Notes from an author: Jini Reddy on hearing nature’s voice in the French Pyrenees

Can slowing down and listening to the natural world allow us to really hear it — ghostly whispers and all?

By Jini Reddy
Published 12 Sept 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 11 May 2021, 16:24 BST
Jini is the author of Wanderland, published by Bloomsbury Books, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Wainwright ...

Jini is the author of Wanderland, published by Bloomsbury Books, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Wainwright Prize celebrating the best in UK nature writing, and the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award 2021. Jini will be delivering Hay Festival's inaugural Jan Morris Lecture.

Photograph by Lisa Bretherick

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with mountains. While I find such landscapes pleasing to the eye, particularly when snow dusted and glinting in sunlight, there’s something so forbidding in their unyielding, implacable nature that in recent years, I’d turned my back on them entirely. So, in hindsight, it’s curious that the seed for my book Wanderland was planted by a profound experience that happened atop a peak.

I was propelled to the Pyrenees mountains, south west of Toulouse, by a yearning to hear ‘nature’s voice’. What did I mean by that? Well, influenced by those from indigenous cultures I’d had the privilege to meet on my previous travels, I felt a deep desire to connect with an animate nature; to experience a more sacred connection to whatever landscape I was roaming in.

After receiving an intriguing invitation to wild camp and fast, alone, far from anyone, for five days and four nights, I set off for France. I’d done something similar in the Sinai Desert, five years before, and so the idea of revisiting such an experience appealed. Plus, I’d been through a lot and I wanted to go on an inner journey too, to exorcise my demons and experience catharsis. There’s something about sustained time alone in the wild that can feel profoundly cleansing and healing. But while my fondness for natural landscapes had led me down all sorts of rabbit holes, this one turned out to be well beyond my comfort zone.

Most people come to the Pyrenees to walk. I did some of that, too, on my hike up to the designated spot. I was led by a guide, a local shaman, the man who’d issued the invitation.  I remember it initially as a steep and challenging hike. I was weighed down with kit, and he walked quickly. He called this Bear Mountain, or ‘Hartza Mendi’ in the Basque language.  Eventually, the path flattened; it seemed to hug a valley, cross streams, and tiny waterfalls and led us through a magical, moss-cloaked forest. My guide knew how to bring the mountain alive. He told me nature’s spirits lived here, and I felt as though I’d entered the twilight zone.  

An hour and a half after we started, he pointed to the flat top of a hill, a peak within peaks, if you like. This was to be my new home. “See you down the mountain in five days,” he said, taking with him my watch and phone. This was to be an exercise in trust and surrender – trust in myself and surrender to the nature around me to keep me safe. 

After he left, I hurriedly put my tent up, exhaled, and took in the view on all sides. I was surrounded by waist-high ferns. Adjacent to me was a dense forest, ahead of me valley views, and behind me more undulating peaks. Beneath me in the distance, I could hear the faint tinkle of a shepherd’s bells. I surveyed my rations: I had with me nine bottles of water and, as this was a fast, two apples and some nuts to keep hunger at bay. I’d fasted before and was familiar with the way it led to a slowing down of body and mind, which I relished.

That first afternoon, I was alone, and then suddenly I wasn’t – a wild chestnut mare and her foal galloped through the ferns and stop a few feet away. The mother’s hazel eyes bore into mine, unblinking. I could feel her concern. When the horses left, I got ready for nightfall. Fearful of the dark, I crept into my tent even before the sun had fully set. For a while, I listened to the night sounds and tried to fall asleep. But then, suddenly, a strange silence descended. It was so deep you could cut it with a knife, and the hairs immediately stood up on the back of my neck.

It was as though the mountain, the forest and all of its creatures were holding their breath. And then on the other side of the canvas, right by my ear, I heard it: an unearthly, uncanny whisper. What could it be? There’d been no tell-tale footsteps or crackling of bushes or hooves. For the first time in my life, I was properly terrified. I clutched an icon I carry for good luck and muttered silently under my breath: “I come in peace.” A long minute later, the voice, or the whisper, or whatever it was, stopped. Just like that. And then the mountain and the one human on it exhaled, and the night sounds started up again.

The next morning, I unzipped the tent and blinked, for the sun was bright. No trace of mystery lingered. But I wondered about what I’d heard. Was it a nature spirit? Some unfathomable aspect of an animate landscape; one that doesn’t belong to the rational world? The rest of my time passed with no further nocturnal visitations. Every day, I sat quietly and watched the sun arc slowly across the sky. One afternoon, after I’d thrashed my way through the ferns to sit in the adjacent forest, to cool off, a dark shadow emerged from the trees. My heart nearly stopped – but it was only another wild horse.

As the days passed, I felt boredom and serenity and everything in between. Mostly, I began to feel closer to the natural world than I ever had, the sense of separation between us dissolving.

It was a gift, my time up this mountain, one that more than any other, set me off on my search for magic in the landscape.

Wanderland, by Jini Reddy, is published by Bloomsbury Books. RRP: £16.99. The book was shortlisted for the 2020 Wainwright Prize for UK Nature & Travel Writing.

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