Knowing

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 September 2016

We live in an age where it is difficult to know who or what to believe.

We are bombarded by information, yet one can never feel certain whether that information is unbiased, objective or complete.

We know more information than we need to about things that have little to do with our actual lives, while simultaneously we wonder whether we are being properly informed about things that do affect us.

We are told to give importance to people and issues that might not merit this impression, while other people and issues are marginalised that deserve far greater respect and attention than they receive.

The true masters of the western world are not its politicians.

The true masters of the western world are media owners, who control what we think through the choice of information we receive and how it is interpreted.

And as most of us are unable or unwilling to be in the arenas where decisions about our lives are made without our consent, so we blindly believe whatever message seems to coincide conveniently with our values.

And this is where we find ourselves this week.

The first of the great debates between the two American presidential candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, took place Monday night at 2100 EST (0300 in Switzerland).

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Though the US election does interest me very much, as America, for better or worse, does wield enormous influence in the world, I elected to remain in my bed, for a number of thoughts came to mind when considering this event…

My opinion, perhaps shared by others and viewed by a few, doesn´t seem to matter to those Americans who will actually go out and cast their votes.

For, from my perspective, many Americans don´t really care much about how they are perceived by the rest of the world, as long it is America that remains dominant.

As much as the debates are supposed to be the key factor is resolving who will become the next President of the United States, it feels like there are very few Americans who haven´t already made up their minds as to which individual is more appropriate to govern their country.

No matter how often Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton are caught in mistruths or mired in scandals, no matter what either candidate says or does, most Americans remain loyal to their preferred choice.

Of course, as an observer of all this hullabaloo, I have formed my own opinions of whom should lead America in the years to come, but it would be naive of me to forget that my opinions have been formed based on what information I have received from the media.

Following advice from a former political science teacher, I try to read and watch the news and opinions from both extremes of the political spectrum, but neither side seems able to offer fair, accurate, balanced, unbiased, objective reporting.

And I feel I must question exactly what reporting actually means in these modern times of ours.

I remember in my days of walking the length of Canada how my attempts were being reported.

I told and retold the same story again and again and again, yet each and every newspaper had its own spin on the story.

I had headlines like: “Hungry, broke, but still trekking”, “Cross Canada walker may find wife, write book”, “Young man is walking across Canada in search of love”, and my personal favourite – “A Canadian version of Indiana Jones”!

I was mostly publicity shy and tended to speak only with small town newspapers, for I found that the bigger the city the less interested they were in my story.

As I have never been an expert in self-promotion, it simply didn´t matter to me whether many people knew what I was doing.

It was a selfish act, funded mostly by working where I could, not raising money for any particular cause, neither seeking fame or fortune, but rather I wanted to see for myself my own country in the best sensory way I knew how – walking.

I never did reach the furthest extremes of Canada, but it didn´t matter if I did, for walking was therapy and discovery of both place and self.

Projection of North America with Canada in green

I did walk over 3,000 miles, but much remains undocumented and thus unprovable, but as I am not seeking any benefit in future based on this accomplishment I am contented with my own recollections of the experience.

I recount this experience today only to show how the media can shape the perception of a story and that perception is what forms our opinions and the factors in our decisions.

I recall another moment when I bravely approached the weekly newspaper, The Hill Times, which mostly reports on the events on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, hawking an article on the National Archives of Canada and the Library of Parliament and how insecure their security actually was in regards to securing their collections from theft.

Library and Archives Canada.JPG

What surprised me was how little investigative reporting there actually was and how dependent the paper was on press releases sent from the various government departments.

It seemed there were few reporters who would spontaneously follow their curiosity and chase a story, instead of simply expanding upon a press release.

And from everything I have seen since then, I wonder if anything has changed in this respect.

Today´s press seems either too afraid or simply too lazy to do much beyond spitting out pre-approved versions of information that has been spoonfed to them from other sources.

As important as the information we receive is, there is also significance to the information we are denied.

For not only does the media form our opinions by what and how they present the news to the public, but by not giving the public the complete story, or not allowing us the opposing viewpoint, or simply ignoring a story for various reasons, the media shapes our viewpoints in the same way a horse´s blinders obscures its total perspective.

Even Facebook censors.

Logo von Facebook

What follows is my opinion I wrote about Monday night´s debate.

Despite a number of attempts to publicly post this opinion, Facebook, for its own reasons, never allowed the public to read it:

27 September 2016
I hate myself for thinking it, but I wonder what difference, if any, last night´s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump actually made in the opinions of most Americans.
From the sounds of all the clamour coming out of the States there seems to be few quiet Americans who are undecided about who they favour.
I didn´t lose sleep.
(It was 3 am here when the Great Debate took place.)
This morning I learned that most folks felt Hillary beat Donald, but here is what astounds me…
27% of those polled believe that Donald beat Hillary.
Honestly, I wonder if there is anything that Donald can´t say that will change his supporters´ “minds”.
But to the casual observer, it seems that Hurricane Donald is as substantial a candidate as the stormy wind he produces.
The fear that does cause me to lose sleep is that the same voters who thought George W. Bush was a great idea will be the same ones who cause Donald “Duck!” Trump to become the next President.
If this does happen all I can say is “God bless America”, for no one else will.

Now why does this opinion bother the censors of Facebook so much that they refused to post it?

Is this opinion feared for some reason?

Why is differing opinion feared at all?

Governments will arrest people who broadcast a difference of opinion to these governments and their policies.

But I confess I have great trouble understanding this.

If a government truly represents its people then it should welcome the opinions of the people regardless of whether these opinions are favourable or not.

If favourable then the government knows it has pleased the people it represents.

If unfavourable then the government knows it needs to consider how to regain the people´s trust and confidence once again.

But it seems that many governments believe they should be feared by the people, rather than fearing the people themselves, the people they claim to represent, the people whose lives they are supposed to improve.

I do see the need for government, for the regulation of people is necessary to ensure that the requirements of a nation are being served.

But a nation is poorly served when dissenting voices are silenced or its people are kept in total or partial ignorance.

I do comprehend there are moments when revealing too much can truly be a question of national security, but there is a world of difference between the suppression of opinion and the concealment of military strategy.

We make decisions, large and small, based on what we know.

But do we really know enough?

If we are what we think and if what we think is what we know, then who are we and what are we becoming?

I wonder.

Above: René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am.”)

 

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RIP Earth (or how I started worrying and learned to love science)

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 23 – 26 September 2016

As the few, but faithful, followers of my blog know, I am a freelance teacher of English as a second language here in Switzerland.

So this position often finds me, on a regular basis, in situations that can be quite challenging.

My latest challenge is an old foe I have wrestled with on a number of occasions in the past: institutions which insist their students learn what they aren´t enthusiastic about learning.

And, truth be told, this is a battle I haven´t always won, for one must somehow make seductive that which isn´t that seductive in the first place.

Think back to high school and the subjects you had that you were forced to take but you didn´t enjoy.

While I was excited by literature and history and geography, I was unmotivated by science, math or tech.

I couldn´t have cared less, and I often suspect that the only reason I passed those courses is that the teachers wanted me out of their courses and gave me marks I didn´t deserve!

Only years later by travelling and independent home study did there arise within me an abstract attraction to these subjects.

Now my latest challenge is that I have somehow talked a school into believing that I am competent enough to teach technical English to employees of a company that produces coffee machines.

The school that chose their textbooks seems unconcerned that the textbooks that the students use are not particularly related to the daily business of the employees.

So, for example, I have had to make relevant subjects like oil drilling and laser technology to people who have no interest in them, and, truth be told, are subjects I am not much motivated to teach.

Now, normally I would simply persevere and keep teaching these subjects to the best of my ability regardless of diminishing class attendance until the course had been completed.

But, yesterday, a conversation after class with one of my students has made me reconsider my approach and attitude to these courses.

Nicole told me that the firm Eugster Frismag AG once had “ordinary” English courses, but after a multitude of complaints from the students that the courses weren´t technical enough they asked my school to offer a curriculum of technical courses.

Now I have taught technical English courses before Eugster Frismag – at technical colleges and companies – so I was assumed to be a natural choice for this assignment.

But I would be speaking falsely if I claimed that teaching these courses came naturally to me.

I have felt like a fish on the shore teaching lobsters about the glory of mountains.

But when Nicole told me that she was unhappy with the technical aspects of the course but remained with the course in hopes of improving her English, I have become filled with a new resolve…

To make what I teach (and, by extension, what I write) both relevant and interesting to my audience.

Now before you, my gentle readers, grow fearful that I am going to now wax poetically about snake wells vs vertical wells, or explain in excruciating detail everything you didn´t want to know about Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, let me assure you that this is not my intention.

