Is it Possible to Rediscover Something for the First Time?

Africa, Happiness, Music, Paul Simon, Rhythm of the Saints, roots music, tribal

Thirty years ago, give or take a month or two, a not so obvious child was born. (N.B. From the off, let me steer you away from fixating on an actual human birth, for a blog on the wonder of childbirth this is not. Figures of speech loom large in my writing, so apologies if you like your writing served on dry toast with a great dollop of literality. Oops! I did it again, smearing words on bread, which cannot be done, unless you’re making alphabet soup, in which case you can choke your own words, especially if the soup contains croutons.)

Well I’m accustomed to a smooth ride,

Or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost its bite

Anyway, back to the point. This not-so-obvious child was born in a New York recording studio thirty summers ago before the world junked out on the digital dope. The idea behind this multi-instrumental reproductive birth pang – no less the title track of the album – was that the child was obvious, and therefore should not be denied (could not resist a metatextual reference, so bear with me). But, trouble was, this birth went unheralded. No magi. No manger. Unlike the first born; yeah, that one with the South African mbaqanga rhythms and Ladysmith Black Mambaso a capella backing vocals, and for which everyone from Houston to Harare had heard of, recorded not five years before, this gift from our dancing God slipped into the world without slipping into my auditory canal for, oh, the next, uh, 30 years.

I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more,

I don’t expect to sleep through the night

The ‘Obvious Child’, track one of Paul Simon’s much anticipated follow-up to Graceland, that renaissance masterpiece from the little Jewish guy (I’m reliably informed he’s actually Jewish on his dad’s side, which doesn’t strictly qualify him) best known for writing whimsical folk songs about being in a grim northern English railway station pining for America, or about the pulp-faced wreckage of a boxer standing in a clearing on an equally grim New York street. Simon’s masterpiece part II should have registered first time round. But it didn’t. Not with me, at any rate. He titled this Graceland infant brother from another mother Rhythm of the Saints. The Boxer it was not. But Rhythm of the Saints was a lot like watching Muhammed Ali bounce around the ring in his pomp. In short, Paul Simon’s extended musical journey into African roots is pure, unbridled joy captured in a musical jar. Fireflies lighting up Brazilian drums and picking West African strings. The album might be about to turn thirty but when music is as timeless as this who gives a tinker’s cuss how old it is.

Some people say a lie’s a lie’s a lie,

But I say why

Rhythm of the Saints should’ve nailed it on release, but it didn’t. Hardly did it flop either, but neither did it electrify the music scene quite like its illustrious forebear. This much I know because I was nineteen and bonkers about music in 1991, and I don’t remember anything drowning out the sound of Nirvana’s Nevermind at the time. If Paul Simon wanted a shot at redemption on 1986’s Graceland, he certainly got it five years later with Rhythm of the Saints. Made with so much music multilateralism in mind that if you teamed up Kofi Annan with the entire line-up of the WOMAD festival you’d still fall short. And yet, the album wasn’t quite as percussive in the wave effect of critical acclaim as it ought to have been. Nowhere near that of a predecessor that, one could argue, whacked the first nail in the coffin of Apartheid. Maybe the curse of Graceland. After all, Elvis himself fell foul to it.

Why deny the obvious child?

Why deny the obvious child?

I’m fixing to shout to the rooftops about this black opal of a album, buried as it is still close enough to the surface to be easily mined. I won’t bore you with the particulars of my life, nor of a chequered year that’s been about as much song and dance as the long trudge to the gallows. But i will say that salvation doesn’t have to come wrapped in Jesus’ tunic. Paul Simon saved my life this year. Summarily, I dedicate this season of light to him. Or maybe this rapturous album transcends the man, leaving the listener making supplications to the creation over the creator. Track 3, The Coast, is one stubborn son of a female dog. Like unrequited love, its warm tones, its hypnotic melody, and its swinging hotspot rhythms squat in the heart long after the mind deems it sensible to evict them. Much as I try to ignore what is fast becoming musical recitation’s answer to Tourette’s Syndrome, day or night I cannot stop listening to it. When the ensemble builds like a human tower – Bahian percussion beneath Cameroonian guitar strings beneath Simon’s pitch perfect voice – my ageing body starts slithering in a whiplash motion. For a moment the hands of time turn back and i feel like a young buck lubricated at the seams.

And in remembering a road sign,

I am remembering a girl when I was young

Track 6 is She Moves On. Get this, apparently he pens it as a kind of paean to his ex-wife, Carrie Fisher. (Emoji with love hearts for eyeballs) Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia, object of my adolescent fantasies sat statuesquely beside the debonair Jabba the Hut in an off-planetary bikini with hair plaited like a brunette Rapunzel. ‘When the road bends, when the song ends, She moves on.’ She certainly did. Sadly, it was onto acute bipolar disorder that she moved. But hey ho, unlike most who rest on their haunches, at least she moved. And if you ever listen to this number, so will you. In fact, maybe that’s the life force behind this work of art that can’t be hung in a gallery. Music is art providing someone’s playing it. When the music’s over…lights out. A song lives only for as long as it’s brought to life. Like any oral tradition that binds tribes into carriers of the flame, music is magic when multilingual. And on Rhythm of the Saints Simon performs an incantation on me unlike most other minstrels who try their damnedest to transcend the medium of sonic art.

The speeding planet burns

I’m used to that

My life’s so common it disappears

And sometimes even music

Cannot substitute for tears

It remains, perhaps, an ironic twist of lime in the caipirinha that the album’s closing track, The Rhythm of the Saints, ends with the lines printed above. And sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears. Is this a call to melancholy in the midst of joy? Can the two ever be truly rent apart when the greatest music makes symbiosis out of sounds and emotions. I have scribbled these thoughts down in the time it’s taken to listen to the album: twice (I took a break to sway my fidgety self to the those Pied Piper drumbeats). In the end, I do declare that these tears Paul Simon cannot hold back, even after composing this unforgettable musical oeuvre, have to be tears of pride that for a guy who made incredible folk songs with Art Garfunkel twenty years before, could go one better by bringing music back home to its birthplace of Africa. My own tears, for what it’s worth, are of relief that 2021 was rescued from ignominy by a little genius from New Jersey for whom the world didn’t quite appreciate when he was busy changing it with his Rhythm of the Saints.

True love sometimes has to round the block before it’s noticed. But nevertheless: how on Earth did I miss the carnival first time around?

Songs Are a Thesis on Life, So Live It.

advneture, death, free will, future, Life, Lifestyle, lyrics, philosophy

Sometimes a song can offer a thesis. It’s usually on life, love and the meaning of it all. Sometimes a song can revisit you after a long hiatus. I have no idea why it barges centre stage into the crowded theatre of the mind, yet barge in it most certainly does. You know when it chooses to stick around, because that damn ditty plays on you. Wherever you go, melodic thoughts intrude, and before soon you’re chanting the song silently word for word with such metronomic repetition that not even the eulogy you’ve memorised for your best friend’s funeral is enough to dislodge it.

We often talk about this human syndrome of having a song stuck in our heads. Lodged with a stubbornness the equal of a goat, that’s how songs seep into the psyche. We even share a laugh when that song turns out to be about the worst piece of shit bubblegum pop the hit parade ever produced. Indoctrination by music is rarely predicated on the quality of the tune in question.

But other times, the song that sticks contains the germ of a idea: a thesis, I suppose you’d call it if you were using it as the intellectual centrepiece of a Masters’ dissertation. It then spends three verses, a middle eight and repeat chorus to test its thesis out on you, the listener. Or maybe, more accurately, what its unstated intention is is to invite you, the listener, to test its thesis for it by living according to the principles extolled in its message. Yes, that’s what it’s doing. That might explain why every great lyrical song is more than an enigma, it’s an insight into the mystery of life.

