Stumbling Backwards into the Future

I’m angry.

Scratch that. I’m furious.

An axe is about to crunch into the lives and careers of people whose work I value more than almost any in the world.

Australia is my home. Our society clings to the edges of a vast continent, one of sharp contrasts and harsh beauty. The wide land affords us riches, through agriculture and mining. Our very borders are defined and shaped by three mighty oceans. Water, and its scarcity, regulates life in Australia, human, plant and animal. And our atmosphere – that thin varnish that separates us from the cold vacuum of space – carries the mighty storms that sweep across the south and the drama of El Nino with its drought and fire.

Sunset Mountain

We have an almost miraculous network of publicly-accessible tools for finding and forecasting what we need to know about our weather, climate and oceans. Even with all the work that’s brought us to this point, those models and forecasts can still be spectacularly wrong. This is hard science.

That’s why I’m speechless to read that the CSIRO is cutting 300 jobs in those very scientific divisions – Oceans and Atmosphere, and Land and Water – leaving a barely-functional skeleton of staff.

The official explanation points to a shift from basic climate science toward climate adaptation and alternative research areas – cybersecurity and robotics (with our internet? Ha). The CSIRO has seen its budget slashed under the Abbott, and now Turnbull, governments, and I pity those having to make hard decisions about what gets the chop.

This smacks of a small-minded and short-sighted vision of the world, and disrespect for Australia’s trajectory into the future. Earth is the only home we have. Humanity wields more technology, more power, more population, than ever before, and we know that systems we rely on planet-wide are teetering toward collapse. We must do better, know more, and damage less. The notion that we have ‘done enough’ to understand our climate – Australia, of all countries, after Paris, of all times – is a humourless joke.

At an individual level, lives and livelihoods are at stake. A grim picture faces Aussie farmers, already a community under incredible strain. For a generation of aspiring scientists, hearts and minds ready to reach out to the world around them, news like this dashes their hopes, and they dejectedly apply to institutions on the other side of the planet. I cannot imagine the morale of the hard-working CSIRO experts whose jobs have been pulled from under them; the collective knowledge they’ve earned, the projects that will be abandoned, unfinished. My heart goes out to them.

Most of us walk backwards into the future – our past visible, unable to see what’s coming next. Our basic scientists are a tiny few who point their headlights outward and forward into the huge expanse of the unknown, not for profit, but to understand what is there and, perhaps, help us choose our path. These cuts dim those lights and blind our society as we hurtle into a long, dark future.

A Storm Is Coming

A gathering storm. Would you turn your back?

Categories: environmentalism, Politics, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

For the Love of Sharks

Death in jaws. I’m chewing over the phrase. It plays on itself better when spoken aloud. The topic’s on my mind – not in the back of it – alive in every lurking cluster of sub-surface seaweed, tainting the turquoise ocean with their sinister shadows. They move with currents, lurch to the surface as waves lift and pull them, tug at my peripheral vision.

I’m alone outside the breakers, every sense engaged. The nearest people are two kilometres to the north and a hundred metres above sea level. I know, because I can see them. My not-quite-reliable-enough-to-drive-without-glasses vision can pick them out, two dots, standing at the lookout over the enormous expanse of beach. They’re watching me, I guess. I’m watching them.

I hope they come closer.

It’s not because I want to talk to them. It’s not even that (as I repeat in the rational part of my mind that keeps getting shouted down by my utterly spooked Fear Of Bloody Death department) they could help me if I was abruptly attended to by a large man (named Noah) in a grey suit.

No, I want them to be closer because at least then there’d be witnesses. I’d live on as a story. Gory, yes. Remembered? More so than the alternative; a scrap of wetsuit turned up by a search party and an expert opinion on a tooth pattern.

An over-the-shoulder view back up the beach. See the shadows? Yeah, those ones. You see them.

An over-the-shoulder view back up the beach. See the shadows? Yeah, those ones. You see them. Bastards.

Two grey fins slice the surface tension in shallow, clear water to my south. They dissect the ocean in a perfect line toward me. My heart takes a quick run-up and slams into my ribcage before I confirm that, yes, they’re dolphins. Five, in fact. Two large females, an adolescent and two babies.

I wait, and bob around a bit. There’s rarely much point trying to guess the path of a dolphin pod. The local ones seem to like people; I slide off my board and drop below the surface as they close the distance. They’re approaching through a plume of sand kicked up by a recent wave; I surface and idly squeak my fingers along the bottom of my board until they emerge into clearer water. The squeaking seemed to entertain a dolphin I encountered once, and now it’s a habit of mine. I wonder if they notice. I wonder if it annoys them.

They’re feeling social. I duck my head back under, open my eyes. It’s a curse that our underwater vision is blurry. The front mother-child pair drift by me slowly, at half depth, turned on their side to study me. They pass within arm’s reach. I twist in the water. The other three split around me, fearless, curious, close. The baby is nestled, almost connected, slipstreaming under its mother’s pectoral fin. I can make out their eyes, just, in the dappled light. Then they’re past.

I realise I’ve been holding my breath and surface with a gasp as they do. A wave is bearing down – a good one. I lunge back to my board, take off and fumble a clumsy line through a short barrel. The next wave is bigger, and I’m stuck inside. The dolphins flash up in the blue face of the wave as it crests, then slingshot out the back and disappear as I duck the whitewash. They’re gone.

Elation subsides quickly. I have no-one to share the moment with. Seconds feel like minutes. A shadow cast by a sand plume sets my heart racing again. The dry easterly wind brushes the top off another Southern Ocean set, detonating on heavy sand after a nine thousand kilometre journey from the storms below South Africa. I last fifteen minutes more before I ride a wave to the shore. The Fear of Bloody Death department go back to their desks (I presume to watch videos about asbestos and spiders hiding in shoes and the dangers of driving fatigued).

A trail of footprints: evidence that I'm shark-proof again.

A trail of footprints: evidence that I’m shark-proof again.

I look back at the people on the lookout. They’re specks, turning back to their car. I wonder if they could see the dolphins. I wonder if they were alarmed, as I was, or perhaps jealous, or if they enjoyed seeing what they saw.

I shuck the top half of my wetsuit. Westcape’s notoriously sticky sand has gathered in the folds, and now my elbows are ringed with pieces of shell. The sun dries the salt water on my shoulders as I trudge back towards the headland. As I climb the wooden stairs, a single surfer trots down past me. We exchange smiles in silence. Words don’t feel necessary until after the fact; until I realise I might not speak to anyone else that day.

I turn back at the top of the steps, breathing a little harder than usual. The surfer is paddling out at the north end of the beach, riding a rip that rushes out past a huge rock that looks like an upturned Christmas pudding.

There are only two cars in the car park: his, and mine. I take my time getting changed, enjoying the ambience of the day. As I reverse out, another arrives. In my rear view, before my car drops below a sand dune, I see a couple clamber up to the lookout. One points at something down the headland, at the north end of the wide, sandy expanse.

And now, a day later, the experience feels as real to me as the moment it happened. Every vibrant detail, preserved in whatever passes for 4K in the mystery of a human memory. Sitting comfortably inside, I can send a memo of thanks to the folks who staff my Fear of Bloody Death department – specifically, the shark watchers.

If they’d been off duty yesterday, that moment wouldn’t have been as vivid. As clear. As alive. As real.

Death. It wasn’t really close to me, that day. Probably. But the fact that it could have been – all terror and primal instinct and cultural hysteria wrapped up in thousand kilograms of large-toothed fish – made me feel further from it than I ever have before.

Thanks, sharks. For being somewhere. As long as somewhere isn’t where I am, when I am.

In answer to the begged question: Yes. It is worth it.

In answer to the begged question: Yes. It is worth it.

