Scotland and the Klan

Neil Oliver, with his gentle Scottish accent, has done some good programmes for BBC4, but none better than ‘Scotland and the Klan’, repeated last night. He follows the links between Scottish settlers in the Deep South of the USA and first slavery then the aftermath of the American Civil War – endemic racial prejudice and periodic resurgence of extreme groups, notably the Ku Klux Klan.Read More »

Mega farming

I’m standing on a country road by the edge of a rather large field in Picardy. Nothing stirs, apart from a tractor in the distance, slowly wending its way across the field.

It seems like a desert. Except that, in my experience, most deserts actually support a fair population of vegetation and wildlife – probably much more than this godforsaken space.

How is the fertility/ biodiversity/ microorganisms/ health of the soil maintained in this space where fertiliser and weedkiller are probably the only inputs, apart from sun and rain? And should we really be surprised if heavy rainfall, increasingly common, causes run-off, flooding and loss of topsoil? And if long dry spells lead to dust storms?

picardy-field-edgeThere is no alleviation, even at the roadside. A thin strip of grass is all there is – no hedge, no trees, no ditch. No environment for small mammals, birds, insects – no space for the natural world. All confined to the nearby small village and woodland.

This shows quite clearly the alienation of the money economy from the nature on which it is dependent – and the alienation of European politics, such as in the Common Agricultural Policy that would appear to have encouraged this sort of thing.

Just imagine the difference if each field could only be so big, and had to be surrounded by hedges with trees, and space for grasses and wildflowers – well you don’t actually have to imagine it, as there are still plenty of examples in England and the rest of Europe. We spent millennia learning how to farm sustainably alongside nature. Yes, crop yields might be less in the short term, but I suggest they would be much greater in the long run.

Economy cannot win this battle with ecology. We will all be the losers.

Please note that I am not criticising Picardy itself –  a mostly charming part of France with many examples of small farms and rolling countryside. However, this mega farming is quite prevalent in that large area of northern France you drive through as quickly as possible to get to the nice bits! Having toured in the USA, I know where it came from.

Political crisis?

One of the frustrations that led me to start this blog was that there are problems quite apparent with current Western countries and the world ‘system’ that were essentially being ignored or sidelined by current generations of politicians – climate change, inequality, financial crash inadequately addressed, over-influence of corporations, uncontrolled movement of people, and so on…

Of course, these frustrations are shared by many, each with their own different emphasis. This is what has led to the rise of, to name a few: UKIP, Brexit, Corbyn, Saunders, Trump,…

It was refreshing to read Martin Jacques’ article in The Guardian, The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics, which succinctly identifies what is going on. We are actually seeing a crisis in the globalising neoliberal order that has dominated for 30-40 years, since ushered in by the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Every system/paradigm has built-in limitations and contradictions that eventually clarify the need for its own transformation, so it comes as no surprise.

A system founded on self interest and without fundamental moral foundations is not likely to last beyond a generation or so.

Martin Jacques is well known for his book and TED talk on China. It was in 1966 that Robert Kennedy popularised the supposed Chinese curse ‘May he live in interesting times’. Kennedy went on to say:

“They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.”

Indeed.

Featured image of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at Camp David 1984,
courtesy of White House Photographic Office, via Wikimedia Commons

A Way of Being

a way of being coverThis post is based on a review of Carl Rogers’ book A Way of Being that first appeared in Conjunction, magazine of astrological psychology, November 2013.

Those interested in counselling will be familiar with the work of Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the modern approach of person-centred counselling. You may have even read some of his numerous publications, such as Client Centred Therapy. His ideas are of much broader interest as they are relevant to personal relationships in general.Read More »

Who makes money?

You might think the Bank of England makes the money that is used to oil the wheels of the economy. You’d be wrong. The BoE creates only  around 2.8% of the money in circulation. The rest is created out of thin air by commercial banks as debt. Debt is built into the system – so […]

Satyagraha

Resurgence and Ecologist magazine is now in its 50th year, and its evergreen chief editor Satish Kumar is in his 80th year. In the May/June 2016 issue he reminded me of the significance of MK Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha, which can be roughly translated as non-violence, but in an active way that refuses to submit to wrong or co-operate with it in any way, with a dedication to truth. This is similar to the reasonably successful approach of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in USA.Read More »

Othering

The process of perceiving or portraying someone or something
as fundamentally different or alien.

Wordnik

Othering is a new word for me. It’s in Naomi Klein’s recent article “Let them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World” in the London Review of Books, 2 June 2016. Klein points out that it is only through othering that we avoid treating global warming as a global emergency – it is largely others who will suffer. It is only through othering that fossil fuel extraction has proceeded at the rate it has – there are ‘sacrifice zones’ where populations are displaced or quality of life is severely degraded (see also my post on her book This Changes Everything).

Othering enables the powerful to exploit those without power, enables governments to deprive indigenous people of land and resources. Othering enables rich countries to discount the lives of refugees and not offer due help, enables racial discrimination to continue to flourish in parts of the US.Read More »

A sad dissolution

A glance through history shows that there are major turning points apparently triggered by key individuals. The establishment of the Church of England, and the wrenching of religious power from the popes in Rome, all at the behest of King Henry VIII, was one such point. Part of this process involved the gradual dissolution of the catholic monasteries, both to remove this alternative source of power to the King, and to gain for Henry the riches accumulated by these institutions over the centuries. Wikipedia tells us that at the start of the dissolution in 1536, there were over 850 monasteries/nunneries/friaries in England; by 1541 there were none.

glastonbury_abbey
Glastonbury Abbey today

This was brought to mind as we visited Glastonbury Abbey, which was at that time perhaps the richest and most powerful of all the monasteries. The abbey controlled large tracts of surrounding land and was instrumental in major drainage projects on the Somerset Levels.

Led by Henry’s henchman Thomas Cromwell, the dissolution process had begun with the smaller institutions and gradually extended its scope. In September 1539, Glastonbury Abbey was visited without warning by Cromwell’s commissioners. Investigations proceeded and eventually it was determined that the Abbot Richard Whiting, who had resisted the dissolution, was a traitor – an impartial observer might say this was on trumped up charges. On November 15, Whiting was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the hill called Glastonbury Tor, where he was hanged and quartered – a particularly unpleasant and ghoulish way to die. Thus did the infamous Henry impose his will, through the agency of the equally infamous Cromwell.

Anything of value was removed from the Abbey and its lands went to the Crown or Henry’s favourite nobles. The Abbey remains as a set of evocative ruins. As you walk through them, the sheer size of the edifice becomes apparent – on a par with the major cathedrals of Europe – destroyed on whim. The titanic nature of Henry’s struggles with the pope and his own citizens becomes clear. The ego of the absolute monarch would impose any price to get just what he wanted.

Tyrants since then have followed the same sort of formula, always with willing henchmen such as the hapless Cromwell, who himself soon proved expendable. This is why formal constitutions and the ideal of democracy and the rule of law have proved to be so important. The scary thing about the UK is that it does not have a written constitution, such as in the USA, so the checks and balances are left to an establishment that could, in theory, become dominated by a charismatic individual (there are many examples in history) who decided to do just what the hell he liked.

But then, it remains to be seen whether the US can handle Donald Trump…

 

The American Soul

american_soul_coverRediscovering the wisdom of the founders

Review of a book by Jacob Needleman

America in the form of the USA was once the hope of the world. The founders of the US constitution tried to create a new form of government that would be suited to governing this is new virgin land. They recognised the problems of factionalism that had blighted the old continent of Europe and other civilizations of the world, leading to needless conflict and wars. They were inspired by the hope of a new form of governance that would reach the needs of the people in a way that addressed and encouraged both the inner development of the person and the outer development of society. Their motivation was essentially spiritual, founded on the idea of the spiritual development of man and mankind.

us_eagleBut of course there soon emerged evil, as the founders knew there would, it being the nature of man. Major evils from the beginning were the destruction of the indigenous Indian society and culture and the institution of slavery of the black man. Other forms of evil appeared along the way, such as the multiple needless wars America engaged in and a frequent stepping away from its ideals, such as recent examples of torture and secret surveillance.  We might also add the excess materialism and the consumer society, spread from America around the world, which encourages focus on the trivial and ignores that which is most important and of the essence.

The US Constitution, with its checks and balances, was designed to be resistant to the emergence of such evils – recognising that the nature of the highest good is perhaps that it needs to experience evil in order to develop the wisdom to be good.

Today we see the ‘hope of the world’ in disarray with factionalism in the ascendant in the form of the recent interminable conflict across the institutions of government between the two leading political parties, but there is always hope and in this book Joseph Needleman gives us reason for hope.

He takes us on a tour of some of the major figures in the development of the US constitution: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln. For each he draws out the story of how they were involved, and the spiritual principles that they lived by or at least ensured were followed in the constitution. And how their principles were followed through in the writings of those two eminent Americans Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Reading this book you will gain an understanding not only of the development of the US constitution and the inspiration behind it for creating a new form of society, but also of the essence of the contribution of these and other heroic figures .

And there is inspiration in the idea of a society dedicated to the inner development of its citizens and of society itself. Truly these ideas are the hope of the world, threatened by global warming, resource conflict, overpopulation, species extinction, pollution and all todays ills that modern politics is apparently unable to address effectively.

Sadly, the recent emergence of the Donald Trump presidential campaign suggests there are still more lessons to be learned before the US can reclaim the spiritual leadership of the world that is sorely needed. The election of President Obama showed that the desire is there in the hearts of many, and there may be disappointment at what his administration has been able to achieve in practice. We need the US to resist the siren calls of Trump and elect a leader who might prepare the way for a new generation of more spiritually inspired leaders.

 

Reality and consciousness

Nasa_blue_marble
NASA image of Earth

The space programme of the 1960s and 1970s had a profound effect on the psyche of its astronauts, and indeed upon us all. For the first time we could really see the beauty, the wholeness and yet the vulnerability of our planet.

Ed_Mitchell_Apollo_14
Ed Mitchell, astronaut

I first became aware of Edgar (Ed) Mitchell as an astronaut, the sixth man to walk on the moon as part of the NASA mission Apollo 14 in February 1971. That experience changed his whole perspective on life, as reported by Cassandra Vieten in a recent ‘in memoriam’ following his death in 2014. Contemplating the earth and its history from space, he ‘was engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness’.

“I realized that the story of ourselves as told by science—our cosmology, our religion— was incomplete and likely flawed. I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discreet things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description. What was needed was a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.”

As a scientist and engineer, Mitchell had grown accustomed to directing his attention to the objective world “out there.” But this experience from space had a profound effect.

“My understanding of the distinct separateness and relative independence of movement of those cosmic bodies was shattered. I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. The restraints and boundaries of flesh and bone fell away…”

This experience led him to the idea that ‘reality is more complex, subtle, and mysterious than explained by conventional science, and a deeper understanding of consciousness was needed’.

After retiring from NASA in 1972, Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), which aimed to sponsor research into the nature of consciousness. I first became aware of IONS maybe 20 years ago and was delighted to find an organisation in the US which had a similar breadth of interest on the boundaries between science and consciousness as that I had earlier found in the UK through the Scientific & Medical Network.

Being essentially UK based I have only admired the work of IONS from afar, but the organisation is clearly still going strong and has achieved much over more than 40 years since its foundation. For more detail on just how influential Ed Mitchell and IONS have been over the years, I recommend you read Cassandra Vieten’s words in full.

