‘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!

Plans, plans plans!

I’ve found over the years that much of the fun of striking out on the trail is in the planning of a trip, and planning is something of an art form. In the ideal plan, you need to have the basic elements of an adventure but you also need to leave things flexible enough that things don’t become too prescriptive and you end up becoming a slave to your timetable. After all, the purpose of having an adventure in the first place is to get away from the normal and for most of us that involves a 9-5 routine.

At present I’m planning the details of an upcoming week off work in mid-August. Towards the end of the week I’ve got plans to hike the ten mile Mawddach Trail which runs between Dolgellau and Barmouth along the route of the old Barmouth-Ruabon railway line. In terms of distance it’s not a huge trail but I’ll be hiking it with some old friends and we’re likely to be investigating the pubs en-route so it should be memorable!

So that’s the end of the week sorted, what about the rest? Well my partner Liz is off to go and train in Kung Fu at a Shaolin temple in Maylasia soon (as you do!) and should be returning mid week, so I think a spot of bivvying or bothying somewhere in Snowdonia should be in order. With regard to mountains I have two big target ranges to investigate at the moment, the Arans, a spectacular set of peaks rising not far from Cadair Idris, and of course the Carneddau. I suspect the eventual winner of the ‘which range will I go and climb’ contest will have a lot to do with my general energy levels, the weather and how far I can be bothered to drive, but I have good reasons to set myself up for a hike of either range.

For one, both are ranges I’ve never set foot on before which is a good enough reason to go to either of them in itself, but also each range harbours several peaks on the list of Welsh 2000+ ft mountains, with the Carneddau hosting a whopping 22 of them. Don’t worry, I’m not planning to do all 22 Carneddau peaks in one massive outing, but each of the ranges has interesting options for camping and bivvying, and there’s a little-known bothy tucked away in a quiet corner of the Carneddau which needs to be visited.

All in all there’s plenty for me to get my teeth into and there should be a good few trip reports generated by it all, so watch this space!

Photoshop Working Again!

Just a quick update this evening to let you all know that I have Photoshop working. I’d not updated it in some time due to my recent house move but it’s finally back up to speed and fully updated, too. This is good news because it means I can fairly effortlessly update this blog with photographs from my various hikes, and to start as I mean to go on, I’ve uploaded the image given here to my recent trip report about my hike up Goatfell last year.

This view was taken from the summit of Goatfell in the early evening September sunlight, looking out to sea over the island. I hope it conveys what a brilliant place Arran is. I can highly recommend this island and I plan to go back in the not too distant future and tackle the remaining hills that I’ve not yet done. That’s all for me for this evening but there’ll be plenty more to follow tomorrow.

Creating a mountain hit list

If you’ve been in to peak bagging for any length of time it’s probable that you’ve developed something of a mountain ‘hit list,’ peaks that for one reason or another you feel you just have to bag at some point. You’ll also probably notice that, often in the process of planning to bag one, you stumble across another peak on the map that you feel needs to be added to the list.

Mine developed over a number of years while I was at university, and while I’ve managed to bag a fair number of them I’ve definitely succumbed to the tendency to add more peaks than you bag. To illustrate this, take my hit list from about ten years ago, with links to information about each peak:

Scafell Pike (978m/3209 feet)- England’s highest, enough said.

Yewbarrow (628m/2060ft)- Because who doesn’t want to climb a hill shaped like an upturned Viking longboat?

Buachaille Etive Mòr (1021m/3,350 ft)- One of the most iconic mountains in the Scottish Highlands

Goat Fell, Arran (874m/2876ft)- Highest peak on the Isle of Arran, one of the Clyde Islands of Scotland. Again, an iconic peak with a very distinctive profile, and you have to take a ferry just to get there!

Ingleborough (723m/2372 ft) A mighty mountain in the Yorkshire Dales in England, one of Yorkshire’s ‘Three Peaks’ with (you guessed it) an Iron-Age hill fort on top.

Five years on, what’s happened to the hit list?

Scafell Pike– still outstanding because, I know, I know, I’m rubbish!

Yewbarrow– knocked off the list on a day hike with an old mate from university some years ago.Highly recommended, a great peak to bag.

Buachaille Etive Mòr– knocked off the list on a week long trip to Glencoe with my university hiking club in 2006. Brilliant day out and we even got a view!

Goat Fell, Arran– blasted out in September last year despite my desperate unfitness at the time. This one was a real labour of love; a trip report will be coming soon.

Ingleborough– I bagged this one several times during my time living in Leeds. This is a peak I could return to again and again; the Yorkshire Dales have a special appeal as I spent a lot of time there when I was younger.

