Upstream, Downstream

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it attached to everything else in the universe.” John Muir.

My father was born in Muswell Hill, North London in 1942. He arrived shortly after the worst of the Blitz had razed the city and killed thousands. The first boy after two girls, he should have made a family of 5, sadly, shortly after he was conceived the eldest girl died. 

His mother, grief-stricken and carrying her own traumatic childhood experience from WW1, they survived living in the two upper rooms of a small tenement building. With no running water, they shared the bathroom with the family downstairs. Despite this, another girl, and then a boy arrived.  

Hilda, my paternal grandmother lived well into her 80’s, and I don’t think was ever silent. Her inner world was very noisy, rattling with fragments of a troubled past, and so even when she was alone, I believe she talked out loud to smother her troubled inner voice. 

She talked an endless stream of questions, that was relatable but followed immediately by statements that might be the answer to a question asked several minutes ago. You had to reassemble the information into the story it was most likely a part of – an auditory jigsaw puzzle, laid out on the air in so many words. Anything you might offer would be inserted at some point and likely arrive back via the family grapevine, usually having accrued a humorous twist as questions and answers collided.

My grandfather was chronically asthmatic. Living in the thick London smog he worked shovelling coal to make towns gas. He also was heavily involved with tobacco. Assailed by the environment, he died of an asthma attack age 55 – a victim of the dark side of the industrial revolution, itself a war of sorts.  

Come 1946/7 my father was practically feral as were many war babies. They played in the rubble and ruin of a city initially buoyed by victory but also suffering unimaginable loss. Living in poverty, without any nurturing oversight from parents, and rather being on the receiving end of his mother’s grief-fuelled pain and confusion, he instinctually spent as much time away from the house as he could, often under the care of his remaining ‘older’ sister but also often alone. 

A society defined by its stiff upper lip; a righteous cocktail of heroism, stoicism and national pride, driven by the necessity to rebuild the physical and social environment at the expense of emotional landscapes were the prevailing social winds that shaped him. 

He spoke of being a young boy, age 7 or 8, and hitching lifts out of London, telling tales to the drivers who stopped and would carry him as far as 30 or 40 miles. “I’ve forgotten the name of the place, but I’ll know it when I see it” he would say. He’d signal where he wanted out, explore a bit, then hitch back home again, sometimes with the same people. 

A short time before these early escapes began, aged 5 he was invited to attend Sunday School by a local church engaged in providing community support to local families in need. I sense that for the first time he found people who were interested in him. They provided material support, answered his questions, and offered inspiration and a comforting balm for his young and bright yet neglected mind. 

In his early teens he joined the Covenanters, a kind of adventure scouts for Jesus is how I imagine it. They ran boys camps around London and the South East, which provided a much-needed structure and helped him contain his overly aggressive tendencies, particularly in sport. Knocking out anyone who took the ball from him in soccer earned him a certain reputation but didn’t make him many friends. Once his temper was in check he gained a huge range of medals in track and field and, unsurprisingly, boxing. 

When he was about 14, the Covenanters offered him a chance to head north, to a place called the Lake District. The old minivans took a long time to carry them to Eskdale. Winding across the country and then, in the twilight, over the terrifying gradients and hairpin bends of the Hardknot and Wrynose pass. They were relieved and excited to stop and unload at the hamlet of Boot. 

In the dark, they snaked up the small road, moving slow and steady under their loads, then onto the track and after a mile or so made camp around an old barn. The basic stone shelter with a partial corrugated tin roof made for the kitchen, around which the party were pitched in a variety of a-frame canvas tents.

He told of falling asleep exhausted, then of waking shortly before first light, disoriented, not having seen the place beyond the halo of the kerosene lamps due to their night arrival. He knew he was much further away from London than he had ever been. 

The musky smell of damp wool blankets mingled with his curiosity as the condensation dripped from the inside of the tent, informing him how he came to be awake so early. In the gathering light, he decided to venture outside. 

He manoeuvred himself over the still sleeping forms, untied the tent flaps, and pushed his head through the opening, his warm breath condensing in small clouds over the dewy grass. He stepped out, standing in the cool air, rubbing his eyes and breathing deeply, he continued to wake. 

He walked barefoot to a pile of rocks and stood atop them. Looking around at the barn, the tents, out across Eskdale and down the valley over the top of the Oaks standing lower, and up at the dark shadowy fells, their gently glowing tops gathered in the growing light around him. 

It was taking him a while to orient; he’d no reference points for this experience. No TV, no magazines, no images to have given him any prior clue as to what he might find. His senses having to adjust, his brain assimilating the new textures and colour pallet. 

