…it’s not enough that we learn a location, a way of being that’s in balance with nature. We must also learn a direction, a way of moving toward wildness. The mythology of our civilization is onto something when it says “we can’t go back.” We (individually and collectively) find it psychologically much easier to drift deeper into comfort and control and predictability, than to open ourselves to rawness and otherness and flux. How often does a child who wears shoes become an adult who goes barefoot? Have you ever seen a “property” owner remove a lock from a door? How many people, as they get older, have fewer possessions and care less whether those possessions get scratched? We try to go “back to nature” by moving to the woods and installing buildings and utilities, but how many people move to the city and take them out?
We have to learn, if not these changes, then thousands of changes like them, and the relentless focus and expansive awareness to drive them. If we don’t, as long as we favor domesticating motion, we’ll get a ratcheting effect that will seduce us from the healthiest society straight through self-absorption into hell. (Ran Prieur, ‘The Animal in the Dark Tower‘)
In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped. (Tao Te Ching, v.48)
(Advance warning: there will be a lot of photos in this post.)
Last November I moved to a rented room on the edge of a village much closer to where I work. The bike journey went down from 40-45mins each way to more like 15mins, saving me time and effort, allowing me to set my alarm a little later in the morning and to get back a little earlier in the afternoon, arriving a little less exhausted/cold/wet/sweaty than I did before. Other aspects of life here give me a bit more of a headache, eg: distance from shops, scarcity of public transport, dependence on lifts when carrying stuff that’s too heavy for a bike, eg: guitar amp, but for the most part I’ve improved the quality of my day-to-day life, not least because I’m basically out in the countryside now: minimal traffic noise (some passenger jets), no street light outside my window, the occasional tractor, garden machinery, dogs and all the birds coming and going… It’s pretty nice all things considered.
Anyway, the reason for this post was to share another small way I’ve improved my life over the last couple of months. I was prompted by advice to stay off my bike for an extended period in order to give a chronic inflammation I’ve been getting in the perineum/prostate area a proper chance to heal. So instead of cycling up a busy-ish country road to work I’ve been walking a series of footpaths, tracks and backroads along a different route. My commute now takes around 45mins in the morning and more like an hour in the afternoon, the extra time taken up by bits of foraging, interactions with farm animals & wildlife, general dawdling and the fact that I’m usually barefoot (I figured this was a bad idea in the mornings in case I got stuck by a thorn or splinter which I couldn’t easily get out). But I don’t view it as a loss over all, although it did take a surprising amount of self-persuasion to get started:
“Don’t think about it as dead time, extended from your compulsory working hours, but as an intrinsically pleasant activity to fill your time. Something you’re doing through an active choice, not because you’ve been reluctantly forced into it. You claim to love being out in the wilder places, yet spend nearly all of your time in intensively managed gardens and allotments or sitting indoors in human-only spaces, more often than not on your own. You claim to enjoy walking at your own pace and in directions of your choosing, but most of your walking is done in lockstep behind a mower staring at straight lines on the ground and going back and forth, back and forth… You know hardly anything of the land here – start to make a commitment. See the changes through the seasons. See what the wildlife is up to. Slow things down and take time to look at things a little deeper rather than whizzing past, thinking ‘that looks nice but I’ve got somewhere to get to and don’t want to run late’. Gather food & medicine along your way. Spend less time reading media describing faraway places which you’ll never see and more time reading (and participating in!) the news of your actual locality.” etc etc.
So here’s a photo record from a day back in July with comments (references to Patrick Whitefield go to his excellent book How To Read the Landscape, which I highly recommend, especially to UK-based readers). Click to embiggen and scroll through:
It’s started getting dark in the mornings now, so I don’t know how much longer I’m going to keep doing this. Probably for a while still because I’m getting rewarded by sightings of deer now that I’m travelling through their preferred time of day (it’s surprisingly easy to creep up on them, especially when bare feet are keeping the noise levels down – just freeze when they look up at you and wait until they persuade themselves they’re just being paranoid and go back to their browsing. My best so far was around 15m before they barked at me and bounded off into the trees. Magic…) The inflammation hasn’t gone away yet, sadly, so I’ll have to look to other possible remedies for that, but the whole experience has been so enriching thus far I don’t really mind. Would be nice to do the walk on a few frosty mornings in winter, with the light spearing through leafless trees… if there is any light by that point!
What other opportunities do we have to slow things down, go back in time, slip into deeper, infinitely more satisfying modes of being and how can we rearrange our lives to make the space for these things? Closing words from Martin Shaw, who has made inspiring attempts to sink deep into the land he describes as having ‘claimed’ him in Dartmoor: