A Walking Conversation
Posted 5 months ago by Catherine Colwell
In March, Tom Pow, knowing we were both writers to whom walking was important, asked us if we would like to contribute a conversation about walking and talking to A Year of Conversation. He suggested we might begin with the idea of a conversation with self, with others, with the world - or the question of which came first, walking or talking.
Something about the question 'which came first' troubles me - maybe it’s the tense. I immediately cast my mind back to family stories and a time before I can remember.
I guess I'm not sure how to have a conversation with self. With others is fine. I'm talking all the time to others; though maybe I'm talking to myself too: that internal monologue, which I've spent a lifetime trying to ignore.
With the world is the really intriguing one for me: how do we communicate with the world - and "it" to us - however we perceive the world and whatever “its” various component might be. That's a seriously pressing (cultural) dialogue in the age of climate disaster.
Back to the walking aspect - I think of this last conversation, with the world, or maybe engage in it, every walk I take. Especially the walks I take day after day - the same walks on the island [Bute] and (less frequently now) at the Carbeth [in the Campsies] hut. It's here I can escape the novelty of new landscapes and come to terms with ephemeral and minute and seasonal change - and how these things relate to climate changes.
As I left for my holiday in the strange landscape of La Gomera [in the Canary Islands], I found myself pondering the question of which came first - walking or talking - and thinking that these abilities come to us at much the same stage in our childhood development. It made me reflect that my first maps were formed on a ground geologically quite unlike Scotland. In New Zealand as a small child, so I'm told, I walked with my father way up one of Banks Peninsula's volcanic hills. What strikes me about this now is that my dad probably loved being out for a walk with his small daughter. No doubt we were chatting as we went. There is something lovely about walking and talking, a kind of ease - and perhaps especially with small children? I always loved picking my daughter up from school and walking home together - her day unfolding in talk. It's a most natural way of conversation. There's a rhythmic thing happening and the talk unfolds as it will.
So funnily enough, thinking of walking half a world away from Scotland brought me back to the simple thing of walking and talking.
On La Gomera (a volcanic landscape but quite different from New Zealand) on one of our first walks, climbing steeply up the stone treads, feeling the heat - I thought that it was only self - all self - body - I was talking to - that was all my focus. The world (old terraces, volcanic rock, profuse Canarian flowering plants) slid past my eyes, secondary to the effort of walking steeply uphill. Then my daughter fell back to chat so the conversation was with others, and from time to time we stopped - to look at an intensely blue flower or to listen, all three of us, to an animal noise we couldn't identify.
And that was as far as I got with recording my thoughts - on that particular walk and on others. The thinking was all subsumed into walking - the effort, but also just that simple pleasure of being in a place. Thoughts drifting but not pressing, and the flow of conversation, pause and continuance, as the terrain allowed.
Much of what you've said about a conversation with the world, I haven't addressed - and perhaps don't have that particularity of knowledge - though what has happened in a place is something I notice, even if it's only a clue to a history I don't know, like the disused terraces on La Gomera.
Perhaps back home on more familiar landscapes, I will think about that.
I'm writing this while thoughts are clear in my head.
As you know, I walk every day for a couple of hours with the hound. It's almost invariably just the two of us. The conversation - well, I'll come to that.
I relish the walking. Although I'm in a quiet place on a quiet island and walk on deserted strands and silent woodlands and the estate pinetum [an arboretum only for pines] (though with ravens and buzzards calling and yaffles and latterly the cuckoo), I yearn for that quiet. There is so much noise pollution in my life - even when I listen to Radio 3 it's broken by the continuity person. It's not that I don't enjoy conversation on a walk, it's simply that silence, more accurately the lack of human speech, is so rare in the world.
I do, of course, talk to the hound. It's more a thinking out loud. Like many people, poets perhaps especially, I'm conversing in my head, making lines of poems, thinking. If a conversation is between people . . . if . . .then it surely stems from this thought, a response to others' words - or silences. When I speak to the dog, it's mostly to hear a phrase out loud. But: he responds by listening, most definitely, and by his eye contact and his use of body language. He is a silent dog, outside. His thoughts unknowable.
I've been contemplating recently the nature of animism but with more than 5 decades of Buddhist thought and practice and the same of ecological immersion, I already know the truth of interdependence (or as John Muir put it: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe"). So: I carry on conversations of many types with what the dog and I come across in our silence. Sometimes, out loud, I'll tell the herring gulls to not be so loud. Today I walked round tangles of wrack, only to wonder what I was squishing unseen, underfoot.
What I'm saying is that walking and (my type of) conversation inform each other.
