Last weekend, I went to the Adirondacks with two of my favorite camping partners, my wife Sarah and my friend Elisabeth. I was still jet-lagged from Greece, but I wanted to fit in some wilderness after all those ancient sites and tough days at the beach…
In thirty-six hours of relatively civilized life in the woods with good modern equipment, I was reminded of all the problems that face us in the wilderness, and thus, how very complicated the Wild must have been for our foremothers and forefathers.
Which is why, by and large, they didn’t go there. I guess the rest of this blog is really directed at readers and even more so, writers of fantasy, and to a lesser extent, Historical Fiction. I want to discuss some ideas of travel in the wilderness and some expectations and mostly, just lay out some hard facts.
Let me start with some credentials. I have only got extensive wilderness experience in two places; Central Africa (Kenya/Tanzania/Zambia/Congo) and the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. But the differences between those regions ((and they have internal differences as well) are immense, and they bring out my first point…
The Wild is a different place everywhere you go. I have camped in an arid, water-less pine forest in central Africa (no kidding) and in the non-tropical rain forest of the West Canada Creek Wilderness in the Adirondacks. The insects are different, the fish are different, the edible plants are different, the things that will kill you are…
Actually pretty constant. Hypothermia and Dehydration (both of which are frequently and accurately mentioned by Tolkien, for example, in the Hobbit especially) are far, far more dangerous then bears or lions. I mean, OK, a lion is spectacularly dangerous (I have done some stupid crap around lions, but I lived and I don’t recommend it) and a bear is pretty fearsome (and really big) and rhinos…don’t even mention rhinos…
But they are easy to avoid, and frankly, they avoid you too, thanks. You MOSTLY have to go out of your way to find yourself facing an Adirondack black bear or a leopard or what have you, but fail to fill your canteen just one time on a hot day…
Anyway; credentials. Every year I take ten to twenty people into the Adirondacks in various period kit. We do cheat; I am 55 and I carry a linen covered thermarest. I use an 80 liter dry sack to hold food safely and to close it up at night against…well, bears. Bears are real. Otherwise, there we are, in Medieval clothes with Medieval tools and Medieval tents and shelters and Medieval food. This year will be our 25th expedition; we’ll be out nine days. We won’t be on a trail system, or in a camp ground.
Right. So here’s point two.
Twelve people ( the typical D+D party) consume roughly sixty pounds of food per day. In ten days, that’s six hundred pounds. Or, put another way, every person needs to carry at least five pounds of food for each day. Most strong people can capably carry a total load of 60 pounds; trained men and women may go 80 pounds, and that includes weapons and ammunition and armour and clothes and magic items…
Next point. You can travel, or you can hunt. You cannot hunt and travel. It’s true that a highly trained woodsperson can snare, in the right terrain, and get a couple of rabbits every morning. So let’s say that you can, in fact, hunt and travel with two people. But at some point,t he noise of the group makes any hunting impossible, and as to the idea that a person can ‘go off and hunt’ and ‘rejoin the group’ while traveling in a trackless wilderness…
Laughable. It’s hard enough re-joining people after stopping to have a pee.
And while I’m attacking various fantasy and HisFic memes, let’s look at bows and other weapons. In the woods. (Point 3)
Nothing worse, really. If you haven’t walked in woods with undergrowth carrying a six foot yew bow and twenty livery arrows, you should try it. That quiver (which is not usually on your back) is perhaps the single most annoying piece of kit you’ve ever carried. It’s heavy and it seems to have a life of its own and it catches on everything. And the bow is not particularly fun either. And that heavy arrow for penetrating chain maille isn’t really much use against deer; massive overkill. In Greece or Africa I can see it as practical; in deep woods and undergrowth, what you want, young ranger, is a crossbow. Or maybe a very light, fifty pound bow with light arrows; carry say, three, (total) in your belt, and move like an elf. Of course, you are not engaging in along archery fights with three arrows… The crossbowman carried his bolts much more easily…
The man with a flintlock wins every time, though, as he can carry forty rounds and rest his longe carabine on a log for accurate fire. And use the butt of the thing to cross streams which I don’t recommend with your bow…
The two ideal Medieval weapons in the woods are the axe and the spear. A good light axe is good for everything from Orcs to Anglo-Saxons to wood cutting (of which, more below). A stout spear on a six foot haft is a walking staff with a persuader at the end. I have never faced a bear or lion with a spear; I have faced a very angry, or possibly rabid racoon. No one died, but the racoon didn’t like the spear. The spear also keeps the large animal comfortably far away. Do not try this with a rhino.