The study of, and hence truer understanding of, consciousness will result in profound change to our world.

Pictures courtesy of NASA

Houston and Knutsford

Our only grandchildren live in Houston, an immediate challenge to any ‘green’ credentials we might have had. Our way of reconciling with this is to keep down the frequency of flights to Houston, but to live there a while when we do go. As a result, we observe interesting differences in the way people behave, which are mostly characteristic of Brits versus Americans, but do bear in mind that Houston is probably America’s most cosmopolitan city.

First of all, Americans seem to love the English accent and all seem to have been to or want to go to England. It’s a great conversation opener. They mostly understand English, with the following major exceptions:

  • For tomato, you must say ‘toe-may-toe’
  • For water you must say ‘waar-durr’
  • For toilets you must say ‘rest room’ or ‘bath room’.

Understanding what Americans are saying is a different matter, and you frequently need to ask them to repeat.

i10 beltway interchange
I10 – Beltway Interchange, Houston

Most things in Houston are twice as big as their European equivalents – dual carriageways for residential roads, the freeways and their junctions, the typical local journey, the size of the houses and gardens, the fridges. I was expecting the cars to be as well, but that was up to the 1970s and the first oil shock – now there’s just a much higher percentages of large SUVs and trucks than in Europe.

Residents of Houston drive everywhere. The neighbours are bemused by our habit of going out for a walk, and possibly coming back with shopping bags. It’s just not done. We’ve even seen someone get into her car and drive about 30 yards to visit her daughter’s house – we know she can walk because we once saw her do it.

Sidewalks in the residential areas are sometimes non-existent or poorly maintained. Our son suggests this is because the person responsible for maintenance is the property owner, and not the local authority. Then again, they’re not always brilliantly maintained in the UK

Going anywhere in Houston other than the immediate locality usually involves going on the freeway. This often looks like the M6 on a bad day, but with sometimes 5-6 lanes or more. The nice thing is you can stay in any lane; the scary thing is being under- and over-taken at the same time; even more scary, you actually often need to move out a lane or two to stay on the road you’re on – otherwise you finish up going off somewhere you don’t want. And there are the tolls, but son now has the relevant automatic gadget that means we don’t have to worry.

Satnav is essential for us here, but it’s called a GPS. Our first trip ever, to Galveston, was a disaster. Daughter-in-law had the sound level low on her early GPS because she only used the pictures. We set off on the freeway, could see the GPS was working – there was a map on its tiny screen. But we couldn’t hear what it was saying. This was fine till we reached a complicated freeway junction – where to go? It was too distracting from driving to look in detail at the tiny screen, and I couldn’t hear what the darn thing was saying! We came off, stopped in a car park and worked out how to turn up the sound. We then had to make our way back to the right freeway, which involved a U-turn at the next junction. (U-turns are a common feature of Houston driving.) Keeping up with the traffic, I noticed the lights going red as we went on to the junction. Several weeks later our son received a ticket for jumping the red light! After only 20 minutes driving in the US. Houston abandoned the red light clampdown soon afterwards – it was seen as an invasion of personal freedoms.

Driving in residential areas is a revelation. If a driver sees you crossing a road, or even thinking about crossing the road, he or she stops to let you cross. You can almost feel obliged to cross. This creates dangers when coming back to the UK – try stepping out on an estate road when there is a car within 100 yards, they do not slow down and expect you to get out of the way fast. Basically, drivers in the US are more considerate of pedestrians.
1-0 to US.

There is also a danger for European drivers on these roads. Many minor junctions have 4-way Stop signs. Stopping is mandatory and cars in all directions must take turns to go. It can get very confusing at busy times. The same rule applies at traffic lights with flashing red lights – even on quite major roads. We were once driving home on Texas State Highway 6 and came to a great all-way queue of traffic at one of these. It looked like chaos. We were severally hooted at when we efficiently slipstreamed through the junction behind another car.

