Grey clouds haul themselves overhead, but the fields are starry with scatters of rapeseed, comfrey, dandelion, forget-me-not. If only the bees would come out.
We spread out over a collection of fields and one poplar plantation, a rabble of Masters students here to dabble in survey methods. Left unfarmed for two years now, the place is still at the beginning of its new journey. Still forgetting the crush of tractors and the deadly lick of pesticide. While I’m no expert in the rewilding of agricultural land, I presume the dandelions, thistles, and bright green grasses are not wholly welcome. Nor perhaps the monocultures of comfrey crowding the banks of the brook – although when the weather does turn better, the comfrey’s soft-purple bells summon more pollinators than anything else does.
With their soil skin so compacted after years of overworking, the fields have nowhere to send the rain. They pretend to be wetlands. Water lies in wait to prey on boots with unseen holes, and students groan as socks grow damp and clammy. It takes concentration, walking this mudscape. Hooded heads bowed in the wind and drizzle. We carry tape measures, clipboards with waterproof covers, pencils, eco-friendly coffee flasks, chunky botanical identification books. New terminology and concepts take seed in our brains. We’ve been told that data we are harvesting will be useful to the manager of the rewilding project, although I still feel like an imposter. A school-tripper. I am so easily distracted by birds flying overhead.
The birds. The birds. I have become better at recognising their songs in the last year, though I still have far to go. I reacquaint myself with the endless melody of the skylark, catch buzzard mews on the wind. I relish every time we need to walk through the plantation – the name makes it sound sterile and human, and it is mostly planted, but there are older trees among the poplars. Beside the entrance at one end, a grizzled oak swathed in ivy is the home of a family of treecreepers. There’s a special kind of joy in watching the mechanical hopping of a treecreeper up a trunk. One of our tutors is an expert bird-ringer and on the last morning of the trip, he catches the female in a mist net. Her plumage is living bark.
I find the poplars as beautiful as anything else here, their leaves shimmering silver and giving voice to the wind. The only time I don’t mind the wind. And in the green depths of the plantation, it feels like diving into another world, a medium different to air or water. Thick with damp fecund smells and choruses of song thrush, goldfinch, blue tit, great tit, blackbird, wren, treecreeper, coal tit (or nuthatch – I swear they sound the same). When the sun deigns to shine, gold coins of light spill over the muddy track. I never want to leave.
We are only visitors to this place. Our hosts are a family of cows, about twelve of them, here to kickstart the rewilding process. They migrate between the fields in a rhythm of their choosing. Another of our tutors tells us they are still developing their own culture, learning the place. They are gentle and forbearing when we walk past, the very opposite of their aurochs ancestor. They make exploratory licks when hands are proffered to them. This is how all cows should live.
The cows remain outdoors. We are not so stoic. Like mice running back to burrows, once another survey is complete we head back to the barn where hot water, tea and coffee, and snacks (many, many snacks) await. Still, this is far more outdoors than I’m used to getting. When I go home in the evenings I feel a strange new kind of exhaustion, a mental hangover from the intensity of wind and rain and no laptop screen. I think I love this.
The last day is glory. The sun has declared its intent to stay, and I feel safe enough to shed the shell of my fleece. Bees and butterflies and demoiselles suddenly exist. Mayflies whiz and whirl in starling-like congregations above the brook. We set out pitfall traps baited with fresh wet dung from the cows, catching chunky beetles with splendid antlered antenna.
Leaving is a miniature heartbreak. The day after, Friday, I miss being out there. I take consolation in resting my feet and feasting on a new book by a British woman in her forties who hiked the Appalachian Trail, despite a chronic health condition similar in ways to my own. Her descriptions of living with pain are uncanny in their instant familiarity.
She did it. Maybe I could, too. But not the AT – I can only think of the Pacific Crest Trail. 2,650 miles up the west side of the USA. An adventure I’ve fantasied about since reading and watching Wild years ago.
On Saturday, I leave the house at seven a.m. and walk the Sustrans cycle path from Bristol to Bath. 14.5 miles door to door, and I push myself, going a little over three miles per hour with a dinky rucksack. Even with the glorious distractions of the pathside wildflowers and the birds singing, I see-saw all the way over the idea of doing the PCT. I’ve already eaten into my savings with this Masters. I need to focus on getting a job, a conservation job, as soon as I’ve gained the degree. I can’t just head off to the USA for six months. And the biggest obstacle of all – the backpack weight. Thanks to axial spondyloarthritis, my back is a giant Achilles heel. I cannot ask of my back what other people my age ask of theirs. I’ve found a blog which reports the base weights of PCT hikers. Some people got it down to seven kg, which feels just about doable, but that doesn’t include the weight of consumables – food and water.
I don’t know. I just don’t know if my back can take it or not. I’ve been in this quandary before. In January 2019, I agonised over whether my body was capable of training for and swimming a relay of the Channel. Turned out it was. Despite all my fears, I discovered I could swim faster and for longer than I had imagined.
But hiking non-stop for six months with a heavy backpack is very different to long-distance swimming. And my feet have been playing up these last few months too. Even as I write this, they’re still aching from the walk to Bath. More than they used to, the day after a long hike. Is this how it’s always going to be now? Or can I push the boundaries back, like I did before? There have been times in recent years when I could barely walk. I never know when my freedom is going to be taken away. I live in fear that as I get older, the realm of possibility will shrink. Like a caught animal fighting a snare that can only tighten, never loosen.
So many reasons not to try. So many reasons to try. I want to live life to the fullest while my body can and while borders are still safe to travel across. Though I wonder at the threat that wildfires will pose to the PCT over the next few years.
Maybe this summer, I’ll do an experiment. I’ll load up a backpack with a PCT-equivalent weight and spend a week on the South West coastal path. Subjecting my body to five days of walking, and sleeping without a mattress.
The PCT probably won’t happen. Aside from the physical constraints, there’s the economic ones. Eating further into my savings. Leaving a gap on the CV. This wandering might make any employer think I’m not dedicated enough. Or would walking the PCT show I have grit and initiative? With the pandemic, the future feels uncertain on a global scale. I know just one thing for sure.
I want to live.