“Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.” Rebecca Solnit, from Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
This was the seed thought given for consideration during Walking The Land’s monthly First Friday walk. I walked with my friend J rather than with the main group – though we all walked upon the Severn and synchronised our start.
We both felt that much had been said and written already on the ways that walking and thinking go together and that we had little to add to the canon in this respect. So we decided to explore our own minds as perambulating tourists, traverse them like landscapes, rather than using them as intellectual thinkers applied to a concept.
This felt like a rich way to further explore my relationship to the landscape. As someone with ADHD, walking is one of the very few ‘things’ where I feel utterly unselfconscious, able to follow impulses and distractions and whims, to be relaxed and unfocussed, safely held by reassuringly firm but minimal and not-thought-intensive parameters and boundaries (usually the distance I can travel in the time I have available).
Outdoors, or nature, is a safe place to express compulsions and behaviours that are hard to find a home for elsewhere – collecting (as in the process/act of seeing, discerning and picking, rather than ‘having a collection’ which is an entirely different thing that doesn’t interest me); physical impulses such as placing myself or parts of myself on things I’m drawn to (ground, trees, boulders) or touching and seeing texture (bark, water, mud, leaf) in a way that is deeper and more immersed than, for example, dragging my fingertips along the top of a wall or along railings as I go the shops on my lunch break.
We thought we could formalise these approaches in our walk through intent, and just heed our impulses, following an idea of a route, but allowing our attention to be caught and investigating the objects of attention. Or distraction, rather than attention. J described it as going on an ‘ADHD lurch’; mirroring the way a highly distractible brain can jerk or be jerked from one thing to another.
J had mapped a route starting at Framilode, following the Severn Way up to Longney, and then with a choice of routes to loop back – either back roughly the way we came but on different paths, or to cut across from Langley to the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, and follow that back to Saul Junction and then back to the start.
As we waited for the clock to tick round to 13:15 when the wider group would all set off ‘together apart’ from our various locations, we discuss some abstracts around the concept of the unique ADHD neurology and how it might relate to the act of walking. ADHD thinking is classically non-linear, and we wonder if the act of walking, of describing a line is a helpful complement, supporting the ordering of a linked, progressive thought train or whether it might be a jarring contrast, forcing linearity on a stubbornly starburst way of producing ideas. (Later, we stumble into a real life exploration of exactly this).
We reflect, with a slight sense of despair, on the extreme frustration of all being crystal clear whilst walking, but the minute you stop, everything dissipates and becomes as dreams on waking, like trying to clutch smoke.
We set off, and at first all goes well, and feels like a typical jaunt. J has a classic OS map, and I am experimenting with the excellent OS app, to see if I can plot each diversion and distraction that deviates from the main route. I have a yen to draw it, though I”m no artist, in the style of surrealist and occultist Ithell Colquhoun’s beautiful work ‘Landscape With Antiquities (Lamorna)’. Everything, landscape-wise, is basically perfect. Washed-out, end of winter colour washes everything from the underdone toast colour of the reeds, to the deep rose-russet of the dock. The Severn is high, muddy, murky and sluggish; the skies heavy and a variety of greys.
The banks are lined with water reeds, traditionally grown in beds for thatching but here, just growing wild with their feet in the mud and the weed and the brackish tidal waters. ‘Phragmites’ – even the Latin name sounds marshy. I tell J how this is my son’s inner landscape – he is obsessed with reeds and tall grasses, they literally inform his dreamscapes. Not surprisingly, there are some notable thatched roofs throughout Gloucestershire, and areas along the Severn were known for their use of reed rather than straw.
They are beautiful these reeds, often towering over me in places where they’ve grown to a height of two metres. Some of them still retain their leaves – long, spear like shapes all growing in the same direction at right angles to the stem. They wave like mediaeval banners, six to eight inches long, and I am pleased to later find out they are collectively called ‘leaf flag’. For the past year they have caught my attention, these reeds, through all the seasons, though I like them best now. Feathery seed heads shading from green to red to silver to squirrel pelt grey-brown, banners fading from a brilliant green to sand, and jointed stems now showing the most subtle gradations in colour.
Nestled among the reeds are two small dinghies. In the way of well-used utility boats, they have a derelict air about them, hulls filled with dark, slightly stagnant water, even though they are in full working order and moored firmly and decisively to shore with ropes that are clearly well maintained and in good condition. This is a theme round here, and indeed in all rural locations away from the chocolate-box picture postcard incomer dwellings. Things are not always pretty, and often are ingenious; J keeps drawing my sight to add-on structures constructed from old doors, sheets of corrugated iron, planks and wire and baling twine. Vehicles in various states of fixing up sit in gardens and yards. It is real country living, rather than ‘Country Living’.
