Making Meaning Less Mean – An Autobiography

I have been a terrible reader all my life.

I was rubbish at school and, after the age of about thirteen, was about as interested in it as I was in listening to my parents go on. I had no drive, no interest in the subjects, many of the teachers taught by rote and were unimaginative and disciplinarian, which I automatically rebelled against. It’s probably the same everywhere.

When I was about 14, my parents went to a parent-teacher meeting where they met with Mr Carroll, my English teacher. Mr Carroll informed them that it was obvious I read a lot because I had a good command of the English language. I have never forgotten that compliment, partly because I felt proud to have received such kind words from Mr Carroll, one of my favourite teachers and partly because it was so inaccurate. I rarely read a book and didn’t even read most of my reading list for English at school. I’m not writing this to show off but to illustrate something; maybe I thought I was too cool for school.

Having said that, my maths teacher, Tommy Dowd, in what I consider a shrewd assessment of my general character, summarised “He’s looking for problems where there are none.” That phrase has always both fascinated and perplexed me. It’s a kind of ‘wood for the trees’ thing for me. I understand the phrase ‘looking for problems where there are none’ but I could never see when I was doing it.

This is why I chose to opt out.

In the past, it was always easier for me to not get involved. If something seemed difficult I immediately gave up, finding it really hard to keep going with it. Unless I had someone overseeing me, ‘holding my hand’ in a certain situation, it was likely that I would sack it off altogether. Hence the lack of interest in school and study and not being bothered with reading.

Through this neglect I decided that I ‘knew better’ and was somehow superior to others. Occasionally bolstered by misplaced compliments such as ‘it’s obvious that he reads a lot’, it felt like a no-brainer.

I spent many years avoiding knowing about what was really going on in the world and focusing only on my own subjective take on things. This led me to become more interested in nature, dreams and intuition. It distracted from the cerebral world which I did not wish to be part of. I felt close to people emotionally but intellectually inferior which cased me to create a gulf. I worked hard physically but not mentally. I put up a wall between myself anf the ‘real world’.

So what did that cost me?

I grew up somewhere rural where it was easy to be away from people and despite living in the city for 20 years, surrounded by people at all times and being married and having a child, ( I often marevelled at how regularly I was within grabbing distance of my next door neighbour) I still managed to live mostly in my own head and most of my theories about how the world really worked were in my own imagination. Throughout this I managed to hold down some good jobs, be part of some amazing and groundbreaking sustainable food projects, start, run and sell my own business and play in bands and tour Europe. Outwardly, I could have appeared to be ‘an achiever’.

Gradually, in these past 4 years or so, since my beautiful daughter was born, I began to put a stop to my old, isolating, judgmental ways, mainly through challenging myself in new ways, so I could look at things differently. I learned to swim, began to emerge from my anxiety of walking down the street. I used to react with extreme discomfort and self consciousness in the most mundane situations, like going to the shops. Instead, I began to enjoy little interactions with people in shops and in regular, everyday moments. I even began smiling at people in the street for no other reason than just to smile. I was becoming a happy person. I read about 25 books last year. I even went on a great adventure/walk/challenge, talked publicly in front of audiences about it many times afterwards and then packed up and left the UK after 20 years to live a new life in the mountains.

It is only since arriving here that I have seen a clearer picture of who I am.

Arriving here and trying to get straight into a new life without a job or speaking the language hit me like a train. Stopped in my tracks of having spent the previous couple of years progressing steadily with the ‘job’ of growing into what I considered my true self, I sought the nearest rock and attempted to crawl under it. I approached going out in public with anxiety in a situation where I might have to talk to someone. Even simple, everyday, meaningless interactions I took for granted, and even learned to enjoy in the UK became instead, stressful awkward and frustrating moments here in Italy. This lasted for many weeks and I made myself ill for a month with stomach cramps, nausea and other digestive issues. The realness of the pain and not being able to ease it left me feeling anxious and perpetuated the uncertainty. I had no idea that this was going to happen, and I was shocked, as I had never suffered from stomach problems before. In fact, I prided myself, in some secretly superior way of having a particularly strong stomach, handling lots of booze and whatever else I would decide to indulge in.

