The Cuckoo.

Cuckoo on decking.

While van dwelling earlier this year, parked in the pines above Gorges du Tarn in France, the call of a male cuckoo filled the forest. Cu-ckoo, cu-ckoo, echoed from the peeling trunks, the shrill sound threaded between needle covered branches. I wasn’t sure if I had ever seen a cuckoo, at least not close enough to confirm it was actually a cuckoo, because they are mimics. In flight they resemble sparrowhawks, and some believe this is to scare away smaller birds, birds like dunnocks, reed warblers and meadow pipets. The cuckoo intimidates these smaller birds, so they leave their nests for a while and while they are away, the cuckoo nips in to lay an egg. The egg of the cuckoo resembles the egg of the nesting bird, and the returning bird will continue to brood her clutch unwittingly. When the cuckoo chick hatches it strikes, dealing its death blow by throwing out any remaining eggs or newly hatched nest-mates to become the sole beneficiary of the parent birds’ attention. Cuckoos are brood parasites, they rely on others to build nests, brood and then rear their young while the cuckoo buggers off to do it all again to some other unsuspecting victim.

I like cuckoos. They quietly slip through the trees with their jerky flight, they are mysterious tricksters. Cuckoos are the bird world’s crafty survivors, they are successful and on the increase, so in some ways its strange that I don’t respect, what I perceive to be similar behaviour, in some people.

At the moment I’m cat sitting in a house high on the hillside above Waunfawr in Gwynedd. I’m taking this opportunity to write my second book and train for an expedition in September to Tibet, and to climb rock. I feel exceptionally fortunate and privileged to be here. I sit looking out through large glass doors across the Menai Straights to the island of Anglesey with Holyhead Mountain on the far horizon. On clear evenings the sun drops, backlighting the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. A procession of gulls and jackdaws fly overhead, above the smooth grassy curves of Moel Eilio and on towards the coast. As the sun sinks, rags of cloud glow red and scintillation from the street lights of Caernarfon and Holyhead remind me of glitter. With the setting of the sun, Jupiter, the first planet to be seen, shines bright over Ireland, and then to the left I can make out Mars, like some far away beacon glowing red onto Yr Eifl, a group of three distinct mountains on the north coast of the Llŷn Peninsula.

Soon I will present a lecture for PESDA, the mountaineering festival in Bethesda. This will be on the 20th of August, the day I leave this house and move on. It will be a sad day, I’ve grown very attached to this house and its situation, and to Joey the cat with her sleek white body and puffed brown tail.

On the poster to advertise PESDA, organiser Stephen Jones labels me as ‘Adventurer.’ Being described as an Adventurer got me thinking about what exactly “an Adventurer” is, because I don’t, and never would call myself as such. So I went to twitter (the obvious starting point!) to look for accounts of people who describe themselves adventurers, and there are certainly a lot of them!

Many of the adventurers out there seem to want to inspire us. Not such a bad thing in principle, but I’m not sure what exactly it is they want to inspire us to do! Is it to ‘have a life less ordinary’ or to ‘live one life to the full’, or ‘make money from your amazing business proposition’ (which in my mind does not make you very extraordinary, more just ordinary). It appears many of these adventurer types want us to ‘go out there and get it, whatever ‘it’ is, because we are amazing, we are unique,’ and they show us how using themselves as an example. But they don’t often give us their amazing story of how they have managed to live the dream, and I suspect for many their amazing began before birth. And I don’t say this as some form of working class attack, I say it as a reason why this type of person often has vision and confidence, because to grow up with the safety net of a parent’s money, which often leads to a private education where confidence is on the curriculum, certainly gives a person a head start in life and the courage to experiment. Modern day Adventurers appear keen to try and convince us we ourselves are extraordinary, and that we too can blaze a trail. They show us on their many social media accounts how to do this, often by a funky and funny diagram while # and @ing a list of companies so we can all look in awe together at the adventurer setting an example in a beautifully staged picture, glamorously running along a mountain ridge or swimming in a sparkling blue lake.

I came to the conclusion a long time ago I’m not an Adventurer. And now, if I’m being honest, after reading the same over-worked, over-used, not-so-extraordinary clichés, I’m fed up of reading the big sell. There are just so many of them. But, I’m going to try and make it my mission not to be angered by this type of cuckoo, because I realise it’s my problem, not theirs: I don’t have to read their adverts, their clichés, and you have to give it to them, they never appear to be angry or unhappy and they nearly always have an incredibly wide, white smile. Maybe a, @toothpaste sponsor is next on the cards?

