The Parkland Walk is a short green seam running along the edge of several patches of North London, not far from where I now live. Opened in 1984 and made a nature reserve six years later, it traces an abandoned railway line that once ran between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace. Periodically lofted by a series of bridges above the quiet residential streets, and flanked by thick entanglements of young trees (nothing that grows here is older than fifty years), for the person on the street below, hurrying to or from Finsbury Park Underground station at the beginning or the end of the day, the Parkland Walk disturbs the air at the top of your eyeline like a flash of memory. If you turn to look up at one of the bridges, where the tallest foliage falls away, at any hour of the day you can see the heads and torsos of walkers or runners flowing in either direction along the Walk, like flotsam in a green current.
Where I grew up, in the hilly country to the southeast of Adelaide, a boy could scurry out the front doors of the house, pass through the gate and over the rusted barcode of the cattle grid, and then choose his own direction. A short run through the pine plantation would take him to the road on the other side, from which point the house behind him would be more or less invisible. He could turn to his right, up to the broad top meadow that dipped down to where it terminated at the dam over which the walnut tree slung its lichen-yellowed boughs. Or he could turn left and follow the downward slope of the hill to the creek, or cut upwards towards the golden crest of the hill where the evening sunlight poured itself through the whispering grass. For this boy, the natural world presented itself as a dial, explorable in almost any direction, with home at its centre, waiting to welcome him back.
The longer we live in cities the more our relationship to nature becomes linear, recursive. We explore the same discrete green patches in the same patterns. Over the past eighteen months, during which we have, like children, been circumscribed to the totemic geography of our own immediate neighbourhoods, many afternoons I’ve stepped up onto the Parkland Walk. The track is either dusty or muddy, depending on the weather. Now, at the end of a wet spring, the trees are drenched in green, clouds of hogweed have frayed and given way to surging nettles, brambles and bindweed. Faint echoes of the Walk’s past as a railway remain; the imprint of a platform here, the dark wet arch of a tunnel there. I walk, and when I reach the end I turn and go back the way I’ve come.
Through the most recent lockdown, as longer and longer stretches of the day were lost to murderous ideation about my neighbours, I realised I needed to get out of London. My partner and I live on the ground floor, and the uninsulated ceiling faithfully passes on every footstep or dropped spoon in the flat above. I’ve lived beneath people before, but this is something else. I find myself wondering if the upstairs neighbours own no chairs and are forced to perpetually wander their flat, unable to come to rest until at midnight when they collapse, exhausted, into their beds. At various points throughout the day we find ourselves glancing savagely upward at the flaking plaster. “Just sit down!” we hiss. Down the back of the house, in my study, it’s even worse. Our elderly neighbours – unfailingly – turn on the television at 11 am and it stays on until close to midnight. They’re hard of hearing. The sound blasts through the thin brick wall of the terrace as if it were woven grass.
Eventually via some clickbait article I find a track of ten uninterrupted hours of environmental recordings with every human and animal noise scrubbed from it until it’s just wind and water, and I play it through my headphones at a volume that drowns out everything else. “Green noise”. It works until my resentment at being forced to such measures gets the better of me, at which point it becomes its own kind of torture.
A type of bird I’ve never seen before comes into the garden and I completely lose my shit. I edge to the glass doors and take about thirty next-to-useless photos of it with my phone. I am a different person than I was a year ago.
Along with birds, we also have the foxes to contend with. I struggle to move past my instinctive antipathy for them, a hangover from growing up in Australia where foxes are a destructive introduced pest. My knee-jerk dislike isn’t helped by the fact our neighbour leaves food out for them, which encourages the foxes to loaf around and shit and dig all through our sanity-preserving garden. We buy bamboo barbecue skewers and encircle the plants we most want to save, with mixed success.
The foxes are undeniably beautiful, though. Every now and then I’ll spot them darting through our garden, or curled in the long grass of our neighbour’s yard, like spirits of the green mess they lie in. I think of the stone foxes standing outside the Inari shrine we visited in Japan; their cool, unruffled expressions, how their smooth sense of command holds you at a distance. The foxes of London don’t look like that. Their faces are full of the panicked defiance of trespassers, or jailbreakers.
