‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’ review

As readers of the blog will know, when I’m not out and about in the hills I’m usually to be found reading about them, or reading about travels to some far-flung land. I’ve lately read Paul Thereoux’s excellent “The Great Railway Bazaar” about his exploits travelling by train from London to Asia and back in the 1970s, and I’m working my way through his equally brilliant ‘Dark Star Safari’. Reviews of these will probably pop up here in a while. But this post is about a book that’s been calling to me from the shelves in Waterstones for a while; ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey‘ by Jay Griffiths. The book centres on the author’s pursuit of wilderness and the wild in our modern world, documenting both her journey to these places, her experiences of them, and the manifest threats they face.

This is a book that’s captivated my imagination and frustrated me in equal measure, a book full of contradictions, as all good books are. I was immediately grabbed by Griffiths’ explanation of the roots of her longing to travel into the wilderness. Her epitomisation of the sterility of choices presented to us as ‘safe’ options growing up in contemporary Britain resonated with me; grow up, get a good job, get a nice mortgage on a house in suburbia, settle down with 2.4 children and be a ‘success’. I absolutely concurred with her description of this tame experience to which we’re all supposed to aspire, and the intellectual moribundity that underpins it:

“Everything was made into corridors: corridors of convention, corridors from term time to term time, corridors from school to university, corridors from sensibly studying maths to marrying an appropriate accountant. Intellectually, the corridors were supermarket aisles, tinned thought. Politically, the corridors offered one brand, off-the-shelf, rightwing views”.

This passage sums up so much of life in Britain for the majority today, and our cultural phobia of any sort of experimentation, our fear of doing anything differently, of being different, of non-conformism. I well remember being told by my first boss that it would be a waste of time studying medieval history because ‘there are no jobs in it’ and I could ‘just be a plumber’; consciously choosing to do things differently threatens conventional order, and people fear what is unusual because it casts their own choices into doubt. Lo and behold, after a lot of hard work at univeristy, I found myself a job working with all the skills learned in my medieval history degrees. But the immediate reaction from some around me to try and put me off an unorthodox course has always stuck with me. Griffiths sets her account up as a rejection of convention, arguing that wildness, by its very nature is antithetical to all forms of convention.

By extension, civilisation as we know it, with its conventions, orders, rules and laws, is entirely opposed to the wild world, to nature itself. She encapsulates this brilliantly in a diatribe against golf courses: “Golf epitoises the tame world. On a golf course nature is neutered[…]golf turns outdoors into indoors, a prefab mat of stultified grass, processed, pesticided, herbicided, the pseudo-green of formica sterility.” Reading this, I thought how apposite and fitting it was that at the apex of power in our corrupted Western world, the complete embodiment of its moral bankruptcy, arrogance towards nature, its greed and mindless stupidity, sat Donald Trump, golf course purveyor in chief.

There is a huge amount to commend about Grifiths’ writing, yet I find some of her arguments less compelling than others. The key one of these for me is Griffiths’ almost insatiable desire to try to pin all the world’s problems on Christianity, chraracterising it as somehow anti-wild, and only ever a brutal force of missionary colonialism, forever doomed to exterminate indigenous cultures. The antipathy between ‘wild’ nomadic and ‘civilised’ settled peoples is not one that can be laid at Christianity’s door; it predates both Roman and Greek civilisation, and in fact can be found at play in both ancient Indian and ancient Chinese civilisations. Similarly, to dismiss Christianity as some anti-wild force is historically and culturally illiterate; Christianity is the faith of the Desert Fathers, who deliberately left what they saw as the corruptions of civilisation to find God, and peace, in the wilderness, as did the Cistercian monks and nuns of the Middle Ages. The removal of oneself from civilisation to find oneself in the wilderness is a continual motif of Christian thought; it is why, all across the globe, retreat centres thrive; it is just such a retreat into the wilds that all Christians commemorate in Lent.

