I’ve always enjoyed the delights of talking to strangers! Yesterday, I had an encounter which illustrated the benefits!
Most mornings I walk a couple of miles before breakfast on footpaths paths through woods and fields half a mile or so from our house. This week the rhododendrons are out by the pond, there are wild roses everywhere and buttercups and clover in the fields. In places the 21st century has left no trace in this idyllic landscape. During the pandemic, walking those paths kept me sane! The numbers of other people who regularly run there and walk their dogs suggest that many of them feel the same.
But there’s a nasty threat hanging over this paradise. A bypass road is scheduled to run through these woods and fields and a new housing estate will go up. On particularly beautiful mornings people will stop to chat about the situation. The council and the local landowners who sell them the land are always ‘the bad guys’! I must admit that I have tended to stereotype the landowners as faceless money grubbing profiteers - probably among the 1 percent of the population — including aristocrats, royals and wealthy investors — whom, we are told, own about half of the land in England.
Yesterday, I was walking uphill along the narrow public footpath between a field of long grass and a coppice of trees when a chocolate brown Labrador and his master came down the hill towards me. The short stocky man was breaking low hanging branches off a couple of trees making it easier for walkers to pass.
‘That’s very public spirited of you,’ I ventured.
‘When you own the land, you’ve got to look after it,’ said the man.
‘Own it, did you say? This land?’ I was all ears! ‘But hasn’t it all been bought by the council and the developers who are going to build on it?’
Piece by piece, he told me the story of his family’s ownership of the 700-acre plot on which we were standing. It had been part of a market garden when his father, who had worked for the local branch of a national bank, got a loan to buy it. His mother loved horses and his parents’ plan was to establish an equestrian centre which she would run. His dad hoped the business and its horsey by-products would make enough money to send his three children to private schools.
As the children grew up, the family faced a number of challenges. The eldest son who planned to take over the business was killed in a car accident. The father died. As the mother aged, she could no longer run the equestrian centre and, of course, the possibility that the council would compulsorily purchase the land for development was a constant threat to the family’s sense of stability. Travellers took up residence in their fields, spread a great deal of litter and rubbish and could neither be reasoned with nor easily evicted. ‘Druggies’ as he called them, started to ply their trade in any empty stables and inconsiderate walkers destroyed fences and wreaked various kinds of havoc. Nowhere did an exploitative landowner feature – just an enterprising family doing their best to build a life.
For me, the best part of the conversation was his parting shot, ‘Don’t worry about the by-pass,’ he said. ‘When that plan was first mooted, I was four years old and I’m 52 now! We’re still waiting!’
Joe Keohane has written a book The Power of Strangers about the benefits of talking to random people we meet. He says, ‘Talking to strangers – under the right conditions – is good for us, good for our neighborhoods, our towns and cities, our nations, and our world. Talking to strangers can teach you things, deepen you, make you a better citizen, a better thinker, and a better person. It's a good way to live. But it's more than that. In a rapidly changing, infinitely complex, furiously polarised world, it's a way to survive.’
It certainly worked for me yesterday!