A water meadow during a dry spell. A secluded space on the fringe of the old city. Luckily for its own life, it facilitates the management of flooding. This space is available to the public, on this walk less frequented than I would have expected. It is not grandly wild, but feels different to anywhere else I have discovered in easy walking distance from my home. I like its flatness, its greenness, and its openness to the sky.
I walk here in the early evening, grateful for the path, challenging the pollen to do its worst. Lifelong hay fever has made me less of a nature boy than I might have been, certainly at this time of year. But I don’t like feeling restricted, even with my new health complications. Walking in an open space like this, particularly when there is a good breeze, lifts my spirits.
From a contemplative perspective, I am in very friendly territory. My senses relax into a more porous relationship with my surroundings. I begin to disappear into the landscape, losing myself in the experience of the moment. Very briefly, I am the path, the sky and the bramble.
Back in my envelope of skin I see grey above me, and I start to wonder about rain. I am not dressed for it. Luckily, at least for me, no rain falls. I do notice that the riot of life around me might like a good fresh soaking. But I’m conscious of my own interests now. I head for the shelter of my home.
In my world, this is a time of laboured breath and limited capacity for walking. While medical investigations are underway, I am constrained in what I can do. But walking outside, taking slow deep breaths, and drinking plenty of water are medically and spiritually recommended. Today I went outside for the first time in some days, water bottle to hand, and a rhythm of slow, deep breathing established.
I walked in my neighbourhood and a nearby local park. The picture above is a treescape from that park. For me, it is images solidity and endurance alongside blue sky and spring growth. In itself, it occupies a unique niche in the web of life. I enjoy its company, and the opportunity to record its presence here.
My world may seem, at least for the time being, to have shrunken. My own presence in it, and my perceptions when present to it, do not have to shrink along with the physical distance I can cover. A necessary slowing down contains it own opportunities. I have space and time to enjoy the willows here, their leaves, and the shadows of their leaves. I am constrained to take notice. I appreciate the experience of noticing. I am reminded that I am just outside the period assigned to willow in my personal tree mandala (1,2), but of course it is not too late to connect and commune. There are compensations nested in my unwanted condition.
I find the houses and their surrounding plant life photogenic, not least under a blue April sky. The season has been advancing, the equinox now well past. Around me, I find an energetic acceleration towards summer. Hildegard von Bingen called this kind of natural power viriditas. I can recognise and enjoy it even when I’m lagging behind.
Very close to home I encounter the ruins of Gloucester’s Franciscan Priory, sadly with a nondescript mid C20th building tacked on behind them. They are a landmark for me on my return. I’m tired. I’ve about reached my limit. Although I’m sad that my walking distance is so limited, I feel blessed and nourished by what I find within the limitations. I am also glad to sit down and recognise feeling at once refreshed and exhausted.
(2) The mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees for this quarter are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/
It is 1 March, a mixed day – bringing together grey sky, bare branches, emerging blossoms and vivid daffodils. It is chilly, and rain is likely, though not just yet. Daffodils (here the strongest sign of a changing year) are linked to St. David, the patron saint of Wales. 1 March is his feast day.
David lived during the sixth century CE, a flourishing time for Celtic Christianity. His defining early achievement was the founding of a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (the Vale of Roses) on the west headland of Pembrokeshire (Si Benfro) where St. David’s Cathedral now stands. He went on to become a Christian leader of great authority, and was eventually canonised in the twelfth century, a different historical period with the church under stronger Vatican control and Welsh identity under threat from the English. David became the patron saint of Wales and his day is celebrated in Wales with parades and other public events.
Gloucester is very much an English city, though not so very far from Wales. Today’s weather conditions would not be out of place there. My wife Elaine and I went out on a morning walk with a sense of the saint’s day and how both the day and the coming of March represent a shift in the year. I noticed, too, how I can honour a saint without thinking of sainthood as a model, or even remotely wanting to be one. I acknowledge that I am on different kind of path, less defined, less heroic, and less religious.
When out walking, I see how the ordinary world seems to transform in the light of a loving gaze. I am looking at the world as it is, not for signs of a creator’s hand or influence or expectations. For me, laid out below – at the micro level – I find grass, earth, twigs, purple crocus and dead leaves. They are simply themselves. All ordinary in an ordinary moment. But an ordinary moment, as we might conventionally call it, is an extraordinary event. It is a small miracle, in its naturalistic way, yet easy to access in a receptive frame of mind.
