I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.
– John Muir
I’m here to practise sitting still and doing nothing. In a fast-moving world, full of very busy people, sitting still and doing nothing requires a lot of practice. The purpose is to develop awareness, and awareness hurts. Perception is suffering. The point of meditation is to develop the ability to accept life as it is, not as we would like it to be. Megaphones can wake us up, but to stay awake we need to learn how to hear the truth buried in our animal cells.
Sacca means truth, and the truth of Dhamma Sacca is long yellow foxgloves, wild lavender, giant ants, cornflowers, rugged mountains bathed in constant sunlight, cuckoos, nightjars, flies, and sheep with heavy bells around their necks.
Last night, I slept outside with the scorpions on the cold, dusty ground, because the other women in the dormitory were snoring like elephants. I dreamt I left by mistake. I cycled into the mountains on my own and cycled up into the hazy sky, like the outlying trees. The dream turned into a nightmare; I couldn’t find my way back. Now it is five in the morning and I’m standing behind a trestle table with the rising sun in my eyes, wearing an apron and shelling garlic with Suzi and Marina.
The bell rings for the first group sitting of the day. We leave our aprons on the hooks by the kitchen door and make our way through the morning to the Dhamma hall. I settle onto my cushion, along with several hundred strangers from at least a dozen different countries. We sit together in silence for an hour, watching thoughts flicker across the surface of our minds, like reflections on a lake. It takes everything I’ve got not to open my eyes and look at the clock, not to fidget, stretch out my legs, manufacture an excuse to get up and run away.
Rockets are cool. There’s no getting around that.
– Elon Musk
At the Guggenheim in Bilbao, I shot upwards in a glass elevator towards Rothko’s famous rectangles. According to the audio guide, the rectangles were Rothko’s way of giving up on trying to be rational. He wanted to go straight to the powerful emotional heart of things, which he was convinced was more real than reality. I paused on one of the gallery’s many balconies to watch a group of middle-aged women carrying identical handbags with gold clasps get lost in ‘The Matter of Time’. ‘The Matter of Time creates a dizzying, unforgettable sensation of space in motion,’ said the disembodied voice.
Leaving Bilbao took half a day. The city was soaking into the surrounding landscape, like red wine on a white shirt, and my map had not kept up. I got lost crossing and recrossing a six-lane motorway. I had to carry my bike – with its overflowing panniers that weighed nearly as much as me – up a long flight of steps. The bike tipped over backwards, because of gravity.
I found a road that followed a river, bought a coffee, and drank it standing up with the sun on my face. The air smelled of eucalyptus. There were blackbirds singing, and half a dozen cuckoos, each sounding a slightly different note and with slightly different timing. Cuck cuck oo cuck oo oo cuck cuck oo cuck cuck cuck oo. There was a dark-haired woman, standing in a bed of rock roses, wearing bright red lipstick and a flowered cotton dress. She stared at me with an anguished expression, like a character out of a Pedro Almodóvar film.
The woman reminded me of a Turkish friend who once stopped a mounted policeman and asked him how she could get a licence to ride a horse across London. What kind of test would she have to pass? The policeman said there was no test and no license. The rules for riding a horse across London are the same as the rules for riding a bike.
We bonded over this, my friend and I, trading images of office workers on horseback, cantering through the streets of London, hustling car drivers, bunching up behind traffic lights, the horses snorting and pawing the ground. Horses would be cheaper than public transport, better for air pollution than cars, more fun than bikes. They could graze in the parks, so there’d be no need for lawnmowers and glyphosate. We could grow vegetables with their dung. We could use them to go on holiday, carrying our tents in panniers, or they could pull trailers. Eventually we remembered that the whole point of the last 200 years had been to move on from horses and carts.
Twenty-first century civilisation is built on the collapse of distance. Money makes nothing of time and space; faster, cheaper transport is an indicator of economic growth.
Progress is often measured in terms of mobility. Twenty-first century civilisation is built on the collapse of distance. Money makes nothing of time and space; faster, cheaper transport is an indicator of economic growth. The EU spends £30 billion every year subsidising aviation, with more and more people choosing to go on long-haul mini-breaks, according to Thomas Cook. A weekend in Thailand or Mexico, with most of it spent crumpled up in a metal box.
