Three Days with Totoro

adventure, Birds, dogs, Happiness, Life, Meaning, natural world, nature, Perú, peru, Photography, Seaside, thoughts, Travel, Uncategorized

Am I right in thinking love spans not only generations but species, too? The most obvious case in point is man’s enduring love for canis lupus familiaris. When did it all begin, this love affair between Man and dog? Round a neolithic campfire on long winter nights with that wolf cub with the soft, ticklish underbelly? I know it can happen in the unlikeliest of places, as interspecies love did with me on a beach in a little balneario near where Peru meets Ecuador.

I fell head over heels for Totoro. King of all he surveys. Totoro, a regent in a republic of waifs and strays.

Totoro lives in Perú’s far north region of Tumbes. He is, quite simply, a regional celebrity. As every dog needs a home, even free spirits like Totoro become attached to somewhere. His somewhere is a beach hostel: a ramshackle beast of a place, oozing character, built metres from the warm Pacific surf.

Totoro is no ordinary dog. In fact, he is such a heartthrob that – and i kid you not – his name is cited in multiple booking.com reviews of La Casa de Diego. At his beachfront hostel home oftentimes he can be found disappearing into a hole in the sand, nuzzling into a smitten guest, or else chasing down pelicans full pelt along the beach. One review, as I recall, lauded this canine character so much the couple in question decided to stay another week, mainly because they were the ones with separation anxiety, and not the dog. 

Like many great acquaintances in life, I made Totoro’s quite by chance. I was staying in a dive further up the beach in the balneário town of Zorritos (little foxes in English), on the scale of Peru a stone’s throw from a Covid-closed Ecuador. How did I even end up there? Being on the road makes no sense at times, because one minute you’re planning a jaunt into the hinterland of the jungle and the next minute you find yourself on a 12-hour coach journey up Peru’s long and parched coastline. Frankly, i was expecting more from this little hideaway. I don’t know what I was searching for. I was the only Northern European face on a coastal highway littered with refugees fleeing the human catastrophe which is Venezuela. Zorritos was, and is, a side of Perú that foreign tourists don’t often care much to see. It wasn’t until i checked into La Casa de Diego a little ways out of town that the other side of that other side revealed itself.

In no small measure because of Totoro.

Monday morning, beginning of December. The height of summer 3 degrees south of the equator where – as you know – summer is a permanent fixture. There’s not a sole around. I’m sitting under a coconut palm, and who should sally into view but this regal-looking Nordic beauty of a dog – half pure-bred golden retriever, half Brad Pitt.

Like a stage actor he makes his grand entrance from the wings. Assuming he’s just another of Peru’s legion of wandering dogs, I note with surprise the lustre of his coat. Lingering on him, i watch him cosying up to a guest who’s readying to leave. He looks completely at home with humans, which is by no means a given in a land where dogs manage to coexist with the population while still maintaining a certain wariness of humans, who to be fair do not fetter them with cuddles and coo-ing affection quite as we do in rich countries. This confidence he airs strikes me as uncommon.

The lady disappears forever from view, leaving Totoro alone on the beach facing the hostel. As if she never existed, he immediately seeks new thrills. Sensing treasure deep below, like a pooch possessed he starts digging. He scoops with such fury that the damp sand sprays six feet behind him. Soon, he has excavated a large mound of sand while simultaneously being swallowed up by the beach. Only his little tush and tail remain aloft.

At length his head shoots up from the sand pit of his own making. He swivels it. Finally he notices me. Trotting over, for that’s what confident dogs do, he introduces himself. It’s love at first sight, for my part anyway. He’s in love with everyone. Moreover, he’s in love with life. ‘Come on,’ he intimates, ‘let ME take YOU for a long walk.’

Plastic rubbish litters the beach. The type of litter that doesn’t biodegrade is a real problem in Peru. But for dogs like Tororo, plastic bottles present an opportunity to play fetch. I pick up a 500ml Coke bottle half filled with seawater and feign a throw. This excites him. I feign again. This piques his annoyance. He barks, but not as a mindless utterance, rather a form of modified speech. His bellow cries, ‘stop fannying around, and throw that thing as far as you can.’ I do and he hurtles off after it like a pro.

We walk for miles together, Totoro and I. Together in the loosest sense of the term, for Totoro is way too individualistic to be walking with anyone. He is a pioneer, this dog. A pathfinder. He goes at a canter, leaving me miles behind, only to find me again, the pinball that he is. When the bottle winds up churning in the surf, he barks at me to find a suitable replacement. Finding one, once that goes the way of the coke bottle he tires of the game and goes off in high pursuit of seabirds skimming the waves in the intertidal zone. Crashing through the surf, he launches himself, almost snagging one in his mouth.

People approach. As they pass, they look on in bemusement at Totoro who is rounding me, corralling me as if I’m a sheep, which I am compared to this lion. He’s calling out to me in a voice so powerful to give him a reason to run. The strangers can’t tell if the dog is showing aggression or is being playful. Totoro trots past a dead and bloated sea lion, showing little interest. An American in a stockman’s hat walks toward us. He asks if the dog is mine. That dog is no one’s, i tell him. He’s a fine dog, the man adds. A dog you might see in America, i say. Yeah, he goes on. He’s not your usual kind of dog here. I reply, i think he belongs to the hostel, but he comes and goes as he pleases.

We walk directly into the sunset until i can no longer visualise where i am. I call him and he responds right away. He knows the score. I am not the first guest at La Casa de Diego to have walked Totoro. Rather, he walks the guests as he sees fit. I happen to be the only one resident at this time, which pleases him while offering me exclusivity. We turn our backs to the tropical sun and head home. Totoro spots another sortie of seabirds skirting the rolling surf and goes hell for leather after them, stomping on the water’s edge like his life depended on it.

On the verandah outside my room, the day is ending. I rock rhythmically on the hammock while under me he settles down to rest. Finally, I think, this elegant brute is settling into the Sphinx position. Every part of him is washed by the Pacific surf. I watch his chest gently rise, gently fall. Every part of him is perfection. His paws are large as a mountain lion. He is in the prime of his life, and that saddens me because at that moment I feel my prime has gone. Well, at least i am as free as Totoro. The difference is, though, Totoro exists only and always in the moment, and I do not. So who now is the freer of us both?

In the morning when I awake, he is there sprawled out over three-quarters of the double bed while I’m shunted to the edge. As if he has learned from other guests the art of manipulation, he hides his eyes coyly with his enormous paws. ‘Sorry for commandeering your bed,’ he says without words. ‘But, on second thoughts, I’m not actually sorry at all. This is what I do when people like you come to stay.’

The day is bright, the heat incipient. Opening the rattan door Totoro bounds down the rickety staircase to the sand below. Like yesterday and all the days preceding, this is the first day of his life. The excitement of new adventures in familiar places is suitably matched by his enthusiasm for the chase.

He waits patiently for me to eat breakfast. Once done, with that stentorian voice of his, he orders me to get up so he can take me for a walk; a long walk on the wet sand of the Gulf of Guayaquil, its lukewarm Pacific waters bobbing gently under twine-bound fishing rafts already poised for the day’s catch.

We walk for hours, leaving fleeting imprints in the sand near the water’s edge. He hurtles off, chasing down whatever has the temerity to try and outrun him. The seabirds that fly in single file inches above the waves are always one step ahead. This frustrates him, and even from a quarter mile away, I hear his voice boom with rage and his long legs pummel the shore. He is in his element in ways I could only dream of.

