The Gifts of Christmas Past

Christmas is nearly upon us (again) and it’s got me thinking about gifts. It’s never easy to pick out gifts for those we love, and, to make it more difficult, people tend to treat themselves throughout the year. No one wants to wait for Christmas anymore in the hope they’ll get what they want under the tree. How do you come up with something for someone who has already everything? Perhaps there’s more disposable income to spend on little luxuries for ourselves whenever we feel the urge to splurge; it leaves little in the way of ideas at Christmas.

Disposable income wasn’t a thing my parents enjoyed when I was growing up with my three brothers and one sister in a council house in Liverpool. Having said that, my parents never let us down when it came to Christmas; we always felt well looked after. That was down in part to my mum putting little things away for Christmas, starting earlier in the year, whenever she could find a spare few pence to spend, and dad working two jobs in the months leading up to Christmas. He’d finish a full day at the office before taking the night shift at the post office sorting depot. Even then with his extra income, there was never an excess of money to spend on festive cheer. Overdue bills had to be paid first, so Dad would supplement the Christmas surprises by making toys in the secrecy of his shed. Always pushed to finish the projects before the holiday deadline, we’d often wake on Christmas day to find toys with a note saying: “Father Christmas says the paint is still wet.”

Mum and Dad always put a lot of thought into our presents. As a young boy with an enquiring mind, I had longed and begged for a chemistry set. I saw myself in a white lab coat, surrounded by test tubes and Bunsen burners, about to discover the cure for Covid. Okay, we never heard of Covid back then, but I’d have discovered a cure if it had been. Sadly, after my exploits with a homemade firework the previous Bonfire Night, a box of hazardous chemicals was not an option that Christmas.

Not wanting to discourage the young scientist in me while keeping me (and the family) safe, my parents surprised me with a microscope. Instead of being disappointed, I thought the substitute was truly the most wonderful gift I had ever received. This little treasure was everything I could have wished for and more. Mum and Dad knew I would love it. I spent the rest of Christmas taking blood from squeamish family members, dissecting flies, exploring pond water, searching for worm’s eyeballs (I was sure they must have some) and anything else that would look cool under magnification. Sixty years on and I still have that little microscope and it rates as one of the best gifts ever.

My little microscope, I was thrilled

There were many wonderful gifts over the years, and as I grew older, I came to appreciate the sacrifices my parents had made to make our childhood Christmases so special. It wasn’t Santa who’d been splashing out to make Christmas so merry, it was Mum and Dad, no magic involved, just love for their kids and a determination to do their best for us. 

If I had to single out just one Christmas gift that meant more than all the others it would be the one I received early one year. The year was 1981 and it was three weeks before Christmas to be exact. My wife and I had taken the monumental decision to emigrate to either the U.S.A. or Canada. Things had been bad in the UK for a couple of years and the economy was dismal. The country was in a recession with high unemployment, my industry of boat building had taken a particularly hard hit. To make matters worse, we had not long taken out our first mortgage before interest rates jumped to 21% from the 11% we began with. We were in imminent danger of losing our home when, as a last resort, we put it up for sale and by a miracle, sold it in twelve days. Houses had generally been on the market for months if not years at the time. With the proceeds of the sale, we paid off the bank and had enough funds to purchase a plane ticket for me to go find a job. We had then just the exact amount to get us and our three small children across the Atlantic, assuming I was successful in finding work. 

Where does Christmas gift giving come into this story, I hear you ask. Well, I’m getting there but I just wanted to set the scene. So, three weeks until Christmas, I’m set to catch my very first flight in the morning, when my gorgeous wife, Christine, hands me a small package wrapped in gold Christmas paper and a bright red ribbon. She explained that it wouldn’t wait until after my return on the day before Christmas Eve. Inside the tiny package I discovered a small gold Saint Christopher necklace. Being the patron saint of travelers, Christine told me that the hard working saint would bring me safely home to my family.

I flew the next day to Florida and after a fruitless search for employment, on to Toronto, Canada. A bus trip to Owen Sound in the north brought success and the offer of a job building boats on the picturesque shores of Georgian Bay. I returned home safely to Liverpool just in time for Christmas. Exactly forty years later, I’m sitting here writing this story, not in Canada, but in my Australian home on the other side of the world and the Saint Christopher necklace is hanging around my neck. In those years it has taken me and my family safely across three continents and God only knows how many towns and cities to live. After years of travelling for work and play, I sat down one day and calculated that since 1981 I’ve travelled the equivalent of 58 times around the equator, visited 30 different countries at least once, some, into high double digits, and Saint Chris has been with me every inch of the way.  

I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but if I was to reach for my necklace while sitting on the tarmac at an airport and found it to be missing, I might just freak out. I’ve worn this wonderful, thoughtful gift every day of my life since that Christmas of 1981. Despite Saint Christopher, I suspect it’s the love with which the gift was given that has kept me safe until now. Like everyone else, our recent travel plans have been on hold. Nevertheless, we’re looking forward to a time when adventures will soon return. And, when they do, my best Christmas gift ever will be with me along for the ride. 

I suspect it’s the love with which the gift was given that has kept me safe

Seeing as this is my last blog for 2021, I’ll take this opportunity to thank my readers  for all your support, especially those who have bought and read Black Bones, Red Earth this year. I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll be back in the New Year with tales and thoughts to share. So, until then, I’ll wish you all a wonderfully magical Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year.

