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

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

Living the high life

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.

Photo by Rick Lee

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.

Photo by Denis Lee circa 1963

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.

Photo by Irene Lee

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. 

Topping out! Photo by Gianni Crestani

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.

Photo by Rick Lee

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.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

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.

Photo by Christine Lee

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.   

Escape to the Country

It’s been a while since my last blog. My computer crashed and had to go to computer hospital. Thankfully, my friend is a doctor and though my faithful Dell showed no evidence of a virus, the poor PC had to undergo radical reconstruction surgery. Like me, it’s getting on a bit and needs these regular updates to keep it going, but thanks to Doctor Whizz, my ageing Dell is now running like a spritely newborn and performing its duties with ease.

Photo by Annca

Speaking of viruses, I for one have had enough already. So far this year we’ve had devastating fires and pestilence; thankfully we live on a hill because it’s been raining nonstop for two days and floods are now imminent. I’m waiting for a plague of locusts to descend on the Southern Highlands and eat all our veggies from the garden plot. It’s a year of biblical events and I need to escape!  If only we could just fly away to some paradise, far from the Covid crowd and just chill. “You’re a writer,” I hear you say. “Just use your imagination and you’re on an exotic isle somewhere.” True, but I’m after the real thing, a warm breeze tickling the hairs on my skin, the fragrance of frangipani wafting in the night air, the rhythmic crash of waves against the rocks as a full moon rises. I want to sip on a tequila sunrise and watch the stars twinkle above the ocean, a steel band playing Kokomo at the beach bar in the background. D’oh! You’ve got me doing it, haven’t you; that imagination thing?

Photo by Rick Lee

Imagination is a powerful mode of transport. With travel options at a premium right now, I like to look back on times when we were able to venture far afield and to savour the precious memories I’ve accumulated. It’s a good time to take out the old photos and videos and relive the adventures of years gone by, and to dream of journeys to come when better times return. They will return.

Photo by Rick Lee

For now, we have to make the most of what we’ve got and memories can serve up a vivid escape from the day-to-day reality of this awful pandemic. I’m looking through my thousands of photos, one and a half terabytes of priceless moments, thankful once again to Doctor Whizz for making sure I had backups before Dell went down.

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

A snap of local children takes me back to a village in Vanuatu, a stark moonscape image brings me to the rim of a volcano on Tanna. When I see the sky reflected in rice paddies, I’m transported back to Bali or the world heritage village of Shirakawago in remote Japan. A short video of a cigar maker takes me back to a steamy night in New Orleans, listening to live Jazz until dawn in the French Quarter. I can smell the cigar smoke in the humid night air as I enjoy it over again and pledge to return one day.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

Red sands glow in the United Arab Emirates, while the sight of rolling hills in Tuscany brings back the smell of pecorino cheese in the village of Pienza, pizza and red wine at a trattoria in Florence. These captured moments can be as real now as they were at the time. It’s that imagination thing again.

Photo by Rick Lee

There are other ways to escape confinement. Think local. There’s more than we imagine right on our doorstep. Unless you’re unfortunate enough to be confined to quarantine, in lock-down or isolation, a walk in the park can be just as therapeutic, a walk in the country even better. There’s something about nature that automatically provides an escape. It’s hard not to live in the moment when surrounded by such beauty. Even a garden can provide a myriad of distractions, there in every detail observed at close quarters. The veins on a leaf, the petals of a flower. The iridescence of an insect’s wing.

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

It’s deep into winter here in the highlands. I’m watching trees thrashing in the wind and raindrops hanging like tears from empty branches; not the best time to go for a walk. But, from the window of my cosy office, I can see the first daffodils are splashing their brilliance on a miserable grey day, a show of hope, a sign of brighter times to come. A Crimson Rosella is fighting the wind to cling on to a branch and a Kookaburra, fluffed up in a ball of feathers, is waiting for a worm or a lizard to stir in the leaf litter. Spring is a month away but there’s a promise of better times in the air, times when we can emerge from isolation and travel this wonderful earth once again. Until then, I’ll open up the album and use my imagination to escape to the country. Any country will do.

