Sunday, May 7, 2023

Huts of Healing (I)

a discussion between Alec Finlay and Sarah Akehurst

This discussion with the poet Sarah Akehurst is part of a wider enquiry into walking, healing, and grief. Sarah’s son, Jonny, died of cancer shortly before the pandemic. Together they attended the Beatson Cancer Clinic as in- and outpatients. In 2013 I worked at the Beatson as artist in residence, producing a booklet of short poems, a video, and artist blog, ‘today today today, for an animate commission.
We discuss an idea I dream of making real: a ‘Hut of Healing’, where people with chronic fatigue, limited walking, cancer, or those who are terminally ill, can spend a few days in wild nature. 
As part of this research, I’m also meeting Step-by-Step walking groups in Fife, who walk together to assuage experiences of bereavement. This idea, which is at the heart of Paths for All's belief in walking as an act of empathy and solidarity, is a model I hope will be shared widely.


AF: Can you tell me about Jonny and why wild places mattered so much to him.
SA: Jonny only lived until he was 21. His final 18 months followed the cancer diagnosis. 
He was youthful in lots of ways – partly because he had a disabling genetic condition, Neurofibromatosis Type 1(Nf1). He had an undefended friendliness and was devoid of guile, approaching people with trust and gentleness, even when hard experiences eroded this. He loved humour and could be very funny. Sometimes there was a childlike side to this, laughing at pictures of dogs wearing funny hats. Jonny was youthful in his enthusiasm; he loved to make things, loved being outdoors, loved music. Having Nf1 limited his options as he had learning difficulties but, just before the cancer, he had started learning to be a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments. 

Jonny suffered like a young person too. Having Nf1 affected his development in many ways. He had physical problems as he was growing up, difficulties with learning, and keeping up with his peers. Being left behind could be a lonely place and made him vulnerable to bullying. A few years at a school for educationally fragile children gave some respite but he worried about the future. As he grew older, he became more aware of his limitations and how difficult it would be to find a place in life where he would fit in. 
The sting in the tail of Nf1 was an aggressive form of cancer – always possible though unlikely for someone his age. He seemed too young for the world of cancer treatment, losing the capacity to make things, play instruments, losing ordinary hope. But he suffered with patience and humour – while humour was possible. 
Jonny loved being outdoors, walking, cycling, or occasionally skiing. Sport wasn’t something he could participate in, but he became strong enough to enjoy long walks. Wild places were important, the joy to be in mountains, by rivers and woods, hearing wind, water, and birdsong. Jonny noticed this loveliness and quietness and how being in these places can simply make you happy.

And wild places were not competitive. He wasn’t always being left behind. There were picnics, camping, outdoor fires, undemanding companionship; Jonny found patience and resilience are good qualities in wild places. His old head teacher wrote when he was ill saying he’d loved taking Jonny on expeditions and that he was 'a real outdoors person'. 
When we spent months at The Beatson, living in Glasgow, Jonny missed wild places. It was another kind of suffering, hardly articulated, being so ill in a sterile environment, surrounded by city streets, noise, and hard surfaces. Having cancer and dying took him far away from wilderness and, looking back, I wonder if it has to be this way?
AF: That’s a beautifully expressed thought: wild places need not be ‘competitive places’ – not in Johnny’s experience, and not in those of many disabled people – not everyone in a wheelchair feels the need to abseil off a cliff.
There’s currently much work in the eco-sciences to shift our attention from a Darwinian vision of nature as a site of competing forces, to the co-operative, complementary, and communicative characteristics of ecosystems. Older books describe the monumental actors of wild nature, The Mountain, The Wood, and these now sit alongside titles celebrating delicate bryophytes, fungal networks, and the micro-chatter of trees. 

Field recordings, like those of Chris Watson and the slow radio movement, attune us to nature, close listening, and microtonal details – burbling springs, the clap of a wood pigeon’s wings, the way shifting a few stones changes the sound of a burn. 

