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Friday, 8 July 2011

The Writing is on the Wall

Could you deconstruct and describe the sensual ingredients that make up why being outdoors makes us feel a sense of wellbeing? I’m not sure. Probably not.

But on a particular part of the Wash there is a wall. It is the sea wall. It is a barricade, there for your protection. It’s here you can go no further. You have to stop the car, climb the bank by grabbing the tussocks of grass and look out over the marsh. And most of the year it is a marsh, covered only by the sea at the spring and neap tides.

And that’s what we called it: The Marsh. In the village where I grew up this place is what is meant by The Marsh. It certainly isn’t The Seaside. The Seaside is amusement arcades and ice creams and promenades. It isn’t The Coast, either. The Coast is cliffs, spits and crashing waves. This is The Marsh; unnamed and unnameable. On one side of the sea wall are the fields and on the other side is The Marsh. And only now (having lived away for so long) I wonder why this is. I also wonder whether all of the villages around the wash call their section of creeks and wind The Marsh.

But what a place. It was here that I saw my first marsh harrier. Here that I swam in the salty cuts and picked up salty gashes. Here is where we collected samphire and here that every ingredient of the sheer experience of being out of doors is driven home by a sensual assault.

The salt marsh provides a gluttonous visual diet of greens and huge pulsating bundles of waders and geese rolling their way across the mudflats. Your nose can take in the salt of the mud and under your feet and hands you can feel either the sharp edges of coastal grasses or the slippery but unforgiving marsh mud with its black core and brown skin. This is big sky country and the utter flatness creates indescribably vast and distant cathedrals of cloud. The sorrowing curlew calls. In your ears roars a wind arriving, almost without interruption, from the steppes. Any stunted hawthorns lean landwards and you know what Sylvia Plath meant when she wrote that “the wind Pours by like destiny / bending Everything in one direction.”

It’s a place like this that teaches you what to be aware of. Everything here is so immediate and definite. Everything here is without compromise, softened and blunted by nothing. It magnifies all your senses. Makes you realise they’re there and what they’re for. It forces you to count each wave of experience. And instinctively we assimilate them to create a feeling for which, frustratingly but joyously, we can count and name the components but cannot begin to describe. And it probably doesn’t matter that we can’t. Because for me it’s the sea wall, for you it will be somewhere different. All that matters is that the place exists for everyone. Go back there and enjoy the indescribable.

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