I fall into the Internet. One long evening, straining mulishly against a deadline, I spend hours learning about Julian of Norwich, the most famous anchoress of the 1300s, who wrote the earliest surviving book written by a woman in the English language, Revelations of Divine Love. An anchoress was (and I suppose, somewhere, might still be) a religious woman who lived a life of extreme seclusion within a small cell usually attached to a church. The title, anchoress, comes from the Ancient Greek, anachōréō – to withdraw, or retire.
Knowing the origin of the word makes you think differently about the anchor of a boat. That it might be retiring into the sea rather than being dropped, withdrawing into the water like the head of a snail, as if the sea were its natural element and all the while on the boat, in the open air, it had been in exile. Before an anchoress was secluded, she underwent a rite similar to a funeral. Psalms from the Office of the Dead were read over her before she entered the cell, and then the door was sealed shut behind her. She never saw the sky again. Julian of Norwich’s entire life – and she lived to be very old – was like an aftershock of her own death. She rejected the earth. Heaven was her natural element.
Like the foxes, I’ve more or less stuck to our patch since all this started. We spent two nights away last July when we had to go to Norwich (no geographically closer appointment was available) to sit in a drab little office not far from where Julian passed her secluded days and complete our Life in the UK Test as part of our application for leave to remain in the country. Apart from that trip I’ve barely left our immediate neighbourhood. The streets around our home have at times felt almost punishingly familiar. The caution has felt sensible (and in any case for much of that time we had no choice in the matter), but the days have become so indistinct that when I try to think back through them all it’s like trying to swim up a waterfall.
But we do go out of the city, eventually, in the second week of June, to Diss, in Norfolk. The flattest and driest county in England, the skies here are broad enough to almost feel like Australia, like home. We’ve booked a small cottage on a quiet road, where we’ll have a chance to properly concentrate on work away from the relentless noise in our flat.
The train pulls out of Liverpool Street Station. The city gives way to suburbs, the suburbs to green fields.
As city dwellers, even when we do make it out to wilder parts of the country we arrive with a little secret demand tucked in our hearts, as an anchoress is tucked into the walls of a church: we demand that nature bring us home, somehow. That it make us feel more like ourselves.
“Nature is healing,” went the phrase. It lofted itself into Internet discourse at some early point in all this, and irony quickly congealed around it.
Sometimes, walking back and forth along the really quite crowded railway turned nature reserve I think, “Isn’t it great they’ve preserved this!” in the same voice with which I once thought, “That was nice!” after the guy who was mugging me agreed to hand me back my wallet after taking out all my cash.
In Diss, out the back of the cottage where we’re staying there’s a straggly field, flat, bare to the sky except for some ancient apple trees whose fruits are just beginning to swell. A couple of beaten-up caravans attest to an abandoned attempt to turn the field into a kind of campsite, and a little gang of long-necked white ducks scurry as one around the plastic, duck shit-studded lip of an artificial pond. The neighbour’s yard is a cresting wave of nettles, and down the back of the field a solid green tunnel formed by a surging wild rose is punctuated by its startlingly pink flowers, whose petals rock back almost recklessly, as if they know they’ll soon fall and don’t care in the slightest.
Is there a word for this? For finally waking up somewhere other than the same small room? For how after this long year it’s enough to stand in a bare field and drink in its unfamiliarity?
What if an anchoress were carried out of her cell while she slept and was laid down in a field beneath the green coils of a wild rose? What would she think when she woke? I wonder if maybe she would open her eyes and believe that her sincere prayers had delivered her, at long last, to the garden where green lines run in all directions, the dial of heaven.
KIT BROOKMAN was born in Australia and lives in London. He is a founding co-editor of The Signal House Edition.
RACHEL RODRIGUES is a British Indian artist, who was born and grew up in North London. Her paintings offer a commentary on the mind, addressing what we can make sense of psychologically but also the feelings we can’t quite place, our unconscious, automatic thought patterns and behaviours, with much of her work delving into experiences around her own mental health. WEBSITE. INSTAGRAM.
(Image Credit: Waterlow I, by Rachel Rodrigues; 2020, oil on paper. By kind permission of the artist)