Fascinating session considering walking in literature yesterday led by Anna Stenning in Ledbury. We read prose extracts from Robert MacFarlane, Linda Cracknell and Richard Maybey and heard poems from West Midlands poets Ruth Stacey and Jenny Hope as well as the Dymock Poets writing before WWI before we ambled up to Frith Wood.
We had to finish at lunch time but I carried on alone, which seemed fitting; exploring the well-made path, eating a few of the wonderfully fat sweet chestnuts scattered amongst their bronzed fallen leaves and cactus-prickly burst pods.
Not so sweet when raw; they need to be cooked and their astringent fluffy inner coat removed to taste at their best. Ravens’ argued with aggrieved crows somewhere high in the trees.
Gusty wind swooshed through tall firs like waves across shingle, scattering pale green-gold lime leaves over me. Following a well-use badger track off the main path I found a sett hole close by, with claw marks in the wet clay.
Coming back towards Ledbury a distant pneumatic drill vied with a chain saw down near the toy town Tesco and a perfumed hit of fabric conditioner wafted from a closed garage on the crescent.
Walking goes so naturally – for many of us – with thought, creativity, shaping words. Probably the earliest oral traditions of chants, prayers, songs and fireside stories were created walking – or half-waking, semi-dreaming. Langland claimed both in Piers Plowman, while Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Romantics thrived on journeys. A century ago the Dymock poets walked and talked along green lanes and over farmers’ fields. Robert Frost’s “yellow wood” in The Road Not Taken might refer to the wild daffodils of the Dymock area and Edward Thomas’s The Sun Used to Shine is about walking – almost certainly with Frost, according his notes as Anna Stenning informed us.
MacFarlane set out to map our British wildernesses in words, heading to the remotest distances of the Highlands, for example – and leading to a thoroughly caustic review from Kathleen Jamie regarding the colonial hankerings of white middle class English males (the same “default” male grouping taken to task again recently in the Spectator by Grayson Perry – and, as one of the group today remarked, we have a default sense of entitlement as white British which we all too often forget).
Some writers carry us into the vast unknowns of this world, the big adventures from Christmas camping in the Cairngorms to months of trekking around Kathmandu; trips that most of us will never have the money, time nor tenacity to make. Other writers lead us into our immediate neighbourhood, urging mindfulness, so we recognise nature in the weeds creeping through a new pavement or a spiders’ web in our bathroom window.
These days I’d think twice about flying off on any long haul, given the damage we are doing to our planet but I do think there is a need for both types of natural appreciation – and both can involve our own effort – and walking is the best way to experience any habitat that’s worth experiencing.
Nature has always been integral to my life. I grew up in a small town in rural Somerset. Behind our home/shop was an old garden where we climbed (and fell out of) Bramley apple trees, learned about creepy-crawlies and experimented growing things in the weedy veg patch. I wanted to know why some things grew and some didn’t. Why we didn’t have hyenas in Somerset? (Excited to learn they were there in prehistoric times.) I was a natural scientist. Heading off to read Biology at Leicester Uni I discovered one of the residence halls stood at one end of the city’s botanical gardens – so I applied and got a room there; it made a huge difference to my time in the city, as did occasional trips to Bradgate Park. Then moving to Cambridge we cycled everywhere along by the Cam, The Backs, even up to Ely. In California I biked to Stanford and around campus, observing skunks, possums and turkey vultures. At weekends we’d escape to Big Sur or Muir Woods, walk along fog-shrouded beaches, take visiting friends to Yosemite. Now I am lucky enough to live on the Malvern Hills and walk there as often as I can. So many journeys we now do by car could be done on foot with a bit of time and planning. Many of us know walking is good for us – and the planet – but “efficiency” trumps in the daily slog of getting it done. I’m trying to buy out of that efficiency at the moment. I have acquired a shopping trolley for heavier shopping (yes, I know, but I refuse to bow to embarrassment) or I use my day pack for lighter loads. It means I have to plan and go more often. It means I meet more people – and can chat to them – and fresh food is fresher. As I trudge back up the hill words sometimes slot into places they wouldn’t if I had taken the car.
As I was beginning to write this the perfect quote came from Mr Pink, the ex-soldier-now-teacher character in the current Dr Who series: ‘I don’t want to see more things; I want to see the things in front of me more clearly.’
Absolutely, wherever we are.