Health and Wellbeing
I have always loved being outside. I grew up in a house skirted by woodland; our garden backed right up onto the treeline. An inordinate amount of my childhood and teens were spent wandering around this wood and the rest of the countryside around my home. My parents were happy to let me mosey around on my own provided I stayed within the generous bounds they set and never went swimming in the river on my own.
A natural childhood
“It isn’t always adventurous or tiring – many of the best walks are the ones you’ve done a thousand times before. It is a simple magic, but magic nonetheless.”
All of my favourite book characters liked being outside and I was happy to imitate them. Anne Shirley named the various beauty spots around Avonlea, so I dutifully thought up names for my favourite bits of the wood. The calorie-based literature of Enid Blyton caused the Famous Five to spend lot of time exclaiming over the wonder of cheese and fresh tomatoes, so I dedicated considerable thought to my sandwiches and hassled my mother to buy me a flask. Jo Marsh read books up trees, so I had no choice but to shimmy up the trunk of the first serviceable beech tree I encountered, novel between my teeth. This backfired slightly when one of the branches I was leaning on gave way beneath me, sending me crashing into the forest floor and nearing wiping out my poor dog, Sunshine, in the process.
This may all sound like a propaganda ad for the 1950s, or some Eamon DeValera-esque vision of life in rural Ireland. I was normal too, I promise – I spent a lot of time indoors playing the Sims and annoying my long-suffering brother. However, the time I spent wandering around the woods and streams of my patch of North Cork has given me a yearning for the outdoors that is difficult to satisfy in Dublin. There is something in the quiet of the woods behind my house that soothes me like nothing else can. Much of the woodland directly behind my house was cut down last year; when I stood in the midst of the confusion of woodchips and towers of logs, my first feeling was one of disorientation. I knew every inch of that woodland, but without the trees it was difficult to know where I was. I felt strangely bereft. A season later, and it looks as though we are in for a mighty display of foxgloves where the trees used to stand; a worthy compensation for my childhood playground.
“First year was too full of new things to make time to find new places to walk. I would often walk in and out to college, but walking for the sake of walking disappeared from my life.”
When I first came to university, my daily walks went out the window. My Leaving Certificate routine had involved lots of walks – my Dad’s refrain throughout sixth year was “sure a nice walk will set you up well for a good hour’s study” – but first year was too full of new things to make time to find new places to walk. I would often walk in and out to college, but walking for the sake of walking disappeared from my life. I didn’t think about it until I found myself sitting a counsellor’s office at the end of second year, entirely burned out and thoroughly miserable. Among the various pieces of advice my counsellor gave me, some more complicated than others, was the instruction to start going outside again.
Mental health is complicated. There is no one thing that will fix you; the solutions to mental illnesses are as various as the illnesses themselves. Going for walks didn’t make me better, but they gave me the space to sort through the anxieties that spun through my brain. As I gradually put myself back together the summer after second year, much of my reconstruction happened as I walked up and down the banks of the Grand Canal. Two years later, walks are once again an essential part of my routine, several months of broken leg-induced incapacity aside. Bull Island, Dun Laoghaire pier, Iveagh Gardens, the Botanic Gardens – they are not the woods of my childhood, but they have their own particular charms. I don’t know them as well as I know the countryside of North Cork yet, but I’m getting there. Most importantly, in getting to know them, I feel better in myself.
Walking isn’t complicated. You put one foot in front of the other until it’s time to go home. It isn’t always adventurous or tiring – many of the best walks are the ones you’ve done a thousand times before. It is a simple magic, but magic nonetheless.