Guest blog series, A Break from Humanity (6) by Ian Carter.

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…

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6 Replies to “Guest blog series, A Break from Humanity (6) by Ian Carter.”

  1. Ian - I have lived off-grid, off water mains, off a sewage service, off a postal service, off a main road etc for many, many years. You are right - it's the long, cold winter nights that are the worst drag. Trying to cook or do normal things by paraffin light or head torch is tough. Lack of electricity contributes because we can't simply switch a light on. We have to think - we can have one light on for an hour or we can charge an electric device like a phone. Still - were on the right side of winter nights now!

    I'm delighted to learn Chris Packham is trying going vegan. Good for you Chris. You're even more of a hero now!

    1. I'm not sure I could do what you do - partly I'm just not practical enough so I'd be doomed once things started breaking and I couldn't fix them. For me, the one single thing that has most changed our relationship with nature is our routine connectivity to events in the rest of the world - and these days that is still possible even if you are living off-grid. It would be great to hear more about your experience if you felt like sharing it.

      My daughter is contemplating the change from vegetarian to veganism so we will be following Chris Packham's exploits over the next few weeks.

  2. Really enjoying this serial account, Ian. It strikes a real chord with me, having shared many of the same feelings of a sense of losing ones intimate connection in recent years.

    My own escape strategy/fantasy has been to do a long distance walk, sans technology, as I cannot yet carve out the time for a more fulsome break. I haven't done it yet - this year perhaps. The idea came from vivid memories of tackling around 120 miles of the SW Coast Path in my early twenties. The enduring recollections are of being wholly in tune with the diurnal rhythm by the end of that week, exemplified by the satisfaction of watching landmarks such as the Isle of Portland appear on the horizon, get ever more present and then slowly disappear over the rear horizon over the course of a few days. I learned to judge distance by eye better than ever, to instantly measure in my mind the number of hours to the horizon, and to read the skies for when might be the best time to get tempted into a pub. I loved wading through a sea of Lulworth skippers, the peregrines every few miles (a surprise to me back then), the feeling of ones limbs and lungs getting ever stronger, and the ever-present rhythms of the sea. I also enjoyed the contrasts of dipping into the clamour of holiday season 'civilization' at resort towns and the extraordinary rapidity with which one could leave it behind as one continued thankfully onwards on the path (pasty in hand, natch). Fundamentally it seems to me to be all about slowing down, disconnecting from distraction and taking time for immersion. The marvels of the natural world should do the rest. I look forward to your next installment to see if this Leary-esque formula worked for you!

    1. Dominic - many thanks. I'm interested in your take on this - a slightly different way of achieving much the same sort of thing. What the approaches have in common is that they involve a dominance of 'real' experiences rather than virtual ones. American psychologist Rollo May summed it up in his book The Cry for Myth: ‘technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.’ And that was back in 1991!

      1. Well, by 1991 he would have been able to see the first effects of screen-obsession well enough!

        I kind of hate to bring this in, but having only just had a rant about this published in British Wildlife, I find it hard to ignore the parallels of what we are discussing as regards 'disconnect' from reality, with the increasing trend towards ecological practitioners staying in the office and doing 'on paper' exercises (e.g. in biodiversity accounting and offsetting), rather than going out and getting to know and understand a site for the purposes of evaluation/impact assessment. Seems all part of the same rather depressing story to me.


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