Everything out there has its own story. The baby bird, just fledged, a tiny scrap of belligerent life, vulnerable on the forest path. The wild clematis, gleefully tangling its way along an old hedge bank. The wildflower meadow, not yet cut or grazed, a riot of colours, pollens and scents. The mass of tadpoles, black apostrophes basking in the sun, in a ditch rapidly drying out. And the enormous Devon Red bull dozing in the field across the footpath, much less worried about us than we were about him.
In a busy life, it is a treat to take a day out and walk across the land, and in these conditions it’s a fantastic experience. We must be two of thousands of people who are walking this long distance path during 2017, in our spare time, reconnecting with the land and with the wildness that is allowed to grow there, reclaiming some spirit of adventure in the place we call home, and feeling heartened by it. We growl at the dual carriageway and the traffic noise, and feel relieved when we have walked under the offensive road and we can get back out to the countryside.
Then – here’s the rub – we drive home on the same dual carriageway. At home, (although the swifts are calling outside right now), it is warm, and safe, and cosseted. We all travel to places in tin cans on wheels, utterly disconnected from the place we are travelling through. We go to neon-lit brick boxes to buy scraps of plants and animals for our food, grown by people we don’t think about, on land that we don’t hold any curiosity for. We only go out into nature occasionally, when we have the time.
Yes, I’m a keen gardener, and I buy organic where I can, and I do try to get out and about every day in the beautiful place I live in. But it’s not enough. I’m struck again today by just how much of the time I am disconnected from the other non-human lives going on all around me. Does it have to be such a dichotomy, such an artificial divide?
In my book of botanical folk tales, there is more than one story beginning along these lines: “A man had to journey by night in the winter, and he walked out into the dark, unable to see the path in front of him, as the cold wind grew harsher…..”
Imagine him, imagine being him. It’s a time before cars, tarmac and roads, before waterproofs and comfortable boots, before council maintenance, torches or electric light. A time when most people don’t have the luxury of carriages or horses. Perhaps there are still wolves out on the prowl, wild boar in the woods. A journey on foot is your only choice to get to where you want to go, a serious matter, and you have to have your wits about you. You can’t cosset yourself against the environment. You have to work with it. You have to survive, just like everything else out there is struggling to do. This isn’t some imaginary place, this is the British Isles a time long ago. One story is from Kent, another from Derbyshire, another from Somerset. (The dialects are fantastic.)
In these folk tale journeys, you are lucky if the moon is bright and if it isn’t obscured by clouds. Trees will move about, or if they are feeling bad-tempered, they will attack you. Storms will soak you to the skin, with no cosy fireplace for miles, and cold will hurt. Piskies will lure you into the otherworld, never to return. Boggarts will crunch your bones in the middle of the bog, cackling and squabbling over the spoils with their dark friends. All manner of danger is out there.
There is also beauty and joy, in the spring and the summer, when blossom is everywhere, and later on when the harvest is plentiful. There are magical celebrations and otherworldly good times; but woe betide the fool who eavesdrops, or dares to overstep their welcome.
These stories tell us that humans are not in control. They give shape and form to the dangers of a life close to nature and the elemental forces, where life is less cosy and comfortable, death is closer, and all of nature, human and non-human, has to rub along together somehow.
How different to modern life! And with our relentless need to control and manage, our own lives and those of everything around us – we lose the magic of connection with the natural world. Our everyday existence is dumbed down and sanitised, and I believe we are the worse for it.
The old folk tales tell us of a time when our relationship with the wild in these islands was stronger. How can we reconnect now, and weave more nature back into the fabric of our everyday lives?