Beneath the surface of things

Beneath the surface of things

The (free) camp site. At sunset.

Last weekend I went for my first real hike since the pandemic. 13 kilometres through the Samaria gorge here in Crete, with my son and friends. Including a night of camping in the abandoned village from which the gorge gets its name.

Much of the walk we spent negotiating how to criss-cross the river, swollen with meltwater, that wound through the ravine. Twice I fell in, soaking my shoes and socks. My feet were worn with blisters; I damaged my knee. The rocks I’d forgotten to clear before setting up camp prevented me from sleeping. And I hadn’t packed enough food, which meant cheese pies for dinner, breakfast and lunch.

But the whole experience was… sublime. And there was a moment, when the tents had been put up and goodnights had been said, that I lay back on my sleeping bag, listening the river below gushing against the sounds of the night, and thought: “wow”. I mean really, wow.

And though the positive energy I drew from the hike is now fading, it made me realise some important things.

* * *

If you want to change your psychology, change your physiology.

–Tim Ferriss

My family and I moved from central Athens to Crete in 2016, largely so we could be closer to nature. In our free time we hiked, explored, and got beautifully lost on the island. I spent many hours wandering alone through strange places, with only a camera and my curiosity.

But the pandemic restrictions of 2020 turned us all into islands. Greece went hard on the measures, implementing a series of tough lockdowns, the longest for five months. For a time we had to stay within a two-kilometre radius of our homes.

Even though I was grateful to be in a city with good weather and a roof over my head, with the ability to work remote, it was psychologically difficult. Especially for my family.

But I won’t lie, I felt an excitement during that period, too. Because just as meeting a friend for a drink in London requires organising and scheduling, so does a full-on, lose-yourself excursion. I was always glad to be there once I arrived. But I hated the planning part.

And with the lockdowns, the easy option — not organising — was suddenly the forced default. The decision had been taken for us, by people in rooms far away.

Ensconcing ourselves at home provided a counterweight to the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic. The horrifying Out There we read and heard about, where you didn’t know if COVID ate your brain or whether it spread by the soles of your shoes, made the In Here warmer and cosier. In the evenings we immersed ourselves in Netflix. We socialised through Zoom and Houseparty, and ordered supplies from the supermarket. And waited.

And when at night I looked out over our city, with the mountains looming in the distance, I could say to myself: “OK, we’re stuck in here. But so is everyone else.”

As the lockdowns lifted, we were no longer stuck. But a part of my habits, my reluctance to move in lockdown, remained. I ventured into the city, and even travelled for work and family visits. But I resisted wandering, heading into nature proper. It was always easier to say no. Until last weekend, when it wasn’t.

And so when I first descended those crooked wooden steps into the gorge, past house-sized rocks with faces and the new blooms of Spring, as my phone signal disappeared for the next 24 hours, I heard a voice. It said, what took you so long?

* * *

'The Gates', the narrowest part of the gorge.
If you absorb the narrative that Everything’s Fucked, you feel depressed and exhausted — but comfortable, too.

I learned something else from Samaria.

By Monday morning I was back at my desk in the city, browsing headlines as usual. But with fresh, post-excursion eyes, I was struck by how the Establishment never loses an opportunity to remind you how Everything’s Fucked. It’s so pervasive, so relentless, so insidious, that even I had forgotten it was there.

The West is hungry for World War III. There’s a looming Bitcoin-driven global recession. Climate change is fueling the far-right. And wild boars are taking over Rome (or maybe that’s not such a bad thing).

All these events are real. You shouldn’t hide from them. And Ukraine, especially, deserves your attention.

But it's also tempting to wallow in this modern information age. If you absorb the narrative that Everything’s Fucked, you feel depressed and exhausted — but comfortable, too. Because you’re unable to do anything about it. The Establishment has turned you into a compliant spectator of the apocalypse.

And they warn you to be vigilant, stay on the surface of things, and wait for their instructions. Want change? Only they can bring it! So sit tight and keep quiet.

Just as I did, during my Netflix lockdown. And to a lesser extent, long after it.

* * *

In the gorge, everything works as it should. You emerge physically shattered, but spiritually recharged. And when you return, for a brief time until you’re subsumed once more into your life on the surface of things, you’ll have broken the Establishment's spell. You’ll have shed your lethargy, and will be seeing with fresh eyes.

Where, or what, or who, is your gorge? You know what to do.

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