Hell Is Other People

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The Blind Salamander

Just what the f**k is it with people? Tell me how it is that those who purport to be our friends, our Romans, our Countryfolk, those who appear oh-so well-adjusted and oh-so perfectly civil at the point of first contact, turn out in point of fact to be savage head hunters? Disguised in loin cloths or Laura Ashley cardigans it matters not a stitch, give ’em six months of protracted exposure in your company and sure as eggs are eggs they’ll be using any old pretext to either disseminate ill-founded rumours about you or else delight in launching sneaky broadsides from their good ship HMSHolier-Than-Thou, sending shrapnel through your integrity on the port side of you, as well as splintering the carefully-constructed personality nailed into your starboard side, just for good measure. O Lord! We do love a good drama now, don’t we?

Post-civilisation is pre-civilisation in reversal. At…

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B-Day or Bidet?Nothing washes the soul like Brexit.

Brexit, Britain, British Isles, England, EU, europe, fate, future, humour, meditations, Politics, Society, Socioeconomics, thoughts, Travel, Uncategorized, United States

Brexit Day, or B-Day to those who cannot bring themselves to utter the shibboleth, is here, and predictably grey clouds are settled on the old England outside my porthole.

Well, here we are at the end of a 47-year marriage. My whole life, no more and no less. The EU is a polygamous arrangement of course, being that twenty-eight spouses took their vows to have and to hold from this day forth, albeit at different times. The European Union has become a kind of rolling nuptial. From the original six postwar players who signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, to the swelled ranks of today’s fragile union, this political/cultural/economic/existential arrangement can be viewed as a flexible Mormon marriage, with the exception of there being more of the gender equal and less of the patrilineal in Brussels than in Salt Lake City.

Anyone who has not lived in solitary confinement for the past four years, which is nearly all of us (Jesus! Even Tibetan monks wield mobile phones these days!) will know that one of these spouses – the troublesome, quarrelsome old bag who thinks even in her dotage she can still bank on better marriage prospects – has called a divorce. For a long three and a half years, she’s been humming and ha-ing about delivering the death knell, a drama that played out in a frenzied Westminster, but seeing that she never really bothered to master the language of any of her spouses, the despedida, adieu, auf wiedersehen, and ci vediamo, has been a while in the coming. Awkward moments do tend to happen when you can’t be arsed learning at least a few phrases in the native language of your in-laws. Now Britannia is a ‘free woman’ (I’m not implying women are uniquely feckless here; Britannia, in this case could be equally be a feckless, whimsical man, except that Britannia has historically been depicted as a Athena-esque Greek Goddess with shield and trident in hand) she can galavant around, courting new paramours in the search for a new and improved polygamous arrangement. Or, if she’s strikes gold, an exclusive one.

Now you know and I know that unless you’ve already opened other arms to fall into, the prospect of leaving a marriage nearing its golden anniversary can be a calculated risk. Tomorrow, Britannia will sail off on a P&O Singles cruise around the world. First stop – and some say last – will be New York, where Britannia will court old Uncle Sam with an irresistible combo of knowing and coquettishness. To achieve this, she’ll have to get exceedingly drunk on Italian bubbly, which admittedly she’s already a dab hand at, having imported oodles of the stuff cheaply by virtue of being in existing marriage with Italy since 1973. But Prosecco will be off the menu ’cause we’re now in America, so she’ll be forced to quaff what the Americans are offering, which is either watery beer or rocket-fuelled cocktails. Once she’s woken up in her cabin after one too many Long Island ice teas the awful realisation will hit her hard that Uncle Sam is a selfish bastard who goes through girlfriends like a snivelling little git goes through Kleenex. He’s a tough, uncompromising type is old Sam, and won’t she know this before soon. He’s not a the callow youth she used to boss around two centuries ago when she was younger. He’s all grown up and this she’ll find hard to reconcile.