Categories: Surf, Things people do, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I’m upside down

Here we go again. A calendar year comes to an end. Lists, resolutions and retrospectives blanket the media like nostalgic snow. It’s time, we’re urged, to decide what merits a coveted space in our memories.

Daunting.

I’m writing this on a sunny day in Australia. Relative to the same moment last year, I’m upside down and a lot warmer. London, my home for 5 years, finally tipped the scales in my mind from big and exciting to claustrophobic and stifling. So I left.

Rino Pisetta Top.jpg

The difference between being on top of this mountain and other high things I’ve been on in the past is that this time I had no job.

If I had to point fingers at what things precipitated the move, a few jump to mind. A front-seat bus crash on an icy mountain, then a scary problem with my lung, stripped me of the sense of invincibility I’d happily carried around since I was young. I looked more closely at where I was living: a cold concrete jungle with thickly polluted air. My schedule was so regimented that only the one or two days ‘off’ each month were notable. Serendipity and flexibility had been pushed to the margins of my life, by my own hand.

At the same time, the sharp end of Tory cuts on my workplace meant the organisation was digging ever deeper with fewer resources. My last major project was incredibly fulfilling but floored me at the end of a long winter. Continuing there wasn’t right for me.

I’ve now been travelling (and writing) for six months. Flexibility and serendipity have been abundant.

I got dehydrated in a scorching construction site in Bologna. I scrambled in circles on a damp, boulder-strewn mountainside in Switzerland. I lugged my worldly possessions through crowded, narrow backstreets in Istanbul. I slept fitfully under a table on a ferry rolling across the North Sea. I got stuck up a cliff in the Dolomites (thanks for getting me down, Patrick). I met people I didn’t like. I experienced frustration and isolation and sickness and wanted to go home. The world rumbled around me, politics and war and powerplays. I felt tiny.

It was perfect.

World Fair Poland.jpg

Plenty of nice and fun things happened too.

One late October night, I stood gazing over the Thames. In ten hours, I would board a plane toward Australia. The surge of misgivings was like nothing I’d felt before. I would leave behind so many wonderful friends.

Maybe four months rattling my own cage was enough? Did I really need to go halfway round the world to finish the job?

Two months back in Australia and I’m satisfied that the answer is yes. I could talk about reconnecting with my family. That’s been incredible. Catching up with old friends. Loved it. But it’s not what’s had the most visceral impact on me.

Australia feels like home.

Rough black bitumen burning underfoot. A raucous daily dawn chorus. Native birds tracing their signature arcs through the sky. Dynamic oceans of many moods, all enthralling in their own way. Labrynthine, senseless urban sprawl and staggering stretches of highway. Long, dry, scratchy grass dragging red lines across bare shins. Dolphins and spiders and snakes and kangaroos and lightning and fire and meteorites flashing across the Milky Way. Bakery pies and custard tarts. Swearing. Cricket. Barbecues. Flies looping through hot air. Sunshine. A country grappling fiercely with its own sense of identity, values and place in the world.

Warrumbungles More Roos.jpg

There’s only one place to get views like this.

2016 is the blankest of canvases. I enter the year with more professional experience and confidence than ever. I’ve got a draft of a fiction novel that needs serious editing. I’ve spoken to interesting people about exciting things going on in different parts of the country. And I have a little old car to get me where I need to be.

See you next year. Somewhere.

Categories: Thoughts | Leave a comment

HERE BE DRAGONS

Warning: you are now entering the past.

This blog was a personal project that captured some of my thoughts, photos and stories between 2009 and 2013. I should probably get around to archiving it nice and happily and starting anew, but I have a few things I want to park somewhere and here’s the easiest platform for that. Treat this post as a three-year bookmark between the person who was writing here, and the person who’s writing here now…

David Silhouette.jpg

Look, I even spent some time in black and white on a Scottish island. That’s how much time passed.

Categories: Thoughts | Leave a comment

The Back Six

Six trips. One month. Nuremberg, Portland, Lancaster, Cambridge, Coventry and Eridge. July.

A rather grainy view of the German heatwave, in a tiny town outside Nureumberg.

