Outdoor Discoveries

What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!

A weakness for photo books & calendars

3rd December 2022

You might even say that I have a weakness for the photos captured by others, and you would be right. Wildlife normally is not part of this, but I recently acquired a copy of Remembering Bears from Remembering Wildlife. This is a charity project raising funds for conservation of some of the world’s at risk mammals. The photos were provided free of charge by major wildlife photographers, and any profits after costs of production and shipping go to the intended efforts. As well as bears, the series also has featured elephants, rhinos, great apes, among others.

Returning to the volume on bears, it is a coffee table book with numerous species of bear included. It has the best known ones along with others that I had not come across before I perused it. The range is as wide as the spectrum of behaviour being featured. While the acquisition was a spur of the moment decision, it also was an opportunity to experience a little more of these impressive if daunting creatures.

Usually, photos of wild or more natural scenery appeal to me, and there are a few of those that found their way into my possession this year. Curiously, these come from German publishers like teNeues, gestalten and Koenemann. They are all coffee table items in a larger format with large photos to survey.

The ones from Koenemann’s Spectacular Places series are heavy as well, at least in hardback format, since there are paperback versions as well. Nordic Islands from teNeues is not as heavy as these, but shows its subjects off well in pleasing light and with good presentation. Curiously, there is a multilingual aspect with these, since the latter showing text in German as well as in English. Koenemann’s offerings add four more languages to these. In contrast, my copy of gestalten’s Wanderlust: Hiking on Legendary Trails is solely an English language production with more descriptive text than the others, which adds route information and other practicalities.

That these are series of books to collect could inflict damage on your finances if you end up wanting too many of them, and that also means taking up a lot of space afterwards. Nevertheless, they are a great means of getting a sense of what is to be found in places that you have not visited. Without leaving your home, there is the possibility of feeling that you have glimpsed scenic delights from faraway places elsewhere on the planet.

For a variety of reasons, I have fallen into getting various items of German origin in recent times. The list now includes computer software and calendars, as well as books. It feels as if Germans like photographic publications to be large, too. When I felt that the large calendars from Colin Prior were too predictable (he no longer does the type of photography that defined him around the turn of the century), my search turned to other places like Linnemann. Their large format calendars now grace my walls every year, even if they are not cheap. Their Norway item always appeals to me, and I otherwise have complemented it with something else from their selection, be it Alpine or Nordic.

There is a new offering from Norman McCloskey on its way to me too. This is called Kingdom, and it features photos of landscapes from County Kerry in Ireland, hence the title. It was something of an impulsive purchase, since I spent a deal of time around those parts during the year and remember passing Peter Cox’s gallery in Killarney a few times (the opening times were later in the day, which intrigued me). Decent photography of Ireland can be hard to find, too, and that makes me more prone to consummating whims.

Some of the acquisition fever can be caused by a sense of urgency brought on by what else is happening in one’s life. Over the course of this year, I have been making some significant changes to my Irish affairs that have not completed and likely will overrun into next year. This kind of thing has made me vulnerable in the past, so what is needed is a bit of extra space for myself, and I am hoping to have a bit of that in a few weeks.

Americana

15th November 2022

In a previous post, I mentioned Ken Burns’ magisterial The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and even wrote a few words about this documentary film series. Not living in the U.S.A., I found this quite accidentally when reading an article on either the Outdoor website network (probably the Backpacker part but I am not sure now). Both are part of the same media group and I became a subscriber to Backpacker magazine in 2020. In Canada, there is Explore and they perform much the same function for that part of the world.

Before this, I was inclined to do long trawls through guidebooks for acclimatisation and awareness. This can work but it is not just time-consuming but also can be trapped within one’s own predispositions. After all, America’s National Parks are known by many around the world so it can be easy to gravitate towards them but there are other kinds of public lands that are amenable to exploration, some of which abut conurbations so they can be easier to reach. Here, I am thinking of what lies on the doorsteps of San Diego in California, Portland in Oregon or Phoenix in Arizona. Two of these came to my notice in a serendipitous manner, the first from a tragic story on the Backpacker website and the last from a Wanderlust webinar.

There also is the usefulness of a more gradual approach taken with an open mind. A concerted effort can and does help but the slower accumulation of insights and possibilities is how I got going in hillwalking in the first place. It happened so naturally that I hardly noticed what was happening and this also brought with it a growing cultural awareness. The same approach might help to restart nascent explorations of North America yet.

