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Soggy sandwiches, sore feet and a Global Climate Conference - reflections on a pilgrimage

This Autumn, I went on a really a long walk.

On the 4th of September, I departed London with a group of 27 pilgrims to walk to the UN Climate Conference, COP26, in Glasgow. The aim: listening to the land.

We walked 500 miles over 7 weeks. Mostly we camped, occasionally we slept on warm village hall floors. We sang around campfires, argued over porridge and were slowed down by blisters, complaining muscles and bad knees. We were fuelled by peanut butter sandwiches and variations on vegetables with lentils which we supplemented with hot, greasy chips whenever possible.

As we walked, we listened - to each other, to the people we met along the way and to the changing landscapes we walked through. What would it mean to listen without expectation?

We began the walk along the Ridgeway in West Oxfordshire in the unseasonably sweltering heat. Our packs laden with thermals and fleeces I thanked my last-minute decision to bring a pair of shorts and begged suncream from fellow pilgrims.

“The fields here are so wide

that my heart, it shrinks inside

to see the land so bereft”

– The ridgeway song, Helen Melon, fellow pilgrim

The houses were grand and luxurious as we walked through the home counties. Into the Cotswolds the flat landscape becomes more rolling, smattered with delightfully picturesque English villages, and giant, baked fields of grain. The hedgerows dripped blackberries at every corner, like enthusiastic vendors on a busy intersection they jostled for our attention. No pilgrim was left without a snack!

Leaving the chalk of the south behind at Uffington we finally turned north, the landscape becoming baked clay earth. The journey became steadily more urban, and the weather turned colder as we continued up through Moreton in Marsh, beyond Stratford on Avon, through Birmingham, and past Lichfield. In Stoke on Trent we received a beautiful blessing from the priest at the local cathedral before feasting on the best full English of my life (featuring Staffordshire oatcakes).

Everything was becoming damper and more dramatic. Between Pendle Hill and Carlisle it rained for 11 days solid. Our gentle, sunny start seemed long ago as the weather and terrain began to test our resolve! Whilst camping in the grounds of Browsholme estate, our kitchen tent blew away in a storm and many of our provisions were lost to the rain.

The day we crossed the Shap fell stays etched into my memory. The weather was abysmal: a yellow weather warning. Ideally - stay inside. So, we walked. We walked through gale-force winds, flooding, and torrential rain. It was too cold to stop for longer than a minute or two so we gulped down soggy sandwiches crouched under a farmers stone wall whose shelter we shared with some shivering sheep. At this point, I realised the ventilation zips on my waterproof had been open all morning and I was soaked. I looked at one of the sheep and, for a brief moment, I swear we shared the knowledge that today was just one of those days you had to get through. Was I beginning to get this ‘listening’ business or was hypothermia setting in? Time to move - we soldiered on. Heads bent to the wind we did what we always do at challenging moments, we sang to pass the miles. Idle chit chat wasn’t possible today – talking over the howling rain required elevating your voice to just below a scream. At the final mile, we met disaster. The ford was completely flooded. Some more sensible folks turned around and went the long way round. Three of us, however, did what you should definitely not do. We forded the very fast flowing, waist-deep river. It was hairy. We clung to the steppingstones with one arm and used our poles to keep us from being pulled under. One slip and you would be swept away. ALL OF US MADE IT! We walked the final mile freezing and triumphant, deeply relieved that today was one of those special occasions we were blessed with a roof to sleep under and radiators. There was also an award-winning chippy in town.

The landscape was wilder, now. After Carlisle, I was the furthest north I had ever been. Crossing the border into Scotland was surprisingly hard. The bridge we’d chosen was blocked and so we had to walk an extra 4 miles, perhaps it was because I was walking with so many Saes! Once we made it over the border, however, we were almost immediately welcomed by friends of a fellow pilgrim who refreshed us with tea and biscuits. We wouldn’t have passed their house had the bridge been passable.

As we walked through October, the mornings got darker, colder and harder. Before embarking on the pilgrimage, I imagined blissful mornings sipping tea and meditating, whiling away precious moments watching the sunrise. In reality, every morning I forced myself out of my cosy slumber by releasing the air valve on my (borrowed) Thermarest, sinking me unceremoniously onto the cold floor. I then dragged my aching body through its hectic morning routine: roll up the mat, stuff sleeping bag, toilet, attempt to clean myself, get dressed (soggy socks), clean teeth, pack down the tent, make tea, eat porridge, make lunch, pack down kitchen tent, sort out the long drop, pack van, covid tests, LOGISTICS MEETING, we’re late we’re late go go go go go go!!!!