Similarly Griffith’s characterization of Christians as only ever being brutal ‘murderous’ missionaries hell-bent on enslaving and destroying indigenous communities conflates one specific chapter of one specific culture of Christianity’s history with the entirety of a movement which encompasses Roman Catholicism, the five autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Abysinnian and Egyptian Coptic churches, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists; the list goes on; myriad cultures spread out across two millenia of human experience. It also completely fails to account for the heroic and inspirational example of men like Maximilian Kolbe, a man so entirely selfless that he volunteered to take the place of another prisoner in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and the countless millions of selfless and devoted individuals who have walked the earth before and since who aspire to such an example of love for their fellow man. It also, rather more pertinently, overlooks the fact that Christian lawyers and human rights activists are being threatened, intimidated, brutalised and murdered for standing up for the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly when those rights come into conflict with drug trafficking organisations or the oil lobby.

Finally, Griffiths’ caricature of Christianity, a convenient punchbag to which any evil can be ascribed without analysis, bears no resemblance to real Christianity at all. On the one hand Christianity is lambasted for its ideas that things can be ‘sinful’ and yet one of its most important proscriptions,  in fact one of the deadliest sins, is overindulgence, over consumption, taking more than you need from mother earth. Christian leaders across the globe have been at the forefront of efforts to call for environmental protections for years, precisely because, to a Christian mind, regardless of which culture of Christianity you hail from, destruction of the environment which Man has been given specifically to protect for the benefit of all life, is utterly abhorrent. The idea that Christianity is somehow diametrically opposed to the preservation and respect for wilderness and wild spaces when its values are inherently anti-consumerist and anti-individualist, is foolhardy. It also flies in the face of the example of some of the greatest conservationists ever to have lived, such as John Muir (born a Scots Presbyterian) and Grey Owl (an Anglican). In one particularly hysterical rant Griffiths states, apparently triumphantly ‘but the Christian god will never win’ contrasting it to the supposed opposing virtues of the wild human spirit. In a world run by a megalomaniac like Donald Trump, I’d be really glad to see some victories for ‘love your neighbour,’ ‘love your enemy’ ‘be humble’ ‘don’t overconsume’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. But then Griffiths isn’t really dealing with Christianity, so much as she’s projecting all of her own pet peeves onto a safe target, labelling the result ‘Christianity’ and attacking that instead.

Blaming Christianity for all the world’s problems is very fashionable (especially in Britain) and to a large extent an acceptable prejudice at present. It’s also intellectually lazy and largely without justification. This is also particularly striking given how passionately Griffiths rails against an ‘intellectual apartheid’ that we’ve created in the West, in which, full of the conceit that literacy is the only true measure of education, we’ve tended as a society to place a disproportionate value on Western thinking, to the detriment of the cultures of indigenous peoples. It’s an argument I completely agree with, and one that’s dealt with succinctly in the context of medieval literacy by Matthew Clanchy in his excellent From Memory to Written Record’. Given her passionate assault on the relative intellectual sterility of the West I find it surprising that in what comes across as a blinkered attack on Christianity (almost for having the temerity to exist) she effectively perpetuates one of the key strands of this apartheid.

One of the thoughts that struck me reading this book is how unfortunate it is that, as a species, by our very condition, we cannot help but despoil the wild as we attempt to advance our future. Much as I agree with Griffith’s passionate call for a defence of the wild, and believe that society would greatly benefit from a renewal of love and understanding for the natural world, some amount of depredation against nature is inevitable. Nature has currently given us as a species the opportunity to be the apex species of our planet, but it is a time-limited offer. For hundreds of millions of years prior to our ascension to the top of the pyramid, the dinosaurs reigned supreme, yet they never evolved the capacities to enable them to build a civilisation that could avert their eventual doom.

Nature has given us precisely the length of time it takes a six mile-wide object to be gravitationally perturbed from its position in the Kuiper Belt and hurtle onto a collision course with earth to make the most of our place at the top of the tree. We have until then to develop the technologies to avoid a catastrophic impact with our planet and so secure our future as a species.

