Monday, July 29, 2019


My first encounter with the work of J.R.R. Tolkien was in junior high. It was a Saturday, and as I was cleaning my room, I was listening to a radio production of The Hobbit. One moment shines in my memory as brightly as the sun shining through my window that morning, as the story on the radio swept me out of my world and onto a journey with Bilbo Baggins. This was my first encounter with epic fantasy, and in that suspended, sun-drenched moment, a new strand was integrated into my psychological DNA.

However much I loved Tolkien's stories, I still found the books hard going. As a teen, it was hard to slog through long lyrical passages about trees. As an adult, I understand those same passages as Tolkien's love letters about nature, part of his larger diatribe against the effects of industrialization on the natural world. And I understand his frustration and anger.

I hadn't given Tolkien much thought or attention in the past few years, other than enjoying the movie adaptations, until his work and world intersected mine again unexpectedly last year. We were on holiday in Sion, Switzerland, and visited Lac Souterrain, Europe's largest underground lake, located in nearby St. Leonard. It's known that Tolkien visited this lake prior to writing the Lord of the Rings, and it's believed that this lake is the inspiration for Gollum's home.

And now Tolkien and I intersect yet again, here on my blog, with an excerpt from his poem "All That is Gold Does Not Glitter," written for the Lord of the Rings, under my avatar photo.

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

If you know the story, you can recognize the allusions to the plot in every line, but I think the poem holds its own apart from the story as well, and I particularly like the second line, because I love to hike.

I've always loved being out in nature, but it wasn't until I moved to Switzerland, the land of the wanderweg, the hiking trail, that I fell in love with hiking. Or as I like to say, wandern, because I  prefer the German word to the English. I love that wandern is so similar in sound to the English word "wander." (They are etymologically related. According to Merriam-Webster, the etymology of the English word "wander" is Middle English wandren, from Old English wandrian; akin to Middle High German wandern "to wander," Old English windan "to wind, twist.")

Although we speak mostly English at home, it's most accurate to say we speak Swinglish (a mixture of Swiss-German and English), because German words are always creeping into our conversations. Sometimes a word from the "other" language is just the first word that comes to mind, and other times one of us has a definite preference for a word in one language over the other. This is why I will almost always plop wandern into an English sentence, because its sound, its evocation of the English "wander," embodies more of what I'm trying to say than the word "hiking" does. Hiking sounds utilitarian to me. Wandering? That sounds magical and full of potential.

The wanderwege are well signposted in Switzerland, so I've never been lost while wandering, but I do lose myself when I hike. The noise that accumulates in my mind from everyday life is blown away on the breeze that whispers through the pine trees, replaced by birdsong and the rhythmic crunch of boots on the trail.

We're sometimes overtaken when hiking by mountain bikers rushing down the mountainside. With their eyes (of necessity) focused on the trail ahead, they can't look at the flowers growing alongside the trail or at the views of nearby mountain peaks. They come to the mountain for an adrenaline rush. I come for the silence. The stillness.

I come to climb up, above everything that is everyday, and to move slowly through alpine meadows, along mountain ridges and lake-shores, resetting my internal tempo. Storing up the views and the silence, so that when I descend back into the everyday, I bring some of the peace of that mountain ridge back down with me.

Larger version of my blog avatar. The intersection of two hiking trails between the Lauenensee
(seen in the distance in this photo) and Wispile Peak, near Gstaad, Switzerland.
photo copyright 2019 Elisabeth Norton

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