(Nothing but) Flowers

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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

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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 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

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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.

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.

Get Covid Done!

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He didn’t see this one coming. To be fair, no one did, but other nations saw it before it was too late and were able to act. Now that roughly 20% of humanity is officially in lockdown, there are few things either The Boris or The Donald want more than for Covid-19 to disappear up its own spiky protein. But not necessarily for compassionate reasons. Rather, British and American decision makers, laden down by their unique political histories involving liberty and personal freedom, plus economic histories involving conquest and greed, are desperate to get back to the business of business as usual. Discomfort shows in their every contradictory pronouncement. For Trump, Covid-19 threatens to undermine his masterplan to Make America Great Again. Extrapolations on the data are already making for disturbing reading in the Oval Office. Be gone! Or we’ll find a way to switch back on the Christmas lights, with or without you – that’s the underlying message. By forcing Covid-19 into a hasty exit from the world stage, the Twenty-First Century’s first pandemic becomes an artefact of the past, an irritant, allowing the engine of Industrial Capitalism to crank up again.

I’ve heard it said that this mass quarantining, with all the supply-chain grogginess accompanying it, will contain a hidden bounce. We’ll learn through it to curtail our insatiability for goods, we’ll slow down, start taking in our immediate surrounds, take stock of what it’s all about. Nature, hating vacuums, will step in again, guiding us onto the right track.

But the cynic in me thinks the opposite will happen. The bounce we’ll see will represent another existential threat to life on earth because the global capitalist system will go into overdrive to compensate for lost productivity we see right now. As happened in the decade following the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu, the world made strides of unimaginable distance (even to the point of pioneering the very cure that nailed infection: antibiotics). In 1929, the world economy overheated and Wall St. imploded, just to underline the Capitalist frenzy that was the 1920s, which was supposed to have been an era stopped in its pre-1914 tracks. I thought the whole point of the industrial and microbial mass killing of the 1910s was that in the 20s the world would to be cowed by the horror of what they had experienced: sent homewards to think again. Logic determines that the high-rev 1920’s that did eventuate should never have been. We should have been slowed into digesting the shock of living through an aftermath of 100 million dead by Influenza, on top of the 20 million killed in the Great War. Instead the opposite happened. Where the late 1910s whimpered, the 1920s roared. That was the lesson humanity learned: not to eat humble pie, but to throw it back in the world’s face.

The 1918-19 influenza preyed on mainly the young (unlike this one): killing upwards of 100 million of them when world population was about one quarter of what it is today. On an interesting note, to match Spanish Flu’s global death rate, this one would have to claim upwards of 400 million lives. Irrespective of however many lives this virus will ultimately take relative to 1918-1919, one thing’s for sure: players of influence in world affairs will ensure the 2020s will roar like the 1920s. The same industries that devise global networks of fantastic intricacy and infectious energy are ready and primed for action. As soon as it can, the global supply chain will. Though flummoxed by this global pandemonium, industry is spring-loaded, and when this virus runs its course, production will go into interstellar overdrive.

In short, we’ll be picking off natural resources at a rate that’ll equate to where we’d be had this so-called ‘Chinese Virus’ never broken out in the first place, in that sinister live market in Wuhan. The Government here in the UK tarried more than most, not wanting to disrupt civic and, more importantly, commercial life. Laying down curfews while turning off the mercantile-financial tap, is not how affairs are conducted on these stubborn and defiant isles. Britain, above all other nations, is historically bound to the idea of a liberty that each person supposedly wears under their soul. Liberal democracy rests upon consent between ruler and ruled. Lack of consent is taken to be authoritarianism, a next step to despotism with the bloody curfews and martial law that denotes. This notion of multi-party consent runs strongly along an historical arc that reaches back even further than the Magna Carta and into the mists of our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon past. Telling people unconditionally that they must remain indoors is even more anathema to the governing class than it is to a broad swathe of the population who don’t much appreciate being told what to do.

Boris Johnson is a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian. He is an arch advocate of liberty in conduct, providing that conduct does not impinge negatively on others. And therein lies the rub. His dilemma is knowing that liberty of conduct very obviously involves impinging negatively on others by the mere act of standing within six feet of them. Johnson must have delivered his emergency measures with heavy heart. And his moral conflict reveals itself in the mixed reaction of the people he governs who are right now getting out and enjoying the sunshine of early spring. They’ll take their chances, thank you very much. Even if that means a brush with Coronavirus.

On the first day of national lockdown – possibly the first mass quarantine in modern history – I personally witnessed a populace so unmoved by the spectre of mass infection, so determined to get out to feel washed by the warmth of a sun that seemed to abandon us last September, as to render the whole seriousness a joke. From my home on the water by the canal towpath leading out of Bath, England, hundreds came my way. A near unbroken stream of cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, lovers, couples, and nature lovers went past all contented to be engaged in the very thing they most wanted to do. And as the day progressed the crowds grew in number until quite breezily potential hosts eclipsed one another going in opposite directions. You’d have thought it was a bank holiday.

We”re now on day two, and the crowds have yet to abate while the sun clings on.