This awareness is especially meaningful to those who cannot ‘push through’, by hiking, climbing, exercising, and for those unable to leave their bed or home. There’s a lovely description of Darwin studying plants growing while he was in bed convalescing.



during his convalescence

   he studied the tendrils 


of the cucumbers 

   growing on the sill



This gentle intensification of our sense-perceptions is a modern myth intended to salvage a new relationship with nature. It offers alternative ways of belonging in wild places, thriving beneath leisure sports and the sublime. I dream of making a new kind of hut that represents these values, one where we go to look, not hike – a place for viewing, recuperation, and resting like moss.
The ecological crisis asks us to find alternatives to the crazes of climbing and, especially, hunting. That requires us to identify or create – they are perhaps the same thing – a different set of relationships and, unfurling from these, a set of benevolent behaviours. One less discussed aspect of the terribly slow shift in consciousness is how rewilding recognises the vulnerability inherent in wilderness, and the ability of those ecologies slowly recuperate, if allowed. For me this relates, by a sideways step, to the philosophy of healing being evolved by people with Long Covid: radical rest. 
Whether we look at the shale bings of West Lothian or the hills of Mar Lodge and Glen Feshie, there are models of rest-as-healing we can learn from. The metaphorical and real lexicon of ecological fragility can be usefully related to disability and illness. This led me to pose the question which summarises Day of Access: ‘what will happen when we introduce vulnerable bodies into vulnerable ecologies’. The disabled, limited, or vulnerable body is, traditionally, perceived as lacking competence, will, strength, or value, in terms of wild places. This is only true if the mountains are viewed as sites of competition. If you can’t ‘push through’ you don’t belong – whether the site of belonging is a glen or a chronic illness. Given those who experience limits, of whatever kind, can’t engage with these old narratives of overcoming, they do at least share their fragility with nature. 
It’s impossible not to compare the ‘pushing through’ ideology with the tired – pun intended – rhetoric of ‘fighting’ cancer, with its Darwinian insistence of will, or the ways in which people with ME and Long Covid are cajoled to exercise out of their illness, despite the damage this can cause. We have lost the art of recuperation. There are no longer cottage hospitals and rest cures. 

poem-label: 'WEATHER/ loss', Glen Lyon

Many people with chronic illness understand pain itself as a kind of wildness, or weather, in terms of the body and the extremity of their symptoms – pain is like thorns, the sensory overload of exhaustion akin to a storm – sounds and light become painful, perceptual sensors and nervous system fall into a state of catastrophic over-stimulation. 

Chronic fatigue is caricatured as a kind of sleepiness when the reality is an extreme landscape of fight/flight – and flight is impossible as your legs no longer work. One longs for moss, the gentle sounds of a breeze, soft sunshine.
Being in wild nature offers a healing array of metaphors and, specifically, a form of a homeopathic image-remedy for the wildness within an ill body. This brings us back to your description of Jonny, for whom nature was a place for, and of, ‘patience and resilience’. By being in nature people explore these similars and likenesses. They also find a mirror for their stoic unrecognised heroism. In our Day of Access foraging walks we aren't looking for wild things to eat, but buds, leaves, petals, bark, thorns, which offer concrete images and resonant meanings. 
The ‘Hut of Healing’ contrasts with striding adventurers and summit-bagging. For one Day of Access events, I’m arranging for an old friend, Juliet, who has terminal cancer, to be taken into the Cairngorms in a landrover, by Ian, a forester at Invercauld Estate. It’s an act of solidarity and I see the significance not as a passive ferrying of a vulnerable person, but of an encounter between two embodiments of vulnerability, human and wild ecology. The three hours of Ian’s time will have an immeasurable value. Juliet is getting the last trip into the heart of wildness which Jonny was denied. This simple act, and the other Day of Access events, are a model for a hundred thousand encounters, which could be achieved if attitudes shifted. One of the griefs of the Long Covid community is that no-one takes them back to wild places.
The end of our lives should be marked by events – one could call them rituals – reflective of our emotional and spiritual needs. After all, nature is, for many people, at the heart of their span of belonging on earth.
Juliet herself gave so much to our relationship to wild nature through her work promoting Forest Schools. She’s been one of the people helping to imagine the ‘Hut of Healing’. 

