County diary: lines made by walking | Environment

A thin white track up the field marked where footsteps of schoolchildren, dog walkers and ramblers had compacted the snow and turned it to ice. When the thaw came only the narrow ice track remained: white, opalescent, slippery and dangerous to walk on. People took to the sides of the path, already claggy from before the snow, making the white line through dark earth even more pronounced.

I was reminded of the work of the land artist Richard Long. A Line Made by Walking (1967), Long’s photograph of a simple line that he had walked through short grass, had been really inspiring for me – as enigmatic as a ley line, a ghost image, ephemeral and transient. It had an important influence on how I saw marks in the landscape as a kind of writing.

The difference between an artist walking and anyone who walked up the field may have something to do with intention. Being conscious of the pedestrian act turns walking into a performance and is a reminder of how we leave a mark on Earth. Long says: “If you undertake a walk, you are echoing the whole history of mankind” – which may be a gentle reminder of our own responsibility for how devastating that history has been.

Footpaths become byways and highways but, in essence, they are ways made through shared intention and passage, which coalesce into a line through the landscape. We share this behaviour with other animals: badgers, deer and rats follow lines centuries old. When I looked at other footprints in the snow I saw foxes and rabbits taking habitual routes across the field, very aware of each other’s.

I wondered if birds had similar but invisible lines through the air and how these were linked to the Earth’s magnetic field. A party of jackdaws flew into trees above the sheep on their familiar daily beat; scouts will call the whole clattering down “way lines” through the air when they discover something more exciting.

The winter solstice was a moment on our walk, a new ley line through the cosmological landscape, heading who knows where.

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