Those who pass by in their multitudes are a stolid and resilient people, although not daft enough to risk compromising their health, well not knowingly. Except they’ve seen the gathering storm, so why do they risk making a mockery out of the famous tea towel mantra of Carry On and Keep Calm? Selfishness is undoubtedly an aspect of this because who is out there reminding the Great British Public that it’s not themselves they risk harming by turning their one daily allowance of exercise into a three-hour stroll with picnic on the side? But there lurks something beneath the brittle mantle of selfish inconsideration. It’s the liberty, stupid!

The tradition of English and American liberalism in so imbued in our respective political cultures that suffocating the virus by the act of imposing belated curfews, and even drafting in the army to enforce a national lockdown, will be a tough sell to a begrudging population (in American election year) who are all for stamping out sickness for a return to normal but without compromising their right to free will and consumer choice too much. When governments in London and Washington start doing the modern equivalent of posting decrees on town halls and church doors across the land, a liberty-spoilt people will want to see that their personal sacrifices were worth the effort of not going outdoors on sunny days. You can’t always see that with disease, pestilence and plague. Furthermore, if life-threatening illness has never factored into your life, why give up a good, long stroll along the canal on a fine spring day when the songbirds are trilling happily for the sake of a vulnerable stranger whose contraction of Covid-19 cannot be scientifically traced back to you, you who might carry it without symptoms?

Trump and Johnson, perhaps more than other world leaders, desire a speedy and tidy end to this drawn-out mess. They see the collapse of the global free-trade mercantilist system as the worst kind of pandemic. Investors are losing money; distribution centres lie stocked and undelivered. The wheels are coming off the bus one by one. It doesn’t matter that the passengers aboard the bus are catching something nasty, for the point is that it’s the bus that counts, and not the passengers it carries. Where there’s money to be made, unnamed figures of policy influence don’t fancy Covid-19 to turn into another Brexit paralysis, even if that means the cities like London and New York feel the sting in the tail of the Covid-19 scorpion: a disproportionate outbreak due to deep ambivalence about making NYC into the city that sleeps all the time. Libertarianism will take a hit. A beautiful idea rendered pointless by the need to be ordered where to go and when. Johnson and Trump are deeply wedded to the principles of libertarianism and will be loathe to rule without it.

When all is said and done, Johnson and Trump just want to get Covid done!

Hey Bulldog!

Beatles, Buddhism, death, fate, free will, future, Life, meditations, Musings, natural world, nature, Oddities, philosophy, predator, Reflections, Solipsism, thoughts

These are the days of our lives. Whether we like it or not, the clock is ticking. The long hour upon the stage will, of a fashion, one day be heard no more. So, let the tale told, ideally, not be by an idiot espousing sound and fury. Let it be told well, full of twists and turns, laughs and loves, random acts of kindness, adventures and heart-fluttering moments that lend themselves to the proud declaration: I was there.

I was recently watching colour footage of the Beatles in the studio, circa 1968, recording Hey Bulldog!. A song destined for obscurity, for me it was a much underrated number. According to Lennon, Hey Bulldog! was a nice tune that meant nothing. However, it wasn’t the melodies that stood out, nor McCartney’s catchy bass line. Rather, it was how the four lads from Liverpool – how the Beatles as a living organism – had undergone a profound physical and mental transformation in such a short space of time since they burst onto the scene in ’63. In the annals of rock music, who else aged and evolved so rapidly in relatively few years? To watch the Beatles do their seven years together was to observe a lifespan in time-lapse photography. Not only did the hair grow and the faces harden, the voices deepened and the subject matter took on ever more gravity. Theirs was an accelerated existence full of very little wasted time, a sort of Haiku poetry in motion.

Some creatures, like giant tortoises, slow down their metabolism to reach the age of Methuselah. He crawls, unchanged, through the centuries. Others, like dormice, speed up their heartbeats to live a James Dean life: short and intense. Mayflies explode onto the scene only to drop dead in the Danube before their first Earth day is out. In the human realm, things are similar. Picasso painted for over seventy years, ten times longer than the Beatles jammed. No slouch, over decades he painted thousands of canvases, admittedly. Some brush work he performed with a swish of urgency, but overall Picasso’s life mirrored the tortoise. He went for longevity, enjoying his life’s true calling all along the way. Physically, Picasso didn’t really alter appearance over time. He started small, tanned, dark-haired and Spanish-eyed, and he ended small, even more tanned, no-haired and Spanish-eyed. The Beatles, contrastingly, seemed to physically and creatively morph so fast, you could almost watch them grow up and apart. Lennon was the epitome of this. From young scallywag to long-haired gnostic, Lennon’s ageing was catalysed by a public domain obsessed with him. Like Mr Benn (for those of you old enough to remember the children’s TV show of the early 1970s) he changed his appearance in no time. As Lennon set about to change the world, the world changed him. And everyone could see him carrying carrying the weight of the world, plain as day (citation: boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, from Abbey Road.)

I employed the Beatles as an analogy to underscore the importance of using the time each of us have to reinvent ourselves: to morph; to never sit on our laurels. Your average human life is more four score and seven years than the squeeze of seven years the Beatles had to shake the world. That said, because we have no idea how long we have to live, these numbers melt away. The Beatles had seven years, but what they did in that time was the musical equivalent of the seventy years afforded Picasso. From I Want to Hold Your Hand to Eleanor Rigby in a mere three years? The difference in maturity might as well amount to forty.

