Turned off, tuned out

Living on the river one can quickly become disconnected from the outside world. Especially if one has only limited Internet time, and lives without a radio or television. Life on the Rio Guadiana is idyllic – for us estranjeros at least. The days are sunny and warm more often than not, the land is rich and fertile, the villages are quiet and serene. Life moves at a slow pace and everyone – local or blow-in – has time for a chat. With the ringing of sheep bells and twittering of a hundred thousand birds in the bushes along the riverbank, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world is out there. We live a privileged life here, far from the worries and cares of the world.

I’m even more estranged from the world than most due to my limited time on the Internet. I go online every day or every other day, picking up Wifi at the library or at a cafe. I’m rarely online for more than an hour and a half. That time is spent posting blogs, studying Spanish with Duolingo, checking and answering emails. Occasionally I will download a few podcasts to listen to back on the boat – invariably Woman’s Hour and Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review. If my computer battery hasn’t completely run down by then I might spend a few minutes on the BBC website, catching up on current affairs.

Twitter can be a great source of news for me. I mainly follow environmental, Arctic and Inuit-related stuff, and political individuals and organisations (that’s the only reason I follow Mark Ruffalo, honestly!), getting the news that interests me that way. But Twitter’s not much good if you only access it now and again. When I upload new tweets these days, I read them at home, but then don’t have the Internet access to follow the links to the stories.

My limited Internet time also means that I haven’t been keeping up with the blogs I follow, some of which I enjoy because of the political, ethical and moral questions they raise. I have a backlog of blogs in my hotmail inbox and I don’t know when I will ever have the time to read them.

And, of course, not having a radio or television at home means I am not exposed to current affairs and to the world outside my little stretch of the Rio Guadiana on an ongoing basis.

Now, all of this can be a good thing. Often, I think we have too much exposure to the world beyond our own home or community. We concern ourselves with things that don’t matter so much; or that shouldn’t affect our lives but do. And I’m not just talking about which celebrity wore what dress to an awards ceremony; or which pop star is dating which footballer. None of us needs that stuff cluttering our lives, no matter how much fun it is. Moved though I was by David Bowie’s death, it didn’t matter to my life that the news didn’t reach me for three days.

There are other news stories that, while interesting and thought provoking, only impact the lives of those immediately involved. Murders, mass shootings, transport accidents. Many people, including me, are often deeply moved, disturbed or worried by these stories, but they don’t alter our day to day lives. In a week we’ve forgotten about them.

But there are other things going on in the world that can and do affect our lives, or that we are responsible for or are part of the solution to. Here on the idyllic river, without daily access to news and current affairs, it’s easy to forget that there are refugees across the continent and the world, suffering, and that there are communities and nations (including the ones we’re living in) trying to find ways to cope with the influx of these refugees. It’s easy to forget that there are people losing their homes, livelihoods and lives across the world because of climate-change related droughts, fires, floods, pests and diseases. It’s easy to forget there are children in the world mining minerals for our mobile phones or working in sweat shops to produce the clothes and toys we so carelessly use and throw away. It’s easy to forget that fish, sea birds and other marine life are in immediate peril from the plastic pollution overwhelming our oceans. And so much more besides – food waste, toxic pollution, mass death of bees, the environmental and social implications of TTIP.

And I believe it’s important to be exposed to these stories, to know what’s happening, to be confronted with the reality of climate change; the relationship between consumerism, social injustice and environmental degradation; the boomerang of arms trade to war to refugee children. Because we – me and my husband, all of us – as consumers, voters, citizens, human beings, all contribute to these problems and we can also, crucially, contribute to their solutions. But if we do not know these things are happening, if we are not exposed to the individual personal stories that form the jigsaw that makes up the whole, then we can be lulled into a false stupor that the whole world is as idyllic this little stretch of river.

So I’m making a renewed effort to reconnect on a daily basis with the world beyond the river and to bring what I learn from the world into my way of living here. To renew the impact that environmental degradation, child labour, social injustice have on my consumer choices; to think about what I can do in my little life in this little corner of the world that will contribute to solving injustice and healing degradation. And for all it’s time sucking ability, the Internet is the best way I have right now to reconnect with the world beyond the river.

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Of hawks and wild places

I’ve retreated into myself in the past few weeks, unable to write, unable to communicate. The time of year, the news stories on the television, morose thoughts about my upcoming surgery. Early September hits me like a train every year. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the anniversary of my father’s death comes around and knocks me down all over again. It takes time to pull myself out of that hole.

This year my grief has been compounded by images of new born babies, small children, old men fleeing in desperation from their homes and searching for hope in an unsure Europe. I feel helpless in the face of such misery and desperation, yet tearfully grateful for the crowds of welcoming ordinary citizens, opening their hearts and their homes to refugees.

So I retreated inward, grew maudlin and morose, became unbearable to live with. But during my late summer hibernation two books have pulled me through, dragged me back to the world again. Both concern the interactions and engagements between humans and non-humans, wildness and domesticity, love, awe and wonder. And both perhaps not coincidentally are written by fellows of Cambridge colleges, who are friends and who have contributed in one way or another to each others’ books.

H is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s powerful and moving story of training a goshawk. She and I were contemporaries at Cambridge and we met a couple of times. We shared an interest in the relationships between humans and animals and I was in awe of her knowledge and passion for falconry, mesmerised by her intellect and eloquence. Little did I know, as we stood drinking a cup of tea in her college garden sharing thoughts on hawks and polar bears, that she was deeply grieving for her father and living a half-wild life with her goshawk Mabel. Her book is an uplifting memoir of how training Mabel helped drag Macdonald out of her grief. But it is also a fascinating account of the history and culture of falconry. By the last page I wanted to walk through fields in search of rabbits and pheasants, to get my skin scratched and my hair messed up from pushing myself through hedges and into woodlands, to feel the weight of a bird of prey on my hand.

From H is for Hawk I picked up Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places. From his Cambridge home MacFarlane sets out to find the wild places of Britain and Ireland, places devoid of humanity and human history. But in his search he comes to the slow realisation that such places do not exist. The wild expanses of the Scottish highlands or the west of Ireland were once filled with people before Clearances and Famine swept human life aside. He discovers that ‘the wild’ cannot be separated from ‘the human’, they exist together. He discovers wildness in a weed pushing up through a crack in a pavement, in a spider web in the corner of a room, in an abandoned factory. The book takes the reader to the far reaches of mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye, to Anglesey, Dorset, the Burren, even to Essex. In writing the book, he travelled to places I have been to and love and to places I have never heard of. His evocative writing carried my thoughts away from Leamington Spa to these magnificent parts of the archipelago and my soul soared.

By the end of these two books I felt ready to write again, able to communicate again, ready to return to the world. These books helped the dark places in my mind open up to the continuities between past and present, human and other-than-human, life and death.

Next on my list of uplifting books? Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s awaiting me on my bedside table right now.