Chasing Nature

I find myself lately looking for new things to write about. Much as I don’t wish to plunge recklessly into another book, I miss the regular practice of writing that the last one gave me and feel oddly congested without it, as if I had verbal constipation. Anyway, one of the books I read while resting was Jilly Cooper’s The Common Years, definitely a comfort read of the highest order. It’s a book based on the diaries she kept between 1972-82 when she lived in Putney in London and walked her dogs regularly on the Commons there. It’s a very funny and touching account of owning dogs, watching children grow, and living in a small community, bound together by gossip, feuds and local events. But it’s also a great deal about nature, for which Cooper has a tender eye. I loved her descriptions, like this one, for instance:

Sunday, March 30th 1982

Glorious sky-blue day. Walk to Barnes Station. Last year’s bracken still clings onto the dotted green hawthorn bushes, like some doddery ancient lady hanging onto the arm of a handsome lover. On Common Lane a blackthorn tree is already out and scattering confetti. The little elm copse on the corner of Rocks Lane and the Lower Richmond Road is putting out green leaves, but so many branches are already dead. They are like haemophiliac princes, doomed to die young.’

I loved the way that Jilly Cooper’s writing seamlessly blended the external world and her private family life; her lively eye recorded the seasons passing, and her faultless ear picked up all sorts of bits of funny dialogue that came her way (‘Sunday walk with both children. They have long discussion about how old I’ll be when they’re both over seventy. Emily says: ‘You’ll be over 100, Mummy, and paralysed, and you’ll have lost all your legs and arms.’ Felix says: ‘You might not, if you use Oil of Ulay.’) And I wondered for a while about keeping a diary again. But that sort of practice is something that makes me flag, these days, put off by the death knell of obligation. But I did feel a tug in me towards writing more about nature. I tend to be an indoors sort of person, but there are parts of nature for which I feel a deep affection. We live in a very pretty spot, right on the village green, and opposite the Brook, on which several families of ducks parade themselves. If at night I hear the screech of a car’s breaks you can bet that a couple of them have unwisely decided to cross the road. The Brook is circled by glorious chestnut trees and they mark the chapters of the year for me. In the spring, I long to see the sticky buds burst into the thick, creamy blossoms of the candles, and now the leaves are on the turn; a dull rusty color under gray skies they glow into bronzed life when the sun warms them. It won’t be long before the conkers start to fall, and the green will swarm with little boys filling their pockets.

I’m also fond of our garden, which I spend a lot of time defending from the energetic pruning of Mister Litlove. There is little more therapeutic for him, after a tough week at work, than taking the secateurs to any poor shrub that has made the mistake of flourishing. Work has been a bit unrewarding this past year and there have been times when I have feared that all my plants would be reduced to scrawny misshapen balls of twigs. On the whole, plants are like hair, in that even the most identity-destroying cuts grow out in time, but we have had a few tragic casualties. It’s about the only thing we really argue over.

But neither the back garden, nor what I might laughingly refer to as the front garden provide a ready source of words. And then it occurred to me that not at all far away we have a local country park. The entrance gates are not far from the supermarket I regularly visit, and suddenly it seemed like a great idea to go walking there every time I had to shop. It struck me that I needed the exercise, and I had a luminous vision of myself, strolling the paths of the park and then retiring to the café in the grounds to write up my impressions.

So I hastened off to the park last Monday, pausing in the supermarket to buy myself a new notebook and pen. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious day, being overcast yet humid, with a blustery wind. It was the kind of day when you don’t know from one end of it to other whether you are hot or cold. Still, I wanted to make a start, so I drove to the almost empty car park. Instantly I ran into a problem; the fee to park there was a flat charge, £2 for the entire day. Well, I didn’t want to park the whole day, I only wanted to be there for an hour at most and I hadn’t got £2 with me. The place looked windswept and deserted and I thought about risking it without a ticket, but my inner good girl rebelled and I ended up getting back in the car and parking just outside the entrance gates, something several other people had evidently chosen to do.  It seemed crazy to have a great, big, empty car park because the council couldn’t figure out a system of structured payment, but still buoyed with the enthusiasm of the new project, I shouldered my bag and headed off into the park, pausing to look at the map attached to the fencing outside that promised trails and lakes and abundant wildlife.

