Just to get out of the house ...
Posted on October 8, 2013
Rob is over four and a half thousand miles away, out of contact with everyone except his trekking buddies, climbing ever higher into the white upper reaches of the Himalaya. I’ve been thinking about travel, about leaving the comfort of your own house. And I have been pondering about the urge to roam.
In Kathleen Jamie's book Sightlines she writes about the way that her unstoppable urge simply to get out of the house when she was younger laid the path for her deepening relationship with the natural world. It gave her close encounters with plants and weather, it became a refuge for her eager, explorative self and it probably had a lot to do with her eventual maturation into an outdoor wanderer and a superb writer.
Today, that drive to get out of the house, for young people perhaps more poignantly than for older people (although it is true for both), is so easily and so quickly quietened by the ability to fall into a screen. The urge to explore is a natural, innate impulse. Each one of us has it as a human being, it’s part of being alive. But today the world is it at our finger tips: we can explore it through the internet, we can watch films, seek out knowledge through the click of buttons, and have conversations without touching, smelling or sharing the same air with the person we’re connected to. It’s so easy to explore the ‘far’ that sometimes foraging for surprises in the ‘near’ is sadly overlooked.
Those of us who are 30 or older no doubt have memories of childhoods where the telly simply didn't show anything before midday, the choice of channels was slim, and when you wanted escapism you didn't turn to the screen - you got out. For some people 'out' involved sport, for others it was music, and others liked the solace and the thrill of simply being outdoors.
The path behind my house led through brambles and thickets and trees bent towards each other and wrapped in ivy to an old desolate house that lay in ruins, roof timbers charred from the fire that must have destroyed it. Partial fire places crumbled , bricks lay in piles, stories and imaginings lay buried under scattered roof tiles, emerging with the growth of ground elder, wild primrose and blackberries. When I walked back from the house in the gloaming after hours spent rifling through worthless rubble in the hope of a treasure, the sky would rest heavy on the tree tops, as if waiting, with its last fragments of light, for me to get within safe reach of home.
When I was older my wandering took me further afield, to the other side of the busy road, along rivers, and, later still, up hills from the safety of a tent in the valley.
I'm not the first person to wonder about the lack of carefree, curious contact that young people have with the outdoors, now that technology brings the world to our eyeballs so easily, and nor will I be the last.
There’s a great book by Tony Juniper called ‘What Has Nature Ever Done for us?’. If you haven’t read it, go and grab yourself a copy. In it he refers to some research carried out by Dr William Bird, a British doctor who was curious about the roaming habits of children today and their parents before them.
‘...over time, children’s roaming range had shrunk, from the great-grandfather, to grandfather, to mother, to the present-day child. The first one was six miles, walking in the hills going fishing and so on. He could roam everywhere. Then in the next generation it was down to a mile, but still with access to woods and so on. Then the mother was down to half a mile, and with the 8-year-old, it is 300 metres – which is the average of most children now.’
Three hundred metres!
I wonder about it. I mourn what I feel so many are missing by not being out, curious, dirty-handed, eager-eyed, hungry, faces flushed. There is a treasure, always there for the finding, if only we go out - break from the screens and the pressure of 21st century 'now-ism'. The riches are all around us.
I know too that the sadness and concern I feel at a weakening connection with the natural environment as the population becomes more and more urban is not unusual; and that the only cure for disconnection is renewed connection. These words from Gavin Maxwell, in Ring of Bright Water, written in the 1960s, sum it up very well:
I am convinced that man has suffered in his separation from the soil and the other creatures of the world; the evolution of his intellect has outrun his needs as an animal, and yet he must still, for security, look long at some portion of the earth as it was before he tampered with it.
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