Eating and drinking out is a major American pastime. The staggering thing about this is the almost-invariably superb service. Politeness, friendliness and checking that all is OK are the norm. This is possibly because staff are poorly paid and rely on tips, which are typically much higher than in Europe, but I get the impression that that’s the culture. Compare that to the offhand, surly or nonexistent service you often get in the UK.
2-0 to US.

When you get ill, it’s vital that you remembered to sort out the medical insurance. The first thing they want is your insurer or your credit card, and you’ll be lucky to get away with a bill of less than a few hundred dollars just for being examined and prescribed an antibiotic. Compare that to the NHS.
2-1.

The US does not have a good reputation where guns are concerned, and we were a bit worried when we learned this last trip that the local Kroger supermarket now had an ‘open carry’ policy, whereby guns could be carried openly in the store. In actuality, Kroger was no different than on previous visits, but there’s always that lurking concern that some nutter somewhere will do something stupid with a gun – you read so much about it there.
2-2.

So there are pros and cons, and both countries could learn from each other and improve as a result.

But there are two big things which easily settles any argument on comparison as a place to live. In the US, history began about 1800 – apart from when you get to the Indian lands. And the climate in Houston is unlivable without air conditioning from around April to October – indeed the city only really began to expand when air conditioning was invented.

I make that 2-4, with two goals in extra time – just like the 1966 World Cup Final.

1966-world-cup-final

Freeway picture courtesy of wikimapia

 

In Praise of The Beans

beans
Beans Cafe, Eldridge, Houston

It was the last visit of our time in Houston to the ubiquitous Beans Cafe (mentioned in several of my posts), which is one of those locally run independent coffee shops that are done so well in the US, alongside all those regional and (inter)national chains. The feeling is homespun, the service friendly, the coffee is great, the music always discreet and well-chosen, the seating old-fashioned armchairs, but quite comfortable. Wifi is free and reliable, and many appear to use it as a temporary office with their laptops, as they linger over their drink or food. It just feels comfortable to be there, hence our regular visits.

Such local independents seem to turn up in most of the towns of the US we have visited during several road trips. Trip Advisor is good at unearthing them and the reviews are usually good, as is the food, drink and ambience. At the Village Cafe in Bryan on our way to Fort Worth there was even live music following the lunchtime rush.

Of course, the same is true in the UK. Many high streets have their own independent coffee shops or tea rooms, alongside the inevitable Costa, Nero or Starbucks. So the choice is local colour versus the known standard of the global brand.

Now it seems to me that the rules are somewhat stacked against these local shops, in that their ability to avoid taxation is not on a level playing field with the Starbucks of this world, with their international financial arrangements, paying taxes where it most suits. And the big chains can run outlets at a loss until they have killed off the local competition. Yet local shops are effectively largely recycling money in the local economy, so good for local prosperity – whereas the chains are slowly sucking money out of the local economy. The local shop is probably paying its staff better, and forms much more a part of the cultural ‘glue’ of the local community. It’s the same story that has over the years seen American high streets denuded of small business shops, replaced by chains paying peanut wages.

Free market enthusiasts will say that it’s just natural that small shops may get crowded out by chains, they just have to be good enough to survive. Well yes, but at least we should make sure that the playing field is level. It does not appear to be. Maybe the field should actually be biased towards local businesses, because of the benefits they bring to the community as a whole? By all accounts, and the evidence of my own eyes, the capitalist free market seems to have done a pretty good job at destroying any sense of community and individuality in many places in US and UK. The high streets and malls are all pretty similar, the same set of stores and cafes with their national/global branding. We need more unique outlets with their own style, local colour and individuality. Let’s support them and move the political environment to encourage them…

John Muir

yosemite_half_dome
Half dome in Yosemite NP

“So extraordinary is Nature with her choicest treasures, spending plant beauty as she spends sunshine, pouring it forth into land and sea, garden and desert. And so the beauty of lilies falls on angels and men, bears and squirrels, wolves and sheep, birds and bees….”