So that looks fairly promising, doesn’t it? Only Scafell Pike to do and then my hit list is complete, no? Well….no. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from bagging peaks it’s that the more you bag, the more you want to hike into another range of hills and bag all the summits there one day too. So here’s a current hitlist (not the complete one though or we’d be here all day!) along with reasons as to why they made the list.

Pen Llithrig Y Wrach (799m/2621 ft) Who on earth doesn’t want to climb a peak called ‘slippery peak of the witch?’

Pen Yr Ole Wen (978m/3209 ft) This mountain has an incredible presence as it looms over the A5 near Ogwen Cottage, with several formidably steep routes of ascent. It’s an excellent vantage point and one I can’t wait to bag.

Carnedd Dafydd (1044m/3425 ft) and Carnedd Llewellyn (1064m/3491ft) I’d actually like to bag all of the Carneddau, which incorporate some 22 of the Welsh 2000 footers, but these two are on my hit list in particular because they offer the prospect of a spectacular ridge traverse to bag them, and they reference the names of two medieval Welsh kings.

Ben Macdui (1309m/4295ft) Allegedly home to Britain’s very own yeti, the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui. Need I say more?

Suilven (731m/2398ft). Just take a look at the picture. And it has a bothy nearby too!

Pic du Canigou (2784m/9134ft) I spent a week on holiday in the Villefranche de Conflent area of the Eastern Pyrenees a couple of years ago, and this huge peak loomed large over the entire area. One of the driving purposes of my upcoming trip to France is to go back and bag this peak from the refuge 2000 feet below the summit.

Mount Toubkal (4167m/13,671ft) The highest peak in the Atlas Mountains, and the highest in both Morocco and North Africa as a whole. It’s also one of the highest peaks you can reach without the need for technical climbing skills (at least in summer). Plus it’s located in Morocco, a country I’ve always wanted to visit.

Mulhacén (3478m/11,413ft) The highest in Spain, and gives me an excuse to spend some time in the Sierra Nevada and explore southern Spain properly.

So there’s a selection of mountains on my hit list as it stands in 2016. Many of these should be done within a year, I hope, but I suspect some of the others will take longer to plan to go and bag. But each one should provide an adventure, and plenty to write about. What peaks are on your hit lists, and why?

 

Planning Grandes Vacances in France (and Spain!)

You’re probably like me in finding that the planning and anticipation is often just as exciting as the trip itself (and, I suppose, if the trip turns out to be a misadventure perhaps the planning is the more exciting part!). Thankfully misadventures are rare in life so I’m sure this adventure will prove to be an epic. So what am I planning then?

I’ve decided it’s time to go and see a bit of Continental Europe again, but flying there would just be too easy, wouldn’t it? Why make life easy for myself when I could interrail the trip? All joking aside, I’ve always loved the thought of interrailing across Europe and enjoying all that comes with such a trip, watching a country unfold before you from the comfort of your seat, the train doing all the hard work of the travel, no roads to worry about, just steadily-changing scenery as the hours tick by.

I’m turning 30 in September and I’m planning to celebrate it as I mean to go on in life, travelling, seeing other countries and taking in other cultures. So with this in mind, I’m plotting a mission from my West Wales HQ to foreign lands. The plan in outline is this: to leave early doors one September morning, get to Birmingham, take the first train I can down to London Euston, bimble over to St Pancras and get aboard the Eurostar. The Eurostar will take me as far as Paris Gare du Nord where I’ll need to get aboard the RER metro system to another Parisian terminus and start the next leg of my journey, from Paris to Perpingnan. Once there in the gateway to Languedoc-Roussillon I’ll pause for breath before taking a train towards Vernet-Les-Bains, a sleepy spa town nestling under the shadow of the mighty 9000 ft Pic du Canigou.

From there I’ll be eating cheese, drinking wine and bimbling through the Pyrenees-Orientalles, surrounded by mountains and blessed, hopefully, by good weather. I’m planning to hike the Pic du Canigou while I’m there, spend plenty of time in medieval Villefranche-du-Conflent, and take the scenic train jaune up to the Spanish border, which should give plenty of opportunity for fantastic photography.

Towards the tail end of my trip I’ll head along the recently opened high-speed international rail link from Perpingnan to Barcelona, a city I’ve always wanted to visit, and spend a few days enjoying Spain. Finally, I’ll reverse the rail marathon, heading back towards Paris and eventually home. I’ve not yet decided whether to do this by making a trip across the Spanish rail network and north of the country to cross into France via Irun or whether to just take the Barcelona-Perpingnan-Paris route, but I expect I’ll make a firm decision in the coming days. Either way it should be a brilliant trip with plenty to write about, so I’ll keep you posted as it develops.