I speak to so many people convinced that because life is long they can afford to sit out the game for long spells. In absentia, years vanish and little substantive gets done. A fearfulness sets in, front doors slam shut, possessions mount up, families fuse together before they sometimes shatter, leaving our clever model of market economics to dig its hooks in until ‘financial commitments’ make it all but impossible to break the chains that bind you to an immovable object that remains out of sight. Folks get stuck in a rut they can’t physically see, and their only consolation is that, ‘oh well, at least I’ve got years ahead of me to change things’.

If only we knew that the game was up much earlier than we originally thought might we take affirmative action to be the change we saw in ourselves. Maybe the Beatles knew deep down they didn’t have long (compared with their musical contemporaries) and that was the catalyst for them to live like no tomorrow (for Tomorrow Never Knows) : to pupate, to reinvent, to transmogrify, to create then recreate, and then some more. You don’t have to have penned Strawberry Fields Forever to view life as a series of peaks and troughs: of pinnacles that only the ingenious few can reach and rifts that the rest of us wallow in. If I had the power to tell another they had one more year instead of forty to thrive, what then? If others had the divine prophecy to forewarn me that my innings was a lot shorter than I otherwise thought, what then would I do to affect change? How would i fill the empty pages in this blank book of life?

(Footnote: I was moved to write this as I pondered the meaning of why the female mallard I’ve been feeding from the boat for the past three months was inexplicably taken from us (and from her drake boyfriend, in a meaningful sense) by an ambush predator, a giant pike probably. She was seen being dragged under not three weeks before she would have presented hatchlings to the Spring. What is this that the life of an animal can end so abruptly, her genetic destiny to reproduce be so cruelly thwarted, by a big nasty bottom-feeding fish, off all things? How arbitrary! How absurd! How sad! Her boyfriend was quacking like a mad thing in distress. And five days on, I still give her a thought.)

Life Signs Vital

#adventure, Australia, Britain, British Isles, Buddhism, fate, free will, Hinduism, human mind, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, Musings, nature, Oddities, philosophy, predestination, Queensland, Reflections, roadtrip, serendipity, Solipsism, Spirituality, thoughts, Travel

From the wandering star followed to Bethlehem by the Magi, to Constantine and his Latin cross in the night skies over Rome’s Milvian Bridge, for as long as any historic text can remember, humans have acted not (as they might like to imagine) independently in matters of life choice, but as a response to phenomena out there in the world. Whether these phenomena involve snapped branches pointing in a particular direction out of the tangled forest, serendipitous meetings with mysterious strangers, or even constellations that speak directly to the individual in us by spelling out our mission in dot writing, natural events have proved unshakeably reliable as SIGNS ripe for following. Other animals follow their hunger and their paternal instinct toward the rains, or the seasons, or the ocean currents. But not us. Oh no, not humanity. We follow abstract signage in the most unlikely of quarters because something in the form and motion of a sign tells us that nature exists to furnish us with little messages put there FYI only.

But in an age of scientific materialism, should we listen to superstitious signs, or let mediums self-appointed with the power to interpret that symbolic value for us. The Gypsy lady? She who lets the tea leaves/coffee granules to settle into a discernible form spelling out (in her own inexplicable way) what’s in store for each of us? She with the singular ability to divine the past, present and future, and thus able to cut a path through our impenetrable present? Hooped earrings and colourful headscarves aside, should we even listen to ourselves when something out of the blue tells us which corner to turn in life? What is it in the nature of choice, the one true act of free will we convince ourselves is ours and ours to fuck up? Are we slaves to signs, subconsciously letting them lead us on into what we think will end either in good life choices or, horror of horrors, outcomes less than desirable? Do other members of our rapidly-proliferating species see signs with quite the obsessive sensing that I seem to? Questions, questions, questions, and only vague signs there to answer them.

I wrote a woefully-neglected book back in 2007 called Signs of Capricorn. Essentially, it was a free-thinking, free-spirited, faintly philosophical travelogue based on a long-awaited return to Australia. I had left the land Down Under in 2003, instantly regretting a choice which i deemed purely my own, without any other agency. At the time, I must have figured if i return to Britain things will be different. I’ll finally, after thirty years of trying and failing, fall in love with the island of my birth, and especially those two peculiarly British contributions to the world: a stubborn class system and a maritime climate that makes the headlines most days for all the wrong reasons. Yes, my family were instrumental in my going back. Unlike the weather, they weren’t changeable and horrid. But, like the English class system, they could be stubborn.

So, in the wake on my grand homecoming in 2003, I realised I had made a major life error, and instantly vowed to overturn this disastrous decision by going back to Sydney the following year. However, as the venerable Lennon said, life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t until 2006 that my pledge was finally realised. I departed a rainy Manchester, arriving after a brief stopover in Dubai, in to a hot Sydney. The city had changed in the intervening three years. That much i could detect within moments. It didn’t feel the same. Well, of course. Why would it? And here is where the book comes into play. I threw my hat up into the air and let the winds of fate carry it aloft. And so it was that I chose to spend a month driving as far and wide as I could in search of signs.

