A poetic reverie: reflections on a year spent getting closer to nature
Lecturer, researcher, poet and outdoor enthusiast Victoria Ekpo looks back on the first year of FootstepsNW, the walking and activity group she co-founded for Black women and their friends in the north west.
As the autumn leaves fall thick on the ground and the trees do their slow undressing in preparation for the winter winds, my mind turns to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘An Autumn’, whose first stanza directs:
Go, sit upon the lofty hill,
And turn your eyes around,
Where waving woods and waters wild
Do hymn an autumn sound.
The summer sun is faint on them –
The summer flowers depart –
Sit still – as all transform’d to stone,
Except your musing heart.
Undeniably, this is the time to take stock, harvest, examine and come to terms with what all the year so far has been for. My musing heart wanders through photographs we have taken, terrains we have walked, challenges set, games won and lost, stories shared, and the joys and sorrows divided up.
I reflect on all the seeds sown, those that bore fruit and those that didn’t. My tomatoes – tended so lovingly, missed the best of the sunshine and although big and bursting, did not ripen; the courgette plants which flowered so hopefully, filling my small backyard with the happy hum of bees, are now shrivelled in the cold, having borne nothing. Am I sad, regretful or is there space there to be grateful for the flowers and the bees?
Much of what I have planted has come to fruition. I have eaten only blueberries from my small tree all summer, and the herbs in my food have come from the abundance of the narrow trough in the corner. A proliferation of a mint bush has serviced many friends and my partner’s pear trees nourished us on many of our walks.
It has been a good year. Not only because the green tomatoes are good for chutney or stew and the courgette plants to mulch, but because the community we started in adversity thrives and has continued to do so, one walk at a time.
Making friends and getting out of comfort zones
It was important that our group expanded to include others, like the environment does for us daily, and that this generosity be replicated in our activities and relationships. Our friends include spouses, friends, other walking groups and enthusiasts and we learn a lot from these interactions.
We joined up with CPRE Lancashire and members of the Ramblers Association to explore Preston’s parks, architecture and green belt and took some new friends along the historic Edges of Hope Valley and the Goyt River.
On a whim, we signed up to the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge and completed it and went camping for the first time as a group – the first time ever for many of our members and their friends. Difficult ten-mile walks become attainable 15-mile hikes, with the support and comfort of friendship and comradeship.
Inspired by the playful interaction of the children on the banks of the River Goyt, artist and fellow walker Ali Harwood wrote a short poem for the group, reminding us to stop and acknowledge the space around us.
Can you dance with dandelions?
Hear the daisies roar?
Will you greet each blade of grass?
There’s more here to explore!
Can you clamber up the hill
Blasting past the flowers?
Dare you roll back down again?
Dizzy for an hour!
The CPRE ‘We Are The Countryside’ campaign did more than tell a story, it called for us to look around us and to articulate who we are … and who we are in the space in which we exist. It asked us to examine our place within our non-human world and its relationship to us.
Particularly for me, it was to reflect also on the liminal spaces of my existence – the reasons I feel the urge to fill my backyard with plants and trees, the purpose of my weekly escapes to more natural environments, my motivations, my identity and role in my environment.
At first, whereas I could speak candidly of myself as a city-dweller, a passionate hiker and of my conscious escapes to the countryside as one of mindfulness, it took a poem to articulate the rest. In expressing my identity as a valid part of my environment, I acknowledge my responsibilities, the agency and vulnerability of the non-human world around me and my role in its maintenance and survival.
Looking ahead, one footstep at a time
When I think of the future, I am reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s honest poem, ‘Said a Blade of Grass’. It is a call for a certain kind of humility, an understanding. An acknowledgement that we are the earth and the earth us. A reminder, that, despite all our lofty ideals as humans, supposedly perched high on the hierarchy, it is to the earth that we seek nourishment and health, freedom and inspiration.
As we plan one last walk before the end of the year, we know that until spring, we will have to stay closer to home, enjoy the flatter trails and feel grateful for the small expanse of our local parks. I leave you with the poem I wrote, inspired by the CPRE campaign, of the same title:
We are the countryside
We are this earth,
All fields and moors, mounds, hills, mountains
All rocks and crags, jagged cliffs – sand and grit.
The sky and space
Waters – big and small
Trickles to waterfalls
Babbling brooks, gurgling streams, angry rivers, and endless seas.
We are caretakers,
Custodians of paths laid by history,
Kept in protest and work,
Farmers, walkers, folds …
A toll-free access for all and all.
We are witnesses,
Of the daily dance of the English climate
Daffodils early and late, bluebells that dazzle the sight.
Trees in slow-motion – dressing, undressing,
A landscape quickly changed, in snow, storm, sun or inevitable rain.
We are meeters and greeters,
That first brush with the open air,
A nod, a smile, a welcome wave
The understanding of togetherness in this.
We are the countryside.
You, me, and that fellow that scoffs at the rain.
For what is a meal if not the child of the soil?
What is your soul if not a star in the sky?
We are the land,
Wrapped in the promise of its care.
Freed by its generosity
Given control in trust,
To roam, to tend, to be.
We are the countryside.
You, me and every fellow here.
Victoria Ekpo is a lecturer, teacher, researcher, poet, writer, itinerant hiker and lover of the English countryside. In 2020, Victoria was the winner of the prestigious outdoor writing competition organised by TGO (The Great Outdoors) magazine and Black Girls Hike UK.
Follow Victoria’s walking group on Instagram @FootStepsNW