by Paul Kingsnorth
16 January 2012 – From Orion: Scenes from a younger life 1. I am 12 years old. I am alone, I am scared, I am cold, and I am crying my eyes out. I can’t see more than six feet in either direction. I am on some godforsaken moor high up on the dark, ancient, poisonous spine of England.
The black bog juice I have been trudging through for hours has long since crept over the tops of my boots and down into my socks. My rucksack is too heavy, I am unloved and lost and I will never find my way home. It is raining and the cloud is punishing me; clinging to me, laughing at me. Twenty-five years later, I still have a felt memory of that experience and its emotions: a real despair and a terrible loneliness.
I do find my way home; I manage to keep to the path and eventually catch up with my father, who has the map and the compass and the mini Mars bars. He was always there, somewhere up ahead, but he had decided it would be good for me to “learn to keep up” with him. All of this, he tells me, will make me into a man. Needless to say, it didn’t work.
Only later do I realize the complexity of the emotions summoned by a childhood laced with experiences like this. My father was a compulsive long-distance walker.
Every year, throughout my most formative decade, he would take me away to Cumbria or Northumberland or Yorkshire or Cornwall or Pembrokeshire, and we would walk, for weeks.
We would follow ancient tracks or new trails, across mountains and moors and ebony-black cliffs. Much of the time, we would be alone with each other and with our thoughts and our conversations, and we would be alone with the oystercatchers, the gannets, the curlews, the skylarks, and the owls.
With the gale and the breeze, with our maps and compasses and emergency rations and bivvy bags and plastic bottles of water. We would camp in the heather, by cairns and old mine shafts, hundreds of feet above the orange lights of civilization, and I would dream.
And in the morning, with dew on the tent and cold air in my face as I opened the zip, the wild elements of life, all of the real things, would all seem to be there, waiting for me with the sunrise.
Scenes from a younger life 2
I am 19 years old. It is around midnight and I am on the summit of a low, chalk down, the last of the long chain that winds its way through the crowded, peopled, fractious south country. There are maybe 50 or 60 people there with me. There is a fire going, there are guitars, there is singing and weird and unnerving whooping noises from some of the ragged travellers who have made this place their home.
This is Twyford Down, a hilltop east of Winchester. There is something powerful about this place; something ancient and unanswering. Soon it is to be destroyed: a six-lane motorway will be driven through it in a deep chalk cutting. It is vital that this should happen in order to reduce the journey time between London and Southampton by a full 13 minutes. The people up here have made it their home in a doomed attempt to stop this from happening.
From outside it is impossible to see, and most do not want to. The name calling has been going on for months, in the papers and the pubs and in the House of Commons.
The people here are Luddites, NIMBYs (“not-in-my-backyard” grumblers), reactionaries, romantics. They are standing in the way of progress. They will not be tolerated. Inside, there is a sense of shared threat and solidarity, there are blocks of hash and packets of rizlas and litres of bad cider. We know what we are here for. We know what we are doing. We can feel the reason in the soil and in the night air. Down there, under the lights and behind the curtains, there is no chance that they will ever understand.
Someone I don’t know suggests we dance the maze. Out beyond the firelight, there is a maze carved into the down’s soft, chalk turf. I don’t know if it’s some ancient monument or a new creation. Either way, it’s the same spiral pattern that can be found carved into rocks from millennia ago. With cans and cigarettes and spliffs in our hands, a small group of us start to walk the maze, laughing, staggering, then breaking into a run, singing, spluttering, stumbling together toward the centre.
Scenes from a younger life 3
I am 21 years old and I’ve just spent the most exciting two months of my life so far in an Indonesian rainforest. I’ve just been on one of those organised expeditions that people of my age buy into to give them the chance to do something useful and exciting in what used to be called the “Third World.”
I’ve prepared for months for this. I’ve sold double glazing door-to-door to scrape together the cash. I have been reading Bruce Chatwin and Redmond O’Hanlon and Benedict Allen and my head is full of magic and idiocy and wonder.
During my trip, there were plenty of all of these things. I still vividly remember klotok journeys up Borneo rivers by moonlight, watching the swarms of giant fruit bats overhead.
I remember the hooting of gibbons and the search for hornbills high up in the rainforest canopy. I remember a four-day trek through a so-called “rain” forest that was so dry we ended up drinking filtered mud.
I remember turtle eggs on the beaches of Java and young orang-utans at the rehabilitation centre where we worked in Kalimantan, sitting in the high branches of trees with people’s stolen underpants on their heads, laughing at us. I remember the gold miners and the loggers, and the freshwater crocodiles in the same river we swam in every morning. I remember my first sight of flying fish in the Java Sea.
And I remember the small islands north of Lombok, where some of us spent a few days before we came home. At night we would go down to the moonlit beach, where the sea and the air were still warm, and in the sea were millions of tiny lights: phosphorescence. I had never seen this before; never even heard of it. We would walk into the water and immerse ourselves and rise up again and the lights would cling to our bodies, fading away as we laughed.
Now, back home, the world seems changed. A two-month break from my country, my upbringing, my cultural assumptions, and a two-month immersion in something far more raw and unmediated, has left me open to seeing this place as it really is. I see the atomisation and the inward focus and the faces of the people in a hurry inside their cars. I see the streetlights and the asphalt as I had not quite seen them before. What I see most of all are the adverts.
For the first time, I realize the extent and the scope and the impacts of the billboards, the posters, the TV and radio ads. Everywhere an image, a phrase, a demand, or a recommendation is screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need.
And this is before the internet; before Apples and BlackBerries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing; before the deep, accelerating immersion of people in their technologies, even outdoors, even in the sunshine.
Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditised, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be. But it is not remarked upon. Nobody says a thing.