Withdrawing

Autumn rushes past and I’ve found myself retreating, the fallen leaves suggestive of a warm duvet to bury myself under.  I’ve retreated away from the computer and into times past.  I’ve been solving murders with Miss Marple in St. Mary Mead and visiting the Old Curiosity Shop.  I’ve been writing a short story about lost time.  Neil Gaiman said that books are the way we communicate with the dead.  They are that, but they are also a way to experience a time I was born too late for.  Although I know intellectually that I would have found the conventions and prejudices of earlier times restrictive, I often think I was meant for an earlier age, a time when there was less of everything and awe was more possible.

In the wake of storm Callum, I walk the old waggonway.  I walk under tarnished clouds scudding quickly across the sky.  The air is hollowed by wind, the hedgerows rustle like old paper.  Rain falls, augmenting the vibrant colours.  Not all of the trees have begun to turn.  On the edge of a dark copse, hooded by the canopy and overgrown with bracken, in a place where pink campion blooms in spring, there is a beech that is always spectacular in autumn.  It is a bright quilt of vivid colour in the gloom.  The horse chestnuts are already half-naked, clinging to crisped bronze leaves like curling fingers.  Here and there, the hedgerows are lit by a fiery maple or a golden hawthorn.

The hawthorns are strung with garnet beads.  Rosehips are like tiny crimson lanterns.  The track groans with seed: hogweed starbursts, knapweed pokers, spiky clocks of ragwort.  Rosebay Willowherb is also known as fireweed, because of its penchant for growing in the wake of destruction, but it might just as well be because of its autumn finery: columns of burning red, orange and brown with whiskers where its seeds have flown.  A few flowers remain – solitary thistles and clover, purple vetch and clusters of viper’s bugloss.  Monstrous butterbur leaves, some green, some rotted and black, cloak the banks.  The hawthorns sing with goldfinches – it must be a time of plenty for them.

To walk in nature is both to engage and to retreat.  I engage with the earth and its turning, but I retreat from the clamour of the world.  These waggonways are layered in time.  Haunted by the ghosts of horse drawn carts and the shades of steam locomotives carrying coal from the great northern coalfield to the river.  Listen closely and you might still hear the clatter of hooves or the wheeze of an engine.  Look closely and perhaps you’ll see a mirage of rails.  The past speaks, if we know how to hear it.  It speaks in the words of dead writers and in the song of the landscape.

A flock of long-tailed tits loops suddenly across the path ahead, to take refuge in a tall tree at the side of the track.  I listen to the commotion of their twitterings, watch the graceful dip of their tails.  In winter they group together for warmth and safety, and perhaps also for company, to share stories of their own ancestors.  My own journey for the moment is away from company; there is always an element of withdrawal at this time of year, preparation for the journey inwards.  But the time for company will come soon enough.  A time to set another space at the table or to pull another chair up to the fire.  To remember those who have come before and to know them through their stories.  The past speaks, if we only listen.

89 thoughts on “Withdrawing

  1. The past slips through the present into the future. We are not its gatekeepers.but we are occasionally it’s chroniclers and sometimes its foretellers. Another beautiful, evocative blog post. Please don’t withdraw entirely. We would miss you.

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  2. A beautiful post and walk into the quiet of autumn, slowing down, going within, and being more inward-oriented. I agree that books let us experience the past and other things we might not do in this life. Thanks for the autumn stroll Andrea.

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  3. I also escape the present in books written in the past. The restrictions then were plenty but some of the conventions were a comfort and gave shape and meaning to society. These days it is easy to feel overwhelmed and lost.
    Your description of the treasures to be found on your walk along the waggonway is so lovely; your commentary is full of colour and sound. The love and knowledge you have of your surroundings and all things that inhabit it is so evident. Beautiful!

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    • Thanks Clare. I think it is those aspects of community and routine that I would like to have experienced and that ‘innocence’ which meant that new things were seen with much more wonder than they are now – though of course the modern age has its advantages.

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  4. Beautiful and haunting. Steam engines still lived around here when I was a child. They huffed and heaved as they chattered down the rails that cleft apart groves and farmlands. And if you were lucky enough to be within, seated by a window, the trees swayed and danced and slipped away as if in a carousel. Magical writings are the only magic wands, or time machines, that help me withdraw from the raucous, vicious, acerbic and deafening cacophonous matrix of life, and transcend me to pastures plain and idyllic, quiet and somnolent.

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    • Thanks Uma, I do love trains, particularly the old fashioned ones. We have a small railway museum close by so there is an actual steam train that runs alongside the wagonway each weekend and I love to hear the whistle in the distance.

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  5. Good morning Andrea….This post is the perfect way for me to begin the new week. A time of reflection and withdrawal.
    I am going through my own life at the moment writing copious notes and constantly being amazed as I recall people and places that have been dormant in my mind for some time. It’s like cleaning a huge wardrobe where things have been thrown over many years to keep the veneer looking tidy and neat! We are such interesting creatures.
    Like you an older time beckons, but I think it could only work for me if I hadn’t known this time…i.e. communicating to you through a computer………
    Have a beautiful week and if your weather is anything like it is in London today….enjoy a perfect day in nature. janet 🙂

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  6. There is something about autumn that makes me pensive and a little antisocial, and you’ve described that feeling beautifully. I hope you don’t withdraw toooo much from blogging–I’d miss you!

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  7. “Although I know intellectually that I would have found the conventions and prejudices of earlier times restrictive, I often think I was meant for an earlier age, a time when there was less of everything and awe was more possible.” –> YES!! Me too! I think this is largely the reason I am always feeling caught “between” things. It isn’t often that I feel like I belong or that I’m in sync with everyone else. Thought-provoking post, Andrea.

