I’ve been on two nature wanders, as I experiment over the summer with looking and walking in different ways. The first, with performance artist Sheila Ghelani, complements the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition on nature. Twenty of us, one barefoot, set off on an overcast afternoon into the roar of London’s Euston Road. Holding small round black mirrors Sheila had made for us, we wondered how to find nature so close to one of the capital’s most polluted streets.
Sheila was one step ahead. She had determined our route in advance by placing her own black mirror on a map, drawing round it and picking ten places to pause. We would be walking through hidden green spaces under the shadow of the mirror. No going beyond the edge.
Black mirrors, or Claude glasses, are practical and mysterious. They have been used by landscape painters and travellers to frame and appreciate views – their dark reflection saps colour, giving an abstract quality to what you see. John Dee, the 16th century mathematician and astrologer, kept his in a sharkskin case, and would ‘scry’ or foretell the future by peering into its depths.
Under a threatening sky we held up our mirrors like 19th century tourists, contemplating the view behind. In a garden square we paused to sketch like landscape painters, drawing obliquely through the glass. And we walked backwards in the damp grass, holding mirrors up to check the path behind, noticing the quality of our steps, the uncertainty but also the freedom from our usual walking habits.
Close to the end of the walk we paused by the Hiroshima memorial tree to look more deeply into our Claude glasses and ‘scry’ into the future, pondering ageing, mortality and change. I still have my mirror, in its velvety drawstring case. It will travel with me for reflection and new perspectives.
My second walk was briefer, with haiku poet Annie Bachini. Ginko or haiku walks are an integral part of the Japanese haiku form of poetry. You go out into nature, alone or with others, notebook in hand, and take a short walk to observe, listen and draw inspiration from your surroundings. Despite the rain, our brief trip into another of London’s garden squares was surprisingly fruitful and we came back with a starting point for our first haiku.