills in the distance become a part. Again the difference between roads today (which one can hear constantly) and roads then, becomes very apparent. Because the hills, trees and surrounding countryside move at the same speed as you, you feel more attached to the world.
It’s a road which generates thoughts and carries thoughts because it is slow.
Movement of the road. Even though it feels like a road which definitely connects two places or rather things, it seems to have a sense of going on and on and never really ending. It’s as if walking on this road you will never get there. It connects you to two places you can never reach; the past before you were born and the future in which you won’t exist. The road is always the present, but a present made of all the past (moments upon moments) which can be found as you walk it.
Through this first set of observations I began to understand the road not just as a thing in its own right, but as something which is very much a part of the landscape. I found that in participating in the road, rather than simply just observing it, I began to participate in the road's wider landscape, both physical and temporal. It's a road in time as well as in space.
The second stage of my observation of this road is to 'take the road' into my imagination and to perceive the time-life of the phenomenon; Exact Sensorial Fantasy as Goethe called it. To do this, I closed my eyes and recorded myself talking whilst drawing my thoughts, describing all the while what I could see in my mind's eye.
Below is a transcript of my recordings (NB. The digital recorder malfunctioned and so the following is taken from three recordings). I have also scanned some of the drawings made whilst describing that below.
Walking along that road, looking at everything around it, the distant horizon, the trees, one feels a connection not only with the landscape but with everyone who’s walked or ridden along that path.
Along this road people are still carried. The thoughts they had as they walked or rode along arranged upon the ground in the stones just as the magnets arrange the tiny particles on tape. And even when the grass has completely covered it over, when people don’t walk hear anymore, when the voices are covered over as their bodies are and have been for hundreds of years there will still be the marks in the ground. The road is then a kind of palimpsest. When we walk we are writing ourselves on the ground, changing the ground just a little, imperceptibly, but a little, adding to all those changes which have been made before. Voices which are made more distant but which are never fully erased. Like a never ending book that has no start the lines just go on and on. Words are written over the top of each other, it’s not even a book, just a single line When the grass is grown over the road which it’s sure to do when the trees are bigger and they themselves have walked to cover the ground so that the road is just part of the forest, like a trench. What else will be gone? Will all the sounds in the distance be covered or will they be replaced by other sounds, things we can’t imagine now, just as those who walked the road a hundred, two hundred years ago could not imagine the sounds of an aeroplane or the distant drones of the traffic thundering down the bypass. Will the ground too have begun to cover those roads, to cover the buildings? I look at the grass, there’s not much road to cover, it wouldn’t take much to swallow it completely and yet one gets the sense that when that road has gone everything will have gone with it.
Standing back on the old road from Oxford to London running over the top of Shotover, this long muddy track which cuts through the grass into the distance. On one side is the hedgerow on other side the forest, much smaller than it used to be. Beyond the hedgerow are the fields and the distance. Looking at the road one can see the stones, all different types smoothed over with age, covered with mud and in the patches in between grass can be seen to grow as if slowly it’s trying to reclaim this road. In amongst the stones are also puddles in which you can see the sky the trees and if you look yourself, you can see yourself and inevitably the weather will change the days will become warmer, drier the puddles will dry up and take their images with them down into the ground up into the air. One imagines this place before this road was ever built. It makes one wonder what it takes for a road to be built long before the stones are put there when people first started walking that way when the first few footsteps marked a rough track which people followed through the landscape. Footstep after footstep. In many ways the landscape determines the route we take and therefore it’s almost as if the landscape is using us to draw upon itself. But what is it that makes this road a road? It’s not simply a collection of footsteps going in the same direction or back the other way. Every footstep is made, at first at least, consciously in this place. There is a conscious act behind the steps planted in the ground. Someone a long time ago hundreds of years ago had reason to walk there to get from somewhere to somewhere else, were they leaving or going, or coming? The road itself therefore becomes a kind of palimpsest which footstep after footstep is written upon the ground like words across a page and though footsteps which come afterwards gradually remove all traces of the others they can never fully remove the traces. Every footstep we plant changes the landscape just a little but a little nonetheless. Many of the trees are not as old as this road and yet this road is much younger than everything around it. What were those first footsteps thinking as they were planted in the soil. What languages did they speak. What images did they hold in their minds? What did the world look like around them? The forest was much bigger the sounds in the distance would not have been there. It would be the sounds of the wood and the forest, the birds and the human body which planted the footsteps in the first place. When I first went to the road I had the impression that although it led from somewhere and went somewhere else that nonetheless one could never reach the end but that somehow it would always keep turning; moving as if it was a conveyor belt of some kind.
Thinking about it now one can take that analogy and think of it instead as piece of tape which runs and runs and runs and which every step upon it is like the recording head changing the ground, changing the particles on the tape just a little. And just as we record when we walk so we also play, play the ground which passes beneath our feet. We can hear very distantly the thoughts which came before us. I could hear the sound of people’s footsteps planted in the mud, the same sound that’s been made on there for hundreds of years. And looking ahead one can imagine the grass that is already beginning to reclaim the road growing over the road entirely covering it again so that it’s hardly visible but should it do that, what would it mean? What else would have had to have gone for that to happen for no-one to walk there again? What else would have to be covered by the ground? What other roads, buildings, the town even. Perhaps then the woods would return to what they were? And though there’s not much left for the grass to cover it wouldn’t it seem take much for the grass to cover the road completely and yet one imagines what that would signify if it ever occurred. One would look at the radio receiver behind, the aerials, dishes and know that they would all be dumb and deaf. The mounting stones, one at the top and one at the bottom of the hill would be like gravestones.
What did the world look like for people to walk in this direction in this space? What drove people to walk here? What was on their minds as they did so? Were they excited, nervous, lovesick, jealous, happy? When the road was young and not a road but a small track one has the sense that people walked there consciously, that they were making the path through the landscape although the landscape was itself using them to write upon the world and that all those who came after were not so conscious of this path. This was simply the way you went.
There is the sense that when you walk along this road, you are adding to the thousands of fragments of thoughts left on the road. One can imagine these fragments as like the tesserae of a mosaic uncovered beneath the ground; one to which pieces are added just as they are taken away. What do the gaps tell us? Good litter, left on the road, not like that dumped in amongst the hedgerows.
There is a sense as I walk and see the distant hills and the horizon that the road is waking as I walk. When no-one walks upon it, it sleeps. It uses our eyes to see the world around it. What lays beyond the hills? There's a connection between our feet and our eyes. What lays beyond the horizon is hidden from everyone who walks this road, no matter what the century. The road is the people who walk it or ride it. The road is not so much a physical thing but a short trail of thoughts. The road is whatever people who travel it were/are thinking.