The first thing I saw was the sign to the café, and imagining a host of colourful local characters I headed eagerly towards it to check it out. From the outside it looked okay, but inside it transformed into the poky dining hall of a state comprehensive school; large refrigerated units hummed softly to themselves in front of tables nailed to the floor that were entirely free from customers. A dull gray glow fell from skylights that probably needed a jolly good clean and I couldn’t even see anyone behind the counter. Outside two young workmen in dirty jeans and t-shirts leered at me, purely for the form of it, then went back to trying to light their cigarettes in a fitful wind. So, not quite the rural pleasuredome of Kubla Khan I had envisaged, but never mind, there was the park to be explored.

I went and explored the park.

It turned out there wasn’t really an awful lot to say about it, either. It was very green. It was a sort of hymn to the power of chlorophyll, with lots of trees that all looked identical to me, and a great deal of nettle-y undergrowth, wilting with exhaustion at the end of a long summer.  There were two large expanses of water, that looked like… well, expanses of water, as they do around here in the fens where every second lake is a submerged gravel pit. In between the two lakes there was a still, silent pond, shrouded by overhanging trees, unnaturally motionless and thick with stagnant emerald algae. I crossed over a couple of wooden bridges, put in to add a pretty attraction but spoiled rather by the huge notices either side proclaiming ‘Danger! Slippery when wet’ and ‘Unsafe construction. Beware flooding.’ Then I began to worry about getting lost, because I can lose my sense of direction if I start turning up the aisles of a supermarket too quickly, and besides, all the paths looked more or less the same, if they didn’t have an unsteady wooden bridge to define them.  And worst of all, I was beginning to feel very, very bored. I lasted somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes, and then I gave it up as too mind-numbingly dull to be borne, and returned to the car.

Was it me? I rather thought it might be. I didn’t feel at all as if I’d had a glorious, life-enhancing commune with nature; instead I felt warm and disheveled and my nose was running (all my tissues were in the car). I was really looking forward to getting home, putting the kettle on and reading something lovely. I have not given up on the idea of finding some nature I like, and there are some possible walks I can take around the village. But I do wonder whether the landscape of the Fens, flat and undistinguished as it is, will ever quite provide me with the experience I’m after. Or maybe, I will have to accept that I am not as responsive to the charms of the natural world as I think I am and I’ll have to find an altogether different topic to write about.


19 thoughts on “Chasing Nature

  1. I am (usually) much more a fan of city walks than nature walks, though at the same time I feel like I should enjoy nature more, so this post made me smile because I rather relate. For me, part of it is that I feel like I’d enjoy nature walks more if I knew more about what everything was: in your excerpt from The Common Years, Cooper mentions hawthorns, a blackthorn, and elms, but when I’m out on a walk I feel, like you, that the trees more or less look the same – or if they’re different, I don’t know what they are. I can recognize maples and oaks and London planes and sweet gum trees, plus a few more when they’re in flower (magnolias, Callery pears) but that’s about the extent of it. And, especially on a walk that’s pretty flat and unremarkable, I feel like knowing the plants and birds would add a lot of interest for me.

    I was recently on vacation in San Francisco, which is a hugely different landscape from where I am (New York City), and while I definitely didn’t know any of the plants there (except for the blackberry patches I occasionally found!), i found myself really enjoying the walks I took. And as I walked, especially on my more nature-y walks the first two days I was there, I found myself thinking about the landscape and how I was responding to it vs. how I respond to it at home. Partly I think it was just the different mindset that being on vacation can produce: I was alone, outside my usual environment, and had no pressing obligations, which made it easier to focus on what I was seeing. I could literally spend the day walking. And it didn’t hurt, either, that the views were coastal views with rocks and dunes and broad vistas, and that I was on a path that kept me tramping up and down from high bluffs to beach-level and back again, with views like this and this and this. But it did make me want to find ways to appreciate the landscape where I am more, too, though I haven’t yet really given more thought to how I want to go about doing that.

  2. Well you certainly made a go of it. I love the serenity that I find when I am out in nature just enjoying the sights and sounds. I’m not sure I’d interrupt the inner stillness I find out there to write in a journal but it does sound like a lovely idea.

  3. This makes me smile, because it sounds so very familiar. Perhaps it’s fall, but I’ve been stricken with the notion of buying a new notebook and pen and getting back to my daily journal writing practice. The idea of walking in the woods, then popping into a charming cafe is oh-so-romantic and writerly, isn’t it? But somehow I always end up with wet feet or a runny nose or a cafe filled with noisy teenagers blaring rap music. You’ve debunked the whole notion so perfectly with your usual grace and gentle humor.

