“You always feel better when you’ve been for a walk”. I hate to admit it but my husband’s right. To walk in silence is a treat for me, no phone, no email, just the sound of my feet and the feel and smell of nature – sometimes that’s all it takes to reboot me, to give the day some perspective.
But something’s niggling me. Not every walk is exciting or memorable. Though that might be fine for me, what about the people I spend hours talking to each day on social media, trying to instill a love for our natural world, encouraging them to go outside and experience wildlife and then to help protect it? What if they go for a walk and don’t see anything, maybe they don’t know what they’re looking for – maybe they hate walking alone – maybe they hate walking. Am I, in fact, putting them off?
I read an article in the The Guardian recently. Zoe Gilbert asked “must a walk in the woods always be meaningful?” Every wildlife related article or book I read at the moment seems to be about having a meaningful ‘encounter’ with nature. But life – and nature – isn’t always so accommodating. I went for a walk the other day and it was 99% forgettable, or at least that’s how it felt at the time. For eight miles I walked under pencil lead skies and my overriding thoughts were how cold my feet were, how tired my legs felt and how walking in the rain with glasses on is totally frustrating, and yet I’ve realised there were two things about that walk that left a lasting impression.
…and her eyes, her piercing stone grey eyes, shone.
The first was a person, a woman. Walking beneath stag-branched oaks she appeared dressed in a smart, short puffa jacket, blue jeans and walking boots – nothing out of the ordinary there, but it wasn’t her clothes that made her memorable, it was her smile. She must have been in her 80s but on this wet, miserable day she walked towards me with the biggest smile and wished me “good morning” with the kindest voice I’ve ever heard. I remember her hair; thick and white and piled expertly into a bun – and her eyes, her piercing stone grey eyes, shone. There was no doubt she was beautiful, not a skin-deep superficial beauty, she had something extra, something special, she was loving life, her surroundings, even the rain. For the rest of the day I couldn’t get her out of my mind.
Being in nature isn’t just about wildlife – it’s about all animals, us included. It’s so easy to think of the natural world in terms of ‘them and us’, but encountering the woman with the white hair and twinkling eyes was just as memorable as seeing a roe deer or a rare orchid. It’s so easy to forget that we aren’t apart from nature, we are an integral part of it. Those people I talk to on social media as part of my work for conservation charities, they are an integral part of it too.
The second thing happened when I changed my route home. Tired, I turned onto a path I’d only walked once before in the summer – it was a shortcut of sorts, and I was intrigued to see what it felt like in winter. The answer wasn’t profound, it felt muddy. The mud dragged at the soles of my shoes and sent me arse over tit on the slightest of inclines. But four oaks stood on an old boundary bank raised a few feet above the path, between the trees dark, glossy green holly dotted with red berries stretched fifteen feet into the air, blocking the view to the field behind.
…white shivering feathers, with just a speckling of brown, and an orange beak shouting “tsak tsak tsak”.
When the bird flew at me I gasped. My surroundings up to then had been still, without a breath of wind, the lack of movement had added to the melancholy of the day, but now this bird was flying right at me. Its wings were outstretched like an angel – white shivering feathers, with just a speckling of brown, and an orange beak shouting “tsak tsak tsak”. Instinctively I stepped back. It was guarding the holly berries. I’d never been so close to a fieldfare and wondered how far she’d flown. Fieldfares are a Scandinavian visitor to our shores, in hard winters, when they have little food in their native lands, they fly south, sometimes in their millions. This one was alone – and I could understand why, she seemed to have an attitude problem. I left her to her berries but the image of her outstretched wings, each feather perfectly outlined against the dark holly leaves, and her screaming in a landscape devoid of sound, stayed etched in my mind.
So how do we capture the specialness of nature? How do we show people how to hold onto the wild things they love before they disappear forever, and do it without turning them off? I wish I could take the people I talk to online for a walk, a boring walk, a wet walk, a local walk, but I’d love them to meet the woman with the white hair who loves life and wet rainy days, and the bird with its outstretched wings protecting its food – and swap the dark messages of habitat destruction and species decline for a belief that we can save and nurture our natural world and make it a living, breathing part of our lives, and more than anything I want them to come home from that ‘boring’ walk in a better, more positive, mood.