Hiking is a really good activity for me to get both deep and expansive with my thoughts. With none of the distractions of modern day life it is much easier for thoughts to turn towards the existential: things that may have been causing unrest or an underlying feeling of anxiety are now given adequate space to open up and show what’s really going on in there. It creates opportunity for some pivotal moments of awareness.
Out in more wild spaces where boundaries feel less present, I always find my thoughts are liberated to be inquisitive, imaginative and creative. With space, tapping into that inner well of possibility is exciting (though holding on to that impetus seems less easy once I return to the four walls of the house and the daily routine. Am I right?)
Whilst out hiking recently – a 9 mile loop which I had mostly to myself, plethora of sheep aside – the contemplation that came to my mind was not an idea for a creative endeavour but a bigger question about transience and permanence.
I’ve been reading more about the history and nature of the human being, acquiring a much better understanding of who we are and why we are the way we are. One book in particular has been very illuminating: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. As someone who struggles physically and existentially with the ‘slow death’ from monotony and the daily grind, I found Harari’s chapters about the shift in human behaviour from roaming hunter-gatherers to rooted farmers particularly interesting. It was a shift with enormous ramifications for the way our society functions and, as far as I can see, for our wellbeing.
It seems our ancestors tried to create more security for themselves by rooting down and taking more control of the food-bearing plants around them. I understand that need for security, though I can only imagine the fears of starvation that must have driven them to it. But, I wonder whether psychologically it led to a need for permanence in the bigger sense: not just a permanent food supply and shelter, but a permanent life? Did it, somewhere along the way, translate into the deep need for longevity that we see now, from Feudalism and dominion over the land and family name, to modern science’s quest to ever-extend the length of the human life? When did we become so concerned with lasting forever?
Fear of the end of our lives is completely natural – a biological survival instinct. But it seems that we are ill equipped to deal with the most unavoidable thing of our existence: change, and unpredictable change in particular. The human life is longer now, our health is better protected, and we have more “control” over our lives than ever before. Yet nothing we do can truly remove unpredictability from the world. Despite what we may try to tell ourselves, we do not have security.
As I walked along, my boots falling with easy gait along the roads and pathways, I wondered whether tethering ourselves to one place, starting with that basic farmstead all those thousands of years ago, has weakened our ability to accept change? Although hunter-gatherers seemed to move within loosely defined territories, always being on the move, being so deeply immersed in nature (almost unimaginable to us now) and intimately observing the very obvious ebbs and flows of life through the seasons may have better accustomed us to change of all kinds.
In my personal experience, hiking feels like the most natural, centering activity in the world. It is when I most feel like me and, crucially, when I am happiest. It makes complete sense to me, seeing as we’re not so biologically far removed from our roaming ancestors, that the instinct to walk and rove and explore feels so right. I have often wondered whether a life wandering the hills and woods, whilst less secure and more dangerous, would also be more emotionally and existentially balanced. Have we now become so obsessed with giving our homes, achievements, names and lives permanence that we’ve almost deluded ourselves that unexpected change won’t fall at our door, and as a result we really struggle to deal with it when it inevitably does? I suspect there is also a spiritual component to this issue, found in the multitude of religious stories we concocted about ourselves as being superior to the natural world.
I am no anthropologist or psychologist, but as I climbed those steep hills, noting with delight the spattering of remaining harebells and other wildflowers, feeling my legs burn with effort as the sky dropped an exquisite, glorious late summer downpour on me my answer was a clear yes, I really do think adding some more of that wild transience back into our lives would make us happier, more present and better able to cope with the true nature of existence: constant change. And that it is definitely worth exploring.
Until next time,