Doing this of course requires the development of complex industries, specialisations of skills dependent upon finely-honed systems of learning, and the political will to make it happen. All of this inevitably extracts a price from nature, and I don’t think humanity can realistically live entirely at one with its wild roots and still prosper as a species longer than the dinosaurs did.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn to live in harmony with nature. We should make every effort to protect our wilderness and wild spaces, to encourage our children to love and revere them, and do all we can to pass down to our descendents as pristine a world as possible.

This book will delight you, fascinate you, challenge you, inspire you, and frustrate you in equal measure. Its flaws (and there are many) lend a quality to it, in the same way that all the most interesting characters in a good novel are the flawed ones. It’s a beautiful and evocative book, and it will make you want to head out to the wildest places you know and commune with nature. I’m glad I read it.


Nordic dreaming

There are some places in the world that are synonymous with beautiful wilderness and adventure. The Canadian Rockies, the Appalachian Mountains, the high Andes and the vast boreal forests of Russia are all places that to my mind sum up what wilderness really means, though they each emphasise different aspects of its qualities.

To these lands can be added the wildernesses of Scandinavia, in many places thanks to cultural and governmental protection virtually pristine, and in all places breathtakingly beautiful. For many years I’ve harboured the desire to visit these lands, and finally this September, I’ll be going. One of my closest and best of friends has found himself a job working for the University of Oslo in Tromsø, and so the stage is set for some Nordic adventures.

One of the many reasons I’ve always wanted to visit Scandinavia is the great cultural difference in the way that wilderness and the outdoors in general is perceived by Scandinavian people. It’s quite telling that in many Scandinavian languages nature is referred to with the definite article, becoming ‘the Nature’; the implication and cultural and linguistic association here being that nature is not something other, something from which we separate ourselves in our quest for ‘civilization;’ in the Scandinavian mindset we exist within and as part of nature, and to separate society from nature as ideas seems an unnatural, even abhorrent, concept. As such in Scandinavia the overwhelming majority of people spend time in the wilderness on a regular basis; time spent camping, hiking, fishing and, (of course!) skiing is the norm, not the exception. Tell someone from Scandinavia that you’ve just spent a month backpacking and skiing in the mountains with only the clothes on your back and a steely glint in your eye and you’re unlikely to raise an eyebrow as you probably would in the UK; it’s the norm, not the exception.

Scandinavia, and Norway in particular of course has considerable cultural and historic connections with Britain; for a large part of the Dark Ages much of Britain was effectively ruled by monarchs of Scandinavian origin, and they have left behind them a profound social and cultural legacy within our society, including our place names, language, cultural practices and, of course, our DNA. After all, in 1066, just a few days before the Battle of Hastings, England’s last Anglo-Saxon ruler Harold Godwinson defeated the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, an event after which large scale incursions of Britain on behalf of the Norwegian crown effectively ended.

The Anglo-Saxon royal house certainly had plenty of social and cultural connections to their Nordic counterparts (Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig had fled to Hardrada’s court upon his exile from England, and encouraged him to claim the throne) and it is arguable that had Godwinson’s flank held at Hastings days later and the Norman invasion been repelled, Britain might have evolved into a more Scandinavian-European than Franco-European polity.  In a sense, even the Norman invasion was a Scandinavian triumph of arms, since the Normans themselves were descendants of the same Viking raiders who had plagued the coasts of Britain for centuries beforehand.

With such a depth of historical and cultural association with my own homeland and such an enlightened outlook both on the environment and society in general, Scandinavia is a part of the world that is high on my hit list of places to explore and experience. Norway is a nation built for exploration and for wilderness adventures. In Britain we have our very own and greatly-cherished ‘Right to Roam’ legislation, finally won in 2005 after tireless campaigning from the late nineteenth century onwards, and countless social protests movements prior to this. The right to roam in Britain has a special place in my heart, as one of my own relatives, now sadly no longer with us, took part in the great mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932. In Norway, the right to roam, ‘allemannsretten’ (literally ‘every man’s right’) has existed since ancient times; it doesn’t seem as though the social upheaval caused in the UK by the hugely unpopular enclosure acts (whereby land once held in common was gradually enclosed for private use) has been part of the Norwegian historical experience.

