Al Humphreys Interview 14/3/20
Alastair Humphreys is a lot of things – adventurer, marathon runner, author, public speaker, relentless outdoor advocate, microadventurer. He has cycled round the world, crossed deserts and frozen ‘wastes’ (I can’t imagine it being a waste), rafted, biked, run and walked and continues to do so.
When I was doinh Walk for Aoife 4 years ago he helped me with advice and also agreed to be interviewed by me. This is the first ever interview I did so it is occasionally a bit ropey, if I’m honest, and I’ve sat on this for 18 months until finally deciding that there was enough value in it not to scrap it completely.
Alastair is a guy who can give great perspective given the experiences he’s had and was easy to talk to. His mission to bring outdoor adventure and a different way of looking at the outdoors has, in part inspired my sleeping out regularly through this past winter and I notice the difference in my general well being, especially when it came to the winter blues this year.
have a listen here to our half hour conversation
Let’s hope we’re not just preaching to the converted.
Moron Sleeping Out 29/11/19
It’s meant to read ‘more on sleeping out’ but I had to!
Yesterday I woke up in the woods. I always get a little nervous about sleeping out, like I might die or something, never come back. If I tell people that I’m about to go sleep in the woods in near freezing temperatures they get a bit shocked, ask me if I’m sure I know what I’m doing, like they’re concerned I might die or something, never come back.
Of course i don’t know what I’m doing
That’s not the main point but it’s relevant. The not knowing part. I made a bit of a pact with myself to sleep out one night per fortnight. Not necessarily in the rain, high winds or snow – I’m not self-harming here – I want as comfortable an experience as I can have throughout the winter months. So my loose rules are: don’t go too far from the house (luckily I live in the hills), don’t punish yourself by goimg out in the pissing rain or a storm (catholic heritage) or push too hard because you feel you have to.
When I woke up I felt warm. I was on a sleeping mat inside a bivvy bag, two trousers, 2 jumpers, 2 pair of socks, 2 sleeping bags, balaclava and scarf. Not proper gear but heavy stuff, old clothes, wool. I lay layered, mummified against the cold. I remembered that in the night I would wake up every now and again, see the natural silhouette shapes around me and just fall back asleep, comforted. I’m sleeping outside I remind myself gently and settle back down with a little smile. I dream of scrambling over rocks on the shoreline, the white noise breath of the tide. I awoke to wind blowing the upper branches of the great oak I lay beneath. Between dreams and waking I loll and it melts into one ecstatic, comforting trip.
After that I went home for breakfast with my family and then to work. I felt light and energetic, I was calm. I felt more connected to people at work. And despite this my brain still droned you should be more tired than this. How tiresome. The sense of wellbeing I get when I sleep out is fathomable because I really notice it. I carry that comfort I felt, that feeling I didn’t even know I could have – an inner warmth maybe, a reassurance. And I was afraid to do this?
If you like to camp in the summer why not wrap up warm and spend a night outside in winter? Plan it, make sure you’ve got lots of layers. Get yourself a bivvy bag and go fo it. If you’re not familiar with camping maybe wait till spring and start then.
I’m starting a thing this December, a nature connection hang out in Todmorden, meeting outside the Golden Lion pub. If you’re local and interested in being part of the undergrowth, hanging out and talking nature connection (and on a fine day going out and doing some) then please come along, starting 7th December 12.30-2.30pm. Golden Lion. Todmorden. Any interest level and age welcome.
Real Nature 25/10/19
The thing about connecting for me is about the story of what’s happening. It’s an attempt to exist outside of my empirical, measured views and step into something resembling uncertainty but it’s more like a deliberate search for ambiguity. Reality is subjective and can shift with each interaction, even with every thought we have. I could say there’s no such thing as reality, so as to get away from something which creates a rigid idea of how the world is and of how I am.
In nature if I take the idea that i am open to nature, and another reality or a movement of space, to be more accurate, helps me get in the right frame of mind. This though, doesn’t really get to the crux of describing a ‘real’ nature experience, so it then in some way becomes about belief. Belief is a heavy word – all tied up in religion and somehow trusting in something which, to our rational minds, does not exist. The majority of people may know that we have in some way evolved through that way of being into our current explicatory consciousness.