If it could be said that my blog possesses a style or a theme, the approach I try to take with my writing is to take my personal experiences as well as the events of the day and combine them to make writing that is both interesting and relevant to the reader.

I am not always sure that I am successful, but I always keep trying.

In my search for relevant materials that might capture the interest of others I again turn to headlines of the day:

“Something isn´t right with our Internet shopping habits.

With every new delivery…

Another cardboard box.

Scientists and policy makers are grappling with the long term environmental effects of an economy that runs increasingly on instant gratification.

We want what we want NOW and companies like Amazon and Google are eager to deliver.

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The $350 billion e-commerce industry has doubled in the last five years.

The environmental cost includes 35.4 million tons of cardboard (2014) and the emissions of increasingly personalised freight services.

Consumers share as much responsibility for the environmental cost of the deliveries as the companies that provide the speedy services.

The Fibre Box Association – the trade group of the cardboard industry – estimates that the use of boxes for e-commerce is growing faster than most other market segments.

Robert Reed, a spokesman for Recology, San Francisco´s main recycling processor, which collects 100 tons of cardboard every day, has a simple solution:

Recology Logo Official.jpg

Slow down consumption.” (NY Times, 16 February 2016)

“Facing a six-year barrage of increasingly large earthquakes, Oklahoma regulators are ordering the state´s powerful oil and gas industry to substantially cut back the underground disposal of industry wastes that have caused tremors across the state.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has asked well operators in central Oklahoma to reduce by 40% the amount of oil and gas wastes they are injecting deep into the earth.

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The actions significantly increase the effort to rein in the earthquakes, which the Commission has long tried to reduce one well or a handful of wells at a time, but they are an equally notable challenge to the industry, which will most likely be able to make the cutbacks only by reducing oil and gas production.

The liquid wastes are a byproduct of pumping oil and gas.

The more that is drawn from the ground, the more wastes must be disposed.

Most of the oil and gas industry has cooperated with the Commission´s earthquake reduction efforts in the past, but a handful have complied only under pressure.

The new orders come after three of the largest quakes in Oklahoma´s history, 4.7, 4.8 and 5.1 magnitude shocks that rocked a major oil field this year.

In 2010, when the tremors began, Oklahoma recorded three earthquakes at or above a magnitude of 3.0.

Last year, Oklahoma had 907.

Although critics contend that earthquakes have caused millions of dollars of damage, Oklahoma´s political leaders have long been reluctant to impose restrictions on an industry that dominates the state´s economy.

Until last spring, Republican Governor Mary Fallin maintained that the cause of the tremors was unclear and the state legislature refused to consider legislation addressing the issue.

Mary Fallin.jpg

Governor Fallin abandoned her position as the number of quakes rapidly increased, but the political leadership was not jolted into action until January after a series of small earthquakes damaged homes and interrupted power in Edmond, an Oklahoma City suburb and home to many in the state´s political and financial elite.” (NY Times, 7 March 2016)

Pollution in America has gotten so bad that immigrants need to be persuaded to trust the tap water…

“At a time when water crises in communities like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, have eroded confidence in public water systems – particularly in poor and minority communities – a health outreach initiative in Colorado is trying to dispel the notion that all tap water is harmful…”(New York Times, 31 March 2016)

The Flint River in Flint, Michigan, United States, in the late 1970s during a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project, Taken from approximately halfway between the Grand Traverse Street bridge and Beach-Garland Street bridge, looking east.

Above: Flint River, Flint, Michigan, in the 1970s

And environmental problems are not exclusively American…

“Queensland tourism operators have broken their silence about the worst crisis ever faced by the Great Barrier Reef, with more that 170 businesses and individuals pleading with the Australian government to take urgent action to tackle climate change and ensure the Reef survives.

Many tourism operators have previously been quiet about concerns for the Reef, fearful that speaking about the mass bleaching event would turn tourists away, lowering their incomes in the short term.

The Great Barrier Reef is in the midst of the worst bleaching event ever seen, with virtually the entire Reef affected.

Unusally warm water has killed as much as half the corals in the northern sections and scientists have found climate change will make those conditions normal in less than 20 years.” (Guardian, 6 May 2016)

And in the Great White North…

“Real life sightings of grolar bears (a hybrid breed of polar and grizzly bear) are becoming more common as the Arctic warms at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, driving the two species closer in the hunt for food.

In Hudson Bay there have been documented cases of polar bears and grizzlies feasting on a whale carcass together.

The hybrid may ultimately become a threat to the polar bear, as grizzlies are more numerous and their territory is expanding, meaning that they could dilute the polar bear population until it fades away altogether.” (Times, 25 May 2016)

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Let´s look in at the wildlife of the Dark Continent…

More than 1,300 rhinos were killed by poachers in Africa last year, the highest number since a surge in their slaughter began a decade ago.

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Poachers target rhinos for their horns, which are used in traditional Asian medicines in the belief that they cure hangovers, fevers and even cancer.

Rhino horn can be worth more than gold on the black market.

Black rhinos are much rarer than white rhinos, with only 5,000 in the wild, compared with 70,000 in 1970.

Africa has fewer than 750 eastern black rhinos, the rarest of three subspecies.” (Times, 6 June 2016)

“The fight over a titanium mine near the South African village of Xolobeni is a symbol of the struggle between traditional industry and a sustainable future.

The dunes appear endless.

Behind them lie rolling grassy hills, banana trees, sweet potato fields and thatched huts.

There are horses, goats and dogs, but no roads, no towns.

The only constant sound is the crash of the breakers from the Indian Ocean.

This is Xolobeni, a remote village on the eastern shore of South Africa and the focus of a bitter dispute over a massive titanium mining project.

Photo of Xolobeni area

For activists, the story is simple:

An exploitative international mining company is set on uprooting a community and destroying the local environment to reach precious ore.

For supporters of the project, the opposite is true:

Much needed investors have come to help South Africa exploit a key resource and develop an impoverished region.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, 40, an activist against the project and who grew up in the area, claims that much of the coast and its hinterland would be destroyed by the mining project, with water sources drained, fish stocks undermined, farms razed and over 2,000 people displaced to rudimentary township settlements.

“Xolobeni will become a desert.

They (the Australia-based Mineral Commodities – MRC) will poison everything.

We are living with the plants and nature and we know that without the plants we cannot live.

The mine will poison our land.

Our way of life will die completely.” (Observer, 12 June 2016)

And as we take more from Earth, Earth is less able to meet our demands…

“An upsurge in the international and local demand for avacados has inspired widespread theft in New Zealand, creating a black market for the popular fruit.

Close-up picture of foliage and avocado fruit

So far this year there have been nearly 40 large scale thefts from avocado orchards on the North Island with as many as 350 avocados being stolen each time.

“We have reports of people driving utility vehicles into orchards and filling up the entire back tray.

Growers are finding blankets and duvets in their orchards with piles of avocados in them that thieves have picked before being interrupted.

There´s certainly a large scale theft going on and large numbers of it going on.”(Bevan Jelley, NZ Avocado Market manager)(Independent, 15 June 2016)

We need to learn to strike a balance with nature…

“The new airport on the island of St. Helena, in the south Atlantic 1,200 miles from the African coastline, where Napoleon spent his last days, may never open because of wind and turbulence risks.

First Comair Boeing 737-800 flight to Saint Helena Airport (191).jpg

The opening of the airport, built for about 250 million pounds, was indefinitely postponed last month after test flights showed that dangerous wind conditions made landings and take-offs unsafe.” (Times, 4 June 2016)

“As Louisiana floodwaters recede, the scope of the disaster comes into view.

Louisiana said that at least 11 people died and that about 30,000 people had been rescued.

In Louisiana, severe weather can often seem a trauma visited and revisited, but the disaster unfolding last month fits into a recent and staggering pattern in more than half a dozen states, where floods have rolled out at such a scale that scientists say they might be a once every 500 or 1,000 year occurrence.

The cumultative, increasingly grim toll, from Maryland to South Carolina to Louisiana to Texas, includes scores of lives and billions of dollars in economic losses.

Everywhere the same refrain – that it has never happened like this – has given rise to the same question:

How should communities and families plan for deluges that are theoretically uncommon but now seem to play out with appaling regularity?

As Louisiana faced its second catastrophic flood in about five months, climate scientists elsewhere cautioned that the state was unlikely to be the last to confront a disaster like this one.

“There is definitely an increase in heavy rainfall due to climate change.

The actual increase from place to place is going to be variable because of the randomness of the weather.

Some places will see a dramatic change.”(John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist)”(New York Times, 17 August 2016)

“The winter job of the RRS Ernest Shackleton is to support British research in the Antarctic into the effects of climate change.

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During the summer the ship supports a cruise liner, Crystal Serenity, whose passengers have a choice of eight restaurants, afternoon tea, golf tuition and an itinerary through the Arctic Northwest Passage possible only because of climate change.

