“Once you have respect you care, when you care you share, once you share you teach”
As soon as her words enveloped my thoughts I knew I’d heard something special. Freda was Northern Shoshone and lived in a remote region on the banks of the Yukon River, Canada. As we sat outside a small cabin beyond the abandoned church from the Klondike era, I contemplated the week of paddling in the canoe that it had taken me to arrive here, hundreds of miles from the source of the river. I had at least one thousand four hundred miles left until I reached the river’s mouth in western Alaska.
Along the way, from Freda and other native elders, I’d get a lesson in what landscape and connection truly meant, shared with me by people who rely on it as a way of life and a means of living.
All of my journeys, long or short, involve the intertwining ribbon of culture and landscape, which I see as intrinsically linked. Within this is my ongoing search for simplicity, meaning and a way of life. This simple notion is what drew me to the vastness of the Yukon to meet the first nation groups who have permeated this landscape for 10,000 years. For the people of this region, their culture, identity and psyche are firmly rooted in their partnership with the landscape and the wildlife. For centuries and even up until the modern day, their success as a culture is directed by this vital partnership. To lose this connection would be catastrophic for their spiritual health, and ultimately their survival.
The elders explained to me how all humans need a living dynamic relationship with the landscape in order to feel nourished and to feel connected. On returning to the rhythm and rush of urban life, I realised this was as true for the people of Alaska as it is for the people of London. We are one and the same, nourished in life by the land. My outlook towards the greater framework of nature was indelibly shaped by those intimate conversations.
With the recent insights of the Yukon expedition crackling like an ember inside me, I developed the Kodak / 27 Images project in the spring of 2017. At its heart the project was as much about disconnecting as it was reconnecting, experimenting this time in the landscapes I call home. I decided to cross, on foot and alone, two major regions of the Lake District - Coniston to Buttermere. Instead of taking my DSLR I would use a simple Kodak throwaway camera to photograph the entire journey. If I took my DSLR, or even a smartphone, there would be countless opportunities to get the images I wanted. But spending so much time behind the lens meant the camera could become like a middleman, moderating my relationship with the land.
With the Kodak, I wanted its limitations to become its strengths. The limit of 27 exposures meant I would have to slow down so that I could more closely observe my surroundings, in search of the best picture. I also hoped that that slowing down would bring more presence, clarity and a new creative perspective.
Essentially, stripping back technology and choice would give breathing space for more meaningful things like nature, creativity and connection with the land.
An elder once said to me “ When you slow down more, you’ll look more, and when you look more you’ll learn more”. This became not only the ethos for the project but shaped my way of living and became a component of my new business, Walk Wild.
You can see the 27 Images here.
Walking Wild – Helping others connect to the land
I’d always been drawn to ancient forests and dense woodlands: their enchantment and complexity captured my imagination. Within the mosaic of these wonderfully wild places lies a hierarchy of families and cross species generosity.
After my expedition to the Yukon I became even more intrigued by the complex society of life within a forest ecosystem. Months after the journey, it was now time to share and teach the knowledge that had inspired me. Focusing on the landscape of forests and woodlands, I said “Yes” in the face of fear and failure to starting an immersive outdoor business where walking, slowing down and looking more took precedence over the mileage counter on a watch or smartphone.
I founded Walk Wild to offer people carefully crafted day walks in some of the southern UK’s most ancient woodlands. They are designed to give people more time and space in wild locations, to support the development of their relationship with nature. During these walks I share nuggets of information about the inner workings of forests, wisdom about individual trees and how the rich variety of trees species communicate with each other and the ecosystems they’re part of.
For some, connecting with nature is a sense of a relationship with something far greater than ourselves. The lessons passed to me from elders on the Yukon River, lessons that had been shared from generation to generation for thousands of years, had changed a humble life on another continent. It spurred me to found an organisation with a mission to spread their teachings to one million people.
All across the world, first nation and indigenous communities believe that everything around us - the humble butterfly and the bird, the forests and the river, the mountains and the sky, all possess the spirit of life. I am now convinced of this too. Nature is a healer, the great teacher and a universal force of birth and death. Spending time in nature and taking time to listen, observe, and use all of our senses, is how we can start to understand the wonders of nature, and develop a personal relationship to the land.
I also wholeheartedly believe that if we begin to adopt that same awareness to the interconnection between all life, as the native communities do, we’ll naturally develop a deep sense of connection to and respect for the landscapes we all call home.