On the evening of the fourth day of my stay at La Casa de Diego, the curtain comes down on our love affair. I stack my bags up against the fence in readiness for the moto-taxi driver to collect me. Totoro stays by my side but knows what to expect. I am not the first to fall for him, nor will I be the last. I so want to leash him and take him with me on the overnight bus south. But I know that an organism needs its habitat; that to deprive him of this world over which he rules would be to strip a king of his crown.

I can still see him now, digging up the beach, beguiling locals with his brazen beauty and confidence, bounding, like a straw-coloured stallion, after those shore birds that artfully skim the waves single file in a game he’ll never stop playing until he is old and dignified enough to know that against the pelicans he can never win. But winning is a strategy and strategy is not the point. It is capturing every moment that counts, and few embody this true meaning of happiness more than him.

To Machu Picchu, With Love

#adventure, #romance, adventure, Andes, backpacking, Eighth Wonder of the World, environment, Lifestyle, mountains, natural world, nature, peru, Planet Earth, Salkantay, South America, Travel, Travel Photography, travelogue, Trekking, Wilderness

It was always central to the plan. Fly transcontinental to Peru. Once in the capital, randomly follow compass points leading out of Lima in all directions but west, which would be suicidal as it would leave me adrift somewhere in the deep Pacific Ocean. But whatever I do, the golden rule stands: don’t fly home without first having taken the long trail to Machu Picchu.

Many roads lead to Rome. So too are there a fair few routes to Machu Picchu. The Inca, like the Romans, were master road builders after all. You can opt for what most do and that is to fly to Cusco, board a mini bus from that old Inca seat of power to the sublime surroundings of Ollantaytambo in the even more sublime Sacred Valley of the Inca, board the train from the terminus there 90 minutes to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Macchu Picchu, and from there board another bus that winds up and up until it reaches, at 2,430mt a.s.l., the ticket booths standing like sentinels at the entrance to the eighth wonder of the world.

Or you can pay Atahualpa’s ransom and trek the three nights, four days to Aguas Calientes on the famous Inca Trail. Equally, you can step out of the ordinary and hike the Lares Route running along the valley to the north of the Sacred Valley. But that plonks you down at Ollantaytambo and from there you’ll still need to ride the packed train to Machu Picchu. For the even more intrepid there’s the Vilcabamba Traverse route, which basically follows in the now well-trodden footsteps of Hiram Bingham, the American who discovered Machu Picchu with a little help from an unheralded fellow who happened to farm land in Aguas Calientes and knew all about the strange ruins in the thick undergrowth at the top of the mountain. At ninety kms long, descending into canyons, crossing raging rivers and back up mountains so steep you tip your head backwards just to see them in their entirety, the Vilcabamba can take well over a week to traverse. And then there’s the Salkantay. Free but definitely not easy. That’s the route I took. It turns out, with unintended consequences.

They always say, don’t they, that certain actions have unintended consequences. The more extreme the action, the more consequential. By the standards of some, walking a full five days and sixty kms to the foot of Machu Picchu over a 4,600m (15,090ft) pass is pretty extreme. Especially so when you happen to be fifty years old on your next birthday. Anyway, i digress. For five days I walked the walk and talked the talk and in between saw deep time cut deep into rock and cappuccino brown waters froth and fury on the valley floor because the mighty, near-mythical Urubamba river could not run down to the Amazon fast enough, pushed on as it was into incandescent rage by mountains pressed hard up against it, bullying it and blocking its light.

It was raining as the ten of us flooded out of the mini bus on the trailhead. In reality, the official start to the 75km Salkantay Nevada was 20km back down a very inundated road-cum-track. Ordinarily, day one of the Salkantay would involve a trek up and up that rutted track, waterlogged by weeks of summer rain and spun into mud by the endless turning of Mercedes minibuses wheels ferrying sightseers up to Humantay Lake. We were cutting to the chase on our five day dash to Machu Picchu by skipping the boring bits.

Our guide, Jorge, told us to get suited and booted. Raincoats and plastic ponchos would be the order of the day. My Texan friend and I clambered onto the muddy ground. Walking poles were doled out in exchange for rent money. Essential item. $10 for the duration. Our walking group – at that point still a bunch of strangers, mainly from Germany and Holland – formed under the rain, almost by accretion. Bedecked in plastic ponchos of the most garish colours, they readied themselves for a 2-hour detour to Humantay Lake, before bracing for a 3-hour climb up to camp 1 at Soraypampa. As usual, I was first off the bus and last onto the trail. The Texan and I rolled a smoke, buckled up and in our own time started this great overland journey with a single step. The young bucks and hinds in the group were already visibly ahead within minutes. But the Texan and I were not lone stragglers. Beside us we noticed a girl.

I had seen her when i first boarded the bus back in Cusco at 4am that morning. There she was all alone with only a covid mask covering her eyes, depriving me of the totality of her pretty face. She sat alone, not feeling the urge to befriend others, as so many solitary types do when they’re on the road. She slept, and when she woke she kept herself very much to herself. Much as I tried not to, i found myself constantly stealing a glimpse of her while trying to act all natural. Physically, she was nothing like us. I guessed Brazilian due to these fulsome lips and coffee complexion. She certainly wasn’t Peruvian, with their proud Quechuan noses. Nor Chilean. Nor Argentinian. Definitely not Bolivian. Ecuadorian? Hmmm. Nah. They too were ruled by the Inca, as their faces testify to. She could have been Colombian, or Venezuelan. I deduced that much. Anywhere in the Caribbean, the genetic blend of European, African and Indigene created this unmistakeable exoticism, verging on the absolutely beautiful. But, no. I settled upon Brazilian, as there are 150 million of them, and only 50 million Colombians and 25 million Venezuelans (there used to be 30 million, but 5 million are now refugees).

As we ambled, tortoises off the blocks, she drew abreast of us. Slightly discomfited by the presence of two jackasses who – as i was to later find out, she found irksome when they boarded the minibus at 4am singing, joking and generally ignoring the protocols of getting on a night bus – it took me to break the ice.

‘See my friend here, he doesn’t think you’re Brazilian. But i do. Am i right?”

She was. And I was. And that was the first time we were right together.

At Humantay lake, the surface water was a bioluminescent paint pot. The color was electric blue-green. Around it the land rose sharply, a browned earth soft as shale where the land had collapsed in. And on top of that sat a crumpled mountainous mass of black rock and ice. The Andean giant flitted in and out of sight, behind a veil of cloud and Scotch mist. It was summer, but the Andes being the Andes and defying definition, this was the rainy season. And for anyone who knows the high mountains, everything is exaggerated, even the intensity of the rain.

I could see the glass domes – our beds for the night – on the ridge up ahead far in advance of arriving. The others were all there, but she and I had fallen far behind. Our footsteps slow, deliberative, rhythmic. We were tired beyond belief, for here at nearly 4,000 metres (or 13,000ft) the air was reed thin and the angle of ascent deceptively steep and seemingly without end. For every gulp of air, disappointment ensued. And as the occluded sunlight dipped on a fading afternoon she and I became more and more talkative. Gassing while climbing at these altitudes is not always the right strategy. So for every sentence a pause for breath that doesn’t readily come the way it does as sea level. Our legs could not catch up with our tongues but I knew that something had clicked between us, language barrier or no language barrier.

Up on the ridge with the Salkantay mountain looming in the twilight behind a wall of white cloud, she and I slumped down. We were exhausted, the right kind of exhaustion that combines the very tired with the very happy. Eagles flew sorties in the valley beneath and every now and then a huge wall of granite would flash into view through the gathering night. Magic all around. This, I thought, is why I damned near killed myself to get here. And in the process i made a friend, a beautiful friend.

