Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


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Two Trees

Ca-ca-ca-cak. Ca-ca-ca-cak. I hear them before I see them. One, then a second magpie bobbing around beneath one of the old carob trees that stand just off the riera, the now dry stream bed along which I am walking. The landscape around Sant Pere de Ribes is veined with several of these stony conduits, and since moving here three years ago I have followed their course, up into the hills to the west, or down to the sea some five kilometres to the east. I’m not going far today, however; I’m just using the stream bed as a logical way to orbit the town before nightfall.

The last hour of the last day of autumn. Surely a fine time for a walk. Forty minutes ago I had closed the front gate and looked up at a crisp Mediterranean sky with my coat still open, but the sun has dropped now behind the hills and the afternoon has turned dummity and cold. I button my coat and climb up out of the riera onto the path of dry compacted mud that runs along its side. The carob trees that line the way are restless now with the song of invisible birds calling out the passing of the day. In response, I find myself whistling the refrain of a Duke Ellington tune I’d been listening to at lunchtime, an eleven-note clarinet lick mimicking the Bluebird of Delhi.

I follow the path for a couple of hundred metres and then, after passing beneath the stone road bridge and its red-metal pedestrian twin that allow passage in and out of this side of town, I climb again, up the stony bank and onto firmer ground. Ahead of me on the same side of the road a paired line of Aleppo pines form an inviting tunnel through which I have often walked, but it is not these trees that have brought me this way. The tree I want to look at is an ash, and it stands at the edge of the little car park on the other side of the road.

The ash has lost now the last of its leaves, but a few bunches of brown keys still hang from its lower branches. I reach up and cup one of the clusters in my left hand. By keeping my palm steady I find that I can move my fingertips across individual keys without dislodging the whole cluster. Their touch reminds me of the fine tissue paper that my watchmaker father always used to protect the disassembled pieces of a work in progress. I open my palm and watch as two dry seeds spin slowly to the ground.

The browns and greys of the wintering tree contrast with the exaggerated tones of the plastic flowers that are strapped to its trunk. I think that someone has altered the arrangement since I was last here, but I can’t be sure. Plastic flowers give nothing away. They don’t wilt or fade, which I guess is the point. As a memorial they are meant to symbolise permanence, a triumph over time and events. Yet in wishing for a place where nothing is lost, we cut ourselves off from the gift of living in time, from the possibility of renewal. An absence of decay is not necessarily a sign of life.

I didn’t know Toni personally, although he’d served me on a number of occasions when I bought stuff from the hardware store where he worked. I’d also seen him a couple of times while out walking the woods around town, his face recognisable despite the helmet as he scudded by on his mountain bike. A man in his thirties from a local family, a friendly face at work. That was as much as I knew about him.

The absurdity of the accident must make the loss even harder to swallow. The little car park whose border is marked by four ash trees is an obvious place to leave your car if you’ve just finished your morning shift at the hardware store and are now planning to spend the afternoon up in the hills on your mountain bike. Toni had probably parked there on countless occasions, and he would have been aware of the slope and camber of the ground. As he unloaded his bike through the hatchback door, he wouldn’t have expected the car to move, and it was no doubt an instinctive action to push against it. The mechanics of it all favour a loss of footing, and then a drag until the first obstacle is met. Apparently the paramedics were soon at the scene, doing their best at the foot of an ash.

With the last light seeping from the day I decide to head for home. The road rises past the little car park, and then more steeply still towards the top end of town. Halfway up the hill I take a right turn along a street that gives me a level run to my own, and it is there that I am puzzled by the lights up ahead, braids of red that seem suspended in the air. As I approach the junction I see the source. Where the four streets meet there is a small roundabout, its central island home to an old carob tree that has held its ground throughout the development of the neighbourhood. Since I last passed by a week ago the tree has become a Christmas carob, its trunk and major branches adorned with beaded strands of tiny red lights. I like what has been done to the tree, and I’m sure Ramón will be able to tell me more about it.

Ramón and his wife Marta run the delicatessen that stands just off the roundabout, and they can be relied upon for good cheese and local news. I’m barely through the door before Ramón greets me with a resounding ‘Hombre, ¿qué tal? ¡Cuánto tiempo!’. I smile at the thought that for him, a customer he hasn’t seen for a week should be welcomed with the words long time no see. While I choose the cheese and ham that will be tonight’s supper I ask him about the tree. He looks up, places the knife on the wooden board in front of him and pushes his shoulders back until they are straight.

‘That’s our doing’, he says. ‘Well, not just us, the other shops along here have all chipped in. Council wouldn’t put up ten cents, even said we’d have to get special permission to hook the lights up to the grid.’

