Five minutes of walking

Today’s dog walk was a great example of the way that dog-walking for me is a dance of presence and absence, thought and attention, work and non-work.

We set off on the usual route, along Alnmouth Road and then down the private road towards the sewage works. I was mulling over a narrative structure I’m thinking of trying – writing and arranging sections not according to their contribution to the story, but according to their material contents. Privileging inventory over narrative, as it were.

Then one of the dogs had a poo and I picked it up, and heard the sound of women laughing in a nearby garden. The dogs heard it too, and looked round in alarm.

Then we were passing the field where the beautiful red cows are, the calves all lying down in the lush grass and the mothers standing round, all stationary, eating. They all had the yellow ear tags which identify them. And swallows were flying low over the grass catching insects, hugging the contours of the field and its lumpy tussocks, threading between the statuesque cows and even between their legs. The insects were there because the cows and their poos were, of course. I was thinking (a) of the inaccessibility of animal experience and how though it was easy to imagine the swallows’ experience as vivid and interesting, it wouldn’t be possible to describe it vividly or imagine it without having had the experience of being there and seeing it from the outside, and (b) how nevertheless the image of the swallows darting about in that space created by the long grass and the cows, both of whose colours were bizarrely saturated, was striking and might perhaps be made use of in a piece of writing, and (c) how the whole scene, while it seemed in that moment to form a homely and even permanent space and community for both cows and swallows (and insects too, perhaps, although I could hardly see them), was actually a very temporary constellation, formed almost at random by the movements of the cattle around the field and the coincidence of them all happening to be still at that moment, and on a slower scale by the swallows’ passage back and forth across the continents, and the growth of the grass in response to the changing weather to form the topography over which the swallows were low-flying.

But I didn’t have a chance to develop any of that (and perhaps I wouldn’t have anyway, as more often than not the passing thoughts of a walk disappear into oblivion as I go on my way), because as we moved down the hill away from the cows there was a squealing sound from the edge of the field up ahead. The sound of a rabbit being killed by a cat, I thought, and then it came into view, running from not a cat but something else, smaller, with a long tail black at the end. My first impression was of a stoat, but almost instantly it caught the rabbit and, as the squealing stopped, disappeared down into the long grass. I stood and watched for a few moments, and after a while the stoat popped its head up like a periscope and looked round, unmistakable now with its white bib. It looked straight at us and away, bobbed down and then up again a few times; and then I lost it because another dog was coming up behind us and one of my dogs was starting to bark. I wasn’t thinking about writing at all now. This wasn’t the sort of incident that I’m likely to make use of for writing; like the imagined experience of the swallows, though for different reasons, I’m not sure it can be made usefully accessible through writing. Or rather, I’m not sure why I would want to make it accessible: the joy was in being there.

All this was in the first five or six minutes of the walk. And now of course I’ve come home, and written about it. How useful was all this in developing my writing? Well, watching myself undergo it helped to show just how complicated and quickly changing are the quality and subjects of my consciousness while walking; and I mulled over the structural idea a bit; and I have the cows and swallows, which I may use. The stoat probably won’t find its way into fiction, but seeing it was worthwhile, and worthwhile and varied experiences are the soil out of which creative writing grows.

  1. Dorrie Johnson said:

    You describe a momentary and vivid experience citing the swallows particularly: ‘I was thinking (a) of the inaccessibility of animal experience and how though it was easy to imagine the swallows’ experience as vivid and interesting…’.

    Would you describe seeing the cows – with or without the colouring – as a vivid and interesting experience? Were the swallows even more so because of the backdrop of stillness in cows? Just wondering. Walks are often – I think – given their unique quality because of the contrasting natures of what is seen or what is remembered.

    I envy you seeing the stoat – but not having the experience of the rabbit – life and death in a squealing moment.

    • I love the cows, Dorrie – I’d been looking forward for months to the moment they were moved from their winter pasture. The colouring is a factor, and so is their small size and amazing placidity (I’m a bit scared of cattle normally). But yes, the wonder of today’s experience was largely a result of the concatenation of the cows and the swallows and the grass, how they came together to create a weird living space which I could only peek into. It’s funny, because although seeing the stoat was much more unusual and exciting at the time, in retrospect it’s the cows and swallows that are staying with me more vividly. I think you’re right that walks often affect through contrasts – and juxtapositions – often unforeseen and unreproducible, even if you go on the same walk again and again.

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