Black pants were circulated through the group at an alarming rate. You were only reunited with your underwear for a ‘brief’ moment before it set off on another adventure. Asking someone to verify the brand of their underwear became normal practice.

Through Scotland we walked. Instead of blackberries and damsons, the hills and woods were now abundant with mysterious and marvellous fungus. Did you know that mycologists claim that mycelium (underground fungal networks) may have the potential to do more for the planet than any other life form, humans included?

I walked with many artists, performers and fools (look it up, it’s a bit like a clown but older). Songs were created and mummers plays written. Fooling workshops were given. We gave scratch performances to communities we stayed with along the way, but once we reached Glasgow we spent some time polishing our performance to bring together something more cohesive. We created a show using the elements (air, earth, wind and fire) as a template from which to tell the story of our pilgrimage. Performing in the round, the audience became part of the circle and were invited to interact. There was an air of ceremony to the whole performance.

Glasgow was heaving with people from all over the world. They showed up, they represented, they said: not in my name. I met one indigenous leader who had taken 7 days to travel from deep within the Amazon rainforest to speak for his people. He said that this was the first climate conference where indigenous people were being seen.

When it came to performing in Glasgow, I struggled at first. I was really cross! Who were we to speak for the earth? Who were we to claim that we’d listened, and we’d heard? We were just a group of arrogant white people suggesting we were ‘awakened’ and could offer a ‘better way’. Alaskan indigenous leaders were explaining how they are currently struggling to receive messages from the landscape they live in as clearly as their ancestors did because, not only are they losing their skills, but, the chaos and confusion of the current climate situation makes it harder for them to understand the messages they are being sent.

The city was noisy! I felt overwhelmed. There seemed to be so much stuff everywhere. I missed walking, I missed its rhythm and simplicity. On one particularly heavy morning, when I was taking myself rather seriously, I felt torn open to a painful world of grief and longing and wrote:

I grieve for quiet

I grieve for boredom

I grieve the child’s detailed knowledge of a patch of ceiling

I grieve for the real world, wild world education I never received

I grieve that there is no map for how to live better

I grieve for what died with our ancestors

I grieve forests lost to greed

I grieve for communities lost to colonialism

I grieve for species lost to our uncontainable growth

We are wound into a complexity we cannot undo…

Our ancestors could observe their world and receive messages from the landscapes they inhabit. They could probably notice in a small patch of ground a hundred things invisible to me. I long for this, for these skills of observation, for this embodied connection to the natural world. That my education hasn’t nurtured this within me is heart-breaking, I feel short-changed. In Glasgow, a hundred thousand people marched because they felt short-changed. We know things could be better. We even know how. People really care! People are inspiring! But why aren’t we doing it quick enough? Who’s in charge here??!

I walked to Glasgow because I felt called to listen. I realised how easily and automatically we add stuff, noise, and consumables in order to distract us. We avoid listening. Is this because we fear what we might hear? What ugliness we might discover within ourselves? It was hard! I wanted to listen to the world around me and instead I listened to my own voice rattling around inside my head and spent more money on amazon than I have in the last 3 years.

But I stand by it (the listening, not amazon). I stand by our performances, informed by our experience of trying to listen. We were a group of strangers who became a community, a sudden village. I let go of my cynicism and began enjoying the performances again - what use is it to demand perfection? Everyone was sharing their individual experience, who was I to criticise self-expression?! How could I not love our well-meaning, caring, and eccentric collective of brilliant creatives who were offering their minds and bodies in the painful hope for a better future?

Walking together required generosity, hard work, resilience, listening with an open mind and a good supply of chocolate for peace offerings. I name listening as one of the most important steps we can take toward a better future. It was a start, and perhaps something shifted, in my heart, in my senses. Listening could lead us towards a kinder, more compassionate and connected world. Listening doesn’t only reveal painful truths of our own failings. It shows us beauty. It reveals mystery. It might even take us to overwhelming, sickening, dizzying, remember when you were a teenager, levels of love.

At the very least, I am certain that listening is not conducive to destruction.

So, on that note, I am going to make myself a flask of tea and go for an evening stroll. The moon’s bright tonight – she’s casting shadows.

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