The Wood Wide Web and a Bill of Rights

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Today, the Guardian’s Review section carries a piece by Robert Macfarlane about a growing movement to grant rights to parts of the landscape, seen by some as one way to protect and preserve them. It opens by describing how in December 2018 the Ohio city of Toledo passed a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Lake Erie, which for years had been heavily polluted and reached a crisis point in 2014 when for three days, during the hottest part of the year, it had been impossible to extract drinkable water from the lake.

The piece goes on to discuss the pros and cons of these laws, especially the potential problems of recognising, say, a river or a forest as a ‘person’ in law, and how that might play out in legal disputes.

At the heart of the Extinction Crisis we are currently suffering, in what is now recognised as the Anthropocene – the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. – is the way that we, as a society, view the world we live in and those we share it with. And this has powerful consequences at a time when we are directly causing the extinction of so many plant and animal species, and thence the wholesale destruction of ecosystems and the consequent changes to the climate this triggers.

I have always thought of the Earth as consisting of two distinct layers; a rocky planet – a core – wrapped in a mantle of life, a mantle whole and made up of countless billions of organisms all influencing and influenced by each other; a true web of life that we are all part of, but no longer seem to recognise. And by the same token when we think of somewhere as a ‘place’, we commonly imagine it in isolation, as though it existed somehow despite its myriad neighbours. For example, if I ask you to imagine ‘London’ you may have an image of Central London with its familiar landmarks, filled with hurrying people and buses and cars. Or it might be the Docklands area, the West End – any one of thousands of parts of the city. But would you have an image of a city connected to the counties around it by roads, by streams and rivers, by areas of woodland and fields, the flight paths of birds, the daily migration of commuters or the dominant weather patterns, and then this greater area connected even further to the rest of the country, and then this country connected by seas filled with life to other countries and continents?

And this same lack of imagination frequently makes us see everything around us with the blinkered eyes of our own vested interests. Some will view a landscape as something to be exploited purely for financial gain, be it to extract oil, perhaps, or to maximise the yield of farmland by destroying woodland and hedgerow, infilling ponds and killing wildlife. Some may feel it imperative to build more and bigger roads, covering dozens more square kilometres with concrete and asphalt, as though it were so necessary that we should always be able to travel faster than we do already.

It is still quite controversial, but botanists are just beginning to understand the extent to which trees communicate with each other and the remarkable way their roots are all connected through networks of fungal threads – the Wood Wide Web, as it is sometimes called. It is supposed that trees communicate to each other through these threads about things such as insect attacks, which may trigger defence mechanisms in individuals before they are actually under attack. In that way alone, it is appropriate to think of a forest as a single living entity.

To return to the laws that might protect the natural world, what we really need are laws that recognise the importance of this mantle, and how every part of it relates to every other. And this includes our own part in this relationship, since we are very much part of it, and in the end we depend upon it for our own lives.

Spain 1

I’ve been to Spain a dozen or so times, although I’ve never posted about it before.

I’ve been there as a tourist / traveller – the words are interchangeable, and where one stops and the other begins is very much a matter of personal taste. Some travellers would be highly offended if you referred to them as tourists, yet the Oxford dictionary defines a tourist as a person who makes a tour, a traveller, esp. for recreation. It is a snob thing, really. Many travellers like to think of themselves as being too serious to be a mere tourist. Perhaps it has a lot to do with that word tour, with the inference it is an organised thing, probably by a travel company, and probably full of holiday-makers who need to be guided around these awkward foreign places and told what to see and do. A Package Tour, perhaps. And so also that word recreation.

And I can be as guilty of that snobbish attitude as the next traveller. I can think of a number of times when I’ve been travelling and said ‘I’m just going to be a tourist, today‘, when I’ve felt like a day just wandering around a place and taking photographs and sitting in cafes.

Mea culpa.

I’ve also had the pleasure of going to Spain numerous times as an instructor with a group, and spending a week taking people canoeing, walking and climbing. So, all that and getting paid for it, too. Pretty fortunate, actually.

If you have ever read the book As I walked out one midsummer morning by Laurie Lee, which is the follow-up book to Cider with Rosie, you will know it is the record of his journey on foot through Spain in the 1930’s, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It is a truly marvellous book, and well worth anyone’s time reading it, but I mention it only because I wanted to do something like that, and so my second visit to Spain was to spend a couple of weeks walking in the hills and mountains in the South of the country.

I flew into Malaga, I walked out of Malaga.

Heading north, the walker quickly gets into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the mountain chain that extends for a couple of hundred miles parallel to the south coast of Spain. And for the best part of the next two weeks I worked my way first Eastwards, and then Westwards back to Malaga, avoiding roads wherever possible. I slept each night on a hillside, or in the corner of a field, or anywhere else convenient where I could lay out my sleeping bag away from town or village.

