OPINION Ursula Martin

NWR Issue r26

Becoming Wild

I didn’t set out on an adventure to discover my wild side, to deliberately release my feral urges. The journey came for other reasons, but in the walking of thousands of miles I was brought sharply into contact with my animal nature. The urgencies of hunger, food as fuel for physical exertion, the need of water to abate bodily deterioration.

I have been sleeping outside for years, not in the organised camping sense but in the way of having travelled far enough this day, whether by the power of my foot or my thumb (rarely by the power of my purse) and needing to find a place to sleep. Each nights unconsciousness was never the destination, no planned target, but a place of safety I must find in my surroundings, not breaking the journey to seek it but making the most of each situation. A bench at the back of a service station cafe, the 24hr cashier content to let me curl up, later inviting me home. In a cave on a Spanish beach, dragging driftwood across the sand to burn in solitary splendour. In a copse of trees to hide me from passing eyes. The curl of a hillside, nestling in a grassy hollow. Over a fence and in a field corner. Behind hedges. On mountains. Avoid cities. Avoid humans.

I have learnt, over the years, of what I need to feel safe. Of the deep vulnerability that exists in lapsing into unconsciousness. There is a reason that our front doors do not open into our bedrooms, that we hide in the labyrinth of our houses, upstairs and through corridored landings, closing at least two doors between ourselves and the open-access outside. It wasn’t until I slept there, in public, no tent, just a layer of tarpaulin underneath me and a waterproof bivvy over my sleeping bag, that I experienced my layers of consciousness. Without even the illusion of nylon walls to shield me, my brain would not release into slumber, that thick black velvet nothing. I could sleep, close my eyes and dream, but never very deeply or for very long.   

As a parent will never sleep without waking to the mewls of their newborn child, so, in sleep, I stayed alert to the cry of the fox, the rustle of leaves, the blowing of the wind, any portent of unknown things, near me in the darkness.

I eventually learned to trust the peace of deep night silence. All beings slumbered and I was just one of them, belonging there, curling for the night on the ground, moving on with the light. But still, I could never sink down into truly restful sleep. That had to wait until I was behind closed doors, my taut senses releasing a tension I didn’t know I carried, buried deep at the base of my brain. When lying on the ground I am perpetually waking to change position, fuss the insulating layers closer to my face, or without knowing why, to suddenly become aware of the moon, sailing there, comforting my senses in its greywhite calmness.

It was the length of time I travelled that allowed me to sidle closer to my wild nature. In thirteen months of walking, I became attuned to my landscape, the Welsh abundance of rowan, oak and brook, lichen coating stone, hawthorn steadfast at field edge. Knowing the shapes of my surroundings so well allowed me to see change, the flutter of wing through dappling branches, the tunnelled access through grassy undergrowth, the dark crouching shape that would usually be a log. Squirrels scuttered at the corners of my vision and I became a creature that stalked in their world, hunting with my eyes. My wildness formed in the set of my shoulders, it grew from the nape of my neck where my imagined pelt bristled.

I was alert, as I walked, to the life that surrounded me, something I could only achieve through walking alone. Another person with me meant I focused inwards, on our conversation, holding the connected space between us, referring to the land in terms of our viewing of it. ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’

Once alone I was intimate with the land; I slept on it, fed from it, pissed on it. I was bathed in nature and my senses spiralled out, tendrils snaking, relaxed in their total immersion. My spirit flew out into the land around me, it was an effort sometimes, after a day on the high hills, walking with the silent song of the earth, to bring myself back to human interaction, to make my mouth a method of communication, cramp myself into a chair rather than sprawl comfortable on the ground.  
The intensity of that experience is over now. I have a home, of sorts, have rerooted in a community. I am grateful for fridges and hot water but in my barefooted, open-palmed desire, raw and immediate, a part of me will remain untame.

Ursula Martin’s debut novel is [gwales:9781909983601::One Woman Walks Wales}, published this year by Honno.


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