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“There is something terribly ironic about taking advantage of climate change to see an ecosystem that is undergoing destruction.

This ship can only go because of climate change.

As sea ice disappears so will the ecosystem based around it.

This is extinction tourism.

They are going to see animals before they disappear.

I find that extremely problematic.”(Michael Byers, University of British Columbia)(Times, 18 June 2016)

We are destroying this planet, our home, in the name of comfort and convenience, in the name of progress and profit.

All of nature, including man, is part of one great whole interdependent ecosystem.

The destruction of any of its components means the decline and destruction of the whole.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in Earth´s atmosphere.

Its concentration in the air is rising in line with fossil fuel consumption.

Earth´s temperature is rising.

We are the cause of global warming.

“The demand for energy is certain to increase…as an ever larger population strives to improve its standard of living.“(Charles Keeling, author of Climate Change and Carbon Dioxide: An Introduction)

Charles David Keeling 2001.jpg

The more we demand products, the more products are produced.

The more products are produced, the more fuel is consumed –  both in these products´ production as well as their delivery.

So many of us are dependent upon technology for our daily lives yet despite this the country that uses these technologies the most – the United States – doubts science the most.

According to the National Geographic magazine of March 2015, a third of Americans believe that humans have existed in their present form, less than half of them believe in global warming, that the moon landing was fake, that vaccinations cause more harm than good and that genetically modified food is evil.

National Geographic March 2009.jpg

Perhaps it is a question of rejecting what isn’t understood.

Perhaps it is a fear that science has its own agenda.

Perhaps this fear is caused by the truth of science refuting “truths” we believe to be “self-evident“, truth we prefer to be true rather than what actually is.

Some folks believe that climate change is a fantasy meant to prevent industry from making a profit.

And even the nature of science that rarely claims absolute certainty as there remains gaps in knowledge causes folks to doubt its evidence for science does not pretend to be infallible.

But nature has its laws

And measurement of phenomena is usually reliable.

It never fails to astound me that it is easier for some folks to believe in God than it is for them to believe in scientific evidence….

To believe in technology but not in the science behind the technology…

To believe only the information that fits with our belief systems.

We believe what the Internet says if what we read conforms to our wishes.

It is an age of disbelief, despite all evidence justifying belief.

Climate change is real.

Climate change needs to be stopped.

We need to change our lifestyles, for our planet can no longer be sustained if we don´t.

I support the environment, because I live in one.

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 lunar mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

 

 

 

Route 66 revisited

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 20 September 2016

Fifty years.

Half a century has gone by since the Sixties, the decade of my birth, a truly Dickensian “best of times”/”worst of times” decade.

What had been sowed, both good and evil, from the previous decade bore bittersweet harvest: apartheid produces the Sharpeville Massacre, Castro´s revolution leads to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, JFK becomes US President and plays nuclear roulette with the Russians, racial tensions explode with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Black Power is the response, the British government falls in the Profumo scandal, Nelson Mandela is jailed, the Greeks depose their King.

Above: Painting of the Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960

Above: Che Guevara and Fidel Castro

JFK WHPO.tif

Above: US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

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Above: Soviet missiles displayed in Red Square, Moscow

Above: Martin Luther King Jr.- organised March on Washington, 28 August 1963

Above: Black Power demonstration at Mexico City Olympics 1968

Above: Robben Island Prison where Nelson Mandela was jailed

Good-bye Che Guevara, Adolf Eichmann, the villagers of My Lai, the miners of Aberfan, Jayne Mansfield, Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe), Judy Garland, JFK and brother Bobby…the day the music died.

Above: Jayne Mansfield

Monroe c. 1953

Above: Norma Jean Baker (aka Marilyn Monroe)

Rfk assassination.jpg

Above: Robert Kennedy just after he was shot 0n 5 June 1968

It was a time of Flower Power and peace, when “all you need is love” in the land of Camelot, at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

It was a time of riots, protests and revolution, anarchy on campus and Reds scaring us everywhere.

The Berlin Wall goes up, the Apollo Mission ends in tragedy, Firenze flooded, Skopje wrecked by earthquake, the jumbo jet and the Concorde first fly, man in space and on the moon, Nureyev dances, Bob Dylan believes “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind”, while women put all their faith in the Pill and US election campaigners tout Nixon with signs that read “I like Dick.”

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Above: The Berlin Wall

Above: Apollo 11 moon landing, 20 July 1969

Dylan with his guitar onstage, laughing and looking downwards.

Above: Bob Dylan, 1963

Vietnam, a conflict which America couldn´t lose, but did.

Above: US tank convoy, Vietnam War

Algeria, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden and Nigeria struggle for freedom.

The casbah is rocked.

The Six Day War, a conflict which Israel couldn´t win, yet did.

Biafra: 2.5 year war, a million innocent people starve to death.

Hope and terror in Prague as Soviet tanks roll down the streets of spring.

10 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia - Flickr - The Central Intelligence Agency.jpg

The rise to stardom of Camille Javal (Brigitte Bardot) causing male temperatures to rise to stellar heights.

Above: Brigitte Bardot, 1961

The age of the epic film: Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, The Sound of Music, 2001: A Space Odyssey (which everyone loved but no one understood), Psycho, The Birds, Planet of the Apes, La Dolce Vita.

Ben hur 1959 poster.jpg

Charles Manson commits unspeakable acts.

The Rat Pack sing, George Lazenby is unloved On Her Majesty´s Secret Service, prompting Sean Connery to remind movie goers that he´s still  “Bond. James Bond.”

Above: Sean Connery as James Bond 007

It is the rise of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, One Flew over the Cuckoo´s Nest, the high priests of hippiedom: Leary, Hoffman and Rubin, Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer, Samuel Becket and Dave Brubeck, Pavarotti and Edith Piaf, Stravinsky and Shostakovich.

Above: “Wham!”, Roy Liechtenstein, 1963

Above: “Campbell´s Soup I”, Andy Warhol, 1968

And pop culture was pop music: Elvis, the Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, Sonny and Cher, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Doors, the Supremes, the Bee Gees, the Who, the Everley Brothers, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker…the list goes on.

Presley, wearing a tight black leather jacket with Napoleonic standing collar, black leather wristbands, and black leather pants, holds a microphone with a long cord. His hair, which looks black as well, falls across his forehead. In front of him is an empty microphone stand. Behind, beginning below stage level and rising up, audience members watch him. A young woman with long black hair in the front row gazes up ecstatically.

Above: Elvis Presley, 28 June 1968

A square quartered into four head shots of young men with moptop haircuts. All four wear white shirts and dark coats.

Above: The Beatles, 1964

Above: The Rolling Stones, 1965

John and Yoko in beds in Amsterdam, Toronto and Montreal hotels and all they are saying is “give peace a chance” and uninhibitedly naked in a picture that remains shocking.

Above: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal, 1969

Yves St-Laurent, Twiggy, “boots made for walking”, pork pie hats and mini macs, paper dresses and mini skirts, allowing the ladies to “twist again like we did last summer” to the Top of the Pops and pirate radio.

Above: Lesley Hornby, aka Twiggy, 1967

Squatters and “jacking up” and Woodstock.

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The Greatest floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, whether his name is Cassius Clay or Muhammed Ali.

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Above: Muhammad Ali, 1967

…and Adam West is Batman and Hugh Hefner redefines the word “bunny” and folks wonder if Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is psychedelic or was caused by something psychedelic…

All of this remembering makes me want to go to London…

“You Say You Want a Revolution?: Records and Rebels (1966 – 70)” is a new exhibition that started ten days ago and will continue to 26 February 2017 at the Victoria and Albert (V & A) Museum that explores how a flourishing counterculture of rebellion, expressed through music, fashion, art and political protest, challenged existing power structures in the late 1960s.

Acid test

Here one can find the suits worn by John Lennon and George Harrison on the cover of Sgt. Pepper´s Lonely Hearts Club Band, shards from a Jimi Hendrix guitar and copies of the underground magazines Oz and International Times.

The Beatles, holding marching band instruments and wearing colourful uniforms, stand near a grave covered with flowers that spell "Beatles". Standing behind the band are several dozen famous people.

Imagine looking at LSD as a positive influence – not just used for recreational purposes but used to push boundaries and open the doors of perception.

Experience Pink Floyd playing in a backdrop of dazzling lights and avant garde films and feel the impact of Hendrix´s solo performance at Woodstock of the Star Spangled Banner.

(Even Colin Kaepernick would stand up for this!).

A black and white photograph of a man playing an electric guitar.

Above: Jimi Hendrix, 1967

Get high with a little help from the V & A.

Dress

Sources: Wikipedia; The Independent, 27 February 2016; V & A Museum.

