Caught by the River

Can walking be a feminist act?

12th September 2018

Anna Chilvers on facing fear as a lone woman walker.

I step into blackness. It’s 7.30am on January 13th and dawn has not yet arrived. A gate leads into Hartshill Hayes from an area of open grass on the edge of a housing estate.  I’m on the path which leads through the centre of the woods. I grew up next to these woods and my feet have walked all of its tributaries, the main ride, the narrower winding tracks, and the paths that aren’t really paths at all, just desire lines made by deer, foxes, children. I’m like a blood cell that has been round and round the body. I know my way. I walk.

I am overwhelmed by the smell of freshly cut wood. I don’t know, yet, that there is a felling operation going on, thinning the trees, opening up the interior, but the scent of leaking sap is powerful. I delight in this rebalancing of the senses, and I have no fear of the dark. Morning is just around the corner.

This is the first research trip. I am planning to walk in the Hayes one day every month this year, recording the evidence of my senses and also my emotions. I walk until 2.20pm, at which point I drop in on some friends who live on the estate for a cup of tea, planning to walk back through the woods afterwards to return to my family’s home.

Cups of tea with friends have a way of taking longer than expected, and by the time I leave it’s almost 5pm. It’s nearly dark again. I decide to walk through the woods – I did it before and it was fine. But this is different. This time it’s getting darker not lighter. I can’t smell the felled trees, but I can hear noises, and I don’t know what they are. It’s not late, there might be other people about, in the woods, in the dark. What would they be doing? What would they be looking for?

I walk faster. This is not a pleasant ramble through the dark woods, this is a march. Get to the other side as quickly as possible, to the carpark and the road and the visitors’ centre. I pay no attention to my senses.

When I reach the carpark there is one van parked. The couple who own the van are arguing, shouting at each other, while their baby screams.

I walk in the shadows so they won’t see me. I get to the road and leave as quickly as possible. My mind conjures stories of kidnap and danger, while I tell myself, they’re just a family having a stressful moment. I’ve been there myself. Sometimes everyone’s stress levels boil over at the same time.

Later, at home with electric light, I think about the fear which had gripped me. In her essay Forest Fear (Arboreal, 2016), Sara Maitland writes about a moment when she was overpowered by fear in a wood, and she goes on to write about the Terror of the Wild Wood, ‘a darker, more chthonic, horror than any ghosts or demons we want to play at being frightened by’. She relates it to the word panic and the god Pan. The fear she’s writing about is atavistic, of something deeply rooted in the woods, frightening because it is unknowable.

That’s not the fear I felt that January evening.

In her poem New England Camping Ode, Sharon Olds imagines the experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail and camping out in the woods. But after fantasising briefly, she dismisses the idea. She says she ‘may not, for my fearful nature,’ ever have this experience.

In A Walk in the Woods Bill Bryson relates the story of a night on the Appalachian Trail where a bear was outside his tent. On the other side of the States the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) also has wild animals. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, walked eleven hundred miles of the PCT. She encountered bears and rattlesnakes, saw the footprints of a mountain lion and came face to face with a horned bull. But wild animals are not mentioned in Sharon Olds’ poem. Bill Bryson tells us that in New Hampshire there has not been an unprovoked bear attack on a human since 1784. Cheryl Strayed talks about her sense of heightened awareness after these encounters, but the animals never attack, and there is never a real sense of danger from them – the lesson she learns is that if you learn how to behave when face to face with a wild animal, you’ll be fine.

The UK has no large predators. In her review of The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, A Lone Enraptured Male, Kathleen Jamie discusses the meaning of ‘wild’ in terms of the UK, and whether or not any part of this country can truly be described thus. ‘And if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that … we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.’  So we can step with confidence, become enraptured like Robert Macfarlane, who was more worried about encountering ghosts in stone circles than anything that would tear him limb from limb.

