At the half-way point is a place in the trees, cathedral-quiet and paved with ferns. Two hundred foxglove spires announce its presence and the slow bees move from flower to flower.
If silence had a face this is what she would look like: these patches of dark, these stripes of silver birch holding the light in their spindle branch hands. A little birdsong and some stirring on the breeze, what stops me on the path now, stops me, heart and mind.
Long before Christianity arrived in Ireland the Celtic people had a name for places where this world and the next merged into one. They called them thin places. The belief in thin places was embraced by the first Christians who understood how God meets us in the created world. In a thin place heaven is very close and the light by which we see is not beyond our reach.
I put on my shoes, grab my coat and take the binoculars from the hook by the door. I used to find the place I lived too tame for such encounters, but I’ve been making my lockdown walk a stone’s throw from my own front door and I’ve changed my mind. The place where I live is not as mild as I thought. I only need to attend more carefully, more regularly; to walk more intentionally.
All good naturalists have something they call “my patch” and most of us learn about this from reading their books. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try a little bit of the work of a naturalist for ourselves. The naturalist’s patch is a short walk from the front door, and she makes it her own by tramping its byways everyday of her life for years and then decades. Through four seasons of the year, through storms that fell trees and cold snaps that close roads, through rainstorms that fill the rivers until they burst, and all the fields are awash with floods.
The work is not to farm the land, or police the land or manage the land. Her relationship to the land is not primarily scientist, though some science may be involved. The work is simply to observe and to do it over time. The work is to pay attention. It’s something we can all learn to do.
I walk my new patch: one short mile, a circular route along a field bordered with trees. Plants come into bud. They flower. They seed. Their foliage falls back to the ground. The black bird sings high in a tree, but I do not know if the brood she feeds will fledge and survive, to inhabit these trees with more lyrical song. I stand very still in the cover of a tree and simply wait. I sit very still on the edge of a ditch and watch for ripple on the surface of the darkening water and count the flies.
The Psalmists used images of place to create a picture of the human heart: green pastures for rest, still waters for peace and the valley of the shadow of death. I am taking myself to the places that the Psalmist made with his words. I am learning stillness from the stillness I find in the small glade of trees beyond the ditch. I realise how I didn’t even know what stillness was until I’d spend more than a moment staring at the water in the ditch, letting my eyes rest on every texture and tone. I am learning the blessing of green things amongst the flowering grasses in the roadside verge. I didn’t even know that green could calm the nerves until I’d watched the changing hues on poplar, beech and ash, throwing back such verdant light as the wind moved through the leaves.
I am making a landscape and a soulscape as I walk.
Later I will light a candle and sit down to pray and maybe my mind will be running with thoughts. Broken to pieces by the pain of the day and all her surfaces messy with strife, I will wait like the guardian of a deep-water pool. Scattered and restless, wearied by anxious thoughts I will count the flowers of the meadow and remember the bees. I will imagine my soul as an acre of English landscape, I will visualise the circuit I walk, and in the quietness, I’ll walk it again to see what words it has to gift to me, what lessons to lighten the day. I will let it take me to the peace of the place and I will ponder these things in my heart.
*The title of this piece is taken from the Wendell Berry poem of the same name.