Wednesday, 23 April 2008

"Tea bags are invaluable in a survival situation - but in a disgusting way..."

I have just returned from a five-day camping trip with some friends up in bonnie Scotland: pitching our tent by the coast and under the snow-capped mountains, walking every day and admiring the forests teeming with life, meeting new people and sharing new adventures. Unremarkably my thoughts have turned to the differences between life in the city and life out in the country.

Spending even a few days out in the relative wilderness brings home how remarkable human civilisation has become and how easy our collective abilities have made our lives. Not having to start a gas stove and walk fifty metres to fill a kettle just to make a cup of bad coffee seems absurdly decadent now. Sitting on a real chair without the wind in one’s face seems like luxury. I never ever appreciated the fluffy softness of a warm cotton towel before. Houses are remarkable inventions; an incredibly sophisticated tool for shelter. After staying out in the country – ‘God’s Country’ – one comes to realise that everything – from entertainment to history to culture to arts to my own beloved philosophy – everything is tangential to pure survival. If one can survive then everything else is just a way of making life more fun along the way.

The difference between life in an urban built-up city area, the centre of civilisation, and life out in the rural countryside, where human settlements began, is exemplified in the people and their differing attitudes. Cities make people cynical; commuting to work surrounded by strangers and being barraged by a constant stream of panic-stricken media strips away the part of humanity that cherishes the presence of other humans in a social setting. People in the city become afraid that everyone and anyone will knife them in the kidneys if they turn their back, let down their guard. Whereas in the countryside, people trust one another. They don’t lock their doors, they wave hello to strangers, they enjoy talking to other social creatures.

A striking example of this occurred just the other day. We spent the better part of the day walking eleven miles along the coast from our campsite in a small village to the next nearest town (which was really nothing more than two dozen buildings). Our intent was to arrive there in time to get the last bus back to our cosy tents and the warmth of the local pub. Unfortunately, in the manner life tends to, it didn’t go to plan. We had misread the bus timetable and missed the last bus by twenty minutes: it appeared we were stuck. Fortunately, in the manner life also occasionally tends towards, a bus going the opposite way happened upon us. One of our party talked to the bus driver who very kindly agreed to take us back to our campsite when he drove the bus home for the night. Free of charge! – although we did end up giving him some money for his trouble. It’s difficult to imagine a city bus driver doing that and it just goes someway to showing the camaraderie of the countryside (at least I thought it did: the random act of kindness touched my blackened heart, long since shrivelled by city-cynicism).

Maybe it’s different for different people; some humans probably thrive on the bustle of the city and the presence of myriad possibilities for recreation. As for me, civilisation is more like a drug: ultimately it’s bad for me but once I fall within its grasp I get hopelessly addicted. In a few days I’ll be watching TV again even though nothing is on, refreshing my e-mail inbox, and distrusting the person across from me on the bus, despite the fact that that is not the person I want to be. Tools and social communities are the blessing and curse of mankind.

It’s probably different for different people but my friend put it best yesterday morning when I was extolling the luxuries of our bed-and-breakfast: I said how great it was to sleep in a warm bed with a mattress beneath me, a soft pillow, and a huge duvet – he simply replied “Yeah, but how sleepy are you today compared with yesterday?” He was right. For all the luxuries of a B&B in a town, I didn’t feel nearly as alive or awake as when I got up to feel the cold Scottish wind blowing in off the sea and the sight of the sun rising over the snowy mountaintops on the distant horizon.

Can city-life really be deemed ‘life’ if we don’t feel alive?

1 comment:

MMP said...

bringing back recent memories of camping just up from Mull....thank you!