pockets of wilderness; how to live with freedom and simplicity every day

a tale of two lives

I used to live a life of two halves, divided down the middle by the distinction between holiday time and work time. Now, I know that division is true for most people, but it felt particularly stark for me, such that the two sides felt utterly disconnected and opposed.

As a teacher, I sometimes had close to 18 weeks holiday a year (I know, I know!). Add in the other 34 term-time weekends, and that’s over 27 weeks’ worth of not-work a year. My life was split into two discrete halves. One was characterised by order and routine; the other by freedom, wildness and adventure.

During term-time, I’d have a strict routine; a 6am run, smart clothes, an efficient commute, before a day marked by bells during which the activity I was doing switched every hour on the hour. The days were delineated by a precise and inflexible timetable, and the work I undertook mapped exactly on to this structure. No breaks outside of the bell-mandated times, no cups of tea or toilet visits except when permitted, no chance of a cheeky day off for a long weekend. The dates for meetings, duties and holidays were planned months, sometimes years in advance, choreographed around a staff all scurrying like clockwork along prescribed routes from labelled room to labelled room to deliver planned lessons on assigned topics to a designated curriculum. A Tuesday in Week B was always a Tuesday in Week B, and I could tell you in September what I’d be doing at 12:05 on a Thursday in June. I can’t think of a more structured working lifestyle.

a structured lifestyle

And then the bell went. End of term. All change.

I’d get home, usually a little bit tipsy, always utterly exhausted, throw down my bag, pack away my suit, and open the Cupboard of Hobbies. This was a cavernous receptacle in my hallway which contained Everything Else I Ever Did Apart From Teach. Inside was my wetsuit, kite, tent, sleeping bag, rucksack, panniers, yoga mat, picnic rug, hiking boots, thermos flask, penknife, and all my plans for holidays spent travelling and adventuring in the wild.

During the 7 years I spent as Head of English, I took some wonderfully wild holidays: campervanning in New Zealand, scuba diving in Zanzibar, cycling in the Highlands, canyoning in Costa Rica, skiing in the Alps, cycling and wild camping in Denmark, windsurfing in Egypt, hiking in Cyprus, cycling in Cuba and walking the Camino de Santiago across Spain. I did most of this on my own, and I loved it all. I’d head off without booking accommodation, I’d pack only a carry-on and make do with a spare pair of knickers, I’d cross my fingers and hope everything would work out, I’d sleep on the floor at airports and chat to strangers and read books over dinner, ripping out pages as I went. I’d go wherever I fancied and tell no-one what I was doing. I’d leave my phone at home, and I’d take no photos. I’d just be.

These experiences are characterised in my memory by the feeling of utter unfettered freedom. And I’ve noticed that it is freedom, that effervescent bubbling up of the realisation that no-one knows where I am and I can do whatever I want, that for me, is most closely linked to joy. I stood under a waterfall and wept for joy. I screamed into the wind at the front of a speedboat. I floated in a lake on an island in a lake on an island with a grin plastered across my face. I once spent 24 hours alone on a tiny uninhabited Thai island, with a promise from the tattoo-artist boat-owner I’d met on the mainland beach that morning that he’d come and pick me up the next day. Although my more adult self feels a little bit sick at the peril of that memory, mainly what I remember is the feeling of joy at being so free.

At the end of the holidays, I’d pack my adventures away into the Cupboard of Hobbies, iron my suit, polish my shoes and gear myself up for another 6 weeks of tight routine.

authenticity and congruence

After a while, it just didn’t seem healthy to live like this. Although brilliant fun, energizing and dramatic, it felt psychologically unsound to split my life into two such contrasting modes. The realisation came when I was filling out an online dating profile. It asked for my hobbies. I started listing all those vibrant activities mentioned above. But it was the middle of term, and I wasn’t doing any of them. Was I lying? I mean, everyone exaggerates their appealing sides on dating sites. But ask for me tomorrow and you’d find me marking/planning/wearing court shoes/stressfully swimming laps in the 1-hour of designated staff swimming time at the school pool. I realised what felt like my ‘real life’ was unrecognisably different to my holiday life, and it felt disingenuous to claim these once-or-twice-a-year hobbies as integral and authentic parts of my being. During term-time, my hobbies in all honesty stretched to reading (in bed, for approximately 3 minutes before the book hit me on the face as I crashed out), jogging for 20 minutes a day (to allow for a tea-break biscuit in the staff room), shopping online (for stationery and boring clothes I didn’t have time to shop for) and googling adventurous activities to do in the next holiday (making sure not to clash with school trips, revision days and INSET training). I felt like two different people and if I didn’t know how to speak about myself, how would anyone else know what they were getting with me?

So I quit. Dating and teaching. And resolved to find a way to bring my work life more into keeping with my holiday life. To make the whole more integrated, holistic and congruent. Maybe it would mean having less elaborate holidays; it would certainly involve having less money. But the intention was to find a way to bring a bit of adventure into the every day. To find that essence of joy and freedom in ‘real life’, rather than saving it all up for dramatic adventures abroad. I had read that regular day-to-day contact with the elements creates more sustained positive impacts on mood than rare remote wilderness trips. So I wanted to bring the spirit of the wilderness into my life in a more sustainable and nourishing way; to build a life more in tune with my wild soul.

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making the change

Have I succeeded? Well, I’m significantly poorer, so yes, my holidays are much less elaborate! Well, to tell you the truth, I rarely have holidays anymore. But that’s ok. Because I have managed to make every day a little bit like a holiday. How? By taking work which, by dint of being outdoors, creative and flexible, feels more holiday-like.

