I was recently contemplating the notion that at any moment – a moment of our choosing – we can decide to become who we really want to be, or who we really feel we are. How liberating, if not easy!
Last week I woke up to fresh snowfall, the second for us so far this winter. As I eagerly ventured into the fields behind our house, this blanket of crisp, untouched white returned my thoughts to the idea of a refresh. Pressing refresh. Looking at something that’s the same but anew.
The heart of winter hardly feels like the time for action: instead, it’s more about stillness, observing and thinking. We now sit around the TV rather than the hearth absorbing stories, but I think the effect is more or less the same in that stories furnish us with ideas about the nature of the human existence, and our potential (even if we’re not consciously thinking so deeply about it in the moment). We muse over the future and what we’ll accomplish in the next season.
It makes sense for the wintry landscape to invoke the contemplation of ourselves. In many respects, our inner and outer strengths are being tested at this time of year – particularly now, mid-pandemic – and though we are still, we are also having to find the fullness of who we are.
And with intentional observation, we eventually feel the urge to follow with action and become the fullness of who we are. Just like in nature, stillness can lead to sudden growth. I am not an advocate of the ‘new year, new you’ mindset that focuses upon too much deprivation and action at a time in the yearly cycle when we should be slow, and filling our bellies and souls with nourishing foods and activities, but I find that I naturally lean into the reflective side of ‘who am I? what do I want? and is there anything that needs to change in order for that to happen?’. I think winter is a good time for this.
But it strikes me that we have the choice to change our identity or the course of our life path however, whenever, and as many times as we want. So much of our identity is built upon habit, learned behaviour and the opinions of others. It can be hard to break the pattern of who you have been for so long, but you can choose to press refresh whenever it feels like you want to.
For me this has been about acknowledging that I have been slowly changing and growing over the last few years, but that some of my actions and means of self-expression haven’t because I found it hard to let go of the identity I’d accumulated in my twenties. If people know you a certain way, to change even in small ways can trigger the primal fear of not belonging. But, who was I holding myself accountable to anyway? Who did I feel I had to explain myself to? We’re all free to grow and evolve – sometimes it just takes the habitual brain a while to catch up!
It is incredibly freeing to know that you can start being the person you feel you really are at any moment. We are not beholden to a set of behaviours or self-expression that we and other people may have come to know us by. And anyway, if you’re not growing, evolving, regenerating and experiencing new things and acquiring new loves, likes and passions over the years then you risk becoming stagnant – and is that not just a waste of life and opportunity?
Walking is all about exploring and discovering, but one thing I learned this year is that there is a lot to explore and discover by wandering both far and near, in long hikes or in frequent, short rambles around the same patch. The various lockdowns in Britain throughout 2020 kept us restricted to tighter spaces. Everybody discovered new patches of nature in their neighbourhoods but for me what stood out most was seeing the incremental changes in one place as the seasons flourished and waned, and the feelings of deep satisfaction and delight that such immersion brought.
When the first full national lockdown came into effect in late March 2020, I started to (respectfully) walk a 3km loop around the fields behind my family house, as the popular walking paths in the area were now visited by a lot more people consciously using their one permitted outing per day. I had never really bothered to loop around these fields in the past as I didn’t think they would offer me much in the way of excitement compared to the woods and parklands. I was wrong. Crop fields though they are, on the fringes were a plethora of wildflower gems, including a spectacular June-time burst of wild chamomile that I had never seen before, its heady scent carrying to me on the faint summer breeze. I watched the rapeseed crop bloom vibrant yellow, and delighted in the fluffy bumble bees that frequented it for the pollen that also dusted my clothes. Ruby red poppies sprang up. The wheat matured from green to soft gold.
As I would visit these fields almost daily, come rain or shine, I saw the flow of plant life as they rose and fell with the timing of the year. Where I’d only previously noticed bare soil or a vast spread of monocrop on my infrequent visits down the farm track, I now saw vivacious life. I saw families of foxes and badgers (including one notable afternoon out photographing, when the rapeseed crop started swishing violently in a Jurassic Park-like manner and out burst a big fox, followed rapidly by a mother badger and two babies! Or the time a fox was so absorbed in pouncing into the tall grass for prey that it didn’t even notice me). I paid close attention to details, spending my time drinking in the scents, shapes and colours. The big chestnut tree offered up thousands of flowers. The big oak’s canopy grew dense with leaves. Foxgloves, adorned with raindrops, swayed in the long grasses. It was almost unbelievable to me when bare, baked reddish soil churned by tyre tracks suddenly exploded with vast patches of knee-high wildflowers.
When I returned to Shropshire after the lockdown ended, I rejoiced in returning to my favourite woodlands. After months of wandering fields, the larches, beeches and oaks felt like sky-scrapers. I was actually awed by the height of them, even though it was only a few months since I’d seen them. With me came a birthday gift of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a book that seems to capture the essence of a hiker more truly than anything else I have read. But, what I took most from the book was how Nan Shepherd’s love of the Cairngorm mountains meant that she returned over and over and over, year after year, intimately getting to know the same area. Although the Cairngorms are far vaster than my little patch of fields, the principle of wandering near really struck a chord. Hiking doesn’t have to be all about the glories of tackling this or that peak, or earning the spectacular views from up high, or conquering long distances, as incredible as all those things are. There is real merit in truly getting to know one place consistently over time. To watch how a familiar area is still constantly changing, and to feel that you understand it.
I hope I’ll always be able to hike far and wide, and I have a big bucket list of places that I want to visit and see, even if just the one time (such as Oregon’s stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail). But I will never underestimate the joy, satisfaction and meaning in continually revisiting the same place, season upon season, nor of being in or amongst the ‘wild’ daily.
In fact, as awful as the national lockdown was in many ways, in one way I was completely content and much happier than I normally am: the office-based 9-to-5 was gone, and there was a glorious pocket of wild nature just down from my doorstep that I could visit daily. Daily. It reinforced what I already knew in my heart that I need: time and space for that inner wildness to flourish, and balance me from the inside out. Who knows what the future holds but I know that, for me, that daily proximity to wildness is non-negotiable. It’s comforting to know that with the right lifestyle choices, that is going to be possible – and this year I will ardently pursue it with all the power in my heart.
As we begin 2021, my wish for you is that you can spend the coming winter months wrapping yourself in self-care and the joys of slowness, and that when the spring returns you can embrace the coming of the light and energy to make your dreams unfold. You’ll find me, as usual, heading into the outdoors as much as possible and I look forward to sharing more of my ‘rambles’ with you.
Happy New Year!
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,