Have you noticed how we label things in an attempt to understand them? It’s not too bad with the simpler nouns -like “stone” perhaps: Stone, small, round, and maybe if we’re more knowledgeable about stones we can add other label to include categories like: basalt or granite. And thus, gradually, we come to understand the stone. But when it comes to people our understanding is often simplistic to the point of uselessness, because the labels are too small for the essay we each deserve, yet this doesn’t prevent others from attaching those simplistic monosyllabic labels to us.
My schooldays were made difficult by disruptive children in class. They sparked chaos, turning the teacher’s faces beetroot red with rage – a rage that was turned on all of us, both innocent and guilty. I don’t know what makes kids behave like that, other than stupidity. Nowadays I guess they’d be labelled as suffering from something like ADHD. Diagnosis is made via a tickbox of responses, and thereby we create the illusion of an understanding, of a “category” of person. The kids are still disruptive, still cause nightmares for the sensitives ones – who could possibly also be labelled with any number of acronymic anxiety disorders. Drugs can be prescribed for categories of suffering – downers to stupefy the violent , uppers to make the passive ones less shy. But is this really what we want? And why am I harping on about my schooldays when what I want to talk about is binoculars?
When I go for a walk in the wilds I carry a pair of lightweight binoculars. Other walkers will often stop and ask me if I’ve seen any interesting birds. This happened twice today, during just a few hours’ walk up Great Hill in the Western Pennines.
I had seen no interesting birds – just a couple of crows, and no offence to crows but they are rather too common to be labelled as interesting. Birds are a feature of any walk of course and I do like to tell them apart, but I’m not a bird watcher. I carry binoculars for another reason, which is:
From the summit of Great Hill, I saw the Lake District fifty miles away, ditto The Yorkshire Dales. I spotted a new cairn raised on Darwen Moor, or possibly an old cairn grown much bigger – a thing that warrants further exploration. Conversely I saw the cairn on Round Loaf was tumbled flat, prompting a note in my diary to go and build it up again. I saw the giant Wind Turbines on Scout Moor with their arms arrested in the late afternoon sunlight, their leading edges seared with fire. I saw the coastline, from Liverpool to Preston taking on an amber glow. I saw the curious brown pall of an atmospheric inversion, running the length of the Ribble Valley, and wondered, in an era of de-industrialisation where the smog could be coming from- just traffic, I suppose?
Yes, binoculars add another dimension to the appreciation of any high altitude walk – even Great Hill’s modest 1200 feet . I get to enjoy both the near and the far distance in equal clarity. But how to explain all of that to the particularly inquisitive, woolly hatted gentleman I met today:
“Is that what you do then? Birds?”
No, that’s not quite what I do. What do I do then? Why the damned binoculars, as if it’s anybody else’s business? If I must wear a simple label for the day, then let it be “walker”. But just because we have a diagnosis, and therefore a cure for the curiosity of passers by, it does not mean we grant them any more of an understanding about what’s really going on, about what or who we really are. I might also have said, writer, since I was also unconsciously gathering material for this piece. Romantic is also a good label for me since I always at least partially envision the land through my imagination. But this complicates things, deepens them too much for passing conversation.
Returning from Great Hill I was accosted by a noisy bunch of lads who looked like they might have been the disruptive type at school. They each held by the leash a killer dog.
“Seen any interesting birds mate?” asked one.
His associates tittered approvingly.
“Not many interesting birds up here, lads,” I replied.
Jocular titters all round – the feathered variety is not what they meant, but I was too slow to realise. Either way my reply sufficed.
Perhaps I should leave the binoculars at home next time, or hide them in my bag and spare the tiresome ritual of repeated explanation? Or just pretend to be a twitcher.
No, we are what we are, and that needs no explaining, or excuses. To anyone.