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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
It’s approaching year-end and the subject of fireworks is back in the news. Should we? Shouldn’t we? With the pandemic still raging around the globe, we are asking the question if it’s appropriate to see in the New Year with a fireworks celebration. After all, what is there to celebrate except for the passing of a terrible year that has been marked by tragedy for so many?
Fireworks have long been used to celebrate important events. Invented by the Chinese, they’ve been lighting up the sky since the Song Dynasty in 960 AD. To celebrate festivals such as the Chinese New Year, ordinary folks could purchase paper tubes filled with gunpowder, stringing them together to form clusters of explosions. Official firework displays were held to mark events using rockets to explode like flowers in the night sky. Over a thousand years later and we’re still doing the same. Fireworks are used for all kinds of celebrations in every part of the world. My family and I experienced our first truly spectacular display on the shores of Georgian Bay after emigrating to Canada. We had never seen such fireworks as we celebrated our first Canada Day in our new country. Years late after moving to Australia, we were blown away by the Sydney Harbour extravaganza. A far cry from the backyard pops and sizzles that my father set out in the days of my youth and before we left old England’s shores.
Earlier this month, the United Kingdom celebrated Guy Fawkes Night, sometimes known as Bonfire Night or simply Fireworks Night. It’s an occasion I remember fondly from my childhood. November 5th commemorates the attempted assassination of King James the First in a gunpowder plot designed to blow up the Houses of Parliament. After being discovered beneath the House of Lords with a cache of explosives, Guy Fawkes was arrested and sentenced to be hanged for his treason. In celebration, bonfires were lit across the country and the date marked on the annual calendar. Children built effigies of Guy Fawkes and took them door to door begging for money before burning them on the bonfires each year.
As the years passed, fireworks were added to the celebrations and the money raised by children went to buy a range of bangers and rockets, available freely at local stores for pennies. I recall with great pride how we cleared out the Girl Guides hut each year with a volley of crackers, running from the scene of the crime with giggles of satisfaction as girls screamed wildly from within. A penny would buy two small bangers while three pence would buy an impressive little Atom Bomb or a Rip Rap with multiple explosions.
As a child, I was always looking for ways to push the boundaries. Bangers were great, but they were limited when it came to putting on a real show. I had always wanted a chemistry set but Mum, knowing what that could mean in the hands of a mischievous boy, was having nothing of it. It never stopped me from experimenting and I would purchase little tubes of chemicals from a shop in Liverpool where they had no qualms about selling to children. All in the name of education of course. I wanted an improved Guy Fawkes event, featuring a bang that would leave everyone singing my praises. How hard could it be to make a firework, right? I set to work using my vast scientific knowledge, gathering household ingredients along with my stock of regular chemicals, a bit of fertilizer here, some chlorine there. It’s amazing what you can find that could help with a big bang.
With firework night fast approaching, it was imperative to hold a dress rehearsal. After all, it would be so embarrassing to light the fuse with the whole neighbourhood watching only for it to fizz and fizzle in a puff of wimpy smoke. So, enlisting the help of my brother, Mike, we headed for the garden at nightfall. Mike held the torch while I carefully set my “Grand Boomer” on the ground and lit the fuse. Whoosh! In one incredible flash, I saw the light of my error, literally. Note to self: next time let Mike light the fuse. I staggered around the garden, hands outstretched before me, feeling the air like a zombie. It was a scene from the Return of the Living Dead. “Don’t tell Mum,” was all I could say as the skin peeled from my face. “What do you mean don’t tell Mum?” says Mike. “You have no eyebrows or hair and you’re blind. You don’t think she’ll notice?” Needless to say, she did notice. After some medical treatment and a short recovery, I was grounded, my chemical stores removed for safekeeping. Thankfully my sight slowly returned and so did my eyebrows. My venture into pyrotechnic production had ended in a flash. Pity there were no smartphones around to record what must have been a spectacular display. I certainly saw fireworks.
Next time let Mike light fuse
Back to the question of fireworks and the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Thankfully, (touch wood) we are in pretty good shape here in Australia and the virus is currently under control. People are free to get together for Christmas and New Year. Nevertheless, it just doesn’t seem right to be celebrating extravagantly while our friends and family around the world are in the thick of this awful battle. We had the same discussion last year when bushfires raged all around us, and there were arguments both for and against. They went ahead anyway and Sydney put on the usual magnificent display over the harbour, but for those of us who were impacted by the fires, it felt a little insensitive and only served to remind us that not everyone shared our pain.
Our Premier has decided that this year’s show will go ahead as usual, but this year it will be muted. There will be a short event at midnight, an official show of thanks to our front-line workers who have helped us through this traumatic year. I like to think that the fireworks will be an exhibition of hope and optimism, a turning point in our fortunes as the world looks to the future and light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. When we look to the skies, we’ll take a break for a few minutes from the emotional strain and see the prospect of a new day, a brighter New Year, and we’ll think of those less fortunate and wish them well.