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As a journey, it was not without its difficulties – finding water was frequently a problem. Passing through villages there would inevitably be a tap somewhere I could fill up my bottles (and myself; I rapidly learned the thing to do was to drink as much as I possibly could when I found a water supply!), but away from any habitation it was a lot harder. Many water courses had dried up and I had to take every opportunity to fill up.

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But as a way of seeing the Spain that few casual visitors see, it was unrivalled.

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When the Arabs conquered part of Spain in the early part of the eighth century, they created water courses known as Falaj (which can still be seen in use in many countries such as Oman and Iran) to channel water over long distances. This one is still in use now in the Sierra Nevada.

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Morning View…

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…and a dusk photo at one of my wild camps. 

The Old Way 2

This is the second poem in a series of six.

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The Old Way 2

 

I’m walking along the Old Way,

And I exult.

Nowhere else are roads so gentle beneath my feet.

Nowhere else would I find the path before me

So soft, and sprinkled with stars.

 

Let me stop for a moment and close my eyes.

Let me just be still and silent

And feel the ground beneath my feet.

 

I must connect, or re-connect, with the world.

With my world.

Here, I can feel the past as a living thing,

And like a meditation,

I can use this

To still my troubled mind.

The Old Way 2

This is the second poem in a series of six.

128a

The Old Way 2

 

I’m walking along the Old Way,

And I exult.

Nowhere else are roads so gentle beneath my feet.

Nowhere else would I find the path before me

So soft, and sprinkled with stars.

 

Let me stop for a moment and close my eyes.

Let me just be still and silent

And feel the ground beneath my feet.

 

I must connect, or re-connect, with the world.

With my world.

Here, I can feel the past as a living thing,

And like a meditation,

I can use this

To still my troubled mind.

 

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal -1

In 1988 – thirty years ago! – I walked the Annapurna Circuit. This has long been regarded as one of the top ten walks in the world, and is certainly the walk I have enjoyed most. I put up a post about the circuit a year and a half ago (here) should you wish to read it, but as a celebration of that anniversary, I thought I would put up some more photographs over several posts.

Today, they are all from our second day’s walk.

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We camped the whole way, since there was virtually no accommodation on the route then. It was sometimes possible to sleep on the floor of a tea-house, but that usually meant an uncomfortable night in a very smoky atmosphere, and probably not a great deal warmer than a tent. It meant we were travelling with four guides, a couple of cooks, a couple of ‘kitchen boys’, and an average of fifteen to twenty porters (every so often one or two would leave, and others get hired from a village we were passing through).

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We began our walk from Gorkha, walking through the Terai – the sub-tropical forest region that stretches across most of Southern Nepal and much of the Himalayan Foothills of Northern India. This was a land of small rural villages, terraced fields carved painstakingly out of the hillsides, and, naturally, wooded hillsides.

Much of the woodland had already gone, cut both as clearance for fields and for fuel and fodder. It was already leading to much soil erosion and the degradation of the remaining soils. With the passage of thirty years, this can only have got worse.

On day 2 we walked from our campsite beside the Dharandi Khola to the settlement of Chepe Ghat.

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Transport in these areas was entirely by foot, usually in the form of porters who carried massive loads upon their backs. Occasionally by pony, or by bullock, but never by yak – they do not survive at these comparatively low altitudes. In 1988, walking the Annapurna Circuit was entirely on tracks and paths, since there were no roads of any description on our route. Today, there are motorable roads along part of it, but back then we did not see or hear a motorised vehicle for the duration of the trek.

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Building materials in these areas were, and predominantly still are, wood, thatch, and mud. Stone was used only in larger settlements.

The boy pictured above, incidentally, will now be in his late thirties.

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Wooded hillsides, with the terraced fields belonging to a nearby village encroaching.

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Rice paddy – terraced fields flooded for the planting of rice, the staple crop of the Nepal Lowlands.

The Path Less Travelled. Or More Travelled. Or Whatever. The Point is, it’s a Path.

Last week, I posted that it was important to take journeys.

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For the last nine weeks, I have been unable to get around a great deal, having had an operation on my foot to correct a few bits that were, sort of, pointing in the wrong direction, and painful when I put my foot down, and, er, lumpy where they shouldn’t be lumpy…

I’m sure you get the picture.

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What it means is that I have been desperate to get out of the house and do a decent walk. I have managed to walk an average of a mile or so a day, just to try and keep reasonably fit and, I guess, supple, but it’s been quite hard work with the plaster and bandage on my foot and a stick to help me get around. Going uphill especially.

