Category Archives: Writing
At the End of the Days
Ultimately, if our civilization
Can’t continue without further
Ecological destruction and
Genocide of tribal peoples,
It’s not very fucking advanced.
I wrote this the other day after Reading Gary Snyder’s The Old Ways.
Then I heard that August 9th is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
The main point about allowing people to live the way they always have is to understand that they are not “Stone Age,” nor primitive, and that if they have not already become part of our globalised civilisation it is because they do not want to, not because they’re too ignorant to know better. They do know better. They have heard of the ways of the world outside and they have rejected it. Sometimes because of a very real fear for their lives.
Second thing is to understand that the land they live on, if it belongs to anyone, belongs to them. We need to stay the hell out of there – and that mostly includes loggers, miners, ranchers, palm oil producers… all those nice people…
Here’s another video. As it asks, how long could you last alone in the forest?
On the other hand, how long do you think it would take one of the Yanomami kids, currently being affected by a measles epidemic, to figure out how to play FIFA on your playstation?
Five minutes, is the answer to both….
As Snyder said back in the 70s, to be able to survive off what the land under your feet provides is a sign of extreme advancement. Our society can’t do that. it needs so much more…
here’s another poem.
Balance comes in all we observe;
It is a fundament of our Universe:
Strong forces and electromagnetism
Keep atoms unified or flimsy, gravity
Balanced with a satellite’s speed keep it
Spinning instead of spiralling away.
So too on our planet, as the mountains
Rise, so the earth underneath goes ever
Deeper. In our humanity we see the same
Climbing by pushing down others: leisure
Comes only by enslaving or exploiting,
Creating peasants and proletariats;
Cites spread by denuding vast areas outside;
And imperialism depends upon
I donate 10% of my royalties on the Silver Nights Trilogy to Survival International.
The planet needs them, and they need us.
Turning on a mountain track
We stumble upon a lepidopterist’s dream:
Butterflies abounding, bouncing from
Bramble to buttercup, clover to cornflower;
A dancing profusion of colour in heat
Haze of August morning amplified
By the addition of dragonflies, damsel
Flies, hoverflies and bumblebees, with
A host of other insects humming and
It occurred to me, that there were once
Such sights in my own suburbs, along
The hedgerows down below and beyond.
That once everywhere outside the city
Centre was an entomologist’s dream, and
The countryside the same for ornithologists
Now they lament the stark scenes
Silent callows empty of corncrakes, and
The bees barely seen in park trees,
Moths no longer litter windscreens
Of a night drive, and these hills, though
Still roamed by pigs and roe, seems so
Similar to those of South Africa, they should
Also hold antelope, lions and leopards
And once they did, until all were lost,
Along with the bison, auroch, and rhinos.
As for the sea, it also should be teeming
They say in the seventeenth century,
Thrashing tails were seen from shore.
Now trawlers roam for days, and only
Coral reefs this century remain, as
The bramble banks of the sea. Yet
How long can its rainbow dance continue?
We watch their wonderful choreography
Holding on to those tiny joys to keep going
But the world is crumbling, we are bumbling
While the coral is bleached clean. Unless we care
More than before, these brambles will be as bare.
if you zoom in, you should be able to see some of the hundreds of butterflies up along this track. I took a video, but it wasn’t very steady…
I’ve been away from my blog for months now. But I have an excuse. I was studying for the “Oposiciones” in Education here in Navarra, where to get the scant few permanent teaching positions offered by the local education dept. once every two, or three, or four, or five years (there’s no rhyme or reason to the timing) dozens, or hundreds (depending on the subject) of teachers all compete against one another to see who’s the best teacher in the whole wide world and the lad at the top of the heap after the cage fight gets his pick of the jobs.
Sounds like a great system, I hear you say. The teachers must be the best in the world – eff you, Finland!
Eh, no. As you might have guessed, it’s a pile of shite.
