Saturday, 27 July 2013

Living Dangerously

It had truly been a dark and stormy night but today it was balmy and brisk – the calm after the storm. And today we were off to the farm. Yorick was left in charge of the house – well nominally – who has ever heard of a cat being left in charge of a house for gods sake?
Cat left in charge of the house. Yorick on look-out duty

We piled into the car, three dogs and I, and in front of us lay an afternoon of buggering around aimlessly on the rocks and around the river. Blissful prospect and we were all very excited when we arrived, yapping and barking and running from one interesting smell to the next, stopping only to lick our itchy bottoms – well some of us did, those that can.

The previous night, dark and stormy as it had been, had resulted in a serious increase in the flow of the river. And here I must give a little local geography.

The river running through the farm (the Nkoyoyo) divides into two streams. One flows into a partially natural swimming pool and the other flows photogenically over rocks in a little arboreal glen. The two streams – still separate – then spill majestically over an escarpment and re-join splashily some 15m below. All terribly dramatic and a tad vertiginous if you are that way afflicted.
On the left, the river runs through an arboreal glen, and on the right it is retained in a semi-natural swimming pool,
occasionally populated with water snakes

In the dry season the river is a babbling pussy cat (sorry) of a stream, but in the wet season it roars like a lion. In flood this river is awesome. The last major flood event saw it rise some two meters, take out trees with half meter trunks and move loose boulders the size of wheelbarrows.

Well, we all crossed the first stream with ease, but at the narrowest point of the second the two Collies bounded over, but Tyke the little fat staffie-cross managed only to bound into.

A moment of brief concern but she seemed to be making her way across an admittedly very narrow piece of strongly flowing water - “pumping” we would say in this part of the world.
The location of Tyke's mysterious disappearance 

 “Tyke,” I advised, “come this way, upstream, and get out of the water.” As usual, master of the moment, I expect immediate compliance.

With a dreadful slow motion feeling it was obvious that the idiot dog had lost her footing – not difficult possessed as she is of very short legs - and was being swept towards the precipice. The water took on the consistency of larva as the frames of my mind slowed and, back end first, she was dragged towards the edge, and the last thing I saw was two pleading eyes as she was carried by the gelatine water over the rocks.

Many thoughts cross ones mind in such stressful moments. “Oh Fuck” is usually fairly explanatory. Broad as it is long as it were.

I ran to the edge. The stream – the torrent – bifurcates at this point. 10% hits the rocks and cascades over the edge, 90% disappears to the right down a vertical rock chimney with horrible ferocity.

There was no dog.

I leapt. I walked in tight circles. I cursed and put my head between my knees and clasped the back of my head. I howled aloud. I did all the things that they do in the movies in similar circumstances and was thoroughly ashamed at myself for being so predictable.

What could I do?  I was paralyzed with indecision. Seth and Hamlet sat patiently and waited with open interest for my next move.

The way down to the base of the waterfall normally takes a good 5 minutes scrambling on greasy rocks and through thick vegetation; but I did it in three. The two Collies thought this great sport.
General view of the waterfall as the Nkoyoyo River plunges
over the escarpment just before it joins the Mbuluzi River

I got to the base of the waterfall which is a gentle pool that gathers the water from above before ushering it over the next set of rapids. I looked for a floating portly cadaver – but there was none. She could not have gone down-stream so she must be up. Up the waterfall.

I had no alternative – I had to go up. Up rocks that were greasy from last night’s rain and today’s flood waters. Up rocks that were continually sprayed from above. Up rocks from which a fall would at best result in a broken limb and at worst a fatal head injury. Madness! But I had to find my dog; and so did Hamlet who was right behind me, all four legs akimbo and tail erect as a counterbalance as he struggled to keep a footing.

In our house the command “Kitchen” usually means get out of the lounge, dining area, TV room, study, bedroom, wherever. It generally does for all of the animals (except of course Susan and Jaws, the goldfish who are fairly static). It is regarded as a universal “get the hell out of here” sort of phrase. In the current circumstances a brief word of command seemed more appropriate than “get off these rocks you stupid dog”, and lets face it I had not been particularly succinct with instructions to Tyke earlier on.

Picture it. I’m spread eagled against a wall of greasy rock, eyelashes, fingers and toes gripping every available crack and bulge, and Hamlet is similarly poised.

“Kitchen” I snarled, “Kitchen”.

I swear he looked up at me with rare canine insight. His eyes said “What the hell is this guy on about?”