All this highlights background realities regarding the scale of North American wilderness as well as equipment choices offered by brands that are not so pervasive on this side of the Atlantic like Canada’s Durston. There are times when you need to watch for product placement though and Backpacker’s online webinar series from 2020 was a case in point, especially given they erred on the side of overdoing just that at the expense of conveying an experience of the wild places that were featured.

Still, knowing the cultural side of things remains ever useful and that returns me to the feature film series mentioned at the start of this piece. The history of the American National Park system was not that well known to me, even if I was well aware of the influence of John Muir from my reading of his writings during the winter of 2017/8. What happened after him and the issues surrounding the various contradictions of a motto like “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” became plainer to me as I watched the film series.

The tension of high visitor numbers is very clear to us now and it always has been a problem as has allowing people to visit using their cars. That there has been road-building in otherwise pristine areas is part of this, even if that was curtailed in Denali National Park in Alaska by a persistent campaign by one of the park naturalists. The conflict between conservation and having visitor services like hotels and other amenities pervades today and that is likely to continue. Even so, there has been progress too with a different attitude to wildlife meaning that we now need to keep away from wild creatures rather than mingling among them as once was the case.

There is much to learn about another continent half a world away and doing this one morsel at a time makes things stick better. The more gradual approach also allows for added serendipity so you get to find out about places that do not come to light from a concerted effort.

Yearning

19th February 2022

We live in stormy times and stormy weather has been our lot in recent days. There also is a wintry feel since snow is falling in places as I write these words. Often, I have written here about the storms of life with the understanding that being out in nature is so restorative.

That has been the refrain from John Muir and so many others. We hear in the outdoor press about those who are unhappy in their everyday life and then leave that after them, at least for a while, to take on an outdoors challenge. That also features in the stories of people like Elise Downing who ran around the coast of Britain and became a Silver winner in The Great Outdoors Awards for her book Coasting. Some even have followed this kind of endeavour by changing their whole lifestyles.

The subject of soothing solitude has been mentioned in my writings numerous times and is one of the motivations for my excursions into nature. The landscapes may be human-influenced in so many ways yet it is their present-day emptiness that draws me. It might my introversion but I relish being away from others for periods. It certainly has drawn me out in wilder lands in Scotland and England but it also has its limitations.

Dependence on incursions into emptier lands still does not eliminate dependence on others. First of all, they need to be conserved but there are other things too. Political developments can affect them and my reverence for the Scottish Highlands and Islands made me emotionally vulnerable in 2014 when Scotland was debating its constitutional future. That led me to look elsewhere.

Unfortunately, that too can be bedevilled by global events like the ongoing pandemic and geopolitical tensions in different places. Developments like Britain’s exit from the European Union can unsettle as well. In many ways, this demonstrates the problems with having oases and havens outside of oneself. Going elsewhere for peace and healing can be forestalled by other intrusions all too easily.

At the start of 2020, I was reading Anthony Storr’s Solitude and the enduring lesson from that book was the power of interior self-efforts. That certainly has for me been an ongoing effort in life when solitude allowed me to heal enough during a career break to go back to working again and get through an emotional period in my work life. The same could be said for dealing with grief, loss and upheaval since the passing of my parents who thankfully were spared the travails of the pandemic and other intrusions.

It has taken interior efforts to deal with the fear and restrictions of the pandemic too. Initially, I was left floundering and a heavy withdrawal from caffeine consumption lasted several months but has left me sleeping more soundly nowadays. It took me a while to find again the relaxing effects of outdoor wandering and I will not forget the benefits of a circular stroll from home in May 2020 that took in Croker Hill, Bosley Reservoir, Bosley and Gawsorth in what was a wider sweep than I recognised at the time.

Books feature in interior journeys too and they certainly do in my case. Peaceful, evocative descriptions of nature have been mentioned in other postings that you will find here but there has been another strand to this over the last twelve months that may make some readers feel awkward. That has gone along the paths of faith and spirituality. Authors like John Barton, Karen Armstrong and Edward Feser have been on the left-brained portion of this reading ramble but it has taken a more mystical turn with authors like Richard Rohr, John O’Donohue and others that I have yet to read. This is experiential reading with a little more than what you might find in nature or travel writing.

That is not to say that I have abandoned nature writing because it deals with bodily sensing but that it has taken more of a backseat for now. There is a whole body of writing that awaits experiencing and brings its share of helpful peace, healing and meaning. To mention this is to bare my soul a little yet it could influence how I approach my wanderings and show them in a different light. The wonder of nature and the way that light falls on a landscape remains attractive for me but this may be encountered in a more holistic mindset.