I find a choice example of this makeshift, make-do approach and take a couple of varied focus shots of a hole in a metal sheet fence, one on the rust and patina surrounding the hole, and and one on what can be seen through it.
Flicking between them, it reminds me of being a child in bed on summer evenings, playing visual games with the pattern on my duvet as I waited to go to sleep in the dim light by closing first one eye, and then the other, and watching what I saw leap back and forth.
It still amazes me, that trick, how such a tiny action can change one’s perspective so dramatically. How much so then, with a big sustained physical act such as walking?
At Framilode the River Frome, rising in Nettleton and not to be confused with the Bristol Frome, empties out into the Severn. Framilode means ‘Frome Crossing Point’ and from the 7th century seems to have been the home of one of the many ferries carrying passengers across the Severn. We cross the Frome at Moor Street, and I stop to admire a stunning mature willow, gracefully draping golden strips into the river. Willow is as prevalent inland here as the riparian reeds are on the foreshores, accompanied often by alder which also likes to grow with its feet wet.
I have a liking for Alder, a contrary Misrule-ish topsy turvy kind of a tree, what with catkins and cones growing at the same time, growing wet but burning hot, and its’ backwards habit of rotting when dry but remaining strong and durable when kept wet. It likes swamps, bogs and marshes, as do I, and if you cut it, the pale wood turns deep orange as if it bleeds.
We continue along this road stretch of the Severn Way until we reach The Anchor Inn at Epney. The pub is placed right on the riverbank, and on this bleak day it looks warm and welcoming, and sorely tempting. The river looks the opposite – the tide is clearly on the turn, and it looks threatening, jittery, chaotic, pulled around by the strange attractors of sandbanks that lie treacherously all along this course.
The Severn Way passes behind the pub, and in retrospect, where the river roils on the turn and the slack, it is here that our walk takes on a distinctly ADHD character. In magick and fairytales, we are always cautioned to be careful what you invite in, and having incautiously invoked the rather unpredictable spirit of ADHD if there is such a thing, then it has now heeded us and joined us. As is characteristic of it, it is less the actual things that happen than the observed responses to them.
The path behind the pub is blocked. Very firmly so – this is no disgruntled landowner, but an edict from the Environment Agency, sternly warning of danger of some kind. We follow the diversion which brings us back to the road happily enough – we are jolly, this is a true drifting derive, where our movements are dictated by the landscape around us rather than conscious will.
Walking along the road nearly to Longney, we then cut back to the Severn and find not only a pleasingly Folk Horror-esque woodstack (with strong echoes for me of the abandoned and rusted out railcar at Oldbury-on-Severn), but also Longney Sands. I feel we’re lucky to be here at high tide, with very little foreshore, all of which is actual sand of sorts rather than boot-sucking, dog-trapping mud. We have the childlike pleasure of being the first to make footsteps on an otherwise untouched surface – snow or sand, equally satisfying in our drive as humans to mark our land, record our presence, make an impression.
Here, my phone runs out of battery. In quick succession, here is what I think:
no more photos today. the app is no longer recording my route. i cannot tell my daughter that i will not be in when she gets home from school.
This puts my neurology on a war footing; it doesn’t take much for a nervous system that is permanently spiked to flip into reaction mode. Like many ADHD people I am exceptionally good at quick responses, especially to perceived or actual disaster and/or those things that require a very quick adjustment to a changed or evolving situation. Tactics – let the photos and app and planned point/outcome of the walk just slip away – fine. Use J’s phone to call my husband so he can tell my daughter what’s happening – fine. I know where I am and J has a map – fine.
Also like many ADHD people, considering things in a more distant time window – the period in which the future seems real and consequential (and for some ADHD people a time window can be measured in so short a time as to be immediate, or now) is problematic, and a serious, life-affecting part of our issues with time perception. I have not thought about the tea that needs cooking early tonight due to commitments, or the car than needs collecting from the garage, or how tired I will be, or the dog food that needs buying.
Lastly anything that throws us out of the ‘now’ can feel violent and distressing like a punch, or falling over, or walking into a tree. For me, this can be a change in environment, task, mood or as here, in plan.
At no point do I feel these things as anxiety or stress, but still, my brain starts to misfire a bit – too much has happened requiring thought in a very short space of time, time is misbehaving and I am disorientated.
We spot a favourite set of pylons downriver, where the main pair of lines crosses from Arlingham to Northington – but what starts as a pleasant observation of old pylon friends is now hijacked by the spirit of ADHD. We are both mazed by the loops and swirls of the Severn, I cannot tell which side of the river I’m on – at least, I know I haven’t crossed it, but I cannot work out what side of the river I’m talking about or looking at or even standing on. J keeps talking about ‘the north bank’ but I don’t even know what side that is, I can only just about do left and right without waving the appropriate hand, and I really can’t understand why north is not on the left of me, where the north riverbank is. J is showing me on the map, but I can’t really see the map – too much other sensory stimulation what with the weather and the sights. I am used to this kind of confusion, and am good at masking it by going’ oh yes, I see’ and nodding knowledgeably, when in fact I have just disengaged and given up, lost interest. Really, my ADHD makes me as slippery and sinuous and hard to pin down as this part of the Severn itself.
