Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Poul of Chicken

Voodoo. There, got your attention. Chickens are a culture-bridging fowl. Practically every tradition has space for it in some respect, and there has almost always been a spiritual element to it - whether in shamanic ritual, in symbolic atonement, in sacrifice. Or even in more everyday uses - waking us up, nourishing us, bringing us together around a table, making us feel part of a community or a family. It's a literal chicken and egg life cycle, a self contained allegory.

The relationship most cultures have with chicken as part of their gastronomic heritage is a firm one. Other than those following a herbivore conviction, of course. You cannot speak to anyone of their cultural cuisine without an almost religiously rooted chicken dish being mentioned: fried chicken - soul food; chicken soup - Jewish penicillin; chicken parmagiana - mama's cooking; Jerk chicken - the ultimate summer; coq au vin - wholesome rustic goodness; Tori katsu, teriyaki, yakitori - satisfying Japanese staples; Tandoori chicken - aromatic victory; chicken Paprikash - Balkan piquant delicacy. Numerous others, too many to mention! And of course - a chicken which has been roasted, in hundreds of variations.

For me, chicken has always been a stabilising food in times of crisis or just when life gets you down, in possession of almost mythical healing abilities. Whether psychosomatic, or truly medically beneficial, when I'm unwell I tend to crave it, then feel better almost immediately for having had it. But different dishes are called for different ailments: when it's any form of sniffles - chicken soup. How could anything feel more internally nurturing than that. When I've had a bowl of a clear, slightly fatty, rich broth, I immediately know I can sit back and let it work its wonders, relax and just be ill. And that in itself is half the way to recovery - after all, a neurotic like me isn't going to sit quietly and let illness take control. No! I will arm-wrestle it until, inevitably, I slump back, looking like a wrung rag, and with the horror of the realisation that I truly am sick, shuffle to the freezer and unleash a frozen tub of greenish-yellow ice, run it under the tap until it's loosened enough to plop into a pan and can be melted and brought to a gentle bubble on the stove.

A'mehaye (The Reviver)
To this end, there needs to be foresight and planning. If ever in a farmers market or a butchers, I tend to purchase a carcass, which is the perfect base for a fantastic broth. If a full roast bird has passed through my kitchen (more on that later on), the inedible bones, skin and other parts will not be wasted. Or, sometimes, feeling frivolously extravagant, I would use an actual piece or even a whole chicken to make the soup. But that really isn't necessary, as the meat itself, having cooked in the broth for a good couple of hours, becomes a little papery and crumbly. It loses the succulence which is preserved as a quicker slow-cooked dish; plus because of the long soak in the water, during which it renders all its flavour to the brew, it is left with none. Not that I wouldn't still pick any bits of meat left with zeal.

At any rate, once the chicken component is in a pot of water and has been brought to a rolling boiling point, turn the heat down, skim the top, and add all your veg - for me it's always aromatics - carrot, celery or celeriac, onion, a handful of parsley, a potato or two, courgette, and one tomato to give a lemony zing, plus bay leaves, whole peppercorns and plenty of salt. Leave on a low heat for a good hour and a half to two hours, skimming occasionally. Your poorly body will thank you.

There are some fascists out there, who, granted - make much nicer soup then me, demand that you throw away the vegetables you cooked the soup with, as they have served their purpose as flavouring, then add new ones for a fresher taste, cooked for a further 20 mins or so. Those people, brilliant chefs as they may be, are the enemies of everything that is basic frugal home economics, pushing luxury to an extent only employed by Michelin-aspiring restaurants, certainly not a whim my mum would ever have dreamed of indulging, and they should be stopped. Ok, they're not wrong, exactly... but personally, I really love the taste of my nutritionally devoid holy trinity et al. Unlike the chicken meat itself, of which any trace of flavour has been sucked dry, they function like fruit in a punch bowl - that secret kick at the bottom of your cup, when nobody seems to realise one half-strawberry has soaked more booze into it than the whole glass... a flavour explosion!

What am I, chopped liver?!...
Sometimes a general rundownness takes over - an overall exhaustion verging on ennui. At those times, chopped liver is the law. No, not Pâté, silly - only chopped liver will do. This is made with chicken livers which are sautéed, sometimes with a little red wine but traditionally with fat. They are "chopped", if you will, in a food processor, to a coarse consistency, or even roughly mashed with a fork, and mixed with caramelised onions, chopped hard boiled eggs, salt and lots and lots of pepper. The comforting savoury, chucky paste with its earthy umami and slight contrasting sweetness of the onions, on a slice of, well, anything really, doesn't need to come in large quantities. A small bowlful - which is invariably the amount produced per cooking batch - is more than enough to last a good two or three days.
When homesick, the big guns are required, the dish that speaks to the child in me, the essence of every kid who shares my culture - the chicken schnitzel. This, for whatever reason, is a dish that I will petulantly demand my mum make for me whenever I'm at home. It doesn't matter it's the easiest thing to cook in the WORLD, it doesn't matter that I'm an adult and she's possibly now older and wearier than the woman who tirelessly fried off mounds of golden escalopes of joy. The regression cannot be complete until I am 2 or 5 or 12 years old (who knows when I stopped behaving like a spoilt brat, if ever), stomp my foot and stubbornly proclaim 'I want schnitzel!'.