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  8. This has really taken me on the walk with you, so beautifully and effectively described. I like the way you link to withdrawing from the cold and rougher weather and to being present to the past. Just spent some time with a Mexican family and the local school remembering for the’dia del muerto’ day of the dead. The linking to those who have passed on and the cycle of life, death and the harvest was very moving and also giving acceptance and less fear of change to the young. Sometimes some withdrawal and reflection is beneficial as is nature’s way.

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  9. Andrea I like that you recognise, unlike many, that a trip to the past would mean ‘less of everything.’ I, too, would fit in well I think – if there were books and a nearby tavern. But most would wish to return to the 21c PDQ I think.

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  10. Hello Andrea, the wagonway looks wonderful in Autumn, it must be brimming with wildlife.
    Birds of a feather… Long Tailed Tits always remind me of a coach party turning up at a pub. Next time they cross your path, check for anything with a short tail amongst them, it could be a Chiff Chaff or even a Firecrest. Also, not only are they very vocal, but they communicate by changing the colour of their eyelids, from red to blue.
    Anyway, I hope you enjoy your walks as much as I enjoy reading about them. Take care.
    Mick.

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  11. Oh, Andrea. Your writing is so vivid and I feel as I am seeing what you’re seeing along the way. I am always a bit surprised by the beauty and discernment in your writing. You make us see farther, and think more deeply than we expected to do. Well done.
    I hear you about feeling you were meant to live in an earlier age. I sometimes feel the same thing (though as a Black woman, I have to be careful about which era I choose!) I am drawn, as you know, to old farmhouses, to deep country and villages where old-time courtesies still prevail.

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  12. Hi Andrea, How lovely, as always, to walk with you and see and hear and feel the landscape come alive. Fall has finally arrived with some cooler weather, though it’s been such a soggy last few months, leaves are dropping before changing into the magnificent colors that we normally know here in the Northeast. You are so right – the past speaks. As does nature and the animals … if we only listen. You may have inspired me to go listen with my camera while I have the chance … we’ll see. 🙂

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  13. Andrea, There is still a space for awe. Your writing evokes it for me: “To walk in nature is both to engage and to retreat. I engage with the earth and its turning, but I retreat from the clamour of the world.” You must have been speaking to the woman who lives in my head because you put into words exactly how I feel. .

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  14. Reading you today I was reminded really strongly of Alan Garner an author I love. I read him as a child but I read him just as happily as an adult and that doesn’t always happen. I love the expression of a time when ‘awe was more possible.’

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  15. Lovely prose, Andrea. I too feel that “dilemma”: wanting to be in the past and yet knowing that there would be aspects of it that would be terrible, especially with the freedoms and mindsets we now enjoy.

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  16. ‘A time where there was less of everything and awe was more possible’, how beautiful and Yes! I still long for Sundays as they used to be, without the shops, without the commercialism, but mainly without the busyness.
    Autumn is a strange time – I think it evokes reflection like no other season. As you so beautifully describe, we witness nature letting go and I think it calls to us to do the same.
    I love the idea of a short story about lost time …

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  17. I’m walking with you in the past as we ponder the ghosts of yesteryear and wonder how much has changed. I’d like to say ‘little,’ but I’d be wrong. Life is too fast now, too crowded with too much. I yearn to hide away from it all also Andrea. And in a sense I was able to do that as I read this beautiful post.

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      • Those who are younger perhaps don’t have nostalgia for the “slower days” as we do. On the other hand, my 10-year-old granddaughter begs for quiet days at home (instead of the ballet, lacrosse, swimming, violin, Russian math classes after school that keep her out of breath. Perhaps that generation will put their brakes on when they become adults and slow everything down again. I’d love to see that.

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  18. Andrea, thank you for letting us accompany you on your walk of engagement and retreat … your words painting a vivid image of the autumn. No one describes it like you and your naming of the plants becomes almost mystical. A quiet reflective post that leaves me thoughtful this lovely November afternoon. xx

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  19. I love your comment “a time when there was less of everything and awe was more possible”. I think there’s much truth in this on one level but on the other level, some people had so little and their lives were so grim that awe was a concept foreign to them — or maybe not. It’s very hard to put oneself in their position and maybe even a sudden glimpse of a bird or the sun dappling a puddle would leave them in awe. I know they didn’t have mobile phones, so there was more of a chance that they’d glimpse something awe-inspiring happening right next to them!
    I hope your time of withdrawal is full of fruitful reflection and beauty, Andrea 🙂

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  20. Beautifully crafted, as always, Andrea. I agree with you so much on the engaging and retreating, too, when we take walks. And yes, the past talks when we listen. Sometimes it looks like too few people notice.
    Nowadays we focus so much on meditation and being present, and I think it’s essential if we want to live, of course, but the past has so much to offer in terms of guidance and errors to avoid. Personal but also on a much larger scale with history. Our current era goes through events that echo some from the past. Knowing the past and history keep us from repeating the same mistakes.
    On a personal level, these autumn walks can only take us to the past. The colors of rust, the drying and dying leaves, for example, evocate the past.
    On another note, you write: “Neil Gaiman said that books are the way we communicate with the dead.” You know what he said, too?
    A town without a bookshop is not really a town. It can be on a map, sure, but it’s then a town without a soul.
    I agree with that, too.

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  21. Thanks for taking us along as you point out the names of so many plants – Rosebay Willowherb aka fireweed – interesting. I assume waggonway means where wagons used to travel. It seems a perfect place to get away and think of the past and renew your soul for the present. Beautiful autumn photos!

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  22. Your words capture the beautiful melancholy of autumn. « To walk in nature is both to engage and to retreat. » I also retreated from the Internet, the world, and immersed myself in nature. So incredibly transformative. Thank you for sharing your journey through this most contemplative of seasons. I feel like we have been walking together.

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