I went recently to hear a talk, at the launch of her new book, by a friend of mine who lives in a small village in East Anglia. Rosamond Richardson has written several books about the countryside, on the cultural history of wild flowers and trees and about food. She loves to walk. She writes from a place you trust and would like to know better. Her talk was about birds and meditation, though she never mentioned meditation.
Surprisingly, it was only recently that she discovered the world of birds. During a time of personal pain this new world brought her an expansion of awareness, a new relationship with the natural world (that Aquinas said is the ‘primary and most perfect revelation of the divine’) and with a new source of healing. As a true herbalist will tell you, if you know anything about nature, you will always discover more about how nature itself is the source of health.
Rosamond’s new book, my recommendation for the last week of Lent especially for those who feel they have had too much religion, is ‘Waiting for the Albino Dunnock: How Birds Can Change your Life’.
Her writing about the countryside and the bird world she has discovered there conveys to us, her readers, more of the full experience of creation than any TV wildlife documentary. It shows how words are more powerful than a thousand pictures, though in our media-frenzied world we believe the opposite. She is, as she confesses, a busy and curiosity-driven personality. She took up running. But birds introduced her to contemplative walking and to the joys of still, patient, silent waiting.
In her talk I learned that the verb ‘to saunter’, meaning to walk in a slow, relaxed manner, to stroll or amble, derives from the French ‘sainte terre’ or ‘holy land’. The pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land to visit the sacred sites where Jesus lived, taught, suffered and died, sauntered there. They didn’t go to Gatwick or Newark and shop, drink and consume while waiting for the over-packed plane. Then take a bus waiting at the next airport to the hotel. They sauntered. The burgeoning number of modern pilgrims on the Camino to Compostella, whom we hope to welcome soon at Bonnevaux which is on that ancient way, are rediscovering this.
Everything in modern culture is about speeding up. This has many advantages, of course. But we lose much in the process. Slowing down opens up. Discovering Nightjars taught Rosamond this. They are nocturnally active birds with a vast range of dramatic song. Sound-recordists have analysed nineteen hundred notes to the minute, showing how limited is our human hearing. Visually too: ‘Unearthly his streamlined beauty, a bird the size of a small hawk, spectral, elegant and mysterious.’
To walk slowly is not to stop. To be still is not to be unproductive or disconnected. Rosamond has learned much from Thoreau, the 19th century American radical naturalist who knew the spiritual value of walking, whose ancient wisdom is caught in the Latin adage ‘solvitur ambulando’ – roughly translated as: ‘sort it out by walking’.
So, if you need a new Lenten practice, try sauntering. If you feel too restless and stressed to meditate, go for a walk first. And to help you say the mantra, listen to the birds, morning and night.