Ann is interested in nature's interaction with humans, its influence on our thinking and how walking paths can take us to unexpected places.
Whose Footprints can you Feel on this Path?
Types of Path
- Physical paths: Random or Chosen, Challenging, Intriguing – over fields, in woods, up mountains, within towns, all influencing
- paths in the mind: connection to the route, feelings as you walk, interaction with place;
- paths to the future: destination, whether being led or choosing the direction;
- paths to history: who travelled there before and why, feel of others’ footprints beneath your feet, the land revealing its stories compounded under your soles;
- paths created by you;
- other man-made paths.
Consequences of Covid-19
Is Covid-19 a man-made or natural path? Maybe both. Has it
- changed your perspective on life,
- changed your view of the physical world,
- altered the way you behave, or even
- altered your thought process?
Before I follow this particular path, I want to explain what led me to this discussion. Then I’ll explore answers to those questions in the light of the virus.
The Old Ways - Robert Macfarlane
'Silt' and 'The Old Ways'
I have been reading these two books by Robert Macfarlane, an author who covers varied themes regarding landscape. ‘Silt’ describes a walk offshore along a causeway, ‘The Old Ways’ explores ancient paths and what they mean.
Macfarlane is a travel writer, nature writer, critic and academic. Apart from a gamut of landscapes and nature within his writing, he explains a deep philosophy, a strong connection between nature and mankind, an influence which pulls us into the present, elastic-ties us to the past and beckons with spiritual fingers towards the future. Along the way he illustrates the bond between nature, words and feelings.
It is this philosophy that got me wondering if our experiences along the path of Covid-19 (for it is a path that we have to tread) have changed the very core of us as individuals.
First, let’s see how Macfarlane describes certain paths.
Sands and The Broomway
Quotes from 'Silt'
‘Silt’ recounts a walk off the Essex coast onto sands where, only at low tide, a causeway, the Broomway, allows access to the island of Foulness. Macfarlane describes these flats as a ‘mirror world’ where you walk on the sand just below the surface of water. Black mud and sinking sands lurk, markers loom in the mist, the tidal reach is extensive and you have one hour to complete the round trip, as the flowing tide is faster than a man can run.
His 'mirror world' creates:
‘a strong disorder of perception that caused illusions of the spirit as well as of the eye. I recall thought becoming sensational; the substance of landscape so influencing mind that mind’s own substance was altered.’
— Robert Macfarlane
He refers to this walk out to sea as ‘a soft lunacy, a passage beyond this world’, dangerous but compelling.
His name for transitions between land and water is ‘border crossings’ with no tie to national boundaries and ‘no reliable map … of their routes and outlines.’
They can be found ‘when you cross a … watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist … In this way, we can visit ‘other countries’ merely by walking down the road or over a field.. to experience new lands, new feelings or new emotions’.
Returning from this walk he says, ‘For days afterwards I felt calm, level, shining, sand flat.’
Above the Coal Mines
From 'The Old Ways'
In this book, Macfarlane uses ancient pathways as a means of looking back at history, of looking towards the future and of ‘feeling’ the present. He says,
‘’These are the consequences of the old ways with which I feel easiest: walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing.’
— Robert Macfarlane
Taking that a step even further, in another exploration on foot entitled ‘The Wild Places’, he says, ‘..a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history.’
Influence of Environment
I understand this interaction. Nature imposes ways of living, a way of synchronising itself with the creatures which live within it, on it, above it and below it, and thereby a way of thinking. Often we have to comply.
But it’s the manipulation of the mind that intrigues me. How does an environment change emotions, perception and perspective, influence mood and even change the way the mind works? Why does it do that? Is it so that we can survive in a previously unknown environment, or so that we can understand the environment itself? Does it require our minds to open to that influence or, a step further, is that acceptance necessary for both nature and human mind to live together, work together, to survive?
Is it the ancestral connection, when each man depended on the land itself for his life, his comfort, his food? Is this synchronisation embedded in our conscience? Like creatures help distribute seeds, like bees transfer pollen, like animals are part of the food chain, do we, as humans, have a fundamental link with nature which we cannot ignore, extending to a spiritual link?