Many thanks to all those who have bought Black Bones, Red Earth. It’s now available for those who haven’t from Amazon as well as bookstores worldwide. Give it as a gift this Christmas.
There’s something magical about mountains. They’ve inspired authors, poets and painters for centuries, been a place of pilgrimage for some, escape for others. It’s no wonder that in many cultures they are worshiped as living beings, such is their power to elicit emotional responses. It’s just a natural reflex when we say that the very sight of them takes our breath away.
My own love affair with high ranges began as a child, rooted in the passion shared by my parents. Mum and Dad had long been devoted mountaineers and fell walkers. They met during WWII in an army camp where they were both stationed in Northern Ireland. Such was their love for the mountains that they spent their honeymoon on leave climbing the mountains of the English Lake District and dreaming of a place amongst them to call home. Once they had a family, they took every opportunity to head north from our home in Liverpool to the mountains. The mountaineering genes soon took root in me, my sister and three brothers. Mum and Dad even named my older brother, Michael Mallory, after one of Dad’s mountaineering heroes, George Mallory, an English climber who died while trying to conquer Mount Everest.
Times were hard in those early years, but camping was an affordable option for a large family. Every summer we’d travel to Cumbria on the bus, each child carrying their own sleeping bag and camping paraphernalia. We would share a large canvas tent – it weighed about 70lbs – and Dad would lug it on his back along with his rucksack and cooking gear. We’d endure the English summer rains – Cumbria has the highest rainfall in the country – for a chance to don the hiking boots and head for the summits. Undeterred by weather, we trod a path through the high country, seven ducks in a row, and learned to enjoy the simple pleasures derived from overcoming the challenges these high mountains set before us.
In my youth the pull of mountains continued. I’d hitch-hike with friends to camp amongst the peaks, sometimes pitching our tent high in the mountains, waking in the early dawn to find our campsite shrouded in mist, washing our faces in the icy mountain streams. It’s a feeling of isolation and tranquility I’ll never forget. Of take-your-breath-away moments in the mountains, I have many memories. One such experience occurred while climbing with a friend on Glyda Fawr in Snowdonia, Wales. Conditions were treacherous with freezing rain and mist. A thick layer of shiny ice covered every rock and boulder; we really should have aborted the climb and retired to a warm pub in safety. Nevertheless, challenged by the harsh conditions, we pressed on to the summit, knowing full well that there would be no panoramic views of the Welsh countryside, only the satisfaction of reaching the top in difficult circumstances.
It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss
Fifty feet from the apex we emerged from the mist. ‘Topping out’ they call it, a halleluiah moment of revelation. It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss, popping our heads through a trapdoor to see a new world emerge in all its glory. Stretched before me, a carpet of fluffy white cloud spread to every horizon beneath a pure blue sky. Only the summit of Snowdon – Wales’ highest mountain – poked through the clouds like an island in some fantasy world of cotton wool seas. At the time I had yet to fly in an aircraft and it’s a view I’ve since observed in the comfort of an air-conditioned cabin many times, but on that day with the rocks of the earth firmly beneath my feet, it was a sight that left me speechless and has stuck with me as a vivid memory ever since.
My wife and I followed in Mum and Dad’s footsteps, spending our honeymoon hiking the fells of the Lake District. My own children were raised climbing those same mountains. We too spent our family vacations camping and hiking the high country. My wife shares that same love and we have had the good fortune to climb in the American Adirondacks, the Canadian Rockies, the Swiss and German Alps and volcanoes in the Pacific among others.
It’s easy to understand just why mountain analogies are used to describe life’s challenges. It’s all about conquering things much bigger than ourselves. We set ourselves a challenge and slog away until we beat it. Like some of the physical peaks I’ve climbed, there have been many daunting challenges in my life. There were times I thought of giving up on some before refocusing and forging on to the top. Sir Edmund Hillary – another of Dad’s heroes – once said: “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Testing ourselves is something unique to humans. It’s in our character to strive and overcome. When ever the going gets too hard, I look to others for inspiration. I see those who face daily battles of immense proportions fighting back from terrible injury or illness, hardship and loss; these are the true heroes and it always brings back perspective to my own life with its peaks and valleys.
It’s in the blood this passion I have for the ranges. Mum and Dad achieved their dream, their own private mountain conquered when they retired to a cottage in their beloved Lake District. Dad rests in a little church yard looking up to the fells. Mum was still climbing those high peaks well into her eighties and passed on aged 96. Her ashes are scattered on the mountains she loved so dearly.
I retain an old canvas haversack from my teenage years and we’ve carted it around the world for decades. My wife has tried to throw it out many times and each time I’ve rescued it from the dustbin. She says she will bury me in it and that’s ok with me. When the time comes, I’d like my ashes to be packed in the old bag (not talking about the wife here) and carried to the summit of my favorite mountain where it should be buried for eternity amongst the peaks that have inspired my life.