Covid-time has revealed some interesting perspectives on the state of things – perhaps cutting through the fog of confusion, bewilderment, malaise of pre-Covid times. Aside from taking stock of environmental issues and what we can actually do about these (I.e. stay at home, don’t fly, reduce movement, allow nature to re-flourish in our leave of absence), human behaviour has become more overtly available to the spotlight.
Now we have the forum of social media to pontificate, observe, proselytise from, alongside the slew of other media drowning us in the opinions of others, both well and ill informed. How does one tell the difference – after all the Leader of the Free World regularly tells us it’s all ‘fake’ and we can wash our mouths out in disinfectant if we feel otherwise?
A crisis perhaps brings out the ‘true colours’ of people, be that to positive or negative effect. Sides are drawn, insults are hurled. Friendship boundaries are redrawn, or consolidated. Them against us.
The not-too-surprising latest revelations concern the wanton pillaging of the nature that has been so recently rediscovering its serene place in the scheme of things. The ‘end’ of lockdown, so ‘apparently’ obediently observed now brings the slavering hordes out in their droves, laying waste to beauty spots throughout the land with their beer cans, crisp packets, loud music and brattish behaviour. Why shouldn’t we do as we please? After all Boris has rung the dinner bell and let us out to play. Pass me the Stella so I can lob it in the drink and scatter the ducks.
The wisdom of crowds. Something about gathering in large groups is infectious. Quite literally as it has been made all too clear in recent times. But also in terms of a capacity to blend in, become nameless, get away with naughtiness. To in effect regress to a tribal sensibility and let the ‘powers that be’ sort out the mess.
At what point does 2 or 3 ‘become a crowd’? We might start off well intentioned and mostly individualistic, but soon, exponentially, things change, peer exerts pressure, organisms gather and form some kind of emergent mass entity. We flock therefore we am.
It is increasingly difficult to maintain autonomy in the face of a group of others encroaching on our space and our identity. Perhaps this lies in a relaxing of attentional effort. Once ensconced with-in the tribal structure, there is little need to ‘pay attention’ to threats outside the perimeter fence. Behaviour can become laxer. Oops where did that crisp packet go? Doesn’t matter, someone over there will see it and pick it up. Let’s have another tinny and we can all sing songs about the here and now and not worry too much about the aftermath.
I suppose the burden of responsibility lies in doing one’s best to avoid becoming subsumed into the masses. Perhaps that is easier said than done – when I turn up the place is empty, I stake my flag on the beach and enjoy the surrounding space. Awakening from a snooze I am perplexed to see that I am now at the heart of a seething mass of bodies. Think turning up early at Glastonbury, revelling in the pick of a pristine field to set up your little fortress of solitude. Fast forward a few hours and in the darkness you are trapped in a web of guy lines, haphazard tarpaulins and collapsed forms – where the hell is my tent??!!
So you can try to not go to areas where others congregate. Mmm, tricky. What was once a treasure map of hidden jewels is now laid bare for all to see. No more ‘special laybys’ for one’s campervan. The roads are chock-a-blok with every man, woman and dog setting down their bivouacs. The frontier has been torn down and replaced with a car park. That car park is called Nature...
At the risk of becoming Orwellian, perhaps we can develop some kind of Artificial Intelligence that is able to take action against (or even pre-empt) the formation of crowds. An exponential-coalescence algorithm...A proximity alerting system with bells and whistles – rising in pitch as we get close to critical mass in an expanding social bubble...Wincing becomes the new deterrent. Maybe a special breed of the populace (hitherto known as ‘chavs’) will develop a special imperviousness to such sounds – a sensory filter that blanks out the nails-down-a-blackboard warning noise. Like a virus in itself that cannot be eradicated, it becomes stronger for being attacked (strike me down and I will become drunker than you could possibly imagine, Luke: use the farce and all will be well).
All one can hope, in the urge to defend the fragile sensibilities of a bewildered nature (which needs to be-wild) is that when the pub bells ring ‘time’ (to open) then the virus will swarm indoors, chug their pints and fall over comatose in their social bubbles surrounded by twiglet wrappers. Then ‘normal’ service can resume and nature can get back to being natural, rather than plastic. We can but hope.
But moving forward we have to realise that the accessibility that nature has grown accustomed to comes with the curse of populism. And with that, the carelessness and the inevitable ‘relaxing of attention’ which causes litter, detritus to coalesce all around. Unfortunately in today’s society, everything is in place to devolve responsibility for one’s actions, one’s attentions to a system that will clear up after one. Somehow, we have to break this assumption, enforce ‘effort’ and with that social responsibility. Surely Covid has evoked (in some quarters at least) an increased consideration for the welfare of others – the welfare of the tribe even when it comes down to it. The trick is maintaining that sensibility and proliferating it out ‘into the wild’.
So next time you sit back into the crowd and celebrate your commonalities (be it in singing football songs or waxing lyrical to your neighbour about the lovely weather), try to invest a little attention in making your contribution worthwhile. Long live the individual!
Now who has nicked me twiglets??!!!
"Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him." Capt. Benjamin Willard, Apocalypse Now
The strains of John William’s theme still raise goosebumps with those ominous opening bars. It’s a wonder I ever took to the getting in the water. JAWS had really quite a profound effect on me. Until much later in life I had little confidence in open water, after which I seemed to take to it like the proverbial duck...
At some point something shifted in my mentality – I figured out how to tread water, after which you couldn’t get me away from the depths. SCUBA came several years later and I was hooked to travel the world, and have experiences well beyond the ‘norm’, from dragons in the mysterious Indonesian archipelago to the albino intelligence of the Beluga whales of norther Russia in winter, and beyond to the far Arctic north!
But something back when I was a child watching JAWS on a bank of TV monitors in a nightclub at a children’s birthday party (don’t ask) inspired my fascination with the deep blue, and the denizens that lurk within.
It also provoked an urge to eventually have a boat just like The Orca – Quint the salty sea dog’s watery steed in his battle against The Leviathan.
