Marina Benjamin, of Insomnia fame, spoke, in a bookshop reading a while back, of the “grandiosity and pomposity” of insomnia. In the insomniac night, ideas you haven’t consciously thought for a long time “float up.”
My redrafting time away from home was exemplary, restorative at the same time as productive, and joyful in some very fundamental way. But for some reason the sound sleep of my Melbourne autumn switched to a European summer of wakefulness. Is that a bad?
One night I rose at 1:10 AM, impossibly agitated. In our cramped AirBnb room, I lay on the carpet and went through some of my regular first-thing-in-the-morning stretches. Floor. Dark. Surfacing, here’s what came to me: “save the world.” Saving the world was a motto when younger. More recently, I’ve told myself that the traditional expression of such a grand notion, that is, activism/politicking, is just too onerous to enable enough writing, and that in any event, my writing contains its own world-saving tinge, in some small way.
All true. All true. But that night my over-amped, thrashed-out mind delivered that instruction: “Save the world.” Now, I know what that means. But I’m afraid to reveal its shape because it is monstrously over-ambitious and disruptive for this ageing, unsuccessful writer.
All this year, I’ve crowed about exercise discipline that gives me energy and a sense of peace, fuelled, I’ve been certain, by physical big years (daily must-do activities) over 2015-2017. In other words, daily obsession led, so I thought, to an ingrained daily exercise habit. Well, here in Europe, it’s all fallen apart. I’ve found myself hesitant to get out early in the dark in strange towns, something I’ve never found to be an issue over decades of jogging. I’m managing to get out every two or three days, rolling over a basic minimum 5 kms, enjoying each jog, but the daily rigour has vanished. Is it because I’m now 64? Does each year older mean it’s harder to get out? Should I do another Big Year of some kind of bodily obsession over 2020?
Quite some time back, I went to a bookshop reading by Marina Benjamin, author of the remarkable “Insomnia.” Quoting Miles Davis on how he “plays what’s not there,” that is, invented new forms of music, Benjamin observed that writers find the idea of writing what’s not there (that is, inventing new fields and forms of writing) as “very seductive.” My immediate excited thought was: can I frame my nearly-dead Cranes book as a new way of writing about birds and birding? One reason this notion is “seductive” to me is that I now know (and this has taken me years to realise) that the normal books about birds are not ones in which I can shine. I’m neither a good birder, nor a naturalist, nor a travel writer.
But if I reframe the project and the book, can I create something worthy? Can I save the world?
Out of that bookshop brain niggle came my 15 Cranes in the Anthropocene idea. More on that later.
In the pictures above, my jogging shoes view such vistas at the beginning and end of what is now a cast-iron habit. Every morning early, I jog, cycle, or hit the gym. Earlier this year I was overweight and struggling to get out the door on any one day. What caused the apparent miracle?
In short: motivation and a fitness habit inculcated by three years of Big Years of exercising. In mid April, something stung me to action on my weight and I began shedding kilograms. Terrified of losing muscle rather than fat, I restored exercise discipline (remember, this year does not involve a Big Year of daily compulsory exercise, unlike 2016 to 2018): 4 jogs a week, 3 cycles, and 3 gym trips. It should have been tough but, I was delighted to find, something clicked and there I was, once more a paragon of virtue. Those Big Years set up the habit; now I just restored it. In the first eight weeks, I only missed two days of habitual exercise. In the last five weeks, under harsher conditions (interstate travel and two colds), I’ve missed one day each week.
I am back and this delights me and man, oh man, how glad am I for those 2016-2018 Big Years!
A couple of days ago, I plucked out five ideas from the 131 in Rob Walker’s “The Art of Noticing.” One of them is “Don’t photograph, draw,” and the consequent Big Year notion is simplicity itself: every day, draw “an appealing or interesting scene.” Now, anyone who has ever played Pictionary with me knows my drawing gene is missing. But here’s the good news from Walker: “Be heartened that you don’t need to show your drawing to anyone.” And the benefit of such a Big Year? Walker: “You’ll find that drawing helps you slow down and enriches what you see.”
Rob Walker’s wonderful “The Art of Noticing: Rediscover What Really Matters to You” really fires up hope for creativity. His 131 different ideas to stimulate attention, freshness, and deepness, really call to me. Of the 131, I’m drawn to 5. Any one of them would make for a fun Big Year:
- Spot something new every day
- Don’t photograph, draw
- Follow the quiet
- Take a photo walk, with no camera
- Interview a friend, loved one, stranger – or even an ideological nemesis
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.
Our Earth slowly, ever so slowly, heats up while we add humans to our Earth. I remember Paul Ehrlich thundering on about population growth in the 70s. False alarm, many said, but a new IPBES report (think of them as the IPCC of fauna and flora, 300 superb, worried scientists) points out that we’ve doubled in population over my last half century. The consequences (as Kolbert ably reports)? We’ve dug up three quarters of Earth’s land, are impacting two-thirds of our oceanic areas, have killed off half of Earth’s coral, and have ripped out 85% of Earth’s wetlands. Throw in climate change and a million species of non-human life, some of them (bees! who would have thought?) vital to our survival, will go extinct. It’s time to stop burning coal, that’s the first non-negotiable step, folks.
34 central banks issued an open letter five days ago, outlining how the world’s big banks reckon they should act as climate change accelerates. More worrying, though, is the language of normally reticent bankers towards the end of the letter:
“The stakes are undoubtedly high, but the commitment of all actors in the financial system to act on these recommendations will help avoid a climate-driven “Minsky moment” – the term we use to refer to a sudden collapse in asset prices.”
My corporate career, among finance professionals, never produced this kind of emotion. The back of my neck crawls.
I posted a while back that Sean Dooley, one of Australia’s prominent birders, said that the Royal Australian Ornithological Union put the number of Australian species, back in 2005, was “around 830.” Let me now peruse a far more academic tome, the sumptuous 566-page 2017 “bible”: “The Australian Bird Guide,” written by six ornithologists headed by Peter Menkhorst and published by CSIRO. It’s an exhilarating yet intimidating book for a keen but amateurish birder like me. Here ‘s the numbers skinny from the experts:
About 936 bird species have been recorded n the field guide region; of these, 747 are breeding residents or regular migrants that occur annually, and 29 were introduced. One hundred and sixty species are considered vagrants – stray birds that have occurred in Australia but do not normally do so.
So, for my purposes, of the 10,500 global species, I could aspire to witness 776 in my own land. We’ve got just over 7% of the world’s birdies. Again, as asked yesterday, how many of the 776 might I aspire to see/tick? It’d be easier, obviously, to aim high here than across the entire world, and in our birding travels, we’ve met singles or couples with life lists of high numbers, but is that what I want? Are numbers a worthy goal?