I went for a walk in the woods recently; along easy paths through the rolling miles of Epping Forest, an ancient forest miraculously still surviving on the outskirts of London, saved by campaigners. It’s not a difficult walk, and many germs of ideas sprouted by themselves on that walk, though I hadn’t intended to think about anything in particular at all. I set some of these down when I returned home.
Although I had a destination in mind of reaching the southern edge of the forest, once I started walking, I let walking find its own pace, without trying to get somewhere or to make progress; not hurrying or trying to do exercise, nor on the other hand dawdling; more like an enlivened saunter, as Thoreau might have said. I find my walking pace changes by itself to be in tune with the changing surroundings and I may stop at any moment, enthralled by the way the sunlight at that moment is illuminating the forest canopy or by the sight of moss enveloping an exposed tree root. I’m a naturalist but I’m not trying to see any particular creature or plant, though I’m available with senses awake.
The human body has evolved for walking and finds its natural rhythm in walking; the whole organism finds its harmony with the surroundings. The rich leaf humus of the forest floor, even in this cold weather, intoxicates and attunes me and the ancient pollarded beech and hornbeam draw me into their very different long sense of time.
As Rebecca Solnit says in her wonderful, Wanderlust: A History of Walking,
“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them.”
Often we assume that we are ‘just seeing,’ when in fact we are only seeing the meanings we’ve inherited from our culture. We often may think: a ‘tree’, the ‘woods,’ the ‘sky,’ rather than allow ourselves to melt into an actual relationship with their extraordinary reality, the isness. The archaic term ‘beholding’ gives a fresher sense of the kind of seeing I am referring to, as there is a quality of humility and reverence in ‘beholding’. You could call it a kind of enchantment in this direct perception. The human-imagined world of Epping Forest is more of a disenchanted conception of what is in actuality a mysterious and impossible to define more-than-human world of myriad entangled subjects. This isn’t some romantic fantasy overlaid on reality, but rather a seeing of the living world as it is. Yes, it’s a kind of mysticism, if you like, but one that is more real than our encultured projections. Leaving behind notions of being an observer in the woods, I feel my way through all the senses into a more mysterious entangled relationship with everything, where nothing is certain anymore, yet it is undeniably vivid and enlivened.
The forest floor beneath my feet is reassuringly welcoming, and resting in its earthiness pulls me towards it; far from feeling heavy or plodding, the ground’s pull is an attraction, the eros of the earth rooting me closer into herself. Surely this is the deeper meaning of being grounded. A pair of jays screech raucously to each other in the oak trees above me and looking up we behold each other. Meanwhile a nuthatch acrobatically runs up the underside of a dead bough like an avian squirrel, searching for insects. She pecks at the rotting wood, flakes of which float down towards me in the wan winter sun. I feel I am joining in the experience and can almost feel the crumbly texture of the dry honeycombed wood. I feel humbled and expanded by all the varied aspects of the living breathing world, as they are inseparable from us. A fuller humanity, in my opinion, has to include relaxing our mental rational strictures and allowing the more elemental shared world of feeling to come to the fore; and feeling entangles us with the whole.
I usually go hiking by myself. I also go on periodic hikes with a varying group of friends and that’s always greatly enjoyable too, chatting and catching up with each person as we ramble together. That’s a very different kind of walking – wonderful in its own right – yet with generally much less attunement to the surroundings. A walking companion can be great, but it doesn’t work (at least not in the spirit of what I’ve just described) if either tries to make conversation. Conversation needs to come out of the experience of walking in that particular place, or it will inevitably be removed from the kind of entangled immersion I’m referring to here.
Nan Shepherd, who famously wrote about her hillwalking in the Cairngorms in the extraordinary, The Living Mountain, remarks,
“The presence of a person does not detract from, but enhances the silence, if the other person is the right sort of hill companion. The perfect hill companion is the one whose identity is for the time being merged in that of the mountains, as you feel your own to be. Then such speech as arises is part of a common life and cannot be alien”
Locales are so different and our organisms recalibrate to all the multitudinous impressions and beings of, say this particular forest, and that experience enlarges my perspective in a way which would otherwise remain closed off and unavailable. Especially since like many of us, I live in an urban setting, this helps balance our overly anthropocentric and self centred outlook, and I find it helps keep me sane. We need immersion in different and wilder places for the expression of a full humanity.
The writer Robert Macfarlane has suggested that,
“Cognition is site-specific, or motion-sensitive: that we think differently in different landscapes. And therefore, more radically, that certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places, such that when we lose those places, we are losing kinds of imagination as well.”
Walking enables us to know the world through the body and the body through the world.
On a long walk, I’ve found that you can enter a particular kind of state, a kind of benediction. And I couldn’t express it as well as Nan Shepherd herself has done:
“Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body.”
As I walk through the woods I become aware of being watched and through a stand of spindly birch, I see two tan shaded beings looking at me intently, their large ears alert and moving to catch every breath of information. Fallow deer must be one of the most elegant of deer, with their white spotted flanks and quiet grace. I speak to them to reassure them of my friendly intentions and it feels reciprocated. And then magically they disappear with no sound at all and they have somehow melted into the trees; not startled or frightened, they have just taken their leave quietly. It always amazes me how deer can silently slip away through the forest floor with not a crack of a twig.
I reach the more open scrub and meadows on the southern borders of the forest and squint in the brightness of the sunlight after being largely in the shade for hours under the canopy. I make my way to the local train station to return home, enriched in unexpected ways by the hike.
Walking is the means and end, both travel and destination. It’s both completely natural and a meditation practice. Walking is the path to nowhere and everywhere.
“Do not doubt that mountains walk simply because they may not appear to walk like humans.”
Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen school
With thanks to the artists Katja Lang and Georgia O’Keeffe