As usual for me at about this time of year, I’ve been feeling just a little burnt out lately. Nothing major, you understand – certainly nothing like the swing towards anxiety and overwhelm of 2018, which I wrote about in The Farthest Shore. But I can feel it in the background, a dulling and a fraying, making creative work just a bit slower and greyer.
The causes are familiar: too many emails, too many projects running at once, too much time looking at screens or getting frustrated at things beyond my control.
There’s another factor too, of course, and it’s something I’m reluctant to confront because the long-term implications are unpalatable. I have spent very little time out there on the trail over the last two years. I’ve had short hill trips, of course, but have done no genuinely long-distance backpacking for a long time now – at first due to the pandemic, and then because I haven’t make time for it. And solo long-distance backpacking is where my mind unfurls and I finally get the mental space to think, the clarity, in a way that I simply cannot in everyday life.
The short-term answer to this is obvious: make time to go backpacking. But longer term this makes me uneasy. I seem to have found myself in a place where I need to step aside from my working life every two or three months and walk long distances in the mountains. Fine – but what if I find myself unable to do this for a long period due to a change of circumstances, another resurgence of the pandemic, or even illness or infirmity? Is it a mistake to make my peace of mind so dependent on spells of uninterrupted solitude in nature? Shouldn’t I be working towards a place of greater resilience?
Tricky questions, and ones without easy answers. In my book I explored the idea that you can achieve deep immersion in nature anywhere, even in rural Lincolnshire, and it’s an idea that has helped to sustain me ever since the start of the pandemic. The focus of wildlife photography, the silence of dawn in the woods – these things are a lot, and they are almost enough. Almost. But the fact is that, for me, nothing replaces the transformative experience of a long-distance trail in the mountains, the deep relaxation and unknotting of perspectives. The unbending of time back to its true course. That’s something that older versions of me might find problematic.
A couple of years ago, I simply accepted that long-distance walking had become an integral part of who I was, and that it was something I’d always need to return to. Now I realise that I might need to evolve again, find more ways of restoring perspective and making space for ideas amongst the churn of life.
It’s something to think about. For now, I’m heading to the hills.
I’m speaking at the Kendal Mountain Festival this year. At 13.45 on Sunday the 21st of November, you’ll find me at the Basecamp stage, talking about Wanderlust Alps and Alpine trekking. It’s a free event and no tickets are required. See you there?
There have been some fantastic reviews for The Farthest Shore on Amazon lately. If you’ve read the book and enjoyed it, it would really help me out to add your review – even if you didn’t buy the book from Amazon.
Links of interest
The faraway gaze: resisting ‘remoteness’ in art – this is an important (and maybe provocative) piece on a subject that everyone who writes about mountains or wild places ought to be aware of. My own opinion on this is developing. I think that the ‘remote gaze’ has value, and cannot be completely rejected – that sometimes it’s ok to be an outsider looking in with a different perspective, so long as you stay curious and respectful – but, at the same time, we must acknowledge that the remote gaze has caused harm in the past and continues to perpetuate unrealistic ideas about places like the Scottish Highlands today. The remote gaze is tied to artistic movements such as Romanticism and ideas like the Sublime, which, historically, tended to erase the people who lived in the landscapes described. Can a version of the Sublime coexist with a more honest, intimate and respectful representation of landscape and culture? I think and hope that it can.
Go on. Give moths a chance – wonderful stuff from Ben Dolphin, writing about the miraculous beauty of moths.
Book Extract: On the Summit of Skye – an extract from The Black Ridge by Simon Ingram, a book I’m currently reading (and am absolutely enthralled by).
Day 270: Mallaig to Ardintigh – Hailbows over Knoydart – excellent landscape photography here from Quintin Lake’s UK perimeter long-distance hike.
A Look At Insulated Clothing – Chris Townsend writes about the importance of insulated clothing during the colder months in the mountains.
Mountain Stories: Remembered journeys in the Scottish Highlands and Islands – a new book by Heather Dawe.
Pieces from me in the November 2021 issue of The Great Outdoors include this month’s route profile and a review of A Scurry of Squirrels by Polly Pullar. There will be lots more from me in the December issue, so look out for it when it arrives.
My Best Summit Sleep – I was invited to contribute to this feature on UKHillwalking about top summit sleeps. Mine was back in 2017 in the Alps, on the summit of Stockhorn.
Until next time,
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