The correct serving portion of schnitzels per person
But really, it is so easy to make, almost embarrassingly so. Just take fine quality free-range - always free-range you fucking monsters! - chicken breasts, beat them slightly with some kind of butcher mallet or even a rolling pin, till they're flatter and wider, then dip them in flour, beaten egg seasoned with salt and pepper, and bread crumbs of any kind, then fry in semi-shallow very hot oil until golden on both sides. That's it. You can even zhouzh it all up with grated parmesan in the crumbs, herbs in the flour, chilli flakes, whatever! Or go Cordon Bleu stylee - only bastardised - by skipping the mallet part, instead slicing across the fat breast so you create a pocket, and stuffing it with cheese/ham/spinach/sautéed mushrooms/chorizo - again, your imagination is your limitation. Then flour-egg-crumbs it, fry as before, but finish it off in the oven as the plump parcel would take longer to cook all the way through. Never does a batch last longer than a day or two, at best. Trust me on this, they'll be hoovered up faster than a slingshot chicken.

And of course, the ultimate all-purpose remedy is the roast chicken. Now, there really are so many ways to cook this thing. The truth is that it's perfectly simple, regardless of what seasoning/brining/marinating/stuffing you decide to employ. For a 1.5k bird, heat the oven up to 220C, and put the room temperature anointed beast in, on a bed of vegetables if you so wish. Turn the heat down to 190C (170C fan) and leave in the oven undisturbed for an hour and twenty minutes. That's 1 hour 20 mins. Leave it! Then take it out and prick a metal spike into the fattest part of the thigh, and if the juices run clear - you're all good. Now, take the chicken out of the tray and leave to stand on a plate or board for about 20 minutes. Again, leave it! Don't pick at it or be tempted to eat the crispier bits. The juices that have run out while it stood, plus what's left in tray will make a beautiful gravy, various recipes for which can be found all over t'intermanet.
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's superman! No I was right the first time. It's a delicious bird.
 And now, all that's left to do is carve. That's a whole other messy affair... but when that's done, and the screams have died down, you've taken the sheeting off the floor and wiped the juices off the walls and ceiling, you're left with a few vaguely distinguishable chicken pieces, ready to eat with your vegetables, plus a perfectly beautiful carcass and the non-crispy skin at the back of the chicken which you can now use as... that's right, a base for chicken soup! And thus the circle of fowl is complete.

What's your must-have, soul-reviving chicken dish?

Friday, 26 August 2016

Letting Leo In

My dad was a man of contradictions. I know, you could say that about literally every person who's ever lived. But this seems to be an attribute of his, which reflects his existential internal rift. I could always rely on him for the darkest sense of humour, for slaying sacred cows whenever possible. At the same time, he remained throughout his life a very serious man - considered, fearful of rash decisions, often to a point of constipated inaction, which frustrated the rest of the family. He was a devout Socialist his whole life, yet followed conservative social norms in the most dogmatic fashion. 

Probably due to his strict upbringing, he was both respectfully fearful of the wrath of authority, yet a rebel at heart. He would never question doctors, lawyers, teachers, people who have reached the top echelons of social hierarchy, and this blind subservient compliancy ultimately contributed to his demise, failing to press for second opinions on diagnosis, or dispute lackadaisical courses of treatment. Yet he dedicated his later life, after years as a metal shop mechanic, to union work - naively, perhaps, ignoring any trace of corruption or skewed ideals, proceeding with a focused conviction of the value of integrity and culpability of humanity for each other's wellbeing - acting as legal advisor in work tribunals. Thereby he had found a way to question authority in the most fundamental way, but one which worked for him: finding where the rules were misappropriated or manipulated and ensuring justice is served, protecting the little man from the malevolent Capitalist.

Remembering my dad as I was growing up is in one of two modes - with an almost permanent slight grin, one side of the mouth curving upwards underneath his occasional moustache and hefty nose, a twinkle in his eyes as he's just dispensed some satirical or cutting - but never hurtful - observation. The other mode was as a stern, dictatorial, stubborn and arbitrary figure, unmoved by pleas or reasoning. If dad said no, it was pointless to try and argue. His word was Law. A fun, boundary-basher on one hand, a stone wall the other.

Later on, as an adult, his third mode was revealed - the depressive. Of a generation where introspective self-awareness was considered an indulgent waste of time and 'philosophising', his ultimate derisive term for anything deeper than the practical, he was ill-equipped to handle his crippling depression and nihilism, which also played a part in his deterioration.