 

Adam in the Abbey 3: The greater fool

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 17 – 20 September 2016

I have, up till recently, been an avid comic book reader and collector.

And, sorry, DC comics, generally I have made mine Marvel.

MarvelLogo.svg

For it has been Marvel that struck upon the notion of making their heroes with feet of clay, rather than just Super aliens or vengeful billionaire Batman types.

Spider-man was just a Sad Sack teenager whom everyone in his universe reviled.

The Hulk was a victim of repressed anger and overexposure to gamma radiation.

Iron Man was an alcoholic, Wolverine a victim of government experimentation, and Daredevil was blinded by radioactivity that enhanced all his other senses.

It took DC and other comic producers years to realise that what sells animated literature to humans is the humanity of the comic book characters.

Marvel killed off loved ones, had them divorce, die from tragic accidents or fatal diseases, go crazy and even quit their superheroics when the pressure got too much.

And the moments where Marvel writers truly excelled was when the lines they drew between good and evil became blurred.

Taking my nose out of the comic books, I have noticed that there has been a tendency in human history to paint ourselves with haloes and to demonise our opponents, for in doing so we justify questionable behaviour like wars and violence and injustice upon one another.

We are selectively fed information designed to elicit our emotions in favour of protecting the status quo of those who benefit by its continuance.

So regardless of how those we oppose love their children too, or that they too feel fear and sorrow and hurt and love and compassion and tenderness, their villainy must be dramatic and unquestionable, otherwise it is harder to make their children orphans, their villages uninhabitable and their graveyards full.

We also go to the opposite extreme to make saints out of mere mortals.

Mandela never defecated, Gandhi believed in equality for everyone including his wife and Mother Teresa never felt overwhelmed by the difficulties of tending to the poor of Calcutta.

I am reminded of comic books and the issue of opinion.

Daredevil is told a story by his mother of an encounter between a knight and a priest in the forest.

The knight mocks the priest and tells him that all the priest sacrifices – physical pleasures, material possessions, family – are for nothing as the priest cannot prove uncategorically that God exists.

The knight asks the priest: what will he do if when he dies and finds all of this sacrifice had been for naught?

The priest responds that he would be disappointed, but then he asks the knight: what will he do if the priest is right?

Who then, we must ask, is the greater fool?

In economics, the greater fool theory states that the price of an object is determined by, not its intrinsic value, but rather by belief and expectation, often unsupported by rationale, of the market participants.

The Canadian musical comedy group the Arrogant Worms suggests in one of their songs that:

Completely Canadian Compilation! cover art

“History is made by stupid people.

Clever people wouldn´t even try.

If you want a place in the history books…

Then do something dumb before you die.”

So when I consider the founding of New Norcia and recall the hardships endured to make it a reality…

I want to tell you a story about a great fool…

New Norcia, Western Australia, April 2014

New Norcia Benedictine Monastery.jpg

I had been to Singapore and I attended all the pomp and ceremony of my best friend`s wedding in Perth and I still had a few days to play with before I was required to fly back home.

Now we tend to forget as non-Australians that Australia is BIG, very BIG.

Australia is the world´s 6th largest country and the world´s largest island, an island so big it qualifies as a continent and the only continent that is also one nation (by the present geopolitical map).

A blue field with the Union Flag in the upper hoist quarter, a large white seven-pointed star in the lower hoist quarter, and constellation of five white stars in the fly – one small five-pointed star and four, larger, seven-pointed stars.

Western Australia (WA) covers 1/3 of the continent-country yet contains only a population of 2.3 million people, out of the national total of 22 million.

Map of Australia with Western Australia highlighted

Most of these 2.3 million live within a 200 km radius of Perth, Australia´s most isolated state capital city.

Once the visitor has visited the capital and its sister/rival city Fremantle and popped over to Rottnest Island (“Rotto”), there is not much left “in the ´hood” to see that doesn´t require many miles of travel and much careful planning to reach, and as I only had a few days to explore Australia before flying back to Switzerland via Singapore, the closest and easiest site seemed to be New Norcia.

Now if an alien civilisation ever landed in New Norcia they could be forgiven for thinking they had not landed in Australia, for at first glance this 19th century monastic community 130 km north of Perth appears to be Spanish.

So it comes as no surprise to learn that this unexpected collection of Benedictine buildings in the Australian bush looks Spanish, because the buildings were Spanish-inspired by an inspired Spainard with a dream, a mission, to bring Christianity to the indigenous population.

Now before one examines the extraordinary life of Rosendo Salvado and his legacy, one must never forget that Australia was and still remains a very dangerous place.

Australia has more things that can kill you than anywhere else in the world.

The world´s ten most poisonous snakes are Australian.

The five most lethal creatures in the world are Australian.

If you are not stung or pronged to death, you may be eaten by sharks or crocodiles or carried away by strong currents or bake outside in the Outback.

And the damned place is strange

No one can figure out how the indigeous peoples came to be there, its seasons are back to front, its constellations upside down, its water drainage flows counterclockwise, and its wildlife contains creatures that bounce, fish that climb trees, foxes that fly and crustaceans so big that a grown man could climb inside their shells.

80% of all that lives in Australia exists nowhere else and shouldn´t exist at all, as Australia is the driest, flattest, most desiccated, infertile, climatically aggressive, most hostile place on Earth, excepting Antarctica.

Welcome to Oz, mate.

Now for a moment imagine you are talking to your mum or your worrying wife.

Imagine for a moment that you are telling her you are going to leave home and travel to a faraway place where danger and death are more commonplace than is ever found where you live.

And the reason you are leaving is not because you are economically insecure or unpopular at home, but you are leaving because you have a dream to spread the Word of God to those who have not heard it before.

I believe that there are few folks who understand this impulse and fewer still that have this impulse themselves, for most folks do not lack for courage, but many men and women prefer the sanity of security rather than the uncertainty of adventure, the comforts of home and family and relationships rather than the isolation of faraway places with strange sounding names.

Now when I had told my long-suffering wife I was flying to Australia to attend my best friend´s wedding her only concern was whether I would spend too much money.

For it is common knowledge that most Australians of European descent have gathered themselves close to shore where conditions are less wild than further inland and have sanitised the place to keep the wilderness away and put up parking lots for your shopping convenience.

Then looking at the paved Paradise they have created, modelled on a country that rarely thinks about them, they wish to keep and secure it as it is and reluctantly accept change that might affect their ideas of Utopia.

In my short stay in Oz I felt that I was travelling in the southwestern United States, for there are similarities between these two distant points on the map.

Desert climate, a feel of modernity rising out of the frontier, even street grids and city layout, it all felt uncannily familiar to this traveller who had been to the American Southwest.

Like their American cousins, individual Australians are, as Bill Bryson describes them, “immensely likeable – cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging”.

Black Swan, Bill Bryson, 2000, Down Under book cover.jpg

But collectively, Aussies, like Yanks, do have some questionable attitudes when it comes to dealing with their indigenous past or their intercultural present.

(And, please note, that I, as a Canadian, must acknowledge that Canadians are also remiss at dealing with our own indigenous past or intercultural present/future.

Flag of Canada

The only difference between Canadians and Australians in this regard is that we have been quieter about voicing our wrong attitudes, but to pretend that there is no xenophobia or distrust in Canada would be to paint a reality that isn´t entirely true.)

When I look at the history of European expansion I am struck by how similar it is to modern tourism in terms of mentality.

Just as the modern tourist, with limited time and budget, wishes to be little disturbed by oddity and inconvenience and prefers to find much of the commonplace comforts of home wherever he travels, so the Europeans who dared to venture from their native shores transplanted their culture to alien lands, little caring, then and now, how this would affect the new worlds that they had foisted themselves upon.

The English would build a new England, regardless of how inappropriate or ill-fitting a new England would be in the “new” world.

So Europeans and their descendants in Australia did/do what Europeans and their descendants did/do in North and South America and Africa, what was/is unfamiliar was/is either eliminated or kept apart at arm´s length or forced to adapt to the conditions we impose(d) upon it.

Destroy, exile or convert.

In 1696 the Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh, after discovering Rottsnest Island, landed on the western shore of Australia as its first white visitor ever.

“Big Willie” didn´t stay.

After him, Antoine d´Entrecasteaux explored this region in 1792 with the idea of annexing it for France, but, mon Dieu, la France was in the middle of une guerre civile and in no position to stake their claims there.

Encastreaux.jpg

Tant pis, he left.

“Ah, hah!”, thought the English.

“This is our big chance!”

The English dispatched Captain James Stirling in 1828, who took a look around, liked what he saw, and had no difficulty in persuading his government to provide funds for the founding of a colony.

