The zenith of stuff

There’s a statistic doing the rounds that claims more than 50% of Earth’s species will be extinct within 85 years. E.O. Wilson, the Harvard professor behind this proclamation, has written about interdependence within ecosystems and the increasing pressure human activity is placing on life on Earth.

The idea that more than half of our biodiversity – both species we see everyday and those that are yet to be discovered by science – may disappear from the planet over the course of our children’s lifetimes strikes me as a startling wake up call, if one were needed. Perhaps the time has come to put aside some of our personal ambitions and learn to live simply again. We know that the period we are living in is most likely a historical blip in terms of the resources we have access to; and, as psychology tells us, we can’t pretend that we can make ourselves happier by acquiring more stuff. Our minds just don’t work that way.

We’re slowly recognising the limitations of materialism and increasingly looking to life experiences to provide meaning and status, as a glimpse at any social media feed will prove. Consumer brands are catching on, using advertising to position their products and services in a way that not only resonates emotionally but frames them as experience. Cars are for roadtrips with fashionable friends; bring a tablet on your camping trip so you can connect with nature by watching movies in your tent; these tunes are the soundtrack of your demographic’s summer. There’s also a danger that experience-seeking becomes the new materialism. Both can be extrinsic ways of looking for happiness and, as such, not as effective sources of satisfaction as we may lead ourselves to believe.

All this is easy for me to say: I’ve never been without access to material goods. In fact, I’ve acquired tons of gizmos, computers, instruments, books and clothes over the years in a quest to create, better myself in a vaguely conceived way, or just mess around with. I could fashion a three-storey cabin out of the books in my ‘to read’ pile if there were some way of turning them back into wood, or build a lifesize replica of the Pequod. This privilege has at least bought me the perspective that materialism is ultimately a dead end when it comes to adding meaning to your life. Rather, meaning comes from living in accordance to values you decide for yourself in relation to other people, traditions and what we know about the world. Given that we’re now aware of our effect on species, the climate, the planet itself, it’s surprising that we haven’t re-evaluated where we seek satisfaction more thoroughly. I’m not alone in thinking at the time of the 2008 financial crisis that certainly, now, the developed world would take systemic failure as an opportunity to address our worst excesses. That does not seem to have happened and instead we appear to be striving to reinforce the pattern of consumption and increasing output we had before.

I don’t know whether change is possible but I can’t help but feel that a more conscious, questioning attitude towards material consumption and GDP growth would be beneficial – and not just for the environment but for our individual sense of satisfaction and social cohesiveness. It’s hard to know where to begin but many people seem to be finding meaning in minimising, economising and downshifting. In the spirit of small beginnings, I’m going to give my credit card a rest over Lent – yes, even when it comes to buying books. In the longer term, let’s hope that the humanities, the arts, ecology, outdoor sports and contemplative pursuits provide us with wisdom enough to adapt responsibly to a world that is certain to change rapidly, one way or another.

The Tump and the tree

I’ve just finished a short run to Maes Knoll Tump from our holiday cottage. The Tump is a huge earthen wall nearly eight metres taller than the surrounding land, built to defend an Iron Age hillfort. It offers a panoramic view of Somerset including views to Bath and Bristol had there been no mist. As it was, there was nary a soul in sight. The sound of the birds was as arresting as the sight of the hills. As with many ancient sites, perhaps keenest was the sense of my own transience within the landscape. This is exacerbated when you think that what we consider ‘ancient’ really is not so old at all.

After sitting for a while I saw a grey tree standing in a green sward and decided to make my way down the steep sides of the hill to it. Tiny birds popped out of the grass and darted in the mist. As I was walking past a bush a muntjack startled, running under the fence and into the next field before flattering itself by stopping to see if I’d given chase. I might have shown it who’s boss but I was trying to keep my heart rate in zone two…

The dead tree was entirely hollow and open on one side. It was strange to stand inside. Bird calls were made dull. The air was completely still. There was a small echo, a closeness. The tree branches seemed to have small buds at their tips and were completely still against the grey sky. There was a metal spike in the back of the tree, perhaps what killed – or nearly killed – it. There was no evidence of the spike on the outside so bark must have grown over the wound.

After regaining the hill I made a quick descent back to the cottage to appraise my uneven split times.

 

The art of running slowly

I’m getting back into running after a few months’ break. In the meantime, my fitness has evaporated and I’m carrying some extra pounds. Not only that, but my Achilles tendon has been sore for a while, probably due to overtraining on these beautiful but brutal coastal trails. For example, last summer, my brother and I put together a half marathon training run that ended up with a total elevation of 2,500ft. It was a fantastic run. A sea fret filled the precipice off the coast path and only the faintest ghost of the rocks below could be seen through the fog. But the terrain is hard. I remember feeling broken two weeks into my last training cycle.