If so, then it makes sense to me that our minds can be attuned, that we can indeed become part of the nature around us, our minds sculptured by it, to reach into a past of reciprocal existence.
Adapting the Mind
Do you enjoy crosswords? Faced with an organised mental search along a structured path, you formulate a correct answer. A series of letters and clues are reshuffled until we find the order (the path) that makes sense. You see the information, your mind rearranges it until the answer fits the given spaces.
Your brain can become accustomed to a specific compiler’s work. It selects the right gear to tune in to the workings of another mind, so making it easier to decipher clues, thereby read another’s mind.
If your mind can do all that, then surely it can tune in to different physical, spiritual and behavioural aspects of nature and respond to its changes.
Think about the signs and clues that any path offers you. Are you walking on chalk, rock, soft soil or sand? Is the path in a dip, on a ridge, under trees, open to a mountainside? All these textured elements invite your mind to absorb the possibilities of who might have been there, why they passed that way, what problems they might have encountered. They also make you feel, make you put yourself physically in their footsteps. Do you know the destination or are you exploring like those who came yesterday or those present centuries ago?
How does this relate to Covid?
Our environment has undergone an enormous change in the last few months. The land itself has not changed but a disease has made us react in drastic ways in order to survive. The environment is hostile; not the geology, not animals, not the weather but an invisible enemy infecting the air we breathe. It is a colossal lurch sideways for the mind to wrap itself around, sort out the answers and come to conclusions, for ourselves and for those around us.
Reactions to this virus range from death to no symptoms at all. Nonetheless, there is no one untouched by it. Serious restrictions, grave consequences for ignoring them, and a sense of isolation for many, are but a few of the effects likely to last for months, maybe years. We have had to skew our perspective on daily life due to a killer for which we have no antidote. Our minds have been given an unexpected challenge to maintain survival immediately, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future.
We can't do this!
We can no longer do much of what we took for granted such a short time ago. You know, with varying degrees, what that means from day to day.
Key workers in society have been closest to the dangers. Those in hospitals and care homes have been more susceptible because of difficulties regarding social distancing. Many have given their lives for others.
All these experiences must have an effect on the mind.
I can’t imagine how it feels to have the virus and know I might be dying. What does that do to the mind? Where does it take you?
I can’t imagine how it feels to lose loved ones because of it, not to be able to comfort them, hold their hands, nor attend their funerals.
I thought that being in self-isolation for 12 weeks would be a peaceful time, missing the children but talking to them via internet, getting food deliveries, enjoying fresh air in the garden and an occasional walk for exercise, just being careful and washing our hands!
To my surprise, my mind sneaked in the occasional disquieting thought. Despite me trying to brush them aside, whispers of worry, factions of fear, pin-pricks of paranoia wheedled into my brain. I knew they were excessive, irrational, but they persisted. If I talked about them, they went away but lingered beneath the surface.
Away from the house, I cast furtive glances around me. Was anyone too near? I shunned others, looking away. I had to make myself smile at them, say hello, like I used to do when life was ‘normal’.
I concentrated on the optimist within, on the advantages – saving money (on petrol, non-essential shopping), the rapid decrease in pollution, more birdsong, plants flourishing and the sun persisting for weeks in manifesting Spring time. Still the negative thoughts returned now and then.
Sea Front Walk
Re-entering the outside world
Then came my first venture into town, armed with a mask and gloves. I didn’t don the mask to walk along the sea front, as I knew there wouldn’t be a problem. My mind was calm.
I crossed the road to reach the top of the high street. My pulse quickened, my breath contracted. That voice in my head warned me of bad things round the corner. A few people came too close, so I moved accordingly. I relaxed.
I had to collect a prescription. Kind volunteers had delivered but now I was allowed to do it myself. ‘What if there isn’t enough space?’ said that inner voice. ‘What if there’s a long queue?’ I’d watched scenes in the cities, on television, and expected it to manifest before me. My mind had been programmed for danger.