I sit and write and look out through the large windows, out to Caernarfon Castle and the Menai Straights, out towards a boat with large white sails tacking and gybing its way onto the Irish Sea, and I ask myself: what is it about? What is this adventure mimicry that upsets me all about, and why does it make me so cross? And I have come to the conclusion that either I’m being cynical (not for the first time), or it is what I perceive as lack of integrity on their behalf, their delivery of a parasitic egg into a nest of general ignorance. It’s the dishonesty of it all, the mimicry, the attempting to fool that gets to me. And the phrase that gets laid the most and annoys me the most is ‘anyone can do it’. This particular line from the adventurers stock phrase of inspiration gets to me for two reasons. The first is because, no, not everyone can do it and the reasons they cannot is complex and deep rooted. The second and more telling reason, and possibly the root of my anger, is that, in the past, I have stood on a stage and said the same. I have stood and said, “If I can do it, so can you.” At the time, I’m sure I was sincere; I truly believed if I could make a jump, live a little different, ‘live the dream’, then my listeners could to, but over time, with more understanding, I’ve realised that no, some people can’t and never will and that’s OK.

I suppose while looking into what the Adventuring, motivational flock were telling me – telling me how I could improve my life – I discovered a truth, and this truth is I’m also a cuckoo, a mimic. Possibly a naive and well-meaning mimic, possibly a scared and defenceless bird, but in the livery of a raptor all the same, and it is perhaps this revelation, this self-realisation, that makes me angry, they have spotlighted a fact about myself I find difficult to digest.

In the past, I had thought along similar lines to those kinds of Adventurer types I’ve described above: live the dream, have some fun, make some money, make a living, attempt to secure my future by motivating others. Wrap it all in a warm, thick duvet of inspiring people, and through cu-ckooing such a worthy sermon, it won’t be perceived as selfish or greedy. How could anyone complain?

A few days ago I was out running The grass steps on the steep slope of Moel Eilio had been cleaved by a million like-minded feet. Llanberis Village and Elidir Fawr, the hill with its deep slate scar above the village, were hidden by cloud. The telegraph cables sang. I was jogging and sweating, the hairs on my forearm caught the mist and condensed – clear drops of water stuck to the end of the hairs and reminded me of a carnivorous plant. I struggled while running because the steep bits were steep, but my mind was elsewhere taking away the physical pain and transporting it. I was thinking about what I had just heard on the radio and about another favourite cliché the Adventurers like to promote, ‘creating our own map.’ (I don’t think there is enough Renne in the world to cure me of the effects of this unimaginative and condescending phrase).

Before setting out I had been listening to Eddie Mair presenting PM on Radio 4 and he was interviewing Dr Sama Ata, a surgeon from Chicago, USA, who had made several visits to Aleppo in Syria. During his visits, Ata had worked without pay treating injured people, tending the dying, helping other doctors. As I ran, I thought about the interview, about the anger I was feeling towards the adventurer flock, and a reason I was feeling this way became apparent. Here was a person who was truly inspiring, a person who didn’t have to shout about how exhausted he was, exhaustion not from some pretty pointless ‘first world, world’s first’, and then wrap it into some shiny survival blanket of adventure to brag about, lecture about, and make money from. This person was selfless in his giving, he really was an inspiration, someone who suffered, stuck his neck out, risked his life, gave for others. He was brave and inspiring and full of humility, he never once spoke of his own sacrifice and I don’t suppose he posts all his experiences on Facebook or instagrammed his latest success, but let’s face it, pictures of dying children with limbs missing and their guts sticking out don’t get many thumbs up and certainly don’t make your friends jealous?

Listening to Ata I became more aware of my own selfishness, my privilege, my lack of worth. Ata finished the interview by saying he would feel a fraud if he sat there telling others to help and didn’t himself and this comment made me appreciate how much I live in fear – I live with fear … fear… fear of the future, fear of not having money, fear of not living a life extraordinary, fear of being extraordinary, fear of being on my own, fear of being with someone, fear of not having fun, fear of living the one life, fear of not living the one life, fear of dying young, fear of dying old, fear of being overweight, fear of not being popular, fear of missing out, fear of not enough thumbs up, fear of looking at myself. And it was with this revelation I discovered I was a cuckoo, a mimic, a pretender gloating on a full stomach of other people’s misery.

