Dry Stone Bridges in Sutherland, Scotland

Dry Stone Bridges in Sutherland 1

I first walked the stalkers’ track near Scourie in Sutherland, Scotland in 1982. Each return is a nostalgic and near-spiritual experience. This ancient and glaciated landscape is home to red deer, adders, tiny frogs and countless bird species including an occasional golden eagle. The lochs teem with small brown trout. The only sounds are the wind and the mournful call of golden plovers. That same wind carries a peaty fragrance with hints of heather and bog myrtle. This is a place that fills the senses and lifts the soul.

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For some reason, maybe to look at a wild orchid or one of the small carnivorous plants that can be found here, I step off the track. I notice a wonderful little dry stone bridge that I must have walked over twenty times. I have never thought about how the track, that must have been laid at least one hundred years ago, actually crosses the multiple small streams that flow off these hills. I am fascinated. My canine buddy tells me I should look at this from the other side.

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Just fabulous! To think, through its existence, this cementless structure has withstood floods and snow drifts together with the weight of human traffic whether on foot, horse and carriage or landrover.

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A kilometre along the track, I find another but with a single span. I notice these hardy little bridges are constructed from stones available on the spot. Large stones are stacked and stabilised with small stones wedged in. Maybe flatter stones were hauled in to make the cross pieces but it is difficult to look at them closely; they have been here for so long that they are now covered with heather and are just part of the track. As with the dry stone walls in this part of the world, I admire the skill and plain hard work of the unknown master crafts(wo)man/men who created these little gems.

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These bridges have a rustic, aged beauty accentuated by how they are now integrated into the environment. I find a third; it is so overgrown that, to see it, I have to step into the stream bed. My day just gets better.

Who else has noticed the dry stone bridges of the stalkers’ track? I wonder if I have happened upon a long-forgotten little bit of antiquity. Does or should some kind of preservation order apply in the event of maintenance or upgrade of the track? I try to contact the office of the estate concerned but without success. An internet search reveals nothing about these bridges (but I find there are courses on how to make one!) Is there an engineer-historian out there who knows about them? It would be great to hear from you.

Meeting Mike Howell

Tasman Golf Club, Nelson, New Zealand. It is pretty and quiet. I put $20 for my round in the “honesty box.” The sun is shining. I stand on the first tee. I am greeted by a fine view over the bay. All is well in the world. I hear a car pull up. Another golfer. “Fancy a round?” Friendly voice. Good bloke, I reckon. “Great idea!” I say.  “Mike Howell” he says. Firm handshake.

Meeting Mike Howell 1

By the first green, we have established the basics of the who, what, when and where of our respective lives. By the second, I have learnt that Mike is no ordinary golfer; he is also painter, sculpter, teacher, writer, illustrator, scientist, conservationist, fisherman, hunter, traveller, grandfather and the golf club’s Mr Fix-it. I tell him of my brief foray into painting and Talking Beautiful Stuff and how I don’t like the word art because I can’t define art and how I hate artspeak. His spine stiffens slightly; he turns to look at me anew. It’s like a gundog that’s caught a new scent. I see I have stepped into his professional domain.

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Mike’s entire home is his studio. It is hung about with beautiful stuff. I ask about what, at first sight, looks like a mixed-media collage of sticks and shells on a blue background. Some minutes later, I understand this is his tribute to the skills of the polynesian seafarers of yesteryear. For centuries, pacific islanders have paddled huge distances using for navigation aids only the night sky (the geographically arranged shells: note the two shells at the bottom doubling as New Zealand,) wave charts that record changes in the ocean swell thrown up by islands and reefs (the sticks) and the direction of flight of migratory birds such as godwits (the black twines.) These elements all come together in a pleasing and intriguing whole. I ask Mike about other paintings that could be described as “maori.” I realise that I have touched on what really floats his boat. He is professionally passionate about image-making as a means of education and keeping traditions alive among cultures that do not have a written history. He believes firmly that all children should be aware of the artistic heritage of their society and, as a means to bridge cultures, that of other societies as well. I am in awe of his clarity of thought together with his commitment to and eloquence on the subject. “But I have to show you my latest thing,” he enthuses. “It’s a tokotoko!” Right !

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A tokotoko is a stick that a wise maori elder might lean on whilst talking of generations past and accompanying myths and legends. Anyone else holding the tokotoko has the authority to speak. This tokotoko is an exceptionally beautiful piece of work. It would be fitting for the most respected of elders. It is a driftwood sapling with roots that mike has meticulously carved and adorned to produce images of some of New Zealands iconic, rare or even extinct fauna. It is a hand-crafted lesson in the unique ecology of this country.