J is channelling the spirit well also, and has now hyperfocused on these pylons the map and the river. The opposite to me, he is not going to give up but will worry away at this until he has located them beyond all doubt, fixed them not only on the map and in the land but also in his own inner map too. Which he does, and shows the noticeable calming that is displayed in ADHD folks once the impulse or niggle has been satisfied.
The weather worsens, and becomes mean, bitter, cold hearted, the wind driving want-to-be-but-not-quite-sleet into our faces, freezing our fingers and making the dogs miserable. J is distressed by his cold hands, and it is making him jittery and annoyed with both the map, and with the lack of obvious footpath back to Longney and the church that is our next way marker.
We find a footpath by a field boundary, confirmed by the map, and follow the rhyne that runs alongside safely to Longney and to the church. I phone my husband and leave a message, and J wrestles with a recalcitrant map in the wind whilst I hold the dogs. We follow the path behind the church and find our way blocked again; at least we think so, the path crossing farmland looks tied up and shut off. So we retrace our steps back to the road, down Chatter Street, and rejoin the footpath to save us walking along the road.
The path is a strange one, leading us literally alongside the back windows of someone’s kitchen and then through fields. We have yet more trouble with finding the right path – as ever, the map does not really reflect the reality of the territory. I always struggle with this aspect of maps and my ADHD rebels, because if you don’t have a map you can’t get lost, but here we are, knowing exactly where we are, and how to get home but now spending time in the cold trying to navigate our way out of a small field. It is ridiculous, and ADHD Spirit responds with mild irritability and moderate impatience, but I do not show these things because it is unfair and unreasonable to do so. It is rare that this side of ADHD gets honoured and expressed, which is a bit sad, though probably for the best.
Returning later to one of our original thoughts for this walk, on whether linear walking is conducive or discordant when it comes to ADHD, I realise that this is my issue with maps. I love maps, and will pour over them when I can. I hate using them when I’m out, unless it is to sit and reflect on where I’ve been and throw light on what I’ve seen, as the constant back and forth between loose, observant wandering and the hard, directed, executive function led act of map reading gives me one of the jarring, violent sensations that ‘switching’ causes.
My impatience leads me to decisively take control and choose a path out of the many, which is of course the wrong one. Another ADHD trait. J is gracious about this, as we circumnavigate the field, and once we are back on track it is well-signposted easy path finding back to the road and the footpath back to Framilode. We are all tired, even the dogs, and it is a trudge through the gloaming back to the car – ADHD time blindness has blindsided me, and it is much later than I thought.
But ADHD supports us with the powers of curiosity, adaptability, and rewards us unexpected pleasures in the form of a walk along the disused Stroudwater canal with bullrushes and moorhens, where I find an incongruous clam shell to add to my walk gleanings and small and quite attractive wooden cutouts of dogs pooping with the word ‘No!’ written on them outside one of the cottages; a V of geese flying over the levels in the darkening dusk, and heartstoppingly lovely wintery Severn sunsets as a crescent moon rises.
Ultimately, for all our clever aims of somehow reflecting ADHD as a chosen methodology for our walk, as ever ADHD proved to be unpredictable, original intent failed to make it to reality, and rather than mimicking ADHD, we ended up manifesting it.
The next day J sends me photos of the map with our route traced out in red. It’s a well used map, ragged and well-loved, and I see that where we wanted to follow the blocked path behind the farm, there is a tear in the map – as if we would have fallen down this ripple if we’d proceeded, and the disorientation that often characterises my ADHD and led us down different paths has saved us.
I reflect on the ways that ADHD and our walk today have related to each other, and I realise that I have reconfigured the way I think about it, added another facet to what is already a many layered thing. I think now of ADHD as an avatar almost, not just a condition – and I have a revelation:
that just as Sabrina and Nodens along with many smaller and long-forgotten gods are the genius loci of these beloved river shores
so ADHD is the genius loci of my mind, my inner landscape, the spirit of my body that is home.
While modern concepts of spirit of place centre upon a kind of layering of culture, history, relationship and topography as well as a more ephemeral sense or feeling of a particular landscape, the Romans thought of genius loci as protective spirits or deities, and honoured them as such.
It strikes me that taking my ADHD out for a walk in the way it likes best – unstructured-is, loosely boundaried, holding intentions lightly, following impulses and sightlines, fancies and thoughts, snatching what I can with notebook and camera to assuage the lack of working memory, and then sharing this with others, is a perfect way to honour it as my own internal genius loci if not my Muse.