But remembering him as a whole, complex person, divided within himself, is for me best encapsulated in a particular moment towards his final days. I was helping my dedicated mum and sister look after him, as he was deteriorating towards the unavoidable cul-de-sac in the most horrific fashion. My mum was out one morning, and I had managed to convince him to eat something so he could take his bundle of medications - food had been one of his absolute joys in life, now all but completely gone with the progress of the illness - and at his request brought him a thin slice of pumpernickel bread, smeared with cream cheese and sprinkled with chopped onion. My dad had a proclivity for the simple foods of his Germanic childhood. He ate up, with some effort. But did not manage to keep it down. As I was cleaning up, dismissing his unnecessary embarrassed apologies, he looked up at me with that little smile of his and said: 'well at least it tasted good coming up too'.

Ol' metal shop fingers and me

A transit van pulled up across the road from me, and an American man in his 50s disembarked. I knew he was an American, because he had that slick yet slightly outdated small-town look only American men in their 50s manage to achieve - a golf shirt, Bermuda shorts, a white moustache, round framed glasses and a straw hat. Like he stepped out of a Stephen King novel. But not evil.

Strahan - first impression
He walked over cautiously, having been tasked with collecting me, and politely enquired whether I was the right person, but I knew that was Leo, the man from the letter of introduction I read at Susan's house a few days earlier. As premonitioned, Leo and I hit it off straight away. He wasted no time unfolding his ideology to me - all about self-sufficiency and anti-consumerism, intending to spend the rest of his life as a handyman / Wwoofer, living off trading his many craft skills, rather than participating in our capitalist society of pointless accumulation.

Leo had been a handyman his entire life and was indeed very handy, for the moment with a pair of pliers, busily plastering the cracked walls of our hosts' house, and in the planning stages of building a chicken run, weather conditions permitting. The hosts, Kathy and Gary, greeted me with warmth, promptly introducing me to the cat, Tashi, the three chooks and the two goats (on loan) and I was fed home baked scones with jam and yoghurt. My work here was to be mainly hardcore weeding, transplanting and yet more transplanting. It was great actually, I learned a fair bit about vegetable growing just from the few days I spent listening to Gary (also an American) talk about his carrots.

Gary and Kathy were specialist trekking guides in Nepal, and when not tending to the house or garden, were busy organising the next expedition to the Himalayas. They were full of anecdotes from their adventures: from scrotum dwelling ticks, to men-hating lesbian trekkers challenging a fellow trekker - a policeman - to a fight, and to drunken monks on donkeys making "fuck" gestures at a puzzled and bemused Gary and Kathy. They never did find out what that was about.

Being travel guides also meant that Kathy and Gary were generously encouraging that Leo and I see the local sights. One night, Kathy drove us all to see Short Tail Shearwaters, AKA mutton birds - the only source of food for the original settlers, still today scoffed with 
Nesting Mutton Birds
pleasure by old-timers, a practice not favoured by a wildlife champion such as Kathy. The bird were flying in from a few weeks spent over the ocean, so they can relieve their nesting partners from their shifts, the nests based in holes in the dunes. Here they would spend the night together, then allow the nesting partner to fly off for their turn of ocean feeding. We weren't allowed to shine any direct strong lights at them, so Kathy used green cellophane wrapped around a torch to dim it, and we stood on the shore, the smell of the ocean heavy, the stars high above us, watching low flying birds screeching all around like demented bats, causing sand to blow into our already squinty eyes. Then Gary got out the single malt and all was well.

Flocking Short Tail Shearwaters, AKA mutton birds
I had a little walk into town the next day and discovered sadly that its entire population was employed in some form of the tourist industry, a reality which was true for most small towns in the Southern hemisphere, I was to discover. Local industries have all but shrivelled dead. One woman here even turned her back garden into a native-rainforest mini museum - with entry fee of course, irritating her neighbours with the overgrown trees obscuring the sun and blocking the gutters, making it worse by tackily naming it The Magic Cottage. However, the town's main tourist attractions were the Gordon-Franklin river cruise, taking you through the untouched vast rainforests, the steam train journey previously mentioned - going to Queenstown and back, and a couple of sea-plane or helicopter rides. There was also a daily showing of The Ship That Never Was, a humorous audience participation play, depicting the story of the last ship built at Sarah Island, which was about to sail for the new prison at Port Arthur, and of the convicts who mutinied and hijacked it, escaping to Chile. Down by the Tourist Info Centre, every day at 5.30. Tickets at the door.

Over the next few days, Leo and I became exploration companions, with a shared passion for making the most of our free time visiting as many beauty spots. We had his trusty van, which was fortunate, as most attractions in the area were definitely a driving distance away.

Macquarie Heads

On a day off we drove to Macquarie Heads, a part of the coast with a view of Hell's Gates and a decent picnic spot to boot. It also is the start of a beach with some of the largest sand dunes and therefor THE hotspot for quad biking - both legal and illicit, as well as a reluctant graveyard for crashed vehicles. Ocean Beach, as this is known, stretches north 30k, all to way to Trial Harbour . Leo and I braved the giant dune greeting us by the parking area, getting extremely out of breath up the steep wall of sand, but it was worth it - the vast beach was spectacular, and we even managed to avoid getting run over by any of the zooming quadders and bikers.