Thankfully this appears to be passing, and the track I fell off when arriving here is again beginning to catch up with me.

There is nothing worse than that sense of uncertainty about one’s place and future. I carried that uncertainty with me for decades and just when I thought I had cured myself of it and was moving to a new level, it came back. Call it depression, opting out, anxiety, mistrust; it takes many forms. I spent much of my life feeling alone, feeling like I knew better, but at the same time I was desperate to belong. I trusted few and feared many. I put myself in destructive situations and friendships where I only hurt myself more and got more isolation. I am so immensely lucky to have an incomparably amazing wife, lover and life partner and fantastic sisters whom I know I can always rely on. Not everyone is so lucky.

Since returning to the ‘real world’, the world I shunned back in the early 1990’s, I know it’s not about finding my place in society, being part of the gang or even having intense, short lived friendships and relationships which end in ‘necessary hurt’ that matters. What counts is that I am ok with who I am and I am ok with the way the world is. If I’m not ok I have to express it. Writing helps me do that, along with physical work and now, more intellectual pursuits, such as reading books, having to learn a new language from scratch and getting more into what we as a species have done in the past and how we can do things better in the future. To do that I have to overcome the greatest barrier I put in front of myself and admit that I really don’t know better, but if I stay open to new possibilities, I can better myself and feel better about myself and my place in this world.

I love the fact that I am a people person, that I feel I can relate to peoples’ pain and am not afraid to express my own, despite having ‘hidden myself away’ for a long time. I still love dreams and the cosmic, otherworldly possibilities of the imagination; those intangible, but undeniably personal experiences available to us all.

From now on, my ultimate goal is to stop looking for problems where there are none and to actually read and learn a lot, thus gaining a better command of both the English (and Italian) language and of my place in this world. I owe that to myself.

Grazie

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Making Meaning Less Mean – An Autobiography

Flying or Dying?

At the moment I’m undergoing training with Way of Nature UK which I’m enjoying very much. The training is subtle yet powerful. I find myself not thinking about it for a while but then thrown completely into its path.

I decided to take on the training before moving to Italy. It felt like the right thing to do. I also had the niggling knowledge that I would probably have to fly back to the UK for the two training modules, which were UK based. And I have a problem with flying.

I’m not scared of flying, I just have this extreme discomfort every time I think about this most polluting form of travel. I’ve tried the ‘fingers in ears’ method, i.e. try not to think about it but that doesn’t work. I’ve also tried justifying it to myself by saying that because I worked in environmentally friendly organic food for 12 years and am doing a nature based, low impact training which may lead to me teaching others to be more responsible about jumping on a plane for a weekend break.

No matter how I put this to myself I still come out with the same answer; “I should not be doing this.”

I believe that change begins with the individual. Having said that, how do I stop myself from booking flights to the UK for my next lot of training? Do I go by train, leaving my family for 2 days longer than the week I’ll be away for, and be out of pocket a further couple of hundred pounds or euros? I feel hamstrung by the situation. But I only have myself to blame.

Recently, I read a good article by the great, modern adventurer Alastair Humphreys, where he writes about the environmental cost of adventure and how we may be judged by future generations, who may see the abandon with which we pollute the world in search of adventure and new outdoor experiences as the greatest irony imaginable. I tend to agree and I’m really glad that the adventure industry has a spokesperson like him who asks these important questions.

I’m a reflector and I hate like being judged but I also don’t wish to hide my thoughts and feelings from the people around me, so I am writing what might be an unpopular piece of writing about air travel.

We can’t say it’s not polluting. We can’t say that we need to do it. We use it because it’s convenient and makes the world ‘smaller’. It also makes the world more dead.

