It’s been a while since I have added any new post here – although part of the delay is that I have been awaiting corrections from an interviewee (Magda Sobolewska) to the article I wrote some time ago about her, the rest has just been simple busyness, which is about to become exponential – therefore, I will simply have to write in smaller bursts than I usually do!
It’s not that I haven’t been writing, because I have been, every day. Some of my writing has been paid copywriting for a range of products and various start-up companies; I also recently wrote another piece for The Vegan Review on the challenges of trying to adopt eco-friendly food choices when you have dietary issues, which I’ve just been requested to give an interview on, and am now having to fend off other requests for further articles or commissions on a freelance basis, being that I’ve also just started an actual full-time job (subbing on financial news website capital.com). Yet even with a never-ending supply of fresh inspirations, there is, I am finding, a limit to how much time I can physically manage either sitting at a computer or even writing by hand.
Most of my current writing is daily journalling or morning pages (this is a reference to a stellar work by Julia Cameron called The Artists’ Way, which if you have never read, I encourage you to do so – it is a wonderful tool for creative unblocking, whether as an artist or a writer, or really for any other creative work) as a précis to continued work on my current creative work-in-progress, an historical fiction novel set in 17th century Amsterdam and Japan (I am now in chapter 10, which I hope will be the end of Act 1 and ready to be sent out to a few willing beta readers [at 48,000+ words, this will be a long one, but I am really enjoying it… more about that shortly]).
Occasionally I still write poetry, which used to be my main form of writing expression from the time I was very young, when I was typically either known as ‘Jane the poet’ or ‘Jane the artist’. That lasted until my early 30s, until my first husband’s insistence on the need for rhyme in poetry (he was a musician) had the unfortunate effect of killing my natural poetic voice, which wrought a deep grief in me – I don’t find it at all surprising that in the absence of being able to express myself with words that I next took up dancing as a way of expressing myself. I have still written a few; the sudden drought of poetry hasn’t stopped me getting the odd poempublished, but they are far rarer now than they used to be – I do hope that at some point the poetic muse will return, but at the moment I am at least pleased to be writing fiction fluently.
I am also still interviewing potential whistleblowers, collecting evidence and collaborating with others on a planned investigative exposé of all the different aspects of corruption behind HS2 as a follow-up to my previous shorter investigative article, which most readers of this blog and personal acquaintances will know I am quite passionate about.
Yet no matter what type of writing (or even editing, which at times involves substantial writing or rewriting) I am doing, I am doing my utmost now simply to just get on and do it – this is actually a huge step for me, since I have already had a lifetime of being blocked through being a perfectionist (a wonderful skill for an editor/proofreader, but it can be a real curse to any creative writer or artist). So it is a massive improvement for me that I now just focus on the processof writing. Because of my other creative work as a visual artist, I realise that writing is quite a lot like drawing and painting, in that you usually have to do an underdrawing or sketch to map out the correct positioning and perspective, and then begin to add other aspects such as shading and tonal layering to add depth and dimension. Sometimes you have to rework the whole thing, or do several different sketches to get it right, or spend a lot of time exploring similar themes – as, for example, Degas did in his many paintings of ballerinas, or Monet’s variations on the themes of waterlilies.
You realise when you work creatively that your first efforts may not be perfect right away, but that if you continue to work diligently, you will get there eventually – the important thing is not to focus on the finished product or be discouraged if it is not perfect right away, but to persist and eventually see improvement. It is the only way!
As well as learning so much daily in my own writing process, I also learn tremendously via exchanges with other writers around the world through my daily participation in the London Writers’ Salon‘s Writers’ Hour online writing sessions (and also the Weekend Writers subgroup, which is presently a real life-saver). In these daily “50 minutes of pure, focused writing” sessions, multiple writers of all styles and persuasions say hi in the Zoom chat window, then we set our intentions for the session, listen to or share some daily ‘words of wisdom’ from other writers, and then get down to the business of whatever we happen to be working on. Some are well-established, published novelists; some are jobbing copywriters, journalists, academicians and essayists; some are poets and short-story writers; some are bloggers; and several are newbie writers working on a first novel like me (well, I did write a full-length fantasy novella – a Narnia story – for my degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Bard College in New York back in the 80s, but this is my first ‘serious’ novel attempt, and certainly my first attempt at writing historical fiction).
After the 50 minutes is up, we then report on our progress afterwards. I am always amazed at those who manage to write a 1,000 words or more in one session – my average is 400-450 – but you have to accept your own limits and not compare yourself with others. We are all running our own race, with our own end in sight – so even if I/we only manage to crawl a few inches per session, it is all progress towards our eventual goal. And this particular forum/writing group is always so encouraging – I am deeply grateful to Matt and Parul and ‘KK’ and all the other contributors to this group for providing an unfailingly encouraging writing environment – also to others like French poet and photographic artist Nicolas Laborie, who has provided me with so much help and inspiration for my novel, as well as guidance to other aspects of the different channels on the Slack forum we are able to access as patrons (although it is free to join London Writers’ Salon, becoming a silver patron for £15 a month enables access to the Slack chat as well as free talks with other writers every Tuesday, and a whole host of other benefits I have not fully explored yet).
Re my novel
In case you are wondering what made me take the leap to historical fiction, the answer is fairly simple: I thought about what I most like to read or watch as a film – and I suppose in my wildest dreams, yes I WOULD love to see my novel made into a film! – and that was that. I confess I did struggle a bit at the beginning with defining exactly which genre (and genre conventions) it would follow, especially being that at its heart, it is a love story, but it is also a world view story – and hopefully also a rollicking good adventure, at least in places (pirates! storms! sword fights! samurais! sexual attacks!).
Right or wrong, I am presently writing in the first person – and as my main protagonist is a young man, an artist sent against his will to work in the silk trade with the Dutch East India Company (or VOC), writing his first sexual encounter recently was certainly a unique challenge! – although I plan to introduce Act 2 from the perspective of his Japanese love interest, and perhaps intersperse their points of view(s) with that of a European and a Japanese observer – we’ll see.
As this novel is already quite long and there is still much more to uncover once my hero gets to Japan (he will eventually return to Amsterdam and then back to Japan again), it is possible it will end up being similar in length to James Clavell’s epic Shogun; I realise I may need to cut & refine it, which I will do at the second draft stage. At the moment I am mostly just focused on trying to get as much of the actual correct historical details (my real-life historical characters include Rembrandt, Hendrik Brouwer, Anthony van Diemen, Francois Caron, Joost Schouten, and Philips and Petronella Lucasz so far, to name a few) and plot structure + characters together as an outline, but I intend to go back to add depth to the characters while improving/fact-checking the language (some is Dutch, some Portuguese, some French, some Japanese and Balinese) and other historical details. It will take time to get it all write, but for now I am simply enjoying the adventure – both those of my character(s) and the sheer adventure of writing in a new genre.
The writing process for me – particularly for a historical novel, which just involves so much research – is very much like a cha cha: the rhythm is definitely a slow–slow–quick–quick–slow, as quite often I will need to spend time revising content I have already written. I do always make progress incrementally, but sometimes it is slower than others!
Meanwhile, as I now need to get on with the day job, I do have to say again that it is really thanks to the London Writers’ Salon that I have made as much progress as I have done so far with my novel – not to mention helping to keep me from going completely nuts during lockdown. Writing is generally a very solitary occupation, which is especially challenging for a natural extrovert like myself. In fact, I always fantasised when I was young about being in a salon, so the fact that this is part of its title makes it, ironically, a dream come true… and most certainly it has been one of the true gifts of lockdown.
After a week marked by prolonged social media discussions on how to deal with climate grief, a close friend’s profound grief and despair due to losing her mother to Covid, and an extremely moving vigil to mourn the loss of a uniquely beautiful, much-beloved and irreplaceable site of ancient woodland, the below is a meditation on these various forms of grief — climate grief, personal grief, and solastalgia (loss of place, specifically Jones Hill Wood) — and how to work through it.
Jones Hill Wood: a very poignant solastalgia
I recently attended a vigil at Jones Hill Wood in Wendover, along with some 30–40 people — or perhaps there were more in the trees, or huddled in cars and tents. Sadly, even as we sang, shared poems, stories, verses and personal remembrances, the chainsaws could be heard felling in the background, greedily destroying this incredibly beautiful ancient woodland, described even by its Government-authorised ecocidal murderers as “a habitat of principal importance”.
For all who have ever visited this wood — the inspiration for beloved children’s author Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox (the author lived in nearby Great Missenden, and one of the book’s principal characters is named Bunce, supposedly after farmer Kevin Bunce & Sons, on the edge of whose farm the wood sits) — Jones Hill Wood is a truly magical, irreplaceable site. For those of us who have been fighting long and hard to preserve it — even more so for the many who have been living here in the camp for over a year, as powerfully documented here — the beauty of this place has left a deep mark on our souls. The connection is so strong that its threatened loss leaves an overwhelming sense of grief and heartache — the kind of ‘homesickness’ now described as solastalgia, which is recognised as a key component of climate grief.
Tragically, despite the endless hard work by a crack ecological team in recording evidence of the increasingly rare and threatened Barbastelle bat (Barbastella barbastellus), supposedly protected by law (the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, for one), our hard-fought legal case against Natural England — which only recently resulted in an injunction being granted by sympathetic judge Justice Lang to stop the felling until 24 May — was overturned by HS2 ally Justice Holgate. This meant HS2 would be allowed to resume their deadly work with immediate effect, nesting/roosting season notwithstanding.
And so we gathered to grieve the loss of this precious habitat, a “mix of semi-natural broadleaved woodland dominated by beech”, and also home to oaks, ash, rowans, elders, holly, hawthorn, cherry, bluebells, foxes, glis glis, badgers, nesting birds, Natterer’s and other bats, and many other precious flora and fauna. We sat in a loose circle on the ground, near the fence HS2 workers keep moving (that part of the land belongs to Mr Liberty; they are in fact stealing an extra 1.5–2 metres all around it supposedly for ‘mitigation’ [their idea is translocate the ancient soil, a concept that is rejected on principle by the Woodland Trust and other leading ecologists — and don’t get me started on HS2’s ‘ecologists’, whom I have only ever observed arriving at a site, poking a stick in a tree or bush, shaking it around and then departing]; in reality, this further unlawful land grab is merely so they can destroy yet more ancient woodland to make way for a temporary haul road). Each person who wished to do so took turns sharing, all holding flickering candles. Local resident and bodging expert Stuart placed a crucified Mr Fox on the fence as a gentle protest.
One woman began by reeling off a few of her poems, hard-hitting rhymes that resonated with all of us. I read out the words of Psalm 24, which had echoed upliftingly in my head after a previous despair-filled episode in this year-long battle with HS2 (the infamous‘Battle of the Beancan’). Mark Keir shared the good news that at least one protestor’s case had been dropped. Val and Sylvia led us in a few gentle songs. Ghost read a history written by a World War II child evacuee of a local farm, the owners of which have since been evicted and the farm is soon to be destroyed by HS2. Jo placed a small cross on a temporary ‘grave’ made with a few feathers, twigs and stones, thanking many significant people – valiant local reporter Ann of Wendover, the team of volunteer ecologists tracking the bats, the helpful food suppliers, and all of us who cared enough to come, whether locally or from far away.
“But, take these several beings from their homes. Each beauteous thing a withered thought becomes; Association fades and like a dream They are but shadows of the things they seem. Torn from their homes and happiness they stand The poor dull captives of a foreign land.“
A visitor from Hemel shared memorably about how he had realised our spiritual energy never dies, but goes into something else. He said he had been pondering which animal he would want to come back as, but had finally concluded he would want to come back as a tree – “because then I would be giving oxygen to the world – and maybe some of you would climb up among my branches, and save me so I can keep on saving you”. Nearly last, but not least, legal warrior Kestrel stated that “until the last tree has been cut down, we will keep fighting”. That is indeed what all present have been doing fervently for a year or more, ever since the camp at Jones Hill Wood (JHW) was first erected.
And yet recent conversations reveal that responses to ecocidal grief and loss vary widely. Despite those of us who were present at this vigil – some, like me, local; others travelling for hours from all over the UK – frequently shouting out tirelessly for witnesses to come and share our grief, to assist us in honouring this magical wood before it is nearly completely destroyed, we encountered the usual excuses from many – “I can’t bear to see it – it makes me too upset”, “I’ve already done all I could”, “You can’t fight it, the system is totally corrupt”, “It’s a done deal, you’re wasting your time”, etc etc. I have lost much time and psychological energy this week contending with comments on social media from some who sadly chose to take my pleas for support and physical presence at JHW as an effort to make them feel guilty. This at times has felt deeply alienating, as what I had mostly hoped for was empathy. Grief of any kind is always so much harder to bear when those we think will support us don’t, for whatever reason. It makes the loss so much harder to shoulder.
But as I and several other vigil attenders commented, out of all the horror of this abysmal ecocide and the shattering loss of our legal battle to protect this ancient wood and its creatures, the very best thing to come out of it has been the sense of kinship, deep empathy, fondness and connection we have all felt towards each other in our shared grief and purpose.
I remember once hearing a saying that has stuck with me ever since, particularly whenever I have discovered a kindred spirit after feeling alienated because of my views or beliefs: A friend is someone who sees the same things you do. I may not otherwise have much in common with everyone present — we represent a wide range of creeds, colours, ages, tastes, education levels, skills, geographies and even nationalities — yet here in this wood, sharing this moment of grief together, we were all indeed one, and the same. As Jo said, “You’ve all become my family now.”
Climate despair: Suffer in silence or galvanise in action?
Probably one of the most profound things about grief is that it is a deeply personal issue – and being that we are all unique, one-of-a-kind individuals, we all have different ways of processing and responding to it. When our friends or loved ones are overwhelmed by grief, sadness and loss, we have to allow them to go through the process of grieving (as outlined below) in their own way and time. All of our good or best intentions, or efforts to cheer them up, can never make the pain go away — and in some cases, it may even make it worse. Therefore, if we love them, we have no other option but to practise “the radical act of letting things hurt”. There can be no moral judgement or standard, one-size-fits-all timetable for how long it takes to work through grief — it is not something one can simply ‘snap out of’ just because someone else says we have to.
The differences and similarities in the processes of dealing with grief are very clearly seen when it comes to dealing with the topic of climate grief, the emotional toll of which is now finally being recognised as a genuine psychopathological illness. According to a 2016 report on climate change and mental health, “perhaps one of the best ways to characterise the impacts of climate change on perceptions is the sense of loss”.
As mentioned above, solastalgia is the fancy scientific name for the sense of abject desolation arising from the loss of a significant or emotively charged place (such as JHW) — it is a psychological phenomenon most keenly observed in those forced to leave their homes or familiar terrain as a result of disaster, for example war, persecution, genocide, pollution, drought, famine, floods, avalanches, rising sea levels, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and deforestation. Alas, we now know this phenomenon will only increase and become even more pervasive the hotter the planet gets, the more unsustainable this Earth we call ‘home’ becomes.
Ever since climate change started making international headlines — perhaps beginning with Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg‘s decision to sit alone outside her school in August 2018 holding a placard announcing Skolstrejk för klimatet (‘School strike for climate’) in a concerted protest about global leaders’ refusal to address the looming climate catastrophe — the world has been deeply divided about how to respond to climate grief and anxiety. In just 16 months, Greta’s actions launched a global youth protest movement that inspired over 4 million people to join the global climate strike on 20 September 2019. She met the Pope and the US President (then the resolutely climate-sceptical Donald Trump), and also became Time‘s 2019 Person of the Year — pretty impressive results for a then-15-year-old girl with Asperger’s!
However, perhaps Greta’s most significant achievement has been her ability to give voice to the sense of rage, futility, despair and grief many of us now feel about the inevitable losses we will all soon experience as a result of climate change. “How dare you?” she thundered at world leaders gathered at a UN Assembly in September 2019, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” She fearlessly and blatantly accused them of failing to act, of fiddling while the entire planet burns: “Sorry, you’re not doing enough!”
Greta’s courageous activism has also helped give birth or fresh impetus to many radical environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose catchphrase, ‘Love and Rage’, sums up the emotional status behind this global effort to impact corporate and political decision-makers to do more to combat climate change before it is truly too late. Motivated by a deep sense of alarm, rage and grief about the coming environmental apocalypse if sufficient measures are not taken to prevent temperatures rising above the pre-industrial level 1.5°C threshold, as outlined in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report, XR has consistently demanded the formation of a Citizen’s Assembly that will enable climate-alarmed citizens to take action to avert disaster.
As with any large-scale, global movement of diverse human beings, there have been some disagreements and diverging paths within XR; it has now developed several sub-groups, of which HS2 Rebellion is but one*. However, XR officially espouses a welcoming, tolerant and non-shaming/blaming culture that seeks to balance occasionally provocative, militant and/or disruptive activism — such as the October 2019 Canning Town tube incident, which divided many members and is currently perceived by several of its leaders as misguided —with a loving, self-compassionate emphasis on regenerative culture (or ‘regen’) — practising deep levels of community, interpersonal and self-care in order to be able to recuperate from intense actions or long-term resistance, and thus become more resilient in the face of adversity and hostile reactions so as to be able to continue the fight.
While the effect of such divergent movements has perhaps been to lessen the unity and thus overall impact of XR — not least also significantly hampered by the Covid-19 lockdown, as well as UK Government moves to add limitations and restrictions to democratic rights to protest — there have also been simple, but occasionally marked, differences in the practices, tools and methods its diverse individuals have chosen as aids in processing climate grief. Some are perhaps more naturally inclined to direct or ‘aggressive’ political actions, whereas others prefer a gentler path of helping to heal the Earth through a range of nature-friendly efforts such as rewilding or other ecologically important and sustaining work. Others are more comfortable, skilled and effective in petitioning, lobbying — for example, attempting to persuade MPs to back the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill — or utilising social media in “armchair activism”.
Yet whether XR rebels are happily risking arrest by engaging in radical, potentially dangerous actions such as lock-ons and recently tunnelling under Euston Station to get their points across, or are patiently doing most of the time-consuming legal or political legwork behind a computer screen, the effect for all of any prolonged interfacing with the spectre of potential planetary annihilation is often severe burnout, coupled with an overwhelming and psychologically disabling feeling of climate despair. Aware of the capacity for this, XR set up an Emotional Support Network to help activists who are burned out or so climate grief-stricken they are unable to function. This resource, along with other regenerative practices such as simply spending more time enjoying and appreciating the very nature we are fearful of losing, is seen as the best ways for individuals to combat climate grief.
Along with our common mortality, another facet of being human is our need for social connection, even in the midst of overwhelming and often isolating grief. This very human need for connection is so deeply woven into the fabric of our psyches that even the most introverted or rugged individualists need that sense of connection to manifest somehow — for example, American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, influential author of classics Walden and Civil Disobedience, who spent nearly his whole life living alone in a cabin in the woods by himself, still emerged with books eager to impart his story to society and ultimately change it as a result.
Unsurprisingly, XR itself arose from a small group of activists, friends and academics who all saw the same thing — the climate and ecological emergency — and, led by Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam, decided to do something about it collectively. Although ideas for something similar had been around for a few years, in October 2018, they decided to spawn a movement that could help empower others to “be (part of) the change you want to see”, and so officially launched XR.
Yet some will still ask: Why act? If the world will all end soon, and we are all powerless to stop it, what is the point? Shouldn’t we all just stay in a place of grief, embrace what little time we have left doing the things we love with the people we love? And what about our need to take time simply to enjoy the beauty and glory of this precious yet fragile planet, while we still can?
Of course, this is all true — and, as XR’s experience and tenets testify, any programme of activism MUST be balanced with regen practices, which for those who experience profound climate grief should certainly include time spent in nature. As has been noted:
“We are only just beginning to understand the effect of nature on human health. One in six of the UK population suffers from depression, anxiety, stress phobias, suicidal impulses, obsessive-compulsive disorders and panic attacks” [not to mention addictions caused by over-reliance on various substance — food, alcohol, drugs, nicotine, sex, etc]. Treating such mental health issues cost the National Health Service £12.5bn, and the economy up to £41.8bn in dealing with the human costs of reduced quality of or loss of life. Yet studies show that time spent in nature [even for hospitalised patients who have a view of nature form their windows] has the power to alleviate most of the symptoms of these disorders.”
So, for those feeling overwhelmed with personal or climate grief or stressed by thoughts of a potentially uninhabitable planet for their children and grandchildren, time out in nature is essential.
However, beyond the ever-present need for regen, the general consensus among the climate-concerned/climate grief-stricken (see below) is that the best tonic for the sense of futility and the ever-present guilt of “not doing enough” is action — specifically local, political or community-based actions that have a clear focus and an immediately observable, beneficial effect on the environment. Whether this will also involve more radical behaviours such as smashing windows, stopping trains or living in a treehouse in a threatened woodland is entirely up to the will, personalities, and mental/physical abilities of the individual — clearly, such actions may not be suitable or acceptable for everyone.
The five stages of grief: personal and climate grief
For those who have either not yet made the leap from awareness of climate change to alarm to despair and then to activism — as per my own personal trajectory, and that of many other environmental warriors and XR members I know — the process of working through climate grief follows a very similar pattern to Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal 1969 work on grief, On Death and Dying.
Kübler-Ross’s outline of the five major stages of grief is now seen as a classic paradigm for counsellors seeking to help alleviate the depression and other mental health issues grievers experience. The received wisdom regarding these stages is that they tend to go in a cycle, and are not always linear — in fact, some may be repeated on and off as individuals process their grief. Some people experience all of the stages, occasionally simultaneously, while others may only experience a few — and some may experience none at all. However, as these are now accepted as fairly standard aspects of the grieving process, they are worth noting in any discussion of grief, as explained below.
I have summarised these and also made reference to the climate grief variation of this model, as first articulated by University of Montana professor Steve W. Running, who was a lead contributor to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning 2007 IPCC report.
5. acceptance — exploring options, new plan in place, moving on
Shock and denial are initially helpful in that they help to cushion the blow when you have suffered a really painful loss, such as the unexpected death of a loved one. You experience a kind of numbness where you can’t believe what has happened and how it has irrevocably changed your life. Denial is essentially your psyche’s way of saying, “I can’t handle this now”. But as it is only once the bandages are removed that the healing process in your body will begin, the same is true of how your psyche heals from grief. As the shock and denial start to fade, the healing process can begin.
When this stage is interpreted in the climate grief version, this is reflected as complete denial of the existence or reality of climate change. People simply refuse to accept that it is happening or to recognise the impacts of manmade greenhouses on a warming climate, and instead blame any temperature rises on natural processes. While there are many types of climate change denier and climate conspiracy theorists, typically this is intertwined with the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry. For the most part, those who reject the idea that climate change is happening tend to do so because they are aware on some level that if it is true — as those of us now familiar with the science know it is — it will necessitate massive amounts of personal and systemic change. And we all know that change of any kind is a very scary proposition for many, hence the resistance to the truth.
After the initial shock and denial subsides, suppressed emotions begin to arise — with angry thoughts being a predominant feature: Why me? It’s so unfair! Where are you God! How could you let this happen? In the midst of their confusion and distress, grievers often misdirect blame onto others to avoid experiencing the painful sense of helplessness and frustration at not having been able to stop the loss. Yet while anger is not always healthy, the anger connected with grief is actually a vital part of the healing process. Giving voice to feelings of rage helps channel the griever’s awakened energies into making the painful but necessary changes that will ultimately help the griever move forward.
Anger is also an extremely significant aspect of the climate grief cycle. Once it becomes undeniably evident that climate change is indeed happening —far faster and with far more devastating consequences than any single country or group of leaders is presently prepared to deal with —sheer, incandescent rage is typically the first emotion most people feel as the veil of denial lifts and acceptance occurs. Greta Thunberg’s incensed “How dare you!” echoes exactly the feelings of everyone who has suddenly woken up to the fact that all the dire scientific warnings and climate change models — many of which have actually been around since the 1970s, with varying degrees of accuracy — have been steadfastly ignored, hidden or covered up by world leaders and a heavily fossil fuel-dependent society. It is often this anger that prompts people to join activist groups such as XR (perhaps quite logical, then, that its catchphrase is ‘Love & Rage’).
The next classic stage of grief is bargaining. This often manifests as an attempt to ‘make a deal with God’: Please God, if you can only do just this one miracle, I promise to be a good/better person forever. You falsely believe that by negotiating, by offering to make some major sacrifice or commitment, it will enable you to get your life ‘back to normal’ (eg before the event that caused the grief) or forestall the grief in some way.
Most of this bargaining is fed and empowered by guilt, and attended by endless ‘if onlys’: If only I had done x, y wouldn’t have happened. My loved one might still be here today if only I had been there to get him/her to the hospital in time. If only I had not gone back to get my keys, the accident would never have happened. If only I had listened to my instincts and got him to see a doctor sooner. If only I had left work on time, I might have been able to save her. The list goes on. And on. Depending on their personality, cultural background and personal capacity for guilt or ‘navel-gazing’, some grievers can get stuck in this stage for a long time.
For those who began their journey from a place of climate change denialism and have now (technically) accepted it as a reality, the bargaining stage tends to take some form of reasoning that perhaps it is not really quite as bad as scientists predict. The bargainer will likely attempt to put a positive spin on such predictions by asserting that, for example, the warming of normally frozen locations might be good in that it will open up new places (Antarctica, for example) to tourism or human habitation. Or they may place their hopes in their political leaders’ commitment to achieving net-zero carbon-neutrality targets by 2050, or in other greenhouse gas-reducing solutions such as renewable energy technologies.
The penultimate stage is the most common, immediate and well-recognised form of grief. Those who have suffered a profound loss of any kind may speak of having their hearts broken, of feeling they are no longer able to go on, of feeling life no longer holds any joy or meaning for them, of being unable to stop crying, or of feeling overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, but not wishing to talk about it. They may feel as though a heavy fog has descended on them, and they may not wish to get out of bed or attend any normal activities, but instead seek to withdraw from others.
Although depression usually has the effect of flattening one’s mood, it can also manifest in many ‘hidden’ ways, such as a seemingly out-of-character or unnatural elation. Sufferers may seem agitated, extremely anxious or fearful, or physically affected such that they are no longer able to eat, sleep or work. The simplest tasks seemingly become impossible. Often, suddenly bereaved wives or husbands may not live long after their partner’s death, whether through desire to be reunited with their loved one in the hereafter or a simple loss of the will to live.
At this point, some may try to alleviate these unbearably painful feelings by turning to drink, drugs, sex or other addictive substances or behaviours, which only work as a mask in the short run, delaying or preventing the person from dealing with or moving on from their actual grief. In some cases, the secondary problems arising from reliance on these methods can take over, causing far more severe long-term issues such as complete mental or marital breakdown, job or home loss, physical injury or illness, or even death.
In fact, it is probable that depression is a constant throughout the grieving process; even when moving forward to the final stage, a sudden memory or reminder of the loss can trigger fresh feelings of depression or sadness.
The depression stage of climate grief will plunge some into a state of despair, alternating with panic about the inevitable and irretrievable doom of the planet. They often feel overwhelmed and bewildered by what seems an impossible situation, and find themselves unable to think clearly about or act to find any potential solution. However, even if they reach this state, they will eventually realise that it is simply impossible to live here forever — they must stir themselves to take some kind of action, however small, to feel satisfied they are at least ‘doing their bit’ to fight the situation. Doing so is a step forward, as it is effectively empowering them for the next step.
In Kübler-Ross’s final stage, the griever eventually works through the gamut of their feelings and begins to move into acceptance of the loss. While never admitting the loss as okay in itself, they begin to realise that life does go on, and so must they. They feel that despite the not-okay-ness of the loss, they themselves will eventually be okay — and they accept that that is what the person or thing lost would wish for them.
This time of adjustment will be marked by many ups and downs, by good days and bad days. Sometimes the sadness will flood them anew with fresh feelings of pain, but it will eventually lift. During this stage, people may find new friends or activities that, while never replacing the loss, will help provide a fresh focus and impetus to get on with the business of life. This process can eventually lead to a new direction or new purpose, for example remarriage or rebuilding one’s life in a new setting.
Those who have accepted the scientific reality of climate change and the present ecological emergency, and have begun to move forward from a place of climate grief and despair, generally recognise that they will need to make some necessary and radical changes to their own lifestyles. Frequently, having begun this process, they also seek to help and educate others, often by advocating for change through personal, local national or international policies or the political arena. They may become active in championing new technologies or even resuming ancient practices that seem to offer viable solutions, for example rewilding as a tactic to reduce biodiversity loss by the reintroduction into uninhabited landscapes of specific species such as bison, wolves or beavers.
For those at this stage, the only ‘solution’ that is non-viable is not doing anything — for them, inaction is simply unacceptable. As such, this final stage of activism, when balanced with understanding others who have not yet reached this place, acts like a resolution to the famous existential dilemma of ‘doing’ versus ‘being’: in this case, to be IS to do, and to do IS to be.
Alas, the very fact we are human means we are mortal — we all, at some point, will die. So, too, will everything in this present world. Even if we had succeeded in preserving the injunction against HS2 — or even yet win a further appeal, as the legal team are still working on it — the trees and creatures we gathered at Jones Hill Wood to honour will not last; they are made of the same perishable materials we ourselves are. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, atoms to atoms, Et in Arcadia ego. Yet it is the very fleeting essence, fragility and transitoriness of life is what gives it its greatest beauty and poignancy — like butterflies who hatch and spread their gorgeous wings but briefly, only to spawn eggs and then die within days, weeks, months or a year at best.
For those who believe in the resurrection as I do, who are persuaded that there is another life beyond this ‘veil of tears’, there is some consolation in knowing that death is not the final story, that indeed, “There is hope for a tree; though it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail” (Job 14:7). Yet even knowing that spiritually or intellectually doesn’t always immediately lift the deep sense of loss and distress we feel when something or someone we have loved and invested so much hope, tears and fervent prayers in saving leaves us alone finally and is with us no more.
“For there is hope for a tree; though it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail.”
Personally, I am deeply grieved by every single evidence of roadkill; it literally breaks my heart every time I drive past a dead bird, badger, deer or squirrel on the side of the road. While it is comforting to know Jesus said, “Not even a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father knowing about it” (Matthew 10:29), it is less comforting to consider all the human injustice and corruption behind the destruction of our natural world, which is seemingly ‘allowed’ by God — not to mention the sense of betrayal occasionally felt because of unanswered prayers or unsympathetic humans. I have prayed fervently every day for HS2 to be stopped, for some kind of miraculous reprieve to save Jones Hill Wood; in this case, we nearly thought we had succeeded in stopping it, so the blow of the legal reversal and the imminent destruction of the wood feels incredibly disappointing.
Yet here we are, still fighting, still hoping, still praying. As Kestrel had said, “Until the very last tree is cut down, we will keep fighting.” For as the grief model we have looked at tells us, this is really the only way forward for such a profound place of grief.
*As a movement largely populated by either relatively well-off youths inspired by Greta or older activists often characterised as ‘aging hippies’ — many of whom have continued protesting various ecological, humanitarian and military causes since as far back as the late 1970s — XR has sometimes been criticised as being “too white”. Following the horrific, racist-inspired murder of black hip-hop artist George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020, XR began to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement in addition to the vegan movement now under Animal Rebellion, another XR division.
Someone in my writing group this morning shared this powerful poem by Maya Angelou – so sharing here:
When Great Trees Fall
When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder, lions hunker down in tall grasses, and even elephants lumber after safety. When great trees fall in forests, small things recoil into silence, their senses eroded beyond fear. When great souls die, the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile. We breathe, briefly. Our eyes, briefly, see with a hurtful clarity. Our memory, suddenly sharpened, examines, gnaws on kind words unsaid, promised walks never taken. Great souls die and our reality, bound to them, takes leave of us. Our souls, dependent upon their nurture, now shrink, wizened. Our minds, formed and informed by their radiance, fall away. We are not so much maddened as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves. And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.
In this time of global social distancing and virtual everything, how are global dance competitions surviving? Here I review some of the challenges and opportunities
Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, dance — that most physical form of creative expression — has been one of the hardest-hit creative industries, affecting performers, choreographers, teachers and promoters everywhere. Nowhere has this been more painfully seen than in the usually lucrative sphere of national and international dance competitions.
The traditional model of live events featuring scores of individual and group dancers in glittering venues packed with adoring fans and anxious families across multiple cities is now simply a no-go zone. Hundreds of events have been forced to cancel or shut down, resulting in massive financial loss or even bankruptcy as managers have had no option but to issue refunds. Some hoped to forestall financial troubles by offering partial refunds based on a future rescheduled event, yet even planning when and how to reschedule has proved a logistical nightmare, since no one knows how and when the pandemic restrictions will end, and physical competitions can safely resume.
Most competitions have attempted to adapt by adjusting live competition formats or by offering online versions — some more successfully than others. However, if — God forbid! — the pandemic continues to keep us all in a virtual limbo, it will ultimately serve the global dance community to use this time to discover what does or doesn’t work.
With that in mind, here are some of the more notable competition successes and failures, along with a few current online competitions whose unique approaches may offer fresh inspiration.
TV hits and misses
Amid initial speculation of a reschedule of NBC’s popular World of Dance Championship Series, Executive Producer Jennifer Lopez initially issued a statement announcing that the show would be “postponing or changing the dates of all domestic and international events based on the Centers for Disease Control recommendations and restrictions”, noting it is an “ever-changing situation”.
However, as of March 2021, World of Dance was firmly cancelled, blamed on reduced ratings and lack of a crucial viewing demographic following the final August 2020 show from Season 4. Although that show’s format was adapted significantly to accommodate Covid-19 restrictions, introducing new items like a “Blind Battle,” a “Callback Vote” and a “Qualifier Twist” in an effort to replace the missing live audience energy, it failed to fire viewers sufficiently to justify the show’s lavish production expenses and the whopping $1 million prize money.
As Lopez told Variety in an interview, “We were trying our very best to make it what it should have been for those people who fought so hard to get there… [but it was hard] without an audience cheering them on.” Co-judge Derek Hough had previously told the magazine, “It did feel a little weird in the ballroom”; while he had hoped “the magic of television to create that energy with pyros and sound effects” would still be able to “capture the energy”, it clearly wasn’t enough for viewers.
Likewise, So You Think You Can Dance?made headlines recently as the Fox TV favourite’s Summer 2021 season was also abruptly cancelled — a double letdown as it was hoped this year’s show would go ahead after the Summer 2020 cancellation. As Fox producers explained in a statement, “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic… we cannot meet the standards we’ve set for viewers and contestants in light of the show’s unique format, intricate production schedule and limited time.”
While other popular TV dance competition shows such as Dancing with the Stars and The Masked Dancer — which usefully featured its own creative version of face masks — did go ahead, one of the reasons So You Think You Can Dance was unable to proceed is that it has a strictly public audition process, which is impossible under the current government guidelines. This has also been a challenge for many other national and international dance competitions that rely on public auditions and audience reactions to help choose and eliminate contestants.
As for Strictly Come Dancing, the UK’s ever-popular version of Dancing with the Stars, despite reducing the show’s usual run of 13 episodes to nine, the 2020 season remained a huge hit as viewers flocked to their sets to receive the much-needed escapism the show reliably delivered. Clearly, the UK show’s tried-and-tested formula of celebrity contestants paired off with pro dancers is a winning theme even Covid can’t kill. As BBC Executive Producer Sarah James commented, “The passion and dedication for Strictly shone through more than ever last year as they all sacrificed so much to deliver an unforgettable series during unprecedented and challenging times.”
So, for TV competitions, it seems simply adding new variations on routines or relying on special effects doesn’t always guarantee the wow factor in these challenged times. There clearly must be something intrinsic to the content or format itself that makes the competitions work – and if that all-important je ne sais quoi can’t be a live show and audience, what elements are certain to deliver?
Salsa competitions — but not as we’ve known them
Thankfully, as those of us in the global salsa community know, the energy and fire of the best salsa shows can never be completely diminished by being a virtual-only offering — that at least eliminates one element of the risks of hosting competitions. Yet in a scene bursting with multi-talented, passionate solo, couple and group dancers, the main challenge for salsa and other dance competitions and contestants in transitioning to online is how to make these truly stand out.
Having made the move to virtual this year and partnered with Romania’s Fantastic Art Dance Company, World Dance Movement’s international virtual dance competition is highlighting the all-important aspect of having a stellar judging panel on board, giving aspiring contestants the extra incentive of an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of renowned celebrity judges for prizes including prestigious scholarships and contracts on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The celebrity judges providing crucial feedback include Brian Friedman, Tiler Peck, Medhi Walerski, Tricia Miranda, Bill Goodson, Dusty Button, Kat Wildish, Joshua Pelatzky, Assaf, Peter Oxford, Claudia Cavalli, Vito Cassano, Jessica Franco, Karine Newborn, Phineas Newborn III, Emily Bufferd, Ginger Cox, Damiano Bisozzi, Ashley Carter and a surprise guest judge.
With 25 participating countries and over 200 categories in styles including bachata, salsa, samba, tango, mambo and urbana, the renowned World Latin Dance Cup took the bold step to host a month-long, virtual-only competition in February 2021, with the final qualifying competition taking place in April 2021. The virtual show didn’t disappoint in terms of sheer dazzlement of the performances, but apart from their Instagram clips, the competition can only be accessed by using the Settle app, which may have limited some audiences.
Although World Dance Group’s World Salsa Championship’s 2020 event for ESPN-TV was cancelled due to Covid, it was relaunched as a virtual-only event in Puerto Rico with the $2,020 prize money still on offer. One of its specific emphases was on looking for the “most liked dance video of 2020” in a nod to the power of social media to influence popularity and dancer recognition, which WDG CEO Noel Roque said in a blog is an essential tool for dancers who wish to build a ‘brand’ and public awareness of their skills and personalities, as well as to monetise their offerings.
Fired specifically by the challenges of pandemic-required virtual competitions, the latest global salsa and Latin dance competition to arise is Agozar’s Like My Dance. With the stated aim of “locating the most creative and innovative salsa dancers for the television and movie industry”, this competition has added a new dimension to the online dance competition format by inviting contestants to “go beyond their wildest dreams” by utilising video special effects, with the videography skills themselves featuring as an element of the judging. The competition on 12 June (final results on 19 June 2021) will be accessed both via the Like My Dance website and social media channels Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Offering a first prize of 1,000 euros from sponsors Agozar, Burju Shoes, All Out Salsa, CoBeat Party, Salsa Y Control, Planet Salsa, V Dance Club and Fuego Shoes, it will be judged across multiple areas including musicality, timing, chemistry, technique and choreography by world-renowned salsa performers and teachers Nelson Flores, Magna Gopal, Steve Star Mambo TV, Ismael Otero, Rodrigo Cortez, Paula & Ricardo, Osbanis & Anneta and Cecile Ovide.
Elsewhere around the globe, other initiatives are striving to keep contestants motivated and signing up to compete by adding new enticements to the competition programmes. The Canada Salsa and Bachata Congress has launched a Choreography Contest that is levelling the competitive playing field by offering all dancers an opportunity to create a winning choreo with a prize of C$400 to a brand-new, nationally themed song, “A Bailar Canada”. The track was specifically created for the contest by legendary Latin musicians Marc Quinones and Tony Succar.
Meanwhile, Down Under, Doudoule Latin Dance Camp has launched a Dance Battle Australia 101 competition via Facebook. Seeking to provide a platform for salsa dancers to “take their dancing to new heights”, the event offers dancers an opportunity to improve their musicality, improvisation, creativity, performance confidence and dance ability through battling it out with other dancers for an AU $5,000 prize.
A virtual future?
As in everything with the pandemic, it is hard at this stage to say what the future will hold, and when – and how, and where — competition events will be able to return to “normal”. For those studios and dance teachers struggling to make ends meet or adapt to the medium of online teaching — as well as for the millions of dancers whose ability to experience their chief joy in life has been challenged — getting back to the true physical sphere of dance can’t come fast enough. And yet for those whose creativity has been stretched and resulted in the emergence of brand-new approaches, the challenges of Covid have also brought many blessings and valuable lessons.
As World Salsa Championship’s Noel Roque reminds us in his blog, pandemic or no, we are already half-living in a virtual world, with most of our connections — even in dance — dominated by social media. Therefore, whatever the future has in store for all of us, for those dancers and competitions that wish not only to survive but to thrive, it will require not only reappraising the tried-and-tested formulas that are guaranteed crowd-pleasers, but also the wit and imaginative ability to create new formats, new channels and new methods for self-expression within the limits of a virtual-only space.
Beyond that, the challenge for both international competitions and the dancers who lead, judge and compete in them is how best to use social media and other tools to create memorable experiences and build a brand and platform. So here’s to all those channels that are presently earning their worth in cyberspace by keeping the competitive spirit alive and well!
The theme of this blog came to me following an inspired exchange with a friend (who happens to be a God-fearing and sensitive Muslim) about the fact most people go about in their own little bubbles, unaware of and largely unconcerned about what is going on in the world around them. The context of our conversation was the consequences of gross social and political injustice and environmental disaster, two items that have been highlighted during this time of lockdown and remain at the forefront of the news through issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the time, I felt inspired to comment that if you think about it, the whole time we are in our mother’s womb, we are in a bubble, protected in “the secret place, where [I was] woven together in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139: 15). As we are born and continue our journey through to adulthood, most of us tend to remain in this same self-oriented bubble, generally only aware of or concerned about our immediate spheres, e.g. our own lives and circumstances, or perhaps we may extend our bubble to include our family, friends, churches, immediate communities or our individual nations. Very few of us, it seems, deeply or daily consider the lives and needs of other individuals and communities around the world, or are aware of how our individual and collective actions as a nation affect others — including the approximately one million species presently at risk of extinction, largely as a result of human activity — who share space on our planet. And yet we know our Father is constantly aware of and attentive to even the death of one single sparrow (Matthew 10:29). Shouldn’t we be likewise attuned? And where is the church’s voice in all of this?
This is what I hope to address in this blog — to understand what God has to say about the kinds of ‘bubbles’ He provides by looking at the promises indicated by Psalm 91 and reflecting on how Jesus read these, as well as to consider His call to us as Christians to imitate His Son, who as we know left the comfortable ‘bubble’ of Heaven to come to Earth, because “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” John 3:16) — in which case this may mean breaking out of our own bubbles of self- and/or immediate-bubble absorption in order to make a loving, positive, just and lasting impact on our world.
Media: ‘fake’ news, bad news and selective inputs
It seems implausible we could still be so entrenched in our own worlds and positions, and remain largely unaware of what is happening elsewhere in the world when the resources we have available today through commercial travel and technology have truly made us all global citizens. While it might make sense if, as in past centuries, we still lived in remote, unconnected communities and were dependent on messages being delivered by horseback or carrier pigeon, that is hardly the case now.
Ever since Alexander Graham Bell first dreamed the telephone into existence, the revolution in communication has continued apace — now, even in emerging economies such as Indonesia, Brazil or Nigeria, up to 83% own a mobile (cell)phone, 60% use the internet (World Wide Web) and 49% use social media (2018 statistics); and now even the harshest and most remote continent, Antarctica, is being opened up for touristic exploration. Surely, if anything, we should be all too aware of what is happening outside of our own bubbles rather than remaining ignorant?
Unfortunately, being bombarded constantly with an excess of information — which, with the proliferation of ‘alternative’ digital news sources such as various social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, You Tube, etc), is unavoidable these days, unless you live in a desert with no Wi-Fi access — can have the effect of causing people to feel unbearably overwhelmed. Along with the tandem development of an increase in ‘fake news’, unsubstantiated rumours and non-fact-checked reports circulated both via unreliable news sources as well as on social media, many people elect to switch off entirely — or worse, only tune in to those channels that promote views and coverage of things that confirm their own biases, fears or prejudices. The facility for critical thinking, informed praying and general awareness is thus further harmed, often having the opposite effect of enforcing and even narrowing our bubbles to the point of irrelevance.
Yet the plain and uncomfortable fact is some of the things we have access to daily information and updates on — e.g. the impacts of climate change — have the potential to affect all lives on the planet drastically in a very short timeframe indeed, even within our own life span. We can try to tune it out, as many news channels appear determined to do, with frivolous information on celebrities’ lives or other less-challenging titbits, but we certainly cannot claim we didn’t have the ability to access the information and so become aware of what is happening, because we do. It is available 24/7, any time we desire to find out, on the Internet.
Of course, there are also those on the other end of the spectrum, for whom awareness of climate and other emergencies is indeed very real, and whose sense of rage, despair and helplessness to alter the world’s current trajectory is a very real thing. They are the ones actually reading the increasingly frequent scientific and other reports warning of impending climatic doom, and becoming activists (or, as some would have it, anarchists). To most people, they undoubtedly sound like Noah, constantly banging on with the negative news of potential flooding from massive sea-level rises due to melting polar ice caps. But on the whole, they remain a small minority, especially within the church. How is that? Surely if such things are indeed coming, we would all be hearing from God about it?
But… perhaps He is speaking, even via these ‘negative’ scientific or secular reports, and we are simply not listening? Perhaps our personal theology or churches encourage a convenient climate denialism — or we believe that once things get near the point of no return (as, in fact, we are by most accounts already reaching), God will somehow intervene and rapture us out? Or for those who aren’t sold on the idea of a supernatural ‘beaming up’ of God’s people, surely our leaders will ensure underground bunkers will be available on the Earth when we need them, or perhaps scientists will yet figure out how small colonies of earthlings can restart on Mars or other habitable planets? After all, didn’t He give Noah enough warning so he could build a boat and rescue enough genetic material through the pairs of species he crammed on the ark to restart life on Earth after the Flood?
In thinking further about the womb / bubble analogy, we can easily extend this concept and apply it to our planet as a whole. We know from science and Nasa pictures that our Earth itself is enrobed in a protective bubble, the atmosphere. This atmospheric bubble is what makes life possible on our planet; without it, we would not survive.
Our planet is the only known planet within our solar system with an oxygen-rich atmosphere that is capable of sustaining life. Whether you believe life exists on other planets, galaxies or solar systems (outer space), or perhaps once existed on other moons within our own solar system, there is nothing presently to substantiate the existence of life anywhere else but here on Earth. It remains unique, and we as beings who are capable of having a relationship with God are also unique.
With all of the other amazing diversity of flora, fauna, terrains, microclimates and elements on our planet, this marvellous biome we inhabit is effectively God’s terrarium — as we are told in Isaiah 40:22: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the Earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”
On further consideration of the unique properties of our planet’s design, we can clearly see the very precise handprint of God in many other aspects. Astonishingly, life on Earth would not exist at all without a series of very exact conditions — for example, our sun is stable and its position in relation to other stars and forces in the galaxy renders it safe from other hazardous forces in the galaxy such as gravitational pulls, collapsing stars (supernovae) and gamma-ray bursts.
Also, Earth’s position in relation to the sun allows it to receive just enough energy to allow water to exist as a liquid on the surface; any closer and the liquid would evaporate, any further and it would turn to ice. But it is specifically thanks to our planet’s particular bubble — its fantastic, life-protecting atmosphere — that Earth is shielded from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, meteors and other space debris. Our atmosphere absorbs heat from the sun by using gases to trap the heat (a natural phenomenon known as ‘the greenhouse effect’), thereby helping to regulate its temperatures to the exact degrees possible to sustain life — just as you would ensure tropical plants survive in your own greenhouse.
Further, there are six layers of protective gases that comprise our atmosphere — roughly 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, 0.93% argon and 0.04% carbon dioxide, along with other smaller trace elements of neon, methane, helium, krypton, hydrogen and water vapour. These make up our relatively thin atmosphere (the thicker part of it is 300 miles; some of the higher bands extend further, but most of it — specifically, the ozone — is only ca. 15–20 miles from the planet’s surface). These six layers are:
the troposphere, which is the air we breathe; this is the layer closest to the Earth’s surface;
the stratosphere, where planes fly and where the ozone region lies;
the mesosphere, which begins about 50km from the surface;
the thermosphere, which is where the aurora occur, and where the International Space Station (ISS) and other space shuttles and satellites circle the Earth;
the exosphere, which is the upper limit of our atmosphere, which extends halfway to the Moon or further into outer space; and
the ionosphere — a dynamic, fluid region of electrons and ionised atoms critical to Sun–Earth interactions, which also makes radio communications possible.
According to scientists, the high-altitude (roughly 15–35km above the Earth) ozone layer that floats within the stratosphere came into being through early plant-like organisms that emitted oxygen into the atmosphere. Typically, ozone is created when ultraviolet (UV) light strikes ordinary oxygen molecules and causes them to split into two oxygen atoms (O2); the O2 atoms then combine with unbroken oxygen to create ozone (O3). The ozone atoms then create a layer of UV ray-screening gas, which acts as a kind of blanket around the Earth, shielding us from harmful, cancer-causing UV radiation. The thickness of the ozone layer over the Earth fluctuates with the seasons and latitudes, with higher concentrations typically in the northern latitudes.
Therefore, we can see that even in the intelligent design of our home, God foresaw the need for a protective bubble to shield us from the impact of the sun — and without it, we cannot survive. The bubble He designed to protect us is secure and stable, and yet….
Holes in Earth’s bubble: warnings of warming
Sadly, this very unique bubble (atmosphere) that protects life on Earth is now seriously under threat — and even more sadly, from the very beings it was designed to protect.
The first prediction of global warming due to excesses of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere — and thus negatively impacting the protective blanket of ozone — was actually made as far back as 1896 by Nobel prize-winning Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, who used the principles of basic chemistry to estimate the extent to which increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere raise the Earth’s surface temperature. Arrhenius proved that even the slightest raises in carbon dioxide levels could upset the delicate balances our Creator set to control the atmosphere and temperatures on Earth, thereby causing a negative ‘greenhouse effect’ of heat-trapping gases and water vapour that could potentially redirect harmful radiation back to the Earth and result in an unstable and non-life-sustainable warming of the Earth’s global mean temperature.
This theory was picked up again in the 1960s, when American scientist David Keeling recorded a progressive build-up of levels of carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. He noted that carbon dioxide had become higher in modern times than at any other time in recorded human history, and was the first to make the connection between human-caused (anthropogenic) warming of the Earth’s atmosphere through the influx of manmade carbon dioxide-emitting instruments such as cars, airplanes and factories. Scientists agree that since the 1880s — after the Industrial Revolution had been in effect for several decades —Earth’s average surface temperature had already increased by 2°F/1°C, and that human-caused increases of carbon dioxide and releases of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere were the likely culprits.
But the excess of man-made carbon-dioxide emissions is not the only worrying chemical culprit in the global-warming scenario.
Since the 1970s, scientists have observed a steady depletion in the amount of ozone (O3) in the stratosphere, along with some sizeable pockets (ozone holes) of thinning ozone layers, specifically around the Earth’s polar regions. Although a certain amount of ozone depletion in the atmosphere occurs naturally as a result of sunspots, latitudes and seasonal fluctuations, scientific evidence has confirmed that the ozone shield is being depleted well beyond natural levels. This ozone depletion occurs because of the interaction of chlorine and bromine atoms with ozone atoms; one chlorine atom is able to destroy 100,000 ozone molecules.
Most of the chlorine in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) is a result of human activities, as the human-produced halocarbons frequently used in refrigeration, aerosols and cleaning chemicals — such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) —are not breaking down chemically in the lower atmosphere so ascending to the stratosphere, where they destroy ozone atoms, thereby letting in more UV radiation to the Earth.
While God did give man dominion over the Earth and all its creatures (Genesis 1:26), He did not give man dominion over the heavens. We may have discovered ways to launch planes, rockets and satellites into the atmosphere, thus disrupting what He intended to serve as our protective bubble, but this is precisely without His express direction — and, as we are now aware, there are grave consequences as a result of man’s careless interference with the atmosphere and perhaps through his attempts to gain dominion over it through space exploration, the impacts of which on contributing to our ozone holes are as yet unknown. We may have rattled God’s terrarium in seeking to be gods ourselves, but arguably this is now being reflected back to us now as a warning we have overstepped our bounds (or bubble).
Unfortunately, as ozone can be depleted much more rapidly than it can be created naturally, this has led to the increasing size of the ozone holes over the arctic regions. These are not really ‘holes’, but rather a large area of the stratosphere with very low amounts of ozone. Since 1985, the large gap or ‘hole’ of ozone-rich content over the continent of Antarctica has been observed getting gradually larger and deeper each springtime, with a corresponding increase in ozone depletion over the Arctic and more densely populated regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The thinning ozone, combined with the presence of carbon dioxide-loaded air pollution in this region, is letting in greater degrees of UV radiation, which is in turn accelerating the Earth’s warming and adding record heat waves in previously frozen northern areas.
Trials by wildfires
The traditionally frozen regions of Siberia saw a record heatwave on 17 June 2020, with temperatures reaching 100.4°F/38°C, sparking worldwide alarm among scientists and others. Simultaneously, the prevalence of forest fires in the region saw an unprecedented threefold increase, with a whopping 4.3 million hectares destroyed by out-of-control blazes in 2019.
Along the nine million square miles / over 23 million square kilometres of Arctic landmass, the rapid acceleration of climate change is radically altering the landscape and lifestyles of indigenous peoples. Animals such as beavers that previously lived in warmer climates are suddenly flocking to this newly warming and more habitable land. While scientists might have expected the tundra to thaw gradually, the fact is that it is thawing almost literally overnight — and the entire Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Not only is this abrupt change to a radically different climate profile truly alarming, but it signals the development of other problems, which are in fact all linked to global warming’s vicious cycle.
As more trees burn and the previously frozen areas of tundra in Siberia, Alaska, Greenland, Scandinavia, Canada and other Arctic regions begin to melt, more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. This phenomenon is not only occurring in polar regions, but across the world, as wildfires due to global heating are on the rise — in recent summers, much of California on the US West Coast has been on fire, and the Amazon rainforests has suffered some of the worst fire ravages, with 4.6 million acres of irreplaceable carbon sink destroyed in 2019 alone.
These wildfires not only destroy the trees that act as the Earth’s natural filters for removing carbon dioxide and ensure we have cleaner air to breathe, but the carbon dioxide released through the fires also unleashes other harmful greenhouse gases which, in addition to further carbon dioxide, continue to warm the planet. And as a warmer Earth is also a drier Earth, this contributes to the escalation of further forest fires — thus becoming a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.
But the worst may still be yet to come. The wildfires and thawing frozen ground are exposing wide swathes of long-dead ancient matter such as frozen plants and animals, some of them remnants of the last Ice Age that have lain buried under the permafrost for millennia (or perhaps longer). As these hit the warming air and begin to thaw and then decompose, they release other destructive, climate-warming gases, including methane. Tundra is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks; it has effectively trapped huge bubbles of methane gas under its permafrost, which scientists warn further warming and thawing could unleash as much as 240 billion tons / 243.85 billion tonnes of carbon, or 1,400 gigatons, into the atmosphere.
What’s more, many as-yet-undetermined pathogens and bacteria also lie dormant under the permafrost — if we thought the Covid-19 pandemic was alarming, we likely haven’t seen anything yet.
What is certain is that if these harmful gases continue to escape into our atmosphere, they will accelerate warming to an uninhabitable degree for man and the other creatures on Earth. Our planet could ultimately become like Venus — at 900°F / 465°C, it is the hottest planet in our solar system, with a runaway greenhouse effect caused by clouds that trap the heat in a dense atmosphere composed mostly (96%) of carbon dioxide, with nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulfuric acids and other gases, and only trace amounts of water — although some scientists consider it may at one point have been habitable. However, if you were looking for a literal manifestation of the Biblical descriptions of Hell, Venus would surely fit that!
Is global warming how God will judge the world by fire?
We know that God, through His promises, which cannot be broken, made a covenant with Noah after the flood, assuring him that “Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the Earth. I will put my rainbow in the sky as a sign to you and every living creature of my promise, which will last forever” (Genesis 9:11–12).
He also promised that “As long as the Earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22) — so even during any of the former ice ages and times of global heating, there will still be seasonal fluctuations in temperatures on the surface of the Earth, as these are regulated by Earth tilting on its access at an angle of approximately 23.4 degrees (note: Earth’s tilt may vary slightly every 40,000 years; it is possible some variation in climate conditions affecting glacial rebound and land mass may affect this further).
If we choose to take God at His word, that means even with scientists claiming that climate change is melting ice caps and raising sea levels that could ultimately swamp low-lying coastal regions, flood cities and wipe out many islands across the world (and God only knows what will happen or be released when the 400+ lakes or “springs of the great deep” [Gen. 7:11] hidden on the frozen continent of Antarctica, and under the Ross Ice Shelf and Thwaites Glacier are released), that isn’t going to happen — at least not as the final judgement / apocalypse that will wipe out the Earth. Instead, 2 Peter 3:7 makes it clear that “By the same word, the present heavens and Earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men”. So those of us who know and believe in God and the revelation of His word know that when God decides to judge the Earth, it will be destroyed by fire rather than by flooding.
I confess that, having grown up in the US at a time when the collective fear of nuclear bombs wiping us all out featured heavily in the news and in popular culture, and was being circulated as yet another excuse for yet another war, it seemed a given this would likely be the way the world would end. To quote a line from the Kingston trio’s ‘The Merry Minuet’, “And we know for certain that some lovely day, someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away.” Perhaps more relevant to today’s growing recognition of the impacts of climate change are the last lines of the son, which go on to say, “What nature doesn’t do to us will be done by our fellow man.”
When I later became a Christian, I considered the Earth’s destruction by nuclear war was clearly what was meant by the passage in 2 Peter 3:10 that says, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the Earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.” Although the threat of a human-caused nuclear apocalypse is objectively still very real (apparently nine countries — China, India, the US, Israel, France, the UK, Russia and North Korea —now have a combined 16,000 nuclear warheads, which is enough to destroy our planet several times over), the pace with which the Earth is heating and the impact on the ozone in our polar regions is happening so rapidly, this seems to be a far more likely cause of our planet’s fiery demise.
If the present thinning ozone around the poles — those gaps in our protective atmospheric bubble — continue to increase, the chances of Earth being struck by a meteor or other space debris, or burned up through intense UV radiation heat and noxious gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, are very high indeed.
Man and nature: a warning about stewardship
As the lines of the Kingston Trio song cited above indicate, while we may be experiencing a temporary hiatus from the kind of man-made disasters that can obliterate the planet, nature — or God through nature, if you will — is doing plenty to us at present: we have increasingly unstable weather patterns, a rapidly changing climate, an increase in devastating hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, and, of course, our current global pandemic crisis.
Make no mistake about the coronavirus pandemic: there is an exact correlation between our out-of-control killing, eating, exploiting and abusing of wild animals, and the pandemic we are now experiencing, along with others that may soon head our way, which are typically zoonotic in origin (e.g. spread to humans through wild animals). Studies have shown coronavirus is linked to one of the most commonly illegally trafficked animals, the pangolin.
A frequent victim of the so-called ‘wet markets’ in Asia, where they are sold for meat and their scales for use in traditional ‘medicine’, this shy, scale-covered creature — a primitive form of anteater, but in fact their own taxonomic order — is now among the world’s most endangered animals, with all eight species variations (four in Asia, four in Africa) on the red list, and two on the critical list. And if all of them go, there will be nothing like them left on the Earth.
Surely our God, who created all of the wonderfully unique and fantastic diversity of species such as the pangolin, cares about the fact a full one million of His creatures are now threatened with extinction (some estimates put this at one-quarter of all species), with several of His most beautiful, unique and oldest animals on the critically endangered list? And surely, He will also hold us accountable for the death and decimation of these creatures at our hands?
Before the Fall, man was only allowed to eat from fruit-bearing trees in the garden (Earth) God had commanded man to look after and tend (Gen. 2:1516). Yet post-Fall and Flood, God gave dominion over all creatures to man, and all creatures were now allowed to be eaten for food. As God told Noah in Genesis 9:2–3, “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”
Most Bible commentaries suggest Genesis 9:4–5 (“But you must not eat meat that has its life blood still in it”) means we are to respect the fact that it was only because of sin that He now allowed animal meat consumption, but we were still to ensure that no animal was consumed alive or cruelly, and to respect the soul of the animal that was contained in its blood — so as not to partake of its flesh lightly.
Despite the above, there is no Biblical indication that man has ever been excepted from the work of looking after God’s creation, including all of the animals that share the Earth with humans. As the ‘Second Adam’ and as our Redeemer and model of being free from the curse of sin and death that was set in motion by the Fall, Jesus told His disciples that “not one single sparrow falls to the ground without your heavenly Father knowing about it” (Matthew 10:29). While Jesus then goes on to speak of how God has numbered every human hair, this does not in any way detract from the previous statement’s revelation of His care for every single tiny sparrow. Therefore, we must believe that God cares for every single animal, bird, fish and insect on Earth — and He expects us to do so also.
As others have suggested, the presence of pandemics such as coronavirus may well be nature’s — or at least the threatened pangolins’ — revenge against humans for taking animals’ lives cruelly and with their blood still intact, as in the wet markets where they are sold and often consumed alive. If we humans have broken this law, and have so grossly failed in our calling to be stewards of the Earth, it stands to reason that all of the other laws on which our Earth depends for its stability may also be shaken — and we know that God has promised in several places in both the Old and New Testaments, most notably in Hebrews 12:26 and Haggai 2:6, that He will “yet once more shake both the heavens and the Earth”.
Therefore, it seems our present situation, along with all the other radical climatic changes taking place on our planet, are in fact God’s messengers shouting at us to wake up before it is too late — before the bubble of His protection is removed and the Earth enters into the time of His final judgement.
Christians and God’s protective bubble
In view of all these things, how should believers — those who know Jesus, are redeemed by His blood, and are part of the Bride Jesus said He will be coming back for — supposed to respond in the face of such imminent potential catastrophes? Should we simply believe in and trust in God’s protection and ultimate redemption, and get on with the business of living our lives as faithful witnesses? Or should we remain informed, watchful, praying and actively preaching and witnessing, trying to wake others up to prepare them for potential hardships and hopefully to lead them to repentance and a saving knowledge of Christ?
Although there are many passages in the Bible that speak of God’s supernatural protection and deliverance in times of trial, Psalm 91 is perhaps one of the best-known and most relevant, particularly during this current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic:
3"Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
9 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent."
As the psalm states above, God does indeed promise to protect His faithful flock from plague and pestilence — defined in Collins dictionary as “any disease that spreads quickly and kills large numbers of people” such as Covid-19. This passage assures us that if we look to God in faith, and take refuge under the protective ‘bubble’ of His wings, He will protect us; the plague will bypass us and not even come near us, even if scores of people around us become infected and die, as we are aware is presently happening all around the world.
As wonderful and reassuring as this is, it does not mean that Christians should become complacent about God’s protection, which shows a deep lack of respect or proper fear (as in awe) of God — or is even foolhardy. Considering some American right-wing evangelicals have reportedly died after refusing to wear masks or personal protective equipment (PPE) because they claim they are covered by the blood of Jesus, this has only given the world yet another occasion to mock God because of what some unwise followers do or advocate doing.
Yet Jesus Himself, when He was being tempted in the wilderness by Satan whispering the above passage in Psalm 91 and trying to incite Him to prove God’s word by jumping off a high temple, responded by quoting back the commandment, “Do not tempt [or: put to test] the Lord your God” (Matthew 4:6–7). This demonstrates that along with the need to use common-sense precautions, it is offensive to God if we arrogantly presume on or recklessly test His provisions, including His protection.
Furthermore, we are exhorted to exercise prudence, caution and wisdom, be alert to dangers coming, and to anticipate and be fully prepared in advance for any coming disasters. Both Proverbs 22: 3 and Proverbs 27:12 state plainly that: “The prudent [or wise, sensible, shrewd] see danger coming and take refuge [hide themselves], but the naive [simple, thoughtless, fools, the inexperienced] proceed [pass on, go ahead, keep on going – presumably in the same faulty direction they were heading] and suffer the consequences.”
In other words, in order not to be caught out when danger and disasters come, and to ensure we can truly avail of His divine bubble of protection, we need to be alert and watchful — because in fact, if the wise man wasn’t occupied with looking ahead down the road, he wouldn’t see the danger approaching on the horizon and so be able to avoid it. Therefore, God does indeed promise to protect us if we trust in Him, but He also expects us to do our part by being alert and watchful, and by being prepared.
In terms of the dramatic climate change our planet is already experiencing — which anyone can easily observe if they are not too involved in their own little bubbles of work, church and family life — God is giving us very clear signs that we are indeed entering into a period of great tribulation. Whether or not we as Christians will also go through the Tribulation first or be raptured out before it transpires, we still need to be ready and prepared to cope with either eventuality. This requires both remaining steadfast in our faith and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, as well as being aware of and prepared for all of the effects climate change will bring.
Unfortunately, as most of the worst effects of climate change will disproportionately hit poorer and ethnic minority communities around the world the hardest — as highlighted in a recent UN report, among other sources — we should certainly as agents of God’s compassion focus on how we can help others who have less resources to deal with these.
As we know, Jesus Himself commended the wise and faithful servant who was busy doing his Father’s will — which we know from John 3:16 is that no one should perish but come to a saving faith in Jesus, so that means continuing to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every tribe and tongue and nation”(Matthew 28:16–20), as well as reaching out in compassion to meet the needs of the poor and oppressed. Therefore, we should be not only concerned about ensuring our own relationship with God is solid and we are ready to meet Him, but we should also actively seek to reach others, particularly to help them prepare with the trials and tribulations a dramatically changing climate will bring.
Moving the church out of its bubble
Sadly, except for the typically small minority who respond to the call to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every tribe and tongue and nation”(Matthew 28:16–20), and those who actively work for social justice for the poor, it seems most individual Christians and churches are still ensconced in their own local or national bubble, remaining either unintentionally (or perhaps even intentionally, considering those who are resistant to becoming involved in anything remotely political, which might appear contentious or controversial) unaware of the looming environmental emergency. In effect, most Christians are either vastly unaware or vastly unprepared — or both.
Worse, some may even be in complete climate denialism, or unwittingly supporting fossil fuel industries that are destroying many poorer communities around through their investment portfolios. On an encouraging note, Pope Francis has urged churches to divest from fossil fuels, and at least 20 churches and Christian organisations in the UK have agreed to divest at the start of 2020). Yet in terms of the scale and acceleration of climate change we are presently witnessing, this is effectively a drop in the ocean.
However, as groups such as Extinction Rebellion are now more actively highlighting the intense spiritual crisis that comes with climate anxiety and awareness, surely this represents a massive opportunity for Christians to become involved and address this climate anxiety with God’s message.
One thing is certain: in view of the times we are in (and even if this is out of Biblical context), we must take Jesus’s words to heart: “Whatever you do, do it quickly” (John 13:27). Because if we fail to act now, the door of the ark may soon slam shut, and we will miss our narrow window for redemption.
1 “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!
2 “It is like the precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.
3 “It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord commands His blessing — even life forever more.”
New International Version, slightly amended with reference to other versions
Unity in the body of Christ has long been deeply important to me. I’ve often joked that if you want to get a burden for unity, go live in Ireland — it’s not just the fighting in the north between Catholics and Protestants I witnessed as a student there in the 1980s, but also in the south, between the various denominations and charismatic groups, the house churches and independents, all of whom at times have seemed deeply divided on doctrinal matters and styles of worship.
As I began to pray for revival over the years, I felt God distinctly sharpened the point about unity to me — Jesus cannot return for a divided bride, so we urgently need to “put our house in order”. It has therefore been my constant prayer and intercession, and frequently the theme of my meditation as I have read and studied the Bible, read up on church history, and witnessed countless divisions and misunderstandings among many otherwise well-meaning individuals who appear hopelessly unable to walk or work together. So, how can we both understand and achieve unity?
I believe that while God has revealed His will and His command for unity, He has also given us the answers to the vital question of how to achieve it. This is what led me to meditate on the symbolism in this wonderful psalm in the Old Testament, as well as other relevant passages in the Old Testament, the gospels (specifically Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17:20–23) and New Testament epistles — particularly Ephesians chapter 4 — which I will also discuss later.
For now, let’s look at this very short, but deeply meaty, “psalm of David” to unpack a little of what it says — I have referred to others’ notes on these from the Israel Bible commentary online, among other sources.
Symbolism and significance of the ‘song of ascents’
First, this psalm is described as a song of ascents — which means ‘going up’. It was typically applied to the Jews’ pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the Holy City, to worship God in the Temple, because Jerusalem is set on the top of a hill and the temple stood on a mount crowning the hill. Therefore, the 12 tribes of Israel traditionally ‘go UP to Jerusalem’ to worship God in the temple.
In addition, ever since the time of Abram/Abraham, who built his first altar and called on the name of the Lord on the hills of east of Bethel (Genesis 12:8), worship was traditionally offered on hills or high up on mountains, as these were seen as being nearer to God or a place of closer communion with Him. The physical, geographic depiction of ‘going up’ to a high (or higher) place to worship reveals the truth that the highest act of commitment and devotion we can give to God is to worship Him, particularly in challenging times or when we struggle with doubt, can’t understand what He is doing in our lives, or feel unable to hear His voice. This is when our act of worship is most truly a ‘lifting up’ or ‘going up’ of our souls.
The ‘high places’ also represent places of difficulties or struggle. Elsewhere in the psalms and in Habakkuk, God is the helper who “makes my feet like hinds’ [deers’] feet to walk upon my high places” (Psalm 18:33, Habakkuk 3:19) — in other words, as the psalmist and prophet express, it is God Himself who provides them with the strength and graceful ability to manoeuvre the steep, rugged, mountainous terrain of their struggles. Only a very skilled and agile creature such as a deer or mountain goat can navigate some of those incredibly challenging, near-vertical places, as was so delightfully depicted in Hannah Hurnard’s allegorical classic, Hind’s Feet on High Places.
Our ‘high places’ can also represent the steep divides and seemingly intractable clashes we experience in human relationships, where misunderstandings, strife, wounded spirits, griefs and temptation to seek revenge can be rife. In such times, we may feel helpless to change the dynamic, and so must learn to rely on God to give us this same ‘hind’s feet’ grace to deal with our own ‘high places’ of pride and selfishness as we seek to restore our broken relationships, knowing we cannot do this in our own strength.
History is filled with evidence of mankind’s inability to solve deep, longstanding rifts created by centuries of conflict in places such as the Middle East and the US, where tribal and racial tensions teeter constantly on the brink of explosion. Here even the greatest skills of human diplomacy, statesmanship or political manoeuvres fail to wrest the kind of lasting peace and justice humanity longs for, with often tragic consequences. Yet disunity and division in the Body of Christ — whether from the past historical conflicts between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic or Catholic and Protestant traditions, or between individual Christians in the church — also breaks God’s heart.
It is therefore all the more significant that Jesus described His disciples as a “city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). His unified body, the church, is called to triumph over the world’s ‘high places’ of darkness and division by demonstrating unity, peace and love — which, indeed, “is life forevermore”. The powerful light emitted when this is present is one our broken world is desperately crying out for.
David and disunity
Second, Psalm 133 is described as “A psalm of David”. While we don’t know when it was written, we do know there were several times in David’s life when he had problems with disunity — for example, his own brothers did not treat him very kindly when he was growing up, although he is recorded as bringing them food when they were at the battle front (I Sam 17:28). But his greatest heartache was the toxic relationship among his sons, especially when his son Absalom killed his other son Amnon because he had raped his sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:28).
He may have been reflecting on those bumpy moments between Moses and Aaron, as described in Numbers 12:1. Or perhaps he was instead thinking positively about his close, brotherly bond with King Saul’s son Jonathan, as described in 1 Samuel 18:3. Such deep love surely provided a sharp contrast to the murderous hatred and jealousy he experienced daily from Saul — either way, David had experienced enough disunity in his own life to realise exactly how “precious’ and rare indeed true unity is.
Now, note that the word “behold” means “Stand aside, look at and give your full attention to this amazing thing!” God is trying to get our attention here to the awesomeness that is revealed when His body is fully functioning in unity. He wants us to observe how significant it is because this reveals His heart for us to be one in love, in Him — as a Father, He has no greater joy than to see His children loving each other and living together in unity .
Such unity is “good” because it reveals the WILL of God; we know it brings joy to His heart. It is also “pleasant” — it is always much more enjoyable for us to be at peace and harmony with our brothers and sisters than have to deal with constant strife and friction.
The Jews who were on their way to worship God in Jerusalem had to make a pilgrimage by camping (“dwelling”) in tents along the way. This surely brought many opportunities for conflicts to arise as their differences were brought into sharp relief. Some were old, some young; some families, some single; they represented all walks of life and occupations, and came from different tribes and regions, possibly with different dialects and customs. As they travelled and dwelt together in tents along the way, their relationships would have been sorely tried and tested. Therefore, part of their journey in going up to worship in Jerusalem would have been about learning to be at peace with each other, in much the same way it’s both preparation for the act of worship and part of our calling as believers to learn to dwell, walk and work together.
Going with the flows
Now, the next descriptions concern the opposite direction — this time it is not about something or someone that is going up, but instead the flowing down and extending out of two types of liquid: oil and dew. This in itself is significant, as it is the very essence and nature of a liquid to flow. Therefore, the choice of these two ingredients is in itself a message to us about how to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4:3): it means we have to stay liquid — to “go with the flow”, literally, by remaining yielded to and in tune with the Holy Spirit.
Oil symbolises the blessing and glory of God being poured out and flowing down, as well as symbolising the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s desire to pour out His Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28), but also on and through us as His first fruits (Acts 2:17) so that the rest of the world will be blessed and come to know Him through us.
The oil being poured out on Aaron’s head signifies a few things: first, it is symbolic of Aaron’s priestly anointing, calling and ordaining; second, it is symbolic of Jesus — the high priest of the new covenant and the Head of the church, the Body of Christ. Note that Moses and Aaron were both anointed and called of God to minister, but whereas Moses spoke face to face with God as a prophet and leader of the people, Aaron stood in the Holy Place, received from God, and ministered to the people as a priest. They were both significant callings, which together completed God’s work among the people.
Oil was also used in the Middle East as a common form of blessing for visitors, as it was poured on guests’ heads as a welcome as they entered their host’s abode. The oils used for this purpose would have been perfumed or blended with aromatic spices, which would have been both a soothing and sanitary way of refreshing guests who would likely be weary, sweaty and probably quite smelly after travelling through desert lands in the hot sun.
When the oil is sprinkled on the robes, they become holy (Exodus 29: 21) — so the oil running down from the head and flowing down onto the collar and then on down the robes is symbolic of how the presence of the Holy Spirit works in and through us to purify and sanctify us. That it begins with the head is symbolically significant, because in order to be holy, we must have a truly renewed mind. And just as the head directs the body in actions, so we must remain connected to the Lord by keeping our eyes on Him. It is by being jointly engaged in maintaining our focus on and connection to the head that we as a body can achieve unity of purpose and effect.
The outflowing of the oil onto the outer garments and then onto the feet and ground pertains to our commission to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Matthew 28: 16–20). That is why the apostles were told to wait in Jerusalem for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; it was the New Testament version of the ordaining and consecration by outpoured oil.
The other significant liquid here is the dew. Note that dew is a common symbol of the Lord’s bountiful blessings (as seen in Prov. 19:2, Isaiah 18:4, Hosea 14:5, Micah 5:7). While rain is always traditionally seen as a sign of God’s love for mankind because it makes crops grow so we have food, dew is related to divine blessing because it forms from condensation of atmospheric water vapour, which does not form if there are clouds. Therefore, God’s dew can only wet the earth if we do not harbour any ‘clouds’ of grievances, bitternesses or unforgiving attitudes towards each other.
The geographical location of Mt Hermon is to the north of Jerusalem (eg where Mt Zion is), rising up above the Upper Jordan Valley — so the melting snows from the mountain were referred to as ‘dews’ because they flowed down from the mountain to refresh and revive the parched desert landscape. Such dews were often the only water available for crops and drinking etc; they were a vital source of sustenance as they flowed in to feed the Jordan River and the oasis of Jericho. In a dry land such as Israel, the melting snows or ‘dews’ became very precious indeed.
Unity is our command. The place of unity, then, as described here, is where the Lord “commands” or “bestows” His blessing — the blessing of eternal life in Him (“life forever more”) .
We are in fact ‘commanded’ in the New Testament to seek unity. We know that we have eternal life in Jesus and have become part of His resurrected body as members of His body; yet all the members of the body need to function in one accord for any movement to take place. In the same way a human body would get nowhere if its arm and leg went in separate directions, so too does God need the members of His body, His church, to act in one accord. Only then can He achieve His direction and purposes.
God’s will for us to be at peace first with Him, and then with each other, is revealed in the symbolism of the cross: it points both vertically, heavenward and horizontally, from side to side, along with Jesus’ outstretched arms. Before He was crucified, Jesus prayed earnestly for His disciples to be one: “My prayer is not for them alone, but for all those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20–24).
Likewise, in Ephesians 1:10, Paul describes this will and plan of God “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ”. He reminds of us of the command to seek and preserve unity: “Live in harmony with one another… insofar as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18) and of the royal law, the law of love: “Love your neighbour as yourself… love does no harm to a neighbour.” (Romans 13:9–10). So, as his disciples, we know that unity is God’s will and His plan; it proceeds from his nature, and is also His command.
So how do we achieve unity?
Yet how do we, practically speaking, achieve unity when we are so different and so easily misunderstand each other, disagree, and fail to see eye to eye on matters of doctrine or principles, or judge each other harshly while omitting to ‘walk a mile in another man’s moccasins’? Well, this is where, in Ephesians chapter 4, Paul provides the answers:
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:2–5, New International Version). Humility — and honouring each other — is the foundation stone of unity.
“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the whole body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11–12, italic emphasis mine). Just like Aaron and Moses had different callings and functions as prophet and priest, together they were anointed and appointed by God to lead and serve the people of Israel — so too in valuing and humbly receiving from others according to their different gifts and ministries, we may all become mature and grow in grace and spiritual wisdom.
“Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body… do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those that listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander [gossip], along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:25, 29–32, italic emphasis mine.)
I understand from this last passage that we are called to be absolutely real, open and honest with each other, not to wear masks or pretend to be something or someone we are not. That is how we can learn to truly understand and empathise with each other, and therefore build each other up rather than tearing each other down.
I call on all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, whichever your denomination or doctrine, to endeavour to practise these behaviours and ways of speaking with each other. In these days of deep division and despair across the world, we must urgently seek to shine that light of unity, so that indeed we may fulfil Jesus’ earnest prayer that the world may know and see his love and the Father’s love, and that we may be one and mature or fully formed in grace, even as they are one.
An Irish blessing
As I began this meditation by referencing the troubles of division and disunity among Christians I had witnessed as a student and young Christian in Ireland, I’d like to close with a few quotes from my dear friend and brother in Christ, Shay Phelan. Shay, a trained and gifted actor, singer-songwriter and compelling speaker, has made it his life’s mission to memorise the entire book of Ephesians, and to preach and share from this wherever he goes. He and a fellow Christian have walked across Ireland and elsewhere in the British Isles to share the gospel and display the bond of unity in the Spirit they share.
Here are some quotes from his own meditation on Ephesians 4 that are specifically relevant to what I have been sharing; if possible, I will add the entire PDF for download, or please message me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a complete copy.
“We need to be open to receive from all God’s people in the wider church, when they have something God wants us to learn from them. And it may well be that we have something God wants us to share with them. Do you see the abortive nature of our divisions? If I cut myself off from you, then I lose the gift to me that you are in God’s scheme of things. And I rob you of the blessing God has given me to share with you. No wonder there is so much immaturity still in the Body of Christ.”
“There is something about the word mature that suggests to my mind all the perfection of a glorious summer’s day. The mature person has poise and wisdom; he or she knows how to measure what they hear with the truth, and how to graciously and respectfully, and with confidence, speak the truth, yet the mature Christian humbly accepts that they may not always get it right. The mature Christian is diligent in the Lord’s work and yet maintains a deep, inner rest, an unswerving trust in God. He or she knows how to give and receive love in the joy of Christ.”
Shay Phelan, Excerpt from Reflections on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians
“Speaking the truth in love is a key phrase for how we may proceed to grow together in the church. How many times have I won the battle but lost the war, as it is said, because of the tone of voice or the attitude behind my words? I may be correct in my point of view, but completely wrong in my attitude to the person with whom I am in debate.
“In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he gives him much advice for his role as pastor. In chapter 2 verse 24 – 25 he says: “…the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth….”