on Li Shangyin, tr. Wong May: ‘Untitled (2)’
wet ink   dries
half-the-bed’s cold
hills hold  far-off
letters mayn’t arrive
The idea of a hut is one I’ve been reflecting on for years, inspired by stories of Chinese and Japanese poets who would, in old age or times of civil war, live, as doddery, old, vulnerable people, in huts on remote mountainsides. This short poem suggests that atmosphere of bittersweet but helpful remoteness.

My dream also exists as a real hut, inspired by the Sweeney myth, which I co-designed for a bracken and bluebell plateau on a croft on the Isle of Eigg. The design uses a thorn motif to represent illness and pain, and support a high bed. I first dreamed the hut for a project mapping views on Skye with Emma Nicolson, and then teamed up with the Bothy Project, who built it on Eigg – the islands connected by a volcanic ring. 

Sweeney’s was defined by my limited walking; it is in some ways a viewing hut, looking out on the mountain skyline of Rum. It has given hundreds of able-bodied people a week in nature, to think and be creative – many things envisaged from a perspective of limit benefit the able-bodied.
What I’m imagining could be defined as a Maggie’s Hut, combining their emphasis on natural materials and minimal but comforting design, and experiences of healing that reach beyond medical treatment. A Maggie’s, but translated into the philosophical simplicity of a hut. This would be a place where chronically or terminally ill people could stay for a night, or a few days, safe, warm, in wild nature. The presence of such a dwelling would expand our understanding of what mountains are ‘for’.
There are tracks up so many Scottish hills nowadays making access possible. If you can drive to grouse butts, or a remote hydro dam, why not a 'hut of healing'? We know the serenity of nature is healing. There is also the ‘rhyme’ between pain, limit, grief, and the reality of stone, mica, waterfalls, and wind-bent trees. 

I’m suggesting that, perhaps, healing in wild nature isn’t only defined by the joy Jonny experienced, but that like-for-like – the homeopathic ‘similar’ or  correlative– of wildness, weather, illness and dying; as if pain was healed by being proximate to thorns and protected from them, with the hut in the role of protection, like a nest lined with spider’s web in a hawthorn hedge.

Juliet’s description of a ‘Hut of Healing’ contrasts the smells, natural materials, and ambience to a hospital, where things are, in her words, ‘grey’, and, necessarily, ‘full of beeps’. 

Another inspiration for the ‘Hut of Healing’ is a story I was told by a support worker at a Maggie’s Centre. He was visiting someone who’d been an enthusiastic climber and now had terminal cancer. Confined to hospital, trapped in an architecture and atmosphere inimical to wildness, his distress was exacerbated. He didn’t want to die, and he especially didn’t want to die there. His response was a cussed rebellion, a final struggle for wildness, converting his hospital bed into a bivouac, hanging blankets over the screens, and whatever else could be improvised. I imagine this done out of despair and cathartic rage, exiled by the sterile surroundings you describe, longing for shelter-within-wildness to die in. 
I’ve written elsewhere about how my dream of a Hut of Healing was realised at Sweeney's, but I had the misfortune to go there with someone for whom silence and peace were a provocation, stirring up unresolved inner feelings and self-hatred. 

We forget that some forms of illness involve wild human behaviours – PTSD, violence, anger, fear, exile, an insurrection against others, or society. The qualities of serenity and simplicity, embodied in the hut, coincided with – or caused – her to enter a mental breakdown, which was terrifying and catastrophically undermined the intentions of the dwelling as a place of reflection and healing. 

The loss of that first hut was painful for me as it had taken years of creative effort to imagine it into being. That’s why I still carry the dream of a hut of healing, where anyone can go and be peaceful. Whenever I share the idea of such a hut – or, why not a network of them! – people who have experiences of chronic pain, or terminal diagnosis, respond deeply. 

