I believe it was the dead-pan comedian Steven Wright who once said, "You know that feeling you get when you lean too far back in your chair - and you think you're going to tip over backwards, but then at the very last minute you don't?.... Well I feel like that all the time". The feeling he describes is one I know well; a stomach-located urgency of adrenaline-surging immediacy, of the pressing of the urgent and significant into the mere leaning-in-a-chair banality of the ordinary. I was thinking about Wright's quote yesterday as I trudged up a little hill in Perthshire called Mount Blair. His quip asks us to imagine the extension of that split-second experience into a state of mind and that, I think, would feel something much like solitary hillwalking in wild places. Does a word exist to describe this all-enlivening sensation? If not, I think one should be invented.
Walking yesterday, I realised that this is actually something I have spent much of my life in pursuit of. As a youngster in London's flat, crowded, suburbs, holidays always meant escape, usually Westwards where we would walk on chalky Dorset hills or watch Atlantic breakers from North Cornish cliffs. Perhaps that wonderful, - and as yet unnamed - feeling was enhanced by its formative childhood associations with holidays, and family times, and exploration; but yet it remains an experience which creates a longing for more of it. In our house we often have discussions about whether the things we desire are rightly classified as genuine "needs" or merely superfluous "wants". With fixed budgets, an array of choices, and a world of need around us, understanding the difference is hard to do in practice, but is yet important.
It was while I was climbing Southwards, over increasingly crunchy-frozen grasses, into a blinding morning-sun, amid snow-capped peaks, with birds-of-prey circling above me; that everything seemed to come overbearingly alive. The path steepened, my lungs pulled hard, my muscles heating with the strain, and the intensity of existence in this good-made earth overwhelmed. But is satisfying this desire for wild places, rightly to be understood as a "want" or a "need"? After all, to achieve it there is a cost in time, fuel and other work not done. Am I justified in deserting my post of unending drudgery for these moments of glory-soaked trudgery? As I made my way up onto the shoulder of the hill, I disputed with myself about this very question. On one hand, my head tried to insist that this was an unnecessary luxuriating in things I should be able to be quite content without; yet however hard I wanted to impose such thoughts on myself, my heart would have none of it. Instead it sang to the sound of the "thrump" of snow compacting under boots, and then of the "tick-tick-tick-tick - CLANG" of melting icicles dripping from a radio-mast, before dropping off their fragile moorings and percussing the ironwork below.
"Wildenfreude". I have no idea if this is a word or not. But this is what I shall call that feeling, that sense of wonder, that mystique that arrives in the wild. It can be sensed here on Mount Blair, which of all the places I have been is hardly remote or desolate, in perspective it is really rather tame. Yet for me it is wild enough, far enough, big enough, to feel small, to feel awe-struck, to emotionally teeter on the very edge of the tipping chair; and accept that I need to be here, at least sometimes. Wildenfreude, is how I shall describe this. If you have ever stood in a remote glen, and seen the rising sun through cloud gathering in a corrie, below soaring ridges beneath the bulk of a great mountain and felt something; then you know exactly what this word means. If you have ever stood there and felt nothing, then I suppose I could no more define it for you than I could explain the difference between orange and yellow to a man who has never seen. Realising that my word sounded German (and fearing that German-speaking friends would tell me I had stumbled across something unpleasant or even vulgar!) I looked the words up in a dictionary. It so occurs that my word is made up of two: freude which is obviously pleasure, or joy, which I chose deliberately. Wilden, I intended to relate to the 'wild' of these wild places, but yet it translates as "Savage". Wildenfreude quite literally then is "savage joy".
Savage Joy: The quest for Wildenfreude, is what has brought me here. Wildenfreude is the right word for it too - because what I can see all around me is not 'pretty' in the sense that it is postcard-delicate. Rather it is heart-rendingly beautiful, almost distressingly so, as it presents its beauty to each sense in turn until the brain is bombarded with a tsunami of joyful stimuli. The Scottish poet and writer Andrew Greig wrote of the experience of being in a wild and desolate place, "there is only so much expansion one can take" - how right he is. Some people might paint, others write, another might even weep at such a sight; I drop my pack and pull out my camera and try and capture the wildenfreude on an SD memory card. I know I can't tame it, or really share it - but sitting at home on a less satisfying day, I can at least remember it. While I am a Christian, I could never be a Gnostic, or accept gnostic-ified versions of my faith. A dualist might want to argue that I should not say that I 'need' to be here amongst the most intense canvasses of the created order; and that a more spiritual approach to contenting oneself with an inner-life with God should be enough. But the biblical narrative makes it plain that this was not God's intention when he made the world and declared it "good". The Gnostic might suggest (quoting the Bible!) that God's grace should "be enough". With all this I agree - but yet want to stress that there is no tension between the grace that creates and which re-creates; between the love that brought us into being and which redeems us. Wildenfreude, is a token of grace: He saw all He had made, and it was very good.
