Thursday, September 27, 2018

Travel Back in Time, Through the Mountains of France & Around the World with Robert Louis Stevenson

[NOTEThis article contains a lot of beautiful, but sometimes complex, prose. If you'd prefer to listen to, rather than read, this material, click here. You'll get my audio narration which you can easily download and play at your convenience.]

From a Brilliant Writer, Brilliant Travel Essays

What do you get when one of the best writers of all time sets out on a personal odyssey with a donkey and documents his travels?  You get delicious prose like the paragraph below, describing a night under the stars in the Cévennes mountains in France, circa 1859:

"Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof; but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dews and perfumes, and the hours are marked by changes in the face of Nature.  What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains, is only a light and living slumber to the man who sleeps afield.  All night long he can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest, she turns and smiles; and there is one stirring hour unknown to those who dwell in houses, when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet.  It is then that the cock first crows, not this time to announce the dawn, but like a cheerful watchman speeding the course of night.  Cattle awake on the meadows; sheep break their fast on dewy hillsides, and change to a new lair among the ferns; and houseless men, who have lain down with the fowls, open their dim eyes and behold the beauty of the night."
-- from Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes, "A Night Among the Pines," by Robert Louis Stevenson

Author of such timeless classics as Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and A Child's Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson also created some not-so-famous travel treasures that you can enjoy, absolutely free, as ebooks from Project Gutenberg. Why should you read these lesser-known Stevenson creations? Because they'll take you back in time and all over the planet and hold a magnifying glass to a world of simple things that are also complex and wondrous when seen through Stevenson's eyes. Like travel itself, the experience of reading these can't help but broaden your perspective and deepen your empathy.

Some Teasers

Below are a few of my favorite passages from a couple of these works, along with links to the Project Gutenberg page where you can download the complete work in a suitable format for your particular e-reader. I hope these fragments inspire you to get the rest of the work from Gutenberg and settle in for your own slow, conscious journey back in time and around the world.

Why travel? 

"I travel for travel’s sake.  The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.  Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied with our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for.  To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind.  And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?" from Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes, "Cheylard and Luc"

About Modestine's (the donkey's) slow pace, so frustrating to a first-time donkey driver... 

"What that pace was, there is no word mean enough to describe; it was something as much slower than a walk as a walk is slower than a run; it kept me hanging on each foot for an incredible length of time; in five minutes it exhausted the spirit and set up a fever in all the muscles of the leg.  And yet I had to keep close at hand and measure my advance exactly upon hers; for if I dropped a few yards into the rear, or went on a few yards ahead, Modestine came instantly to a halt and began to browse.  The thought that this was to last from here to Alais nearly broke my heart..."  from Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes,"The Green Donkey Driver" 

On the joy of being lost...

"I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers; and thus to be found by morning in a random woodside nook in Gévaudan—not knowing north from south, as strange to my surroundings as the first man upon the earth, an inland castaway—was to find a fraction of my day-dreams realised... from Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes,"A Camp in the Dark" 

About the meaning of fog in old Monterrey, CA, U.S.A ...

"But it is the Pacific that exercises the most direct and obvious power upon the climate.  At sunset, for months together, vast, wet, melancholy fogs arise and come shoreward from the ocean.  From the hill-top above Monterey the scene is often noble, although it is always sad.  The upper air is still bright with sunlight; a glow still rests upon the Gabelano Peak; but the fogs are in possession of the lower levels; they crawl in scarves among the sandhills; they float, a little higher, in clouds of a gigantic size and often of a wild configuration; to the south, where they have struck the seaward shoulder of the mountains of Santa Lucia, they double back and spire up skyward like smoke.  Where their shadow touches, colour dies out of the world.  The air grows chill and deadly as they advance.  The trade-wind freshens, the trees begin to sigh, and all the windmills in Monterey are whirling and creaking and filling their cisterns with the brackish water of the sands.  It takes but a little while till the invasion is complete.  The sea, in its lighter order, has submerged the earth.  Monterey is curtained in for the night in thick, wet, salt, and frigid clouds, so to remain till day returns; and before the sun’s rays they slowly disperse and retreat in broken squadrons to the bosom of the sea.  And yet often when the fog is thickest and most chill, a few steps out of the town and up the slope, the night will be dry and warm and full of inland perfume."  from Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays, "The Woods and the Pacific" 

On the seductive power of the South Seas... 

"Few men who come to the islands leave them; they grow grey where they alighted; the palm shades and the trade-wind fans them till they die, perhaps cherishing to the last the fancy of a visit home, which is rarely made, more rarely enjoyed, and yet more rarely repeated.  No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor, and the task before me is to communicate to fireside travellers some sense of its seduction, and to describe the life, at sea and ashore..." from In the South Seas, Chapter 1 -- An Island Landfall

On beach combing... 

"... the surf would bubble warmly as high as to my knees, and play with cocoa-nut husks as our more homely ocean plays with wreck and wrack and bottles.  As the reflux drew down, marvels of colour and design streamed between my feet; which I would grasp at, miss, or seize: now to find them what they promised, shells to grace a cabinet or be set in gold upon a lady’s finger; now to catch only maya of coloured sand, pounded fragments and pebbles, that, as soon as they were dry, became as dull and homely as the flints upon a garden path.  I have toiled at this childish pleasure for hours in the strong sun, conscious of my incurable ignorance; but too keenly pleased to be ashamed.  Meanwhile, the blackbird (or his tropical understudy) would be fluting in the thickets overhead." from In the South Seas, Chapter 3 -- The Maroon

On the joys of doing nothing instead of always staying busy...

"This 'something to do' is a great enemy to joy; it is a way out of it; you wreak your high spirits on some cut-and-dry employment, and behold them gone!"  from Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays, "Fontainebleau, Village Community of Painters [part] V 

In Sum, It's Time Well Spent!

So let's summarize. As these samples show, Stevenson's travel essays offer vivid imagery, insightful descriptions, and unique perspectives that infuse the little things in life with great meaning. They also take you back in time to far-flung places that were not yet wired in to the rest of the world... places whose relative strangeness gently nudges you toward an inevitable re-evaluation of your own time and place.  In short, these essays provide a powerful "theater of the mind" that will inspire, enlighten and lift you up out of the doldrums of whatever gossipy news, political rants or other negative stuff is pummeling your consciousness. Time spent with these essays is definitely time well spent!

The Links: Lots of Free Stuff!  

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