Many years later and my dream is realised, through a circuitous series of events. My Orca is called ‘Nirvana’ and I have been working hard upon her to restore her to former glory!
She reminds me of Orca, and down in her main cabin, an urge to sing ‘Show me the way to go home’ and reminisce about encounters with deadly adversaries in far distant oceans. I’ve had one or two adventures in my time, and have indeed come face to face with sharks of various shapes and sizes in their natural habitat. People often recoil in horror at the thought of being underwater with one of these creatures, but rest assured, generally speaking it’s a different kettle of...well fish, when one is immersed in nature rather than viewing it through a screen, prone to sensationalise and amplify the threat!
The journey to ‘Nirvana’ started a couple of years ago (pretty much to the day), when I took away to sea. I was not in the best mental state of my life and in need of an antidote to anxiety, depression, general unhappy circumstance. I happened upon an opportunity to help crew a vessel from the south coast, up past Wales and into Liverpool – current berth of Nirvana. A different boat then, 5 of us were thrust together straight into the thick of it, through a central connection – the skipper, but no-one knowing each other or what anyone was capable of.
Sailing is a pivotal environment in which to develop one’s skills, mentality, and capacity for pulling together, under stress, and potential adversity – the sea is a very unforgiving and challenging environment. In a tight, cramped space with unfamiliar people, under continuous voyage, throughout the nights, is a daunting prospect. It MUST work, or things can go south very quickly. By good fortune, it worked out well. Very different personalities, but a communal spirit, maverick tendencies, nevertheless we bonded over the shared purpose, taking the helm, sharing roles and responsibilities, focusing on tasks and the common goal. I had never been sailing before, yet was on the helm ten minutes after arrival at port from a long land journey to get to the starting line. I also took the first watch after sunset and took us to Land’s End. This was a formative experience standing me in great stead for the days to come. By the second and certainly third day I was confident, thrilled, to helm alone, steering course by the stars in accommodating seas.
By the fourth day I was hallucinating for lack of ability to adapt to sleeping and watch shift patterns. The sea became an undulating, yet somewhat uniform disc with no land in sight for several days. I saw wherever I looked to the horizon, parades of ‘circus animals’ tumbling over one another in a frenzied attempt to race to a distant ambiguous goal – reminding me of the ‘Wacky Races’ cartoon from childhood!
Occasionally, porpoises and dolphins aquaplaned at the bow, came to pay their respects and commune with their kindred mammalian cousins.
We heeled at sharp angles and ploughed through belligerent waves, picking up speed to 11-12 knots under full sail. These are the times on the helm when one becomes attuned to the vessel, and to the environment, working harmoniously to steer course and fulfil purpose. At other times in calmer, steadier conditions, simply maintaining course on the wheel gives rise to a zen like calm as the mind remains focused on this simplest of tasks, zoning out, at peace.
So it was inevitable I would end up with a boat of my own subsequent to this formative encounter with Mistress Sea.
Of course, I am heavily influenced by literary and other cultural motifs when it comes to pursuing activities and goals. This in itself is a great motivating force to tap into when one is struggling to find the drive to move forward. But then that is the great value of artistic output – the capacity to inspire, to emblemise the ‘hero’s journey or the thematic basis for human soul searching, the pursuit of one's life quest and meaning, and importantly our capacity to adapt to circumstance and harness the possibilities that come with immersion in our environment.
There is an element of Joseph Conrad in my whimsy as I stand at the wheel (in dock nonetheless!), recalling Marlow’s (or rather Captain Willard’s, from Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now) obsession with pursuing the trail to deranged Kurtz up the Congo (/The Delta) in Heart of Darkness. Whilst Jim Morrison sings of The End over my speakers...
But ultimately it comes back to JAWS. The thrill of the ocean captured so succinctly by a precociously talented youthful Steven Spielberg. The subtle characterisation of it’s protagonists (from Brodie’s intimate family moments with his son mimicking his pensive actions at the dinner table; Quint’s stubborn tenacity and the most chilling monologue possibly from any film “eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945”; Hooper’s all round kiddy in a sweet shop demeanour – until he comes face to face with Ben Gardner’s visage, sans eyeball in possibly cinemas most lauded jump-scare ever). No wonder I was terrified of the water for years to come.
The Sea provides an environment and a metaphor for overcoming the challenges that life throws at you. A truly hostile, changeable ‘scape, that defines our planet (the Planet Ocean, otherwise mistakenly referred to as ‘Earth’), and demands one submits to her moods if one is to prevail. It is a humbling ‘place’, it demands respect, it demands adaptability, it requests that one leaves the ego ashore, pay attention to detail, to one’s responsibilities, and to one’s crew. If you can cast off the ‘self’ from port and sail beyond it’s confines, then you are onto a firmer path towards destiny and progression.
I am now working with a charitable enterprise (Shadow Wind CIC) that takes under-priveleged individuals and groups and seeks to invest in them this sensibility: that the sea can offer up salvation, reframe goals, and inspire purpose. My voyage has been revelatory to date, and the potential is as yet untapped to take this to it’s furthest reaches!
So I must thank JAWS for imprinting on my impressionable young mind a sense of awe, fear even, about the mysteries of the sea, the depths beneath and the expanse ahead that promises untold treasures buried on far off shores.
Maybe I can harness ‘Nirvana’ to this end and pursue my own Leviathan!
Enough talk, I am off to find that big fish. You know the one that always seems to get away! But what sport is the one that stays put and makes the hunt far too easy...?!
Show me the way to go home,
I’m tired and I want to go to bed,
I had me a little drink about an hour ago,
And it’s gone right to my head..
I am shattered. It’s been a long and busy week. It’s a different type of tiredness to the usual routine that involves using my grey (and white) matter. I have been renovating a boat, getting my hands dirty. Long, hard hours of good honest graft! Such work can be exhausting, back-breaking, frustrating at times. More and more little (and large) jobs emerge as you scrape the paint off and probe below the deck. But slowly, surely, with application of good old elbow grease, results start to become evident. A transformation takes place, and pride is restored along with the paintwork. And all is vindicated when neighbours and passers by remark on the improvement!
