Childhood steps away from the realm of the human... Ambassador Mike Lay looks back on his first experience of ‘the wild’, following a river through the valley in which he grew up, and asking whether ‘wilderness’ may be more accessible than we think.
First Forays Into The Wild
4 min read
Written by Mike Lay
My Granny, my mum's mum, lives in a house nestled in the corner of a beautiful garden in Lamorna. The house was left to her in the will of her Auntie, the artist Ella Napper, and it has been her life's work to sculpt and coax the garden, which was once an agricultural field, into a thing of order and beauty.
Running through the bottom half of the garden is a leat, a watercourse which would have once powered the local mill. Through the modern marvels of Google Earth I now know that leat to originate, via several divergences, at the ancient village of Carn Euny, just over the hill from where I sit now, and to flow out into the Atlantic at the deep natural harbour of Lamorna Cove.
As an adult, surrounded by conveniences and knowledge and a sprinkle of learned apprehension, I feel a fair way away from any notion of 'wildness', but when I was a child the world was certainly a far wilder place. An experience that stands out in my blurred collection of early memories is an adventure up the leat with dad, what was possibly my first true separation from domesticity and the safety of home.
The leat is a largely artificial waterway dependent on human intervention to keep it running all year round, and because of this would often run dry. I remember visits to Lamorna where Granny would be grumbling at the dry, silted stream and at her neighbours for not doing their bit in the communal effort to keep it running (despite the mill it once powered grinding to a halt many years before).
Granny is a lady full of grumbles and grievances, full too of tenderness and love but always existing on a finely balanced edge, ready to tip one way or the other. She is still with us in Lamorna but living with a swiftly developing dementia, a sad stumble into the darker wilderness of her own mind.
We were visiting her one morning when she began grumbling of the water level in the leat and asked dad if he could go upstream and attempt to clear it. It was quickly decided that we would all go upstream, dad along with my siblings and I, an adventure of the highest order, one to confront wronguns (how dare they not keep the Leat clear), one of trespass and one of justice, truly a journey into the unknown.
Us children were dressed in waterproof one-pieces over welly boots, dad in waterproof trousers and jacket. Other than a thick pair of gardening gloves and a pair of secateurs for dad, we left only with our mission in our minds, that and a sense of wonder for what lay beyond the boundary of Granny's familiar garden.
We walked to the white bridge which led across to the track and eventually the road to Penzance, but instead of crossing it we swung beneath the railing and into the bed of the stream which climbed imperceptibly away beside the neighbouring field. The bridge was the edge of Granny's garden, and it represented the edge of my known domain.
The garden was a buzzing wonder of layered colour and scent, of tropical imports and trained natives. It was a tangle of latin names and seedlings and straight edged lawns and chiselled granite ornaments. Its beds would have been habitat enough for hedgehogs and mice and voles, its trees full of robins and wrens and rooks. But the garden's semblance of wildness was limited to the whims of my Granny. She didn't like magpies or dandelions or rabbits, or for that matter any plant whose position was chosen explicitly by her. I don't say all this to criticise her approach to nature, she loves the outside world more than most people I know, but more to explain the feeling of wilderness that we were plunged into on the other side of the bridge.
We were immediately surrounded by nettles and hogweed, the open edges of Granny's section of leat instantly replaced by a thick green mass of vegetation. Every step seemed miraculous, a step further from the realm of the human and into the mystery of nature. We trudged slowly on, delicately past the reaching hawthorns and with growing confidence through the thickets of stinging nettles. After a while (not all that long I suspect), I remember the rising excitement and nerves of feeling lost.
The way had become darker and thicker until it eventually was impassable. A choked tangle of brambles and branches. The darkness had closed in around us and served to rid us children of our bearings, despite the linearity of the stream. Dad played his role perfectly and allowed the feeling to take hold. He fed us sorrel (or 'sour sobs' as our other Grandma, his mum, had called it) and explained that it was too early in the year for blackberries. We asked him what we would do if we were properly lost, whether we could go into the one house we had passed and ask for food and water, he said we could but we should try going back the way we had come first.
We were muddy and scratched at this point. But full of adventure. We began to notice bits of the landscape and thus retrace our way home. A large rock here, a bend in the stream there. When we reached the cauliflower field we knew we were nearly there. It had recently been harvested and we gleaned a leftover from where it grew close to the bank of the stream. We were interacting with nature in a way I don't remember doing before, identifying plants, looking at things, feeling a little bit a part of the stream rather than separate and superior to it.
The stream spat us back out onto the bridge and the clean safety of Granny's garden. And the muddy, excited memory was etched. In hindsight the adventure would have been neither great in distance or lengthy in time. But it served to knock my sense of being slightly off kilter, to question the foundations of human order and superiority and to stake a claim for the wild. While it may not have been the instigation of lives of wild adventure in myself or my siblings, it has led, directly or not, to lives in relatively close communion with wild spaces, whether they be the seas of Cornwall or the moors of West Penwith.
As I now bring my own son into the world I am more aware than ever of the benefits of the wild spaces we are lucky enough to live in proximity to and also the presence of wildness in many spaces we assume it not to be. I know a love, appreciation and respect of all non-human nature is a gift I am eager to pass to my son and a lesson I am constantly teaching myself. I try to see the world through the eyes of a child journeying upstream, through eyes of wonder and excitement, and beyond the borders of the gardens of our minds.