Some of us had met at the Thackray Museum, while others gathered at the gates to Beckett Street Cemetery. We were all there for the lunchtime Tranquility Walk.
The walk had been organised in association with Baljit Singh Dance Company to accompany the Thackray Museum’s exhibition Regarding Forests. The exhibition is an immersive experience of two backlit forest images, accompanied by a natural soundscape and a scent reminiscent of a forest following rain.
Photographer Chrystal Lebas travelled to the Hoh Rain Forest in the USA and the Japanese island of Yakushima. These temperate rain forests contain some of the oldest trees in the world. This is a touring exhibition organised by the Wellcome Collection.
The images suck you into a moist, moss-covered world. There is strength in the aged tapered trunks, accompanied by a softness in the rich green coverings. Life giving water trickles between roots while you listen to wind and creatures stirring the leaves. It certainly presented me with a moment of calm before I set off to explore the rest of the Thackray.
This was my first visit to the museum since its recent refurbishment. The small gallery where Regarding Forests is staged is new and located in the entrance hall. It is a small but flexible space, located in an area away from the excitement of visiting school groups. Another exhibition space has been added upstairs, currently displaying Can Robots Care?
I was pleased to see that the drama of Disease Street still exists downstairs. Primary school children held their noses and screwed up their faces when they reached the yard toilets, but I noticed many soon returned for a second look, and smell. I have always liked the multi-sensory nature of this exhibit. Upstairs the live leeches still live in a jar, outside the ornate pharmacy display.
Newer sections focus upon innovations in health care and modern public health. As an ex-teacher I was pleased to see sections on puberty, sexual health, gender and sexuality. There was a feeling that the museum has retained its previous attractions whilst also developing for the modern age. Covid featured in more than one section and there was more emphasis on patient voice than previously.
I was a little disappointed that there was not more on mental health. There is a display cabinet alongside Lebas’s installation. However, it says nothing about the mental health benefits of nature or trees. Instead, there are exhibits of natural tree-based products that were used to treat illnesses before pharmacies. These were fascinating but a balance between physical and mental health is an area the museum could develop further.
There was no doubt that the Tranquility Walk was aimed at refreshing our mental health. Some hospital staff had taken time out from their busy schedules to spend time in nature. Other attendees were visitors to the museum or local residents. Jaimie Taylor, the Thackray’s Programmes Manager, introduced the walk as being in recognition of the part that nature plays in well-being, then handed over procedures to members of Leeds-based Balbir Dance Company.
At no point were participants asked to dance. We took a leisurely ramble around the historic cemetery, during which we explored our own bodies and our surroundings. Our first task was to concentrate on our breathing, slowing our breath and steps, so that we were conscious of our environment and able to put aside everyday cares and thoughts.
This was a very different multi-sensory experience to that of the museum’s Disease Street. Alongside the visual beauty of trees, flowers and birds, we visited drawings and paintings developed from the natural habitat. We listened, watched, smelt, felt and tasted.
The dancers moved languidly through the cemetery. At times we were invited to join in with gentle movements that helped bring attention to our bodies, but participation was always voluntary. We were offered viewfinders to help us concentrate on visual details we might otherwise miss. Incense was added to natural smells. We listened to music, sometimes so subtle it was hardly there, at others times brought to the fore.
We paused to listen to an overtone flute, described by the musician as producing some of the most natural sounds in music. The flute has no holes and sound is produced purely by variation in pressure. The melody was haunting in this setting. Yet, in the same spot, we were encouraged to listen to the traffic and appreciate that there can be music in any sound, the roll of wheels and deceleration of engines becoming rhythmic.
I was surprised by how I became more aware of my senses during the walk. At one point, I identified a bluebell glade, before it had even come into view. This was a lesson in paying attention to your body and the environment. Yet, it was lightly given without explicit lessons being drawn, or any coercion to join in.
The walk ended with the opportunity to sit and chat on blankets on the ground. One last sensory experience was on offer in the form of freshly brewed nettle tea. Drawing materials were on hand for anyone who wanted to represent their experience visually. Again, people were welcome to leave whenever they wanted to, but quite a few of us remained to drink tree and draw.
I left feeling relaxed, having renewed my attachment to Beckett Street Cemetery. This had been a place for me to unwind when my brother had been seriously ill in hospital. I was pleased to see other people enjoying this green space and that hospital staff and the Thackray Museum are recognising this as a place for well-being, as well as a memorial to the dead.
Two further Tranquility Walks are planned.
Thursday 9th June (12-1)
Saturday 25th June (12 –1)
Regarding Trees continues until July 17th
Leeds, LS9 7LN
Photography by Malcolm Johnson. malcijphotography.co.uk