View of Hell's Gates
Henty Dunes - white and green meeting
We then drove further down, to Henty Dunes - immense forests on one side, the crashing waves of the ocean on the other, endless white sand dunes in between. We got caught up in the emotion of the moment, melodramatically contemplating deliberately getting lost, wobbling our way towards the ocean, our feet sinking in the soft sand as we go, but the prevailing presence of noisy quad bikes allowed us to follow their tracks back to the parking area.

We then headed back to Strahan, and braved the unmissable-only-play-in-town, The Ship That Never Was - surprisingly not entirely torturous and quite fun, especially as you're given a spray bottle to go mad with during a certain bit in the show, getting all the other tourists in the audience wet in their nylon shirts.

Tourist spraying - it's a sport
We ended the day having dinner at a lovely fish shop. Ironically, the local fish were all exported, so the ones we enjoyed were brought in from Hobart - and here we were, sitting by the harbour, fishing boats everywhere.

Leo was shaping up to be a real boost to my enthusiasm for experiencing every moment to the full and becoming a yea-sayer. Even to naff, cheesy, touristy theatre productions, shelling my armour of cynicism, at least for the duration. His fervour was contagious, and he wanted to share it all with me. We reasoned that as lone Wwoofers, who don't normally get a chance to partner up as joyfully as we clearly have, we should take advantage of this unexpected duality and take the lavish - at least for us destitute types - Gordon-Franklin river cruise. And with that, the very next morning we wolfed down our quinoa porridge and jetted down to the harbour again, to catch our boat.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Green Green Windowsill of Home

Plants are a mystery to me. Their needs and caprices, what it takes to make them blossom and bear fruit, how to rid them of pests and dangers, all an enigmatic world I've not been privy to. An urban child rarely gets a chance to see a plant through from seed to harvest. True, there are trees and bits of shrub which we either climb, crash our bikes into or scratch initials on. At school, we're taught the basics - soil, water, sun, compost = happy growth. Not so, apparently - there's infinitely more to it.

Once grown up and out of the parental home, and as a low-maintenance substitute to the unrealistic dream of a pooch, it was the next logical step for me to get hold of a cactus. They're easy to keep, I'd been told. Hardly any watering, a bit of sunshine and they'll flourish, never a thorn in your side (sorry). Apprehensive but confident I purchased a specimen, already potted and looking fairly healthy.

This is an ex-cactus
Alas, the poor creature survived as long as it could, it really did. I tried watering it, not watering it, putting it in direct and indirect sunlight, talking to it - feeling mighty strange doing it I can tell you, even singing on one occasion. Although, my UB40 obsessed neighbour who habitually got drunk, sobbing heartbreakingly and loudly singing along to their greatest hits on a loop, like only a jilted man could, seemed to have only served as a contributing counter-effect to my efforts. Perhaps my cactus preferred their earlier stuff, before they hit the commercial big-time. It was a forgone conclusion that the poor organism won't beat the odds of survival, and within a year it was wrinkled, papery and very much dead.
When your masculine heart's been broken only these guys really get it.
But your cactus won't.
From that experience I'd gleaned that my fingers are as far from green as can be, and from hereon in vehemently opposed any offer or suggestion of placing a plant in my care. I would allow flowers, but those buggers are doomed from the start anyway, aren't they.

Years passed, I watched friends cultivate whole gardens and allotments successfully and, ashamed and ill-equipped, avoided taking part in gardening-centric conversations. Living in a garden flat with several flatmates, they were the ones successfully growing tomatoes, squashes and greens, keeping the bushes plump and fragrant, making our lawn look rich and fluffy, and I could not take part, lest my condemning touch debunk their efforts.

Eventually, I became a tenant in a non-shared flat - oh the joy! It was a long and passionate honeymoon - coming home every day to MY space, I can't explain it but the sense of freedom it gave me, closing the door behind me and being myself uninhibited, uninterrupted, uncritiqued - it felt like an extra dose of tingly heavenly oxygen.

Would you accept a plant
from this man?
And with that, a sense of self that was never before undisturbed - discovering who I really was, at net value. I could experiment with aspects of myself, to ridiculous extremes, falter or fail, and never worry about how the result is perceived. So when the new upstairs neighbour gave me a 'hello' potted plant - species unknown - I was delighted. I was ready to try again. After all, I'd discovered so many talents I didn't know I had, my confidence in my abilities has altered completely. I can do it! I can keep this gift of friendship and nourish it!

The sweet but chaotic neighbour lasted only a year before his young, hot and trendy lifestyle, as well as the punishing London rents caught up with him, the plant lasted even less. This time, though, I felt stoic about it, rather than fatalistic. It wasn't the right match. And when my friends gave me a chilli plant for my birthday that year - I absolutely love all things spicy - I was determined to research, learn and make it work.

