Wash your hands after touching anything. Or better still, don’t touch anything, and then wash your hands anyway. My permitted walks have become an exercise in crossing stiles without making contact. And immediately dousing myself in hand gel if my concentration lapses and I accidentally brush past a leaf.
And human contact has stopped altogether. I’m not one for hugging every person I pass in the street but an element of touch does come naturally to us. We shake hands when we meet someone new. Our friends across the Channel go one step further with la bise. And American footballers like to slap each other on the ass, which I can’t explain I’m afraid.
If there’s one thing this horrible pandemic has reminded me of, it’s that we humans are social creatures at heart. And even the introverts among us still thrive on human contact. We simply aren’t designed to be isolated.
Look at our friends in the animal kingdom. Monkeys practise social grooming not only to maintain their appearance, but also to bond and reinforce social hierarchies. And it’s not just the practical benefits they crave. Social grooming releases a hit of oxytocin – the happy hormone – into the bloodstream. It can also lower our blood pressure and reduce stress levels. In other words, it makes us feel good.
And this behaviour is not unique to primates either. Bugs do it. Bees do it… you get the idea. It seems we’re not the only ones who benefit from social interaction with others.
Perhaps it’s this desire to connect that leads many of us to spend more time outside. Connecting with things bigger than ourselves. We are all a tiny part of a much larger organism – Nature – and that’s why touch is such an important stimulus when we’re outside.
I love feeling the elements on my skin when I’m climbing mountains. The cold wind on my face, rain dripping down the back of my neck. Walking in shorts is always a joy with wet bracken brushing against my legs. And I love snow too – sticking my tongue out to catch the flakes and feeling the ice numb my fingertips.
I love the feel of bare skin on naked rock. The springiness of moss perched on a dry stone wall. Of smooth pebbles by the shores of tarns, rounded by the gentle lapping of water over millennia.
You feel different connections with the ground too. From the solid and reassuring thud as your boots pound a well-trodden path, to the more delicate foot placements on a slippery scree slope or an exposed ridge.
There’s the comfortable feeling of putting on a cosy fleece as the wind picks up. Or the radiator warmth of an insulated jacket. And nothing beats climbing into your sleeping bag with a mug of steaming hot chocolate as the light fades and the rain drums on the canvas of your tent.
Even the sting of a nettle or the aching of knees and muscles after a long walk help to make us feel alive.
And that’s what lockdown has taken away from us. We can stimulate our other senses by looking at photographs of our favourite outdoor places. By listening to bird song in the garden. Or by getting up early to smell the freshness of morning dew or the flowers blossoming in the springtime.
But that contact with the natural world through touch is much harder to satisfy at home. Sometimes we just need to immerse ourselves in the landscape and experience those tactile connections with the environment.
What keeps me going through this pandemic is not the thought of fast food outlets reopening, or being able to jump on an aeroplane. It’s the thought of the rock under my feet on that first summit, of warming my hands on a freshly brewed coffee while watching the sun rise from my tent and of being able to open a gate without frantically looking for the nearest handbasin.
I’ve been exploring other senses in the outdoors. Check them out here: