My local climbing centre, The Project in Poole, is back open—huzzah! There’s only one snag in the celebrations: because of the pandemic, they’re running at an unsustainable loss. Hm.
Government Covid-19 safety guidelines dictate that they can ‘only’ have 155 people climbing in the centre at any one time. Which would be totally fine, but climbing is dangerous enough as it is without adding a high risk of catching and spreading the virus.
Even before Covid-19, the capacity of the centre was ‘only’ around 150 people. I’ve been there when there’s been about 100 people fighting for wall space and I can tell you it is FULL. To be precise: it’s an elbows-out jostling bunfight. Not what you want in a global pandemic.
So, after boggling their minds at the fanciful government guidelines, the team running the centre got together and decided that 60 climbers could sensibly enjoy the walls while preserving a safe distance from others. 60—that’s less than half the government figure!
But this means that The Project is running at about 60 percent of their usual business—poof—there goes their profit margin.
So why are they open at all? The manager shrugs: ‘Well, at least we’re all back climbing, aren’t we?’ And he’s goddamn right: there aren’t many other places still open for people to go and let off steam (and, in my case, dislocate their shoulders).
It made me wonder: how many thousands of small, community-minded businesses like The Project are running at a loss simply because the fabric of society is built on small businesses with small profit margins?
Unless we speak to the people running our favourite places, we might not realise what’s really going on because, superficially, ‘we’re all back climbing again’. But that’s plaster work over foundational cracks.
We need these places more than ever; let’s back them more than ever.
It may feel like our days are shrinking, that our expansive social and working lives are being stolen away from us.
The reality is that our lives are now being lived in the details, and it is in the details, as any artist or scientist knows, that we find our richest rewards.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist Viktor Frankl likens human suffering to gas spreading through a chamber:
[M]an’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.
The same metaphor, I would argue, could apply to almost any aspect of human experience, including curiosity, fascination and excitement.
But whereas suffering expands to our limits without much effort on our part, I think most of us have to work a little harder for these positive emotions to fill our chamber.
We might feel, since lockdown, that we’ve lost the richness of experience that comes from travelling up to London for the day, cycling into the country on a weekend, or hiking the Peak District for a week.
Some of us might even pang for the forbidden pleasures of formless office meetings, or fondly remember the frustration of traffic jams that held us up, once upon a time, when we had somewhere to go.
It might feel like we’ve lost something to our days and that the nights, though sleepless, can’t come soon enough.
But those lost experiences could only ever have swollen to fill a finite chamber, the finite chamber that is our destined interval of consciousness on earth.
The experiences that Newtonian physics demands must inevitably replace those that are ‘lost’ will, if we only get out of the way of ourselves, swell to fill an identical space in our soul.
The only thing we need is a little fascination for the details.
Rather than the broad strokes of outlandish living, rather than the transcontinental love affairs, the nights out on the dancefloor, the boozy Sunday roasts with friends and family, we choose to exist for now on a smaller scale, in among the overlooked details of our lives.
Be like the mycologist, who could happily spend a dozen lifetimes exploring the thousands of fungi that inhabit a handful of soil.
From where I stand at my desk, I can see sun-facing rooftops covered in bright yellow lichen — Xanthoria parietina (‘grows on walls’).
This week, in among the details, buried in books and podcasts and open access science papers, I learnt that lichen is not one organism, but two.
Most lichens are a mutualist symbiosis between a fungus and an alga, a collaboration that dates back hundreds of millions of years.
Long before humans discovered agriculture, fungi learned to farm algae for the energy they generate from photosynthesis.
(Side note: it’s not just agriculture we have in common; fungi are more closely related genetically to humans than they are to the algae they have domesticated — or indeed to any other plant species.)
I also learnt that lichens cover eight percent of the earth’s surface — more than is covered by tropical rainforest.
Without lichens, there might be no life on earth. They mine minerals from sheer rock and form the first soils in otherwise barren ecosystems. Lichen has been found inside lumps of granite.
Lichens have given us antibiotics, Harris tweed and, as black stone flower, garam masala.
I don’t suppose that I’ll look at that rooftop in quite the same way again. Will you?
All about us are the tools of enquiry — our senses, our curiosity and vast repositories of knowledge waiting to be dusted off and discovered. (I’m talking about the Internet.)
Has anyone else noticed how quiet the world is now? How ripe for observation?
That photograph at the top of the page, of the 140 million year old fossilised tree: I would never have noticed that staggering lump of palaeontology if it weren’t for the ‘boredom’ of lockdown.
There is an openness to the world right now. In our long days, we have time to notice the things that were once drowned out by the clamour of ‘business as usual’.
Rather than asking, ‘What’s on Netflix?’, we find ourselves asking instead, ‘How does the haze form, that makes this sunset so beautiful?’
Like the lichen on the rooftops opposite, everywhere we look there are questions that could seed many lifetimes of fascination, with each new discovery opening up new tunnels of exploration like the hyphae that forage and fracture to create the mycelium network that breaks up and becomes the soil beneath our feet.
Fascination is built from the combination of curiosity and imagination; given those ingredients, it is boundless. If you’re not sure, check the ingredients list on your garam masala.
I’m currently reading Edith Eger’s book The Choice. Like Viktor Frankl, Eger also survived the Holocaust. Like Frankl, Eger also moved to the US, also became a psychologist and also wrote a fascinating book about her experiences.
In April 1944, crammed into a cattle carriage with a hundred other Jews, destined for the gas chambers and smoke stacks of Auschwitz, Eger’s mother told her:
“Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”
These words sustained Eger during the year of captivity and abuse that almost killed her a dozen times over.
Our self-isolation is nothing remotely like what Eger and Frankl experienced during the Second World War, but Eger’s mother’s message holds true: it’s time to fill our minds.
You could do a lot worse over the next few weeks than to fill your mind with either The Choice or Man’s Search for Meaning.
Last weekend I spent four, five, six, seven hours a day rambling in the Peak District. It’s the perfect isolation activity. Solitary, wondrous: an easy way to free yourself from the invisible bonds that are tying you down.
Staggering down from Bamford Moor, I stumbled into a shady grove of stripped oaks, clad in living moss. I climbed over a crumbled drystone wall and sat with my back to the rocks and listened carefully for the sound of carbon-based lifeforms.
Back in Bournemouth, I’ve been breaking the isolation with walks along the seafront, watching the ceaseless, sleepless tide, in-out, ti-de.
I always make sure to ramble through the copse that stands on the clifftops and, invariably, my footsteps slow and I’m drawn upwards, climbing up through the stepladder branches that spiral a pine or holm oak.
My companion on these climbs is Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber’s Guide:
Trees anchor us in nature’s cycle; lining our pavements and filling our parks, they remind us of another kind of time-keeping, a vegetable clock that keeps ticking to an alternative rhythm.
In this strange alternative reality, trees are a comfort. All is not rosie in the garden: trees wrestle with their own diseases, of course, but they are a warm embrace when another warm embrace could be infectious.
The awakening buds and the loud birdsong remind us that life is still growing strong. It’s easy to spend my time in front of screens, refreshing, counting time until recovery. But the trees give me a reason to trust in time.
Space and time
Are not the mathematics that your will
Imposes, but a green calendar
Your heart observes
~ R.S. Thomas, Green Categories
I don’t know what’s happening and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that there’s a tree’s roots growing underneath me and that its branches reach up above me. That some people believe me and some people love me.
My last night in the Peak District was fresh and bright. I strode away from the acid lights of the youth hostel, found a sheep-cropped clearing, and looked up. The milky clouds rushed overhead, pulling back like a curtain on a light show for the rapture.
Seeing more stars than I had done for a long time, I stretched my power of imagination and learned a few nice things.
We are all poorer for our light pollution. The night sky outdoes any of our tawdry displays — but only when you can see the constellations that come alive in the dark. This is a map of the UK at night, with light pollution marked in colour from green through to yellow and red in our cities. Aim for the blackness: the Dark Sky Reserves.
The famous Plough is actually a small part — an asterism — of Ursa Major, the hind quarters of a much bigger beast that rears menacingly over the night. A mother protecting her cub, but only in the darkness. In most of our skies, the fearsome monster is reduced to an outmoded piece of farmyard machinery.
I connected the dots and found Leo for the first time. Leo is not a difficult beast to conjure, but if you don’t know where to look… He follows the Plough in the sky, facing the wrong way, with a question mark head and an isosceles rump. It’s really more spectacular than I make it sound.
In times like these, we can seek refuge in the infinite universe and feel the love come down.