The things you do with your day off work in the rain and the midgie woods!
You take your lad for a walk and make a shelter of course.
And you put it in the treasure box of memories.
We have just been here;
Along with some friends, we spent the long weekend camping on the Ross of Mull, overlooking Iona- which is the most beautiful place I have ever been to.
And here is the evidence;
We walked a lot, swam, ate, cooked bread and baked spuds in makeshift ovens made of sand and driftwood fires.
Whilst there we heard of the mother of one of us having become seriously ill in hospital. The distance and ferries stopped any rush to her bedside- all that was possible was to stay and pray. To sit in such beauty with such a burden must have been an incredible rush of emotions- but it felt as though the place, and our community, was holding us.
We are delayed only by our hearts beating.
And each one beats with all the treasure of the universe.
The promised land always lies on the other side of a wilderness
Many of us who love wild places constantly will describe the transformational effect of being immersed in wilderness. We may consider many subjective benefits- the lowering of our stress levels, a deeper appreciation of our place within the ecology of life, our sense of the ageless beauty of natural things.
Measuring these benefits objectively is more difficult. There are of course clear physiological advantages to exercising in the outdoors, but what (if any) psychological benefits can we point towards?
Peter Kahn and his colleagues at University of Washington have been working on this for a while- in one simple experiment they installed plasma TV “windows” in workers’ otherwise windowless offices for a period of 16 weeks, and then took various measures of psychological function. They found that those with the “views” of parkland and mountain ranges had a greater sense of well-being, were clearer thinking, and a greater sense of connection to the natural world.
Next they compared office workers with plasma TV’s in their offices with people with real windows overlooking trees and grassland, and exposed them to mild stress- the sort that raises the heart beat- and waited to see how long it would take for them to calm down. What they found was that those with the real window calmed down quicker. The TV seemed to have no more benefit than a blank wall. If you are into reading academic papers, it is here.
What might be going on here? University of Michigan psychologist Marc Berman suggested that nature might actually shift our brain from one processing mode to another. In cities, we are constantly stimulated- so we use a more focussed analytical attention style. In this way we are able to deal with rush-hour traffic and sirens and all those other urban noises. Berman suggested that this is also the kind of attention we need to study for exams, make financial decisions, do business deals and so on.
It is also the kind of attention that we use up. It burns out, or burns us out. Berman’s theory is that being in wild places shifts the mind to a more relaxed and passive mode, allowing the more analytical powers to restore themselves. Berman too did some experiments to test his theory;
He gave a group of volunteers a very difficult mental reasoning test that measures the kind of focused attention needed for school and work. They were then given additional task to further deplete their normal ability to concentrate, to mirror a typical high pressure day at work. Then all the volunteers took a three-mile walk- half the volunteers took a leisurely stroll through a secluded park, while the others walked down a busy city street, after which the psychologists again measured their focus and concentration.
You can see what is coming- as reported in the journal Psychological Science, those who had been on the nature walk had significantly better focus and attention than those who had been required to negotiate the city streets. Being in nature does indeed appear to replenish our reserves of concentration and analytical attention capacity.
It also suggests that being in nature allows us to switch to a different kind of attentiveness- less focussed, more holistic and open.
There is also some interesting research about how this kind of attentiveness might affect irritability, even aggression. This from here;
The hypothesis laid out by Frances Kuo and William Sullivan of the University of Illinois was a marvel of logic and sequence: If fatigued attention is related to irritability, and irritability leads to aggression, then perhaps people deprived of nature’s restorative qualities would be overly aggressive (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001).
Kuo and Sullivan tested their premise on 145 female residents of a public housing complex in urban Chicago. The complex provided natural control and study groups: Some residents lived in buildings that overlooked “pockets of green,” while others had a view of only bleak concrete. The researchers reported significantly lower levels of aggression and violence in residents with apartments near nature than in those who looked onto barren lands. When handling disputes with their partners, women in the nature group used fewer “psychologically aggressive conflict tactics” and fewer “mildly violent conflict tactics” than those whose randomly assigned housing unit was denied exposure to nature.
So, the next time you need to undertake some kind of task think of this- if you need space, then find some.
It might do you more good than you think.
I took a trip into the wilderness of Argyll at the weekend. Along with some friends I canoed along Loch Striven, camping on the shoreline amongst the birch trees and the bluebells. The air was alive with spring- birds stuffing last years grass into cracks being watched carefully by all those noisy cuckoos. The sea loch still enough to carry the tell tale ripples made by porpoise or the eager seals or the arrow like dive of the gannets. A huge moon rising over the hills bright enough to cast shadows.
