Monday, 6 July 2009

"Why rush?"

Last week I was camping in the hills of Sutherland in the north of Scotland. Amid the escape from the shackles of routine, I discovered the peace, tranquillity, and pleasure of a slowed-down existence.

Making a hot beverage when camping is a long process. It involves walking to the water source, filling the kettles, bringing them back to camp sloshing water over your pant legs, setting up the stove on level ground, starting and lighting the gas, keeping the wind from blowing out the flame, balancing the kettle on top, waiting for it to boil, filling a cup with coffee granules or a tea bag, and then adding the water/sugar/milk – all of this while outside exposed to innumerable insects, birds, and the whims of the weather.

Rather than devalue the final product, the lengthy procedure of outdoor brewing enhances the hot drink produced. The slow deliberateness of doing anything without modern amenities saturates the final product with a sense of triumph and achievement which serves to make it a much sweeter reward. It brings to mind the philosophy of Tolkien’s Ents: they do not say or do anything unless it is worth taking a long time over. Slowing down mundane tasks gives a sense of serenity. When it take fifteen minutes to do something rather than the one minute that you are used to, it makes you really consider what it is that you are doing. It allows you to appreciate the whole miraculous process and its place in the larger process called life. It allows you to think by giving you time and a stillness of mind: commodities sorely lacking in much of modern society.

The ethos of the modern world is to rush and get things done as quickly as possible. A hot drink is produced by either flicking on a kettle, or having a machine spit brownish water into a plastic cup, or going to Starbucks. The internet causes us to desire information quicker than at any time in human history: the idea of strolling to a reference library to verify some obscure fact about Queen Victoria seems ludicrous when Wikipedia is ten seconds away. Modern appliances allow us to cook, clean, and look after ourselves quickly and via an automated process that allows us to go do other things.

But what is the telos behind all this haste? What is the goal? Do all these speeded-up processes bring happiness or satisfaction or achievement? When examined closely, it seems that all the speed of modern convenience is simply speed for speed’s sake. The paradox of modern living, as identified by Bertrand Russell, is that although we have invented fabulous machines to do work for us, we still persist in filling our days with labour. We do not take advantage of the time gained by speeding up our processes: rather, we fill our time with more processes and more busywork. Machines that were supposed to give us leisure only created a vacuum which humans filled with work.

I visited two distilleries in Scotland. The first was the Glenmorangie distillery in Tain. Glenmorangie is jointly owned by two French companies and produces a massive amount of different varieties of malt whisky every week: approximately 12 casks a day, maybe more. The second was the Edradour distillery in Pitlochry. Edradour is an independent business and the smallest distillery in Scotland. They produce 12 casks a week and their whisky can only really be found at their shop or in the immediate area. Glenmorangie make more income but it really doesn’t matter. Edradour is traditional, unique, interesting, and produces better tasting whisky. For all its speed, what has Glenmorangie gained apart from money?

The slowness of life outdoors brings into contrast the speed of civilised life and makes you realise how much free time we really have the potential for. It makes you realise that you don’t have to rush around: no-one is judging you by how fast you can get the ironing done or make a cup of coffee. You’re free to take your time over these things. You can spend time doing the crossword or reading a long article. Technological advancement has given us the time to do all manner of wonderful things and so we can all afford to relax a little. Getting away from the morality of the city teaches you the morality of the country: that there is nothing wrong with taking life at a leisurely pace.

Sit back, stop checking your emails, enjoy life, and appreciate a good view now and then.

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