Category Archives: Environment

Hiking the ‘geography of hope’

Mount Hood. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Mount Hood. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

“We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

So wrote the novelist Wallace Stegner in 1960, in an appeal to a U.S. government official involved in a policy review of America’s ‘Outdoor Recreation Resources’.

Stegner’s point seems self-evident 60 years later. In 2017, after hundreds of years of human erosion of natural resources, the wild country in public ownership is clearly worth more than its simple economic value.

While this is clear to many – particularly those who’ve visited a national park – the country’s current president may take some convincing. Meanwhile, hope seems thin on the ground these days.

But, as Stegner argued, it’s still there – for now. With this in mind we recently travelled from our home in urban north Portland’s to the Mount Hood National Forest, and specifically to the Lolo Pass Trailhead, a waypoint on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

From there, my wife and I hiked the PCT for a couple of hours, before turning off on the Timberline Trail, which we cut away from to ascend Bald Mountain.

In the course of the hike we met a handful of people, who quickly passed with a nod; at times, we seemed to be the only people standing beneath the gargantuan west face of Mount Hood above us. The higher we hiked, the quieter the undergrowth sounded – even the fauna appeared to clear the way.

We felt, to borrow another phrase from Stegner, “single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals…”

After months in the cities, and traffic, living with ambient freeway noise outside our home and multiple screens within, the hours also felt like ‘sanity restored’.

On Bald Mountain.

On Bald Mountain. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

We ate our lunch yards from Bald Mountain’s summit, where the only imprint of civilization was the few stone remnants of a 1930s fire lookout, facing the huge hanging glaciers on Mount Hood. The scale of the view was vast and silencing; our meal over, we sat and breathed and just looked on, a part of the landscape ourselves.

Having hiked in Europe, the British Isles, and Ireland, I’ve long been familiar with the restorative powers of the outdoors – whether in a blizzard on Ben Nevis, crossing a sun-bleached glacier on the Monte Rosa, or on sunny moorland in the Wicklow Mountains.

I still agree with the elderly man I met when descending Croagh Patrick in heavy weather on a November afternoon, who shouted to me above the wind: “It’s good for the soul!”

It was, and it still is. The wild places – to borrow a term from Robert Mcfarlane – remain repositories of peace, beauty, and natural communion. But they’re also places of hope – regions that remind us that – despite everything else that confronts us in 2017 – we’re still part of something awe-inspiring. For now, at least.

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Just a little bit of rain

Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton

After the ice, the rain. Endless sheets of it, sweeping up the Willamette Valley and over Portland. An occasional break, a lightening of the sky, is just a tease – here comes another chilly band. And the next, and so on, rinsing the city, and repeating.

It’s a good thing I’m mentally prepared for rain in February. I was born in this month, and as a child growing up in Ireland I remember birthdays bookended by drenchings, with huge, pregnant rain clouds sweeping on Spring westerlies over east Galway and Roscommon, and down on Athlone.

Oregon is no different at this time of the year. The winds are a little colder, maybe, and the heavy rain lacks the subtlety of the misty, wind-whipped showers that sweep over my home country from the Atlantic, but it’s all of a piece.

This morning’s early downpour kept me indoors, tinkering with my guitar and staring out the window. And thinking of rain songs. Not the obvious picks, Gene Kelly or Rihanna or Creedence Clearwater Revival, but something a little more blue, something that befitted a cold midwinter morning.

And so I came to a song I hadn’t heard in 15 years, when I used to play more acoustic guitar. Back then I learned it off a Fred Neil album, but, after playing his version for a couple of years, I heard Karen Dalton’s cover.

Dalton’s version of “Little Bit of Rain” (she drops Neil’s indefinite article) conjures up a deluge I never want to encounter, a flow of raw regret, the voice of a woman about to quit her lover, desperately trying to comfort him before she walks out. No reason is given for her departure but, like the rain, it’s coming, if not today, tomorrow.

Karen Dalton encountered more than a little rain on her life journey. Having recorded one of the folk revival’s great records, life and circumstances conspired to ensure that she never fully realized her talent. She did leave behind “Little Bit of Rain” though. Next time you find yourself watching drops slide down the glass, put it on – and be thankful for what you have.

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A winter walk on the Wildwood

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

I’d like every one of my hikes to be in the Cascades, the Alps or the Adirondacks.

But as a man of finite time and even-more-finite means, that always doesn’t happen. In fact, it rarely does.

I still want to hike though, even if it’s not an eight-hour day trek or a week’s climbing on glaciers.