John Muir

After our son and daughter-in-law moved to work in the USA, they kept telling us how great the US national parks were, and eventually got to lead us on a few road trips taking in some of the most spectacular: Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Arches, Monument Valley, Canyonlands, Big Bend, Zion,… We were blown away by the magical scenery and the wildness of it all.

John_Muir_Cane
John Muir

It was only then that I became aware of the name John Muir, a Scotsman who was apparently prime mover in the establishment of the US National Parks. It was to people like him that we were indebted for the continued unsullied nature of these landscapes in an over-exploited world. You can read all about him in the Wikipedia entry.

During this time we also came across the John Muir Way – a long-distance trail along by the south side of the Firth of Forth in Scotland, near where he was born in Dunbar. He was also mentioned in books I was reading. The magic of synchronicity had struck and I was impelled to add him to my reading list.

my_first_summer_in_the_sierraI recently began with ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’, first published in 1911 and now available as a free ‘public domain’ ebook. Once I had stopped trying to speed read and slowed to a pace consonant with the material, I found myself drawn into his wonderful descriptions of the summer he spent notionally herding sheep up to the high pastures around Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. He was truly at one with the magic of the landscape, yet at the same time had the scientific knowledge and understanding to correctly describe the various plant and animal species he encountered at the varying heights they traversed. Readers with a greater knowledge of botany than I would probably gain even more from reading this.

This is nature writing of the highest order, able to get over the wonder of being at one with such an enticing environment. I will read more of his work.

Muir was obviously an inspiring individual, in that he was instrumental in establishment of the early national parks, including Yosemite and was founder of the influential  Sierra Club

John Muir has been described as “one of the patron saints of twentieth-century American environmental activity” – truly one of the towering figures of his age. And a great writer.

Photos of Yosemite and John Muir courtesy of Heiko von Raußendorff, Francis M. Fritz and Wikimedia Commons

The Kimbell Art Museum

During a short stay in Fort Worth we visited the Kimbell Art Museum, which was well rated in the tourist information. It proved an excellent choice.

Wikipedia tells us that Kay Kimbell was a wealthy Fort Worth businessman who built an empire of over 70 companies in a variety of industries. He married Velma Fuller, who kindled his interest in art collecting. They set up the Kimbell Art Foundation in 1935, and by the time of his death in 1964, the couple had amassed what was considered to be the best selection of old masters in the Southwest. Their estate was bequeathed to the Foundation, with the key directive to “build a museum of the first class”.

The building was designed by architect Louis I. Kahn and is “widely recognized as one of the most significant works of architecture of recent times”. I have to say that, from the outside, the museum is most unprepossessing, even boring. However, when you get inside you come upon an ideal space for displaying art works, with superb natural lighting coming obliquely from the vaulted ceilings and skylights.

bodhisattva_maitreya
Bodhisattva Maitreya

Looking at the art works themselves, you realize that this museum is rather special. Almost every item in the collection is a quite exquisite example of a particular period of art or artist – mostly paintings and some sculptures, including early pieces such as a beautiful 8th century “Bodhisattva Maitreya’ from Thailand.

torment_of_st_anthony
The Torment of St Anthony, Michelangelo

Many of the most famous European painters are represented, including many impressionists and a rare painting by Michelangelo “The Torment of Saint Anthony”.

I was led to reflect on how many of the world’s major art galleries have come from bequests from those who have made mountains of money. With money comes responsibility, and it seems that Kay Kimbell and his ilk have made good use of their money, in the great tradition of philanthropy.

The museum contains an excellent cafe serving lunches, run with great efficiency by a formidable yet friendly Dallas lady – one could well imagine her on the set of the long-running Dallas TV series.

A companion building, reached through a small garden, was added later, architected by  Renzo Piano. Here is the space for exhibitions and we were lucky that the current ‘blockbuster’ touring was of the works of the impressionist and art patron Gustave Caillebotte.

