Reviewing is fun and (so I believe) a social good. A while back I had a go at it, focusing on fiction and in particular crime fiction. But it’s intense to the point of burnout, so it’s with apprehension that I’ve watched myself toy with the notion of launching a review site for books, rock music, and film. Should I dedicate one of my Big Years to such a launch? Can I be a success this time? Is it a meaningful use of my time?
Over this holiday, I’ve been reading stuff in order to prioritize and plan the next half decade or more. I took along “The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online” edited by Houmon Barekat, Robert Barry & David Winters. Seventeen essays, the titles of which held some interest for me . . . at the tail end of my break, wrapping it up, I at last get through all seventeen, but to what effect? The sad truth is that this eclectic essay collection, while peripherally interesting and often well written, is academic and not close at all to my self-questioning. None of them tackle quandaries such as: what’s an ideal online review look like in the early 21st century?
”The Digital Critic” was a waste of time for me but in the end wasn’t a waste of time at all. Reading forced me to think about my potential project. The upshot? Yes, I do wish to conquer the world with a new online mag but hey, Andres, don’t imagine it will be any easier than back in 2000.
The concept of a Big Year comes from birding (or birdwatching, if you prefer), and at age 60 my plan was for Pam and me to do an actual Birding Big Year. You start on January 1 and try to see as many species as you can by December 31. Done seriously, such a big year involves both meticulous planning and obsessive activity, and while we would never aspire to compete with the most extravagant big years of the experts, we’d want to tackle something ambitious but also fun.
When to do this? Is the notion still attractive? During this splendiferous holiday, I’ve managed some reflection. Our first week was a guided birding tour in Spain (Steve West of Birding in Spain is a tremendous guide!), which reinforced the joy in birding. I read “Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear: 200 Birds, 12 Months, 1 Lapsed Birdwatcher,” by Lev Parikian, an entertaining combination of a big year memoir and the tale of a less-than-expert birder (something that resonates with me). I also read Victor Emanuel’s “One More Warbler: A Life with Birds,” an autobiography from the other end of the birding spectrum, Emanuel having seen 6000+ bird species in his life. On our Way of St Francis one-month-long walk, I’ve had binoculars round my neck each day but seen few birds (the pictured Jay is probably my highlight, they’re common but hard to see, and a delight when you see them).
All of which tells me: yes, I yearn to do a Birding Big Year. When? My best guess is 2022 but who knows, who knows indeed.
I’ve skimmed, for the second time and with improved understanding, Paul A. Jonsgard’s wonderful “A Chorus of Cranes: The Cranes of North America and the World.” It set my heart alight . . . images like Mediterranean-sun-drenched red poppies.
2020 will be the Cranes Big Year. But I’ll say no more for quite a while, for the very good reason that the project is currently more hot air than anything remotely doable or commercial. Time to take it underground and do desk research until I’m “expert” enough to dare a bold plan.
Still, this excites me more than other ideas that have been alive for longer, and existential excitement is what brings life to life.
I’m not a real pilgrim but my crude notion is to somehow use the Way of Saint Francis to “change myself” or “find myself” or “extract meaning” or “quest toward something” . . . in other words, to actively do something more pilgrim-like than trudge and recover and touristify and eat. So in Rome I buy a funny little notebook with a movie poster cover of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and each blank page watermarked with that poster. Can I force myself to see more than the usual each day and to jot down something useful, something proactive?
I have eight such one-page scribblings by now, after descending from the chilly Appennines’ heights. They’re very personal, so I won’t share too many but just by revealing two such daily aphorisms, you’ll see how hard I’m trying and how opaque the results: “Cathedral’s green” and “Abandon the NOT!”
Today was Day 5 of the Way we’re on. A short day and one with breathtaking beauty – passage through green tunnels of beeches and pines – so it offered a rare chance to think clearly. What’s more, this afternoon I finished one of the trip’s reading assignments – “Grit is a 4-Letter Word: The Psychology of Backcountry Travel” by Ann Gimpel. This clumsily titled book is a fascinating look at how “proper” hikers, those heading out with tent and stove into remote areas, handle and should handle their challenges. I enjoyed the read but . . .