“Kitchen” I yelled, and he retreated to base camp with frankly more dignity than I was showing.
Hamlet contemplates life from the "kitchen"

I climbed up as far as I could under the rock chimney. I was dreading the potential sight of a tan coloured body jammed on the rocks out of reach until the waters had subsided. I dreaded even more the discovery of a small rotund dog caught between the jaws of two rocks with back broken, conscious, with the same two pleading eyes that I had last seen disappearing over the rocks. If that were the case I knew that the only choice was to drown the creature there and then.
Hamlet poses at the base of the "chimney"
Mercifully the choice did not arise because - there was no sign of anything.

I clung precariously to the rocks, distraught and empty. Hamlet sat quizzically below “in the kitchen”, and Seth just sat.

I was pondering what to say to wife and youngest daughter who were that very evening saying fond and doubtless tearful farewells at O.R Tambo Airport in Jo’Burg prior to the latter flying back to London – and concluded that, for the moment, to lie by omission was the only answer.

As I gingerly descended the rocks I was already choosing the flowers and the hymns. The eulogy was formulating itself and would have a decidedly cat/dog ubuntu theme. I had selected the second hymn and settled on yellow Arum lilies as the signature flower and raised my tear stained face to the top of the cliff that I could never again regard in the same light. At which point I caught sight of a shivering rotund tan coloured creature that was certainly not a Dassie against the horizon, at the edge of a water greased 15m vertical precipice.

As relief washed over me like the waterfall I had just started to hate, I shouted commandingly and with supreme stupidity, “Tyke. Stay”. And for the second time that day a dog looked me contemptuously in the eye (only this time admittedly from some distance) as if to say “You utter Prat. Do you think I am sitting here for my health, or to admire the view?”
Somewhere here at the top of the chimney
Tyke has managed to wedge herself . . . but

Back across the base of the waterfall I slipped and slid. Through the sharp knob thorn undergrowth I rushed, and fought my way through dense Strelitzia trunks. Up the smooth rock I scrambled, led and followed, by the two Collies.

“Thank god I’m out of the kitchen again” panted Hamlet, leaping ahead.

Back to the top of the waterfall, down the side of the water filled rock chimney, stretching across glassy slime covered rocks to grab Tyke and clasp her to my bosom. Three lifts to safety. Each time I set her down and say “Stay”. A redundant command because she is too cold and scared to move but lets face it far less stupid than saying “Kitchen”, and I have to say something to her.

The mystery remains. Where on earth did she go between disappearing over the edge and magically re-appearing in the same place 20 minutes later? We shall never know because Tyke remained strangely silent on the subject.

The Heroine of the hour - in slightly calmer
The evening's phone call to Jo’Burg was masterfully reticent.

“No . . . . . fine  . . . . no, . . . didn’t do much. Yea . . . . went out to the Farm. Oh . . . .nothing really  . . . . generally messed about. Oh, and Tyke fell into the river, . . ha ha . . .!. We’re back home now – chilling. Lynds get off all right?” 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

A Journey Through Time

I've given a talk a couple of times. I call it “Twin Peaks – a Brief Hike in the Himalaya”, meaning it to be a not so clever reference to the famous “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush”, that classic statement of English understatement and whimsy by Eric Newby.

The talk is a travelogue which recounts a 19 day journey including the climbing of two peaks of over 6,000m and that seasons first crossing of a high pass (at an altitude of 5,750m). It is of course littered with pictures of one of the most photogenic landscapes in the world and gives me the opportunity to perform a little; to extemporise, and to be a little quirky. I start by explaining that this is a very physical journey and also an emotional and spiritual one but however the real journey starts as follows –

“70 million or so years ago what is now the Indian sub-continent parted company from the super continent of Pangea. On board was a lonely and bewildered dinosaur named Norman. The journey across what is now the Indian Ocean took some 30 million years until this peripatetic land mass smashed into the far larger and essentially immovable mass of the Asiatic plate. The damage was, in geological terms, enormous. Of course by this time not only had Norman the bewildered dinosaur long gone, but so had all his successors although minute traces of some of them can still occasionally be seen.

Recently a friend and I went to the site of this geological trauma to assess the damage, and what we found was astonishing. . . . .”
A terribly long journey (sourced from - modified) 
Well you can’t fault it for being beguiling – and audiences have been very polite.

But whimsy aside I have subconsciously opened up, at least in my mind, the essence of geological time scale as something that is actually understandable at a human scale. Accepted the life span of homo sapiens is but a smidgen in the face of the tens of thousands of years on the geomorphologic ruler, and the millions of years of the geological clock, but here in this landscape I believe you can feel the passage of these time scales.