Dissatisfied, she’ll pick up the ship in L.A., after being feted by Hollywood’s liberatti who will plead she replaces the incumbent crooks in Washington as new sovereign of the American West (mainly on account of their weakness for British RSC-trained thespians/baddies with gritty authority in their voice). But that won’t wash with Washington, who’ll now treat her as a meddlesome strumpet keen to break up the chronically unhappy American family. Glancing north to faithful Canada, she’ll spot Meghan and Harry, who are even more shameless than her. There’ll be no chatting Canada up with those two fifth-columnists languishing there. There’ll be no more chatting up America either. Chastened by the threat of a nuclear arsenal whose each warhead you could slot into the bandolier of a mythical giant (or threatened by sanctions, the State Dept’s favourite tough love tactic), Britannia will sail on into that blue yonder where, contrary to the tub-thumping exhortations of the Brexiteer’s predecessors, the New Imperialists, the sun did eventually set forever on the British Empire.
Next up will be Oz and NZ. We can always rely on those two jilted lovers to come back for seconds. Except they are beholden nowadays to what’s going down in the Asia-Pacific bloc, ruled as it is by a giant even more selfish than America: China. So the ageing widow will need to rattle her jewellery hard to be heard amid all that eucalyptus smoke and barking Cantonese. Disillusioned by the tyranny of distance and the realpolitik of wanting to brazenly burst in on China’s well-defended patch, Britannia will sail onward to Hong Kong and Singapore. There’s she’ll find little Thumbelinas of herself in her prime. Oh to be Singapore on the silty Thames, she’ll sing. Noticing how disturbingly dystopian Singapore is, where a wad of chewing gum pinned under a park bench will inevitably result in a lengthy prison term, Britannia will graciously, if reluctantly, concede that we are not those men. That’s right, Britannia, we men are free to pin our concealed blades to the wad of chewing gum under the park bench, you know, just in case anyone fucks with us.

With potential paramours running out, P&O will propel us around the Malay Peninsula (yes, that was ours as well, but these days it’s showing a bit too much hijab for our liking) and onto India, the jewel in the crown. Where all others disappoint, India shall delight. She shall tantalise our senses, awaken our dormant soul with colours we can smell and smells that make our eyes water. The cruise liner will dock first in Chennai, which Britannia won’t even recognise, as it had its name changed by deed poll from Madras just so it could move on from an earlier, and some say skewed, marriage to Britannia. Then around beautiful Sri Lanka we shall sail and up past the Western Ghats to Mumbai, which also changed its name to erase the memory of us pre-1947. Mercifully, by now Britannia has gotten a bit more used to being jilted, so she can almost forgive the desecration of the name Bombay to a new ‘Hindu-ized’ moniker that sounds like saying farewell to the woman who birthed you, ironically enough.

The footsie playing out under the table between Modi’s new and assertive India and Britannia’s old and assertive Britain will give the media back home pause to consider. This could be the one, they’ll declare. A new old partnership forged the way we Brits like it, i.e. the bigger of the two defers to the smaller of the two – we know their size and they know their place. But you know and I know that this flirtation is bound to failure. Trying to resurrect old relationships in the mould of an old relationship is like trying to turn back the clock when all it wants to do is fly alongside time’s arrow. The Indians will do that irresistibly cute thing they do with the sideways nodding of the head. Benighted old Blighty will go mad wondering whether India is saying yes or no to her propositions. Exasperated, she’ll board the Cruise as is slides past Bombay’s Gateway to India monument while looking on wistfully from the prow at what might have been had we just not acceded to Gandhi’s wishes. I mean, come on, he wasn’t even armed at the time.

Ah well, at least there’s always the T-20. Consolation bobs nicely on the placid Indian Ocean. They can take our freedom but they can’t take our beloved cricket away from us.

Pulling into port in Cape Town, all eyes will be on the covetous prize of Africa. However, after being robbed at gunpoint at the ATM soon after disembarkation, Britannia will wonder whether Africa’s worth it. Upon closer inspection, she’ll baulk at the nightmarish statistics applied to a future Africa and say to herself, ‘How could Joy and George Adamson ever raise Elsa the Lion in these crowded, chaotic conditions?’ And she’d be right. Any anyway, China has got Africa all stitched up. While we’ve been squabbling with Brussels – but mainly among ourselves – the Chinese have been scrambling for Africa 2.0. But naturally, the Chinese are there out of the goodness of their Hubei hearts, just like the British and French were during their 19th century so-called ‘civilizing mission’. You want a brand new asphalt highway, no strings attached?? Sure! All we ask is that you take out a 100-year high-interest loan with the Chinese Communist Party (whose socialist principles are somewhat compromised by their partiality for usury, but hey that Capitalism, Chinese-style for ya!). Failing that, we’ll take a 999-year lease on your most prized ports. No 14-day cooling-off period here.

Wearily, the ship marches on, with lonely old Britannia still rattling her jewellery up on the prow, G&T in hand. Round NW Africa she sails, and past the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Right there, coming into view will be Gibraltar, a brave and solitary outpost of empire surrounded by a bruised but recovering European Union. By this time, Britannia will be so sunburnt and permanently pissed, she’ll stagger down the gangplank into the waiting arms of a Barbary ape, who’ll greet her with bare-toothed howls of ‘Welcome Home!’ It will occur precisely in that moment of utter deflation that the old girl will have an epiphany, the first one she’s had since sobering up. She realise, all these suitors are selfish arseholes. You know, it wasn’t so bad being in that polygamous marriage with Brussels after all. I sat back and got most of what I wanted. When they screamed ‘black!’, I yelled back ‘white!’. And still they tolerated me. When they wanted a shared bank account, i insisted on having my own, and still they tolerated me. When they wanted me to meet them even a quarter of the way, i snubbed them, ’cause that’s what you do, right, when folks ask for just enough but not too much?’ They even came around to my language, and quite possibly my way of thinking. Aw fuck it! What kind of pusillanimous pussy goes easy on the fool who is willing to offer so many concessions, anyhoo?