And suddenly it stuck. The little plant grew, seemingly hesitatingly at first, then I was startled to realise I would have to re-pot it, so big did it grow. Seeking advice, I gently removed it from its pot, roots and soil quivering loose, placed it in a bigger pot with some fresh earth at the bottom, then added more at the top and watered it, narrating what I was doing out loud all the while, to keep it calm. Then waited with a breath that is bated for the consequences of my deed.

An experimental tentative collaborative effort. A chilli-human co-op, if you will
Soon after, the sun came out with summertime, and my little chilli plant, rather than wilting, flowered with small white blossoms. They came and went, and I saw no fruit. My friends enlightened me by explaining I essentially need to pollinate the flowers myself, as it being an indoor plant, no insects will be around to do the dirty, dirty work. 'Huh', I said, 'so I need to... get sexual with it'. 'Basically, yes', they confirmed. I used a cotton bud to dab pollen from one flower onto the others, feeling a little wrong. But, the moment of perverse conduct paid off, as within a few days, as the flowers began covering the pot terrain with their browning remains, little protuberances became visible, gradually growing into a real boy er... I mean chillies.

The plant was transplanted three times in total - the second into an actual home - my current flat - owned and therefore mine to decorate, embellish, make an extension of myself. I had two fantasies as soon as I saw it - I saw a dining room table exactly where I would want to sit and look out through the window every morning, as I have my breakfast, and I saw a herb garden on the east-facing windowsill in the kitchen.  Soon after, both fantasies were made a reality. Gleefully and confidently I purchased some seeds, soil, and pots, and that very evening had a potential herbarium, seeds nestled in the earth, awaiting the light streaming through the window to provide the energy to grow. Within a month, my window looked encouragingly alive. Within 6 weeks, my gastronomic creations were becoming distinctly more aromatic, to a deeply satisfying degree.

A promising start
A nervous Fittonia
Echeveria Succulent
At the housewarming later that year, friends brought several plants, showing - in my opinion misguided - trust and confidence in my ability to keep these things alive by exercising what can only be described as *gulp* maternal instincts. Right, I thought, I'd better step up to the challenge and take actual responsibility in caring for them. T'internet, after all, is a wonderful source of knowledge, tricks of trade and dummy guides. I was given a succulent, which is a type of cactus, an orchid don't-you-know which frightened me, a beautiful white-veined Fittonia - also called a nerve houseplant, and another chilli plant. By now, having harvested many-a-chilli, as well as the occasional batch of parsley or basil from my indoor garden, I had learned that there is an element of a metaphysical art form to making these things flourish, a sense rather than a science. Each one has its own maintenance requirements, and the margin of error is not negligible. But if you read up, keep vigilant and listen to your gut instinct, it's possible to do good by them. My orchid loves the bathroom, with its humid misty air and filtered sunlight, the fleshier succulent Echeveria is ok right on the sill with minimal maintenace, the fluffy Fittonia seems to thrive in the living room away from direct sunlight, and notifies me whenever it needs a watering, by drooping all its leaves, then perking up like a miracle of being once satiated.

I wish I could say there is a happy ending to the story of my first chilli. Fickle it is, nature. Fickle and stony-hearted. My beautiful, mature, fertile and hardy chilli plant developed a stubborn plague of fungus gnats, lifting into a cloud of dark dots each time I approached the area, followed by a cacophony of my ill-targeted claps designed to destroy the stormtrooper-like critters. After cursory research, I decided to re-pot it. My ill-conceived yet well-meaning plan exposed the noviciate of my abilities - the plant was just in full, lush bloom, all green bright leaves and white flowers, with several tiny chillies already hatched like spearheads with a secret punch. This, as it turns out, is the wrong time to disturb or challenge an organism. When all its resources are directed at its offspring: water, sunlight, food - the whole ecosystem dedicated to inflating and stretching these little pods, green and shiny and protruding, that's when it's best to leave well alone.

But in my haste to come to its rescue, I proceeded as at the previous successful re-potting - gently scraping off the topsoil infected with larvae, turning the pot upside down and, careful as a newly ordained yogi on a bed of nails, tapping the plant out, roots and all. I brushed some of the earth from the roots, then re-planted it into a pot partially filled with fresh soil, and covered the top. I watered it a little and waited.

Within an HOUR the leaves were distinctly droopy, the baby chillies almost invisible, the flowers wilting. A quick internet search revealed that a re-potting of a chilli plant will produce a "root shock" especially if the thinnest ends of the roots are hurt in the process. They can recover if not too many have been damaged, and if the plant is left alone for a while, in indirect sunlight, without too much water other than misting the leaves. And cut all the fruit buds, exclaimed the advice at me from the monitor, as they will be the ones sucking vital energy and making recovery process harder. I would have to say goodbye to the infant chillies!

