Stepping Around Uneven Ground by Karen Jane Cannon

In this new essay the writer Karen Jane Cannon explores how interaction with the wild is shaped by her visual impairment.


This is my favourite time of year in the New Forest—the first warm winds of spring, the sky pale blue, a faint heat shimmer hazing the heaths into soft focus, air heavy with blowing pollen, the scent of coconut rising from warm flowering furze. The pony mares burst with new life—you can see the moving outlines of unborn foals in soft bellies. The pastel landscape invites you in after a wet winter, lines of pony tracks beckon, the earth covered in discarded coats—pale moon circles rolled into heath, rubbed into road signs and trees, and we are all freed from winter’s grip, full of new possibility—leave your coat at the door and come in.


But despite the warm invitation, this isn’t always possible—to pick a route and follow it, to walk into the heart of the landscape, to allow your feet to mould to the shape of the Earth as you walk. Having a serious visual impairment can make access difficult for me. At times it has made me feel disconnected to the wild.


I am standing in a field, letting my elderly toothless Arabian horse pull at grass. It is the middle of April, his chestnut coat pulling away in tufts, perhaps already lining a nest somewhere hidden in a hedgerow. I have just heard my first cuckoo of the year— I’m back! I’m back!, its flight from Africa spanning thousands of perilous miles, and in my hand, a starling’s egg, its occupant hatched and flown, its smooth blue shell blown into my path and it reminds me of the Finnish story of Creation as laid out in the Kalevala:


One egg’s lower half transformed

And became the earth below,

And its upper half transmuted

And became the sky above.

From the yolk the sun was made,

Light of day to shine upon us


I am holding the Earth in my hand, gently turning it. It is infinitely fragile.


The sun tonight is bright orange, a huge round glowing sphere dropping to the horizon and the world is soaked in its light. We are all covered in spilt yolk, emerging after winter. I can hear the deep vibration of a bee, only spot it when it plumps down on a fat cushion of dandelion. I try to watch where I put my feet. My little horse grazes quietly. He is tired, the grass not really growing yet. He is looking forward to his stable and a big bowl of mash, Soon the sugar will rise in the grass and flush it with spring richness, but now I pause on route, let him nip tufts of green, lasts year’s old grass, in a world of journeys ahead and behind.


I used to think the people who knew the forest the best were those who travelled into its heart—the foot-roamers, the inner wanderers, haunting pony tracks and tiny slipways through furze and across valley mires. I imagine them bending to identify rare orchids and mosses, knowing both their Latin and colloquial names. I envisaged them drinking from hidden springs, stopping to catch their breath on bronze age barrows. Those tireless, loose hipped walkers going beyond the path, creating their own routes through intimate knowledge of terrain, moving beyond the safe tourist spaces, navigating their own tracks on equal terms. I thought this type of connection was something I couldn’t aspire to—it is hard to leave the beaten track when you struggle to see overhanging branches or tangled roots. Parts of the New Forest are accessible—well-maintained flat gravel forestry tracks, yet for three quarters of the year, walking away from the tracks is often boggy, rivulets of run-off stream down to valley floors or ‘bottoms’ that you need to jump or wade through. Across the heath there are no paths except for the striated pony tracks, those ancestral routes marking the easiest way to navigate this wild space. Prickly furze and heather beds inhibit the route seeker, who must find the long way round.


But you do not need to move across the land to access it. Time in the wild should instead be still allowing the observer to move emotionally deeper, not physically deeper in a perhaps unsustainable way. To stand as I am, with a resting animal gives on opportunity to really look at the world around you. Come and sit in the wild at its far reaches, the outer edges—the dawns and dusks when the secretive slip out of their shadow skins. This is the time to observe the roe and fallow deer as they come high-stepping out from behind coppiced oaks. The forest ponies graze by the roadsides, allowing the draught of passing cars to cool their faces or blow away the flies that swarm and settle. Sight alone cannot create a connection with nature.  My belief is that immersion into the landscape is what allows you to feel for its heartbeat. So, this is my open invitation—the wild is here for all bodies, not just the physically able. What is required is a shift in the way we look and respond to the world around us, to reclaim the wild on our own terms.


We are ambling slowly back towards the stables now, passing the spot I found a tiny leveret tucked alone in its form. Overhead a flock of starlings drop like parachutes squawking and whistling, shimmering in low sun. My horse looks only forward, occasionally smacking his lips at the thought of his tea. His eye sockets have become deep hollows on his greying chestnut face. In the barn the swallows have arrived back, but they are unable to settle—perhaps due to the persistent cold nights or the inability to build their cup-shaped nests due to lack of rain—mud collected by the beak-full, is used to tie the layers of nests with strands of dried grass. Later in summer I will hear the churring nightjars beyond the flood meadows.


