Science & Psychology
Black Holes by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw published today
In November 2014 I wrote a blog post about an expedition.
I had just arrived home from Kathmandu the night before, after a month in the remote Dolpo region of western Nepal. Nine of us plus a guide and sherpas were attempting to climb a mountain called Putha Hiunchuli (7246m). It hadn’t been a success. We were caught up in a cyclone snow-storm that sadly caused several casualties in Nepal. We were fortunate to have up-to-date information and strong leadership and we set ourselves up somewhere safe, away from avalanche risk. We were snowed in at 4500m for two weeks, spending several days confined to our tents. Despite the hardships, I was happy.
Returning home, the contrast was stark.
“Being home for such a short time,” I wrote, “I’m struck by the juxtaposition between my life here and what I’ve been living for the past month. I thought I had masses of stuff out there—two full duffel bags and a bit extra in a rucksack. But I’ve come home to a shelf full of makeup, boxes of stilettos piled behind my bedroom door, kitchen cupboards full of different shaped glasses and variously-patterned mugs, and I almost miss the simplicity of a face-wipe and a metal cup. It has happened before. These superfluous things will soon become normal again.”
What is interesting about expedition life, and I suppose one of the attractions of it, is how it boils one’s existence down to the absolute essentials—food, shelter, warmth, companionship and work (or some kind of goal). Despite deprivation, hardship and some discomfort they are generally very happy times. At home it is possible to lose sight of the essentials in the muddle of… well, life.
But recently, due to COVID-19, something changed. We all became forced into a kind of quasi-expedition life. Ok, so we still have the patterned china and the cut glasses, but we have lost all external personal contact. We can leave the house for essentials only, must work from home, socialise (if we are lucky) with just the little bubble of our household.
It’s natural to think about what we are living without: the restaurants we are not visiting; the children missing their team sports; our favourite products that are sold out; the plants that we couldn’t get for the garden; the friends that we can’t see; the cocktail bars; the quiz nights; the cinema; the dancing; the Parkruns; the kids’ swimming; the…. But what we are left with is the space to see the essentials, the space to see what we really need in our lives.
In 2014, as well as the expedition to Nepal, I was also in the middle of a series of trips I was making around the Arctic for a book I was writing about the northern lights. The following February I would go to Svalbard, to the most northerly human habitation on the planet.
For the first week I skied out towards the East Coast, just me and a guide. We were the only people for miles and miles camping in the vast white emptiness. I had had a romantic idea to see the aurora in a wilderness environment, in the way the old polar explorers would have done. I did see them, very briefly, but I must admit that it is not the ideal way to see the northern lights, mostly because it was so cold (almost -40°C) that I didn’t want to get out the tent. I realised then that extreme circumstances change our priorities. I had planned the entire trip so that I could see the aurora in the wilderness, yet as I shivered there in my sleeping bag I couldn’t care less about the aurora.
Experiences like that strip you down to the bare elements of survival, but the less extreme ones, given time, show us our emotional and life priorities. Expeditions are like meditation—tough but enriching. Often these things are mixed: the harsh and the beautiful; the challenging and the rewarding.
Towards the end of my journey around the Arctic I realised that there is a certain peace in living without. I ended my book, Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, on this note. This is the last paragraph:
“Finally, I think I’ve come to understand better that feeling I had in Kiruna, when I felt that there was a peace about a snowy landscape that I didn’t feel anywhere else. Now I know it’s not about the snow as such; it’s about the hostility. The soft, snowy beauty can change all too quickly to wind and ice and bare rock, to a place where, if you are not prepared, you may struggle to survive. These isolated towns are functional and utilitarian. Everything has a purpose. They still have the essential trappings of modern life—the Internet, transport, good food, central heating (my personal favourite)—but not the excesses, the paraphernalia, the superficial. Out here one may live well but simply. Out here it becomes starkly clear what is important in life. Therein lies the peace. Looking back through my history, I realise I’ve always chased this feeling, I’ve always been running. In the harsh, elemental North I now understand why.”
Now is a strange time in many ways, even for me, though I have endured isolation and discomfort worse than this. It is strange because normally my periods of calm and deeper thinking are away from home, the differences I experience very removed from my “real life”. But now, they are part of my real life. I can see things differently, even though I am in the same place.
As we adjust our lives to this new—though temporary—reality, the question we should ask ourselves now is: what insight can we gain through this experience that we can take forward into our future?
Dr Melanie Windridge is a plasma physicist, speaker and writer with a taste for adventure. She is the author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, which investigates the science of the aurora against a backdrop of travel.