“I didn’t turn to wildlife because I was bullied and oppressed, I turned to wildlife out of love, and love helped me in a bad time, as love will. But love is far more than comfort. There was more than mere escape here: there was meaning, purpose, beauty, and especially, love. I reached these things through the power of the wild world and through the power of my imagination. And so far as I was concerned, the two things were indivisible. (Simon Barnes My Natural History)
I hadn’t walked in a long while. One time in my life when we first came back to England, I walked everywhere. Down the coast, through marshes, across heaths, along empty country roads, tangled green lanes. Through long afternoons, at sunrise, in the night under stars, in the rain and snow, my feet following the tracks of deer and pheasant. I was walking myself back into the land, immersing myself in bird, tree, flint, the ancestral feel of things.
Sometimes you walk to connect yourself with a place, with your own creaturehood. And sometimes you walk when you don’t know what to do. Where am I going? What am I doing here? Is there any meaning to our existence? What does the planet feel about all these statistics we make about the future?
Somewhere along that walk you’ll find something that will answer those questions. It might be a small thing. And yet it’s a key that opens the door.
“What make are they?” he asked.
“What make?” I said, and laughed. They’re not machines, they’re animals! Red deer.
We looked, the two men and I, at the group in the field. The deer looked at us. They were young males and occasionally two would rise up and spar elegantly with their hooves, in that famous heraldic pose you see on coats-of-arms.
“Have you heard them roar?” I asked. I was about to say “you have to experience the deer rutting before you die,” but hesitated. They were already old.
As autumn comes the red deer of Britain gather in the forests of Suffolk: at Tunstall, Dunwich, Minsmere, Iken. As dawn breaks and the mists rise the stags meet in the clearings under the birch and pine, carrying their antlers aloft, to decide who should be running which territory. The sounds of their contests rumble through the land. To hear that primordial sound is to remember everything about wild things.
I write this because as equinox approaches some part of us, unmoored in the summer, comes back to earth. As I emerged from the tent (where I’m still sleeping) into the dark early morning, I noticed Orion glittering on the horizon and the owls calling down the lane. The dew was cold on my feet.
Where am I going? I am walking home. What am I doing here? I know the names of things. Is there any meaning to our existence? Ah, more tricky. Only if we remember that everything tracks back to the ancestors, to the shape of the wild world. What does the planet feel? What do you feel when people talk about you as if you are not there?
The men had been friendly. We talked about deer and the heath (we were at Dunwich, eight miles down the coast). But when they were gone, I turned my attention back to the deer. The deer are what I remember. Walking the bony track of white sand. The bees among the heather, the colour of the rosebay willow herb, the long curve of the beach, the crab shell in my pocket, the light on the river, the ropes of wild hops around a telegraph pole, the lilt of the water swimming, the taste of salty samphire in my mouth.
There was once a Jesuit who gave up his monk’s cell and walked instead into the mountains. His name was Anthony de Mello. De Mello wrote that nothing human can touch us where it really matters. We let our whole lives be shaped by the people who we think should love us completely and tell us we matter, and yet they cannot. Because no one can love us until we love ourselves and that Self is something mysterious, indefinable, ungovernable, Other that we can only reach in our own inner solitude, in the depths of ourselves.
When we realise that self, we realise that we did not come to love each other in the way we think we should, but something else entirely. We came to love our own nature, and that nature could only be found in the patterns of wild nature itself. This is not a nature that is accessible in any other way than with our own being - our own presence within its fabric. It is not something we can own, or control or manipulate, or put in our gardens on show, or use as a resource. We can only find it it by being at home with its Otherness.
It is a question entirely of relationship. Indeed as love always is.
Sun, Southwold Denes; mushrooms, Minsmere Woods; bell heather, Dunwich Heath; samphire, Walberswick Marshes