Soak-walking

I sit on the train after work homeward-bound, watching raindrops pearl on the outside of the dirty, fogged window pane. They skitter down the strange reinforced plastic which half hides the Aire-valley-view, muddying it and keeping it beyond reach. I decide, as though it were an act of rebellion, that I’m for a walk. I turn the thought around for a while, wondering if I really mean to risk the rain. My mind anticipates the sharp cold shock to my skin, but part of me knows the glory there can be in rain: in the loosening of the sky’s burdens, a catharsis. Having filed into the station and then the train – acquiescing grudgingly to diesal air – I suddenly want out of the funk, the many small irritations that amass cumulatively through the work day which slowly compress and dull the soul: make the body small. When I enter the train, my body is no longer mine but communal – here just to sardine in with strangers for a vexed 20 minutes. I float somewhere above myself, above the hot press of bodies and odours. But out of those scratched barrier windows, beyond the faces bluescreen-illuminated, cramped over their phones, I know that everything is getting a little greener in the washing of the rain. So I alight at my stop with jittery anticipation and, coming back to myself by slow degrees, let my feet take me for a soak-walk down by the canal, where I may get a little greener too.

It is June and the elderflowers are opening up clotted cream umbels and the rain is knocking scent off them like a child emptying perfume bottles. The air is all citrus and grape and nectar as I round the corner over the railway bridge and down to the canal. It has been a naive Spring of warmth, blossom-plenty and precocity as though it fancied itself Summer, jealous of a younger sister. May pressed days of close heat upon us – signs of the year brewing to its best – but the chill slap of rain today gives the lie to this. Rain on my glasses and in my eyes is constant pinprick surprise to my senses: feel this, it says.

I have walked the Leeds-Liverpool canal towpath many times, but today’s rain renders it at its active best: making the canal anew, freshening it and adding to its watery DNA. I don’t take in anything but the action of rain on water at first – and I am literally taking it in, absorbing it into my skin, become amphibian. Rain in its different grades has different personalities and thus a rich lexicon has endeavoured to express the different types of rain and its differing moods. This rain is kelching, hossing, siling down: a soss, a sope, a soak of rain. More than a shower but shy of a storm. Stairrods perpendicular to the canal and ground. It is insistent yet playful: hard and nagging like a child with constant questions at your ear, but refreshing and ozone too. It keeps company with me until I am all sensation: wet-waxed hanks of hair snake my forehead and neck; rain-wash coats my hands; cool humid damp is between my clothing and back. It is all encompassing. Constant white noise as a myriad raindrops crack the surface tension. Water, at least for a while, is the dominant element, coating everything in its thin chromatic, electrifying sheen. It brings harsh percussion to the canal’s surface, and turmoil underneath, as silt and sediment are churned and tossed over – more likely than not – discarded shopping trolleys, pallets and pipes, the usual canal finds. I am reduced to membrane, taking in the rain and giving up the day in exchange.

My new-made selkie-skin, after the deadening train commute, is brought to life again, goose-pimpling with hairs raised on end. My eyes search hungrily for the fish-kisses that fat raindrops make on the water, sounding out desire. Transformed from its usual sluggish drawl, the canal is come to muddy life, its surface respiring and dancing as it pocks and heaves, fumbling for rhythm with bubble-jumble. Today it is made river, moving and acting a part, no longer still but vital and full of flow. At the lock it sluices down the overflows, bordered with valerian at their margins, and making right the levels above and below.

The path bubbles angrily between the rain-blatters that are little reservoirs under my boots. Sensation is forcefully returned to me and I begin to notice other life around me. A heron is hunting on the opposite bank, though its manner of hunting is entirely patient, still, watchful; waiting for its prey to swim close. Its head is down-bent, intent, death in its ancient gaze. Blackbirds love the rain, jouncing along in the open, turning their mustard beaks into the soil for surfacing worms. No birds sing. There is now an almost-skip to my step along the clashy churn of the path. Unpeopled by the rain-shy, this path is my chosen company. Under the action of the incessant rain, I feel myself become buoyant, light-hearted, acted upon too, as I pass below the waxy-wet canopies of ivied hawthorn, oak and chestnut, that drop heavy raindrops on my head and shoulders. The oaks were slow to leaf in Spring, their acid green buds opening minutely, conjured slowly, as though the sap were still sleeping. How ebony their barks look now under the darkening of the rain as their branches twist against the sky, the green of their fledged leaves brilliant and popping on the eye.

Down below, something dark and little is moving awkwardly from the canal and across the tow path, almost perfectly camouflaged under the rain’s tumult, making me pause to identify it from its hobbled movements. Something emerging from the primordial ooze, carefully, articulating its disgust for land with slow joints and crabbed, webbed fingers. Moving like the first life form that ever left the first swamp, unimpressed by the uncooperative nature of this new element. Its webbed hands, almost bent back upon themselves, bear it along with obvious effort: its skin bears a hallmark gnarliness. A toad! With surprise and delight cast upon my face, I approach. The rain has made its bumped back reflective and glossy like volcanised rock, polished to a gleam. It seems heedless of my presence, shoveling its feet laboriously behind it, but I see it knows I’m here with that preternatural sense that wild things have. It stops at my advance even though it’s facing away from me. Has the fury of the rain driven it from its accustomed swimming holes? And, half-drowned, is it making for the cover of tree scrub, hauling itself doggedly over slick mud and grass, for a break? I leave it to its task.

I am walking past the stream where I saw a dipper skip down the water bubbling down to the river. The memory of this encounter always provokes me to examine the place closely for a second sighting – but all I have ever conjured is the afterglow of that first encounter. After almost three years of living here (and still a newcomer), I am slowly mapping the neighbourhood with my memories of the things I have experienced here. Such mapping is the mind’s way of working itself into a place, of connecting. The vestiges of things seen and experienced are – as the word suggests – like clothes or skins we shed along the way and then put on again when we are inclined to walk these ways again. These kinds of topographies are personal, particular and one of the most important ways in which places work themselves into us as well. Maps are another kind of membrane, allowing for exchange between personal encounter and memory and place. There are vestiges of myself left forever in the wild, as long as memory and place co-exist.

Wetchered, that is to say wet through after rain, I return to my own front door unburdened like the sky of its load. Rain is such a small word.

Welcoming in a Spring

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.