The summit of Mount Blair provides a remarkable panorama, given how easy it is to climb. Lying just south of the high mountains and ski slopes of Glen Shee, its isolation is its finest feature. It's remarkably quiet up there, and when the wind dropped it was absolutely silent for a few minutes.
There is a standard-line of argument in many church services or sermons (I know, I have on occasion used it myself). It goes like this: the busyness of contemporary life has denied us the space to think about or seek for the spiritual in general, and God in particular. TV is now 24/7, mobile phones accompany us everywhere, ipods plug us into entertainment wherever we are, so that our poor minds are cluttered with noise, noise which prevents us from hearing anything deeper than its own vibration. Sometimes in church we are encouraged to take a few moments of quiet, to think, reflect, pray, and order our thoughts. In so doing, our minds are given the liberty to breathe; to unknot the tangles of the week. We don't do long silences well in company, as we have become masters of the embarrassment of silence. I wonder if we fear it because we have no social mores with which to negotiate it; or is it that our minds are so knotted with noise that the silence is too raw? A starving man cannot eat steak or drink beer, but must be more gently nourished at first.
Solitary hill-walking, especially when the air is still; enforces silence. Sometimes in the hills it is so quiet I can hear the disconcerting sound of my own pulse, surging within me, which I am accustomed to filtering out. The silence can be as beautiful as music, it certainly provides a better backdrop to the occasional punctuations of birdsong than the heavy drone of traffic. And yes, in this silence there is time for reflection, for prayer, for thinking and drawing on that which we know to be most profoundly and deeply true. There is time for God.
But something else took me by surprise yesterday in the great silence of Perthshire: One of the things which is so often noised-out by life, is memory. Now don't hear me wrong, I love noise. Noise in its place is wonderful, indeed as a teenager my bedroom wall was adorned with a large poster of Ian Paice the great rock drummer from bands like Deep Purple. 'Paicey' made a lot of noise, as he still does to this day with immense skill and huge style. I could listen to that kind of noise for hours... But the silence near the summit of Mount Blair, seems to have a profound effect on my memory. Bucket-fulls of long forgotten things emerge surprisingly to the surface when the silence is not interrupted. Memory is a very odd thing indeed. The more I think about it, the stranger I realise it is. My memory is frustratingly random in what it retains and recalls. There are times when I rack my brains to recall something of great importance and come up with nothing; and yet other things (strangely random things) seem large and within easy reach. There seems to be no logic to the process, nor any way in which I can master it and persuade it to co-operate with what I need to know, no matter how urgent.
On my descent of Mount Blair, with the sun on my back, illuminating the great hills to the North, and dipping in and out of a state of wildenfreude, my memory decides to divert my attention to my late-grandparents. It all started with a visual memory of my Grandma's eye. Post-cataracts, my Grandma wore thick glasses which enabled her to see a little of the world, but exaggerated the size of her eyes to those of us looking in from the world. Andrew Grieg, from his tent pitched somewhere in lonely Assynt wrote of memory, "Our lovers, friends, family, the dead are not here, yet they too are with us." I am struck by the thought that not only (if I pause for a moment) can I still hear the distinctive sniff with which my Grandpa used to clear his nose; but that my knees are aching on descent. One of my minor health irritations is painful knees, which protest at going downhill. Walking poles have helped, but still they would far rather ascend all day than be asked to be involved in being the brakes for my weight. The inflammation in my knee grows, and clearly the mechanics of walking are eroding something in there. Yet all the time, my body is fighting back, new cells of various tissue being built as the restoration process counteracts the damage. And every protein of every cell, follows a precise pattern, laid in my DNA, which is one-quarter Eddie, one quarter Olive, a quarter Frank and a quarter Mary. A mixture of cockney, the English shires and Scots.
The door is open now, the memories play like a film projecting too fast: Grandpa's shed, Grandma's knitting needles, Grandpa's piano, Granny's skin, Grandpa's living room, a tray of chocolates, a funny box on the top of the TV, a yellow Austin 1100, a brown Hillman Avenger, a pinecone (a what?: what was that doing there?), a tea caddy, Grandma's sofa, Grandpa's stereo, Grandpa fixing the kitchen tap washer, Grandpa's London accent, Granny's yorkshire puddings, Grandpas hat. Grandma's voice. On and on the memories stream, faster and faster, in random order, un-processable until a gate, a road, and a car - and a return home.
Upon my return I am replenished. It was not a long, or especially arduous walk. But it has done me good. What awaits me is a series of chores, which a day before felt like a burden to carry, but now feel light and untroublesome. The other thing which awaits me are all the normal temptations to do wrong, and to pretend that so doing is acceptable, to allow distorted desires to cripple perspective with self-justification. But merely a morning of being so alive, of walking before God and basking in wildenfreude removes the flimsy allure from much of these. Why settle for the shoddy and the less, when you can live with that feeling you get when you almost tip off the back of the chair, but just at the last second manage to balance yourself?