Dan suggested running with a heart rate monitor. The plan is not to overreach by keeping my exertion within training zones 2 and 3. In my current state of fitness, that means occasional walking, especially on hills, and crawling along at what should be an embarrassingly slow pace. Except I don’t find it a chore at all. In fact, the first run was a minor revelation. It wasn’t a slog or a struggle, I got to stop and admire the view frequently. It helps that I was running down to the beach, I suppose, but there are lots of other details to enjoy. Birds didn’t startle as soon as I came near them… I’m not saying that small woodland creatures flocked to me as I ran, like some kind of Disney princess. It’s just that there’s time to notice what’s there: whitecaps, sunlight in the branches, bitingly cold wind. At least, there is when I’m not compulsively checking my wrist monitor. Hopefully I’ll develop a better inuitive sense of what I can sustain in the long run, so to speak.

There is a method in this moderation, however. The idea is that by running slowly, you train type I (endurance) muscle fibres which are more fuel efficient and help to remove lactic acid. When you run hard, you’re relying on high power, low efficiency type II muscle fibres. This is fine for a while but you can only store so much high energy fuel in your legs. So this might be why I usually ‘bonk’ in the last three miles of a half marathon (…and why beer and a burger is always so appetising post-race). It will be interesting to see whether a gentle way can accomplish more than my usual ‘all or nothing’ approach.

In any case, there’s a nice contradiction in the idea of running slowly. It brings to mind festina lente (‘hurry slowly’ / ‘make haste slowly’), the old motto of the Medici’s and something Shakespeare riffed on from time to time. In English we say, ‘more haste, less speed’… but the lack of paradox makes our saying comparatively flat. Festina lente, to me, is the idea that the best way to accomplish something is to do it slowly, deliberately (but not by charging at it head-on) and perhaps persistently: by working with your fate rather than rashly against it; or perhaps to do something bold in a leisurely fashion. Hey, it worked for Augustus.

You had to be there

We were talking about travelling and a friend said that if he were to embark on another big trip, he wouldn’t pack a laptop, tablet, smartphone or a camera. Not even a notebook. We’d been in total agreement until that moment. What would be the point of travelling if you didn’t take artsy photos with an SLR? Or bore your friends and family with constant updates on your adventures? I wondered at the time. Not even a notebook…

Recently, I thought twice about taking my phone with me on an errand. Now I’m a father, that doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I remembered that conversation. What if someone needs to get hold of me? I thought. What if I see something cool and need to take a photo? To hell with it! One by one, I peeled my fingers from around the handset and left it on the counter looking like the sinister monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As I was leaving town a spectacular double rainbow lit darkening clouds above the harbour. My first instinct was to take a photo, but I consoled myself in the knowledge that even a professional cameraman would struggle to capture what I could simply take in with my eyes and other senses. I decided to extend my walk to properly absorb the scene and ended up getting fairly well rained on. Really heading home now, two seals were playing in the waves. I watched them for ten minutes and understood what my friend had been talking about a little better.

Do Nothing Beach

How hard it is to do nothing. Before you know what you’re about, you’ve laid down some jazzy chords and improvised a blues riff over the top. So here’s another track intended for People Are Guitars. I was aiming for something like the smooth, bassy tones of Kenny Burrell with a chiming top end. I wanted it to feel totally laid back, like it’s too hot to move and time is nothing but gentle waves crashing on golden sand, ya dig?

On a squarer note, I’m getting the hang of Ableton Live. It’s really easy to combine programming and expressive parts. I feel like these rapid new methods of production and distribution are revealing art to be a continual process. In the past we waited for a single, definitive release. Maybe things now are becoming like they were before record deals and the printing press: songs and stories evolve over time, becoming something you do rather than an end product.

The Girl Who Didn’t Exist

It’s common for children to have disagreements with their parents. However, it is not so common for them to disagree about whether or not anything exists.

So begins the latest fable to be compiled in The Book of Almost Truths. ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ follows the journey of a young girl sent to the woods by her parents to live with a cranky sage. Under his guidance, she learns a valuable lesson about what it might mean to be alive.

The story was influenced by Buddhist sutras and philosophy, and inspired by the jacket of Edward Conze’s translation of ‘The Diamond’ and ‘Heart’ sutras, which shows a large stone Buddha head seemingly growing out of a tree.

Read ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ here.

Ishmael’s Leg

I’ve just finished typesetting the first draft of The Tide Clock and Other Poems. This will be a shared pamphlet featuring poetry by Joe Franklin, Hugh Greasley and myself. It’s not unlike the split 7″ singles bands used to put out to share production costs and pool their fanbases. You might remember a similar collection we produced in 2013, The Inner Sea.

As a taste of what’s to come, here’s one of mine that draws on Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. Check back here soon for more news about The Tide Clock

Ishmael’s Leg

“I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing.”

— Moby Dick.

I’ll leave it blank.
These patterns are only as permanent as skin
though a decent word might outlast the sea-places
I go to fish or through which I leave a life.
Shallows are quick to warm but never the same
from one wave to the next: like the bays, beaches and ports
long cast out of which, even if I’m gone an hour,
swell with strangers, new winds, tides.
You can never go back.

My mind’s tattooed with dreams,
changing more than my blue-inked body shows.
Nothing I write could fill the absence of friends
more central than myself in a life between storms.
Tyrants, bad weather and worse luck have marked me
more indelibly than ink but I love the tale
because I’ve never been the author of my fate
and yet there is a silent part to tell.