Brushing Against Emptiness

Feeling the movement of time when movement itself ceases.

Time moves more slowly in an open space like Rannoch Moor. The moor sits in the cradle of Scotland’s Western Highlands. In every direction away from Rannoch Moor, the highland hills roll, tower, and drop. But the moor itself stretches across a vast, flat, boggy expanse, cut off from the rest of the world by the surrounding hills that stand on guard.

Rannoch Moor is known as one of the last great wildernesses of Western Europe, but it doesn’t feel like a wilderness. It feels desolate.

Claire waiting on the train platform
Waiting for the train to take us onto the moor.

Ahead of our Friday departure from Scotland, Claire and I travelled to Rannoch Moor on Wednesday. A train took us across the moor into the empty heart of the highlands. We disembarked the train at Corrour Station, on the northern edge of the moor. Corrour is the highest and most remote train station in the United Kingdom. The station has a platform, a small station house, and nothing else. No roads connect Corrour to the outside world. There are just the train tracks and a single gravel path that heads east toward the hills.

Claire hiking on a gravel path uphill
Starting the hike up the hillside.

The moor’s boggy, sinking terrain can swallow wayward hikers, so all paths trace the hillsides around the edge of the boggy land. The first part of the hike took us upwards into the safety of the hillside above the moor. In the clear summer afternoon, the view stretched for at least 20km across the moor — to the UK’s highest mountain Ben Nevis in the northwest; to the staggering peaks of Glencoe in the southwest; to the lonely hills of Breadalbane in the south; to the “fairy hill” Schiehallion in the east, which scientists used to measure the weight of the earth in the 18th century.

But here laid emptiness — the flat expanse of the bog.

Claire walking on the hillside, with an empty moor and mountains in the background
Walking along the moor.

The greater part of the walk took us along the hillside, curving up and down, side to side, keeping the open moor to our right.

A portrait of Claire
Claire with the moor behind her.

We measure time by change. When change comes quickly or easily, the hours feel short. When change comes slowly, the hours feel long. In a colorful city, a long walk feels short. In an open field, a short walk feels long. Walking along the emptiness of the moor, time stood still.

A photo of Claire walking downhill towards a lush glen
The path curves away from the moor.

Free from time, we floated in the empty space of the highlands. The solstice sunlight stretched out for hours, filtering down through soft clouds, forgetting the time of day.

We reached the car around sunset and started the long drive home, feeling weary and peaceful. The solstice sun kept a warm light in the sky past midnight. As we drove through the interminable dusk, we passed a field of deer. The stags — there must have been ten — saw us before we saw them. With their eyes fixed on us, their antlers formed a row of overlapping inverted triangles on the horizon. “Those look like antlers,” I said. “They are,” said Claire. The herd turned away from the road and poured into the treeline, reminding us that time keeps moving.

At Aeon, Swedish history professor Lars Trägårdh describes a really interesting framework for understanding power structures, which you can plot on a triangle:

Germany  ╱  ╲  Sweden
Family         Individual
     United States

Each point of the triangle represents a social structure (state, family, individual), and each edge has an example of a country that relies more heavily on the two adjacent power structures.

What does the “family” point represent? To illustrate, the Trägårdh gives the example of going to school in the United States. When the registrar at his university told him that he would need to submit his parents’ income to apply for funding, he was puzzled. This requirement suggested that Trägårdh should rely on his parents for support, even though he was already an adult. It also gave his parents theoretical power over him. If he did rely on them for financial support, they could place demands on him, like telling him what he was allowed to study. As a Swede, this was a completely foreign idea. In Swedish society, the individual is beholden to the collective, but not necessarily to the family.

In the West, we’re very comfortable subsuming the rights of the individual to the family unit — whether in our approach to childcare, divorce, or social support. If we alleviated the pressure on the family unit, maybe individuals would feel more freedom to participate in family life based on joy, rather than expectation.