  4. One of the things I value about the outdoors is that you never quite know what’s going to happen. That’s true indoors as well, but the likelihood of something interesting happening outdoors is increased. But if anything can happen, boredom can happen too. It would be interesting to try it again and see if the experience is at all different.

  5. I always feel just the same. I get ideas in my head about going out and finding a beautiful spot in Nature, and sitting on it for hours and hours writing masterpieces. But even if I do find a beautiful spot, I still get hot and rained on and bitten by mosquitoes. I like nature in small doses, but mostly I like to sit inside on a comfy chair drinking coffee. I think Dorothy W. is right, and outdoors is full of more surprises than indoors; I do not like surprises, so it makes sense that indoors suits me best. :p

  6. Litlove, the excerpt from Cooper’s book is lovely, but I also very much enjoyed your description of your unlovely outing. It made me laugh out loud. I’m in the same place of not knowing what to write next and feeling restless and wanting to be writing.

  7. I found your post interesting because I have the same idea too, of myself going out in nature and taking note of the trees, and plants, and how they change through the seasons. Mostly though, I find myself musing on my life, or having inner rants at whatever is upsetting me. I think it takes a particular mind to be able to note nature in its infinite changes….though I think it’s also about writing about what one sees, each day, so that over time the picture slowly emerges of what is around you. So, day one for you would be this almost impossible day! I rather like the sound of Jilly Cooper’s children, too, mine were recently having this exact same conversation as well: how will you be when I reach 70,Mom? which led to a discussion of who was likely to die first, and the common assent from the two youngest was that it was going to be me because I am older than their father. I do wish I could remember to write these conversations down when they happen, like Jilly does – so maybe I have to train myself to take notes. Lovely thought provoking post, Litlove, and I do like your real take on going outside into nature!

  8. Those romantic poets certainly have a lot to answer for – all that banging on about sublime encounters with nature and its capacity to inspire… But I really enjoyed the piece you got from your visit, even if it wasn’t as rapturous as anticipated – I particularly loved that phrase, ‘hymn to the power of chlorophyll’ and your description of the workmen’s obligatory ogling.

  9. Yes, I agree with Lilian – if anything I preferred your description, although I agree Cooper’s details are gorgeous and vivid. But there’s something very funny and true about your dissatisfaction and boredom with this conscious Excursion Into Nature – perhaps just keep walking, LL, and indeed getting lost, and don’t worry about what you may or may not find.

  10. For obvious reasons, this reminded me of ‘Out of Sheer Rage’. I suppose you will not be flattered by the comparison, so recently after your anger with that book, but you should be because I am a very big fan of Geoff Dyer 🙂

  11. “It was a sort of hymn to the power of chlorophyll” made me laugh so! Being out in nature doesn’t always work out the way we want it to. My bike ride with my husband earlier in the summer to the bird sanctuary was such an event as yours to the park. We were going to see birds, feel far away from the city, it was going to be glorious. After 5 minutes we were so bitten by mosquitoes without a bird in sight that we retreated to the peace and rose gardens outside the bird santuary. If not for those gardens the trip would have been a bust. I suspect many of the people who write so marvelously about nature tend to leave out quite a lot!

  12. Parks are lovely when they’re done well, but they’re nature created by people and if they’re just sort of done they’re not really the place for communing with nature (although at least you’ve got some water, whereas we’ve got a BMX track now). I love the huge parks in places like Italy and France, or even the tiny, intimate parks abroad and I’m sure we have the equivalent in the big cities in the UK, but I’m not sure councils quite know what to do with parks in other places. They’re often practical spaces for taking kids to (which is fine), rather than places for sitting and thinking about nature.

    Saying that though nature programs are always making a good case for the nature around us on motor way sidings and in cities. I’m a big fan of canals as places to think, which are the heigth of man made natural spaces, so what do I know?

  13. Heather – those are just gorgeous pictures! I promise you I saw nothing to equal that around the local park. I don’t think I would have been bored, either, if that had been the view. But I do appreciate the solidarity from someone else who is… umm, challenged, by the naming of nature’s beauties!

