Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


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.


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.


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.


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.”


Waymarks: 1

Where or why I set off I couldn’t tell you, and neither am I sure where I’m heading. There is a path of sorts, but from time to time it disappears, only to reappear again in a slightly different guise, like a sand furrow on a tidal beach. But I’m not lost, and neither do I feel alone. In fact, there are times when I feel I have too many companions vying for my attention. Sooner or later, I trust, the fragments of path will join up to make a map of sorts.

In the meantime, here are some brief dispatches from where I’m at.

A book. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is, as it’s title suggests, about raptors, yet it opens with her learning of the death of her father. Fascinated with falconry throughout her childhood she finds herself responding to grief by buying and attempting to train a goshawk. Yet this is no superficial attempt to disengage from the pain of loss. There are no empty words like ‘moving on’. On the contrary, she moves towards. Towards a closer engagement with the world, with the only place where life can be lived. A third of the way into the book I’ve come to realize how little I know about raptors. But grief, pain. That’s a world I’m familiar with, and Helen Macdonald makes for an honest and eloquent companion. Click here to read an interview she gave to Caught By The River.

A documentary. Curiosity, humility, patience. These are just some of the qualities we need if we are truly to learn something from our encounters with the natural world. To learn, in the words of the psychoanalyst W.R. Bion, from experience, rather than viewing life and the world through a lens carved from preconceptions. I first came across Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain in the autumn of 2010, and since then I’ve returned to it whenever I start to sense that I’m losing sight of the land, and of our dependence on it. Although I have never walked in the Cairngorms of which she writes, the way in which she opens up that landscape is a gift for the imagination. A documentary about Shepherd’s book, presented by Robert MacFarlane, was broadcast this week on BBC Scotland. It’s available on iPlayer until Tuesday 9 December, and can be downloaded for later viewing.

A report. There are many necessary criticisms that can be levelled against psychotherapy, but one that has always struck me as misplaced is the charge that it generates dependency. Children are acutely aware of their dependency on their parents, and later, in adolescence, must rail against it in order to make the transition into adulthood. Maturity, however, requires a rediscovery of our dependence on others, an awareness of our interdependent relationship with all living things. We are not very good at this. Take an issue that has attracted much media attention this week: mothers breastfeeding in public. Our social landscape is saturated with images of breasts as objects of desire, yet the breast on which the infant depends, the one upon which, if all goes well, we are placed when entering this world, that breast is apparently too much for some to bear. We want to consume, to possess, but we don’t want to think about where things come from, or what is involved in producing them. A report just published by the Chatham House think tank reminds us that the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships put together. This is not new knowledge, yet as the report also states, the majority of people continue to believe that transport is the biggest contributor to global warming. Importantly, the research on which this report is based does not suggest we give up meat. But the findings should lead us to reflect, and to a greater acknowledgement of our interdependency.

A song. As the year comes to a close, those of us who enjoy meat may be drawn by the opportunity to eat seasonal venison. Nowadays, wild deer populations are generally managed by wildlife rangers, since natural predators like the wolf are extinct outside some national park areas such as Yellowstone. This management is necessary, since in the absence of top predators the numbers of deer will otherwise become too large for habitats to support. Free to roam without fear, deer can have a detrimental impact on the local ecosystem, not least through the overgrazing of new-growth vegetation. Have we, like the deer in a wolf-free land, come to believe we can feed with abandon? Might an unintended consequence of austerity be that those of us with plenty come to learn the meaning of enough? You will arrive at your own answers to these questions, but along the way, step off the path for a moment and listen to The Wolfless Years by Chris Wood.