Nuptse - a geological Black Forest cake
From a Southern viewpoint Nuptse is a long ridge with several small peaks. It is a counterpoint, a frame, for the majesty of Lhotse and Lhotse Shar and the aloof presence of Sagaramatha (Everest) behind. From this angle Nuptse is bare of snow because it is so steep; and because unlike both Lhotse and Everest it is not a prominent peak it does not have a cloud plume. It does however have the most extraordinarily showy display of strata. These sensuous lines are a gentle counterpoint to the jagged profiles of the saw-tooth multiple peaks above and are a stark illustration of the modernity of these mountains that were laid down as sediments and recently (geologically speaking) uplifted with tectonic forces that we rarely see in older mountains. In time with weathering the succulent inner layers of this giant Black Forest cake will become the surface.

This geological gentleness, a sign of a recent and not ancient history, is perhaps a clue to the atmosphere of this landscape. Older mountain systems have been through astonishing tectonic traumas. They have been twisted, turned, stretched and compressed; broken, upended and overturned. They have been heated and cooled to extremes; and the process repeated so that the visible strata has been cracked and fractured and turned on its head. And over time the surfaces has been abraded and smoothed to gentler, more mature surfaces.
Cutting on the Bulembu/Barberton Road
(Mpumulanga Province RSA) showing local

A close-up of a geological signature

Here in the Himalayas the mountains are young and callow. They have not been subjected to ancient forces that older ranges have been, and the weathering of the surface is still in its early stages. Peaks are jagged and momentous, but the exposed strata shows rocks that are still much as they were when they were laid down under modern seas that had level littoral surfaces.

The ridge at Amphu Labche Pass, Nepal. Jagged, knife sharp
rocks . . . . 

Here there is a sense of geology in process, of morphological change, of weathering in progress. In millennia to come there are going to be massive forces that will be just as great as those that have thrown up these mountains. In the meantime the puny but persistent forces of wind, ice and water continue to pick away at the rock with these temporary and dramatic results.

My home is among mountains of a far older provenance than the Himalayas. But in a sense these mountains are no less momentous. Just 50 or so kilometres away among the jumbled mess known by Geologists as the “Greenstone Belt” there is evidence of the oldest microbes yet discovered among rocks that are 3.5bn years old.
Rock sample from the Makhonjwa Mountains (Swaziland)
with little bits of very old life forms embedded in it.

As I sit on a grassy Swaziland high veldt summit I can with the romantic vision of imagination superimpose in my mind the sheer hubris of the Himalayas on the maturity of the Mkhonjwa Mountains. Ironically the mountains so familiar to me – the ones in my back yard - are located on a remnant of the ancient super continent of Pangea from which the Indian subcontinent calved a mere 70 million years ago.

View from Imja Tse, Nepal; and view from Mkhonjwa, Swaziland. Similar journeys - just a couple of billion years apart.

Walking through valleys and ascending heights in the Himalayas I found myself consciously touching rock faces as we passed. I think that I had already noticed Kipa, our Sherpa climbing guide doing just that and maybe I was initially just aping his behaviour. I'm not sure, but it seemed; it seems – a natural thing to do, at two levels at least. The spiritual one speaks to offering thanks and permissions to be there – a theistic gesture.

The other is more a recognition of age and the passing of time – a tactile chronometer perhaps?

Friday, 5 July 2013

Mitchell's Law

Following my exposure to the aphorism –
“People with impoverished vocabularies live emotionally impoverished lives. People with rich vocabularies have a multi-hued palette of colors with which to paint their life's experience, not only for others, but for themselves as well.” (See Yeah Innit!)
A cat with virtually no vocabulary but lots
of wisdom to impart.
I responded to the friend responsible for alerting me to this piece of language fascism with:-
I had hoped that this is a joke - because if it weren't then it is absolute Tosh, and I use the word Tosh instead of Bollocks just to show that I have a multi-hued vocabularian palette of colours. It is how & when you use words that imbues language with artistry and meaning, tinged of course with the ability to be able to be sparing in the use of words . . the more I think of this the more speechless I get!
Of course I had fallen into the spider trap of serious involuntary kneejerk reactions, had ignored Sturgeon's Revelation that succinctly states "ninety percent of everything is crap" and had thereby wasted precious effort and energy in even ventilating my annoyance.