Man’s great shame

I recently watched a Jane Goodall video that featured Koko the gorilla and a little kitten the gorilla had adopted. Touched by Koko’s gentle care of the kitten, it occurred to me that some humans could learn a thing or two when it comes to caring for their young. Shortly after seeing this video I was out for a walk and watched amused as a mother duck guided fifteen or sixteen chicks across the road, making sure that she waited for the last one to pass safely. Her large brood had obviously included at least one other duck family. Adopted broods are actually quite common in the animal kingdom, and communal care of the young runs across many species. Witness the protective instincts of an elephant herd or a troop of chimpanzees and you’ll see what I mean. So how is it that we humans seem to fail our children so often and in so many ways?

Photo by Gerd Maiss

In my novel, Black Bones, Red Earth, the plight of children and their treatment by an unjust society is central to the narrative. Firstly, with the central character who is transported to Australia as part of the British child migration program, and secondly, with the Aboriginal characters who have suffered cruelly, separated from parents and siblings, abused by those entrusted with their care. In researching the background for the book, I was horrified by the many true stories and total disregard for the children’s welfare. Often treated like goods to be traded, these children endured traumas that have left them scarred for life. We’re not talking ancient history here, these policies were being practiced into the 1960s.

Group of Aboriginal children in the early 1900s. Kay- Aussie~Mobs. Public domain

Recent events in Canada have exposed even greater abuse of care. Hundreds of hidden graves have been discovered in the grounds of compulsory schools for Indigenous children, schools that have been operated by churches and government well into the 1980s. Like their Australian equivalents, these mission schools were set up to integrate the indigenous children into society. In reality, they were set up to extinguish the traditions and culture of the native inhabitants of conquered lands. Similar missions, reserves and schools were established across North America and in other colonial settlements, many in the name of religious indoctrination. Systemic abuse of children has been well documented under the cover of governments and religions around the world.

Photo credit: D B Marsh/Library and archives Canada

It’s not just institutionalised mistreatment of vulnerable children that flourish unchecked. Every conflict and war generates a new flood of child victims. Always caught in the middle, they suffer most because they have no power over their lives during these conflicts. Collateral damage, they count for little in decisions made by military leaders. In parts of Africa, children are conscripted into fighting with armed militia at 10 years of age and even younger. Forced to kill or be killed, they are traumatised for life, even if they do live to be adults. Child trafficking is rife around the world. According to World Vision, an estimated 6 million children are being trafficked today. Children suffer daily from violence, sexual abuse, malnutrition, neglect and mental trauma, yet the efforts to protect them is and always has been pitiful at best. 

Photo by Jane B 13

In a statement about the discoveries in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “terribly saddened” by the discovery. He said it was “a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced”. Shameful is an understatement. Maybe we should all be ashamed that in this age of so-called “civilization”, we can’t, as a species, protect our most vulnerable. I’ve heard it said that those who commit crimes against children are animals. I beg to differ, animals don’t treat their children with such cruelty.

I beg to differ, animals don’t treat there children with such cruelty

The world around us

I’ve always felt the need to be close to nature. It’s a gift passed on to me by my parents, both of whom had a great love for the outdoors. As children, my brothers and sister were taught to observe the natural world around us. Digging around under rocks or up to the rims of our wellies in ponds and streams, we were encouraged to look deeper for the wonders of nature. We’d go on endless walks in the countryside and holiday in the mountains, camping beneath the stars in farm fields and pastures. During my years in business, there were limited opportunities to fully commune with nature, to get down and dirty with the bugs.

Photo by Rick Lee

Long days in the office, airports and distant hotels, left little time for family commitments, let alone a walk in the grass. Fortunately, for me, that all changed when I retired from the rat-race and a life where the only digging was in delving into the details of a spreadsheet analysis. I quickly rediscovered the leisurely pace of a life without goals and deadlines. I was now able to set my own schedule for writing at a desk in the home office, riding a bike, tending the garden, or walking in the park. It gave me a chance to re-imagine the world of nature and to open my eyes to life’s rich facets.

Photo by Rick Lee

As the pandemic took hold last year, I was reminded how important it was to maintain this newfound flexibility and my connection with the great outdoors. But, while frustrated by the restrictions, I realized that I had more than enough still to discover in my own backyard. I could enjoy nature right here where I lived. With this in mind, I decided to build a creative studio overlooking the garden where my workspace could spill seamlessly into nature and inspire me. Finished last summer, it’s not a huge space but it’s filled with light, encouraging me to try out some painting and photography along with my writing.

My creative studio in the garden

With the doors wide open, it’s like working in the wild and I’m constantly drawn to appreciate something that’s caught my eye, a flower emerging from the leaves, a bee in flight or a bird bathing in the pond.

Photo by Rick Lee

As I’m enticed to step out and look closer, I get absorbed by the sheer volume and diversity of life around me. It’s not a huge garden, but with a camera in hand, it’s like going on a miniature safari every time I venture beyond my door.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

What I find is a parallel world of drama, an alien landscape full of creatures in constant motion. Look closer and I’m quickly absorbed into a life without Covid, lockdowns fade from my thoughts and, for a while at least, I’m transported to an alternative reality. There’s a world to discover, an escape we can all make in these trying times. We just have to dig deeper to find it.

