Tuesday, May 29, 2007


It's too simplistic to think a straight-line spectrum of behaviour, from conventional, through eccentric, eventually stretching out to what we call insanity. All behaviour is possible; some, in some contexts, is considered normal but in another context would at the very least raise eyebrows. If a sheet of paper represents all possible actions and behaviours, then those we allow ourselves lie in a very small patch on that paper, and constrain us to staying within that patch.

What if we moved outside?

As Roger says, it's a scary thought.
Advice to Myself

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

Louise Erdrich

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Paul Hawken 

Gobsmacked doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind five minutes after I’d come downstairs and switched on the computer this morning.

Remember a couple of weeks ago I wrote about WiserEarth, Paul Hawken, and his new book Blessed Unrest? It was his name on the screen this morning which drew my eye like a magnet, there in the ‘name’ column of the Haloscan ‘Manage Comments’ page. He’d left me a message of thanks in return for my post.

In a way, I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised; surreal as it seems, it’s all entirely logical and consistent. WiserEarth is still in beta; if the originator of the idea wanted to gauge how word of its existence and purpose is spreading, wouldn’t the obvious thing be to Google it and see what people are saying? And if you do that, what do you find? There on the second page of search results, amongst the references from magazine articles, lies a link from an unheard of blog. This blog.

Fine so far, but how many authors go to the trouble of leaving a comment when their work gets a mention in such an out-of-the-way place? In the conventional world, the focus would be on the book, the author, the organisation, the message. What’s one acolyte among ten thousand? But this isn’t the conventional mass media world.

Blessed Unrest (which Borders told me when I went looking for it this morning isn’t due to be published until 31st May), if I understand the previews correctly, is about a bottom-up swell of concern and activity. Not a top-down, organised “movement”, but characterised by movement nonetheless; ripples which added together may yet make a tidal wave; a common drive by individuals and groups worldwide all of whom have said “Enough! I cannot any longer see poverty, social injustice, environmental damage continue unheeded. I must act.” Hawken likens this to an immune system reaction, where we ourselves are the planet’s white blood cells who, cell-to-cell, fight the infection which threatens to engulf us and our world.

It’s in this context that a comment from a world player to a minor blogger makes complete sense. Hawken’s latest work, and that of the WiserEarth team, has been to catalogue thousand upon thousand of grass-roots organisations, creating the framework for a support network through which help, ecouragement, ideas and knowledge may spread.

And what am I, if not a grass root? So the focus returns from the global perspective to the place where the action is – or could be. And that is where I start to feel uncomfortable.

When I first came across WiserEarth, I could have signed up immediately, but I didn’t. Not because I don’t agree wholeheartedly with their hopes and their purpose - I hope it goes without saying that I do. But because I couldn’t see what I could offer, practically. I may share my vision (on the good days when I have one), my fears, my hopes with many of that community, but my skills, my experience seem so irrelevant. In the way I live my daily life I’m no different to millions of others in the developed world - I drive a car, live off supermarket food, consume as much energy in the running of my home as any typical suburbanite. About the best I can say is that I use local recycling facilities and drink fair trade coffee. Big deal; that’s not going to change the world.

Yet I can’t help but feel that Paul’s comment is a good omen; an indication – tangible proof even – that there can be a real connection between an emerging global conscience and an individual struggling to make sense of the contradictions between his supposed ideals and his daily living.

I’ll leave the last word for the moment with Paul Hawken:

“Any and all ideas are welcome and needed to make [WiserEarth] something that can connect and serve us all.”

I’m in the market for ideas…

Saturday, May 12, 2007


We was robbed!

One goes hillwalking in Wales for the character-building climate (local weather forecasting lore: See yonder hill? If it’s visible it means it’s going to rain; if it’s not, it means it’s raining now); the navigation-skills-testing vistas (uniformly grey; it’s not that the rocks are all one colour, it’s the mist that hangs in front of them, 50 yards from your face); the body-building-benefit of lugging a rucksack full of all-weather gear up hill and down dale.

Instead, what do I get? Three days of startlingly blue skies, unbroken by the slightest hint of a smudge of cloud; three days of temperatures over which mid-August visitors to the English seaside would be in raptures of delight (Can you believe it? Sunburnt in Wales, and April barely passed. That’s global warming for you…) Where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the sense of adventure, of adversity overcome?

(The route on day 2 of my recent trip, the Snowdon Horseshoe, ascends behind the ridge at the left, then follows the very top of the ridge round to the summit from which this shot was taken - the highest point in Wales - carrying on over the summit to the right eventually returning to the starting point. Slideshow is available here.)

Nay, I jest. Of course, the weather was a huge and uncharacteristic bonus; yes I truly did enjoy my all too brief spell amongst the hills. Nevertheless, humour always finds its basis in reality; there’s an element of truth behind those opening paragraphs. In spite of the pleasures of the trip, I did come away with a nagging sense of something missing. As well as for the views, the sense of closeness to nature, the remoteness from city life, I go on these trips as a way of proving myself; testing myself and coming away – usually – with an increased self assurance which comes from passing the test. Why I should feel this need, I don’t know. But there’s no doubt it’s there, and its fulfilment keeps me positive and energised. Unfortunately, the converse also applies – when that need goes unfulfilled for an extended period, I find myself listless and increasingly lacking in confidence and drive.

