Friday, May 25, 2012

A higher level of living

The distinct 'fingers' of the Black Mountains
In this current hot spell all I want to do is lose myself in our beautiful countryside (and with my map reading skills I’d probably do just that if Harri wasn’t around to issue me with frequent directions). Seriously though, there is nothing more uplifting for the human spirit than to trundle for miles along centuries-old tracks, footpaths and mountain trails, pausing only occasionally for a bite to eat or a dip in a cool stream.

On Wednesday we completed the ninth walk for Harri’s forthcoming book Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons (commissioned by Vertebrate Publishing) – at 16 miles, the loop from Llanbedr, crossing from one Black Mountain ‘finger’ to another, is the longest.

Harri studying boundary stones
It was a scorcher of a day, but the vast landscape – and the fact that Harri is currently reading Raymond Williams' People of the Black Mountains – got us thinking and talking about the last Ice Age. Although the line of rocks marking the upper edge of the glacier is clearly visible in many places, it’s difficult to picture the landscape as it would have looked then and almost impossible to imagine the day-to-day lives of our nomadic cave-dwelling ancestors further south.

When you are trekking across the peaks of Pen Cerrig Calch, Pen Allt Mawr and Pen y Gadair Fawr discussing massive historical geological events, our own insane, materialistic, overly-competitive and overly-complicated society feels not just thousands, but millions of years away.

Yesterday, Radio Four’s Ramblings programme featured Stuart Jessop who, with his dog Poppy, is walking around much of the coast of England as part of a campaign to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Stuart has depression and he spoke eloquently and movingly about it. He describes walking as ‘a form of therapy’ and writes on his website ‘when I’m feeling low, a day spent out walking can lift my mood significantly’.

I didn’t catch the whole programme, but Stuart’s determination to manage his depression in such a positive way really impressed me and reminded me of an urban myth I once heard about a GP in Crickhowell who allegedly refused to prescribe his patients with medication for stress and anxiety but instead ‘prescribed’ a list of walks in the surrounding area. Only if the walks failed to lift the person's spirits, he told them, would he be prepared to consider medication. 

Feeling small on the top of Waun Fach
I’m not trying to downplay mental illness and the terrible impact it has on many people’s lives, but I do think Erich Fromm was onto something in the fifties when he wrote (in The Sane Society) that man’s removal of himself from nature has had a detrimental effect on his emotional health. Written half a decade later, there are definitely echoes of Fromm’s theory in Oliver James’ excellent Affluenza, which postulates that the dogged pursuit of status and material possessions, i.e. selfish capitalism, does not result in happiness, rather the opposite.

While I can't compete with Fromm and James, I do have a few crumbs of advice for anyone who is weary of the ideology that drives our growth-obsessed culture, or is sinking under the arbitrary bureaucracy of the typical working day – find a mountain and climb it!

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