My fear wasn’t of something intangible, in the way that Sara Maitland describes. I was afraid of what, or who, might be hidden in the dark. I could hear sounds, but I wasn’t afraid of wild animals.

The introduction to the The New Nature Writing, Granta 2008, tells us of a new kind of nature writing which brings together the lyrical outpourings of writers such as Thoreau and Hugh Candless (Into the Wild), with science, facts, concrete experience. On examination of the contents page we find there are contributions from seventeen men and two women. By 2016 and the publication of Aboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing, the balance has improved –   twenty-five men to thirteen women.

Why are there still twice as many men writing about woodland? What is Sharon Olds worried about? And why does Cheryl Strayed not encounter more women on the PCT? In fact, most people she meets are amazed that she is walking the trail on her own. What’s the difference between her experience and Bill Bryson’s? Where are all the lone enraptured females?

Maitland writes about another occasion when she was alone in the forest and was frightened (Gossip from the Forest, 2012). It was midwinter and she was alone in the snowy woods when she heard a gunshot. Realising she was not alone in the wilderness, that an unknown person with a gun was out there, she was overtaken with fear of ‘a thug, a robber, a maniac killer.’ She wasn’t afraid of the unknown, but the known. This was the fear that gripped me that evening in the Hayes – of people and what they might do to me. More specifically, of men.

I walk alone in the countryside alone quite a lot, and I often encounter men, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. I’ve never met a man who offered me harm. We all know that in the majority of attacks on women by men, the victim knows the perpetrator. I know that there are probably more dangers in the busy city. Even so, when I approach other walkers, my brain runs through a quick checklist – How many? Male or female? Do they have children? Do they have a dog? –   If they are male and on their own, my body holds tension until we have passed each other and nodded a greeting, and they haven’t attacked me.

Sharon Olds writes:

For a moment, I imagine
that journey of a summer. And then I wonder, how
much of the fear which many women
have of dangerous men in the woods
do many men have of dangerous
men in the woods. Half? A quarter?
An eighth of a teaspoon? And how much of our fear is that
during the rape, we know that he is likely
to kill us when hes done.

Sharon Blackie, in If Women Rose Rooted, tells the story of a young woman who was sexually assaulted whilst alone in the countryside. The woman relates ‘It seemed to me, then, that I’d been punished for some crime that had no precise name. It seemed to be part naivety, and part presumption. Where had I failed to read the rule that women weren’t supposed to go lazing around in public open spaces on their own?’

There are a few times in Wild that Strayed encountered men who she feared were out to cause her harm, and those scenes are far more fraught with danger and fear than any of her encounters with animals. Bill Bryson relates an encounter with men he fears may be dangerous, but it wasn’t really a consideration for him. He didn’t think, before he set off, if I walk in the woods will I be raped? Cheryl Strayed had to consider this. She decided, unlike Sharon Olds, that she was willing to face this fear. Before she set off on the trail her life was disintegrating, and she explains that so many bad things had happened to her already, that she didn’t feel anything could be worse. It’s not that she wasn’t scared, it’s that she chose to ignore that fear.

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe … Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid. (Strayed, 2012)

In 2005 there was an online row over a draft of The Walker’s Handbook, which offered advice to men and women about women’s safety in the countryside. Some of the advice was to walk ‘with a companion or dog’ (women), and ‘If you are walking in the same direction as a female… leave a considerable distance between you’ (men). There was a lot more advice to men on ways to appear non-threatening when encountering lone women in the countryside. Many female readers felt patronised, and that the advice was alarmist. Perhaps it’s also because this advice arises from the stories women are told, that the countryside is not a safe place for them.

Another story we could tell is that the countryside is as much for women as for men, that we can walk alone if we want to and not expect to get attacked. That the majority of men we might meet are just out for a walk the same as us, that women are strong rather than vulnerable and needing protection. Walking alone in the woods, on the moors, on mountains, clifftops, by lake and sea – it’s been the domain of men for too long. By putting on our boots and heading out, we can start to redress the balance.


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