The Risk of Slowing Down

I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition this week, Around The World In … A Lot Of Steps, about Paul Salopek’s walk around the globe, 21,000 miles “from Africa to the Middle East, across Asia, down through Alaska and all the way to Tierra del Fuego,” following the path of human migration. It’s quite inspiring.

unlikelypilgrimagecoverAt the same time, I am reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), by by Rachel Joyce, about a 65-year-old man who spontaneously begins walking from the south of England to a hospice in Northumberland where a friend lies dying, as a way to save her (or himself, as it turns out). It takes him about 3 months and during that time he takes an inward meandering path as well, learning and relearning and letting go, and knowing and being bewildered, not knowing.

Both of these are stories of walking long distances, moving slowly through landscape, dealing with what comes up — in Salopek’s case: deserts, horizons and distances that are misleading, frightened women with knives, war; and in the fictional Harold Fry’s case: traffic, blisters, pilgrims who quarrel and misunderstand,  dogs who want to follow — and seeing in detail all that surrounds them.

borage bloom

And this slow, sensory focus that walking over time affords, along with the obstacles, is what reminds me of the garden, of being in and with the garden day after day, year after year, whether a new garden or one we’ve lived with for decades, because even an old garden changes all the time, because the natural world is nothing if not change: birth, growth, decay, death, rebirth. The climate changes. Dawn turns to mid-day, dusk, night. Rainfall varies. Plants throw out seeds or their seeds are carried and they soon show up unexpectedly in another place. Bloom colours fade, then sometimes brighten after a rain.  Birds interbreed and are ever more confusing to identify. Some years the deer eat everything and some years they don’t.

As I mentioned in the previous post on record-keeping, it’s the noticing that seems primary to me. Using our time on this earth to notice — see, hear, touch, smell, taste, sense, feel, perceive  — what is and what isn’t.

From Harold Fry:

“He must have driven this way countless times, and yet he had no memory of the scenery. He must have been so caught up in the day’s agenda, and arriving punctually at their destination, that the land beyond the car had been no more than a wash of one green, and a backdrop of one hill. Life was very different when you walked through it.”

From Salopek’s interview:

“There’s something about moving across the surface of the earth at 3 miles per hour that feels really good.”

Paul Graham (computer programmer and essayist) once said

“Surprises are things that you not only didn’t know, but that contradict things you thought you knew.”


For me, time in the garden is a series of  slow-motion moments that lend themselves to surprise, that instant when something is revealed that was hidden, when my sense of “how things are” is shaken, when what I see or hear is not what I expect to see or hear (or feel, taste, touch). And in that moment there is the possibility of anything, of everything, because I am untethered and unknowing; I am awaiting and receptive. I’m awakened. It’s a precarious place of risk.

The surprise of noticing is a sign, I think, that there is a lot we don’t notice ordinarily, and that our expectations — what we expect to see — may be blinding us sometimes. In this age of information abundance, there is a lot we don’t know, or don’t know we know.

And, as Harold realises:  “There were times … when not knowing was the biggest truth, and you had to stay with that.”

Spring Ledge Farm border, Dec. 2012

The more I know of plants, animals, my gardens, the little bits of the natural world that I think I know anything about, the more I realise how not-knowing — the mystery of that bird to which we attach the name “nuthatch” or “black-capped chickadee,” the fundamental unknowableness and variety of plants like filipendula or penstemon or hosta, the primal sorcery that leads soil, water, and sun to make life — is the bigger truth. It’s like the permaculture principle “Use edges and value the margins:” not-knowing is always on the margins of knowing, and it’s along that boundary where the energy, the truth, the risk lies. Moving slowly is a good way to wake up to what is … if we dare.

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