Luckily I relocated to Portland, Oregon this year, which is where Forest Park comes in. Running for eight miles on hillsides overlooking the Willamette River, and encompassing 5,100 acres of woodland, it’s one of the largest municipal parks in the US.

Moving countries, households and jobs takes time. Up to a fortnight ago, with the exception of one early morning hike around Trillium Lake, I hadn’t had a decent, muck and sweat-strewn outing since last July.

It was boots on and up to Forest Park then. My wife and I opted for a route running from the Newton Road to the Wildwood trail (#12 here), a loop that ran for 4.4 miles and involved a descent (and subsequent ascent) of 300 meters.

On the Newton Road.

On the Newton Road.

Despite the lateness of the season, early November in the park meant some autumnal color, much slippery windfall underfoot and temperate hiking. Luckily for us the frequent Portland winter rain also held off (allowing us the view above), as did any large groups of fellow hikers.

And so we were granted a quiet, people-free three hours in the hills, a few short miles from downtown Portland but as remote as the wilder parts of the Wicklow Mountains National Park (where I hiked regularly when living in Dublin). Our outing was not quite fauna-free, thankfully: we spotted a woodpecker (the first this Irishman had ever seen) and a fox, two of the 112 bird and 62 mammal species to be encountered in the park.

Much as I’d like to set off on winter outings that involved down jackets, crampons and 4am starts, such expeditions are not always practical – as any city-based hiker will tell you. Hence the importance of outdoor spaces like Forest Park.

I’m lucky that it’s all of 20 minutes from my front door – and that there’s another 5,000 or so acres of it to explore.

Two roads diverged.

Two roads diverge.

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Half mist, half rain, and warm to the touch

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, Dublin

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, June 2016

A confession – I don’t do music outdoors.

Hiking, running, walking – no problem. But not music and certainly not in Ireland. My home country’s weather is a perfect disruption to a decent outdoor gig.

First off, it’s likely to rain. If not for all of the show then certainly for part of it. Secondly, while the sun may shine and it may be July, the temperature will still be south of 10c and you’ll shiver your way through the evening.

The third factor is a hidden one, the element few think of as they hunt for their old wellington boots or under apply sunscreen. And it’s the worst.

It’s the wind. While it’s well known that you enjoy four seasons in a day in Ireland, it’s less publicised that every one of them will be windy. And if you’re standing in the middle of a field, side-on to an Atlantic westerly as your favourite act steps onto stage, you’ll notice it.

You’re likely to experience, as I have on many occasions, songs unwittingly deconstructed – the bass one minute, then a snippet of vocal, then what sounds like a cymbal but may be feedback. The song ends when the audience starts clapping, but I’ve even witnessed 50,000 cheering fans hoodwinked by a stiff June breeze, to the shock of a band launching into another verse.

This amounts to sort of improvised performance – just one improvised by an Atlantic depression and not the E Street Band.

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

And so, when I woke last Sunday and reached to check the weather (a routine as common for today’s Irish as the Angelus at noon was for our grandparents), my heart sank. Rain tapering away to dull, depressing mistiness, with a breeze (of course). And we had tickets to Sigur Ros, outdoors, that evening.

While shaking our fist at the weather gods is a national pastime for the Irish so is optimism – a blind faith that flies in the face of all common sense (and underpins most of our international soccer wins).

It was with equal parts dread and optimism then that we headed to Dublin city centre to meet friends for the show. Under grey skies our group drove on to the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, where the Icelandic act had set out their stall.

And then, as I walked onto the sodden grass at the venue/field, the weather didn’t matter. Instead it struck me that, in my late 30s now, I attend so few outdoor shows that just hearing music without a roof is a novelty. Who cares if it rains, if the Irish summer dumps its contents down on the city for the evening, if…hold on, is that the sun?

Optimism rewarded, the audience looked over their shoulders to see the light breaking through the clouds beyond the Phoenix Park. At last – a show in the setting sun! Primavera and Coachella be damned!

And then – you guessed it – it started to rain.

Just before Jónsi Birgisson struck the first note we received a gentle drenching  – half mist, half rain and warm to the touch – followed by an arching, shimmering rainbow, which framed the stage, the audience and the Royal Hospital itself. Beauty amidst the gloom – just as Sigur Ros began to play.

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A walk in the Raven woods

raven1My first memory of Raven Point is of a summer afternoon when I was five or six.

I am walking with my family after Sunday lunch, along a pathway running through pine trees and around low, swampy ponds. The air smells like the sea, mixed with the scent of eagle fern. The sun is bright and high.