An old song came back to me this morning as i was busy making other plans. Its name is Live Your Life, by the American Otis Taylor. Aimed at the bullseye between our eyes, the lyrics are really quite straightforward. He sings:

Live your life before you die. Only might be for a little while.

By a little while, he means life can be curtailed at any time without any due notice. Implicit in there somewhere is this notion that as westernised humans, we’ve come to expect longevity, and if your three-score and tenth birthday party never transpires, there’s something frightfully tragic about it. Actually, when you put your social historian/demographer hat on, you’ll see that expectations of a long and biologically untroubled life is very much a late twentieth century indulgence. For much of history death prevailed in infancy as much as in adulthood. It percolated up as much as down. And when it did, the suddenness of finality was not lost on those bygone generations. If they didn’t see death coming, they certainly saw it everywhere.

Anyway, back to Otis Taylor. And the band plays on…

Death won’t touch you, on your heart. It’ll just come around. It’s gonna walk on in and knock you down.

Here his thesis is starting to develop. Causation, the central tenet of most theories, comes walkin’ on in on this little number to knock us down from our exalted position of delusion. The causation rooted in these lyrics says if you live your life before you die then death cannot harm you. It can only snatch you away before you know it. Ergo, if you choose to live life then death cannot enter your heart in some dismal prelude to a mortal end characterised by regrets and the endless act of dying while very much alive.

But what is the magic formula here for a death no more painful than drawing a line in the sands of time? How are we expected to – in Taylor’s words – live your life before you die? Again, the songwriter offers an almost irresistible position in building his case for a life script that conquers death. He sings:

Take time to laugh. Or maybe time to cry. Climb a mountain. Swim the sea.

And what quality do all of these lyrical prescriptions share? They all invoke a vitality – eros – which is the counterforce to the spirit of death – thanatos. They ask you to feel and to do. When inviting you to feel, they steal tears from the sorrow of dying only to fetter those tears on what is more deserved of them, that being life itself. Laugh in the face of death? No. Laugh along with life, fostering the conditions for that laughter to play out. Don’t embolden death with the power of your laughter, nor pleasure it with your tears. Climb above your lowly mortality to reach the highest peaks. Suspend yourself again as you did pre-life in mama’s womb but this time in mother nature’s own amniotic fluid, the ocean. A funeral should be a occasion to celebrate a life well lived, but how often do we feel like heading out to a party when following the hearse to the crematorium?

The conclusions of this treatise with its simple thesis of live the middle ground now if you don’t want the end to live for you stand up to scrutiny. If the premises hold that if a life well-lived is no less than a life with the marrow sucked dry, therefore death has no carrion to feed on when inevitably it comes, then the conclusions are clear: take risks. Don’t fear uncertainty nor shy away from the unknown. Let the light of life dazzle death, consigning it to the shadows until that fateful day when finality doesn’t revel in making a show of taking you away. Sure, we could die a terminal death through a cruel, clinging illness. But by stacking up enough of the life affirmative stuff in our armoury of getting older, even a protracted death can feel more like a soldier’s death: sudden and honourable. If that theory sounds optimistic as it does untested, then that’s a fair kop. But I’m going on that proviso until you prise it from my cold, dead hands.

I, for one, don’t intend to give the scythe-toting hooded one the pleasure. More so in a bizarre era typified by mass quarantining for fear of death (we say our current Covid self-sacrifices are all utilitarian-backed and done for the common good, but the truth is the organism is us fears for itself more than others). Hey, whoever said backing words with deeds wasn’t a challenge? But if we turn the page on this world in existential fear NOW then perhaps something transformative can come of it.

Like Kazantzakis said, leave nothing for death but a burned-out castle. And thanks, Otis, for the invocation to live your life before you die. Wise words. I’m not sure about swimming the sea (never truly got over watching Jaws as a 6 year-old boy). As for the mountains, I’m already packing for this winter. And when I reach the top, I’m planning on having a good weep. But not for death. Hello Life.

Holy Cow! How Ruminating on Love Ends With the Strange Tale of the Bovine.

#romance, abandonment, boats, England, Life, love, parable, relationships

I have a good friend I met overseas. A trusted sort, loyal, bright, boundless in his generosity, a good companion on these journeys of wine and deep talk long into the night.

One fine day he meets this girl. Let’s call her Mademoiselle V, for literary purposes. There’s no dilly-dallying when mutual obsession is at stake. Within weeks he has fallen head over heels for her ineffable charms. And she his. Truly, the man is snared in the self-tightening loop of love. Like all good snares, the more the hapless ankle tries to pull away, the harder the loop tightens. Like all deadly snares, only once the victim learns to relax their grip and accept the will of the snare, their plight will be eased, until starvation sets in.

Over the course of the following year, my friend’s love affair intensified. There was no limit to the gifts he fettered upon her. And she reciprocated in kind, showering him with the kind of things that money just can’t buy. Before long, they were engaged. The faint peal of wedding bells could be heard all the way from France, which is where I thought they’d be wedded, and I given front row seats.

However, all that glitters is not gold. Or, if they had made it to that French altar, tout ce qui brille n’est pas or. But I digress.

When did the path of love ever run smoothly? On our now infrequent nights over wine, worldliness, and European cine noir, he would recreate vivd little scenes of pre-marital turbulence. After a while, these funny flash points of their relationship would come to replace cinema and philosophy as the centrepiece of our drunken, moonlit nights.

The stories he told of jealous fits of rage, of Montagues and Capulets, daggers at dawn, of stormy meltdowns, mini breakups immediately superseded by major makeups. Lurid. Intriguing. The seed that sprouts legend. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara had nothing on those two.

The details of their tiffs became ever more non-linear and madcap, the more libations he poured and the more inhibitions he shed. She would turn from Mademoiselle V one moment into suicidal Desdemona the next. Unbidden, she would test his mettle by climbing over balcony railings 200ft above the ground floor of a hotel, threatening to let go if he didn’t do something, the details of which he never quite got. She would storm out of the car into the back of beyond, leaving him to play chase me. They would be drinking in a bar and she would just up and leave in the company of strangers. Their tortured love I came to understand as part of a larger ritual of constantly affirming devotion and loyalty. All ways of showing affection are funny when human insecurity leads to a craving for feeling wanted and needed.

Naturally, all these tantrums had an unnerving effect on him. Mutual suspicions grew. Sniping about one another became quite caustic. He’d drop whatever he was drinking, and hightail it after her when she’d go periodically AWOL. The hunter would become the hunted. In all, it became apparent that passions, like wine, if left to ferment too long, take on a sour taste. Like corked wine, the taste of tainted love, while certainly unpalatable, was still good enough not to throw away.

In the two years they were an item, their exploits elevated them to the status of legends in their own time. Torrid. Tempestuous. Volatile. Spectacular. Christ! The pair of them were an Elizabethan playwright’s dream. And like a great work of art, whenever they sauntered into our watering hole, no one knew what would unfold through the next act; only that some talking point was bound to infect our wider group.

As was the inevitable. They broke up without fanfare, without ceremony. Most of us expected it. Even they both welcomed it, with acid poured over and the candles blown out long after burning out from both ends. He had had enough of her antics; she had had enough of pretty much every aspect of her present surroundings. And enough of him, too. More than likely.

