Continued from Monday
My interest in wildlife is all-pervading. It’s something I’m aware of, or at least alert to, all the time. I’d describe it as a mindset or a way of life rather than a hobby. And yet I felt it was gradually being eroded, despite a concerted effort over the past two years to try to reconnect to it. Increasingly, I felt as if my life was being hijacked, and it was the result of being more and more tightly-bound to a wider world over which I had no control and that had little to do with the natural world that I saw every day around my home.
No doubt my increasing years and the situation I found myself in contributed to the way I was feeling. Working full-time in conservation may have been frustrating but it also acted as a distraction from deeper feelings. With my new-found freedom came a release of frustration but also high expectations. And when they were not realised, I had the free-time to ponder what was happening; to search for reasons and meaning. Now I wanted to escape, at least temporarily, from the intrusions of wider humanity, in order to more fully understand their impact. I wanted to experience a lifestyle that humans have been living for all but a tiny fraction of their history in relation to their engagement with the local environment – to see if it would help re-establish the connection and provide the mindfulness I was craving. Perhaps I was going through a mild mid-life crisis, albeit with symptoms inverted from the usual. I didn’t want a motorbike or a new sports car to help keep pace with the rest of the world. I didn’t want yet more of the trappings of modernity. Rather, I wanted to leave the modern world behind for a taste of a simpler, but hopefully more fulfilling, existence.
As I thought more about it, I started to consider how it might work in practice. Because this was not about self-sufficiency I would be able to utilise modern technology provided it did not connect me, in the moment of use, to wider humanity. I was relieved to realise that I’d be able to keep my binoculars and telescope, and that I could live in a house with electricity and central heating. What I would sacrifice was any technology that provided a direct connection with the wider world, and the endless bombardment of news, opinions and ideas from around the globe. Effectively, I would cut myself off from the wider world that is normally such a significant, all-encompassing, aspect of our lives. That would mean no TV or radio, no smartphone and, of course, no internet connection. I thought for a while about whether I could have a car. It would not provide a direct connection with the rest of the world, as long as it was used discerningly, and it might allow me to explore a larger and more diverse area. But I quickly decided against it. It would have been too great a temptation to be able, so easily, to venture back towards the globally connected world. I thought, too, that the time should be about exploring an area within walking distance of the house. This limitation has, after all, been with us for all but the last handful of human generations and surely has a substantial impact on how we perceive and appreciate the local environment around us.
Essential supplies were a potential sticking point. I could hardly nip down to the local shop every week without the risk of reconnecting with world events to some degree. And with no car that would not be realistic anyway. I settled on a compromise. I would arrange with the nearest supplier to have food delivered on a weekly basis.
tThere was the not unimportant matter of where to base myself for the year. I had a few loose criteria swirling round in my head. Firstly, the location needed to be sufficiently remote to make it easy to stay away from current affairs; free from the risk of routinely bumping into people and having to make excuses about conversations that were off limits. Equally, it should not be so remote that sourcing supplies would be difficult or help would be unavailable if some kind of emergency were to arise. I wanted it to be a place with which I was not already familiar so there would be a sense of exploration and discovery. And if I was going to set aside a significant period of my life, it would need to be somewhere with an interesting diversity of wildlife habitats within walking distance; somewhere responsive to day-to-day and seasonal changes that would fully repay my daily visits.
I’ve always loved the Highlands and Islands of Scotland but it’s not a region I know particularly well. I’ve made plenty of visits over the years but they have all been fleeting – a snatched week or two here and there, limited by the arduous journey from southern England and thirty years of adult life with only four or five weeks available for annual holidays. It seemed the obvious area of search for a more prolonged stay now I had the chance. Somewhere close to the coast would help provide variety and the patterns of changing tides would add welcome variation and interest. Islands have a special, almost magical, quality about them. There is something about the remoteness; the disconnection from ‘normal’ life on the mainland, reinforced by the need to travel over water to get there. I love, too, the way that some aspects of wildlife watching are simplified on islands, especially small ones. They are places with clearly defined boundaries, where you feel you can properly get to know and understand the local wildlife. Thinking back to my time at Riverside Lodge in the fens and its island of trees, they are also places that pull in unexpected visitors from time to time. I would, then, look to one of the many islands off the Scottish coast.
Somewhere in Orkney or Shetland in the far north might have fitted the bill, but the short hours of daylight during the long winter months concerned me. On previous visits to Shetland, in high summer, I’d been amazed at the number of empty spirit bottles I’d found when walking along the roads and suspected the long winter nights might have been a contributory factor. Even in southern England, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can drive people to drink, or to annual escapes to brighter, warmer countries to the south. The effect must be magnified greatly at the northern extreme of our islands. Instead I was drawn to the straggling chain of islands that make up the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland and I looked towards the southern end of the group to maximise winter light levels. I wanted an island that was small, but not too small. Something with wild and remote corners, yet not so remote that travel and sourcing supplies would be difficult. Something with a diversity of different habitats within a manageable, walkable scale. Several possibilities emerged but one stood out clearly above all the others. To be continued next Saturday at 12:45…