Day one not even drawn to a close, and this adventure was already shaping up to be a classic. It’s in the nature of duality that with pain comes a degree of pleasure that makes the pain bearable. Altitude and steep gradients might be the root cause of the pain, but the pleasure was all mine with her by my side. I have a fridge magnet back home that reads, ‘no road is too long in good company‘. Never was this Turkish proverb more true than the moment we collapsed into camp 1.

The Year is 2020, So Where is the Vision?

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Humanity bumbling along, governing bodies staring longingly into their former selves à la Dorian Grey and his cloaked mirror, and so-called policies as ham-fisted as a fist full of, erm, ham. Yes, the list just rolls on and on in this the only year in history dedicated to a field of vision deemed as clear and perspicacious as you can get. Oh, the irony of it all! We might be languishing in the year of our landlord, 2020, but we as a race do not enjoy the accompanying 20/20 vision that makes a bleary-eyed rookie into a hawk-eyed fighter pilot.

Let’s start with the only thing that really matters, and no it’s not us. Dorian Grey’s older self would be disappointed to hear that admission. That thing I speak of is the world around us. Let’s face it, it’s the only world we’ll ever have and the only living one within about, let’s say for argument’s sake, ten light years, or 58 trillion 590 billion kilometres, if you’re claiming on mileage. Wilderness, as most of us are aware, is being co-opted for agronomy and industry to serve a human population that is beginning to resemble an infestation or worst still a bacterial culture gone rogue in a planet-sized petri dish. This is happening at a rate for which there is no excuse. We are eating ourselves out of house and home and the only ones not seeing that are those with their craw stuffed full of nature’s bounty, as well as unschooled ignoramuses, for which there are many even if the the doyens of political correctness admonish us for calling out all the provincial thinkers in our swelled ranks. We have known for much of my own lifetime about the concomitant risks in taming the wild places: what is lost cannot be recovered in a timeframe that humans understand. Every Tom, Dick and Harry, however hard of hearing, must know that extinction is forever. We’ve known the phrase slash and burn for decades and, encoded in it, all its barbaric implications. Even though the debate has taken on new and violent terms of reference, eco-vandalism is going on in spite of our knowledge of it and complicity in it. All the while it seems the more dire the prognostications, the more wanton our behaviour and the more debased our greed for the things that have kept the world hitherto in balance. I have lost track of the number of times I hear the term ‘sixth extinction’. Now if that were insufficient to jolt us into redefining the boundaries by which the human race exploits the natural world, i do not know therefore what is sufficient. The more the mainstream media reports on how we’re approaching a tipping point, a point of no return, the more the average family’s material needs appear to multiply. While global population ploughs upward to an 11-digit figure, our celebrity culture boasts of its procreative prowess by inviting the media to snapshot their opulent lives in rural Sussex with six children in tow. Why make the implicit link between many offspring and material success in the knowledge that this is a false correlation? I mean, throughout most of history large families have more often than not been synonymous with extreme poverty, and not opulence. A Prime Minister of Great Britain with six offspring (that we know of), chaired with the task of finding a common voice to bring down the human impact? Gimme a break. What kind of vision is that coming from the stuttering mouth of yet another high-flying free-market mercantilist libertarian who believes in the greatest markets for the greatest numbers?

While the correlation between modern industry and atmospheric-changing carbon emissions has been better made, we continue to miss the point. If you want to trace the problem back to its genesis, jump not onto the bandwagon of climate change. Look again, use that 20-20 vision and you’ll see that Attenborough has been whispering truth: it all comes back to global human population. It’s out of control and from it everything flows. Rampant human overpopulation is the taproot down which a pestilent tree of Man grows. Wild habitat is stolen to tend the needs of a burgeoning population (in Africa and Asia) who all aspire to live as postwar Americans have. Forest goes tree after tree, species after species. We know all this. We know that nothing hosts biodiversity better than a forest found 20 degrees either side of the equator. We know the secrets to finding cures for human ailments lies within their mind-blowing array of biota. We know that to have space to grow row after endless row of oil palm trees to produce better soap and all manner of packet food to feed ever-growing numbers of hungry mouths and to wash evermore grubby little faces, we first have to collapse an ecosystem perfectly evolved to provided a pyramidical shelter for every manner of creature, plant and fungus from here to kingdom come. We know that without canopy cover the thin, reedy soils of the tropics turn infertile, into dust under the blazing sun. So why do we, as a race, persist in laying the groundwork to seed our own miserable demise? Why clear-fell whole countries only to fatten cattle for their mass slaughter to give some Lazy Joe a nutrition-depleted, ready-made burger? Not content with turning the complex machinery of nature into a monocultural wasteland where even the public are forbidden to go, we’re even ramping up operations on livestock farms to expand the export market for meat into a China that’s seen the largest middle-class in history emerge within the past thirty years. Even their tastes are changing to embrace a completely cruel and unsustainable world. Bye bye Taoism. The only consolation we can draw is that 800 million Hindus refuse point blank to jump on the cattle train, not that Mother India is a shining beacon of environmental custodianship.

Living in 2020 without the corresponding vision is not totally unlike the proverbial overflowing bucket of liquified manure that spills out to all quarters. It’s not just the disappearance of tropical and sub-tropical forest, nor the disappearance of broadleaf temperate forest that we in Europe have mourned for a thousand years. It’s everything, everywhere. The human cancer has gone metastatic. Desert is growing everywhere between latitude 20 and 30 north and south, yet we turn a blind eye for most of us do not live in a desert, nor have so much as stepped in one. Grasslands have already been co-opted, but that’s old news now since Buffalo Bill Hickok shot six million bison on the Great Plains as a way of spitefully starving the Sioux. Ice is going, yet while we mourn its melting we overlook that if it were advancing – as it has dozens of times in the past two million years – we wouldn’t find it so brilliant white or cute. As for the oceans, well, not only have we gone from trawler to factory ship as if to underscore the intensification of the end for all who partake in the feast of misery, we continue to sully the waters around our coasts and then some more. We’ve created a floating mat of congealed plastics that swirl around in the North Pacific and is reckoned to be the size of big ol’ Texas. A remarkable feat of human ingenuity if you ask me. Only outdone by the crass stupidity of knowing that fish stocks (even the term ‘stocks’ implies monetary value and property for humans) are near exhausted, so how about we build trawlers the size of small passenger liners with hooked lines trailing off the stern, some long enough to reach the moon and back, which was in all fairness the last decent thing we ever did to get one over on nature. Scrape the seabed for a catch that justifies the distances the fleets (mainly Chinese) will go in order to bring home the ocean’s bacon. They know the damage wrought by this crude method, but do they care? They must know that hardwired into their rapacious business model is the reality that what they’re doing is finite and temporary and smacks of the kind of short-term strategic planning that is no planning at all. Rather, the dragnet of modern fishing fleets represents another instance of short-sightedness that can never equate to the far, crystal clear vision that 20-20 provides.