Jamesstirling.jpg

The Swan River Colony was founded on 1 June 1829, but like their North American predecessors of Canada´s Anticosti Island or the Norse colonies in Newfoundland or America´s Jamestown colony, bitter weather conditions and the inevitable hardships of the early stages of building a civilisation where that civilisation had not been before, caused many of the new settlers to lose heart.

They claimed they had been deceived, but they had in fact been victims of their own imaginations, conjuring up visions of wealth and comfort which they thought were theirs simply for the asking.

In their disappointment, many turned their backs on Swan River, saying it was unhealthy, barren, useless, and they went off to Sydney or other places where their imagined goals might be found.

But the stout-hearted remained.

By 1845, the year that Rosendo Salvado first landed in Australia, the Colony had prospered.

There were over 4, 000 colonists, 2,000 horses, 10,000 cattle, 140,000 sheep, 2,000 pigs and 1,400 goats.

(It is unclear as to how many were permitted to vote!)

In The Salvado Memoirs, one of the few accounts available about this remarkable man, purchased at the New Norcia gift shop, Salvado diplomatically recounts the state of the Catholic Church´s presence in Australia:

18 years after Captain James Cook had taken possession of the eastern coast of Australia in the name of Great Britain, the first colony was founded there by Captain Philip, and with it the first town, Sydney.

In a short time, the Colony attained a high degree of prosperity in trade and agriculture, partly thanks to the activity of its governors and the enterprise of its European inhabitants, but with the growth of both population and wealth, this society, most of it male and many of its members under judicial sentence in their own country, rushed headlong into evil courses.

There was a great outbreak of crime which even the severest penalties – some of them quite dreadful – failed to prevent.

No appeal was made to religion, either for spiritual support or moral sanction, and it would seem the Almighty allowed things to go on this way for years, to bring home the lesson that, as far as the inner reformation of man is concerned, human means are worthless, unless they have a religious source and inspiration.

Through the workings of Providence, two Catholic priests, who had been sentenced to exile by English law, arrived in Sydney in 1800.

Fired by that religious zeal and concern for others which Christ left as a legacy for His disciples, and which had been the reason for their banishment, they took up their task anew.

Three years later they were recalled, and the Catholics of the Colony were left, like those who after a flash of lightning are, again in darkness.

Things were in this state when in 1817 an Irish priest, Father O´Flynn came out to Australia.

Unfortunately religious intolerance brought about his return, it being alleged that he had not obtained the government´s consent to come.

Before leaving his faithful Catholic followers, Father O´Flynn left behind the blessed Eucharist there for their consolation.

Many protests were made by the Catholics of New South Wales against O´Flynn´s enforced departure and as a result the Governor decided to bring out, at his own expense, two other priests, Father Connolly and Father Therry in 1820.

The good Fathers were quite surprised on arrival to find that the sacred writ left by Father O´Flynn two years before remained whole and incorrupt.

Though the Protestants were not happy to see the number of Catholics growing every day and prevailed upon the Governor to issue regulations to impede this development, Catholics even so became more numerous and fervent than ever.

64 years after Cook´s arrival and 46 years after the foundation of the Colony, the spiritual care of the vast land of Australia was confided by Pope Gregory XVI to the English Benedictine priest, John Bede Polding, who was consecrated Bishop for the task.

Bishop Polding arrived in Sydney in 1835.

Thanks to the strenous works of good priests, the Catholic Faith flourished and spread, but the increase in the number of Catholics, the enormous distances involved and the establishment of new settlements on the Australian continent, made it next to impossible for Bishop Polding to attend to the entire area of his jurisdiction, so at the end of 1840, the Bishop sailed for Rome, to inform the Holy See of the needs of his vicariate.

The Pope lent a ready ear, and by way of promoting spiritual good, divided the Diocese of Australia into a number of episcopal sees, giving Sydney primary status, with Polding as Archbishop.

Meanwhile, the Catholics of Swan River, who had been, from the foundation of the Colony in 1829, without church, altar or priest, communicated with Sydney asking for a priest to say Mass and administer the sacraments in a church they sought permission to build.

On the Archbishop´s arrival back in Sydney in 1843, he was informed of Perth´s wishes and sent the Reverend John Brady, Vicar General and Belgian priest John Joostens and Irish student Patrick O´Reilly to the Swan River Colony.

The Archbishop´s emissaries arrived in Western Australia on 24 November 1843 and shortly after landing asked Governor John Hutt for a plot of land to build a church in Perth.

While the church was being built, Father Brady visited parts of the Colony to get a better idea of the numbers of Catholics there were in the Colony and to reawaken fervour for their religious duties.

Brady then decided that he ought to go to Europe to acquaint the Holy See with the plight of these Catholics so out of touch with far-off Sydney 3,000 miles distant and in no position to receive spiritual assistance.

Brady left the Colony on 14 February 1844 and arrived in Rome that November.

…and thus begins the story of Rosendo Salvado.

Father Rosendo didn´t need to leave Italy, for he had already created for himself a life that was enviable and admirable.

The good Father was known for his genial and expansive nature, possessing a manner of ease and good humour that won him both esteem and friendship.

Salvado was a man of culture and scientific curiosity, a man of great positive energy and deep personal piety and he was physically tough.

Rosedo´s skill and sensitivity as an organist and composer had already brought him recognition in the most discriminating circles of the Benedictine Order in Europe.

Medalla San Benito.PNG

He was fluent in his native Spanish, Italian, Greek and Latin.

Yet this same man would plough the Australian mission fields with bare and bleeding feet and would carry a sick native girl on his shoulders to safety for days on end through many miles of bush.

He was popular wherever he went and had the ability to adapt to whatever environment he found himself in.

Salvado did not need to leave Italy, for he was well-loved and respected by the community and monastery of Cava (25 miles from Naples), even to the extent that the Abbot had organised the installation of a special organ for Salvado´s exclusive use.

Badia di Cava.JPG

Even after Salvado had begun his mission in Australia and would return periodically to Europe to raise funds for its continuance, the Abbot would still try to convince Salvado to return to Cava.

But Salvado and his fellow Benedictine, Father Joseph Serra, were determined to devote themselves to foreign missions and on 26 December 1844 they set out together to ask permission from the Church in Rome to be sent abroad to serve God to the best of their abilities.

Salvado would learn through Father Brady of the difficulties that awaited him and of how uncertain were the dangers that lay ahead.

Spainards Salvado and Serra, Austrian Father Angelo Confalonieri, Italian layman Nicola Caporelli and Irish Bishop Brady left Rome on the evening of 8 June 1845, and travelled to Paris, Amiens, London and the Downside Monastery (112 miles west of London) collecting eager followers as they went.

Downside abbey2-2.jpg

Above: Downside Abbey

What started as a fraternity of five became a six-nation troupe of 28, including a nurse, nuns and a novice.

They set out from England to Australia on 17 September 1845.

They had no idea of the trials and tribulations that awaited them.

Some would die before their time in ways unpleasant.

They arrived in Fremantle on 8 January 1846 and soon the Australian adventure was organised into three separate missions: Northern, Southern and Central.

The Southern Mission left Perth on foot on 6 February, headed for Albany on King George Sound, which it took them till the end of March to reach.

Almost perishing from hunger and thirst, the Southern Mission was abandoned and the surviving brethern made their way to Mauritius.

The Northern Mission left Fremantle bound for Sydney on 1 March and were shipwrecked in the dangerous Torres Strait, with only the Captain and Father Superior Angelo Confalonieri surviving.

Confalonieri would manage to reach the State of Victoria but would survive only until 9 June 1848.

Salvado´s Central Mission survived but not without difficulties.

Salvado and his companions would be abandoned in the wilderness without guides, encounter poisonous grass, suffer terribly from a lack of water, endure eye troubles and abdominal pains, and all manner of hardships.

The Central Mission had at first no territory.

Salvado lived in the wilderness, leading the same nomadic live as the indigenous people whom he had come to convert.

His food was of the most unpredictable character, consisting of wild roots dug out of the earth with spears, lizards, goannas, kangaroo and grubs.

Goanna head2.jpg

Above: a goanna

After three years of difficulties living amongst the local people, Salvado was convinced they could be converted to Christianity.

After returning to Rome for assistance and money to aid him in his work, Bishop Salvado returned to Australia on 15 August 1852.

The Benedictine Abbey of New Norcia, though founded on 1 March 1846 as a mere hut in the Bush, began to take the form by which it is known today.

Salvado and his willing workers cleared land for the plough and introduced the natives to habits of industry.

They built a large monastery, schools and orphanages for the young, cottages for the married and flour mills to grind wheat.

They created a town –  in which many natives were fed, clothed and converted to Christianity.

Ronald Berndt, Professor of Antropology at the University of Western Australia, has suggested that Salvado was both a man of and before his time.

