I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy. I could sit here all day and type lines I love, but if I was going to type just one, it would probably be this one:
‘The horse raised its head above the skyline to listen among the constellations.’
I like to raise my head above the skyline to listen among the constellations also. I have found numerous ways: sleeping out, dawn surfing, night walking, solitary hiking, mountain climbing, psychadelics, meditation.
There are times when I ask myself why I seek altered states of consciousness with such dedication. When I’m stuck halfway up a mountain, for example, frozen with fear. Or when I’m paddling out in December under a darkening sky, hailstones hammering my face. Or when I can’t remember how many more drops of acid I took because I thought it wasn’t working.
It’s partly to wake myself up. There’s no FOMO that hits me harder than lying in bed through a midsummer dawn. The relief of being awake is worth every ounce of hardship. The acceptance of things as they are – bigger, wider, deeper. The chance to give up the ghost of control over the unfathomable mystery of life.
‘We still and always want waking’ wrote Annie Dillard. ‘We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.’
Wild places are crucial as spaces where waking up can take place. The concept of untrammeled, unsponsored land, even if it exists only in our heads, is a healthy retort to the sleepy hubris of humanity. Personally, I find the knowledge that there are places in this world that do not conform to the laws of mankind immensely comforting.
This is why I am worried about something. There seems to be a growing trend for cashing in on the cool capital of nature in order to sell oneself on social media.
Some environmentalists argue that by applying market values to the natural world we are likely to have more success in protecting it. George Monbiot called this the Natural Capital Agenda, and if you think it’s a good idea (as I used to) then take a look at the transcript of a lecture he gave at the University of Sheffield in July 2014. He neatly sums up the root of my disquiet:
‘…in the majority of cases, efforts to price the natural world are complete and utter gobbledygook. And the reason why they are complete and utter gobbledygook is that they are dealing with values which are non-commensurable.’
This is why I get anxious when I see another trendy film of a far-flung surf spot being used by a ‘cold water surf company’ to hawk T-shirts. It’s why I worry when I see images of ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ exploited by London-based digital self-marketeers as the latest aspirational tool in the hateful culture of envy that is Facecrack. I worry even more because I don’t think the perpetrators know what they’re doing. Tricky to express the whispering of the constellations in 140 characters. And taking selfies of yourself being by yourself surely defeats the purpose. I think they’re missing the point.
‘True solitude is found in the wild places’ wrote Wendell Berry, ‘where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.’
Cashing in on the cool capital of nature is not harmless, still less a positive way to protect the environment. It desecrates it. The wild places, by definition, cannot be marketed. Things that end up in the market have been trapped, tamed, claimed and branded. They are for sale. No longer free.
Tread carefully. Take nothing. Wilderness is for life, not just for capital.