Hmm, maybe I was a little hasty. Maybe is not the same as definitely (unless you happen to be Oasis who did a record called Definitely Maybe). Just you remember that.

Steaming across the Bay of Biscay on the homeward leg, storms blight the passage. Around Britanny and the Cote D’Armour, Britannia stares out from her porthole. Her mood changes from one of defiance to one of remorse. She has seen the world many times that she has seen the world not at all. She does not like what she sees. She is elderly and alone and the world owes her no favours.

On the final day of her RTW cruise, the captain announces that home port is not where it was when they left. Where there was a wharf there is now only sea. The island, it would seem, has retreated into deeper Atlantic water. They sail on. Shorn of ideas, Britannia retires to the bar where a G&T will await her. Now this isn’t your average Gin & Tonic. She wants hers large. Very Large.

Ice & Lemon, Madame?

Yes, if there’s enough room in the glass.

He pours. She collects. ‘But it’s half empty,’ she complains.

‘If I may comment, Madame, that’s not what you were saying when you joined the cruise.’

Where Lifestyle Choice Meets Economic Necessity

Britain, British Isles, counter-culture, dogs, Hippies, Lifestyle, Society, Socioeconomics, Uncategorized

I fell in to talking with a perfect stranger who was sticking his head out of the bow doors of his boat, calling on his lurcher who in spite of her XX chromosomes, he proudly paraded as an alpha dog. Greek letters, i concluded, cannot ever be accused of gender bias.

But this is quite superfluous to the point. The thrust of what we really discussed had more to do with the people living aboard narrowboats in various states of disrepair that it did the elevated status of a female lurcher. The length and breadth of the canal we both concluded was nose-to-tail rammed with boats. This, i told him, had come as quite a surprise to my unsuspecting self. I had pictured, i told him, a meandering waterway dotted with the odd canal boat. That’s the image I had in mind when, casting my mind back, I decided to make this stretch of waterway my home mooring. It would be here I would make my last stand against the encircling forces of itinerancy and deeply ingrained nomadism.

‘When i came here, oh, twenty-five years back,’ he said, ‘there were only six boats, at most, up and down this entire length, from here to Bathampton.’

For theatre, I let out a noticeable sigh of disappointment. ‘God! if only. Look at it now. Teeming with boats.’

A smile of nostalgia came over him. ‘Yip, it was fantastic. All mine and not even a path where there’s one now.’

I had to know what had happened in the intervening twenty-five years. How could it have come to this? A conscious lifestyle choice to turn one’s back on an evermore soulless mainstream society with all its fancy mains electricity and drainpipes, its accruing debts and its quiet desperation, and for what? Because those fools out there on Civvy Street work jobs they hate so they can buy shit that no one actually needs other than to release five seconds worth of serotonin before the disaffection sets in again? They buy into the 4-bedroom detached dream, living out their days in concealed panic for fear of never paying off what they never had in the first place. No, he said. But, look at those living here on the water. The way they live; how they dress. These people are a living, breathing part of a counter-culture that’s been going since Glastonbury got going in 1970. Life is about choices, i argued, and you’d better bet they’re the wise sort. And anyway, Glastonbury is just down the road. Bristol is a hippy city. This is merely the overspill, albeit in a fairly stuffy, bourgeois enclave they call Jane Austen’s Bath. No, he said. You’re wrong. The reason you see this today, this canal lined with these old boats is not for the reasons you might think.

His alpha lurcher slunk off into the galley. Midday on December 1st and the thermometer couldn’t be arsed with any of it. My canal dog for the day, clearly unimpressed with the blether that two men above him were engaging in whimpered impatiently to get his walk underway. Intrigued by the man, this veteran of a quarter century on a highway of slow-moving water, the type you’d rather avoid in your ice cubes, i let my dog go bounding off after squirrels while the man proceeded to explain the whys and wherefores of how we live today.

I went on with my pampered attitude. ‘You know, i’m fed up with these chancers playing the system. Not moving on when they should. What’s the point of me paying three hundred some quid a month to get precisely the same privilege as these fuckers who spend their days playing the system, avoiding payment, ignoring rules? For that matter, let’s all just make a mockery of it.’

He reproved me with a look of anguish. Yet again, he must’ve thought, another newbie on a flash boat judging the less-fortunate. ‘Look at some of them. Before they were on boats, clogging up this canal for you, they were in benders.’

