A bird in the bush
25 Sep 2007
By Kev Reynolds
The great Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies put it in a nutshell: ‘It is not what you actually see along the path, but what you remember to have seen, that gives it its beauty.’
Once a year my wife and I led a walk for all-comers from the village on a tour of our local footpaths. For perhaps the majority of those who join us, it is their only walk of the year, and they use it as a purely social occasion. Heads down as they stroll, snatches of conversation and bursts of laughter echo across the meadows. When we stop for a picnic, invariably someone will ask where we are – although we’re never more than three miles from the village centre!
It is a pleasant social occasion, and there’s nothing wrong in that. But what have we seen? And what will we remember to have seen?
Walking in a group is like driving a bulldozer through the countryside. Wildlife vanishes and the true sounds of the natural world are unheard. For me, the walk has lost much of its value.
But go alone, or with a friend who’s sensitive to the multitude of pleasures a walk can reveal, and it’s not just what you see and remember to have seen, but what you hear, smell, touch and absorb that creates an adventure from a day in the country.
Once when recording a programme for radio, the producer and I took eight hours to walk six riverside miles. Eight hours to walk six miles? Yes, and every minute of those eight hours was packed with magic. Distance didn’t matter; it was what we learned of that short stretch of river and its valley that made the walk an experience so enriching that I recall much of it a decade on. The wren singing from the lichen-stained churchyard wall where we began. The light whistling sound of a swan whose wings beat the air as it flew along the river, and the flash of light on drops of water where it briefly touched the surface. A vole slid into the shallows from the dried mud of the bank. In that dried mud a naturalist might ponder the prints of bird and animal… There were dragonflies, a heron disturbed on a promontory lookout, and a cormorant that had strayed inland. Long neck, hunched shoulders and bewildered expression on its face, it merely watched us watching him, and refused to move.
Solo journeys out of season along the South Downs Way have always been memorable, not so much for the route (although it’s an ever-varied and delightful one), but for the life of the Downs that continues around me while I walk. The song of a lark on a blustery day in April, rising and falling with the wind’s amplification; the mournful cry of peewits wheeling and swooping in an aerial ballet; rabbits and hares almost everywhere. A dog fox was spied late one afternoon stalking across a field of stubble being picked over by innumerable unsuspecting pheasants. I could almost hear the fox’s stomach rumbling in anticipation of the meal he’d be enjoying in less than a minute, when for some unknown reason his head turned my way and our eyes met. He froze. So did I. And for what seemed an eternity we gazed at one another, until inbred fear told him to run. He turned and scampered for cover, leaving the pheasants to continue their scrounging.
It was a wet day in the Cotswolds, with damp mist hiding the views. But seated among the heather with my back to a silver birch, I was entranced by miniscule cascades of spray that showered from the helmets of early purple orchids that shivered all around me.
Bivvying in the Alps recently I was woken in the early hours by a sudden bellowing roar, and opened my eyes to find a stag just paces away from me challenging my right to his territory.
And more than forty years ago in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, a friend and I were struggling up a never-ending scree at almost 4000 metres. My lungs were rasping with the effort, legs ached, dust clogged my nostrils, stones were settling in my boots and I was not a happy man. When suddenly my eyes fixed on a tiny blue flower nodding amid the rust-coloured scree. Its presence came as such a shock that I forgot all else, slumped to my knees and studied its delicate head. How on earth had it got there? How could it survive? And why?
With that one tiny flower the world of nature threw questions my way that I was unable to answer. Ignorance accepted, I drew in its beauty and the sheer wonder of its existence, and more than four decades on I revel still in its memory. That day, that climb, are with me now in the riches of a single flower.
For to paraphrase Richard Jefferies, it’s not what you actually see along the way, but what you remember to have seen, that gives it its beauty.