This month was my idea for the Walking the Land artists collective First Friday Walk. I had been reading about ‘dynamic stillness’, a term used by geographers and complementary therapists. Also, of course, I was following the war in Ukraine.
I wrote, ‘Let us walk in solidarity with the Ukrainian people who are walking away from their homes and home country, searching, looking for another place where they can be still, to re-find themselves and safe emplacements. We will set out from a still-point (perhaps the place where we live, where we feel secure), and search for “the embeddedness of the sensing subject”.
‘We will ask, ‘Where do we feel embedded?’ ‘Where can we find a moving or still emplacement in the walk, or in the place through, or to which, we are walking?’
Some of us walked alone and others in a group, and we were spread all over the UK.
I sit in the sun and listen to the quiet, then a bee sounds by my ear and some birds chorus. When I stay myself some more, I hear the distant waves, and the odd car – one rattles, needs something doing to it. The tree has got my back. Do I feel safe here? Yes, mostly. This place is known, I’m within the boundaries of my garden, inside the gate. Gulls screech. I am grounded with my feet flat on the stones. Below them is the earth – I know that because there is a solitary primrose which has grown up through them. My sitting bones still hurt though.
Sketching, I have a metallic taste in my mouth and frustration in my wrist as I try a third time to get the angles right. I am attempting to draw the smell of the dead brown Xmas tree which I keep meaning to take to the dump.
1.05pm I begin my walk and am immediately struck by the fact that I am choosing to leave my home and the people of Ukraine have no choice. Yet, the dandelions are so cheery
Ominous skies and a horizontal rainbow – portents
As I walked, I thought about a story I watched last night on the Channel 4 news. A Ukrainian woman was knocked unconscious and trapped. When she came round, she dug out her husband and friend and they escaped from the bombed theatre in Mariupol. Hundreds were not so lucky. She said she felt no emotions, had no feelings. This, I know from my work, is a sign of trauma.
In Edinburgh, I heard a woman speak on her phone as she passed me: “No time to think about such frivolous things”, she said. A child’s swing in a nearby garden squeaked as it swung.
Fallen blossom petals are strewn on the pavement. I hear a dog walker saying, “All present and correct. Have a nice day” as she leaves the park.
As I passed someone else walking her dogs, and this man repairing his boundary, I wondered if the people I am walking with in spirit had to leave their pets behind, and how long it would take them to repair their broken walls if they ever get home again
Text 1 comes in from Richard Keating, my counterpart in Gloucestershire: “I’ve just walked a few miles from home, crossing the Nailsworth Valley and am now looking west towards May Hill. I have lived on this side of the valley for 25 years so feel very much at home here. … However the wind is cold and I’ll be glad when the pub opens its doors. Imagine how a refugee would feel as a door is opened for them. As a home is shared.”
Abandoned tank . Devastation . Clearing up the rubble
The mother said, “Grandma gave her toys to me” and her little son replied, “Do you ever see her?” And then I am aware of the importance of familial relationships, of the personal artefacts passed down, of interrupted generations and houses and possessions all lost.
On the pavement, I am treated with courtesy and kindness as a man, wordlessly, stands aside so I can pass, and smiles.
I hear the father say “Oh you want to touch that” and he lifts the back wheels of the buggy up so that the little one can stroke the leaves of the hedge.
I am wedged between two upright logs, one on either side, and there is a solid one underneath me. I teeter – I am not as safe as I might be. I can’t see behind and would therefore only know if someone was coming if I heard them. There’s a lot of noise coming from all over the place, from different directions so I can’t distinguish if one of them is someone approaching me or not. I can reassure myself, though, because there’s not a war raging here in Scotland.
I hold on and stretch back, the sun is warm. I hear a foot meeting a ball and it clatters against the goal posts. Her heeled footsteps pace beyond the hedge. A dog barks. Distant voices, nearby cars. Smooth wood under my palms, a taste of…of…cucumber… and cedar. Is that a taste or a smell? There is a breeze. Cold at my nostrils, of air, perhaps exhaust fumes, a hint of the warm wood. I have been worried that I’m losing my sense of smell, but maybe it’s OK.
I receive a second message from Richard: “We’ve made our first stillness and are moving on. Your script has been well used.”
Warmer, wider and flatter under my bottom, I have lots of space on this tree stump. My lower back tilts which relieves the pain. I am facing north now, but I have the same awareness of people perhaps coming from behind. Cars wheel beyond the hedge which doesn’t seem dangerous because, to my knowledge, one has never driven through it into the park. Then I realise danger can come from above and see that the tree top obviously fell down, though presumably in the recent storm and not on a day like this…
I can smell the sun on my skin and when I touch it, it is warm. I put my warm hand to my cold nose. The wind is coming towards me here bringing…. what? Ice from the Arctic? Again, my feet are off the ground and it strikes me that this is less safe as it would take me longer to put them down and run away. Footsteps behind me; I know they are male. They come up, go past, without stopping. The taste (yawn) is of old apple. Mhmm. And some metal.
