Yesterday, at breakfast, eight swans flew over the wall, just past the window as we were eating porridge. I was upstairs grabbing a book and I saw them from a different perspective. "Did you see the swans" I shouted down the stairs to Charlie.
Apparently it was a sign of what was to come. After a forty five minute car journey, we stepped into a magic forest near Lambourn. Charlie has a slim volume of walks in Berkshire, an old-fashioned tome, with lovely hand-drawn maps of different walks. Today's was Ashdown House (where I swear Cecil Beaton used to live - as usual, I was wrong) and Wayland's Smithy (he was, I kid you not, the Saxon God of Metal) - an ancient barrow on the Ridgeway near Uffington. Slightly crankily, with cold fingers and sore toes from the previous day's walk, we meandered through the wood going away from the house, and our chatty compadres in the National Trust Car Park ("too much coffee" I snarked) and the light pierced through the mist and all we could hear was the sound of birds. Looking up, there were hundreds and hundreds of small birds, perched in the highest branches of the old, bare oak trees, singing. But I could not identify them. We were cold and I knew we had to keep walking to warm up, but it was hard to not stop and listen in reverence to the sounds. As we got close to each tree the birds would chatter on to the next, and so on, as if they were leading our way through the forest in an alternated version of Hansel and Gretal. It was our very best luck that a group of birdwatchers appeared a few minutes later, binoculars and cameras in hand, "they're field fare and redwings" said one of the men, when I asked, "they're non-native, just winter visitors." From where they were standing, the birds were against the sun and harder to see. "You must go further in," I suggested, "the sun lights them up." I don't know if it was David Sedaris, or who it was who said that for most of your life you ignore birds and then at a certain age, you become interested, in fact, obsessed with birds and notice them everywhere. I'm now officially in the twitching phase of my life. (However, walking with my friend Marta in Nantucket, I do remember the excitement with which she pointed out the nesting ospreys. These tiny thrushes, the smallest in the world, but their song is immense.
Further on, we took a path along the edge of the wood, with a low mossy stone wall on one side, and misty old trees on the left, a small hedge to the right. "This is ancient woodland" said Charlie, and it felt ancient, not in a scientific way, although it was that, but as though it were full of ghosts; the lacework of palest blue sky above and the gentle breath of those who had come this way before.
The joy of walking is that even if you don't feel like doing it, even if it's cold and your mind is worry-filled, the simple act of putting one foot in front of another (and the necessity of doing this fast in order to keep warm) allows you to slowly melt back with the earth, walking upon it and yet as part of it, and it quiets the mind, slows the breath, expands the heart, so that what feels hard and irksome to begin with becomes effortless and easy and natural. One foot in front of another, that is all it takes, with the sun on your back and the knowledge that there is a sandwich and an orange in your backpack.
Wayland's Smithy (an atmospheric neolithic chambered longbarrow) was a place I'd visited many years ago when my children were still small, with my friend Dom, who lives nearby. He's very good on ancient roads and earthworks. It was in the summer, on one of those long, long days just before supper time. I was wearing a t-shirt and a skirt and probably a pair of Chucks. The sun was warm, and the grass was high, and I remember being very happy. I grew up near the Ridgeway and this was also the Ridgeway even though miles from home, so it felt familiar, well-worn, comforting. Yesterday was very cold, and colder because of the low cloud that was floating on top of the hill, but the light was extraordinary, filtering through the trees in clear shafts, the kind of rays you see in Munch's paintings). A family was clambering over the stones as we stepped up to the top of the barrow and surveyed the view, regiments of trees surrounding it, the filtered sunlight, a man on a fallen log drinking tea out of a flask, a child that wanted to go inside again, a man with a dog called Dapper (I know this because I asked; Dapper had a marvelously cartoonish curled lip). Maybe it was the day, maybe we were lucky, but the energy was powerful, right through the middle of my chest. I took a picture of a woman with a dog and then texted it to her.
The last part crossed an enormous stubble field, the path went diagonally across it, past a half way marker that served as a resting place for ravens, to a gate at the top of Weathervane hill, which leads you through a field of Belted Galloway cattle. The sun was setting and there was an orange light penetrating the cloud with floated -just so- in the valley below. Do you remember that film set in Tuscany, Above the Clouds? Is that the name? Where the light is so beautiful that you can't believe it's real? It was the kind of terracotta golden light that you only see on winter's days in California. We stood at the top of the hill and looked out at it and didn't really know what to say. A large dose of awe packed right in the middle of the breastbone. What do you say, really, except thank you?
One of the rules I had as a child was to say hello to everyone, including animals. It goes against the rule I employ with Thistle, my Frenchie, who is somewhat mistrusting of new people, and I tell them quite firmly to ignore her. But in general, Thistle notwithstanding, I've found that the most interesting things in life occur when you say hello to people. Most people are taught not to talk to strangers (or that awful English thing where children are not encouraged to be curious - it's none of your business) but when you do, magical things happen. I've found that saying hello to animals, especially cattle or sheep, it calms them, and makes them aware of your presence as non-predatory, so they stand still and let you walk by.
I've spent so much of my life scooting through, too fast, doing too much, leaping from one challenge or crisis to another, being fueled by the adrenaline of fear, and not spending enough time being present, and by that I mean being there in the moment, smelling the roses, talking to the calves, bending down to scratch the dogs' ears, stopping to listen to the birdsong. I think that is how those moments are created where you feel you are between two worlds; that's where the light comes in, that's when your choices become manifold, when the moment becomes infinite and abundant and filled with pure love.