Stopping and staring: the case against

I am frequently the butt of jokes because of my apparent lack of interest in or appreciation of nature and the wild.

And it’s true that once, when asked: “Scenic route, or fast route?” I replied: “Fast route. Once you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.”

But it’s also true that I am as in awe of nature as the next person. My problem with stopping and staring is that it achieves nothing but a selfish calming of the individual mind. It changes nothing.

When I was a boy I did a lot of stopping and staring. I ran away from home when I was 10, ending up in a meadow about three miles away from the house. I sat there and looked at the colours, took in the smells and marvelled at the sheer being of it.

But none of that stopped my stepfather, from whose cruelty I had run away, finding me and – truly ironically – beating me. Yes, that’s the way to deal with a child running away from bullying; a bit more bullying.

I spent quite a lot of my teenage years staring out of windows in the dead of night. It calmed my insomniac mind, and stilled my jerky limbs. I’d finally feel like sleeping as soon as I saw signs of the sun climbing over the horizon.

Did Hitler stop and stare?

When I moved to London, still beset by insomnia, I would frequently catch a night bus to Waterloo. I’d stand on the Embankment and watch the river flow.

And then, epiphany. Had this ‘stopping and staring’ stopped my stepfather beating me? Had it stopped the boy in the Lower Sixth picking me up and shaking me round like a rag-doll, just because he could? Had it stopped the Vietnam War? Did it stop Lee Harvey Oswald shooting JFK dead? Had it, before I was born, stopped Hitler coming to power?

WH Davies’s puerile rhyme (surely not artistic enough to be called a ‘poem’?) was revealed to me as the ramblings of someone for whom humanity’s suffering might be cured by a dose of ‘stopping and staring’. WH Davies as proto-hippy.

From then on – my early 20s – my life has been a restless search for meaning and fulfilment. So restless, indeed, that the scenic route seemed a waste of precious time, just as sleeping did.

None of that has stopped me going in search of nature at its most dramatic. I’ve written about my first sight of The Grand Canyon here, and about the gigantic jigsaw puzzle at Australia’s southern extremity.

Sweat the big stuff

So, I have wandered, lonely as a cloud. And I have seen the beauty in a grain of sand. But ultimately, unless you’re going to be a hermit and live in a cave at the top of a mountain, completely divorced from the rest of the world, I remain devoted to sweating the big stuff, and leaving the small stuff to fend for itself.

I can’t say this approach to life has changed anything – so it’s not unlike the stopping and staring in that respect. But, for me at least, it’s a bloody sight more interesting. And I’ve learned a hell of a lot more about this organic rock we live on from The Grand Canyon and the jigsaw at the end of Australia than I have from studying a blade of grass or a bloody daffodil.

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