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Headless in Deep Time: The Long Story

I've probably spent twice as much time outside during lockdown than I did over the winter that preceded it. Yet I feel like my world has narrowed.

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Unsplash: James Sutton

On Having No Head, by Douglas Harding, is a mildly unhinged but fascinating book. To paraphrase, you can perceive everything around you much more than you can perceive your own head, and for you the entirety of the universe exists in your mind. While your mind is the only place where you can perceive the world, you can't perceive your mind itself, so it's an empty space that is entirely filled with everything.

For me, where Harding's idea falters is that if two or more people compare notes, or look at a map, they will find shared points of reference. I can say with reasonable objectivity that these things exist outside my own mind, or at least co-exist in other people's. That my cat will sit outside my front door, watch me walk in through it, then run round to the back door and in through the cat flap to greet me inside, shows that it shares some of my points of reference too. So it's not exclusively a human experience. The world is a shared space, even if each of us has only one window into it.

Like many people, I've been out walking as an attempt to self-medicate against the pandemic. With Harding in mind, I've assumed that when I lift my eyes to the horizon, the sky, the cosmos, or to the vastness of nature within a single tree, I should feel more inspired, more alive than when looking at a computer screen or the inside walls of my house. Intuitively this makes sense. But oddly, I feel as though I'm having the opposite experience. I've probably spent twice as much time outside during lockdown than I did over the winter that preceded it. Yet I feel like my world has narrowed: my willingness to engage with the world, interact with other people, has diminished. I'm less interested in online socialising than I was at first.

Of course, my growing discomfort with how the country is being run doesn't help. I've received clear instructions on how and when to sing Vera Lynn songs, some vague stuff about who I'm allowed to meet, and no genuine explanation for why the UK death toll is drifting off the graph compared to many other countries. It's all wrong, and my desire to just hide seems to be growing stronger and stronger.

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Unsplash: Dirk Spijkers

Nevertheless, I walk. Through the radical act of putting one foot ahead of the other, I make a secular, circular pilgrimage in the belief that one day I'll return home to find everything has turned out OK. Today, I head west along the Rivelin Valley, a broad v-shaped scoop terminating in the distant ridge of Stanage and Strines. Deep time is on vivid display here. I squint to see the industrial hubbub that lined the river a few generations ago. It's surprisingly easy to imagine the glacier that once staked its claim on this landscape, or to fill in the gaps where farms have peeled off the cover of woodland. At some point, elephants browsed here. Much further back, the limestone quarried behind me was countless shellfish on an ocean floor. Now that takes some thinking about.

With my eyes up I can see into a widescreen past. In my narrow space, focused on my own walls and screens, all I have is the narrowed present and a looming apprehension of the near future. Looking at the valley, the hills and the sky, everything I can see has already happened, apart from the incoming weather. Maybe that's where nostalgia comes from, but also a sense of context, proportion, and a lesser sense of worry. Maybe it's why we gaze upwards when reminiscing, or searching for a fresh perspective on a problem.

The better I can read this scene, the longer the story I can tell, though I'm very much the novice. If Douglas Harding was on to something, then the more I can fill my mind with the long story, the more it becomes who I am. And the more momentary this madness.

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