The zebra’s arse

We’re in lockdown again and I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to travel again, to venture beyond our shores. I’ve always thought myself lucky to have had the opportunities to travel, it’s a privilege I’ve never taken for granted. If the borders were to stay closed forever, I could hardly complain, having seen so many places, met so many wonderfully diverse people and experienced so many inspiring cultures. The memories I have are precious. They serve to give me comfort during these trying times, and once again I find myself going through old photos on my virtual travels, reliving the moments that have brought me such pleasure in years gone by. 

Hilltop Camp, Hluhluwe–Umfolozi.

Seventeen years ago, I realised a childhood dream when my wife, Christine, and I travelled to KwaZulu-Natal to visit Africa’s very first nationally protected nature reserve at Hluhluwe–Umfolozi. Established in 1895, the reserve covers a wilderness area of almost one thousand square kilometers, rolling hills and heavily wooded valleys along the Imfolozi River. I could barely contain my excitement to have finally arrived at the very summit of my bucket list as we drove from Durban to Hilltop Camp at the heart of the reserve. My lifelong quest to see Africa’s spectacular wilderness had started on my first day at school. (Just a few years prior) Along with other wide-eyed four-year-olds, we gathered cross-legged on the floor of the library to listen to a student teacher regale us with stories of her summer vacation, a trip to the dark and mysterious continent of Africa.

Photo by Rick Lee

She showed photographs of her safari and continued the African theme later in the day with tales of those early explorers, Livingston and Stanley. Her descriptions of exotic wildlife had me enthralled while kids around me lost interest and fidgeted absently, more interested in their new school mates than the wilds of Africa to which I had been transported. She was a stand-in teacher and I never saw her again, but her tales were the seeds that would lead me to roam around the world as I grew older. I sometimes wish I could tell her how much she had inspired me. 

Photo by Rick Lee

After bringing an end to hunting in the region, the reserve at Hluhluwe–Umfolozi became famous throughout the world when in the 1950’s Operation Rhino was instrumental in bringing the white rhino back from the brink of extinction. Today’s animals thrive under the reserve’s protection and the program has replenished the rhino breeding stock across the continent. A true success story.

I sometimes wish I could tell her how much she had inspired me.

We stayed at Hilltop Camp, established in the 1930’s, and were taken by guides tracking lions on their night hunt, though — thankfully perhaps — the large male we followed did not make a kill and so we were spared the trauma of watching.

Photo by Rick Lee

We watched zebras grazing alongside wildebeest, rhinos wallowing in mud pools, and elephants and giraffes stripping leaves from the trees under the heat of a mid-day sun. Our guide took us up the river to watch crocs basking on the riverside, while villagers washed their clothes and bathed in the same river within sight of the four metre giants. It seems incredible that people can and do live in close harmony with wildlife, even when it poses a danger to life itself. It’s hard to imagine that having crocs in the bath, and lions in the pantry could be seen as a normal and daily occurrence. Normal it may be, but we couldn’t help feeling anxious for the little boy we saw playing on the riverbank nearby.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

The dangers are not to be underestimated but it’s easy to relax in such beautiful surroundings. I’m now thinking back and laughing at the day we joined a 10km dawn hike. The ramble started well before daylight and our guide, let’s call him Bob, had instructed us to wear something warm as the nights could dip down to single digits and mornings were cold. Sleepy-eyed, we woke to the sound of eerie and unidentified animal cries. 

Photo by Rick Lee

We dressed quickly, donned our warm jackets and headed to the Land Rover to be greeted by Bob. We drove to our start-out point as the sky took on that silvery pink morning glow just before sunrise. Other than the obvious excitement and anticipation at what we might see, we hadn’t really given too much thought to the implications of our undertaking. It was only when Bob began his pre-hike safety talk that the reality hit home. We were going to be on foot, exposed to the predators and big game animals that kill for a living and could hurt us if they should choose. Oh yeah, hadn’t thought of that!

Photo by Alexas Photos

It’s quite sobering to know that there’s nothing between you and a hungry pack of hyenas, no fence to stop a charging buffalo or angry elephant. “If we are charged by any of a dozen possible wild beasts,” said Bob, “don’t run.” Don’t run? I looked at Christine’s white face, drained of all blood and enthusiasm. Don’t worry, I tell her. They have to say that stuff to keep the lawyers happy. Bob continued. “Keep your eyes locked on their eyes and back away slowly. Trust me. Whatever you do, do not run,” he repeated emphatically. Our group was a small one made up of two other couples. “Can they smell fear,” one of the guys chirped in. “Only if you poop your pants,” said our guide cheerfully. Christine was not amused by his humour.

Photo by Albrecht Fietz

In for a penny, in for a pound, we put our fears aside and followed our intrepid leader into the wild. We walked in a single line with Christine immediately behind Bob and me following at the rear of the line. Ten kilometres is a long way in the African bush. The terrain, sometimes challenging, took us through dense thickets of acacia, across dried up creek beds and through waist high grasslands.

It’s quite sobering to think that there’s nothing between you and a pack of hungry hyenas

It was during one of these long grass sortees that I became a little nervous. Lion territory. We had seen them the previous night from the safety of a Land Rover, as they stalked through the tall grass. Now, here we were traipsing through that very same terrain. Bob was a stout enough fellow, but he hardly looked capable of fending off the various attacks he had so painstakingly warned us about. He carried a bolt action rifle, for emergencies and only to be used as a last resort. Fine, I thought, but I wondered what his criteria was for last resort. 