A rather grainy view of the German heatwave, in a tiny town outside Nureumberg.

The summer of 2013 was real. Temperatures were regularly into the ‘shorts’ region, with maximums between “ah, that’s nice” to “bloody hell, where’s the cold water?”. At Portland, the rock was practically sweating, despite deceptively chilly sea temperatures; formal jackets for a German wedding were quickly discarded post-ceremony; and there was carnage in Cambridge as every man and his dog grimly gripped poles and pushed their way down the river. August brought some relief.

An image of a man about to slide down a boulder in Brimham.

Easy grit. The pleasure of pitting skin against stone is uniquely, er, exfoliating. Or excruciating. Take your pick.

Brimham Rocks, in Yorkshire, is a wonderful place. It’s as though some demented rock-giant haphazardly slammed a bunch of pancakes and scones together in piles. And made them into rocks. Or something like that. They’re just so strange. It was my first taste of outdoor bouldering (low-height rock climbing without ropes) and I can’t think of a better place to explore as an introduction.

I also tasted bitter defeat as an Australian in the crowd on the decisive fourth day at the Durham Ashes test. It was entertaining, but not the kind of climax we’d hoped for.

Oh well. It got better. September.

Monk Mountain.

Monk Mountain.

Two weeks in Greece emphatically underlined the most active northern summer of my life. The view above was my first glimpse of the beauty I’d not really expected from this part of the world. Halkidiki was a wilderness of tiny coves, clear water and secluded beaches. Hiking the Vikos gorge and gazing across Meteora added adventure, and Santorini didn’t fail to deliver postcard-perfect sunsets.

I didn’t take any pictures in October.

The year hadn’t really been about photography for me. It was about exploring. And, well, it all came crashing to a halt in October. The days were getting shorter, my bank balance was cowering in terror every time I went near a cash machine, and I was just plain worn out. So my camera was parked on a shelf. Oh, and I started Spanish lessons. And played a heck of a lot of new board games. That was fun.

Here’s a bonus photo: finding space in the last moments of light…

November already? Where did the year go? Ah, that’s right. It went to Fontainebleau on a rock star bus with all the cool kids.

If you’d told me before I left Australia that, one day, I’d be sweating my way through a crushing crowd in a London Underground tunnel, dressed in a ski jacket and lugging a big portable crash pad, I’d probably have backed carefully away from you then called the police.

But that’s only because time travellers and prophets are dangerous.

The surging tube crowds safely (and uncomfortably) negotiated, we jumped aboard the Boulder Bus, a 15-sleeper tour bus complete with seedy LED strip lighting and actual legroom in the bunks. A French patisserie was like a beacon in the pre-dawn, and we eagerly filled up on fresh treats before entering the Magic Forest.

No, seriously. The forest is magic. This picture proves it.

No, seriously. The forest is magic. This picture proves it.

I’m really not sure what my fascination is with climbing on top of rocks in an inefficient and difficult way, but I suspect it’s a primal thing, like robot animals (that was the end of November). Anyway. December.

Slow shutter swans.

Slow shutter swans.

I’d have hated for the year to end quietly. A trip to explore the Jurassic coast near Swanage was the ideal time to unwind, cross Durdle Door off my list, eat fish and chips, drink ale and go for long walks. I didn’t even bother unpacking, because two days later I jumped on a train to Exeter, to train my second Green Steps course of the year. Bringing a switched-on group of students through major environmental and organisational issues and solutions over five intense days is a tough gig, but immensely rewarding. As my train hissed and sparked back through floodwaters late in the month, my mind was filled with big ideas.

It’s hard to think how I can top 2013 for the sheer quantity of mini-trips I squeezed in and how consistently excellent they turned out to be. 2014’s shaping up to be a different beast. I’ve done the England Sampler and dipped my toe across the Channel a few more times. I’m itching for a really big trip.

Suggestions?

Categories: bouldering, climbing, Fun Things On Land, photos, Travel | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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