A discussion about the absence of vision in the year where the two words best eclipse, cannot be foreclosed without mention of political will and leadership. It does not require radical insight to see that leadership around the world is characterized by a near collapse in the manner of vision needed to see the living Earth through the 21st century without any more bodily desecration than is strictly needed to lead a low-impact life. Leaders are followers. Whom they follow is up for argument, but you can bet that the pursuit of profit and unenlightened self-interest lies right behind them. Britain and the U.S. are grotesque examples of nations who have known visionary leadership in their illustrious pasts and who have now descended into a near-existential breakdown because the current crop of leaders are singularly lacking in the kind of millennial vision that sees a hundred years ahead, and not the next hundred days, fearing the imminence of their own destruction, which is the lot of the modern politician. Where are the leaders that the world in crisis demands? Where are the new wave of articulate young voices? Where is the unity of purpose in it all? Of course, worshipping the making of capital and looking to those early 21st century capitalists as pedigree for the type of leadership our damaged world needs is going to end badly. The credo of unlimited economic growth built upon the conquest of nature (as espoused by Adam Smith back in 1776) is a dangerous one, setting a course for yet more planetary destruction by a species whose boots have gotten too big for their feet, whose eyes have grown too large and covetous for their sockets, but whose vision has dimmed. Contrary to the saucer-sized eyes they think is needed for a bigger, bolder vision, they’re missing the whole point: its smaller, less covetous eyes we need, but eyes that penetrate the darkness we currently find ourselves lost in.

Kings of the Tame Frontier

animals, Birds, Britain, British Isles, Canal, conservation, England, environment, natural history, natural world, nature, Photography, Wildlife, Wildlife photography

A European kingfisher appears to be tobogganing down a boat’s mooring rope.

Kingfisher sliding down the mooring rope
Self-same kingfisher yawning? Yelling? Exercising that impressive beak of his?
He has a noble forbearance against the miserable elements.
He strikes a classic pose
A great, grey heron preens the parts that others bills cannot reach
Self-same heron sits menacingly on a branch, watching for glinting shapes under the water’s surface.

All photos the property of SM Shanley ©Trespasserine2020

Too Good To Be True

Britain, British Isles, conservation, Coronavirus, counter-culture, Covid-19, death, developing world, England, environment, ethics, future, Great Britain, human development, kindness, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Life, Lifestyle, natural philosophy, natural world, pandemic, People, Political Culture, Politics, Poverty, revolution, Society, Socioeconomics, thoughts

That ol’ devil called greed is back again. Many feared the worst while others dreamed of a new, kinder dawn. But oh no no, sir! No sooner is full lockdown eased, untimely death is no longer news. And why? Because that she-devil, the economy, is back. No sooner has its mouth been welded shut than its teeth are glistening at the prospect of new blood.

Turn on the news and talk of rekindling a lost love for nature, or for that matter stopping to reflect on human suffering and the slow torture of social isolation, has been superseded by dire prognostications of poor industrial output, negative deficits, and looming recession. Figures in the billions (£) are banded around where only last week the figures were reserved for the dead. Yes, I’m afraid it’s time to rally together in a final push over the top to be mown down not by the bullets of the Bosch but by debt, overconsumption and more reckless environmental despoliation.

vikings

However, this national obsession with wealth accumulation has substantial precedent when seen over the arc of history. The very name Britannia came into being as a nomenclature given by Roman imperial planners (Britanicus, I think, was one of the Julio-Claudean line of rulers). The island was finally absorbed into the Romanosphere in the mid-first century not for magnanimous reasons but because it was known since Phoenician times for its lucrative silver, tin, lead and gold mines. Then, following the departing legions, Jutes, Angles and Saxons came not for magnanimous reasons but because in that fertile soil lay wealth and prosperity. Following them, the dreaded Danes, who arrived in the 790s on raiding parties along the North Sea coast. Not for magnanimous reasons did they emerge on the flat horizon, but to plunder the treasures known to be held in the abbeys. Following them the Normans, who didn’t raise a psychotic militia for magnanimous reasons but to spill blood onto land they knew would bring a crop of splendiferous wealth. During the civil war in the 1640s, a genuine attempt was made at levelling the appalling inequalities of serfdom in the late middle ages. But again that was snuffed out again by the forces of avarice. The Bank of England would be established forty years after the failures of English republicanism just to underscore the direction the country was heading in. In that century too, The East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company consolidated their royally-sanctioned gains to become the Multi-Nationals of their day. Following the failures of political equality in England, the notion of republicanism as the only force for egalitarianism was then left to France and the inchoate United States. In the years following the Seven Years War with France, by the mid-1700s the British empire had become the most profitable venture in the history of the world. Its adherence to the doctrine of greed, masqueraded as mercantilism, became set in stone, an article of faith.

Top-questions-answers-East-India-Company

And so it is that the country, as it appears today, finds itself true to its atavistic self. In other words, its socio-cultural DNA had been inherited from a long lineage. Other than the blip following both world wars when some kind of radical redistribution of wealth had to be sought to avoid a civilisational collapse, Britain has proven herself more adept at pursuing riches by any means possible than it has for coming up with novel ways of how people can co-exist harmoniously with each other and with the ecology that still clings to the land’s surface. It wasn’t for want of clever men and women that naked economics trumped high ideals. Those big ideas the so-called deep state (the power behind the power) encouraged our philosophers to debate, providing their conclusions arrived at a natural law of supply and demand, and of how man is shaped by self-evolving and universal economic forces than – as was the case in revolutionary France – how economic forces could be shaped by man and altered to reflect a fairer society. Utilitarianism, a dominant thought system in the very acquisitive nineteenth century was a excellent case in point. The greatest happiness for the greatest number lent itself well as a doctrine to England earning the sobriquet of a nation of shopkeepers.

Industrial Revolution

In the southern parts of this island, we are still wedded to the idea that economics of unlimited growth in a world bound by physical limits determines levels of happiness. No doubt it is better to be a rich man in a cold country than a poor man in a warm one. However, the great mechanisms of how we interact with tradable commodities continue to dominate thinking in informing the consensus. Lockdown was a chance to redress that imbalance. It was a unique opportunity for the average Joe to hop off the spinning wheel for a while and to try seeing life – and what he/she values from it – from a wholly different perspective. This perfect convergence of variables (that is to say, unusually great weather, government providing a blanket of financial support to the majority, as well as the stillness in the air that permitted us to think long and hard) gave the millions upon millions of conscripts fighting as footsoldiers and corporals in the boom and bust economic war the chance to think again about what they wanted out of their country. Unfortunately, like the Christmas Day short truce of 1914 where British and German soldiers showed their mutual enmity by getting together for a game of football and a post-match drink, this too is a false dawn. Like those men who knew, through a simple game of football, they had more in common with one another than with the chiefs of staff who sent them to the front in the first place, this cosy little interregnum that some have been enjoying of late is too dangerous to continue. The unfair society harnessed by the economics of naked aggression and unlimited growth cannot survive the neglect and contempt it is being shown at present.

1914-christmas-truce

The second age of the robber barons is not over yet. But a few more pandemic lockdowns might just do the trick. And not unlike the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a spring clean of the people (i.e. a serious trimming of human numbers leading to a radical restructuring of the socioeconomic order) may just give the downtrodden a glimmer of hope. And a chance to rise up alongside a damned and damaged natural world from the scorched earth of a long and unfruitful economic obsession.

 

 

(Nothing but) Flowers

apocalypse, botany, conservation, Coronavirus, Covid-19, crisis, development, earth, environment, ethics, forest, future, futurology, giant trees, Hippies, history, human development, Imagination, joni mitchell, Life, Lifestyle, lyrics, meditations, Music, Musings, natural philosophy, natural world, nature, pandemic, paradise found, paradise lost, People, Planet Earth, Political Culture, pop music, redwoods, Reflections, Society, talking heads, teleology, thoughts, trees, verse, Virus

Does art imitate life, or life art?

In days of Covid-19, when the sight of Piccadilly Circus derelict at 3pm could easily be mistaken for 3am midsummer in Murmansk with the sun already up (or more’s the point, having never actually gone down, situated as it is above the Arctic Circle), you know the face of the planet is a strange and beautiful – if deeply troubled – place in need of accounting for. To do that, what better way than to trove through the annals of music to find lyrics that somehow chime with our topsy-turvy vision of Twenty-Twenty.  

How pop music anticipated the short upside of the long lockdown.

Two classic numbers spring to mind as expressions of a world both blighted by the giant bovver boot of human success, and lifted from the dark shadow of its crushing conquest. To know them, we first need to know their context (both allude strongly to making/unmaking the world in our own human image) plus the order in which they arrived on the scene. 

The first song imagines paradise lost to human development and is really an ironic take on how when somewhere magical is discovered by the few it is soon descended upon by the many until that magic melts away before the axe, the pick, the shovel and the steamroller. Let’s face up, before the current pandemic, paradise was being lost at a rate of knots. Virgin lands were being deflowered faster than their chastity could stand. But this trend had a precedent. This was all laid out with depressing familiarity in the imagery conjured up in Joni Mitchell’s 1970 masterpiece, Big Yellow Taxi. She saw the tide changing even back then. Joni must’ve read Rachel Carson’s 1962 groundbreaker, Silent Spring. She, among the enlightened few, flocked to Laurel Canyon, in the hills outside L.A., when it was relatively untouched. By 1970 her lyrics were prescient enough to foreshadow an era when the faraway magic tree was starting to get laden with nest builders. In short, when the visionary few woke up to us killing the goose that laid the golden egg. 

She sings,

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot.

This was 1970. By then California’s redwoods had taken about as much pummelling as they could without going extinct in their native habitat. Federal protection would soon ensue to safeguard the remaining 5% of coastal redwoods left in the wild. Things were by no means great, ecologically-speaking. But the world contained far fewer people than today, and far more biodiversity in still unchecked corners of the globe. Joni saw the writing on the wall. For her, it was going to be ugly, but not without the delicious tang of irony.

They took all the trees
Put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em.

The rapid human (& by extension commercial) development of Southern California, and in particular Laurel Canyon, was cause for concern, even then. It was in every sense yet another paradise in the process of being lost. You didn’t have to go back to Milton in the 1600’s to realise this. Nor even to the loss of Eden in the Old Testament. In fact, it was happening all around her and her hippie acolytes. So much so that she saw fit to pen the words to one of the great songs of popular music.

Hey, farmer, farmer
Put away the DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees.

The birds needed their trees, but the trees were being shipped to the museum. And the bees needed the flowers to pollinate, but the flowers were sprayed with deadly insecticide. And so, the modern narrative was written. The context was nature’s loss for human gain, albeit temporary. The story of us was bittersweet. Our rampaging success came at a cost to everything that was hitherto worth living for. The garden of Eden was once again imperilled, and didn’t Joni express it every bit as well as a biblical prophet.

The second classic number from 1988, Talking Heads’ (Nothing but) Flowers, also laments loss – yes, those buckled blades of grass under the giant bovver boot of human progress that Joni decries – but this time in a different way. Human development for Joni amounted to stealing the pristine from under her nose as Laurel Canyon fills up with infrastructure that follows in the wake of other dream-seekers like herself. Where she accuses her fellow pioneers of stripping away at the fabric of pure nature in their onrush to exist in a state untouched by civilisation (in other words, by radical actions involving having to degrade nature so they could live it, which defeats the whole point of conservation), (Nothing But) Flowers laments the loss of what we brought to the world by changing it from natural to synthetic. The lyrics deliver a shot from the bows that, contrary to the selfish act of taking from nature to become more natural, mother nature (triggered by events untold in the Talking Heads song) has now reclaimed all things natural from her wayward child. His message is clear: we didn’t gain anything in losing our hold on the world. Roads without cars might well feel like a pleasant dream when cars on roads are all that is. But when all the cars are gone and the road is uprooted? Is that not just as lamentable as a world sans les animaux? Beware what you wish for is a sentiment that rattles through each verse.  

From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Whereas Joni’s brand new parking lot paved paradise, Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne sings,

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis.

His parking lot has become overgrown in the absence of cars by the creeping dominion of natural regrowth. We have, in essence, gone full circle. However, this oasis is not all it is cracked up to be. Byrne soon tires of this state of nature, dreaming instead of,

 …cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies.  

One would be forgiven for thinking that where

…There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers…

can only be good. But no. Byrne proves to be no such primitivist. He wants his Dairy Queen, Honky Tonk and 7-Eleven back. Joni saw real estate supplanting the wild fields and trees, a town sprung up where once there were flowers. Byrne envisions the opposite.

This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Disabusing us of this idyllic state of post-civilisation, catching rattlesnakes for dinner is not a tempting prospect once civilisation has collapsed. In a nod to the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, David Byrne sees savagery as the state of nature. Thus, sovereignty has to be restored lest we descend into the the very thing we’ve tried to get way from throughout our painful history. For Joni Mitchell, the romanticism is straight out of a Gaugin painting of Tahitian women. Noble savagery, all swished with colour. For David Byrne, this post-apocalyptic bloom might as well be algal. For Joni, the optimal state of existence is what you might term prelapsarian, that is to say, straight from the Garden of Eden before the flood. Humans are the harbingers of apocalypse for her. Everything they do to commodify their world ends up being worse than the purity of what it replaced.

As Byrne sings toward the end verses:

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries.

Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

Both these splendid tunes are musical museum pieces for good reason. You or I couldn’t sit down and write them in an afternoon. But in spite of their substantive differences, both numbers are really just two sides of the same coin. Both deal with before and after. Both lament loss. Both pivot around this idea of the aftermath of a profound transition felt by everyone. In this regard, one can thread them to the current state of lockdown being experienced around the world. As has become all too apparent that everyone is feeling a different vibe to the recent halting of practically all human activity in the face of a deadly virus, we may well ask: is it time for a prequel to these songs? This time, in lieu of loss, the unnamed songwriter can wax lyrical about how we unpaved paradise, took down a parking lot. Of how we took all the museums, put them in a massive tree. Or, this was going to be real estate, but it was decided the best buildings are trees. Or, please leave me stranded here, I could get used to this lockdown. 

Leave something for the birds and the bees. Leave something for us and those of us to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Over Planet Lockdown on a Magic Carpet Ride

adventure, agriculture, Cities, climate, conservation, Coronavirus, counter-culture, developing world, environment, ethics, EU, future, futurology, Imagination, Life, Lifestyle, natural philosophy, natural world, philosophy, Reflections, revolution, Society, Socioeconomics, thoughts, Travel

It’s 2030. Imagine you could select anything from home to power your low-level flight around the planet. It wouldn’t be the stressed planet we have come to know. It would still be a human planet, but one rather unashamedly changed from the one you knew and despaired of back in 2020.

The overhyped pandemic of 2020, the one that had the world all in a panic to the point where it effectively closed human activity down, produced unexpected outcomes. No one quite knew it at the time, but the quarantining of humanity inadvertently gave breathing space to all terrestrial life that had been trampled in the poisoned dirt since the mid-20th century. Gone were the crisscross scars of vapour trails from planes all across the sky. Gone too were the ‘conjunctivitis domes’ that enclosed all but a few cities and towns in hazy, acrid pollution. More than anything, gone was the constant background noise of society consuming itself into an early grave. At first, even the most misanthropic kept tight-lipped about how the lockdown was having anything but a deleterious effect on them. They wanted to tell everyone about how delirious with happiness they were, that they were reconnecting with the world around, how the spring had never seemed so polarised with deep colours, and how the silence of everywhere had led to a great sonic peace across the entire sky. While patients with Coronavirus were gasping for their last breath, the guilty enjoyment of the majority who bore no symptoms seemed unutterable. But as the lockdown went on, more and more started to admit there was an upside to the downside of putting industrial society on ice for a while. While they cited different reasons for secretly enjoying the mass meditation retreat that the world had become, a common theme began to emerge. The average Joe and Joanne hadn’t been happy for a long time, but it was only through the Covid lockdown that it struck them exactly why.

I would select my cherished silk-on-silk rug from Kashmir as my means of transport, the one I bought for a princely sum from Kashmiris in a bazaar in old Kathmandu. The colour is light green with pink woven into the borders. When you brush your hand across it, the sweep turns it darker or lighter, not unlike suede. The pattern is distinctive: 32 geometric panels depicting the Islamic Garden of Paradise, including pomegranate trees, arbours, plant pots and rambling rose. Tradition tells that this is a design from the revered Iranian town of Qom, from where the finest silk rugs and carpets on Earth are spun by weavers with magic fingers. Hence, magic carpets. If not that precious (and surprisingly tough) silk rug, I have another I’d consider riding on over a changed world in 2021. This one is an Islamic prayer rug (although I do not profess to be a man of any faith, other than faith in myself). I bought it from a reliable dealer in the Emirates, but the thing itself was woven in Northern Afghanistan and is exceptionally beautiful. Not of silk, this short-pile rug is of the finest wool dyed with the madder root into a colour resembling the dark dried blood of many an Afghan who has spilled their veins throughout the long war. Yes, my choice of long-haul air transport would be either the Kashmir silk rug or the Afghan prayer rug. Then again, for spaciousness there’s also that large tribal kilim from Tabriz in my collection. I could spread out on that during my transcontinental flyover. I’ll need a flying jacket and goggles, as it might get chilly, breezy and bumpy riding up there on the thermals. Oh, and my Leica monocular, too, so I can peer into the lives of others, and to see how the wildlife is coming along.

The roots of popular unhappiness, more and more started to realise, were becoming evident in the pleasant results the lockdown had produced on the wider world. Where the pace of life had been pulling us at 5Gs in a centrifuge, instead of being forced outwards the lockdown had now turned the force inward, to where we were all falling forward together into an attractive centre, which I call a natural equilibrium. Where previously few had any time for anyone else, they now found themselves devoting newfound time to the human relations they once held at the fulcrum of their world. Where many were being sucked into deadly debt traps, they now saw another possibility for an economic model that extolled the simple, organic life. Where many couldn’t sleep for the din of a society that had turned into a screaming lunatic asylum, quiet lockdown nights brought quiescence to tortured minds. It also revealed what had always been there but droned out: birdsong, and other naturally-occurring sounds. Where tens of thousand of species teetered on the brink of extinction due to human unwillingness to share, humanity finally agreed that the wild places were too few and the tamed ones too many. Monoculture changed in the agri business. Farmers were now harvesting goodies from the broad-leafed forests they had let grow in the vacuum of brown fields whose soil was depleted to the point of exhaustion. Animals that had resisted extirpation by laying low during the worst of our planetary abuses, and generally driven to the edge by our selfish species, followed suit. Population policy aimed at natural reduction, allowing crops to be grown vertically in great agri-towers that ran on sunlight. Where our industrial-age fear of the dark had produced so much halogen light to power society through night after night, so the lights went off and the stars returned to twinkle over what were sulphurous megacities. Something else unexpected returned: the sun. The industrial age had whipped up a dynasty of stormy weather by seeding every cloud with effluents and contaminants into raining. Gone was the chromatic aberration caused by poor air quality. Now the portrait of the planet looked pin sharp and didn’t we know it.

A revolution in the mind happened soon after the lifting of the 2020 lockdown. People wanted it back. They may not have professed to wanting thousands dead of a pathogen, but what they did want was to mitigate the disastrous effects of the human project by blocking off one month in every year where systems ground practically to a halt; where only essential distribution services, such as food and medicine and so forth remained a mainstay priority. Of course, they were compensated financially, but this would decrease over time as we moved away from heavy borrowing and high expenditure market economics to an ecological model of sustainable productivity. So, there you are on the magic carpet, skirting over the planet.

Ten years have past since the lockdown revolution/revelation of 2020. The annual month of fallow is now enshrined in UN law. Every nation is a signatory. Even the U.S., that resisted for so long because it was a concept engineered through the myth of the American Dream to exist only by maximising capital gains in every overworked American, even they got on board. China remains the dark horse: tense on the issue because the Chinese are caught between their philosophical tradition of Taoism and their love of making money by ramping up industry to ridiculous levels. Europe, being the old man, was at the forefront of the new paradigm for living. The Continentals approved wholeheartedly of this nouvelle approach to tempering things down.

Mechanisms were put in place to ensure that the other eleven months are not abused by the rush to over-productivity, as this habit came to be scoffed at for its backward greed motive. As a burned-out race we started mellowing. Our eyes were evermore open to the great clockwork of nature and how we – contrary to the proud fools that modernity and progress had made us – had broadly accepted our fixed role as a cog in that natural machinery, and not – contrary to the arrogance of our predecessors – as its clockmaker. Delegates even took to doling out liberal sprinklings of Gandhi’s wisdom that we live simply so that we may simply live.

What do you see, future me, when you look down from way up high on that Afghan rug in the new blue sky?

The Resurrection Will Not Be Televised

Britain, British Isles, Coronavirus, Covid-19, earth, free will, future, kindness, Landscape Photography, Life, Lifestyle, natural history, natural philosophy, natural world, nature, pandemic, People, philosophy, Planet Earth, Politics, Reflections, Socioeconomics, thoughts, urban decay, Virus, Wildlife

If I’ve said it once i’ll say it again: nature is back with a stealthy, healthy whimper. While Rome burns, Gaia fiddles a melodic tune. For literary effect, to assert that nature is back with a bang! as opposed to a mere whimper might hit harder, but it would defeat the point, for it is humanity that creates big noise. Nature is as nature does, and what it does while a quarter of the planet is housebound, while international trade experiences historic levels of supply chain disruption and slumped productivity, is to go about restoring a dynamic balance with quiet purpose. As house elves set about sprucing up the house during the dead of night when all slumber, watching spring assert itself while trade, commerce, and human bustle sleeps is a spectacle worthy of praise. Question remains: when we all wake up, how soon before the house is reduced to another ransacking?

Of course, I’m not the first to notice this wondrous upturn in our fortunes. People stop by the boat and remark how they’re beginning to notice things they hadn’t before on their daily stroll through the countryside. That obsolete word wildlife is even making a comeback. They notice the sky turning from wispy blue-white on a good day a deeper shade of aqua in the absence of belching fumes. They notice the stars return to cityscapes after a lengthy absence. They stop and notice birds do their courtship thing where before they just zoomed past. In short, more and more people are diverting their attentions away from servicing the machine of unenlightened human progress and toward natural events so revered by their forebears. What’s more, they like what they see.

The turning of the seasons becomes all the more apparent when the hatches are battened down. Human sensory organs realign themselves, from toning down the din of normal working life to tuning in to the rhythms of the living planet. Now i know that stuck in a megalopolis of high rises as far as the eye can see poses a challenge to the notion that pandemic lockdown has an unexpected upside that might even outrank the pandemic itself in vitality and importance. Half the world, nevertheless, still lives within range of what could be nominally called ‘the countryside’. Those multitudes are getting out (well they certainly ain’t wasting the opportunity where i am, which I take to be fairly typical) and some are pleasantly stunned into silence by the very act of silence. Have you heard the countryside now the internal combustion engine has been locked in the garage? Nature dislikes a vacuum, as ecologists like to emphasise, so in place of the universal background drone of cars from roads never further away that a mile (in the U.K., anyway), nature has come up with this novel scheme. It’s called keep producing the sounds of spring that never completely vanished, but rather were drowned out for generations by the vandalism of urban noise. So long, Range Rover Discovery, hello skylark or coal tit.