‘Benders?’ What the hell are they?’

‘Shelters. Piece of shit tents. Rough sleeping. The woods around Bath were full of them.’

I had seen the woefulness of indigence in and around what is a beautiful civic space dating back to Roman times. Homelessness, demeaning homelessness, sharing one’s sealed eyelids with every Tom, Dick and Harriet who walks past in Italian patent leather, and this state of affairs in not just any old town, but a UNESCO World Heritage Site no less. I had clocked the state of the nation and i knew the vital statistics were not good. The contrast was so fucking ridiculous it could’ve been in a Dickens novel. But through all that doorway desperation I had not stopped to think that the litany of crappy old boats clogging up the waterways was the difference between one hundred homeless scattered around one or other of Bath’s Georgian architraves and one thousand, an intolerable number that would offend even the city fathers into finally doing something decisive about Britain’s homeless hell.

‘They might be playing the system and not moving the boat as often and as far as they should be,’ he claimed, ‘but its’s either that or having hundreds of them hiding in the woods.’

I felt the chill in the midday air penetrate deep.

He went on to say that the way things are in this country, those who have don’t want those who have not to have. Those on the right side of private assets, why would they want social housing built en masse to accommodate these burgeoning numbers of former inhabitants of down-at-heel benders made of twigs and polythene in the woods, those people you cite as living on eyesores and flouting the rules that you, on your nice little floating palace, wouldn’t dream of because you’ve never had to? Why would they? That house you paid fifty grand for thirty years ago now worth half a million. And if enough new houses are built to take the strain off the canal, because that’s where the majority would rather be, in a house over a boat any day, that equity you found yourself the lucky recipient of, what of it? It shrinks to nothing, and suddenly your half mil house, the one you got for a song under Thatcher, is worth not much more than it was to start with.

They’re flouting the rules of engagement on the canal because they can. But they’re on the canal in the first place because the alternative is to see them tramp down to the woods in shitty weather and sleep in a bivvy night after night. Out of sight, out of mind.

Life is about choices, i continued to assert. I only have this boat because i chose to compromise five prime years of my life by going out to work in one of the most sterile, dangerous regions in the world. I could have stayed at home and got nowhere. I earned danger money, and so my conscience is clear. Though, in spite of my pride, i knew in my heart of hearts, he was right. Living on a boat in the midst of nature is, on the surface, a conscious rejection of all that’s wrong in mainstream society. But that is no more, no less than the romantic interpretation. Yes, Glastonbury is nearby. No, most liveaboards are proud, self-satisfied sorts who would repudiate the chance to live at No.12 or No.65 of some bland, nondescript housing estate. What we think is purely a lifestyle choice is, when you scratch the surface, an economic necessity borne of existing in a greedy, debt-ridden, overcrowded nation. What seems unsightly in a shop doorway seems less unsightly behind the bushes, and even less unsightly, and therefore just about ignorable, inside the pitted hull of a nearly-wrecked, but nevertheless warm and dry, boat.

 

 

In a Kingdom of Rains, How to Depose the Monarch?

climate, desert, England, Landscapes, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, nature, oman, philosophy, Travel, Uncategorized

There’s nothing quite like a hard landing. For anyone in the business of staying sane, perhaps a misguided strategy is to go, without the alleviating effect of a transition, from one extreme of climate to another. The worst delusion of all is to think the chances of acclimatising successfully in such contrasting conditions of sun and rain as being favourable.

To put you in the frame, outside my window the rain rolls down the pane all triumphant. Now this feature has become somewhat of a stock-in-trade as far as this wet, SouthWest English climate is concerned. For what seems like time immemorial (the statistical truth is that the rain has fallen prodigiously on an already damp-prone region over the past two months, and if anything the nearby North Atlantic has gone a bit more bonkers around the annual Hurricane season than usual) outdoor pursuits have been notably curtailed. Living on a boat, at least I’ve got hatches to literally batten down, so i’m true to the old adage. Cold comfort there. That feeling of being imprisoned within four dry walls under a roof where the rain hasn’t yet found a means of ingress feels like an addition to that custodial sentence. In fact, i’d go as far as to aver that the time-added-on to the sentence is taking on an air of the old Gulag justice, not knowing when or indeed if you’ll ever see daylight again.

