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Bucket Lists

I’ve encountered all sorts of people lately who have made themselves a bucket list. Some of them think their time is running short and so they have made a list of things to do in the time that is left. Others are just organising their goals and plans and trying to make sure that life doesn’t pass them by while they are waiting for it to arrive.

But whatever the motivation, most of the lists I see are all very much the same. They are filled with big adventures and extravagant journeys. See sunrise at Machu Picchu. Sky dive from a balloon. Eat this extraordinary food. Swim with that extraordinary fish. Some are philanthropic, raising money for good causes. Some are the culmination of a lifelong personal dream. Some are made up on the spur of the moment when faced with the challenge of making a list. But the list is nearly always a list of things the person wants to do before they go. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bucket list of things that a person wants to become before they go. I’ve seen lists of things that people want to achieve, or acquire, but never a list of things that we want to let go. I’ve seen lists of grand, magnificent, daunting things, but never a list of small things.

Is that how we see the measure of ourselves – in the big things that we have done? In the places we have been? In our adventures? Yes. Perhaps we do. But in the end, will we say “look – here is what I have done”? Or will we say: “look – here is what I have become”?

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Memory, plagiarism and the truth

Here’s a funny story. Many years ago, way back in the mists of time, I started a painting. Here’s a picture of it.

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I never finished it, and it got shoved away in a pile of junk under a bed in the spare room. It was forgotten. It stayed forgotten for a long time, and then I stumbled across it and was seriously impressed with what a great idea I’d had to invent such a painting. The idea that if we poke our head through the curtain of the sky we will see the clockwork that drives the environmental system: the clockwork of climate change. Look at that clever graph of the long-term climate-change signal! How clever I was.

I got the painting out, dusted it off, and I think I even tweeted a picture of it to show the world my genius. Then I put it back under the bed and forgot it again.

Time passed, and then this week I saw a Twitter tweet in which @JDProuty had posted up a picture  alongside one of his haiku.

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This picture looked familiar and suddenly I remembered mine again. For a moment I thought – my picture! Somebody must have stolen it from when I put it on Twitter! Then I looked closer and saw that this picture was much, much better than mine. Of course. How unfair, they stole my idea and did it better – the injustice. Then I thought: this is unlikely. I asked @JDProuty where the picture came from, and he kindly sent me some information and a link, demonstrating that this was an old picture, of which there were many versions floating around on the internet, and which had a long and interesting history. Certainly it was not mine. It’s even up there in Wikipedia!

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What must have happened, of course, is that long ago I must have seen the original picture and decided to make one of my own. I then forgot the original. I then forgot my own. I then discovered my own. I then  failed to recall the original. Whoops.

Another reminder that where memory, imagination, belief – in fact more or less anything – is concerned, you can’t really ever be quite sure of what comes from where, or of what you have ever really done, or that anything is really new, or that any idea is in fact your own.

Did somebody once say “there is nothing new under the sun”? No, I’m sure that’s one of mine!

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An idea: a blackout book!

How about this for an idea? I’ve written previously about “blackout poetry”, inspired by the work of Austin Kleon. (Here’s that previous post)  The idea is that you make a poem by blacking out most of the words on a printed page of a newspaper, leaving just a few words behind. Previously, I tried it with the first page of a Geography text-book as a way of teaching. Now I’ve had an idea… rather than just doing odd pages, how about doing a whole book? Blackout Kerouac. Blackout Hemingway. I could do a separate little poem for each page of the book, or perhaps they could be tied together into a blackout poetry epic stretching through page after page. As with my idea for using blackouts to help students find deeper meanings in text-book pages, I could make the blackouts into a book-within-a-book, telling a deeper story, or a counterpoint story to the one originally printed. So… what book to use as a starting point? I’m thinking something from classic literature like Moby Dick or Anna Karenina. But, then, that would be a mammoth task. Perhaps I want something smaller. Heart of Darkness? Death in Venice? Yes, there’s an idea. Watch this space but, as ever, don’t hold your breath.

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I worry occasionally, of course, like most people, not only about whether there is such a thing as truth but whether, if there is, it matters anyway. Perhaps I worry about it more than some. When there is more than one truth available (yours and mine, the one seen from here and the one seen from there), should we choose between them or should we just leave them both out there? I usually find myself coming back to my old anecdote about T.E.Lawrence’s house in Dorset. I grew up believing that he had the inscription “Nothing Matters” over his door, and that notion made a deep impression on me over many years. Subsequently I became unsure as to whether that inscription really was there, but I decided that, in fact, it didn’t matter whether it was or not. What mattered was that I had spent all those years living with the notion. In a way, now that I am in doubt, I prefer not to know for sure.