You monsters! You blew it up! Damn you, damn you all to hell!
Who knew that this loyal and resilient plant was so fragile? It survived a re-potting before, a house move, a few winters. I thought I was saving it from the pestilence of gnats. But all that's left is a shell...


Reluctantly cutting my losses, all that's left to do is wait. Hope for a rejuvenation. Chances are looking slim for chilli plant. However... over to the left, the new plant, amongst the purple blossom - what's this...?
Hmm this one's shot up!

Fruit! A living, dark purple, Royal Black chilli, quietly stretching out of its crown of petals cocoon. Life!

It's alive!!
My approach now is to take what I can get, be consistent, revel in results, and cut the losses. This relationship teaches awareness, responsibility, detachment, loss, resilience of nature, fragility of nature, trusting your instincts... a microcosm on my windowsill.

The gang

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

A Short Breather

In possession of a 24 hour park pass, I planned a full day’s hike. This wouldn't even begin to cover the huge Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair (aka Leeawuleena, or "sleeping water") National Park, as it constitutes about a tenth of Tassie. Fine, that may perhaps be a slight exaggeration. But it’s big. The longest trail would've taken 6 days to cover, and stretches 65km long. But, having already established there wasn't a bus going anywhere that day, and with firm plans in place for my next Wwoofing venture in the west of Tassie, I only had one more night at the camp before moving on the next morning. 
After a minor hitch, involving the Australian banking system not allowing me to use my bank card for cashback from a teller, and with no cash machines available at any of the park stores whatsoever, which meant I was devoid of money, I set off on my trek. After all, no money changes hands in the wild. Apart from a few enterprising wombats selling grass to desperate naïve hippy backpackers.

The first part of the trek involved a very steep climb 2/3 of the way up Cradle Mountain, catching me completely off my guard and unprepared. Glancing up, it was a do or die moment. Throwing caution to the wind, I grasped and sweated amateurishly, heaving myself up a near vertical rock face. At points, I didn't think I would manage it, but it would've been too embarrassing to admit defeat, shamefully making my way back down, avoiding crushing hands and heads of the other scaling trekkers. But once at the top, at Marion's lookout, ample compensation came as the magnificent vista of Dove Lake revealed itself. Sitting on a rock catching my breath, I began chatting to a German girl who happened to be my would-be dorm mate, as well as my next day's bus companion. Small rock indeed. We then parted ways as she was headed on another trek.

Dove Lake from Marion's Lookout

Tannin, anyone?
Continuing towards the lake on my own, down a worryingly steep descent, I managed to yet again pioneer an original path - not a recommended attitude for the inexperienced hiker. I slip-slid down to Dove Lake, where a convenient wooden boardwalk allowed for a much more accommodating and dignified walk for the casual hiker. It was a beautiful sunny day - a rarity in rainy Tassie, and the lake was shimmering with light as I circled it. The water in the Tassie lakes and rivers is rust coloured, due to tannins in the typical button grass the wombats munch on, and also because of the tea trees that grow everywhere. The water is a bit like, well, tea! Feeling sun-kissed and smiley, I stopped to have my packed lunch in a beautiful secluded spot on the lake, took my shoes off and dipped my feet in the cool water. This was the first time on this trip I felt truly in the moment, light and clear of heart and mind. I doubt Kraft processed cheese and oat biscuits have ever tasted as delicious for anyone before, nor will again. 

A lovely day on Dove Lake
I got back in time to have another quick walk to see the King Billy pine, a big deal tree in an ancient rainforest, taking the obligatory selfie next to it. I then returned to camp for a much needed shower - considering this was a campsite, the showers were incredible, each with overhead heating and a stall for clothes and delightfully hot, high pressure water – luxury. Yes, more to say about the shower than the ancient pine! Simple pleasures matter when you travel. Speaking of which, dinner involved some quick-cook pasta, and a glass of wine kindly shared by one of my dorm mates - a stocky medical scientist with a gruff no-nonsense way about her, which endeared her to me straight away. Having grown up on a farm up near Adelaide, she’d naturally seen quite a bit of hay action, she divulged. No doubt a city boy came to town and taught them all how to dance.

Leaving the national park, I felt sad that I didn't take more time to trek around. The whole length of Tasmania, I had heard from fellow travellers, can be hiked in a couple of weeks, and it seemed like something I would one day love to undertake.

In the morning, my German dorm-mate and I got on the bus to Strahan, which snaked through a mass of increasingly green wilderness and a whole lot of absence of humans. Whatever "towns" we went through, such as they were, consisted of a milk bar and a community house of some description, with perhaps a few rickety houses. The two actual cities we drove through, Zeehan and Queenstown, looked straight out of a Spaghetti Western and I half expected a wagon to lazily creak past at any moment. But it didn't.

