Weekly Photo Challenge: Habit

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Even the shortest walk is better when I wear these boots.

I go out every day and never walk far, mostly on pavements and footpaths though I do go off-roading a bit in the park and scramble up grassy banks and through patches of woodland. And there are cobbled streets here too, which are much easier to stride out on if you’re wearing boots. I like the way they make walking anywhere seem easier, so I have a more go-anywhere sort of a feeling. And I enjoy sitting down at the doorstep to put them on and lace them up, pulling and hooking and tying, a satisfying process that takes so much longer than putting on any other pair of shoes. It reminds me of saddling a horse.

So many things we do these days are accomplished at speed and are almost effortless. I value the few things I do every day that take a little extra time and have to be done slowly, with thought. These boots were made by the Brasher Boot Company in England and belonged to my mother; they’re at least 20 years old and had already walked a great many miles before I inherited them. They have been loved and cared for.

I hope I will still be walking in them for years to come.

Walking On Grass

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Sometimes I have to walk on grass.
Footpaths are good,
and pavements, in the rain;
but there are times my feet
need to remember
the springiness of short-cropped turf
nibbled by sheep,
or tussocks of couch grass
long-bladed, tousled,
catching the wind in waves
in an ungrazed field.
Grass mixed with clover,
buttercups and dock;
or a lawn freshly mown
with the cuttings still damp,
strewn, smelling of childhood,
of cricket fields,
of home.

Sometimes I need to lie
on my back in the grass
like I did today,
under a tree,
feeling the earth beneath me,
watching the sky,
thinking of nothing at all.

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Into the Woods

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Whenever I feel I need to find my way home I leave the house and head for the woods. Without making any conscious decision my feet took me there yesterday evening, into the park and up the path through the trees, and I’d only gone a few yards when I knew I was exactly where I should be.
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The sun was low in the sky and the canopy was lit from behind, and I stood in the cool dim world of tree trunks and leaf mould and gazed up into the green and the gold, into a whole unreachable landscape so high above me all I could do was stand and marvel at it.
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These trees are old, and immensely tall. Standing on the steep side of the valley and close together they have stretched upwards and upwards to reach the light, and I never come here without feeling grateful to whoever it was that planted them so many years ago, and grateful for everything that’s here. Some of the younger ones are heading upwards as fast as they can but still have leafy branches lower down, and their leaves pattern the depths, splashing silhouettes of dark against light.
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I walked slowly up the path that was cleared earlier this spring, my feet crunching beech mast and dry leaves, and I could hear no other sound except wood pigeons, and I kept saying thank you, thank you, thank you as I breathed in the green and the light and the wonder of the beech trees.

Coming back down the path I was walking slowly almost as if I were in a dream, and almost missed a dragonfly which had to swerve to avoid me. Last weekend a little boy asked my sister if dragonflies breathe fire! How I wish they did, and that she could have told him that they do – but to me they are almost as magical anyway, just as they are. For a moment this path in the woods felt like an enchanted place, and like a gift. It felt like coming home.
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Stopping

Stopping is something I do repeatedly when I’m out walking. I can’t avoid it, and don’t try to; in fact it’s become so habitual that I would be a very annoying walking partner (I almost always go for walks alone). Whenever I’m out, and wherever I am, now and again something will suddenly catch my attention and I’ll come to a standstill, then retrace my steps and have a closer look.

This means I can find myself looking at some strange objects, in unexpected places, and whenever I suddenly stumble upon a collection of interesting looking things, frequently time passes without my realising how long I’ve been wandering around and exploring.

The colours and textures of things like this are just irresistible. I often like them even more if I can’t identify them, because I’m not labelling them in any way, thinking, oh, what a fabulous old boat (these pictures were taken in a boatyard). If I’m thinking at all, it’s something more along the lines of Oh! Oh! and nothing more lucid than that.

I’ve come to realise that walking about and then stopping, physically, is a really good way to stop mentally as well. Stopping in front of something that I can gaze at in wonder is just the start. Then comes the part when everything else starts to slow down and stop, too, and I can find myself slipping into stillness, and silence, and being aware of nothing else except the peace of the present moment.

Holidays In The Mind

A holiday is not always a whole day, or several days, or a week. For a short while every day, we all need to find time to be on holiday just for an hour, or even for a few minutes.

Everyone has their own favourite way of putting everything aside for a while and letting go. Sometimes I don’t find it difficult to do, when life isn’t throwing too much at me all at once, so relaxing is only just a short step away from how I’m feeling most of the time – but at other times it can seem almost impossible.