Or, to put it another way for those idiots of you with impoverished vocabularies, why waste my time even thinking about, let alone commenting on this garbage. But just occasionally, and Sturgeons Law notwithstanding, it is worth doing just a bit of unpacking and I did think that I ought to waste a little bit of time and investigate just two strands by:-
  1. Testing the fatuous assertion about rich vocabularies & impoverished lives, and
  2. Finding out who this new guru of aphorisms is and see if there are any other pearls of wisdom - or is it all really a sick joke.
Perversely taking the second task first, and you'll see why very quickly, I discovered that Anthony Robbins, this fount of daftisms is a 6’7” giant of a man who has made his fortune out of peddling aphorisms to audiences of willing dupes and has been “consulted by world leaders.” And if this last unsupported statement doesn't raise an eyebrow or two then a sample of his aphorisms should -
“The path to success is to take massive, determined action.”
“When you are grateful, fear disappears and abundance appears.”
“Why live an ordinary life, when you can live an extraordinary one"
“You can’t have a plan for your day, ‘til you have a plan for your life.” 
“In life, you need either inspiration or desperation.”
 “The past does not equal the future.” 
“You become what you do most of the time.”
And my two favourites -
“If you can't you must, and if you must you can.”
“If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten.” 
I could go on – and believe me Mr Robbins does – ad nauseum . I'm not even going to engage with any of the forgoing rubbish, but if you want to, try googling the fellow.

Lily is six, and has the limited
vocabulary of  an average  six year old.
Emotionally impoverished? Never!
Liam is just one, and has a vocabulary
that only he and (sometimes) his
Mum and Dad can connect with.
Emotionally impoverished?
I really don't think so . . .

Having dispensed with the second task, the first task is as simple or as complex as you wish to make it, and here I give you Mitchell’s Law which states that “It is intellectually acceptable to take a crass supposition and stretch it to breaking point with the express intent to expose the idiocy of the initial supposition without resorting to tedious and elongated argument.” The inverse of Mitchell’s Law is of course to take yourself too seriously!

So with the express intent of exposing suppositional idiocy - I assume that “impoverished” in the context of vocabularies means “not a lot of”, as against poorly represented by words with multiple syllables, or words that might have drifted in from “other” languages. Because lets face it without multiple syllables and “foreign” words you really are impoverished.

So grab these facts and rattle them around your colourless palates –

Unlike Mr. Robbins, the 15th century poet and playwright William Shakespeare was not a physical giant but he certainly was a literary one, and ignoring the arguments about the authorship of the plays attributed to him his output was extraordinary. He wrote 31,534 different words in his canon of works, which even allowing for his atrocious spelling and some pretty wild proper names (such as Yorick and Cymbaline for instance) is an extraordinary breadth of vocabulary. Just imagine the emotional overload he must have suffered.

Moving towards the slightly more mundane there are a total 593,493 words in the Old Testament and a total 181,253 in the New Testament (King James version I assume). In the former there are 10,867 unique words and in the latter there are 6,063. The preponderance of words in the Old Testament can apparently be attributed to lots of Proper Nouns – specific people being begat in particular places and so on. So with a mere 6,000 or so words an entire moral value system has been founded and described. Which does rather make you wonder why Shakespeare didn't become a religion; given the “multi-hued palette of colors” he has clearly employed to paint many life experiences. And if you were to have the temerity to use Shakespeare’s abundance of vocabulary as a yard-stick for emotional richness this does rather make Christianity look a little pallid.

As a sanity check (as if you need one!) there are 77,430 words in the Qu’ran, of which it is said that there are around 4,500 unique words derived from a mere 1,850 “root” words, which is even more colourless than the bible. Odd since they are both Abrahamic religions.

Compare and contrast all the above with the average novel which has a length of between 80-100,000 words and within which there likely to be between 5,000 and 10,000 unique and differentiated words.

I draw no conclusion from these facts – and neither should you, because if you try the hair on your head will drop out and you will grow beards under each of your kneecaps - or worse, you may be tempted to become a motivational speaker. 

So there you have it, leaving Bill Shakespeare out of the argument (and rightly so) you will need a vocabulary of somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000 words to describe a theosophical world view, but you will expend between 5,000 and 10,000 unique words in writing a thriller or a romantic novel.

Rather than subscribing to the idiotic view that People with impoverished vocabularies live emotionally impoverished lives I would far rather reflect on the paucity of words used by an ill –educated tramp and traveller. His name was William Henry Davies, and he used 107 words, of which 63 are unique, and ordered them into 7 rhyming couplets which read: -

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs 
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass, 
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight, 
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance, 
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can 
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care, 
We have no time to stand and stare

Leisure - W.H. Davies

You really can’t get more succinct than that.
The copper coloured Grey Crowned Crane pays homage to 
Venus, the morning star, during a cool a warm and lazy
Swazi Sunday and thinks "Cracking sunset once again!"

There really is something to be said for brevity