Embracing Indifference

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)

‘ich ziehe meine Bewerbung hiermit zurück’

Academic Twitter grinding into action on a Sunday afternoon is rarely a good place. It is even less good when you are reminded of people who owe their positions to just a little more than a blank slate. It inevitably leads me to think of my last attempt to return to that world, from which I withdrew after having the unpleasant feeling that I was being interviewed for a role different from what I had applied for … not that I think I did terribly well anyway, even factoring out the distraction that such ‘surprises’ inevitably cause. And there will always be doubt.

I sometimes wonder whether the real harm caused by various goings-on before I exited was not so much the fact that I was not among the beneficiaries, but that it became harder and harder to be myself in processes where I might have had a chance. I have had some marvellously profitable correspondence relating to the bits of research I try to keep going, after all, the kind of dialogue that makes me think about what could have happened if things had aligned differently at some point …

One of the nice things about editing and translating is that it gets back to the nuts and bolts, the writing about ideas, in a way that can be very rewarding. I still have, or would have, a lot to say of my own; but whether I have the energy or desire for that, is an ongoing conundrum. And part of it is, as this Twitter experience helped to make clear to me, the distance that seems to have opened up from the discourses that are anything but an abstract undertaking of intellectual enquiry. What is developed and given attention, what gains traction, what contradictions are overlooked — particularly in the intersections between research and politics and professional cultures. It is a fact that ideas on their own are not what influence, or even necessarily contribute; it is not that I was not aware of this before, but without a place, however fragile or difficult, in the profession, I certainly cannot ignore it now.

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499 times up and down the stairs, where the gaze merges with the carpet and the walls, and on occasion with the ceiling towards which eyeballs roll. At the travel restrictions that make no distinction about what one is actually doing, at the fact that without a car you cannot go anywhere at all, at the fact that leaving the house for exercise is acceptable but leisure or recreation is not, so that enjoying the natural world joins the crimes in Covid Britain …

None of this is new, but it still fills most of the stint. How can it not? The absence is obvious, even just physically in the uniformity of every step and how the body responds to it – in its way it’s the past year in microcosm. That those 499 times are analogous in vertical ascent to a certain place under the sky is merely a matter of arithmetic. Perhaps that is why, in the minutes not filled with anger, there also forms a more articulate sense of motivation.

I had long been attracted to the idea of running the hills, but it was obviously not a pastime that was viable in a place like Odense. So part of the reinvention of life after the move was being able to realize this. It is a work in progress and I am never going to be fast; but then that was never the attraction. It has become more about what being relatively fast enables. The body generates heat and nourishes itself differently, so there is less to take, less encumberment, more lightness. There is a change in how one reads landscape. The gaze is wider, fuller, as distances become crossable, and the ability to cover in a day some of the great transitions brings with it a better understanding of them. Together with that has come more harmony – hardly a surprise because stripping away a lot of the usual burdens and constraints is bound to lead to a closer relationship with one’s environment. The air and the water and the light, or the various elements of the ground at one’s feet, are bare as what they are; there is something of laying oneself bare, too, in setting off as just body and mind with a minimum of clutter around them. It may be a little akin to the satisfaction of moving on rock (on which it would be an arrogance of me to comment; but there are moments).

For the zealots this is all an irrelevant, selfish luxury – but it was a way of getting through a complete career change in mid-life, of coping with the aftermath of the toxic academia I left, and not least of retaining sanity after the day’s last appointment in a windowless consultation room. Sickness, even by proxy and through the awareness that all manner of horrid diseases might get you anyway even if you play by all the rules, is also about a heightened sense of life worth living. That is a far more tangible fear for me than the scaremongering obsession with shutting down a meaningful existence because of this one illness.

New readings …

some of my copies still bear Danish sunbeams

I have just finished untangling a knot in the secondary literature on the Erikskrönikan. This would not be terribly remarkable, were it not for the fact that I feel I understand for myself something that I last tried, and failed, to sort out in that office next to the molehills during the last Danish summer. Some time ago, in other words. What changed?

Time is part of it, of course, at least in this instance. It was idiotic to think I could get myself set up in a new field in the space of two years while meeting all the demands that came with the Marie Curie. But there is something else, and that is that I find myself reading work of this kind differently since leaving academia.