As we walk deeper into the woods a view of the North Slob – the mud flats at the entrance to Wexford Harbour – opens up through the brambles. Eventually the path gives way to the open dunes of the Point itself, an expanse of low grass, sand and an immense, wide sky, framed by the Irish Sea on one side and the town of Wexford, distant on the other.

Returning to Raven Point last weekend it was re-assuring to see the same pine trees over the path, the same heavy green water in the ponds. Amid the changes of 30 years Raven Point stands constant.

Stopping on the edge of the water, at the tip of the Point and surrounded only by sea, sand and sky, it could have been 30 or even 100 years earlier.

raven3The view shared something of the “beauteous forms” praised by William Wordsworth as he looked upon Tintern Abbey:

Oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet…

While the forms remain the people have changed. The six-year-old who came to Raven Point three decades ago lives on only in the memories of those who shared the walk that day. The years since have been full, often happy but not without sadness.

But Raven Point is not a place to re-live memories. It is not frozen in time. The Point was formed as a spit, and its sands are moving all the time – new flats, lagoons and dunes form and fade. The path across the sands is never the same twice.

Nonetheless at moments there is a connection here, in the light and the wind, to people who’ve gone – my younger self, the loved ones who walked the path and are no longer here to revisit it.

And so I was grateful to visit once more last weekend, to stand on the shore with my wife and think of another line from Wordsworth’s poem, thankful for this place, my past and my family.

If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together.

raven2
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Forty shades of grey


‘Is that a nice view?

Let’s stick some concrete on it.’

So runs official opinion in Ireland, land of the 40 shades of green, home to the Wild Atlantic Way – western Europe’s windswept, unspoilt outpost.

Where the post is likely an unsightly iron rod jammed into a pristine patch of auld sod. With a wall around it.

Living in Dublin, I’m lucky enough – when I take a car to the city – to drive home along Clontarf Road, known locally as the ‘coast road’.

The clue’s in the name. One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip is passing St Anne’s Park, where the seaward view opens up to the expanse of North Bull Island (a Unesco-designated biosphere), the lagoon before and the hill of Howth behind.

It’s a small pleasure, enjoyed by generations of Dubliners who’ve taken this route over the decades. Until now. Lost is the view of late – to drivers at least – soon to be replaced by a 85cm-high wall.

Instead of calming waters and wildlife we can now look forward to a kilometre of concrete – dull and gray, until the graffiti starts appearing.

The City Council claims the move is part of flood defence works, despite the fact that the only floods lifelong residents of the area can recall occur on the park side of the road. If even sea levels are rising, are they doing so by 70cms, the extra height the new wall adds to its predecessor?

It baffles me. Then again, I don’t work in local government or construction or the Brutalist-revival network. I just live here. And drive a road whose view I used to enjoy.

What makes the edifice all the more tragically amusing is that reports of it emerged in the city paper on a week when the Irish tourism agency, Failte Ireland, launched a new €1m marketing campaign promoting the city as an outdoor destination – “Dublin – A Breath of Fresh Air”.

“Dublin – framed by concrete” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

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The silence of the yams

IMG_5462I was a little late to the feast when it came to In Defence Of Food.

My secondhand edition of Michael Pollan’s healthy eating treatise is garnished with words like ‘bestseller’, ‘must-read’ and ‘Book of the Year’.

The year in question was 2008 and – though time and food fads may have moved on since then – common sense hasn’t. Pollan’s recipe for eating holds true.

A bit like the ‘whole foods’ that he repeatedly praises, Pollan’s central thesis is served fully formed: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

It’s simple. And it’s a theory that frees you from focusing (or obsessing) on vitamins, saturated fats, free radicals, metabolic syndrome or any other effects of the foods or food-like products you eat – the ones that may or may not cause obesity, cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

Pollan’s advice won’t work for everyone. In fact it’s unlikely to work for most. Food producers make money from industrially growing their produce, food companies from refining it, doctors from treating the effects of eating it, and Big Pharma from making new drugs to better treat the diseases caused by the effects of eating it.

'Mostly plants.' Borough Market, London Pic: Clare Kleinedler

‘Mostly plants.’ Borough Market, London
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

And our brains, which crave glucose, don’t complain when we give them more and more of the stuff, usually from refined carbohydrates.

This is the food industry that whole foods (described by Pollan as ‘food that your grandmother would recognise’) are up against, and have been for the past 50 years. Not as profitable as processed foods, a simple vegetable can appear mute in the face of the multi-billion euro marketing yell of the food industry.

It’s ‘the silence of the yams’, as Pollan puts it.