Anyone who’s watched The Maze Runner, or The Hunger Games or a load of other flicks, knows it’s no way to choose a teacher. This wasn’t even like that. It’s more like the Japanese flick, Battle Royale. If you haven’t seen it, well, watch it. Japan is up there with Finland, after all!
I whinged against the system when I went to get my driving test renewed. Why tell you all this sorry tale? Well, just to get it off my chest. See, I didn’t win. I didn’t go home with a prize job.
I know I shouldn’t have bothered with the whole process, if I’m just going to call it bullshit. And yet many tell me I should be happy with my performance, that I’ll do well enough next time.
These same folk say that I didn’t spend much time on the exams, to have done so well (I am the nearest to passing – so I am like the best loser!).
There are some who spend years studying for this process. They take time off work to study, put off having kids till they’ve won their job for life.
But I did spend a couple of months of my life doing sweet eff all else with my brain than thinking about this exam.
I spent my life learning English, for one.
I spent a month on and off writing up a curriculum plan for a school year in the subject, and a unit plan from that.
I spent a weekend doing literary analyses of texts,
I spent two months going through the 69 areas they could examine us on. Reading reams of information on everything from linguistics to the circulation figures of the Daily Sun, with the history of the British Isles and America in between.
And let’s just say I’ve been studying a lot of that since I was able to turn on the TV and stare up at the test signal of the BBC till the Saturday morning programs started.
I also decided to read through Leaves of Grass, since Whitman was on the list (got through most of Song of Me, but there’s a good 80% of the book left to go). I found a PD James novel on my shelf, which was a good read, and I went back over my Wordsworth. There wasn’t time for more. Henry James was a bad idea to even try. The Ambassadors went back to the library after the event with just two chapters waded through.
I had the first exam on a Saturday evening at 8pm. Seriously. At least the heat was lessened compared to the sauna the other exams before us must have been. That was the bright side. God forbid they use a school with AC for exams in the end of June and July.
A bingo selection told us which five topics we had to choose from out of those 69 we’d all prepared.
I got lucky.
The Lost Generation. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner.
Now, I’ve never read Faulkner. He’s on the list, but hasn’t made it onto the bog with me yet. But the rest. Well, I’ve been studying those lads for a long time!
I’ve read all of Hemingway, have read his Biographies, been to his house in Oak Park, visited the Hemingway room in the JFK library in Boston and read his letters from the woman who inspired A Farewell to Arms (well, his injuries inspired it, probably, but the girl is more interesting!)
I studied Gatsby for the Leaving Cert., have read most of Steinbeck, including the unfinished Arthurian works. That’s years of study on this topic. I’d gone over the material on the exam website I’d found a few days before. It was all fresh in my head.
We weren’t allowed to take our own pens, so I wrote with a tissue wrapped around the bic, sweating and sliding.
I gave them details that weren’t in the website.
They gave me 5.9 out of ten.
Now, considering I was writing in my first language (and I’ve a bit of practice with the old writing lark…), you can imagine that most of the poor Spanish folk around me fell at the first hurdle.
Except the few who’d been studying the system, however they found out about it. And gave the tribunal exactly what they wanted. I clearly didn’t.
Turns out the people correcting the exam are just some poor sods selected out of a bingo ball, and know no more about the topics than anyone else in the system. Less than me, in the case of the three novelists mentioned. But they have a rubric, and anything off that rubric, be it valid info or not, is irrelevant.
Can we see the rubric?
Can we see our exams to see where we went wrong, what we could have improved?
Don’t be stupid! Of course you can’t.
Do you think the idea is to help people get past the post?
You’ve not been paying attention.
As an aside, at this point, let’s think about how often I’ve used my extensive knowledge of the Lost Generation in an English as a foreign language class… or in a Literature class in Spain…
Apart from reminding Pamplona inhabitants that their town is super famous because of the guy whose statue stands beside the bullring, who was an American writer, absolutely never. Nor would I have used my knowledge of the various channels making up ITV, or the details of Cromwell’s stint in power in the UK (though of course I always take any opportunity to tell anyone who’ll listen what an absolute bollox the man was).
The next exam was called the practical test.
I passed that too.
I got 5.125.
So did one other person in my tribunal. The one who knew the system, had studied. I don’t know her, but fair balls to her. She got 8.4 in the first test.
A practical test, let’s remember. On how well your English is.
Well, I got 3 out of 3 on Use of English. Filling in blanks. A breeze for me. Took ten minutes, so I had an hour and a half or more to write the answer to the literary analysis. I wrote my maximum 400 words and explained the shit out of the text.
I got 2.125 out of 5. A fail. What did they want from me? Fuck knows. Perhaps blood. I took a rubber penholder with me, so my fingers didn’t bleed.
Then I spent ten minutes pissing in the wind, as if I could pick up any of the remaining two points.
I know most Spanish teachers who studied English as a language to teach would have studied that, but I only went through the main ideas on the Internet page. It’s not something a native speaker needs to know. In fact, it’s pretty redundant nowadays.
Nevertheless, the task was to translate a text into phonetics.
RP, the tribunal president asked us politely. Please use Received Pronunciation.
I know how to speak in RP when I need to.
I tell my students not to copy the way I say cup, or bus, or Dublin. Instead I show them how to say it the way Donald Trumps newest fan would as she walks along with him admiring the horses.
But when I read the phonetics, it says the symbol is pronounced like you say ‘Mother,” with the same sound for each syllable. Try say it. Go on. I can’t even write how to do it. I’d have to know more phonetics. But I can say it. Though in Ireland those two syllables are very very different! Muder.
Anyway. It was like translating into Braille or Morse code. If you knew it, well enough.
But I was one of only 24 who got through the first round. Out of 300, divided in three tribunals.
So all congratulated me (they’re accustomed to hearing about failure). But as I said, I’d studied most of my life for those exams. And I wasn’t impressed with my scores.
Nobody was impressed with their scores. They were marked down like a deadbeat professor who flings the exam booklets down the stairs and gives the ones which reach the bottom an A and the rest a C.
The oral defence of the programs I’d handed in were the next hurdle.
Everyone seemed to pass that part, if they got to it.
I spent a week going over the thing, memorising it, writing out notes to later transcribe in the preparation time they give you.
But I was nervous. I needed to do this well.
I did it well.
I went in with a smile, stood up on the teaching platform and told them all about my planning, how to do the unit, what the students did, how it helped them, how they were evaluated, what I’d do for kids with higher or lower levels than the average.
All that good stuff.
And they nodded and smiled and took notes. The president filled out her rubric. And when I asked if they’d any questions, I got just one, given in a pronunciation I found hard to understand, after 11 years teaching English to Spanish people.
I answered it. She seemed to accept the answer.
Nobody else spoke, bar the president, who thanked me and I left. I never heard the other three English teachers speaking a word of English. Maybe I intimidated them. Who knows.
I went home happy, and even wondered where I might have to work next year.
I didn’t allow anyone celebrate, but everyone saw it as a given, a foregone conclusion.
But I got 4.15 out of ten. Not the 5 I needed to pass and get that job.
How a tribunal can let someone who’s failing in front of their eyes walk out without asking them a question is beyond me, as a teacher, and it should have been beyond them as teachers (and as folk who’d been through the same process in their own time).
It was a defence. With 15 minutes for questions.
I could have defended anything they objected to.
If I’d been given the chance.
But being given the chance is not the process, of course.
It’s being so perfect that they can’t avoid giving you the point, or they’d be breaking the law.
It’s being forced to have someone take the teaching position (which is open, which needs a person to teach some real kids in a real school in a real town in the region) because it’s simply unavoidable.
So of the 300 people trying to get 31 places, 20 got places (four people failed the defence, me with the nearest to passing).
And the 12 unfilled positions will go to temporary posts, changing each year as new temps come and go. A great way to be educated, with a new teacher every year.
I’m sure the Fins would be impressed.
by the way, you can still get all my books on sale with Smashwords!
Where Should I Plant this Sapling?
