Category Archives: Wilderness

Splintering: EU Referendum

splintering

 

When I was seventeen I felt that things were spiralling out of control. The world was big and I was young and insecure and there was too much suffering and too many problems. I’d always found schoolwork easy, but these problems were something else. I couldn’t even understand them, let alone solve them. In my panic and distress I searched for a solution. I found one in the pages of Cosmopolitan and Elle. The solution was to stop eating. For a while it worked. My strict (if random) policies concerning what could and couldn’t come in and out of my body (pickled beetroot yes, bananas no) stopped time in its tracks. Instead of growing up I went backwards, towards the golden age of childhood where things were black and white and I was small and infertile and my parents were benign dictators rather than ordinary humans with more than their fair share of difficulties. I didn’t have to go out. I didn’t have to meet new people. I didn’t have to grow up. So long as I could control my borders I could stay safe. The world couldn’t reject me if I rejected it first.

Anorexia nearly killed me. The ensuing decade of bulimia nearly broke me. In the end I (almost) recovered. Physically I’m strong and healthy. Psychologically I’m scarred. Ultimately it was pointless. I still had to grow up. I still had to be the shape I am. I still had to risk rejection and live among other people and face up to suffering and engage in politics and fail and fail again and be subject to the uncontrollable tides of time and fate and life.

I was searching for a way to understand the desire for Brexit when I remembered my experience of anorexia. I remembered the searing anxiety that was the result of a perceived loss of control. It was my identity that was slipping. My sense of who I thought I was and how I fitted into the world. I remembered how I was prepared to kill myself rather than surrender to things I didn’t understand. I remembered how afraid I was of myself and of other people and of change.

Cosmopolitan and Elle were in the right place at a dark time, playing to my deepest fears and insecurities, promising that if I followed their diets and wore their clothes and stuck to their rules about how to conduct my relationships then I would be happy. What I didn’t know then was that the editors of Cosmopolitan and Elle didn’t give a fig about my happiness. They cared about selling magazines and making money.

This EU debate is full of quackery and confusion. For every statistic there’s a counter-statistic. Both sides feature men and women known for telling lies. Rupert Murdoch is in charge of propaganda.

Confusion is fertile ground for manipulation. In the same way that the editors of Cosmopolitan and Elle knew I was lost and sad and insecure and hated the changes happening to my body, so the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson know perfectly well that we as a country are lost and sad and insecure and hate the changes happening to our communities. They know we want to kick something, and for reasons as transparent as they are despicable, they want that thing to be the EU. It’s like pointing at the sky while you’re picking someone’s pocket. Or stealing their children’s future.

We’re told to worry about democracy in the EU when our current government was elected on 24% of the eligible vote and are currently being investigated for electoral fraud by twenty police forces. We’ve got an unelected House of Lords flush with the likes of Sir Philip Green, who is currently refusing to be questioned by elected MPs about the gaping hole in the pension fund of BHS. We’ve got an unelected head of state that costs the taxpayer more by far than our gross contribution to the EU, even if it was as much as the leave campaign say it is, which it isn’t.

We’re told to worry about migrants claiming benefits when in fact there are more UK citizens claiming benefits in other European countries than there are people from other European countries claiming benefits in the UK.

We’re told we can ‘take back control’ when in fact that’s impossible. In practical terms it’s impossible – if we want free trade we’ll have to accept free movement. In metaphysical terms it’s impossible. There is no such thing as control. There’s no such thing as security. This is not that type of world. The best we can hope for is the relative security of peace and a healthy planet and knowing that we can call on our friends and neighbours if we need them, and that they can call on us.

I could go on, but the lies are so many and so varied that I could go on all day and I still wouldn’t have got to the bottom of them. And it’s pointless anyway, because we’re voting for a future that hasn’t happened yet. The Channel 4 sitcom ‘Power Monkeys’ articulates it perfectly: ‘People who don’t know what’s going to happen are asking people who don’t understand what’s happening a question to which no-one knows the answer.’

It’s tempting to shrug and walk away. But we can’t. Not if we care about our future. And I believe we owe it to all the people who have died fighting for the freedom to live to care about our future. We have to find an answer. Somehow, in spite of all the egos and the lies and the vague and waffly statements about sovereignty and democracy and taking back control we have to find an answer.

I used my imagination to recover from anorexia and its long and debilitating hangover. I used imagination to escape the horrors of the present and imagine a better future. I imagined the kind of person I wanted to be. I imagined the kind of world I wanted to live in. I made books of pictures and affirmations. I worked out what mattered. I challenged my fears. I failed. I tried again. I failed again. I kept trying. I’m not there yet. I’m nowhere near. But I know I’m going in the right direction and I know I’ll keep on walking.

That’s what this debate is about. It’s not about whether the EU is perfect. It’s about whether we’re going in the right direction and whether we’ll keep on walking.