The damp air of despondency wouldn’t rankle so much if, say, what came before I strayed into this realm of rains was something akin. That would entail, for instance, preceding this by living somewhere in Northern Europe where it doesn’t rain quite as exaggeratedly, but rains healthily nonetheless between fairly sustained bouts of strong sunlight. Let’s face it, you could even use Spain as a transitory point to reacclimatise to the England’s SouthWest. Contrary to popular belief, the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain; it falls everywhere, too. Here in cider country (i knew where they got the apples, and now i know where they get the water to make the brew) man cannot live on puddles alone, but these men and women find that they do, coping quite stolidly along the way. Anyhoo, in my case, I started this climate odyssey from the borderlands of Oman. I spent years by the Indian Ocean under the blazing eye of the Arabian sun, where rain, when it occasioned to visit, brought gasps of astonishment from local Arabs who saw its presence as proof positive that God had not forsaken them. For the many Indians there I think the sight of black clouds reminded them of the relief of the monsoon. The rain there took with it all the microscopic motes of dust that hung suspended for months in the lower atmosphere, so when eventually a freak raincloud did pass over, it fell with all the dust contained within its droplets. It turned rusted, deadened mountains green overnight. Dusty but overdue, That is rain most would agree is very welcome for a short, intense stay.

Cut to Somerset. Now, i don’t doubt that these are exceptional times. Extreme human rapacity and a striking lack of care and sensitive handling with respect to our natural world, have, some say, pushed Gaia into reacting violently at her manhandling (who can blame Her?). For every (bastard human) action, there is an equal and opposite (natural) reaction. I get it. We take the axe to forests (nature’s proud crewcut), and the jet stream slinks over the benighted Britons like an anaconda trying to evade capture. We burn fifty million years of the Carboniferous period in the short space of a century, building up so much heat that the Atlantic gets whipped into a frenzy just to dissipate that heat. This all falls as the rain of our own selfish doing. And, it seems, most of it falls right on my head.

It’s not the rain that’s driving me mad, it’s the incessant nature of it. Hold on, it’s not the incessant nature of it that’s driving me mad; it’s that i had practically none of it for years and, oftentimes, didn’t miss it. I’ve gone from one dust-laden droplet every six months to a veritable deluge in a short space of time. It’s these extremes – like those that make for our current political discourse or for those that come in the form of wild, angered, weather – that bring a feeling of woe.

The rain is off. A brief window of time has emerged before the next soaking. I never thought the climate would come to resemble a drive-through car wash, but there you go. All we need are the big blue spinning brushes whipping down from the grey sky. But i suppose that in a world of smoking vehicles and drive-in fast food joints selling substandard beef from bemused cattle slaughtered for grazing on pasture once boasting tropical hardwood trees and megadiversity, a drive-thru carwash climate was always on the cards. Be that as it may, the ultimate moral of this story: avoid extremes if you are of a gentle disposition (or if you hate damp, sun-starved climates as vengefully as me). Find the middle ground if all you have known is either a kingdom of sands or one of rains. I suppose not everyone is averse to these wild fluctuations in lifestyle. My old boss went directly from the Canadian Artic to Saudi Arabia, and he doesn’t seem to care. There’s no pleasing some.

Yes, We Can(al)!

#adventure, America, boats, England, Life, Uncategorized

When Barak Obama took the slogan, YES, WE CAN!, on campaign with him back during the 2008 elections, his growing sect of admirers took it up with gusto. Ennobled by the creed of optimism – a finite resource even in America – they chanted these three simple words with all the might they could muster. We’ll huff and puff and blow the Bush house down, that was the gist of it. We’ll relight hope from the embers of pointless war. We’ll do right in the place of wrong. We’ll patch together the broken pieces and live like we always promised ourselves we would. 

It was in the spirit of regeneration that I too took up this mantra from the ruins of Obama’s America. Now remember what his legacy brought. He talked a good game, but on leaving found that Yes, We Can! meant Yes, we can replace you with a bankrupted huckster from Queens, New York with a mouth to match his attitude. Not wanting to go down this road, I wanted my regeneration to bring an altogether more wholesome – as opposed to ‘whoresome’ – legacy. And so it was, I decided I would embrace the alternative life of the canal. I spent big on a big river boat and docked it on a 250 year-old canal set deep in the Somerset downs. This was going to be my Obama 2008 campaign moment.

The parallels certainly exist, if only you choose to see them. Like Obama’s predecessor, I too got embroiled in a Middle Eastern adventure, involving the expenditure of an awful lot of money with the aim of coming away with even more. To breathe Obama’s fresh air, first i had to choke on Bush’s dust. This I did, and by the time I had coughed up the last of it, the time had come to begin anew, to see the world through reopened eyes. My 5-year incursion into the oil-rich sands was over without a single shot being fired (although many a shot was downed in the booze-soaked atmosphere of the place). Back on Civvy St, somewhere in pre-Brexit Britain, the post-conflict settlement was up for grabs. Europe seemed like the kingdom beyond the wall by now, unfriendly, but only insofar as any former friend would be if you kept hurling insults at them from across the bows. The burgundy British passport, now both unofficially diminished in stature and narrowed in scope, was about the last official document one wanted with a post-2016 life on the Continent beckoning. And so it was that a set of reduced options made the next phase a little less fraught with the kind of complications we once had, confronted was we were with not just one but 28 countries to potentially set up home in. 

