In The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane writes a about night-sailing on the English Channel. It is an elegant passage that has been haunting me these last few weeks:
“I have heard a sailor describe night-sailing in the busy waters of the English Channel as a deeply relaxing experience. At such times, he said, the world is reduced to code: the lights carried by the different vessels, the shared rules known by all participants as to who should give way to whom. The number of data-streams is minimized; inputs limited to night-murmers on the VHF, blips on the radar, and sequences of lights. Provided that the codes are correctly interpreted by all participants, tankers will slide darkly past dinghies, ship will pass ship, and so the arrangement will decorously proceed. What it most resembles, he said, is a quadrille–a stately dance of vast and mutual order. There is also, he added, a calming relationship of disproportion between the nature of the game played and the stakes wagered, in that proof of competence is derived only from absence of catastrophe.”Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways, p. 133
When I first read this passage, it was the beginning of the pandemic stay-at-home orders. Our daily walking route had become crowded with increased foot and bike traffic.
Our path is a two-mile, three-foot wide cement sidewalk that loops around a nicely landscaped retention lake.
Though we are friendly neighbors, we seem to have varying ideas about who should yield to whom, how far is six feet, and who should be wearing face masks.
Complicating matters, the path is built up from the water, and so stepping off is often not a feasible option for walkers or bikers or both.
And so we move along with some awkwardness, sometimes standing our ground, sometimes giving wide berth, and sometimes high-tailing it to get out of the way.
Getting used to the new flow is an exercise in tolerance and patience.
Give us a few more centuries, and I’m sure my neighbors and I will work out a protocol similar to the night-sailors of the English Channel.