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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Ultima Thule

Autumn and early winter for birdwatchers is a season of relative plenty. We descend on the marshes and coastal fields to have aural and visual blitzkrieg experiences with volumes of flesh normally only associated with the grasslands of Africa. Vast and heaving flocks of wildfowl arrive on our shores with the comforting regularity of the most punctual of colleagues and our friends whose Christmas cards always arrive first. As anyone who’s been there as the sun rises on the marshes and wetlands of north Norfolk will testify, seemingly endless skeins of geese pouring in waves overhead with the added spice of sound, temperature and tricks of watery winter light create an experience not to be passed over lightly. Likewise the vast flocks of knot and dunlin.

One of the most deeply felt aspects of this experience for me is the message that these birds bring with them. They come for the most part, as they have done for countless millenia, from the North. They come from lands that are always slightly beyond imaginative limits.

In mediaeval thought and cartography this place was given a name: Ultima Thule. The very farthest of places. In some references this is a very literal place like Iceland or Greenland. But in most geographies of the dark ages, and for our own purposes, that is too narrow a definition. Ultima Thule is much more than just a tangible place. It signifies what is most distant and what lies beyond the places we can map and codify.

In some cases we can visit the Ultima Thule of the pink footed geese in Iceland but it strangely gets us no closer to understanding the enormous significance of their journey. These migrations stand as testaments to the rhythms of an earth that are by inches being knocked out of true. These beings from the north country arrive, defying us to understand how, why and by what curious clockwork they live and move. They are our connection with Ultima Thule. Furthermore, when we finally reach the point where there is a judgement on whether we’ve been able to correct the mistakes made in our stewardship of our planet, they will prove to be a more meaningful connection than a wire between us and Longyearbyen or Reykjavik.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

How much choice have we got?

“I am not free to think as I wish. I can only live in relation to the dead of my race. They, and my country’s soil, tell me how I should live.” These are the stirring and thought-provoking words of Maurice Barres. He was a late nineteenth century French politician, novelist and agitator who keenly felt the blood of his ancestors in his love of the Alsace-Lorraine region of north eastern France.

Of course, Barres was a deplorable anti-Semite, an intractable nationalist, an appalling bigot and is generally to be completely ignored. But, like all the most charismatic and terrifying people, he had one hell of a way with words. So, on this occasion, was he right or wrong?

In today’s global rotating sushi bar of choice and second-by-second information revolutions it seems easy to lose sight of the differences between the peoples of our planet, between you and me. I, like others, have a tendency to glance backwards into our bloodlines to find a clue as to what we’ve been getting wrong. We don’t always find what we’re looking for. 

In many cases we are easily seduced by a world that was less on edge and, let’s face it, had a lot fewer people in it; in our predecessors time the planet hadn’t yet reached its carrying capacity. But just as often, we find wholesale historical ecological destruction and human tragedy that fits uncomfortably with the view we’ve constructed around our own family histories.

The opposite situation exists in our time. Some languages, traditions, rites and knowledge have already been reduced to an entry on Wikipedia and the things we talk about everyday are having real effects on real people. "I don't know what global warming is, but what I do know is that this lake is dying and we are all dying with it." So says Muhammadu Bello, a fisherman on the rapidly shrinking Lake Chad. But we do know what it is because the equal and opposite reaction of dying local cultures is awareness that they’re dying. And with that comes a chance to put it right.

Berres was partly right but not in the way he wanted to be. We are free to think as we wish but the dead of my race (or even its older members) do tell me how I should live, their worst mistakes providing the lessons required. We cannot make the same mistakes. “One planet, one experiment.”

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Singer and the Song - Part 1

The traditional music of England, represented by a vast repertoire, contains chilling echoes of remorseless violence, resignation and vivid and precarious human emotions that fit anything but the comfortable stereotype so often attached to it. As a music of made of deep-running undercurrents it has long acted as a mirror and guage of social change as well as a clear cut chronology of events.

But after many years of listening to and sometimes performing this most human of music it has become clear that it can act as a catalogue of our relationship with the landscape and the natural world. In the classic imitational mirror of life and art it has tracked our changing priorities and attitudes.

The witnesses to this are everywhere. The sea has long been painted in traditional song as escape route, taker of young lives, lifeline and reflector of mood. In the Welcome Sailor the singer reminds us that her ‘heart is like the sea, always in motion’. In the songs of whaling and whalers there are constant shifts of mood and outlook. There is the romanticism of the decision to ‘ship aboard a whaler’ and the enticement to ‘you trawlermen, forget your snapper and your prawn…we sail, fishing for the humpback whale.’ In some songs, the danger of the exploit is treated as adventure but in other times and places the taste of whale oil, blood and blubber begins to taint the air and the singer becomes embittered; it becomes a life of slavery, where years of one's life is given up for little pay, in a freezing ocean where ‘of right whales there are none.’