‘I like it,’ I said. ‘Good on you.’

‘If it was up to me,’ Ramón said, ‘I’d have music playing in the street as well. Bring a bit of warmth to people’s lives.’

Having bought more than I need from the wily vendor I step back out into the evening and head off toward home. There is a hint of wood smoke in the air, and I think that perhaps I too will lay a fire in, make the house warm for when my wife gets home. Pausing at the end of the street I take a last look back at the illuminated carob, and there in the shimmer of its lights see the spectre of an ash standing alongside it. Two trees. One for sorrow, one for joy.

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In The Company Of Animals

It is the end of winter and I am out on the cusp of night and day. There is nothing of the frost of the last few mornings, and I know before I look that the stars will be tucked beneath a blanket of cloud. As I drop the latch on the front gate a familiar feral cat emerges from beneath a parked car and mews at me in hope. ‘You’ll have to wait, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’

I stride off towards the southern edge of town and soon I am crossing the bridge across the riera, the seasonal watercourse that forms a natural boundary between the last houses and the fields beyond. Along the dry streambank a line of leafless poplars stand like giant upturned besoms. If I could I would take one and sweep the sky clean.

Beyond the bridge the road becomes first a gravelly path and then a more rugged track that cuts across the fields between drystone walls. A daylight of sorts is beginning to unfold around me now, although the sky remains the colour of wet clay. I know what my Catalan mother-in-law would say: Cielo de panza de burra, agua segura. When the sky is the colour of a donkey’s belly, it’s sure to rain.

Of all the local walks I’ve invented since moving to Sant Pere de Ribes three years ago, this is the one I keep coming back to. Eight kilometres of familiar yet unexhausted paths that can lead me into the day, much as a favourite bedtime story would ease me into sleep as a child. If, back then, the reward for early to bed was an extra chapter, then the prize for an early start today is in sharing the morning with others: with the rabbit shooting across my path and into the carob grove for cover, with the pied wagtails breakfasting on bugs in the freshly tilled field to the west, and with the pair of peacocks.

I hear their plaintive call well before reaching the end of the track and the smallholding where they live, but it is not until I am parallel to the farmhouse that I see them perched atop the two chimneys like ceremonial cowls, their draping trains tickling the terracotta roof tiles below. As I stand there watching, one of them begins to shake its tail feathers from side to side, and I’m reminded of a news article I’d read about the work of two Canadian researchers, Angela Freeman and James Hare. They discovered that the train displays of peacocks produce infrasonic signals, sounds that cannot be detected by the human ear but which both male and female peafowl are able to perceive. Freeman and Hare speculate that these infrasounds have something to do with maintaining territory, and may also add to the visual power of the trains in attracting females. If they are right, then there is something tragic about these two peacocks dutifully calling out and shaking their trains, despite living here in a kind of avian exile, far from others of their kind who might listen with more than superficial interest.

Beyond the smallholding the stony track narrows and becomes earthy as it skirts around the edge of the hamlet of Puigmoltó. It is here that my spirits are lifted again as I gaze ahead at what might as well be a field of strawberry ice cream flecked with the last snowflakes of winter. The path ends at the stone wall which encloses the grove, and here, up close, the colour scheme shifts. I reach over the wall and snap a flower from each of the two species of tree, letting them rest side by side in my palm. Now I can see that although the bitter almond blossom is predominantly pink and that of the sweet almond white, the delicate flowers of each contain subtle tones of both colours. Strawberry mixed with snow.

I let the petals fall to the ground and climb the gentle incline into the scraggy woodland to the south of the almond grove. First I follow a broad and stony track, then veer off down a half-hidden mulchy path that cuts back and forth through an undergrowth thick with mastic, rosemary and dwarf juniper. The sides of this path are pock-marked with the scrufflings of wild boar. I find myself mumbling the words of a local huntsman I met a couple of weeks back. ‘Hi ha almenys cent senglars en aquest bosc.’ At least a hundred boar in these woods, yet in three years I’d never seen more than telltale disturbed earth. One day, perhaps.

Whether it is the thought of boar or the fact that it is cold here in the dummity wood, I quicken my step along the bifurcating path, trusting my sense of direction. This, I think, is how best I like to walk, without map or compass in hand, wandering the borderlands between strangeness and familiarity, with the possibility of getting lost not as threat but as an invitation to learn.

After five minutes or so the path deposits me at a junction of five trails, and here I choose the most direct route out of the woods. As I emerge from the trees onto a low ridge I look up in the hope of seeing a break in the clouds, but the donkey’s belly remains unruffled.