In deciding how to cast my vote I tried to ignore the hysterical screaming about the economy and immigration. The lurching (on both sides) from greed to xenophobia and back again. I remembered how I got over the fear and hysteria of anorexia and I re-imagined the kind of future I wanted for myself. And I imagined the kind future I wanted for my sisters’ children. I went back to basics and tried to think about what actually matters. To me. And then I held it up against each side and easily found my answer.

The EU was set up after centuries of deadly violence as a way of keeping the peace. Far-right groups and Putin are in favour of Brexit. Northern Ireland is worried about it. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse to start fighting. I want peace to be part of my future.

The EU gives me the right to live, love, work, buy a house, get free healthcare and retire in any of twenty eight member states. I don’t want my choices to be limited. I want freedom of movement to be part of my future.

The EU protects wild birds, especially the ones at risk of extinction: ‘Member States must designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the survival of threatened species and all migratory birds. Hunting periods are limited and hunting is forbidden when birds are at their most vulnerable. Activities that directly threaten birds, such as their deliberate killing, capture or trade, or the destruction of their nests, are banned. Member States must outlaw all forms of non-selective and large scale killing of birds.’

You might hope the UK government would honour these protections if we left the EU, but there’s every reason to doubt it: ‘The Birds and Habitats Directive would go’ declared George Eustice (environment minister and MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle) describing this and other conservation tools as ‘spirit-crushing.’

I don’t agree that conservation directives are spirit-crushing. I want birds to be part of my future.

The EU’s ‘Natura 2000’ scheme protects Dartmoor, Snowdonia and the Lake District. Environmentalists are afraid of a developmental free-for-all in the event of a Brexit. In Welsh, Snowdonia is Eryri, which means Land of the Eagles. I want the Land of the Eagles to be part of my future.

The EU stands up for worker’s rights, so that no matter who is in power we are protected. In 1982, for example, the EU sued the British government for failing to comply with the Equal Pay Act. I want worker’s rights to be part of my future.

The EU invented fishing quotas.

Fishing quotas are a good example of the public being misled about the way the EU actually works. We’re led to believe that fishing quotas are handed down from Brussles by unelected bureaucrats with a much greater sense of loyalty to countries like France and Spain than the UK. In fact fishing quotas are decided by a council of ministers, including our own (elected) fisheries minister. Far from being snubbed, the UK usually gets the second-highest fishing quota of all the member states. It’s the UK government who’s responsible for distributing the quota. Greenpeace are currently using EU law to sue the UK government for failing to allocate fair fishing quotas to small-scale, low-impact vessels. It’s worth remembering that fishing quotas were brought in to tackle the problems caused by decades of overfishing. In terms of recovering fish stocks, they seem to be working. Like birds, fish don’t have passports. A co-ordinated response is required. Without a common policy it’s a race to the bottom to see who can catch all the fish before the fish run out. I want fish to be part of my future.

The EU has forced us to clean up our oceans and our beaches. When I was a child and swimming at the wrong tide I’d get caught in a slick of raw sewage. I don’t want raw sewage to be part of my future.

The Common Agricultural Policy includes money towards rural development and stewardship schemes. Farmers are paid to help protect the environment. Under EU law, England is free to cut subsidies to big farmers and give more subsidies to smaller farmers and environmental schemes. It hasn’t bothered. In the words of James Meek this suggests that: ‘Brexit would return the country to pre-EEC days of duty-free imports and subsidised farmers, but with many fewer small farms, and fewer obstacles to the expansion of large-scale, mechanised, chemical farming.’

These are the things I care about. And for these reasons (and many others) I’m voting to remain.

The EU gets it wrong. It’s clunky and bureaucratic and annoying. It’s weird and distant and happens in Brussels, of all places, where nobody’s ever been. It’s a work in progress. And a project in crisis. Flooded with refugees and reeling from the 2008 meltdown, which was caused by the banks – many of them based in the City of London – and paid for by the people. But the EU is us. It was formed at least partly in our image. We were part of its conception and we continue to shape its future. The problems we face today, from terrorism to climate change to fish to birds to TTIP, are best faced together. This is not the time to double down and go smaller. Trust me, it doesn’t work.

We need to be the change we want to see, stand up and be counted, take our seat at the table and grow. 

Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty sets out the principles members of the European Union have to abide by:

‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.’

Britain is one of twenty eight member states who have all agreed to abide by these principles. I’m proud of that. I want these values to be my future.

 

 

Surfing Vs Shopping

Surfing

I hate shopping.

Shopping, and by extension the entire human project of reducing this miraculous home of ours into a giant department store and then looting it, is an exercise in enslavement. Surfing, on the other hand, or anything else that involves surrender to the laws of the non-human – hiking, gardening, mountaineering – is an exercise in freedom.