Knives and swords… here’s something that you see all the time in the woods; modern men, whether macho deer-hunters or their supposed antithesis, macho hipsters, armed with knives as big as a seax or a short sword. I’m always tempted to ask if they’ve ever used that knife. True confession; in Medieval kit, I carry a very big dagger. It’s true. It cuts bread. And string. And very small kindling. Otherwise it’s just excess weight, but at least it does not catch on stuff. It looks good. That may mean I’m both a macho deer-hunter AND a macho hipster. In the 14th century.
This year on trek, I may wear a sword, as a sort of experimental archaeology. I have worn a long sword in the woods, on a waist belt (the real way, as opposed to on your back, the silly way). It was not that hard; suspension systems of the period are well-designed, and people really wore swords. But the long sword was completely, absolutely useless; it wasn’t even good for cutting bedding. And it was long, and scabbards are expensive and take a real beating in the woods.
Point four is about distance traveled. Carrying weight, I can move about four miles an hour on a trail; faster on a road. But I’m fast. Bushwhacking, that is, moving without a trail, I’m moving perhaps two miles an hour, and if there’s a swamp anywhere (and there always is, unless it’s a desert, and even then, you’d be surprised…) even more slowly. And the energy burn in broken country is incredible; walk a mile in a city or on a road. Then walk the same mile on a ploughed farm field, and finally do the same mile across actual wild country. I’ve seen trained and hardened professionals (soldiers in this case) make as little as four miles in a day, over really bad country.
And then leave time to make camp. One person is pretty easy; around ten people everything from latrines to cooking gets a little more complicated (and don’t even get me started on armies). You need space to camp and time to set up and cook and gather firewood*…
Did I mention gathering firewood? Pretty easy in the Adirondacks, even in a driving rain. Not so easy in a desert, or in central Greece; hard to find anything that you want to cook over on the Savannah of East Africa… But regardless, it’ll take time to find; time to gather, cut to length, and manage. This is one thing that is easier with ten than with one. Fire all night? Nothing for ten. Huge work for one. And cooking? Real cook fires require knowledge and management, because of…
5) Weather…. There are sunny days, but the weather is a far more intimate companion out in the Wild then it is in your home. By intimate, I mean it wants to have its way with you at odd hours of the day and night. Rain, sheets of rain; all day drizzle, high wind, freezing wind, hail, burning sun, sun with high wind, sun with wind carrying gritty sand, snow. Freezing rain, the worst of all. Brutally hot days with plunging temperatures. My favorite? All day rain that clears off at sunset so that the temperature drops and you are left cold. Really cold. Hopefully, you stopped and cut firewood.
Listen. People in the past avoided the Wild like they wished they could avoid war and pestilence. They just didn’t go there. People traveled by going from town to town. If you doubt me, read the opening of Dante’s Inferno. Nor was it different in North America, where most First Nations people traveled by going from town to town, and when they went hunting, were back home at night. Or made large, family-size camps in the good hunting grounds like the Adirondacks, and used them as bases. They didn’t travel across the ‘trackless’ wilderness unless need or war drove them to it, and even then they moved carefully. Same in Africa, which is cross-crossed with a veritable capillary system of tiny trails, as I assume North America once was. And the trails lead to tiny hamlets and villages…
Here’s my point. The Wild is hard enough, without having to fight anyone in it. And the people who cross it or use it are like sailors on a sea; it takes long experience to develop the knowledge to survive in this environment. It is seldom dashing and manly, and often involves patience, careful forethought, and good packing…
And then there’s pack horses…
*And another note on firewood. The best tool with which to cut firewood is the handy saw. Sadly, saws were a high tech item until fairly recently, and I doubt anyone traveling across Mirkwood had a handy folding pocket saw. (However, I’m willing to bet that Thorin Oakenshield would have passed on a magic sword to get a folding Japanese saw; maybe Legolas had one.) The second place tool is not the axe; it’s the standing, live, hardy forked tree. A tree with a deep fork can be used to break even big wood, up to about two inches thick, into fire lengths. Two people can make a lot of standing dead wood into a really big fire in no time, if there’s a nice forked tree growing nearby.) The axe comes in third; it takes a LOT of time and energy to make hardwood into firewood with an axe. But it’s a good reason to practice using the axe; deftness counts, as does strength, and it saves time. And keeps you warm. Which reminds me of another blog.