Photo by Rick Lee Our guide Bob

The sun had risen now and with it the temperatures rose quickly. Bob set a brisk pace, making us sweat at the exertion. I took a moment to strip my jacket and tie it around my waist. As I did so, my imagination began to wander. I could see lions lurking in the sway of the grass, leopards waiting to pounce on the straggler of the group. Every movement in the breeze, every shadow seemed to signal an imminent attack. I hurried to rejoin the end of the line and it was then that the horrible thought hit me. When grabbing something to wear in the darkened hut, I had unthinkingly chosen a striped tee-shirt. I looked down at my garb and gasped. Zebra’s arse! I must have looked like a zebra’s arse, waddling through the undergrowth at the end of the line. All I needed was a long black ponytail and the disguise would have been complete. I looked up and saw Christine had stripped off her own coat and was now resplendent in fluorescent pink. I imagined the wildlife laughing at us. Two clowns in the bush, what an appetiser!

Photo by Katja

I’m here to write this little memoir so I obviously survived to tell the tale. It’s one of those stories that gets told every so often and we have a good laugh about it. However, and on a more serious note, on our return to camp that day we were informed about the death of a guide in the months prior to our visit. While conducting a similar hike within the reserve, he was charged by an angry male elephant. Like Bob, he had had his rifle but chose not to use it on the elephant. It seems his idea of a last resort was for the benefit of the wildlife he served to protect.

Photo by Rick Lee

Our time in Africa was an amazing experience and one we shall never forget. We saw an incredible diversity of wildlife just as it’s meant to be seen, in its natural environment without bars and cages, thriving alongside local communities who have long since learned to coexist. As if to demonstrate that closeness between the people of Africa and the nature that surrounds them, and with our stay at an end, we had left camp before daylight and were driving the three hour road to Durban. We had a flight to catch down to Cape Town. The sun had not yet risen when we saw two cats walking down the middle of the road. Okay, you guessed it! I’m not talking stray tabbies here, these were the real deal. Mesmerised, we watched two majestic male lions sauntering along the road as if nothing could be more natural than to take a stroll before the morning traffic.

Photo by Rick Lee

We watched for several minutes and caught a few grainy photos in the breaking light until they peeled off into bushland. The encounter was thrilling. Minutes later we passed three local men walking along the same road; perhaps they were on their way to work. I’m reminded that such habitats, as those in Africa, are under great pressure around the globe. As humans expand their domain, that of the natural world shrinks in equal measure. But I’m given hope by what I saw in Africa. Life can coexist in close proximity, man and beast, each just going about their daily routines, each respected for their place in the world.

Anyone can make an ass of themselves but it only takes a silly mistake to become the zebra’s arse.

Lee

Cold comfort

I’m looking out to the garden from my little work studio and can’t help being struck by the stark beauty of trees devoid of leaves. It’s winter here in the southern hemisphere. A yellow sun, rising low in the eastern sky, sends long shadows that emphasise the architectural forms of branches. Amongst the twisted bows, I can see a single maple leaf clinging stubbornly against the elements and a pair of currawongs (large Australian birds in the crow family) chase each other in and out the bare limbs. Perhaps they already have ideas of a spring romance which is just around the corner.

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Shelley, Ode to the west wind

Daffodils are well advanced now and some have flower buds. We have one more month of winter before the blooms unfold. Seasons follow a distinct pattern here in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, unlike Sydney and the coastal fringes where there’s little to mark the changing months. Australia’s high country can experience extremes throughout the year. Summer temperatures reach up into the forties, while winter snow storms see temperatures plummet below zero. Frosts are common and further south the mountains disappear under blankets of thick white powder, perfect conditions for the ski fields that dot the region.

In the natural world, seasons represent the ever changing cycle of life. They remind us of the relentless march of time, the inevitable nature of our fleeting existence. It’s an irony that the one constant in life is change. There is no stopping winter from becoming spring, spring becoming summer and the certain truth that summer will give way to autumn before winter returns. Of all the seasons, winter can be the hardest for life to encounter, but it’s not the bleak landscape it might appear on the surface. Hidden from sight, roots continue to strengthen, sap begins to rise and spring bulbs are sprouting. The earth is cleansed by the frosts and ice, diseases brought into check by winter’s chill. Those flora and fauna that survive through winter are stronger for it. 

Photo by Denys Nevozhai

Like hibernating bears, there are those of us who dread the coming of winter. They hide away, longing for the days of spring, shrinking from the cold and cursing the dark nights, only to emerge from their dens when the temperature soars. Age plays a part in our resilience to the cold months and how we approach them. In my youth, winter brought dreams of snow, ice and fun. It brought thoughts of Christmas joy, hot drinks, blazing fires. During our years in Canada, winter, for my family, meant digging out the skis and the skates (and digging out the driveway). Out came the toboggan, the boots and snow suits, the gloves and beanies. Canadian winters were long and often severe, longer still if you didn’t embrace them. Our experience of the northern winter was truly magical and our fond memories of Canada’s cold months will last a lifetime.

Photo by Hannah Pemberton

Just as we anticipated the season’s first floating flakes of snowfall, by the time spring arrived — after months of short days and early nights —  we were ready for the change, a new start for spring. I would often get out the garden hose and wash away the last remnants of snow, those dirty remains of compacted ice that flanked the drive and defied the warm sun. By the end of winter I was always eager to turn the page to a new season and hoped there would be no late snowfall to spoil the change. Spring promoted a feeling of optimism, enthusiasm for the year ahead.

