Look to the hills
“I lift my eyes to the hills (Psalm 121).
It does not matter if you are Christian, Jew, some other faith, or have no faith at all; few of us would – at some deeper, more primitive or perhaps spiritual level – not identify with the sentiment expressed by the psalmist who composed these immortal lines.
The psalm is at once paraphrased and expanded (a paradox I know) in a hymn that I used to sing as a choirboy, the first lines of the first two verses reading:
I lift my eyes to the quiet hills, in the press of a busy day.
I lift my eyes to the quiet hills, to a calm that is mine to share.
These verses came to me at the weekend as I tramped Wellington’s magnificent hills, basking in a glorious gold and blue day, spangled with birdsong and softened with just enough white fluffy cloud to stop the sky from being monotonous. It occurred to me that I owe a lot to New Zealand’s hills and mountains, and to Wellington’s hills, in more recent times, in particular.
For, indeed, as the psalmist says, the hills have been a refuge for me; a place from whence my help comes.
It is no secret that I have lived, and fought, with an anxiety/depressive condition most of my life. At times that condition has sometimes so overwhelmed me that exiting from this world seemed a viable option. In wellness I am aghast at the power of these thoughts, but when I am not well they have an urgency and a power than can be difficult to reason oneself out of in any intellectual way.
Which is where the hills come in. The solace, inspiration, and sheer physical challenge of the hills have provided me with a place of safety, a refuge where the “black dog” sitting on my chest can be reduced from a ravening Baskerville Hound to an annoying yappy puppy that can be picked up, acknowledged, admonished and set aside. In this past year, as I descended gradually into the worst expression of my illness for many years, it was the hills that slowed this progress and built my resilience. They gave me glimpses beyond the immediate vision of the black dog sitting on my chest, and gave me the strength, and the perspective, that allowed me to seek help rather than giving in and sinking into oblivion.
A lot of the time the nearest hills were those within the confines of the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary, an island of peace, beauty and inspirational birdlife right here in the heart of Wellington city. They have literally saved my life!
Only slightly further away are the hills that define the boundary of the city itself; and what hills! Steeply rolling with challenging slopes that reward you for the effort of climbing them by bringing you to long, ambling ridges that seem to go on forever. They afford a vista of such spectacular immensity that the problems of the day fade into insignificance.
In his excellent book on his experience of depression John Kirwan (All Blacks Don’t Cry – Penguin Books) talks of the value of physical exercise. It is something to which I can attest. Anxiety about work, bad thoughts, the endless stream of what ifs, should’ve dones, you’re going to fail and wish I hads that filled my sleepless nights and most of my days, were thoughts that could find no room for expression in my head when I was gut busting it up a steep slope, glorying in a scenic ridge, or stalking, all-focus, some local birdlife with camera in hand.
I have written previously, of the joy of my childhood at our family bach at Lake Clearwater in the South Island high country. What I did not address in that blog was the ongoing support and inspiration this treasure has also provided me. If the hills of Wellington can be described as narrow valleyed and steeply rolling, the mountains of the eastern South Island offer another vista – wide open valleys walled with sheer slopes that rise up to cloud piercing peaks; peaks that emphasise the immensity of the sky and speak of Gods and mysteries inaccessible.
“The bach” and its surrounding lakes and mountains have been a refuge too – a place of thinking, and healing, and of putting things into perspective. It has such power that sometimes it has been sufficient to know it is there, and visit it in my mind. But when one does stir oneself, and brave the rattling last few miles of dust and potholed road, the reward as you round the hill past Hakatere Bridge and the Ashburton Lakes valley opens before you, is reward indeed.
Black dogs are not comfortable here, and slink away, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of inspirational beauty that fills your senses.