We went to Co Sligo for a week in October and as we wondered around the area and beaches we often saw women (mainly) walking along the roads with intent; sometimes on their own, but also in small groups. They walked briskly and deliberately – either this was a sign of poor public transport provision or a popular keep fit movement. It did not matter if we were on a small road or one of the fast well networked N roads, there they were and we began to refer to them as ‘the purposeful walkers’.
I was minded of them today as I went again to gather beech nuts; my meandering snail pace would have horrified those good ladies – however, it struck me though that although not as speedy and energetic as these ladies might have been, my walk is purposeful in a different sense. One of the reasons that I love gathering wild foods is that it lends a sense of purpose to a walk in the country; I know a walk should be purpose enough itself but my middle class protestant upbringing tends to guilt tinge anything that is as indulgent as ‘just a nice thing to do’; gathering wild food graces it with useful purpose.
Some years ago I was working and living in Nepal and for a couple of years lived in Solukumbu District, the area in which Everest is located. Walking was clearly very purposeful there – you walked to work, to the market, to socialise, to communicate. My work took me on long distance treks with colleagues to villages around the district and I was very privileged to be able to enjoy that breathtaking landscape every day.
One day I met some British walkers in a tea shop; they were the BBC crew that were accompanying and filming a small group of British blind trekkers as they made their way to the top of local mountain. As I descended down the track from the tea shop, I eventually met one of the trekkers on the path and as soon as I had introduced myself she launched into a barrage of questions about the area in which she was walking; what were the smells she could smell, the sounds she could hear? The tastes in the air? Fortunately I was able to answer most of them and as I carried on with my own journey I felt very humbled by the meeting. In a landscape so magnificent as the Himalayas, it is easy for the visual to take over all other senses, and the questions I had been asked made me think more about smells and sounds around me, and after that I often reminded myself to close my eyes and feel the landscape for a while.
In many ways gathering wild foods makes you step back in this way. Highland Perthshire is an amazing landscape and on a frosty November morning such as today, with autumn colours just beginning to fade, but with crystal clear light – it is easy just to focus on the large landscape – breathtaking and heartbreaking in its magnificence. Delving around in the fallen leaves though, looking for beech nuts I am forced to enjoy the small landscape under my hands – the smell of leaf mould, the crispness of the surface new fallen leaves, the cold leatheryness of the soaked ones underneath, the semi rotten ones below that. There are sudden flashes of colour as small green bugs scuttle to find cover, pink brown worms disappear, and there is my goal, a chestnut coloured beech nut. When gathering flowers in the spring and early summer – trying to work out the best way to efficiently collect them, when are they at their best to collect – when fully open or before, the difference in scent after the sun has warmed them, the difference a few hundred feet can make in when things are ready to pick; the beautiful regularity and pattern of plants, the competition with other animals – squirrels and birds. It is all part of the process and links me to the knowledge and folklore of thousands of years of living on this island
Gathering forces me to look at the small and reminds me constantly of the purposefulness of the landscape itself.