Photo by Thomas Lipke

Our lives have a way of mirroring nature. There are emotional seasons, dark days of winter when things don’t go well. We sometimes struggle through these times with little hope they’ll end. Unlike the natural calendar, our personal seasons are unpredictable and follow no regular pattern. Trials and troubles can appear suddenly out of the blue, challenges can seem insurmountable and we spend our days resenting our luck rather than counting our blessings. Of course, it’s easier to find the positives in a chilly few months of weather — even finding ways to enjoy them — than it is to find the bright side of ill health, job loss or or countless other personal traumas.

There are emotional seasons, dark days of winter when things don’t go well.

It’s not always the major ordeals that test us. For some it can be as simple as we’ve allowed ourselves to sink into depression for no apparent reason, for others it’s just been a time to withdraw and rethink our lives. I’ve had my share of difficult seasons and they didn’t always have a clear explanation. But, no matter what the cause of my emotional winters, I always found comfort in knowing that the season would change. Just like the four seasons of nature, none lasts forever and a period of renewal always seems to follow. Bright skies will return and my faith in the future will be rewarded. Winters can make us or break us. They’ll make us stronger if we roll with them and acknowledge that they form the natural cycle of life, a necessary period designed to regenerate, to restore our roots. We can emerge with renewed vigour because of them, refreshed by the promise of a change in the seasons. After all, without the darkness of winter, how can we truly know the light of spring? 

Photo by Rick Lee

Mixed Race

I have a problem with The Americans, and The Chinese too. I also take issue with The Jews, The Arabs and The Russians, The Blacks and The Whites give me the same cause for irritation and I positively hate The English.

Photo by Reimund Bertrams

Just to be clear, it’s the term I have a problem with. The Arabs, The English with the emphasis on ‘The’. It’s as though being born into one group with the same geographic or ethnic origin means we’re all clones of that demographic. In reality, we humans are a hugely diverse lot. We come in all shapes and sizes, colours and temperaments, and no two are identical, even as twins.

Photo by Karen Warfel

We hear a lot about race and racial prejudice, yet we tend to feed those same prejudices by clumping people together based on country of origin or racial characteristics such as skin colour, facial features or religious beliefs. Even our occupations come in for the same stereotypical labels. The Police being a current example of all being tarred with the same brush. It’s a fact that human beings come in a bewildering variety of physical and mental specimens, but strip us of our skins and it becomes a whole lot harder to tell us apart. Without our physical identifiers, our differences come down to psychological attributes, most of which are learned rather than inherited. When a child is born, they emerge into the world with none of the bias, none of the prejudices that blight our societies. 

Photo by Rick Lee

Whenever we attribute a collective label to people, we discard everything that makes us unique as individuals. It’s quite ridiculous to think that two people born in the same place must somehow be bound to think, act and live the same lives. They can be influenced by the same environment but how they respond to it can be, and often is, totally different.

Strip us of our skins and it becomes a whole lot harder to tell us apart

There’s a school of thought that thinks the human race is fundamentally good and is only corrupted by the societies in which we live. I tend to think there’s an element of Ying and Yang in the make-up of humans, a balance that’s self-regulating but always in a state of flux. We as humans are good and bad and everything in between. Our environment and interactions with each other has a huge influence on which side of the divide we fall. It’s up to each of us to fight our moral battles, to follow our conscience and decide how to live.

Photo by Jonathan Harrison

It seems to me that the labelling of people in this way is a critical factor in the way we reconcile and deal with grievances. By lumping everyone together under the same label we trigger defensive responses that immediately negate all hope of understanding. Sides of the arguments retreat to their defensive positions and agreement is often impossible to find. It’s particularly true of long standing conflicts between ethnic groups. How can we reach understanding when we lump everyone together with the same mindset, hold everyone responsible for what happened in the past because we see them as one like-minded entity?

Photo by Ganoshi

In truth, it’s individuals who start conflicts and lead us into wars. It’s individuals with self interests who create animosity, stir unrest and provoke clashes of culture. They bring out the worst in others, influencing any who will listen to their messages of hate and discrimination. They slowly contaminate enough individuals to sway the balance and silence the opposition. History is filled with men and women (mostly men) who have caused death and destruction, heartache and pain for millions. Their legacy is in the labels that lump us together to be judged by history, to promote the idea that we are of one mind and bear a collective blame for the past.

Photo by Laurent Verdier

Living for almost thirty years in Australia, ten years in Canada before that, I hear a lot about ‘The English’, some of it quite hostile. It generates that defensive response in me. I was born in England and I’m proud of that fact. I’m proud of my origins, my roots, my upbringing. I love the beauty of Britain, my football team (YNWA), fish and chips, and Yorkshire pud. I love my English family, my heritage of mill workers, farmers, labourers and sailors. That doesn’t mean I’m proud of everything attributed to the English state. Colonial history is full of examples that bring shame to those who plundered the world for their riches.