Queenstown, yee-haw

West Coast Wilderness Railway
In Queenstown, a gold and copper mining town, we stopped for lunch, and I wisely ordered deliciously sweet scallop fritters and chips, which would necessitate a definite repeat if I ever return. And the town may not have had a wagon, but it did indeed have a steam train, which tracks through the world heritage untouched rainforest conservation area, and was in the past used to carry the mining spoils through the rainforest, all the way to Strahan, my actual destination. However, for us pauper travellers it was startlingly expensive to go on. So we opted to take a couple of photos of it rolling into the station instead.

Owl aboard! (cause it's a forest geddit?)
Leaving Queenstown, the driver picked up a gaggle of schoolchildren. My companion and I spent the rest of the journey checking for gum in our hair and sniffing the occasional suspicious burning smell. A small child asked to take my photo "for the next bus journey". I'm pretty sure the camera was angled towards my cleavage. Cheeky monkey. Then, just before the end of the journey, drama! A water bomb had "accidentally" been "dropped" by one of the kids, startling the elderly passengers and injecting extra oomph into the driver's gas-stepping foot. Thundering to our final stop, he stood up and gave an Oscar-worthy psychotically angry finger-wagging performance, featuring such gems as 'who's gonna clean this mess eh?!' and the all-time favourite 'this is your last warning!'. The seemingly shamefaced pupils got off the bus, then proceeded to make obscene gestures upon exit. The driver turned to us couple of passengers left and asked if we thought he'd scared them. I confidently assured him he did not.

My next Wwoofing hosts were a couple, based in a quiet suburban house in Strahan - an inaccurate description really, as the whole town is a sort of suburb. Located on the Tassie west coast, harbour access from the ocean is via Hells Gates, so named not just because of their tiny near impossible proportions, which caused quite a few ships (and a whale, apparently) serious navigational kerfuffle, but also as a reminder of the notorious Sarah Island situated just within them. Here, convicts were taken in the early 1800s to build ships in the baking heat, or just be locked up in the small penitentiary. Little did they know that the hardships they endured were only small-scale compared with the conditions on Port Arthur down in the south west, where the worst of the bunch would eventually end up. In fact, according to my trusty guides, Sarah Island gradually turned into a resort-like camp, which some of the prisoners were reluctant to leave.

My hosts sent their other Wwoofer to pick me up, and I stood looking out to the harbour waiting for him. All I knew was that his name was Leo.


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Is Might Right - A Reflection

I actually started writing this a few weeks ago, and it really took a lot out of me. I wanted to get it right, to make sure my thoughts come across clearly, and that I have a unified message. But as the weeks went by, and I added more and more information and reflection, and the world was showing signs of getting madder and more absurd, particularly following recent events in the UK, the increase in explicit racism, and news of slaughter and degradation from all over the world, I realised I could never get it totally right, and it can't possibly have a definitive form, this post. It can't even have a proper end, really. It's just a momentary contemplation of our nature in regard to force and its application. So i'll just get it out, and hope that for those who read it, it simply triggers their own reflection, without judgement because nobody has a definitive answer to our challenges (or if you do, please come forward!). But what we can do, is stop and think, and nourish our awareness.

We are part of a species, for whom survival is still an innate biological motive. Power and dominance, therefore, are a supreme value, which probably explains the majority of the world still living under oppression. Power is also the construct of basic population control, and is used by government, religion, any establishment where one person has charge of another - military, prison, schools. But power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whenever one person is physically superior in size and/or strength, temptation to surrender to base instincts proves too much all too often. This is why specific legislation has to be in place to try and minimise abuse of rights of the vulnerable.2 Because there is an accepted paradigm that with great power SHOULD come great responsibility.

Concurrently and conflictingly, we are taught the way to get ahead - in life, in business, even in love - is through ruthless determination and the subjugation of others to our will, a bullish idea constantly reinforced by capitalism - might is right.4;5 If we don't comply to these standards, we're considered unsuccessful.

However, do might and dominance bring us peace? Does control over people put our fears to rest? Or does it just feed them further? Our genetic makeup is to survive and procreate, for the benefit of the species. But shouldn't over-population have caught up with our evolutionary need by now? We've pretty much beat the odds on the species survival worriment. Surely we can let that go! Why is survival of the fittest still a factor? Why is our first defensive impulse a choice between fight or flight? Could there not by now be a more sophisticated option, one of compassion, understanding, empathy?

Here's a situation - a young girl had been abused. It's affected her her whole life. She shares her trauma with her friend, who keeps her secret and is agonising over the emotional and psychological damage it's done her. Years later, he's confronted with the assailant. The friend is now frustrated by not being allowed to respond on her behalf, retribution is not his to be dished out. But, one has to consider, is his need to even the score a need to exert dominance? Would that too be an expression of the innate urge to overpower and dominate? And would it indeed restore the balance? Would it repair the damage? Could it also be an expression of his feeling of dominant possession (albeit protectively so) over her too? Even our loving, protective feelings, it seems, are channelled by territorial or possessive primal urges.