Where the ridge path ends I need to make a choice, since it brings me out on the back road that links Sant Pere de Ribes with the neighbouring town, Vilanova. I could road walk all the way home, but I decide instead to go only as far as the next bend and there pick up a tarmaced trail that meanders through the vineyards that fill the land to the west of town.

At this hour of the day the vineyard trail is alive with the song and flight of countless birds. Blackcaps tut-tut at me from the hedgerows, while down in the vineyards proper, other birds – probably buntings but hard to discern in this light – flit around the bare stumps or perch briefly on the cordon wires along which the new vines will soon be trained. Walking here is easy, and a joy, and before I know it I am dropping down towards town. The path I’m on wends its way through a final patch of woodland before emerging alongside the castell de Ribes, which dominates the landscape on this side of town. Although the origins of the small castle lie in the tenth century it is now little more than a Mediterranean manor house proudly hanging on to its fortified past, its circular defence tower as obsolete as the shaking train of a solitary peacock.

Just after the castle the path empties onto the back road that earlier I had chosen not to take, and here I must choose again. I can make a beeline for home through the centre of town, or loop my way back along the dry bed of the riera. Although rain is in the air today, the last two weeks have been dry with cold nights and warm, sunny middays, so progress across the polished stones and cracked mud of the stream bed is relatively easy. Scattered around me are discarded juice cartons, cans and plastic bottles, man-made erratics that sooner or later will be washed into the sea, adding to our problems.

A path of dry, compact mud opens up now to my right and runs in parallel to the stony bed. It is as I join this path that I see the hound. Black, enormous and alone, sniffing around beneath the carob tree that stands where the riera curves around to the right. I pull up, unsure about the wisdom of moving closer. The hound has caught wind of me and has shifted its position to one of preparedness, head cocked forward, back legs slightly spread, a gangly sprinter desperate to leave the blocks.

I lose sense of time in this moment of shared alert, although it can only be a matter of seconds before I see the woman coming along behind. As she reaches the carob tree the hound cocks its head slightly to the right, and then back again in my direction. I call out to her. ‘Està bé? Puc seguir? She calls back, letting me know that yes, it’s fine to walk on. The hound seems as liberated by its owner’s voice as I am, and we set off toward one another almost at the same instant.

When our paths meet, I stop again and allow the dog to explore me with its nose. With its head tipped back its muzzle brushes against my breastbone, although I no longer feel intimidated by its size. It fixes me with amber eyes, and I shudder. Whether there is truly something in those eyes or they are simply acting as a temporary mirror for my own self, I can’t say. All I know is that I sense something forlorn about this creature.

Sembla que tens un nou amic!’ His owner is with us now, and she’s right, I can easily imagine this dog as a new friend. ‘Ès un danès?’, I ask her. To my surprise, she not only confirms that the glossy giant is indeed a great dane, but begins to tell me something of their life together. While the dog continues to snuffle at my feet the woman explains to me how our encounter would have been very different had we met five months ago.

Ha sigut un treball molt dur, ens ha costat molt.’ It’s been hard work, she tells me, really hard. The dog had been abandoned by its previous owner and had ended up in the hands of a group that organized dog fights for a betting syndicate. I don’t press her on how exactly she and her husband had rescued the dog. It is enough to feel my spirits buoyed by her account of the training they have had to do, day after day, to get the animal to where it is now, a friend in the making. I feel the dog’s wet nose against the back of my hand, and looking down I find myself gazing into its eyes, as if by staring long and hard enough I might discover some deeper truth about this animal’s life.

The woman and I bid our farewells and set off in our respective directions, but after a few steps I find myself pulling up again and turning my head. ‘Bona feina’, I call out to her. Good work. The words sound trite, but I had felt the need to say something, to acknowledge openly that I was glad there were people like her in this world. She pays me the courtesy of looking back. ‘Gràcies’, she says, and walks on, the dog loping ahead of her into a different kind of life.


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A Short Walk By The Crooked River

Before I left the house this morning I travelled to the other side of the isle, from North Cornwall to Norfolk in the company of Helen Macdonald. In an article published just before Christmas in the New Statesman she recounts her annual pilgrimage to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney in Norfolk, the wintering site for thousands of whooper and Bewick’s swans. Her description of the spectacle is as vivid and original as anyone who has read her recent book H is for Hawk would expect. What does a thousand-strong chorus of Arctic swans sound like? Until this morning I couldn’t have told you, but through her words I can hear them now, I can hear what she calls a “vast amateur brass band tuning up in an aircraft hangar”. But what most caught my attention was something she expresses towards the end of the article: her delight, while watching the swans, that they are as at home in Norfolk as they are in the Arctic.

