Foraging & Outings Frontiers 2018

Walking with ravens and wonder

Written by Elizabeth Woodcock
Soaring. That is the word. On top of the world, or so it seems, above the busy valleys below, side by side with the ravens as they soar on the up-blasts of winter blizzard rushing skywards. I soar with them, for a moment. I can see their eyes as they hold a position just teetering on the edge of a funnel of air, seemingly enjoying themselves. Ravens cavort and can fly upside down in a display of aerial acrobatics.

Soul nourishing, walking to higher places. The journey to get there, path and bog, stone wall and forest, lichen and moss. Twisted hawthorn bearing fruit, once eaten to ward off heart disease, once revered as the magical tree not to be messed with. Walking through centuries of man-made landscape, our connection running deep, side by side with myth and bubbling stream.

From Blencathra

I am blessed to walk into this wonder. Life is simplified, yet deepened at the same time, stilled as foot follows foot, step by step the way twines skyward. Focused on the path, over sharp edges and arêtes, ever present to the air on cheek, sun or rain caressing skin, ears alert for the ravens with their deep-throated call, which can carry for over a mile.

Gradually ascending to lustrous views where the clouds stretch away, calling out to follow, unless we are surrounded by fog and mizzle, then life is here and now as we are cocooned in a layer of fabric, protecting skin and bone. I walk because it nourishes my soul and draws me upwards and back to the earth, above the mayhem and chaos of the valleys below, draws me in a realm of wonder.

I wonder how the raven makes that sound? I discover it can make over 33 sounds from its throat box. I wonder how the clouds can be so bright up here? I wonder what this place was way before I can even imagine? Volcanoes over a vast sea. I wonder who has walked here? Celt and Vikings maybe and many others. I wonder what it was like when the forests stretched as far as the eye can see. I am also a gardener and have the privilege of tending a garden in Borrowdale, one of the valleys still forested, an Atlantic Oakwood, part of Europe’s temperate rainforest. It is one of the most important habitats in Europe for mosses and liverworts (Bryophytes), and lichens, especially ‘old forest species’.

Time passes, the weather passes. All is change and flux and we cannot control these vast natural processes and in this moment humility wraps over me, a blanket in this vastness, and the importance of every organism descends. For a moment, I am free with the understanding that I am part of this place, no domination over or overwhelm under. Looking up into the vastness of the sky, we are whole. Sometimes I find myself praying on my knees, giving thanks to be there, here in this place, with this rock or cotton grass, witnessing life on Blencathra in the snow or Helvellyn in summer. Altars under the heavens.

Wonder is a precious thing. I have a walking friend who was a teacher at an International School in Europe. The curriculum was based on wonder and asking the question ‘Why?’ It’s a small word. Why is the beginning, of an exploration, like entering a vast cave of possibilities, or pushing off in a canoe into the cloud-filled sky. Ponder upon it and let it soak through your skin, and into every cell, ‘Why?’ as it transgresses and sinks into ‘I wonder’. ‘Why is the raven flying upside down? I wonder why?’ ‘I wonder how that tree can grow there, in that crack of a boulder, why are there no others or why is there this one here?’

Wonder and Why connect us to our world, to our intimate surroundings, to spiders and moss, to hawthorn and beech, to rock and soil, to lake and spring. It connects us to our senses. When I walk in wonder, I automatically slow down. It is not an effort to wonder, it’s like the space and vastness of nature invites it as a pastime. No monkey mind tricks of wondering who said what the other day, but a stillness inside and from this a growing awareness of wonder, almost intangible yet present. Presence. Walking with stillness and presence, to be available to wonder.

Are you thinking, ‘I don’t have time to walk and wonder. I am too busy’? Time does seem to stretch out on the hills, where the busy valleys gobble it up in speeding cars, constant viewing of apps and news and emails, where we have been hijacked by some urgency to ‘Get It Right’, whatever ‘Right’ may be.

Rumi said:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
And rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass

The world is too full to talk about."

Maybe that is where the ravens are too, where I love to follow them into the high places and be, just for a while.

Elizabeth Woodcock spoke on the landscape of the Cumbrian Lakeland Fells in ‘Borrowdale, Blencathra, then on to Bedafell’ in the 2019 Orkney International Science Festival.

About the author

Elizabeth Woodcock

Elizabeth Woodcock is an RHS horticulturalist with training in regenerative agriculture and permaculture, a garden organic master composter, Lake District National Park walk leader, and is training as a mountain leader. She has been a journalist, science communicator, writer, and adventurer of many high, and low, places. She lives in Cumbria with her daughter, dog and chickens.