The first rule of travel is knowing where you’re going. The second is knowing when you get there. The third is knowing when you’ve gone too far. From the wrong side of too far, the collapse of distance looks like the collapse of civilisation. Oil wars, refugee camps, hurricanes, wildfires, famine, depression, suicide. Progress measured in terms of loss. Forty million songbirds. Gone. One-and-a-half acres of forest per second. Gone. One species every 20 minutes. Gone. We’re going so fast now, making such good time. Soon we’ll wipe ourselves out. Or crash through into a whole other dimension, like Concorde used to crash through the sound barrier when I was growing up, every night at 9pm. Boom.
According to Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, the fastest way to warm Mars sufficiently for humans to survive on its barren, freezing craters is to drop thermonuclear weapons on its poles.
You are free, and that is why you are lost.
I’d been following signs to Amurrio for so long that when I reached Amurrio I kept on following signs for Amurrio until I was lost in it, wondering where the road had gone. I consulted the map, and then I consulted an old man who was standing on the doorstep of his house, watching me. I showed him my map, and he said the word Amurrio over and over again, until I finally understood that I was there. The next town on my route south was Orduña. The old man pointed out the road I should take. There were no contours on the map, and the old man gave no indication of what lay ahead.
Spain is a mountainous country. I would cycle over a dozen huge passes before I returned to England, most of them more than 2000m above sea level. I would get used to spending whole mornings pedalling slowly uphill. I would stop swearing and crying, and learn to pace myself. The skin on my bum would turn hard and calloused. I would use muscles I didn’t know I possessed. But first I had to adjust to this new way of travelling, and adjusting is never easy.
The Puerto d’Orduña was 900m above sea level, a wall of rock rising dramatically out of the flat plains, like a giant door in the sky. An hour passed. Then another one. Cars flashed their lights and honked their horns. I couldn’t tell if they were cheering or jeering and I didn’t care. I was hungry, thirsty, hot and exhausted. I tried pushing, but pushing was even harder than pedalling. Afternoon turned into evening. I had no idea where I was going to sleep that night; all that mattered was getting somewhere, getting to the top, getting high.
On a train or in a car, the difference between Madrid and Candeleda is less than an hour, with Madrid being the nearest airport. On a bicycle, the difference between Madrid and Candeleda is about two days, or one-and-a-half if the wind is behind you and you don’t get lost. The wind was against me, and strong, and I did get lost. I got lost on dirt tracks that all looked the same. It was late afternoon again when the dirt tracks came to an abrupt end.
The wind was against me, and strong … I got lost on dirt tracks that all looked the same. It was late afternoon again when the dirt tracks came to an abrupt end.
I found an old woman, chewing on a piece of straw. She cackled when I pointed to the small mountain that stood between me and the campsite where I was hoping to spend the night. There was no way over the mountain, she said, only a path too steep and narrow for my bicycle. I would have to find my way back through the labyrinth of dirt tracks, then skirt around the base of the mountain on the main road. Devastated, I measured the extra distance with my thumb, pressing it against my torn map – 40km, give or take. I’d already cycled 100km that day. It was my own fault – I’d wanted a shortcut so badly I’d invented a route that wasn’t there.
It started raining soon after I found my way out of the tangled dirt tracks and onto the main road. Cars passed me too fast and too close. When I pulled into a layby to check my progress against the map, a man in a ramshackle jeep pulled up next to me. ‘Are you lost?’ he asked, in Spanish. I showed him where I was trying to get to; the village where I thought (hoped) there was a campsite. He pointed over the road at a track that led off into another cluster of hills. ‘It’s much closer if you go that way.’ He looked at my tyres, weighing up whether they’d make it. ‘You want a lift?’
I knew I shouldn’t get into a jeep at dusk with a strange man who didn’t speak my language, and let him drive me up a dirt track into some lonely hills, but I was very tired. As it happened, the bike and I didn’t fit in the jeep, so he tied my bike to the back bumper and dragged me. At first, I was elated to be going so fast uphill without even having to pedal. Then I was terrified to be going so fast uphill with no way of stopping. The track was heavily potholed. My bike was old and had no suspension. The rack that was carrying my panniers came loose and jammed into the back wheel. I almost fell, but managed to save myself. At the top of the hill, we finally stopped. My legs were shaking. He pointed out the village, which was just visible in the distance. He untied my bike and fixed the rack back on with cable ties. Gracias. Ciao.