This was quite an eye-opener, demonstrating what an excellent painter Caillebotte was, and also telling the story of his friendships with other impressionists and his role as patron in encouraging their development. As a man of means, he did not have the problem of lack of resources common to many who choose this profession.

Altogether, the Kimbell provided a very happy way to spend a day. Definitely ‘first class’, and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the Fort Worth/Dallas area.

Photographs are my own, and can be copied so long as you attibute to this blog.

 

 

Life on the Mississippi

Mississippi_New_Orleans_1873
Mississippi at New Orleans 1873

We would be passing through Louisiana and New Orleans on our short break on the Gulf coast, so it seemed a good idea to find out more about the great Mississippi river whose estuary is located around there.

life-on-mississippi-coverWhere better to start than with Mark Twain’s book Life on the Mississipi, written in 1883, and now available free on Kindle. This book made Twain’s name, both metaphorically as a writer, and literally in that it gave Samuel Langhorne Clemens his nom de plume, which you will understand if you read it.

Essentially this book is devoted to the great river, which he characterises as the ‘second great valley of the world, being exceeded only by the Amazon’. Modern knowledge in Wikepedia puts the Mississipi-Missouri at fourth in the world by length (behind Nile, Amazon and Yangtse) and fifth by area drained.

Most interesting to me is the first part, where Twain describes how, as a callow young man, he was taken in hand and trained to become a pilot of the steamboats that then plied the great river. He gradually learned the art of navigating the boat up and down a thousand miles of river in all weathers, in light and dark, with shifting water levels almost hour by hour. He could spot the reefs forming, whether it was safe to pass over, understand when it was safe to cut through sections that were only passable in full flow. He learned to recognise almost every inch of the featureless banks, where the favourable currents flowed, how to avoid other boats and the logs that frequently passed by.

The narrative is brought to life by numerous examples and fascinating stories of the characters who then plied the river.

The complexity of what was learned can perhaps be appreciated by comparing it to ‘the knowledge’ of a London taxi driver, where the two-dimensional layout of London’s streets is learned by heart, together with the best ways of routing from one area to another. I would suggest that the experiential knowledge of the steamboat pilot is an order of magnitude more difficult to acquire, given the number of dimensions and factors to be considered in real time on the then-wild river.

These were truly heroic individuals, operating at a level rarely achieved by human beings. Indeed the pilot basically ruled the boat’s schedule ahead of the captain.

The era when steamboats dominated the Mississipi lasted only about 30 years, up to around the time of the civil war, when it played a significant role.

In the later part of the book, some 25 years later and now an established writer, Mark Twain returned to the Mississipi, passing through his old haunts to see what had changed.

The river was now somewhat tamed and shortened, freight travelled by barge train, the steamboat fleet was decimated to a be just a passenger fleet, and the role of the pilot deskilled to the degree that the captain now definitely ruled the roost on the ship. Twain gives more reflections and stories on how the times have changed, always interesting but perhaps more like a sequence of journalistic vignettes.

Along the way we are given insight into the river’s changing role in the history of the United States, from denoting the western border for early settlers, to a national border for French and Spanish dominions, to a primary communication route between north and south, to a springboard for settlement of the West.

Indeed this is a fascinating story, providing food for much reflection as I myself gazed into the waters of the main channel by Canal Street, New Orleans – where the width is only about 750 feet, compared to one mile near the Missouri confluence, but the depth is said to be 200 feet. Now that is deep.

Twain’s book is of further historical interest, in that it is said by Wikipedia to be the first book submitted to a publisher as a typewritten manuscript.

The image of the Mississippi at New Orleans 1873 is from a woodcut by A. Measom Jr, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What is this Superbowl?

It happened to be the night of the Superbowl final. We were staying in a hotel in Fort Worth, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss is about  – it had even been mentioned in the Republican presidential candidate debate the day before.