Within reasonable limits, anyone, provided that they behave themselves while doing so (i.e. don’t litter or despoil the land) may roam anywhere that isn’t cultivated land, anywhere in Norway, whenever they like. Cultivated land can also be crossed outside of the period from April to October. Hiking, camping, fishing, skiing, exploring, are a way of life here, and for obvious reasons I can hardly wait to step foot off the plane and get on with the adventure. One absolute mission objective for the trip is to try my hand at skiing, something I’ve always wanted to do, though I’m absolutely certain that I’ll end up hooked and soon have to add it to my list of hobbies. But, after all, that’s what life’s about. As soon as I have more concrete plans, I will update the blog, but suffice it to say, adventure beckons once again!

Cadair Idris, Land of Legend

I promised in a recent trip report to write a post about why it is I have such a soft spot for Cadair Idris and its surroundings, and this is it. I’ve been hiking Cadair several times a year since my first year of university and in all of those years and all of those trips to its summit, I’ve never once had a bad hike, regardless of the weather. This is because, for me, Cadair has it all.

The Cadair Idris massif rises near to Dolgellau in the far south of the Snowdonia National Park. As such, Cadair is one of the closest and most accessible of the large peaks of Snowdonia for anyone venturing here from mid or south Wales. Once you hit the Snowdonia National Park boundary at Machynlleth, crossing the River Dovey, you need only drive another twenty minutes or so to reach Cadair Gates, the National Trust car park marked on the map as ‘Dol Y Cae’ near Minffordd.

If you were to hike the standard ‘tourist path’ up from Cadair Gates, you’d be struck by several immediate impressions of the mountain. The first is the awesome glacial cirque housing Llyn Cau, Cadair’s largest lake, and a popular destination in itself for many of the tourists hiking up from the Cadair Gates car park. Cadair has mountain architecture on a truly massive scale, and the Minfordd path route up to the summit sweeps around the full arc of the glacial cirque on its way to the summit and back. Hidden from view as you hike up from Minfordd, but in view for much of the route up the Pony Path from the Dolgellau side is the stunning Cyfrwy Arete, a jagged knife-edge of rock that in winter comprises a serious Alpine-level challenge.

But as you move through this landscape towards the summit you may also be struck by traces of the ancient history of this mountain and its grand place in Welsh mythology and legend. Cadair Idris means the ‘Chair (or throne) of Idris’, a figure reputed to have been either an ancient Welsh giant or a great Welsh warrior. Welsh tradition held that the Druidic bards could not be considered to have completed their training until they had spent a night on the summit, a feat which to this day is meant to bestow the gift of poetry, madness or death upon those who attempt it. Having done this several times over the years I’m either mad, or a poet. I’ll let you decide which.

Llyn Cau, which nestles at the floor of the cirque as you approach from Minfordd, is named for one of King Arthur’s knights, known in the English tradition as Sir Kay, but more properly Cau. Arthur himself and his band of warriors were in fact Welsh, and the key agents of the propagation of the Arthurian legends in England, medieval chroniclers like Geoffrey of Monmouth, borrowed the tomes detailing the exploits of this great Welsh warrior from Welsh monasteries. The patrons who paid for this research weren’t about to allow these men to set the stories in their true setting of Wales, however; they were to be set upon the lands owned by the patrons in English counties such as Somerset and Gloucestershire. When you look at the map of Cadair Idris however the truth of Arthur’s real origins in Wales is laid bare.