The thing is, your body and your mind have to do this together, and one won’t work without the other. Sometimes it’s the body that makes it difficult, when you’re in pain, or tense and stiff with anxiety or exhaustion – and sometimes it’s the mind, which just can’t be stopped or even slowed down but goes on madly whirring round and round engaging itself with thoughts and problems that really don’t need to be addressed right at that particular moment, but which seem to assume a gigantic urgency and will not be ignored.

All the advice I’ve ever heard about relaxing and all my experience has taught me that the body has to be dealt with first, so when I can, I usually go for a walk – I drop what I’m doing, leave the house and set off  in whatever direction feels right. I’m lucky to live near a park that has a fairly wild uncultivated wood in it and also a wildflower garden, so I’m blessed with places to go where I’m surrounded by nature – and when I get there, just standing still doing absolutely nothing at all except breathe, and listen, and look, helps me to let everything drop away. I can stand there without doing anything, and simply enjoy being. It almost always works.

If I can’t settle in to being where I am, I watch animals. I like to watch dogs exploring the park because every second is spent in being completely absorbed in the place – the smells! Things to chase! Things to pick up and carry, like sticks! (And preferably the bigger the stick the better – why is this I wonder?) The only things that matter are the sights and sounds and everything immediate that’s going on. No time for brooding. So much to experience. And dogs can show us how to do this more or less anywhere; although a wood or a park is more exciting, even the dullest street is full of interest if you look at it from a dog’s point of view.

The thing is though, I can’t always get out of the house and go for a walk. Not when I need to or want to, that is. Sometimes I’m not well enough to do it, sometimes the weather is just too extreme (though I try not to let this stop me), and sometimes I have things to do at home that just cannot be put aside, and I have to find another way to take time out and give my body and my mind a holiday. So I think about how it feels to go for a walk. Or to lie in the sunshine, sunbathing with the cat (who will instantly make a bee-line for me as soon as I lie down, and climb on my chest). I think about the precise physical sensations of the sun on my face, and the breeze; the colour of the sky, the sound of the wind in the trees. And sometimes I’ll think of being in a particular place, a place that I can visualise so clearly that I can easily imagine that I’m there.

This copper beech tree is the place I visit in my mind more often than anywhere else. Partly because it’s very familiar as it’s no more than two minutes walk away, but mostly because I never enter its space without a feeling of awe and quiet excitement. The canopy is enormous and spreads down on all sides with the tips of the branches almost touching the ground, and in summer the space it encloses is a cool, dark, dappled pavilion that fills me with a sense of wonder more than any church or cathedral has ever done. As the branches move in the wind they brush against you, and looking up you can see and feel the whole tree gently moving, swaying like a huge wooden ship in full sail being rocked by the swell of some vast ocean.

Sometimes as I stand closely to a tree like this one I marvel at the way we take such things for granted. Just for one moment, I like to imagine how it would be to see and feel and listen to a living structure like this for the first time – as if such a thing had never, ever been seen before by anyone. I have always been very short-sighted and got my first pair of glasses when I was only six years old. I will never forget when I put them on for the first time and saw the huge oak tree in our neighbour’s garden as it came into focus; to my amazement I could see not just the trunk and the main branches but every twig – I remember saying ‘look! I can see every leaf!’

When I’ve seen and felt and experienced things of wonder I’m conscious that I will return to them and that they will be there for me as a storehouse of memory when I need them, when I can’t experience them directly. I don’t go out looking for things to collect in this way – that would defeat the whole purpose as the experience would be entirely different. I’m not trying to grab at things and collect them into some kind of an album. I try to go out with an open mind and with open eyes and with as few thoughts in my head as possible, and wait to see what happens………

Holidays In The Rain

Holiday season is upon us. Here in England the weather continues to be not quite what you would hope for when taking some time off work, and it has reminded me of childhood holidays spent in North Wales, and in the Isle of Man, when frequently we would find ourselves on holiday in the rain. The interesting thing is that I don’t remember this mattering very much to us at the time; I have wonderful memories of those holidays, the places we went to and the way everything looked and felt. I have just read a lovely post by Annika Ruohonen, Finding Shelter in the Dunes, that reminded me of how it feels to be in natural, wild places that are undevelopped and unspoilt, and how important these places are.

Yesterday we had rain of almost every different kind. It seems strange that we have relatively few words to describe all these kinds of what meteorologists call ‘precipitation’ – drizzle, shower, steady rain, downpour. What about the rain that is not even drizzle, but just barely something more than mist, or cloud? The kind that wetted us yesterday afternoon, when the valley was inhabited for a while with a cloud so low that it swam along the hillside beneath the horizon, at the same level as the grazing sheep. And what about the kind that comes down in stiff straight rods, bounces off tarmac and overflows gutters? Or the kind that sweeps sideways in wet curtains in a gusty wind?