This time round, although there was some steep scrambling involved, often in quite exposed situations, the rock was dry and the visibility good, with no howling gale to upset balance, threatening to pluck you from rock and send you tumbling down the mountainside; this was a veritable walk in the park compared to my previous foray along this particular ridge, eight years ago:

Nonetheless, I was pleased with my effort. Route finding up some of the rocky scrambling sections where there is no visible path is not always easy, even in 100% visibility, and I was able to help out a couple of guys who were having difficulty spotting the route in a couple of places.

‘Course, the morning I left, an early mist rolled in after dawn, so I still had to pack up a wet tent and put it up in the garden to dry when I got home. Wales couldn’t bear to let me go without leaving me a taste of its normal self.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I did have more to say, but my head isn't altogether here. I came back from the camping trip a day early owing to horrendous toothache; turns out I have an infection under a crown. (Why do these things occur at the most inconvenient time? Last time that happened I was also travelling). The antibiotics and painkillers have taken the edge off it, but the net result is mental processes that are firing on no more than two and a half cylinders.

So here, in the meantime, are some more records of those evening photographic excursions:

Saturday, May 05, 2007


His tent was neatly pitched – fabric taught, with hardly a wrinkle and nothing flapping in the breeze – and in a spot I might have chosen for myself. Stove and cooking gear stood just outside; again, just as I could have laid them out. I found a smooth, level patch, far enough away to allow privacy, close enough to be neighbourly, and spread my tent out on the ground.

He was perched on a nearby picnic table, feet on the bench, mug in his hands. With bush hat shielding his eyes from the sun, grey beard, and clothing in muted greens and browns he looked every inch the seasoned traveller, and was clearly of, shall we say, the same generation as myself.

“Have you been here long?” I called over.

“Since Sunday”

“Has the wind stayed in this direction?” I wanted to judge the best orientation for my tent.

“Yes, pretty much from the east the whole time.”

I set to and in only a few minutes my tent was up; I wanted to set up camp quickly and get out into the hills – after half a day’s driving, there was still plenty of time left for a scramble up Tryfan’s famous north ridge.

“Have you got a mug?”

I pushed the last tent peg into the ground and looked over my shoulder. I’d been so intent on getting my tent up that I hadn’t noticed him move, but now he was crouched over his stove, steam coming from the pan of water in his hand.

“There’s enough for a cuppa – how do you like your tea?”

I’ve been to plenty of campsites, but this was the first time I’d been offered a welcoming brew by a fellow camper. Maybe it would have been different had the site been packed – amidst a crowd, virtual walls of isolation all too easily get built, but here, where my tent made only the seventh on the site (and of those, five were deserted) the solitude and the peace of a glorious spring afternoon seemed naturally to invite sharing. Perhaps too there was a sense of common values – little outward signs like the way a tent is pitched can often reveal something of the person under the surface.

After four and a half hours driving, anything wet would have sufficed, but his brew was perfect. As we chatted, I spotted a tripod amongst the gear just inside the flap of his tent.

“Ah, a fellow photographer?”

It turned out he was indeed a very keen amateur photographer, equally at home with film or digital, and with wide range of equipment accumulated over the years. Today it was the turn of the Leica M6. For now though, the hills were calling me, so we parted company and I set off for an energetic and immensely enjoyable scramble up the magnificent spine of rock which towered nearly two thousand feet above the campsite.

Later on, just after I’d finished my supper, Bob wandered over.

“I’m just going down to the lake by Plas-y-Brenin – I think the light might be right for some sunset shots. Do you want to come along?”

So many times over the years I would have declined such an offer. Whatever excuse I might have given, the reason would have boiled down to a mix of shyness, not wanting to intrude on another’s space, and believing I was at ease with my own company. I’ve spent so much time with people I only half trust, half respect, half understand, that I’ve grown wary and guarded in my dealings with them. Thankfully though, this time I had sufficient sense to recognise a simple and genuine offer and follow up on the opportunity for some learning and discovery.

When I had my first camera, at age seven, I used to learn by copying what my father did. Whenever he stopped to take a photo, I would stop too and take one of the same scene. It felt a bit like that this time. Bob was choosing the spot and setting up his tripod; I could do little better than set up next to him. Once upon a time I might have recognised the potential of this setting myself, but I realise that these days my photography – like everything else in my life – has become far too hurried. Action, with little time for thought and reflection. And it isn’t just a question of time alone – entire mental processes have to slow down and attitudes have to soften and relax in order to allow space for the kind of creativity that sees and knows how to explore the future potential in a scene that would otherwise flash by. Realising that something merely pretty during the day might, in the right circumstances and with the right framing and lighting, turn into something rather more special.

Like this.

So, wherever you are now Bob, I take my hat off to you for reminding me of what photography is all about. Maybe even a little bit of what life is all about, too.