A critical factor in all this unfolding story is that I was misinformed that my Australian Permanent Residency visa would be duly reauthorised merely by going back there on holiday. Cruelly, this was not how how the immigration system worked. Nor was this how things were meant to be. On hearing that I had not amassed sufficient residential time in Australia within a 5-year period (i was a month short), I was faced with a binary choice: by all means, stay indefinitely (thus leaving my rental home, family and beloved dog back in Yorkshire where my family call home) in the Commonwealth of Australia; or fly out of Kingsford-Smith Airport and back to Heathrow, but do so knowing the consequences. That being an annulment of my right to remain in Australia. Visa cancelled. The term Burn Bridges springs to mind (another historical instance of how signs influences the course of a lifespan, in this case of Caesar’s Roman Empire). Mainly because of my dog, I knew I was going back, like it or not. With a month’s adventure ahead, I drove north through Queensland’s Sandstone Belt and out to the Barrier Reef. Along the way, I followed roadsigns down highways where life signs clung on like the spinifex grasses that give the Outback its patchy head of hair.

On returning to Britain, I nursed a quiet devastation. My first encounter – the first of many troubling signs, you might conclude – was with my neighbour, an awful human specimen who spent his disempowered life fulminating in one garden-wall dispute after another. In Old England, where most people are packed like sardines in a tin can because the entitled few own and jealously guard huge swathes of the land, such disputes and tensions are not uncommon. Knowing that I had made not one but two cardinal misjudgements in leaving Australia (an island-continent I had reimagined as being above such petty squabbles between neighbours) not once but twice. I knew the recurrence of this poor choice must signify something. It must be life’s ineluctable way of telling me I had, in fact, made the right choice leaving Sydney. Struggling to understand why, I wrote the book as a therapy, as a means of retracing my steps in order to discover the origins of these signs, and what they could possibly mean for my life, one that seemed to be in disarray.

You can generate the data to fit the theory, but that is not true science. Or you can map the data (as it appeared along the road to the Barrier Reef on that epic trip of self-discovery), building a picture through which a workable theory emerges. First data, then theory, then test of theory. Burning rubber on blacktop, I probed the island-continent to probe the answer to why life had turned out this way. For such a dry landmass, the results were improbably fertile. Hadn’t one of the great Greeks said something to the tune of….’life is played out on an ocean of timespace, whose currents carry us of their choosing unless we find it within ourselves to take the tiller and steer a course, even though the current will still take us, ultimately, where it chooses. In short, we can infer signs in life and so effect small but significant changes in our lives, even if the grander designs, such as fate, love, accident and death are not within our remit to shape as we would see fit to?

(n.b. of course, most of us would choose to be rich, healthy and loved, and never to die).

At journey’s end, I flew back. The immigration officer at Sydney’s airport peered at the visa page of my passport and asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. You realise that if you leave you cannot come back? Helpless, unsure if I had even found a green light on those outback roads, I timidly acknowledged the gravity of what she was saying. Somewhat bemused, she stamped the exit visa and that was that. Another chapter closed. Except it wasn’t. Once back in England, I threw myself into the writing. Stapling together every little back-dated detail on what had been a diverse but disconnected life of travelling, of living in disparate regions of the world following love over career, the unpredictable over the predictable, I tried but could not discern signs that would lead me out of this mess of my own making.

I looked around. I looked inside. I could not make sense of life’s highway code. At the end of the book, life appeared to recover. Things were looking up. England didn’t seem quite so dismal, nor quite so synonymous with personal failure and utter alienation. And then the possibility dawned on me that therapising the experience of making life-changing choices had had the inadvertent upshot of detoxifying – for want of a better word – Australia from my bloodstream of consciousness. The book flopped but thanks to reclusive and intensely introspective nature of remaking memories in narrative form (a year locked away in a room), I steered a course through cold turkey. What emerged was acceptance that i had taken a wrong turn. Moreover, that ages hence I might actually find that leaving Australia when i did was not a misreading of signs at all. Rather, it was a correct reading of the sign to leave when I did and to return three years later to make peace with the war that was raging inside for all that time. It was not unlike the signs of Outback roads themselves – the ones that appear only once, at the beginning of the backroad, and where no signposts will appear again for many, many kilometres. Following a sign laid down years before gave to no signs whatsoever until the next one appeared. The next one would appear near the end of that stretch of bitumen. It stood as proof positive that the next junction led somewhere good, somewhere new.

Signs are everywhere to be followed, and yet nowhere to be seen. We convince ourselves we take decisions independent of influence, particularly from abstractions such as physical objects (stars), chance encounters (accidents that change our lives irrevocably), epiphanies birthed from freak occurrences (a spiritual awakening on the road to Kathmandu), and the likes. But our rational minds are steeped in the mythology of the inexplicable. Knowing that every weighty little decision rests solely on our steepled shoulders, or that each one is not interrelated, represents an unbearable burden on our lives. Decisions are ours to make? Oh yeah? That I followed invisible signs to where I am now (which is no bad place) suggests some things are meant to be. That all things might, just maybe, be more bound together than our Western social constructs would have us believe.

The Urge for Going

Britain, British Isles, Landscapes, Musings, nature, philosophy, Reflections, thoughts, Travel, weather, Wildlife

Now is the autumn of our discontent. We haven’t even got to winter yet and I’m slumping badly. What’s next? The summer of our discontent? Is it just a matter of time until discontent will no longer be subject to seasonality? Bang goes the singularity of Shakespeare’s immortal line. Now is the four seasons of our discontent. How bleak is that assessment?

