Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of Path - A short story about reciprocity, on walking near to her home in East Sussex.
A jay's feather winks blue from dark ivy and Stinking Iris beneath a line of evergreen trees. I stoop to pick it up. Deep red-brown, peaked acorns litter the ground beside it. Feeling the glossy leaves and black, finely-cracked bark, I wonder to my friend, artist Linda Felcey, that I have often passed by and failed to notice these trees. 'They're Holm oaks' she tells me, 'naturalized from the warm Mediterranean.' I discover that bees thrive on their catkins, many birds shelter in their dense foliage, and the Romans used their wood for making cart and carriage wheels.
Cool winter light glances across the flat, rounded faces of a stack of hay bales and sifts over the steep banks of the old drove road. Dried grasses whisper against the fence, knots of fleece caught between the posts. Golden-orange caps of Velvet Shank thrive on stumps of the hawthorn that once lined the path. On the next, and the next, grow more fungus - fat, black nodules and fawn frills. I have yet to learn their names.
In his essay, Walking, Henry David Thoreau wrote, 'there is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles' radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.'
Each time I tread this path, I stumble upon something new and return to the ground of my being with every step, pulled deeper into conversation with the land and with Linda who has walked beside me for almost a decade.
I'm reminded of John Muir's immortal phrase, 'as soon as we take one thing by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.' Linda, like Muir, lives in an " infinite storm of beauty." But, unlike him, she doesn't travel far. The skirt of Mount Caburn above Glynde village where she lives and works, is her circle. She follows every fold and seam, celebrating, sketching, printing and painting its seasons and subtleties, dressed in its perennial palette of ochre, mist, mushroom and grey blue.
"I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour."
Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust, 'I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.' Linda moves at an unusually responsive pace - observing, remembering, tasting, listening; an intuitive, honest, feral force. Her work springs from walking, stillness and close attention. She concretizes Solnit's idea that 'walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.'
We saunter side by side. Words collect behind us in cart ruts that, half way up the hill, give way to a single chalky track gleaming between the moss - a pale lifeline, an invitation to a lifetime of conversation and exploration, movement and growth. Everywhere are marks of passage and presence that intersect our own - rabbit runs, fox scat, copper-tipped pheasant feathers, bright red hawthorn berries, reaching roots - a skein of interdependent lives that anthropologist Tim Ingold describes as 'a manifold woven from the countless threads spun by beings of all sorts, both human and non-human, as they find their ways through the tangle of relationships in which they are enmeshed,'. For Ingold, life is lived 'along paths, not just in places,' and it's along paths, 'that people grow into a knowledge of the world around them, and describe this world in the stories they tell.' He calls this 'manner of carrying on, of combining movement and attention', 'wayfaring'. Wayfaring is laced to storytelling, to how we establish our own narrative and learn to listen.
We will never completely know this place, the secret histories of the land, the inscape of every plant and animal we encounter. But, in the words of Barry Lopez, 'everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.' In acknowledging the value of each ongoing thread of life inextricably woven into our own, we move beyond our desire for knowledge and ownership.
Our path leads into a wood where purple violets will suffuse the air with sweet, elusive scent in spring. Above, wing-beat, crow-call, rainfall. A steep scarp slips towards the village, old man's beard clothing naked branches in grey-brown puffs of light.
"Everything we encounter within our small sphere is a mystery to be savoured rather than a mystery to be solved."
Through a kissing gate, is pure contrast - only grass, curved earth and sky. Sheep watch blankly as we pass. Crows, perched on their backs, lift and caw, flap and dip ahead of us over Mount Caburn. Reaching the base of the mound, we trace the ridges and ramparts of the iron-age fort like a worn labyrinth, climbing to the top. An immutable ritual. A rhythmic participation, merging, through movement with the lives of those who have lived here before us and the life around us, part of the elementary weave of the world. We peer across the valley to where the silver ribbon of the river Ouse frays into the sea at Newhaven.
We can never really map the terrain of our lives. But, as Robert Macfarlane reminds us, 'the path provides the natural next step'. Many languages use the same word for footprint and understanding. Walking is our way of making sense of the ever-changing world. So, we continue our looping route back downhill. Smeared with chalk. Ears burning from the wind. Through pale fields of flint and half-eaten turnips where an amber fox with black ears lies dead and gulls fly seaward, trailing light. We secure the tendrils of our conversation and the ties of our community and understand that everything we encounter within our small sphere is a mystery to be savoured rather than a mystery to be solved.
Words by Louisa Thomsen Brits. Photography by Jim Marsden. Jim Marsden's photographs and Linda Felcey's artwork appears in Louisa's book, Path.
You can hear Lousia speaking with Laura Barton as part of the TOAST Podcast. On a late spring evening, they journeyed along the pathways close to Lousia's home, discussing the rhythms of writing and the relationship between women and the land.