They say a man plants
A tree, not for himself, but
For his descendants. Well,
I agree, and have seen
The benefits of a mulberry
Planted by a man I never met,
More than a century past.
As the sentinel starts to sag
I’ve saved a sapling from
Between its roots and would
Take the next step for my
Generation before it falls.
But where would it prosper?
I fear the weather
Will not favour the same spot
As its forefather for much longer
Than half its lifetime,
And ere it gives fullest fruits
Will stand in different clime.
So, where should I plant this sapling
In a changing world?
Where its roots can anchor the eroding soil
As farmers harvest down to the last?
On a slope so the children of this village
Can reach the lower limbs
To stain fingers and lips on
Summer afternoons, should
Any remain after rains have
Deserted the landscape?
In a ditch to take some advantage
Of rich dampness as the rest
Of fields blister in the sun?
Or on a high knoll to stay dry
While surrounding ground soaks
Under incessant thunderstorms,
Turning this aridness instead wet?
It seems a bet to hedge;
I should plant a score
From hill to shore.
Though the rains have returned, it’s still kinda nice enough to get out of the city these days.
And it’s so nice to do so.
The orchids are up in the Valdorba, and the thyme blooming.
Unfortunately, the rains have increased the erosion in many places where there’s not enough vegetation to hold the soil. This bunch of thyme is clinging on, but you can see the rocks breaking away from the side of the gully behind it.
And yes, that is recently burnt vegetation behind the orchid… some farmers just don’t get that scrub serves to hold their soil from washing away down to the Ebro and silt it up, which they complain about later when the farms on the floodplain… flood.
Hopefully the other plants can grow and help slow down further breaks.
Here’s a poem I wrote recently about getting into the countryside.
Birdsong Outside the City
Something calls, unseen, to me
Hidden in a willow tree of a copse
Alongside a swift river tugging
Tangled dangling fronds and
Flooding islands, a place
Providing people only invitation,
Unheard above the cars of
The city where blackbirds scream,
A small, soft, birdsong twittering
Like a signal, reverberating in
This stillness, resonating
As far as childhood; deeper,
Into bones, birth, bringing
Relief like a lost boy seeing
Family, safety, a memory.
A song saying stay, for whenever
Could one return?
While Spring officially started at the beginning of the month back home in Ireland, in Spain we are still in the middle of winter, with the next season only set to start in another month on the 21st of March.
It is, I admit, the height of skiing season, but even here, the daffodils are shooting up and will soon burst buds, the crocuses in the parks are spotting the grass, and I even saw a few daisy and dandelions the other day. The trees are mostly still bare, but showers of catkins have popped out on a few.
Mostly, though, you can just smell it. The air is different. Despite the snow that we had last week, there’s a feeling of spring that even humans living in a city still experience.
Spring is here, as far as I am concerned.
And summer isn’t far behind. For I saw the bats take their first flight of the year and it reminded me of a poem I wrote last year on the subject of signs of summer, more than spring. It’s perhaps a little premature to be thinking about butterflies and bees, but since I haven’t posted a poem in a while, here it is.
Signs of Summer
There are many signs of summer coming, here,
Starting perhaps with cuckoo calls and swallow sighting
And the return of the swifts, or
The first flight of the bats at twilight,
The scent of honeysuckle through open balconies and
The abundance of butterflies on the garden lavender,
Some are specific to Spain, like closing the blinds
Against sunlight to keep the house cool, and
Sleeping with the windows open all night
Pouring water to fill the swimming pool and others
Seen only in this city: setting up the tombola,
Putting the fences around the flowers in the park
In preparation for the festivals and digging up
The road to get it ready for the running of the bulls,
And lastly, putting up with the stench of piss
Upon opening up the street door every morning.
George Monbiot has an interesting, if depressing, article out this week about the British Govt. doing more or less nothing to solve the environmental crises we are facing.
We all know the shit is approaching the fan, and it will surely hit it at speed and force should we so blithely as we currently are, continue to do our business as usual on the planet.
