On a holiday, we connect with our wild selves. Back at work, we lose them again
On our fourth day of walking, the forest grew sparser and the trees themselves shrank to dwarf birches and then to clumps of shrub willow in the sheltered parts of the valley. We entered a world of rock and water, thin grasses and lichen, in which nothing moved but the wind, which was never still.
The simplicity of the landscape was overwhelming and I surrendered to it completely. Cold, hunger and fatigue were the only distractions on offer, but none remained very pressing for long. Just walking among the mountains of the Swedish Arctic filled my senses for the next eight days and sharpened them until I could see and smell and even hear the world around me properly.
The last night of the journey was spent on the shore of an enormous hydroelectric plant. There was still no electricity, no noise and no running water, but we could see in the twilight electric lights in the far distance on the other shore. But the sight of machine civilisation had no effect on my wilderness perceptions, any more than looking at photographs of the wilderness in a busy office can restore the quality of attention that you have when inside it.
The first thing I stopped noticing after we left the wilderness and disembarked was the ground beneath my feet. We were on a tarmac road, and every step landed on exactly the same surface as the one before. There was no need to place my feet. The focus of attention shifted.
Now there were things to read in the environment — a rusting van from which all the wheels had been removed rested by the side of the road, with a logo still painted on its side for “All-wheel drive”.
Within the hostel I stopped thinking about light. It was something that came on with a switch. Once I had power over it, I stopped noticing anything remarkable about it. Water was no longer a substance with weight that had to be hauled up from the rivers, but just a convenience.
One less thing to think about. Instead, my attention moved to blocking people out. There were so many of them. There might have been 20 at any one time in the front parts of the hostel and this was five or six times as many strangers as I had grown used to. It made for a lot of other people’s conversations to tune out.
The night train brought me down to Stockholm, where my shield of inattention grew very much thicker and heavier. Within 24 hours, we had reached a small, quiet town and my reawakening skill of not noticing things, of coping with constant distractions, was put to a real test. It failed. I found I could not stand restaurants with any kind of piped music. It wasn’t the volume: The noise of a train pulling into the station was much louder, but not disturbing. Nor was it necessarily the music. It was the demand that I listen to it while thinking about something else, even if that was only whether to order the smoked reindeer hash.
After a couple of days there, I felt like a lobster, armoured all over against the world around me. I no longer smelled the traffic fumes. I couldn’t hear music in restaurants. I could sit on a plane with 120 other people and notice them only as obstacles in the gangway. In London, the transformation to everyday urban reality is complete. The only way I can write this piece is by clamping a pair of headphones on and putting on music to which I will half listen — paying it just enough attention that it blanks out all the other sounds of the office while not appearing as anything distinct itself. The only stimulations I can notice are oversized or unnatural ones. But I find that I crave these. Even lobsters want to be tickled. In a few more days, all this will seem entirely natural. It’s a process one goes through at the end of every restorative holiday. But the ability to function in a constantly distracting world is bought at a real price. Distraction becomes the whole of the environment. Reflective thought becomes almost impossible. It’s harder to solve difficult problems and after a while harder even to recognise them. The world becomes simpler and full of frustration. Welcome to the working week.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Andrew Brown writes on religion. His most recent book, Fishing in Utopia, is a memoir about his life in Sweden. It won the 2009 Orwell prize.