I fly.

I am responsible for the impact I have on the world. We all are. Living in the world at this time, there is very little we do which doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment. That’s a fact. Even organic food in the supermarket is wrapped in plastic and to make that food accessible to environmentally conscious people often requires hundreds, or even thousands of miles of transportation. Is this a joke? Nope.

So as I mull over the easyjet website looking at cheap flights in order to conveniently complete my training in a place about 2000km from where I live, I still have the question “what am I responsible for?” in my head. Can I use the excuse that I’ll use said training for the good of humanity, thus offsetting my carbon footprint? This is immeasurable for me, because it requires I justify it by something I have not, or may not even do. Or maybe I could use the work I’ve already done to justify it. Well, I might as well go one better and save the world from my bum on the seat of that plane right now.

I still haven’t decided.

 

Flying or Dying?

A Microadventure in the Hills

Around 9 months ago I had my first solo in the hills which I’ve wanted to write about for ages and is still very clear in my mind.

The forecast said it would be windy. 50mph winds that night, to be precise.

I headed south to the Peak District late afternoon, for an evening out in the hills. I wanted to test out my new bivvy bag and stove which I had just splashed out on, plus I had never wild camped on my own before. I wanted to make it special so I chose to go somewhere close to the city but also far enough to feel away from it.

I decided to stop for fish and chips and a pint of ale in the pub in Edale before heading up the hill. I was stuffed as I set out, carrying far too much food inside me to enjoy the first hour of walking. At least I knew I wouldn’t need to eat for a while.

I was travelling light and just had a couple of breakfast things, including one of those preserved packet puddings; a magical silver packet of ‘adventure food’, a chocolate cake in chocolate sauce, which cost me a few quid on ebay and which I knew would be delicious when the time came to use it.

Hiking up the trail and towards dusk I passed other hikers coming back from their day out, feeling a bit naughty as I thought they probably knew what I was up to – off camping in the hills. I hiked uphill for a couple of hours until I walked along the rocky edge of a bleak, boggy, flat terrain, with some amazing rock formations, seeing the occasional small bird but holding out for a kite or some other bird of prey. I later learned that gamekeepers actively ‘preserve’ that part of the Peak District exclusively for grouse shooting, shooting the endangered kite to keep grouse numbers up.

Once I reached the western edge I was blown away by the sight; the whole of Manchester spread out on a plateau below me. I was just below cloud level, about 600 metres, and the looming, blue grey clouds filtered the setting sun. Shafts of bright orange sunlight struck the city here and there like sheet lazer. I could see planes flying around within these shafts as they went in to land. It was dramatic and surreal and beautiful.

On I hiked as it darkened, looking for a good place to stay. A sudden thundering roar sent a shockwave through me as a massive Aer Lingus jet flew right over my head. Momentarily, like the caveman who thought the sky was falling on his head, I was awestruck but then just annoyed, and I made my way along the windy (as in twisty), windy (as in the blowy thing) trail towards my eventual camping spot.

The wind had really picked up by then and I was being buffeted around as I progressed, feeling a bit concerned.

Soon I was being blasted and even walking was becoming tricky so found a big rock to shelter behind. I dropped my bag and wandered on to find a more sheltered spot. It felt great to run about in the high wind like a fool, letting it chuck me this way and that.

I found a large rock and decided it would provide ample shelter, with the added bonus of a soft, grassy mound next to it. I returned on the blowy track for my bag and when I got settled I made myself a cup of tea on my new stove, read a few pages of ‘Sky Above, Earth Below‘ and made camp. Camp consisted of a bivvy bag with my sleeping mat and sleeping bag inside. I had high hopes of some good, quiet shelter and a sound night’s sleep.

