And greetings from Okehampton Youth Hostel, where I’ve spent the last ninety minutes on a work Zoom call.
But the six hours before that were spent up on Dartmoor, happily tramping around in the sunshine. Yes: sunshine. Look!
But all I know is that I felt super grumpy this morning.
The man with whom I was sharing a hostel room got up three times in the night to empty his bladder — once every two hours, like the shittiest cuckoo clock — each time he’d clump woodenly across the floor in what can only have been vintage Dutch clogs before setting off the scary movie cree-erk-thunk of the snap-close fire door.
Then, exactly three and a half minutes later, like the shittiest runny egg timer, the same cacophany in reverse.
I was then terminally awakened in the lightless pre-dawn by a persistent bleeping alarm — you know the ones: a fridge door that’s been left open, a washing machine that’s reached the end of its cycle, a smoke detector overwhelmed by the nocturnal farts of too many teenagers — that came from somewhere both way too close and not close enough for me to punch repeatedly until it stops.
This delightful morning chorus went on and on and on until the ensuing headache forced me out of bed around seven, the opposite of rested.
I feel, then, not unreasonable in my opinion that, this morning, I did not want to see, speak or share space with any other human being.
In other words, not a good time to find oneself in a popular youth hostel, surrounded by the lowest rung of humanity’s ladder: the loudest jolly good morning people who could ever have summoned the temerity to wantonly occupy what I thought of as very much my kitchen.
‘Can you please not do that here?’ I told a couple peacefully preparing porridge on the stove, before turning to a healthily-dressed, Wheetabix-obsessed family of four: ‘Why don’t you all shut up and sod off until I’ve had breakfast?’
But none of them heard my silent cries.
They all just kept on saying syrupy things like, ‘Good morning!’ and ‘Doesn’t your breakfast look delicious!’ and ‘Do you know where we can get more Wheetabix?’
So I gritted my teeth, kept my head down and did the bare minimum to ready my stomach and rucksack for a day’s hiking on the moor.
It was not going to be a good day, but I didn’t have to enjoy it: I’m here with a job to do.
Since late 2018, I have been training as an outdoor expedition leader.
The impulse to retrain came from the fact that, as a writer, my work can make me feel boxed in. Writing is an indoor and solitary occupation, but humans have undeniably sociable and outdoorsy brains.
So when I realised that some people actually get paid to mess around in the outdoors all day, I quickly signed up and passed my Lowland Leader award. Despite a false start due to the Covid lockdowns, I have been lucky enough to work in the outdoors ever since.
(Side note: If you even have mild feelings that you might like to do more work outside, then I urge you in the strongest possible terms to get your Lowland Leader award. The barriers to qualification are low and there is currently a shortage of leaders so you will immediately find work paid in money.)
Since I got that Lowland Leader award, I have been working towards assessment on the next rung in the outdoor hierarchy: Hill and Moorland Leader.
This qualification wouldn’t massively change the work that I actually do — I enjoy working in the lowlands of England, which is handy because that’s where most of the opportunities are — but technically becoming a Hill and Moorland Leader would mean I could work in areas like Dartmoor, Brecon Beacons and the Peak District.
Before I can take my Hill and Moorland Leader assessment, however, I need to log at least forty days hiking in hilly and moorlandy terrain (logically enough).
But there is one problem: I think the Hill and Moorland Leader assessment requirements are very… how to say? Masculine.
Forty days out on the moors — fantastic. And, naturally, in order to lead, one must know the land.
Where I take issue with these days is the stipulation that they must involve at least four hours of ‘travel time’.
At least four hours of watching, listening, sketching, writing, meditating, sensing — none of that is good enough.
We must have four hours of travelling, each and every day. And what that means is hiking. A lot of hiking.
For me, even across the boggiest moor, four hours’ hiking covers at least 14km. Today it was nearer 19km. Over my forty days, I’ve stomped down about 600km of heather, gorse and sphagnum moss.
I know that, historically, a lot of hiking is exactly what people expect when they come to places like Dartmoor.
But I am saying that this is wrong and we should not be training our outdoor leaders to follow this very masculine ‘smash out a proper hike’ mentality.
The emphasis of the training falls too easily on breadth of coverage rather than depth of experience.
But it’s depth that I desperately need — particularly after grumpus nights like last night — and it’s only in wild open places like Dartmoor that I can sink down and reach the fathoms of nourishment and restoration.
Clocking kms, bagging tors: that speaks to our masculine energy of domination. (Especially when the literal red flags are flying around the military firing exclusion zone.)
The energy of domination is not what our often addled bodies and brains need. And it’s not even what nature does best. We’re wasting the riches that time on the moor affords those of us lucky enough to be out here.
A 14km yomp is basic military efficiency. It’s not going to teach me anything I don’t already know: that my body can follow orders.
What I need to learn and relearn is much slower and more delicate: I need to learn to stare at the ground and notice the eyebright, knapweed and oxeye daisy; to stare at the sky and read the changing cloudscape; to close my eyes and listen for skylark, snipe and cuckoo.
From time to time, I need to lie on the ground like it’s my sofa and soak up nothingness.
I don’t need an intense day of exercise. I need the moor to become my living room, literally: an open expanse with room for all living things.
There is a medicine that you can only absorb through eyes, ears, nose, feet, breath: wind, air, sunshine, rain. Nature, the moor, the relentless acceptance and infinity of it all.
Welcome, it says, welcome all. You are whole, it says. We are together, it says, together at last.
I probably stayed irritable for about two hours as I stomped across the moor this morning.
And then, from one minute to the next, for no reason in particular, I noticed that I wasn’t so grumpy anymore.
I wasn’t even tired. (I am now, mind.)
I needed restoration and I got it.
We all need living room.