I used to trudge a weary path to work every day. Some might say I was blessed. My workplace was at the top of the road I lived on. My commute, on foot, took roughly three and a half minutes door to door. But I felt anything but fortunate. For a start, I was working in a Pupil Referral Unit, which meant I wanted none of my students to know where I lived. Whatever my imagination decided they might post through my letterbox after the particularly challenging days was probably never as creative or horrifying as the reality was likely to have been. As a result, I’d often walk some convoluted route around the block before ducking behind a van and performing a ‘drop and roll’ manoeuvre to my front door.
The second challenge was head space. We can forget the benefits of a commute in allowing us time to process the transition from ‘work time’ to ‘down time’, and vice versa. The PRU job was particularly intense. Days were unpredictable and required careful, considered planning. I could rarely anticipate the course of events (other than knowing it would be somewhere on the scale of bonkers) and spent time after each day over-analysing what I could have done differently and pondering investment in significant quantities of lottery tickets. At times, the 210 second walk to work felt almost unbearable.
And then I decided to turn my micro commute into a micro meditation on nature. An interesting challenge, given I was living in one of the more ‘colourful’ areas of town. I’m not going to knock the wonderful, vibrant and diverse community of the area, but I mean ‘colourful’ in the sense of fifty shades of tarmac grey, a kaleidoscope of empty lager cans rattling along the gutters and a disco display of Police helicopter lights every other evening. I’m not going to quote findings or research into the positive impact on being in nature on our mental health and well-being – if you’re browsing Pagan posts this will likely come as no surprise. However, it’s challenging to seek solace in nature when you’re in an urban environment and short on time.
Nature is there though. You just need to get your eye in…
I began by focusing on calming my breath with each step (and I didn’t have many to make, so each one had to count) and I would then begin to scan for signs of life. Initially, I scoped out flowers in window boxes and hanging baskets and the hardcore, street birds. You know the ones – they keep themselves amused by playing chicken with cars and live off discarded chips. Judging by how frequently they manage to fly into filthy windows, possibly also the dregs from the lager cans in the gutter.
I then began to notice the more delicate, resilient species – the plants and animals thriving in unexpected places. Forget Me Nots tangled around the foot of a vandalised phone box, ladybirds and lichen – splashes of red and yellow on rusting, iron gates. When you focus on your senses, there comes a point where everything seems magnified. I began to wonder how I’d not noticed the cacophony of life around me before. I observed the masonry bees as they took advantage of the crumbling, Victorian brickwork to nest in and spotted robins darting in and out of the undergrowth (technically overgrowth) in the church grounds.
This mindful practice of slowly observing nature whilst rapidly transitioning between home and work created a space in my day that was free from anxiety, worry or conjecture. I still maintain that exposure to nature has the most consistently effective impact on my mental health. Life in towns and cities can be harsh and the seasons feel diluted. I’ve heard Pagans comment on how they couldn’t imagine living in such a discordant environment, yet the urban-dwelling Pagan is often the person who finds pleasure in aspects of nature that others would deem unwelcome or unsightly.
I’m now fortunate enough to live in beautiful, rural Oxfordshire. I drive to work every day, but I still make time for observing nature on my commute. I have my annual ‘first sign’ spotting – the first Rapeseed to appear in the fields (beautiful, but crikey that stuff smells vile to me), the first Elderflower to bloom, the first Horse Chestnut tree to turn golden in the autumn, the first erratic Mayfly to cause me to start closing the car windows in a panic etc.
Many of us choose to spend time in nature – observing and celebrating it. However, this time does not need to be constricted to Sunday afternoon strolls or observing the eight points on the Wheel of the Year. It does not need to only happen in idyllic locations, or on days when the sun is shining. Though preferably. I’m not going to lie – I’m a fair-weather summer-born Pagan, unless observing from somewhere dry, warm and with a supply of caffeinated hot beverages. I invite you to experiment with the mindful observation of nature as you navigate the frankly depressing challenges of modern commuting. You might be surprised at what you encounter, and the sense of well-being and connectedness it instils.