Many thanks to Nat Johnson for this guest post. Nat is a songwriter, singer and guitarist and the former leader of Monkey Swallows the Universe and Nat Johnson & the Figureheads. To read more, see the end of this post.
I’ve always been pretty highly strung. I’m cursed with always feeling that everything I have to do is urgent. I find it hard to stop thinking about what I have to do next, what I should be doing now, what I’ve forgotten to do. I even worry about what other people should be doing or what they might have forgotten to do.
Even as a child, I had a self-made hectic schedule; researching nature in my garden and keeping notes of the names of the ladybirds, drawing comics for the other kids on the street, coming up with things we could make to sell to the neighbours, writing magazines, designing board games, demanding adults ‘give me a subject to write about’. I had to be constantly doing something or thinking of the next project. I must have been a pain in the arse then and I probably am now; always taking on projects and then worrying that there’s too much to do. To my knowledge, no one has ever described me as ‘laid back’.
Songwriting has always been one of the few things that has helped me to stop thinking and worrying, as well as helping me work through my problems. And in the last year or so, I’ve embraced walking as another thing that I’ve found to have the same effect on me. One of the best things about living in Sheffield is that you don’t have to go far to find a magical place to walk.
A few weeks ago, on a mild Spring afternoon, I headed uphill and then downhill to Hunters Bar and into the peaceful place that is Endcliffe Park. I spotted a kite stuck high in a tree as I passed the playground. After a quick and sweet hot chocolate in the café, I crossed the stepping-stones and met a group of seven squirrels, investigating hidden delights beneath the dead leaves. A minute later they were disturbed by a barking dog.
I took the path that the dog and his owner had bounded down from – I hadn’t noticed it until they’d appeared – and at the top I discovered a clearing, where I sat on a tree stump and watched the dead leaves that coated the ground fluttering back to life in the breeze. I tried to locate with my eyes all the different birds I could hear and spotted robins, great tits and wood pigeons – the only sounds were birds and distant traffic. I heard an ambulance skirting the park and wondered if the great tits thought a siren might be the song of some terrible giant bird.
Back on the path, I heard a crack from above. It was another squirrel, biting into a nut while it watched me from a branch about two feet from my head. I walked on and alongside the Porter Brook with all the dog walkers; I seemed to be the only dogless person in the park. An impatient springer spaniel left its owner behind and walked close to me for a minute or two.
I followed the Porter Brook over the road into Whiteley Woods and after a few minutes passed a tree planted in 1959 by the ‘Lady Mayoress’. A yellow arrow caught my eye and I followed its direction off the main path and up a steepish hill. Suddenly my stroll became something else, it took on more purpose, changing from a relaxing walk of discovery to an adventure, a quest. I kept going up, into the silent wood, no one else around now. I found a foot on the path – a perfect shoe shape formed in the bark of a tree – and beyond that a fairytale vision, a path to enlightenment. Trees curled their branches around the path ahead of me, forming an inviting green tunnel, with only sky to be seen at the other end. Though I didn’t know it, that beautiful little path that made me gasp marked the midpoint of my journey.
At the top, it opened into a field where an afternoon dew seeped into my boots. I turned towards home and walked back over the top of the woods. I saw a blackbird and a robin singing in the same tree. When I found myself back in Endcliffe Park I chose a different path from the one I’d walked earlier. It started to rain and I passed the duck pond, where the mallards were sleeping as the raindrops fell around them. Nobody in the park seemed to mind the rain. Schoolboys sat at picnic benches. An old, smartly dressed man sauntered by with his red socks flashing as he moved and one shoelace untied. A raindrop fell onto my notebook – onto the word ‘rain’.
As I got closer to home, I stopped for a half of porter – like the brook, but tastier – in a pub with a snug. The only other person in the snug was an old man, who ordered a single dark rum every few minutes. He had coins stacked on the table in front of him. He drank four rums in the twenty minutes after I arrived, then said “Goodnight” to the barmaid. It was 5:30.
I’d kept the new single in the back of my mind that day and had decided as I set out to count the dogs I saw on my walk. As well as the dogs I passed in the park – overjoyed spaniels, pugs in red coats, the squirrel hunter – I counted the dogs on people’s jumpers, toy dogs in charity shop windows and a long-gone dog in a photo of old Sheffield in the pub. I counted 54 dogs that afternoon.
I wrote the song “DOG” about a year ago. One of my favourite places to walk in Sheffield is Rivelin Valley Park. Rivelin Valley is a busy place, even when there are no other people in sight; the river is always moving, sounding in places like a radio has been lost under the water, in others like the wind itself. The trees are growing and the birds are singing to one another. It’s harder to worry when everything around you is beautiful.
Walking in Rivelin Valley last Spring, I’d found myself looking more often at the dog owners rather than the dogs. They seemed much more relaxed than I felt, even when I was feeling good. I was envious that having a dog gave them a licence to suddenly start running or shouting or throwing stuff around; they were allowed to play when I was not. If I suddenly started running about and whooping, or even talking aloud, someone was likely to call for assistance – there’s a mad woman loose in the woods! I have to walk sensibly and act for outward purposes like a grown up. But all the same, looking at the dog walkers got me thinking more about how I wanted to feel.
The dog in the song doesn’t have to be real, he’s just a guide to a life approach. To remind yourself to look for that feeling of happiness and contentment wherever you can find it. Walking, with all of your senses wide open, is one way to find it. And when you go off the main path, like I did that day in Whiteley Woods, that’s when it becomes a real adventure; that’s when it feels like playing. Dog or no dog, it’s important to walk.
Nat Johnson is a Sheffield-based songwriter, singer and guitarist. Her new solo album, “Neighbour of the Year”, is due later this year. She is accompanied on stage by Katherine Jackson (violin, guitar, vox) and Hannah Browne (accordian, flute, horn, vox). Nat has released four albums and a bunch of singles and EPs and has played live radio sessions on BBC 6 music for Marc Riley, Gideon Coe and Tom Robinson and on Radio 4′s Loose Ends. She’s also performed at festivals including Green Man, Latitude, End of the Road and No Direction Home.