. . . it’s time to address one of my proposed Big Years, the Hard Hike Big Year. I envisaged a year of tackling some iconic global hikes -Australia’s Western Arthurs; the Grand Canyon and some classic Utah adventures; the Tour du Mont Blanc; wending one’s way across the spine of Sicily. For so long, I’ve held in my mind a dream of achieving these tough hikes (compared to which, our current walk is a doddle) but now, with great regret, I have decided to dream those dreams no longer. I’m no longer entertaining thoughts of embarking on what are plainly younger mens’ adventures.
Why? Four key reasons: (i) not only are they extremely tough at the time, they take copious preparation, time I don’t have; (ii) I’m older and best focused, physically, on other types of hiking and exercise; (iii) Pam doesn’t want to do such walks; and (iv) they’ve lost meaningful significance for me.
Frank Chimero, a most interesting designer with interesting blogs, posted recently on how he organized his listening using Spotify. I’ve posted on this subject before, how the new streaming world wrecks the old curating/filing system built around physical CDs. Frank He writes: “I organize this system in Spotify with the “To Listen” playlist on the top level, then a folder for each year that contains 14 playlists: the yearly “long list”, the yearly “shortlist”, and then the 12 monthly playlists.” As soon as I read his blog post, I knew his methodology was exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’ll implement it on return to Australia. Check it out: it may be just right for you!
Over the last week, I’ve read Phil Cousineau’s “The Art of Pilgrimage.” Tomorrow we commence our pilgrimage. Does the book clarify how best to approach the five-week walk? Well, it turns out Cousineau is mainly airy words that mean little to me but I do extract his essence: a pilgrimage equals some hardship or privation or slog, plus an inner quest. The unifying notion of a holy spot at the end, well, I don’t need that, I can just espouse to stride towards and reach the end.
Cousineau also offers his own recipes for pilgrimaging, and I quite liked them: “Pilgrims are persons in motion – passing through territories not their own – seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way. . . . If it’s impractical to carry a walking stick on your journey, an alternative is to remember to walk barefoot at least once a day. . . . On my journeys, I choose a theme. One of my favorite subjects is roads . . . Try taking a day to brood. . . . If there is a trick to soulful travel, it is learning to see for yourself. The difference between pilgrim and tourist is the intention of attention, the quality of the curiosity.” All well and good but nothing speaks to me.
But I do need some process. All I have is a vague desire to view the pilgrim stamps as my passage to a deeper chapter of meaning, which in practice means sorting out big years, writing goals, etc.; perhaps moving to a deeper understanding of my life with family and friends. I also wish to fully celebrate time on and off track with dear ones. Some notion of curiosity, quite foreign to me these days in tourist mode, lurks as well. Let’s see what transpires.
What is it about a project that terrifies as much as it inspires? Over the last two and a quarter years of Big Years, I’ve kept coming back to this quixotic project, to go see (and write about, with photos) all fifteen crane species around the world. We’re talking each continent. We’re talking some seriously remote places. We’re talking mucho dollars, a heap of organization. All of this with only the fuzziest notion of eventual output.
Right now the biggest problem with this possible Big Year, and a couple of the others, is the time impost. While I have a book to write, shouldn’t I write? Shouldn’t I resist vague detours?
So . . . in Europe, when I can, I’ll sink into this sumptuous book: Paul A. Johnsgard’s “A Chorus of Cranes: The Cranes of North America and the World” (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01DY08GHG).
Let’s keep it simple. It’s so enjoyable to find birds, identify them, and watch them. It’s fun even if you dip (that’s a technical term for chasing a particular bird but don’t spot it). In addition, why is birding a “good” thing? You connect with your wider world. You celebrate the breadth and depth of your fellow airborne creatures. You ponder the meaning of existence and your role. You become an advocate for your grandchildren’s heritage. Is that enough?
Since the birding Big Year notion was what inspired my decade-long concept, this should be the most straightforward aspiration to plan for, right? Just get out there, the two of us, blissfully ticking as many birds as we can over 365 days . . . why not? But it’s not that simple. It seems pointless to aim at an Australia-wide tally, for there are so many birders out there far more talented and conscientious than we are. A global ticking year might make sense but with precisely what aim? Maybe it would be better, and more time- and cost-conscious to just focus on our state of Victoria. Or is there some other “tick the feathered creatures” concept out there that might resonate?
To help with thinking, I’ll read “One More Warbler: A Life with Birding” by Victor Emanuel (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MU1K9G5).