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Prominent on the shaft is a Tuatara. In evolutionary terms it is a very very old beast. The name derives from maori meaning “peaks on the back”. I turn the tokotoko in my hands.

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Top right I find a huia. It is now extinct. It was the largest of the New Zealand wattlebird species. It was a striking black songbird. Female and male huia had dramatically different bill sizes and shapes; this is thought to be the most extreme sexual bill dimorphism of any bird species. Underneath the huia there is a South Island kokako that is also believed to be extinct. However, occasional snippets of song and possible glimpses of the “Grey Ghost” continue to tantalise ornithologists. Lower on the shaft of Mike’s tokotoko there is a representation of one of the native giant kauri snails. These molluscs are carnivorous, cannabilistic and may live for up to twenty years. Some species are also declining in numbers. Nestling right next to the snail is the increasingly endangered lesser short-tailed bat (pekapeka-tou-poto.) It is, unusually, a terrestrial bat that forages on the forest floor. Top left is a long fin eel (tuna kuwharuwharu;) one of the largest eels in the world. Its potential lifespan is about one hundred years and is found only in the rivers and lakes here. It was an important food source for the maori.

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The last feature of the tokotoko that Mike draws my attention to is a small brown godwit in flight. This brings our conversation full circle back to navigation. Each year about 80,000 of New Zealand’s godwits fly to the Yellow Sea (between China and North Korea), then on to Alaska, and back again. Precisely how they achieve this extraordinary feat is not entirely understood but it is certain that phases of the moon and the positions of stars (also incorporated on the tokotoko) guide these extraordinary birds on their epic journey.

I struggle to digest the aesthetic and intellectual span of Mike’s work. He very successfully makes manifest his eclectic interests and passions via a wide variety of image-making techniques. I take my hat off to him. He is committed to promoting humanity’s capacity to create beautiful stuff for the benefit of cultural future of generations to come. Meeting him is an enriching experience. And to think that when I first met him, I reckoned he was just a good bloke!

A Sudden Death

That awful unexpected phone call. He’s dead. Your world kind of crumples. Incomprehension. Nausea. Anger. Family members converge from all over; they hang on each other’s necks and sob. Fast forward three weeks. Boat-scattered ashes and roses intermingle on the surface of a river with two hundred friends and relatives cheering. A fitting send-off for this big-hearted husband, brother, father and friend loved and admired in equal measure. Poignant, almost joyful, beautiful stuff.

Bruce

Do not believe that your sudden death or a sudden death in your family is not in the deck of cards from which fate is dealing your hand. For your family’s sake, think now about the possibility of your sudden death. Have you written a will? Where is it? If it is not obvious, who is your formal next-of-kin? And if that person is indisposed, who might stand in? Make sure someone knows what you want done. Do you want to be an organ donor? Do you want to be buried or cremated? Do you want a religious or non-religious ceremony? Where will the grave be or the ashes scattered? Is there a charity you would like to support as an alternative to people paying for flowers or gifts? It is surprisingly important for your family to know what kind of music you would want played.

All your paperwork will be required by your family. Can someone else find your bank accounts, insurance policies, birth and marriage certificates, passport, national health card, your doctor’s name and address, national insurance number, mobile phone provider, your address book and many more. Accounts have to be accessed and closed. Make sure that passwords can be retrieved. I cannot stress this enough, make sure passwords can be retrieved.

And so to the family. You will find yourselves having to function practically in new emotional territory precisely when you are all in emotional turmoil. You will face a mountain of tasks. First, how do you tell everyone who has to be told? There is an outgoing phase of painful telephone calls, emails and facebook messages. Be prepared for the incoming phase from distressed family, friends, former colleagues, old school pals, team mates etc. Be prepared for people calling round throughout the day. Be prepared for their emotions. Be prepared for his mobile phone ringing. Be prepared for bizarre comments (such as a suggestion that the grieving wife might find solace in on-line dating!) Be prepared for more flowers than the house’s vases can accommodate. Be prepared for bundles of cards ranging from the touching, to the cute and even the distasteful. Be prepared for more cakes, casseroles and home-made biscuits than you all can possibly eat. Be prepared to be bowled over by peoples’ kindness. Be prepared to hear so many times “If there’s anything at all that we can do…” Just smile and say “Thank you.” Throughout all this, you will find steel friends.

