In 2017 I ran a Fitness Big Year, in which I took up cycling with a vengeance while trying to keep up some jogging and some gym. I remember that for a few short months I clocked up 110 kms every week. At my low speed, that’s nearly six hours of cycling a week. Each week was exhausting, but I was fit. I was fit, until I got injured, and then I wasn’t fit, and gradually I began missing my targets. In 2018 I kept up regular cycling as part of a Big Year, more like 40 or 50 kms a week. Then I got injured again and starting putting on weight and … it was a bit of a train wreck.
Now, as part of a refreshed exercise regime, and not part of a Big Year at all, I suddenly find myself being incredibly regular with my cycling. Three times a week without fail. The thing is, I only get out for half an hour, pumping my legs hard over only 10 kms, and, even more boring, mostly I do just one route (which includes a suspended section under a freeway as per the image above). But am I bored? Not at all. I’m loving the steady discipline. Biking is no longer a huge challenge, no longer tilted at grand tours or (heaven forbid) racing, but just a means to breathe hard and work those quads.
So after three obsessive years of Big Years that included obsessive cycling, now I’m now longer officially obsessive but am regularly (VERY regularly) getting on the bike. Something good and sweet has taken hold of me!
Steven Pressfield writes terrific fiction but is perhaps more famous, at least among creatives, for his works on how to write and make and dream. In a recent blog post that is grandiosely (and wonderfully, in my view) titled “The Gods Rule by Acclaim,” Pressfield concludes with these four magnificent exhortations, which I set out here with my self-feedback about my decades-plus book on reactors:
Start before you’re ready (I did)
Write what you don’t know (I did and continue to do so)
Pick the idea that’s the craziest (Certainly, after more than a decade of work, I can admit that’s true)
Write the book you can’t write (Ha! I cannot, I cannot!)
I take courage from Pressfield’s foolish advice. WRITE IT I SHALL!!
I recently went to the final day of a magnificent public exhibition of photos by Peter Dombrovskis. You know, the guy who produced those landmark Tasmanian shots that saved the Franklin. Apparently he lugged into the wilderness some seriously heavy gear with really large film, allowing him extraordinary field of depth in his photographs. We strolled around the beautifully presented images twice. Mostly what I felt was awe and admiration, and some sense of the world’s beauty. But one impact was more subtle and more far-reaching. In addition to his epic Tasmanian shots, Dombrovskis visited the Victorian high country that I know so well, having hiked decent swathes of it. A resplendent snow gum … a gently undulating plain of scaparia bushes … inexplicably, I felt myself come to tears. I recovered quick enough but ever since then have reflected, and I think I know the issue.
Having rejected more Big Years of remote hikes, other priorities have asserted themselves. I might never get back to the most remote and wonderful parts of the Bogong High Plains. And that saddens me. And photographs can remind me.
2019 started early, in December last year, so I’ve just completed six months. Did I knuckle down to 6½ hours of writing work a day, as the Author Big Year bound me to? Not quite – I’m averaging 6 hours a day. I’m satisfied enough.
Of the hours at desk, did I stick to 4½ a day on proper drafting rather than research, book production or marketing? No – 3 hours/day is all I could manage. This aspect I’m not satisfied with.
I shall double down on “proper” work from tomorrow.
Would you ever countenance reading a whole book just to absorb a certain way of writing? Normally it would never occur to me but “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century,” by George Packer, a New Yorker writer I admire, was described as stylistically bold and I grew intrigued. Holbrooke, an “almost famous” apparatchik and diplomat, was known to me but only peripherally. He was instrumental in ensuring that the post-Soviet-Union non-Russia countries with nuclear arms got rid of them, and I’d read about him, but the nuclear arms race is not on-topic. In the end I gambled and bought.
Well, after an introductory chapter that reads like Packer is chatting to me over the phone, something that’s unusual enough and takes a lot of skill, here is his introductory sentence to the first real bio chapter, the one about Holbrooke’s “early years”:
Do you mind if we hurry through the early years? There are no mysteries here that can be unlocked by nursery school. Why Holbrooke was Holbrooke is not even the question to which we need an answer. I wonder if there’s an answer for anyone, least of all him. You really need to know just one thing, and it has to do with Holbrooke’s father.
Can you credit the author’s chutzpah? You’re writing a bio and you tell the reader you’ll skip the early bits? Needless to say, I’m delighted and can’t wait to read the rest.
A brief locale shift to Darwin could be a holiday but isn’t at all. Instead it’s much better (or will be, if I can continue to accept the generosity of others letting me be a preoccupied antisocial geek). In Melbourne a day ago, I was still mired deep in the early to mid 50s, with plenty of drafting to go, but coming up here, I’ve decided against bringing all the stuff and angst involved with that era, and instead shall just scope out the final three years of the decade (actually 1958 to 1960). I don’t need much check-in luggage to cart up my accumulated notes on those three years, already marked up with my thoughts and observations. Now I’ll work through those marked-up notes, trying to find “the story” they tell and paving the way for an intelligent plot framework. I kind of have a rough idea of what I want to relate about during this seminal period as the world moves into the turbulent 60s, but past experience tells me those vague initial thoughts might flex and transform. In any case, it’s hard to convey my excitement as I begin work at the comfy, atmospheric Laneway Cafe.