I guess this is where I have been slowly coming from in all my writing, since all of those things are interdependent. I can't write (talking to unknown reading others?) without thought, I can't walk without thought, I can't think without conversing with others (non-human) and I can't stop talking that inner monologue. I gave that one up years ago for just observing the thoughts coming and going. Walking is easy, conversation requires the instant marshalling of those thoughts and directing them to a purpose. Can thoughts have a purpose? Is there a purpose to poetry?
It's not that I don't have memories of walking with my children - their sharp perceptions and freedoms peppering any conversation. Maybe I've reached the age when Indian men traditionally used to renounce the outer life for an inner life in the woods; literally. Conversation and walking, however, continue . . . with them, as with me.
Clearly our different landscapes inform what we might talk about and how we physically walk. My mother said I started walking at 9 months, but never said a word about me talking.
I guess my walking from childhood - directed walking, that is, from place to place - has always been solitary. I remember being left behind on a beach once, when the adults (I was about 7) first went to the pub and then home, drink no doubt causing a lapse of memory. I knew the way home, though it was through the darkening woods, 3 miles or so. I just walked home in the twilight into and out of those woods, full of dusk-song and twisting tree boles. I was asked at home if I'd been frightened of the dark woods (oh, read Schama's Landscape and Memory) - a question I didn't fully understand, since it had never occurred to me that there was anything to fear.
Thinking about it now, so long after - I see that I still find trees good companions. They walk too, but in a very different way. It's a studied, observable fact that conifers on the eastern States have been steadily moving north and broadleaf trees steadily moving west in response to climate pressures. Not individuals, of course, but offspring. And slowly.
Walking over the Fannichs [in the North-west Highlands] a couple of weeks back, I found myself musing about the walks I take in the local parks with friends. Perhaps it was the contrasting pattern of the two sorts of walks. On a hillwalk, there are long reaches without conversation, Tom [my husband] way out ahead. He'll wait, perhaps we'll have a brief chat then soon he's miles ahead again. We chat when we stop for a sandwich or on the long track out at the end of the day. In between there are just fragments of talk, of ptarmigan or distant hills or oncoming weather, or the practicalities of fences and gullies.
Whereas, when I'm walking with a friend which I do most most Monday mornings, we chat the whole way round: whatever has happened over the week, children, books, music, other friends. Sometimes we see the park we walk through - this morning's nesting swan - other times the park is a backdrop to intense chat. Over the years there have been some bad times: my friend's depression and the trauma and grief of her husband's sudden death. Mostly, I haven't been able to offer any real answers, I was just a listener, and yet ... there is something therapeutic perhaps about simply being in the company of friends and talking and moving as you talk, and being listened to, that flow of conversation. Certainly my own less acute stresses get talked out/walked out.
You described talking to the hound, and his responses, his body language. When I meet my neighbour walking her Labrador and we stop to chat, the dog usually sits looking up at us, as if listening to the to-and-fro of talk. On one occasion when she was away I met her husband walking the dog. The dog was ignoring him, he laughingly told me, except when dinner was required - and it was true. There we stood, in the street, chatting, but the dog, instead of looking up at us, sat down and turned her back. Nothing about our conversation she wanted to join in with!
It must sound like I'm in a constant whirl of chatty walks but so much of my walking, like yours, is in quiet: the wind in the grasses, hill birds, clouds moving over. Much of my life is quiet though it's in the middle of a city with a background of city noise and the more intrusive stuff - that guy parked up outside with his phone ringing (about to have his own loud conversation) - so like you, I am aware of the constant presence of human speech. When the mind has enough quiet then conversation becomes something to be cherished. Have you noticed when someone has been on their own for a while there is a rush of talk and conviviality? I've seen it in myself - if, say, Tom has been away on a climbing trip - I relish the solitude but if I meet friends then suddenly I become a most sociable individual.
Some of what you've said about walking and the inner monologue - observing thoughts coming and going - puts me in mind of 'mindfulness'. We've briefly been guinea pigs for a friend who's training as a mindfulness teacher and walking home last night (enjoying the long, light May evening), we talked of how something like this happens anyway when we're walking: we're aware of how our feet come down, of the ground underfoot, of our bodies in the world. I feel, as I've written in some of my poems, as much as I act on place (trampling grasses, eroding hillpaths) that place moves through me, changing me. Some kind of conversation. You mentioned that conifers in the eastern States are moving north over generations and broadleaf west in response to climate pressures. Surely part of a conversation - if we knew how to listen.
Walking is easy whereas conversation requires the directing of thoughts to a purpose - I guess this is why I get tired of it, though less so with old friends or one or two people at a time. Talking in groups I find a struggle. I tend to get quieter and quieter and then give up.
