Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Existential Crisis

Last Saturday I went up to Bradgate Park with my friend Katie.  I was having a very busy day, dashing about trying to get through as much of my to-do list as possible, and was even late picking her up.  It was just one of those weeks where there's too much to get done, not enough time to do it, and when your goal is something that takes a little time (in my case, trousers that fit) the result is usually frustration and stress at your own ineptitude.  Despite this Katie and I hadn't seen each other for a while and I'd forgotten just how well we get on.  Within minutes we were cackling away at pretty much everything, including our inability to actually find the park!  We got there in the end though, sneaking in through the back gate

Suddenly I felt completely calm.

Bradgate Park is pretty high up compared to the surrounding land, so it's exposed and windy and you can not only see the space immediately around you but also the countryside stretching off into the distance, just how far away the nearest villages are, and there's no sound of cars either.  It's peaceful.
We discussed it on the way down the long hill, and Katie was telling me about some of the supernatural reputation the park is supposed to have that makes it so energising.  I saw it simply as the result of being outdoors, and in space.  Mankind was, after all, created to live in a garden.  Believe it or not work is actually good for us, it gives us purpose and develops us, but we also to take a step back from all that and really appreciate how great the rest of the world really is.  You have to create space to rest for yourself, time to recalibrate and bring everything back into perspective, otherwise your feet will keep moving even when you're standing still and you'll run yourself into the ground.

Here's where this all gets a little bit dark.  Don't worry, it cheers up at the end.  Every six to eight weeks I'll have what I refer to as a Bi-monthly Existential Crisis.  Basically I'll go from a relatively simple idea through a train of thought which leads me inevitably to realise how utterly pointless humanity is to the universe, get very upset, and withdraw.  Although I bluff normality fairly well (I've had practise) inwardly I'll go completely into mental and emotional retreat and it can take me as little as an evening or as long as a week to get completely out of it (a process usually assisted by bouts of hopelessness and watching movies involving gratuitous destruction.  The last B.E.C. was just a little one so a Sean of the Dead/Hot Fuzz double bill and half a tub of Ben&Jerry's was enough to handle the worst of it.  300 also works.).  It scares me a bit that I do this, especially given my encounter with depression a few years ago, but I can't really help it and the pattern is usually the same so I know it'll pass if I can just wait it out.  You learn how to manage these things.  While it's going on I'll get more and more withdrawn and upset, all the while freaking out at God like I usually do in these situations "I mean why even bother making me?  It's not like there's a point to me being here and in the meantime I just screw everything up and make it worse!  I should save everyone the trouble and just step in front of a bus.  What's the point in me even living?"  This is relevant because my latest B.E.C was directly related to my visit to Bradgate Park.  It all began quite pleasantly, and went something like this:

1)  Wow, Bradgate Park is great.  What a relief to be able to come somewhere so spacious and quiet.  I'm so glad I live near somewhere like this.

2)  I can see the towns from here.  There's quite a few of them actually.  I bet there never used to be so many.

3)  Humankind is slowly spreading across the planet, and we don't seem to know how to stop; we value 'civilisation' so highly.  What if one day they just covered everything.  I don't like cities as it is, but to not be able to escape from them?  What a horrible place to live that would be.  

4)  Unfortunately at this point I cane across the following video, which I found amazing but also very scary.  It's meant to display the beautiful patterns of light formed by cities across the globe, as shown by photos taken from the International Space Station, but by half way through I was finding the lack of darkness left on our very finite planet quite terrifying.

5)  There are so many lights, covering so much of the Earth already.  One day there won't be a field we haven't driven over or a hill we haven't tunnelled through, not a place left where it truly goes dark at night.  Our obsessions with urban civilisation will outpace our ability to grow food until we run out of natural resources, reach crisis point, and there's no way of providing for the population any more.


This has happened before.  There have been people living in Britain, archeologists reckon, for some 10,000 years, and at some point in our history we switched from being tribes of hunter-gatherers to being farmers.  The difference in lifestyle was quite sharp.  Hunting families would have followed the game across the land, so even when a camp was set up it would be temporary and soon left behind, leaving little impact on the land other than some litter, and even that would have been organic materials easily absorbed back into the lands given long enough.  Food from the plants would be seasonal and gathered en route, and all you could do was take what nature offered you.  But farming was different.  To farm you had to commit to a piece of land for a year at least, had to clear it of trees and build a more permanent home since you would be staying through the rougher weather.  The physical wear and tear on the people was different too - it strains a body more to grind corn by hand than to gather berries although the security of being able to predict and influence a harvest led to a growing population.  But the biggest change was on the landscape.  Until that time Britain had been mainly forests, just trees as far as the eye could see.  However as farming grew and gained popularity gaps began to appear in the treescape as the land was cleared to create fields.  More and more of these began to appear, and by 2000BC most of the larger forests were gone, cut apart by the farmland.  The bare expanse of Dartmoor still evidences this today - without the trees to hold the soil together after the land was cleared for herding much of the suddenly exposed topsoil was blown and washed away.  The people moved away when the climate changed, but the trees haven't grown back.  It's beautiful still, but not in the way it once was.