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But the plaster comes off in a couple of days, and then I am going to do some walking. Boy, am I going to do some walking! Because I’ve been so frustrated at being unable to just get out there and walk the way that I’m used to doing.

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I’m gonna walk!

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And I’m so grateful that I’m still able to. God knows what I’ll do if I ever lose that. It really doesn’t bear thinking about.

A Limo in Lima…

…something that ought to be a cautionary tale.

It was a long time ago, now, but I am sure these things still happen. I was sent by the company I then worked for, to Lima, Peru. My role there was to carry out some training of half a dozen local men who had been recruited to operate the computers in our branch office.

Now, I have never been what could be described as a ‘snappy dresser’. I incline towards what can best be described as a ‘casual’ look, although I have at times been unfairly described as a ‘scruffy bugger’, and no one looks their best after a journey of over 24 hours, with a couple of flight changes and a certain amount of time spent hanging around in airports.

And thus it was I emerged into South America haggard and unshaven, sporting a pair of old jeans and a tee shirt, picked up my battered rucksack from the carousel, then looked around for whoever was meeting me.

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We’ll blend in. No one will us notice us in our big, clean, shiny black limo.

I was accosted by a smart suit and tie which was housing a short man who looked like a mafia boss, but who was affable and friendly and directed me to my transport.

A huge, black, limousine.

Now, in some other circumstances I might have quite enjoyed the ride, since it was an experience I had never had before (or since, as it happens), but we then proceeded to drive through massive slum areas where most of the ‘housing’ appeared to lack even a roof. The road was pitted with potholes, most of the traffic consisted of battered buses, lorries and cars, and poverty seeped out of everything that could be seen.

I have never been so embarrassed.

Every time the car stopped, I wondered whether we would get attacked and robbed – we certainly attracted a lot of attention, all of it the wrong kind as far as I was concerned. And after I was dropped off at the hotel where I would be staying, I was left wondering just who the hell that was meant to impress?

Me? If so it failed abysmally. My (already somewhat low) opinion of the company I worked for simply plummeted further.

The locals? If that was the case, then God forgive the b*stards that thought of it.

Can anyone enlighten me as to the thinking behind that?

Danger! Natural Selection at Work!

Bob has a new mobile phone.

Do you remember Bob?

Some of you may remember him from when he and I went on a mighty expedition together. The report can be found here. And, as an update to that report, I can now reveal that Bob eventually found his way back home, much to his wife’s chagrin as she had already cashed in his life insurance and taken up with a new man.

But that’s another story.

Anyway, Bob has a new mobile phone. And, being Bob, he was insistent that it be the latest, most up-to-date, all-singing and all-dancing mobile phone, with more apps (whatever they are) than…something that has lots of apps.

He has an app for everything; an app for navigation when he is out in the countryside (naturally!), an app to help him choose whatever he is going to buy if he needs to go shopping, an app that gives him a weather forecast. He even has an app that tells him when he needs to eat or go to the toilet.

Heaven only knows how he managed to cope with life before the phone.

But, there is a downside to all this.

We went for a walk and, sure, we didn’t get lost. This was because Bob had his head over the phone the whole time. We didn’t get lost, but Bob bumped into twenty seven trees, fell in two streams, had an altercation with a herd of cows, tripped over almost fifty tree roots and finally walked into the bus stop.

And he had no idea of where we had been or what sort of countryside we had passed through. Rather a waste of time, really.

Now, Bob is not unique in this, oh, God, no.

The sidewalks in our town have become dangerous places since these phones became popular. I’m beginning to get seriously cross with the number of pedestrians who march towards me, head over their phones, and not even walking in a straight line, so it becomes quite difficult to avoid them. And should I have the temerity to perhaps cough discretely to let them know I’m there, or even to feebly call ‘look out!’ or ‘excuse me!’ I invariably get a glare and perhaps a few muttered words about not looking where I’m going.

And it appears to be an almost universal phenomenon now.

We get more and more news items about these people walking into the paths of vehicles, or off the edge of cliffs, or finding other similarly stupid ways to get killed.

Perhaps it’s a modern form of natural selection? I don’t know. Large numbers of idiots seem to kill themselves the same way taking ‘selfies’ (what a f*cking irritating word that is!), so perhaps there is something in that.

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Jaipur – a random photo. Don’t try it here! 

I first became aware of the truly frightening potential for these sort of incidents a few years ago in India. Some of the driving on the switchback roads in the Himalaya is notoriously terrifying in any case, but to then see these fellows also using their phones while driving just made it even more frightening.

And then there was the girl I saw with a mobile phone ‘doing a Bob’ across an extremely busy Calcutta street.

Yet, she survived.

If there is anything in the theory of natural selection, then the future belongs to her!