Nor am I often on a group hillwalk but last weekend I walked up a hill with twenty other people to celebrate a 60th birthday. I can't talk much on the uphill - far too much breath and bodily effort required - but it was convivial on the top, prosecco in a cold wind! And downhill a to-and-fro of talk. One particular conversation was really about the thing you mention at the end of your email - the idea of reaching an age when the balance of inner and outer life changes. I feel ambition diminishes as you get older or becomes a more inward thing. To me it seems a freeing up, rather than a loss, and maybe this is why studies find that people in their 70s (not that I'm there yet) have a higher level of contentment than those who are younger. Instead of all that striving forward, living in the future - more chance to commune with the world in which we live (though building the future is important too).
And how many groups of older women do I see walking (and talking) together - women more than men. So many - I'm talking about local parks again now. And if I were thinking about the wellbeing of older people (is that us?!) what could be better? Exercise, open air, the green of leaves and grass, companionship, and the chance to be at one with the world.
Well now, Gerrie,
you mention that there might be more time for contemplation, a dwindling of ambition as we grow older - yes, I'm now in my seventies - just - so I do interact so much more with the world as it is now in my view (& yes, the conversation we have with the future is vital) and I've never had ambition anyway other than perhaps to coax a camellia or mulberry into flower . . . so there may well be fewer stresses at my age of a personal nature, but time - oh dear the acceleration of time!
You touch on points that resonate deeply with me. Like walking in the park with your friend suffering from depression: the only response can be listening. Listening is the other, central part of conversation, I think. How many folk I talk to, even walk with sometimes, are really only waiting for one's voice to stop before responding to their own last point - scarcely listening at all.
Maybe this is where your point about mindfulness enters. I have, I confess, come to mistrust that word. However, when applied carefully, it is the same, perhaps, as kinhin, the Buddhist practice of walking meditation. Mindfulness applied to the art of listening.
The old saying that you are what you eat also applies to the way and the where of our walks. I'm moving daily across the woodland floor. Underneath me are countless creatures; not just micro fauna and flora, but mycelia, and larger creatures: the mice, the shrews, rabbits, weasels, foxes, earthworms who inhabit the woodland and its edges. In some way I'm conversing with them through the rhythms of footfall: they listen. Likewise on the two very different beaches I walk on, I encounter boulders, stones, shells of once living creatures, wrack everywhere; on the other, pure sand, there are countless sand fleas. With the rocks, I sort of discuss geology (but you'd know that): we name things as we pass - another form of conversation, almost a friendly nod. With the hoppers and fleas, we mutually agree to avoid each other. What does a summer stranded jellyfish feel when I inch it gently back into the water? And those seals on "my" sitting rock: mine at low tide, theirs at high: we stare at each other, my singing not appealing, but they listen anyway.
I guess I might even have reached that age of the traditional Indian in the woods. Ha! I think that walking is a conversation in and of itself: we are communicating with everything round us, which mostly avoids us or is indifferent; but nevertheless silence is part of any conversation. Sometimes - mostly - this is enough for me. Though like you I'm a social animal and relish a dram with one or two friends. I think human conversation is also to be treasured. In groups, conversation always fragments into smaller components, even say, round the table for a meal. I lapse into silence then too, unable to respond to so much and so many words.
Thanks for your patience in waiting for this reply.
Thanks too for this conversation, which might be concluded another time, in another way?
So Gerry, this may be the pause in our conversation...
I'm intrigued to see how much we have touched on silence - on how listening is a part of any conversation. It causes me to reflect that we take conversations or parts of conversations with us into silence (though is the mind ever silent?), and that the thoughts, ideas, experiences from those conversations resonate long afterwards in the mind of the listener
so that the conversation in some way continues and renews itself
as this one will do.
Gerrie Fellows has spent the last 35 years in Scotland coming to know the landscapes which are the focus of the poems in her fifth collection, Uncommon Place (Shearsman). One of her preoccupations as a poet is the relationship of the walker to the shifting nature of the place through which she walks and often what draws her to write about a landscape is its human presence. She enjoys being in all sorts of Scottish landscapes from the Renfrewshire laws to the Cuillin Ridge and has walked extensively in the mountains of Corsica and the Pyrenees.
Gerry Loose is a poet living on the Isle of Bute. His work is as often found inscribed in various landscapes, Botanic Gardens, hospitals and galleries as in his books. His latest publications are fault line (Vagabond) and night exposures (Vagabond). His work is in formed in particular by walking. Longer walks include a 9 day inaugural walk of the John Muir Way and two months spent walking in US deserts and subsequently in Japan in search of the remains of nuclear/atomic weapons sites and damage. His awards include a Creative Scotland Award, a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, Hermann Kesten Stipendium and a Kone Foundation Award.