Photo by Rick Lee

    

Any country will do

Blood, Sweat and Tears

There’s something about great construction works that stir the blood. Magnificent cathedrals, bridges that span vast rivers, castles and skyscrapers, they all stand as monuments to human achievement.  I remember watching the tragedy of the Notre Dame cathedral fire unfold and thinking how devastating the loss of such an iconic piece of history. Every time I see that great church I think of Charles Laughton swinging down from the bell tower to rescue his fair maiden, declaring sanctuary as the hunchback took refuge in the tower with his beautiful prize.

Notre Dame Cathedral fire

More recently, I watched Queen Elizabeth arriving at Windsor Castle for her own piece of sanctuary during the COVID-19 lockdown and marvelled at the resilient structure that has stood for 900 years and has protected kings and queens through the ages. Castles and palaces abound in Britain and having been born and raised in England, I still have a great sense of pride in these truly wonderful structures and the pageantry and history that surrounds them. I’m certain that most Brits feel the same way, just as the French must revere their cathedrals and chateaus, the Louvre and grand palaces like Versailles. Yet, as I got to thinking about this, I started to wonder how it is that such symbols of elite power could inspire pride in the hearts of the masses. Like most great monuments, they are built on the backs of the underprivileged and impoverished.

Photo by Dean Moriarty

Throughout history, people of wealth and power have exploited society’s weakest and used them to build ever more wealth and power, symbolised by great edifices and grand architecture. Absolute monarchies and military dictatorships had long ruled the world before modern democracies evolved to give some measure of control to the people. I say “some measure of control” because we are still largely at the mercy of the rich and powerful, and in many countries, just as oppressed as those who struggled through the middle ages. It took a revolution in France to place their palaces in the hands of the masses. A civil war in Britain eventually ended in a compromise, handing power to an elected parliament while leaving wealth with the aristocrats and the crown.

Photo by Mike’s photos

It wasn’t just kings, queens and emperors that manipulated the vulnerable to build their riches, churches acquired vast amounts of wealth and power and took a leading role in controlling the population. While the poor underclass lived without basic needs, they were taxed and stripped of meagre assets to fund grand churches, monasteries and temples of every faith throughout the world. It’s a story repeated; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Even today, churches are some of the world’s wealthiest organisations while parts of their flocks suffer great hardship.

Photo by Andrea Spallanzani

While the vast majority of the world’s population have at some time lived in poverty and ill health, the privileged classes have taken advantage, building extravagant constructions to immortalise themselves in time. Many of the most vulnerable paid the ultimate price. It has been estimated that the Great Wall of China was built at the expense of at least 500,000 lives, not to mention the cost in pain and misery. The great pyramids of Egypt would tell a similar story as would most of the world’s great wonders.

Photo by Pete Linforth

Great projects at the expense of lives are not confined to ancient history. Modern feats of extraordinary endeavour have continued to place a heavy toll on those tasked with their construction. Over 120,000 workers lost their lives building the Suez Canal. America’s Trans-Continental railway cost 1,200 lives, and while everyone knows of the death toll when the twin towers came down, building the World Trade Centre took 60 lives from the ranks of construction workers. Qatar’s 2022 world cup construction projects have so far claimed 34 lives, but independent estimates put the number at well over 1000 when cardiovascular deaths due to heat exhaustion are taken into account. Whichever way you want to put it, it’s too high a price for poor migrant workers to pay so the rich can play games.

So, why is it that we can look at a grand tomb or a palace built by a king and experience wonder and awe, pride in a heritage that surely left our ancestors begging on the streets and burying their dead? Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins.

Photo by Rick Lee

Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins!

Perhaps we recognise the human cost and want to let them stand as reminders. Or, maybe it’s simply our admiration for what human beings can achieve in the very worst of conditions, recognition of the blood, sweat and tears, the sacrifices made by ordinary men and women that stirs our love for such monuments.

Photo by Rashed Rana

What those in power sought to have built were tributes to themselves, legacies to immortalise them as great men and women. But, what they got instead are lasting memorials to the ingenuity, graft and sacrifice of those whose names are not written in stone. They are the men women and children who suffered to achieve their immortality, and it’s to them we pay tribute when we look on with awe and admire these extraordinary national treasures. 

The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price.

Photo by Rick Lee

We are still building monuments, modern monoliths of glass and steel that soar skyward to the heavens. The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price. The world’s richest 1% owns 44% of the world’s wealth. In 2018, 26 people owned as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population. But, that’s a story for another time.

