“I know,” said Peter. “Perhaps better than anyone. But you can’t stay a child forever. To choose to speak into Echo’s Well is to choose illusion. To choose to avoid the responsibilities of being an adult. The real trick—the real choice—is to keep the best of the child you were, without forgetting when you grow up”
– J.M Barrie
A year later and I am back in the town of Bovec in the spectacular Soca Vally of Slovenia. This town is surrounded by steep vegetated mountains on all sides. Green is the colour. At least it is the colour of summer there. I imagine at one time or another these mountains have been the focus of dreams and the symbol of life beyond this small village, that they have acted as protectors, barriers and playgrounds and that they have ignited the spark of adventure in many.
The town has seen communism and it has seen capitalism, with most of its inhabitants pointing to strengths and weaknesses in both systems. It has seen war and it has seen peace. It has been conquered and reconquered and won and lost so many times that it is hard to keep up. Life in some of the sleepy valley villages dotted by the river seems unchanged by time, by war, by peace. Neatly arranged vegetable plots and patches decorate the wild floral meadows and stacks of hand cut wood rest obediently against rustic walls. But that is just how it seems. Delve a little deeper and you will see that the mountains harbour secrets. Scratch below the surface and all of a sudden a myriad of hidden tunnels and passageways are revealed. If you choose to see them. How enterprising we can be in times of conflict. There is a dark history here. This town is in the middle of things and history’s players have played here. Over 1 million soldiers once stood in this valley. There is a dark history everywhere.
People seem at first a little wary and then full of warmth, loyalty and generosity. There’s a calm knowing wildness to people who live with nature’s ebb and flow. Maybe the personality mimics the surroundings. Most people go with nature’s rhythms in relative harmony and seem at peace. I as a visitor to this oasis could easily get lost or found here. I could easily get lost or found in lots of other places too. But I like to leave my window open.
We who play with nature’s fire must be careful not to get burnt. Complete immersion can breed some kind of madness manifested in excessive behaviour. I have seen this the world over anywhere that the power of nature seems to reach out from the rivers, mountains and seas and seep under your skin. You can almost feel it as you go about your business. There’s something powerfully alluring. There’s something terribly beautiful. There’s something dark. There’s something which can take you over if you are not careful. If you are not self -aware. Physical laws of action and reaction seem to have slowed down or speeded up and it’s hard to tell one from the other. Your senses are heightened and subdued all at the same time. You are alive. You are powerful. You are a fire burning. You are in the moment. You are free.
I wonder is this how they felt. Those I million soldiers marching to the tune of history’s waves. Did the mountains lure them in one direction or another. Did they believe that theirs was the cause of glory. Did they believe that this war would end wars? Did they care? Were they so tired and hungry and brutalised by weather and ignorance and control that it was easier to think of nothing, focus on the march or imagine the face of a loved one and to keep going until they could no longer keep going. How cruel to endure the bitter winters only to die on the battlefield a year or two later.
If they could have stood on top of those mountains and looked down upon themselves would things have seemed different? If we could look in or down or up or sideways at ourselves might we see something new. Like the flit of a kingfishers wing. A glimpse of radiance or something beautiful or enlightening and then, as though you have been able to remember something that you couldn’t quite remember or you have solved a puzzle that you couldn’t quite solve, you feel relief. You realise both the significance and the insignificance of your cause. You see beyond your own valley. You see the wood for the trees.
from The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the soldier knew Someone had blunder’d: Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volley’d and thunder’d; Storm’d at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death,Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
from Easter 1916 by WB Yeats
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
from the Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle
But here in this graveyard that’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.
And I can’t help but wonder, now Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did they really believe when they answered “The Cause?”
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
from Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”