Immersed in this completely new landscape, he became aware that there was something other than the gentle beauty revealing itself in the creeping light. He stood for a long time. As the planet rotated, the sun lifted, sending shafts of gold out from behind the slowly shifting clouds, the gentle breeze on his face, he had the whole world to himself. 

As that sense of space and calm grew upon him so did another awareness. It wasn’t defined by the presence of something, but by the absence. It was silent. 

For the first time in his life, there was no shouting, no traffic, no construction noise, no impending sense of chaos, no pervading anxiety that his father might have a seizure or his overwhelmed mother lose her temper. 

He said he could hear his heartbeat. This wasn’t the silence that came after chaos. It was the silence that lives beneath all possible noise. He was safe, his body not rigid against the noise, he could relax, he could not just see but sense the beauty of the world laid out all around and feel it was patiently waiting – inviting him to explore. 

As soon as he could, he moved from London to the market town of Chesham, one of his preferred childhood ‘escape’ destinations, and the place I was raised.

In his late teens and early 20’s, he climbed in the UK, and occasionally further afield in the Swiss and French Alps. Aviemore and Glencoe were his destinations for winter climbing in the UK. He lodged with the crews working on the railway and hoped to find others he might tag along with, up into the hills. His brother stopped accepting his invitation to ‘getaway for a few days’ after a particularly hairy moment involving an unscheduled night out on Ben Nevis, in February. 

His love for adventure exceeded his technical ability, as it does with many of us, but he loved to ski in Switzerland each year into his late 50’s. Somewhere in the attic of his house are dozens of carousels of slides…each one a white peak, invoking memory and with it the ghost of a story. 

He died in 2017, leaving behind a large house in the countryside, and 5 grandchildren and proud that he helped clean up the environment through providing clean air. In his time, he did his bit.  

I have his canvas rucksack, his old rope and wood shaft ice-axe, a random collection of pitons, and other assorted hardware. I also have his boots, polished to a brilliant shine, the soles retaining all their screws. They fit me perfectly. Each weighs half a kilo and make a fine ornament on my shoe rack. 

I arrived in 1969. In the short time between my debut and the arrival of my sister, my parents managed a few trips to climb the cliffs between Sennen and Lands End in Cornwall. They would leave me asleep at the top, wrapped in my infant’s sleeping bag and wedged in some nook or cranny to stop me wriggling away. I don’t remember that but do still love those cliffs. 

My memories of mountains begin with being hauled up Jacks Rake, age about 7, the belt harness biting into my waist. Of walking in the mist, over frozen Peak District fells into what felt like a blizzard, my face and feet numb, my mind fantasising about the promise of hot chocolate, whilst the map flapped about my father’s muttering silhouette a short distance in front. 

And, of being lifted and ‘flown’ by a pair of royal marine commandos when I froze age 8 scrambling on those same Cornish cliffs. It might have only been a three-foot gap, and a downward jump but the drop was longer than I was comfortable with, above pounding white surf. They took an arm each and said ‘ready?’ as if it was a question. Needless to say, these early incidents did not inspire my confidence or connection to ‘the great outdoors’. 

Much closer to home, living on the very edge of town, my bedroom window looked out over the fields and scrubby woodland patches of the Chiltern Hills. Often I would take an old fishing net and chase butterflies through the fields, returning home mildly lacerated where the shafts of wheat had whipped my bare legs. We’d make camps in the woods and later built a racecourse for our bikes, complete with jumps and other dubious obstacles. We didn’t break any bones but did acquire several significant scars, some still visible. Like my father, I was very rarely indoors.

Fast forward through school skiing trips to France and Switzerland, of sailing holidays on the Norfolk Broads, and in remote cottages around the UK. One year we packed – ‘we’ being two adults and 4 children, into an old Saab 95 sporting a massive roof rack and headed to Ullapool for two weeks. It rained every day, all day. And, although that didn’t interfere with catching Mackerel from the dock after you’ve caught and eaten a dozen, and you know you will catch a dozen every day, whilst the midges are eating you, the appeal is diminished somewhat. 

The eldest of 4 children, life also felt very compressed. Not just by each other, by also by this air of what had grown to become a fundamentalist religious atmosphere. Fundamentalism of all kinds being a defence against our own inner vulnerability and fear of the unknown, else an attempt to dominate or at least mediate the rising internal forces; the parts that won’t be silenced but have not yet been invited to the party for fear they might cause a nuisance. 