I raise the spectre of this long-interred affair because their tale has echoes in something I witnessed recently that, on the surface, bears little or no relation to them whatsoever. My story, instead of reliving my own tale of blustery sexual relations with a dark-eyed temptress, in fact centres around young bullocks in a field acting strangely in the presence of my own Mademoiselle V: my boat. The parable of these animals and the boat is that sometimes the very things that are born out of acts of love and obsession, that offer us shelter and sustenance, pride and companionship, and most of all the promise of a future, don’t always appear in the form of lovestruck humans. They can be inanimate and still stress test you to breaking point by placing the same unreasonable, suffocating demands as a run of the mill hetero relationship.

N.B. When reading about the cows in the field and the boat moored alongside, it’s wise to keep this couple in mind – in particular, the intense, all-or-nothing basis to their engagement. That’s how parallels become parables.

Let’s mooo-ve along nicely. So, after weeks and months of mooring in giant brown baths (aka canals) that empty and refill with every lock gate opening and closing, leaving boats beached and stricken for half the time, finally i emerged onto a river section of the canal. Yes, a river, no less. Moving downstream like a liquid glacier, a river is nothing like a canal. On a river a boat can attain its neutral buoyancy easily, as it tends to sit perfectly even in deeper water. The river is clearer and supports proper wildlife, such as otters. The current ensures a degree of purification that you don’t find in stagnant canal water. In short, i found a dream mooring for a fortnight. Instead of the usual tunnel vision you find on ruler-straight stretches of canal with hedges and trees lining either bank, on the river the banks abut fields and meadows, offering a more expansive picture. So far, so good.

IMG_20210608_165305

For some time now, I had wanted to find a safe haven for the boat, allowing me to come and go as i pleased. No mooring until this one had provided that leverage i needed – to be able to walk away from my ‘beloved’ for a few days without worrying half to death that it would be either ransacked, or run aground, by the time i got back. That’s relationships for you, I told myself. Together through thick and thin, but mainly thick. The fact that it took me five years and billows of desert dust to save for the materials to build the interior to my high standards, as well as two more years of Gulag-hard labour, and zero foreign travel, to complete its interior fit-out, lent a certain emotional investment vis-à-vis the attachment and strength of feeling i had toward the boat. When you start a project from scratch, for every pound sterling poured in, another two pounds of love follows, leaving the whole owner-possession dynamic to drift into the realms of smothered love. It’s a strange affair, man and machine. And not altogether unlike my friends explosive dalliance with Mademoiselle V.

Pleased as punch with myself on finding this river mooring, I toyed with all manner of escape plans. I’d lock the boat up and go away camping for a few days. I’d take a ferry to the outer limits of the British island archipelago. I’d even take a train up north to see my family. After a lull of two years in an intense relationship with the boat – never leaving its vulnerable side lest it did anything rash like leaping off the 15th floor balcony of a faraway hotel – finally my time had come to gain the distance the relationship needed. That was until the field’s permanent residents, a herd of delinquent bullocks, decided to step in to the fray.

The first time I saw them mass nearby was under the tree nearest the boat. Thinking nothing of it, i returned back inside to the galley only to watch as a few stragglers began circling the mooring ropes, and the canvas chair sat beside. One picked up the chair in his mouth and tossed it away. Another, eyeing the plastic carrier bag tied around the mooring rope, started chomping on the bag. Another got a bit friendly with the bow ropes. But I wasn’t prepared for what ensued. Another broke through the ranks. Annoyed that only a nub of orange plastic remained where the bag used to flutter, he put his mouth around the 2-foot long mooring pin and proceeded to uproot it completely. I could not believe my eyes. I was seeing the systematic eviction of the boat from its lovely mooring spot by a bunch of rambunctious bullocks.

Suddenly, there was a commotion on the bank. Inquisitive as inquisitive can be for a bunch of cows, this lot were peering through the portholes, licking the outer cabin walls, and generally threaten to set the boat adrift. One of the stern ropes was a particular delicacy for another bully bovine, who started fraying the rope as if it was dental floss. Undeterred, I had a stern word with them all, and the herd got the message and dispersed. It then hit me: you really cannot leave this boat for some well-needed time apart. If you do, you may well return to find your home wedged in a weir somewhere downstream.

The herd returned periodically, showing particular interest in the mooring ropes and the pins. I decided to go away all the same. For only a night, but that in itself was a necessary break. And while i sat around that campfire 60 miles away wondering what in hellfire the cows were up to by the river, i thought of my friend and his former relationship. While neither he nor her resorted to yanking up mooring pins, chomping on ropes and tossing away camp chairs, other acts of don’t-leave-me ultimatums were all part and parcel of boozy Friday nights in their world.

On the Mountain of God (PartIII)

#adventure, adventure, Africa, mountain of god, Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanzania, travelogue, Trekking

If this was any Mountain of God, the God in question suffered at the hands of a greater one: the weather. Rain lashed the steep slopes. The gradient, the worsening conditions, the midnight black, the rising panic: this was becoming a Jesus lashed by the Romans moment.

I couldn’t stop but turn on my hips to train the head torch on what was immediately behind me. The pitched floor of the volcano, the void behind and beneath. Raindrops rushing me out of the inky nowhere. I began to slip down, unable to keep my footing. Grabbing what purchase i could from the ground, chunks of the weirdest paste came out in clumps. I feared the worst. Not even the Himalaya had put the fear in me like this mythical giant. And like a mythic giant, once stirred from slumber they arch and wriggle, until rising mightily there’s nowhere to hang on but hurtle down.

Moses, my guide, was close ahead. He kept turning to reassure me. I saw in his dark features great courage. Yet, even he, the Masai warrior with a taste for suicidal volcanoes, looked at the very least surprised by these Scottish-like conditions.

It must have been after 3am by now. Lengai sat practically on the equator, but the temperatures struggled above latitude 50. We had been ascending – what felt like near-vertically – for upwards of 4 hours. How much longer until the summit? Moses cast a look of disappointment. “We’ll be there for sunrise. Two more hours.”

“There will be no sunrise at this rate,” I shot back.

Beseeching me to go on, Moses sensed the mood had shifted in me. For the first time in a long time an indifference overcame me about reaching the goal. I had travelled so far overland, paid so much for the privilege of my own cook, driver, armed guard, not to mention donkey handlers. I had spent so many months orchestrating this plan. And yet, here we were, 120 minutes from the crater of the world’s quirkiest volcano and I wanted nothing more of it.

“All right,” I said to him. “Let’s keep going. I suppose the rain might stop.” Of course, the Scot in me knew that when a man wants rainclouds banished, the weather gods don’t take kindly.

Another half hour onward and upward and the rain was truly routing the mountain’s immense flanks. Continuing to slide a foot for every two planted, I suspected foul play, that God – or whoever dwelt in this abominable realm – had no intentions of receiving worshippers that day. I slumped onto the liquid ground, my shoulders hunched in defeat. Moses noticed straight away, and turned back to see what was the matter.

“It ain’t gonna stop, Man. I just know it.”

“Look,” he replied. “You’ve come a long way. You can do this. You’re a Masai, like me.”

“But even if we reach the top, what then? We can’t see anything.”

I had, obviously, researched this expedition, leaving no visual stone unturned. You don’t take on something of this magnitude without first watching a few YouTube documentaries containing aerial panoramas shot from helicopters that leave you gasping for breath. Knowing that on a clear morning from Lengai’s summit Mt Kilimanjaro was there in all its abundant glory ninety miles away, that candy floss flocks of pink flamingos could be seen massing over nearby Lake Natron, and that practically the whole floor of the neighbouring Rift Valley could be savoured with a single sweep of the eye, was beginning to bother me. Why? Because, at this rate there was going to be no clear morning. We were going to end up wreathed in filthy rain clouds, unable to see more than a few metres of visibility.

