The following is an edited extract from my book Walking into Alchemy, from October 2016. Mereo Books will publish the book in the Autumn.
I leave after lunch. It is pleasant 10° C, a gorgeous sunny day. I have sun cream on, as the sun felt hot when it shone through the windows this morning. A band of dense white fog obscures the crown of the Koralpe, and the verdant bright green of the fields is lit by the sun’s rays shining through white clouds. Yellow, gold, amber and red trees nestle amongst dark green pine trees which are studded with large orange-brown pine cones.
Showers of golden leaves are falling on me from twenty birch trees, carpeting the ground in a layer of gold leaf. The sound is of gentle wind and rustling leaves. Clouds hang low to the south-west, obscuring the fir trees, but above this is an azure sky. I look up and watch a bird of prey circling slowly above me; all wild things are free, but birds have that coveted ability to fly too. I am standing near the edge of a commanding view and high enough to imagine that I too am flying. I close my eyes, and for a fleeting moment I feel, perhaps for the first time in my life, unfettered, weightless and unburdened. Back down on earth I smile from ear to ear and sip a little of my whisky-laced coffee – it is hot, sweet and delicious.
It soon becomes cooler and I need my gloves, so I ferret them out and as I pause I watch three great tits dipping, diving, calling and feeding in a wild hazelnut tree which has only fragments of green-gold leaves on it now. A woodpecker chuckles away in the pine trees higher up. I have a new guest to introduce myself to: a lovely caramel and cream mare. She whinnies and poses for a photograph, then carries on grazing, her pale mane backlit by the sun. Pink clover flowers and a few yellow buttercups still cover much of the wilder areas, but not much else is around to attract the eye: the fields are now mostly composed of ploughed earth, beautiful regular stripes cut into the soil, straight and true; the result of adroit ploughing skills.
High up above the field that is a vast, lush meadow in summer, there is a large irregular patch of dead grass, so unlike all the ground that surrounds it that I suspect it may have been caused by chemical spraying. But no crops are in this field, sometimes horses graze or deer feed in the vast area, so I cannot understand what has happened to cause this. The more evidence I see of spraying of any kind, the more I support organic farmers and their methods. Even though Austria is one of the highest producers of organic produce in the EU, currently running, according to the Austrian Parliament, at 21.2% of the total output, this still means that nearly 80% is not organic. I find this increasingly alarming. I am increasingly sure that, despite the many hours of hard work that it takes to grow enough fruit and vegetables to feed us year round, we have struck gold by inheriting a large garden with fertile, chemical-free soil.
Fairy-story red apples cling to the almost bare trees in glorious abundance, shining like jewels lit by the low-slung sun. Early cropping trees, of which my apple tree is one, fared badly this year due to the late April snow, but the trees on lower ground do not seem to have suffered too badly. Most of the autumn apples seem to go to waste, which seems a shame, but the birds need and rely on them. I am, therefore, surprised to see something strange lying on the ground; odd bundles are spaced out under the apple trees, and I cannot make out what they are until I get closer and see that they are large, clear plastic bags filled with red apples. Several ancient, rickety ladders are perched precariously against the trees in the orchard, but there is no one in sight. It must be Mittagszeit – lunch time.
I find my bench and sit and eat my pitta bread and hummus in near silence, with only the odd bellow from a cow feeding in the nearby barn, or the occasional strange piercing call from the two buzzards flying high. The sun has not stopped shining all day. I sit transfixed and enjoy the warmth on my face. Scanning the landscape, I can see spiky pine trees in the distance, silhouetted against the white filmy lightness that surrounds the Karawanken mountains. I see for the first time new delights: a single cow in the distance standing on an impossibly green velvet field with its own dark shadow, so vivid as to be mesmerising. I can see my few silver-grey hairs reflected in my phone screen as I write this, but I am not unhappy about them. It is the years that I have lived that have taught me how to sit quietly and find beauty in the shadow of a cow standing on cool grass, or the sight of the silhouettes of pine trees in the far distance.
As I pass the house of the man with the most impressive woodpile collection in Austria, I note that his cottage is obscured by a small copse of October-yellow birch trees. Wispy blue-grey smoke puffs out of the chimney, and there is that distinctive aroma that comes only from a newly-laid fire, the loveliest pipe tobacco mixed with the smell of aged pine wood. The backdrop to this is the dying light of the day, pink and blue across the mountains with white clouds spread across like peaked meringue. These are the last golden sun rays of the day; I watch as they fade behind snow-capped peaks. A wonderful finish to a splendid October walk. It suddenly becomes cold, so I put on my hat and gloves and head for home. One of the quietest and calmest walks to date.
Walking into Alchemy is a book about a journey of self-discovery and rejuvenation through the exploration of nature, centred on my resolution to complete the same 13-mile walk through the hills and woods of beautiful Carinthia every week for a year. By the time that year was over, I knew that I had found healing, peace and true happiness.