On days like this it is impossible not to be aware of the new season- winter is over and everything is coming alive (even though it was VERY cold at night!) However, our connection to these things is increasingly distanced by the way we live. Our air conditioned centrally heated living spaces remain the same temperature the year long, the food we eat is available no matter what the growing season and the lengthening days serve only to facilitate our leisure pursuits.
It was not always like this. Many of the festivals we celebrate have their roots in ancient ways of marking the changing of the seasons. We humans have a way of ritualising and celebrating boundaries and transitions- particularly the ones that matter- the ones that might be the difference between life and death. So, the coming of milk to the fist pregnant ewe came to be called Imbolc in these parts, and the first blossom on the apple trees brought about the riotous dancing of Beltane. Then there was the celebration of the very last of the harvest- Lughnasadh.
This connection to the natural world is one that many of us still crave, without always being clear why. It is something we only really experience when in the vulnerability of being in wild places. By watching the progression of the year from the sleep of winter to the wilt of late summer and the last blaze of Autumn it becomes possible to see once again this world for what it is, and our small place within it all.
Then the season becomes like a song. It finds its way inside us.
We are back after a wonderful few days out in the wild.
This year the Aoradh wilderness trip did not venture out to one of the islands- a few people dropped out and so the boat charter would have just been too expensive. We decided that we would stay more local, so I scouted out a location half way up one of our lovely lochs- Loch Striven. Five of us walked/canoed in from the road end and spent two days and nights in silence, in community and preparing lavish outdoor meals.
This time we managed to bake bread in a biscuit tin oven, bake potatoes and apples, cook mussels harvested from the shore in front of the tent, and spend hours sitting round the campfire talking and laughing.
Even though the weather was mostly lovely it was unusually cold, which was a shame as I took advantage of the trees to use my camping hammock/tarp set up- which turned out to be rather chilly.
This trip was very different to our other wilderness retreats but still really great- it made us appreciate again the wild places right on our doorstep here in Argyll. We also wondered whether it might be a chance to offer people short taster sessions of what wilderness and spirituality together can offer.
I also got to do some canoeing too, for the first time for a while. Andy and I clocked up around 18 miles of paddling. In the process of which we saw seals, porpoise and countless sea birds. Today we canoed to the head of the Loch and Michaela came to collect us. Lovely!
I have been really busy this week making a bedroom for William out of one of our scruffy box rooms. This always involves far more work than you think- particularly when you want to make the most out of a small space. He is delighted with his new room, and this means that his old room, with amazing views out over the Clyde, can start it’s transformation into a B and B room.
In the middle of all the chaos I sat down with a cup of tea and flicked on the TV, and a film was showing that I had heard about, but never seen- an old Michael Powell film, made in 1937 called ‘The Edge of the World‘.
The film was Powell’s first feature film and grew out of his fascination with the changes happening out on the edge of the British Isles- the depopulation of St Kilda in 1930 in particular. He wanted to film there but it just was not practical, so he made his film on another wild wonderful island- Foula, 20 miles West of the Shetland Islands. The cast and crew lived there for several months, even having to build their own dwellings.
I think this film, dated as it is, contains fascinating glimpses of a life now gone in our far flung islands. A time before air travel or fast ferries and mobile telephones. A time of the corncrake at the edge of hand harvested fields and hands twisted from hard work.
Anyone who has spent time in any of these isolated wild places will know that they can have the capacity to change you inside. Powell went back to Foula in 1978, thankfully still with a thriving community, and made another film for the BBC. He too had been shaped and changed by the islands.
This is one of the reasons why I take my own pilgrimages out into the Hebrides whenever I can. We will be heading out again in a couple of weeks.
The lovely Visit Cowal website has given our Wilderness Retreats a plug on their news section. Very charitable of them considering the retreats will not actually be held in Cowal, beautiful as this part of the world really is.
If you do not believe me- check out the site.
Incidentally, if you are considering a trip up north, then please consider our holiday accommodation. It can be booked through a whole host of online agencies- including the Guardian website, country cottages etc. It is also worth dropping me a line as we have a few owner bookings that we can use (particularly for loyal blog readers!)
We are moving towards our mixed-economy kind of way of making a living. Last night we had the first firing of the pottery kiln in our cellar. The house did not burn down! It is always a little bit scary to see the temperature gauge reach 1000 degrees centigrade inside something close to the floor of your house. We are still waiting for the contents to cool down to see what the firing will be like- watch this space!