Quite soon after his arrival, Salvado commenced learning the local language, as he realised the importance of undertaking this task if he were to communicate with the local people, and though this is an approach not unusual amongst missionaries it was rare amongst the colonists of that period.

(And I imagine still rare amongst the European-descended inhabitants of modern Australia…)

Salvado was rare in that he wanted to know more about the indigenous population – not simply because this was useful in terms of evangelisation, but because he was interested in them as people.

He recognized the need to intermingle with the people, to listen and to ask.

When the natives relaxed around their fires, talking among themselves, discussing daily events or plans for tomorrow, telling stories or singing, much could be learned.

Salvado, though first and foremost a missionary, appreciated native life and the people themselves, respectfully observing and enjoying his time with them despite the difficulties that adaptation to such an alien situation caused him.

On his last return to Europe to secure more funding and assistance, Abbot Salvado died in Rome on 29 December 1900, age 87, after 51 years of service to Australia for the Benedictine Order.

I, a non-Catholic, non-religious man, was moved by both Salvado´s legacy and by the lives of the monks that carry on his work never ceasing at New Norcia.

A dozen monks live in the monastery, ranging in age from 40 to 95.

They live as St. Benedict proscribed: sleeping in spartan cells; praying together seven times a day; working between dawn and dusk and devotion on producing quality bread, nutcake and biscotti, olive oil and wine, port and ale; providing accommodation and spiritual comfort to visitors who come from all over the world.

My room contained nothing more than a shower, a bed, a desk, a night table, a lamp, and an alarm clock.

I watched the monks at prayer in the Oratory or the Church at 0515, 0645, 0730, noon, 1430, 1830, and 2015.

I did not attend all seven gatherings every day, for my restless spirit compelled me to take the guided tour, eat in the guesthouse or at the roadhouse across from the monastery where the buses would stop once a day heading towards Perth or Geraldton, visit the museum and the art gallery and the gift shop, stroll over to the grand New Norcia Hotel and linger over a glass of wine made at the Abbey and follow the River Walk.

It is impossible to capture in words what beauty lies behind the doors of New Norcia, for its majesty is not only seen but it is also felt.

In the Oratory and the Church these monks have created a place that calms one´s heart and clears one´s cluttered mind.

Outside the buildings Nature herself soothed and distracted with birdsong alien to my ears and sights strange to the eye.

It has always struck me as curious how man feels God can be kept restricted to buildings.

riverwalk_240

I saw no koala bears except in the Perth Zoo.

I saw evidence of wombat burrows but witnessed no wombats.

Parrots were everpresent in the trees of the monastery grounds and my eyes were dazzled by their brilliant colours.

Rainbow Lorikeet

I saw kangaroos in the Zoo and from the bus window on the road to and from New Norcia.

Kangaroo and joey03.jpg

I saw no waterbirds nor frogs, lizards nor platypus, for I saw no water as the River ran dry.

I briefly caught a glance at a shy dingo while kookaburras laughed at my stumbling efforts to make sense of all that surrounded me.

Dacelo novaeguineae waterworks.jpg

As for Salvado and the insanity that drove him to leave a comfortable life in Europe to live among the natives and establish a monastic community in one of the most difficult places on Earth, I can´t help but wonder how he would view his legacy.

Certainly he left behind a community of believers who still practice a 1,500 year old tradition worthy of preservation, but what of the indigenous population he sought to understand and convert?

Did they actually need to be converted, actually need to be civilised?

Were they afforded any dignity or respect as a result?

I saw only two of the indigenous natives during my fortnight in Australia and as much as I tried I failed to see the dignity and pride of a people who have lost so much since the Europeans invaded.

The pair of indigenous men I met at the Perth Bus Station were friendly and gregarious but their very presence seemed to frighten the whites waiting for their buses and annoy the security personnel protecting the premises.

I think of my own country of Canada and my limited experience with our indigenous population and I am ashamed.

"black and white image of an Inuit hunter seated in a kayak holding a harpoon"

I am ashamed that I feared what I did not understand.

I am ashamed that I made assumptions and had preconceptions about people I had rarely spent time with and that I had accepted without thinking some prejudices expressed about them.

I remember Oka, not just for the Abbey (the first Abbey I had ever visited and had ever been accommodated) but as well for the Crisis of 1989, when the mayor of Oka thought it was a great idea to build a golf course on native burial grounds and in protest the Mohawk people blockaded the Mercier Bridge leading into Montreal.

Folks were more disturbed by the disruption of traffic rather than the violation and disregard of native rights.

The present inequality and ongoing struggle for native people´s rights still continues.

In northern Canada, dozens of native women have disappeared or have been murdered near Highway 16 in British Columbia.

Most of the Highway of Tears cases remain unresolved.

Highway of Tears.jpg

Standing Rock´s struggles against the Dakota Access Pipeline is only the latest of the ongoing battles that native peoples have had to fight to protect their land and their heritage.

Standing Rock logo.png

We forget that the cultural damage we have inflicted upon native peoples doesn´t only cause loss to these peoples but as well diminishes us.

One might easily scoff, as the knight did in Daredevil´s tale, at Salvado´s sacrifices.

One might mock the monks of New Norcia and their devotion to a God that in His majesty actually doesn´t require worship from mere mortals, a God that might not even exist, a Heavenly reward that might not be waiting despite all of the efforts of these good men.

One might belittle the past of the indigenous peoples and laugh at their technological backwardness making their submission simplistic and totally disregard and disrespect their proud heritage and unique cultures and basic humanity.

But when I look into a mirror and when I compare myself to individuals such as Salvado and the monks of New Norcia and native peoples all around the world, I wonder…

Perhaps I, with all my gadgets and all my cynicism and all my self-assured cockiness and undeserved swagger…

Perhaps I am the greater fool.

(Sources: Wikipedia; The Story of New Norcia; “Your Day at New Norcia”; Rosendo Salvado: Commerating 200 Years (1814 – 2014); The Salvado Memoirs; Bill Bryson, Down Under)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adam in the Abbey 2: The Path of Benedict

16 September 2016, Landschlacht, Switzerland

Two days ago I returned from a week´s sojourn in Turkey.

(To be mentioned in future blog posts…)

Today I am paying for it with symptoms that need not be described here, but suffice to say I am staying home and close to medicine chest and bedroom and water closet.

But, on the positive side, this does give me the opportunity to write.

1 August 2016, Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Toscana, Italia

With my wife working in Zürich 4 days a week and with my working as a teacher and barista sometimes 7 days a week, it can be said that Ute and I don´t spend a lot of quality time together.

So vacations are meant to be an attempt in redressing these absences, so what were days of separate living suddenly become 24/7 in one another’s company, not as easy an adjustment for either one of us than we might hope for!

Now, for all our differences and despite our problems, we love one another, in our own ways, but living with one another is quite different from travelling with one another.

For when two people travel together they travel within their own protective bubble, seeing the world from only within that bubble and keeping the world apart from them as the world doesn´t wish to disturb that bubble.

So, inevitably for social harmony between the pair, compromises are made and very little communication with the outside world is made at the risk of showing disinterest in the other travelling companion.

My wife can speed through a museum in record time as there remains yet another museum to see within the deadline that exists.

I stubbornly want to linger, reading every caption and trying to force a forgetful mind to remember as many details as possible.

Clearly, opposites attract!

We only had slightly less than a fortnight to explore Tuscany, so Ute wanted to see as much as possible before the last three days in Marina di Cecina where we would lie collapsed on the beach like exhausted fish.

Tuscany in Italy.svg

Ute drove us from our home at the Lake of Constance near the German border to Bellinzona in Ticino (an Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland), to Montecantini Terme, Siena and Marina di Cecina and back home.

We visited the abovementioned places and many places in between.

On this day, 1 August, we left Siena and were grimly determined to see as much as possible before voluntarily beaching ourselves in Marina di Cecina that evening.

It was a truly moving religious journey as our day´s itinerary seemed to consist primarily of religious attractions: the Abbey of Santa Anna in Camprena, the Abbey of San Galgano and the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore.

The English Patient Poster.jpg

I won´t linger too much on the details and stories behind the first two abbeys mentioned above in this blog post, except to say that Santa Anna was a setting for the movie The English Patient and San Galgano is famous for its sword in a stone.

(To be mentioned in future blog posts…)

But it was the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore that left the most lasting impression upon me, for this living monastic community reminds me of New Norcia – the Australian monastery eluded to in my posts Moving Heaven and Earth 3 and Adam in the Abbey 1 of this blog –  while upon the walls of the Great Cloister – the wonder of Monte Oliveto – are 36 amazing frescoes depicting the life of St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic movement.

(Some say, even Western monasticism itself.)

