A Walk on the Oxfordshire Ridgeway

Today I took a walk up to my favourite spot on the Ridgeway. It’s been a little while since I have been there, and I wanted to see how it had changed, what magic nature had worked, how it would feel like a different place since I last saw it, overcast and grey and covered in the white, milky puddles that ancient chalk footpaths make.

The sky was blue but the air cool when I arrived at the top of Chain Hill. Instantly, the instinctive expansion of lungs and stomach to draw in the light, windswept air, and the dropping of shoulders. I don’t get up here enough. A short walk this morning, a couple of hours wrestled from the week to refuel, slow down, see what I am missing – to really look.

a footpath running along a hillside I should know it already, of course, but in my absence the world has changed immeasurably, in a way that every time, though I should know better, takes me by surprise. There are, I could easily believe, a thousand shades of green. Unreal, neon-lit grasses, deep emerald leaves, the nearly-black of shaded undertrees, the lime newness of unfurling buds, the changing dusty yellow-sage and winter-brown of fields as clouds race over them. Enough variety to make life below this high old pathway retreat and curl up, distant.

Verges which I know busied themselves with snowdrops against a bare, black and white background are now shoulder-high with shoots and violet flowers. The grass that runs down the middle of the track is dotted with white and yellow buds and thistle-shaped heads. The sky above is the kind that seems put together to amaze us, to force us to recognise how large the world is, how ridiculous our arguments, our problems: cobalt blue, with faint lines drawn long before smaller white circles. There’s something about being surrounded by all this colour, above and below, that fills the mind and leaves no room for negative emotions.

I read somewhere, and I wish I could remember where, about the benefits of simply being surrounded by nature and away from the devices that we use to fill our senses at home – that the bright colours and movement and noise of our televisions, computers and mobile phones cannot compete with the way in which all our senses are needed when we’re outside – the noise, the movement, the detail, the scents, the feel of grassheads on your palm. This makes absolute sense to me. I don’t hate modern life – it’s wonderful that we can share information in a way that has never been done before. I just hope that we don’t forget what else there is, outside. That we remember that pictures of nature are inspiring, but they aren’t the same as being there, and breathing it in; the sound of wind whistling through treetops, and the playful changing light.

As I walked from Chain Hill to the iron age fort, the sun grew warmer and the light brighter, so that I feel, now, a couple of hours later, that a light and warmth is still held behind my eyelids. Soon I realised how much I had missed – that sense that you can walk the same path every day, and it will never be quite the same. Different things will happen, different details will appear under different lights, impossible as it is to see without filtering everything through your own mind. Such walks fill me with a sense of peace, but also with an underlying sadness that I can’t be there everyday. I’m missing things. Things so important and unfeasible in their simplicity. That somewhere, while I sit in traffic, kites are circling and flowers are unfurling. There’s something comforting, though, in knowing that whatever else happens, this goes on. The green sap pushing through the world as it turns, producing tidal waves of growth as the seasons wash from one continent to another.

What things did I see, and not miss, this time? Butterflies, tiny and violet blue, like jewels on a Victorian dressing table, looking as if they would taste of dust and sugar; brown, with bright orange circles, sunning themselves on flowers that tilted with the wind; pearl, and quick to flutter away into the white cloud above. Their cousin, a long, furred caterpillar with an armour of small spikes that wriggled across the pebbles and which I paused for, to make sure that it reached the grass on the other side, safe from the tracks of cyclists’ wheels, and which thereby shrank and wonderfully paused my world for a few minutes.

a path through a bluebell woodPassing underneath trees so thick with leaves that delightfully spooky-looking shadows covered the path beneath me, a cloud of buttercups glowed like gold coins. Above the branches, a crow burst across the sky in a shocking black cross, like a warning, like a shout. Back in the sun, a chaffinch warbled proudly from a branch end, showing off his salmon breast. All these seemed suitable, when after an hour I arrived at the iron age hill fort which I had last climbed up on a windswept day, hands tucked in pockets.

Grass which had seemed sparse and bare underfoot now swept past my knees, leaving small circles of dew damp. From the top of the fort’s ridge, I saw that what had been bare grass, impressive in its stillness and plainness, was now a waving field of yellow and white, tiny flowers and paper-like grassheads. Truly, I had missed the arrival of a new world. I could be in another country. I kneeled in the damp grass to see things from its level, as the sky grew immense overhead and insects fizzed around my head. No wonder the birds and bright colours had been trying to prepare me for this.

There is something immensely comfortable in the thought that you can stand on ground that was moulded by human hands hundreds of thousands of years ago, and yet be amazed to see it change from season to season. Its permanence, and flexibility. Its continuity, despite all odds, and the way it can burst forth with life from days of ice chill and bare soil. In changing times, I feel invigorated by the reminder that such earth does not care for current political changes, for what I have to achieve this week, for tarmac roads and busy offices. It will be there, even while I am away, preparing another surprise, a new show, a shift of details that will prove so rewarding when found. It is possible, there, to feel both tiny and young, and older than the years, part of the sky and soil that surrounds you. It doesn’t matter what you believe in. It’s just free, and alive.

