The lack of advocacy for access to the wild places has been one of the more miserable constants during the Covid crisis. I remember doing a double-take very early on when the Mountain Rescue appeared on Twitter to complain about people, as they put it, seeking loopholes to pursue their hobby, while admitting they more likely to come to grief in a DIY accident. The decision to reframe and shut down a legitimate discussion about proportionality with a patronizing, disciplining language seemed to set the tone for much that has followed.
Covid was always going to lend itself to the agenda of the GOML-types, campervan-haters, and their ilk. But the response from the outdoors community remains, just as it was when I saw that tweet a year ago, something I cannot quite get my head around. The efforts to stay in line are almost painful at times, as in this feature in The Great Outdoors (there’s a clue in the name!) that explains how the busy local park poses minimal risk but cannot bring itself to articuate the obvious conclusion about the middle of nowhere. The silence in certain quarters about the situation at the time of writing – where much of the Scottish population can get a haircut indoors but is breaking the law if they travel to walk up a hill on their own – is equally telling.
The rational arguments against keeping people away from the natural world are no secret, but those are clearly not the terms on which the decisions are being made. For the most part now, I just try to ignore the discourse that has taken shape. It is all so tiresome and predictable, right down to the lecturing about ‘behaving at our very best’ when we’re allowed to return – it is much easier to frame this, once again, in terms of discipline, as a problem that lies with the walkers, the climbers, the campers, the gangrels – than it is to reflect on whether we’d be facing a sudden ‘influx’ in the first place if they had not been kept away on dubious grounds for months on end.
In a way, this withdrawal is very typical of me. I’ve probably always been as a much a loner on the hill as in other parts of life. Even so, there was always a basic sense of being part of a community, one bound not just by love of these places but also – and this is why the trivialization as a ‘hobby’ irked so – by an awareness of the deep good they can do. That assumption no longer holds.
What has taken its place? Perhaps most of all a fresh closeness to the plain indifference of the hills. Each of the few times I was back last year, it was so palpable that the shenanigans matter not at all to the land. It has its forms, colours, lights, surfaces, textures, and they live on their own terms. The horrors of litter and inundation and all the rest plastered over the media weren’t there, at least not where I was, for sure; but the real point was that they – like the whole rest of the discourse of fear and abstinence – were not even a frame of reference in the first place. Instead, one had a form of simplicity.
When I talk of indifference, I do not mean the platitudes of ‘they’re timeless’ or ‘they don’t change’ or ‘they’ll always be there’ on which much of the response to the recent round of travel bans was based. Such tropes seemed particularly hollow in the middle of a hard winter in the age of global warming. Of course part of the joy is the illusion of permanence and with that the familiarity of return: the colours of plant life at one’s feet, or the feel of the air. But even then: the land is change in time, in the level of the watercourses, or rock shattering, or the glow after the deluge, in the progress of seasons, and on all the way up to the geological scale.
It will outlast whatever span I happen to have been granted, indeed; but that is a meaningless reassurance to anyone aware of the fragility of life for all manner of reasons that have nothing to do with Covid. The hills are indifferent to such worries and troubles, too, of course – but that is a different quality from the monolithic, uniform, soulless idea of permanence behind the passive-aggressive reminders that they will wait.
Probably for that reason, there is no paradox in withdrawing into a closer, personal bond with these raw, magnificent, indifferent places. I recall the mystery one evening in May of the year that we moved, when I happened to be following the slope into the Garbh Choire at dusk. All was an elemental, unsettling chill: rock, water, snow, disappearing watercourses. The bulk of landform was entirely disinterested in my presence and how I might try, hopelessly, to understand it – but through that impassiveness I came to know something.
There is really no choice as a point of orientation in life between such moments and – to take just one more of the ‘stay away’ arguments from recent months – the risk of burdening the NHS by twisting an ankle.
I suppose some will find this all very selfish. I might well have agreed twelve months ago. I might perhaps still agree if I had a car and friends, family, and leisure in my local area (or in some cases the same country). But I have a right to be well as a whole person, and the regulation of access to the outdoors happens to be one of the most obvious ways that has been curtailed for me … the hills are not everything, and my experience of them is as nothing compared to most people’s. In some ways, I feel I have no right even to write about it. But doing so might just be one way, now that I think, again, about returning, of taking these spaces again for what they are.
(a work in progress, conceived during the travel bans of the 2020/21 winter, and last updated in April 2021)