I was prepared to ignore the subliminal messages coming at me with respect to the season’s eagerness to come and my reluctance for either it or myself to flee in the other direction. That is, until I switched on the radio and what did i hear? Joni Mitchell’s ‘Urge for Going’. If you know the song, you’ll the lyrics allude to this very thing. Take these lines for instance:

When the sun turns traitor cold
And all trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go

A man can find reasons to quell his urge for going, but ignoring the urge to respond to stimuli of the kind that bombards the senses is rather harder to do.

Temperatures have plummeted. Light has diminished markedly. The sky has drafted in its shock troops to launch wave after grey wave of attack on the very walls that keep us sheltered from the tropospheric war which plays out between summer’s end and winter’s onset. We are besieged. We are trying to adjust to the changing of the season, but a hard task it remains. The nights are longer, the sleep is deeper, and much time there is to let the mind migrate to warmer latitudes. By no real stretch of the imagination can we appreciate that our type were once East African. We were baked into bread in an oven of pure sunlight. One hundred thousand years on, we have ventured far outside of our comfort zone. How did it come to this? How did we end up walking this far from our place in the sun? Not only did we lose our healthy colour, we lost a lot more than that: we lost our bearings, our true north. Our body strives for homeostasis – that is to say, all its internal systems operating beautifully in sync. But winters in the high latitudes make heavy going for homeostasis to fall into place. ‘Things fall apart‘. I keep hearing that figure of speech framed in reference to the coming civilisational collapse. But it’s what going on inside that really counts. The centre cannot hold’. The centre can hold if only we turn our attentions inward; if only we go to it and prop it up. How do we stop things from falling apart when we are not even in the midst of winter yet? Head for the centre. The answers to our S.A.D.ness are not out beyond the reach of rainclouds; they lie inside where weather cannot touch us. Ignore them at your peril. 

I’m trying to see the best in things here. I’m trying to tie together the clues that nature in all her edginess brings with the responses that the nightly dream-state brings. Days and weeks of rain, seemingly incessant rain, waters the autumnal subconscious. While it draws a veil of grey gloom, bringing low the sky, the deluge has a habit of lifting the mind. Call it a high front of dreams. These wisps of cirrus cloud you see from the porthole of your window seat once the aircraft has punched through that Venusian blanket of cloud, that’s the type that drift across the mind’s eye during the long dream stage of an even longer night.

Last night I dreamed I was on the apron, turning in a great Boeing circle to face the runway. There wasn’t many of us aboard; just me and a shadowy figure (the me i was leaving behind amid the gloom of the coming winter? The me who is unsure of what to do and where to go in what remains of a life that has involved much going and doing). There might have been a four-legged friend, I cannot recall thus. I know this for sure: this flight was long-haul. We were going (back) to Australia. Somewhere in that great wilderness of my past, I lived there. Time it was, and what a time it was, it was….it was jetting off from London on twilit days of early February into the polarized light of the southern hemisphere. It was those ocular adjustments when first you strain because the half light of winter in England renders it hard to make out darkened objects, followed by the landing in a Southern Hemisphere summer and the ocular strain because the light dazzles: a million million lumens irradiating before your very eyes, like the death chamber we all long to enter.

I’ve been having these visions of late. This is my first November in England since 2010, a fact that i believe belies the intensity of these visions. I’m wearing the thought of winter like a greatcoat, the type the troops used to wear as they trudged home alone on country roads from yet another pointless battle. The swallows have gone, but were they ever here to begin with? Didn’t the southern Europeans shoot them en masse just for the sake of it as they were migrating across the Med after facing down the Sahara? Did we imagine them dancing on the air to the tune of summer?  The swans remain. I saw one last night, but it wasn’t in a dream. A volley of shots, a cacophonous, Edinburgh Tattoo of cannons – or was it fireworks on amphetamine? – was ringing out in the valley below. The air blasts seemed to get closer, not unlike winter itself, and as i opened the bow doors of the boat to look over the prow on this cold and still night, i saw the dark outline of a swan, terrified by the boom, come in to land on the canal right next to me. He quickly pulled in his great wings and settled down such that he didn’t even tell the water of his arrival. I looked at him and i saw a survivor in the making. No matter what ills winter will infect our bodies and minds with, this guy evolved immunity to discontent a long time in the deep past.

Was the swan the plane i was flying in later that night? Was he trying to tell me something about the person I am and my place in this unfathomable world we call home?

The leaves are mounting in the rain channels along the length of the boat. I sweep them up and into a putrid heap they go. The trees have seen what is coming, yet they shun their coat in seeing so. Soon they shall be naked, ready to give up a little more of the blue in the sky just when we need that window on the world most. The mind’s eye keeps a careful watch on the quickening days.

A Bear Necessity

#adventure, America, Britain, California, forest, giant trees, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, nature, Psychology, redwoods, Reflections, trees, Uncategorized, United States

In Disney’s Jungle Book, Baloo sung that Bear Necessities were simple. But who was Baloo trying to kid, other than a clueless Mowgli? There is nothing simple, psychologically-speaking, about what a bear necessitates. When you are deep in the back country of, say, North America, what the bear necessitates in the human mind is a whole lot of panic and angst. Yet, is the anxiety that the wild things exert on the fragile human – the same human who is primordially at home and at the same time disturbingly out of place in her ancestral canopy home – confined to the prospect of coming upon an irate mother bear? Or are anxieties little knots made into strings we wear around our necks through life? The Inca people had their quipu, or talking knots, to record the particulars of their life. Equally, do postmodern humans have this string of knots in their psyche (or possibly even lodged their panic-rising breast) where something angst-inducing must reside just to remind us of our all-too humanness?

