learning a landscape

The first time I set foot in Warrington, the home of all my working hours, it was midnight, under a harvest moon – a kind light.  I was changing trains from London on the way back to Liverpool, slightly tipsy and still buzzing from the city, singing with anticipation at the dizzying amount of doors that opened in September.  That moonlit walk was probably the moment I thought I would stay here in the North after all, and make my home on the shores of the Mersey.  Two weeks later, I watched a kingfisher dart down the Bridgewater canal as I walked off the tension from an interview, and the decision was sealed.

In retrospect, perhaps I pushed too hard too fast; I aimed myself at this job like an arrow, but the doing of it has been harder than the getting of it. Watching the slow contours of the hills from a packed commuter train each morning, spending my days in a purpose built business park on the edge of an industrial estate, I begin to understand that I am part of this landscape now, and it is part of me. No more libraries full of precious books, or well-tended oases of green in the city where I can slip off my shoes at lunchtime in the sun; nowhere to hide from the real implications of the lifestyle I have chosen. The energy used by this computer is produced in a power station I can see from the window of our staff canteen. Most days, the air smells of the laundry powder manufactured in the plant next door.  I walk to the station through a fuming gridlock of one-driver cars that stretch from 4pm – 6pm and from the centre of town to the Motorways.

As second impressions go, these have not been promising.

Perhaps I have more to learn from love/hate relationships, having grown up somewhere so beautiful and gentle and wild; as an adult, my most profound experiences of the British landscape have all been a challenge.  Warrington is not an easy place to love, but in learning to love it, I am learning much more about what it really means to walk a druid path in C21st Britain.

My first step was to start a small journal at the back of my notepad at work. The first entry, from late November, reads:

Heron tracks in the mud along the riverbank. Moorhen call. A flowering hop plant growing through a crack in the concrete embankment, further North than I have ever seen wild hops before. Willow, hawthorn, alder and birch along the riverside footpath; goldfinch, chaffinch and a wren (singing but not sighted). Magpies everywhere.

An introductory chat with a colleague revealed that kingfishers were sometimes spotted on the river as well as the canal, and that at high tide the footpath is often completely submerged, even this far inland.

As the winter wore on, I tried to stay open to the nature of this place, feeling the wild pulse of life through the human noise of the industrial landscape.  It was not easy.  In December, I would pause on the footbridge of the station between trains and watch the sun rise over Helsby hill to the South; once the dawn had advanced enough to make this little ritual impossible, I struggled.  But crafting true relationship takes time and perseverance, accruing in slow layers and sometimes washing away in the currents to reform in different drifts.  The industrial Mersey has taken my mystical tendencies and dumped them, unceremoniously, in the cold mud – where, once I stop despairing, I start to really notice the intricate web of life that flourishes all around us, even here, in spite of everything. Slowly, some days more willingly than others, I have started to let the river-silted, mugwort-tangled song of this place seep into my awareness.  I don’t always hear its call, but I am learning.