I took far too many books away with me this week, including three about the people and places of Dartmoor—but I only read one: Cal Newport’s A World Without Email.
Newport’s provocation was supported, not only by numerous case studies of organisations that have eliminated email, but also by psychology research and, most interestingly for me, history.
I was startled, for example, by the discovery that email overwhelm and inbox bankruptcy wasn’t merely latent in the system, but already evident from the very beginning, as this anecdote from the book shows.
When Adrian Stone implemented the new email network at IBM in the 1980s, he carefully estimated the number of emails that the server would need to handle, based on the number of telephone and paper messages that were passed between IBM employees on a typical working day.
Email was seen as a significant leap in efficiency for the company, removing the logistical complications of both synchronous communication (pinning someone down for a phone call or meeting) and asynchronous communication (delivering a pen and paper message).
Unfortunately, as the cost of communication dropped to zero, the number of messages the employees exchanged shot up and, within a few days, they’d blown the email server with the superfluous cc’ing of colleagues into endless back-and-forth email threads. Sound familiar?
As Stone puts it:
Thus—in a mere week or so—was gained and blown the potential productivity gain of email.
When IBM discovered this fundamental flaw with email, of course, they abandoned the experiment and everyone went back to communicating face-to-face, person-to-person in the old, slow, productive fashion. Oh, no, wait…
Luckily, in the second half of A World Without Email, Newport suggests alternative workflows that don’t provoke the misery-inducing ‘hyperactive hive mind’ of email and instant messaging.
I’m conscious of the irony of recommending this book in an email newsletter, so—before you unsubscribe—it’s worth saying that the title of Newport’s book is, by his own admission, more marketing hype than practical proposal.
Email still has a (drastically limited) role to play as a versatile, snappy, cheap tool for asynchronous communication. Inspired by the Reach Out Party, if I could declare one inviolable rule for every email interaction, it would be this:
Make your recipient’s inbox a better place to hang out.
Here in the UK, this was the week that we unlocked a little more. As I write, a paraglider drifts past my eighth-floor window. On my run this morning, the promenade was spilling over onto the sand and the bucket and spade buccaneers were doing a fast trade.
I’m late coming to you this week because I spent the last five days getting sunburnt on Dartmoor. As some of you know, I’m slowly working my way towards my Hill and Moorland Leader Award, chipping away at the forty logged walks needed before my assessment.
But the weather was so good this week that I worried my four hikes weren’t particularly good practice for the ultimate examination that will doubtless be undertaken in the filthy conditions for which Dartmoor is famous. Nevertheless, I’ve got only sixteen more training walks to go!
What I really valued about this week, however, was the feeling of breaking myself in again after a winter of semi-enforced inactivity. The sun rising over the horizon every blue-sky morning took on metaphorical overtones as I stood out in the chill dawn with a mug of tea and the birdsong.
Day three was the one that really did it for me. On day one, a fifteen kilometre tramp to the rising of the Avon river, I was powered by first day enthusiasm. But my enthusiasm drained overnight and, on day two, my feet dragged. I only survived a tour of Bellever and Laughter thanks to the morning addition of a hearty walking companion.
Resting atop Bellever, we watch a young boy hopping around the enormous boulders of granite, chasing the family dog. Mother, leaning back after lunch and looking up to us for solidarity, says: ‘Be careful—remember he’s got four legs, not two.’ But boy scrambles after dog. ‘These are too easy,’ he complains. ‘Can we find harder ones?’
Out loud, I suggest Great Mis Tor and the Devil’s Frying Pan, but what I’m wondering inside is whether I’ll ever have that boy’s energy again.
I perked up later in the evening after lighting the wood burner, but I was concerned for day three: did I have the strength to hike alone for four or more hours? Especially as, for some unknown reason, I’d decided to hike up the steep face of the moor’s highest peak, Yes Tor. It was yes again to my friend’s sound advice: ‘Go slow and take plenty of breaks.’
Trundling up the slopes from Meldon Reservoir, I ran into packs of army recruits, themselves making the most of a lifting lockdown. But as I clumped down the other side of High Willhays, I had the moor to myself, with nary a sheep to be spotted.
Somewhere between the solitude and the sunshine, the air and the exercise, I noticed that I hadn’t felt better in months. The stiffness of my mind and body had given way to suppleness, broken in.
When I made it back to base, after five and a half hours, eighteen kilometres and over six hundred metres of climbing, I felt stronger than when I’d left that morning.
The next day, we stopped at Haytor Rocks and spent the heat haze of Friday afternoon clambering around a mini version of the Ten Tors. Five hours down the trail, number ten on the horizon: from my lookout post in the clear blue sky, I see myself leaping from granite to granite, forever young in springtime.
Thanks to G.C. and B.Q. for fine company and penguin packets.
You’d have thought that, living alone for a year in a medium-sized town without access to powered transport, I would have explored every corner of greenspace within a five kilometre radius of where I live.
Not even close. This week, by opening my eyes and following my nose, I discovered pockets of unexplored nearby nature less than 1,500 metres from home.