But those Cornish cliffs were always there and during our annual summer holiday, I’d escape after the post-dinner chores were done. Walking from the cottage down the steep sandy paths to the beach, I’d feel the family stress shed like a false skin. I’d get lost amongst the rock pools at low tide, or run, almost glide from boulder to granite boulder, exploring along the rugged coast path, Walkman on providing the soundtrack to the peachy sunsets out West. 

I recall pocket money bags of chips for 20 pence, laden with so much vinegar my sinuses would burn. I’d cough if I inhaled the sharp vapours whilst trying to draw cool air over a too-hot chip. I applied enough salt to cure my tongue of its ability to taste anything. Then the warm smell of seaweed rising from the beach up-to where I sat, legs dangling over the sea, looking from the old harbour wall out toward Longships lighthouse. Not wishing anyone harm, but wanting the lifeboat to burst out of its stable and crash into the water, engines gunning, its white bow wave rushing and rising as it powered away towards someone’s salvation. Even the best-laid plans in skilful hands go awry. 

I think that’s where I first had a ‘moment’ and sensed something deeper was present. That time during early adolescence when a feint sense of freedom crept a little closer, I felt the invitation of the world beyond the ocean’s distant horizon, just over there, beneath where the Sun drops down; a whisper – reassuring me it was all going to be OK. That was enough for me at the time.  

My first career began at age 16 as a Gas Distribution Engineering Apprentice in Central London. Age 19 I was responsible for a team of three men much older than myself, with 20 years more experience. We were responsible for creating traffic chaos in Central London whilst installing, maintaining and repairing the gas distribution network. It was hard heavy graft, devoid of civilised conversation, always hazardous and often quite seriously dangerous. But it was also a very raw and real experience of being an integrated and functional part of the beast that is a capital city. The ecology of a metropolis is as wild as any place I’ve been. 

On occasion it could be surreal – as often we’d end up working in the hallowed halls of palaces, galleries, museums, or mansions before or after hours, or deep under the city in the subterranean network of ancient disused tunnels. Taking a single step off a major thoroughfare rammed with the noise and chaos of commuter madness into the silent chambers of history always came with a surprising sensation…literally a step back in time, between worlds.  

I followed my father into that industry, as he followed his. It was just the way it seemed to go. The difference between my father and his father was that my father worked with Natural Gas, which lacks the particulates that cause Asthma. For my father, much of his motivation was about clearing up the environment. He worked for British Gas for 35 years, beginning as a gas fitter and retiring at 55 as the head of Training and Development.  

I left in 2003 after 17 years when I was a programme manager responsible for the development and deployment of Transco’s IT infrastructure, a role that allowed me to study Applied Psychology. Those studies allowed me to reflect, and eventually rocked my foundational beliefs and values. 

The day I saw a fleet of refuse trucks driving away from our newly built Headquarters in Solihull, there came a reckoning. I had just furnished this new building with brand new IT kit – a tax break justifiable purchase but not an operational necessity. We were just moving money about – a game of who could write the best business case, charm the panel, stand their ground. The fleet of trucks was full of polystyrene packaging from monitors, PC’s, servers, telecoms switches etc. They were taking it to a landfill site, where it will remain for thousands of years. 

At that moment I saw the threads of connection that went from my role, through me, through my team, out through the organisational functions we worked alongside, directly into the web of corporate finance, of the tax system, and capitalism at large, and how it’s designed to commodify and consume in ever greater quantities to sustain itself. The chief value being growth. 

A social structure demanding we feed in raw materials to get out a profit, and ultimately pay the bills we incur, but one which at its core, if we include the net cost to the environment, cannot be sustainable. It destroys its source of capital at a rate greater than it can replenish. We all know this. The fact it was all geared around burning fossil fuels was also a factor, but I felt shielded from that, focusing on the day to day performance of meeting my targets and delivering my projects. 

Once I ‘knew’ what I was colluding with, I became very depressed, and a few months later I left. One of my colleagues said – “I think you are crazy to leave. You only have another 25 years, and you can retire and do whatever you like” without a hint of irony. 

I had been institutionalised – brainwashed into a certain way of thinking and I needed time out to readjust and explore the new values I had become aware of, and specifically what they would mean for my life. 

In the following two years I travelled the globe – employing my psychology training to coach people on the hoof, sometimes literally, as I explored Southern Africa, the Pacific Ocean, the wonders of the Australian outback and North West, the remote landscapes of NZ’s South Island, and almost by happy accident, many spectacular wild places across North America. 