“Every time I forget to apply these words in a difficult conversation, I find I lose my sense of peace. If I have become defensive or arrogant in tone, I am better off shutting up, even though I may be correct in what I am endeavouring to say. Though not a pastor, as a son of God I am called to speak the truth in love and that is what brings real growth.
“As we mature and grow together in Christ we are interlinked and connected, just as the various parts of a body are connected, and we are built up in love”
“Let’s finish this message with those verses from Psalm 133 we quoted earlier:
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity… For there the LORD bestows His blessing, even life forevermore.”
N.B. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing riots across the US, UK and elsewhere, I have been seeking the Lord in prayer regarding how we, as believers, should respond. I felt the Lord spoke two simple words to me: ‘feet’ and ‘brothers’. As I prayed about it further, I felt He was saying that those of us who are perhaps unintentionally (or even intentionally, which of course is another matter) guilty of any sense of a racist kind of white privilege urgently need in this time to demonstrate a real servant heart towards our black brothers and sisters, both through doing active listening to them as they share their experiences of ill-treatment and racist abuse perpetrated on them, and so metaphorically help to ‘wash their feet’ of all those festering scars and pains inflicted on them — even as Jesus did when He washed the feet of his disciples and urged them to wash one another’s feet. Perhaps even a public foot-washing ceremony, which all churches of all denominations all around the world could be used as a symbolic act of love, service and healing. May God lead us all into His ways of peace. Amen.
In this time of Covid-19 lockdown, many are finding relief from the isolation tedium by rediscovering forgotten hobbies and long-held interests, as well as connecting with others who share the same passions via online tools such as Zoom. The UK and other governments may downplay the necessity of the arts in terms of their willingness to fund them, but at times of crisis, they are necessary to our health and wellbeing. Indeed, where would we be without art?
Over the past few years, one of the things that has helped keep me sane, positive and creatively productive is developing my drawing and painting skills through joining various Shoal of Art Meet-up groups run by Mark Lovelace, as well as other working artists and teachers such as Debra Collis and others. This practice has been vital for me as much in my occasionally sporadic freelance journalism, etc career as during the current lockdown situation, as it provides a very welcome opportunity to break the tedium of working from home on my own by meeting up with fellow like-minded artists or artists-in-progress (as in fact we all are — Paul Gardner’s oft-cited quote, “A painting is never finished; it only stops in interesting places”, which itself derives from Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned”, should perhaps be reworded to apply to any artist or would-be artist).
Most of the Shoal of Art-run groups focus on producing portrait sketches and paintings from life – e.g., with live models – also drawings and paintings based on old and recent masters at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London. The groups are open to all artists in various stages of developing their skills; some are professional or ‘full-time’ artists, while others are serious or semi-serious dabblers.
As for me, I grew up in an artistic household, and so learned to consider the practice of art and creativity in general to be essential to life and wellbeing in the same way others value team sports and developing athletic skills as vital to one’s social, personal and physical development. My mother — a professional fashion illustrator and a lifelong craftswoman and quilter — raised my sister Betsey and I to express ourselves creatively through visual media; in addition to doing art projects at home, we studied it in school and were known for our artistic talents. But whereas my sister continued to focus on art, specifically ceramics, into university, eventually becoming a professional fine artist with a specialism in equine art, I was torn between studying art and writing at university as I was also interested in English literature and creative writing, so perhaps naturally gravitated towards publications work — for example, I created and edited an illustrated literary magazine during high school that featured stories, poems and artworks from myself and other colleagues, and edited the school [and later, Bard’s] newspaper.
Perhaps Paul Gardner’s oft-cited quote “A painting is never finished; it only stops in interesting places” — which itself derives from Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned” — should be reworded to apply to any artist or would-be artist
Left: Me in high school editing the literary magazine I also designed and contributed to
So while art may be one of my ‘roads not taken’, since in the end I went with English Lit/Creative Writing (I also excelled in writing about art when I studied Renaissance art history), I have continued to study and write about art, visit galleries regularly, maintain friendships with other artists, and draw, paint and take art classes on and off throughout my travels and living abroad – which is why I realised how much I needed to continue to practise this in London during my ‘time off’ from freelance engagements. To me, indeed, art is life as life is art.
I also find that as a somewhat extroverted artistic type, I’ve always enjoyed sketching people as it provides the perfect opportunity to tune out, reflect and observe others while simultaneously being around them, as occasionally I just need a balance between being around people 24/7 and total solitude. But another obvious benefit of being in a group with other artists is that although the process of drawing and painting is itself a solo activity, there is the valuable aspect of peer-learning in that you can see and learn from others’ techniques, processes and practices. It’s also nice just getting to know the rolling group of eclectic regulars and visitors/newbies from around the world who join the cafe- or pub-based life-drawing sessions, as well as those who meet at the National Gallery — if you are an artist or artistically inclined, it is a wonderful way to add to the richness of visiting London as one of the world’s leading cultural cities.
For the National Gallery meet-ups, we usually meet in the reception of the Sainsbury’s Wing at 10.30am, then decide which room(s) of the Gallery we will focus on. If you ask nicely at one of the information desks or in the cloakroom – and of course only when they are available – you can usually borrow a stool to sit on too. We then go off to sketch for a couple of hours before finally meeting downstairs in the Espresso Bar to chat and exchange views of our work over a coffee.
Above: a few of my sketches from the National Gallery – not all my best, perhaps
There are a few other artists who come along to join for a coffee and chat and then go off to continue drawing on their own, as well as others who seem to sketch in the cafe regularly. Now, during the lockdown, we are making use of the gallery’s extensive online catalogue while we are working from home, which at least allows for more diversity in materials. Occasionally Mark or whoever is leading the session will urge the group to focus on a particular theme or technique — as in a recent online National Gallery session, where the focus was on capturing spring light as it was reflected on a figure and landscape.
Although I struggled with the particular problems of working with a variety of soft/hard and chalk-/oil-based pastels on plain mixed-media paper (I was advised later by another artist in the group that I should have used a special pastel paper, since it absorbs and smooths the colours better), the two hours I spent trying to replicate Seurat’s Morning Walk were nevertheless a joyously glorious — if deeply messy — challenge.
The portrait and life-drawing sessions, on the other hand, usually involve working with a professional model for a small fee (typically between £7–£15 per person attending). The model will hold timed poses for periods ranging from 10–40 minutes long; some of them are happy to have their image taken if you need to carry on working to finish a drawing, whereas others are not — it’s always best to ask rather than assume.
The life-drawing sessions with a model are held at various evenings or days throughout the week — with some on the weekend, too — and at various pub locations in London, although most are now functioning just as effectively online, typically at the same times as the London sessions ran. I have infrequently attended the paid-model sessions at the Archduke pub near Waterloo station on Sundays from 2–4pm, and once or twice produced drawings I have been quite pleased with. However, I find working with the model online from home at least allows for more opportunities to explore using a variety of media.
But now that we can join these paid sessions online from home, it is so much easier to mix paints to use in our sketches – I’ve only just started experimenting with adding watercolour to my charcoal or pencil sketches, or even working directly from my paintbox, but this is an area I do wish to grow in (so far, I have mostly used pen, pastels, charcoals, graphite pencils, etc, but now in addition to using watercolour, I would like to try using a brush with ink, as I have observed others using in portraits and see this can be quite effective and expressive).
There are also several free ‘Portraits in the Cafe’ sessions involving drawing each other in quick 5- to 15-minute poses. In non-lockdown times, these sessions are usually held at the Roman Road site of the Muxima Cafe in Bow – a Time Out ‘Best Cafe in Bow’ for two years running. It’s a friendly, relaxed and quietly bohemian venue, perfect for an evening of social portrait sketching – if a little out of the way for me (however, I usually head into London to dance at SOS on a Sunday night, so the timing – from 6–8pm, is actually perfect). Of course these are also now being done online, again at the same time as the Muxima sessions. Below are a few of these 5- to 15-minute portrait sketches from the live Cafe sessions, as well as some of our more recent online sessions.
I’ve also benefitted occasionally from joining Mark Fennell‘s workshops at his studio in Henley-on-Thames, which involve portrait painting in oils. As this is a new or less-familiar medium for me, I still need to work on mastering blending the pigments, but I am pleased with some of my results, which were included in a local art exhibition last year (see below).
Most of the artists who attend are very experienced – some are also professional artists – and bring their own canvases, oil paints, spirits / mixers, brushes and other materials, as well as their knowledge of how to use them; if not, Mark kindly helps out by providing materials some hands-on tuition, as well as the photographs of the subjects and materials if needed.
Above: Inside Mark Fennell’s studio in Henley-on-Thames; my oil painting of one of the characterful subjects Mark presents in his class sessions; my first two oil portraits, both done in one of Mark’s workshops, were included in an exhibition of local artists’ work in Micklefield, put together by Reverend Wendy Bull, vicar of St Anne’s and St Peter’s parish in Loudwater to showcase work by fellow artists in her parish.Below: another ‘Portraits in the Café’ session in progress at Muxima Café in Bow Road, London.
Interview with Sassia Michel, Creator of Salsa Lockdown Radio
As I said recently, one of the best things to come out of this global shutdown is the tremendous burst of creativity and innovation it has prompted from the international salsa dance community in an effort to help keep us vitally connected while we’re apart. Here I talk to London-based DJ Sassia Michel about what led her to create the online radio station Salsalockdown, the benefits this format provides for both dancers and DJs – including from her own perspective as a DJ – and whether there is a post-pandemic future for the channel.
JC: So Sassia, what was it that inspired you to set up the Salsa Lockdown Radio? Have you worked in radio before and was it always your plan to create an online radio station? Or did it only happen because of the virus?
SM: No, I never worked in radio before. I was always interested in streaming live video and audio and about 10 years ago, I found some software for streaming straight to Facebook. But the idea for the radio actually came to me right after the lockdown.
On Friday the 20th of March they announced the lockdown, and my first thought was, ‘Oh no! We are not going to have any salsa!’ Then on Saturday morning I woke up with the idea of making a radio station to help keep people going. I thought if they can’t go anywhere to dance, at least they can listen to music any time through having access to a 24-hour radio. The idea was not to stop that salsa momentum and passion while we are locked down.
So I got up at 8am and started to think about how I was going to do it. I took my laptop and tried to work out how I was going to get the radio going using that streaming software. Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be even better if we can have a chatroom so people can literally come and talk, and still stay connected by talking and exchanging ideas. If they are at home alone and feeling lonely, it will be a nice place for them to come and chat.’
After I found the software to stream, I realised I needed to create a website and then find a way to get the radio software on it. I found the artwork for the site, then a platform I could put it on. So then I spent the whole day working on it, about 7–8 hours. I wanted it to be available that night, straight after the lockdown, so we could keep going with salsa. I also knew I had to do it right away, because I knew if I waited, I might get lazy and not get it done. So I decided to do it in one day and then take more time to decide what to do with it.
That day, my mum – who is alone in France – texted me asking, ‘How can I listen to salsa? Can you send me some salsa tracks I can listen to while I’m locked down?’ And I was like, ‘Wow! That’s amazing – that’s exactly what I’m doing! So now you will be able to go to this website and listen to salsa 24/7. And rather than just having a few tracks, you can have it running for the whole of the lockdown.’ I was so happy my mum asked me to do this as it was exactly what I thought dancers would be saying – ‘We need salsa! How can we do it?’ So it would be great that Salsa Lockdown would be right there.
As soon as I had had the idea, I messaged a friend in salsa, who said, ‘Wow! That’s genius! Go for it!’ So as soon as I had made it, I shared it with my friend. She came back and said, ‘Yeah change this, do this that way’, and then boom! Salsa Lockdown was born.
JC: So what about the different DJ sets? The CoBeatParty is doing that too, with lots of sets from DJs around the world 24/7; how is it different on Salsa Lockdown?
SM: On the day I created the radio, I thought, ‘You know what, it’s not going to just be a 24-hour radio – I will get DJs to play on it too. And it’s not going to just be me playing, it’s going to be other DJs playing too, because they’re also probably missing playing for people.’
It also seemed like this could also be a way for people to get to know the DJs better too, because dancers don’t usually care about the DJs when they are just standing there playing a set. You might get a few dancers coming up at the end and saying how much they liked a song or songs, but that’s it.
So my idea with the live radio is that it would be a great opportunity to create that friendship and community thing, and to get the DJs interacting with the people listening to their set as part of that community. For most of the DJs, apart from Tuli maybe, they haven’t ever done a proper radio show, but from a DJ’s point of view, this is different from DJing on the floor because first, you don’t see the dancers.
“DJing online has been a new and exciting experience since it gives you the chance to interact with the crowd on the chat on a more personal level – you can share thoughts, anecdotes and opinions while listening to the same music we usually only dance to, which you can’t do in a social situation. I loved that it gave me the chance to explain details about the music and the history behind certain rhythms, and to engage with the crowd in a less-superficial way.” [If you missed Alexistyle’s set on Salsa Lockdown, you can also catch him here on the CoBeatParty Online Salsa Congress]
—Alexis Ruiz, London/Guatemala
I usually say to the DJs, ‘You don’t have dancers in front of you, therefore you’re not trying to make people dance. But I want you to take them on a journey – on your journey.’ So I am challenging the DJs about speaking on the microphone, and having people interact with them – and the result is that they love it!
I did the DJing myself that first Saturday on the radio – I think we only had about 10 people listening, some of whom were close friends – and although I actually played for them, it was more like a talking thing as I was asking them, ‘What should we do with Salsa Lockdown? How should we make it work? How often should we do it?’ Because I wasn’t playing for them like the other DJs on the CoBeatParty, I played a bit of Haitian music. And I realised after that first night of doing this that it wasn’t about me, but it was working with the dancers and the DJs in the best way to keep everyone in the salsa community together.