I tried telling Moses this. “It’s about the views, man.” This fine young man looked, for all intents and purposes, an ancient soul shouldering all blame for what the sky was throwing at us. But none of this was his doing.

“I’m really sorry, Scott.”

“That’s okay, Moses. Let’s wait here a while before we think about quitting.” In truth, the sun could have been shining and I still would have been too afraid to march on.

Far below us I could discern human life in the form of four beams of torch light. Through the swarm of rain drops I studied them for many minutes. They were ascending swiftly. Rainproof and determined, that was for sure. What started as four tiny specks of light moving up the mountain in a series of switchbacks, after a while – how long in this surreality I had no idea – the lights began to close in on us.

Out of the blackness we were confronted. By four white faces. Two were dressed to the hilt in waterproofs while the other two appeared suitably attired for the park on a summer’s day. Through her sculpted hood, one the figures stared right through me. Her headlight bore into my soul as I gazed back at her.

“Are you alright? Why are you sitting here?” she asked. “We saw you climb quickly and then suddenly stop. Why?”

I told them of my misgivings. Playing down my uneasiness about the mountain’s peculiar aura, as well as the impossible gradient of the slopes in these conditions, I chose to accentuate the missed photo-op side of it.

“If this rain doesn’t clear in the next half hour, there’s no point in summiting. We won’t see anything. Isn’t that the whole point of it?”

The girls, both Polish and air hostesses in Norway, as it turned out, eyed me sympathetically. They knew that what was gripping me was also gripping them. This trepidation was self-evidently not shared by all. Their male companions, Russian and by my reckoning not air hostesses, lobbied to go onward. We all remained in this eerie stand-off, perhaps 8,000ft up the world’s only carbonatite volcano. The two underdressed Russians were having none of it while the two overdressed Poles were showing signs of apprehension going any further.

On the face of it, the two Polish girls, Moses and I, were willing the rain to abate. We accepted not only the danger in clinging to such a rain-sodden slope but also the futility in walking vertically halfway to heaven only to get stopped at the pearly gates. The Russians had no such reservations. Men are men, particularly in a nation where Putin would not have forgiven their cowardice so readily.

‘We go on,” they stated. And that was that.

“This rain is here to stay,” I said somewhat defeatedly, and a whole lot defiantly. “I’m turning back.” Moses looked bereft. All he wanted was to be the best midwife he could be, delivering me into wondrous new world.

The girls turned their headlights toward the Russians, then me.

“We’re coming with you,” they said.

The split was on high up on the Mountain of God. One of the Polish girls admitted she had been afraid. I seconded that fear and we were the better for it. As we traipsed down with a beaten Moses ahead, I kept turning to see the progress of the Russians. In a true George Mallory moment, the last we saw of their head torches was them disappearing into a thick wreathe of raincloud about 9/10ths of the way up, according to Moses.

Now safely at the foot of Oldoinyo Lengai, a grey dawn broke. The mountain, its flanks rendered green by the rain and gouged by overflowing gullies, its crown all but invisible, seemed to me a refugee from Scotland’s Highlands before the ice smoothed all before it. Never had equatorial Africa looked so dreich. As we boarded the jeep, the rain finally ceased. But, trundling off across the Rift Valley I could see out of the rear window a perfect conical rising until decapitated by one stubborn son-of-a-bitch cloud that simply refused to budge.

The Russians might well have landed first, but as sure as sugar is sweet there’s no chance they were going to be met by that uninterrupted view all the way to Kilimanjaro. Though for them, that was never the purpose.

Below are hyperlinks to versions 1 and 2:

https://trespasserine.com/2016/09/06/on-the-mountain-of-god/

https://trespasserine.com/2016/09/20/on-the-mountain-of-god-2/

The Social Experiment: Going Off-Grid

#alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, adventure, boats, Canal, climate, conservation, Ecology, England, environment, ethics

Part II: Life Off-Grid

There can be fewer acts of homegrown radicalism quite like going from mains power hook-up to living off grid. But what is it to live off-grid? Everyone is familiar with the term, though few are familiar with the kind of life that entails. Think of it thus: if mains power is similar to taking antibiotics through an I.V. drip, then living off-grid corresponds to foraging for your own medicine from nature’s own root & herb garden. The contrast couldn’t be greater, the results more startling. Sometimes wondrous, oftentimes disturbing. One thing’s for sure, there’s never a dull moment in the pursuit of the dream of living off-mains.

Before I embarked on what i call life unplugged I had seen glimpses of how it’s done. Having trekked the Himalaya a good few times, I had seen how the teahouses that operate as hostelries from the foothills to alpine altitudes managed to run their entire operations without the aid of AC power, or mains gas and cable telephony, for that matter. Naturally, these mountain people had no choice in the matter. Geography dictated Nepal’s infrastructure perhaps more than most places on Earth. Being poor didn’t help things either.

I marvelled at how these resourceful Nepalis ran an entire trekking operation with only two bottles of propane gas, a couple of 12V leisure batteries, a diesel generator, and a simple 12V wire loom coming off the batteries and leading to the only plug in the whole teahouse establishment. How they transport them up there is a whole other story. You see it, plain as day, a mess of plug adapters clustered onto a head adapter leading out from the wall sockets. From this higgledy-piggledy mess of cables, every mobile phone belonging to every paying guest is drawing electron juice from the auxiliary power source (in the absence of solar panels, usually the genny). There they are: a brood of mobile phones pulling like octuplets on their suffering mother’s teats, in the corner of the mess room where everyone spends their evening relaxing by the pot-bellied stove at 10,000ft.

That was the limits of my understanding back then. About the most i could discern from off-grid living was that when too many appliances try to draw current from a 12V/24V/48V system – one far lower than an AC voltage of 110v (USA) or 220v (UK) – there what’s called a voltage drop. You know when the bare lightbulb suddenly and inexplicably dims before shining brighter again. This, I later learned, is attributable to a fall in electrical pressure, which is essentially what voltage is. The phenomenon of this can be best imagined in cosmology documentaries where a distant star becomes a supernova, suddenly dimming before emitting a brilliant light in the night sky. Anyway, point is I had no inkling at all into the practicalities of surviving off-grid until I actually decided to try it. And try i did.

Initially, the feeling was euphoric. No more utility bills. Atonement for all those ecological crimes i partook of in the Gulf. Rapid diminution of carbon footprint, from gargantuan to nearly invisible. When the experiment in living commenced, it was the height of summer. Solar panels on the boat’s roof trickle-charged batteries, creating a false sense of power security. So convinced was I of the limitless benefits of going off-line that for that entire summer of 2019 I lived like there was no tomorrow: effectively consuming similar joules of energy than i had in a house. Unfortunately for me, gauging the true depth of discharge of those batteries, to whom i owed so much, did not become apparent until the gloomy autumn set in. By this time, so late in the year, long-term damage had been done to the 880Ah of lead-acid batteries. Plus, the solar panels were about as much use through a sunless English autumn/winter as a propeller in sand.