When one is focused on a goal such as this, and consumed with the list of tasks that need to be accomplished, once head down and ‘stuck in’, there is little room for self-recrimination, rumination, ‘default mode’ thinking that threatens to capsize your own mental boat! This is a both goal-directed and task-focused state. The rewards come with the effort expended, the outcomes achieved, and the inevitable break from ‘self’ that might otherwise take precedence. Manual skills are employed, attention is vested in the external environment, in fact refreshed, purposefully directed to the details that sequentially accumulate until the whole is realised!
This is not only a metaphor for how we can enhance our own sense of direction, and mitigate self-doubt, anxiety, lack of purpose, it is also a pragmatic and practical template for gaining control over our own mental states, and the mechanisms that take hold and enslave us. That is, actions and tasks that we can engage in to ease the cognitive load that comes with being weighed down by the draining self.
As I have explained, the default mode holds sway when given nothing to occupy the task-centric drivers in the brain. But by looking at what needs to be done and tackling jobs one at a time, with this underlying goal towards holistic end improvements, the impetus is set in motion to get cracking. The perceptual system hones in on the details, the cognitive system (with it’s ‘executive control’ centres) delegates roles and responsibilities, plans and strategies. The task-positive network, buoyed by the salience network of attention, seeks out the cues that motivate next steps and keeps the work on track. And importantly, ‘switches off’ that default wandering state of mind that can take one off track and back to square one.
Occasionally, when thoroughly absorbed in the task, the default mode may come back online, but offers suggestions, creative input, identifying new opportunities. This is ‘active mind-wandering’ and occurs when the mind is engaged in effortless, automatic tasks that don’t require remaining overly vigilant (as long as you’re not wielding a power tool or cutting something with a sharp implement when all attention needs focusing on that task!).
Thus, the focused, goal-directed and purposeful mind can work harmoniously with its constituent parts, efficiently galvanising the bits that ‘crack on’ whilst tuning down the bits that do not need to be online and which potentially distract off-task. Or drawing on those later parts that can offer creative insight, bringing attention inwards momentarily to solve a problem in the outside world, and re-engage on-task with fresh ideas...
This approach can be hugely beneficial for mental health, and for general instilling of goals and purpose, along with a strong work ethic. Whilst at the same time, with a little awareness of the mechanisms ‘beneath the deck’ (I.e. your brain), a better sense of how you can switch on and off the right ‘bits’ to perform more optimally and in a motivated state of mind...This is the approach that an enterprise I am involved with, Shadow Wind, is adopting to help people who need a little extra impetus in life, be it to set new goals for themselves, or to pull back from the brink of adversity, including sufferers from depression, mental health issues, and a lapsed sense of direction and identity.
The beauty of restoring a boat is in the wealth of opportunities for adventure the finished outcome can offer. It is a vehicle that can transport one to new destinations, new perspectives, new environments. It is a vehicle for change and of transformation. It is a metaphor in literal form!
And once finally adrift on the sea in the gleaming vessel, sitting watching the sun go down, finally you can rest, switch off from task, and let the mind once more drift, but renewed in it’s capacity to dream of the next adventure, the next goal that you can get stuck into. The mind, directed, harnessed, is the vessel that will take you where you will in life. It all starts with painting a boat...
What does COVID-19 post-lockdown mean for travel, for holidays, for ‘resuming normality’?
First of all don’t expect ‘normality’ to resume. Unless you accept that the current situation is now ‘normalised’. In which case expect the future to look somewhat like the present. The temptation during a crisis is to get the head down, push on through and aim for that end point, the light at the end of the tunnel. The island oasis across the turbulent, endless sea. The all-inclusive deal at the end of the rainbow where one can breathe at last, smell the coffee and put it all behind one.
It is a facet of human nature that we’ll ‘get through it’. We are habitual creatures who like an easy life at the end of the day, and are happy to ‘go along with things’, as long as someone points us in the right direction.
Offsetting the doom and gloom that insists ‘things will change for good’ is the notion that actually things already have, and we are coping (sort of) just fine. Social distancing, at first responded to with bemused acceptance, has rapidly become something you just do. The brain’s sense of personal space has expanded to a bubble 2m wide. In Britain we readily conform to ‘spatial allocation’ of our peripersonal zone. We have always traditionally been aware of where ‘I’ end and ‘you’ begin. We aren’t continental types after all...Likewise with queueing. Our national sport, at which we perhaps lead the world.
There’s one norm readily accepted already. The supermarket provides the template for our future behaviours, and how the environment itself can effectively facilitate these new norms. After all, the supermarket represents our most primal arena – the modern hunting ground wherein we forage and stock up our supplies for the Long Winter ahead. And in such an environment we are most receptive to behavioural prompts that help us conform. Any wild animal, required to submit in lean times to the providing benefactor that offers scraps, will likely adapt it’s feral nature, and become partially ‘tamed’.
We are also already conditioned and receptive to the prompts and directives of another environment we willingly subject ourselves to, and indeed subjugate to the indignities that inevitably come hand in hand. The Airport. Here we give over our ‘freedoms’ to an intimidating space in which Authority watches our every move, requires us to strip down our veneer, perhaps confiscates our personal possessions. We agree to be told what to do as we are funnelled through channels, checkpoints, sombre portals that can reject us and send us back whence we came. Then we are at the behest of technology and procedures over which we have no control (conveying us across swathes of ocean in giant metal tubes).
The point I am driving at here is that actually the calibration of norms of behaviour come hand in hand with the environment that is designed to evoke specific behaviours. To behave, to act out our ambulatory freedoms takes effort, and we rely on ‘affordance’ in the environment to tell us implicitly what to do, where to go, how to walk...(pedestrian crossings, pavements, staircases, barricades, elevators, escalators, and so on and so forth).
So we already have a system in place, an unconscious pact with the environment that we’ll do as it ‘says’, it will take some of the cognitive load from us – a small price of relinquished freedom to open up access to the benefits beyond (food, new destinations, a chance to recalibrate one’s perspective).