This article has a nice summary of how to navigate a disagreement with someone, using the acronym “HEAR”:

H = Hedge your claims, even when you feel very certain about your beliefs. It signals a recognition that there are some cases or some people who might support your opponent’s perspective.

E = Emphasize agreement. Find some common ground even when you disagree on a particular topic. This does not mean compromising or changing your mind, but rather recognizing that most people in the world can find some broad ideas or values to agree on.

A = Acknowledge the opposing perspective. Rather than jumping in to your own argument, devote a few seconds to restating the other person’s position to demonstrate that you did indeed hear and understand it.

R = Reframing to the positive. Avoid negative and contradictory words, such as “no,” “won’t” or “do not.” At the same time, increase your use of positive words to change the tone of the conversation.

From my experience, I feel like this is pretty solid advice.

A UN expert has voiced concerns about the rights of LGBTI people in the UK.

In the current political and media culture, the rights of LGBTI people, particularly trans people, are often presented as a threat to other groups, such as women (with some perhaps forgetting that a significant number of LGBTI people are also women).

Living in the UK, I see every day that those concerns are completely justified. More and more “progressives” monger fear about fictional harms caused by trans people while ignoring the very real spike in hate crimes against trans people.

In my mom’s latest blog, she describes her most extreme form of thrifting: taking things out of the gutter. While I personally struggle to imagine eating a head of lettuce I found in the street, I am grateful to have been raised by someone with such a strong sense of adventure, civic duty, and ingenuity. I’d like to think it rubbed off on me.

This is a great telling of the history of Jonovision, the show that thousands of Canadian millennials watched after school on public television while waiting for The Simpsons to come on. I was one of those kids, and I had special affection for Jonovision host Jonothan Torrens because he was the half-brother of a friend of mine. As the article explains, that’s part of what made Jonovision cool: it felt approachable, like something your friend’s friend might make.

I hadn’t fully appreciated Jonovision’s cultural impact until reading the article. This weird teen talk show can be credited with launching Sum-41 and Degrassi: The Next Generation (and, thereby, Drake).

The people of Vienna enjoy easy access to high-quality, affordable rental apartments. How did Austria figure it out?

In New York Times Magazine, Francesca Mari explains that it comes down to basic economics. Most Western countries subsidize housing by giving money directly to renters and homeowners, which only increases demand for housing, driving up prices and profits. In America, buying a house is more lucrative than working. Meanwhile, a third of Americans live in inadequate housing.

In Vienna, the government subsidizes the construction of “limited-profit housing,” which ensures that low-cost housing is available to almost anyone. That keeps prices low in the private housing market, too.

Why is housing in America so bad? Mari says it goes back to early American anti-Communism. After the Great Depression, Roosevelt needed to rebuild American housing, but he didn’t want to follow the socialist model of Austria. Instead, his government created huge subsidies for homeowners, including guaranteeing long-term mortgage loans for first-time buyers, which banks would otherwise never touch. This government money provided the fuel for the suburban housing boom after WWII. It also radically reshaped America’s demographic landscape, deepening segregation and inequality.

Over on Substack, my mom has published a call for everyone to embrace litter collection as the new cool trend in active living.

I retrofitted a perfectly good grocery buggy someone had abandoned and now use it for days when I want to take on an entire section of street. Do you live here?, an apartment dweller yells down from his balcony. No, I say, But I’m not picky, Garbage is garbage.

Litter’s not always the product of carelessness; it’s not necessarily the work of a deranged sociopath. Sometimes it’s bagged garbage that’s gotten loose, the victim of a hit and run or a strong wind, contents spilled and spreading. Someone has to deal with it. It won’t pick itself up, my mother would say.

A Google search for “what’s the word for picking up litter” informs me that it’s already starting to happen: Merriam Webster calls it “placking”, derived from the Swedish plogging (picking up litter while jogging) itself a portmanteau of plocka upp (Swedish for picking up) and jogging.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023