Photo by Spencer

It’s important to tell these stories and accept the dark episodes of our past and learn from them. But, I’m not ‘The English’. I’m not ‘The Whites’, just as those around me are not The Australians, The Aboriginals, The Blacks. We are all individuals who have our opinions, our faults and prejudices born of our experiences, our environment and our interactions with those we meet along the way. Would I want to be friends with every Englishman? No. I’ve met many a pom I’d wish to avoid. Nor would I want to be mates with every indigenous Australian, every Arab or American. I’m lucky to have met such wonderful people, individuals from all over the world. I’ve Aboriginal friends, Japanese, German and Italian. English, Irish, Scottish. I count Canadians, Americans, Russians and Indians as good, close friends and loved ones. Labels aside, they’re all, like me, individuals, citizens of this very mixed human race.

Photo by Truthseeker 08

I’m not The English

Same, same, same.

What do England, Belarus, China, Kenya and Chile have in common? They all have McDonald’s of course. As do over one hundred other countries across the planet. A quick walk around almost any major city and you’re sure to come across the famous golden arches. They’ve come to symbolize the relentless march of global brands. In fact, if the collective global brands had a brand, it might well be symbolized by the McDonald’s clown.

Photo by Lyman Gerona

There are now countless others, names that have spread the globe and are as familiar to our everyday lives as those of our family and friends. Apple, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Nike, relative newcomers like Amazon and Google. It wasn’t always that way. When we left England for a new home in Canada back in 1982, international franchises and fast-food chains were still something of a rarity in the UK. While McDonald’s was leading the way, Pizza Hut had only just begun introducing the English to pizzas at its new restaurants and almost nobody had heard of Burger King beyond the capital of London. When we arrived in Canada it was like we’d arrived on a different planet. Even in our small town of Owen Sound, there were fast-food chains strung out along avenues as far as the eye could see. Burger King, Harvey’s, Dominoes, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dairy Queen and Taco Bell to name just a few. Overwhelmed by the array of famous brands, it was something to write home about.

It was something to write home about

There was no slowing the progress of franchised food brands across the world. In just a few short years, the folks back home would be yawning at our tales of such choice. By the end of the eighties, Pizza Hut had a hundred stores in the UK, McDonald’s almost four hundred. It wasn’t just food outlets that jumped on the franchise bandwagon. Clothing, cosmetics, entertainment, all found a place at the table. The spread of brand names across the globe has been unstoppable ever since. Whether you live in Tokyo or Dublin, Buenos Aires or Cape Town, chances are you can walk into the same Burberry or Foot Locker, Mecca or Body Shop, and find the same products. Sadly, there’s a price to pay for ready availability of all these brands and it’s not necessarily at the checkout.

Photo by Jonathan Marchal

It used to be that travel was an adventure and a visit to a foreign city, a quest to discover its hidden delights, its unique charms. Even between the towns and cities within our own country borders, one could find diverse identities, evident in the local offerings of stores, products and restaurants. Admittedly, our destinations still have their history, their unique architecture and places of beauty. But, little by little, the diverse ways of life that so enthralled the traveller are disappearing. Towns and cities, even in remote communities, follow the same patterns of global conformity so that everywhere we go we find the same names, the same branding, same products, same, same.

Photo by Kirsten Ruggero

There will be many who’ll applaud the spread, people who like the predictability of brands. Faced with a choice of the unknown or the familiar, they’ll opt for the names they know. Everyone knows what to expect from a McDonald’s no matter what they think of the quality. You know what you’ll get whether you’re in Moscow or Manchester.

Photo by Aleks Dorohovich

Local food from an unknown outlet might prove to be a disappointment, so choosing a Big Mac avoids the risk. It’s a pretty poor solution but it’s the rationale at the heart of the franchise success.

Photo by Sofie Layla Thal

In the process, we’ve lost the joy of discovery, the excitement of finding that special place to eat or shop, that delightful plate of food that portrays the region’s cuisine. For every huge brand that opens its doors, there are a dozen locals that close theirs. It’s a huge loss to local culture. We opt for large shopping malls and mega-retail precincts – each identical with their big-name brands – over the unique diversity of the local high-street, local shops and eateries. Am I alone in thinking this is not progress, that we are all the poorer because of it?

Photo by HauiM2

Four Horsemen

One might be forgiven for thinking that we’re about to see four horsemen come riding over the horizon. Survival, at times, seems precarious at best on a planet that throws us new challenges daily. In the space of twelve tumultuous months, we’ve seen devastating fires, pestilence on a biblical scale, and great floods to wash away our hopes of a return to normality.

Image by ATDS Photo

At times end of days looks a real possibility. Add to this the hostility and anger, the divisions that appear to be growing within our societies, the adversarial stances taken by once friendly neighbors, tensions between traditional adversary nations, and our future looks dim.

Image by Enrique Lopez Garre

Catastrophes, both natural and man-made, are nothing new of course. The planet is a dynamic ball of smoldering molten rock; it’s still cooling down at its core 4.5 billion years after its birth. We cling to it for survival and have been doing since life first found a tenuous foothold amongst the bubbling pools of toxic chemicals and noxious clouds of gas. We think this world is ours, created for our exclusive use. But, in reality, we as humans have no right to the planet. We have to work for our keep, respecting and nurturing the delicate balance of our existence in a hostile world that only tolerates our tenancy; it has no respect for our grandiose views of self-importance.

