I am both a walker and a hiker. As a walker, I wander at dawn through city streets and down towards the manicured lawns and concrete bricked pathways of my city’s local lakeside park, but as a hiker, I set off with an unbridled excitement, knowing I’m going to explore a wilder landscape than any that might centre itself around sidewalks or halogen street lamps that flick off just after dawn. As a walker, I don’t really think about whether or not I disturb the environment when I walk, mostly because it’s all a bit static. Everything is about traditional sorts of urban planning and linear thinking when you walk within a town or city. There are potholes in roads, drains that clog up with rotting leaves and abandoned twigs that seem to emerge during the spring thaw, manhole covers that state their dates of birth proudly, and crosswalks that count down the number of seconds you have to finish safely crossing the street. It feels rather patriarchal and oppressive.
As a hiker, though, the world opens up in the way that is something like what happens when you drop blue food colouring into a bowl of water to dye hard boiled eggs at Easter. When you go hiking, and if you’re observant enough, you can watch how you change form, how you transform within yourself, physically and spiritually, and how you shift your relationships with other people, and with the landscape itself. The Japanese call it, rather beautifully, ‘forest bathing.’ Scientists around the world have studied its effects and found that people are calmer when in the presence of trees and out amidst the world’s most wild, natural places; their heart rates and blood pressures drop, and their sense of well-being improves. To be honest, none of this really surprises me.
I am a poet, so I think poetically and metaphorically on a daily basis. I breathe in lines and images, and then I exhale stanzas. When I go out into the woods, I keep hearing poetry spoken inside my head. There are many famous ‘tree poems,’ including ones by W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, and Mary Oliver, and these are all in the pastoral and Romantic traditions that Wordsworth himself would, even in the afterlife, still likely approve of and espouse. After all, it is common knowledge that he loved walking through those stunning hills in the Lake District of England, muttering lines of poetry under his breath so that he wouldn’t forget the poems before he returned home to his paper and ink, desperate to write them down.
When I hike, I often love going off into the bush around my town, but I also visit provincial parks whenever I have time. Some of these places are so sacred to me that I only ever want to be there on my own, alone with my dog, or maybe with a very dear friend, so I can connect deeply with the landscape. Some are close to home, where I live, but I get even more excited to explore other new trail systems and parks when I travel. Each place is a like a jewelled box, opening itself up to invite me in. When I find myself frustrated by a piece of writing that I’m working on, if I get ‘stuck’ on an idea in terms of developing theme or structure, I need to move out into the woods. My hands and feet tingle and I get restless inside my body. To ignore this physical nudge and desire to walk out into the trees of the northern woodlands would be futile, from a creative point of view.
If I find a rock that overlooks a still lake, and if I can hear a raven or crow beating its wings or croaking out its call, then I can feel small and unimportant, almost invisible. When I feel smaller, as a poet and writer, something opens up inside of me creatively, releases the pressure to produce new work, offering me even more creative space than I imagined was possible. It’s really only there, out in the middle of a stand of silver birches, or perched on a lake’s rocky shore, that I can take a deeper breath, inhale and then exhale, and then start writing again. In my life—as I hike, or canoe, or snowshoe, or swim in wild lakes—I am aware that I am intrinsically bound to the natural world that inspires me each day.
It feels, sometimes, like the landscape itself is my lover, whispering in my ear, or letting me put a hand against the bark of a white pine tree, encouraging me to enter into myself when the world beyond would only ever serve to distract me from that which is most important. This is the poetry which springs from a walk along a secret desire path in the woods, one stumbled upon by happenstance, but one perhaps divined by some greater creative force. Whatever it is, I’ll always follow its call, a poet courted by trees, lakes, skies, rocky ridges overlooking mossy gullies, and the overarching wild spirit of landscape.