Someone with sight loss will interpret the world through moving slivers or blurs, through a degraded lens, through a narrow funnel of light or just through darkness. What is lost is detail. It is this detail that allows you to observe and navigate safely through the landscape as the eye reacts and the body responds to stimuli such as bumps or potholes, gradient, and surface.


Beyond the track, the hay fields sway and stretch into the distance. Ahead, the low-slung ridge of the Isle of Wight across the Solent, blue-hazed, when it rains its profile vanishes. Behind us, the stretch of forest, an inclosure of beech and hollies with distinctive browse-lines from winter foraging. A buzzard is mewing somewhere too high to see—they mew all summer over the forest, a constant poignant crying from above the clouds. A lesser spotted woodpecker sends out his quick machine gun fire, distinguishable from the short bursts of the greater spotted.


Sometimes I enjoy the sense of knowing the wild is lurking outside the perimeters of sight. Just because I can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. I surprised myself out tandem-cycling recently, spotting a roe hind in the shadowy woods. I saw not by sight alone—but a familiarity that comes from observing that patch of wood every time I pass—a similar experience to recognising a friend by their outline or movement instead of their features. First, I heard the doe, by the cracking of twigs, then I located her visually. I am training my ears to follow sound, to quickly pinpoint its location. I am learning how to identify wildlife in pieces, through scraps of colour and sound. This is my process. My wild is a flickering blur, a fracture of the whole, a jigsaw of feather and fur, caught by chance. A wild of absence.


The borders of my sight are continuously eroding as sight loss encroaches my visual field. The challenge for me is to replace sight with knowledge—often it is my lack of knowledge that erects bigger barriers to nature than my lack of sight. If I could see everything that was out there, beyond the cage of my vision, it would still not be there in a sense, if I don’t know what it is. It would still be unavailable in every other sense than sight—‘grass’ or ‘moss’ becomes so many different varieties—the closer I look, the more the world magnifies the more I don’t know—it is hard to value something when you don’t know its name. The more I increase my knowledge of nature, the more these fragments I see gain sense beyond sight.


My way of connecting with the world around me is to learn its history—the written texts, the people and events that have impacted on it, from the Neolithic to the present. This allows the viewer to gradually comprehend how this landscape has been shaped, how it became what it is and to understand the connections between the present and its past. Knowledge is not necessarily about ‘seeing’ everything, but about knowing somewhere—it is not the sight of landscape that makes me feel connected, but the makings of that landscape. I like to know how the landscape is physically formed and how its geology has shaped its industrial history—pretty forest watering holes become on closer inspection old gravel or marl pits. A place’s geology, geography, and its early and recent histories, offer a deep viewing of the land that far exceeds sight alone. It is these elements combined that allow the observer to know and belong to a place—and it demonstrates its value, and how best to protect its future. By this method, I have developed a perhaps x-ray vision of the landscape, seeing through the land at every level in a way obscured to the less initiated, and what I learn can expand my vision of what I am looking at.


Arriving back at the stables, I tie my horse up and give him his bucket of soaked fibre nuts, which he slurps and slops onto the concrete yard. He has lost so many teeth, chewing hay is no longer possible. I tidy his stable while he eats, the darkness of the building shielding my eyes from the hazing sun. Sparrows flit and hover in dusty spots of sunlight. When I fill a bucket of water from the metal farm tap, a sparrow cheeps from a barn roof, eyeing the water with interest. I tip some onto the ground, hope he will hop down when I leave. Despite the lack of spring rain, the land is verdant, clothed in many hues of green—I feel seeped in reflected chlorophyll. I have given myself permission to write about nature, to create my own vision. In doing so, I have enabled my own sense of belonging. Nature does not exclude. It just exists.


What I have come to understand is that there is no ‘heart of the forest’—this inner sanctum I once strived to access, the unspoilt pockets of life always beyond my reach. It is a construct created by those who hold on to vestiges of superiority and exclusion. There is no more the heart of a forest than there is the heart of the internet. It is not squeezing through brambles or over bogs  that makes me belong, but knowledge of the forest and why it matters.


According to Goethe:


It will be more intelligible to assert that a dormant light resides in the eye, and that it may be excited by the slightest cause from within or from without.[i]


As I stare out, the land soaked in spring’s rich yolk, I want to capture this light and hold it somewhere within my eyes—to store all these images beyond the dark recesses of my fading sight, somewhere far deeper.



Karen Jane Cannon is a Creative PhD Candidate at the University of Southampton, researching poetry and place. The Salterns, her third poetry pamphlet, is due to be published in 2024 by Nine pens Press. She was the winner of The Poetry Society’s Hamish Canham Prize in 2022, commended for the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine in 2021, shortlisted for The Bridport Prize in 2023 & 2019, and a finalist in the Mslexia Poetry Competition in 2017.  Her novel Powder Monkey was published by Phoenix in 2003.



[i] Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Theory of Colour (USA: Createspace, 2015), pp.24, 25.

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