A couple of hours of struggling with my sleeping bag and bivvy later, the wind found me, catching whatever loose piece of bivvy material, so it could flap it in my face and wherever it wanted to, basically. I also realised that I was slowly sliding away down this grassy mound and away from my sheltered rock. I got up to put on every layer I carried with me including waterproof trousers, jacket and hat as the wind and then rain battered me throughout the night. I eventually found comfort with my head almost completely under the rock, propped up on my backpack, and a couple of hours of blissful sleep with my hat pulled down over my eyes and nose to keep my face warm.

I awoke shortly after dawn, the wind had abated slightly but was still going for it. I decided to pack up quickly, no time for tea, and set off walking back in a somewhat circular route. I was tired but exhilarated that I had survived a wild night of weather at 600 metres and actually managed to grab some sleep too.

As I walked I felt fantastic and the freedom of the mountain was with me. I knew there could be nobody else stupid enough to be up there and so I had it all to myself. Then , I saw what looked like a plume of smoke heading up into the air a few hundred metres ahead. I then wondered who else could have been stupid enough to have done what I did and I decided I needed to meet them. As I neared it began to look a little different and presently I realised that it was in fact water. A waterfall was being blown back up the cliff and into the air so it resembled smoke. It was enjoyable to watch.

As I began to head inland on to the moory top, I saw bilberries growing and felt rejuvinated after a couple of handfuls of their bright, tangy flavour. I took my time picking them and revelled in their juicy goodness, filling me with new life. As I continued I saw the sandy bottom of a stream and my imagination was caught. Here I was, at 600m and it was sandy. Immediately I imagined myself walking along a sandy, rocky beach,  looking out onto a vast sea below where the city lay. The moorland in front was forested and full of creatures. I felt a sadness, and as I began to find a way across the boggy land, I felt the barrenness of it and what I could only see as the tragedy of its current state.

Walking through squashy moorland I wondered at the relevance and importance of the corrugated plastic dividers which had been added here and there, I guessed with some goal of peat bog preservation or water retention – I couldn’t see what it was doing apart from polluting the already sad looking landscape. It looked neglected and depressed. The rain poured down as trudged through ankle deep wetlands, my rubbish hiking boots let water in and at times I felt I would never come out of this wet wasteland.

Soon after, I began to ascend and squelched my way back to Edale with a spring in my step, so happy to have hiked a couple of hours before 8am.

I drove a couple of miles to find coffee, which the kind person let me off 20p of the price for, and the I remembered the magical sliver chocolate pudding pouch in my bag. I opened it up as the car widows began to steam, and I regarded its delicate chocolate colour and inviting, saucy dressing. This, along with my coffee made a perfect, post wild camping refreshment. First bite and….UGH! It was grim and horrible and tasted less of chocolate than a packet of spongy bog fodder would have. I felt cheated but I also laughed aloud at my own foolishness to have put such a high expectation on something which anyone could have told me would be crap. I didn’t even finish it and that’s saying something for me.

Overall it was a great microadventure and an amazing first experience of wild camping. It did make me thing a lot about my nature connection and the wasted, almost empty land, deforested for agriculture, which we now try and preserve in its current state. I can’t help feeling that through well intentioned preservation, we are interfering in the natural recovery of places such as the peak district, now ‘perserved’ for hunting.

A Microadventure in the Hills

Golden Oriole

I caught a flash
this morning,
did not dare do a double take.
eyes pursued quick flight
from oak to oak.

The song: sweet, loud, tropical; sure.

Dawn light showed
brilliant bright yellow bird body.
Its possibility only shared yesterday,
as if it called ahead.

A quick ruffle through
pages to identify
what faulty sight grubbed

That must be it.

Today, confirmation of agreed fact
made a man
smugly reassured that
others bestowed a name
which he now knows,
excluding all other possibility

Golden Oriole

What’s the point of Adventure?

I just read an article by the ace Alastair Humphreys where he encourages people to do a good thing when they plan an adventure, like raise money for charity or raise awareness for environmental causes, etc.