Today we are leaving Greece after a mere ten days. Our trip has been glorious; perfect weather, wonderful food, friendly people, new friends and old. For my next blog, I’ll be talking about reasons why you should visit Greece; about the tourist industry, the cleanliness, and the complete lack of refugee problems so widely advertised in the western press. That’s for another day.
For today, I’m going to continue talking about research. In my last blog* I discussed the fun and the value of learning by experience; the experience of historical swordsmanship, of Ancient Greek cooking, of dance or horseback riding or watching shepherds or rowing a warship. I love all that; in fact, I sort of make ‘experiencing the past’ my ‘lifestyle.’
But let’s be honest. There are tens of thousands of things about the past that I cannot possibly experience; or, looked at another way, I need to validate my experience by checking that experience against ground truth. The truth of the past maybe be cloudy or difficult; you can, if you wish to probe the complexity of Classical History, read the later chapters of Polybius, my current favorite ancient author. He spends quite a bit of time criticizing other ancient authors; he attacks Callisthenes description of Alexander’s Battle of Issus. Callisthenes was there; an eyewitness, unlike any account now surviving. We no longer have Callisthenes account… only that of Polybius criticizing. Interesting, eh? Especially as the careful criticisms he makes of Callisthenes account ring true, and he then goes on to assert that only those with direct experience of war can write about war, and only those with direct experience of politics can write about politics. His inference is that Callisthenes, as an educated man but not a soldier, didn’t understand Alexander’s army at all. He didn’t understand what he was seeing. Sadly, that’s all too possible, and underlines the danger of even an eyewitness account.
(And why should you care? Well, the Battle of Issus is the first scene in my first Greek novel, Tyrant, about Kineas. And then again, in ‘God of War.’ I’ve spent a lot of time looking at it…)
Hey! Don’t be bored. I realize that this isn’t knights jousting or phalanxes locked in mortal combat or Gabriel Muriens cracking wise while dealing a wyvern its death blow, but the whole key to research is in reading, and let’s face it, reading critically. You can’t believe everything you read; every author has opinions (me included) and many are fallacious (mine included). Some authors are just bent; they hate someone, so they vilify him…. Xenephon, famously, wrote his entire history without once mentioning the name of the Theban hero Epaminondas, because Xenophon loathed him for his victories over Sparta. Xenephon and Thucydides were both Athenians who wrote about Sparta with love and respect while attacking their political enemies; Livy is a zealot, Plutarch created ideal pasts to satisfy his philosophy, Froissart was a Hainaulter for whom all fellow Hainaulters were heroes, and so on.
But without them, and history’s cousin, archaeology, we would know almost nothing. Archaeology makes bold claims about veracity and the revelation of the past, but archaeologists are as human as historians and politicians; they exaggerate or underestimate, they see trends because they want to, they sometimes fail to file site reports or sometimes they’re underfunded and often they are, like anthropologists, witting or unwitting products of flawed neo-colonial thinking. Hey, when I use a word like neo-colonial, I do not mean that all history or archaeology done in the colonial era is bunk; far from it; they did some great work, and some of them were brilliant. You merely have to read them for bias. Like racism. And nationalism.
But why Pausanias in the Agora?
Sarah and I started our vacation with a side trip from the Athens airport to Sounion, the fortress-temple of Poseidon. When we were there, we opened Pausanias. His very first description is of Sounion. If you don’t know him, he’s a Roman-era eyewitness to the spendour of Classical Greek culture; he was visiting Greece when it was all still there, so to speak. And yesterday, as the sun slanted down in the peerless blue sky over the Acropolis, we sat at a café in Monastiraki and I read Pausanias about the ancient Agora. Because I am about to write a novel about Philipoemen of Achaea, and he lived in the second Century BCE; that is, about two hundred and fifty years after Arimnestos. A different Athens. Most of the vast monuments in the Athenian Agora were, in fact, completed when Philipoeman was there; whereas in the midst of the Persian Wars, Athens did not yet have a stone theater; the Parthenon was no yet built, nor was the temple of Athena Nike or the magnificent Hephaiston. In fact, almost nothing visible above ground today was there for Arimnestos! The Athens of Arimnestos had a wooden, possibly moveable theater; the acropolis had a very different temple atop it. All of that was destroyed, twice, by the Persians.
