My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2014, the same year that the Loch Leven Heritage Trail opened. It’s a 21km circular walk around Scotland’s largest lowland freshwater loch which starts and ends in the small town of Kinross, a ten-minute walk from my parents’ home. As my mother’s condition deteriorated I would come up from London to visit as often as I could and the trail became a touchstone for me, somewhere I could go to run, to walk, to look, to breathe, to write, to take photographs and to think. Somewhere that always calmed me down and made me feel stronger and more resilient.
The moment with the heron happened the winter before last, and was one of many encounters with herons that happened around that time. Walking across the park on my way to work in London I would see a heron most mornings, and many more mingle with the pigeons in Regents Park, where I sometimes run. A guided walk up the Deptford Creek happened under the watchful eye of a vigilant heron and when my daughter and I walked part of the Fife Coastal trail last Autumn we lost count of the herons that kept us company. I began to worry that they might be a portent of doom, but I was never quite convinced because I was always so pleased to see them.
A Lesson In Attention is my first attempt to make sense of the remarkable power that being out in nature seems to have not only to soothe and comfort, but to spark resilience and strength. From noticing the first tiny licks of bright orange and yellow on the trees at the side of the motorway to stopping for a little weep in a high altitude layby and being dazzled by the blazing colours of Perthshire in October, autumn just seemed to be saying that everything would be all right if I could just keep paying attention — very much the message of Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem.
Mum died in November last year and I still draw comfort and strength from my walks on the Heritage Trail. Dawn walks in autumn and winter are best, with the sun coming up and thousands of pink-footed geese honking overhead as they make their way in V-shaped skeins to the feeding grounds.
Pauline Brown, 11 March 2019
Pauline was a runner-up in the Wild Words Winter Solstice Writing Competition 2018, with this story…
A Lesson In Attention
It is early, just after dawn, and bitter cold. Low cloud hangs in cotton wool clumps in the trees all around, hovers unmoving in pale wisps over the marshland to my left. My breath moves ahead of me, visible puffs of fear, anxiety made vapour. The only noise is the steady crunch of my boots on the crumbling asphalt of the path. Muffled by dense fir trees to my right, the sound stays close, crackling around me as I walk purposefully, muscles tense, not yet fully warmed up, monkey brain still busy.
A flash of steely grey catches my eye and I stop, instinctively holding my breath. A glimpse of black-speckled white and a sharp, swift stab of yellow speeds my heart, reminding me that though I come here for solitude, I am far from alone. This space is not just mine. Though the scene is static, not a blade of grass moving in the early morning light, this wild place, I know, teams with life.
Roe deer, companions on previous pilgrimages, asleep now or alert perhaps, pretty brown eyes monitoring my every move from their hiding place in the woods, ready to spring away, bouncing through the undergrowth, white tails aloft. Buzzards, kestrels too, and osprey, roosting in the scots pines by the water. Red squirrels tucked up in their cosy nests in the avenue of beech trees two or three bends further on along the trail. All quiet now, but palpably there, brought to mind by the swift movement in the corner of my eye.
A heron, unlucky this time, recovers his composure and resumes his fishing stance, oblivious to my presence, or undisturbed by it. Vigilant and dignified, he puts me in mind of an old Church of Scotland minister, erect, long neck stretched, bony hands clasped neatly behind his sober, grey-suited back. His pious gaze downwards, over the angled slope of his pointed bill, and imperious. All he needs is a pair of pince nez and a copy of Life And Work, esteemed organ of the kirk. Or a pulpit.
As a mindful moment it is near perfect. Gone are all thoughts of dementia. Of my mother’s precious life ebbing away, her impending, inevitable and - whisper it - almost welcome death. Of sleepless nights and fretful days. Of the guilt of living too far away to be much help. Of the competing demands of hygiene and dignity. Of the air of puzzled bewilderment with which she stumbles through each day, ‘Can you tell me who I am?’ Of my father’s tear-filled eyes. His admirable, frustrating, nerve-shredding stoicism.
Instead, for this moment, I am aware only of the cold air on my cheeks, the droplets of moisture where my breath has condensed on the scarf under my chin, the warmth of my feet in my boots, thick woollen socks holding them close. I can feel the rows of reverse stocking stitch massaging the skin on my soles. A bead of sweat tickles as it trickles slowly, spasmodically, down my spine and I sense the thump-thump-thump of my heart beginning to slow now as my breath returns to normal.
And all the while I am transfixed by the beautiful bird less than a hundred feet from where I stand, preaching his wordless sermon on the value of paying attention. He’s
leaning forward now, into dancer’s pose, some prey or other, invisible to me but caught in his sights, his slow, barely perceptible yoga stretch the only movement in the whole scene. Bulrushes behind him, clumps of rust-coloured rumex dotted around the field, all are as still as the painted backdrop in a theatre production.
Another grey flash, another yellow stab, and this time he is lucky. His beak points skyward, jerks from side to side as he gulps down his catch. Some other small creature, a fish, perhaps, or a frog, finds that his luck has run out. The heron crouches, briefly bends his backwards knees and takes off, the whoosh and whomph of his giant, angular wings audible for the first few flaps as he swoops over my head and off in the direction of the loch.
Silence settles over me again like a blanket as I watch the bird disappear, absorbing his lesson. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed. Anxiety has been replaced by awe. Panic by peace. The peace of standing in this place, at this time, open to the transformative power of walking out into nature and paying close attention, particular attention, not only to this one wild and precious life, but to all wild and precious lives.