May mornings in England, it seems, are fickle things. Some light and airy, like the inside of a meringue; others, small and close and grey. One recent morning, a morning that seemed to bring summer with it, cradled in its arms, I set out for a long walk down a road I’d never taken before. A country lane, twenty minutes from my front door, bordered by cow-filled fields and hawthorn hedges, their pungent spring blooms almost all already faded.
The road led me, by twists and turns, to where it ended at a churchyard gate. Headstones were scattered across the ground like birdseed. In the far corner a short flight of steps descended beneath the ground to a holy well dedicated to Saint Margaret, its stagnant waters coated with a layer of pollen. The church itself was small, modest, with a dusty air that brought to mind the ghosts of faded parishioners, and halcyon summers forgotten by all but the rafters and the earthworms. A beautiful place: serene, despite the background rush of cars on the ring-road. The lock-down has eased, and the world has eagerly leaped back into frenetic motion—jolting and juddering, but picking up pace.
What will we take from this great slowing down? Will it drive us to strive for more speed, more haste, the world outside our windows becoming ever-more blurred, as though seen through sleep-smudged eyes? Or will we remember these few days, weeks, months, when some lucky few among us were given the gift of a little time? Time to wander aimlessly, to notice from day to day the slow progression of the spring?
I recently bought a book about trees—a guide to noticing. I wanted to learn the names, the personalities, the histories of the trees; to be able to differentiate the mass of green erupting around me on my daily walks. I sat on the bench in the churchyard and studied my book, comparing a leaf I’d plucked earlier to the drawings on the pages. Aspen? No. Grey poplar? Perhaps.
The book is arcanely ordered, familial species grouped together, but the sequences of families a bewildering mystery I have yet to decipher. Finding potential matches for a tree I’ve spotted on my meanderings is largely a matter of flipping through pages until a familiar-looking image raises its head above the parapets of obscurity. But I don’t really mind this disorderly way of searching. It’s an adventure, and exploration—what might emerge as I turn the pages? I’ve learned, for example, that the tī kōuka (New Zealand cabbage tree) is common enough in the UK to earn a place in a book specifically about British trees.
The book teaches me to notice things I never thought about before—what shape are the striations and grooves in the bark? What shade are the new shoots? Are there fine hairs on the under-sides of the leaves? A beginner’s course in the art of paying attention.
I slipped the leaf between two pages, its identity confirmed (for now). Wandering home, I brushed through a golden sea of daffodils, the wind bending their long stems in rippling waves: tiny suns nodding politely to each other. The air was alive with music: the brush of leaf on leaf—the forest’s violin; the raucous horn of the goose; the clang of a farm gate; the ripple of the Thames over a weir.
Maybe we should use this moment to remember what it means to explore, to be curious, to be slow and thoughtful. What might we find if we allow ourselves to walk without a specific direction in mind; if we re-make the world back better without needing to get there quickly, without even fully knowing where ‘there’ is? Maybe we should wait and see.