Birds feasted on a litter of breads around the pond. Canadian geese, mallard ducks, song thrushes, magpies and contented, cooing pigeons. Too many birds and too many species together in one place, as though I had walked onto the set of a Hitchcock movie. A crow stood on a loaf, head-butting a hole into it. A pigeon flicked chunks of bread over its head in a demented caber toss. Geese waddled around, like a crowd of drunks, high on refined carbs. I imagined obese, diabetic ducks in wheelchairs, connected to birdy dialysis machines. A screeching, squawking, crowing mass that seemed to say, ‘what did you expect?’
Over to one side of the pond Milly had joined the feast. She lay on the grass, forepaws anchored around a slipper of Turkish bread. When I approached, she leapt away. Only eight months old, her obedience was rather dependent on a food-free environment. Several rolls and another loaf were gulped down before I managed to get her on the leash, slack jawed and bright eyed. I tied her to a park bench. She watched me gather up all the bread and dump it in the bin. This kind of edible litter – bread, chicken bones, French fries, half-eaten kebabs, cakes and biscuits – was what I had come to Springfield Park to avoid. I had hoped that the Lea Valley on the edge of East London, a twenty-eight-mile nature corridor of which the park was part, would be clearer of litter than the inner-city Finsbury Park. But it was worse. The disappointment was like a kick in the guts. The stale bread might as well have been a nuclear power station melt-down, or an oil tanker spill in the Antarctic. Not happening elsewhere, to someone else, on a television screen, but in my park, poisoning my puppy.
A movement on the far side of the pond caught my attention. In the shade of a sycamore tree, a heavy-set man in a beige raincoat, adjusted some black bin bags on his shoulder. His face was framed with a pale-blue hoodie top. He wore large square rimmed glasses. I wondered how long he had been watching me. Then he turned and several bread rolls spilled out of his bags.
A shout leapt out of me. Not loud, more a forceful exhalation than a shout. Nothing coherent. No words. I just had to say something, do something. This was just wrong. Enough was enough. I untied Milly and raced across the park.
The bird feeder turned behind a high hedge, reappeared further down the park, crossed an open space and then slipped in to a densely planted wooded area. The blue hoodie top came in and out of sight, then disappeared amid the thick foliage. I crashed in through the undergrowth. Milly panted behind me. A gathering wind bowed the higher branches. Sunlight speared through the canopy. Leaves loaded with last night’s rain spilled over us. We broke out into the open. Milly barked. A clear, deep, sharp woof. A pucker of fear broke my stride. Across a clearing, the bird-feeder stood with his back against a tree, with the air of a down-beat Mary Poppins – the stricter, take your medicine variety. If it had not been for Milly, I would have walked.
I pointed at a French stick teetering on the edge of his sack, ‘Bread is not good for ducks. You’ve got so much bread there. You’re dropping entire loaves. The birds can’t eat it all, it gets left lying around for my dog and it’s not good for her either.’
‘Bureaucrats tell us all sorts. If the bread is good enough for us, then it’s good enough for the birds.’ A thin, clipped voice, like a punch.
A soot black cormorant flew along the line of the river, thin wings flapping hard.
‘Eh, white bread is not really that good for us either.’
He gestured at the park, spilling the stick loaf, ‘I’ve been here thirty-five years. Every morning I feed my birds. I’ve not seen you around here before.’
He looked fifty-five or sixty, so he must have first come here in the 80s, in his early twenties. When he stepped into the park that morning, there would have been memory traces of thousands of previous visits. I wondered what had happened to him over this time. It was not normal for grown men to feed birds. At least, not on this scale, every day, for thirty-five years. There was a story there, but I dared not ask him about it. He exuded a strong get-away-from-me-vibe. I imagined his bird feeding as a small consolation in an otherwise troubled, perhaps violent existence. A tough man who got up early to have the park all to himself, calling the birds down from the sky in his mother-tongue, Turkish or perhaps Albanian, using tender entreaties and gentle practiced gestures that only the birds knew of him. Come to the feast my little lovelies. I liked that. We were not so different. Not really. I had Milly, he had his birds. We were both seeking connection beyond the human. Only he had something I did not. He had a life-long connection to this place and I had only been there ten minutes. I knew more about it from the internet than actual, lived experience. Hell, I’d only read that bread was bad for birds. He had been living with these birds, in this place, for decades. Maybe he was right, maybe I had been brainwashed by bureaucrats. Perhaps I was the one with something to learn here.