I have used in Easter Island as an example in my biology classes for more than a decade now. I had my students read use the essay Twilight at Easter by Jared Diamond in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005 before he I read his book Collapse.
It’s an instructive, if depressing, lesson on how people can undermine their own future by going with the business as usual way of doing things, even when that means short-term gains lead to long-term destruction.
People often wonder what the person who cut the last tree on Easter Island thought as he did so.
And the answer of course, is that he didn’t cut down a big tree, he only cut a small tree that he needed to cut to cook his meal, and it looked just like all the other bushes around, so he didn’t think very much of it at all – the big trees had been gone for a while.
We always assumed those poor sods were ignorant, that they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight like we do. If we, with their example, do the same stupid thing, then we would be so many times dumber than they were.
However, perhaps the Eastern Islanders weren’t all that stupid. I mean, perhaps all of them were not that stupid. The ones who weren’t so blind were nearly stymied by the majority of stupid.
I’m sure some saw it coming.
It’s clear that they didn’t do very much to stop it.
More importantly than asking what the guy who cut the last tree, we should ask what went through the mind of the guy on Easter Island who was shouting out to stop the cutting of all the trees. The guy(s and gals) who were predicting the future, pointing out the disappearance of the birds they used to eat, lamenting the old state of the canoes that could not be replaced and meant dolphin and deep-sea fish were off the menu, etc.
You can almost imagine a Monty Python-esque scene where the proto-ecologist says to the crowd that the big statures aren’t going to help get more food or help make canoes to catch tuna, and one of the stone masons shouts back say to him, “Shut up, you, or I’ll bloody throttle you – I’ve a good job here making them statues.”
If it were indeed case that some knew the collapse of their society and lives was imminent, well, it would make Easter Island an even more instructive, and depressing, lesson for us today as we face the guardians of the status quo.
Even more so than the statues of Easter Island, the status quo is a hard stone to roll off us.
“But if we cut down all the trees, Bob, we’ll be fucked!”
“Shut your face, BigNose! I’ll look much more enigmatic surrounded by grass.”
Belated happy new year, everyone.
Another year rolls around, another calendar goes up on the wall. If you don’t have yours up yet, why not get this one?
I got it for my office wall, where I am writing now. And I also got this nice card with a note from Monika Kull, thanking me for renewing my WWF membership.
You should donate whatever you can, too. If you think your pet is important, imagine how much more important it is to save entire species which will otherwise vanish from our lands – from our television screens, even.
And how much less beautiful would our calendars be then, too?
The Rains Return
The sky weeps;
Hills soak to refill rills.
Upon the porch, we sit still.
The rain – snow in the high ground – has finally returned to much of Spain, bringing some relief to the drought we’ve been experiencing this year.
The spring that supplies our village in the Valdorba is still flowing at a trickle, though. It will take much more rain to raise the water table and refill the reservoirs.
the spring last week above, the same spring in September below…
But everyone has been happy to see the rain, despite the need for umbrellas instead of sunglasses.
This is a photo of one of the beaches in San Sebastian, aka Donostia, taken when I was there last week.
I sat on the beach and wrote this poem.
Donostia, December 2017
On the breakwater, as tide rises,
Shielding eyes to see gleaming mountain
Snowmelt trickle by.
We shouldn’t be able to see the mountain from the beach at this time of year, for the blanket of cloud that normally shrouds the city.
But what is normal anymore?
Anyway, I wrote a few poems that afternoon. It reminded me of another poem I wrote a few weeks ago, which describes a little of why I’ve written so little recently, and posted less.
But maybe we’ll get back to normal sometime soon…
Words Come Forth
They say our words won’t be kept down;
They bubble up, under pressure, like lava
Pushing through a fissure,
Bursting forth if they can’t flow.
But instead, they are drawn
Under empty sky,
Sucked out by silence,
Pulled forth by the vacuum
Of open space,
Giving them a place to emerge
Timidly into tranquilly
Like deer from the thicket at twilight.