It was a dark, washed-out Saturday, and it was becoming dubious whether I would venture out - feeling my social anxiety waking, unsure how to ‘be’ within a larger group of people (something I’m sure many of us are readjusting to, after the last year). Nevertheless, we collectively agreed to give the scheduled wildflower walk a go, most of us likely feeling the need to reconnect to nature more than sitting inside, watching the rain hit our windows for what feels like the hundredth time this month already. There are a handful of these walks planned over the coming months, to visit the wild barnyard in Sompting with Breathing Spaces; to learn how to access these spaces by foot, and to identify and collect data on what is growing there (therefore also learning about local biodiversity).
I had pre-arranged with a new volunteer friend that I would carshare to the main meeting point at Lyons Farm in Worthing, thankful for this kindness as I stepped out into a freshly-showered garden; blackbird quick to find the worms and snails that had been roused in the downpour. Donned in my standard mustard jacket and old walking boots, we got to know each other a little better during the drive over - discussing forest gardening, permaculture and local festivals. As I’ve mentioned before, this is what often draws me outside eventually - the ability to (finally!) mix with others with shared interests and passions - there’s less small talk and more meaningful, insightful conversation (much easier to navigate, and way less awkward). As we pulled up and listened to the ‘welcome speech’ given, we all drew our hoods and hats a little closer as it began to rain heavily again. Now that we had formed this group, there was no turning-back - we pushed on and spread out into a more sparse gathering, being careful to keep distances as we began to follow a trail behind the industrial site - huge swathes of cow parsley bursting in their common umbellifer shapes against broken barbed-wire fences and metal railings. It was quickly apparent that we were not going to be traversing over very concrete ground - large puddles accumulated over our path as we passed into fields, next to adolescent, ramshackle shelters hiding in the trees; old pallets and fences propped up against trunks, with ripped plastic-bags for windows. I have always been fascinated by shelters and hides, huts and cabins, and it was less unnerving but more enlivening to see that others had also been drawn into the trees. We began cutting between fields; following a line of young hawthorns that had been recently planted. As we stopped at a country lane to ensure we were still collected, we watched as a small stream of continuous water flowed over our boots from further up the road, myself stopping to grasp at a cold, slippery worm that was struggling in the current (and then, placing it safely into the hedgerow).
As we continued on, watching softly-drenched lambs and their mothers in the distance and the cold rain driving into every possible opening in our coats and boots, I felt a small wave of claustrophobia from walking in a narrow file, not able to step out either side of this space and with people ahead and behind me; I felt compelled to walk on, knowing that others needed me to keep going (which when viewed more symbolically, was a wonderful way to fuse myself into this convergence; to have purpose). Wanting to stop and observe more of the plants, and with my hearing compromised by my yellow hood, I let myself sink in to the sounds closer to my own boundaries and to the pattering of raindrops against my coat - the comforting noises reminiscent of tent fabric, waking early in the morning or through the night to hear that hard drumming, but feeling the safety of temporary shelter around me. With rain collecting in my eyebrows I relished that the whole group had stopped to start looking at the wildflowers in the thicket - I quickly spotted my latest favourite, ground ivy, and picked a small sprig to sniff its incredibly fresh, enlivening scent as we identified scabious, white dead nettle, mullein, and campion. I spent various parts of the walk having brief exchanges with strangers, but also catching up with others that I hadn’t seen for so long; some of my other fellow volunteers and Directors. Again, it was reaffirming to be able to be more ‘authentic’, being able to exclaim my excitement for my recent newfound passion for foraging, of discussing food accessibility and inclusivity, and listening intently to others share their own forays and work in the outdoors - of what was important to them.
