Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Walking Landscape

Walking is a pastime which I have always engaged in with great pleasure and, over the years, with a growing sense of mindfulness. Many a walker may agree that it is the easiest way to meditate: to root oneself in the moment by tuning into the sights, sounds and smells of the landscape and to appreciate its changes throughout a day or from one day to the next, or seasonally.

Walking is definitively human, or hominine. From the time several millions of years ago that Africa tore itself apart to form the Rift Valley, stranding our Australopithecine ancestors in an increasingly treeless landscape, walking became an essentially bipedal necessity of adaptation and natural selection. They thought and walked and somehow survived against overwhelming odds, developing an increasingly confident, upright gait as they did so. Before the invention of the wheel or the domestication of beasts of burden, everything was done with two feet in touch with the ground.

A mindful walker can find that through participating mindfully in any given moment, one can become a part of the living landscape and return to Mother Nature. Not only can one react to the things which stimulate one's senses; those things also react to your presence in a place: the persecuted Magpie is usually the first to take flight upon our approach, whereas the Robin may be of a roughly opposite persuasion. Insects evade capture as a shadow brushes past them. These are roles played out step by step in an unfolding drama.

I believe that walking, above all other modes of locomotion, roots the pedestrian within a landscape in a fluid, progressive state, regardless of an urban or rural setting. Many would agree that riding a horse or bicycle offers a similar sense of rootedness, but walking makes known an opportunity to give one's senses over completely to what is before and around you, more so than all other modes of transport, which require a part of the mind to be given over to driving. Spiritually, we follow a path. The destination is not as important as we might think it is - progress is made simply by following the path.

Walking offers an intimacy which weaves together the light, the sounds, smells, feelings and sights of the enveloping landscape into a sensual tapestry. There is an excitement in exposing oneself to the elements, to leave behind the convenience, the luxury and the safety of modern life and return to that primitive state. Walking is rhythmic, melodious. Walking inspires pure thought, clarity of mind, imagination and creativity.

I am no peripatetic philosopher. Most writers could present you with a more eloquent, articulate manifesto championing the benefits of walking over other means of locomotion. I am a wanderer who feels that walking, when it is possible to choose to walk, ignites something in one's imagination which is otherwise sleepwalking within or in a state of suspended animation during a journey by car or public transport. The vehicle accelerates its passengers, and isolates the commuter, taking away the possibility to join with the landscape and to contextualise the role one might play in the landscape as it speeds past in a long chain of lost opportunities.

Hilaire Belloc, in his 1906 work Hills and the Sea, expressed this feeling perfectly: "The pilgrim is humble and devout, and human and charitable, and ready to smile and admire; therefore he should comprehend the whole of his way, the people in it and the hills and the clouds, and the habits of the various cities. And as to the method of doing this, we may go bicycling (though that is a little flurried) or driving (though that is luxurious and dangerous, because it brings us constantly against servants and flattery); but the best way of all is on foot, where one is a man like any other man, with the sky above one, and the road beneath, and the world on every side, and time to see all".

Driving through a landscape we are, at best, only forming an abstract connection with it. We retreat into a part of our consciousness and often do not remember how we get from point to point, even though we have safely navigated past cyclists, through traffic signals, around roundabouts and stopped or slowed as necessity demanded. We may safely navigate a car across a landscape, but we are not really a part of it in the way we are on perhaps a bicycle or horse, but especially so on foot.

To intimately know a landscape changes the manner in which one passes through it. One might walk on or over an unfamiliar landscape, rather than in or amongst it. A familiar landscape shares its secrets. The Downs are my landscape; I know them and to walk upon them is like returning home. Walking into one's home is to return to familiar, beloved surroundings. The Downland landscape is my home and my companion which allows me into its welcoming embrace. One is enveloped into its folds and combes and dry valleys, and then the landscape unfolds with the progression of each footfall and its secrets are revealed.

A voice whispers in the ear of the familiar walker: "Welcome back, friend. Come, walk with me and I will share with you my secrets". And everywhere then you share the joy of nature, such as in watching Small Tortoiseshell butterflies basking in the March sun by their rabbit-hole hibernaculum; a joy punctuated by the pain of tragic, brutal lives cut short when a dead fox or rabbit or pheasant is revealed before it has met the gaze of the crow or magpie or, increasingly, the red kite.

For a time, whether it may be for the duration of a single walk or for a lifetime, I am a part of this landscape, as it is at all times a part of my inner landscape. That landscape is changed because of my presence within it and, returning home to the place where I have put down my roots, I too am changed, always for the better.

The downland landscape from Swanborough towards Firle (© Steven Teale)

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