Friday, January 7, 2011

Feeling something's wrong - Part 1

Feeling something wrong is, of course, the trademark of the anxious person. But still, I can't help feeling there's something terribly, fundamentally wrong in the way we live.

Without doubt, things have improved. In general, we tend not to treat other people as badly as we have in the past. I have no doubt that there is less killing, war, persecution and discrimination that there was, though those things continue, perhaps at times with more sinister, corporate twists. This is not to say we treat people better, that people are more respected or valued. I don't think they necessarily are, but more on that later.

I think the two very important ways in which we fail are in our relationship to the environment around us, and in our relationship to each other.

When you say it that way, it's tempting to ask: what else is there? Indeed! If we lived in harmony with our environment, and treated each other well, surely that would be some sort of pinnacle of human achievement? But so much of human endeavour, so much of our combined resourcefulness and intelligence is directed not at improving either of these things, but at extending our lives and fighting illness (not necessarily improving our quality of life), making bigger and 'better' things, building our knowledge, making our cities run more efficiently, trying to fit in, making money, getting thrills, making an impression and so on. None of which necessarily make us happier or make the world a better place.

I don't propose to argue the point that humans have been a very bad thing for the Earth's ecosystems. It is very plain to me that we, as animals who depend at a very basic level on having a steady supply of clean water, clean air and food, need a healthy environment to provide all those things.

Okay, you say, but we produce food on farms. We have enough water, and anyway we can always capture more rainwater or produce clean water through treatment of dirty water. And the air, well, it is clean enough. In short, so long as we have farms and water treatment plants, and we put our aluminium smelters and power plants a little way away from our cities, we'll be fine! I truly believe that this is the thinking of many people out there.

But here's the catch. The plants and animals that make our food depend on other plants and animals, sometimes plants and animals that we don't know much about. In the very simplest example, many plants require bees to pollinate them in order for them to fruit and reproduce, and not just any old bee. Many plants require a particular species of bee. That bee requires a particular combination of plants, a particular type of environment to grow and develop healthily and so on. I'm convinced that we simply cannot provide the environment for all these things to work properly. It is too complex. And even if we could somehow reproduce it, it would be too expensive. We need healthy ecosystems to live. And beyond that, healthy ecosystems, healthy environments are beautiful. We need them for our mental health as well, so we don't end up living in a world of cities, roads, concrete, wheat fields and nothing else.

And that is just looking at it from the egocentric human-focused perspective. I also fail to see how we have a right to drive other species to extinction by destroying their habitat.

Leaving that aside, it does seem that many if not most people living in developed, western style societies, do not understand this basic relationship between ourselves and the environment in which we live. I think the main explanation for this is that we don't actually live anywhere near the environment that ultimately sustains us. Most of us live in cities. We may or may not have a little backyard, or some ornamental plants growing in pots to make our balconies look nice. But we are far, far away from the farms, forests and rivers that provide the food, clean air and clean water that we need to survive.

Most human societies throughout history were not like this - they understood the importance of preserving the environment, and often formalised that understanding through their cultural or religious practices. This is because, for most of human history, we have been close to the environment. We have seen at close range where our food comes from, where our water comes from, and what happens when the environment that provides these things is disrupted. If the river from which a village collected drinking water became contaminated, the villagers would get sick.

We are so completely removed from our environment that the connection between our actions and the security of our food, water and air supply is difficult to conceive. How does throwing my old mobile phone in the bin rather than taking it to a shop to be recycled contribute to contaminated water supplies? My water comes from the tap. It is always clean. How does my bar of soap in the shower affect the level of oxygen in the atmosphere and the risk of flooding and landslides in Indonesia? How does running my air conditioner full-blast 24 hours a day 7 days a week in summer contribute to global warming, and what's wrong with a little improvement in temperatures anyway?

Unless we do a much better job on showing each other the connections between our basic human needs for food, water, and clean air, the health of large ecosystems, and the activities in our day-to-day lives, we will struggle to avoid dangerous damage to our environment.

To be continued...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mmmm Meatballs

Mincemeat, crumbled bread, chopped garlic, parsley, lemon zest, cooked in crushed tomatoes and garlic.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Patch Farming

Is there any reason why our agricultural and pastoral lands must be completely deforested? Would it not make more sense to farm patches of land cut out of, and surrounded by, native vegetation? This would have the benefit of less erosion, a healthier immediate environment leading to higher yields, and providing a habitat for native species?

Any reason?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spaghetti with bacon, pea, shallot and white wine sauce

Finely chop about 2 shallots, 2-3 cloves of garlic and some bacon and fry till the bacon starts to crisp. Add white wine to cover the ingredients, and sautee on medium heat until most of the wine has evaporated. Add around a cup of peas, along with lots of parsley and pepper. Cook for a few minutes on low to medium heat, then add a dollop of cream and stir through. Take off the heat, and stir in the pre-cooked pasta.

Monday, July 6, 2009


I suddenly become aware
and taste metal.
In a panic, I pop a pill.

