by Niels Petersen, Team Göttingen
When bookstores reopened in Germany after the first anti-pandemic measures, it was the cover of a German translation of Robert Macfarlane’s “Holloway” (“Hohlweg” in German) that caught my eye in the display (it might have to do something with a biased view…). The Artist Stanley Donwood created an image of branches of a multitude of trees, intricately woven around a path. They constitute some sort of tunnel that almost sucks you into the small book.
Roads are an easy victim for poets of all sorts. Road-songs are legion and the image of the road to be travelled is omnipresent in literature. While we deal with the historic dimension of the European road networks from a scientific point of view, future projects should include this artistic perception of roads and their quality as a special space. The transitory nature on the one hand contrasts with the longue durée of road infrastructure on the other hand. As Macfarlane puts it:
“I now understand it certainly to be the case, though I have long imagined it to be true, that stretches of a path might carry memories of a person just as a person might of a path.”
(Holloway, first published in Oxford by Quive Smith Editions in 2012, have a look at this blog post of Caught by the River: here)
There are great projects in contemporary photography (From A to B – Exhibition at Museum Morsbroich or Andy Lee’s Roads less travelled), but roads are present in historic paintings and prints, as well. Taking Japan’s art history, it is notably Katsushika Hokusai’s (葛飾 北斎, 1760-1849) woodblock print series Fifty-three Stations on the Tōkaidō Road from 1801/1806, that took its inspiration from one of the main imperial highways of the Edo period. The Tōkaidō was one of the so called Five Routes (五街道, Gokaidō) that were laid out under the Tokugawa shogunate from 1603 onwards. These highways were to connect the provinces to the capital Edo (now called Tokyo) running from there in all directions. The most frequented of these roads certainly was the connection between Edo and Kyoto, the Tōkaidō.
Japanese poetry knew these roads as well. In 1689 the already famous poet Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644-1694) set out on a journey through central Japan, from Edo to Tohoku in the north and along the western coast back south to lake Biwa. The journey took him around half a year to complete. His aim was to imitate the old travelling poets of the 8th to 12th centuries, and to write down his impressions in Haiku poems. The “Narrow Road to Oku” (Oku no Hosomichi 奥の細道), is a mixture of prose and poetry, thus making it a light read and an absolute Japanese classic.
Even though Matsuo Bashō claims in the title to have taken narrow roads, he used for long parts of his journey the main highways of his time. From Edo to Fukushima he wandered along the Ōshū Kaidō (奥州街道). The routes existed for centuries before, and Bashō knew that. One of his destinations was the Shirakawa Barrier (Shirakawa no Seki 白河の関), a border post that had controlled the traffic between the Nara Empire and the northern tribes as early as in the 8th century. In Bashō’s lifetime it had long been gone, but the place became a poetic symbol for setting out onto a long journey and for a transition into an undiscovered world, be it geographical or referring to the inner space.
“After many days of solitary wandering, I came at last to the barrier-gate of Shirakawa, which marks the entrance to the northern regions. Here, for the first time, my mind was able to gain a certain balance and composure, no longer victim to pestering anxiety, so it was with a mild sense of detachment that I thought about the ancient traveller who had passed through this gate with a burning desire to write home.” (Translation by Sam Hamill in a nicely done edition by Shambala Centaur Editions, Boston & London 1991).
While travelling he took with him some disciples along certain parts of the route and met others at places he passed. while he wanted to be at certain times at special places (for example did he reach Tsuruga Harbour right in time for the Harvest Moon, but the clouds spoiled the experience for him).
The experience of nature is something that is a central theme in “Holloway”, as well. “On their sides, between the tree roots that snake grotesque & wild, grow the umbrals: hart’s tongue fern, shining cranesbill, ivy & moschatel, the lover of shade”. Light and shadow, the damp soil, animals and plants, the view of mountain ridges are so accurately described that you get the feeling of joining the small group on their bicycle tour on ancient paths that is being described in the text. Not by coincidence the parish of Selborne is mentioned (Gilbert White wrote a now famous treatise on “the Natural History of Selborne” in 1789, that has its place in the canon of environmental historians as well as literates of all sorts). At the same the narrator remembers a past trip with a now gone friend, giving the whole enterprise a further dimension. The road can be travelled into the past, as well.
As an object of textual and visual arts, and not only as a necessary part in describing a hero’s journey, the Road can widen the perspective on our research topic. As the examples show, it can span continents and centuries, too. Coming back to the digital mapping of historic routes – once the methodology is established, why not do it for Japan, as well?