Sometimes the most enduring lessons to learn are also the hardest. It just so happened that the winter of 2019 was among the wettest on record. Noah would have been able to profit handsomely from starting an ark-building business had he been alive in that year. From the first ominous spatter in late September, that rain did not abate until the middle of March 2020. Living under the miserable deluge infinitely complicated the process of surviving off-grid life with relative comfort. Instead, as the batteries began their slow descent into decrepitude and death, the boat’s voltage meter reported a sorry tale of exhaustion with every reading. Just to get through the long evenings with a modicum of lamp light, heat and hot food in my belly, the trade-off was either to run a droning 2kw suitcase generator for hours on end each and every day under the rain, burning unleaded fuel and ruining my chances of salvation, or else run the boat’s powerful diesel engine. Restrictions applied by both methods. Running the genny meant, lest it end up stolen from a public towpath, i had to be in residence while it was going. The noise was incessant, not altogether dissimilar to the thrum of a billion hornets all descending on me. Try keeping your concentration when that din is going all day, and while people parade past your window gawping in to admire the designer kitchen. While the other method for supplying raw power to increase voltage in order to run every on-board system from plugs to pumps to central heating – the boat’s engine – never really deep-cycled the batteries for the simple reason that every 12v battery responds to an input charge voltage of a certain capacity, which the engine could never reach (it needed 14.7v but only put out 14.4v).

Talk about the best-laid plans o mice and men going awry. 250kg of lead-acid battery dumped after one year of chronic abuse. A replacement set costing a small fortune. A tonne and a half of coal burnt to keep the chronic dampness and cold out. Hundreds and hundreds of litres of diesel burnt to run on-board central heating, as well as to partially recharge the batteries. Hundreds of litres of unleaded fuel used to keep the suitcase genny sweet. A sizeable investment in solar panels, panels which for the half of the year you truly need them are conspicuous by their absence to deliver any volts whatsoever. It’s not even the off-grid burning of so many hydrocarbons that bothered me the most: it was the almost permanent state of hyper-alertness, apprehension and even anxiety, just waiting for the red low voltage warning light to blink on. Moreover, that one’s life is now going to be totally dictated to by the whims of auxiliary power. You cannot stop thinking about it. Constantly monitoring the situation; always on edge, twitching to pay back the battery bank for every little withdrawal of amps you make on a daily basis. I mean, how is anyone supposed to relax when providing domestic power becomes an almost obsessional challenge equal to servicing personal loans and debts.

The 99% who turn to mains power as a solution for modern power-intensive living: how could they ever know how taxing it is to manage the off-grid life? I didn’t until I unplugged the cable from shore power. Once the brief honeymoon period ended, the reality hit hard. Now, I believe if you are blessed enough to live in a perennially sunny spot below Latitude 45 degrees, living off grid by means of a large solar array is definitely do-able. Equally, tapping geo-thermal hotspots in your Icelandic backyard would work nicely, too. However, the indulgence of trying such a modus vivendi in a kingdom of rains and dirty grey clouds, like this one, by my reckoning is a challenge too great for most mortals. It was for me. I don’t want to face these uphill struggles through the dark of autumn and winter any more. Not here. Not now.

Human effort is not measured, thankfully, in amps. All experience is good experience, save for murder, incest and animal cruelty. At least i tried. And no one can take that away from me.

The Social Experiment in Living Off-Grid: How Goes It?

#alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, boats, Ecology, England, environment, Lifestyle, social issues, Society

Part I: Life on the Grid

Or should that be the anti-social experiment in off-grid living? There is that aspect, too, though there’s more to life off-grid than a simple wordplay. Or unbearable isolation. There’s the experiment itself, which has to be longitudinal – meaning same conditions over an extended period – and has to transition from living on-grid to living off, with all the upheavals that entails. For all those who aspire to living La Vida Loca – offline, unhitched, and possibly unhinged – the experience goes a bit thus…

Before entering the spartan realm of minimalist, I was a maximalist. Whereas today I can claim to tiptoe on the Earth with a size-4 carbon/ecological footprint, pre-watershed I used to make the Earth shake with a megafauna-sized carbon footprint. You know the type: Crusty the Clown outsized shoes, freak show dimensions, gargantuan metatarsals. Three years ago, but it seems like only yesterday (to quote The Carpenters), I was following a high-octane consumption pattern.

Living twixt the ocean and the deserts of the Arabian Gulf, I drove a car whose off-roading capabilities rendered it a gas-guzzling behemoth. Not that quenching its thirst for fuel mattered much, as costs at the pump were absurdly affordable. I lived in a business hotel in a spacious apartment high up on the 18th floor. For nine months of the year the air outside was so sultry that the air-con inside was on 24/7. A simple walk around the vast mosque near my home, while pleasant, often resulted in a complete body sweat blended in with atmospheric dust and other nasty particulates. The only self-purification was to lose oneself in the apartment’s planet-sized, walk-in shower cubicle. I dread to think what the water consumption was per shower. And yes, in summer one shower could easily morph into three scrub downs per day. That in itself wouldn’t be too egregious an act of environmental vandalism were it not for the fact that in the entire Arabian peninsula – an area about the size of Western Europe – there is not one single watercourse viewable from space. That means that ‘sweet’ water has to be sourced from somewhere other than the traditional go-to place for the native Bedouins, the well.

Arabia’s carrying capacity for humans is naturally small. To elevate it in order to invite millions of migratory workers in, engineers had to build a series of water desalination plants along the coast. Turning seawater into the salt-free solution that comes through the plumbing requires phenomenal amounts of oil to burn the salt off millions of gallons of water in steam condensers that run day and night. This process accounts for a surprising percentage of all oil production. That aside, the point I’m trying to force through here is that just to have a shower required an industrial process that burnt mind-boggling quantities of oil from water sequestrated from the ocean. The Persian Gulf, all 700 miles of it, is turning saltier because of the desalination required to sustain millions of migrant labourers. This brackish chemistry puts stress on the aquatic ecology, too. Most famously, sea grasses are suffering, which brings big problems downstream to grazers such as the manatee.

At work, we used machinery in a profligate way. Printing worksheets and other paraphernalia for the sake of it resulted in towers of waste paper, un-recyclable laser jet cartridges, and overworked Xerox machines. Air-con ran all day through unmanned corridors, empty classrooms, bare staff rooms, and even little panic rooms where you go to escape the madness. The utilities bill alone must have been equal to the GDP of a small principality. Lights were routinely on in empty rooms. Just switching them off was an act of radicalism.

Workdays there are kinder than in the slave-driving West. One of the reasons so many venture there in the first place. Instead of being bolted to one’s desk until long after dark, privileged expat Europeans (Brits included) would finish work with the sun still high in the sky. That exacerbated our carbon footprint, as at 4 o’clock there’s much life left in the day. Invariably, myself and friends would do some form of physical exercise in an air-conditioned gym, on equipment often running on mains power. In fact, the treadmills often needed their own national grid to operate. Once the aerobic fun and games were over it was time to decamp to the bar for a cold one. Except, for the Guinness to reach chill factor 10 required power beyond power. When outside the temperature is touching 40 celsius with a wet bulb humidity level of 80%, and inside the beer tap has a designer layer of ice around it, you know you’ve got an addiction to mains power. Is there any wonder a pint costs the equivalent of $15?

Of course, this power audit i’m describing is not the half of it. One of the great mass movements of expats in the carbon-rich Gulf is to descend en masse to the airport on the first day of school holidays. It is far from unusual to meet a colleague, neighbour or even drinking buddy in the queue for check-in. Their intended destinations are myriad, but all of them are linked by one carbon-relevant fact: flight time is seldom less than five hours, and sometimes fifteen. That’s a lot of vapour trail.

But this mass gathering of folks sharing similar socio-economic status is by no means confined to the air travel industry. If you want to visualise another airport analogue, but this time for the domestic market outside of school holidays, look no further than the mall. The great emporium of the 21st century – beloved of Arab rulers who see a historicity with the ancient bazaars and souks of the Middle East, as well as a source of great internal revenue – draws the crowds in all weathers, be it hot or hotter. Some, such as the Dubai Mall, are so sprawling as to contain more shops than some cities (Dubai Mall has circa 1,200 individual rental units within its great perimeter walls).