By 200 BCE, most of the glorious architecture was up; not the Tower of Winds, or some of the Roman donations, but the rest; the great stoas, the Academy and the Lyceum and all the structures that most modern tourists associate with ancient Athens. Athens was probably at its most splendid in 200 BCE, if a little past its best by date in terms of international power and prestige. (NB The Stoa of Attalos, where I started this article, was not up for Philipoemen. It wasn’t built until 159 BCE or about thurty years after his death. It is still gives a good idea of what life amidst the other stoas was like!)
Pausanias saw it all. It’s interesting to see it through his eyes; when he was in Athens, the Temple of Athena, the Parthenon, had a giant statue of the goddess made of ivory and gold; virtually every stade of ground from Piraeus to the gates had a statue by Pralixes (none survive today, although he was accounted the greatest sculptor of the ancient world.) And, if you can stand Pausanias’s endless digressions (somehow I tolerate them… takes one to know one) you can get a feel for what it all looked like when the temples and the public buildings and the art were young.
But by reading Pausanias in the agora, you can combine the two. You can lay the second-hand experience of reading over the direct experience of seeing the ruins. You can walk along the edge of the Painted Stoa, and with the help of Pausanias you can imagine what the painting of the Battle of Marathon looked like, although I promise you, as a reenactor of the Plataeans at Marathon, that I have imagined that painting a hundred times. You can imagine he Tholos as a building; you can walk in the magnificent reproduction of the Stoa of Attalos and imagine what it was like when the other stoas were up, allowing citizens to wander in the shade on the hottest day, looking at some of the most beautiful art ever created as they went about their business and the politics of their city.
It is probably impossible to faithfully and accurately reproduce the past. That’s a reality that reenactors constantly confront; the honest ones, I mean. But with patience and research and skill, it is possible to recover some of the past, and to describe it. We can’t know what the painted stoa looked like; we can’t have it back. But I can give you characters walking through it and experiencing it, and help you to see it in your minds eye.
A last digression. Inside the Stoa of Attalos reconstruction is a museum. It is a wonderful museum, dedicated to finds withing the Agora itself. It is not a huge or mind-numbing as the National Archaeological Museum, or even the Benaki. It gives representative samples of the finds across the ages, from the earliest Bronze Age occupation of the Acropolis all the way through the late middle ages, when William Gold’s friend Nerio Accaiaoli was the ‘Duke of Athens’ that we here of in Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale.’ Sometimes I think that small intimate museums do a better job of telling us what things looked like; it doesn’t all become some sort of mental mush in the smaller, bite-sized pictures of the past.
At any rate; I think we can get there. Thanks to Pausanias. And archaeology. And our imaginations….
I don’t think that is will come as a surprise to any of you that Greece (along with Italy and England and the Adirondacks and southern Ontario and a few dozen other places) is one of the main inspirations to my writing. Greece inspired all of my ancient historical novels, which are placed there; in ‘The Green Count,’ my latest William Gold/Chivalry novel, William Gold spends a good deal of time on Lesvos; in my first fantasy Series, the ‘Traitorson’ series, Morea and the lands of the ‘Empire’ are transparently like aspects of the Peloponnese grafted onto other aspects of Thrace and Lesvos and Chios, all appended to Massachusetts. The upcoming ‘Masters and Mages’ series owes a great deal of terrain and feel to Greece.
The picture at the head of this blog, by the way, is of the ruins of a 14th century castle or fortification that Sarah and I discovered on a walk in north Lesvos. Three days ago. It was probably built by Francesco Gattelusi…
You may ask ‘why’ Greece is so full of inspiration. I could toss off a pat literary answer; after all, Pope and Byron and many other English writers have been inspired here. But my answer has to do with my love of history, and my love of landscape, and the sea, too. Greece has it all; the island of Lesvos, close to Turkey, may be the ultimate compilation of layers of history I’ve ever found. And to an aspect of experience that I try to convey when I write; I like to touch things, to feel them, to experience them. Discovering a castle or a ruin for myself (whether it is in a guidebook or not) is more moving than reading about it in a book, or seeing photos.
