From charcoal grey through to lightly-toasted brown, from ochre to gaudy leopard-print yellow, the colours of rusting, rotting leaves lie thickly layered underfoot. Under this dense blanket bulbous, ankle-twisting flints and hefty chunks of chalk are lurking; you need good boots for an autumn walk in my local woods.
For over five thousand years these tracks have witnessed the coming and going of humanity. Some are worn into deep, scooped hollows and rounded above by overhanging branches to form magical tunnels. Few people come here now. It’s a place of peace and silence, left to the fallow deer and the badgers, the solitary heron and garrulous mallards.
I’ve been watching the beautiful decay of this particular wood for several years now. Its creaking grandeur, like all the natural landscapes I have lived near and loved, is tracing the same, inescapable cycle of birth, decline, death and renewal. I go into the landscape to feel part of that cycle, to be at peace with the impermanence of my own physical self.
As a student in Yorkshire, nearly forty years ago, I loved how the beech woods sagged under heavy rain and the distinctive, unapologetic smell of mud. At weekends I regularly tramped the seven or so miles cross-country from Horsforth to Otley wearing inadequate boots and with no return bus fare. I had just enough money for a bag of chips and the energy to be certain of making it there and back before dark. Through snowy copses, past flocks of skittish ewes and herds of ponderous dairy cows I walked and walked, a feeling of contentment expanding in my chest at every step. The embrace of the landscape was tangible; crags didn’t judge me, the wind blasted hawthorn had no expectations of my behaviour. No matter how fierce the weather, the scenery remained trustworthy, a safe companion. Here, emotional burdens floated off and scudded out of sight. I had faith in our connection, the landscape and me, and it never disappointed. The call of rooks from blackened winter treetops still makes my heart sing.
Several years later, at a time in my life when they were almost forgotten, those feelings of joy and connection were reignited by the Buddhist teacher, Daisaku Ikeda. Meeting his writings marked the beginning of a spiritual adventure I’ve now been enjoying for thirty years. Mine was not a conversion but a homecoming. Buddhist teachings articulated for me what I already sensed to be the truth of my existence. In Nichiren Buddhism I found a framework within which I could develop and deepen that understanding. But Buddhist practice was not a place to retreat into from time to time, like a landscape; instead it taught me how to build courage and carry it with me into the whirl and worry of everyday life.
As I moved into middle age, and the existential shift of the menopause, hot flushes, fatigue and loss of confidence temporarily shook my equilibrium.
There were days when I wondered if I was sliding into my grave and would be found one evening, propped against the kitchen sink, still clutching a mug of cold tea. At my funeral my husband would say, ‘She died staring out at the overgrown garden, unable to reach it.’ These feelings were the tangible result of decreasing hormone levels. The chemical tides that once turned on a monthly basis, lashing me to woman’s most primitive biological purpose, had ebbed. They slipped out silently and without warning, wreaking mental and biological havoc on their way.
I returned to long walks in the landscape for space, solitude and reassurance, but this time they were enriched by several decades of Buddhist practice. Unlike the young student who walked for temporary relief from social awkwardness or exam pressure, I now walked as if with an old friend. Solitude in the landscape remains one of my great spiritual joys. When I am walking those bumpy, ancient tracks I reflect with contentment on the decomposition of leaves and the steady erosion of the hillside. Nothing is being lost but space is being made for the new. Everything, including our own lives is subject to this impermanence. The falling leaves of autumn are a reassurance that seasons continue to turn, that life at a molecular level is never extinguished but only re-formed.
In writing Buddhism and the Menopause I wanted to share this feeling of ‘reassurance in impermanence’ and to encourage other women to sense that the passing of each season is not just another milestone on the way to being older, less attractive and less useful, but a glorious reminder that everything turns and returns in its time.
You can read a sample of Claire’s book here.