These seemingly fickle changes are no different to mankind’s (generally) shifting attitude and is repeated in the indigenous music of many cultures. The focus of the song changes with our understanding of the precarious nature of the relationship and the even more desperate situation of the world we live in. This works on so many human levels and the music of someone like Chris Wood, exploring John Clare’s poetry as a chronicle of our landscape’s mistaken identity is one of many powerful examples. So looking back, are we able to view these songs as testimony of how far we’ve come, a casebook of our worst crimes or a roadmap to find our way back again?

Friday, 13 January 2012

It's complicated...

With all of the phlegm I can muster from my Fenland upbringing and East Anglian ancestry, and all of the fatalism I can summon, gifted to me by my Welsh forebears, I make occasional desperate attempts to play the recalcitrant and reluctant writer. At these moments I portray myself as the coldly disassociated observer (an idea I’ve played with before) coolly and calmly setting out the arguments as to why people behave as they do. I generously turn my steady and penetrating gaze upon the deeper ecological and psychological issues of the day, make judgements upon man’s relationship with his fellow non-humans, subtextually declare it the last word on the subject, put my pen down and congratulate myself on job well done. Perhaps, as a reward to myself, I will then join the rest of the human race for a while by addressing more mundane matters such as how to pay for the repairs to the roof.

After long periods of this kind of cock-a-mamy behaviour I get tired and bored and end up being myself for a while. This inevitably means soaking up the real and tangible landscapes and backyard wildernesses of the chalk hills that sit, patiently waiting for me to look up from my work, just outside my study window. And when I finally do look up, stand up, walk out and touch and feel the outdoors then that is when the thousand channels of history, emotion and feeling are at their fullest and busiest. It is rush hour in my visceral senses when I can, perversely, switch off but tune in.

It is the opportunities to simply be there, without any purpose except that of enjoying myself, that are most replete with chances of reflection. It is when I’m poised, notebook in hand, grasping for an answer to a question, that I am at my narrowest. Where I’m sure there are times that this is appropriate, the return on my investment is small when I’m focused on a single point of contact with my landscape. Spend too long there and it becomes a vanishing point.

And damn it all, I’ve just spent three paragraphs analysing what it’s like not to analyse. I’m going for a walk. If only to stitch in some more threads and also contemplate how I can use the word cock-a-mamy more in conversation.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Between the Harpoon and the Whale

Sea Shepherd. Now there’s two words that divide opinion. And just how controversial is one allowed to be on a blog?

I recently took part in Planet Whale’s Whalefest event in Brighton, UK and Sea Shepherd were there, well supported and represented. Just their presence, nestled amongst artists, writers, wildlife tour companies, musicians, film makers, scientists and armchair cetacean lovers, caused either restless discomfort or highly vocal support. And almost nothing inbetween.

The methods of direct action groups such as Sea Shepherd is something we have to get used to. But it feels as if deciding whether or not you agree with direct action presents the age old black and white conundrum: You can’t claim to be on the side of the wildlife and the oceans if you don’t agreethat saving just one whale through direct action is a good thing. But I’m convinced that black and white rarely exists on such a planet as ours.

Direct action groups have been known to denounce one another publicly, normally divided along the axis of to what extreme they are prepared to go in pursuit of their cause. The more restrained party accusing the other of crossing a line of violence and potential harm, the more active party accusing the other of passivity and being ineffectual. While this arguing is relentlessly pursued the onlooker has chance to reflect on what they really think. And when that happens, the questions spill out.

Behind the charisma of the leaders, is ego driving positional posts more intractably into the ground? After all, it must be a terrifying and motivating thought to wonder whether or not history will show you up to be the one that was wrong. What available evidence is important to me: Growing numbers of the animal of choice? Change in attitudes? How, therefore, can I tell whether it’s doing any good or not?

Although I would never condone violence I am still left undecided. Whaling is cruel and unnecessary but through the fog of claim, counterclaim, blame and cultural division, I’m struggling to see where the dice for the animals is falling. In the case of whaling, I worry that while we wait to be convinced, the inherent immovability (which I’m not sure can ever be of use) of the parties involved might ultimately drive greater attitude-forged, cultural wedges between us and those that kill whales. And that is a much more treacherous strait to navigate than the short stretch of water between the harpoon and the whale.