Now that the two crime fiction books are on the Amazon shelves, I can stop obsessing about them. I can work on the nuclear tome. The last twenty-five May days have been wonderfully steady, days in a routine, days not travelling, days doing not much except the work towards the future. I’ve averaged seven hours a day, not quite the targeted eight, but I can’t be cross with myself. Within those seven hours, not enough have involved drafting new words, but that’s improving right now. The last few days, such glorious late autumn Melbourne days, have been magnificent days of wordsmithing.
I’m working well, focusing well. Many birders are flush with guides and coffee table books and references. Our birding collection is small and haphazard. I decided not to fuss but to grab Simpson & Day’s 2014 edition of FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF AUSTRALIA. No photos only drawings (but sometimes they reveal more than photos). Half a page on Australia’s Brolga (grus rubicunda) and Sarus Crane (grus antigione). I jotted notes on these two endemic (found in no other country) marvels. They’re big, almost shoulder height on me. You expect a field guide to be dry but Simpson & Day are parsimoniously poetic: both Cranes are described as “stately, long-legged” – doesn’t that conjure a picture? How about “soars in thermals” or “dancing displays of leaps, bows, high steps and loud trumpeting calls”? I read carefully enough to reckon I could pick one species from the other with binoculars, even though they’re so similar that Sarus Cranes have only been distinguished from Brolgas for fifty years. On the miniature maps, Brolgas are shown across half of our country, the east and north, while Sarus Cranes are only in the Cairns-and-north corner. I even read up on their (similar) nesting habits. The drawings, including a small dancing cameo, evoke my future. All of this stirs my mind and heart.
Birders go birding for many reasons. Mine?
- Some spend their lives studying birds, with any number of specialized foci. True naturalists who are birders count themselves in this group, as do properly entitled ornithologists. Me, I enjoy a modicum of research and knowledge but at age 63 I’d need to throw in a couple of fulltime years to become anything like fully knowledgeable. So this is not a primary driver for me, though for my Cranes project, I’ll dig in deep.
- Twitchers love to tick birds off a list; this obsession might derive from a love of details or some observers call this the modern equivalent of hunting. Bird photographers fall into this category. I love bird lists and end-of-the-day bird counts, and I get a real thrill out of snaring a lifer, but I don’t dwell on my lists, which are, I’ve begun to realize, a means to a deeper end. Perhaps ticking off a bird just makes me feel more competent (rather than the bad birder I am).
- Nature lovers swoon over observing birds, just watching them in their habitats. One of the reasons I bird is to feel that sense of connection with the wider natural, but I easily tire from extended observation. At heart, I’m an impatient city boy with no natural affinity for sinking into nature.
So I’m all of the above but none of them. I’m just a bumbling but devoted amateur. This realization hit me yesterday on a tram, thinking of the Cranes project. It came to me: I don’t have to apprentice as an ornithologist or aspire to 5,000 birds ticked or spend months in the bush. All I need do is realize there is some inner passion tugging me towards birding. Call the Cranes project my obedience to that passion. For this project and for this project alone, I’ll research the heck out of fifteen species, I’ll travel the world chalking up full observation and knowledge, and I’ll revel in our wondrous Earth.
Today I began digging into what seems like a major document, the Global Assessment of the IPBES (the flora/fauna equivalent of the IPCC, that is, the experts asked to check out how Earth’s animals, birds, trees, plants, etc. are doing). It’s the first such report since 2005 and should, I guess, be read in the context of accelerating global warming impacts. My little brain can’t readily absorb it all, so I thought: why not scan it (including any backing sources) in connection with my Cranes project?
It turns out the full report isn’t out yet. A 39-page “Summary for Policymakers” is and I grabbed that from a Guardian article and the image accompanying that post is from the Guardian. (Actually later I tracked down the full IPBES press release which includes additional material, though I haven’t parsed that yet.)
Specifically (and this is just off the top of my head, so it will change), I’m interested in the fifteen species of Cranes as a combined embodiment of the lousy legacy we’re leaving our grandchildren. ICF (the International Cranes Foundation) lists one species as Critically Endangered, three species as Endangered, and seven as Vulnerable, which sounds to me an overall harbinger of crane doom. What does this bellwether IPBES report say, if anything, about Cranes? Who rates species as healthy or about to go under? Am I able to glean from these initial steps if my beloved Cranes species will be around for my grandchildren to go see with binoculars? If I can’t judge thus, who do I need to ask?