Pre-dawn starts are the way to go. I knew it was going to be a good one as soon as I left the trees, the first faint traces of red backlighting gravid cloud. It peaked at 08:30 – and ten minutes later it was over. I’d seen the same thing walking through Inverness the previous morning, shifting layers of pink and red cloud lit up with pinpoint clarity; I could hardly take my eyes off it as it evolved. The good citizens of Inverness, though, seemed oblivious, shambling along sucking morosely on cigarettes and staring at their shoes. And some people say I’m a bit odd?
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
TS Eliot, The Wasteland
Psychologist RD Laing wrote about this topic of oddness and normalcy. He challenged psychiatric orthodoxy, made enemies doing so, and wrote his seminal book The Politics of Experience in which he identifies the pathological character of that which we call ‘normal.’ Estrangement from nature is part of it.
Laing described himself as ‘existential.’ He extrapolated from consulting room activity leading to wider social observation. What that means is – he thought more deeply than most about the dynamics of therapeutic psychology and criticised a society which is questionably different. At one point he refers to animal cruelty: what does it say about a human being if they do it, are indifferent to it, and the same applies to the animal killing industry and how it is socially accepted.
The ‘politics of experience’ is both an evocative and revealing term. It refers to relations we all have with the world and how established or preceding conditions may be at fault. We don’t choose where we are born and into which family, country, or culture. Hill walking facilitates feelings of autonomy, personal freedom, self reliance, and thus a healthy orientation in life. It’s those kind of feelings, and that kind of possibility, which lies at the heart of Laing’s ideas. He suggested they are our true nature. Madness, imbalance, and dissatisfaction are embedded in social systems which are contrary. Money concerns, job concerns, boss concerns, so called political concerns, road rage, computer rage – all of it – derives from society and is located in society. If someone is twisted out of shape, Laing says, it’s because of intolerable forces which impose on him. Time to get to the hills.
The only part of hill walking I find potentially unhealthy is the solitude. You have to measure it carefully. I enjoy lone walking in the Pyrenees for example, but like to balance it with company in the evening. On two occasions I was very isolated and didn’t enjoy it: camping at Pleta de Llosas and in the area of Certascan. It was chilly at Certascan, which didn’t help, and after setting up my tent I wanted to eat and sleep quickly to obliterate the moment. As I felt that way I was paradoxically aware the setting was a good one beside the lake:
Laing once said to some psychiatrists something like “I know you people. You call a man insane if he says God is talking to him, but you think it normal if a man says he talks to God.” I find that acutely observed.
If you accept your “God” exists why is a man mad if “God” talks? How do you know your “God” exists and thus on what basis does it make sense for you to address that “God”? And what difference does it make if we agree hypothetically a something called “God” might exist but you have to admit, you know nothing about the subject.
These are big questions, running at the heart of civilisation. The issues are confused, and demonstrate one example of the questionable nonsense of so called normalcy. It’s that kind of philosophical mess and associated tissue of lies (manifest for example in belief systems) which is part of the reason why I walk the hills. If this “normal” society is so mad can I go somewhere to find some kind of truth?
You find a sensory truth in the mountains when simple impressions are simultaneously magnified and clarified: it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s safe, you’re in danger, you need to eat, sleep, drink, navigate accurately. You experience the existential truth, whereby you live in a vast enduring place you neither understand nor ever fully witness. As I walk the mountains I build a reserve capacity, a set of memories, which counterbalances the rest of my life. This is useful when half the time in the city we wander in a state of anaesthetised captivity separated from nature. Nature exists on its own terms and this is important. It makes no difference what science says about it, how politicians argue about who owns it, and whatever postmodern cumbersome nonsense academics might witter about it. A good hill walk, preferably with some wild camping, refreshes the senses and the soul.
Note: sensory experience connects to the term ‘common sense’ the etymology of which is interesting. It originally meant the power of uniting mentally the impressions conveyed by the five physical senses, thus “ordinary understanding, without which one is foolish or insane.” The Latin is interesting too, sensus communis, and the Greek koine aisthesis.