High in the Spanish sierras the decision was made.  Near the flanks of the Mulhacen, Spain’s tallest mountain, the YES was injected into WE CAN(AL). There and there alone, I decided to buy that shell of a riverboat and in it create a space fit for the ages. Having taken receipt of her, in all her graphite grey sleek beauty, i spent the next six months showering in a wheat field while fitting her out on dry land. She, the boat (for we ascribe boats with a feminine gender in English, for feminine equals fair, and the British do have the historical hots for vessels that float), sat on blocks in a field of swaying grass. As spring took hold, the stalks grew higher and the ears of wheat fatter, until the grass brushed the underside of the hull. With 90% of the work complete, and the largest 10% you’ve ever seen not quite complete, I had 700 ft/sq of spanking new boat trucked down on the motorway in the most surreal cruise I’ve ever witnessed.

She was lowered into the river Avon at Keynsham, near Bristol. Six long months like a fish out of water, and the transformation to fish in water was a thing to behold. It was as if the riverboat had never been out of its element. Now sitting stout and proud in its element, the voyage to its new mooring on the other side of Bath was going to be a maiden voyage, and one that would hopefully match Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech for majesty. Yes, we can! Um, well, in actual fact, no we can’t. There’s no way I can handle this stocky beast on those narrow waterways. Upshot: a river pilot was hastily arranged and my first officer status firmly established from the outset. Once through the locks of Bath, the Widcombe flight featuring the so-called Coffin, a 25ft drop into lock abyss, we emerged at the east end of town, navigating our way with particular attention paid to the fact that, contrary to the canal in my mind’s eye, this stretch of waterway was no wider in parts that the boat itself. At least in Apocalypse Now, the riverboat they used in pursuit of the renegade Colonel Kurtz plied a width wide enough to give them a fighting chance once the rogue arrows starting flying from the riverbank. Here, if Kurtz’s militia men had wanted they could have put down their bows and arrows and simply stepped aboard to conduct their rampage. 

She, the boat with the dead man’s complexion, has found a home under an ash tree. This fact is noteworthy as one of the main reasons for spending six months fitting her out on dry land was that her interior is lined with approx. 1.6kms of timber, mainly American ash. The emerald ash borer might be devastating America’s once mighty ash forests, but the little bastard fell short of laying its larvae in these buffed and beautiful planks. Since finding a permanent mooring, she doesn’t venture far. More like an apartment on water with the ultimate view, really. The traffic is constant and the logistics of untethering these mooring ropes too fraught and complex until the canal settles in for a lonesome winter. Tentatively, i proclaim, YES WE CANAL!. But this, being a radical departure from all previous incarnations, is going to split into one of two ways: adapting to this unique way of life; or, failing in that task, not adapting, and moving back onto the land, with all its concomitant problems, not least the soullessness of the modern urban plan. Then again, there’s always the remote likelihood that our British passports will amount to much again; will open doors as opposed to closing them. I mean, look at U.S. politics, when Obama vacated the White House in 2017, he left a door open for someone else to walk into. Disbelieving, they said, ‘your administration couldn’t pave the way for someone like Trump’, to which he replied, ‘Yes, we can!’

Anything’s possible, even on the canal.

 

 

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.

One Born Every Minute

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The Blind Salamander

Somewhere, everywhere, in the world, there’s one born every minute. Camouflaged amid rubbish heaps, squeezed under abandoned vehicles or lodged deep inside sewerage pipes – just about any place they can watch our movements without being judged too harshly – they come into this world a bundle of playful joy. To survive a few seasons, each is tasked with dodging the cars, the emaciation, the heart worm, the wardens, or if unlucky enough to be born in SE Asia, the meat traders. Paw pads worn down on the wheel of misery, the average life can be considered so hard as to be endurable for a paltry half the span of their cosseted, houseproud cousins. Set within this Hobbesian world of short-livedness, nastiness and urban decay, the epithet of man’s best friend to them does not apply.

Welcome to the world of canine caste. If coiffed Afghan hounds are the Brahman…

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On the Redwood Trail

ancient life, botany, California, Documentary Photography, earth, Eighth Wonder of the World, forest, giant trees, Landscape Photography, natural history, nature, Photography, Professional Photography, redwoods, San Francisco, Travel, Travel Photography, trees, Trekking, Uncategorized, United States, Wildlife

Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

There’s something about coming from a small island whose primordial forest – more traditionally known as the ‘wildwood’ – is recalled nowadays in history books, folklore, and wherever you see a pub named The Green Man. The forest that once covered practically all the Isles might be long gone, yet it lives on for some of us within our very selves. If you are painted wood green on the inside but on the outside see only postmodern shades of grey, you’ll know. 