Much later, after I’d put up my tiny tent in the sideways rain, and bought beer and salt and vinegar crisps in the deserted campsite bar, I allowed myself to feel the fear I’d been suppressing. The fear of yesterday and today and tomorrow. The fear of things breaking and falling apart. The fear of being abducted. I was still shaking. But there was satisfaction, too. I spread the wet map out on the bar and used my thumb to measure how far I’d travelled already, compared to how far I still had to travel. The whole of Spain was about as wide as my hand. I could have flown from Bristol to Madrid for less than £50. It would have taken a couple of hours. Sweden has a whole new word for the thing that stopped me. Flygskam. Flight shame. The difference between ignorance and denial.
I slept hard that night and woke up early. The rain had stopped. I crawled out of my tent and lay on the grass in my sleeping bag with my eyes closed, listening to a blackbird. The day was long and lonely. Miles of empty dirt tracks, forests of pine and eucalyptus, then a long river valley, the road swooping to sea level, then climbing suddenly, swooping, climbing, swooping, climbing. The constant sound of blackbirds singing. Pain in my knees. I stopped to rest and drink water. I chanced to look upwards and was gifted my first ever sighting of a golden eagle. Above it, the contrails from two aeroplanes made a cross in the sky.
The Latin word avis means bird. Aviation means bird-in-action. Legend has it that Leonardo da Vinci once dreamed he could fly. ‘Once you have tasted flight,’ he is supposed to have said afterwards, ‘you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.’
So we drove on towards death through the cooling twilight.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
Two weeks later, I pump up my tyres and say goodbye to Suzi and Marina. I stop in Candeleda to buy fruit and bread and cheese; more food than I can squeeze into my overflowing panniers. After ten days of withdrawal, the world seems huge and new and terribly beautiful. Also, I’m very hungry.
I hurl myself at the Puerto de Serranillos, which forms part of the Spanish version of the Tour de France. Thunder rumbles around terraces of olives and vines. The road climbs steeply into the clouds. Signs with pictures of bicycles on them count down the kilometres: 23, 22, 21. I stop on a stone bridge four km from the summit and eat an orange. It’s raining. I go too fast down the other side of the mountain. I take my hands off the handlebars. I sit on a red plastic chair and drink an orange juice and soda water and listen to rain pelting the plastic awning. I ask the bartender about campsites. There aren’t any.
I sleep on a rocky outcrop crawling with ants. In the morning, I sit outside a café in a small town called Bergondo, dipping a croissant in my coffee. I watch people hurrying to work, taking their children to school, getting on and off buses, going in and out of shops. I feel distanced from them after my night under the stars. I feel immune. From my new vantage point, reached after ten days of sitting still and doing nothing, I can see that campsites are nothing but expensive cages, ringed with high fences, an illusion of safety full of overflowing bins and cars and cigarette butts.
The vehicles on the road up to Lagos de Covadonga are mostly enormous white camper vans or boy racers with souped-up engines and shiny hubcaps. It’s seven in the evening and a crazy time to start cycling up a 12km vertical hill, but Covandonga is full of tourists. Wild camping is technically illegal in Spain and I don’t want to get fined.
The campervans and boy racers pass me again, this time going down. Stars come out, one by one, littering the dark blue sky. I stop to take photographs of the road I’ve cycled up. I can see all the way to the sea. The laybys have signs in them, No Camping. I keep pedalling, up into the darkness. Up and up and up. A tatty red Berlingo van passes me for the second time. Going down this time, with the lights on. It makes me ache for home.
My own tatty Berlingo van is blue. I mainly use it for storing the things that don’t fit in my shed: bike, gardening tools, shoes, coats, hats, surfboards. My van is 19 years old. It has travelled 180,000 miles, 50,000 of them with me. I could have done two laps of the Earth for that, one around the equator and one going pole to pole. Instead, I’ve mostly driven in small circles within a 20-mile radius of my shed.
In the month it takes me to cycle to Candeleda and back, including ten days of silence, my fellow Brits have driven 27 billion miles (on an island that’s just 800 miles long). Nearly four million have travelled at least two hours every day for work. Worldwide, highway vehicles have released about 140 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
When I was little, we had a Datsun Sunny. It was so rusty Mum got pulled over by the police every time she left the house. Later we had a Citroën 2CV that went round corners on two wheels, then a bright red Talbot Samba, then a white Ford Fiesta. They’re all in landfill now. The Berlingo will probably be in landfill soon. It doesn’t lock anymore, and it sometimes makes a grinding noise like a tractor, for no fathomable reason. Maybe by the time it dies, I’ll be able to afford to replace it with an electric one.
