I got off the bus and walked back along the pavement. It was late afternoon towards the end of January. Seven Sisters Road was a line of idling traffic heading out of the city, a tunnel of headlamps. I turned through a side-gate in the fence and stepped into Finsbury Park. The lights from the road cast only an illusion of darkness beyond their edge. Once inside the park the streetlamp ceiling was removed and a wider sense of space revealed. Naked tree silhouettes emerged against a multi-coloured sky. The western horizon still held some dying embers along its rim. Sparse cloud cover of grey-brown, burnished with orange, sailed past in stately motion. Faint stars and a pink flash of aircraft lights. In the east layers of blues descended into the first hints of darkness proper. Damp air chilled my cheeks. A metallic squeal carried over from the far side of the park, a train slowing as it approached the overground station. There was no-one around, not that I could see anyway. I walked on, following familiar paths until my feet sank into the soft needle carpet beneath the stand of fir trees. Like a child in a den I looked out through branches, the cars and vans now toy like in the middle distance. I hunkered down, my back against the giant redwood. The remainder of reddish light in the west dimmed, blurred and rippled out to meet the black-blue in the east.
I had been following these transitions between night and day all through autumn and winter. It was the first year with my dog Milly and so the hours of daylight, or lack of them, had taken on a new significance. I quickly learnt that the earliest light to get out and walk the dog was in the dim murk just after sunrise, mostly under grey-blue skies, sometimes watching a rheumy eye clear the cityscape horizon. The latest light was in the hour or so before sunset. The app on my phone tracked the slow shift of these transition times as the days got shorter and nights longer. Before I had the dog I would have just turned on the lights and barely given half a thought to the movement of the seasons. Now, in my doggy life, I became so attuned to the hours of daylight that one morning in late October, soon after the clocks had changed, it seemed to me so impenetrably dark that for a paranoid hour I fought against the fear of a primitive cave dweller, convinced the sun was never to return. And even in my less fraught mornings sunrise seemed like a mini-miracle, something to be appreciated, perhaps even secretly and quietly worshipped. I grew grateful for these transitional moments, coming to recognise that walking beneath their shifting skies were among the times when I felt most alive. The pleasant surprise was to find significant natural world encounters on my doorstep in a down-at-heal park in London N7.
Finsbury Park lacks the polish of a Regent’s Park or the semi-wild of a Hampstead Heath. The main entrance is cluttered with polystyrene takeaway boxes. Used condoms and nappies litter the undergrowth. Broken glass bottles are a hazard for Milly’s paws. There is an air of danger. Like in olden days, when the ground was famed for duelling, people are sometimes killed in the park, the scenes marked with flowers and cards tied to trees. One morning no fewer than three police helicopters circled overhead, discordant engines thundering down, their bulbous camera eyes like mechanical bugs. A fear came over me. What class of criminal justifies such an expense? I imagined a contemporary Magwitch leaping out from the bushes to demand some victuals and an iron file. A Serengeti it is not. And yet amid the grunge is a wealth of wildlife.
On my walks in the park I transitioned from the manic pace of e-mails, appointments and deadlines. I slowed down enough to begin to notice the life around me: the cute ‘chirruk’ call of moorhens in the boating pond; the surprisingly large flocks of black headed gulls that rippled by at sunset; weird spindly, as yet unidentified, yellow bugs lowering themselves from trees on gossamer threads twenty feet or more long. My unconsciousness towards the more-than-human world became slowly more conscious, and as in dreams this revelation came with an inarticulate wonder. Like with the yellow bugs hanging on their threads, not only had I never before noticed this spectacle, I also had little or no language to describe it. I had a lot to learn.
I wandered within this growing mystery. The regular visits over a long period of time allowed the land and its seasons to work their way into my bones. As Rob Cowen puts it, ‘we need the intimacy of nature, the empathy and sense it brings of our participation in a larger, living world. Crucially, we need to be in it in order to connect on this physical, emotional level, down among the soil and the stems’*. While picking up dog poo and throwing tennis balls my soul was becoming re-embedded in nature. The park crept into me. I carried it home in the dirt beneath my fingernails. I slipped into reverie thinking about it, feeling its presence and looking forward to our next walk. It became a ‘big space’ in my imagination. In a similar manner to a therapeutic relationship the park seemed to draw my feelings to the surface, then gave me room to manoeuvre around my worries and cares. It both consoled and inspired me. It left me feeling grounded, less prone to worldly winds. I came to feel less alienated, less room-bound, connected to a wider meaning.
On that late January afternoon Milly came hunting for me amid the fir trees. I heard her slipping through the bushes, sniffing the ground. The sun had set and normally it would feel just too dark to stay, but with a clearing sky and the full moon now risen we would not be returning home just yet. With the enchanted company of our moon-shadow selves we left the trees and walked deeper into the park.
* ‘Common Ground’, by Rob Cowen, p139.