Remembering our childhood holidays with days spent walking in hills and mountains no matter what the weather, I thought that as soon as the rain eased off a bit on this dark and gloomy day I might as well seek out the darkest and gloomiest place within easy reach and see what I might find.

There is a small patch of woodland in the corner of the park that I can get to in less than five minutes, and scrambling up a path that had almost turned into a mudslide I found a cool dark green world that made me feel almost as if I was under water. Turning round to look back down the path I nearly slipped and accidentally pressed the shutter release on my camera, which unintentionally produced a shot that looked a lot more like rain than the rain itself. I was delighted with this because up until then, none of my rainy pictures had looked anything like what I was experiencing – and there’s a lot to enjoy in a wet wood, or a wet street for that matter.

The weather keeps us indoors much more than it should. I’m glad that so much of my time as a child was spent outdoors, and I realise how lucky I was to grow up in a place where it was possible for us to play outside, and at a time when we could run free – not just in the garden of our house but also in fields and woods. I will always be grateful for that, and that the habit of getting out of the house has stayed with me, no matter where I am – even in the rain.

A Long Moment Looking

The last few weeks have been so busy that very often I’ve been worn out by the end of the day. By that time it’s not only my weary body that’s aching for a rest, but my mind as well – and frequently I find I can’t relax properly at all until my mind has slowed down and stopped. Even if I feel too tired to do it, I try to go for even a very short walk and take my camera with me, and once I’ve managed to think only about breathing and putting one foot in front of the other (funny how rarely we just concentrate on what we are actually doing) I find a rhythm and begin to let go of everything else. Then I just wait for the first thing that grabs my attention and I stop and look at it as if there was nothing else in the world, and let it slowly sink in.

It’s strange but I can never predict what it will be that will stop me in my tracks, or how long it’ll take for it to happen. Some days it can be twenty minutes or more before I find that I’ve suddenly come to a halt and sometimes it’ll be almost immediate. If it takes longer it’s because I need all of that time to come back, step by step, to just being myself. Other days I find I’m already there, and not thinking – just being aware of myself and the place that I’m in, and feeling a part of where I am. But once something stops me I let it do just that – stop me completely. I’ll just stand, or sit down, or sometimes even squat down or kneel to get a better look, and I swear that for a while absolutely nothing is going on in my head. I’m immersed in the simple act of looking.

The other day it was a drain cover, half covered in weeds, lit by the afternoon sun, dappled by shadows, crusted with dirt and rust. I stood looking at it for quite a while, enjoying it thoroughly for a long time before taking pictures. On other days it might be something a bit more obvious, like this clump of wild poppies on top of a wall, but it’s never something I’ve gone looking for.

I used to take pictures mostly as source material for paintings and other kinds of art work, and I still do, but this kind of photography is a completely different thing – it involves quite a bit of thinking, and I’m conscious of what it is that interests me and why. I still take pictures for lots of different reasons, but what I mostly do now is to try to use the camera just to capture or record the moment, not to preserve it or to make use of it, but just to help me focus even more on what I’m looking at, to help me go on looking and to stay a little longer in that suspended state where I’m not thinking, but just seeing.

I used to think that drawing was the only way to sink completely into what you’re seeing, or if not the only way, then probably the best. Drawing focuses all your attention as nothing else does, and cuts out all other distractions. Taking photographs does this differently, but if you’re lucky, and it works, then the pictures have a power all of their own, and keep something of the magic of the moment.

Pause, Rewind, Stop

Whenever I’m out, even on the shortest walks, from time to time something will suddenly catch my attention and I’ll slow down, retrace my steps and have a closer look.

This means my walks are often interrupted by numerous unpredictable forays into hedgerows, behind bushes, into alleyways, over fences and sometimes into places where I’m not really supposed to go, like other people’s gardens.

Lurking in the bushes some distance from the footpath or prowling round the back of a deserted building sometimes attracts attention, but usually as soon as people see my camera they know what’s going on and don’t get too worried. When I know I’m being watched I sometimes deliberately start to take more pictures.

The day I spotted these daffodils I nearly missed them altogether, as they were growing on a bank above a high wall –  and I had to hold the camera up above my head at arm’s length to catch them with the background of dark green in the hedge behind. I like being surprised like this, coming across the unexpected; it’s often something quite ordinary and commonplace, something easily overlooked but in it’s own way very special, and it fills me with delight.