I’m learning to become a ‘great outdoors’ kind of a person.
Ten years ago, my ideal Saturday involved a lazy brunch, a wander round the shops and a trip to the cinema. Then I fell in love with a boy who prefers long cycle rides and hikes to the top of tall hills. Don’t get me wrong: I still love a flat white in the morning and a good film in the evening. But I allowed myself to be cajoled into – quite literally – broadening my horizons. And I learnt that I could be stood on aching feet in the pouring rain half way up a mountain and be at my happiest.
It was a slow revelation. It took deliberate effort to embrace these activities. I purchased a ‘sensible’ raincoat and walking books – much to my sister’s horror and my in-laws’ delight. I puzzled over laminated OS maps from the library. And I turned to something that I do understand: books.
At university I was taught by Robert Macfarlane, who was then publishing his second book. This month his fourth, Landmarks, is released in paperback. He has become poster boy for ‘new nature writing’, a loose term that covers popular books as diverse as Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life.
Most authors who find their books displayed in the nature displays at Waterstones would shirk the term. However, few would deny that in the last 10 years British writers have been exploring our relationship to our landscapes with renewed intensity.
New nature writing is not without its critics, who claim that too many white, middle-class men are tramping round the countryside thinking themselves profound while our wild places go on being destroyed. The spirited reply claims that these writers are in fact agents of change, encouraging their readers to get involved in conservation efforts.
For me, devouring these books was, of course, sometimes another way to escape actually getting my boots on and going outside. “What’s that, darling? A walk? Sorry, I’m just in the middle of a chapter.” However, they also engaged my imagination and allowed me to gradually unearth seeds of understanding and enthusiasm for the great outdoors.
Christians have long found solace and wonder in contemplating the natural world. “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” “He lets me lie down in green pastures.” “Consider the lilies.” And it’s not just about a transcendent experience of pastoral bliss. As trusted stewards of our Father’s creation, we have a responsibility to respect and protect our landscapes. It’s a task we all need to take more seriously, whether you feel better equipped to do that by reading a book or pulling on your walking boots.
Someone at church recently reminded me of a fantastic quote from The Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon, being goaded to leave the apartment, responds: “If outside is so good, why has mankind spent thousands of years trying to perfect inside?” I have certainly spent a long time building myself the perfect indoor den, complete with blankets, candles, and plenty of books. But maybe this summer it’s time for me to come out of hibernation. See you at the top of the mountain.