Moving on, I thank the man who has painted the pavilion a gleaming privet-green. He’s busy clearing a thin layer of turf from around the perimeter. We chat about the public toilets they installed late in lockdown and then took away again because someone had to watch them all the time due to the vandalism. He said that there is already “a Ladies and Gentleman’s Cloakroom” in the building, so all they needed to do was to make it accessible for people with disabilities and then there would be a permanent facility. I said, no-one ever asks the people on the ground who know.
I am amongst insistent birds, beside the ever-running Water of Leith, on a hard log. The brambles are intrusive. Or maybe I am. I smell humus and rotting plants, someone smoking weed. I taste coffee (a mid walk treat), and there’s the touch of cool, smooth, dry bark on this knarled trunk.
People walk right past but don’t see me – I’m by the Rocheid Path but off the beaten track. The car sound pollution is distant. The rambling couples always come back in the other direction after a few minutes because it’s a dead end.
I wonder, will Putin withdraw, or are they just regrouping for a heavier bombardment? It sounds like he’s out of rubles but… . I am obviously carrying the story with me as I walk, snippets of it anyway.
Tickling leaves at my neck, ants (maybe) under my thigh.
I see drops of ‘blood’ everywhere
My scarf is getting ruined, snagging on the thorns – as if that’s a big deal, in the circumstances. When I try to wind it around my neck again later, I am scratched because portions of blackberry branches are still stuck in it. Invisibly.
I ask myself, how can I maintain awareness of these horrifying occurrences and still live comfortably here, and Richard suggests that we could focus on better understanding “this connectivity between us all”, and I know that this is what these walks are about. I’ll share the walk, invite a response, and celebrate others’.
At 15.35 I am tired and I wonder if the Gloucester lot are having tea. I try to imagine where they are and what they are doing, without the aid of a newsflash or twitter feed.
I start on my return home with the scent of wild garlic in my nostrils.
I pick off an individual leaf of lavender and squeeze it between thumb and finger tip. I inhale for the pleasure and calm.
In Walking the Land, we connect with each other via computers and phones. You can imagine these ‘meetings’ as emplacements, still places in which we innovate, stabilise and share our ideas. Then, see how we move out into the landscape on our walks, dynamically. If we stay in touch with each other as we walk, using What’sApp maybe, or even tweeting with a hashtag #, we remain in contact via a collective still-point while we move at the same time. If we post on social media after the walk, representing the body movement in ‘stills’ and fixed words, there is a further version of this ‘dynamic stillness’.
If you have work to share in response to this walking prompt, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
A First Friday Walk – March 2021. Wardie Bay, 5 minutes from home
“We lack – we need – a term for those places where one experiences a ‘transition’ from a known landscape … into ‘another world’: somewhere we feel and think significantly differently.” that exists “even in familiar landscapes: ….. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographics, leaving known places outlandish or quickened,”
Can I help you find a term for those places? Shall we go somewhere where that happens and feel what it’s like, enquire into the difference between not-beach and beach, and see if we can come up with one?
My usual way onto Wardie Bay is up the wee slope and though the stoneledges. I leave the busy road that’s been there for nearly 200 years, and has known me for 12, and at the top I get a salty blast to the nose which dismisses the fumes. I spy a man, a long way off on the sand. He has a big rucksack and he stoops, probably looking at his phone. He’s almost a silhouette against the-place-where-the-tide-is-out. I see and inhale where I am going.
I begin the transition carefully. I turn my shoes sideways, peering down to avoid slipping. Not looking at the beach or the man, I only see my feet, one by one. I fit the long sides of my trainers into the angles where the earthed slope meets the uneven stone strips.
For a second I still. Half way. I feel the presence of the sea on my shoulders, the sky touching my hat and the wind on my ungloved hands which are stretched out at the sides of me for better balance. Something is already happening.
I run the last bit at the bottom which means that my heartbeat matches the pleasure I feel at being there. I am assailed by the wave-sound, the sea-odour and, finally, with the soles of my feet as I step from the large-rasping-pebbles onto the little-grainy-sand – I sink slightly, tilt, halt.
Now it all embraces me in one big hug, the noise, scent and feel of the beach’s surface that I like. I look out to sea and my lungs take a great deep, heaving breath.
Quite soon I lie facedown to photograph the smell of crab in the seaweed. I screw up the skin at the nape of my neck where the cold gets in, to try and stop it doing that. The bladder wrack under my elbows as I balance the camera, is dry and brittle. I am in another world and I try to capture all the wonder but I know from experience that can be tricky.