It wasn’t long before we had found our way to the edge of the A27; sun had now blinded the rain away and we walked slowly and cautiously next to the rush of cars spitting warm runoff into the air; the whole roads and pathways covered in a fine mist. We turned into our final stretch of country road and before long, made it to the large wooden fence of the barnyard, complete with old stone walls and a small inlet of water that was running off of the track, down into the pond there. It had been a year since I had seen this place; the time before it was heady and warm, catching glimpses of afternoon golden rays through hedges and trees, and meeting a very dry, browning collection of plants. This was a huge transformation - a real testament to how nurtured this place now was; small pathways winding through the dense collections of flowers and shrubs. Since we were in the midst of a particularly cold and wet spring, it was clear that most of the magic was yet to come in this space - so many plants in their infancy and waiting to flower, yet it was drenched in the luscious green of the season; deep forest emeralds and vivid limes, speckled here and there with the pink of campion, the yellow of goldenrod, and the shy but gentle blue of forget me nots. Teasels from last Autumn stood in amongst thick dark thistles, fresh nettles and plantain, and I found a small patch of fuzzy lemon balm growing in amongst docks and ox-eye daisies. I spent some time walking around the area, laughing alongside another friend as we tried to suss out an owl shelter (turns out, it was a disused chicken coop...).
Recently a natural hive had been installed here by the Food Pioneers 'Bees & Seas' project, and it was lovely to see this little wooden hut perched high up in the trees, with blue tits flitting about nearby and the sound of pheasants in neighbouring fields making their strange, alarm-like calls. With so much to look forward to here, it was hard not to feel anticipation, to be given an opportunity to witness so much life unfolding. We embraced the lull in the rain and commenced a ‘rapid test’ of the wildflowers, separating into small groups so we could analyse a square metre of the land and record what we could find growing there, in order to aid the flower farm as well as develop more of a relationship with the species that were flourishing. Though the patch I had been allocated to was mostly a tangle of thistle and dock, it was humbling for me to get some of my I.D.’s wrong - attempting to put my recent foraging knowledge to practice (which had all been done solo at this point, without others to bounce off of), and keeping myself in check - reflecting once again how important community is, to have shared knowledge so that we can each better ourselves and learn off of each other. I was reminded of the necessity of cross-referencing (with at least two or three sources); never getting too comfortable with my own perception, as it can sometimes overlook that one imperative piece of information (particularly if for consumption and edibles) - it was a useful reality check that I needed. It felt somewhat awkward trying to work with strangers to begin with, but like most things, it smoothed-out over time; us all utilising gentle humour and standard English awkwardness to navigate points that needed collaboration. With so many ideas for community projects (this blog being just a first step in forging together) it was another beneficial task to complete, despite my own anxieties.
After stopping for water, snacks, vapes and the use of the compost toilet, it was clear we were all starting to feel the call of warmth and home; most of us still with cold rain caught against our skin (myself having boots completely sodden - I had made the mistake of not tying them correctly around my calves). What a difference it makes, to be cold and wet during a walk - my thin trousers had now at least stopped sticking to my legs; we stopped for a photo and then began our walk back. Though this journey was a mere 45 minute stomp (roughly a 3.5 mile-roundtrip), it took much longer as a group, most notably because we were so immersed in the landscape, and each other - it only took one look at the barnyard fence, draped in coats and jumpers, to feel part of something bigger. On the way home, I chatted about dreams of a ‘philosophy café’, of the battle with slugs during this wet spell (nothing seems to be surviving this swell, other than potatoes), of my desire to seek-out more ways to add my voice to environmentalist groups, and excitedly making plans to get involved in other local projects. Much like I’ve come to realise with my writing, I’ve not once regretted a walk (especially, one with others) - no matter how I’m feeling at the time, and even though I may often feel more physically tired afterwards, it has never been for nothing, and almost always has led to more paths to follow. We had opted for a different route back, gaining landowner’s permission to take private roads up and over the very beginnings of the Downs - I often stopped to take a look over my shoulder, and was met with rolling hills, dark shadows of heavy clouds embossed in rapeseed; creamy white dots of sheep amongst the green, and patches of brilliant blue leaking out of every available crack in the sky. With a dry throat and aching joints, I relished in the feel of stretching myself along the curves of the earth; my own hips and legs expanding and retracting with each hill we climbed. I feel the most invigorated and nourished when I’m walking over these spaces; that beautiful pause at the top of each incline that mimics the flow of life itself, its almost too cliché to say.
Once home, peeling my heavy and drowned boots off (each caked in a good few centimetres of mud), and hanging up my damp coat, I washed off the afternoon in a hot shower, and felt at ease; coming home to the wild, coming home to myself, coming home to my community, again and again. I cast my eyes forward, at how much potential is out there just waiting to burst open and to be experienced; of how much there is for me to absorb, and how much I want to bloom and unfurl, in return.