Like I say, Lesvos is often the wellspring. Sarah and I came here for our honeymoon; she wanted beaches, I wanted castles, and Lesvos was the place that offered both. So much history; and a meeting place, an instersection, for history….
This year, for example, marks the 650th anniversary of the Green Count’s crusade. To the best of my knowledge, the Green Count never went to Lesvos, but his ally, the pirate/adventurer turned great lord and loyal Byzantine subject, Francesco Gattelusi, formed up his fleet at Lesvos and set forth from here in 1367 to join forces with the Green Count. Gattelusi had, after a colourful career, been of signal service to Emperor John V, and he received an Imperial bride (John’s sister Maria) and the islands of Lesvos, Lemnos, and a few others as his own principality within a kingdom. The islands provided him with a rich power base; he hired good mercenaries from Italy to guard his castles (some of them English and Scots) and preyed on Turkish and Arab shipping. And when his father-in-law the Emperor was taken prisoner (N.B. a touchy point even today) by the Bulgarians, Gattelusi sent his fleet, probably the most powerful in the Eastern Mediterranean, to support the Green Count, who was also related to the Byzantine Emperor. He seems to have gone himself, the old pirate. Together, they took all the Turkish-held towns along the European side of the Dardanelles, and as they moved up the coast, they passed Troy (yes, that Troy) before storming Gallipoli (yes, that Gallipoli) in one of the more brilliant feats of arms of the later Middle Ages, Oh, and later that year, 650 years ago, their combined armies and fleets did indeed rescue the Emperor or at least finagle his release (it’s unclear what happened).
Cool story, eh? Read ‘The Green Count.’ It is out in a few days…
But I digress. The castle of Mythimna (Molyvos) has layers of stone from Bronze Age foundations to Archaic and Classical and Hellenistic and Roman and Byzantine and Gatelusi and Ottoman stonework; almost all of the Island’s history (if you count in repeairs by the modern Greek government) can be read in the curtain walls of Mythimna Castle. One of the largest naval battles of the Ancient world was fought here (Athens defeated Sparta, and then, in the best traditions of a democracy, the Athenians voted to execute the commanders of the victorious fleet.) In the same waters, in 1457, or 90 years after the Green Count’s team-up with Francesco Gatelusi, the pope’s strongman, Cardinal Trevisan, defeated a Turkish fleet here; same waters. (I use all that for Tom Swan, but the events are real.). Just to keep noting the connections, (yes, I loved that show) Trevisan’s Papal fleet was built with the money raised by the sale of indulgences. The indulgences that were printed on Guttenberg‘s press raised the money that funded Trevisan’s fleet and eventually so incensed Martin Luther that Protestantism was born. But indulgences were the tool that the church had to raise mony for crusade… you knew that, right?
And today I visit the other of my sacred historical places; the towering volcanic dome of Vigla in Skala Eressos. The dome itself is a world geological formation, registered as such by the UN; atop the hill is a bronze age citadel. It was fully fortified in the Archaic; Sappho‘s family ruled Eressos from here, and Sappho had her school on this hill.
Note that the statue says ‘Sappho of Eressos’. It’s nice when history offers you something easy and connected…
Vigla offers the entire panoply of history. It is beautiful; it features excellent oregano, the best on the island, and that makes for many adventures on the steep, sun-drenched slopes. Here you can find Archaic pottery and fourteenth century Genoese and Greek and Arab pottery, Hellenistic stars and Athenain blackware. Here Sappho taught here students…
Some say an army of horsemen,
some of footsoldiers, some of ships,
is the fairest thing on the black earth,
but I say it is what one loves.
I love this stanza… I realize it’s supposed to be love poetry, but doesn’t is seem possible that Sappho’s partner was a gamer and there was some mockery involved?
Here gathered the ships of the Ionian Fleet; here the Greek rebels used a fire ship to sink the Turkish Admiral; here, in about 1380, the Gatelousi garrison (of Englishmen, according to local legend) ambushed a Turkish raid and rescued their captives. History happened here. The experience of the smell of the flowers, the smell of burning on the hillsides, the flocks of sheep moving on the roads, their bells, the sight of a thousand head of sheep milling around your frightened horse…
This is research.