Photo by Steve Wilson

The planet, for its part, has been fighting its own battles, tearing itself apart since time began, overheating, chilling down through periodic ice ages, cracking along fault lines then healing its wounds. Giant volcanoes erupt every year, demonstrations of power that prove that the earth is far from the finished product. It’s a world of constant change, death and re-birth. Despite the ongoing genesis we live at a time when the earth is at its most stable. We are lucky to live during a time of relative respite, when if we worked together to manage our footprints, we might ride out the storms that come to test us. Yet, we keep doing our best to abuse our good fortune. We plunder the earth’s resources polluting our own nests because of a lust to consume beyond our needs. When will enough be enough before the earth fails?

Image by Gerd Altmann

“Save the planet!” It’s a line we hear constantly, but save it from what, from us?  The truth is, it’s us that needs saving. The earth will shrug us off like flees from a dog’s back when the time comes. It’s not the planet that’s in danger. We seem to think human life is sacred, that the planet exists solely for our benefit. But, the natural order of life is that it comes and goes. We live, we die, whether we’re ants or antelopes, flowers or frogs. The transient nature of life means that nothing has precedence. We’re all just fleeting tenants of a world in constant change fighting for our survival and that of our children. Extinction comes to all of us as individuals, it’s an inevitability we just can’t avoid. Is the extinction of an entire species any different? When we cry “save the earth” we’re really asking to save our own hides.

End of days, Pompeii Photo by Rick Lee

The earth can look after itself, thankyou very much. A million years from now – a blink in the earth’s evolution – there won’t be a sign of human occupation. The world we know now will crumble to dust and disappear beneath a new layer of life.

The truth is, it’s us that needs saving

Photo by Fabien Monteil

Long after we’ve lost our battles to survive as a species, the earth will recover and new cycles of life will evolve and perish. Rainforests will thrive, new species will emerge and dominate, civilizations will rise and fall. Perhaps they will mirror our own human form, building great cities before making the same mistakes and perishing once more. But, through all this the earth, this dynamic living sphere we call home, will survive and flourish. Maybe we should be calling to save us instead of to save the planet, save us from ourselves.

My Eden

Of all the gifts I inherited from my mum and dad, the love of gardens is perhaps the most rewarding. Both my parents were avid gardeners. During summer months we would find them still working in the garden even after dark. I look back on my childhood where gardens featured heavily in daily life and see how easily the seeds of my own passion were planted by their love for the earth and its riches. Each had their own areas of particular interest. Dad had his veggies and flowers, prize winning dahlias and chrysanthemums the size of dinner plates.

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova

At one time, Dad had two allotments (rented plots of council land) in addition to the home garden. From spring to autumn, cut flowers would stand in buckets of water outside our house and sell for one shilling a bunch along with excess vegetables fresh from the garden. Most of the produce went to feed our own hungry mouths in a household of seven. In summer months our greenhouse would spill with tomatoes, the smell of which lingers in my memory along with that taste we no longer seem to find in modern varieties. They’re now grown for impact resistance rather than taste and smell.

Photo by Couleur

While Dad was the provider, Mum was the creator. A skilled gardener, Mum combined her horticultural knowledge of plants with an artistic flair for landscape display. We used to say that you could give her a walking stick and she’d bring it back to life in a spectacular display of leaves and flowers. Mum was a horticultural artist and worked her magic until well into her nineties. Her gardens did get smaller in her later years but they never lost their brilliance. She achieved many awards over the years including Grand Champions and Mayor’s Cups. It was in this environment of earth, sun and flowers that I grew and found my own love for gardens.

Mum with one of her prize winning gardens

Gardens are spiritual places. They provide escape from the modern world, sanctuary when we need it most. They are a microcosm of life at large, where the cycles and seasons encapsulate our hopes and expectations, where death and decay are followed by birth and renewal, hope follows despair. No matter how dark the winter, spring is a certainty. We sow, we reap, and so the cycle of life goes on. I’ve always found gardens to be places of contemplation, where one can find peace when troubled. They’re like churches and chapels, sanctuaries for those in need of some time to re-group before going again back to a world of ever-increasing pace. Gardens can leave you inspired and refreshed; they can restore the soul.

Our garden at Hill Top

Gardens provide habitat, havens for wildlife. They’re magical places where nature takes a helping hand from man; the results can be truly wonderful. I’ve created several gardens from scratch and find nothing more rewarding than seeing the wildlife move in to share it. Birds and lizards, spiders and butterflies, squirrels and possums, they all find a home once the welcome mat is rolled out.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece

Claude Monet
Our garden Tuggerah

Not everyone can have a large garden but the smallest of patches can be just as wonderful. There’s patios and balconies, even a window box can provide a touch of nature. For those who can’t have either, there’s the fabulous parks and botanic gardens that give so much pleasure to communities around the world. They maintain a vital link with the diminishing habitats of our forests and plains, wetlands and savannas.

Photo by Rick Lee

Sadly, gardens are reminders of what we risk losing if the natural world is left unprotected from our insatiable appetite for consumption. If habitat destruction continues at its current relentless rate, gardens may all be that’s left. Perhaps we need to take a seat on a garden bench and contemplate that thought before it’s too late.

When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.

Minnie Aumonier

 

A Simple Life

I thought retirement would mean more time to do nothing, that I’d sit and idle away the days drinking tea and watching the world go by. I’d seen other retirees drift peacefully into oblivion, not a care in the universe and not a thought in the brain except for fond memories of days gone by. It didn’t take long to realize that I had no intention of being idle and that I had a bucket list of things to accomplish. What I didn’t expect was that days in so-called retirement would be too short and that time would pass with astonishing speed as I tried hopelessly to hang on to every minute. I found that my stress levels had not changed and there just weren’t enough hours in the day to get things done. I was becoming increasingly aware that I was not really living a simpler life, the life I thought I would lead after leaving the rat-race world of business behind me.