Here's another - A pre-teen boy is on the train with his friends. He is the unofficial alpha of the pack. They've had an afternoon of minor delinquency and feeling cocky. The boy sees a woman on the train standing at the doors as they're all about to disembark. As he passes her he calls out 'move, bitch'. To him, she's not a person but a thing, an object to assert dominance over, an aid in his assertion of leadership. It never is a straightforward situation, complicated relationships with parents and siblings, patterns of behaviour observed and reinforced, humiliation experienced over time - these all culminate to the moment being what it is. But the fact is now he has become a synthesised aspect of humanity. A cellular pulse, a binary digit, an on-off. He recognises the moment to overpower, and he takes it, regardless of context, outcome, impact.

Women, generally speaking, being the physically weaker of the sexes, are the one half of the world which is by and large controlled by the other. They are still viewed as a toy to satisfy men, an object to be observed, coveted and possessed. They have no rights in a some men's minds. Here to meet needs, not to have them. As John Lennon brutally pointed out - woman is the n****r of the world - referring to the term in its most intended derogatory sense, expressing the ease with which basic human rights are not acknowledged. Forced marriages, sexual slavery, and human trafficking are still the most widespread practices in the world. The latter being the second biggest criminal industry, with women comprising 49% of the victims, children not far behind. And the highest recorded numbers of slavery as a whole are recorded in countries where human rights are at the lowest levels.

It's not only women, it's any vulnerable demographic - in fact, as soon as someone's rights are removed, they are viewed as weak, the temptation to dominate them becomes strong. Our musings on such matters in progressive thought indicate that society is measured by its treatment of its most vulnerable members (Aristotle, Ghandi, Carter, Johnson, and various other leaders and thinkers). Unfortunately, in the main, what primal instincts control us in private when we're in a position of power, can still override those we display in a group with progressive empathetic norms. And those affected by a group baying for blood override the individual's strong conscientious predisposition.

It's even been recently discovered that, overall, only the Neanderthal female genes remain in today's species, but no males. It's theorised that the females interbred with the homo-sapien males, as the Neandrethal males suffered from a genetic defect in their sperm causing low success rate of breeding. However, it's difficult to ascertain whether the homo-sapiens were carrying out atrocities to wipe out male Neanderthals and take charge of the women, or whether Neanderthal women got rid of their own men in order to breed. Either way, this implies that as a part of society exhibited inadequacy which was deemed as weakness, the other part exerted dominance, either by males or females.

In light of recent events in the UK, it is clear we are far from having evolved out of our fear of tribal extinction, still controlled by strong irrational impulses to reject the foreign as a threat, and keep our tribe perceptibly familiar and safe by minimising "foreign" surprises. This is apparently more easily achievable through fear-mongering towards homogenisation, using manipulation, propaganda, and sheer violence.

But most societies are periodically visited through history by ameliorating influences, morally progressive political and cultural leaders, however brief that affect may be. Progressive efforts shine with the likes of occasional crusaders such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin can-do-no-wrong Trudeau. However, even the self-proclaimed feminist and social reformer has recently stumbled, reacting with force against provocateurs in the House of Commons, when discussing a bill relating to assisted dying. How can power and progressiveness be reconciled? Can one be both forceful and progressive? It may be that the key lies with that balance exactly - the two sides of existence, yin and yang, masculine and feminine, softness and power. In which case, gender equality would be a definite step towards reform, and the reason to keep pushing for this more than ever. Because using softness as a force, instead of stubborn blind forcefulness, is a much more sophisticated way of achieving results.

Martial arts is a great example for how that works, as it takes the base atavistic need for power and aggression, and with guided awareness raises it from the gut level up to the heart level, via an artful skill. It teaches mind-body connection, the true consequences of power, basic discipline and responsibility. Through these comes compassion, and a sympathetic joy in encouraging and helping others in their practice, and a friendly
competitive delight in a safe environment to train and hone your skill. On the other end of the competitive spectrum, we have the fight clubs - those connect the participants with the base level aggression only, our primal selves, but do they elevate our humanness to a higher level? Could it be possible that through allowing aggression out in a consensual fashion, comes human connection and a channelling of that aggression using a positive outlet?

Internally, control over another human being seems to stem from a need for connection - with our own kind - whatever we consider "our kind", with the person we are trying to control, with feelings we are not able to fathom and may be scary to face. In any case, our need for dominance is surely at as stage where it does more harm than good, we have outgrown our use for it and must strive to evolve beyond it, transcend to empathy and love instead.

Some sources:

1. The Breakdown of Nations / Leopold Kohr, ch. 2 The Power of Aggression, 1957
2. Anti-Discriminatory Practice 3rd ed / Neil Thompson
3. Addressing Violence, Abuse and Oppression: Debates and Challenges / Barbara Fawcett, Fran Waugh
4. Might Is Right (The Logic of To-day) / Ragnar Redbeard, 1896
5. The Economic Institutions of Capitalism / Oliver E Williamson, Yale University 1985
6. Applying Political Theory: Issues and Debates / Katherine Smits