Tomorrow and Tuesday I’ll be in museums in Mitilini and Athens, looking things up and checking on artifacts I’ll use in my novels; quite probably at the Benaki, looking at costumes for Cold Iron, my next Fantasy novel. But this is the research I love most… doing things. Touching the past.
Ok, I admit it. I just liked the title’s sound.
My wife Sarah and I are on vacation in Greece. Vacation, for us, means beaches and sun… and research. I write about Greece, and I was just fortunate enough to land a new historical fiction contract with Orion to write a pair of books about the Hellenistic Achaean hero, Philipoemen, who is probably the greatest soldier of whom you’ve never heard.
But that’s another story. This blog is mostly about the study of martial arts, and my personal favorite master, Fiore di Liberi. And about my all–too—usual rant, about practice.
I’m on vacation, and I’m practicing. There is a place, just up the hill from me, where you are standing in what was almost certainly the agora of ancient Mythymna, a city now utterly destroyed, but once great enough to be a member of the Ionian revolt, to have hoplites and warships, and dancers and potters and all the other marks of Aetolian civilization.
And I thought that I’d amuse you with the ‘how’s of practicing on vacation.
First, I need sword. In this case, my sword came from Mark Vickers of Saint George’s Armoury in the UK. He shipped it to my hotel. (The best hotel in the world; The Sea Horse of Molyvos!) I’ll re-sell his excellent sword to one of our Hoplologia students when I get home; that way I didn’t have to ship it to Greece AND I don’t have to pay exhorbitant shipping rates to get it home; it’ll travel as baggage.
The sword is excellent, by the way. Superb, even.
Second, I need a place to practice. Now, this may suprise you, but I feel about sword practice almost exactly the way my friends who are fanatics about Yoga feel; that is, I would like my sword-practice spot to be beautiful. (I would wager almost anything that Japanese has a word for ‘sword practice spot’). Aesthetics matter, and so do safety, privacy, and space. I don’t mind uneven grond’ I like to practice moving on uneven ground. Gym floors and dance studios don’t teach you what the grass and mud in the lists will be like.
Third, I need time. Time not just to execute some practice, but to enjoy it. OK– this is easy; I’m on vacation. But I still like morning; the earlier the better. You may choose other options. And to be fair, last night there were Greek friends and ouzo and tsipouro…
(So I side note on travel… there was a pretty big earthquake two days ago, centered about 40KM from here. We’re all fine; 150 houese fell, but the electricity and wifi are a little wonky, so the photo that should have been here, with a private beach under a 14th century castle ruin… wil have to wait a week. I can’t get it to load. And, also, a woman lost her life in the earthquake. It’s not trivial.)
I digress. The practice itself has two stages; forms, which Japanese martial arts call ‘kata’, and which I suspect were always an important type of practice, not least because in the pre-modern world there were very fe ‘blunts’ and most swordspeople only had a sharp; and cutting.
Cutting? With a blunt?
You might be surpised, if you haven’t tried it, how well you can cut with a blunt sword. I admit that you will not want to cut tatami mats or railroad ties, but cutting at fennel stalks and thistles and various other standing dead vegetation in the Greek countryside can help with accuracy and speed of cut, and it’s fun. A dried thistle head, cut exactly, will explode in avery satisfactory display; a fennel stalk will show the power and consistency of your cut.
(Again, there was a nice photo to be seen here, but I can’t load it. Apologies)
I find that because of the sun, the time I have on vacation, the aesthetics of the place, and maybe even the quality of the sword, I practice longer and harder than I do in my daily routine at home. I detect flaws; I have the accuity to concentrate on foot work errors and precision of delivery of cuts…
The Torneo del Cigno Bianco in Verona is just a year away. I’m definetely not getting younger, so I’ll have to work on getting better.
One more thing, while we’re on Fiore; my friend and teacher Greg Mele and his Freelance Academy Press are crowdfunding an authoriatative text of Fiore di Liberi’s most accessible manuscript. You need a copy to study this art. You can find the crowdsource here, and help us get this published. Thanks!
Back to vacation.. And research… tomorrow I’ll talk about travel and research. And walking and sailing. And new castles…