I do appreciate that a ‘receptive frame of mind’, as a private experience, is facilitated by favourable public conditions, like a well-managed public park. I may not be dependent on such external conditions, but they do make a difference. I am grateful for their current presence in an uncertain world.
I have been walking among buildings, before being drawn something different – at first, a fleeting impression to my right. I turn to face it. I walk forwards a few yards, as the new vision clarifies, and feel moved to take this picture. I am still aware of buildings, but boats and water now dominate. There are trees and moving clouds in the distance. The world lights up. It feels like a perceptual rebirth. I find myself in a new and different world.
I continue walking, towards the water. Then I turn left, I look left, I and both see and feel the energy of water and clouds. They invite me to follow them out of the city. I take the picture below, and register the prospect of another canal walk, quite different from the one I knew in Stroud.
In this time of changed perspectives, I notice a shift in my sense of contemplation and inquiry. I feel strongly anchored in this life and world, the place where experiences happen. The numinous is embedded in the everyday, and gifts me with a fruitful ground for continuing exploration.
Above, a city park containing monastic ruins. I am beginning to make sense of a new habitat. The distance door-to-door is only about ten miles from the old one. But it feels very different. Stroud the Cotswold mill town is hilly and hard on the older pedestrian. Gloucester is an old English city on the river Severn, much flatter. The centre, where we now live, has become highly pedestrian friendly in recent years. This was a key motivator for our move and it already feels transformational.
On an exploratory amble on Sunday, Elaine and I were very aware of history. St. Oswald’s Priory, in the picture above, was founded by Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great, around 900. The Priory Church, initially dedicated to St. Peter, was constructed from recycled Roman stones. (The Romans founded the city, as Glevum, in the first century CE, and it never quite died after their departure from Britain). In Aetheflaed’s time it was a bold and unusual move to build a church as there were frequent Viking raids. Quite possibly Aethelflaed and her husband were later interred in the crypt. Archaeological excavations in the 1970s revealed a 10th century fragment of carved slab from the grave of someone of high importance.
In the centuries that followed St Oswald’s grew rich as a place of pilgrimage and was at the centre of a large parish. But later it declined, as institutions do. It was almost literally in the shadow of the more successful Abbey of St. Peter, now Gloucester Cathedral, where the power of the church was now based. Architecturally, the cathedral (below) still dominates the city.
When Elaine and I were walking together on Sunday, the bells were ringing and we found ourselves enjoying this as an expression of the old city’s identity. As in other old cathedral cities, the cathedral is characteristically approached through narrow, often arched lanes and then appears magnificently in front of us.
We have another church, St. Mary-Le-Crypt (below), even closer to home, and cut through its churchyard to get to a major traditional shopping street. Like the cathedral, it continues to serve Anglican (Episcopalian) worshippers and to be part of the wider community.
I have as yet no idea what effect, if any, living in Gloucester will have on my contemplative inquiry, nested as it is in Druidry and Earth spirituality. It is much too early to tell. From the perspective of the living moment, I am delighted to be soaking in new impressions, aware that this is where I live now. Looking out, this is what I will frequently see. These sights are part of the texture of my daily experience now, and I welcome them as such. It greet a new way of being at home.
A winter morning walk with the temperature gently rising above freezing. Internally I’m here, now and at home, as the world changes around me. Walking outside becomes a meditation without effort or solemnity.
It feels good to be reminded, on the cusp of a house move, that at-homeness is portable, embracing variety and change. Light dances with shade. Mist gradually disperses into a blue sky. Still images can point to the process of growth, as with the red berries below, which startled me with their vividness when I saw them.
I find it a comforting, simple pleasure to observe the changes in familiar spaces throughout the day and the year. Because I am leaving the locality, I am delighting in the images I take away from this day’s walk – the land, the water, sunlight and mist; a quietly decaying building and its reflection; railway arches, a footbridge over a stream. Soon, a new landscape will take on its own familiarity.
Finally, I am moved by the light and shade on our garden path, such a good way to end a walk.
The first days of November were kind to me, with bright sunshine and temperatures good for walking. I have felt fitter and healthier than for awhile, and completed a 7 mile walk on 1 November without much sense of wear and tear. I felt alive in an everyday kind of way and appreciative of the spaces I moved through. My main focus was movement itself, and I took photographs only of places beyond my current ‘normal’ range. Nothing mystical: just the simple pleasure of being in place.
1 November gave me autumn at its best rather than any sign of winter. The canal had, in places, a kind of dappled intimacy, aided both by unmanicured foliage and architecture on a human scale. The quality of light was heart-lifting too, always significant for me.
