Taking kids into the wilderness…

cross, MacCormaig isles, eilean mor

We are just back from a trip out to the MacCormaig Islands with a group of friends along with their kids. The idea for the trip arose from discussions about taking young people out to experience wild places, away from electricity, screens, amenities.

The island we chose was one that offered some protection from the elements (and as it happens, the midges) as it had a well maintained bothy. It is also a little less wild than some- having generally less severe terrain. It is not without interest though- having an ancient chapel, a hermits cave and a beautiful cove ideal for swimming. We were accompanied by a pair of otters, seals and countless sea birds.

It worked. All out kids, ranging in age from 6 to 14 seemed captivated by the place, despite the challenges of weather, wet boots and of course the midges.

I will reflect on this some more in the future, but for now, here are some photos;

 

Rumours of deeper things…

 

tents, in high wind

I am heading off with a group of friends to a small Hebridean Island for one of our ‘wilderness retreats’ next weekend.

Spring is here. Yesterday we played our first cricket match of the year (both Will and I out for 0 on a wet sappy pitch) and the garden is full of shy colours. I yearn for wild places.

My awareness of the significance of the wild in understanding myself, as well as trying to understand God, is a constant work in progress. I can make few definitive statements in relation to either. All I can say is that experience is more important than definition. So I continue to place myself in places where I hear rumours of deeper things…

In deep meditation

A few years ago I wrote a series of ‘dispatches’- short poems really- that I tied laminated onto bright card, then tagged to the top of canes. We have used them a few times, laid out along cliff tops or on circular routes around wild headlands. I was reviewing some material for this trip and decided not to use them again, but realised that the dispatches say almost everything about my own hopes and prayers for encounters with God. Here they are;

1.

There are rumours-

Like smoke signals blurred in desert wind
They say

He is here

Not in metaphor
Not whipped up in the collective madness of charismata
Not just politely suggested by the high drama of religious ritual-

Here

Sweating
Breathing
With mud on his shoes
2.

Should I hide?

Should I stay in a fold of ground
And hope he does not walk my way?

I could never meet his eye
Knowing that the hidden parts of me will be
Wide open
3.

How do I prepare?

I have no fine things-
No fine words
My shield of sophistication
Is broken

I am soft flesh laid bare
I am a fanfare to repeated failure

I am herald only to this
Hopeless
Hope
4.

But this King wears no stately form
Wants no majesty

He walks gently
And has a humble heart

And he is-

Here
5.

Put down those things you carry
Sit with me a while
Stop making things so complicated
It is much simpler than that
6.

Start from where you are
Not where you would like to be
Not where others say you should be
There may come a time
When I will warm your heart towards a new thing

But right now
I just want to warm your heart
7.

It is not for you to cut a way into the undergrowth
Or make a road into the rocky places
Rather let us just walk
And see were this path will lead us
You and I

8.

All around you is beauty
See it

Smell it

Feel it falling like manna
9.

Look for softness in your heart
There I am
Look for tenderness
And it will be my Spirit
Calling you to community
10.

My yoke rests easy
If you will wear it

And my burdens lie soft on the shoulders
If you will lift them
11.

You are wrapped up in me
And I am bound up in you

We are held together by soft bindings
Like tender shoot and stake
Like mud and gentle rain
Like worn shoe and weary foot
Like tea and pot

Like universe and stars
Like ocean and rolling wave
Like fields and each blade of grass

There is now
And there is our still-to-come

Coming

12.

And he was gone-

But still I am not alone

The Spirit is stirring the waters

 

The new 3 R’s we are teaching our children…

williams wave

I had a conversation with Will last night about camping. He was wanting to go to a small island, by canoe, in February. I suggested that the canoe was probably not a safe means of transport to get to the islands in question (right out to sea in some fast tidal waters) and also February might be a bit cold. As I said these things, I felt like I was damaging something precious- some kind of freedom, adventure, companionship that might easily be stolen by time, or the internet.

It started a discussion between Will and I about what we would like to do- as well as planning some camping trips ourselves, we revived an old idea of organising a trip for adult/child pairings along the lines of one of our wilderness retreats.

Today I was reading something George Monbiot wrote on a similar theme. He was writing about the way that our relative freedom from oppression, slavery, poverty, war has seemed to lead us towards LESS freedom- we become obsessed with a kind of freedom to consume, to shop. We talk about our consumer rights as if they are laws of the universe, a bit like gravity.

A couple of quotes that rather hit home;

Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation. Those who possess some disposable income are extraordinarily free, by comparison to almost all our great-grandparents, but we tend to act as if we have been placed under house arrest…

…Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores…

Ouch.