SA: I appreciated those alternative ways of being in wild places; how an intensified awareness, attuned to detail, is valuable because, as you say, wild places can be seen as for exercise or overcoming challenges and, if that isn’t possible, these landscapes are not physically or psychologically accessible. And, of course, wild places are fragile too, which is a link to the fragility of our bodies. Nothing is immutable.
The idea of a Maggie’s hut is appealing. Being in wild places is not just about comfort and healing; it’s a lived reality, not something idyllic. But that reality is good, and hospital surroundings  can feel “safe” in a way which is unreal –indoors, away from the weather, windows that don't open. Jonny and I used to sit on the 4th floor of The Beatson, where there was a place for patients and relatives to go, somewhere different to the wards. One wall was covered with a photograph of the north end of Iona, the sea and the white strand. As Iona was our home it was painful to look at a picture of somewhere that was longer accessible to us. We shared an unspoken antipathy towards the environment of the hospital, despite all the kindness with which was shown to us there.

Tamara Colchester, plant listening, Coille Dubh
AF: Why do you think it would be wonderful to access wild places when one is ill or dying? Is it because people want the experience, whether they are healthy or ill, or is there a particular healing one can access in nature? My own reflections centre on belonging, and, in terms of the hut, what it means to be in a wild place but sheltered, warm, cosy. 
I had a very specific experience of this in terms of Long Covid. In the same week I appeared before a PiP benefits appeal panel and then bivouacked in the Black Wood of Rannoch. The contrast between these experiences was profound. 

Long Covid is framed as a ‘mystery’ illness, like ME, though, for those who experience the symptoms, there’s no mystery. As such it is often met with suspicion, or prejudice, in terms of the benefits systems. Most people are turned down and must appeal. This torturous process, applying, being automatically denied, appealing and being denied again, then going to tribunal, is awful, given how ill one is. I’ve been through this process before, 25 years ago, and struck off by a malign DWA GP, with jowls like a bloodhound, who “assessed me” in two minutes. One never forgets those bewilderingly hostile events, to be in pain and have one’s bodily reality erased by an external power which is supposed to be benevolent. 

I remember you telling me that, despite the seriousness of his illness, Jonny was also disbelieved and denied benefits, even when he was dying. It’s monstrous. There are so many people who should be ashamed of this deepset, almost psychotic, hostility to vulnerability – even this week we’ve seen government adverts targeting those who survive on benefits.
The assessment process is based on malign suspicion and falsified reality. The forms don’t reflect the experiences of a fatigue-based variable illness. Being able to walk varying distances isn't within their register. Effectively people have to lie their way towards the truth. The interview is a Kafkaesque trial, where the inner reality one experiences in terms of pain and fatigue is met with incomprehension and suspicion. I can walk around 200 metres, which places me outside the authorities’ definition of disability, but doesn’t help me reach the bus-stop. They wouldn't accept the award of a wheelchair as relevant to the assessment.
A few days after an exhausting 2-hour PiP panel, a friend, Tamara Colchester, took me on a tour through Perthshire. I showed them places I knew from when I could walk, sharing Gaelic placenames, visiting stone circles, and sleeping in the old pinewood of Rannoch, which I accessed along muddy tracks using my e-scooter. We slept in bivvy bags, under the stars – the first time I’ve done anything so wild. I felt so grateful for her kindness and solidarity. 
The disability panel involved a double falsification: I had to accentuate my disability to compensate for their hostile ignorance of chronic fatigue. While, in the black wood, my friend’s support allowed me to access a wild environment that seemed doubly beyond my capabilities. Such an experience of access does so much to repair the cumulative fraying of pain and limit.
Clearly there’s a presumption no-one disabled should or could be in such a place. To curl between tufts of blaeberry and heather, wake at 4am to a cloud of midges, and wash in the river, exceeded anything I felt possible. But it was possible and that matters so much. Since I became ill with Long Covid, on 19th March 2020, this was the first time someone took me somewhere wild. Many people with chronic illness would love to receive the same kindness, which is why I devised my ‘Day of Access’ project. My experience of wildness expresses everything I want to be possible, for everyone who desires to be in nature, whatever their limits. And that includes being somewhere wild before they die.
The idea of the hut of healing is a way to achieve this, through shelter-in-wildness. Crucially, it’s also a way to think about ecological fragility and the vulnerability of wild ecosystems.

