There are times when you just want to get away from it all and recharge the batteries. And for me the outdoors is just the perfect way to escape from ‘life’ for a little while, before returning with a renewed perspective.
Last weekend was one of those times. After the stresses of a work week commuting and the miserable-ness of leaving home and getting home again in the dark, I needed some time away. To be fair, I was also itching to get out since I’d been catching glimpses of the three snow-capped Munros and one Corbett visible from the end of my road during the week. Those bright, snowy peaks were calling me, luring me with promises of an exciting adventure.
I was clearly much too grumpy to have sitting around the house all weekend. My wife diplomatically encouraged me to find a hill to climb so she and the kids could enjoy their weekend in peace without me moping about.
So off I went. Not far – just 20 miles or so as the crow flies – but far away to escape the stresses of a busy pre-Christmas Saturday.
I set off for Auchnafree Hill, a Corbett on the eastern side of Loch Turret across from Ben Chonzie. Just a few afternoon walkers were returning to their cars as I set off along the Loch Turret track with my rucsac filled. I gained height just as the late afternoon light was fading, following sheep, walkers’ and stalkers’ tracks before striking off towards the trig point of Auchnafree Hill. By this point it was almost dark but my headtorch made sure I avoided the icy pools and frozen peat hags. The deep snow of a fortnight ago had all but melted: just patches were left on the tops. I pitched my tent just in the lee of the breeze and polished off lamb curry leftovers for tea.
There was silence all around. And my internal peace was restored.
The Norwegians have a name for it: friluftsliv. This is literally translated as “free air life” (free-loofts-liv) but like hygge, its cultural connotations go far beyond any English approximation. Both words refer to uplifting ambience but while hygge focuses on cosiness and human relationships, friluftsliv captures the essence of our relationship with nature. It first appeared in an 1859 poem by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen which described how a central character needed solitude in nature to clarify his thoughts.
I often need this. A classic introvert, I need time alone to re-energise myself, and walking and camping solo is a great way to let my subconscious ideas percolate.
There’s a big difference between solitude and loneliness and a great piece by Alastair Humphreys draws out the distinction. Loneliness is a negative state characterised by isolation whereas solitude “is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself“. Solitude is a personal choice and not imposed on us like loneliness. “Solitude is refreshing; an opportunity to renew ourselves“. Solitude was what I was after that night, allowing me to restore my perspective, recharge my batteries and gain inner strength from the wildness of nature.
From my campsite I was looking down on the sprawling lights of Falkirk and Grangemouth’s industrial complex. Underneath the glare of the orange street lights families were slouched around their living rooms watching ‘Strictly’; the only stars I was interested in were those twinkling above me. I wasn’t wasting hours staring at a TV screen, I had the ever-changing light, glimpses of mountain hares and views overlooking Central Scotland to distract me.
Waking up thirty minutes before sunrise I popped my head out of the tent door to see that I was enveloped in low cloud. Oh dear, not what I was expecting … My coffee was almost brewed when I realised the tent was brightening up: sure enough, the cloud had lifted. I jumped out and was just in time to catch the first rays appearing in the east.
The soft, golden light reflected off the snow patches and lit up Ben Chonzie and nearby hills behind me. It was a still morning and everything was damp from the low cloud. But now that the sun appeared the breeze got up, soon turning the damp droplets on my flysheet to ice. Heavy droplets clung to grasses, glistening in the sun. Peat hags guarded snow patches and icy pools.
My coffee tasted good. But I also felt good. Call it friluftsliv if you wish but there’s mounting evidence that nature is good for you.
Studies have shown that people who are exposed to the sights, sounds and smells of nature gain positive mental health benefits compared with those exposed to more urbanised environments. They tend to have reduced levels of stress, lower levels of depression and anxiety, increased resilience and improved self-esteem. These effects may be linked with an innate need of humans to connect with nature, resulting at least in part from our genetic make-up and evolutionary history. In fact, our separation from nature has only been relatively recent, over the last 250 years or so.
So as I dropped down to Loch Turret with the warm sun in my face and blue skies above I definitely felt much better than when I’d set out. There I was heading home just as the rambling groups were setting off on their day’s walk.
I could tell they were eyeing me up curiously. One walker couldn’t resist and stopped me: “You must have been out early this morning ?” “I was wild camping up on the summit“. “Ah, good chap, well done“.
From grumpy to smug in less than 24 hours. Not bad.