Category Archives: Adventure

Metaphorical Enclosure

Since I might as well be hung for a horse as a lamb, and I’m clearly intent on making myself unpopular just in time for Christmas, I decided to clarify a couple of things relating to my last post.

I did not mean to imply that wild places should be left unvisited by humankind so that people such as myself can go and ‘twiddle our thumbs in mighty solitude’ and not be bothered by awkward facts of life such as climate change.

I’m saying that using images of wild places as part of a branding campaign for individuals or companies sends the wrong message. It implies that nature has a price on its head and that only the cool people are allowed in.

There is a growing body of evidence that proves conservation efforts are much more likely to be successful if intrinsic values (community, compassion, empathy) are engaged, rather than extrinsic values (money, status, image). In fact, studies show that exercising extrinsic values with the aim of protecting the environment is counter-productive, as WWF’s Tom Crompton explains in a back issue of Resurgance Magazine.

To my eyes, stamping a logo on a wild place that actually belongs to everybody is the virtual equivalent of putting a fence around common land.

 

metaphorical enclosure

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have chosen this image not because this company is particularly bad, but because it is on my radar and cold water surfing is close to my heart. They represent the tip of an iceberg. The problem is precisely that this kind of assault on psychological space is accepted as ordinary and aped on social media.

Advertising works on the subconscious, often without either our awareness or our permission. This is not a new observation. The negative cultural effects of mass corporate branding are discussed at length by Naomi Klein in No Logo.

But No Logo was written before social media made it possible for individuals to behave like corporations. The territory just got a whole lot bigger and more complex.

That they have a brand value reflects the importance of wild places to us. They represent a space where we can escape from the overwhelming tyranny of the marketplace and spend some quiet time with our own truths.

And I’m not saying we should keep these truths to ourselves. There is a wealth of art, music and literature that reveals a genuine love for the natural world that can only be a positive force for change. Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Mickey Smith’s Dark Side of the Lens, and the Finisterre crew’s own recent film Edges of Sanity, are just a few of the millions of examples. I am personally devoted to the cause of fostering connection via books and songs.

The line between art and advertising can be a very thin one. But it is crucial. Promoting consumerism is not likely to encourage the kind of lifestyle choices necessary to avoid mass extinction.

One Wednesday morning in November I went surfing. It was a normal day, not a weekend or a holiday, but there were fifty people in the water. Although I love surfing uncrowded waves, a part of me rejoiced that so many people had made the choice to bunk off work and go surfing.

These are the kind of value judgements that could change the course of natural history.

Luckily you don’t need expensive, branded clothing to bunk off work and go surfing. In fact, refraining from taking part in brand culture should allow you to do it a lot more often.

Which is, I think, a message worth promoting.

Comments are very much open if you want to have a crack at changing my mind.

Happy holidays. I’m off to drink some Champagne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listening among the Constellations

wilderness 3 webI’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy. I could sit here all day and type lines I love, but if I was going to type just one, it would probably be this one:

‘The horse raised its head above the skyline to listen among the constellations.’

I like to raise my head above the skyline to listen among the constellations also. I have found numerous ways: sleeping out, dawn surfing, night walking, solitary hiking, mountain climbing, psychadelics, meditation.

There are times when I ask myself why I seek altered states of consciousness with such dedication. When I’m stuck halfway up a mountain, for example, frozen with fear. Or when I’m paddling out in December under a darkening sky, hailstones hammering my face. Or when I can’t remember how many more drops of acid I took because I thought it wasn’t working.

It’s partly to wake myself up. There’s no FOMO that hits me harder than lying in bed through a midsummer dawn. The relief of being awake is worth every ounce of hardship. The acceptance of things as they are – bigger, wider, deeper. The chance to give up the ghost of control over the unfathomable mystery of life.

‘We still and always want waking’ wrote Annie Dillard. ‘We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.’

Wild places are crucial as spaces where waking up can take place. The concept of untrammeled, unsponsored land, even if it exists only in our heads, is a healthy retort to the sleepy hubris of humanity. Personally, I find the knowledge that there are places in this world that do not conform to the laws of mankind immensely comforting.

This is why I am worried about something. There seems to be a growing trend for cashing in on the cool capital of nature in order to sell oneself on social media.

Some environmentalists argue that by applying market values to the natural world we are likely to have more success in protecting it. George Monbiot called this the Natural Capital Agenda, and if you think it’s a good idea (as I used to) then take a look at the transcript of a lecture he gave at the University of Sheffield in July 2014. He neatly sums up the root of my disquiet:

‘…in the majority of cases, efforts to price the natural world are complete and utter gobbledygook. And the reason why they are complete and utter gobbledygook is that they are dealing with values which are non-commensurable.’

