The Angry Corrie 51: Sep-Nov 2001
No height gain for the soul
In Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsch, God (who has a lot to say for herself) defines the soul as "the sum total of every feeling you've ever had". I should like to adapt this intriguing idea and introduce the notion of a "hill soul", which is the sum total of every metre on every hill you've ever climbed. Unlike the human soul this is theoretically quantifiable (especially with a handy gizmo like the Suunto Vector, though I haven't mastered its cumulative ascent feature), but I am not proposing we visit that territory.
I think the hill soul is best thought of as a concept rather than a number, and it's a concept that might prove useful to anyone needing consolation for failing to reach a summit. It seems to me that one outcome of the foot and mouth hysteria (FMH) has been that all our hill souls have suffered, and yet none of us are eligible for compensation. I'm not sure I can explain why this matters, but I feel it has adverse consequences, both individually and collectively.
However, there have been benefits from FMH too, in observing how individuals and organisations responded and showed their true colours. We have seen how almost all hillwalkers and climbers were restrained and responsible, while a large minority of farmers and landowners behaved aggressively and illegally, intimidating walkers and defying instructions from the Scottish Executive (which was surprisingly impressive and a lone voice of reason throughout FMH). We have been reminded about how land ownership confers political power and bogus authority. Most local authorities and tourist boards were predictably happy to disseminate whatever restrictions landowners cared to impose. The National Trust for Scotland put the interests of its tenant farmers above those of everyone else, confirming the impression of a body which thinks it owns and rules its properties, rather than being a custodian of land which belongs to everyone. The John Muir Trust likewise put its small crofting communities before its members, and prided itself on a sympathetic response to unjustified superstitions. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland provided an information service about access points to corridor routes on those Munros where landowners had condescended to allow access, and also worked hard on writing and rewriting its three-year strategic policy development business action plan.
Meanwhile, it was left to a ragbag bunch of individuals to assert the right to climb hills without asking permission, while abiding by the Comeback Code and subsequent Executive guidance. These land reclaimers (see pp14-16 for more on this - Ed.) also enhanced the Scottish natural heritage by removing numerous ugly and illegal notices, and fostered a sense of empowerment amongst participants. I am not alone in feeling more radical since FMH took hold; less inclined to respect unreasonable signs and restrictions, more inclined to question authority and back my own judgement.
And we have learned more about how the big lie works - it soon became clear that foot and mouth disease is spread by animals and by farmers, and not by walkers or climbers, but this fact was persistently overlooked, and will probably be forgotten or distorted in the months and years ahead.
Yet I wonder if the government could be smarter than we think. We didn't have to burn any animals or close any hills or ruin any tourist businesses. We could have just carried on slaughtering animals behind closed doors and then eating them (vaccinated or not), like we usually do. After all, FMD poses no risk to human health. But then Europeans would not have been allowed to eat British beef or lamb, and Britain would have imported less European meat, which apparently would have been a really bad thing, even though it all tastes the same. Isn't it a bit odd that the cure is so much worse than the disease? Could it be conspiracy rather than cockup?
Throughout FMH we heard very little about that other gift of filthy farming practices, BSE, or about the resulting human equivalent, vCJD. This disease has so far killed 106 people in the UK alone, an increase of around 800% in the past five years. It is so horrific that maybe a little hysteria isn't out of place. It rots the brain first, from the inside, so that the mind ceases to function long before the body gives out. There is no cure; vCJD is invariably harrowing and fatal. If closing hills would prevent the spread of this disease then I would stay off them indefinitely, as long as golf and skiing and horse racing were suspended, and farm vehicles banned from public roads. But it wouldn't help, for the deathly prions are out there already, spreading and eating through unsuspecting heads in town and country alike.
No, although I try hard to be cynical, I can't believe Nick Brown or Ross Finnie are that ruthless. The handling of FMD must have been a cockup, or more precisely a total bloody shambles. But we can all learn from our mistakes, and so I'd like to be positive and offer a constructive suggestion to save taxpayers having to fork out further billions to farmers' retirement funds next time round. Remember the disastrous Windscale fire and the strike-ridden Post Office? Observe how much better things are now, with the fluffy Sellafield visitor centre and the forward-looking Consignia. It must be the sound of foot and mouth disease that's all wrong. It preys on subconscious images of foaming and drooling and stinking plague. Why not rename it something more modern, such as Pedora or Victoria's Smile, to remove the association with pyres and death and fraud. And, to help entice tourists back to the countryside, why not build a government-funded visitor centre with a sort of dome thing over one of the biggest pyre pits, and a funicular railway down to pit central. It may sound a bit soulless, but the most important thing we've learned from FMH is that the countryside is always open for business, even when it's closed for everything else. Faced with the crazy realities of agricultural economics, hill souls don't stand a chance.