This article was first published in the Fen and Field ‘Notes from…’ as well as the Fen and Field 2020 Anthology.
I was an early walker. I took my first tentative but equally brave steps at nine months old; unclenching my chubby fists from the furniture and wobbling forwards precariously and much to my parents’ surprise. I was clearly quite eager for independence and my new-found skill of putting one foot in front of the other gave me the opportunity to explore the world around me. There was no stopping me after that, and, if left alone for a few minutes I would be off climbing the stairs, fearlessly scaling formerly out for reach heights and thrill-seeking becoming part of the day’s events – there was so much to see and do!
As the family quickly grew, within a few years I found myself the eldest of five children and the orchestrator and leader of many wild escapades around our local neighbourhood, delighted to have playmates to run-off in hot pursuit of intrepid adventures into the unknown. Our collective childhoods were full of tree-climbing, river-hopping and den-building, straying further and further from home was we grew older and bolder.
In reality, looking back now, we probably ventured no farther than one kilometre from our front door and growing up in a busy council estate meant that there were always friends and family members keeping a watchful eye over us. But, for us kids, we were tasting freedom, with open spaces to roam, green grassy slopes to roll down, nothing to entertain us but a few sticks and our imagination – we had no choice but to get creative!
Like every family we knew our family had its own worries, good days and tough days, highs and lows and everything in-between, still, life sparkled in the thick of a degree of chaos. My parents worked hard to provide, occasionally holding down four or five jobs between them, barely seeing one another or us at times, but doing everything they knew how to makes ends meet, keep a roof over five small heads and put food on the table – to this day I don’t know how they managed it. We didn’t live in poverty ever, but, earning enough money was a continual pressure and source of concern for my parents. For us children, it meant we learned a good work ethic very early on as well as how to be fairly independent from a young age and creating our own fun was simply par for the course during school holidays. We ran the length and breadth of those streets like wild things, never wondering too much about what we might be missing in the world beyond our known parameters, luxurious trips abroad not featuring in our vocabulary during those action-packed days. But we loved every minute of those long, humid summer days when we would leave the house early in the morning and only return home when it became dark out or our tummies rumbled with hunger reminding us we hadn’t eaten since breakfast – we didn’t notice because we were so busy having fun. We would inevitably arrive on the doorstep to ‘tuts’ from Mum, each of us completely dishevelled, filthy from head to tippy-toes, speckled with scrapes and bruises and exhausted from our exploits – they were good times and there was always a bath ready.
In my early teens we moved house and I then developed a love for running. I pounded the streets solo after school and participated in cross-country competitions at the weekends – my passion for movement and being outdoors a clear carry-on from my childhood. The experience of motion and challenging my body in the fresh air acted for me as a remedy to teenage angst, exam stress, broken hearts and was the one space I quickly learned that I could hear my true inner voice, still, strong and clear – I could tune-in to the who and what of my existence and it was where I was taught deeply and intimately who I am, what I stand for and what meaning encompasses for me.
As little kids, when my parents had free time they would take us to our local forests or the Mourne Mountains to walk, play and explore and this continued well into my teenage years too, securing within me a passion for wild places. It was really quite an innovative feat on my parents’ part when you think about it. It was an inexpensive way to add novelty, awe, excitement and experience into our routine and our lives, adding so much enrichment and ultimately teaching us all a huge amount. We all learned to respect nature and the elements by being allowed to roam freely in it, to navigate rugged terrain, growing all the while in resilience and character. To this day, over a quarter of a century later, all five of us ‘kids’ still hike in the mountains on a regular basis.
From early on I was aware of the affective nature of being outdoors and particularly in the mountains. Alongside the marvel, the enchantment, the glorious wonder that accompanies being surrounded by jagged rocks, purple mountain heathers, far-stretching vistas over rolling countryside, shimmering loughs and dizzying distant peaks, there was also something else. A stillness… a tangible calm that would descend like a soft blanket from the heavens to comfort me and provide me with warmth of spirit. I was fully aware of the sensation when I walked with others in the hills, even amid the chat, laughter and enjoyment of a shared adventure, I could feel the tumultuous sea within calm and become like the surface of glistening, glassy lake – a magical encounter. It was particularly strong and profound when I hiked solo in the mountains and it began then to be something I would regularly go in search of. It provided refuge and solace from the busyness and stresses that go with everyday life in our modern world. Hiking alone in the hills rapidly became for me the antidote to the information, stimulation, accumulation overload I was experiencing. It provided the opportunity to be free, time to be alone with my real thoughts, to remove myself from expectations, the constant bombardment of news and the pressure to do more, to be more, to want more, to consume more and to generally feel in a permanent state of overwhelm. As a Mum of three now myself and a small business owner, life gets full-on hectic at times and having a place that I can go to and unwind and tap into my intuition is pure joy.
I lace-up my boots, zip-up my jacket and pop a thermos of hot soup in my rucksack and off I go into the wilderness alone. One foot in front of the other I walk onwards and gradually as I move through the space, my senses heightened by the sheer beauty all around me, I feel my hunched-up shoulders relax, my clenched jaw soften. I am invited into a place of wonder and as I go further and deeper into the landscape the blanket begins to envelope me. The stillness arrives, softly and sweetly, like the kindest of friends.
I do enjoy the zesty tang of the physical achievement in reaching a mountain summit, but what gives me greater pleasure is to zig-zag the slopes, to follow where my instinct leads, to be carried along almost trance-like, yet fully wide-awake and alert to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells all around me. The rhythmic pattern of walking, the tread and thump of feet on earth, becomes for me a meditative force and as I journey, I feel myself sink deeper into understanding myself.
When I am there, immersed in the golds, greys, blues and browns of wilderness, granite, sky and dirt I experience my true nature with a clarity and precision I find nowhere else. I do not feel separate from the land or the creatures than inhabit it, but part of it, at one with all of creation. It is both a powerful and humbling awareness – the sensations often causing me to pause in my tracks and be there – still in a precious moment in time – I am awed, held, wild, free, brave and loved. I am nature and nature is me. All is well with the world for an instant. Wonder and insight, comfort, inspiration, wisdom, guidance, acceptance and more have been freely bestowed and with no expectation of a return gesture – the purest and most generous of gifts come from the earth – the greatest of all, to know and be known.