THERE is an urge towards distance, different from commissioned purpose. This is what the great American poet Edward Dorn dwells on in his elegy Ledyard: The Exhaustion of Sheer Distance from his early book, Hands Up! (1963):

Mystic sheer distance was in thine


that beautiful abstract reckoning,

the feet, walking: for no other


The world.

Ledyard (1751-89) was an American explorer from Connecticut who left to cross the Atlantic in his early 20s and joined Captain Cook’s third and last voyage, 1776-80, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, and on to Tasmania, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Tahiti, and then Hawaii.

His journal of the voyage (published in 1783) was the first travelogue describing Hawaii ever to be published in America. He left the United States again in 1784 to find financial backers in Europe.

When he was in Paris, Thomas Jefferson suggested he explore the American continent by walking overland through Russia, crossing at the Bering Strait and heading south through Alaska and then through the American West to Virginia. Ledyard made it most of the way across Russia but was arrested under orders from Catherine the Great in February 1788, returned to Moscow and deported to Poland.

The National:

Back in London, he discovered the African Association was recruiting explorers for Africa and he proposed an expedition from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. He arrived in Alexandria in August later that year, but the expedition was slow to start. In November, he accidentally poisoned himself, died in Cairo in 1789 and was buried in the sand dunes beside the Nile. Today, the location seems to be unknown.

What was Ledyard doing? What drove him? Dorn’s poem charts him “tramping”:

From Stockholm to Petersburg around the sea of Bothnia,

and they don’t say he stopped in taverns or what condition his shoes,

the point of destination was the Pacific coast of Russia.

This was a way to get to the other side of America.

And that must have been no irony then.

Walking is what I associate with Ledyard,

distance as sheer urge,

not satellite and its utilitarianism.

Coming back from Russia, Dorn asks, being himself “only from Illinois”, did Ledyard “count the stretching corridors / of spruce on that trek... as we used to count telephone poles / going home from my aunt’s on an endless / rainy Sunday afternoon”?

What might seem endlessly tiresome, prolonged days reaching into an ultimate boredom, the far plains, the prairies, the oceans, Dorn identifies as something other than useful in any commercial or material sense. This is “distance as sheer urge, not / satellite and its utilitarianism”.

Eye-searching horizons, eastern or western, also reach back into you, question the distances inwardly, not where you might go but how far and from where have you come? That’s the horizontal circumference. What if you were to think vertical, instead: from what depths of history have we arisen? Or rather, not history at all, but prehistory?

In 1928, speculation was wild. J Leslie Mitchell, soon to become Lewis Grassic Gibbon, published Hanno, or the Future of Exploration. Opening the first chapter, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, he goes back to imagined origins: “Man’s ancestral terrestrial home is still in dispute. But the proofs are conclusive enough. It was South America.”

He dismisses the anthropologists’ preference for Asia Minor as a reflex of “the Judaic traditions”. We would be quick to reject this today, yet the distortions of such assumptions and traditions are no less prevalent.

After all, the origins of the Hebraic-Christian tradition are in the orders of a god of a small Middle Eastern tribe: unquestionable commands intended to ensure the survival of a tribe whose living conditions were immeasurably different from our own, and whose laws have thus become wildly abstracted and mainly unintelligible, enforced by a conducive reverence even when the knowledge of their absurdity is commonplace. Violence ensues.

As in religion, so in society. The practice of the navigators, the explorers of distance, from Ledyard back to Pytheas and Odysseus, is one of departure. It is a setting out from such constraints imposed from on high. Its planes of action are not subject and hierarchical but horizontal and extensive, extending, inclusive. The circumference widens.

And the more we consider what it circumscribes, the greater the diversity we must acknowledge within it: no single ordaining over God nor sole unshifting compass point, but a world of currents and migrations, varieties of identity, even when a source of some kind might be identified.

“Skeletal remains found in eastern Africa give every indication that it was in this part of the world that human’s hominid ancestors first evolved, separating from the ancestors of chimpanzees between four and six million years ago.” Thus wrote John Parker and Richard Rathbone in African History: A Very Short Introduction (2007).

“We begin therefore with a simple observation: that the history of mankind in Africa is older than in any other continent. Part of the evidence for that time-depth is the sheer diversity of humanity to be found in Africa.”

That's from an 21st-century publication from Oxford University Press. HG Wells, in his A Short History of the World, in 1922, has another thesis: “The earliest signs and traces at present known to science, of a humanity which is indisputably kindred with ourselves, have been found in western Europe and particularly in France and Spain.

“Bones, weapons, scratchings upon bone and rock, carved fragments of bone, and paintings in caves and upon rock surfaces have been discovered in both these countries. Spain is at present the richest country in the world in these first relics of our real human ancestors.”

However, he goes on: “In Asia or Africa or submerged beneath the sea of today there may be richer and much earlier deposits of real human remains than anything that has yet come to light.

“I write in Asia or Africa, and I do not mention America because so far, except for one tooth, there have been no finds at all of any of the higher Primates, either of great apes, sub-men, Neanderthalers nor of early true men.

“This development of life seems to have been almost exclusively an Old World development and it was only apparently at the end of the Old Stone Age that human beings first made their way across the land connection that is now cut by the Bering Strait, into the American continent.”

Mitchell’s South America, Wells’s western Europe (provisionally, with further possible discoveries admitted) and Parker and Rathbone’s Africa: the recognitions and postulations of possible indications of the sources of the earliest signs of recognisable humanity have themselves evolved over the last century.

If the present understanding is today the most trusted, there is only one final answer to the question, “And where do you come from?” And that answer is: “Africa, and so do you.”

