Walking in Strange Times – The Polarizing Effect of Distance

This is a strange time, many of the things that we used to regard as normal are different and are changing on an almost daily basis – we are presently in a period of lock-down and will be for some time to come. Within the UK our current lock-down levels allow us a single period of outside exercise, so I’ve been continuing my morning walks.

One of the things that’s important in a strange time is to maintain routines as a structure for the day and one of my most treasured routines is a walk before work. The paths are still the same as they were, the countryside has started to awaken into spring, but the walk has changed substantially.

One of the most significant changes has been background noise from the local roads. Many of my favourite walks take me through a tunnel underneath the M6 motorway, which at this point, is usually 8 solid lanes of tire and engine noise. The travel restrictions have reduced this traffic to a few sparsely filled lanes of trucks accompanied by the occasional van and car. As I step into the woods the birdsong used to shout above the rumble from the motorway, but now the song echoes in a less strained throng. The quiet has, itself, become noticeable.

The number of walkers has also reduced significantly. I was surprised by this because I suppose I expected people to do what I did and continue doing what they’ve previously done, but most of the regulars have disappeared. People I’ve seen at least once a week for many years I haven’t seen for a couple of weeks now. Some of those people are older which, here in the UK, means that they are under additional constraints, so that’s not surprising. If you had asked me whether I regarded these people as part of my community I think I would have said that they weren’t, but that hasn’t stopped me missing them.

We are instructed to keep 2m apart as part of our distancing guidance. This rule isn’t a problem for most of the places where I walk, but it has changed the interactions with the walkers that I do meet. The meeting of walkers has become polarised into two reactions – the hiders and the projectors. Some people now treat the meeting of another walker as a trigger to immediately hide, like they’ve just discovered a tiger on the path. As I approached one couple this morning I respectfully moved to the far edge of the path as they chose the other side, they responded by covering their faces, rigidly staring ahead, holding their breath, and hurrying past me, glad to escape the danger that I clearly posed. I’m not judging them for this, these are troubling times and people need to respond in ways that they choose, and they may be right about how dangerous I am. There are other people, though, who’ve gone the other way, they are doing whatever they can to connect, even if that means projecting their voices across a 2m gap. There was another lady, again this morning, who I’ve never met before. As I passed her on the other side of the road she looked up and smiled. Her bright smile was followed by a projected voice asking how I was and encouraging me to “keep safe” and to “keep enjoying the nature as long as you can” – connecting at a distance of over 2m.

Change tends to polarise people and this lock-down is a big change for everyone. I have been surprised that even on my daily walk the change has resulted in such a significant impact. We are going to be in lock-down for several more weeks and perhaps even the morning walk will be curtailed at some point, but once it’s passed I wonder what change it will make to the way that we treat each other. I hope that this strange place will make us more considerate and more compassionate as we learn the importance of connecting.

Header image: This was taken this morning on my walk, I’ve taken this picture many times, from the same place, but they are all different – #fromthefencepost

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