This article really struck a chord. Since going on my one and only adventure last year my life has changed in a really positive way. The adventure itself was worthwhile but the fundraising made it real. I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise and I don’t particularly feel motivated to do another (which is a bit puzzling, actually), mainly because I don’t have a solid reason to. Am I lacking in motivation for crazy thrills and experiences? I don’t know!

I did my adventure pretty much alone so didn’t really get a ticket into the adventure world doing through it. But, to me that’s a world of fancy, expensive gear and looking cool.

However, I REALLY want to do another adventure and raise another chunk of money for charity or raise awareness for a brilliant cause. THAT really motivates me. Getting out into nature really inspires me. I’m not sure of the next steps, however. I’m a bit short on ideas, maybe.

Big adventures on the cheap and for a good cause. Otherwise it’s vanity.

Do you agree?

 

 

What’s the point of Adventure?

Slow Journey of the Scree

Crossing the river in sturdy boots was easier than barefoot, which I did the previous time to save myself a soaking.

The rain passes, the ground is damp and the clay soil surface is slippery. We head upstream to see where best to tackle the steep bit from. Following a tributary, a clearing opens up. We stop and stare, reminded of a scene from prehistory – no sign of buildings or even that people had been there. Fallen trees are strewn around the river bed and there are no signs of the careful intervention of humans as large, horizontal tree carcasses lay roughly stacked to head height against the trunks of those trees still standing around the river bed, conjuring up scenes of deadly torrents, like a false memory that feels real.

At first this brings on an idea of neglect, as if people aren’t looking after it properly. The ‘mess’ makes me think about how we like to control; clearing and cleaning. Keeping our interests unclogged and free flowing.  After a while it dawns on me that this is the natural state of things, that not everything is manicured and controlled in order to flow the way we want. The river makes its own course.

When we find the way up to where the rocky scramble begins we’re excited, the river’s chuckle dies away, we pick our way up through the rocks, one behind the other. It’s pretty obvious that this is rarely traversed by any large creature; chunky rocks, delicately balanced, tumble down the hill with the slightest tug. We quickly change formation from line to side by side to avoid broken bones. These loose rocks feel unusual, almost as if the landscape is falling apart. They are lumpy, volcanic rock, ready to roll. I begin to feel our presence as a disturbance, a form of vandalism,  but then the feeling that we are witnessing something beautiful begins to fade into view in my mind and take over.

Movement is apparent, the rocks are on the go. I get a sense of drift, different to anything I could measure; the slow work going on here in nature. The rocks flow. All is motion and by dislodging these delicately poised rocks a story is released. It takes seconds for a single rock to roll, dislodged down the slope but for that rock to take a more natural course could take hundreds of years. The land imparts its idea of time, taking great care to show us what’s possible. To me this is slowness and purposelessness; pure potential. Anything could happen. The slow journey of the scree is full of wisdom, something to tune into, to learn from.

We come across an old, overgrown settlement. A still visible road, now tree lined and crossed, tails off away from where we’re going. The forest feels homely and serene, mosses absorbing our words, giving the place a comforting, indoor feel. Tall young ash trees take our eyes straight up to the newly leaved canopy. A soft green roof and a cushy carpet invite us to talk about camping out.

Time speeds up again and we’re at the next challenge. Picking our way though crumbling rock faces, heavy walking boots and rain soaked cliffs a slippery combination, so we choose a less vertical place to ascend. Then we climb and suddenly the going is steep with nothing but clumpy grass and a few rocks to hold on to. One way up so we’re in line, me at the front. I’m suddenly hit with the seriousness of leading, especially with so many loose rocks around. My focus increases to a point where I am 100% cautious; each hand and foothold has to be certain, every rock tested thoroughly. As we reach the top, taking a wild boar track through bushes and under branches for the last part, thoughts start to return. The feeling of how focus clears the mind of unnecessary thoughts makes me want more as we reach the treeline and start to chat again, with a bit of a new buzz, now walking through an open field and back towards the trees.

 

 

Slow Journey of the Scree