Returning to my discussion with Will- how might we start to raise the eyes of our kids above Monbiot’s three R’s? I suppose we might start with the big W. (Wilderness.) Here is Monbiot again;

Could it be this – the immediate satisfaction of desire, the readiness with which we can find comfort – that deprives us of greater freedoms? Does extreme comfort deaden the will to be free?

If so, it is a habit learnt early and learnt hard. When children are housebound, we cannot expect them to develop an instinct for freedom that is intimately associated with being outdoors. We cannot expect them to reach for more challenging freedoms if they have no experience of fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them.

I am not sure Will and I are quite ready for ‘fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion’, but there does seem to me a real need to get out of our digital comfort zones.

To leave behind the wide screens and look instead to the wide horizon.

Come with us if you like…

The psychology of wilderness…

The promised land always lies on the other side of a wilderness

Havelock Ellis

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 Sciencethose 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.

Wilderness retreat pictures…

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!

Ubiquiosity and self curation…

I managed to use two words in the title to this piece that my spell checker does not recognise. Possibly because I made at least one of them up, but also because in many ways blogging (another word the spell checker rejects) is a process by which we construct a new version of ourselves- a cyber me.

I was reminded of this by listening to a radio programme today about how humanity is being shaped by the digital media. It was particularly interested in the proliferation of photographic images that we take to illustrate and document our worlds.

It asked a lot of questions about how when faced with an event, or an occasion, or just a sunset, our first thought is how to record it on one of the many devices we habitually carry for the occasion. In doing this, we not only shape our own interaction with the world, but we also are creating a version of ourselves for other people- we are curating our own self exhibit.

As the programme described…

…imagine yourself in a picture in front of a staggering view, smiling into the camera. The picture was taken to display your adventure, your specialness in relation to the special place. It is taken to show others your uniqueness, despite another million other pictures taken in the same place. Just you, having a carefree wonderful time.

Because you were there, you know the wider story- the blisters on your feet, the tiredness and hunger, the row you had with your partner a few minutes before. Also, all those other dimensions- the smell of the place, the sounds in the liquid air.

But interestingly, when you come to think back on this experience in the years to come, the amazing thing is that your entry into the memory will be shaped by this photograph- it will be a telescopic frame that distorts the reality towards the exhibit you were creating.

You, on a good day…

Sure, this reveals us (particularly if like me you make yourself an exhibit on the internet) as rather vain, rather shallow, rather foolish. We are making a meal of what is ubiquitous.

But more than this I wonder whether we are missing out somehow. If every event has to be recorded and digitally validated on some kind of external hard drive version of who we are then what might this be doing to us?

Do we lose some dimensions of experience?

Does it distance us from ourselves and each other?

I remember a conversation on a small island last year. We were there to get away from all the electronic noise and retreat, seeking silence, community and the voice of God. Conversation turned to the camera. Most of us had one- one us had 4. I suggested that given that we were seeking to immerse ourselves in nature, potentially the camera could be a distraction, a barrier between us and the place of retreat.

I remember getting quite a strong reaction. People fiercely defended the camera as means of looking more deeply, as a tool to aid spirituality, not to get in the way.

Which it may be. Because these things are never simple and straightforward. It is not either/or, it is both/and.

There is an undeniable vanity in recording your life through photography and writing as I am doing here. It is our connection with significance, however minimal and fleeting that this might be in this age of information overload.

But there are other reasons too- and (unsurprisingly) I feel that these are valid, even if we have to acknowledge the contradiction. I write to allow me to think deeply, to live vulnerably and to seek out God in the small things and the unlikely places.

I am away next weekend to another small island with some of my friends. Can I really leave behind the camera?

Perhaps I will take it, and leave it in the bag for one day.

One step at a time after all…

Into the wild, and Eddie Vedder…

I recently discovered the soundtrack to one of my favourite films- Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild’.

The film was from a book by John Krakauer of the same title, which told the true story of Christopher McCandless, who decided to quit society, and his comfortable upbringing, and disappeared into the wilderness. It tells the story of the people he met and influenced, the encounters he had with wild places, and his eventual lonely death in Alaska.

The book is an examination of the place of wilderness in our post-modern world. The film is something else- a visual feast, full of photographic cinematography and gentle simple people. It made me cry- not because of the tragic ending but because of its great humanity.

And then there is the sound track. By Pearl Jam’s lead singer Eddie Vedder.  Featuring these two great songs-

Oh it’s a mystery to me.
We have a greed, with which we have agreed…
and you think you have to want more than you need…
until you have it all, you won’t be free.

Society, you’re a crazy breed.
I hope you’re not lonely, without me.

When you want more than you have, you think you need…
and when you think more then you want, your thoughts begin to bleed.
I think I need to find a bigger place…
cause when you have more than you think, you need more space.