Home. As a child growing up in Wadebridge, one of the things I loved was to stand on the bridge across the estuarine River Camel and watch the mudbanks re-emerge as the water receded with the ebb tide. There was something reassuring about their reappearance. The world may have seemed different for a while, but at bottom nothing had really changed. Best of all was the grassy mound that sat just upstream of the bridge, and onto which a pair of swans would regularly clamber and there wait patiently for the river to return. When I left home aged 19, the swans and the river were among the few things I acknowledged missing.

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Today the afternoon skies are heavy and grey as Paloma and I set out upstream along the Camel Trail. We’re not planning to go far. We’ll walk until the light begins to fade, and then head back for tea. But that will be enough, for this is rich terrain that is best taken in small amounts that can be savoured. We follow a south-easterly line below Treraven Wood and begin to cross the meandering river at Pendavey Bridge, led on by a gentle honking. Reaching the midpoint of the bridge we see there are twenty or so Canada Geese pottering around the riverside. They seem as unmindful of me as I am of everything else as I stop to photograph them.

IMG_0517Canada geese (Branta canadensis) alongside the River Camel

The woodland opens and the water, now on our right, flows straight for a stretch, belying its original Cornish name, Dowr Kammel: crooked river. On the far side bank, the strip of filamentous grasses seems to shiver in time to our own movement, as if it were a sound waveform capturing the music of this place.

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It is then we spot the second skein of geese and begin to hear and see their announcement of imminent flight. Honk waddle, honk waddle, honk waddle, honk honK hoNK hONK HONK HONK… “¡Qué escándalo!” says Paloma, and there is indeed a considerable racket as the birds take to the air and head downstream. Quiet returns, and we decide to press on for another ten minutes or so, as far as Polbrock. There we climb the steps up onto the narrow road that runs along the top of the twin-arch bridge: one arch spanning the disused railway line along which we have been walking, the other the river itself. From our new vantage point we gaze upstream and marvel. At this distance and shorn of leaves the trees are impossible, with our knowledge, to identify, yet they are no less beautiful in anonymity.

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What was it that the poet Neruda wrote in response to a world of too many names? Pienso confundir las cosas, I have a mind to confuse things. Or as one of my clinical supervisors used to say: Forget the diagnosis, listen to the patient! Sound advice, but not always easy to follow. And so, our vision prejudiced by training, we fill the lacunae with what we think we know. “See that tree there: don’t its branches look like Purkinje cells? And that spindly one to the right: isn’t that a motor neuron?” This is how we bring the anonymous trees into focus, by imagining the foundations of life.

The light is fading now, and we need to head home. As we descend the steps and start back along the trail I think of how my father loved this place, and of how in leaner times he had fished this stretch to put food on the table. For him it was not just a place of recreation, it was somewhere that through care and respect would continue to provide. In his own way, that is what he communicated to us as children. I realize, then, what it was I had felt up there on the bridge. A sense of permanence.

I quicken my step so as to catch up with Paloma, and together we stride out, hand in hand and singing into the dimming of the day. By the time we reach Pendavey Bridge it is almost dark, and that is why we almost miss them, there on the upstream side: six mute swans plopping patiently, one at a time, off the riverbank and into the rising water. A whiteness of swans. The collective noun is right in this light.

IMG_0539Mute swans (Cygnus olor) drift towards Pendavey Bridge

Despite their name, swans of this species are not actually mute, although they would never pass the audition for an Arctic brass band. But they are the swans I know, and they are doing what the River Camel swans have always done. They are moving between land and water, between two homes.

I watch them until they pass beneath the bridge, and then I turn to Paloma. “Come on,” I say. “És l’hora de tornar i fer les maletes. It’s time to go home and pack.”


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Food for Thought

Returning from my early morning walk today I set about preparing breakfast, and while waiting for the kettle to boil I stood staring out into the back garden. My attention was suddenly focused by the arrival of a Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochuros), its rufous rump unmistakeable as it bobbed along the ground and onto the recently tilled vegetable patch. Struck by its jerking head movements I realized that it had come down to earth in order to devour the prey it must have just plucked from the air. In its beak it held a large white butterfly, the wings of which fluttered on either side of the bird’s head like an enormous snowy moustache. I watched transfixed as the whiteness was swallowed up and the bird regained its poise, all in an eternity of seconds. Then, as suddenly as it had arrived, it was gone, making one more orange salute as it spread its tail feathers in flight.