Mammals who frequent an area make paths – we humans aren’t unusual in that regard. Granted, other mammals just keep the undergrowth down and the ground compacted, whereas we’ve gone a lot further. We’ve taken our path making to the point of it being much more comfortable and reliable for us (until we can’t afford to fix the potholes) but is it as good as it seems? Accessibility is an issue, certainly. what I’m talking about in this post isn’t feasible for everyone, and will work very differently depending on how you body and senses operate.
Summer walking off the tarmac means a lot of undergrowth. Footpaths in Gloucestershire aren’t being maintained because budgets for everything have been cut. Walking means long grass, fallen trees, dense undergrowth, uneven footing. It is much harder work, and I inevitably go slower and have to make more effort. I also notice that this kind of involved waking takes most, if not all of my attention. I can’t think about much else because I have to pay so much attention to what’s in front of me, to my feet, arms, where the brambles and stinging nettles are, and what wildlife might be trodden on if I’m careless. In short, I have to become deeply immersed in my environment. In other contexts, I can spend a lot of time trying to get to that via meditation, but this is more effective.
Walking on rough ground, I have to be very focused on the present. I am alert to my immediate future – where the path is going, what hazards are coming up, and what I need to do now to make sure I haven’t set myself up for a bigger problem shortly. You can’t totally live in the moment when walking or you’ll have to spend a lot of time backtracking to avoid obstacles you’d have otherwise avoided, and then to go back round you have to enter a relationship with past and present anyway. What happens when walking is a relationship with time that is all about what you’re doing.
Curiously, I find that relationship with time also includes memories of when I last walked in a place. Some of that will be about how I felt and what I did. I also remember locations of wildlife encounters, problems with paths, routes that proved especially rewarding and so forth. Delving into the past in this way enriches the present, and is often practical and useful as well. Wild things have their territories and habits, so remembering what was where previously increases my chances of seeing things again.
I find there’s a mental health benefit to engaging this intensely with my environment. It stops me overthinking. I find it mentally tiring, but there’s also a cleansing, clearing effect that I benefit from. I like knowing that I do not need mental discipline to get into this headspace – I can do it from whatever mess my head is in. The path I walk will show me the way, and if I am too self involved, the path will trip me, cut me and sting me until I pay it the attention and respect it demands.