Everywhere fields of green grass, nibbled to the stubs by livestock. Dry stone walls, hedges and sleepy villages. Trunk roads and roundabouts, all converging on town after town, some charming and others in dire need of. In my reckoning, that just about characterizes wilderness-shy Britain. But none of this urban, agricultural planning can deny our hearts, hearts overgrown with thick foliage enmeshing the ventricles. Before neolithic farmers penetrated deep with their axeheads, there was once an impenetrable forest of oak and elm, of rowan and pine. You could argue it was in the ancient wildwood where the creation mythology of our now pastoral land was born. Looking on these trimmed enclosures today I’m hallucinating forest stretching away. Missing from a body it should be attached to, Britain and its absent forest is comparable to scratching an amputated leg. Or rather, it’s the ghost of the old green man I’m seeing. Picture modern humans disappearing – the crunch following the big bang – and it won’t take many seasons before a wilderness of trees will again claim its ancient realm. Bear dens in Piccadilly. Wolves stalking prey where Old Trafford used to be. There is a certain cruel romance in our eventual demise.

Family surrounded by three giants

While the wait goes on, while twenty-first century human development, having long ago taken the cream of the landscape, can only take the crumbs of what’s left, turning floodplains into bland, uninsurable housing estates, the forest empire will have to remain no more than a seed of a thought. Which is not to say, we islanders cannot fly off to taste a bit of that wild-wooded wilderness elsewhere in the world where someone had the good grace to conserve a swathe of it. My attitude is no matter how hard we try to exterminate what was once intimate, we’ll be gone before it’s gone. Ipso facto, see it before you die.

The dull thud of the axe and the bloody screech of the saw might be heard now more than ever worldwide, but that is not to say that the loser now will not later to win and that the forests will have the final, rustling laugh. I reaffirm. So go on, ye mighty and despair! Keep bulldozing Indonesia’s tropical hardwoods for a quick buck in your greasy palm oil hand. Keep on colluding with corrupt government officials to slash and burn your way into a little Amazonian homestead in exchange for votes. Keep eking away at the fringes, bringing home the charcoal that kindles an exploding African population. Keep on keeping on, because environmental bitching is not the ultimate goal of this long read. No. The aim is to describe an experience in a very magical realm of nature not many Europeans ever see. So I invite you to persevere. 

When it comes to trees, but not any old trees, to epic trees, I reckon if you’re going to see them as they were, as they will be until the end of time, you need to hit the Redwood Trail. That means heading north from San Francisco, hugging the foggy Pacific coast as you venture into a magical realm.

Sandwiched, Jedediah Smith State Park

To preface: the coastal Redwoods, Sequoia Sempervirens, are some of the biggest and oldest living things on the Earth. Aside from their fatter cousins, the sequoias of California’s central Sierra Nevada mountains, they are. Before the American West was opened up to the gold-rushing ’49ers followed by wagon trains bringing the whites with their inveterate ways, there were millions upon millions of giant redwoods in what is now northern California. Liking the moisture from the perennial fog, the coastal redwoods grew pretty much from the north Pacific coastline to ridges many miles inland in a line unbroken for hundred of miles north to south. Scattered tribes such as the Yurok and Sinkyone, lacking either hard tools or malevolent willpower to chop chop chop, had lived ‘in timeless harmony’ (a phrase that guilt-ridden white revisionists like myself like to trot out) amid the giants.  The first white settlers to San Francisco, most of whom came from the east where trees were smaller, must have gazed disbelievingly at groves of these conifers that could grow so high and so wide. By the mid-19th century California had been wrested from Hispanic rule by Americans of north European descent who sensed there was gold in them hills. With that entrepreneurial mindset, compounded by the belief in God’s providence – that natural resources were both divinely given and limitless – it wasn’t long before the lumber barons followed. Where they prospered the forests grew poorer in number day by day. The biggest and the best were the first to fall. The axe then the crosscut saw picked off the giants of the giants. Creaking as they fell one after the next, by the tail end of the 19th century an epoch in natural history was coming to end with silent screams and tremendous thuds onto forest floor. 

young girl backs into a giant, Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

These living sentinels, there to watch through the ages, stood no chance against the demands of capital and where time had stood still in the 250 million years since they evolved in the primordial forests of the mesozoic, a little thing called progress soon shunted along a real possibility of their extinction from forests.

By the dawn of the 20th century a crisis had ensued. Tough times call for great men, and one duly emerged all the way first from Dunbar, Scotland, via Missouri. His name was John Muir and thanks to his monumental efforts and those of the Sierra Club of conservationists the 5% of giant redwoods remaining today might well have been 0%.