The practical aspects hardy need labouring. I have other pressures, like the day job, but when I do turn to the scholarship there is mental space that before was flooded with the professional context or the next contract. And there is no pressure from expectations more and less tangible. I read in a more holistic manner: not scavenging for whatever it takes to get a deliverable out on time or tick off a milestone on schedule, but so as genuinely to understand.

Engaging more deeply with the material I find myself also more distant from it. There is an awareness that none of it emerges from a vacuum. An anthology is defined not just by its theme but by the choices made about who to include in the network behind it, to give just one example, and the structures of power, authority, networks, patronage that – probably the more so in small fields – feed into them. Not that this wasn’t obvious when I was still ‘inside’. But the fact that I no longer have to play the game (or try – I never was cut out for it, at least as it has become) allows for a more dispassionate reckoning with that. I cite, use, criticize as needed; and I recall there may be more to rough edges, gratuitous arguments, and agreeable consenus, than meets the eye.

In effect, reading the scholarship, and the cycle from that to writing, has become an almost entirely textual activity again. What detracted and distracted from that is either gone, or kept at a conscious distance. It is possible to concentrate on what is known, and what is not known, and how that is expressed, or not expressed, and how one might express it. Having freedom to choose what I write about, and on what schedule, to go down dead ends and if need be to reformulate the question entirely, makes it easier to ignore the vacuous, to untangle what is vague, to read widely as an intellectual pursuit rather than an inefficient glitch in the production line.

So we are back to understanding again. In some ways it is akin to how I would read for teaching – probably no coincidence because that was a setting where one could, even if only for an hour, get back to what mattered. But it still feels entirely different. If it sounds cynical, it is not meant to be, merely an observation on how the change in context has affected this part of me. Besides, I have my own ‘agenda’ as much as anyone else when I do research and write about it; and I retain connections with academia that make both possible. And whatever I might end up writing on the Erikskrönikan will – in that sense – be no different.

End of year non-ramblings

2020 was a landmark insofar as it had me longer outside academia than any contract in it. I still miss what genuine opportunities for exchange there were, perhaps the more so because the kind of research I’ve ended up doing doesn’t fall fully within any of the fields in which I worked. I don’t mean that in the trite sense of interdisciplinarity, but more in the sense that if I were still, say, ‘just’ doing the old stuff in MHG Studies, there might, in the years accumulated, be more of a sense of grounding for what is quite a lonely pursuit.

I am also touched by the kindness that has appeared in various engagements with the institutionalized profession. Sometimes I even wonder how things might have been different. But given that my most recent foray back into job applications left me feeling physically unwell, I can’t really pretend to myself that there is any future there now.

The year was also a landmark insofar as my translation and editing business appears to have become a going concern, with a reasonably reliably cashflow and a client base that allows more of the kind of jobs I like best – the ones that involve translation at a decent rate, developmental editing, working together with authors, that kind of thing …

There is more to the past three years that has not been easy. Perhaps that is why I am so worn down by Covid. Worn down by the disciplining, the virtue, the masked profile pictures, the idea that everybody has a car and lives close to their friends and family, the obsession with preventing this one illness at whatever cost, the mantra of “staying safe” that is used to legitimize calculated choices by those in authority about what is and is not to be allowed. There is no whole person left, just an eating, working, sleeping waif.

The changed relationship with the hills, about which I have posted before, is but one reflection of this; it has been a withdrawing, a loss of faith in some common acceptance of what these places are and the good they do. In its way, it is a dispiriting repeat of the process that came to an end three years ago in a different context. And like that, I suspect it will be some time, if ever, before I readjust my conclusions.

Like old times?

‘We’re really sorry we can’t offer you the job, we just didn’t think you’ve enough experience teaching Latin. But you interacted so well with the students so don’t change that for your other applications!’

Or cheery words to that effect. I had reason to think back to that particular interview recently, largely because before shortlisting the panel had seen a CV from which it was obvious I had never taught Latin in my life.

And today I was reading one of my northern chronicles on a dim, blowy afternoon, in the run-up to a video talk ‘in’ Sweden next month, and I had reason to think back to other autumns similarly spent in various parts of northern Europe. That peaceful engagement with the texts and ideas appears to have left an equal mark, even if it is not a job. Or because.