Once inside these 21st Century temples of consumer worship you see the level of food waste. That, in itself, is staggering. If I had a dollar for every plate of leftovers I witnessed, I’d be a wealthy man. Buffets barely-touched. Takeaways partially eaten. Quantities of cooked food that no society without an agricultural base should ever rightfully have within their means. The profligacy of quality food would appall any good Presbyterian. There, in the Arabian Gulf, apportioning little or no value to a precious thing as fresh, quality food is a fact of life in a burnout society gone badly wrong. Now, if these generous helpings of leftovers would go to feeding the pitiful canine waifs and strays that mill around behind malls and hotels, I could almost justify the waste. But they don’t, as a matter of policy. The Muslim rulers would rather legislate for a situation where uneaten food is binned than to nourish an animal considered to be vermin.

Like any superstructure, be it an international airport hub or a world-beating shopping mall, the maintenance costs of the mall are almost as environmentally disastrous as the industrial legacy of building them from their foundations. While I don’t profess to having the data on how many megawatts per hour the Dubai Mall uses in order to keep the lights on, the air-con nippy, and the customers happy, I’ll wager that its not far off the levels consumed by the whole country thirty years ago. A graph showing the mains power consumption over a thirty-year period would likely resemble a hockey stick: from sustainable to a complete loss of perspective in a single generation. The point being here that I was one of millions far exceeding a carbon footprint expected from the average consumer in their home nations. It’s the gift that keeps giving, the party without the hangover.

So much raw power consumed from relatively few sources. We’re not talking PV solar panels blanketing the desert, drawing in abundant current from the Arabian sun. We’re talking good old fashioned oil-burning power stations sending carbon consumption through the roof for many. We’re talking industrial output from raw materials extraction that has had a deleterious – in places catastrophic – effect on the specialist ecology and wildlife of the desert. Arabian leopard, down to two hundred individuals across two million square miles. The Arabian wolf, dwindling away to nothing, unable to halt their own human-led persecution. Hyrax, under threat. Corals, wrecked by coastal degradation. About the only wild things to have prospered are the feral dogs that cling on, unloved, in the derelict quarters of the city. Oh, and the ubiquitous camel, too cherished as a commodity to be in danger of extinction.

It doesn’t take a visionary to see that consumption levels of both power (delivered in cheap abundance by the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels) and commodities (imported on oil-burning container ships in exchange for crude oil and gas) are disturbingly high. After five years, I was reaching a moral dead-end. I couldn’t go on enacting a lifestyle that I myself criticised for its crimes against nature. To be sitting at a bar in the desert drinking Irish beer from a tap that’s chilled not by the air outside but but a long chain of industrial processes demanding huge quantities of power, while having discussions about how to bang the world to rights, that’s wasn’t going to cut it long-term. That’s when the small footprint plan kicked into action.

The transition from energy elephant to mouse has been a steep learning curve. Contrastive, to say the least. It’s not all peaches and cream when you’re trying to atone for your former environmental crimes. The challenges of acquiring power off-grid, of limiting daily usage, and of scrimping on water, are in their own right as equally immense as running power stations for cities such as Dubai. Ethically, living off-grid you’re on firmer ground. However, in a practical sense could we all do it? Or is off-grid living destined to be a strictly niche affair?

In my next blog, I’ll illustrate some of the day-to-day rituals required to keep the lights on, the fire going, and the water running.

To Save First We Have To Spend

biodiversity, civilisation, climate, conservation, developing world, development, ecological economism, Ecology, environment, ethics, future, international development, land ownership, rainforest

“You can take the title to your house to the bank and borrow money. Why? Because the market puts value on a house. We need to see rainforest at that same value level,” he says. “Conservation has to be market-driven. The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging or mining.”

Dane Gobin, Iwokrama Forest Management, Guyana (Bloomberg, 2019)

For decades methods have been applied about how best to arrest the process of deforestation in the world’s tropical regions. Everyone from international development agencies to Hollywood greenies have gone all out, doing everything from berating, and even ostracizing governments in affected regions, to incentivising them with the promise of aid, legitimacy and investment if only they would quit the logging.

The argument to conserve biodiversity over the argument to develop economically has traditionally come down to a binary ethical one. Western voices have persistently pleaded on the basis that deforestation – whether it be for lumber, squatting, mining, or slash-and-burn farming of cash crops – is an immoral act that not only deprives countless millions of species of a roof over their heads, but also degrades the quality of soil, air and of the lives of every man, woman, and child in the wider world. The value, therefore, of each hardwood tree, each prowling jaguar, and each creeping vine is in and of itself incalculable – or at least with a value exceeding the sum parts of the commodities that loggers, farmers and miners seek when despoiling the rainforest in the first place. Western thinking goes thus: stay in your sprawling shanty towns; let nature be; allow only indigenes the right to dwell in biodiversity hotspots. But in a world of nearly 8 billion ambitious souls, most of whom live in what’s called the Global South where most of the real biodiversity lies broken against a backdrop of poverty, squalor and deep structural inequality, what then?

Making Borneo into one great National Park, or keeping the Amazon as a primordial world, is all well and fine, but does it really chime with our contemporary mood? Making nature exempt from commodification and monetary value was part of a conservation mindset popular during the heyday of the National Park system in the early to mid twentieth century (think the USA under Teddy Roosevelt). Let’s ring fence the beautiful places in perpetuity, which worked beautifully in wild places such as Yosemite. But today, given the mess we’re in what with a toxic blend of population pressure, degraded environment, and a model of capitalism espousing the greatest consumption for the greatest number to produce the greatest happiness, how durable is the view that wilderness should remain untouched? Isn’t it time to take other, more radical, measures to safeguard the last remaining wild places?

Look around and what becomes apparent is not that the old paradigm is changing. Moreover, it’s that it has to. Under the pressure of realpolitik, of shrinking public spaces, of expansive corporate reach, and of burgeoning populations hell bent on getting a slice of that consumer pie, closing off vast swathes of so-called virgin territory is creating a rift between governments and their people, and more importantly between the reality of the situation and the perception of how to solve it. If not, then how come the more that developing countries (as well as a few developed ones) have tightened their environmental laws over the past generation, the more incursions we see made by various players and the greater the overall dismantling of the biosphere within the primary forest? Within this paradox, political populists hostile to established models of conservation can stand on ceremony with the promise of making pots of money for everyone from what they see as their own – and not the planet’s – natural patrimony.

Seen by populist governments in heavily-populated developing countries as symptomatic of the Western tendency toward paternalism towards the regions these great powers used to rule, in some unpopular cases, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the world has seen in recent years a worrying acceleration in the acreage of virgin forest felled for lumber, cash crops, and the riches that lie beneath the forest floor. And what is the motive that belies this degradation we see in spite of decades of lobbying and campaigning for an end to wilful and unsanctioned deforestation? Why are things, in some sense, worse than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago? Well, in the words of Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Environment minister under Jair Bolsonaro’s polemic presidency, the reality goes a bit like this:

“We need to recognise that there are real subjects living in the Amazon,” Mr Salles said, referring to the 20m people living in the Amazon. “So we need to give a concrete response to them, and not simply saying that they cannot do anything in the area of the Amazon. That is not reasonable, it is not even feasible.” (Financial Times, 2019)

By promulgating the moral argument for making the Amazon one gigantic exclusion zone for the millions of restless, economically-challenged people living in its vast surrounds, it seems that no lasting progress can be made. The old model, backed by rich, industrialised countries, many of whom have already laid waste to their own primary forests, is turning out to be a dud. Their appeal to goodness based on the ethical presumption that ‘just because we did it to get rich, to develop our nation state, you shouldn’t necessarily follow’, is now clearly falling on deaf ears. Populism has fostered defiance among the developing states in the equatorial belt. The rising power of China as an ideological counterweight to the traditional Western hegemony is emboldening states, such as Brazil, to let ecocide reign so long as the conditions for human inequality persist. Alongside this, the vast improvements in global supply-chain logistics has smoothed the way for biodiversity loss to become one big concerted effort. Salles’ justification for this lawlessness rife on the fringes of the great Amazonian basin is clearly viewable in these terms. He elaborates the point:

‘That is why people go over to the illegal activities… because they don’t have a space to do something within the law.’