Seventy of us,
encased and strapped together
hurtling in space,
a determined meteor.
Thank god, we ride a blinkered steed
for all around
the stars rain down
and dust combusts in brilliant sparks
and flakes of rock and glass swirl
and awesome nuclear explosions rage a million miles away.

We passionate, gasping little things
neatly sewn up
sacs of liquid and stuff
these microscopic hearts thrashing out a beat that feels
overwhelming and powerful.
I gaze down
as our steel envelope battles
the forces of the universe
on our behalf.
From here, it’s hard to see,
but in this way we grind back, or forward
an inch or two.

I sleep at last, feeling grains of sand between my toes
the wash of salty air on my eyelashes
and the dying sun’s rose-tinted caress –
and behind us secretes a precious mixture:
the blood, the pain, the money and the land,
the oil and gases and the light of centuries past,
the humble bequest of the dead
and forgotten.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dead of Night

The sultry arrangement of night. Quiet expanse of black and moonlight; highlights on furtive movement and surface scurrying. On high, parting shadows on secret excitements. Here creamy white, there jagged black, blinking shortly for perfumed cigarette breaks, leaving wisps of smoke in the atmosphere, chasing the horizon.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Remembering Warsaw

Pusia met me at the station, frantic because she had been searching the underground passageways beneath the station instead of coming upstairs to the internet cafe where I was peacefully talking to the family on skype. I got on a bus. Pusia met me in the centre of town, after more stress in underground labyrinths with her pink bicycle clanking up and down crowded stairways.

Warsaw has a feel of revival about it. The signs of war and devastation remain - old brick buildings with broken windows and sagging frames sit alongside sparkling new office towers and malls, while the great shadow of Stalin's monolithic "Palace of Culture" falls like a gravestone over the central city. The signs are evident too in the scores of "broken" people in the streets; beggars, sick and weary ones who wander the new Warsaw as if it were still a war zone.

But most people exude excitement and confidence in what has become and what will become of their wounded city.

Think about it. Even the teenagers in this year 2007 can remember a time when most of the buildings in Warsaw were falling down or displaying the prominent scars of war. Most can remember the opening of the first MacDonalds, when it was an experience reserved for those with money amongst a still poverty-ridden community. Poland has endured the occupation and oppression of two despotic regimes over the last 70 years. No wonder the people are glad it's over.

I really can't place the events in Warsaw with chronological certainty. Time truly lost its meaning as drunken nights turned into bleary-eyed mornings and hung-over afternoons. I don't want to focus on the boozing, but it is an unavoidable constant in Polish night (and morning) entertainment.

My second night in Warsaw progressed from a karaoke-filled apartment party at Iza's place, to a park at 5am with a few bottles of tequila to toast the imminent rising of the sun. Pusia's friend David was there, a well-built, shaved-headed, hoodied guy who I'll admit would've prompted me to cross the street if I'd seen him coming towards me at night! At one point, he came looming over me and bellowing "Jew!" A fearsome approach, to be sure. Brandishing a bottle of tequila, he slurred. "You! Are either an Arab, or a Jew". I paused. "I am a Jew" I replied, looking straight up into his eyes. He immediately threw up his arms, spilling tequila, and yelled "He passed the test!". We toasted to Jews in Poland and there followed an impromptu bout of "Shalom Aleichem" raucous singing. I failed David's next test when I replied no to the question "Do you hate Palestinians?", and again to the question "Are you a Zionist?". But he seemed to be okay with me after that...

I was thinking about this girl Hana, who I had met that night, as Pusia, Tessa and I sat huddled together against the cold of the dawn at the bus-stop, waiting to go home. We were eating a delicious Polish sausage and I felt amazing.

I ended up kissing Hana on the couch at Paulina's apartment. It was the same night that i took my best photo ever, of Pusia looking innocent and childlike directly at the camera, and Hana posed ghostline, hat cocked and hair falling over her face in a picture of female poise and seduction in the background.

We went back to her house in the suburbs as the sun was rising with a cold blue light. Her house was an enormous, rambling old place of unexpected narrow staircases and small, strange-ceilinged rooms. The window of her room had a jagged hole in it, through which Hana smoked a cigarette the next morning clad only in a long, white wool cardigan. I wanted to take a photo because of the way her chocolate skin appeared behind the fabric, but I didn't. I got up and joined her at the window sill to smoke.


Tomec was leaving for Israel to meet his girlfriend Claudia the same day that Tessa and I were finally leaving Warsaw. We went out that last night, and as the alcohol kicked in, the English began to disappear from the group until I found myself at 5am lying wedged between Hana, Tomec, Hanya and another guy in a car, drinking cheap champagne and listening to the radio and the others' drunken conversation in Polish.

I was tired. Excessive indulgence in the Polish drinking culture and a lack of sleep had depleted my brain power and weighed down on my muscles like a lead suit. I trudged along Nowy Swiat in the rain, joined only by early-rising business people going to work. I felt like I knew the city well, and at the same time that it was time to leave. My last image of Warsaw was of Pusia coming to the balcony in her underwear to drop me the keys to the apartment. The scene was disapprovingly observed by an old woman walking her dog, who no doubt believed she was witnessing a testament to the moral decrepitude of modern Polish youth.