I have been two days inside like Jeremy Fisher at the back door watching the pelting rain come down in slaps onto the mossy tarmac of my back yard. Throughout this plashing, there’s been a magpie haunting the eaves and chimney of the house with an ungodly squawking. I would say it is the rain has made it drowned-feathered and cross, but the magpie twitters even in the tentative truces between the rains. I wonder if it has a nest nearby it’s worrying over. Then, superstitiously, I think on a heartbeat, one for sorrow. Perhaps it is old Maggie – or my superstition – impels me to venture out today in spite of the weather. There is an uneasiness and all-thumbsiness to my preparations as though the spirit were willing but the flesh… I secure myself inside my rain coat (an improbable yellow) and shore up the feet in wellies, determined that the rain is not going to get a foothold. I will bring brightness with me today, I think with a touch of hubris, amidst all this dulled grey.
My rain coat is waxed so that the hood, when up, is like the skin of a drum and magnifies all noise in a little bubble about my head. This is a risky business near cycle lanes and traffic but, like an owl, I will be swivel-headed watching for anything coming. The thick drops dive-bomb me as soon as I close my front door, smacking the drum, and I body forth in hunkering strides with a grim and wholly sham defiance. Beat, beat, beat. Puddle-wonderful comes to me out of nowhere, an echo of E.E. Cummings. Humph! I make my position clear in my hunched shoulders like hardened soldiers: I am here under sufferance and because the magpie is a loud complainer.
The wind has worked itself up overnight from the west and the first part of my walk faces it head on. It shoves at me with unfriendly imperatives: be on your way! So that I have to tuck myself into it as it whips the air out of my lungs. Langstrothdale was the last place I walked in wind such as this, except that was in January in freezing weather and my brain didn’t even work then, just seized in icy surrender. Even the teeth feel that biting a cold. I should be grateful today then, but there is breath-stealing effort in this kind of walking and I find it hard to concentrate on much at first save putting one foot in front of the other; in front of the weather, as it strips through the glen. Nature’s joys are a little harder sought on a day like this; a turning day – a between-the-acts day – a spring-cleaning day when the season spills and washes itself,* tramps down and glosses its spent early signals underfoot. Sluicing everything to shiny newness. The wind beats the bounds and flushes out anything weak, spent, dead or dying. As I press on, the wild garlic is a yellowing untidiness about me, the rain releasing the last little ghost of its flavour. And in spite of my efforts I am soon washed too, ruddy and glow-faced with draggled ends of sleeves; glasses made prisms hard to see out of. Myopic mole. I tell myself that this wind, cold off the Atlantic, is a hopeful harbinger that carries the first promise of summer in its blasting breath. Hmmm. It’s a while before the buoyancy in this kind of thinking takes.
Still, I look for the seeds on everything: little universes waiting to burst their lives next year in quiet splendour. They do not mind if no one is watching; don’t mind bending a little under rain; just doing what they’ve always done. Grasses like weather-vanes beside the way bow beneath the wracking winds, frantically pressed together in creaking conference. They remind me of that bit in Vaughan Williams’s Greensleeves when the violins chase each other through grassy meadows. Or so it seems to me. Spring is turning into something else before my eyes. There’s been a curtain call and I wonder if I’m meant to see this bit. On the nap of the wind is a forethought of summer, soon here to throw up new things amidst the detritus which is already turning back into the ground. Buttercups – cups o’ joy I call them – bridge the gap and are grown top-lofty and scraggly in the meadows. They’ve got some ambition in them to grow so high, but the rain teaches them a humble lesson.
(Some titbits I collected from the path on my walk)
I am all out of kilter today, at odds without knowing why, and I feel petty and churlish as I pass by dervishes of buffeted elderflowers, saucers of cream balanced against the wind. To stick a nose into one is to try to catch its secret, except that you can’t. No attempt at enfleurage could recreate just that smell of rain-washed freshness. Underfoot lie the wind’s casualties: sycamore wings, oak apples, confetti of blossom. Tiny pine cones snap and groan against the boot. All this banquet brings the birds out into the path with tilted heads as if to say, perhaps a caterpillar or other juicy morsel has fallen. Blackbird, crow – a sparrow no bigger than a fistful of feathers. And on the playing fields beside the river, sharp-tipped swallows broadcasting and scooping the air as if they would catch the rain in big-bellied nets. A mesmerising layering of flights against the heavy grey. These are not bothered by weathers. Driving forward into the wind, I am almost oblivious to snail matings down on the ground: the two here are busy about their business, fuse-clamped together (again in spite of the weather).
Why, then, do I contend today with the weather? Ornery and morose. The willow wands in the water let loose their streams of leaves – why don’t I, like them, let myself be borne on? The rain has coursed the path with sand-flushed rivulets until it becomes a flowing tributary beside the river. Sucking my boots under. It’s true what some people say, that the path has muscles of its own; it’s honing them on me as I try to keep some kind of firm ground under me. I am planted into the path at intervals only to have to labour out of puddles dishonest about their depths. Yes, walking is striving today.
Still there is a pleasure in being out under this heavy soak. Mouth full of the smell of soil and soft mulch under trees; leaves waxed in watery deep greens, reflective as glass. Clover, and something other I don’t have a name for, have crept out beside the bank. I don’t know many names for the flora and fauna I see and I walk onwards groping at the kinds of names they might be. Pink gossiper, lifted lips, gossamer glory. Fancies. Beside them, the water takes the image of the rain like a negative, reacting in bubbled dips to its pelting, throwing out rounds of ripples. I wonder what it sounds like to a fish? Is that a stupid question? It seems to move in harder and harsher clouds for a while and I am bent-backed with it – surrendered at last. And on the bank a wagtail is sitting, like its name, in perpetual motion, just watching out of a little dark eye.
Loosening a little, the wind lightens on my return and the rain shakes off some of its emphasis. Now just chatter in the background, the kind you encounter from an unexpected acquaintance at the supermarket, slowly but surely settling into their patter. I mind it less now, this hum-drum clatter, my feet slurping into puddles I had groused at on setting out, stirring up the silty bottoms of them with a – perhaps – gleefulness. Now I make my peace. Palms outward to Old Mother Goose, hissing her sharp-tongued warning at me in protection of her littl’uns; I’ve heard all your bluster before, mother, I won’t harm you. And, wetly, I turn back up the hill.
I arrive home sodden, fresh-faced, buoyed and better for having had the breath knocked out of me. And for having been distilled a little in elder blossom.
*I have, with a little licence as to season, used an image from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring here, taken from Tom Bombadil’s explanation to the hobbits after a wet day in the Old Forest, “This is Goldberry’s washing day…and her autumn cleaning.”