Recently I have been reading again, a lot, John Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” – the one that begins “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…”. In that poem Keats uses a couple of examples to illustrate a feeling of astonished discovery. One of his examples, the idea of discovering a new planet, makes perfect sense, ties well into historical fact and would have been especially topical for Keats because he wrote the poem only a few decades after the discovery of the planet Uranus.  Keats’ second example, the one that ends the poem and keeps bringing me back, is the one about “Stout Cortez”.  “Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien”. The story that Keats had in his mind, apparently, is the story of Cortez crossing the Isthmus of Panama to make the first European sighting of the Pacific coast, telling his men to hold back as he went to the crest of a hill and looked out at the Pacific for the first time. His men, from below, could see Cortez’ reaction, but could only imagine what he must be seeing. It’s a great story and a great example of that kind of moment of discovery, but it turns out Keats got it wrong: the conquistador in question was not Cortez, but Vasco Balboa. One commentary that I have read suggested that Keats was quickly made aware of his mistake, but decided to leave Cortez’ name in the poem and to leave Balboa out of it. Perhaps the name was harder to scan or rhyme. Clearly, Keats didn’t think it really mattered. For a long time I took Keats’ story at face value and believed that Cortez “discovered” the Pacific.  I only recently found out about the Cortez / Balboa mixup. What should I do with that? The poem is now seriously, deeply flawed in a matter of historical fact. The Cortez reference has no truth in it… or at least the truth has been thoroughly garbled. Does it matter? What would Lawrence of Arabia have said?

While I was embroiled in all this over the last few weeks, the Chief Executive of the Environmental Protection Authority of South Australia threw another spanner in my works. I tweeted, combining references to Elton John and John Keats in what I thought a pleasing way: “I feel as though I live my life in wild surmise upon a peak in Darien”. The Chief Executive tweeted back: “Ah, that failed Scottish overseas experiment derailed by capitalists and climate change….?!”

One of the great things about Twitter is the way that in 140 characters, or fewer, somebody can cast your own point of view into an entirely different light and throw open a whole new book, a whole new Realm of Gold, of which you were previously ignorant. If I ever knew much about the 17th Century Scottish Darien Scheme, then at some point it leaked away and deserted me entirely. Evidently it is historically very important. Some people see it at the root of Scotland’s acceptance of the Act of Union with England, and others at the root of Scotland’s subsequent emergence internationally as a business-oriented economy. Others, such as myself, have ignorantly developed our personal world views largely (ok, entirely) unaware of the facts of Darien. But looking now closely into those facts, one fact in particular catches my Geographer’s eye: the fact that the events on the frontier were deliberately misreported so that a false impression of what was going on would make a particular desired effect when the news reached home. It reminded me of the North American Agrarian Myth, the (mis)naming of Greenland, and many other geographical deceptions in the name of propaganda. Truth is a slippery thing, and may not be the thing which makes the difference in the end.

For now, however, I struggle on through these difficult weeks, wrestling with Cortez and Balboa, Keats and Lawrence… and the Myth of Fingerprints.

