Walking our Landscapes

By Karen Lawson, Fire Starter Festival Lead (karen.lawson@gov.scot)

Figure 1 Cairngorm National Park

Reflecting on this past year I wonder how many of us have become much more sedentary. According to Professor  Shane O’Mara[i]  this isn’t just an issue for our bodies and physical health, it’s a challenge to our mental well-being, ability to problem solve and be creative.  For him the answer lies in getting our bodies and our minds mobile.  Going for a walk isn’t so much a break from work (though that is a good reason), it’s an essential way to give our minds and bodies a boost: to think more clearly, gain different perspectives and make better decisions. If ever there was a time for that, it must surely be now.

I’m not alone in my interest in walking. In this year’s upcoming Fire Starter Festival, there are several events focusing on nature and walking, e.g  ‘Paths and Destinations’. There is growing interest in the restorative impact of the natural world and how we design green spaces to maximise accessibility to well-being. [ii]  On the Friday of the Festival we’ll gather together as an experimental walking community, to reflect on our walking practices, our learning and consider what potential walking can play in our lives: Walking Our Landscapes[iii]

I’ve always been interested in walking, enjoying the sense of getting away from it all – whatever the ‘all’ happened to be at that time.  I’ve been hugely influenced by Nan Shepherd’s[iv] reflections on walking into the Cairngorm mountains, the sense of being that comes from time in nature and the art of paying attention to what is present in our experience.  There are some amazing books about walking from diverse perspectives: historical, philosophical, literary, research etc. reflecting a growing interest and awareness of walking as central to our lives. O’Neill and Roberts cover a great deal of this, so my reflections in this blog are focussed more on well-being.  [v]

I first really became interested in psychological and neurological benefits of walking when my mum died 5 years ago, and my dad who suffered from dementia, went into a care home. Walking became a huge focus for him, and ultimately for us both, as we navigated his inner and outer world. He needed to walk, he was constantly on the move. Several times he ‘escaped’ from the care home, not to wander, (as is often said about people with dementia) but to walk with purpose, (akin to someone in-training for a marathon) to find a place located deep down in his memory. His inner turbulent landscape was reflected in his walking pace: fast, with great stride and purpose. It was as if he could sort out his confusion, stress and panic by walking. 

Figure 2 Karen Lawson with Angus Lawson, Townhill Loch, Dunfermline, January 2020

We started to walk around Townhill Loch, on the outskirts of Dunfermline, very near where he had lived: a familiar place to him. This gave him a purpose, he could talk and walk, and gradually his mind settled and his words formed meaning. At first it was a searching for understanding of all he had lost, but gradually he would turn his attention to the nature around him, and the beauty of the loch. He moved from the past to present, with an almost Zen like quality of just appreciating what was evident in the here and now of the moment. Over the years, we walked together – shoulder to shoulder around the loch, a deep-rooted memory walk, that somehow helped him traverse his inner and outer landscape.

O’Mara and others stress the importance of recognising that walking as an embodied, multi- sensory activity, transcending any false distinction between mind and body. This was absolutely true: we felt the sun, rain and wind, the ground beneath our feet, and even crunched through the snow in winter.

I noticed that as we walked, we developed a rhythm and increasingly my dad’s words would make more sense. Much of this is explained by O’Mara, for as we walk we generate rhythms in the brain that don’t occur when sitting.  Walking settles the mind, but also sharpens our senses, resulting in conversations that potentially flow.

When most of his words were lost, the walking alone was sufficient, a peaceful walk, in companionship, until he died at the beginning of lockdown in March.

There is no doubt that he benefited from the walks, but so did I, and still feel, the profound loss of that companionship. Like so many, I was confronted with the death of one parent and the simultaneous caring duties of the other. The change of relationship will be familiar to many as we alter our perspective roles and take on positions we would not have anticipated, nor asked for.  I think we walked our grief together and developed a bond that was unexpected and largely indescribable.  At times I too felt both anxious and stressed: what would the future hold for both us?  But somehow, we developed our rhythm and together we walked in and through our grief, creating a new relationship, something neither of us could have imagined.

O’Mara’s research indicates that our sensory system works at its best when we move. His main interest has been stress, depression and anxiety as well as learning, memory and cognition. Interestingly, the brain system that supports learning, memory and cognition are the same ones that keep us from feeling depressed or anxious, and his research shows that those who move least are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and ill health.

We are fortunate in Scotland that walking has been recognised as key to improving health and wellbeing of the population with GPs being able to  prescribe for nature walking and through the development of the work of organisations like Paths For All[vi] who support a walking strategy for Scotland.

As we go continue to be in lockdown, it would seem vital that if we are able, we should continue to move, either within our homes, or out in nature. Are there opportunities to talk to colleagues on the phone, while walking (taking our daily exercise) rather than on Zoom/Teams? How can we incorporate short breaks, walking around the block or garden not only to improve our health and well-being,  but aiding our ability to think clearly and make better decisions.  Can we tune into our walking rhythms and our embodied sense just being in our inner and outer landscape?

In the next blog I’ll be sharing thoughts on walking and creativity, and my intention of  dialogue walking with a stranger each week of the year. Meanwhile, get in touch if you are interested in walking with a stranger or have some experiences and thoughts about walking practices.

Please make sure you are aware of current restrictions and adapt to follow guidelines.

[i] Shane O’Mara (2019) ‘In Praise of Walking’: the new science of how we walk and why it’s good for us,  is rich with evidence of the benefits of walking.  

[ii] White et al (1995) The restorative benefits of nature – Journal of Environmental Psychology, 35, 40-51

[iii] I’ve been fortunate on my travels to meet with Maggie O’Neill and Jerry O’Neill, both with far more experience and expertise in walking than I have. They have generously given their time and ideas to shape the upcoming Fire Starter Festival event Walking Our Landscapes.

[iv] Nan Shepherd (2011) ‘The Living Mountain’ – this is a wonderful philosophical meander through the Cairngorms. 

[v] Maggie O’Neill & Brian Roberts (2020) ‘Research on The Move’ gives a wonderful overview of walking research methods that also covers the diverse way we engage with walking in our lives.

[vi] https://www.pathsforall.org.uk/ An amazing resource for the practicalities of walking.

7 thoughts

  1. What a beautifully written piece Karen. Thank you for sharing your experience of grief too which I too can relate to. I used to ride with my dad and at this time this outdoor activity has been such a resource to connect me to the natural world. How such a simple activity can be so healing and deeply emotional.
    I’m looking forward to participating at the Paths and Destination session at the FSF

  2. A great blog Karen which is also a lovely tribute to your relationship with Angus. We have found Empathy Walks – an iteration of dialogue walks I suspect – which we learned on ULab to be a great way of growing understanding and promoting connectedness. Thank you.

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