As I turned to head back to the rest of my day, I saw from the corner of my eye a dark shape drifting through a field of emerald green crops to my right. A deer, solitary, and moving slower and more gently than I have seen before, as if swimming through the plants, enjoying the view, as if floating. Hands raised over my eyes, I stopped to watch – she was so close, but unaware of my existence. Time paused. Then, she lifted her head and looked directly at me. I froze, unwilling to break the moment that had snared us both in it, a tightrope drawn between us. A shallow breath later, she gently swung her head round, and carried on her slow, sedate way, parting the green waves. Knowing that neither of us mattered, really, just the parts we were playing in this life, this time, this round, as the sun travelled overhead.


Photos by Adam Edwards

Moki Creek, Utah

Rills at the stream’s edge repeat thought.
I think of the many animal tracks covering
the continent, can’t step anywhere without
hoof, paw, claw or flipper, hair-thin touch
of a water-strider or a spider landing
there before my booted, five-toed foot.

If I put out feelers, I can sense, not a foot
away from any skin cell on my body, the thought
(or actual presence?) of the past that covers
or hovers around me. I breathe without
hesitation, each breath inhales a touch
of past exhalations, floating, landing.

Things live beyond themselves, the very land
is made of rocks that have risen, a foot-
long branch scatters needles like thoughts
from a purposeless daydream where I discover,
again, how mercilessly quickly time goes, without
a by-your-leave, without a parting touch

so I could feel I’ve been present, have touched
at least the stream’s rills or smelled the land’s
damp scent. I want the imprint of my foot
to be more conscious, want my thoughts
to last, as memories I’ll later discover,
palpable parts of day I needn’t do without.

Sit down here with the invisible, without
conscience’s scolding chatter, free to touch
almost unbearably cold water. Over land
infected with risen rocks, places where foot
after foot has passed and tracks, like thought,
wash down over the course the stream covers.

Look across where trees’ reflection covers
water, one existence layering another without
the need to ask permission or excuse the touch
it lays imperceptibly, surely, as it lands
on water’s surface and changes the passing, foot
by foot, down this slope into my thoughts.

Not to take without giving, not to measure, foot
upon foot, each thought by its ‘profound discovery.’
To land in the midst of myself, to be touched.

By Grace Marie Grafton

hiker under giant stone arch in desert


Grace Marie Grafton is the author of six collections of poetry, which can be reviewed on Amazon’s site. Grafton_Whimsey_CoverShe lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a redwood tree outside her kitchen door and a native live oak next to her deck. Nearby are red squirrels, raccoons, salamanders, and (never seen) mountain lions. Other of her nature poems can be found in Canary (online), Peacock Journal (online), Third Wednesday, Poecology and The Common Ground Review. Her book, Whimsy, Reticence and Laud: unruly sonnets, is rooted in her love of nature. She has taught for decades with CA Poets in the Schools, frequently taking her grade school students outdoors for their poetry lessons.

Photo of A hiker at Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, United States by Koji Hirano.

I Know Where He’s Been

I know where he’s been. The damp stains on his t-shirt and the look on his face say so much. It may have been strenuous because he looks exhausted, but I can tell he liked it. I would, too.

I can see by the way his body moves when he walks that it was long and arduous for him. That look in his eye conveys the wonder he felt and the satisfaction it gave him.

I know he was in a darkened place filled with scintillating smells. He likely heard some pounding against wood. I bet he felt every curve, maybe touching the hard places and breathing in the scent of the soft ones.

I wonder if he took off from work to go there, and if he’s done that a lot or was this the first time? Did he worry about being seen? Did he know how good it was going to be?

I know what it’s like, so I know he was sheltered by the green canopy that covers the trail as the broken pavement makes way for insistent plants to push through. If he looked up he probably saw indigo buntings as he neared the crest of the climb, their chirping melodic whistle reaching his ears. He may have heard the flute-like song of wood thrush.

The woodpeckers, after tapping purposefully up in the trees, were likely finding sap or grubs for breakfast. Although he couldn’t see the campground hidden behind the trees and moss-covered boulders, the sweet, pungent scent of bacon wafted down from there. If he was lucky, he heard a lone rooster greet the morning with a cock-a-doodle-doo.

Since it has been raining pretty hard the past few days he may have heard running water on the side of the mountain and looked over to see it forming rivulets down to a fresh stream from the runoff. He might have had to climb over a tree fallen across the trail, its roots loosened in the rain-soaked earth.

He might have ventured off the main trail to a path around the side of the mountain. Goats and deer could have met him as he made his way gingerly over rocks and roots.

When he got to the top he probably sat on the stone wall at the overlook. He may have seen misty fog nestle between the cleavage of the other peaks in these foothills of the Appalachians. I hope he noticed the warblers and chickadees and cardinals singing to their friends in neighboring trees.