Fourteen years of London life had taught me to hold back, to cultivate a cool distance and avoidance of contact, least it be misconstrued or rejected. Even as I felt drawn towards the bird-feeder, I also felt a familiar resistance, like I was just playing at having an argument, like it did not really matter. I had already moved on. I was thinking of writing up the encounter even while it was still happening. To hold back from participating had become the norm. I had long since recognised it and reassured myself that it was a necessary consequence of city living. I reasoned that if I empathised with all the lonely people, if I let myself care about all the issues, then I would go insane. City life required a certain distance. I kept myself back, avoided eye contact, my senses blinkered. Smartphone and headphones a personal bubble. I was involved enough to negotiate through rush hour traffic on a bicycle, but largely indifferent to my surroundings. One place was as good as another. I could function equally well in a tower-block as in a basement, in an office without windows as in a crowded train carriage. I was of everywhere and nowhere. A human Starbucks, KFC, Tescoes. I was a pseudo person, walking through pseudo places, having pseudo experiences. The surface images of everyday life empty and weightless, like the scrolled past content on my phone, unable to touch me, not really, not meaningfully.
It had not always been like this. As a child, growing up in a small village outside Edinburgh, I had lived my whole short life in the same house and street, and explored, played, fought and made-up in the same back fields and playgrounds. It was a time when I had felt connected to my surroundings. And while the meaning of this connection had thinned out towards meaninglessness as I got older and moved to the city, it was possible to reconnect to a flavour of it again on my return visits, to see my parents, who still lived in the house where I grew up. The back garden, side gate and dirt path leading into the small wood are layered with history from that time when I had an intimate relationship to the natural world. The ageing ash tree carries the scars from when we made rickety tree houses, bashed together with a stolen hammer and six-inch nails. The wooden gate by the little bridge over the burn is like a recently vacated stage, with the lingering presence of a family group photo, my brothers and I arranged carefully around the fence-post, Mum and Dad behind, our expectant faces caught waiting for the fancy timer device Dad was experimenting with on his new camera. The leaves, birdsong and breeze impinge on me, slowing me down. No longer skimming over the surface of my surroundings, I recapture that earlier sense of time, when a rainy afternoon could stretch out forever and six weeks of summer holidays felt like an epoch. Sometimes, I am brought up short at the sight of a small boy with a dog, or a group of children playing on their bikes. For a moment, it feels as if time has been caught in a loop of endless repetition and it is me that has stepped outside of time, now a mere spectator, looking on from the edges at the ghostly presences of my past. At the end of these visits I seldom want to leave. I get on the train at Waverly station and struggle against tears. Memory gave my childhood landscape a story, in a way that London, for me at that time, had not. London was mute. The Piccadilly Line, Charring Cross Road and the Thames did not speak to me.
I had migrated to London to take up a job opportunity. I put my bike and a few bin-bags of clothes and books into a rented estate car and drove south. For a long time, I was at sea there. Unsure of my place, feeling the outsider, unable to settle. In a much less dramatic fashion, I related to the journey taken by Beth’s ancestors, who in the mid-seventeen-hundreds, during the Highland clearances, had been evicted from their crofts on the isle of Skye and sailed thousands of miles across the Atlantic, to make landfall on a little island off the coast of Nova Scotia, pretty much identical to the landscape of sandy beaches, wide bays and lush, wooded glens they had left behind. The English, French and Spanish made a similar journey, often settling in landscapes reminiscent of their homelands, which I find remarkable. In my own way, I was travelling a similar journey, minus the physical hardships and dangers. Only I had not yet found a place reminiscent of my childhood landscape. For a long time, I searched the parks and nearby countryside around London. Here and there, I found resonances. However, the standout missing ingredient was not any particular geology, atmosphere of place or horizon, but a dog by my side. As a child all my time outdoors had been with Jet. I was like a smoker in a pub without a cigarette. I thought, if I could have a dog, then I would find my place.