Yes, the sand. When I stand again it reminds me of velvet. Through my trainers and two pairs of socks it’s delicious. I swivel and furrow and it’s like when you sink your hands into the strands of a ball of merino wool and squeeze the softness.
I am on an expedition to find something out, so I rewind – I stare at the horizon and in my mind I start again from home. When we go somewhere we bring our anticipation of that place with us, the idea of what it will be like. I brought the way the beach was before – all the befores – layers of previous times when I had visited – with me today. And in my body when I got to the top of the steps, were the traces of everything else I had lived through up until that moment. And not only that. The beach, itself, had an imprint on it, of all the people (including me), and activities and weathers that had happened there, all accumulated in that second when I entered. I suspect that this previousness influences the way that we feel and think when an ordinary place becomes ‘quickened’.
I lie down on the sloping, freezing rock, blue-sky with white-cloud above. I shut my eyes and smell the fish. Under my closed lids I can see the shells and stones I had been looking at before.
What IS that place called, not where-I-was, and not where-I-am-now ? We know about journey, about being in transition, skimming or flying across lands and high skies to get somewhere. What do we call that place we just missed, the one we whipped through unawares? My tummy flurries when I’m approaching, the ground underneath me is altered when I arrive, but in the blink of an eye I am here, not there.
Fingers fold over cold thumbs and how smooth my skin is. I nearly sleep but the chill interferes. I rest still, not wanting to get up but knowing I’m going to.
The name of the place where I make the ‘transition’ might depend on which direction I take to get here and how I arrived.
If I chose the flat way from the street, the stonewalls very tall at the sides of me and feeling very small going between them, I would be coming upslope. At the corner I would be on a level with everyone and their dogs, able to see diagonally across to the rocks. There, hovering, no-one would notice me. Then I would run off the cobble, do a hop, skip and turn cartwheel on the sand, and land in the middle of the ring with a flourish.
Propping myself up on my elbows to look, I think. It would not be the same if I approached from the air, if I was a gull flying down, folding my wings back and stretching my thin legs out, landing on both my webbed feet at the same time. Landing lightly, making hardly a mark, the wind at my back, I would run along and get on with my search until someone disturbed me. I can’t know if some places are more special for birds, but I do see when there are suddenly hundreds not three – something is exceptional or there wouldn’t be so many at one time, they wouldn’t be so excited.
If I were a wave from the north, I would turn over calmly, spreading, rolling, on to the strand. I would canoodle and stroke and she would offer up her treasures to me willingly. Or I might come faster, rising and rising then crashing. I would buffet and pummel and she would be covered with my offerings, and our meeting would be rousing.
Yes, I am sure that the direction we take and the way we enter, influences the magic when we get there. I launch up at last and stride towards the breakwater.
There are lots of stories about transitions into other worlds that might give us ideas for this place name we are seeking. They involve complex feelings which may help us focus: There is Mary’s secret garden, found through a door under some hanging plants; Lucy’s Narnia – she went through two rows of coats with her arms stretched out in front of her, so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe; and Alice’s Wonderland which was of course accessed via a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
Mary, “… took another long breath, because she could not help it, and she held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly—slowly. Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight.” (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.)
Lucy, “… felt a little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well.” When she felt snow under her feet and on her face, that was when she realised she was somewhere else. (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis.)
Alice has a long, slow-motion fall down “what seemed to be a very deep well”, meaning that we readers get to see, think and feel her transition. She was “not a bit hurt”. Indeed, it seemed to heighten her ‘outlandish’ response – things got much more curious as a result. Later, she got tearful when she couldn’t get through the too-small door to the garden. Her feelings on the threshold, and during the shift from one place to another, were different depending on whether it was a matter of choice or if she was catapulted there. (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll).
It seems that we might hold or expel our breath, run or move slowly across the divide, feel very inquisitive, excited or upset as we go. Time may pass quickly, so that we gloss over the feelings we have there, or slow right down, giving us a hyper-real sense of it, even space to ruminate.
The birds wheel and cry, a dog races past me and splashes after the ball. I have reached the other side and have to turn back.
When we are at the portal we are half one thing, half the other; leaving and approaching at the same time. We are momentarily inserted, midway. We are about to ……… .
So, it’s decision time. What will we call it? I am back home now, balancing on the edge of the bed-base in the attic room so I can reach the sill and look over it at the beach below. I can see the place where not-there bleeds into there, and I have vertigo with the strain of it all.
‘Crossing’ or ‘passing over’ has too much redolence of death, though there is always a sort of loss associated with leaving, and, like a pilgrimage, it is really the journey that is important, not what you call it. No, I have a suggestion. The name of the place I went through, where something changed so that my familiar beach became something other, is the in-between. What do you think?