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…