Since we escaped London some weeks ago now, we have been going through a mental shift.
It is something to do with moving into a very rural area, having lots of free time and being outside for most of the day. There is a different set of signals we pick up now. New priorities steal our attention. People talk a lot these days about re-wilding gardens and outdoor spaces; allowing nature to reclaim manicured lawns and geometric lines. In a way it feels like we are rewilding too.
We came here from the city. That means we came from a place where energy and determination are revered and prioritised above all else. We measured efficiency and productivity at work. We obsessed about ways to improve metrics and smash our targets. At home we charted our step count, heart rate and sleep time, sharing them with communities who would then push us to improve. We tacitly competed with our friends on the quality of our dinner parties. We tried to improve our running speed and build our pushup count. Life moved fast and all moments were accounted for.
Once you step out of all that and dial down the speed of life, it takes a while to reprogram the system. The first week or two down here you could see Menna or I suddenly stiffen up like prairie dogs at a given moment, as our minds threw up random worries to try and get the panic systems rebooted. (NO! I forgot to put light fittings on the inventory! Coffee cup slips out of numb fingers to smash on the floor.) We would ping awake in the night, grasping for something to get all twisted up about. (What if we need to vote in a snap general election? We have no current residency! Heart thumps madly in the darkness). We’d check social media surreptitiously on family walks. We would obsess about the news.
Then slowly it slips away. The interruptions become less frequent, then disappear. The nights become longer and fuller. We wake slowly with strange tastes in our mouths and the lingering aftermath of heavy dreams. Focus builds and small tasks absorb us. Sometimes we find ourselves just sitting and thinking for a while, doing nothing really.
Busy minds, deprived of action plans and to-do lists, start to open up other enquires. They turn outwards towards the world. The wind is strong today and it’s shifted to behind the dunes. I’ve never seen clouds twisted up into a vertical column like that. Who is that small bird who trills between the sea gulls’ screams? It feels somehow like it’s going to rain later.
Once you recognise this shift, and you open yourself to it, then the world suddenly seems full of signals and patterns that were hidden to you before. It feels big. You can turn it into a huge spiritual revelation and believe that the universe is whispering in your ear. Three cormorants heading east before summer’s dusk? Winds are coming I tell you! Or maybe it just makes you feel content and a little more connected to this new landscape around you. You might feel that yes, you did make the right move coming down here.
A kestrel hovers on the headland almost every evening now hunting his prey. Little pulses of his wings keep him motionless above the gorse even as the wind blows everything else around.
The fields near us hide a subterranean population of rabbits who emerge out for a cautious sniff early mornings and at dusk. A slight noise and they will all skitter away, a tumble of white feathery tails disappearing into the hedgerow.
A pungent weed permeates the hedgerows and dune flowers. It is called Houndstongue but known locally as Rats and Mice because of its musky damp rodent smell. We all found it disgusting the first time we smelt it. Now it’s like a soggy friend that comes to greet you as you walk down the sandy lane to the beach.
Foxgloves are everywhere this month, priapic purple stalagmites rising out of the gorse. There is a similar-looking but more reserved blue flower in the dunes which I prefer. It’s got the awesome name of Viper’s Bugloss.
The tides reshape the beach and headlands every hour. We’re getting to know the timings more intuitively now, and more importantly to recognise the confluence of wind, tide and swell that makes the best waves.
A flock of goldfinches (no sorry, a charm of goldfinches) surprise us with sudden flashes of red and yellow as they flitter past like leaves in a gale.
You come to see how the prevailing westerly wind has comprehensively sculpted the landscape around us. You realise how relentlessly it bends and pushes everything away eastwards, and then then you start to see its mark everywhere; triangles and wedges sculpted into dunes, gorse, trees, hills and even the limestone cliff faces. The hypotenuse always points down to the most westerly point.
I saw a single dolphin far out at sea one evening, a leaping shape midway to the horizon. I was alone in the surf as the sun was setting and to be honest it was something of an epiphany.
Arthur and I went out to do some starwatching in the dunes. We found The Pointer stars at the end of the plough and they directed us to Polaris, then on to Deneb which, together with Vega and Altair, make up the Navigator’s Triangle. This always points you southwards I lectured Arthur (well ok, an iPhone is easier but that’s not the point).
On a Sunday cliff walk we saw a family of seals far below in the rockpools. Their whiskery heads bobbed up for a quick a chat before they slipped down again below the dark green swelling waters.
There is a good but infrequent wind that comes from the east and makes the waves clean and glassy.
I want to develop a subconscious sense of where the cardinal points are, even in cloud cover or deep in a forest (Arthur can already do this but I can’t. I’ve always had a rubbish sense of direction).
We arrived into two straight weeks of atmospheric high pressure, so hard blue skies and sun. Now the system has moved on and we feel smaller beneath a huge expansive cloud world whose architectures show various distinct textures and densities in different strata above us.
For many days last week there was an ominous storm cloud which stretched squat and black right down to the horizon. It seemed to trap light beneath it, so that the hills and cliffs seemed strangely illuminated and you could see for miles. We spent our days outside slightly on edge, feeling that the storm might vent down upon us at any point. The air was so thick and charged with electricity. All that tension and power just hung there in stasis though, hovering above us for days. It barely even rained. I don’t know why.
A dead gannet waited on the beach the other day. It was on its back, half submerged, neck thrust up as if its last moments were spent trying to force its way up from its sandy tomb for one final flight. We gathered in a semi circle around it, the kids silent and solemn. It was a sober moment, like finding a whale’s carcass in the desert, or a frozen hand reaching up out of the glacier. I was going to give some homily about the circle of life and how death comes to all things, but in the end I just kept quiet.
There are books that help decipher these messages. On my bedside table right now I have Wild Signs and Star Paths by Tristan Gooley. It’s a lucid exploration of hidden keys and signals in nature and how to determine their significance. Can we recapture such a sense of awareness of our environment that we read signs and link patterns instinctively, generating subconscious insights on weather, direction, animal behaviour that feel something like sixth sense? (Pretty cool right?). Then, as a counterpoint, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos lifts your gaze away, up to the most distant horizons, for a universal context. Great travellers lead the way – Redmond O’Hanlan, Bruce Chatwin, Ryszard Kapuściński. They talk about leaving behind the impediments of your former life and going through a kind of rebirth on the road. We have guides to animals, flowers, geology, trees, stars. On my phone I have downloaded the Collins Birds app.
It feels like there is a lot to learn.
I had long felt in my gut that the world was extravagantly rich with signs… Many thousands of hours outdoors had led to my spotting patterns, asymmetries and trends; they were beautiful but often hard to explain.Tristan Gooley. Wild Signs and Star Paths
Finally, at the end of our wandering, we return to our tiny, fragile, blue and white world, lost in a cosmic ocean vast beyond our most courageous imaginings. It is a world among an immensity of others. It may be significant only for us… It is on this world that we developed our passion for exploring the Cosmos, and it is here that we are, in some pain and with no guarantees, working out our destiny.Carl Sagan. Cosmos