“Nature’s particular gift to the walker … is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe -certainly creative and supersensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as if it were talking to you while you are talking back to it. Then everything seems to join in, sun and the wind, the white road and the dusty hedges, the spirit of the season … till you walk in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk far transcending any possible human communication’. Kenneth Graham, ‘The Fellow that Goes Alone’, 1913.*
I’m always been fond of walking alone, or with friends who share my appreciation of a profoundly communicative more-than-human world. Sometimes, the rythm of walking can induce a dream like receptivity. At other times stress, distraction, illness, or injury, intrude upon the flow of body and mind. Going out with close friends who have lost their mobility, and having fallen -twice- last year, has sharpened my appreciation of this simple, or perhaps not so simple, act and art.
The first fall happened one day last autumn. I was tired and distracted, and on the spur of the moment decided, uncharacteristically, that walking fast felt good.** As my body charged ahead my mind went blank. Not creatively adrift, completely blank. A jolt ricocheted through my body. I had been upended by a high kerb stone and was diving through the air. In a horrible parody of one of those goal celebrations where a footballer slides balletically across the turf, I flung my arms forwards and juddered to a halt, face down, on a gritty pavement. Blood was pouring across my hand and over my fingers, and my knees hurt. Luckily that was about it. Staunching the flow with a tissue I walked on to the house of a friend who was dealing with the aftermath of a much more serious event, patched myself up a bit, and then, switching off the discomfort, went for a short walk with her.
Shock set in the next day, so I was relieved to hear from two men friends that they’d also had falls recently. One had broken a thumb in the local park -no doubt in the steep muddy wood- while doing conservation work. Two other friends have fallen on ice and broken wrists in recent years. This is partly an age thing- but not entirely. I also heard that a much younger man had come a cropper on a muddy slope when out botanising. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, a few weeks later, when walking home through a local wood that I’ve known for forty years I once again switched off mentally and lost my footing on a wet rock. Whoosh! This time I fell on my back, re-opening the nearly healed hand wound for a while, but apart from that, there was no real damage.
This afternoon, while walking down a section of the Pennine Way, we saw three cows with a very young calf, beside the track ahead of us. Not least because of the proliferation of ‘Cows with Calves can be Aggressive’ notices that have sprung up in recent years, and because on another occasion my well meaning attempt to skirt round a grazing herd was misinterpreted by them as a reason to stampede -fortunately briefly, and not in my direction- (a Countryfile report in 2014 advised walkers to stay well clear of calves, and noted dogs are percieved as more of a threat than humans -see also here)- I felt slightly concerned. I mention this because today’s uneventful encounter reminded me of something that happened last year.
One late July evening as I was making my way up a steep and winding packhorse track, looking down in order to navigate the uneven cobbled surface, I drifted into a dreamy receptive state. Then, according to my diary, a very definite and clear thought, almost a voice, came into my head. The ‘voice’, which was accompanied by a feeling of immense peace and beauty, said “What would you do if you met a great big bull just round the corner?” I replied by thinking quietly: “Hello bull. I mean you no harm.” Whereupon, I looked up to my left and saw, sillhouetted against the sky, what I soon realised was the underside of a very real bull, looking down at me from not more than twenty feet away.
He turned out to be calm, and was doubtless much more interested in the cow who was gazing at him from across the path. So I walked slowly towards them and stopped, turning my back to the bull -to show him I wasn’t interested in him, get my breath back, and look at the view. There was no way of walking round the cattle, so I decided to walk on, between him and the much more nervous cow. Only when I got much further up did I stop again, and realise how hard my heart was thumping.
I don’t share Kenneth Graham’s pessimism about human communication, but quite like his description of walking ‘in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk’. Whether it came from the bull himself, or from some helpful other-than-human person, the telepathic alert I received that summer evening enabled me to stay calm in a situation I would otherwise have been quite apprehensive about.
B.T. 7th May 2017.
*quoted in Hugh Thompson, The Green Road into the Trees, A Walk Through England.
**Fellow astrologers will not be surprised to hear that Mars and Pluto were involved.