There is as much difference within Africa itself as between Africans and Europeans and so extend that to the world, complete. A common humanity is predicated upon such diversity. And such diversity rests upon and arises from humanity’s twofold focus and practice: the geographies we are part of and live upon, and the languages we use (writing, speech, the arts).

In any case, such humanity as we have is always in movement. Which is why there are, and have been over centuries, particular geographical points of transition, crossing-grounds or seaways, arcs withing the various archipelagos, where distinctions marking difference are also recognitions of connection and correspondence, dialogue, exploration.

Borderlands make crossing points. They generate learning. They are to be valued. Starting with Pytheas, we might think of those pioneers, the voyageurs, literally, setting sail. But the metaphor of reading the land and seascapes of their crossings prompts that other association: the crossing places of language, the movement between languages as they struggle for survival, the dominant forces as always, threatening the most tender, usurping the place of the vulnerable, the tenacity, traction, resilience, the localism required.

But time persists in its warps and shifts, more palpably since the Covid pandemic of 2020-22. Who can say the world can go on as it was before then? Those who tell you so are lying. Things slip through, though. They sometimes slip past the general rule. You can glimpse them, if you’re lucky.

Leslie Mitchell – or now Lewis Grassic Gibbon, perhaps nudged to the thought by the then livre-de-cachet An Experiment with Time (1927) by JW Dunne, hauntingly evokes a notion of mysterious historical simultaneity near the beginning of his greatest novel Sunset Song (1932).

The wee girl Chris, later the heroine with whom we travel through the rest of the trilogy that follows, Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934), together making A Scots Quair – and they all do cohere in one epic work and need to be read as one integrated epic vision – is travelling in a horse-drawn cart with her family to their new farm in Scotland’s north-east, Kincardineshire:

"From out of the night ahead of them came running a man, father didn’t see him or heed to him, though old Bob [the carthorse] in the dream that was Chris’s snorted and shied. And as he came he wrung his hands, he was mad and singing, a foreign creature, black-bearded, half-naked he was; and he cried in the Greek The ships of Pytheas! The ships of Pytheas! And went by into the smore of the sleet-storm on the Grampian hills,

“Chris never saw him again, queer dreaming that was. For her eyes were wide open, she rubbed them with never a need of that, if she hadn’t been dreaming she must have been daft. They’d cleared the Slug, below was Stonehaven and the Mearns, and far beyond that, miles through the Howe, the twinkling point of light that shone from the flagstaff of Kinraddie.”

The geography is precise, reliable. The vision comes out of the dream, and is strange: how should a young Scots girl c.1900 identify “the Greek”? But dreams can do that sometimes.

In Gibbon’s essay, The Land, there’s another example: “It is strange to think that, if events never die (as some of the wise have supposed,) but live existence in all time in Eternity, back through time-spirals, still alive and aware in the world seven thousand years ago, the hunters are now lying down their first night in Scotland … Over in the west a long line of lights twinkles against the dark. Whin-burning – or the camps of Maglemose?”

Such glimpses through time are not only hints of a history, they are signals of the unexplored, secrets, always reforming themselves for new generations, as long as such generations may come. They are promptings, corrections, moments in which one’s course of direction might be reconsidered.

Was there ever a time in which such promptings were more needed? What we see on our TV screens and hear on our radios every day now challenges us. The moral sense of human sympathy tells us not to turn away from the human suffering caused, not ever to close our eyes, but there is more than that.

We force ourselves to say to what’s presented, No. No to the blaring bullies, no to the conflict that says: “There is no other way.” We know there is always more than one way. Everything I’ve just said here is a sketch, an indication only, of multiple possibilities. If we really comprehend this, maybe there’s a chance to close off the poison pouring in.

We can turn to what’s beyond, out there, what the urge towards distance tells us all, is true. There’s a bustle and delight, a healthy curiosity, with all good learning bundled up and active, out there somewhere else. But what we have to force ourselves to see is that the maps as currently charted are today dictated to us, and their purpose is to seek to control our attention and concern.

The only good move I can think of is to bring what’s elsewhere now back into our attention. All the present ghastliness is worse precisely because the visible world events are reduced to an exclusively intrusive visibility. All of them themselves and how they are reported to us are the consequent results of psychopaths demanding to be gazed upon and passively obeyed. Let’s disobey.

That’s the theory. Here’s the example: the great conductor Daniel Barenboim, Jewish, and the critic and academic theorist Edward Said, Palestinian, combined their intellectual and cultural forces and brought about the creation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999, now based in Seville, Spain, and the Barenboim-Said Academy in 2016, now based in Berlin.

On their website, Barenboim’s declaration on October 23 this year, was this: “We Must Be Stronger Than Ever!” The orchestra, made up of musicians from Israel and Palestine, Egypt and Iran, Lebanon and Jordan, Syria and Spain, all offer the answer. Their work is that of the greatest voyagers of our era. Here’s the website: This is true courage.

Over time, through the years, through common music-making, and countless and heated discussions, Barenboim tells us, they learned to understand each other better, whoever they supposed the designated “other” to be. There is real common ground. This is the fundamental understanding: the need for peace and freedom, happiness.

That’s what he said. This is what he wrote: “This may sound naive but it is not: for it is this understanding that seems to be completely lost in the conflict on both sides today. Our experience shows that this message has reached many people in the region and around the world. We must, want and will continue to believe that music can bring us closer together in our humanity.”

And poetry and all the arts: the only diplomacy that finally works. Only the teeth of the sun can end the devastations.