With all this in mind, people are likely deliberating about travel, holidays, release, in the aftermath of this particularly stressful couple of months. In fact many have already booked their trips away (or are rescheduling from ones postponed more recently). It is a natural consequence of the need to ‘let off some steam’, open a release valve after being cooped up for so long, and in such a state of uncertainty. And especially coming after a particularly dire winter of relentless rain, storms, flooding.
It comes back to habit. We adapt to circumstance, grudgingly sometimes, we put our heads down and plough on through life on a day-to-day basis, getting the job done, the necessary tasks, the obligations, the requisite behaviours to ensure survival. But we focus on that 2 week annual period when we know we can release the valve, burst free from the ‘prison cell’ of daily grind. We can escape! There is an awful lot to be said about aiming for a target at the end of the tunnel. When there is no end in sight it is a lot harder to maintain resolve, dig down and deep, keep pushing on. This is a tactic in endurance activities, such as the military use to break candidates and test resolve. We are a goal-centric species, without goals, a target we exhaust ourselves with aimless wandering.
Now more than ever we seek solace in the routine, the ‘normal’ - and the holiday at the end of ‘all this’ is a motivating factor that should not be underestimated – hence why people are clamouring to book their time abroad. We tend to seek assurance that ‘things will get better’, and so we recourse to the comfortable familiar routines, and pursuits that have given us solace in the past. But with this comes a tension, a source of conflict. For on the one hand we can’t wait to get away and re-establish a sense that things are ‘ok’, but at the same time now there is added uncertainty, anxiety in the mix. What if we get caught up in The Virus, as a result of this? What about a second wave? Mingling with others, changing our environment, going through airports, are we upping the risk to the point that it conflicts with the point of going?
People are no doubt holding these conflicting notions in their minds right now, but many will still be proceeding with their bookings, their plans. We are talking about a state of cognitive dissonance whereby opposing/conflicting notions are held in mind at the same time. There is a need to escape, the fantasy that things will be alright, balanced with the heightened anxiety that the reality is at odds with this. But we are very good at telling ourselves stories. It’s how we brush under the carpet the doubts, the fears, the uncertainties.
One way we resolve our conflicting ideas harkens back to what we talked about earlier regarding habits, behaviours driven by the environment. We accept that in fact we live in a system of governance. The government, its institutions, an innate sense of social rules and practices, all ‘tell us’ how to behave. It makes our lives much easier to accept that, and to also have faith (trust if you will) in the system that has our interests collectively at heart. Whilst we may be rebels deep down, it's hard work constantly bucking the trend, and so much of our behaviour is rooted in unconscious drivers, automatic routines. The new norm makes it easier to stand 2m apart in a queue than to rebelliously stand 1m apart, or to circumvent the queue and brave the tutting and eye rolling that will put you back in your place.
At the end of the day, you may decide to carry on with your travel plans, but ultimately you will expect that the airport, the travel agent, the hotel, the public transport network, THE GOVERNMENT will take care of your concerns about how to act, where and how to walk, how to relax and rejuvenate on your hols. Someone is in control, surely??!!
Underlying all this is a motivation to escape from yourSELF. You’ve been stuck indoors with it for an eternity. You can cope with your in-laws to an extent, but the SELF...that’s another kettle of fish. So no wonder people are resorting in droves to booking their vacations and hang the Virus and all it’s consequences. You’ve already adapted to the new normal without realising it.
Post script - a local town for local people:
Something to consider. Much is said about staying local. Maybe its time to normalise ‘local’ as the new ‘global’. This period has given more impetus to reconsider our immediate surroundings. There is nature in your vicinity, closer than you might think (obviously depending where exactly you live). There is a community in your neighbourhood that has perhaps flourished , provoking new conversations, helping each other out, coming out to clap the NHS on a Thursday evening... If you cycle or walk and have the benefits of green spaces, countryside on your doorstep, maybe it’s time to embrace that – lightening the load on transport networks beyond, whilst also provoking a sense of ownership in your surroundings – an increased respect and affection for your locale which can help investment in sustainable thinking. We also could benefit with injection into our local and national economy by again staying local – be that in your neighbourhood and region, or also meaning by engaging in domestic tourism rather than international travel for it’s own sake. Our land is green and pleasant, and now more than ever needs to be nurtured and tended to, and respected. And likewise our own neighbourhoods, communities and fellow species! So let us try and find new norms all around in community, neighbourly behaviour and care for our local environment.
This morning I was feeling lethargic, unmotivated, struggling to kickstart the day.
Should I move forward my daily exercise routine and go for a run first thing? Self-isolation has instigated a routine that I am reluctant to disrupt, and my once-a-day exercise takes place at the end of the day, a welcome break that sets up for the evening. A sensible, healthy structure important to embrace in these troubling times.
So I decided to ‘cheat’ and entertain a supplementary spot of ‘exercise’. A collective intake of indignatory breath erupts! Don’t do it!!
Nevertheless, I wandered out into the fresh air. The deep blue sky and a piercing sun washing across the landscape before me. I felt invigorated. Could ‘smell’ the clarity of the air. Was inspired, moved, motivated. Overjoyed even. I roved far and wide and felt much better for it. Liberated.
I stepped back ‘inside’. Ready to tackle the day with renewed vigour and perspective on things.
How dare I, you might say, go for a ‘second’ period of exercise (actually that would/will come later on when I go for my evening run in the environs surrounding my home).
Did anyone notice my double-foray? Were curtains twitching with the echoes of mass-tutting across the neighbourhood? No. Not a peep. They wouldn’t have noticed anyway.
I was strolling across the desert. Monument Valley if you must know. It straddles the borderlands between Arizona and Utah. A barren, yet somewhat ‘lush’ stretch of desert-wilderness as old as time, and home to the Navajo nation, themselves casualties to the Great American Dream that swept across the country obliterating any native claim to the land...