Look to the hills

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Maps of the Highlands used to mean freedom. Now it’s fear. Can I go to this place that I want to go to precisely in order not to see anyone? Is it allowed? Is it advised? Is it legal? Will it be legal if I do it in a week’s time? I can smile grimly about the NO PARKING notices on official signs or unofficially shoved onto cars … but in return I get to worry about whether I’ll be reprimanded for twisting the rules and risking a second lockdown by returning on a train with one other person in the carriage.

The hills don’t care, of course. And at base nor do I, at least until ScotGov publishes evidence for why enjoying these places is so dangerous when not a single person is known to have been infected doing it. But it is frightening how effective the manipulation has been, how hard it has become to look at the tangles of contour lines and visualize the land in the old way, without the discourse of honeypots and littering and motorhome-hate and dumped tents and rules that has been wound into it.

But still I do. I had been hoping to take to the hill today, and very beautiful it would have been. But the rail replacement buses were out … so the plan is now to try Monday instead, for a different sort of experience, if the weather-watchers are right. Grey, damp clag in November – it has been a while, and that too I miss, the atmosphere of winter falling. It seems the more appropriate given that if I waited until Tuesday to live it, they might have announced I would be breaking the law.

It needs to stop.

Returning to what?

The wardrums were already sounding by Friday evening on the social medias, so it was with a somewhat macabre fascination that I headed to the hill wondering once again whether I would encounter any of the chaos, devastation, and misbehavour apparently to be anticipated. Once again, I did not.

The roads were not jammed with motorhomes and caravans. None of them were parked inappropriately, and none of them were depositing waste before driving off.

Nobody was camping indiscriminately. There were no fires, and thus no fences  shredded to make them, no discarded portable bbqs, no noisy booze-ups, and no truckloads of detritus dumped by the roadside.

There was no litter on the hill. What little I saw by the road did not look particularly recent, and as usual was far less than what I had seen that morning when I walked the half hour from the house to the station here in Fife (a mess that never seems to fill my timeline with uproar for some reason).

None of the parking spots I saw was overflowing beyond capacity. Here is the scene when I turned up around 2 in the afternoon (I was on foot, so no charges of not planning an appropriately early arrival please).

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The horror of five cars and an unobstructed single-track road on a warm, dry, summer weekend after lockdown.

And the local couple I had a chat with were as genuinely friendly as one could wish for.

Once again, it felt as if I was tramping a parallel-universe version of the Highlands, completely at odds with the images doing the rounds at present. All I can think is that there are certain locations where there is a problem – one that absolutely needs sorting out – but that this is not necessarily representative. I also cannot help wondering whether this is not partly a result of the marketization of the landscape coming back to bite. Not just in the popularization of certain ‘honeypots’ per se, but in the thinking behind it: there is a circle that is not easily squared when you have people rightly being called out for post-lockdown damage to a few trees in Rothiemurchus … while the wreck on Cairn Gorm that has been painfully obvious for years remains so.

At any event, perspective matters, and I wish we could have a bit more of it. It might result in a more balanced discussion instead of the kind that has formed in the course of this crisis and by now has all but turned me off. Among other things, the hills to me are not a mere ‘hobby’ and sleeping out in them is an activity guided most of all by respect for the land rather than the virtue of being ‘considerate’. As it is, I find myself withdrawing from the disciplining and negativity into a quiet personal love for these places, and finding it just as much returned by them as it ever was. I suspect I am not the only one.

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Righ Three from Blair Atholl

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The first few hours were disconcerting. Not because anything was particularly different; more the opposite. After months of a discourse that frames taking to the hills as an irresponsible indulgence or health hazard or loutish pursuit or all three at once, it simply did not seem credible that it could all be there, just like that, for the sensing and treading, as familiar as ever and for the most part quite indifferent to all the fuss. I did have a wry smile when I found the first of the cars backed up from the Loch Moraig carpark … but was it really that much worse than it would have been on a dry Saturday in July any other year? And that was the first and the last time that anything seemed at all out of the ordinary.

