It rained on Saturday. I don’t mean that there was a brief shower. I mean it was raining when I woke up and it was still raining when I went to bed. The sky was so grey and overcast that the light never seemed to get beyond pre-dawn levels. All day it felt as though the whole world was ready to go back to bed again. I tried going for a walk but quickly turned back after a car drove through a large puddle and soaked me.
On Sunday afternoon, when the rain finally stopped and the sky started to show hints of blue I quickly put on boots and a coat and headed out – grabbing my umbrella on the way, just in case.
My feet took me up to the farm. I love going to the farm. The walk takes you away from the city, along paths overhanging with flowers and berries and hedges full of birdsong. The dripping wet berries and the joy of being able to hear birds after long hours of rain on rooftop and windows was enough to make me feel glad. The Morse code of Robins only added to it.
The paths were covered in autumn leaves in shades of brown and yellow. I stopped, just to admire them.
Up at the farm I took in the view. I said the walk takes you away from the city, but it doesn’t, not really. From up there you can see out across rows of houses and flats, to the coal-fired power station. But in between there are fields. Fields that are full of butterflies in summer and now are full of magpies.
I carried on past the farm, heading for the bridge that overlooks an A road. But on my way I noticed a jogger taking an uphill footpath I’d seen before but had never taken. I decided to follow his lead. I could see the path extending as far as the trees at the top of the hill. Well, I’ll just see what’s beyond those trees, I thought. The view got even better as I got higher up, I could see places I’d never been to before and couldn’t identify. Places beyond my personal geography.
At the top of the hill the path branched in two. One branch headed into the trees, which were the beginnings of a wood, the other went across a field. I took the field branch. In the distance I could see a family disappearing over the horizon. I wonder what’s beyond the horizon, I thought. So I followed their lead.
Up on that field the world felt stretched out. On all sides grass and soil and the stubble of mown hay sought the sky and the sky answered back, whipping itself up to rain again. Behind me I could see a church spire and ahead the ever-present cooling towers. I felt a gut-wrench as I thought about how I would be leaving this place behind soon and how much I love it here.
I asked myself, why love these particular fields and these particular paths, when there are probably many more like them and probably many that are objectively more beautiful?
An answer comes from J.A. Baker:
One part of England is superficially much like another. The difference is subtle, coloured by love.
It is a love born of familiarity and attentiveness and it is this which transforms a rather bland landscape into an object of affection and fascination. It doesn’t matter that this place is probably much like many other places. It is the place I know and have dedicated whole days to. It is the place where a newly discovered path feels like a Christmas present. And it is a place I want to own some part of, to be able to call it mine and to navigate it without the help of maps.
At the end of the path was the bridge over the A road. It was supposed to be my final destination, the point at which I turned around and headed home, but my feet kept going. Over the bridge, up some steps, through a gap in the hedge and on to yet another path I’d never seen before. It was like reading a good book, another chapter, another path. This path took me to Stapleford Cemetery. It kept on going and I could see another church spire in the distance like a beacon calling me on. But by now it was starting to get dark, so I turned around and made for home.
After all that rain the paths I walked along where churned to mud and the mud quickly collected on my boots and trousers. At least I’ll have something to take back with me, I thought. It was a thought prompted by a piece I read recently on Kerouac and the summer he spent as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, recounted in the semi-autobiographical novel Desolation Angels. Hoping for mountain wisdom, Jack instead found unrelenting boredom. What’s more, when Kerouac tried to impart what wisdom he had gleamed he was snubbed by his friends. It’s a question I’ve been interested in for some time, this question of what, if anything, we can bring back to our everyday lives from time spent in the wild. As an urban nature writer it is a particularly interesting question because urban nature isn’t out there, it’s here and it’s everywhere. It’s not a disconnecting experience, but the way I live everyday, constantly looking up. However, as I walked into the supermarket to buy a pint of milk on my way home, my boots weighed down with soil and my trouser legs spattered with mud, I experienced a moment of slight disconnection in the form of mild embarrassment.