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Wild Spaces

There's something about the ocean. It’s so peaceful here. So quiet. I had spent the previous night in my car by the beach at Cheswick. It was incredible, so wide and open. The sand seemed like it went on forever, in all directions. The sky too. There was nobody there. I was totally alone, just me, for what seemed like miles.

I walked along the beach, endless stretches of pale, fine sand, crashed over by the waves of the North Sea. The beach is backed by dunes: rolling hills of sand covered in sharp marram, woven through by a network of interconnected paths. I walked for hours, and didn’t seem to get closer to either end of the beach. It just rolled on. This part of England is so open and immense. It feels like it might have 100 years ago, like nothing would have changed.

I’d never thought of England as being so wild. While I was camped out at the beach at Cheswick, I could hear the train going by in the night. It runs the 400 miles between London and Edinburgh in 4 hours and 45 minutes, speeding through the cities further south, and across the wild expanses of England’s far north. I heard the train, but it doesn’t stop anywhere nearby. Its presence doesn’t make the landscape any more accessible, any closer to civilization, to city life.

The next day I visited Lindisfarne, which is a small tidal island off the coast of Northumberland. You can drive there at low tide. A normal highway runs across the salt flats, bits of seaweed clinging to the concrete edges. It smells like ocean, salty and raw. The muddy sand stretches out on either side and disappears slowly into the North Sea. Twice a day, the water comes up over the road, and the island is cut off from the rest of the world.

The fact of being cut off is not unusual in itself. I’ve been on many islands where entry and exit is limited by infrequent ferry schedules. Perhaps it’s the ease of it - that the road is there, and I could simply drive home. Only that it’s underwater, and there’s nothing that I, or anyone else can do to make it drivable before the tide goes out. There are signs all around the island with pictures of cars semi-covered in water, with mottos like ‘You can’t beat the North Sea, so don’t try’. Every year, cars get caught on the causeway, trying to make it off the island before the tide comes in. It’s coming right up close to the realities of nature - the realization that even though there’s a road, a man-made way to achieve something, nature is more powerful.

This week marked the beginning of Cop26 - the United Nations Annual Climate Change Conference. Thousands of delegates from all over the world descended on Glasgow for two weeks of demonstrations, negotiations, and leaders of member countries trying to decide how to limit the average global temperature to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-Industrial levels. The conference has been met with mixed criticism, but either way, it feels momentous. Everybody, from Prince Charles to President Biden, has been pictured walking the streets of Glasgow, and everyone is talking about the climate crisis.

I sit and watch videos on the news showing people’s homes flooded and communities gutted by fires. Often it feels far away. Generally it is far away - somewhere else, someone else. Even the Prime Ministers, sitting six miles away from me in the Cop26 Blue Zone, discussing the future of the planet, feel so far away from my lived reality. But sitting on Lindisfarne, waiting for the tide to uncover the road, the reality of nature was very clear.

When I came to Lindisfarne, right at low tide, the parking lot was packed. But 30 minutes before the tide came up, everyone just left. The tourists moved on, the shop workers closed up and went back to their homes on the mainland. There was only a string of people left, having tea in the only cafe left open on the island. It stayed that way until 6:40 pm, when the tide was low enough to drive off again. The pace of the island totally changed, and I set out for a walk.

I walked a loop around almost all of Lindisfarne. It’s not often that you can walk around an entire island, but Lindisfarne’s small size and gentle coastline make it possible. First you pass the castle, perched on a rocky hill above the flat island. The shore along the eastern edge is rough and open, you can hear the rocks being thrown against the shore with every wave. The northern stretch is wild with sand dunes, invisible trails snaking their way through waist high marram. It was up and down and you couldn’t see around the next corner.

But then the path opened up and cut straight back to the village, a straight line across the whole island. Endless fields fell out on either side. I walked between two stone walls, past hawthorn trees that must have been hundreds of years old. It was like there was no time, no 2021 holding me here. It could have been 1900, and I don’t think much would have changed. I’ve been to so many coastal towns in Scotland, highland villages with ancient histories, but this felt totally different. It felt calm, and expansive, like time stood still.

Lindisfarne is also called Holy Isle. In 635 CE, an abbey was founded here by St. Aidan, from where Christianity was spread through much of Northern England. The monks lived a solitary life here, cut off from the world twice a day by the tide. One of the monks even went to live on a smaller tidal island nearby, totally alone with the water and G-d. You can feel how special it is, to be so reliant on nature. For the monks who lived here 1400 years ago, it would have been a perfect place to keep the mind clear, to focus on the basic physicality of living, and the higher spiritual realms. But even today, I was surprised by how relaxing it felt, how distant, once the tide came in and the day trippers took their leave.

Life on Lindisfarne felt completely connected to nature - to tides, to winds, to the grass. It was apparent and obvious, and there was nothing else to do but react to the realities that nature presents. Back in the city it’s very different. In the city we build roads to take us where we want, regardless of what the land tells us. We eat the food we want regardless of the season. When the tide comes up we build a bridge. We make ourselves the masters of nature, rather than entering into a relationship with it.