It is a hugely spiritual and ancient land, replete with vibrant colours, red-orange hues counterpointing the deep and endless blue and yellow of the sky above. With hardy shrubs pinpointing miniature oases of green, and hinting at an abundance of desert life beneath the surface. Much has been written of this ‘scape, of it’s legacy, of it’s role and that of the far-reaching extent of the American South West canyonlands and deserts in myth, in burgeoning national identity out at the frontier. It’s role in popular film documenting the pioneers, the lawlessness, the grandiosity of the human spirit and it’s capacity to flourish at the extremes.
Of course I wasn’t ‘really’ there. I live in north-west England! But in effect I was. In a virtual rendition of it. A suspension of disbelief helping to transport me from the living room. Via Google Earth VR.
The scene was provided for me in glorious immersive 360. The rest I provided with my imagination, memories of having been there before. And most of all belief that I can go then again. One day when this all dwindles into a poignant memory.
For now, I can happily enjoy my multiple sojourns ‘outside’ knowing full well I will not be spreading a virus, will not be coming into contact with anyone, will not be cause for indignation or admonishment.
The point here isn’t to smugly extol how wonderful it is having access to all the toys. Rather, it is to simply reinforce that the power of the imagination is a key facet in ‘winning the war’ against anxiety, isolation, concerns over ‘going stir crazy’. You don’t need a VR headset (though it might help if you are that way inclined). A photograph might suffice. Or in fact just the imagination. Meditation, mindfulness, are techniques that much is written about these days – all you need is to sit still, focus on being calm, observe thoughts – occasionally letting the imagination wander (but in a disciplined way). Focusing on something positive that will stimulate you and keep you in that headspace that is excited, enthused, motivated – dreaming of bigger and better things. It might seem blindingly, irritatingly, obvious. But the most obvious things are frequently overlooked in life. And discipline is a key component in keeping even the obvious at centre-focus – even just momentarily. I have alluded to this previously, talking of how a simple moment of contemplation on an object, an artwork, a memory, your breath can instill a focus, calmness, impetus that outweighs the apparent ‘triviality’ of doing such a thing. But by doing this rigorously, every day - first thing in the morning - you can switch the gears inside, prime the motor, prepare for lift off!
Any other ‘tools’ that might facilitate this, are just that, ‘tools’. VR is my current ‘tool’. Imagination is the key. But discipline is the enabler....
So use this time as an excuse to have more than one period of ‘exercise’ in your day. You might not be venturing outside to do so, but don’t use that as an excuse to not to anything at all. Use it instead 'other' forms of 'exercise': inwardly-focused, attentive, imaginative - and designed to rejuvenate the 'self'!
Right, I am off up Everest. See you later!
Meet John. John has had a hard life. Ups and downs. A lot of downs. Maybe some of the deepest downs one might face in life. He lost it all. His livelihood, his wife, his kids, his esteem. Even his sense of who he was. His world became the confines of his prison cell. Meaning was sourced through substance abuse. Getting the next fix. A lost cause adrift in the system possibly never to break free back to a purposeful existence.
Fast forward a few months and John is painting a boat. A picture of a boat. He has picked up his palette as well as his toolbox and is finding purpose anew. He has a real talent for fine art. He says he used to sell pictures in prison, and his talent was the envy of his cellmates. Nurturing this innate talent, plus a pride in a work ethic that fell by the wayside but is gradually resurfacing, he is a skilled craftsman. In need of a focus for this aptitude.
His long term dream, at times pushed to the recesses of his mind during those darkest of moments, was to have a boat. To live on a boat, to feel the sea spray on his face and breathe the fresh air of freedom that the ocean can offer in abundance.
To achieve one’s dreams can be a long hard slog, but it’s important to have that as a focus, an impetus to persevere against adversity.
Now out of prison, clean of substance addictions, and with a newfound energy stimulated by his current environment, John is on the path towards that dream, building momentum with his painting, and his adaptable skillset and pride in his work.
John now works with a new enterprise that is based out of Liverpool Marina. This is Shadow Wind. The brainchild of James Lovett, a ‘psychological coach’/therapist and lifelong sailor, Shadow Wind is a Community Interest Company that is bringing new opportunity to the region and offering an outlet and a focus to people such as John, groups of ‘marginalised’ or ‘disadvantaged’ folks who have fallen by the wayside, through life’s circumstance, lost their way, but can have a revitalised sense of purpose and goals to aspire to: through the medium of sailing, and access to the therapeutic benefits that living and working on water can bring!
Shadow Wind offers sailing experience and a grounding in the basics of practical boatsmanship. But much more than that it offers cameraderie, a shared purpose amongst disparate individuals united under the spell of ‘Mistress Sea’!! This encompasses all aspects of sailing, not just the glamorous lifestyle of helming a yacht across the Irish Sea under the full summer sun (!), but importantly the foundation of maintaining one’s craft. And with that the basics of woodwork, joinery, painting, cleaning. Good honest work!
Since John came to Shadow Wind he has by his own admission found a new vitality in life that has kept him on the straight and narrow. He says, if it wasn’t for this outlet for his skills, talents, work ethic and a fresh environment in which to see new perspective, he would have been ‘back inside’ some time ago. The fruits of his labour are evident on the flagship vessell (Shadow Wind herself). From an earlier functional shell, now below decks has a homely feel, but conveys her status as a seaworthy craft that can empower all who set off under her mast towards new adventures!
The most important note in this story is that John has not only come back from the brink himself, but he has reunited with his family. His wife is rehabilitated from her own demons, and their kids returned from foster care. Reunited as a happy family. Not conventional, sure, but together most importantly, re-bonded and ready to progress in life as a unit.
So John is the true flagship component in this story of Shadow Wind rather than the vessell herself!
Moving forward, Shadow Wind’s ‘corporate’ mission is to spread the message throughout Merseyside and beyond, that the sea, sailing, adventure can help those who are struggling in life. It can bring people from all walks together under common goals. We can use this platform to educate the community about the mental wellbeing benefits of working hard, whilst embracing adventure to set new course in life! And with that we hope to also inspire those who journey alongside us about the fragility of our local (and global) marine environment, offering education on Ocean Literacy. We are exploring STEM opportunities for school groups and other youth networks, tying in with the local academic and scientific communities as well to forge new connections and partnerships that will promote shared values and benefit us all through this medium.