Seemingly small practicalities kick in hard. Did he pay the car insurance that was due? Didn’t he have a dental appointment this week? Should we inform the police that there is no longer anyone with a shotgun certificate for the shotgun in the safe upstairs?

And there is more. Much, much, more. Be prepared, in parallel and from the first day, for the legal and administrative matters relating to a sudden death. This – in the UK – involves the police, a funeral director, the coroner’s office and the registrar of births, deaths & marriages. The procedures and papers to be completed are different from those of an expected death. For example, there is no medical certification of death. A heavyweight moment for everyone is the formal next of kin being informed of the cause of death. This precipitates another wave of outgoing messages to those who said they wanted to know.

The officials you deal with in person or by phone can be caring and sympathetic or they can be infuriatingly incompetent and rude. All is set to test your self-control. For any meeting or signing, carry all his official documents and carry all your official documents and proof of address. Make sure you have cash and that credit card payment will not be rejected. Certificates and services such as cremation have to be paid for up front. See your bank manager as early as possible. Probate, life insurance, pensions and savings have to be taken in hand. You will find on-line how to inform different government agencies such as those responsible for driving licence, tax, passport, health care etc.

In the first two weeks, one person should be the point of contact for and coordinate all this on behalf of the family. At all costs, avoid misunderstandings and confusion. Buy a book to write everything in. Record all contacts, meetings, telephone numbers and decisions. Encourage everyone to write any new contacts, suggestions or developments in it. Have a “team meeting” each day initially. Opinions differ. Listen to others. Be flexible. Cry together. Hug.

A reality creeps up on you and sinks its claws in. There are “arrangements” to be made. This is where your time and energies are expended. The funeral director needs to discuss burial versus cremation, choice of casket, flowers, the urn for ashes and what kind of event is being planned (we went for and recommend a humanist ceremony), where and when. Ask questions. Say what you want. Be firm. And then… Do you want to view your dead husband, brother, father? What clothes is he going to wear? This stressful stuff comes with short deadlines, a need for rapid decisions and long daily to-do lists.

Discussions and decisions increasingly focus on the event that symbolises public grieving: the cremation, memorial service, the funeral, the wake, the scattering of ashes or combinations thereof. Its organisation by necessity starts early. Get it right. I repeat, get it right. This is so important for you. Do not leave things for tomorrow that can be done today. The team meetings really help. Share the tasks. Here’s a checklist: What would he want? What do you want? Where and when? Who will be in charge of the ceremenony? Will that person be religious, civil or humanist? (The funeral director will have people on their books. Meet them beforehand.) How do you announce the event whether to individuals, collectively and publicly? (We found social media very useful. The funeral director can organse a local press announcement) How long will the event last? Critically, how will it end? Who will write the eulogies? Who will read the eulogies? (Gulp!) Who will read what poems? What about songs? What is your estimate of how many people will come? Decisions have to be made about orders of service, flowers, food, drinks, music. How can guests contribute to the chosen charity? Visit the event location well beforehand. Develop a working relationship with whomever is in charge. Check the seating. Check the sound system and microphones. Who will cue the music? Will guests be asked to place a photo or object on a memory table? Will they write in a book? If ashes are to be scattered, where will this be, when and will this be in the presence of other mourners? Do you have permission to scatter them there? Avoid surprises.

A great send-off is a great part of healthy grieving. It really is possible to organise it in those difficult early days. Doing so brings the family together. So line it all up. Take a big breath in and let the show begin. Be ready for unexpected guests and expected gusts not coming. Be ready for tears. Lots of tears. Your tears, your familys’ tears and the tears of others. Tears are great ! Let it all out and you will feel, for the first time since the phone call, that maybe there is still a glimmer of sun behind that big, black, heavy storm cloud.

Print this out. Keep it safely. If you need it one day (and I hope you don’t,) you will really need it.

Anywhen: live report day 2

Yesterday’s experience of Anywhen stays with me overnight. I can’t help thinking that, ultimately, what Phillippe Parreno is doing is playing with our absolute desire for certainty in our lives. I decide to give it another go. And so, at 11.45 today, I return to the famous Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Sombre base non-melodic music greets me. And…..  Wow! A helium filled fish drifts by. Children leap in excitement. Adults point their iPhones.

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I take my place on the carpet. I sit down among a hundred others. Amazingly, most are under twenty years old.