'huts return us / to the sense / of straightforward / things', Bothy Project, Inshriach.

SA:  I agree, it would be wonderful to access wild places when one is ill or dying, to have the possibility of being in a hut, andthat it is about belonging, feeling connected, being, in some sense, at home. Wild places feel good to be in, compared to the environment of a hospital, which really doesn't. There are many strands which make up this feeling of belonging. It’s quieter in wild places; the noises – wind, water, leaves, animals, and birds – are not usually frightening. Hospitals are noisy places of sensory overload – monitors, trolleys, footsteps, sirens, city lights, streets – and adjusting is hard. 
In a hut it’s dark at night, the sun rises and goes down, weather changes, there are natural rhythms. Hospitals are insulated from these. There you live by routines you don’t choose. 
In wild places you can breathe. You don't feel trapped in wild places. Horizons are far away compared to the walls, corridors, and doors of a hospital.
Wild places change and evolve over time, but some things are very old and change slowly. Seasons are something we are part of – we change as time passes, are born, die, part of a world which is fragile and enduring, ordinary, full of loveliness. 
Natural colours are subtle and nuanced, greens and greys; in the changing formations of clouds there is stillness and movement.

from ‘Night Prayer’

I offer this to God, time lived
in interstices of a treatment plan, 
the last of many plans. 
Injections after breakfast, then 
a walk across the park,
up to the hospital, then back, 
paths frail as cobwebs
spun through city streets.
A time of makeshift rituals,
the syringe made ready, coffee afterwards, 
your shaking hand could hardly lift the cup. 
You wore your old blue jacket to go out, 
though nothing fitted properly anymore, 
and nothing could be mended,
still, we never spoke of that. 
The Lord God has wrapped himself with light 
as with a garment, the sun
renews the promises of spring.
Three years ago I took a photograph, 
you smile, staying steady
as the days stretch out, one hand holds 
the railing by the river in the park.
And this, a metal bed,
the wasted body of my son, life
ebbing like water, running out like sand 
in wards and corridors so brightly lit 
as death approaches, all of this
I offer back to God. 
This poem is a memory of ‘wards and corridors so brightly lit, as death approaches'. It describes the interface between faith in a loving God and our reality, witnessing the end of  Jonny’s life far from home in what felt like a very alien world. In the Beatson the pictures of Scottish mountains in the stairwell were always a reminder that Jonny was unlikely to be in the hills again, he could not even climb the stairs. This rarely articulated form of suffering was something we couldn’t bear totalk about.
Jonny and I lived in Glasgow while he had treatment for much of the 18 months after his diagnosis. Over time he lost so much,and for the last six months there was no ordinary hope left. Hospitals are difficult places to access the feelings this involves. They are friendly and efficient, but also noisy, busy, bright, and both boring and terrifying (what next?). The days and nights away from silence and any kind of wilderness –people coming and going, meals coming and going, drugs coming and going – feel impermanent, but you can't get out of it.
Access to wild places would have been wonderful, to be in a space where it would have been more possible to feel what you feel. There’s a gentleness to be found in wild places – bog, moss, leaves, clouds, dawn and dusk, starlight – and a kind of exhilaration – it’s not all safe and cosy. I like your idea of wild nature as a kind of homeopathic remedy – a remedy even when no cure is possible. 
There's something awful about dying in a hospital. If pain could be managed, would it be possible to die somewhere with the windows open and the sound of wind and water outside? 
AF: Shall we describe our current engagements with wild nature and healing? I’m about to begin a ‘Festival of Access’, with events around Scotland, all modest in scale, but with a common thread of helping people access wild nature. 
When I piloted the ‘Day of Access’ concept, I could walk almost a mile. The project feels different and more difficult now that my limit is 200m. There will be venues where I can’t take part but, of course, there are always people for whom access can only be an act of imagination.
Another form I’m slowly evolving is the ‘proxy walk’, where one person walks for another, bringing back their experiences of a place as a gift. I see some connections between this gift exchange and your contemporary pilgrimage. Would I be right in saying that, for both of us, these engagements with landscapes are, in part, a means to inspire writing and, in part, a social act of remembrance, or solidarity – in your case, walking to help heal grief, and I’ve no doubt there’s some grief in my relationship to wild places and loss of access.
SA: I’m intending to walk pilgrim ways and write about them for a new book of poems. The Scottish Pilgrimage Routes Forum is a network developing off-road pilgrimage. Walking these ways seems ordinary and wonderful to me; there is a kind of inestimable freedom in being able to do such a thing. 