So please, get in touch with us if you want to be involved, find out more, or talk further about new partnerships that can help us build this venture and push the sails to new ‘heights’.
Importantly, heartfelt thanks to John from all at Shadow Wind for taking that first step, and casting off into the unknown...!
“Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage...
.. We don't need another hero,
We don't need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome”
Terry Britten & Graham Lyle (or is it Clive Gollings and Graeme Willey?) as sung by Tina Turner – We don’t need another hero
The desert air shimmers. A form dissolves, undulates, begins to re-solve into a semblance of recognisable shape and meaning. A human figure cresting a symbolic horizon, striding triumphantly (?) into centre frame. In time to save the day, to bring vital knowledge, ability, leadership to the desperate. Fuel from across the wasteland. An artefact with crucial powers to ignite hope and resilience. The grail. An ark. Droids! The returning hero with the map to a more sustainable land...
Indy hurtles down the corridor, darts whistling past his ears, cobwebs stringing across his face at every turn. Pursued by...something. An albatross hanging heavy on his neck...?!
Finally, Dave Bowman relents, steps into the void, plunges through the Stargate and into an impossible yet entirely realisable present. A transfiguration that requires the giving up of his last umbilical connection to what he/we cling onto as ‘reality’. The ultimate sacrifice. Plunged through a vortex of torment, of utter destruction of ego, identifiy, self. Through a miasma of light, aural chaos and the banishment of all sense and concept of what ‘is’ or should be in conventional wisdom, he is thrust out naked, vulnerable, reborn. Transformed.
What on earth is all this about?! The narrative medium that encapsulates our rich source of myth, storytelling and symbolic mythology draws a common thread through the theme of the Hero’s Journey. Popularised (but not originating with) Joseph Campbell in his seminal works on mythology and symbology, this is the ‘story’ that recurs throughout our literary heritage. It is the returning hero who started out ‘innocent’ but curious on the road to discovery. (S)he set out to see what lay beyond the garden gate, to see where the road led. To wander to the edge of the map and see in what form there ‘lay dragons’. Curiosity gave way to commitment as the road steepened and the distance from home and invested effort warranted continuing rather than abandoning the journey. Fatigue set in, and spawned concern, anxiety, despair. Commitment waned but now s/he felt lost, uncertain, doubtful. Something within kept the drive in forward motion. At the point beyond no return, complete breakdown threatened. And somewhere deep inside this ignited hidden reserves, and a second wind. Trauma catalysed growth, the building of strength, and invigorated new heights of composure, of confidence, of resolution and resolve. Identity reconsitituted, strengthenened. Wiser and more resilient. And now the desire to return and relay these lessons back home, inspiring through fortitude, and a sense of purpose for the good of the many.
The seeds of this Hero’s Journey, a quest for transcendence through the necessary trials and tribulations found on the road to Mount Doom, Camelot, Dagobah, Beyond the Infinite can be argued as being at the heart of what motivates us to embark on adventurous experiences. Such as we might aspire to travel somewhere 'a bit different'. Or try a new activity. To stretch ourselves and push beyond the sedentary, conformist nature of daily life seeking to live renewed. It is that resolve tomorrow morning to do things differently. To kick that habit. To approach life with a fresh perspective. To make things happen. In short too change. This rests in the archetypal unconscious, that desire to transform. And as the archetype implies, this will be a traumatic process by necessity.
As a concept for providing ‘transformational experiences’ Adventure Tourism is an arena that is tailormade to facilitate this ‘hero’s journey’. Why does anyone seek to have such an experience, whatever that may constitute? (For instance, from a guided tour of a place a little ‘off the beaten track’ through to a self supported expedition to climb a new peak – all arguably different points along a contimuum of ‘adventurous’ experience.) At some level this speaks to a desire to travel that same road to self discovery, breakdown and reconstitution. In the course of further pieces I will explore further how the way the brain functions connectively mirrors this mythical process, enabling growth, and in parallel, ‘self-development’ as is ‘experienced’ by the individual. In doing so some usable principles should emerge as a sort of (neural) map towards self-mastery (in a sense not intended to sound pompous or aggrandising). Dovetailed with this are other strands, for instance the prospective role of technology in the future of experience, adventure and personal development. In particular concerning Virtual and Artificially Intelligent modes of technology that become ever more integrated in our cultural milieu and sense of self, identity and capacity to ‘experience’ the world, reality, and our very place own future role in proceedings!
Max surveys the wreckage of the civilization to which he has returned. Battered, battle weary, limping and haunted, he nevertheless knows he has done what he was required to do. The community is provided for. Their stability and security assured...for now. He is neither jubilant nor dismayed, he has been into the hellish wastes, lived as a soul in torment, been destroyed, but somehow...survived. For that he holds deep down a sense that he can prevail against the worst that the desert can throw at him. And with that, his work done, his function complete, he turns about, surveys the endless horizon, the inferno of the wasteland, and slowly limps back in the direction he came. Smiling the crazed smile of a man who has not a care in the world.
Adventure photography is a broad church and it’s essence extends beyond simply capturing nice scenic images of landscapes and action pursuits. At the heart of this is to convey drama, danger, risk, and to document this in all it’s vagaries. Being too emotionally invested in one’s subject matter and indeed subjects (eg. my BASE jumping associates) can impair one’s capacity to remain detached and dispassionate when watching the action unfold, hoping everything goes to plan. When things have gone wrong, as did on a recent shoot, although I thought I had continued clicking away, in fact on review of my footage I had actually stopped taking pictures when it became obvious things were definitely going south. I was admonished (more cajoled in the spirit of cameraderie) later for not having continued rolling as it were!
My recent travels were short on life threatening drama to photograph (despite ever present warnings about crocodiles and other marine hazards out in tropical Queensland I was there on holiday!) ! However, my return trip took me through Hong Kong and at a particularly fraught time of civil unrest given the recent protests that have been disrupting life on the streets and making international headlines.
