Criminal Leanings #13: The Great Outdoors

I was doing a spot of editing on my website this afternoon when I came across a blog post I wrote at this time last year about the books I was reading in the run-up to Christmas. I was first struck by an overwhelming rush of nostalgia for a world that seems very, very different to the one I find myself in now – it was a world where gigs and holidays away and large, bustling family get-togethers were all something we indulged in without a second thought.But at the same time I was also surprised (and kind of pleased) to learn that over the course of three years I have initiated a Christmas tradition.

Allow me to explain.

I have, since 2008, been reading a novel by Charles Dickens each Christmas. Dickens has always been inextricably linked to Christmas in my head, and when I began writing professionally, I decided it was time to begin a kind of apprenticeship. Who better to learn my trade from than the greatest exponent of my craft?

I decided to read a Dickens novel each Christmas, starting with A Christmas Carol, which rapidly led on to the other Christmas books. I genuinely intended to stick to my Christmas timing, but of course I couldn’t, and greedily hoovered up most of the rest of the novels. By the time 2018 rolled around, I had one left, Our Mutual Friend, which I half-read a few years ago before getting distracted and abandoning the project. In November 2018 I realised I wanted to save it for another time, and cast about for something else to get me into the festive mood.

What I found was something rather unusual. I decided to read a book about a man spending a year living with a flock of wild turkeys in the Florida flatwoods.

Turkeys do mean Christmas, after all. Don’t they?

If you’re interested, I give a detailed account of that work – Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto – in Criminal Leanings #6. I absolutely adored it, and in 2019, it was to Joe Hutto I returned, reading another two of his musings on nature, wilderness and the relationship human beings have with the universe – Touching the Wild, about Joe’s relationship with a herd of mule deer, and The Light in High Places, about a year he spent living in Wyoming with Bighorn sheep.

Each of these books were incredibly vivid reading experiences for me – they were the sort of books I mourned when I reached their end. I wanted to revisit them, and indeed I did. I think I’ve since read Illumination in the Flatwoods twice since that first foray, which is incredible when you think it occurred in the space of only two years.

So this year, as we in Ireland experienced something of an early Christmas, I decided to choose something with a wild flavour to begin my yuletide reading. Rather than heading for the empty spaces of the United States, as I had in the past two years, I figured I’d stay closer to home in 2020 (which is kind of the spirit of this year, isn’t it?).

I opted for a book about living off-grid in Ireland, and found yet another title I know I’ll be returning to before long. The Way Home, by Mark Boyle, tells the story of a year this Guardian columnist and economics graduate spent living in a cabin he built completely by hand with only the most basic of tools on a few acres in the West of Ireland.

Mark determined that he was going to live completely without technology of any kind, so the cabin has no electricity, no running water, and is heated using an open fire. All cooking is done using a rocket stove outside, and he lives as much off the land as he possibly can, growing his own vegetables and herbs and foraging for fruit and salad greens, as well as killing deer, eating fresh roadkill if he comes across it, and cycling 20 kilometres to a lake to fish for pike.

The book is interspersed with reflections on the community that lived on Great Blasket, and who were probably the last Irish people to live so tied to the land, the sea, and the changing seasons. They also ended up as the subject of a kind of literary sub-genre all of their own. Anyone of my vintage would have had to study the autobiography of Peig Sayers in school, who Boyle sees as one of the great seanchais (traditional storytellers) of the Blasket Islanders.What Boyle’s book really resonates with is a sense of being disconnected from the shackles of time and obligation. Along with all the other technologies he dispenses with is his watch. So the author has nothing but the trajectory of the sun and the movement of the moon to tell what time of the day or night it is. He comments that clocks going either back or forward are now meaningless to him.

He also comments, with no little satisfaction, that he no longer has any bills. He owns his land outright, and his food is either home-grown or from the wild larder. He is, in the best sense of the word, free.There is much to admire about Boyle’s life choices. At various points in the book I found myself yearning for the incredible simplicity he has found amid the turmoil of modernity. Yet there are sacrifices too, ones I don’t think I could tolerate. He speaks often of how much he misses being able to switch on a radio and listen to music. When fishing is not yielding much, he craves protein. And he has to write everything by hand, using a pencil. I think I would find this very hard, indeed. In fact, the part of the book which really gave me pause was his description of closing up his laptop for the final time.

I know I would struggle greatly with that. And there are some other points where Mark and I part company, too. There is a scene, near the end of the book, where after a particularly long period of poor fishing, he lands a salmon. It is just outside salmon season, and Mark is an old eco-warrior, and is deeply concerned with the sustainability of everything he does (which is why he generally fishes for pike, which the government spends millions of euro every year ridding our lakes and rivers of). Yet on the afternoon in question he is a hungry man, scratching a living off the land. He ponders the beauty and power of the animal he has just caught, marvelling at the remarkable journey it has made to end up in this little corner of Ireland, at the end of his line.And he throws it back.

I found myself shouting at the book – amazed at how a philosophical conceit could over-ride the biological imperative of his need to eat.But then, I suspect Mark Boyle is a man with stronger ecological convictions than I possess.

I finshed The Way Home very quickly, consuming it over a couple of days. Still craving more stories of the outdoors, I downloaded the audiobook The Salt Path, the story of UK author Raynor Winn’s incredibly courageous decision to walk the 630 kilometres of the South West Coast path, which traces the coastline of that corner of the UK, with her ailing husband, Moth, in the wake of their having lost their home due to a bad investment, and Moth’s diagnosis with a potentially fatal degenerative brain disease.

‘You can’t be ill,’ Raynor tells the man she has been with since secondary school. ‘I still love you.’

But ill he is.

I haven’t finished The Salt Path yet – I’m rationing it out so it lasts as long as possible. It is a beautiful ode to those parts of Britain that are rapidly disappearing. It is a hearbreaking love letter from a woman who simply refuses to say goodbye to the man she adores. It is a salutory warning to each and every one of us – Raynor and Moth were safe and secure in their home one day, and the bailiffs were hammering on the front door the next – this could be any of us, and we should never forget that. There are long passages in which Raynor explores the many different aspects of what it truly means to be homeless.

Perhaps the most profound element of the condition is a purely philosophical one – everyone else they meet walking the South West Path is doing the walk, and then returning to their lives. Raynor and Moth don’t have a life to go back to – everything they own is in their backpacks, and their home is now within the walls of a tent they bought on ebay before leaving their little farm for the last time.

I listened to a passage last night as I walked my dogs on the South East Coast of Ireland, frost glistening on the ground in the moonlight in the coastal field we were traversing. In the book, Raynor and Moth were trapped in a storm, sheltering under a cliff miles from anywhere, their clothes soaked through and their tent just as sodden.

I could not help but think how frightening that must have been – literally adrift, with nowhere to go.

Some people they meet are incredibly cruel. I’m only two thirds of the way through the book, but have lost count of how many times they’ve been called ‘filthy tramps’ and asked to move on. Every time this occurs, I find myself getting angry – these are sweet, caring, intelligent people who have simply had about the worst run of luck it’s possible for anyone to have.

But it drives home the fact that homelessness adjusts the identity of the individual. It creates a barrier around them, causing many to view them differently. More harshly.

The Salt Path was nominated for a Costa Book award in 2018, and Raynor has gone on to write another book about walking in the wild places, The Wild Silence, which I have no doubt I will read soon… or I may try to leave it until next Christmas.

Maybe. I suspect I may be tempted to dive in before then. I have a feeling I’m going to miss Raynor and Moth.

If you’re looking for something to read, or something to listen to, this festive season, I highly recommend these two treasures.

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