I was only eight years old when my Grandad died. Four years earlier, after his retirement, he had got a dog. A black Labrador that me and my brother named Jet. Then he got another, which we named Jumbo. He spent hundreds of hours with those dogs, training them to sit, stay and come on command with a two-tone whistle that was always slung around his neck on a piece of black string. We went for walks together and something of his love of dogs rubbed off on me. After his death, Gran struggled to look after two dogs. Jet came to live with us. I got a new friend and a living connection back to Grandad. I was first up every morning and out walking Jet in all weathers before breakfast and then again after school. Thirty plus years later, when I finally decided to get a dog, my first choice was a black Labrador Retriever. I wanted to do gundog training with it like Grandad had done with Jet. Not that I had any plans to hang out on grouse moors with city bankers, shooting dozens of innocent birds out of the sky. It would be tennis balls and fake ‘dummy’ bird retrieves. A dog that fulfilled its instincts was a happy dog. However, Beth thought a Labrador would be too big for our flat. She had a story from one of her regular home visits of a chocolate brown lab that always leapt up at her, claws punching into her chest, the owner finding it all very amusing. I kept on trying to persuade her for a while until one Saturday afternoon in Foyles bookshop, I flicked through the retriever section of a hardback coffee table book, past the Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Spaniels, until on the last page, a coppery-red dog with dark ruby eyes smiled out at me. Pick me! The name was a bit of a mouthful. A Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. The description read, ‘the smallest of the retrievers’. A medium sized dog, so just the right size for our flat. I went home and spent an evening with Beth getting clucky watching YouTube videos of Duck Toller puppies. A few months later, we picked up our eight-week old Duck Dog. A sandy coloured teddy bear, not much bigger than my coffee pot, with four white socks and a white blaze on her chest.
Nothing in the puppy training manuals prepared me for the emotional disequilibrium Milly ushered into my life. The cute photographs of happy, beautiful dogs in sun-dappled parks with content, calm beautiful owners had sold me a lie. The simple ‘you-can-do it’ descriptions of ‘causal chains’ training made it all sound so reasonable, like the instructions for a new-fangled food-mixer. Press this button, pull this level, twist it round and lickety-split, a well-behaved dog and proud, satisfied owner. It was not like that at all.
In that first winter, mornings were the worst. It was dark and cold. I was sleepy and stressed. Milly always woke before me. I knew that because she woke me up with her yelping. She slept in a blanket covered crate by my bed. Not the best arrangement, but better than her whinning all night from the kitchen. When I got up the crate shook. All I wanted to do was make a coffee and curl up on the couch. Doing that while Milly barked and barked was not a good option. Separation anxiety was a big deal. She had spent her first eight weeks tucked up with her seven siblings and Jaffa, her mother, in a small pen. Being alone, even for a few seconds, was not easy and she let me know about it. Nothing wrong with her lungs.
Milly always poured herself out of the crate door before it was half open, snaking out under my arms and pattered down the hallway to the street door, tail-a-wag. I rushed to get dressed before she emptied her small bladder on the rug. Dog on leash, jacket zipped up to my chin, shoulders hunched against the wind, I stepped outside and locked the door behind us. Milly tugged ahead, eager to explore the scents, sounds and sights of her daily expanding world. An empty carrier bag blown across the road seemed to her a mysterious, floating being. A traffic cone in the middle of the pavement, a suspicious presence, prowled around with caution. Our street-sweeper in his fluorescent day-glow jacket was a four-legs brake-on and bark/growl situation.
Over those winter months Milly worked on her doggy ABC. She learnt to sit, heel and come when called. She still jumped up at people, but less. The street sweeper still provoked a growl, but also a tail-wag. I was learning too. The dog leash was a sensory bridge, across which streamed Milly’s close-up attention. She took me into an older, toothier, smellier world. A red pillar post box, a black cat peering out from beneath a parked car, some bin bags dumped beside a wastebin, their innards torn and spread out across the pavement, chicken bones, apple cores and a once white teddy bear with a missing leg. Pigeons swooping down from rooftops, gnarled tree trunks blackened with exhaust fumes and the wind through high branches, leaves dancing in unrepeatable, shifting patterns. I wove around lampposts, bollards, waste bins and parked cars, changing direction, keeping Milly close, learning to walk without pulling on her leash. There were no straight lines, no auto-pilot. On the bus, Milly sat on my lap and looked out the window at the grungy collection of convenience stores, green grocers and cafes along Seven Sisters road. I held onto her collar, felt her every twitch and turn. Her ears pricked up and head tilted with every bump in the road, tick and roar of the engine, ding-ding of the stop bell. She sniffed at passengers. When the bus accelerated along the side of Finsbury Park we stood by the doors waiting for our stop. Most bus doors slid open sideways, others swung out and rarely some doors swung in. Milly crouched ready for whatever the door would throw at her. We thanked the driver and got back to our weaving around street furniture, entering the park through a side gate in the fence. Once inside the park, a good distance from the road, I let her off leash. She pelted around the playing fields and through the winter bare flower beds, instincts to chase and hunt and retrieve rushing through her every sensation, muscle and bone.