It blew my mind to experience such profound diversity in every aspect of my experience. I’ve never recovered and am grateful each day I wake for the profound generosity and beauty I experienced, and I know I feel visited by a profoundly different consciousness when I have camped out alone in places where I am a part of the food chain and not top of it. 

It took 2 million years for the world’s human population to reach 1 billion, and then a further 200 years to reach its current number. Since 1980, when I was spluttering over hot chips on Cornish harbour walls, the human population has grown from approx’ 4.5 billion souls to approx’ 7.8 billion souls.

And whilst the ongoing year on year trend is a decrease in the birth rate (by about 1.5%) our death rate is currently about a 1/3 of the birth rate. Meanwhile, consumption of the earth’s resources continues unabated, even as the 2019 State of Nature report details a decline in 41% of the UK’s species, with 1/10 facing extinction. The 150 million tons of plastic circulating in the marine environment is also a significant threat to our collective well-being and echoed in many other areas of ecological and environmental health.  

But that is the problem. 

Quoting statistics makes zero difference to our response. The best science detailing the health of our only home, offered up over several decades, has fallen largely on deaf ears – be they political, social, religious, commercial or artistic ears. Whilst the realm of academia suffers a severe cramp in the left brain and can’t understand why hitting people with data doesn’t work. 

Even the ears of the conservation movement often seem to be tone-deaf to the often  dysfunctional attitudes and communication strategies. The ‘outdoor’ industry too does little more than sell experiences utilising nature as a backdrop – commodification and consumption are the self-perpetuation dance of capitalism. And as for us, the good old general public? Well, the precious few who are rattled simply can’t shift the needle far enough, fast enough it would seem. Ask Greta Thunberg. 

We are not helped by the English language which is inherently prone to separate things into bits rather than weave them together into relationships. We instinctually know the health of any system is dependent on the quality of the relationship between its parts, and not the health of the individual parts. That is a universal law we are slow to comprehend, even though our bodies speak it out loud to us every day. Try holding your breath for 5 minutes if you’d like to know more.   

But the one thing I do know – it won’t be carbon that chokes us to death. It will be our individual and collective denial, that useful psychological mechanism that blocks from our awareness the things we would struggle to face. 

Denying we have a problem defends us against the fact we are each in our own unique ways responsible for creating it, (which is not the same as ‘blame’!) which in turn prevents us from exploring and embracing the necessary understandings, resources and capabilities to address the systemic nature of the escalating ecological emergency right now…if we wanted. Why wouldn’t we want to?

The reason data doesn’t do it is because the human psyche, in its deeper meaning-making capacities, is not organised in terms of data. It’s organised in terms of story…as my web site says, “Though the world is made of atoms, it’s created by stories.” For better or worse. 

The human psyche is the aspect consciousness nature (through evolution) placed within us. We carry the same deep structural awareness as does the rest of nature, an awareness beneath and before language, beyond the comprehension of the rational intellect. Call it intuition if it helps. The experience of aesthetic arrest is the realisation, the full awareness of that fact. We contain nature, nature contains us. This is not a metaphor! 

The stories that motivate us are the ones we ‘feel’ connected to, which help us locate ourselves in relationship to our sense of identity, our geographical location, our motivations and goals and out beyond. 

In the never-ending tsunami of conflicting opinions, layered with regressive ideologies and a society that is structurally addicted to generating carbon and waste of all kinds, we are in effect caught in a great exercise of self-harm, the profound damage to the natural world is merely collateral damage.

An addiction is defined as any pattern of behaviour we know does harm but that we continue regardless. 

I wonder what we need to pause long enough to break a hole in our denial? How far and wide can we cast our awareness? How far would be useful? 10 miles? 50 years? And then how intimately might we get to know and appreciate our home whilst we still have it? No easy to ask in a world that wants to move faster each day, saturated with dissociative technology and superficial ideas of what being ‘connected’ actually means. We live in a counterfeit culture, with a small c, often shuffling the deckchairs as apparently did those on the deck of the titanic, the irrational logic being, if we can’t control fate, we can at least control the deckchairs.

Will we wake in the middle of our dinner choice this evening? Or the car we buy? The holiday we take? Our next Amazon purchase? 

 The important thing is not where or how, but that we took time to make the choice that aligns with our deeper values about the earth, not your convenient operational ones. 

To make a choice presupposes that we have the intelligence to so, which presupposes we have options. The question is not do we have options…an infinite number as always, but do we have the courage to chose wisely. I believe we can. I believe we must…though I’m not sure we will. 

“What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? 

And what shall I do about it?” 

Mary Oliver.

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