Are we hearing the makings of policy based on the precepts of what is known as ecological economics? This idea is not exactly hot off the press, but it is beginning to demand attention. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals teetering on the brink, something has to give. And that, unfortunately, is policy attachment to the notion of deep ecology. As outlined previously in this article, building policy goals around a shared ethic that one can never put a price on nature, has proved a bridge too far, and this failure is seen in terms of unsustainable losses to tropical biodiversity in this century alone. Purists might baulk at the idea, but monetising a forest and all that’s in it might just be the one compelling way to make business, and all the rogues that dwell on its fringes, sit up and listen. Speak their language. It’s called cash. Easy to learn; tough to forget.

So, what does monetisation of nature mean in principle? According to Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, that conservation efforts can be bolstered and public sympathy heightened by revealing an economic contribution of nature and the services it can provide. This translates as tradable prices for ecosystem services. We can encapsulate these wider definitions into what I would term ‘natural capital/equity’. Measuring nature with economic indicators over a tradition of measuring nature, sui generis, against other ethical considerations still has a touch of the abstract to it. So, in short, ecological economism really boils down to saying, look, if you want this patch of forest you’ll have to show you truly value it by paying a high tariff for it. Ergo, those who would place such high stakes on their own economic future, and that of their corporate interests, would therefore place an enormous value on natural capital, to the extent that it would be safer in private hands (acting as a trust) than at the mercy of prohibitive legislation that invariably ends up breached by corrupt officials and short-term prospectors anyway.

If the past fifty years have amply shown that the world doesn’t quite agree on an absolute value placed on nature, it has always contrastingly shown that free market capitalism has been instrumental in placing absolute value on something so long as it can be considered commodity. No one quibbles with the price the market sets, after all. And this is where the problem lies: is it right to commodify nature? Does doing so lead to privatisation by other means? Where governments have failed, can the private sector, including the world’s investment bankers, step into the fray and actually flick the switch on ecological damage and destruction? In short, is it better to harvest a tropical hardwood than to fell it? For the tree, the answer is an unqualified yes. But for the guy who wants a quick hit of capital from the lumber, or he who desires the empty space left once the tree goes, what then? Even this radical idea (well, radical for our modern age) has its limitations. Without applying what Unmüßig terms the precautionary principle – the principle that the higher the risk to the natural environment, the greater the justification must be for a stakeholder to take such action – monetization of the natural world can all too easily slide into the kind of excessive commodification that drives Man to desire ownership and control over every tangible thing. We all know where that leads. And this instinct of tearing down only to build up, or to destroy in order to prosper, can only be moderated at the levels of governance and legislation. Which brings us back to the old ways of trying to combat ecocide.

Perhaps, there is a way, though. A new modus operandi where some ecosystems can thrive while we survive. And all in a more symbiotic, a more mutually-beneficial way. The Selva Maya is an area of tropical jungle spanning three countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A 150,000 sq km biodiversity hotspot containing no less than five species of big cat, La Selva Maya has recently been acquired at cost by conservation groups with money to put into something other than publicity and administration (Guardian, 22/04/21) Thanks to direct purchasing from the national government of Belize (i believe), this splodge of megadiverse, pristine forest finds itself now perpetually protected. Barring a constitutional catastrophe in Belize, nothing large-scale will ever again encroach on the fragile makeup of the forest. By any measure, what has happened here is a great thing for nature. And by extension, for the whole world. In purchasing the forest, conservation groups have clearly come out in the open, admitting that a monetary value – whatever it is – has been agreed with the previous custodians of the land. However, the arrangement seeks not to commodify what has been purchased, ironically, as a commodity. The contents of the forest will not be up for negotiation, or fair game for the highest bidder. No, that would miss the point.

The best analogy i can come up with for the money paid is that of a ransom. The right people now have the title deeds in their name, and presumably their business model is to leave the place the hell alone to simply be. If enough consortiums can come together to purchase small, affordable patches of rich biota, mainly rainforest, along the entire equator, then we might just begin to witness a joining of the dots until one day every last hectare that was bought by conservationists will start to outweigh the great green spaces on the map occupied by the industrialists, the agronomists, and the settlers, all content with one thing: to bleed nature for all she’s worth. By that point, capitalization of all natural ‘assets’ will be so valuable as to be out of the price league of every sinister corporation or corrupted government.

There is a faint whiff of Thatcherism in all this. In the early 1980s, with Britain exhausted and failing miserably, she encouraged affordable home ownership, and what transpired? Newly privately-owned homes across the kingdom didn’t get trashed; many actually ended up beautified where everyone become a vested stakeholder. The nature wars are reminiscent of her era. Whether humanity continues with the short-term strategy of raid and pillage until no booty is left, or the long-term one of benign ownership at a dollar price – monetising nature without commodifying her – we are, it seems, at a critical juncture. The race is on. It’s all to play for.

Away With the Birds

#adventure, adventure, Africa, barn swallows, Birds, migration, migratory routes, ornithology

Is there any animal that spells summer quite like the barn swallow? Do they even realise they are a harbinger of good things to come? I do not know if it’s them deciding summer or if it’s summer that brings them into being. I dare say it matters not one iota the order of things, simply that one could not co-exist without the other. If either were to disappear, I cannot see how we could avoid joining them in the dustbin of history.

People living at lower latitudes might not appreciate the symbolic power of that first glimpse of a solitary swallow gliding and weaving, banking and dipping above the river and high over the houses. We, however, who choose to inhabit the Northern outposts of the habitable world (i.e. England), place more attachment than we’d have ourselves believe on the return of these seasonal visitors. For us, whether we admit to it or not, the swallow is arguably a national treasure, the most welcome sight over the White Cliffs of Dover in an age where few are getting all excited at the prospect of incomers. After nigh on six months of monochrome, half-light, naked trees and continuous dampness, you can about bank on the swallows to slap an injunction on this dismal run of days. And, yes, to save the rest of us from death by despondency. We owe them much. We owe them a debt of gratitude for returning to us what they callously took from us when they left the previous early autumn. While a simple thanks doesn’t wash with them, busy as they are frantically gobbling up insects on the wing to power the trip home to South Africa, we can perhaps begin to appreciate them by first getting to grips with how mindbogglingly difficult their journey back and forth from latitude 40 degrees south to latitude 50 degrees north.

Weighing in at slightly under half the weight of a pouch of tobacco, and measuring half the length of a school ruler from beak to the tips of their famous forked tail, these little fighter pilots don’t actually require aeronautical engineers to build their means of transport. Nature did that for them over millennia. They are, no less, the complete article. Top Gun school cadets that arrive on the scene with their seventeen million dollar supersonic jet fighter on their back. The inspiration of humans wealthy enough to chase the sun on a perennial basis, swallows don’t need two mortgages in order to live the dream. They do, however, need astonishing levels of stamina, as well as innate GPS coordinates to find their way literally from door to door.