This is why I get anxious when I see another trendy film of a far-flung surf spot being used by a ‘cold water surf company’ to hawk T-shirts. It’s why I worry when I see images of ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ exploited by London-based digital self-marketeers as the latest aspirational tool in the hateful culture of envy that is Facecrack. I worry even more because I don’t think the perpetrators know what they’re doing. Tricky to express the whispering of the constellations in 140 characters. And taking selfies of yourself being by yourself surely defeats the purpose. I think they’re missing the point.

‘True solitude is found in the wild places’ wrote Wendell Berry, ‘where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.’

Cashing in on the cool capital of nature is not harmless, still less a positive way to protect the environment. It desecrates it. The wild places, by definition, cannot be marketed. Things that end up in the market have been trapped, tamed, claimed and branded. They are for sale. No longer free.

Tread carefully. Take nothing. Wilderness is for life, not just for capital.

 

Panamania – Gnarly Goggles

This footage was shot by Becky after a day surfing on the Isla Burica, a desert island in the far north of Panama. It comes with a song from the Ribbons EP about the upside of heartbreak, and it comes with a story about fear.

Stumbling through the jungle looking for a place to sleep, we find a chicken hanging upside down off a makeshift clothesline, squawking. The chicken seems to belong to a couple of grass-roofed huts. I’m guessing it’s dinner. A couple of horses are tethered nearby. The whole thing is like something out of Tribe – apart from the surfboards.

The surfboards, which are newer than ours, belong to a pair of sexy, dark-skinned brothers. They tell us about the mythical wave we’ve come to surf – a fast right that breaks over rocks on the far side of an uninhabited island that sits half a mile offshore, guarding the unmanned coastal border between Panama and Costa Rica. Meeting the brothers is a stroke of luck. We expected to have to paddle across the channel, but they offer us a ride in their inflatable canoe. We arrange to meet them at dawn.

It’s dawn. I feel sick. This might be because all I’ve consumed is very strong black coffee, brewed like porridge over a driftwood fire. Or it might be exhaustion due to the massively effortful journey to get here. A two-day hike from the Caribbean to the Pacific involving several boats, four increasingly decrepit collectivos, one night in the Pension Balboa (named after the local beer) overlooking an all-night bar specializing in ear-splitting Reggaeton (I spent most of the sleepless hours watching staggering drunks try to mount their long-suffering horses), another collectivo (zero suspension), a very painful two-hour walk in the midday heat through the jungle with boards, backpacks and enough food to last a week, the chance encounter with the brothers, a sleepless night in a hammock wondering if those very strange lights out at sea are drug boats (apparently we are camping in a clearing recently vacated by police looking to catch human mules heading north on foot), and the twenty minute trip across the channel in the squashy inflatable, our four surfboards floating behind us, chained together by their leashes.

I am scared before I even see the wave. This is partly because of its mystery – it’s not on Magic Seaweed or in the Stormrider – and partly because of the hyped-up way the brothers are talking about it. They’re saying it’s a big day, although the channel itself is sheltered from swell, which is why we have to go to the island. I am convinced I won’t be able to handle it. Sure enough, when we finally get close enough I see exactly what I was expecting to see – a hideously hollow wave, full of rocks, and closing out on the bigger sets, which are too big for me. The brothers are amped. They slip and slide over the rocks, wait for a gap between sets long enough to allow them to jump in and paddle maniacally out of the danger zone.

‘Nice little right’ says Becky.

Becky’s brain is wired up differently to mine. This is why surfing with her is so much fun. It’s also why it’s frequently so terrifying.

Panic-stricken, I search for a place to paddle out that does not involve rocks and danger zones.  I don’t see any. This island is made of rocks. Nothing but rocks. And dense coconut forest, and crabs. Not friendly hermit crabs dressed in bottle tops, either, but weird black jumping crabs that hurl themselves through the air like batman, clearing distances upwards of two feet in a nanosecond. I don’t like these crabs. They’re inhuman. I don’t like this island. I don’t like this trip. Life is shit. I want to go home. I want to go home and sit in my shed and watch TV and be safe. But I can’t. It’s too late. I’ve come too far.

I look around for Becky. I’m going to suggest we walk a bit, look for a nicer wave, sack it off. But she’s already gone, slipping and sliding over the rocks like the brothers, falling, dropping her board, picking herself up. One of the brothers manages a very steep take-off and gets a  long ride back to the rocks. He waves at Becky, who is already paddling out. I am still standing rooted to the spot, feeling sick.