For a long time I felt that this was the case and was entirely rational about my life and its various aspects. I was miserable though and inflexible. I didn’t feel that I could change, that I could successfully work towards a happy outcome. Life was a struggle for me. I was, you could say, a master of struggle, had cultivated and perfected feeling like I was getting nowhere, which I sometimes still adhere to when I’m in a state of forgetting. Getting beyond where I was, was outside of my control and external influences wouldn’t allow change to occur for me.
Through doing nature-based practices I tuned into something which could hold me and my negative ideals without judgement – the first very important part. As I always had some kind of trust, a belief I suppose, that the natural world has an inherent wisdom – e.g. if it doesn’t, how do ecosystems remain in balance without too much apparent effort, as if it’s been so well practiced it just happens. I began to trust that nature could ‘hold’ me, that I was safe in nature and could open up in some way. And what did that entail? Sleeping outdoors, on my own. Without a tent. There are many ways to do this but with a bivvy bag was how I started.
I remember the first time I headed out onto the moors in Derbyshire in 50 mile an hour winds, my belly full of fish and chips making the 2 hour walk to my spot more of a struggle than I was thinking. I was an intrepid adventurer though! I was not going to starve and I needed all that extra weight so I wouldn’t get blown off Mam Tor. The sunset was apocalyptic, during which I saw Manchester going up in orange flames, planes scattered in the burning sky, trapped under the tight grey lid of the thick cloud layer. This might have been reflecting my inner state as I sat there watching what felt like an unbelievable scene.
That felt like a real challenge and change, going sleeping on a hill. A step outside reality which was often made up of certainty and fear. Last time I went and slept on a hill an owl landed on a rotten tree stump just a few feet away from me. I froze, moving only my eyeballs to get a closer look. I looked and it looked at me. It flew and I felt calm and peaceful. No wind, no fear, only excitement. Spending nights out in nature or microadventures (which isn’t what I call it but describes it fairly well), always helps me feel alive. It’s a reset, a defibrillator for my mind and body to get me back into a good, healthy rhythm. I need it.
So, simple as the idea and logistics of sleeping outdoors can be there’s also the idea of what it’s doing for me, breathing in air that’s not ‘indoor air’ can be a good start – I just read that we spend 90% of our lives indoors. Being around the shapes of trees and their seemingly random branch formations to the smooth or roughness of a rock can be pleasing. To sit and look at what is apparently a highly evolved piece of bracken is a real pleasure. And to share its world – the world we grew up in as humans before we chose to spend so much time indoors – feels like a really good idea to me.
So when I work on tuning in to nature, it’s something else. It’s personal, I suppose I could say, just like politics and religion is – I have my own story of what I believe is going on but I use the information gathered in the past and present to help inform my opinions and feelings. And in a world where we have to have answers and visible proof in order to believe something, I like to dump all those ideas when I’m out in nature. It’s like there’s a deeper conversation happening, which doesn’t need defining because it always changes – it’s never the same. The rest of the time I want things to be the same just like everyone else does. I want things to be on time – in fact, I was always a stickler for being on time. I am upset when something I ordered two days ago hasn’t turned up today and I get frustrated when my daughter (who works much more like nature than I do) is slow and appears to be stalling.
See nature like the reset button. There’s no answers there, just difference, weirdness, slowness, gentleness, openness, randomness, power, pleasing shapes and colours, clean air and opportunity to do the being thing. Slow down. Nothing is real.
Interview: Maddy Harland
I wrote an article for Permaculture Magazine last year about nature-based rites of passage and young people. Maddy helped guide that article for the PM reader and I really enjoyed the process of working with her. The interview below gives insight into what drives her and how her deep connection to the earth and humans grows and creates beautiful things. You can read more about Maddy at the end of the interview. Thanks Maddy!
Blog. July ’19
I gave up using a smartphone about 9 months ago. It was hard to do but I suppose it is a kind of experiment to see how a change of routine would suit me, since having moved country twice in two years and didn’t seem like enough.