For those wishing to spend the night on the summit, Cadair obliges, since its summit plateau is crowned with a stone shelter large enough to accommodate a good number of people, plus there’s ample space for camping if the shelter is full. Hallowe’en, which falls on the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain is an especially interesting time to climb to the summit, since if you camp there on Hallowe’en the Hounds of Hell are meant to tear across the mountain top, plucking up the souls of the damned as they pass. There is also a much gentler aspect to Cadair Idris’ nature too though. The National Nature Reserve through which the Minfordd path passes after leaving the car park contains a small Site of Special Scientific Interest, set up to preserve the extremely rare Purple Saxifrage which blooms there each year.

Altogether, the Cadair Idris range has a little bit of something for everyone. If you want Alpine-style challenge, do the arete in winter. If you fancy a good scrambling route to the summit, take the path up from the head wall of Llyn Cau. If you want a straightforward ascent that gives you the full sweeping view of the mountain’s guts, take the Minfordd path, and if you fancy something a bit different, hike up the Pony Path from the Dolgellau side. Whatever you do and however you chose to hike Cadair Idris, make sure you take it all in. This is an incredibly special place, hallowed and steeped in ancient legend; savour your time here, for this is a mountain to be treasured.


Walking through time

Head out into the countryside almost anywhere in the UK and you’re stepping back into a landscape filled with traces of the past. The UK has been occupied by people since the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago, and it was occupied in the preceding interglacial period as well. The truth is that all around us there are dozens of traces of former cultures to be spotted; all you need to do is know where to look for them.

Some of the traces are very obvious of course; there can be no mistaking Stonehenge. But many are much more subtle, tiny little details that belie the ancient past of an area of ground. That sunken lane you wander through, trees over topping it and thick hedgerows on either side, likely marks the ancient boundary between two huge parcels of land. An earthen berm was built at each edge of the two parcels of land to separate them, and the dip between the two became a logical walkway. Over hundreds of years as the ploughs turned at the edge of the berm, the line became a permanent feature of the landscape. Thousands of pairs of feet wandering along in the dip between the berms created a trackway along the boundary, and as time went on and the land was enclosed hedgerows developed on either side. These natural lanes were sometimes developed into proper roads and sometimes left to nature; from them we have the holloways that can be found especially in the softer, chalkier soils of the South of England.

Again, looking across a quiet valley at a field on the other side, you might spot traceable lines underlying the modern surface, where hundreds of years of annual ploughing have left a permanent mark on the land. You may look up to that rounded hill in the distance and wonder why there is a hedge running in a circle near the top, or some definite lines running around the circumference of the hill. Again, it’s probable that the hill you are looking at, even if not marked on the map as such, had an earthen bank and ditch enclosure near the summit and was a defensive point. These were a defining feature of pre-Roman Britain, and the image accompanying this post shows one of my local examples at Coed Alltfedw; in the trees it is still possible to trace details of the earthworks that surrounded this site.

Once you start to know where to look, the whole landscape looks somehow changed and much richer. Each wander out reveals new features and helps to place you in the landscape, gives you a connection to all the hundreds of generations that have walked these paths before, have looked out at the same views, seen the same fields and trees and rivers. You are no longer just walking through the twenty-first century, but are immutably transported back through time, walking through the last four or five thousand years as well.

There are quite a few books out there that go into far more detail than I can here about the way our countryside has developed. A great starting point is F.G. Hoskin’s classic The Making of the English Landscape.  For a really vivid description of life in truly ancient Britain I’d recommend Frances Pryor’s book Britain B.C. Frances is one of the most influential and highly regarded archaeologists in Britain today and was for many years a key team member on Channel 4’s series Time Team. He has an excellent blog, In the Long Run, from where you can purchase many of his books.

Wherever you are in Britain I can guarantee you that the ancient lies beneath your feet and can probably still be seen no more than a few miles from your home in the fields and lanes around you. So next time you shoulder your rucksack and head out, keep your eyes peeled for those telltale lines in the landscape and see how far back in time you can go!