I touched down on Monday and into a day of turmoil as violence escalated to it’s worst level yet, with shocking footage played endlessly on news channels and enough to put me off my dinner whilst ensconced in a ‘locals’ food establishment. A point blank shooting by a police officer of a protester dressed in the menacing black garb of the ‘official’ uniform of the protest movement. An argument with a pro-Beijing supporter suddenly erupting into literal flames as an unseen provocateur suddenly douses the individual in petrol from a squirty bottle and flicks a match into the proceedings...(and having reviewed other available footage online from the likes of BBC, CNN etc. with warnings of ‘graphic violence’ I hasten to add that these outlets have heavily redacted said footage compared to what is actually seen on the news in situ).
Based as I was in the central district where the situation was at something of a flashpoint (protestors’ strategy being to create disruption to the infrastructure at the territory’s heart by strewing rubble at key road and rail junctions), it was difficult not to find myself proximal to the ‘action’. Given my photographic (and photojournalistic) proclivities, coupled with a desire to be better informed of: a) where the danger was and therefore where to be in order to not become unwittingly involved in it, b) what is the situation all about, I exercised a cautious approach, camera at the ready to navigate my way through the city, and ultimately back to my hotel (I was flying out later that day so needed to be aware of how the situation would encroach on my travel plans).
As it happens, I was surprised to find that the Central Business District was party to a so-called ‘flash-mob’ protest that had ‘sprung up’ around lunchtime on Tuesday (protestors had vowed after the sickening violence – particularly with respect to the perceived heavy handed police action and subsequent shooting of an individual – to make a vocal stand through Tuesday and beyond). They were railing against Chinese authorities given a contention that they are gradually eroding the previous democratic freedoms that the Hong Kong territories have embraced due to special status arising from previous British colonial governance - the so-called ‘One country two systems’ dictum. Tuesday morning violence had again ignited on University campuses and also around the metro system (actually by the station next to my hotel though I didn’t witness the incident where a bystander was injured by objects hurled from the overpass above).
Now a huge crowd had gathered and the standard protocol was in place as chants swept through the masses and rose to crescendo, whilst rubble was hurled across busy intersections and organised chaos instigated.
What struck me initially as nervous anticipation built was how the throngs of people clamoured to see what was going on, and formed several layers deep audience on the gantries of the overhead walkways above the street. Crowd psychology is an impressive and unnerving thing to witness, particularly when one takes into account how a situation such as this can rapidly turn ugly as has been clearly shown to be a pattern in previous days and weeks.
I am not a fan of being in crowds, where one’s autonomy is at the whims of a collective energy that can sweep one aside or worse in a moment of unpredictable momentum...My own philosophy is to become very much switched on, skittish even like a wild animal scanning for danger, keeping moving, looking at all times for exits and places to seek cover. But at the same time to embrace the risk and try to steady nervous energy and see adrenaline as an enabler of performance!
Initially I did not know what was going on, and was reluctant to mingle in with the audience and become a sitting duck. One gantry was more open to the elements and I noted that there was a stash of bricks atop this and by a small group of black garbed and masked individuals. What was their intention? Perhaps to disregard any sense of public safety and create maximum destruction by pelting those below? In fact at one point as those at the vanguard on the street below hurled mortar onto the junction, one did in fact launch his skywards and up onto this balcony. I had moved on from it earlier but it was jam packed with rubber neckers. There didn’t seem to be a subsequent commotion so I can only assume that no harm was caused and the brick either landed miraculously in between people, or someone caught it and averted serious injury...
I can’t be sure who threw the missile up into the crowd but I did witness (and photograph) a somewhat manic individual who was striding out from the rest of the pack with a brick in hand and looking intent on casting it to some malicious purpose. He was pursued (and manhandled) by another more sincere looking individual who was striving to calm him and prevent him creating the flashpoint that would indeed bring the heavily tooled-up police into the fray. The guy did a good job to diffuse this incendiary situation. Interestingly I noted that the would-be agent-provocateur was of ethnic bearing distinct ethnic from the majority of the protesting crowd, and also by his manner seemed to be high as a kite and not on subjective appearance acting in the spirit of a meaningful, peaceful protest. The take home from this is that a precarious situation like this will attract elements who wish to revel in disruption, anarchy and the anonymity afforded by such a crowd to create mayhem and destruction for it’s own sake...possibly derailing the efforts of the sincere core membership.
A little later I found myself down amongst the gathering and began to appreciate more about the situation and the nature of the protest. Office workers, old, young, different mixes of demographic groups united in solidarity and the chants against the repressive edicts of the Chinese governing authorities. A lone and impassioned young man danced and cavorted before the world’s press (who were also togged up heavily in protective equipment, including gas masks anticipating reprisals from the riot police). He whipped the crowd into a fervour.
Groups formed under multicoloured umbrellas and gathered on the pavements, chiselling away at the brickwork to create more of an aresenal with which to blockade the traffic junctions. Items were strewn across the roads and petrol doused on boundary lines for later utility. I spied a molotov cocktail in a wine bottle again for later purpose...
Part of being an adventure photographer encompasses acknowledging risks or stepping out the comfort zone to get the best coverage that conveys the fundamental essence of the narrative. An adventure by its nature involves undertaking challenge, embracing novelty, uncertainty, and employing one’s skills to their best potential in order to be successful and to grow as a result. It was a difficult undertaking to get into decent positions and to sift through the complex scene components to attempt to capture meaningful stand out moments. A balance to strive for in photography is to become part of the scene: immersing sufficiently within it to understand the narrative and to give back a faithful rendition of what is occurring. Yet at the same time being somewhat dissociated and dispassionate in order to remain aware of the surroundings, adapt to the circumstance and also create that narrative to an extent, painting the scene with the brush that is the camera...
Only then can one hope to do justice to the unfolding story.
Sometimes adventures lead one in unexpected directions. But then that is kind of the point!
"Pardon me boy, but is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?
No it's just the Snowdon Mountain Man BASE Boogie!!"