Take the Cape of Good Hope as their starting point. It wasn’t that long ago that humans discovered the verifiable truth that the barn swallows we see here in the British Isles nearly all originate in South Africa. The telemetry of migratory birds was always an elusive truth until tiny metallic bands started to be fastened onto their twig-like ankles. When a swallow was located 8,000 miles away wearing the same band, the connection was finally made. This feat of endurance, flying the length of Africa plus the length of Europe surprised many birders. For starters, how does something weighing fifteen grammes make it that far year after year? And more beguiling, how does an animal with a tiny brain remember how to get home? I mean it’s not like home is just round the corner either. To find its way from a nest in the eaves of a house in a hamlet in a valley in an English county back to a forest in Lesotho or a hole in a crag deep in the Drakensberg Mountains, first it has to find a suitable crossing point on the south coast of England. it then needs to fly at about 50kph, avoiding predatory birds, as well as birdshot from hunters’ guns, through France, over the Pyrenees, over the baking plains of Castille in Spain, up and over the Sierra Nevadas before making another crossing of the straits of Gibraltar. Presumably it doesn’t stop for very long en route, other than to feed where it can and to catch some zzzz’s before the big one across the Sahara. Is this beginning to sound like an epic journey? Well, we’re not properly underway quite yet.

Once into Morocco and over the Atlas Mountains, the landscape becomes disturbingly parched. The complex chain of organic life that begins with plants and eventuates in the presence of insects is on the wane by the time the swallows cross into Mauritania. By now they are well and truly at the mercy of the elements. These elements are always harsh, but sometimes brutal. Food disappears. Soil gives to dust, which swirls around in the lower atmosphere, blinding and choking everything. The heat is intense, even in autumn when the swallows are passing through. Shade at midday, shade at any time of the day becomes a rarity. The nights are frigid. There are so few reliable sources of insectivorous sustenance for them that ornithologists suspect that they make sizeable detours to arrive at Saharan watering holes, of which they are few and far between.

The winds on the open plains of the desert are hot blasts of angry air. The bird must take that wind head on, though if the little navigator gets sucked into a trade wind, he or she will end up blown far off course and into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean where its end is watery.

If the swallow survives the full-blown Saharan stage, by perhaps following the Niger river for water and sustenance, he will find himself entering the Sahel – that band of latitude south of the Sahara and north of the equatorial belt. You might think of the brave little swallow that his troubles are now behind him, but you would be wrong. This passerine bird needs to know it has not ventured off the ‘flyway’ (the corridor that they all traditionally take), but how does he know this when a) a sandstorm has most likely disrupted his passage; and b) when recognisable landmarks beneath them, used season after season to as reliable route finders, have been upended, scorched, moved, destroyed or otherwise fallen victim to man’s insatiable tinkering of his physical world? In the anthropocene age of man the job of swallow with homes in either hemisphere has become intolerably difficult.

If the 18g swallow has made it this far, his chances of reaching home do increase. But success is far from a certainty. In the Sahel, where acacias grow sporadically on impoverished soils, finding dinner is still a major issue. The swallow can try and seek out the brahmin cattle, for their tails are always swishing from the density of flies congregating around their shit. Still, remember, the swallow is a small bird who prefers a diet of gnats and midges and altogether smaller insects. The big-ass African variety, such as the tsetse fly remains a formidable mouthful. Now, beating his wings at upward of 70kph, the swallow powers its way past the Sahel to where green shoots grow. He has now reached the Equatorial belt somewhere around Northern Nigeria. His weary plight will be eased by the sight of forests coming into view. But they are merely a trap. Once he, and another few thousand of his brethren, have reached the forests of tropical West Africa they must be careful where they choose to take their traveller’s rest. The unfortunate will be snared in vast nets that locals booby trap the trees with. There is no hope for a swallow caught in the net. Even though he is only transiting, the swallow will be considered fair game and taken for the village pot.

For the brave few, they might follow the flyway (or skyway as i like to call it) out into the Gulf of Guinea. Once away from land the armpit of Africa can be a dangerous proposition. All it needs is a gust of wind and that’s it, game over. For the foolhardy if they stay the course, crossing the island group of Sao Tome and Principe, they can nail the short cut, reentering Africa in the primordial forests of Gabon, and further south to the mouth of the mighty Congo river. Here they might not be deprived the sustenance needed to power an 8,000-mile journey, but still they are not out of the woods yet. Dangers abound. The Gaboon Viper can strike while they are taking branch breather. Humans continue to predate them and every other piece of flying meat. The rains over the Congo come in torrents, the raindrops as heavy as concrete on their weightless bodies. The electrical storms over the world’s second largest contiguous forest are legendary. Do these pint-sized pilots feel fear?

Once beyond the Congo the swallows are beginning to home in on home. They are now in the southern hemisphere and there is every chance they know this, due to the Coriolis effect, magnetism, position of the sun and stars, and so on. Just when you thought they could hit the home straight for a ticker-tape parade celebrating their incredible marathon, another geophysical kraken emerges. Their voyage home comes to resemble Odysseus and his ten years of wandering. Angola treats them fairly well, providing the Goldilocks Effect for an exhausted bird. However, what lies beyond is in every way as rigorous and daunting as the Sahara. Except this desert is much older and much drier: the Namib.

South Africa is bordered by Namibia to the north. Namibia contains some of the highest dunes on Earth alongside a skeleton coast of nothing but bleached bones and shipwrecks. The ocean is an ice bucket under a burning sun. The dunes have disoriented weary travellers for eons. Only there can north be south and east be west. In the Namib desert can the swallow fall at the final hurdle. If he follows the coast south to the mouth of the Orange River, the swallow will have a fighting chance of making it home in time for supper, though how many lie dazed and confused in the red sands of the Namib no one knows, because no one ever ventures in there and comes out telling the tale.

By now, the great navigator has completed seven of the eight thousand miles. In the Western Cape he can perch on the fynbos, and while the vegetation might be on the prickly side, he will find a good square meal and a place to rest his weary wings.

He’s made it. Many have fallen by the wayside. And, to think, our magnificent young fledgling was only born in England in May, so how in God’s name did he cruise the flyway without having that internal map to guide him? The possibilities are too great, the implications of his amazing solo feat semi-mythical. Leave the answers unanswered. It’s all good. Some mysteries are well-kept for reasons known only to Gaia.

He’s home, South Africa are world rugby champions, the sun is shining as only the sun can in a waterworld southern hemisphere where the skies are cerulean blue owing to the amount of ocean. The earth has tilted away from north to south while he’s been on the wing for those breathless six weeks. He and his squadron of fellow travellers have literally pulled the Earth upward to let their hemisphere bask in the full glow of sunlight. They used invisible pulleys and guy ropes that we cannot see (I know that, because I decoded a conversation between two of them one day). Meanwhile we in the northern hemisphere batten down the hatches for another deathly winter until the swallows return in April or May.

Oh, yes, the return. Did I mention? They’ll be making the homeward journey north as well, about four months from now. That’s if we humans don’t mess up his time-honoured route along the invisible skyway by altering the landscape uprooting trees, exterminating insects, to plough yet another bloody field before he leaves again. Given how far we humans have redecorated the Earth’s surface, it’s a miracle they even find their way back and forth year after year.

So the next time you see one wheeling, darting and generally performing top-notch aerial acrobatics on the green and by the river, doff your cap and take a bow in his direction. For what this tiny frequent flyer does without leaving a carbon trail, we could only dream of.