Walking through these American woods in all their dizzying expanse, I used to think that’s where the nagging feeling of anxiety permeated, and it was there that we urbanites would add another string to our quipu of worries. Streetwise and untroubled, enter the forest alone. Once there, duly adorn the knotted string around the neck. Venture ever deeper in and feel as the string pulls heavier on the neck. Watch as our quipu of worries keeps adding knots to its length with every snap of bone-dry twig. With each falling shadow forming grasping arms from tree limbs, feel our own limbs stiffen as another knot miraculously appears on the anxiety string. Stare into the multidimensional wall – for that is what the forest is when you are in it – and feel unease as is stares back at you. They say it’s the people roaming the woods you need to worry about in America, and not the black bears. And yet, fear being irrational – and that fear extends to fear of cougars, too – we don’t see it that way. We see the ancient brain kick into gear, the one that offers only binary choice: fight or flight. The subconscious gallery of wild, wicked animals, whom we used to prey on when we were not busy running from them, revolves at a pace matched only by the quickening of the human heart. But, it might not be as simple as bear panic anxiety existing only in the deepest reaches of the American woodlands. Fear of what’s in them-there woods might be a bare necessity for us in order to function out here in the societies we made from the ruins of the mesolithic world of cave bears, sabre tooth cats, and aurochs. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Bears don’t instil fear in the woods; fear instills fear because anxiety is what we had to nurse just to leave that wild world behind to become the worrywarts we did.

Later, I told others i was suffering a newly-diagnosed condition: bear panic anxiety. I even slept in the car out there in the woods lest i end up a snack wrapped in tent canvas. Others laughed mockingly, never stopping to think about how their own predatory instincts would dissolve in the midst of aloneness in a vast sea of trunks. When i returned to the American West the following year, i traded experience for caution. The anxiety held firm as it had the year before, as it had when i was young and terrified of the deep. And then, leaving it again to rejoin my tamed world, I realised that anxiety is a shapeshifting form within each of us that needs filling with something, anything that is, unless we happen to have trained the mind to excise those knotted worry beads from deep within our psyche into our fingertips where we may toy with them and master them. And what triggered that realisation? It was going to live on a riverboat that hammered the point home. Now, instead of feeling bear panic anxiety in America, i was growing demented from feeling boat panic anxiety. Boats and bears? Is this merely alliteration disguised as a tenuous link? Tame English canals versus American wilderness? Well, the connection is not as stretched as you might think. The boat, built long and wide and stocky for a river, was squeezed into a narrow, shallow and popular canal in a picturesque corner of olde England. For every holiday boat that inched past mine (and they were legion, depressingly so), the same set of psychological conditions i felt in the American wilderness came back to haunt me. In short, the inbuilt worry space was occupied again. The canal seemed to grow narrower and the passing boaters more intrusive. Wave after wave of prying eyes, faces moving past the portholes so close I could plant a kiss on them. For every time i raised my head above the parapet, another narrowboat would come into view. Privacy on short notice; another holidaymaker enjoying me as a caged novelty item. Anxiety filled the space the bear had hibernated in. Panic rose in the breast and i thought to myself, Here we go again. Not another one! It’s gonna hit. No way can it pass.’  How can the mind be stilled when the water on which the riverboat sits is rippling with excitement at yet another boat brushing millimetres by?

Bear and boats, Inca knots recording the state of our psychology, and of course worry beads. I know now why Muslims the world over run the beads between their thumb and forefinger. While the rest of us internalise ours, those carefree Muslims have externalised theirs. They’ve taken each knot of anxiety and locked it in an onyx bead where these worries can be controlled in those all-conquering fingers. The bear might thankfully still live in the woods where it belongs. The boats still squeeze between the shrinking width of the canals. And you? Where does your anxiety live? Or have you managed banish the knots into your fingers where they don’t loom so large?

 

 

 

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

#adventure, America, California, Landscapes, mountains, philosophy, Reflections, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, Uncategorized, United States

Part II

Into the Heartland: Interstate 70

At Baltimore you are good to go. You are in fact as good as gone, for lying at the edge of Maryland’s biggest town is the east end of the I-70, one of America’s five 2,000 mile-plus interstate arteries. Hit the road, Jack. And don’t you come back no more. Whether Ray Charles ever found himself in Fort Cove, Utah, at the west terminus of this mind-boggling belt of bitumen, I cannot say. What I can assert with the certainty of shared memories is that it took us sweeping past its exit signs, diners, and moving landscapes all of a quarter century ago, though for all the imprinting my optical nerve did, it might as well have been last week. It’s true, we each remember events in different ways: some episodic like your 8th birthday gift of a puppy but not your 9th; others by associating that pilgrimage to Varanasi with pungent odours of incense and burning flesh on charcoal; and me, it’s majorly in Kodachrome and sometimes Ilford B&W that I sense a past with me in it. My memories can be 35mm or medium format. Sometimes the ISO is low and the pictures of bygone years well defined, while other times the light was low, the ISO high and the memory grainy.

