“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.”
Patrick Kavanagh – words that have been pinned onto a wall at home for years, but now conjure a new feeling.
Around this time last year, Rob and I were unfurling our large square canvas in the Kentmere Valley. It was the fourth in the series of 12 monthly installations, and the words for April were: ‘In This Moment’. Ravens called overhead and snow showers played across the fell tops. I wondered at the way our perception shifts depending on what’s going on, and how moments in time can be measured: a few minutes, an hour, a day, a season, or even an epoch. The concept of national lockdown did not feature in my imagination. How could I have guessed that, if I were to fast-forward one year, we would be living in a moment when the Lake District fells would be off limits; when tens of millions of UK citizens have become confined to their homes and the small areas around them that are within walking distance.
We’re in Week 3 of the lockdown now – the new ‘normal’. Covid-19 has spread around the globe. Thinking about its impact can be dizzying and deeply distressing, with an ever rising death toll and an incalculable strain on individuals and societies coping with physical, emotional and financial difficulties. That’s not to mention trying to think about what might come ‘after’ – that, for now, seems to be a stretch too far. We are all caught, now, in a moment that is expanding in a kind of stasis, a limbo, waiting to see what might come next, and each day trying to find some stability.
During lockdown one of the recommendations – in fact it feels like an order – is to have ‘daily exercise’. Our typical morning walk takes us around a series of lanes and back along an ‘old way’, a narrow path between trees, hedges and banks, which in summer will be thick with ferns, brambles, sorrel, foxgloves, wild strawberries, campion and nettles. At the beginning of lockdown, all the trees were bare, but in the last ten days we’ve seen things change: honeysuckle leaves have pressed out of sleeping branches, hawthorn leaves are emerging, and the blackthorn is a glorious burst of tiny white flowers. But it’s not just these features that we’ve come to notice: through our repeated visits, we’ve also been able to witness the patterns of birds going about their daily lives. There’s a sycamore at the end of the lane where the same thrush sits on the same bough at the same time each day, and offers up its incredible repertoire to the sky. Next tree along, an oak, will always harbour a blackbird, in one of the higher branches, singing and singing, with its daffodil-yellow beak slightly ajar. Then there’s a smaller oak, growing where foxes scratch the earth as they pass between fields and leave their scent each morning. This tree is favoured by a robin whose lilting and melodic song has to compete with the throaty bleats of ewes worried for their lambs. And there are blue tits, wrens and chaffinches flitting and chattering, the occasional skylark and distant curlews; but we’re always sure to walk through the singing of these three birds in this spot – and there’s the bold blackbird that perches on the roof of the old school house, and seems to want to sing louder than all the others.
In the past, I think it’s true to say that we appreciated that this patch of land was a ‘habitat’, but only in an abstract sense – we knew birds dwelt here, we heard their songs, we noticed them flying. But now we’ve started to relate to this hedge-bound place as more than just as a collection of living things: we are getting a deeper sense of it as a dynamic and ordered place, with pathways, platforms, territories and homes of specific birds and animals.
It’s not just us. It seems that more and more people are noticing the natural world around them more keenly than ever before. There’s a celebration, more people using Apps to identify birdsong, people are sharing images of trees and flowers, there’s talk about bees coming out of hibernation, wonder at the sound of owls in cities … despite the dreadful impact of the virus on so many lives, there’s a joy and a commonality to be found in the contact with the natural world, and a sense of gratitude too: perhaps for its beauty or its power to ground us, or a reminder of the continuation of life, and the positivity this can nurture.
The new practice of ‘daily exercise’ and the limitation of accessible space has meant that many people are doing the same walk/run/cycle every day, perhaps at a similar time, day after day. And most of us have slowed down; there’s no rush to multi-task or to race from one place to the other. With this comes a deeper act of noticing; something that comes without even consciously trying.
As we walk along the lanes and paths without a need to rush, and without the acoustic trash of cars, lorries and planes, we are getting to know so much more about the other animals that live here. Our sense of ‘here’ has shifted. It sounds strange to say this of a place that is already home, a place we already thought we knew; but until recently our habit has been to roam in a much wider area, and our attention has been more thinly spread. We regularly travel to favourite fells and valleys, and for this project we’ve been exploring the whole of the Lake District. Our ‘here’, before now, was so much larger. Now it’s limited to a two- or three-mile radius.
When we were developing ‘Sense of Here’ back in 2018, one of our driving forces was our curiosity about where ‘here’ is, how big ‘here’ might be, and where one person’s ‘here’ borders or blurs into another person’s. We also wondered about the way a view of place is so often human-centric, when birds and animals have their own dwelling spaces, and our ‘here’ will always overlap with theirs. Everything is, after all, interconnected.
Covid19 has forced us into a change of perspective: one that throws the spotlight on the most local of spaces and, through repeated, slow observation, reveals how deep and multi-layered a small area can be, and how much we can unwittingly take for granted, or simply not notice. Walking along those old ways now has a different quality for us: our mental map of the area is now marked with the homes, fly-paths and footfalls of other animals. Instead of simply passing through, getting from A to B, we feel like visitors in others’ homes, being treated to the wonder of song, the newly unfurled leaf, the glint of light on an early flower. And we take it slowly.
This delight at the most local has a gorgeous, gentle and nurturing quality to it. And we’re thankful for that. So grateful that we have this on our doorstep. There are many people for whom ‘daily exercise’ might be limited to an indoor workout, perhaps in front of a screen, or a small square of grass and a glimpse of sky; and sight of nature might be birds seen from a window, or a single tree coming into leaf. For some, imagination and memory are treasures: recollections of times beyond the confines of four walls, or away from oppressive streets. And for many people, lockdown has triggered a yearning for places that have been loved and visited, or wait to be – coast, hills, woodland, moors.
But for now, we are here, each in our own small patch. When the lockdown is over, that will surely change. Until then, we have a window when life is different: we’ll be getting to know our own small patch ever more deeply as spring turns to summer.
One day we’ll look back and realise the significance of this slow, close-up time. It’s a more intense version of what we aim for in our practice, when we’re out in the hills, or camping, or visiting the same trees time and time again, sitting still, and reflecting through poetry and photography. But our ‘here’, at the moment, is geographically more concise, and time is stretching for us. I get the sense that there will always be something new to draw us in.