Finding joy under a grey sky
By Miles Richardson, author of Needwood, a search for deep nature in the local landscape and a celebration of the joy that can be extracted from ordinary things in the natural world:
My book Needwood was written on foot. It takes a simple journey into an ordinary rural English landscape with no obvious grandeur, wilderness or drama. So the ordinary things are enjoyed: the oak, the rook, the river; the solace of the risings, the calm of the water meadows and the lifeless hedgerows of winter under a leaden sky. In this ordinary landscape, searching for ordinary things, I found a universal story about our connection to nature. Some of the most compelling moments took place under grey skies and below are two days from my year long journey; the first from February, the second from November.
I was enjoying the detail in the landscape, extracting what I could from it, looking forward to a new day and a new experience in a familiar place. Lying beneath the sky, the waterlogged fields of Brankley gripped and pulled at my boots with every step. What had been a boggy ditch had become a fast-flowing stream. Brambles trailed into the water, resisting and disturbing the flow to create a restful babble. The rain was still falling, tapping out random rhythms. Furry catkins, decorated with water droplets, looked sugar-coated. I stood alone in a sodden landscape for some time to take it in. Raindrops hung like jewels from the buds on the otherwise bare birch, refracting all the light of the grey sky into a point of white, lifting the scene before me. In the wood, trails of water had marked out dark ribbons down the tree trunks. I emerged past ancient oak and holly into the pastureland where the most ancient oak had split since my last visit. I turned to take in the view across the fields below. A stream previously unknown to me had burst its banks and two cows stared at me, one black, one white, looking like primitive beasts as they stood motionless by a newly formed pool. I was stood beneath a snag tree with deep cracks running parallel along the trunk and onto the branches above. By the time I turned to return the rain band had passed and the teasels that had stood through the snow lay defeated. As the Earth turned away from the sun it seemed like every hundred yards there was the shrill call of another blackbird. They were in the hedgerows, on the field gates, in the trees and darting through the air. The water flowed, the Earth turned, the darkness spread over me and the birds still sang.
Returning home from the coast, I visited the oxbow, where the light and grey sky were as flat as the flood plain and a still mist faded all that was distant, giving an added perception of depth and calling me to dive in and explore. Even in the greyness, the clump of blue cornflowers remained to lift me. The silence carried the intermittent call of a crow, then of the fieldfares, the fluttering of a chaffinch and trill of a wren. The willows now just hazed the grey with a hint of past gold, their fallen leaves brown and returning to earth. Nearby the painter’s alder was still stubbornly green, reflecting in its angle. Its reflection captured its form better than its reality, pure against the sky, every outline of its structure picked out in the calm darkness of the water. Closer, I found the alder was releasing some leaves and they lay dark on the bank around its trunk, a silver-grey of Morte Point rock. There was a glorious aching stillness of powerful affect, contrasting and surpassing the intense energy of the morning’s coast. I was charged by the power of my familiar landscape and I felt alive in the stillness, as a star is bright in the night sky. Where the river was audibly unstill I looked out over the flat lands, from foreground to far, and felt that the landscape and my mind merged, my sense of self dissolved. I had arrived to dull shades of grey but heard the song of the Earth.
Through regular engagement with the natural landscape, we can discover a deep connection to it. I believe that the real journey of discovery is not to wild landscapes, but finding wilderness in simple places close to home. During my year-long search I gradually became more connected to nature, and the manifestation of this connection can be seen in Needwood. I’m continuing my journey through the flesh of the Earth, considering embeddedness in the landscape along the way in a second book. Follow my progress and receive updates via the website or twitter.
Needwood is available in paperback and for Kindle via Amazon. For updates visit www.needwood.net
Illustrations and excerpts © Miles Richardson