I’m not deluded enough to think that this was the definitive road trip. Yeah, it certainly followed in the tyre tracks of beatniks and explorers who did it the long, slow spiritual way. Still, there are more logistically challenging transcontinental road trips out there. Mine was by no means the first – for the Romans were doing road trips 2,000 years ago on surfaces they had laid expressly for that purpose – nor the best – for London to Kathmandu or the Alaska to Tierra del Fuego overlander on the Pan-American Highway takes a lot of beating. That said, by whichever means (and there are many highways connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific) the Trans-America is travel’s answer to a pair of Levi 501s – original and stone-washed.

The road undulates at first, cutting a swathe past tasteless roadside attractions (like tufts of commercial hoarding growing high for the sunlight of your attention) and past tasteful wooded landscape lying peacefully beyond those pesky pit-stops and hoardings that much of the world now sees fit to emulate. The knolls of this eastern route are made of spruce and oak, hemlock and hickory. What I was saying about that photographic memory doesn’t apply to eastern America’s partially cloaked surfaces. When you cannot see the wood for the trees, identifying a hickory from a hemlock takes on a vertical challenge. But I know that, unlike the island of my birth, the American continent knows its fair share of trees extending away into yesterday. That much I do remember from my first great road trip all of nearly a quarter century ago.

The houses you see abutting the highway are not predominantly brick like ours. The residential architecture comes in different shapes and sizes, but I do think there’s more than a bit of Dutch and German influence in those lateral clapboards. Old world, but not English in influence as the structures of New England attest to.

The I-25 runs west out of Pennsylvania and that swirling nexus of a turnpike is the point of origin. West she blows, crumbling ever more through Maryland near to where the old Mason-Dixie line forms a Caesarian scar under all that concrete and vegetation.

That modern America had a traumatic birth is no exaggeration. The embryo grew subdivided in the womb of the New World. The two fetuses, one Union and the other Confederate, grew too large to either share the same womb or to be born by natural birth. Battles (such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) were staged around these parts for the soul of a young nation chosen by the Almighty to dwell in a land where Native American spirits were everywhere and old. This nation of epic roads might think it has matured beyond the attrition of civil war, that it has healed its deep rifts, but the divided states of America is kidding itself if it really believes it has.

Maryland is a slip of a state. We leave her as we found her: ambling past at 55 mph. On the road to somewhere, some places are merely waypoints while others are curiosities worthy of scrutiny. The industrial east, dotted with its established settlements of Europeans who made the Atlantic crossing, for the most part in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is all well and fine and handsomely endowed in many a place, but when San Francisco is the endgame of a short game, this is one quarter you don’t want to go into overtime.

Did we even stop in Indiana? As I remember it, I blinked in the passenger seat and there it was in a scene from Never the Mark Twain Shall Meet: the bridge on the River Mississippi. Jesse James and his band of brigands roamed the heartlands, earning sympathy as they robbed and plundered their way to ignominy, and him a bullet in the back of the head by the coward Robert Ford.

The state in July is hot and swampy and full of biting insects. The man at the trailer park, the owner most likely, warmed to us in that ‘hands across the water’ fashion. It was said by the man himself beaming with pride that he visited England in the age of B&W while serving as a G.I. in Germany (but probably not sharing a bunk with Elvis, who was there too). Though it was many years ago, he remembered old Albion fondly. The guy, by now he must have been sixty at a pinch, flew back across the pond (as anglophile Americans and Amerophile Englanders like affectionately to call that gargantuan body of thrashing, grey water that’s anything but pond-like) in a rickety old DC-8, which in all fairness was probably fresh off the production line in 1960-sum when he flew in it. We’re talking about the early days of transatlantic air travel as an alternative to second-class on ocean liners for the common folk. This commercial aircraft, so ballerina-light compared with the later Boeing 747, was kicked around like an old tin can somewhere high over Greenland he said. How did he know he was over Greenland? Well, That plane was shunted around so much by that old devil turbulence that it almost ended up on its side. It was then, face pressed against the porthole he was able to get a good view of the white world beneath.

Paralysed by fear, he reckoned none of those two hundred-odd passengers aboard thought they’d make it home at all far less in time for dinner. They’d come to land alright, he was sure, but not in the manner that airline passengers have become accustomed to, and nor in the manner that any self-respecting mortal would ever hope for. That’s the thing about the trauma of near-death experience. Like your faithful hound it’ll never leave your side no matter what. Keep feeding that long, long time ago event with tidbits of vivid recollection and Rex the long-haired ‘I almost died’ will keep lying forever at the feet of the survivor.