He possibly paused at the overlook a few minutes to breathe nature’s glory in full view before starting back down the trail. The birds now would be settling in for the day, more quiet than on the walk up. The trees and boulders look a little different from this side, and he may have noticed some squirrels at play or a large colorful wild mushroom he hadn’t seen going up. As he neared the bottom he likely started to hear cars a quarter mile or so before emerging from the trail, back to the everyday bustle of life, and drivers going by like me.

Overlook from trail in essay


Courtney Hill Gulbro lives in the foothills of the Appalachians in North Alabama. She has returned to creative writing after a career as a counselor and counselor educator.

Photo by the author of the overlook at the top of the trail in the essay, Monte Sano State Park, Huntsville, Alabama, USA

Trails

I walked these trails once.
Scooped earth in my hands,
felt the grit beneath my thumbs.
I watched constellations appear in tiny granules of sand,
pressed into the lines on my palms.

I listened to the birds singing high in the trees.
The susurration of the leaves,
underscoring their lively conversation.
I turned my eyes toward the canopy to watch the sun dance,
playing between the shivering boughs.

I wobbled over a fallen tree.
Turned over stones with the toe of my shoe,
unearthed a thousand working ants.
I lingered by the forest stream,
an audience to its murmuring contemplations.

I conquered bedraggled slopes.
Plunged down crooked valleys.
Clambered over boulders where lizards sunned themselves.
Stood in the gaping maw of a cave,
its fetid breath issuing from between jagged stalactite teeth.

I battled storm-shaken afternoons.
Listless tree branches drumming,
a rain-battered staccato rhythm.
I sheltered beneath those towering pines as great forks of lightning,
lashed the ground like a serpent’s tongue.

I climbed over sprawling roots where they split the earth.
Rising slowly like uncoiling eels,
only to dive back deep below the ground.
I marvelled at silk spun spider webs,
dewdrops gleaming like diamonds in the morning air.

I return to them now,
these trails I remember so well.
Many have walked them in my absence.
The ground grown firm and the towering trees gone,
replaced by young saplings that bend and wave like supple dancers.

I am no stranger lost among wild grasses.
You may yet see me here,
as the sun hangs suspended like a lantern guiding me on.
Over the winding hill rise,
walking these trails once more.

By Jacqueline Carter

Woman walking on trail in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia.


Jacqueline lives in Melbourne, Australia, and when she’s not preoccupied with the stories she weaves in her head, she works as an administrator and spends her time being an unabashed fan of all things pop culture. Previously, Jacqueline’s had pieces published in Fray and Project Calm as well as various online anthologies such as FewerThan500 and The Vignette Review.

Photo of Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia, by Rafael Ben-Ari


The Moon-lit Waters of a Costa Rican Cliff

moon night on the sea with waves and rocksIt’s very misty up here, and the windy road’s edge seems to fall into nothingness. Fog makes the trip up the mountain look like a horror movie. When I reach the top, we go down, but this time the sun greets us, just as it is getting ready for bed. Splashes of red blue purple yellow and orange create hypnotic patterns in the sky. The sun begins to kiss the horizon line, and the orchestra of exotic birds, animals, and bugs comes to an end, with soft light provided by the moon. Just as a day on a Costa Rican cliffside ends, the night begins.

At night I look up to the night sky and see every star as if it was as bright as the sun, while the moon illuminated the ground beneath me. I could see constellations, and watch the shooting star pass by. It seems almost magical, unreal even, and yet there I was; witnessing the beauty of the glittering sky above.

I look down, and see a small patch of sand where I could stand. I climb down the rock face and plop myself in this small area. It had to have been almost two in the morning, and somehow I never get tired of standing on this little sand bar, I didn’t even get a single fear of the nocturnal predators around me. I see a fin poke out of the water, and now a second one as well. That’s when I begin to feel that these creatures are giving me some company, enjoying the moonlit shallows. The light makes the patterns as the bottom of the water, to which is when I would jump in.

I could see so much beautiful sea life, and confront the finned creatures. With the help of the moon I could see them, and the flow in their movement. I came face to face with one, and learned their real secret. They are afraid of us. They don’t know what they do, and all they want to to be shown true respect. They are afraid of us because we are afraid of them, so to speak. We should treat them as equals to us, because all life is significant. I learned all of this while sliding my hand down their sand paper backs, and with my eyes open. They shall now forever be opened, always. Whether it be warm water in the cold night, or cold water in the heat of day, I now see them clearer than ever

I wake to the dancing of colors across the sky of dawn. Splashes of red, blue, purple, yellow, and orange create hypnotic patterns in the sky. The sun rises from the edge of the forest and over the cliff. I am back on the sand bar, and begin my way up the face of the cliff. Just as a night on a Costa Rican cliff side ends, the day just begins.


Photo by Pavlo Vakhrushev