David Lintern wrestles with the outdoors, inside.
I’ll confess that writing anything about ‘the outdoors’ at the moment is a struggle. I’m driven to distraction by world events. Five minutes chat at the school gate or surfing the stormy seas of social media and it’s clear that regardless of political persuasion, we’re mostly confused, worried and angry. As the Chinese curse has it, we live ‘in interesting times’.
The call of the wild is strong when our human world is fraught, but I’m resistant to the idea of the mountains as pure escapism, because I think by getting out we’re aiming towards something, as much as away. But there’s something a little unbalanced about all this seesawing from one place to another, spending my ‘indoor’ days wishing I was somewhere else.
On the very best and very worst hill days, we’re taken beyond our usual frames of reference, and those times are transformative. Our world is recast in a new light. Transcendence is all well and good, but by definition it can’t last. Then what? Am I only coming up for air just to hold my breath (or my nose) the rest of the time?
Experiences in the hills don’t happen in a bubble. So I keep asking; to what end? What can I bring back from there to here, what lessons can I learn? I’m taking some time here, to remind myself…
I’m remembering now a trip I took with good friends last autumn. We alternately strode and stumbled over the hills of Ardgour for 3 days, from Fort William to Glenfinnan via the 3 Corbetts of Stob Coire a’Chearcaill, Sgurr Ghiubhsachain, and a third sitting inbetween these two, obscure enough to eschew a name altogether. Deer rutted and frost nipped, the route finding was engaging and the scenery magnificent, but what remains in hindsight is that it wasn’t ‘time out’ at all, but ‘time in’. We didn’t leave the sullied world of politics on the Camusnagaul ferry, we took it with us – discussing, debating, and… listening.
Time is needed to mentally process our daily grind, and it won’t be rushed. Some of the processing is oblique, and that’s the beauty of a wander in the wilds; our mind is often on other things, so time can go about its business without us interfering. This is also true of solo ventures into the hills, but in Ardgour there was also the enjoyment of sharing and learning about the place we were in – new to all of us – plus the ebb and flow of our group dynamic. Travelling solo means more time tuning into the environment, but travelling with fellow humans means more practice at compassion. Empathy is a skill that needs rehearsing like any other – the mountains seem like a great place to do that.
In Ardgour, I went with friends but came back with allies. I returned feeling as if my own values had been realigned with who I am at my core – a sort of chiropractice for the soul. I came back stronger.
The ‘freedom of the hills’ is more than just a platitude. When I wrestle it back from the ad men, what does it mean? It’s means travelling with my own agency, under my own steam. Within reason, I can go where I like, when I like. There are few places where this is more true than in Scotland. Whether we use them or not, our access laws are a cornerstone of the northern consciousness, and have an explicitly political dimension. Like Cole Porter, we won’t be fenced in. Our neighbours can keep their enclosures if they like!
That sense of agency is surely a draw for many of us: Skill levels, nerve, fitness and stamina can all be grown, evolved over time. We can get good at being outdoors, at whatever level; draw on some of that elemental power for ourselves. Both literally and metaphorically, the mountains challenge us to aim high.
But an important component of this freedom is not knowing the outcome beforehand. Freedom is defined by the acceptance of risk, and the willingness to fail. We try, to see if we can. One of the chief lessons I have learnt outside is to trust my instinct – to go with my gut. But committing to the unknown takes practice, and lots of it. And evaluating risks can be learnt, but the risks are always changing. I often get it wrong.
Wild places aren’t merely a metaphor for tight-lipped endeavour or a theme park for high fives and selfies. They are just there. A great source of their power resides in their difference and indifference to us – their ‘self-willed’ nature. If, in our lives off the hill truth is subjective and facts are alternative, at least on the hill, 2 and 2 still equals 4 – most of the time. And yes, rest assured – a falling tree makes a hell of a racket, whether we’re listening or not!
Perhaps the greatest gift of wild places is this perspective. They remind us there are limits to our freedom – gravity, weather, terrain – things our technologies can predict, but not control. They show us that the balance of being human is in the tension between knowing and not knowing. They remind us we are small and unimportant, but capable of extraordinary things. They show us how frail our bodies are, and how strong they can be. They ground us in physical reality, both beauty and danger, and in doing so give us the impetus to move beyond these limits. There’s something in the stoicism of wild places I can draw on, too – getting on with it, in the face of adversity. So, enough with the self-praise and the fairy tale sales pitch – outside of Instagram, there are no instant wins. The reality is more mundane, but also more achievable…
The mountain muscle is like any other muscle – it needs exercise. If it gets used often enough, it grows. If it doesn’t get worked, it atrophies, and then hurts like hell when it’s called into action. Freedom isn’t free. I have to work at it.
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather have these because we have acted rightly; these virtues are formed in man by doing his actions; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Will Durant
Beware those who’ve turned this into a mantra – they are probably trying to sell you a gym membership or a self-help course! My ‘excellence’ is not yours; we all have different expectations, aims and ambitions for our journeys, on and off the hill. Freedom and the will to exercise it, is relative. What’s empowering about the above quote for me is that we’re all gifted with the ability to improve at something, over time. The humility at the core of this, as opposed to the hyperbole of ‘be all you can be’, is why I also like the playwright Samuel Beckett’s take on proceedings:
‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Perhaps we should ask, not what the mountains have done for us, but what we have done for the mountains? But that’s for another time. What about the crux of my question: In these ‘interesting times’ I need all the help I can get, so what lessons can I take home with me? For what it’s worth, (and I only wish my goldfish brain will retain this!) here’s what I’m running with:
Pinch yourself, it’s all real. Be humble. Be curious. Make no assumptions. Freedom is a muscle; use it or lose it. Train your eye to pick a way through. Accept your defeats when they come, it will make success all the richer. Friction is the best teacher. Enjoy learning as it’s own reward. Look out for each other. Take the time to look up.