I found the right TV channel and there it was. Seems it’s American football, not baseball as I’d ignorantly imagined it might be.

american-footballDenver Broncos were winning 10-7 against Colorado Panthers, but the game was only halfway through. I watched for a while,  but couldn’t make head or tale of what was going on. It looked a bit like rugby, but with forward passes and tackling of players who did not have the ball. Strange.

We went out to eat. Most of the bars and restaurants had the game on multiple TV screens.  Some even had lights out – it was just you, food and the game. We went to a more civilized place and were offered a booth away from the screens, enjoying our evening repast with but the occasional glimpse of the game. The waitress said it was so quiet because everyone stays home to watch.

After meal and postprandial stroll we arrived back at the hotel to find the game still on. Then I realized why. Every few minutes the game stops, the clock stops and the ads come on. All totally geared to TV.

Denver were now clearly winning, as forecast by The Donald (Trump), and the scoring system was still as clear as mud.

It seemed that if someone made a suicidal run through a great scrimmage of players he could not repeat same for some time.  Very sensible.

Then came a moment of magic. A Denver player sidestepped an opponent, wrongfooted another, and was suddenly running free. All the opposing defenders were running to intercept his trajectory, and all the Denver players were running to intercept and stop them. Pure poetry in motion. As the runner was battered into submission, it seems he’d at least gained some ground. And he could so easily have scored (like a rugby try?) without that heroic defence.

Yes, you could easily get into this game! But there’s so much of the more tedious grind, and really, even with all the padding and head shields, it’s a dangerous game to play, is it not? Some even think it should be banned, because of the danger to the players, e.g. Dave Bry in The Guardian.

Peyton-ManningOf course, being America there has to be a hero. Step forward Peyton Manning, Broncos quarterback, winning his second superbowl title at the age of 39 – incredible to be playing such a tough game at the top level at that age.

In the end the Broncos won 24-10. I somehow missed the last 10 seconds, as the media interviews seemed to have already started.

It soon became clear that in this rather selective viewing we’d missed a lot of the fun – like Coldplay,  Beyonce, Lady Gaga and the celebs and ads. Even President Obama joined in this national event, playing a prerecorded part in Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. Perhaps I’m just missing the point of the ‘grand spectacle’.

As we checked out, the guy at the desk confirmed my suspicions – yes, he likes it as a great national spectacle and talking point – but no, he hasn’t got a clue what the rules of the game are.

If you really want to know how the game works, try this website, where the top image came from: howstuffworks

Peyton Manning clip is from Liberty Voice

Signs of Spring in Houston

One of the delights of retirement is to do more of the things that feel just right, rather than those that are more imposed upon us. So what better to do on a clear sunny but cool (by Houston standards) February afternoon than a walk by Buffalo Bayou* – itself interestingly named as I think the days of buffaloes in this part of Texas are long gone.

buffalo bayou
Buffalo Bayou

It was one of those lucky days when you just come across things.

The bayou emerges from a reservoir in George Bush Park (Houston is the home town of the first George Bush). I climbed up the levee and walked along the top, overlooking typical swampland. Just a small patch of trees could be seen spouting forth the first green shoots of spring.

signs of spring
Signs of Spring
great blue heron
Great Blue Heron

Back along by the bayou itself, by the rushing waters flowing forth from the reservoir, were three of the local common fishermen: a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret and a Snowy Egret. Quite a treat to see them all together.

On the way back there was a great commotion of tweeting from a family of sparrows in a patch of bushes. Another sign of spring? No, I realised not, when I caught a glimpse of the characteristic shape of a some sort of hawk passing over. After that they quietened down again.

Back home, a bright red cardinal was feeding for the first time on the bird feeder we put up a couple of days ago. Quite a birdy day!

snowy egret
Snowy Egret

* Buffalo bayou would probably be called a river in UK.

Photographs are my own, and can be copied so long as you attibute to this blog.