Lithium for electric car batteries is mined in South America, then shipped to Canada for refining, then to China, where the batteries are made, then to North America, where most of the cars are made. Fifty-eight per cent of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The soil, air and water in the mining area of the DRC is so toxic, it is ranked as one of the ten most polluted places in the world. The mining industry has helped fuel a conflict that has ruined millions of lives. And it’s only just begun. On current trends, the demand for cobalt will massively exceed existing reserves by 2050. Given the realities of battery production and disposal, and the fact that around 50% of UK electricity is still generated by fossil fuels, electric cars are only about 20% less ruinous than ordinary cars.
The error is taking the body to be the cause of bondage, when the real source of trouble lies in the mind.
– Bhikkhu Bodhi
It’s my last night before catching the ferry home and I’m camped on a low grassy headland at the back of a wild and empty beach. I freewheeled down a long, bumpy track to get here, then carried my bike through a patch of gorse and brambles. I wanted to get myself out of sight of a line of camper vans parked where the tarmac runs out. Apparently, I won’t get fined if I’m far enough away from a road, because Spanish policemen never get out of their cars.
The sea is flat. The air is perfectly still. There are clouds on the horizon, but I’m too busy eating cherries and feeling smug about myself and worrying about the pain in my knees to notice how they’re stacking up and causing the sea to darken and a westerly breeze to start. My tent is on its last legs. I redo the gaffer tape on a snapped pole and find rocks to use in place of missing pegs. I’m glad this is the last time I’ll have to put it up.
The sea is not flat anymore. There are small waves breaking against the rocks that line the shore. When I get home I’ll be able to go surfing. My skin crackles with anticipation.
Surfing is a kind of travelling, the kind where you get transported, but end up exactly where you started. With my eyes closed and my legs crossed, I imagine myself stuck to the surface of the spinning earth, surfing it through time. Then I imagine time travelling through me, marking my face, wearing out my joints and my heart, depositing memories in hard-to-reach parts of my brain, like the sand that gets stuck between my toes. If time is a wave, travelling through space, then sooner or later it will break. The beginning, middle and end of life on Earth will be tumbled together. Everything will become nothing. It happens every day out in the cosmos: red giants, white dwarves, black holes. I wonder what becomes of the timeless things when time stops. The poems, jokes and memories, the myths and legends and universal plots, the perfect little songs we sang, in perfect harmony.
I wonder what becomes of the timeless things when time stops. The poems, jokes and memories, the myths and legends and universal plots, the perfect little songs we sang, in perfect harmony.
I climb into my tiny tent and close the broken zips as best I can, using hair slides. Insects get in anyway and bite me, but I fall asleep in spite of them, exhausted from my long journey.
I’m woken three hours later by the sound of angry waves hurling themselves at the headland and a furious wind ripping into my dreams. The rain, when it comes, is loud and frantic, followed by rumbling thunder and flashes of lightning. I make myself as flat as possible, spreading my arms and legs wide, in an effort to stop the sides of the tent lifting up and taking off.
I have to wee. I try to focus my attention on the sound of the sea, on the rhythmic crashing and scraping of the waves. It’s no good. I wriggle out of my sleeping bag and remove the hair slides holding the broken zips together. I get to my feet and lean back with my arms out, letting the air hold me up. Pieces of foam swirl and dance in the moonlight, like snowflakes. Behind me the tent flaps and bends and strains against the rocks and pegs that are holding it down.
It’s hard staying grounded, alone in a storm on the edge of the Bay of Biscay. Hard being the still point of a world in furious flight. Hard listening to the savage reality of time and space and distance coming together and breaking. Hard to stand on the threshold of a terrifying future and stare unflinchingly into the abyss.
But existence is hard. We all have to live under the shadow of death. How we conduct ourselves here and now, during this moment of profound global crisis, is crucial. This is the sixth mass extinction, not the first. It has happened before and it can happen again – will happen again if we’re too slow to wake up. We can fly in panicked circles, like a bird trapped in a greenhouse, kicking against the laws and limitations of nature. Or we can grow up, learn humility, sit still, do nothing, make time for the future to heal.
Dark Mountain: Issue 16 – REFUGE
The Autumn 2019 issue is a tenth anniversary collection celebrating a decade of uncivilised writing and artRead more