Too often, I have felt that some frame outdoor activity too superficially and focus on their efforts to the point of disregarding their surroundings. That makes me look at the athleticism of some as being too shallow an existence when a more transcendental experience is possible. Certainly, that follows from the thinking of people such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau as well as even the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Physical condition and skillfulness remain important but they need to serve some higher purpose.

For many people, this involves being with others and adding the ambience of nature’s wonders to this certainly enhances that. That is good in itself but there is something about being alone in a landscape that it soothes and heals with its peacefulness. There are times when apparent absence is full of presence and becomes what is needed by a stressed and overwhelmed soul.

Welly walking

30th December 2020

Things have been quiet on here since October but life has been busy for me too. Perhaps, that may be a lot of the cause for the online absence. During times of running in and out of pandemic lockdowns, I have a had a technical project to keep me busy: learning a new scripting language that could have a use in my line of work.

Boardwalk at Dane's Moss Nature Reserve, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England

In some ways, that helped with getting through the autumn and early winter periods but I now realise that I could have done with more exercise even if that means encountering more people during risky times. Over the Christmas period, there have been more walks and so sodden and muddy is the landscape that I have been using wellington boots more than I otherwise would. For one thing, they certainly help to keep leg-wear cleaner and drier.

Having the extra cushioning of dedicated walking footwear on my now exclusively local strolls would bring more comfort but wellington boots have a certain convenience about them and even help when crossing the snowy surfaces that we have at the moment. The ongoing cold spell is set to continue yet that is not going to stop my outdoor recreation either, particularly should sunny days come my way.

My reading has been as wintry as the weather. It is impossible to avoid references to snow and ice when reading about Antarctica so finishing off Gabrielle Walker’s Antarctica became a sort of prelude to the ice and snow lying on the ground in my locality at the moment. Then, there is Bernd Brunner’s Winterlust that I spotted in an Explore magazine newsletter nearly twelve months ago and I am working my way through that too. Suitably enough, it adds a quiet muffle spirit reminiscent of its subject as it courses the world while doing so.

Travel is not high my agenda right now given the that things are going and I am not expecting so much of 2021 either. Its first few months may be occupied by an occupied by an ongoing lockdown if my sense is correct and vaccination will take a while to reach a level that helps us. After that, we only can hope that new variants will not outwit vaccines too readily.

Given that, it fills as if local walking and cycling will have a large part to play in my outdoor wanderings for a good while yet. Some will yearn for better while just dreaming and hoping seems safer for now. Taking each day at a time probably is the best way to proceed.

Subscriptions and home deliveries

10th October 2020

This has been an exceptionally tough year for retail and hospitality businesses and it is not over yet. In fact, it looks as if the start of 2021 may be no better. My line of business differs from these so I am one of the lucky ones in many respects since I have been able to work throughout the whole episode. Even then, I have not been immune from the added tension of the times in which we find ourselves.

Path through woodland, Riverside Park, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England

That also means that I am not doing many of the things that I normally would be doing. International travel needs to wait as does staying away from home. The fact that town centres got too busy for my sense of personal safety has had its own effects so I avoid them as much as possible. One consequence is that I now subscribe to every magazine that I read aside from ones that I can get delivered whenever their content appeals to me. Going to a bookshop to see what new books are out is postponed because going online does much of that for me. Even with hand sanitiser usage, you never know what you could spread by touching books in shops.

Given all this, I still fancy getting out and about in hill country when circumstances allow. There is a walk from Hayfield to Chapel-en-le-Frith that I fancy reprising in brighter weather and with warmer clothing should the day be chilly as we can expect over the next few months. That would allow visits to the tops of Mount Famine and South Head together with a repeat encounter with Brown Knoll. The latter has planted in my mind the possibility of going from Hayfield to Castleton that could take in Rushup Edge along the route. With the way that things are at the moment, that probably needs to wait but ideas are needed for better times.

Speaking of idea collection, I have been catching up on unread issues of Scottish Island Explorer. In one sense, they have been planting in my thoughts the prospect of a long overdue return to the Western Isles and Arran together with other unvisited islands along Scotland’s western island call too. After those, there are the nation’s Northern Isles that have been on my radar only for other destinations to draw me to them instead. It is good to stock up with hope in the knowledge that some challenging months lie ahead and my ongoing reading may add more to these.