11.50 The music continues; it increases in volume. The lights go up. The suspended screens perform a little vertical shuffle with squeaky mechanical noises.

Certainty. It is essential for our mental and social well-being. We look for it in our daily routines, in the sun rising, in religious beliefs and in statistics. The seemingly random happenings in Anywhen deprive us of any certainty in our immediate surroundings. I hear a voice behind from a young lady “I guess it’s all about anticipation!” I guess it is.

11.55 The lights go down again. More music. Some people leave. Others arrive; they wonder why everyone is lying on the carpet. I make a new friend.

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12.04 The ventriloquist lady (Nina Conti) and the cuttlefish-squid are back on the screen.

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12.10 She asks “Who is the master? Who is the slave?” My fellow viewers (experiencers?) are drawn into the hypnotic log-curve forms of the fish.

12.25 I look behind. Everyone has a mesmerised expression. A huge chaotic noise rolls down the hall. A hundred school children arrive in hi-viz vests. This, I assume but without certainty, is not part of Perrano’s “immersive” creation.

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12.32 Lights flash. A woman screams “Attention!” Electronic bips and burps. Then silence. Microphone feedback squeal. “Grass!” an android voice shouts. “Rain!”

12.36 The screens descend but only partially. More people drift in expecting the show to begin. I am certain that this is far from certain. I harbour a little smug feeling that I can anticipate their disappointment.

12.38 Right on cue. The lights come on and the screens are hauled back up. Everyone stays. Scratchy recording of folky guitar song.

12.39 Very noisy airplane swoop. Some of us duck in a startled way. Another fish swims by about two metres off the floor. A young girl tries to catch it.

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13.01 Only electronic sounds. Nobody seems bored. Some snooze. Some kiss. Some check their snapchats, instagrams and whatsapps.

13.10 Nothing new to report. Feeling hungry. Feeling also rather happy I came back.

13.11 Total silence. Surprising.

13.15 I try to examine my very mixed feelings. I remain intrigued. I am not disappointed. Thanks to the others around me, I am far from bored.

13.20 I conclude that Anywhen is a remarkable experience. It seems the uncertainty that this concept serves up appeals to younger people. Perhaps this is because modern life is so full of … well…. certainties. Who knows for certain? Sorry about yesterday’s blog post, Tate Modern. Bravo, Monsieur Parreno!

13.25 Lunch.

Schiphol Clock

I am, once again, in transit at Schiphol airport. It is 3.54 pm. I have a few minutes for a coffee and a snoop about before a connecting flight. There’s always something interesting to discover here like big luggage people.

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I see a guy cleaning a big clock suspended from the ceiling. He seems to be wiping the clock-face from the inside. I can’t understand why so many people have their smart phones directed upwards.

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He’s obviously taking the job seriously as he’s removed the minute hand to give that frosted glass a good polish! I go to find a coffee.

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At 4.03 pm I am striding towards my departure gate and pass the clock again. The guy is still cleaning away. People are still fascinated. He then serves up a surprise!

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With a rubber window-cleaning blade, at 4.04 pm, he scrapes off the minute hand …..

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….. and repaints it one minute later with a small roller. I grasp what this is about. He has been doing this all along minute by minute. This is a performance in real time. Lordielord! This is brilliant! I am riveted.

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Entranced, I watch him wipe away and repaint a slightly advanced hour hand. Inevitably, a series of questions run through my head. Is there someone really inside that box? How does he get in there? Is he an “artist” or an employee? Does he get a break? Is there a change of shift every hour or so?

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I am now late for my flight but I have to satisfy my curiosity. I look up at the back of the massive clock. Sure enough, there is a ladder and a door. It seems the guy really is inside. I run grinning like an idiot. My heart sings. I have just witnessed creative genius on a grand public scale. This makes my day.

Later internet research tells me this is the work of Dutch designer Maarten Baas. It is one of his “Real Time” series. For his “performance,” Baas wears a blue overall and uses a red bucket and a yellow cleaning cloth all in solidarity with all those folk who keep the airport spotless.

Inevitably – and with only a little disappointment – I learn that this is a precisely synchronised 12 hour-long video performance projected within a stainless steel box. The ladder and door into the “clock” build an illusion of reality; the viewer is led to imagine the guy descending from a hatch in the ceiling and locking himself into the box to do his job.

I just love how Schiphol goes to such lengths to bring beautiful stuff to travel-weary passengers. Admirable! Fabulous! Thrilling!

Watch the video!