In 2017-18 I took a sabbatical from mainstream employment in order to write, and I quickly discovered that staying inside the house for long periods of time scribbling and researching without relief isn’t healthy and certainly not conducive to sustained creativity. I am lucky enough however to live in the beautiful village of Saltaire in Yorkshire where I can, within five minutes’ walk from my doorstep, very quickly be in the midst of lush countryside; by a canal- or river-side; or in the heart of ancient woodland. These walks from my own front door have been my saving grace in the quest to write and indeed, as I have delighted in discovering, a point of intersection with writing: for it is in walking that I am most inspired to write. The wonderful and lyrical poet Sean Borodale has a lot to say about writing and walking as sympathetic actions in coining his literary form the lyrigraph. Whilst I agree with him that walking can unblock writers and set the creative juices flowing, often the mechanics of writing while walking let one down. Sometimes a choice has to be made between a rigorous pace and loss of a train of thought. So my walks tend to be leisurely and entirely solitary if they are to be written. As Mary Oliver puts it, “If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.” (from her poem, How I go to the Woods). Furthermore, I have had to accept that my walking will often render wildlife absent because my presence, like an exclamation mark, is a disturbance in the landscape. For this reason, my walks also make generous allowances for pauses, pit-stops and ponderings as I try to coax wildlife out of hiding.
Walking does not have to be a writerly experience, but for me it often now is: I travel and, as though foot-stepping were a purgative, words travel through me. The action of walking can be as profound a commitment to setting something down as is taking a pen to the page. In both, I lay down something of myself to be read: prints in the dirt and inky glyphs in my notebooks. I surrender little impressions of myself through walking and the path reflects these back in its own particular, thought-plotting idiom. Like the writing that bodies them forth, paths laid down by generations of walkers impose their own grammar and ‘sense’ on the landscape as well: a stile joins one section of path with the next between fields as a hyphen connects one idea with another on the page. A gate is a colon, opening one thought to its sequel. The impressions of my feet on paths that end up as indentations on the page are locked in particular place-time moments which means they are unrepeatable; their quality, rarefied. This is why I find walking such a positively affirming experience. To walk is to experience the landscape – and myself within the landscape – as different, fresh, and peculiarly alive to that moment in space and time. But to walk, to pen a way, is also to feel myself as somehow a conductor of the various idioms of nature.
Let me expand this thought. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, reimagined creativity as belonging solely to an ‘other’, muse-like, creative agency. In her talk, she made reference to the poet Ruth Stone who expressed her creative impulse in terms of feeling and hearing poems “coming over the landscape like a thunderous train of air” heading towards her so that she had to “run like hell” homewards in her rush to grab a pen and paper before the poem caught up with her and “thundered through her.” I do not necessarily subscribe to all of Gilbert’s thesis on creativity, but on my best and most intense writerly walks, I have felt that bursting pressure of words welling up from the landscape – like petrichor after rain – and the feeling of having to get them down before they dart off and are lost in quicksilver streaks of lightning. The collaborative co-effusions of my own thinking and the work of the path under me to bring these thoughts into the light of day are, I suppose, what I mean by walking words out of myself.
The path or road gives back to the walker, as Gaston Bachelard recognised when he wrote of the ‘muscles’ of the road: it works the body as it works the mind. Following a path is an imaginative foray into possibility. Nothing is quite like the prospect of a path leading off to an unknown destination, as the image below portrays so enticingly. It represents a creative promise winding itself tantalisingly into the distance. There is something deeply elemental about a road or a path into the wilderness and its effect on the eye of the imagination: it is the inducement to an instinctive urge to take off into the world; to be on our way; to take to the road. The incomparable way-making writer Robert Macfarlane writes in his book The Old Ways:
“Footpaths are mundane in the best sense of that word: worldly, open to all. As rights of way determined and sustained by use, they constitute a labyrinth of liberty, a slender network of common land that still threads through our aggressively privatised world of barbed wire and gates, CCTV cameras and ‘no trespassing’ signs… Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own… Paths connect: this is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people…Paths need walking.”
Paths also, I have found, need writing. There are walks where I have felt this as an irresistible imperative in the blood as in the trodden mud.
© Matthew Modget, photographed off Ellers Lane, Leyburn, Yorkshire Dales
Paths are great levellers too, collapsing boundaries in space with their unstoppable joined-up-ness as well as between people. I have never been so in sympathy or so disposed towards strangers as when encountering them on the road and exchanging the polite hulloes of fellow travellers caught for a brief moment in each other’s company at a way-marker, bridge or in passing, bound in opposite directions. Walking out of doors and out of the realms of safe domesticity also allows us access into the still-wild natural world: a natural world that, if we are to believe the morbidly elegiac tones of many modern-day writers of nature, is doom-fated, fragile, shoved to an ever-shrinking margin of countryside, and on the cusp of expiration. I do not dispute that several species and habitats of the natural world are endangered: various species of bee, and even more invertebrates, numerous wild flowers, water voles and wild fowl whose eggs are stolen for black market profits, to give but a few examples, are at risk of extinction. But I also recognise that the lament for a natural world perceived as already under siege and in its death throes has been a key trope of nature writing since the Victorian period – present in the writings of Tennyson and Houseman, to name only two. There is a nostalgic rosiness in harking back to a better-protected, more abundant, and unpolluted ‘hay-day’ of the English countryside that the literature of wildlife and walking sometimes indulgently slips into but does not always own up to. My preference is to write with enthusiasm of the simple joy I feel in encounters with nature; in the rhythms of the road; and of the presence of the wild beside, on or above the road. Paul Evans in his Field Notes from the Edge suggests that we look for wildness and wilderness closer to the urban strongholds of town and city, and that we accustom ourselves to the appreciation of a new kind of natural world that co-mingles with the industrial all around us. I am inclined to agree.
As to coddiwompling… When I go for a walk it is frequently with only the vaguest sense of where I might be headed, and this is the kind of walking I enjoy most because it leaves the way open for impetuosity, surprise and whimsy. It is my experience that something novel always abounds like a generous windfall around the bend in the road. I have only recently started to write accounts of my walks and I aim to curate a space in my life for one good walk a week. From these, the path permitting, corresponding posts will issue. These will sometimes take the form of a series of impressions of my latest walk; sometimes a historical reverie sparked by a particular aspect of nature; or an exploration of a particular feature of the landscape I encounter. But above all, they aim to be seasonal and uniquely embedded in a particular time and place. I hope you enjoy them as I have enjoyed walking them.
© Kylie Norman, High Royds lake path, Menston, Yorkshire