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Now before I show you these frescoes, there are a few things one needs to keep in mind:

Though the life of Benedict is illustrated on the walls of the cloister of Monte Oliveto, Benedict (480 – 543) was neither born in Tuscany nor did he found the Abbey (founded in 1313) where his life is glorified in such exubrant drama by Luca Signorelli (1445 – 1523) and Antonio Bazzi (aka il Sodoma)(1477 – 1549) from 1495 to 1505.

Above: a Signorelli fresco

Above: a il Sodoma fresco

Despite the lifelike portrayal of Benedict´s life upon the cloister walls, there is no real certainty of the accuracy of these paintings, for apart from a short poem believed to have been written by Mark of Monte Cassino, the only account of Benedict is found in the second volume of Pope Gregory I´s (540 – 604) four-book Dialogues, which were not so much historical accounts as they were spiritual lessons and portraits of Italian holy men.

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Above: Pope Gregory I

Benedict of Norcia is venerated as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, the Anglican/Methodist, and Catholic Churches.

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Benedict is the patron saint of Europe and of students.

Benedict founded 12 communities for monks on the Italian peninsula and is buried at his last founded abbey, Monte Cassino.

Above: Monte Cassino

His main achievement is his Rule for Monasteries, 73 precepts for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot.

Benedict`s Rule has a unique spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness that is so quietly persuasive that most religious communities founded throughout the Middle Ages adopted it.

Benedict did not found asceticism –  this lifestyle characterised by abstinence from worldly pleasures in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment – for asceticism has been historically observed in many religious traditions for centuries prior to Benedict´s birth.

Asceticism is not unique to Christianity, for it has been observed in Judaism, Hinduism, Buddism and Jainism, and though mainstream Islam forbids ascetic practices, its minority Sufi sect have a long tradition of strict ascetism.

Above: a Sufi Muslim ascetic, or fakir, in 1860s Bengal, India

Above: The Buddha as an ascetic, British Museum

In Christianity, Origen (184 – 253), Jerome (347 – 420), Ignatius (35- 108), John Chrysostom (349 – 407), Augustine (354- 430), John the Baptist, the twelve Apostles, Paul and even Jesus Himself developed the tenets of Christianity within highly ascetic religious environments.

The deserts of the Middle East were once inhabited by thousands of Christian hermits, including Anthony (251 – 356), Mary of Egypt (344 -421), Simeon Stylites (388 – 459), to name but a few.

Above: An illustration of Simeon Stylites

Benedict was not the first to write or create rules for monastic living, for it is said that he knew of and was influenced by the writings of Evagrius Ponticus the Solitary (345 – 399) and John Cassian (360 – 435).

Asceticism is classified into two types: natural – a lifestyle where material aspects of life are reduced to utmost simplicity without making the body suffer – and unnatural – involving body mortification and self-infliction of pain.

Following the Gregorian account of Benedict found in the Dialogues and faithfully emulated on the walls of the Great Cloister of Monte Oliveto, the visitor sees Benedict leaving home to go study in Roma, abandoning the school in Roma, magically mending a broken tray, donning the hermit´s habit in Subiaco, how the devil broke the monastery´s bell, instructing visiting peasants in sacred doctrine, avoiding temptation and assassination, producing water from stone, walking on water, changing a flask of wine into a serpent, resurrecting a young monk upon whom a wall had fallen, reproving disobedient monks, exposing shams, predicting destruction, producing flour during a famine, and releasing peasants from their bondage.

The heavens neither announce Benedict´s birth nor open wide to receive him from his deathbed in the frescoes of Signorelli and il Sodoma, for the frescoes, like the Dialogues upon which they are based, seek to teach and inspire the believer to use Benedict as their model to resist sin and maintain faith.

What impresses me most about places like Monte Oliveto and New Norcia is not so much the artworks they have been able to preserve within their holdings as the lives that these men, these monks, have chosen to live.

To visit an abbey is to take a voyage to a place where a tradition centuries old is practiced, where life is lived with one´s heart in an atmosphere of prayer.

These men who live there love their God and firmly believe that He loves them and follow what they believe to be His exhortations to love those they live amongst and to those who visit.

These monks, following a Rule and an Abbot, seek to come closer to the God they believe created them and showed them the joy of life unencumbered by little save that which is necessary to maintain one´s health and perform one´s duties.

They rise before dawn to greet the light of each day´s new creation and give thanks at day´s end for the blessings the day has bestowed upon them.

An abbey is meant to be neither a business enterprise nor an elite club of devout believers, but rather it is a brotherhood, a family, where its members come from different countries and are of varying ages, sharing the same rights and responsibilities.

At Monte Oliveto and New Norcia the life of a monk is balanced between devotion and labour.

New Norcia Benedictine Monastery.jpg

Above: New Norcia

They meet for the liturgy six times a day to read sacred writ and sing blessed psalm and show their humility in worship of a divine presence felt though invisible, trusted though unproven.

They spend their energies outside of the Liturgy engaged in handiworks, restoring ancient tomes, producing spirits, performing agricultural or domestic duties.

Meals are eaten in silence whilst listening to instructional readings or classical and religious music.

An abbey has always been and will always remain a place of harmony, faith, contemplation, culture and art.

The Monte Oliveto monks of Benedict wear white habits, to honour their belief that the Holy Virgin – whose purity of life inspired God to use her as a vessel to bring the Son of God to mankind to save it from itself – can bring these monks in closer communion with the joy of an abundant life that faith offers the believer.

There is a part of me that envies them their surety and serenity and complete confidence in what truths they deem to be self-evident, but I also know that I am not the material from which monks are made.

To be obedient without questioning, to be silent in an atmosphere that invites conversation, to be humble with the awareness of each individual´s uniqueness, to be reverent in an irreverent world, to deny one´s self pleasures of the flesh in a world seductive, to absolve one´s self of worldly possession when there is so much literature and music and entertainment that I long to keep and still yearn to acquire, to refuse charity unless it is for the benefit of all, this is not the stuff of which I am.

But an abbey is still worthy of respect and admiration, for it represents the potential for humanity to unite beyond petty selfishness and self-interest and forge together a brotherhood of man.

It may be said that religion may be the cause for much division and strife that is life upon Earth, but I believe that religion may also possess within itself the seeds of a common humanity that may one day show us how to rise above rite and ritual to embrace the good that religion preaches and promises.

And though life within an abbey may seem to be a life lived within a dream, it is a life well worth living and a dream well worth believing in.

Sources: Wikipedia; Monte Oliveto Maggiore: The Abbey Born in a Dream; Attimi di Eternità/Moments of timelessness: Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore

 

 

 

Adam in the Abbey 1: The Road to New Norcia

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 September 2016 / 15 September 2016

Homer once said that all men have need of the gods.

And maybe this is so, for since time began we have sought a way to understand, and perhaps even influence, powerful natural phenomena, such as weather and the seasons, creation, life, death and its aftermath.

There are times I wonder whether God created man or whether it was man who created God, but to religion’s credit its rituals give many lives a deep sense of identity, cement social groups and bring meaning to the rites of passage in life, such as birth, maturity, marriage and death.

Religion has also been used as a political tool, justifying military conquests, giving courage in battle and comfort in loss, and will even pervert itself in its own name where murder, though morally wrong, is justifiable if the cause is just and holy.

alt=A depiction of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 from a medieval manuscript. The burning buildings of Jerusalem are centered in the image. The various crusaders are surrounding and besieging the village armed for an attack.

Religion organises life – through calendars, rites, rituals and taboos – and death – by suggesting that our lives have significance and role in the cosmos.

People will defy princes, powers and principalities, suffer persecution and even court death to defend their rights to worship with their chosen rituals their perceived divine providence.

For many, religion is not just a social impulse, it is also a matter of intense personal experience – a search for significance and meaning through an inner awareness of the undefinable divine.

We seek meaning to the trials and tribulations of life and solace in something that shows that individuals matter on a cosmic scale – if not in this life with its injustice and unfairness, then in a prospect beyond the grave.

For it is hard to remain strong within ourselves in the face of pain and suffering and then to face an eternity of nothingness where all that we were and all that we could be is mere rotting remains in some forgettable tomb and meaningless like dust in the wind.

In this paradoxical existence we want to believe that there are unseen forces at work, that sense can be made of the world, that we matter.

I am not much of a churchgoer, much to the despair and grief of religious friends and family.

They wish to bring me closer to them in spiritual harmony and hope to give me the same hopes that they fervently cling to.

They have found fulfillment in their group and fear what exclusion from their group might mean to my spiritual future.

But it is this religious grouping I object to, rather than the religious beliefs they espouse, for the dark side of organised religion is the creation and segregation of humanity into two basic sides – “Us” and “Them”.