Glen Miller (slightly paraphrased)
A question that is often (almost never) asked is: what is the collective noun to describe a gathering of BASE jumpers?
A murder…(far too portentous)?
A flock…(they are too individualistic to be collectivised thus)?
A maverick…(getting closer to the spirit)?
A BOOGIE…(let’s settle on that term for now).
Morning light spreads lazily across the summit of Snowdon on Saturday, and reflects the mood of those snoozing atop the cliffs of Clogwyn (Cloggy) Du’r Arddu. The outcrop on which they are sleeping is enshrouded in thick mist and the only sounds to be heard are the murmurings of a handful of creatures emerging out of the gloom.
Normally the province of stalwart sheep and the occasional crow, a new species has migrated momentarily to these parts. Unique fauna, their characteristics include an excited demeanour, a penchant for flouting convention and a tendency to suddenly vanish whence they came, generally over the mountain’s edge.
Here they convene for a special migratory occasion, to establish their domain, to leave their scent upon this territory, though hopefully not to mate (!).
Often nocturnal, the BASE species may be sometimes found amidst the bright lights of urban communities, high up, silhouetted against the sky, and flightily moving between the shadows. But today they have emerged into daylight for this rare opportunity to bond, to compare plumages and to test each others’ capacities for flight.
The chattering increases in volume as the curtain of mist shows promise of drawing aside to herald the encroaching dawn. And the window for displaying their wares is cracking open.
Those compatriots who nested here during the night stir and stretch their limbs, and begin to interact with the others who have hoved into camp.
They engage in customary greeting calls and begin to collectively and instinctively organise into hierarchical dominance behaviour patterns.
An orderliness occurs as plumage feathers are arranged about the ground to preen and prepare for eventual flight.
Then, it is time to launch.
The group forms a line, a train, with tail feathers held aloft by the member behind, part of the facilitation process. The first of the bunch steps up to the edge. An acknowledgement is made bringing the group into time-locked alignment, and he springs forth into the haze below. One by one as wings burst forth in a colourful bloom of fluttering materials, each jumper plunges into the void.
The train that looked so ungainly on land (!!) takes on a majesty as it soars in coordinated arrangement through the mountain air, swooping alongside huge pinnacles and buttresses above a glassy blue lake.
And one by one in perfect formation each alights far below at the shore of the lake, wings drifting gracefully to the ground. The sound of a gentle breeze whispers across this desolate scene high up above in the nesting ground, and the far off chatter recommences as this new species of fauna revels in the bonds created in this special occasion. They then disperse and scatter back to their own territories, individual at heart.
Snowdon has just witnessed the annual migration of a Boogie of BASE jumpers.
“The mind of man is capable of anything.”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
As an ‘adventure psychologist’, I seek to put myself in positions out in the ‘wild’ to observe adventurous individuals in their natural habitat. With my somewhat unique access to ‘lunatics’ on a regular basis who revel in dancing with mortality on the edge of cliffs, I gain special insight into the nature of courage and ‘drive’. I am talking about BASE jumping, at the boundaries of the ‘extreme’. Whilst this pursuit will hopefully never become ‘old hat’ through repeated exposure, I suppose I am becoming somewhat slightly inured to the process as I regularly stand at the edge, camera at the ready, and witness jumpers like Josh cycling through the procedures and protocols and leaping into space. Only insomuch as it’s become ‘normal’ to be part of this routine as a photographer and companion and documenter of these pioneering exploits. Though I still experience the same rush of adrenaline and relief as he departs terra firma and then safely glides down back to earth. But the feats that push the envelope further never fail to surprise me and reinstate in mind that this takes a very special mindset, composure, and indeed act of courage to execute.
On Sunday I was blown away. Josh and Andy performed an act of skill and bravery that I have never seen before. Up on Falcon Crag in Borrowdale, Lake District, repeating a jump made previously but in a very distinct fashion. This shall henceforth be known as the Borrowdale Roll-Over…
This technique requires deft judgement, nil wind, and total commitment.
I tenuously secured myself to a stake and sling to try and stand as close to the edge and directly alongside as each took centre stage upon a pointed rock with little more width than their feet could stand upon. This jutted out over a drop of perhaps 150ft+ sheer.
Very slowly, they each in turn lowered their canopy and rigging lines over the edge, taking utmost care not to tangle the lines, or snag the canopy upon the cliff wall. The slightest of winds could blow the rig back against the wall. Bent forward executing this precise task, surefooted balance was required to not pitch forward prematurely and to certain doom!
When time was nigh, and with customary countdown, I watched first as Josh brought feet together, leg involuntarily twitching and loading up for take-off. The he made a committed dive forward, past the canopy in arc. As he attained equal distance beyond, he flipped back into vertical position as the canopy unfolded successfully and he whooped for joy swooping off into the distance. (I did likewise, as much out of relief). Then Andy’s turn.
Andy lowered his rig, remarked casually there was a slight twist but composedly adjusted, awaited abatement of a wisping breeze that passed by, and cast himself aloft. Another beautifully executed act.
I must say this was a remarkable exhibition of courage and technique in a dire position (albeit voluntarily entered into – but then that is also what makes it so impressive, to choose to do this). And a first achieved here in the Lake District!
All I can expound upon second hand bearing witness to this is that drive and motivation are paramount to undertake such a feat: total assured confidence in ability, marked by years of experience jumping and handling canopies. But that is not to take away from the sheer courage that was required (particularly where this was the first time the technique had been attempted here – and not from a free standing structure such as a bridge!). There was palpable tension, concentration, and decision taken to ‘go-ahead’. From my acquaintance with these individuals these are not the actions of sociopathic individuals who have no emotional capacity or regard for consequence. Now the question is, how can such observations and insights be applied more transferably – what can we learn from this, and what principles can be derived to help foster such courage, motivation, drive, and accomplishment in others?! I suppose you might have to jump over the edge to find out, there’s no excuse for it…
So, let’s hear it everybody: hip hip for the Borrowdale Roll-Over!
I write about various subjects.