On these walks, I often pondered whether or not I would have gone through with having a puppy if I had known in advance what it was really like. I suspected a conspiracy on the part of puppy training manuals. The disruption and disquiet were acknowledged but played down. All the focus was on how wonderful and joyous life would be as a dog owner. This was true, Milly was a delight to behold. She was also a form of torture. Bit by painful bit, Milly took me closer to an embodied and embedded experience of the world. I did not want to get any closer to the world. Not really. Perhaps in theory, yes. It was a nice idea, a good idea. I liked ideas in general precisely because they gave a certain distance from events. A distance that allowed observation and reflection. And more so, a distance that minimised immediate suffering. All the million tiny adjustments I had made while growing up had created an optimal pain-free distance between me and other people, firstly from my angry father and then others like him. I could not avoid other people, but I could retreat into myself. These same adjustments had also created a distance from the more-than-human world of pavements, trees and rainstorms. Hence the torture of tending to the needs of a furry animal who was close-up to everything. All the pain I had avoided through distancing myself came back. The puppy manuals were half right. The grief was bittersweet.
Once again out early each morning, walking the dog, I was slipping back into familiar moods and gestures, transplanted to a new place and time. The dog leash in my hand was a bone-deep memory risen to flesh again. I walked with Milly and my feet and legs were like a stylus tracking over the grooves of an old vinyl record, tracing back the lines of the past. The episode with the bird-feeder that first morning in Springfield Park had stirred intuitions of homecoming. The view across the Lea River and the edge lands mood, poised on the rim of the city, holding back the metropolis, triggered some kind of geological synapse. The semi-rural grasslands were the overgrown waste fields behind my childhood home, the last house at the end of the village. The double lines of pylons running north-south like giant meccanoChristmas trees and the large reservoirs to the north-east reminded me of the Forth Estuary and Rosyth shipyards. The damp air and darkening clouds from the west could have been a typical Scottish forecast.
And more than just a recall of place, these memories had a strong felt sense. The Lea-Valley was overlaid with the back-fields, lanes and hills of my childhood, as if present through a thin veil. Ghostly wisps, cloudy smudges caught in the moisture of my eye. Not that I could physically see them, it was not like that. I walked along the ridge of Springfield Park and felt the steps of my eight-year-old self, wellington boots squelching through the wet earth, Grandad walking beside with me. In this ordinary park, extraordinary presences. The mundane made sacred. The story-teller Martin Shaw puts it well,
‘At the moment, many of us are so impoverished and lacking in a cultural root system that what is around us are not ancestors supporting us but ghosts depleting us.’ (1)
In the English language, the derivation of the word ‘culture’ is taken from agriculture and the soil. Culture comes from the Earth, the clay beneath our feet. A relationship to the land as a ground of identity. We are cultivated by our connection to place. I like that. The idea of a landscape as a place for the ancestral stories and characters that continued to shape my life. Significant memories had flickered away in me over the years, raked over in therapy sessions, peered at as if they were hot coals in a fireplace. But I had not thought of them as a place, until now.
Milly took me back to an earlier, rootier, toothier culture, connected to the soil and the land. She drew my mind down through the leash and back out into the sensual world. The near constant empathy and care she demanded paid off in taking me into her doggy consciousness. She got under my skin, entered into me, took up a place in my heart. For moments, the lines of separation blurred between man and dog, between man and world. An intermingling of selves that opened up the possibilities of a third space, between self and world. Into this space, on our walks, came the ancestors. I watched out for Grandad and a return to the imaginal landscape of my childhood. An imaginal seeing overlaid upon what I saw with my physical eye. There, but not like the leaves on the trees or the cormorant flying along the river. Not a physical presence. Yet not an idea either. Present in a subtle way. A possibility that played in the space between me and the grass, trees and sky. Imagination as a form of perception, interwoven with sensation and feeling, arising between self and world. An imagination that took me out into contact with the world, and a contact with the world that took me into imagination.
Perhaps any physical practice, done regularly with awareness, would have had a similar imaginative effect. A form, a relationship, with something beyond us, out-with our complete control that requires commitment, the development of some skills and a willingness to be bored, to loosen the ties of our instant gratification culture. A physical practise, that connects us through the senses to the encompassing world. It might have been gardening, baking bread or painting in oils. I took up dog walking.
(1) Shaw, Martin – ‘Uncolonising our imagination’ : http://dark-mountain.net/blog/the-mythos-we-live-by-uncolonising-our-imagination/