Freedom is not easy, and it does not make sense. Not like shopping, where you get anti-aging potions in exchange for the flutter of a contactless credit card. Or like war, where goodies kill baddies and then there is peace.

Freedom is awkward and time-consuming and looks a bit sad and deranged, especially when set against the slick marketing of shopping and war.

If you counted up all the hours I have spent trying to catch waves and set them against all the waves I have actually managed to catch and then subtracted all the ones I fell off or messed up you would probably advise me to see a psychiatrist. Especially if I admitted that my addiction to surfing is probably the reason I have never had a nine-to-five, saved for a pension, lived apart from the ocean for longer than six months or travelled anywhere cultural, as opposed to coastal. Don’t even mention children.

In many ways the only difference between an addiction to smack and my addiction to surfing is the fact that it keeps me in rude physical health. If you don’t count the torn ligaments and burned retinas and chillblains and the bones slowly extending over my ear drums to protect them from the piercing winds and the black eyes and the broken nose and the stubbed and bleeding toes.

Under normal circumstances my effort/achievement ratio would be wildly disappointing. But these are not normal circumstances, different rules apply.

Unless I have managed to get myself to the tropics (see burned retinas) surfing is cold, frustrating, sometimes frightening, occasionally miraculous, going nowhere. There is nobody watching and nothing to see, nothing to achieve and nothing to win. I am not good enough to go anywhere near a competition and even if I was I wouldn’t go anywhere near one.

I am not interested in supporting the multi-million (billion?) dollar industry that instagram-filters all the life and colour out of the ocean and then tries to sell it back to me as a flashy retro board and an overpriced pair of flip-flops. I can buy the tokens and then spend the rest of my month/year/life working to pay for them whilst watching youtube videos of other people getting barrelled. Or I can put my wallet away and step outside:

Witness the crack of dawn

And through it the effortless sea

And the muffled cry of the killing birds –

This is the way to be free.

Each and every single wave I manage to catch, for absolutely no good reason whatsoever, is a fist in the face of the profit principle and the growth imperative and the oil wars and this idiotic age of consumption that manifests as spiteful billboards and food banks and translatlantic trade agreements and the grief of mass extinction.

‘Our religious and cultural heritage’ writes Barbara Kingsolver, ‘is to deny, for all we’re worth, that we’re in any way connected with the rest of life on earth. We don’t come from it, we’re not part of it; we own it and were put down here to run the place.’

Which is why if I had one wish this Christmas it would be that when everyone was done shopping they could spend a bit of time in no-man’s land – behind the low-tide mark, above the snowline, beneath the soil – to feel the blessed relief of knowing we do not own it and we were not put here to run the place and we are connected with the rest of Life on Earth. Life on Earth is frustrating, sometimes frightening, occasionally miraculous, going nowhere. It is not for sale and it does not make sense. The gift (and the exercise) is in accepting.

As Gary Snyder pointed out:

‘To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us.’

See you in there.

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.

 

Art of Place

Dominic ClareI am in Wales, staying in a town full of writers and environmentalists. Specifically, I am staying with Jay Griffiths, looking after her cats while she is talking about Time at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and then talking about Frida Kahlo in Stornoway. The world turns in mysterious ways. Years ago I used to download music from the Smithsonian Institute’s vast library of sounds. Guadeloupe accordions, Dirty Jazz from Down South, Cubanismo from the Congo. Record labels have caught on and started making compilations from the archives, but you can still go there and get lost at your leisure with nobody trying to make you buy anything. I read Jay’s book Wild when I was on Lewis in 2012 and have been recommending it to everyone I meet ever since. Then I met Jay, earlier this year, and somehow that turned into a winter of empty Welsh houses to write my next book in, and make some home recordings of some new songs to tide me over until the next record. So here I am in Wales in this town full of writers and environmentalists. One of them is George Marshall, who has just published a book called Don’t Even Think About It, which attempts to examine the psychology of climate change denial and why nothing is changing, even though we all know (don’t we?) that it’s only a matter of time before the Titanic sinks and we all go down with it. So sane people are grieving for the trees and the skylarks and the vanishing places they love, and everyone else is watching TV….. or surfing. Last weekend there was swell. I drove to a funny little town called Borth, and surfed some funny little waves, and then I drove up the windswept coast and before I knew it I was in Snowdonia, parked up in a little valley near where I was born. I rambled around in the wet mountains for a couple of days and on my last day I went to visit a sculptor called Dominic Clare. Clare once trained with David Nash, who is responsible for my all-time favourite artwork. If you ever get the chance to see the film, seize it. I took some photos in Dominic Clare’s garden and wrote some stuff about his wood-carvings, which you can find here. It’s the first of a new column I am doing for Toast Travels called Art of Place.