I’m currently taking part in Emergence Magazine’s nature writing course, Writing Beyond the Environment. This essay is a response to the week one prompt: How would you tell the origin story of your relationship with the living world?
As I write — or rather, type on my laptop — I am sitting in my narrow back garden on the edge of a town in eastern Scotland. The sun disappears for a moment behind a cloud speeding across the sky. I have a flask of tea by my foot, my computer balanced on my thighs, chest wrapped in a duvet jacket. The light returns.
I’m outside on an early April day to find my memories. As flakes of snow begin to fall, I pause. I can’t recall my first memory of being outdoors. It’s all one — the afternoons, weekends, and childhood holidays spent by sea, hills, loch, woodland.
My dad loves the outdoors. He can sail a boat with ease, barely watching the wind (or so it seems to me), expertly turning the tiller this way and that so that the canvas catches the breeze. When he was younger, he got his gold Duke of Edinburgh award, and was a local Scout leader. He has a cupboard full of maps.
It’s unsurprising that we were outdoorsy kids. We would spend weekends going on what I now consider little, local adventures. My parents would pack a rucksack — sandwiches Mum had made, biscuits, a flask of tea for Dad — and our short legs would take us above our west coast village, not even that far, but into another place entirely.
Above the fields, where the burn forded the gravel track — you could still see the village rooftops from here — we’d turn south and explore the old estate. This area, once landscaped gardens to a sprawling modernist seminary, was well on its way to being swallowed. Plants popped out at all angles, deep green everywhere, mud, footprints, stones, a lost path. This place was becoming wild again.
My brother and I, still in primary school, ran past the castle ruins and began looking for the bridge. Drowning in moss, it was barely visible between the invasive rhododendron. We found it, pulled on our parents’ hands, and crossed over.
This was a small island on an old skating pond, but it seemed a world within a world. There was a monkey puzzle tree which, with its angular leaves, always puzzled me. It was a breath of what had been there before, and seemed to hold a secret I couldn’t understand. Across the water, a jetty was being swallowed by reeds. It didn’t matter to us that what had made this place tidy — landscaped, acceptable — was disappearing. This feral version was somehow better. It was our playground, and our parents encouraged us to embrace it.
There were also many caravan holidays, all spent in Scotland, recreating the trips my mum took with her own parents to places like Kenmore. We often stayed further north on the west coast, where the weather is even more changeable — fronts come straight in off the Atlantic Ocean, thick with rain, and stalled only by small islands in between.
Our days depended on the forecast which, usually unreliable, was regularly abandoned in favour of Scottish serendipity. We’d look for the next gap in the clouds, put down our books and throw on our wellies, and then rush outside the caravan under the twinkling slice of blue sky.
As a child, I loved those holidays. I never felt like I was missing out on anything by not going abroad, although when I was a teenager, I sometimes wondered why my family weren’t going to Florida or France for a two-week break in the heat.
Even now, though, returning to these spots in Scotland brings me a sense of calm — a calm I can never recreate in another country. Layers of memories are held like fossils within the rocks, and by the shifting sand, pushed by the tides of our lives. Wherever we end up, we always go back there.
There’s no doubt that my parents have had the biggest influence on my relationship with the living world — my dad especially. To this day, my brother still goes hiking with him. My dad might lead, a flask of tea in his rucksack, as they explore what locals call the Arrochar Alps. He will go out in any weather; tell me that a walk with negative visibility was “cracking”; and always champion nature as a balm for the anxieties of modern life (especially in a pandemic).
I imagine my parents when they are older, less able, in a way young again. Perhaps I will have to bring the living world to them through the stories we share. Stories of Scotland, of shell seeking on the skerries, of wild nights with the caravan shaking in the wind, or of beach walks redeemed through that single minute of sunlight. Which, really, is all we need.
How would you tell the origin story of your relationship with the living world? What has influenced your love of the outdoors? I’d be interested to hear your experiences in the comments below.