There may have been a time when we regarded processed food as better for us (margarine, conveyor of spreadable trans fats, was marketed in the 1950s as healthier than butter) but that Atomic Age attitude has long since disappeared. Now we eat it because it’s cheap and there’s lots of it.

And it’s there too, in your face. Walk into any supermarket and compare the screaming colours of the centre aisles to the vegetables around the outside.  Away from the supermarket watch TV, browse social media, go to a sports’ event or a gig – and count the ads.

Amidst the noise, the claims, claims and more claims, the appeal of simple, non-scientific advice is strong.

Does it work? I’ve no idea. Neither does anyone else, definitively at least.

But I’ll err on the side of the Neolithic people whose tomb I visited last week, and the hundreds of generations since, up to the mid-20th century, by eating food, not too much, mostly plants.

Washed down by a little wine.
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Standing in darkness, sunk in time

Newgrange. Pic: Waku

Newgrange. Pic: Waku

There’s no 4G service at Newgrange.

In fact you’ll be lucky if your phone works at all. The renowned Neolithic site may be situated on a hill above flat, rolling countryside but at times you’ll be lucky to get a signal.

That’s fitting. Newgrange is an antidote to distraction culture, carrying or checking devices. At Newgrange modernity and its trappings cease.

Visiting the monument, as I did for the first time this week, offers temporal context. Put bluntly, you’re in awe of how old the place is.

The passage tomb dates back more than 5,200 years. It’s older than the Great Pyramid of Giza or Stonehenge. Used for 1,000 years as a burial site and place of worship it was abandoned around 2,000BC, left to time and thieves and eventually, in the wake of the archaeologists, tourists.

View from passage.  Pic: Jimmy Harris

View from passage.
Pic: Jimmy Harris

Standing inside the darkened tomb, having squeezed in through the narrow passageway – and despite being surrounded by other visitors – one feels a deep isolation, an immersion in time.

That Newgrange exists at all is remarkable. That one can stand in the same chamber as the nameless people who built it, reaching across five millennia to feel as they felt and inhale the dry, stony air as they did, is a unique experience.

Unique because, in a 21st century where the concept of experience is often flattened to something on a screen, Newgrange requires presence; it demands that you stand in one of the oldest roofed structures in existence. You must be there.

The astronomical significance of the tomb is well documented. A tour includes a brief light show, illustrating how the sun creeps across the floor of the chamber on the Winter solstice.

But the beautiful moment is the instant before that light appears, as you stand in the total darkness of the tomb, sunk in time.

Because the strain
in the wounded minds of men
Leaves them no peace; but here where life is worn out men should
have peace. He desires nothing but unconsciousness,
To slip in the black bottomless lake and be still.

from Robinson Jeffers’ ‘In The Hill At New Grange’

Bru_na_Boinne_Squire

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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Why walk when you can saunter?

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

When was the last time you had a good saunter?

Not a bracing walk on the beach after Sunday lunch, or a sweaty stroll around the shops, but a mind-emptying couple of hours spent outdoors, putting one foot in front of another?

Can’t remember? In that case you may be risking your happiness, your mental health, your limited days of existence as a sentient being in a world that offers soul-blinding experiential delights.

Henry David Thoreau thought you were. In 1861 he wrote his treatise ‘Walking’ (neatly summarised on this Brain Pickings post), in which he described the benefits of sauntering for those who otherwise endured a sedentary life.

By Thoreau’s standards that would be most of us nowadays. (Elsewhere in ‘Walking’ he writes: “I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day.”)

The Walden philosopher, at leisure to stroll thanks to – it seems – the donut-baking generosity of his mother and sister, extols us to get up and move.

But it’s not that simple.  Sauntering is not a physical act, it’s a mental one.

You can stroll off along a beach, for an hour or more (as I often do), believing that you’re immersing yourself in nature and renewing your sensibilities. But you’re wasting your time – the act of motion is not enough.

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

How often we find ourselves strolling while distracted? Thoughts of the day-to-day easily pervade – work, appointments, plans. How much of my walk is wasted as I  fiddle with my iPod’s song selections or its ear buds?

Thoreau again: “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

So even the great Transcendentalist himself pondered his shopping list while perambulating around Walden Pond.

Aware of this, Thoreau set to practice what he dubbed ” the art of walking”, the highest form of which was the act of sauntering: walking with a presence of mind, a focus on the body, the land, the air, the everything, and with the affairs of “the village” left behind.

It doesn’t come easy. Thoreau stated that “it requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker”.

Or just finding the right path.

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