And what is that work? Well, since leaving teaching, I have led 6 expeditions overseas, slept in a hammock in the rainforest, washed in a waterfall, tracked chimps in Uganda, taken a year group of 11-year-olds wild camping, led a tribe of women up a mountain in the mist, held a New Years’ Eve ritual on a hillside, cooked supper for hungry teenagers on a fire, guided girls to sit in silent communion with nature, hosted a debating competition in the woods, supervised a group of naked hippies wild swimming in a lake, taken Tanzanian girl guides on safari, and walked hundreds of miles along country lanes in some of the most beautiful parts of the UK. And been paid for all of it.

work life balance

Ok, not all of my working life looks like that. Sometimes I go to an office and fill in spreadsheets. But at my current place of work, dogs in the office are encouraged, everyone is compelled to take a 20- minute workplace health break each day, and I get to cycle to meetings around the city as part of my day’s work. I feel like I’m winning. But it’s not just nice jobs that have enabled me to bring the wilderness into my real life. I’ve also done it by prioritising the principles of freedom and simplicity. By finding pockets of wilderness in my daily routine. Whether that’s literally a pocket-sized patch of greenery to walk in, or a carved out 20 minutes of soul-time in a busy day, or a pre-work sea-swim, I am committed to making space for the wild within my life. And I believe it is this, more than doing a fun job, and despite the 50% drop in salary, that has made me happier, healthier and more whole.

pockets of wilderness

Lots of people ask me about how I build the wilderness into my everyday life. My best example is of a memorable dawn swim one Saturday in February. I joined a group of daily swimmers on the beach. It was wild, dark and freezing cold. We frolicked in the surf, splashing and screaming. Too cold to stay in long, we changed and wrapped up warm, while someone lit a small fire, and someone else passed round cups of hot sweet tea. Cosy and freshened, we hung out around the fire, chatting, laughing, sharing stories. Gulls wheeled eerily above, the shoreline mist was dissipating slowly and, with my tribe huddled round the fire, skin prickling, eyes shining, I felt at once deeply connected and totally untethered, like I was floating, out of time, timeless. It might have been 10,000 years ago, or the fourteenth century. The tide was on the way in, and as a wave crested the stones and quenched the fire, we turned to leave. It was light by now, and as we climbed up the steep stony beach, we emerged blinking into the bustle of city life. We scurried to our cars and joined the traffic, sucked back into the “real world”. But for a time there, we’d been just a wild tribe; men, women, sea, stones, fire. For me that memory exists out of time too. So vivid and seismic was the sensation, that it feels less like a memory, more like a rift in time or a state of mind. I feel like if I go down to that beach any day of the week, that tribe will still be there, gazing out at the sea, clapping each other on the back, stoking the fire. There is an ancient realm there which is available to access anytime I like, over which the modern city is just the thinnest palimpsest. That is my portal into the wilderness.

But generally my “pockets of wilderness” are simple small acts which connect me to nature, remind me of my wild animal soul and keep me in touch with the principles of freedom and simplicity which have come to guide my life. They are tiny rebellions, micro moments or mini noticings which take just a few seconds. They might happen by accident, but now that my eye is in, I make an effort to appreciate these moments, because sometimes the noticing is all that really matters. I also try to keep some of my “pockets” secret, because it feels more wild and special that way. I like to carve out a little wild experience and then squirrel it away in my pocket, telling no-one, so that only I know that there is salt drying on my skin under my work shirt, or that I haven’t washed for 4 days, or that I ate breakfast up a tree this morning. I might get more Instagram followers if I photographed these moments, or blogged about them specifically, or started a social media group to catalogue my progress. But they’d lose some of their magic. Pockets are meant to be hidden. And wilderness cannot be codified.

Here are some of my current “pockets of wilderness”:

  • Wild swimming, at the beach, lake or stream

  • Finding a solo sit spot and just sitting

  • Walking bare foot

  • Climbing a tree

  • Really listening to birdsong

  • Weeing outside

  • Lying down outside

  • Sitting down outside, on walls or ledges or even pavements sometimes

  • Using sand to scrub your skin clean

  • Gasping at the stars

  • Open mouthed cycling eating the wind

  • Walking at the fringes or ignored edges of parks

  • Touching leaves and plants, brushing fingers through hedges

  • Getting to know a tree with all the senses

  • Running with eyes closed, arms and palms open

  • Having a picnic or eating a meal outside, even breakfast

  • Chewing grass stems

  • Picking flowers (where appropriate)

  • Leaning far over into a hard wind

  • Being naked (inside and outside, where appropriate)

  • Foraging for food or growing and harvesting food

  • Cooking outside

  • Going for a walk at night

  • Smelling handfuls of earth or grass

  • Camping out

  • Opening all the senses and reaching for distant sounds and smells

  • Being or getting really cold

  • Dancing in the rain or getting soaking wet and not minding

  • Falling over (generally unintentional, but a great reminder of where one’s edges are)

  • Walking through mud deliberately or playing with mud

  • Sitting on a rock to the point of numb bum

  • Throwing stones at nothing

  • Splashing in puddles

  • Kicking or scrunching leaves underfoot

  • Watching an animal/bird/insect for ages

  • Gardening or not gardening

  • Stroking a pet or playing as they do

  • Playing like a child, either with a child or alone

  • Washing less and using fewer products

  • Sleeping with the windows open

  • Cooking from scratch with vegetables with soil still visible

  • Sitting on the floor to work

  • Lighting a fire

  • Walking or cycling rather than taking public transport

Put those in your pocket for a rainy day. Or maybe for every day. Maybe you already do these things. That’s great, and next time you do, just take notice that you’re doing it. Take a pause and a breath and see yourself for a second as you are; a wild creature with the potential for freedom and the capacity for joy. And maybe just try not telling anyone about it. Apart from me! Please comment below to add your own “pockets” to the list.