The point of all this is that after a certain point farming made hunting obsolete.  You couldn't do it any more because there wasn't enough forest left.  The land was too broken up, there were boundaries and fences where before there had been one unending sea of trees.  You couldn't follow the run of a deer any more without wandering into somebody's claimed land.  Farming allowed the development of civilisation, and civilisation then depended on a surplus of agriculture as the people in the new cities could no longer provide food for themselves.  We became locked into a system we're still in today.  It had all gone too far and now there was no going back, even if they had wanted to.  On Easter Island they did it too, cutting down the last trees to transport those immense stone heads across their island by rolling them.  No trees meant no boats, so no fishing, and no fires either.  It's not a big place, they all knew it was the last tree, and they did it anyway, purely out of pride.

So I look at places like Bradgate, or the Lake District, where the local communities are stubbornly clinging onto their high and empty places, and while I hope for the best I do worry that all we humans know how to do is spread in our quest for more, bigger, better, faster.  We won't know what we've lost until it's gone.  Maybe we won't even notice.

6)  I wish there was a way to escape from this problem, but what can I do?  If I move away from the cities to escape that lifestyle, even if I became completely self-sufficient, I'm just adding another light to the dark places, exacerbating the issue further.  Must I resign myself to living unhappily in a city?  I'm not sure I could do that, and even if I tried to get others to join me I'd only be one voice out of billions.  Maybe there is no solution to this.

7)  Maybe we're all just dooming ourselves.  Everything ends eventually.  We'll simply wipe ourselves off the planet, and destroy everything in the process.  And I have to sit here and helplessly watch it happen.

8)  Someone get me out of here.


You see how it spirals? 
That was on Saturday.  It took me until Wednesday night to resolve the problem, because that was the day I went night-walking with the Outdoor Cluster.  It is what it sounds like, a group of people from my church who are linked by an enjoyment of being outdoors.  There's a range of fitness and 'hardcore'ness in the group, but on this occasion we decided to meet at a pub in Woodhouse and wander up to the top of Beacon Hill, a 40min walk.  I forgot my torch but in the end I didn't even need it as the moon was nearly full and so strong it cast shadows from all of us.  

When we entered the woods the light of it hit the silver birches, making them glow an eery iridescent blue.  In boots and coats we trekked through it, up the muddy track and then onto the firmer rock of the hill, and when we finally reached the top the view was stunning; not just looking down on the town, but up.  From our vantage point it was easy to see the difference between what was manmade and what had been there all along, and would be there long after.  The moon, pale and massive, provided more light than the lamps of the town, and the stars would last far past our own extinction.  We stood around, pointing out constellations and talking amongst ourselves.  Some of us prayed over the town, some of us were silent.  Gazing up, I felt what I usually do when faced with the vastness of nature; my world snapping back into perspective around me.  The sadness was still there, but tempered with a sense of beauty in the endless cycles of the cosmos, death included.  We came down from the hill maybe half an hour later, and I felt like myself again.

Maybe we will do it someday, build over everything.  Maybe we'll even venture out into space and try to take over that as well, but we forget how small we are.  For all our amazing discoveries about our universe we are still so insignificant that we'll never destroy it all.  We're simply not important enough.  And even if it was true and the world was ending, that doesn't mean I get to abdicate.  No buses for me.  At the end of my thought train I usually end up with the option of living miserably and suffering through the knowledge of a world going rapidly downhill, or the easier but more cowardly option of bowing out early.  "Why should I hang around?" I demand of God.  "Why should I keep trying to make this work when it clearly won't?  What's the point?"  He tends to to wait until I've gotten past the frenzied panicking stage and into the deep dark quiet on the other side, and then gently and sensibly explains "Because I want you."   There's always this strong parental tone in his voice when he says it, and I can't quite explain the shift in my psyche but everything settles down.  "Oh," I reply quietly.  "Well that's different.  For you, I'll stay"

I told you it cheered up at the end :)  Places like Bradgate need to be protected and appreciated to remain as they are, but let's not end on a negative note.  Here's me and Katie enjoying some fabulous cake after our walk, and finding a Leicestershire TARDIS, and picture taken from underneath a massive gnarly oak tree (You know me and trees, if I see a hole big enough for me I have to climb in it, and this tree had raised its great weight up off the rocks to create a cave!  How could I resist?!)  Whatever we face in the future, for now, everything is okay.  It's not perfect, but it's okay.  And okay is enough.

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