Guest blog series, A Break from Humanity (5) by Ian Carter.

Continued from yesterday

It was my growing interest in wild food that, indirectly, helped me to crystallise my thoughts on my relationship with the natural world. I had been reading The Wild Life by John Lewis-Stempel in which he describes a year living on his small-holding in rural Herefordshire, feeding himself only on the wild plants and animals he found on the farm. What he wrote towards the end of the book struck a chord. He noticed that it took him several months to start to feel truly immersed in his chosen lifestyle. At first, he found life a struggle as he battled against foul weather, uncooperative game animals, a shortage of edible plants, and the changes from the lifestyle he had been used to. Only when he had settled into the project for a few months did things start to change. He was interacting with wildlife in a meaningful way because he depended on it for food and gradually he became committed to the challenge and immersed in the lifestyle. As he puts it he surrendered to nature, finding that ‘the rhythm of the wild life is a propulsive force, moving me from one day to the next, from one season to the next’.

As I pondered these things an idea started to develop. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to escape the connections with the rest of the world entirely and spend sometime trying to engage with wildlife on a more meaningful level. Perhaps four or five months, in a remote cottage, with no car, mobile phone, TV or internet connection; with no means of keeping up with the events of the world and no choice but to become more involved with the local environment. I could write about the experience to help make the connection more meaningful and provide that all-important sense of purpose. It would be challenging, certainly; a stark contrast from my previous fifty years on the planet. There were things I would miss desperately: regular contact with close family; following the daily politics of the country and the world; watching live sport on TV (Liverpool might finally win the Premier League and I wouldn’t be around to see it).

Of course, there would be positive aspects too, at least in theory. I was genuinely interested in finding out whether the human brain could reintegrate with a lifestyle closer to what it was built for, despite decades of conditioning. Would a slower pace of life, free from endless distractions, come to be more enjoyable and fulfilling given sufficient time to adapt to it? Or would it feel empty and dull, the brain constantly tugged back to thoughts of what it was missing? As I started to contemplate the logistics and the ground rules of how it could work, the idea gradually became more and more real in my mind.

The idea was one thing but getting to the point where it might actually happen proved far from simple. It showed just how firmly enmeshed we are in the complex web of technology and human interconnections that underpin modern living. As I thought more about how it might work I kept tripping myself up with things that should have been obvious but I had managed to overlook. It was like being hit by a power cut and putting the kettle on to help overcome the frustration of not being able to watch TV. The first problem was the mental exercise of establishing what, precisely, I was trying to achieve.

I knew what I wasn’t trying to do. This was not going to be an exercise in self-sufficiency or an attempt to live entirely off-grid. I had neither the inclination nor the practical skills to make that happen. I wanted to invest the time in reconnecting with the natural world rather than having to spend it struggling to scrape by. And I wasn’t interested in a hermit’s existence, wholly removed from any contact with other people, especially my close family. I’m not the most social of animals but several months entirely devoid of human contact would have felt like a prison sentence.

It was my relationship with the non-human world that I wanted to explore. Watching wildlife has been my primary interest as far back as I can remember. Even in an office meeting room, on a train or washing up at the kitchen sink I’ll be staring out of the windows for long periods and my mood will be noticeably improved by a glimpse of something interesting of the non-human world outside.

I had cause to reflect on my relationship with the natural world during a recent visit to hospital. I was there, in early September, for nothing more onerous than a routine scan. Being claustrophobic, the thought of being slid into a full-body MRI scanner was not an appealing one and the stark concrete buildings did nothing to ease the sense of foreboding. Are hospitals built specifically to be as cheerless and unwelcoming as possible? If so, the designers had slipped up this time. Not far from the main entrance I saw something that almost instantly improved my state of mind. High up, under the eaves of the fourth floor was a large House Martin colony, pulsing with frenetic, end of season activity. There were dozens of the domed mud nests, crammed together beneath an overhang that might as well have been purpose-built for them. The owners were swarming back and forth, brightening the uninspiring backdrop of glass, concrete and grey sky, despite their monochrome plumage. Even with my poor hearing, I could make out their soft contact calls, rippling gently but persistently above the drone of hospital traffic. They were a vivid reminder of the increasing number of studies into the health benefits of contact with wildlife and, at once, made the results feel believable. I could easily imagine just how much difference these birds might have made, had I required a longer stay inthis drab, utilitarian building. I found myself wondering if, in such circumstances, I’d be brave enough to request a bed with a view of the birds. I suspected probably not. To be continued on Saturday…

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10 Replies to “Guest blog series, A Break from Humanity (5) by Ian Carter.”

  1. Thank you Ian. I am really enjoying this account of your journey and am intrigued to see where it goes next. I think this is brave and interesting narrative.

    I am rather conscious of the profound silence from your audience, which can be hard for a blogger (even more so than for a speaker IMHO). If you could see me, you would see I have my head slightly cocked, am smiling faintly and exhaling in a 'isn't that lovely!" kind of way. (try it yo;'ll get the feeling.) This does not translate easily onto the written word but I think that would be encouraging. I hope so. Happy New Year to you. Likewise to Mark.

    1. Susan - many thanks for taking the time, and to others below for their thoughts. I wasn't expecting many comments given the subject matter though they are all very welcome. And well done for making it through all five pieces (so far)!

  2. This last five days, has reminded me of coming home from school, to another instalment of jackanory.
    I enjoyed your mention of the fen country, flat lands with small woods in the distance are always full
    of mystery I think. Have you read "Kenzie - the wild goose man" by Colin Willock ?.
    In the mid seventies, i was helping fetch Strawberries from Wisbech market back to Derbyshire, calling on various small holdings on the way back, for lettuces etc., but my eyes were always on the
    small copse or spinney in the distance.
    I also liked the description of Goshawks nesting close to your home, which I could relate to, remembering sitting in my front room on quiet spring afternoons, hearing them calling from nearby
    I look forward to Saturdays offering.

    1. Yes, and you can also add the nice escaping mice descriptions.
      This interesting journal flies off the screen like … (? one of Ian’s nimble and perspicacious Harvest Mice looking forward to its next cereal.)

  3. Ian, I, too, am enjoying your entries immensely. Whilst I hadn't a series of comments to offer anyway, I was a bit uncertain about whether to pitch in at the beginning or wait until the end. Keep it up for however long it takes. I also "retired early" after 20 years with the RSPB , although not from disillusionment, and have never regretted it....but that can wait until the end !!!
    All best wishes to you and yours and similarly to Mark and family.

    1. John - many thanks, I'm looking forward to hearing your own take on early retiring in due course! You may have a particular interest in the next few pieces based on where you moved to after leaving the RSPB...

  4. Thanks Ian, I have enjoyed your contributions to Mark’s blog and particularly this series. Many of us will identify with the emergence from the constraints of our employment and the opportunity to re engage with the wild and I’m sure that we are all eagerly awaiting the next of your experiences to strike a chord with something in our own. I also find myself evaluating your account of a naturalist in the English landscape and comparing it with the over promoted description of the keeper/shooter who view themselves as the real country people with true understanding. I think we can all value your connection, understanding and perception.

  5. Thanks Ian. I enjoyed the first five installments and look forward to following your adventures. I too have taken early retirement and my last 5 years were spent with the RSPB. I left permanent employment more because it didn't allow me to do the things that I wanted to do rather than from disillusionment with any organisation or sector.


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