Few are disingenuous enough to really think that all supply chain distribution has stopped, that the tens of thousands of articulated lorries that deliver the length and breadth of the land have simply given up the game in the face of Covid-19. Most are painfully aware that the lorries are still doing the business so that fools like me can continue to enjoy Sicilian wine and Chilean avocados. Having said that, those delivery runs are sure as hell quiet at the moment. Never in all my years, have I heard the sound of total silence as i have blanketing the hills of West Wiltshire these recent weeks. It’s a thing to marvel at. To know that the world would go on without us. That the world doesn’t really need us, if only to process its complex interconnected workings in our complex interconnected human minds. I’m not even convinced that if we disappeared completely, or at the very least had our numbers severely curtailed, something else wouldn’t evolve soon enough with the ability to record and document phenomena in this world.

Lockdown will come to a close. Names of thousands of mainly elderly folks, ages with my beloved parents, by then will have filled death certificates. But in spite of the appearance of a population impatient to return to exactly how things were pre-pandemic, I think you’ll find that when the doors open again many (well, those in more favourable social and geographical positions) will privately bemoan the end of a peculiar phase in history when, instead of forging ahead on this unsustainable resource-greedy path we’re doomed on, we stopped a while and listened in to the heartbeat of the Earth. It was a very agreeable heartbeat and not one plagued with our hypertensions. More than anything, the resurrection of nature didn’t feel the need to announce its homecoming with much pomp or fanfare. It thrived all serene and dignified. While all this flourishing of life was happening behind the media wall of panic, some of us were alerted by a little voice in our primitive mind that said, ‘i feel good because the world seems to be repairing itself much quicker than anyone ever imagined.’

Of course, industry will once again crank up then overheat. Humans will continue to work against natural ecology – and ultimately their own long-term survival, proving even more of an aberration than any other species. Population in the cruelly-titled Developing World will explode like the algal blooms that human industrial pollution creates. Oceanic dead zones will reappear like necrosis on human skin. But all that planetary destruction will be okay because at least scientists cracked Coronavirus. Next year at this time, dissenting voices might whisper to other dissenting voices, ‘why can’t we have a pandemic every year?’

Declaring a pandemic month each year (without the concomitant death involved) could present hitherto unthought of opportunities. This could be our very own month of Ramadan, when so much comes to a halt during the day so that one may reflect on God (or nature, given that they are one in the same).

The resurrection will not be televised.

Surviving a Wilderness of Weirdness with Philosophy as the Weapon of Choice

ethics, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, human mind, Life, marcus aurelius, meditations, natural philosophy, natural world, philosophy, Spiritualism, stoicism, thoughts

220px-Zeno_of_Citium_Nuremberg_Chronicle

The media report much fear and trepidation in the wider world, although judging by the look of contentment on the face of passersby, you’d be hard pressed to think so.

(and I swear even the dogs grin, or is that the outward appearance of having a stick lodged in one’s mouth?)

There’s also the unintended consequence of having a lot of people who find themselves with oodles of time on their hands while Covid-19 does the rounds. So how do they while away the hours until the spectre of death subsides, and we can get back to servicing the toothed machine of human progress? Some trek to Everest Basecamp in the confines of their home by scaling the staircase until the carpet goes bald and they follow suit. Others turn their hand to a spot of home teaching the kids until, realising that the transmission of knowledge through didactic discipline is harder than it looks, they dismiss their tiny class early. Others, like me, write obscure blogs that few dare to read, worse still understand. Still others take up new housebound hobbies with aplomb: such as taking 360˚ virtual trips to the Great Namib Desert courtesy of their much-abused smart phones, or else the wise few keep reciting ‘No wild animals in my delicious hotpot, please’ in Mandarin until the phrase sticks.

With this golden opportunity not to go nuts inside a tiny flat in Basingstoke, how many out there have given over their enquiring mind to the acquisition of a philosophy? Ancients, who weren’t busy warring in a sackcloth and sandals, were rather adept at offering sound advice based on the principle that once a man had found a philosophy to suit his ontological needs, he had succeeded in finding the map that would guide a clear path through this impenetrable life. The bold and the beautiful in the Greco-Roman universe swore by this dictum, going so far as to stitch their new ethos into their imperator tunics while on campaign against troublesome Germanic tribes.

The last of the five ‘good emperors’, Marcus Aurelius, was a man revered for being an enlightened and compassionate allrounder with a mind given over to self-examination in ways inconceivable to other emperors, for whom pleasures of the flesh all too often outweighed the pain of asking what does it all mean and what is my true place in the grand scheme? Given the unenviable task of leading the decades-long charge against tribes terrifying the fragile borderlands of the Roman Empire, the good emperor still managed to fit in a famous philosophical treatise before he died. Known as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, it was in essence a late second century A.D. reinterpretation of an ethical code dating back to a school of philosophy which had flourished ever since Zeno inscribed it in the minds of 4th century B.C.E. Athenians fed up with Cynicism.

Known as Stoicism, this branch of philosophy sought to strip away the bark of long-established wisdom to reveal the true sap oozing out of life: that is to say something vaguely along the lines of a cosmos working in cycles that start and end in fire. All matter that makes up the physical and, by extension, metaphysical questions that Man struggles to intepret works on a rational and logical basis (or ought to). Hence we humans do best when we are exercising reason over hot-headed emotion; hence we attain more understanding of how things are when explaining that phenomena using language built upon the rational rules of grammar instead of, say, an abstract picture or an incoherent grunt.

Sandwiched between the grand cosmological cycles is something we know as nature. Hence. stoicism is arguably the most influential of natural philosophies in its insistence that you and me are very small and limited in the grand scheme of things. By accepting each our minor yet vital role, the pressure is off and therefore happiness through simplicity becomes viable. Nature has a grand design, and if you let it into your heart you’ll soon realise both you are very insignificant and that, in spite of our own individual position far from centre, the universe nevertheless has your best interests at stake. All things occur for a reason. Fate doesn’t have to explain why it behaves in seemingly random ways. If it did, we’d know there’s nothing random about it. Even if an event seems uniquely cruel or inexplicable, natural forces will use the injustice to take corrective measures later on that symmetrically redress the balance, leading to the ‘Ah!’ epiphany that ‘it all makes sense now’. The interconnectivity of events is so blindingly intricate, not even a genius could spot it (shit! Did I just spot it where better people failed?)

