Walking, Water, and Elemental Connection


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Posted on July 30, 2018


June 21st, notes made in camp ...

It’s midsummer’s day and the sun is a blaze of heat, warming my back, my head my face. All around me is the fullest flush of green you get in the Lake District – thick fresh bracken carpeting the hills and the grass not yet the washed-out yellow that it can become in July. The sky is blue, a bright, single blue, and the view stretches for miles, without any softening of haze. The air is a drift of gentle sounds: birdsong rising from the trees that flourish along the steep sides of the gill, the buzz of bees bobbing from one full head of clover to the next, and the distant, almost sleepy, bleating of lambs.  

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I’m on the fifth day of a walk, winding my way across Cumbria with Rob, wild camping as we go. I’ve worked through the niggles in my neck and shoulders that come from carrying a heavy bag, my feet are happily settled in my boots, and my legs have relaxed into a rhythm, or at least a good relationship, with the terrain I’m covering. So have my thoughts, and I’m reflecting now on something decisive that happened yesterday. 

It’s one of those things when you’re walking. It doesn’t have to be a long walk, but there’s something about a multi-day walk that allows deep seated thoughts or questions to come to the surface, sometimes bidden, sometimes as if of their own accord. I walk in silence most of the time, and let ideas and words swim around my head. Sometimes I watch as they do their own thing; sometimes it’s as if a single phrase or word is playing on loop; sometimes I take hold of a train of thought, directing it, working through it, wondering about it. I probably walk with a frown when I do that. And there are times that Rob and I walk together and thrash out issues that we’ve been grappling with, or questions that we’re seeking answers to. 

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One of the problems that’s been bugging me/us has been a matter of language, or linguistics within a much-discussed issue: ‘nature-disconnect’. As more and more people live in cities, rely on technology, have a focus of vision and memory determined by screens and the internet, there is a reduction in time spent outdoors and in an understanding of the natural environment - of plants, animals, seasons and more. It’s not a new thing - a discussion about when a perceived separation crept into human consciousness could go on for a very, very long time (... the evolution of the brain? Biblical ‘dominion’ of man over other living things? Descartes?). But the rate of apparent ‘disconnect’ seems to have sped up in the last 20-30 years as lifestyles have changed and technology has become more and more sophisticated. 

Talking about human ‘separation’ from ‘nature’ is problematic. Rob and I frequently find ourselves in the company of people whose work involves creating opportunities to increase the ‘connection’ with ‘nature’ and when we talk about it we often stumble with phrases like Nature Deficit Disorder, nature connectedness, nature reconnection, nature relatedness, getting back to nature or simply the idea of getting close to nature. This use of the word ‘nature’ in this way has become common place; but it just doesn’t feel right. Humans are part of nature. We are mammals: skin, flesh and bone, biological interactive living beings in constant relationship with our environment. 

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It seems that the word ‘nature’ has come to represent ‘rural spaces’ or ‘green plants’ or simply ‘the outdoors’ and, importantly, anything living that’s non-human. The word ‘nature’ may be easy to use as a general term in this context, but it has huge short comings; in a way, talking about humans and nature as if opposed to one another might even perpetuate a perception of separation and difference. 

In the first four days of walking, this conundrum had risen to the surface of my thoughts from time to time, and had then returned to the depths, out of sight and mind. I hadn’t taken much control of the thought, just acknowledged that it was there as a question, and let it be. So, albeit unconsciously, I must have been carrying it when I decided to stick my head into a tumbling beck, half way up a fell.

It wasn’t just that I fancied cooling down, I also wanted to feel the thrill of it. The water was cold enough to make me whoop and shriek, but not so cold that I didn’t do it again, and then again, and then turn my head up and thrust my face into the full force of the water where it rushed in a wide, heavy curtain of white. I came out with my hair soaking, my eyelashes dripping, my skin tingling, my hair releasing water down my back, and a mighty grin on my face. I sat on a rock in full sun, and wrote:

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“I doubt there’s a scientist on the planet who could explain the joy and invigorating power of putting your head in a mountain waterfall. There may be scientists who would try, and in the process of identifying chemicals, nervous reactions, or synaptic activity in the brain could easily eclipse any sense of emotion or elation. This is elemental, it’s fresh and it’s fitting – exactly the right form of energy I need to plug right in to: I’ve been walking and sleeping outside for days, so it seems best when I’m in among the elements to become fully in, to cross the space between water and skin / the space between naming and feeling / the space between air and breath / the space between … 

I have been wondering about the paradox that arises when we talk about human connection to, or disconnection from, 'nature', when in fact we are part of nature. But perhaps there’s clarity here, offered to me by the cold flush of a mountain stream on my head: the issue that’s pressing is not a disconnection from nature but a disconnection from the elements. As humans we have strayed from the elements. We are no longer, with all the trappings that we have acquired and made, as in touch as we once were with our elemental surroundings, which we’ve altered, managed, concreted over and depleted. Likewise we’re far less in touch with our own elemental nature - we have complicated things and for most of us, our possessions and technology-heavy lifestyles have become obstacles to our own keen sense of our bodies and our place in the world, and are also bringing down other species on the way.

I have digressed - I began by writing about the joy of shoving my head into the force of a mountain stream - it has reenergised me, woken me, empowered me, given me a direct connection to some energy source that’s about this place and this time ... last night’s hours of half-light half-sleep and a wind-battered tent had taken their toll on me, but this has woken me up, and I feel fresh and strong.”

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 It felt like something of a light-bulb moment, to think about Elemental Disconnection and Elemental Connection instead of Nature Dis/Connect: all of a sudden I felt more able to articulate both the pleasure and rejuvenating power of being among the elements, and the dis-ease I feel when I spend too long disconnected from them, framed within walls, eyes on a screen, with the sounds of birds, breeze, rain, insects and other animals elsewhere, separated by bricks and windows. When I shared my thoughts with Rob, he was in agreement. The thing we’re trying to describe has not changed, but we might just start talking about it in a different way: instead of saying nature dis/connect, we'll talk about elemental connections.

In that brief immersion in a stream, something happened that closed the space that was lingering between a question and its answer. We've been exploring ‘the spaces in between’ as we walk between the words of a poem etched into the three Cumbrian treefolds. I had expected discoveries about the land’s history, heritage, geology, and appearance, unknown paths, the people I met along the way, but had overlooked what happens in the mind when you walk - a joining up of mental spaces, the continuation of thoughts started but not completed, the consideration of questions unanswered. Sometimes it takes the long process of treading step after step, day after night, hill after valley, for the mind to flow as freely as the elements.

And it might be summer now, and the warmth makes for easy days, but sometimes the times that bring the keenest sense of the elements are when the weather's harsher. Which is why we'll be keen to do another multi-day walk in the winter ...

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