I saw my first redwood off Highway 199 coming in from Gasquet, a settlement on the northern frontiers of California where it touches southern Oregon.  Seeing a road that might lead to camp, I turned off Redwood Highway and into deep forest a few miles beyond the town. The South Fork Road led over a bridge and past the turning that led to some of the biggest remaining stands of redwood anywhere. The road wend its way ever further into thick forest, away from any trappings of civilisation. Following a tributary of the Smith River the road had to perform switchback after switchback to keep with the sinews of the river. The hills were high and cloaked with firs. The sky was bruised, of a intense blue you only really see in northern California. Sundown was coming.

There it was, roadside. I slowed to a stop. The tree was of a stout base that flattened the earth like a giant elephant’s foot. It was unlike any growing nearby. The trunk was rust red and the furrows deep and shadowed into bark that I later felt to be soft and none too reluctant to offer up a slither of its thick epidermis to the exotic bark trophy hunter. The bark itself was of a rare quality as trees go, cracking as the inner tree fought to expand. In places the trunk oozed deep russet tannins. If I didn’t know any better, I could have sworn blood was trickling down a woolly mammoth’s gargantuan leg.

Relative Sizes, Jedediah Smith State Park

At a beautiful place called the Big Flat, a campground so remote as to be fifteen miles from the highway on neglected backroads that went from smooth blacktop to grainy hardcourt and eventually to dirt, I made camp. Unable to shake the image of that one solitary redwood on the road down I doubled back, judging there still to be time in the day. Back close to the Redwood Highway, I took the rear entrance into Jedediah Smith State Park, where some of the most impressive redwoods still call a grove a home (often and elsewhere they cut lonely figures surrounded by little conifer companions). There I parked. Everyone had gone home. Along what was probably once a timber truck road, I walked, craning my neck ever up. Being human had never felt less remarkable. Now the close of day, twilight filled the spaces between redwood after redwood after redwood, each varying in size, from gigantic to galactic. To my surprise, being two-hundred feet and shallow rooted didn’t prevent them thriving on steep hillsides. It was intuitive to think that the loftier a thing rises the deeper it send its roots. Yet, everything about these ancient evergreens ran counter-intuitive. Nothing ought to be that tall nor nothing that old. Nothing that tall should grow on a gradient. As for their roots The reason redwoods reached for the sky was, I read, because the morning fog is where they tapped the moisture needed to grow the flaky bark that insulates them so well against the ravages of fire (fire which they periodically need to reproduce). They knew not to find the millions of tonnes of water needed for their capillaries in the soil, soil which was often parched and nutrient-depleted. So the root system grew shallow and outward, coiling above and below ground around whatever happened to be there.

kids strolling amid the tall trees, JS State Park

Instantly, it became clear that what I was seeing was wondrous. A man regresses to boyhood when his eyes behold a thing of wonder. He asks how something can be, just as he did ad nauseam to himself and his puzzled parents when he was five-years old. With full moons for eyeballs he asks the tree how it came to be like nothing else he’s ever seen. He knows his kind built towers larger than nature constructed trees. Still, on this road to Stout Grove, with nothing but silent giants for company, he dismisses the mile-high towers because engineering can explain them. Much as they strive to fire human imagination, not the sky-piercing needle of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa nor the art deco finesse of Manhattan”s Chrysler Building can qualify as an eighth wonder of the world in the manner these mysterious objects can.

Any adult lucky to be a small boy when the Star Wars Trilogy hit the screens in the late 1970s and early 80s will remember Endor. Dizzying pursuits on hover-bikes through the forest of Endor left an indelible mark on mine and many a schoolboy’s imagination. Of course, all of it was conceived in the mind of George Lucas. It was his brainchild. Or so we presumed. For years I harboured that belief. Lucas could visualise worlds few others were privy to. Little did I know then that George Lucas was a native of California and likely familiar with the tall trees of Northern California. The realisation that Endor was nature’s brainchild and not his, that his inspiration was mine to share, was a consolation.

Kids measuring tree girth, Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

I knew there and then that evening as I glided along that timber road in a dream-like state some things were worth the effort of living for, if only to see repeatedly for the first time. Why the coastal redwoods can stake a claim – not that they care to – to being a bona fide wonder of the natural world was borne witness the following morn when in the hallowed light of a California day I looked upon those trunks again for the first time. When I thought that was merely coincidence, i stayed again at Jedediah Smith state park and this time paid a king’s ransom to pitch up inches from the base of a young redwood. On the third morning since first laying eyes on the world’s gentle giants, crawling out of that tent I gazed again in the same resplendent light and once again craned my neck to breaking point, jaw slacked both in incredulity and paralyzed joy, only to see the mighty redwood again for the first time.