Nature is an awe-inspiring, plan-crunching, target-ignoring, and largely unsentimental beast. It can also be the most accepting, supportive and rejuvenating friend. And as far as I can see, the deciding factor is the human spirit.
After ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ the next most frequently voiced question to me is ‘Don’t you get scared?’ And yes, sometimes quite frankly, I do. On a moonless winter night, a night so dark that even the shadows are in hiding, my road turns from a scenic strip of nobbled, red earth into the gulf of Hades. Occasionally, I’ll walk up that road to a friend’s house. Sporadic blips of orange poke through the rucks of the hillside opposite; lights from the hamlet nearby. They give the valley the appearance of something from Lord of the Rings, and for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I find that rather comforting. But it’s when I reach the top that the background music changes. There, at the triangular junction where my dirt track and a tarmac road meet, is the cemetery. By day it’s the quaintest village cemetery you are ever likely to see; a random clutter of small graves nestled in a mountainside olive grove. The dead occupy a glorious vista with the Mediterranean in the distance. But by night? There’s no sea view, no olive trees, only the vague outline of gravestones poking up from the inky soil. I always stride past that graveyard doing my utmost not to search out shadows moving beyond the stone wall. Then, I hear the dog, or rather the local Hound from Hell. It belongs to the shepherd who lives in the web of wooden struts and plastic up the bank. The dog has smelt my fear and is now burning a trail of snarling carnage in my direction. I start running. I reach the turn-off to my friend’s house, the barking growing closer by the minute. I flick my torch back and see the dog’s eyes; two soulless glass buttons flashing in a cloak of endless black. I can’t see the teeth. But it doesn’t matter. I know what they’re like; huge flesh-ripping, saliva-coated fangs rasping to get stuck into my leg. The torch becomes a weapon. I flick the beam towards the eyes and dazzle the dog for a few seconds. I use those moments to back as quickly as I can down the track.
Scared? I'm so mortally petrified it will take a good half hour before I utter a sentence without a swear word.
And yet, nothing at all has really happened. The dog hasn't killed me. It didn’t even reach me. There were no zombies in the graveyard, and no cold hands stretching out from the graves. If I draw the dark half of my mind to one side and peer beyond it, I see the night is an open face spattered with freckles of starlight. The darkness is a mystery that the pine trees are now pumping life into. And the sky is wise and profound. I am part of that dark, profound mystery. I am breathing it.
Alone in the wilds these things will happen. Boar may come cantering out of the forest and nose round your tent for a midnight snack. You may be faced with winds rushing at 60 kilometres an hour, and all you have over your head is a sliver of flapping canvas, or perhaps the track into your land has
morphed into a mud slick and you realise you might not be able to leave for three days. In such situations, bravado and a few positive affirmations just aren’t going to cut the mustard. Nor is a gun, a torch, or a dog. You need other sturdier tools in your psychological toolbox if you want to mitigate the panic.
Personally speaking, to truly derive the immense pleasure available from the natural world, and to be able to reconnect with it without dissolving into a blubbering wreck, I have needed a practice. And for me, that practice is meditation in general, Vipassana more specifically. Though sometimes a few yoga asanas will do the trick as well. Now, I’m not a meditation or yoga evangelist (been there, done that). The meditation malarkey is simply one of many ways to deal with the fog of fear and worry that can quickly blanket the human spirit when things don’t appear to be as they should. Other people have other techniques; walking barefoot on the earth, Tai Chi, hiking.
Once the fog clears, I can reconnect, not just with the Earth, but with the thing that underpins it all. I’d call that thing the spiritual world for want of a better phrase. The trouble with words is they drag so many connotations behind them. A word is never just a word. It’s a story. What I’m trying to allude to when I use the word ‘spiritual world’, is not a belief system, nor a religion, nor angels and devils, nor pixies and woodsprites. For me, the word 'spiritual' refers to everything that is not physical. Things you can’t see, hear, feel, touch or smell. I could use the term ‘non physical’ world, but that implies a ‘non’ event, or an absence of something. The Other world that lies beyond the senses is not a nothing, it’s a whopping great something, and without it, whether you live in a tent in the hills or in a basement flat in a honking city, there’s not much difference. Sorry, scratch that. There’s light-years of difference! Nonetheless, it’s the spiritual element that defines the quality of the experience.
The most obvious element of the spiritual world is thought; ideas, concepts and images in the human mind. Thoughts hold no physical space. They can’t be touched, smelt or seen by others. Yet they are the most powerful element of the human being and shape the very fabric of our lives. For most of us, thought is based on two drives; fear and desire. Freud called it the pleasure principle, the endless psychological struggle to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. Vipassana meditation talks about craving and aversion. Watch your thoughts for any given moment and it’s easy to see; either the mind is galloping down a track of worry and strategizing how to avoid trouble, or it’s chasing after a dream and fantasizing. And if there isn’t a memory of a real experience for the mind to grasp onto, it will use those plied to it by the media and advertisers instead.
So when you arrive in your wilderness paradise, nature will be there waiting for you with her well of magic and nourishing secrets. But will you see her? When a gale force wind begins to crush your dome tent, will you feel awe, or simply terror? Will you trust your instincts, and the movement of
the land around you? Or will you be overtaken by the images generated by any number of horror films? For me, it is often a very fine line. And the only way I can cross that line is to sit each morning, breathe, watch my mind spouting its gibberish, see through it and sense the vast benevolent power of the spiritual realm within. Without that, I know I wouldn’t be here. I would have packed my bags two-and-a-half years ago and run away as fast as I could.