These days my life seems to be full of moments like this. Moments where I find myself in a situation so far out of my comfort zone it’s almost funny. Posting things I’ve written, standing up in front of people and singing songs I’ve made, reading from my book in public, dealing with the rejection and failure that comes with being alive and not hiding in my shed watching TV.

Often I’m a pussy. I duck out of waves, miss opportunities, don’t make phone calls. But sometimes I’m not a pussy, and that’s how I’ve finally learned something big and slightly embarrassing.

It’s not life. It’s ME. I’m wearing GNARLY GOGGLES.

I did paddle out that day, and I didn’t die. In fact, as soon as I started focusing on the task in hand rather than the monsters in my mind, I started enjoying myself.

‘Nice little right’ I shouted over to Becky.

I will be singing at the Shine On festival in Totnes on Sunday. A nice little festival. I plan to leave the gnarly goggles at home and enjoy myself. Watch this space.

Panamania – Night Surfing

NS3

‘Surfing is not a sport, it’s a disease’ said my friend Dom the other day, on Facecrack. Here’s an example:

It’s our last night in Panama. It’s dark. We’re sleeping. I say sleeping. For fiscal reasons, the trip has not been as restful as we expected. Aside from five luxurious nights on the Caribbean, in bunkbeds in a dorm shared with six other people, we have been roughing it. At first we used tents, but then Becky had a snake in hers. A small Boa. She was lucky it wasn’t a Fer de Lance – the venomous, aggressive version of Boas, known as Ekees by the locals, their name for the letter X.

So we moved into hammocks. At first we put the tents up beside the hammocks, to put our stuff in – money and passports, that kind of thing. Then we ran out of money and couldn’t be bothered to put the tents up, so it was just us and the stars and the driftwood fires we cooked on, morning noon and night. There are advantages to running out of money. We re-mapped the night sky, for one thing. There was the machete, the coconut, the pelican (I had to work to win Becky over to that one), the cafe con leche (that one, too). There is something about naming your own night sky. This was the northern hemisphere (just). Since returning, when I step outside my shed and spot the machete smiling down at me I am reminded that the whole tropical thing was actually real and not a dream. Then I quickly go back inside and sit huddled by the fire, watching endless repetitions of Nashville and weeping.*

But that night I was still on holiday. Only I wasn’t sleeping. Not just the usual kind of not sleeping you do in hammocks in the jungle – a sort of half-sleep, with one mammalian inner eye always alert to the weird sounds the crabs, iguanas, racoons, potential jaguars, howler monkeys etc make and the other mammallian inner eye alert to the fact that one’s feet are accidentally wrapped around one’s head. But this night I am really not sleeping. I am listening to the sound of waves breaking. Swell has arrived. We’ve been waiting for it. Now it’s here. And we’re leaving.

My third mammalian inner eye knows that the perfect wave that has caused us to set up house under this almond tree in the jungle and that has been a little too small thus far, is only surfable at high tide, because of rocks. I’ve already had some interactions with these rocks and do not wish to have any more. We have no watches, phones or other devices and yet, judging by the position of the machete in the night sky, and using my fourth mammalian inner eye, I think it’s probably about 3.30am. It takes forty five minutes to walk up the beach to the wave, due to difficult terrain. I know that if we wait until it’s light it’ll be too late. I’m convinced that if we go now we’ll get there just before dawn. We’ll be in the sea at first light and catch some of the swell before the tide drops out and we have to go and catch our plane. I glance across at Becky. She is sleeping. It’s night.

‘Becky’ I hiss, wondering if I’m doing the right thing.

‘Hmm?’

She is not sleeping.

‘I’m going to go for a surf, do you want to come?’

Becky looks at me, through one of her actual eyes.

‘It’s night.’

‘I think I heard a cockerel crow.’

This is not true.

‘Okay’ says Becky, and gets up out of her hammock. She is already wearing her bikini.

I love my friends. I really, really love my friends.

An hour later we arrive at the wave. It’s a delicious, perfect, peeling right-hand point. We think it’s breaking. We think it’s quite good (bigger). We don’t know for sure, because we can’t really see it. It’s still night. Luckily there is a moon. There is no sign of first light. I convince Becky there won’t be any sharks (I have no fear of sharks, simply because I have never seen one and am therefore unsure they actually exist. Becky has seen a few and possesses a healthy fear.)

Sharks come out at night. We get in anyway.