Photo by Mable Amber

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to change my habits and lifestyle. My wife and I did make changes, deciding to downscale and move further away from the city. We built a new, smaller house in a little village with a big shed for retirement projects, something to keep me from being bored. I now had time, I thought, to work in the garden, grow veggies and keep a flock of chickens for some real country living. I would be at peace with myself and enjoy my senior years as life intended, with a cup of Earl Grey and an afternoon snooze each day. But, in reality, it wasn’t so easy. No commutes and no business trips turned out to be a great gift of time after years of travelling for work, yet, if I didn’t use that time fully and in a meaningful way, it just felt wasted. I couldn’t shake the habits of the past, the need to achieve something substantial. I found that if a day passed without goals and accomplishment, I would be left with a feeling of guilt. Years of pushing for achievement and growth had left me unable to relax and let things go. I wanted to live a simpler life, I just couldn’t.

I wanted to live a simpler life, I just couldn’t.

I looked to writing as a way to relax, only to find that writing is an immense struggle where goals are all important. It requires discipline and an enormous amount of graft to succeed. I found, in fact, that writing a novel is an all-consuming battle that must be fought until the end; it drains you. Two novels later I needed a rest and once again found myself looking for a simpler way of living, wondering when I’d be able to let go of the need to strive for something big.

Photo by Markus Winkler

Of course, simpler doesn’t necessarily mean easier. My family and I spent a number of years in Canada living in close proximity to a community of Mennonites. Like the Amish of America, Mennonites often live very simply, shunning modern technology and living off, and, with the land. It’s a hard life even if it is simple. Our local Canadian Mennonite neighbours worked without the aid of machinery and modern technology. They formed a highly religious farming community unfettered by the constant pressures of consumerism and growth, things that bring so much anxiety and mental anguish to modern lives. Many Mennonites live without the basics of electricity, television, computers, internet, smartphones and even cars.

The slow lane on a Mennonite farm. Photo by Rick Lee

But it’s a way of life that few in the western world would be willing to embrace. And while I like the idea of a life off the grid, I’m not sure I could cope with such simplicity. Still, there are lessons to be learned from communities like the Mennonites.

Winter chill in Mennonite country. Photo by Rick Lee

A simpler life could be the result for all of us if we, as a society, dropped the constant need for growth at all costs and considered enough was enough. It wouldn’t have to be an extremely spartan life, just a life within our means. We hear the term, ’sustainable living’, yet there’s little inclination from leadership to pursue the idea on a global scale, and our individual efforts are often just tokens.

The walk to school for Mennonite children. Photo Rick Lee

Perhaps the key to a simple life lies in how cluttered the world has become. We surround ourselves with excess, both physical and mental. If we want to live a simpler life, we must de-clutter and get rid of the unnecessary, and that includes a spring clean of our cluttered minds. And there lies the crux of the matter for me; I can’t live a simpler life while my head is filled with projects, plans and ideas. I need to chill and find satisfaction without feeling the need to reach a conclusion or goal, without always looking to achieve something each and every day.

Perhaps the key to a simple life lies in how cluttered the world has become.

Over Christmas, our daughter-in-law introduced my wife and I to the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi. (No, not the green stuff you put on sushi.) This Japanese philosophy asks us to seek pleasure in life’s hidden blessings. Celebrating how things are as opposed to how they should be or how we think they should be. It asks us to appreciate and accept that nothing is ever perfect, nothing lasts forever, and nothing is ever finished. As I learned more, I realized that these three principles are at the heart of my problem; they are the core values of achievement. When we strive to achieve, we seek perfection, we want our work to be complete, and we hope to leave a lasting legacy. I realized that if I could accept the principles of Wabi Sabi, perhaps I could accept things the way they are, slow down and shift from doing to being, appreciating instead of striving.

Rural life in the mountains of Japan. Photo by Rick Lee

There’s a lot more to Wabi Sabi than these three basic ideas, but they provide a clue to the life I now crave. I’m not about to give up writing – I have three novels under way – but I can change the way I approach it. I’ll try to take my time and write when the mood takes me rather than drive myself to the last chapter. I’ll take breaks from writing. Painting has always been an interest of mine and I’ve set myself up with a little painting studio in the garden where inspiration comes from nature and the ambience is conducive to relaxation. Unlike writing, I find painting to be a more tranquil pursuit, I can get lost in the moment and the world just drifts on by. The focus of painting promotes mindfulness and a sense of pleasure without pressure. There are other changes to make. My wife and I are going to go for regular walks again, ride our bikes and enjoy our wonderful Southern Highlands. I’ll do a little photography, get out in the garden more often, another pursuit that tends to free the mind. Above all, I’m going to try not to look at days without goals and achievement as wasted days and think of them as therapy for the mind and soul.

Photo by Susanne Palmer

We are about to close one of the most traumatic years in our lives. It feels like a good time to regroup, re-think and rejuvenate. A simple life may not be as simple as I thought it would be, but I’ll simply have to try.

Wishing you peace of mind, health and happiness for the New Year and 2021 – Lee Richie