By Rich Green
The clouds are moving quickly this morning, revealing pools of bright, blue sky as they roll across the Meldon Hill. I’m out early, determined to at least start my walk before the rain arrives. Not that I mind walking in the rain; not any more, I should say.
The restrictions placed on travel, since the start of the coronavirus disease outbreak, have meant that many people, myself included, have been forced to explore and exercise much closer to home. During this time, however, I have rediscovered my love of trees, there being no shortage of copse woodland and forest with reasonable proximity.
I have great admiration for those who set out across the moor, armed with maps, compasses and a seemingly unbreakable resolve to cover several miles on each outing. I myself went so far as to purchase a copy of John Haywards ‘Dartmoor 365’ several years ago, even getting hold of a compass! This said, my copy of the book has been read, so far, whilst sitting in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea and a biscuit, due to the acute anxiety and difficulty with motivation that are the frequent, and unwelcome, bed-fellows of mental health issues. It’s not just my level of fitness, or lack thereof, that prevents me from tackling such epic treks across Dartmoor. It is due, in greater respect, to what is often referred to as ‘The Black Dog’.
Depression, or any other of the myriad of mental health issues that affect a quarter of the population, is an unseen illness with very real difficulties for those afflicted. My particular breed of this ‘Black Dog’ craves solitude and therefore would find walking with others awkward, unpleasant and therefore quite impossible. Since it’s never advisable to traverse open moorland alone, particularly as a novice such as myself for all manner of reasons, I go to the trees. Believe me, it is by no means second best.
Walking along the river under canopies of ancient, moss covered oak, beech and birch, the air filled with the delightful chatter of all manner of native birds and the light dancing playfully in the spaces between the branches. It is almost breathtaking. The unmistakable scent of damp earth, littered with gold and copper like treasure to behold. The river rising and falling beside me, I walk into a place that feels otherworldly and yet familiar. I feel as though I am among friends and yet I am blissfully alone.
I’ve been fortunate to have encountered all manner of native creatures in these spaces. A mature vixen who, though suspicious of my presence, stood her ground and eyed me for what felt like a lifetime before disappearing into the shadows. Buzzards circling above the leafless canopy, remarkably graceful for such a large bird and still a thrilling sight despite the frequency of their presence. Ravens and their corvid cousins are ever present and hop about from tree to rock, calling instructions like over-efficient foremen. I am at once uplifted in amongst the trees. Transported back in time to when many of these places would be frequented by our ancestors as they gathered firewood, foraged for food and walked these very paths from settlement to village to town.
Much has been written about the healing properties of nature, be it ‘forest-bathing’, ‘wild swimming’, ‘blue light therapy’ or ‘green exercise’, all supported by scientists and medical professionals alike. Nature is a retreat for the body and soul and not surprising really; these places are in our blood and we are in theirs. The sense of belonging that settles in after only a very short time, whether sitting quietly by the river or walking among ancient trees, is palpable. I tend to ignore the step count, preferring instead to focus on the sense of wellness that rises up within me as I wander the paths and meander through the woods. The feeling of calm, mindfulness and being present in the fullness of the place is what I am here for. Allowing myself to notice the minutiae of my surroundings and becoming part of them. This sense of belonging, of ‘walking and rewalking your patch’, as the writer Robert Macfarlane puts it, is how we become stewards and guardians of a particular place. I also think this process is reciprocal, that the places we love grow into us and become part of our wellbeing.
My own relationship with the healing energies of nature is something I credit with my own mental health recovery. With places such as Fernworthy, Blackaton Copse, Fingle Woods and Skaigh Woods to name but a few, we are truly blessed here on Dartmoor.
Rich Green is a writer and poet hailing from Yorkshire.
He now lives in Chagford with his family.