I was reacting to stress, to possible but inflated problems. I was the only customer, was given my tablets and walked out feeling pleased with both myself and with those who had helped me over this first hurdle.
With some confidence I went to see which shops were open. People smiled but kept their distance. I walked back, taking my mask off when I left the high street and headed for the sea front, a familiar, comforting, open vista which wrapped around me, told me I was safe.
Fear and Hostility
Why did I react with such negativity? Many were having a far worse time. I had no right to feel like I did.
Fears have physical manifestations. My feet felt like lead. Apprehension had sent tingles through my arms. My intake of air wasn’t measured. My eyes flickered in all directions, looking for danger that wasn’t there. My mind had decided that it didn’t like the situation I’d dragged it into after 12 weeks of relative safety; survival instincts.
Sheltered at home, I had no idea what life was like in my own town, so my brain had based its appraisal on what I’d taken from the media, creating fear and some hostility. The path I thought I was embarking upon affected my reaction. The environment I expected did not exist. So my mind adjusted, rejecting the imaginary and accepting a better world, just as reaching the sea front had calmed me, revived my spirit, sheltered me.
I have learnt to deal with missing the children, as I know I will see them in due course. It’s the unknown that creates problems. There is nothing concrete in the future. We do not know where this path is going. Uncertainty concocts nightmares.
All we can do is concentrate on the now.
It is a tightly constructed environment at the moment. We must let our minds build another way to deal with this new world. We must let our feet find a path through it, a path akin to those trodden in former times of crises, a path to be walked in due course. It will not be the same path.
The path I walk now is an adventure, one which I accept with grace and gratitude and greet with innovation. I can soon spend time with my loved ones, all of whom have survived this, thank God. I am hopeful.
To answer the questions I posed earlier
It has changed my perspective on life, partly because it must, but partly because I choose to retrieve some of the old ways and reject the rest.
Because the skies have been clear of vapour trails and the noise of planes getting ready to land at Bristol, I find that I don’t want people to travel in planes any more. I don’t want that pollution back. It makes me feel indignant that it can return at the click of a finger. That of course is unreasonable but I do hope that flights will be fuelled by some other means in the future.
The physical world has become fresher. I have noticed it, appreciate it even more than before. It now enlivens me, I feel a part of something because it has been threatened and so have I. I therefore understand it, feel empathy with it. I have that deeper interaction with nature.
It has altered the way I behave. Less introverted, I am seeking rather than just watching. I am feeling instead of just listening. I am asking instead of telling. There is a sudden impulse within to make sure my grandchildren understand this interaction with nature, to show them the wonder of daisy chains, dandelion clocks and snapdragons without ignoring the reality of pollution, decay and loss of fertile land.
Has my thought process been affected? It has. I think from a different perspective. I ask myself different questions. The virus has shifted our world to another dimension; we are at one of Macfarlane’s border crossings. The thing is we cannot step back across that line. That country has gone.
Earth, Sea and Skies
'Altering the textures and inclinations of thought'
There is an interaction with this Covid path; a shift of reality, a perception of a beast prowling in broad daylight, a hovering fear which reins us in, chains our freedom.
Yet there exists a simultaneous path of consciousness; a shift of spirit, a feeling of renewal, as nature rears its head in defiance, daring us to return to, cling to, that heady crystal clarity of pure skyline. Birds are yelling at me to live from day to day, keep a keen eye on life, take the spontaneous kindness that others offer. Hold on to that deep ancestral knowledge handed down through the earth, sea and skies, those instinctive feelings of survival with a depth of understanding of all the worlds to which we belong.
We are resilient, we can take the path of most resistance and win, ‘each new walker adding a new note or plot-line to the way’.
I leave you with a quote from Edward Thomas, poet:
‘The eye that sees the things of today, and the ear that hears, the mind that contemplates or dreams, is itself an instrument of antiquity equal to whatever it is called on to apprehend… and perhaps… we are aware of… time in ways too difficult and strange for the explanation of historian and zoologist and philosopher.’
— Edward Thomas
© 2020 Ann Carr