And it is this division that condemns anything that is not believed and practiced by “Us”, resulting in many using religion as a cloak to disguise thought and actions that are very unreligious in practice.

Kill, in the name of religion.

Force others to bend to your will, in the name of religion.

Justify injustice, in the name of religion.

Unite against the infidel and convert or eliminate him, in the name of religion.

The gods are on your side and you can control the uncontrollable if your belief is strong.

To be fair, much that is good and honourable has been accomplished in the name of religion –  such as orphanages and hospitals and schools…

But much that is evil has also manifested and justified itself in the name of religion – such as crusades, religious persecution, racism, sexism…

Religion is not famous for possessing a “live and let live” attitude.

My wife is religious, in her own way, and remains devoted to her Catholicism by tradition, but she has sought her own path to peace and enlightenment by exploring such methods as meditation.

Saint Peter's Basilica

She is far more of a social animal than I, so she will, on occasion, participate in worship should one of our more religious friends ask this of her.

I am not so compliant or gregarious, but, for moments like christenings, weddings and funerals, I will throw on a suit and participate in all the pomp and ceremony with which religion surrounds itself to show my compassion for others to whom these moments matter.

I share their joys and sorrows, even if I don`t share their beliefs.

I try not to be hypocritical about it, so I won´t try to visit Mecca in the guise of a Muslim, or take communion in the pretense of a Christian, but I will remove my hat in a church and cover my head in a synagogue.

Masjid al-Haram and the center of Mecca

I may sing psalms I do not feel, but I don´t expect the enlightenment the congregation expects should I bow my head while others pray.

I love and respect my friends and family with their various Christian, Muslim and Hindu beliefs, even if I neither understand nor share their beliefs.

goddess of wealth and beauty

I respect my wife`s Catholic church and its long history and its emotionally moving rituals, but, similar to Groucho Marx, I refuse to join any church that would consider me as a member!

Groucho Marx - portrait.jpg

So why have I  – who could be at best be labelled an agnostic and at worst a godless, without redemption, hopeless, barbaric, atheistic, infidel pagan – found myself over the years visiting temples, churches, shrines, monasteries and abbeys?

Could it be that I too, despite all my protestations, have a Homeric need for God?

I am not sure.

I feel closer to the divine when I am in a forest than when I am in a church, by an ocean rather than an altar, reading the clouds rather than reading holy writ.

But I am attracted to what religion represents – the good within man and man’s search for that good.

Granted that I, being the pagan I am, have limited authority to discuss such matters, for only the truly devout fully comprehend the shrines of the holy, but in spite of my limitations I have been profoundly affected by the places I will describe.

One of my favourite writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, famous for his walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (vividly described in his books, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road), was a man who lived life to its fullest.

After Constantinople, Fermor enlisted in the Irish Guards, fought in Greece and Crete. disguised as a shepherd organised the Resistance, and travelled extensively throughout his life.

So, at first glance, Fermor spending time in abbeys amongst the rigourous lives of monks in a retreat of peaceful solitude and calm contemplation, might seem odd.

Nonetheless his novella, A Time to Keep Silence, which recounts his experiences in the French abbey of St. Wandrille to the abandoned monasteries of Cappadocia in Turkey, resonates within me, for the emotions he expresses are akin to my own.

Like Fermor, I have visited more monasteries than are described because many of them were part of wider travels, wherein, though significant, were only accidentally a background part of the journey complete rather than deliberate goals sought out.

At first, monasteries and abbeys were of interest only for the purposes of charity, i.e. what food or shelter they could provide me.

As described in Canada Slim behind bars 5a: Arrested development, in my travels I learned how to travel without money by using charity to fill my empty stomach and shelter my weary head.

In travels across Canada, the US and Europe, many a night found me dossing in a Salvation Army type men’s hostel if an urban area was quite large.

The Salvation Army.svg

Smaller towns would either offer me paid accommodation in a hotel or bed-and-breakfast, or would have me sleep directly inside the church itself.

I was rarely refused something to eat along with the night’s lodging.

So in this manner I was able to walk/thumb my way across Canada and hitch around the States and visit England and Wales and continental Europe when lack of finances was a problem.

I worked whenever possible and paid as often as I could, but I knew that had I waited to travel until I had complete financial security I might never have left.

I never begged on the street nor rummaged through rubbish and only stole the occasional hanging fruit off of trees.

I asked for help and was rarely refused.

I was a temporary burden at best.

Though I have known many a church, abbeys and monasteries somehow mostly escaped my notice.

(For Titchfield, see The glory departed of this blog.)

Titchfield Abbey 1.jpg

Only after meeting and marrying my wife Ute did abbeys and monasteries become deliberate goals of sites to see, rather than merely resources of food and shelter, especially in our journeys over the years in Italy.

The abbey that has left a most enduring impression, for it was the first abbey I spent time in really trying to understand the monastic life, was New Norcia, a place I have been recently reminded of when last month, on 24 August, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck near Norcia (the inspiration for New Norcia), Italy.

(See Moving Heaven and Earth of this blog.)

New Norcia is a town in Western Australia, 132 km/82 mi north of Perth, the only monastic town in Australia, and it is its story, and my own, I want to share.

Adam in the Abbey 2 will speak of Benedict and how he has inspired generations of followers.

Fra Angelico 031.jpg

Adam in the Abbey 3 will tell the tale of how two Spanish monks came to live in extreme hardship among the indigenous people of Australia and yet preserved to become a holy beacon in the South Pacific.

(To be continued…)

 

 

 

Legacy of Shadows

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 3 September 2016

03:32 this morning, awakened by both body and mind…

It took me 3 hours to fall asleep again, while I lay on the lawn chair on our balcony, looking up at the stars until dawn, thinking about life and death.

In the six years I have lived in Switzerland I have experienced new life and life´s end on four separate occasions.

My wife`s friend from Munich brought her newborn baby daughter to our apartment for the Christmas holidays and I was voluntarily conscripted into holding baby Pia and singing to her to help her fall asleep.

There are no adequate words to describe how it felt to hold a baby in my arms for the very first time and to smell that unique aroma that a baby´s skin produces and to hold someone who is simultaneously incredibly self-reliant and totally helpless.

I have never been a father nor had I ever been around babies, but somehow I sensed how to hold a baby´s head and body and knew what tone to make the only song I knew at that moment, “Edelweiss” as rendered by the movie The Sound of Music.

Mere weeks ago I found my heart singing once again in celebration of life and had the opportunity to hold Dionysus (English spelling), the newborn son of my Macedonian friends, briefly in my arms.

I rarely envy others, but I envy those blessed with children, for though children can be troublesome and demanding, they are also wonderful and delightful.

For a child nurtures the adult inside us – our need to be responsible and consider more than ourselves, while at the same time a child allows us to rediscover our own child within ourselves – seeing the world through new eyes and emotions.

Life is truly a miracle.

But life perhaps cannot be fully appreciated without its opposite also ever present in the world, death.

Two men I had known, both well into their senior years, are now no more.

Both men had appeared, at least with me, to be friendly and warm and compassionate.

Both men before their demise had dementia and were considered a burden upon their spouses and families.

My wife and I are rarely in agreement on anything, but we both share a distaste for ending our days in this manner.

As much as I would like to end my days at a ripe old ancient age, I hope that I leave this vale of tears with my mental faculties and most of my physical faculties intact.

I do not wish to return to the helpless state of an infant: unable to comprehend, unable to feed or clothe myself, unable to deal with my own waste without assistance, or worse –  unable to breathe without the aid of a machine.

That is not a life I wish to endure.

That is not a death deserved of dignity.

What strikes me most about these aforementioned men is how they are last remembered – helpless, difficult, emotionally and physically demanding on others, with even their personalities transformed into unpleasantly dark doppelgängers…

And for all that they were, and all that they had accomplished, now forgotten by they themselves and by those that loved them, this is a fate most cruel.

As unfair as it feels to write the following words, it is very human for people to forget all the good deeds that came before the bad ones.

The recent loss of my wife´s uncle and two years ago the loss of my landlady´s husband has left me saddened.

These men, I once knew as friendly, warm and welcoming, had in their last few months deteriorated in mind as well as in body, becoming darker versions of themselves, more of a curse to others than a blessing.

It is this aspect of aging that happens to some that I find intensely unfair and cruel.

There is no one to blame…no one to feel anger towards…

It is as it is…a situation beyond control, which may be the fate of myself one day or the fate of other people I love.

Life ends.

Health diminishes…mental or physical…sometimes both.

We are all victims of chance and circumstance.

The only thing I feel right now and the only message I wish to convey is…

Let the ones you love know how you feel…while you still can.

To my friends and family, near and far, whatever differences they may be between us, let me say from the bottom of my heart, you are loved.

Your life has meaning.