'The wild is a voice that never stops whispering. It enters your pores by osmosis and once it's under your skin, good luck forgetting. Yet the wild is not outside. The wild is in your heart.'
Words & Photography: Chris McClean | @chrismcclean
Words from my good friend Dan Crockett, and it resonated with something else I’d read a few years ago by George Monbiot in the Guardian. It was titled ‘If children lose contact with nature they won't fight for it’ and it really struck a chord.
I don’t think I ever expected kids to change the way I travelled, the places I went or the things I did. I wanted to take them skiing, on safari, to see the northern lights. I wanted to take them surfing in Bali, to Thailand and ride through Bangkok on Tuk-Tuks like my wife Paula and I did, several years ago. I wanted to take them trekking to see wild Elephants in the north of Thailand, and I wanted them to see the deject poverty amongst the biggest smiles and friendliest people we’ve ever met in Cambodia. To camp out with goat herders in Morocco, ride horses in Big Sur and live on a boat in the Maldives.
I guess it’s because I didn’t leave the UK until I was 18. My mates were all whisked away by their parents all over the globe, I felt insecure peddling my tales of paddling in Sandsend Bay, rock pooling in Cullen and salmon watching on the Spey. Unworthy of the time or paper when we wrote about our summer holidays when we returned to school. I’ve made up for it since and have realised that the more you travel the more you begin to appreciate what you have on your own doorstep. I couldn't wait to leave my hometown at 16, but now at 38 I can't wait to return after a few days away.
In 2009 we scraped some money together, sold the car and took a loan out on a van. The purpose of the van was to allow us to travel; to roam up to Scotland, down to Cornwall, over to Ireland and Europe with the kids in tow, to share experiences and make travelling affordable and less hassle. Jesse was four months old when we took our first trip in the van. It was November and I persuaded Paula to take the trip down to Cornwall and Devon on a chart. I remember some solid waves, cream teas (and can confirm they taste the same with cream or jam on first), a long left-hander and Paula’s appreciation of the newly fitted Eberspächer (house re-mortgaging worthy German diesel heater).
Jump forward 8 years and many trips later, we’re driving off the ferry in Zeebrugge heading to Austria in the same van with the same gurgling diesel heater. We feel like old pro’s at this #vanlyf malarkey yet we’ve forgotten all our bedding and hence, our first stop is Brussels Ikea. We’re heading to Zell am See a 12 hour drive east, it’s the second year we’ve stayed there, down in the valley by the lake, to boat, swim and fish whilst the days are spent three kilometres up in the clouds, sliding down the spring snow on the glacier, the Kitzsteinhorn.
It was on our third day on the mountain when it hit me. The first day’s lunch was in a restaurant eating pancakes laced with apple, vanilla and cinnamon sauce, icing sugar and wild blueberry jam (which is highly recommended) but the second day's lunch was spent on the edge of the mountain (with the most insane view) eating homemade cheese sandwiches and Wammer’s (a very delicious Austrian chocolate wafer). On the third day we asked the boys what they wanted for lunch and to our surprise they wanted to stay outside, eating cheese sandwiches. Normally if you offer pizza and pancakes they’d snap your hands off, but not today.
I was reminded of Monobiot’s aforementioned essay and realised we might be guilty of not allowing our kids the run of the outdoors, and with the chance, coupled with the thrill and adrenaline of skiing, they wanted to savour being on the mountain - possibly to enhance their own memories. Monobiot writes “There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, or the rustle of a grass snake is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.”
These trips aren't without the tantrums and the boys still are apt at falling out over the most stupid things, so tired they are after a day on the slopes. Jesse insists on showing off his new found snow plough skills, which then involves headbutting a rock and the subsequent nose bleed shows no sign of abating for what seems like hours. Rudy gets upset we haven't caught a fish on the lake in five days of trying (we didn't catch any last year either). Yet they seem to move on quicker, their appetites are bigger, their sleeps deeper (Jesse falls out of bed and just sleeps on the floor) there is more to distract them; the outdoors does that, it’s a great healer. Monbiot continues “Studies in several nations show that children's games are more creative in green places than in concrete playgrounds. Natural spaces encourage fantasy and roleplay, reasoning and observation. The social standing of children there depends less on physical dominance, more on inventiveness and language skills. Perhaps forcing children to study so much, rather than running wild in the woods and fields, is counter-productive.” And it’s not just the kids - myself and Paula seems more relaxed, more at ease and issues seem easier to laugh off. These trips are not just adventures to explore, they are for us to spend time with the kids undistracted. No phones, no wi-fi and no muddy school uniforms to wash and iron for the next day.
I’m hopeful these travels will instil in the boys a life-long love of outdoor places. So we swim in the lake and fish, still not catching anything, chase the Gruffalo through the woods, finding hazelnuts and beetles and spend the day sliding down a mountain three kilometres up in the air. Retiring at night for games of Uno, Chess and Connect 4, well fed and watered. Away from the distractions of home, school and work we all seem more alive, more alert, connected, communicative and ultimately content.
The road back to the UK involves nights in Germany, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands, quick stops beside the Rhine, Innsbruck, Amsterdam and a whole host of places I’ve forgotten the names of. I’m thankful I was reminded of Monobiot’s essay. I’ve re-read it on my return home and it still strikes the same chord as it did five years ago, but this time I’m determined to let it make the changes to my life as it asks for, and hopefully, those changes will reflect on my own families being.
We drive off the ferry at Hull and make our way home. It coincides with a little run of swell so we dash home, grab a quick cup of tea, clear snowboards and sledges out of the van and replaced with surfboards and wetsuits, less than four hours after arriving home, we're on the road again driving up the coast. The next morning we awake to a frost, a clean swell and sharp, brisk air. Hot coffee and porridge wakes us as we watch the tide drop and the first runners of that dawn swell break around the headline. Everything feels very clear, I love the mountains, I love the ocean, I love my family and I love our cramped trips to way out places in the van. Nature, in so many ways I realise, is the all important glue that binds us together and makes us stronger as a family.
I’ll sign off with a few lines from Dan’s poem which I started with, which says everything I wanted to write but in a much more eloquent way.
Every human heart shares the memory
of magic in the woods and water
We are the dancing sparks, the flame
and the embers that do not fade
We are the roots of the tree
and the wind that stirs the high leaves
We are the ebb and flow of the tide,
the ripples on the silent river
We are the creatures of fur, tooth, wing and claw
We are the whisper in the shadows,
the echo in the dark you need not fear
We are the calm before the storm, the music in the fury
and the still point in the dance
We are the seedlings in the paving cracks,
the green shoots that dare to hope
We belong here, our time is now and this is our home.