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As is true for most people, I suspect, whether they realise it or not, my understanding of most things is pretty hazy. Most technical terms seem to be in one way or another controversial or uncertain. People use the same term in different ways, for different things. And even when you find a term with which you are comfortable, or a concept in which you are confident, that confidence is shaken when somebody declares, with even greater confidence than your own, that most people (probably, you infer, including yourself) have a completely misjudged understanding of what is, they claim, a much more complex idea than most people realise. Entropy is one of those terms. In the old days when I used occasionally to look up its meaning or have conversations about it with colleagues, students or friends (as one did in those days), it was rare indeed for the conversation to pass or for the source to be consulted without there being some reference to the fact that most people got the wrong end of the stick when trying to talk about entropy. Such terms then take on a permanent shimmer of incertitude. Rather like the word “incertitude” one uses the notion of entropy with a deep and unshakable feeling that you may well be using it incorrectly. It is with that feeling, therefore, that I tell myself today how much my blogs, tweets, web pages, facebook groups, Virtual Learning Environment sections and other online presences are tending towards… I hesitate to say it… entropy. After a certain point, unless there was a clear design underpinning the original conception, the management of an expanding web empire becomes a battle to retrieve lost structure or instil some form of order into an increasingly disordered mass. Perhaps if left to its own devices the mass would mutate into some naturally ordered form, like a crystal emerging from a liquid. In my case I see no sign of that. And so I am getting out the shears and having another prune, another hack, and lopping off more or less random extensions of the crumbling, rotting empire. I am turning loose to the barbarians, releasing to the sea, leaving behind in the desert, and allowing to dissolve into the ether a whole wing, a whole battalion, a whole region of the empire. Letting the jungle burst back up through the concrete. Letting the termites do their thing. If ever you knew that there was such a thing as physicalgeography.org.uk that knowledge is redundant now. It’s gone. It’s toast. It’s history. Or, at least it will be soon. Dead domain walking…  For a few minutes my world will feel just a little more simple and a little less disordered.

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Clearly it was a mistake following @JeriLRyan on twitter. Up until now for thirty years ducklings in spring have reminded me of student days in Oxford walking around Christ Church meadow. But today, walking along the Shropshire Union Canal near Market Drayton in the early morning sunshine,  the sight of families of ducklings at frequent intervals along the bank reminded me instead of Jeri Ryan’s Daily Cute! Look, I’m not a “daily cute” kind of a guy. Really. But here they are. The tyre was doing duty as a narrow-boat mooring fender at the side of the canal. For the ducklings it was a convenient sun deck!

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I’ve been doing some very local geography lately. Partly just because I find my interests going that way and partly because I’m doing “research” for my “Total Geography” project. Of course doing hyper local micro-geography is nothing new, but it’s new to me. Today I was out with my i-phone, close to the building where I work, looking for the 53rd parallel. Yes, I know I could have looked it up on a map but that’s not the point. Yes I know that “real” geographers will tell me it’s sacrilege to use a phone for serious navigation, but this wasn’t all that serious. Part of the fun, in fact the whole point, was that this would be my 53-degrees north. I didn’t want to tame it and bag it and pin it down, I just wanted to go and find it, watch it for a bit, and then leave it alone. I know it’s already marked on the map so it’s not much of a discovery, but the one on the map isn’t mine, it’s the Ordnance Survey’s. I needed to find my own. Yes, the GPS found it for me really, but by combining the GPS and the map, and using a fairly dodgy GPS and a fairly small-scale map I kept any real certainty out of the picture and felt as if I was exploring for myself and discovering, over the space of a few minutes, an actual in-the-flesh example of an elusive geographical concept. A whole-number line stretching off around the world in both directions, separating everything to the north from everything to the south.  And so I sat for a while with my own little bit of the 53rd parallel. If I go and look for it in the same place tomorrow I hope it will have moved at least a little.  For a moment I considered (since it runs through the University Campus where I teach)  that I could mark it with some posts and a line carved in the ground, like the meridian at Greenwich or the equator at, well, at lots of places in fact. But then what would be the point of anyone trying to find it. Part of the fun of geography is exploration. At a global scale that is quite hard. But at a local scale it isn’t hard at all unless somebody has already labelled everything in big letters. Hence the growth in popularity of activities like geocaching, and the relevance of projects such as Mission Explore. For most of my professional life my Geography has either been at a grand scale (ice sheets, and epic landforms created in extreme environments) or has been couched within a framework of global systems. In a lot of “science” physical geography you can only get funding if you demonstrate that your project will address some global concern or relate to a massive international project concerning the history of the planet and the global impact of some hugely significant process . I don’t think I’ll get NERC funding to go and sit with the 53rd parallel for half an hour. But it’s Geography. And I enjoyed it a lot. If you have a little time to spare one afternoon you could do a lot worse than look at a map to find out what your nearest nice-sounding line of latitude or longitude is, then just go out and try to find it. Don’t disturb it. Just sit with it quietly for a while then leave it alone where nobody will pay it much attention. But next time you pass, you’ll know it’s around there somewhere. My 53-degrees North was on a stone bench at the end of the terrace walk overlooking the old walled garden at Keele. When I last saw it the line stretched off into the distance to the west across open country, and to the east it dived into dark woodland. Next week I might go and see if I can find 52-degrees and 59-minutes north.

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