Walking

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Audre Lorde

 

I walk through the park I walk in almost every day.  I have walked here so many times it must be layered with the imprint of my feet.  The grass has been shorn.  It had crisped and browned in the sun, but three days of showers has re-greened it.  I look out for the crows, tending their nest high up in the canopy.  I notice the clusters of wall barley that have sprouted against walls and around the base of trees.  I enjoy the scatters of daisies and buttercups that have survived the shearing.  I’m not paying attention to the fact that I’m walking, but to the signs of life all around me.

I take walking for granted.  Walking roots me into my landscape.  It keeps me in touch with what is happening from ground level.  It enables me to watch the progress of the seasons.  It confirms that I belong.  Exploring on foot allows me to find those spaces in which I can experience the magic of the natural world.

I take it for granted that I can walk where I want to walk without needing to have an explanation.  I take it for granted that I belong in this space, that I belong in nature and should have a relationship with it.  When I walk, I draw on memory, history, past and present to find my place in the world.  Very occasionally I’ve felt vulnerable, as a woman alone, but in general  I don’t think twice about my safety.  Somehow I feel no harm will come to me among nature.

If I were black – and particularly a black man –  it would be different.  It wouldn’t matter that I’d been born here and lived my whole life in this landscape – my history and my belonging would be in question.  I would have to think about where I was walking.  I would have to think about how to position myself so I couldn’t be mistaken for a criminal.  I would have to consider how I move and interact with other people so that they wouldn’t assume I’m a threat.  I would walk with the knowledge that I might be in danger from those who are supposed to protect me.  Walking could so easily be a matter of life and death.

I write nature.  I didn’t set out to do that, but I found that when I came to write about my experience, it was my place in the landscape that emerged.  I’m not a typical nature writer.  My voice is a different voice, but it isn’t the only voice.  People of colour spend less time in nature than white people.  There are complex reasons for this, but they include experiences of racism and not feeling safe or a sense of belonging in nature.  Ask Christian Cooper, the bird watcher in Central Park who only last month was threatened with the police by a white woman when he asked her to put her dog on a lead.  An organisation was recently set up here in the UK called Wild in the City to encourage more people of colour to enjoy nature.

Nature is where I feel most at home.  The streets and the beaches and the green spaces of this town and its surroundings are where I find belonging.  But it isn’t a safe space for everyone.  Race hate crimes in the wider north east region have tripled in the last 5 years.  There are layers and levels to racism and privilege.  I learned about this by studying the history and experiences of women.  I kept good company: Alice Walker, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey and Audre Lorde were some of my teachers.  On occasion, when tanned, I have been called racist names, but I’ll never know how it is to walk through the world as a black woman.  I think I am self aware, but I know that I will have biases and prejudices I’m not even aware of.

There are moments in time that feel like tipping points.  Brexit.  Me Too.  The most recent focus on Climate Change.  Covid-19.  All of these have felt, at times, like  momentous changes (for better or worse).  George Floyd’s death brings a rising up of grief and outrage that – it seems – can’t be ignored.  And yet we’ve ignored so many other deaths.  I wonder how history will judge these moments.  I hope they’re enough to change us for the better.

Some further reading on people of colour, nature and walking:

https://www.discoverwildlife.com/people/diverse-nature/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/13/hiking-african-american-racism-nature

Meet the group helping black people reconnect with the natural world

Walking While Black

The biggest dog walk in the world

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Earlier this month, I went for a walk with 20,000 dogs.  Tiny chihuahuas, enormous Saint Bernards, families of huskies and all kinds of dogs in between.  We walked three and a half miles with our eleven month old puppy to complete the Great North Dog Walk. The walk begins where the famous Great North Run ends and forms a large loop across grassland and above cliffs in the town of South Shields.  It really is the biggest dog walk in the world, holding the Guinness World Record.  It began with a few hundred dogs 23 years ago and now more than 20,000 dogs take part, representing 185 breeds.

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There’s something exhilarating about walking with so many dogs, of all different breeds.  So many dogs with so many stories: those who have been brought up from birth to be cossetted and spoiled; those who were rescued from horrific circumstances; those who work and those who spend their lives at leisure.  You can see their diverse personalities: the ones that strain at the lead and jump around excitedly at being surrounded by so many dogs and people; those who walk sedately, seemingly aloof to all the excitement; those who are grumpy if another dog gets in their way.  And with them, their people, with their own stories and personalities.  There is no typical dog, just as there is no typical dog owner.

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For us, the walk illustrated perseverance – our young dog, obviously exhausted half way through, carrying on without complaint, still with the same sense of excitement he had when he began.  And it was about that doggy magic again, of not worrying about anything else, just putting one nose in front of the other and enjoying the moment.

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And afterwards was the afterglow.  As we finished, we colonised spots on the grass, groups of people and dogs.  In our own circle, two Labradors, three kinds of terrier and two spaniels.  And the people accompanying them just as diverse.  We exchanged doggy treats, strokes and cuddles with all the dogs, and home-made chocolate treats for us.  We discussed everything from homelessness to crafts and of course, the many foibles of the creatures that were our reason for being here.  So we didn’t only walk with 20,000 dogs, we also walked with more than 20,000 people, getting to know one another a little better through our common interests.   Above all, the day was about sharing – our love for our dogs, conversation, aching muscles, food and the achievements not of us, but of the creatures we spend our lives with.

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My dog ended his day lying flat out on the bed, barking in his sleep in that funny way he does that sounds like he’s laughing.  His legs were twitching as he ran in his sleep.  His nose quivered as he dreamed of remembered scents and, I hope, the happy memories of the day.