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Just another mountain to climb

Renowned mountaineer, naturalist and architect Rob Wood’s third book takes the reader on his most challenging trip—and it’s nothing like any of his preceding adventures.

April 08th, 2022

Rob Wood says wild places have the power to affect his state of mind and his emotions.

After a devastating diagnosis, Wood finds his lifelong passion for a more profound connection with nature — what he calls The Zone — is more important than ever.

Review by Graham Chandler

“Anything is possible if we put our mind to it—or, more precisely, almost anything is possible if we put a universal mind to it.”

So writes author Rob Wood in The Zone: Rediscovering Our Natural Self (RMB $15), a short but brilliant and thought-filled book about finding “the Zone” — a special happiness related to harmony and connection with the natural world.

Wood has lived life as he wanted—adventure, experience, challenge, creativity—while caring deeply for humanity and the environment.

“I grew up in a picturesque English village nestled into the edge of the Yorkshire Moors,” he writes. “Roaming freely for days at a time in the nearby woods, fields and open moors gave me a deep and lasting sense of nature’s timeless flow, in which everything made sense and fit together. Ever since early childhood, I have been intuitively responsive to the ability of wild places to affect my state of mind and my emotions.”

He trained as an architect, in which field he despaired that humans have the “right to abuse the rest of the world without any risk to ourselves.” To escape, he soon found himself heading for the hills every weekend with his climbing pals—ending up in a local pub singing their hearts out well past closing time. “I knew, then, that I had found something precious, though elusive, a feeling of happiness, freedom and harmony: the Zone,” he writes. “I would pursue and nurture it for the rest of my life.”

Rob Wood and friend Tom Morrell setting off to go climbing in the 1960s. Photo Stevey Smith.

And indeed he did. From Baffin Island, Yosemite Valley, the Canadian Rockies—where he lost a close friend and climber to an avalanche—to arranging demonstrations in Strathcona Park and sailing adventures; all the while minding that power of the Zone.

Then one day on an unrelated consultation came some shocking news from his neurologist.

“He asked a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated questions such as ‘How’s your handwriting?’

“It’s all squiggly.”

“How’s your sense of smell?”

“Non-existent. It’s completely gone!”

“I’ve got bad news and good news,” said the neurologist. “The bad news is you have Parkinson’s disease. The good news is I can give you medication that will somewhat hold off the progression for up to five years. After that, I can’t promise you anything.”

After the diagnosis, Wood dutifully took the prescribed medication—levodopa, “one of the so-called ‘wonder drugs’ of the twentieth century.”

Even with Parkinson’s Disease, Wood still climbs.

Wood starts deeply researching Parkinson’s and learned the disease causes depletion of the dopamine supply to the area of the brain governing autonomous movement. It’s dopamine that transmits messages from the brain’s control centre. Less dopamine means less control of automatic, habitual, subconscious muscular activity. Dopamine is also a “feel-good” hormone that keeps us motivated and lets us enjoy what we really like. Activities that give us pleasure, stimulate dopamine. On the other hand, procrastination, self-doubt and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine. Because Parkinson’s depletes the supply of dopamine, it creates a vicious circle of decline in both physical and emotional function.

But Wood also learns that the placebo effect (when a person’s physical or mental health appears to improve after taking a ‘dummy’ treatment) with its associated psychological factor of feeling good about ourselves can help deliver an uninterrupted supply of dopamine. What’s more, Wood relates the placebo effect to the Zone.

“It seems to me that three components of the placebo effect—focus of conscious attention; patients’ participation in influencing their own recovery; and the healing power of love—are also the main ingredients of the Zone,” he writes. “So, even as I take my medications and exercise, I am a strong advocate of the healing power of the Zone—if not for total recovery, at least for holding Parkinson’s advancement somewhat at bay.”

He admits however that the need for a consistent focus of attention is the most difficult to sustain: “Yesterday I fell down the stairs because I wasn’t paying attention.”

The power of the Zone isn’t restricted to the personal, Wood maintains and it’s a message he wants generally known. “If humanity, in any form resembling existing civilization, is to survive the imminent tumultuous changes to the earth’s climate that our own greed and exponential growth have created, the holistic, natural Zone state of mind will have to prevail, whether by choice or by having nature thrust it upon us.”

Freelance writer Graham Chandler has hiked the Rockies for decades. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease five years ago.

Rob Wood on Almscliff in the 1960s. Photo Wilbur King.

One Response to “Just another mountain to climb”

  1. Jennie Wilson says:

    I love this book. It’s a feel good, ‘patch of Hope’ on the mountain of life. It shows us that we can get ourselves into a better place both personally and as a planet of humans.

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