There are two memorial benches here, dug into the sandy, salty soil among the steadfast pine trees. Better yet: someone has thrown a wooden rope swing over the lowest branches, still four metres overhead. We swing in the silence and I know that this discovery will become a part of my day-to-day.
Finding unexpected adventure in the millionaire’s jungle ravine
Yesterday I took a wrong turn, taking a right when all historical data indicates I should have carried straight on along the sea front. But the arctic wind was blowing at my back and I didn’t want to become one of those I saw on the return journey, walking into the gale with face masks pulled down to protect themselves from the spitting sand.
So I took a right turn, into what felt like a ravine, with sheer loamy walls underpinned by pines. The concrete path flowed gently upstream with Victorian ironwork overhead and rough cut steps laddering up to the hidden turrets of expensive villas.
The footpath coasted left and I could see two young mothers pushing prams down towards me—towards the wind-backed ocean. But I didn’t want to leave the pines yet and the canyon continued invitingly ahead, a quiet, ancient, grass-dried river, promising overgrown adventure and restoration.
As I walked on, the ravine closed in, the pedestrian pathways disappeared up beyond the canopy, the grassy floor gave way to thistle and thorn. Rhododendrons greedily clutched at scraps of sunlight. Black bin bags had been thrown down from on high and stood at the side of the path, waiting for collection. A supermarket shopping trolley sank into a thin layer of mud, a long way from home. The path—I think it was still a path—twisted over and around roots and stumps, leading me on into the darkening underworld.
Somehow, against all odds, I had found something that made me feel something. Senses on stalks. In the silence, I could hear my heart in my chest and my blood in my ears. The secret ravine had me gripped by the seat of my being.
I didn’t bring a phone on this walk so I can’t show you any photographs. And I’m glad. Not only because my smartphone can get in the way of my connection with nature, but also because, ducking under the out-thrust bough of a denuded beech, I realised that photography would be an invasion of privacy.
I was not alone. For here, at the butt-end of the ravine, overlooked by the views from million pound properties, was a clutch of six forgotten tents. I stood still, breath short, straining my senses for signs of strangers. Who lives in a place like this? But the camp was silent. Its occupants, presumably, out on business.
As I moved through the camp, the tents became more ambitious until I reached the premium pitches at the back of the canyon, where the goat track was finally choked out by thorny scrub.
Here, two large tents faced each other, guy ropes pulling the canvas taut against the branches of overgrown rhododendron. A table was folded out between them and two tarpaulins stretched over as a canopy to protect the patio space from rain. A bicycle was locked up against a pole of a tree. I could smell the tang of human sweat and the faintest memory of a campfire.
I thought about leaving my card, but had none to leave. Perhaps they’ll see my bootprints and wonder who dropped by. Perhaps they had been watching me all along, assessing friend or foe.
I tried to bushwhack my way past the tents, through to the ruins of Skerryvore, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped, longing for escape from the ‘slow dissolution’ of England, ‘Land of Counterpane’. But, scrambling up the mud side walls, I was stopped short by a chain link fence and a line of garden sheds.
I slipped back down into the shelter of the ravine and retraced my steps, back through the undergrowth, past the shopping trolleys and the tents. The path widened and opened. I could hear the burbling of a water main, squirrels leapt from under my feet. A mother and her daughter pushed their bikes over the iron wrought bridge as I passed beneath.
How connection with nature beats time in nature for happiness and wellbeing
Earlier this year, Miles Richardson and a team from the University of Derby published a paper suggesting that the restorative benefits of nature come from ‘moments, not minutes’.
The study found that how long we spend in nature wasn’t sufficient to explain significant increases in our happiness and sense of living a worthwhile life or reductions in our feelings of ‘illbeing’—depression and anxiety.
According to Richardson, what really counts is how connected we feel to nature and whether or not we actually notice the natural environment around us. This noticing happens through ‘simple actions’: relaxing in a garden, watching bees and butterflies, smelling flowers, listening to birdsong, collecting shells or pebbles, drawing, painting or photographing a beautiful plant—or perhaps celebrating a new moon by climbing the clifftops.
I have been very lucky this week to enjoy a few of these moments, from swinging among the pines to beating through the ravine undergrowth. I find it immensely encouraging that we don’t all have to be like Henry David Thoreau, who couldn’t be content without at least ‘four hours a day … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements’.
So when we’re out in nature this weekend, let’s all—pause—sit—notice—the green life growing around us.
How to notice nature: use this calming sensory meditation
A great way of noticing nature that I use is the classic 5-4-3-2-1 sensory meditation. Find a comfortable spot, ideally surrounded by nature, but allow whatever your environment allows.
Notice 5 things you can see.
Notice 4 things you can feel.
Notice 3 things you can hear.
Notice 2 things you can smell.
Notice 1 thing you can taste.
This meditation can take five minutes; it can take five hours. Completely up to you. Let me know how you get on!
Thanks to L.H. for the starry nighttime ramble along the clifftops.