Walk lightly on the earth

Make the Earth your companion. Walk lightly on it, as other creatures do” J. Patrick Lewis

I like to walk lightly on the earth. I like to walk over tree roots, and down winding country paths, a little muddy in winter, dry and dusty in summer, over nobbly rises in the ground, and under the arching branches of hawthorn, birch, and crab apple. I like to pass by badger setts, and nibble on bilberries, and examine the ivy crawling up the bright bark of a birch tree. I like to feel the boggy ground bouncing beneath my feet and wonder what might be around the next twist and turn in the way I am following. This describes a part of the Girley Bog walk, parallel to what has become known as the Orchard Field, since a forward-thinking NPWS staff member planted it with mostly native Irish apple trees. It was a narrow pathway that linked two sections of the looped walk and by all accounts that I have received in the past few days, rather treasured by local walkers.

“The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose!”
Poem of the Road, Walt Whitman

Unfortunately it has been deemed necessary to cover this earthen, winding path in 804 hardcore without any consultation with the local community or the walkers who tramp these trails every day. Tree branches have been cut back, and a digger has cleared the pathway, throwing mounds of earth to the side and covering over the underground tunnels made by badgers. I can only assume they checked the setts were empty before this work was started. It may have been done with the best of intentions and I know it is likely that health & safety reasons will be given to justify this new path. This is an unfortunate by-product of our litigious culture and lawsuits such as this, however pivotal to this case was the boardwalk, rather than natural ‘risks’ such as tree roots.

But do we who like our wild places a bit scruffy and messy (and that is mostly how nature and wildlife likes it too) always have to play second fiddle to ideas of ‘progress’ in this age-old tension between the needs of humans and nature? A “bog walk” by its nature suggests the paths and terrain might require a little negotiation and care. The “Moderate” grading assigned to this Looped Walk also takes into account its nature, described here as having “relatively narrow undulating trails, variable surface including loose material, uneven in places, steps, protruding roots and rocks, stiles and gates, bog bridges and boardwalks”. A consultation with local people might have yielded some kind of compromise such as a hoggin pathway that gave greater stability but would be more natural and earthy underfoot. And perhaps allow the odd tree root to peek through, for those of us who like to see such wonders and don’t consider them a nuisance.

This pathway didn’t traverse an area rich in biodiversity, nor was it part of the EU priority raised bog habitat, but people don’t see the landscape as designations, valuing more than is captured by ecological surveys. It added character, old hedgerow charm, and a shady passage to this section of the bog walk. I searched for pictures of it and only found a few, but that there were any meant it was a place of meaning for me, whose loveliness I wanted to capture. Robert Macfarlane in his book “The Old Ways” describes paths as “the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own…paths need walking.” I have met many people on these bog paths, people who come habitually to walk and wander and seek solace in as near to wilderness as can be found amongst the green fields of Meath. Together we walk these paths that were made long ago by people carrying out their turf during the war or accessing their cabins built on the edge of the bog. Accompanied by family, friends, and often canine companions, meeting strangers who become familiar faces, we have created these paths, and maintained their existence through continuous walking.

“A walk is only a step away from a story and every path tells”

Robert Macfrlane, The Old Ways

We are wayfarers, as Tim Ingold describes in his book ‘Lines’, actively engaging with paths, watching, listening and feeling as we go, our “entire being alert to the countless cues that, at every moment, prompt the slightest adjustments to bearing”. The cues along this path once included low hanging branches, roots of trees, undulating humps and hollows, traces of animals, and at various times of the year, crab apples, fungi, lichens, haws, brambles, and bilberries. No longer do we need our entire beings to be alert to these cues or to step aside if we meet another walker. The path is easy to walk on now and wide enough now to pass by but the lesser for it in my view.

And although this short stretch of pathway is a small loss relative to the way our world is changing on a global scale, it is still a feature of the walk I will miss. It is I know so minor in the scheme of things, but reflective of the trend towards sanitising and taming our wild places in the rush to generate tourism and visitor numbers, evidenced by recent controversies such as the Barrow Way. Access can be enabled without negative impacts on local places but this approach requires conversations, and inclusive consultation with the people who regularly use these trails. Pathways can both connect and divide, and I hope we can learn from this experience to better consider local people who love such small, seemingly insignificant places, which are woven almost invisibly into our lives and wanderings.

“Yet knowing how way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back”
Robert Frost

How should we manage recreation at natural places such as bogs, in a way that balances the multiple needs of such sites? Please use the comment box below if you would like to give feedback on this post.