    Kathleen – I was really hoping to find that serenity, but it didn’t work on that occasion. I will try again – I’m pretty sure that the feeling is tied to particular kinds of landscape, not to landscape in general…

    Becca – aww thank you, and I’m delighted I’m not the only one with a notebook and pen fetish! Come to think of it, I have never yet found a cafe I could write in either, so I don’t know how these romantic visions persist!

    Dorothy – I will definitely try it again. I was most afraid that something unexpected would indeed happen – like being pounced on by a vagrant (I never mentioned the strange tent I saw erected in the woods, wondering who was living there) or being savaged by someone’s out of control dog. I am a complete wimp! 🙂

    Jenny – lol!! See above for the kind of surprises I envisaged, so I think we are quite alike on that score. It is so much safer to sit on the sofa. 🙂

    Lilian – oh I am in good company if you are in that creative lull, too. Isn’t it awkward? I don’t even FEEL like writing anything, but at the same time it’s almost like missing physical exercise (hear Mister Litlove guffaw with laughter when I make that analogy!!).

    Susan – what a wise comment, I think you are quite right, that you have to commit to nature writing as a practice. That you have to turn up every day for it (or regularly at least) and allow it to develop, rather than hoping it will drop fully formed into your lap. I, too, wish I’d written down all my son’s funny sayings over the years – I knew I should have kept a diary, only I never had the time or energy! Perhaps I should do that, instead of fussing over my non-existent knowledge of nature! 🙂

    Baker’s daughter – ah thank you! Of course, it was all those Romantic poets I read… and it never turned out well, did it? I should know better… 😉

    Doctordi – a post in which I get lost…. hmmmm, now THAT would certainly provoke some writing from me – the kind where I sublimate trauma. 🙂 Di, all is right in the universe if I can make you laugh.

    Jean – ooh no I’ll take the comparison and thank you for it! Dyer got up my nose over what he wrote, but he does write very well and I only wished he hadn’t been personally rude to me (as I felt it) or else I would have written rapturously over his book… Thank you!

    Stefanie – lol! Although I am so sorry to hear about the mosquitoes (quite the most annoying of all insects), but I’m loving the solidarity and it’s a relief to know it doesn’t just happen to me! 🙂

    Jodie – I don’t think I have ever walked alongside a real canal. I’ve never lived near one (we have drainage ditches over here, which are quite impossible to romanticise). So hopefully that’s a pleasure that I’ll one day come to appreciate. I think you are very wise in what you say about parks. And I think to make a good one you have to start off with some cool natural features, which our poor local park does not have in abundance. Not that it wasn’t a great space for walking dogs and children, just my fault for not being able to appreciate it properly.

  14. Your park exploration reminds me of the first page of The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins opines: Adventures, nasty things, they make you late for supper.

    You do indeed sound like an indoors person, Ms. Litlove, and it is our gain that you are. 😉

  15. I also live in a lovely spot – which is blighted by paying car parks, often owened by The National Trust or the Forestry Commission. Fortunately I know enough free places to be able to avoid them but I feel sorry for the tourists who cough up a day’s parking fee for a halfhour stroll

  16. Will be very interested to read more of these Excursions into Nature. You can make bored interactions with greenery sound so entertaining.

    Incidentally, we’ve just had a lovely walk in an indigenous forest here and there’s something about walking which is so conducive to thinking things over. I should try and write it up. But this ties in with your zen stuff and the exercise alone is good for you. Maybe you’ll find a favourite part of the park or get to know some of the flora? Would be interested to hear a bit more of where your thoughts go when you’re walking there.

  17. Ben – what a great first line! I have never read The Hobbit – or any Tolkein come to that. I won’t say I will, but I’m glad to have friends pick out the best bits for me. 🙂 And thank you for giving me good reasons to stay inside – I will use them!

    Tom – the car parks are not the most beautiful bit, are they? And it seems daft to charge a flat rate like that. But what do I know? I read books, not manage forests. Still, it sounds like you do live somewhere lovely – how nice!

    Pete – aww, bless you. I can certainly describe more boredom, although in all honesty I haven’t been out for a walk again that hasn’t involved shops… (and it’s been raining a lot). I really must try thinking about things as I walk. I find I am oddly unable to multi-task and cannot walk and talk well (or indeed eat and talk). But I should give it a go. And if I think anything at all interesting I will happily share it. 🙂

  18. “a sort of hymn to the power of chlorophyll”
    Ha! That really made me laugh. It’s not an inspiring garden when you have to start talking about chlorophyll, unless of course you’re a scientist.

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