The day would be good for walking I decide and once decided it becomes – for me at least – a single pressing thought, almost as though it had a life of its own: like a spell or an almost child tugging on your arm and dragging you towards the front door. Itchy soles of feet; palms waiting to clutch at the outdoors air; heart full as an egg to see all nature’s sudden surprises. When this mood is upon me, I am restless to anything else and the walk needles itself into my consciousness with the insistent question when, when, when? Nothing worse than to ignore the call; depression and doldrums the penalty. When walk calls, the feet must fall in. I am learning it is something to protect from the tyrannies of household chores and work. I curate my walks now: make a little space for one every week, bottle them up like scent, and stow the little treasures away to sometimes take out, carefully handle and fix in the memory.
Today the sun has got itself up pretty well into the bluest of skies and there’s a warm thickness to the air that promises dry ground underfoot and a slow sluggish canal or river to walk by. I am elated stepping out of my front door, padding along the neat little same-and-yet-not-same Saltaire streets, with a fondness for everyone whom I pass because we are all complicit in this wonderful warm May day together – in the determination to be out of doors and to soak sun into skin. And yet I do not know exactly which path I will take – canal to Hirst Wood, the Nook Lane to Nowhere, or the river path? I let my booted feet decide as they trip along by the canal, wafting and wefting and warping the path’s dust about me like a chalky cover-all. I know each path a little more with each week – the goodies to look out for: the hawthorn in prickly blossom; the fluff-feathered goslings; the sweeps of bluebells. All lie before me, known stops along the way, and my feet go with the slow haste of anticipated joy and savouring delay.
I retrace a bit – why not? The stone squeeze by the canal where you go down to the river path almost makes it seem a secret. You slip off into it as if the very first to make this delicious discovery. The stones lip my boots as I go, jostle my steps as they pebble the path, and over all the thrushes, blackbirds and crows fly and dip their shrewd wings like greetings. Thin nasal siren of a bee alarms for just a moment as it brushes past and is quickly gone upstream. Over the bridge, over the river, a flicker of dapple tricks down through the branches from the sky and dances over the path to web the way with white. This – as I expand my lungs to take in the arid, laden air – this! is nature’s way to welcome in a spring.
Round the corner and out of nowhere the downy globes of dandelion heads emerge to bob and nod – a clutch of waiting wishes to bless you on your way. The ground dips down and rushes me on till, level with the river, feet plant into grassy banks to muse at the overgrown round tower of the derelicted bridge. Through the field brighter than the brightest green quilt, I come to its edge and seam where bees are at work shuttling in and out of one another’s way in a strange furious dance and play. A gurgle of stream is crossed, its rocky bed water-slaked and mossed. Down by the boat club where swallows dip and follow, another stream. Temptation to bathe hot swollen feet, but I retreat with the coward thought, someone might appear!
Whoever knows what makes us look up to see the secret thing so many others miss? Today’s was this: a heron across the way, stealthy silent stalker in the river’s languid pull; strange snaking neck and big gawky wings. All the herons I have never seen were because I was not watching, but now my attentiveness connives to bring you to life, careful flutterer, weaving in between the weeds. I wonder about your steady step as you reveal your grey again. This is a slow dance to draw a minnow out. I would not disturb your subtlety for all the world. Sudden as an arrow or the end of a song, you’re gone. The mallards with their young are busy on their glides and do not mind the dark tickle of baby minnows under-web whose embryonic selves, flickering almost by accident with the current, gather in dense translucencies: something the river keeps but cannot hold for long. A robin a flash of red song on a lichen-laced branch, no sooner spied than it flies.
I clamber up the ridge under a parasol of sun-blasted green and the tree branches dip low in spite of me. Whitened and jewel-like in the sun, clouds of flies startle as I push on – you see them hanging over the river; great shifting billows preside there and trap the light. Sharp shaft of wild garlic up the nose calls the gaze downward to a maze of white constellated stars. Beside me I pass trees sleeved with ivy until they are covered with it: trefoil leaves close as clothes. The bluebells up the bank – straight purple blazons – sing out their short lives as they renew and rejuvenate the woods. And I burst with it too – my whole being alive with this becoming, this husk-splitting on-rush of life.
At last I am but a willing receptacle for precious impressions: a pigeon as heavy and cumbersome in flight as its image to get down. The lace of the cow-parsley heads – finer than a bride’s veil – looking sugar-spun and gorgeous to taste. A duck landing mid-river with a skirmish of feathers. Smooth and silky in the sun, iridescency of mallard’s crown. And as my steps turn homeward, its rasp-throated call.