The Mississippi cuts the nation in half vertically as the Mason-Dixie line cuts her longways across her abdomen and then sideways politically-speaking. Although the river meanders under way more than one, perhaps the most visible bridge in St Louis is not one at all. Rather, it’s an arch, high as it is symbolic of westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Put there to bridge two nations – one almost an eagle and the other a puny fledgling – the Gateway Arch in St Louis is a fitting reminder that for bridges to be built and formidable barriers to be spanned, first the far side has to be conquered. And to do that, the first peoples, such as the Dakota tribe, had to be pushed back until they could be pushed no more for there was no corner to push them into other than a lousy reservation. By crossing that river whose tongue-tying spelling was recited, never to be forgotten, by generations of Scottish schoolchildren, the St Louis bridge over the mighty M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i spans two rather distinct hemispheres: one, the long-settled East; the other, the endless plains, mountains, deserts, canyons, badlands, and forests of the West.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would turn in their fictional graves to know that these whirlpool waters of the Mississippi no longer add up to a whole lot of natural barrier. Gone is the obligatory river boat crossing with its tillerman, a nineteenth century Charon who’d take you across the Styx to the underworld that was the little-known Frontier, and for only nickels and dimes that dead men wore to cover their eyes to the dazzling light of western settlement. But the world is lost to the mystique that once shrouded it. Modern transport has made a mockery of distance, shrinking everything but itself.

On the great plains the sky weighs down the land and lays down the land. A gap-fill of blue ether over green corn, restless air over restful earth. The cornfields of Kansas open up before us. Black clouds gather overhead, chasing us west across the interstate highway that crosses the plains. Cumulo-thunderheads the size of English counties send bolts of lightning down to strike indiscriminately at hapless heads of wheat, barley and corn that sway hypnotically, and when it gusts, frenziedly, in that sea of ripening ears. At time like these, the sky hates the earth, wanting only to show who is boss.

We skirt the peripheries of Kansas City where man-size droplets of rain finally catch up with the traffic. Day turns to night. The downpour is torrential. I’ve seen this kind of rain in the tropics and where el Niño was to blame, not expecting it here. When the whole world awaits you for the first time, who’s to say what to expect?

The land is a sea of wheat and soya, barley and rape seed. To call these agricultural lands a patchwork of ‘fields’ can be misleading. When does a field become to large in area to remain a field? The highways, in another sense, are shipping lanes. You can tell from the way they all run through the unbroken expanse, unlike old England and France where roads and lanes enclose fields, forming boundaries at the limit of where some farmer Joe’s smallholding meets some other farmer’s.

Many folks are mistaken to think that the state of Colorado, lying due west of Kansas, is all ski resorts and Aspen trees bedecked with virgin snow. Much of the east of the state, and we are talking a fair dollop of land, is essentially a flat extension of the great plains of Kansas whence we came. Some way short of alpine, farmed to fuck and featureless, one could be forgiven for thinking that the cloud bank you see on the far side of the flatlands at the limit of a distant horizon is actually a bank of clouds and not the outline of the Rocky Mountains, which it turns out in fact to be.

You want natural barriers of the kind no longer afforded you by the mighty Mississippi and the plains of Kansas? Then look no further than the fake mirage at the end of the visible horizon. Like the Himalaya when you’re gazing north from the Indian Terai, the Rockies loom higher and harder as the traveller approaches along Interstate 70.

Never bowled over by annual membership of the mile-high club, I always fancied myself taking a day pass for the mile-high city, Denver. What they don’t see is that the height and elegance of youth all too often succumbs to the flabby girth of age. Viz. Denver was a mile high from the moment it was born, but these days, being that bit older, with a metropolitan population of about three million, it has to be more than a mile wide, too. Keep the day pass, around the waistline we go. That’s the trouble with road tripping: stopping for anytime can be a drag. What lies beyond has got to be better than what lies near. Isn’t that the whole point of monotheism?

We head up into the mountains near Arapaho, where the carpet reeks of pine needles dying to be let out by water that hasn’t seeped through since winter’s end, where the sloping roof peaks punch little holes in a sky of ice blue, where Native Americans are sadly gone leaving the victorious cowboys to ride on steeds whose clop-clopping rings throughout the cloaked valleys. The air is thinner up here. Sound travels faster and further than its maker could ever hope for. It’s pretty up here, a first gulp of the great West as I imagined the West to be from old Hollywood films I used to watch with my Scottish grandfather.

In a cabin in the woods (how much more quintessentially North American can you get?) we meet a father and son from Houston, Texas. The old guy sports the tapered beard ripped off Custer’s chin as a spoil of war after Crazy Horse got him at Little Bighorn in 1876. He wears boots fit for a regal cowboy. He slings those long blue denim legs over the balustrade of the cabin’s verandah as leisurely as a saddle on a hitching post. Cuban heels perched on the beam, toes pointing at the Dog star on a Rocky Mountain night spangling with American stars. He speaks of things you don’t normally associate with boot-heeled Texans, like his love for yachting and the storm in the Gulf of Mexico that near as damn buried him, boots n all, in Davy Jones’ Locker. The rest of the conversation is gone to seed, not surprisingly, as our encounter happened twenty-five years ago, and the old guy himself, unlike his impressive outline in my mind, is likely dead and gone, too.

The I-70 keeps on West from Denver through a series of national forests, then Grand Junction that might not be so grand but indubitably is a junction. Thenceforth the road runs onward to Utah where it runs out of itself around Fishlake National Forest. From Baltimore at its inception to its death (or maybe its rebirth) in Western Utah, the I-70 blazes a trail about that of the distance between Edinburgh and Istanbul. Woe betide the crew charged with the maintenance upkeep on that stretch of tarmac! It is in Denver, however, we bid it fare-thee-well. It’s time to hitch a ride on another highway north then west to California.