Many of the adventurers out there appear to want us to believe they are doing what they do to inspire us and at one time I may have said the same about my life, but the truth is I did not set out to inspire anyone and I don’t do anything now in an attempt to inspire others. If some people are inspired by my decisions and it helps, great, I’m truly humbled, but it was never my intention. I do what I do for me. This life I now live helps me, it makes me happy, it feels full and fun and rewarding. Please try to understand, I do what I do, for me, it’s what I need to make me a better person. Perhaps the knock on of becoming that more travelled and experienced person is my appreciation of the less fulfilling, and at times, the truly shitty lives other people live, and with an appreciation comes the ability to do something about it, even if at this time it’s only write. I suppose this is a beginning, but with this awareness comes guilt, but alongside guilt is endeavour, endeavour to be less selfish and more honest and hopefully, when the time is right, when I can put aside my fear and selfishness, I can begin to help people less fortunate than myself. I suppose I still have an ulterior motive though, because if I am brave enough to take that step – which I’m not sure I ever will be – will I be doing it to help others or will I still be doing it still to help myself – but I suppose, if only to help myself, it will bring benefit to others?

So once again I sit and write and on occasion look out of the window. The sun is warm today and the view to Rhoscolyn is unhindered. Movement interrupts my thoughts and there, just a few metres away, sitting on the edge of the decking is a young cuckoo. I stand up, and as I do so the bird hunkers down attempting to blend with the decking. Such a beautiful innocent bird and given no choice other than to be a fake.

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5 Responses to The Cuckoo.

  1. Neil says:

    Well if you’re endeavouring to be honest this is a pretty fine effort! You’ve banged quite a few nails on the head here. Just a couple or four random remarks.

    – I wouldn’t go on Twitter to see what an adventurer is. That’s like going on Twitter to see what a climber, skier or politician is. You’ll get the same airbrushed result. Adventurers are mostly just those people who go out and try to enrich their lives with adventure without obsessing over one particular activity. You see them on the hills, rivers, sea, streets… whatever.

    – I wouldn’t say climbing makes you a better person. It’s just a coping mechanism; everyone needs one. Nobody’s asked to be part of this absurd joke, but now we’re here we’ve gotta do whatever it takes to stay sane!

    – If you do decide one day to help other people do NOT do it for anyone but yourself and be fully aware of this. Anything else is a poisoned gift.

    – Don’t be inspired by the cuckoo. It really is the most despicable creature on the planet!

    Thanks for the read and hope all goes well on your next adventure 😉

  2. Ben Silvestre says:

    Well done Nick, takes some guts to say all this. Seems you were getting angry at the adventurers because you saw something in them that you didn’t like in yourself, which is why most people get angry with others at any time. Its hard to look deep into the mirror. Hypocrisy is inherrent in the human race though, we are all liable to it. For all my moaning about climate change and receding glaciers I still get in a plane and fly around the world, contributing to the recession. And thats just the first thing that popped into my head. The list is endless. We all do it. But recognising and vocalising it is a good step to reducing it, even if that just means reducing the moaning and anger. Self awareness can only be positive.

  3. Ged Barlow says:

    Well said Nick. There’s too much focus on unremarkable people achieving unremarkable ‘First World Firsts’ as you say, whilst the truly remarkable often go unnoticed.

    I was watching a climbing clip on Youtube the other day, when I noticed a link to ‘the world’s highest climbing wall’. I thought it might be like a new wall for Nepalese kids or something good, but turned out to be some dude hanging on to 6ft of board with bolt on holds attached to the side of a hot air balloon. Predictably he let’s go and skydives away – and this is apparently a GoPro sensation. I despair.

    Looking forward to the new book and yes Neil is right, don’t admire the cuckoo – try the Golden Eagle.

  4. Thomas Schmidt says:

    You are a proper bodhisattva. Thanks for yet another great read. I am really looking forward to your second book.

  5. Iain Hazlewood says:

    It is good to call out the ‘adventure’ industry. I walk/climb/canoe because it helps make me tick and I enjoy it. I don’t wake up craving adventure per se, and why does everything have to be hyped up nowadays? The dictionary definition of adventure is to ‘engage in daring or risky activity’ – when I was a younger man that was about going on an anti poll tax march/riot. Ah, I do miss those days…

    I like reading what you have to say because you are nibbling away at what makes you function, I can relate to that and I don’t have to be constantly inspired or even agree with it.

    Will the next book be a series of extreme cat sitting adventures?!

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