The rest of this two-night trip took me round the side of Beinn a’Ghlo, down into Glen Loch, and thence to the high ground leading eventually to Glas Tulaichean, Beinn Iutharn Mhòr and tops, and Carn an Righ, and from there down north to Fealar Lodge and the Tilt and back to Blair Atholl. All told, I would think you are probably looking in the region of 60km and 2000m of ascent.

In fairness, transportation practicalities were one reason behind this choice; but it has a great deal going for it. The country between the big hills has a genuine feel of remoteness and wonderful spaciousness; you get a more natural round of Gleann Mòr than a convoluted out-and-back from the A93; and altogether a better understanding of this landscape and how it leads into the high Cairngorms that – another benefit of that long western ridge – define the view for so long. Spectacular in an in-your-face sense it may not be, but it is long tramps that bring out the real qualities of this corner.

As familiar as the environment was, for parched senses it was all very intense. The glow of evenings where you can just walk on and on; getting buzzed by an owl; the clarity of the airflow and colours of grass and scree and sky; just how green the ‘glas’ relatively is here; the last eaglish top; the misery of the midge; and the sense of an ending in the way the Tilt seems to guide steps home, in some idealized understanding at least.

I was actually surprised at how well fitness had held up – though the feet had clearly become unused to what is expected of them. A week further on, I’m missing ‘it’ – the exercise and the experience; the two are inseparable really. This makes me a little bit sad because, for all the longing on a pyschological level, I have not felt the physical ‘need’ for some time since this all started – and that is different. It would seem frighteningly easy to forget what being well feels like to the body. Is it any surprise in an existence defined by crude understandings of what counts as ‘essential’?

For what it is worth, I met two other wild campers (or whatever we’re supposed to call it now), saw no heaps of rubbish or overwhelming crowds, and for a considerable part of the way back to Fife was the only person in the train carriage …

‘Before’ national literary histories?

Looking back on the Marie Curie has had me reflecting again about this whole business of thinking medieval Europe away from national literary histories. It sounds so appealing, and I don’t mean that just in a critical way. On a very basic level, for me it meant the assurance that it was odd that there were some things my courses had hardly covered as a student, or some aspects of my field – German Studies – that didn’t seem to figure much on institutional scenes later.

But I never quite found myself at ease with the approach – though I never really could put my finger on why. For sure, it’s a very easy rhetoric, but that is the kind of criticism that could be levelled at any effort to make scholarship ‘relevant’ – and besides, I used it to sell mine as much as anyone else. Part of the problem was that I came to feel that it didn’t, in reality, so much overcome those old professional contradictions as replace them with new ones. I’ve written about that before.

But there was – and is – also the more fundamental issue of how one actually does such research. That the literature of medieval Europe preceded modern national borders, is important to recognize. It can yield all manner of important work on appropriation, nineteenth-century empire building, national philologies, and so on, and it is necessary to stop looking at the medieval texts in terms of a teleology leading from obsessively pursued origins to a later national literature.

But that is still, ultimately, defining the period in terms of what it was not. I want something constructive, and also something that avoids a further anachronism. By that I mean: just as it is misplaced to read ‘my’ medieval authors on the national terms of later centuries, so too it is misplaced to read them as a counterweight or reaction to those perspectives, to think them still, ultimately, in terms of the borders or philologies that did not yet exist. I don’t mean that just in the sense of avoiding back-transposing contemporary political concerns onto the period (along the lines of the Hanseatic League being a European Union before its time, etc. etc.), but also more fundamentally.

It is informative and necessary to know that language/dialect/author/region/genre X is not canonical/has not been studied fully because of the legacy of privileged nineteenth-century imperialist scholars. Setting that out can clear the way to giving it the attention it deserves. But it does not answer the question of how to understand it in its own time as part of whatever configuration of literary-historiographical space preceded the nation states.

That ‘whatever’ often seeems, in the end, not to be quite so important after all once studying the actual object of interest has been legitimized. A glance at some of the chapters on ‘German’ locations in the Europe: A Literary History 1348–1418 anthology, with its opening proclamation of ‘eschew[ing] nation-based frameworks inherited from the nineteenth century’, would be just one example. And yet the ‘whatever’ is so interesting and important in its own right! Maybe I will get round sometime to following up some of my thoughts on how to go about getting to grips with it …