There were also other spaces, more open, allowing an overview of the canal landscape. The picture below gives an indication of how much blue sky there was, on the day. It was a delight to be able to see so far, and so clearly. I realise how much my resilience, at times wobbly, is supported by simple experiences like this.
Becoming the single eye, the eye of contemplation, I am a stressless, frameless window. Unboundaried and immersed, beyond the sense of window, joyful experiencing is vivid and intimate. I am a broken branch, stuck in mud. I am a sticky ooze. I am the shadowy reflection of a tree. I am ripples on water.
Walking, I am a body in movement. Then I become a space for memories. I recall the words: “a green thought in a green shade”. Relishing these words, I become a green thought in a green shade. Then I fall into the role of self-conscious observer, morphing from my original state into another one – lacking the immediacy of the first, yet still worthy of welcome.
The woods reach out to me. They and I are distinct now, though we are still held together in the dynamism of a living world. The whole of life is in these woods as summer starts to wane.
Sunday, 11 October, 6.40 am. My plan is to walk towards the dawn of a new day, but I take time to stop and photograph this liminal moment. It is still, on this normally busy road. It makes me almost nostalgic for the early days of lockdown in the spring.
In this moment, there are no cars and no other people. I am fine with the artificial light. I like the contrast of the street lights (bright and focused) with the softer light in the sky, dim yet with a promise of expansiveness. I enjoy the shadows and the presence, too, of outright darkness at this stage of my walk.
It takes me twenty minutes of enchanted meander to reach my next point, pictured above. The scene is inherently more spacious. Water and sky are prominent. It takes notable artefacts to make their presence felt. The main theme of the picture, as I look in a generally eastern direction, is the coming of the light. Clouds do not obscure it. The buildings have become more than silhouettes. There are the beginnings of colour and the detail it brings. I judge it OK to walk on the canal path itself, just visible on my right.
Another twenty minutes and the light seems to predominate, though I am not yet in full daylight. I am on the canal path. Even though the surroundings of the towpath are lushly green, the world I stand in is a little dusky, or dawny if there were such a word. Crepuscular. Looking up, I see pinkness in the sky, white clouds, hints of blue. I feel heartened and strangely moved by the effects of light on the autumn trees. They give me a warm sense of walking towards the sunrise, and encourage me to move on.
The picture immediately above is not part of my plan. It stems from delighted surprise followed by purposeful calm. Knowing about the heron in advance, I would likely have botched my picture in an anxious, clumsy effort to put the bird on record. I always have before. I think that herons fly away from me out of disdain rather than fear. This time I am a quiet human in a quiet world. I stand still for awhile and am almost elegant in my use of the phone. I wait for an intuited ‘right time’ before pressing the button. There is no drama at all. I do not know if the heron even notices me. The whole incident feels like a blessing of the still early morning.
Now, further on in my walk, the sun is on its ascent through the sky and I can picture it indirectly. The contrast between the sun kissed light areas and the shady ones is strong and vivid. I notice that, as the fading trees accept that their season is over, the ‘parasitic’ mistletoe – even the Druid Plant Oracle (1) calls it that – is gleefully green.
Now I am on my way back home. What draws my attention, after a little exploration, is the white owl. To me it looks very present and collected, situated just where it wants to be. It seems also to be acting as gatekeeper for its own arch.
I make stream of consciousness connections. I began my walk on the Bath Road. Bath is less than 30 miles away. There, the Romans turned a Celtic shrine into a city and called it Aquae Sulis (see http://www.romanbaths.co.uk/), acknowledging Sulis the Celtic goddess of the shrine. She was concerned with its waters and their healing potential whilst doubling up as a solar deity as well. The Romans called her Sulis Minerva, and that links her with owl wisdom. The white owl has a rich hinterland of associations for me. It makes the encounter significant. I note that two resonant avian images have met me on this walk into the sunrise, offering avenues for further contemplation.
(1) Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007. Illustrated by Will Worthington.
I have never been much of a wilderness person. In times past I have foolishly used this to feel like a lesser Druid. ‘Near nature’ is my habitat. It is a world of parks, streams, canals, accessible hills, woodlands and former rail tracks. Human artefacts of varying vintages are very much part of the scene. These places keep on giving. Over the last couple of days a touch of frost coupled with brighter light has changed the feeling tone of a generally wet and clouded winter. Pictures celebrate this bounty.