Jonny was happy walking and he hoped to raise money for the cancer charities that helped him – especially Calum’s Cabin, who gave us somewhere to stay in Glasgow – to show gratitude, but he lost the ability to walk, and then he died, so my walks will honour him. The loss, for me, doesn’t really diminish. Life goes on and things change, but the space that Jonny left in life, as someone who was much loved, is always there. Walking in wild places is a remedy for grief; a chance for feelings to settle and thoughts be expressed. Of course, such healing is not about forgetting, for who would want that? I think of these lines by Geoffrey Hill.
I shall go down
to the lovers’ well 
and wash this wound
that will not heal
After Jonny died, I needed to get back to paid work. I hadn’t been able to earn when he was ill. I do very low paid jobs, lots of them, and the last 3 years have been about that and Covid. The first lockdown was a few weeks after Jonny died, with all that meant in terms of isolation and restriction. Going down to ‘the lovers’ well’ will give grief and loss a space.
I will write about the pilgrim ways, what happened in the past, what happens now, and how many of them are linked to mediaeval routes, particular saints, monastic settlements, and missions. I see the world through the lens of my faith, but in the context of reality with all its troubles, so pilgrimage is a time for reflection and reorientation, connecting with reality, not an escape.
I hope my writing will encourage other people to walk Scottish Pilgrim Ways, as an alternative to flying to Europe to walk the Camino. Many people can’t do the walks. Life is about fragility, all we can’t do as well as what we can and, ultimately, it is not about overcoming every challenge. Like a ‘proxy walk’, a pilgrimage can be for other people as well as yourself – through prayer, writing, and the open-heartedness, which is a common experience for pilgrims, and poems can bring a gift back for people who, for whatever reason, can’t walk. Engagement with wild landscapes inspires writing, it’s a social act of remembrance or solidarity, and to seek different ways to live with sorrow and loss. Wild places are a well in which we can wash our wounds, and then go on, like the ancient Thai saying, “Life is so short, we must move very slowly” – that’s the spirit in which I would walk. 
During Jonny's illness there really were no words. We talked about ordinary things, but as time went on there was less and less ordinary life to talk about, and no ordinary future to plan for. Jonny was going to die but we did not know when or how. 

You're writing, in 'today today today', about spending time in the waiting rooms at The Beatson brought some of that back. We sat a lot in those waiting rooms. It is a very vivid memory, something that became ordinary but was always terrible. 

Writing is about finding words to honour Jonny, finding words because his story is not finished, and there is still something to find words for. The line you wrote, ‘you go on for me’, that is what the project is, essentially: I will go on for Jonny.
Geoffrey Hill: ‘The Pentecost Castle’. in Tenebrae, (1979).

Photography by Sarah Akehurst, Alec Finlay, Sam MacDiarmid.

This blog post is part of Alec's artist in residence work with Paths for All, who fund the  Step by Step bereavement walks in Fife, along with Cruse. For Day of Access Alec and Tamara walked with Step by Step in Ravenscraig Park, on 8.V.23, tying paper wishes of remembrance.


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