Last weekend I went to a Big City and, realising that I hadn’t planned my trip properly I reached into the crap box and pulled out the old smartphone*. I could use maps, apps and generally be able to navigate my way around with this handy little computer machine in my pocket.
But could I really rely on this hand computer to get me places, to not break or run out of battery? I felt it was a risk to rely on it, that it might let me down. I felt wobbly leaving the flat with just this tiny thing to make sure I got where I wanted to go, perhaps like an early human burning his hand on the First Fire, not seeing beyond the danger. But it was great! I loved being able to find my way round using the map and looking up this and that was exceptionally fun. I wanted to buy shoes … easy. Look up my favourite shoe stops. Maps were there for me, guiding me all the way. Convenience, like I had forgotten existed.
I was nervous, though.
I remembered back to when I decided to ditch the smartphone in the first place, standing at the bus stop in the rain, wondering if the bus was going to come. I felt awful. Like part of me had died. I was bereft and unhappy, wondering why it was I was doing this. It took a couple of months for me to adjust to having to prepare for things before leaving the house, to feel relief at not having that responsibility to be connected….
When smartphones first came out I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. I think it was 2011. No, before that I had a blackberry and I remember feeling important, checking emails for my veg box business whilst on holiday in the wilds of Scotland, sitting in my van in leaky waterproofs on a rainy, wild summer day, bringing this wave of technology forth through salty spray, thrusting my way into that Hebredian backwater’s future, personally bankrolling world-changing access to electronic evolution. That was it. Email, social media, maps, timtables, bookings!! Holy shit, now I could have everything, EVERYTHING was there for me. And I created all this, I helped build this beautiful world of ‘free’ access.
I took the bus on the second day in the Big City. I knew which bus stop it went from, how long the journey would take, where to get off for my destination. There was a live journey feed during my trip which I thought I didn’t need so I turned it off. But I did need it, as it turned out, so I put it back on but it wouldn’t connect back up with my journey. I messed it up, stupid tech. I really wanted to know what it would be like to be synced with the trip via the map. This was a disaster and so frustrating. Whoa there!
Me on the train, on the way back home <I’ll just download the ebay app then I can buy this book> —-ebay scrolling for an hour—<shall i read a bit? no, wait I need to see what the weather’s going to do tomorrow, actually I haven’t done a thorough enough search for sleeping bags for my mega camping trip>—scrolling for another half an hour—<i wish I’d downloaded the netflix app so I could watch something amazing and life changing on this journey. train journeys are soooo booooring. maybe I could watch something on youtube. i wonder which bus I can get home. god it’s so slow. oh wow it tells me how much a taxi is from the station to home. that’s so cool, maybe I can book one now. book an uber to pick me up from the station, be there waiting for me. that is living>
I totally lost it
And then I remembered why. I didn’t want it. Didn’t want the wanting. Wanted to not want all that busyness, that feeling connected, that empty desperation of the next thing and then the next thing. Connection, wanting, connection, the joy of checking, and the next thing and then following the causal connections, the random flipping of mind to the next thing and the next. pure indulgence. bingeing. lovely bingeing, I just want to binge and binge. bingeing is good for me. the major phone networks say it is. finally it’s ok to binge…
I’ve got a brick phone and sometimes people laugh when they see it <what, that’s your phone?> but I know why I chose it. Because my busy mind likes nothing more than to be distracted. I chose it because I like the idea of being as much in the here and now as I can and a smartphone is a distract-athon for me. I won’t go into the brick metaphor here but try and imagine a cheesy 2 liner where bricks are a good thing.
Now I am used to looking things up beforehand, actually remembering things, carrying a little notebook and pen in my pocket (I love it), enjoying that I check emails and social media once a day at least (and when I do I still sometimes feel that empty feeling of expectation and disappointment, a hangover from my smartphone days, maybe) and I enjoy making eye contact with other non-smartphone users. I can do all this and feel incredibly smug at the same time as I confront people with my enlightened ways and help them compare themselves to me.
The experiment continues..
*raspberry for people reading this on their smartphone
Interview: Sam McLoughlin
I’ve loved Sam’s work for years and wanted to capture some of his thoughts on questions I made up
more of sam here