Zeno, the father of stoicism himself, is reputed to have said that fate is an endless chain of causation whereby things are: the reason or formula by which the world goes on. In spite of this complex pattern, nature’s inner workings are, obversely, not mystical and esoteric at all; they are beautiful because true beauty lies in simplicity. That nature is beneficent – an unstoppable force that looks out for each of us if only we’d realise it – is contingent on you, the stoic, playing life as a game involving a basic blueprint of virtues to carry through life’s interactions into every little thing. Seek the four cardinal virtues – 1) justice/fairness/decency 2) wisdom/prudence/deliberation 3) courage/fortitude/endurance, and 4) temperance/self-discipline/modesty – and ye shall find yourself on course for a good death. That’s the idea, as I see it. The moment of death is all that your life ultimately amounts to, so life had better be conducted virtuously if death is to be faced head on, without anguish. There is such an aspiration as a good death, but it must be preluded by a life of self-discipline, fairness, examination, and strength of heart and mind. By the way, a good stoic would urge you not to be virtuous only to for the reward of a least hideous death. Be good, in and of itself, not for what it may give you back. Life is not a financial investment. Do the right thing because that is the natural order of things and to speak the language of life eloquently, we must first understand its grammar and morphology.
For stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, life exists to be lived, literally like there is no tomorrow. William Faulkener wrote, The past is never dead. It’s not even past. How I do admire that wordplay. That said, Faulkener was no devotee of Seneca the Stoic. To stoics like Seneca, the past is a foreign country. Events that created the mosaic of that life have moved away forever, never to be relived with the veracity of how they were first meted out. Memories are not to be trusted, nor to be dwelt on. And death is not a loss of a whole life but rather just a loss of a moment at the close of that life. The ideal life, according to Seneca, was to be lived in the now, without dwelling on what’s gone, nor the irrelevance of what’s to come. It was to find contentedness in the simple here and now, and to want for nothing. How else to understand what golden threads of alchemy the cosmic fabric is made of other than to look closely at what is all around you NOW?

What the world needs now is love, sweet love, so goes the song. The world also needs Stoicism, meant not as the character-building prototype of the rugged Victorian imperialist (sword in one hand, dove in the other, pen between the toes, and pipe contemplatively in the mouth). Rather, the stoicism that emanated from ancient Athens and Rome was one that understood its demoted place in the natural order. We face a twenty-first century reckoning because we took stoicism to mean putting up with any old shit that life throws at us. Overwhelmingly, that shit was of our own making because we got way, way ahead of ourselves, thinking that two thousand years of Christianity and Islam had transformed each of us into little gods and sinners to be forgiven through atonement and religious devotion. So it was okay to break the ancient covenant with the natural order and go forth and multiply exponentially while scorching the Earth to conquer all before us because it was sanctioned first by the scriptures, and secondly by the arrogance bestowed on us by virtue of having reached a state of civilisation that was deemed far removed from lowly animals (this civilisation, it should be post-scripted, built its sandcastle empire not always on virtue alone).

In an age of uncertainty, rocked by the unvoiced realisation that there are too many of us vying for limited resources in a world wrecked in the search for these valuables, what needs resurrecting from the ashes of a self-deceptive human race is the idea that there are greater forces out there writing the book of life. That we are not gods but men and women who are fallible may seem self-evident, but any visitor from Andromeda would think we had promoted ourselves to that elevated rank. Every one of us might be just a mote of dust in the wind, but life affords us one chance to show our mettle: that if each of us face our remaining days in the pursuit of justice and courage and wisdom and self-restraint we shall once again feel humbled by the enormity of all that surrounds us. While no one gets out here alive, use this present lockdown to fashion your own system of practical ethics. As well as dying with a smile on your face, you might just make a small difference to your own and to the innumerable small lives that together construct the rich tapestry of everything we see and, more importantly, everything we don’t.

Everybody has an answer, but few a philosophy. Everyone wants a life, but not everyone holds the ethical guidebook to embark upon one worth living. Millions likes posting big pictures on Instagram, but how many consider the bigger picture and their own role as but one pixel within it? Why go in search of happiness as if it be a commodity to be acquired when, with the right tools at your disposal, you may reach inside and find it there? Thousands are dying out there (of malaria more than of Covid-19). So why stay at home wondering how you’re going to avoid it when you can stay at home and work out a formula for how to pursue a good life befitting of an equally good death.

Springtime Of Our Lockdown

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While we wither indoors, out there something profound is happening. Nature is back with a bloom. Can anyone remember it being so resplendent? So full of seasonal promise?

I’m asking myself how an annual event can seem to take on another dimension. Yet spring is springing with a wicked spring in its tail. Animals have returned to wander down paths long blocked to them. Goats window shopping in abandoned Welsh seaside towns; boars doing the passeggiata down silent streets in Bergamo; dolphins nosing around now crystal-clear canals in Venice in the absence of gondoliers sticking their bloody oars in everywhere. Hell! Even the tender shoots of first budding look that bit more sharp-suited, greener than usual. The sky, not so anaemic. The signs, far from being ominous to any life form other than us, are encouraging. If this is what the world’s end looks like, I’m signing up to it. The whole thing is beginning to feel like a massive teleological event: a reckoning that pits us against each other, and ourselves. What did Churchill once say? “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Can it be that Humanity pulls off a civilisational coup, foreclosing on the disastrous Age of Kali (see William Dalrymple’s 1998 travelogue for explanation, or else anyone of eight hundred million Hindus) for a gentler, more enlightened epoch? Could the pandemic be the hidden catalyst for it? Probably not, but the thought is a fitting one given the wonder show that nature puts on while we succumb to fear of personal extinction in our homes under the curfew of self-isolation. While a wholesale regeneration of purity in nature at the expense of human resource rape-&-pillage might be a bit much to hope for, certainly the lockdown can generate a paradigm shift in how people work, and in how we spend our few precious days on this Earth.

Yesterday I stopped by a glade of glistening wild garlic by the roadside. Ordinarily, cars would be humming past with such regularity that no one in their right mind would have pulled over on their bicycles to pick a bunch of nature’s own – a little crop of green goodness that went into the making of wild garlic pesto. In the absence of pandemic, would i have so much as done this? No. Am I better for having done so? Categorically, yes.

This reckoning, by which one refers to a near cessation of frenzied (and highly destructive) activity, which has come to characterise the Human Project over the past forty years, enables a beleaguered and frankly overwhelmed world a chance to hit reset. That great ferris wheel of civilisation that turns ever faster, drawing in and spitting out hapless human victims all the time, has ground to a halt for (shall we say) a spot of maintenance. While it lays motionless, finally we get the chance to stop being mesmerised by its whirring circulation, and start taking in the 360 degree view that was perilously neglected all the while.

Now is the springtime of our being (unless you live in the southern hemisphere in which case you’re on for a revolutionary autumn). Those who are in the gutter looking up at stars over cities that are not only shining but coruscating for the first time in the modern age, will they necessarily want a straight return to an orange-sodium sky above their heads, planes roaring overhead? Those realising that the job they are doing from home unexpectedly through lockdown can be done from home post-lockdown, will they desire an immediate return to crammed commuter lines full of sleepy, barely-approachable worker drones? All of us who may take our one hour of daily exercise (which in reality morphs into about four as the conditions are so favourable, and as time has taken on a more elastic property), we who can stroll down lanes untrammelled by the impatient thud of footsteps, do we want necessarily to cash in the quietude for a ride on the capitalist wheel of fortune again?

The spectre of death clears the field. If there were ever a moment to stop and smell the roses, it is now. If there were ever a moment to ask ourselves: what do each of us want from this fleeting life, and what are we prepared to leave behind when the fire goes out? Now is the time. A gift has been offered to us in the form of mass global quarantining. From this renewal nature may stand a fighting chance while for our part we may gain absolution from mass collective sin. Now I don’t quite know what kind of force is behind these weird developments, but whatever orchestrated them is giving Humanity an open window for opportunity to refashion ourselves into a life force that goes with the seasons, instead of one that signifies such damage and ecological destruction that the seasons themselves cease to be what they were. That window will all but certainly blow shut with the first shunt of summer wind against the pane. While we’re all locked down, let’s make room for the other tenants that call Earth their home, too. When the time comes to fling open our doors again, let goodness flow out and everywhere.