 

Boy in a Bubble

There’s an old one-liner in which a man says to his wife, “How can I miss you if you won’t leave?” But in these times of forced separation and isolation, missing people is an all too familiar effect of the current situation and it’s really no joke. It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone. I think we all know by now just what we’ve lost and can’t wait for things to return to normal. Along with the coronavirus itself, these feelings of separation anxiety are in pandemic proportions right now. There are not many of us who’ve escaped such personal trauma. Life has been turned on its head and it’s like we’ve all been consigned to the confines of our own little bubbles.

Photo by Lars Nissen

I watched the viral video clip of the Italian suitor who arrived at his girl’s house inside a large plastic bubble to ask her out on a date. It was all good fun and a bit of light-hearted entertainment during desperate times in Italy, yet it triggered a memory in me and brought a tinge of fear, causing my heart to beat faster and the hairs to stand on the back of my neck. The reason? When I was a small boy, I had a bad case of croup, a respiratory disease caused by a virus that causes swelling and narrowing of the airways. I well remember the terrifying struggle to breathe, the ambulance bells and the emergency dash to hospital where I spent days in a plastic oxygen tent in the intensive care unit. (Perhaps it was this experience that led to my extreme claustrophobia later in life.) As the days passed and I started to recover, it was the separation from my family that caused even more anxiety. Seeing the blurry faces of Mum and Dad outside my plastic bubble and not being able to touch them was not an easy thing for a sick child to deal with. Just as now, the hospital staff were brilliant and I was able to recover and leave in good health, but the trauma has stayed with me, and the thought of struggling to breathe while trapped inside a bubble is quite real.

Oxygen tent circa 1960

For a hugger like myself, social distancing is a real bummer and separation from family is for me, like most of us, the worst of this pandemic.

Photo by Alexandra Koch

Our kids practiced social distancing long before the term was coined. I recall the road trips for holidays across America, three boys in the back seat of our car who demanded their own personal space. “He’s touching me!” “Am not!” “Yes you are.” “Am not!” They would test each other to the limit by seeing how close they could place a hand while the other would cry foul. “He’s doing it on purpose!” “I’m not. He’s the one who’s touching me.” And so the battle would go for one weary mile after the other while we would threaten to turn right around and go home if they couldn’t just get along. Those were the good old days.

Don’t touch! Photo by Gerd Altmann

There have been times in my life when separation has been a consequence of the decisions I made. Like living away from home while training to build boats in Norfolk. Thankfully it was not too long before the family reunited and we moved to the Broads to be near the work. Then there was the big one, the move to Canada from England. In the words of Frank Sinatra: Regrets, I’ve had a few. Though I’ve never regretted our moves around the world, I do regret leaving family and friends behind, especially when we first moved from England. It’s one of those things that comes back to me when I watch our children live their lives and see our grandchildren grow, and I think of what it would be like if they left for the other side of the world. We were young and desperate for a better life for our children when we left England’s shores. I can’t imagine the terrible loss our parents must have felt when we left them behind. Of course, we too felt the loss of family.

“I do regret leaving family and friends behind when we moved to Canada.”

There was a short time after arriving in Canada when we seriously thought about turning right around and heading back to those we loved. But we didn’t and the rest is history. Our separation anxiety was increased in those days by the lack of communication options. Unlike today, we had few ways to stay in touch and it was usually by letter. We couldn’t afford a phone for a long time, and when we did eventually get one installed, the cost of calls to England were then quite prohibitive and a phone call became a big event. Each time we called home, we had to go through the operator who told us that all lines to England were busy. Sometimes we would try for hours to get through, and then the call lasted only minutes. At least now during lockdown we can see our family on FaceTime, What’s App and programs like Zoom and House Party. How I wish my parents had had that when we went away all those years ago.

Photo by Engin_Akyurt

I know I’m not alone in thinking that this terrible pandemic has made me re-think how we go about our lives. It’s highlighted just how important our contact with family and friends is to us. Life can sometimes get so busy that we find ourselves drifting through the days in isolated bubbles of self-imposed exile. Then when that isolation is suddenly forced on us, we realise too late that we’ve been taking our freedom to be together for granted. When this awful thing is over, and it will be over, I’ll be doing some serious hugging and popping some bubbles. They won’t be plastic either.

Photo by Digeman