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A CONVERSATION WITH ANNABEL ABBS

In her book Windswept, writer Annabel Abbs walks the remote paths trodden by Gwen John, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frieda Lawrence, Clara Vyvyan, Simone de Beauvoir, Daphne Du Maurier, and Nan Shepherd—seven extraordinary women for whom wandering and wondering were inextricably linked. We chat to the author about the magic of walking, from achieving “vista vision” to cultivating discovery.

This article was originally published in Off Magazine.

Interview by Natalie Hughes.

 

NH: Solitude was all-important for the women whose paths you followed, but you also talk about walking as a bond-building activity. Do you prefer walking alone or with others?

 

AA: I love both—but they serve very different purposes. If we want to think, come up with ideas, or reflect on something, being alone is better. Data shows that when we walk with others, mountains and long distances appear less daunting. We bond well because of the shared experiences—the shared views, the shared negotiating with bad weather, or map-reading mishaps. You don’t bond in the same way when you sit in a restaurant or lie by a pool.

 

NH: While walking, do you ever listen to music or audiobooks, or is it important to digitally disconnect?

 

AA: Both. I often listen to books and podcasts, and the right music can really intensify an experience (some of the new walking apps, such as ECHOES, even have music composed for particular routes, which I find fascinating). But it’s also really important to unplug. 

 

NH: How important is a sense of discovery when walking?

 

AA: All good walks include an element of discovery—whether one’s discovering something about oneself, or about the landscape, or about the history of a place, or an insight into one’s fellow walker. We can enhance the sense of discovery by unplugging, looking, listening, smelling, touching, even tasting. One of the things I sometimes do—other than drawing—is to make soundscapes, recordings of wind, weather, and birdsong I like. It encourages me to listen as much as I look.

 

NH: You talk about wide, empty landscapes being conducive to creativity, in that it forces us to turn inward. This was true in the case of O'Keeffe and the expansive landscapes she was drawn to. Is this kind of “panoramic vision” especially necessary today, in the world of tiny screens we now inhabit?

 

AA: Yes, panoramic vision is really important. Think of your eyes on a screen all day as a pair of clenched fists. Now clench your fists and hold them for as long as you can—then unclench them. That is what we’re doing to our eyes, and what happens when we switch to vista vision.

I think what’s important is to find the landscape that speaks to you. [O’Keeffe] loved space and wind, but others have found their inspiration in water, forests, or mountain ranges.

 

NH: How do you recommend maintaining a sense of discovery and appreciation when walking locally?

 

AA: I’m always amazed at how easy it is to find new routes and landscapes within a few miles of our homes. Recently, I’ve taken walks with a botanist who showed me how to find history in the weeds that grow in pavements, and a river expert who introduced me to the underground rivers of London. Writing Windswept also helped me find beauty and joy in rain, dark, and wind—elements that previously had me fleeing to warmer climates or back to my kitchen. Now I embrace them.

 

NH: How can walking help to reconnect with one’s physical self, as a woman?

 

AA: Today, we are often rushing and busy, in thrall to the accumulation of possessions, and encouraged to attend more to how we look than how we are. When we walk in empty places, we learn to forget all this. By walking in sync with the sun, our circadian rhythms are also reset: We sleep better, we have more energy, and improved focus. Our body becomes of paramount importance, but once we realize its capabilities, we’re empowered in other ways—mentally and emotionally.