There is no wind. The surface of the sea looks like black oil. I can just make out the rocks as I paddle over them, glowing green in the moonlight. I have no idea where I am in relation to the land. I have no idea where the waves are breaking. I find out by getting nailed. Getting nailed in the dark requires me to use my most fish-like senses – my skin, my lack of breath. I can’t use my eyes. I am totally disorientated. Back on the surface, I am still totally disorientated. I try to catch waves. It’s a game of chance, but I luck into a couple. It’s just like those trust games, when you fall backwards and hope somebody will catch you. I paddle and hope I’m in the right place. I have no idea. I try to feel when to jump to my feet. Time slows down.

Back at the camp a few hours later it is still night. I realise my fourth mammlian inner eye was mistaken. There is no sign of first light. We are eating porridge, cooked on a driftwood fire.

‘The best part was watching you’ said Becky. ‘Like a negative photograph.’

I knew exactly what she meant. Soon after we paddled out, while I was still trying to get my bearings, I saw Becky take off on a steep, head high wave. She looked like a superhero. Which is why we do it. Obviously.

We go to sleep. Again. When we wake up it’s day. And the wind has gone onshore.

And the moral of that story is – if it’s good at night, don’t wait till morning.

My book was published this week. You can buy it here. The EP to go with it is late, due to the fact that I spent January in Panama. Previews and info here.

*Obviously I don’t really watch Nashville – far too cool.

Men and Bits of Paper

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I’m gearing up for an adventure in consciousness.

For the second time I am about to surrender all my distractions and commit to ten days of silent meditation on a farm in Hereford. The technique is called Vipassana, which means insight. I feel like I am preparing to climb a difficult mountain – again. Hard enough the first time, but infinitely harder the second, knowing what’s coming.

It’s not the silence. I can go days in my shed without talking to a soul. It’s not being woken at 4am by an old-fashioned hand bell. I like getting up early and the bell sounds like it belongs in a Tibetan monastery. It’s not the food, which is simple and vegetarian. It’s not the living quarters, which are spartan but include the rare treat of a hot shower. It’s not the purpose-built, high-ceilinged, wood and glass meditation hall with its piles of cushions and blankets and several hundred other truth-seekers, from both genders, all ages, all walks of life. It’s not even the fierce physical pain of sitting cross-legged on the floor for eleven hours a day.

It’s the knowledge that when the storms hit, the psychological storms of memory and feeling and love and loss and hope and despair and longing, I will have nowhere to go, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. No guitar, no pens and paper, no books, no films or wine or joints or cake.

So why do it?

Because on the other side of the storms is mental silence. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing rarer. A break from the incessant noise and clatter and chatter inside my head. A chance to see the world as it really is, without my desperate ego-specs.

There was a patch of woodland next to the meditation hall. It was extraordinarily beautiful, or at least I thought so at the time. The ground was a thick carpet of fallen leaves in a million colours. Hoar frosts pinned naked trees to frozen skies. Moonlit dawns and lonely stars.

With the help of the trees and the moon and the stars I went through a tunnel of darkness and came out of it. By the eighth day I was high as a kite.

In an effort to record my journey, I collected objects from the woods and laid them out on paper towels in my room. As soon as the vow of silence ended, on the tenth day, I made scribbled notes about what the objects represented. Here’s what I wrote. Unabridged.

 

Gong, berry tree, birds etc

Men, men, men, passion, crazy mind, crazy mushroom

Running towards death with my fingers in my ears, screaming.

 

Nettles

Butterflies in stomach, shiver of fear, stab of envy

Sticky ego.

 

PAIN, prickly pain, just pain, nothing but pain

A voice, ‘I can help you, the pain is not pain’

Dead things, some beauty.

 

Apple trees, FOOD, craving

One pine tree among the multitudes of oak and beech

Acceptance of things AS THEY ARE.

 

Everyone looks wild and dishevelled

Glance in the mirror by accident and react to thoughts about myself

Negativity.

 

MOON, HIGH, like I’ve never seen the world before

The hedge, so beautiful

Coming down.

 

And the silver birch is a mind over matter thing

Not using willpower anymore, smiling HELPS, want to pick up some beautiful frost and…

Won’t last, nothing will last.

 

Cold November and all the trees in bud

Equanimity, change, ARISING AND PASSING AWAY

Such a cold and frozen morning.

 

These plants and flowers

Then warmth and sunshine, tea and talking

After Metta, and after crying.

 

(Books:

William Hart – The Art of Living

T.S.Eliot – Burnt Norton)