But I also think it gives the opportunity to DJs to really show a bit of themselves – like when you have those people in the chat room, it’s not about making those people dance; it’s about helping those people to understand about the music a bit better, or discovering something interesting that they didn’t know before. So the DJs on Salsa Lockdown have the freedom to play anything they would not play in a normal set.
“The first thing I noticed was I didn’t have immediate feedback like you get on a dancefloor, where you know straight away if the dancers like it – instead, all you had was the live chat. But once I got used to it technically, I saw that even though it was not immediate, you get a lot of detailed feedback where people are explaining what it is they like in the music, which was much more interesting. If you’re DJing at an event, you may get some people coming back and saying, ‘I really liked that track’ – but here they are telling you why. So it wasn’t immediate, but the quality of the feedback was so much better.”
—Sebastian Mamborado, Czech Republic
I know as a DJ I have so many tracks I love, but I don’t feel like it’s going to fit with a salsa party or work on a dancefloor, so I think that’s what the difference is – as a DJ on Salsa Lockdown, you have that opportunity to really be yourself and take people on a musical journey wherever you want, because those people who are coming to listen are the real music lovers. I usually tell them, ‘Be you! If you want to play something, play it! It’s not for dancing, so you can tell people more about your music and why you choose to play that.
So I think this is what makes it a real different experience for the DJs – at least, that’s the way I see it; you should talk to some of them and ask them too.
JC: So what about your own musical journey as a DJ and the Haitian salsa you played on the first night? You mentioned your mum was into salsa; is that what led you to become a salsa DJ?
SM: I come from a musical family. My dad was a famous musician in Haiti where I grew up. He didn’t play salsa, but he played the piano and a few other instruments in the popular national music known as konpa [otherwise spelt kompa or kompas, from the word compass]. So I grew up in music, really, and that’s how I got my love of music. I was also a musician – I played the saxophone and used to play with jazz bands in France after we moved there.
When me and my twin sister were little kids, our mother loved to go and dance salsa and bachata, to go to the shows and classes, and to listen to salsa music from the Dominican Republic. As she often couldn’t get a babysitter, she took us with her – so we were exposed to salsa from a very early age.
When I moved to London from France and was exposed to the DJ world in London, I just kind of fell into DJing. It wasn’t something I really planned to do, but it just came to me, and I embraced it. I am really happy now that I often get to share my music at some of the best events in the UK and also internationally, as it says on my bio on the revised website.
JC: You mentioned you played some Haitian music on the first night of the radio – I remember listening then and thinking that was really cool that you were playing that as I didn’t really think of Haiti as a place for salsa music. So it’s great you could share that with us and educate us about that since it is your background.
SM: Yeah, I also thought the Salsa Lockdown would give the DJs the opportunity to bring more diversity to the music we are listening to because it is not just playing for people who are dancing in a club, so they can bring things we haven’t heard much before – including in my case the Haitian music.
Normally, you might get one track in a night from a Haitian band that sometimes plays salsa; I tend to throw in one every few sets I do, and in salsa parties around the world, they might include some Haitian salsa or you might get some traces from Haitian bands, but no one actually knows it’s from Haiti because it is sung in Spanish and sometimes in Creole. I remember as I was growing up, although most of the music was sung in French, you would always hear one song in Spanish.
Back in the day, those Haitian bands had a close relationship with Cuba and Dominican Republic as these islands are not far away from Haiti, so the influence was there in some of the Haitian bands and music, especially in the konpa – but I do need to research it myself more to really know the history.
“Haitian bands had a close relationship with Cuba and Dominican Republic as these islands are not far away from Haiti, so the influence was there in some of the Haitian bands and music, especially in the konpa”
On that first day when I played the Haitian salsa on Salsa Lockdown, it was because I thought, ‘Hmm, I don’t have any dancer in front of me, so I can play what I like’ – and it did make me feel really good to play that music because it is something I know and it is from my country, so I was showing a bit of me that I don’t normally get to share with others on a dancefloor. And it really surprised me that so many dancers who were listening to it on the radio were really into it – now I think I could probably do a whole set just on salsa in Haitian music!
But that’s really the idea of the radio: it gives DJs a chance to be who they are, share a bit about themselves and do something different.
JC: It’s a bit like the DJ version of that ‘Share Your Salsa’ initiative Toan and Tina set up ages ago at TNT – but here it’s DJs sharing their musical journeys, which is really cool. So what’s the plan and the schedule for the other DJ sets on Salsa Lockdown?
SM: Well, at the moment, I try to have live sets on Friday, Saturday and Tuesday nights – a lot of us were used to coming to Funky Mambo on that night, and I wanted to keep the momentum going for the dancers. So I am working with Funky Mambo to do that for as long as we are in the lockdown, and they also recommended some DJs.
DJs that have played already:
DJ Rupert, UK
DJ Alexis Ruiz, London/Guatemala
DJ Mari, Prague
DJ Vincent, Paris
DJ Erick the Saint, London
DJ Tuli, London/Venezuela
DJ Martina, London
DJ Jeff, London
DJ Mamborado, Prague
DJ LaFuriosa, Lyon
DJ Mario, Italy
DJ Duste, Sweden
I’ll also look around and see what’s going on with other DJs on the CoBeatParty or elsewhere, so depending on that, I might also add something on a Sunday so we can have a relaxing night – for example, I just decided to have some special starting this Sunday with Magna Gopal sharing her music and talking live on the radio.
“Ah, I loved it. I loved it so much I thought I have to start a radio station myself! Music is one of my favourite forms of expression, but verbal communication is another — and if you mix the two at the same time, well, that’s paradise for me! For each song I could explain why and what I liked about it and any memories attached to it — that level of sharing was so fulfilling at a time of limited human interaction! Through the questions I asked, I could feel people were also craving that same feeling of sharing as they would engage with me in many different levels. And of course, getting live feedback on specific parts of the music… you never get that level of detail playing for the dance floor!”
—Martina Petrosino, London/Italy
In the next couple of weeks, we have some fantastic DJs coming… this Saturday (25 April), we have DJ Ajad from Japan – I’ve heard he’s the best DJ in Asia, from what I understand, so I’m really excited about getting to know him. We also have some from Spain and one from Greece coming, so that’s fantastic. And when they come, they also bring new listeners from all over the world, so that’s fantastic, and I really feel so blessed to have that I have all these DJs from around the world that want to do this.
DJs that are coming soon:
DJ El Nene del Bronx, Spain
DJ Ajad, Japan
DJ Mortin, Romania
DJ Khoos, Australia
DJ Paolo, Spain
DJ Sam Sleek, London
So far, we have some people tuning in from everywhere – but it’s mostly 10 countries or so, with the majority coming from the UK, Slovenia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Estonia, the US and Spain, which are usually the countries the DJs are coming from. The most we’ve had tuning in at any one time is around 70 or so, but it’s usually around 30–35 – which is fine for now, as it’s often the same people who are the regulars listening, which makes it feel like a small party and community, and that is how we get to know each other. But every time we have a DJ from a different part of the world, they also bring people from their own countries, so that makes it really interesting.
I also have the radio on all the time, so I can see who is tuning in and connecting from all over the world to listen to it, so I think this is really great to have this available all the time. Most people might tune in and listen for an hour or so each day, which is great as they can access it whenever they like.
JC: So what about the future? Do you plan to keep going after the lockdown ends? If so, will you keep the radio the same, or do you plan to do anything different?
SM: Well, yes, I would really like for it to continue. Maybe not exactly in the same way or at the same time, because once the lockdown finishes, people will want to go back to the parties, and they might not have time to tune in. But I think we could certainly have some special radio shows, maybe every two weeks – for example, some interviews with artists, dancers, performers and promoters coming and talking about themselves, so again we can feel closer as a community.
We can also have some live sessions with people debating things with DJs and other guests, so we can keep that sense of community and the educational thing going with quizzes and talks and things, because there really does seem to a real hunger for learning these kinds of things among the dancers.
There’s so many things going on online now – you can go and listen to CoBeat or do online dance classes every day, but I want Salsa Lockdown to be really about growing the sense of community. It’s about listening, learning, understanding and getting to know people better – the dancers, the DJs and the musicians – everyone really.
So far, we’ve had so many great chats, such great quality with the music and so much wonderful education from people like Alexis, and I really don’t want that to go to waste, so I’ve just added a podcast section on the site so people can listen to those talks any time. I’m also making some other changes to the site with new graphics as well as the original art. I had a lot of help on the graphics from Marian from Prague, who did all the Photoshopping of the DJs onto the graphic, so I’m going to keep that.
As for other changes, well I just really need to put the time into it to promote it – that’s not really my thing, but I do need to put the time into it. I like the intimacy of the small community listening to it now, but it would great to get some more people tuning in from all over the world, and really to grow that diversity element. I don’t want it to be just about the DJs coming to do the show, but to really grow that diversity element, so we as a community can continue to learn and grow. So many people have come back to me and told me how much they appreciate this initiative, so I think most of them want this to continue. I know I do!
Eventually I would also really love to have some live concerts, to have live music streamed onto the radio. It would be great if a band was playing live somewhere in the world, and we could stream it straight onto the radio so anyone anywhere can enjoy it.
JC: Wow, that sounds great! I certainly look forward to it continuing in that way! One last question then: if you can get it sorted out so you can get a live concert or band livestreaming on the radio and website, who as a musician would be your number-one dream band to play first?
SM: Believe it or not, I am listening to a lot of Cuban music now, and there’s a band I really love – it’s called Havana de Primera. I saw them play in London once and I just fell in love with the singer’s [Alexander Abreu Manresa] voice. So I’ve been listening to them a lot because I love his voice – you can really hear his soul in his voice, and that is wonderful.
I’d also like to have Tromboranga playing on the radio, but for my very first livestreamed concert, it has to be Havana de Primera! [She sent me this link so I could hear for myself]
…Lastly, a big shout out to:
I’m really grateful I’ve had so much help and support – including a little donation (a big thank you to those people who did that) – from so many people who have been behind me and really supportive of me. First, I want to say thank you to my family – my twin sister Tassia, my mum Yolette, and my other half WJ for always believing in me. I especially want to mention the two ladies who have been my other eyes on this project, Katja Kliewer and Polina Levontin – thank you for your friendship. And thanks to Jana Kleineberg and Alexandra Bailey for their help with the new logo.
Of course, I am also thankful to all of the DJs who were on board straight away and played for us, and for everyone else who has been a big help and support to me on this project from day one – Toan Hoang, Ovidiu Suciu, Alex Shaw, Marian Grocky, Jamil Bacha, Rupert Boyle, Helen Sweet, Phil Marsden, Martina Petrosino, Loïc Thomas, Vincent Amiche, Julien Arnaud, Ulrike Silberkuhl, Adele Minniti, Dustin Hogg, Coco Jacoel-Robertson from the Agozar team, Miho Miha Shigematsu and Cliff Joseph from Funky Mambo, Karen McGuire, Hannah Galbraith and Alex Buckley, Ashwin Mannick, Sofi Cook, Jane Cahane, Rachel Naunton and Stefan Dosch.
Thanks to the abundant creativity, generosity, vibrancy and innovation of the international salsa community, keen dancers like me have been able to get our fix 24/7 during lockdown, with round-the-clock sets from some of the world’s very best salsa DJs streamed live on via the CoBeatParty Facebook page – including the world’s very first online-only salsa congress, which featured some amazing dance and music workshops from Eddie Torres Jr and Princess, Joel Domingo and Maria Palmieri, Alexistyle Ruiz, Joaquin Arteaga from Tromboranga and others.
Other initiatives have arisen almost daily ever since the global lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic began, with an explosion of online dance-oriented exercise sessions, classes and workshops in salsa, bachata, kizomba and other popular partner-dance styles offered for free (mostly).
While various London radio stations have hosted salsa sessions for a while (e.g. DJs Tuli and Hughie leading The Latin Explosion on Colourful Radio and DJ Del Salereo offering Cuban vibes on Back2Back FM, for example), radio seems to have found a new lease of life online through DJ Sassia Michel’s excellent Salsalockdown channel. Featuring various UK and international DJs on rotation, this online radio channel offers dancers a chance to chat with each other and interact in real-time with the DJs, some of whom have delighted in the opportunity to explain their musical preferences, introduce some unusual offerings (DJ Martina Petrosino, especially), or quiz the listeners with fascinating snippets of musical history and explanations (thank you, Alexistyle and Jamil, for the fun quizzes, and for sharing your wealth of knowledge about musicality, the instruments and the history of salsa! We have all benefitted greatly from it).
While this plethora of dance and musical offerings online has indeed been very welcome at this time of social distancing (which of course means not dancing socially), it has also sharpened the distinctions of what it actually is that truly keeps us connected as dancers: it’s the music.
Whenever someone asks me why I like dancing with partner X or partner Y, or what it is that makes a truly great dance, I’ve tried to explain that in my opinion, the best dances happen when both dancers are simultaneously feeling and expressing the music in the same or a responsive way. They don’t necessarily need to be doing exactly the same steps, patterns or movements – in fact, the dance is often like a conversation, in-joke or flirtation between two consenting adults – but they do need to be responding to the same elements in the music, and also correctly within the timing and style of that music. And unless both dancers are in tune with and truly connected with the music, they won’t achieve a perfect connection when they dance together.
Social distancing has revealed what it is that truly keeps us connected as dancers: it’s the music.
In truth, while I can’t deny missing the buzz of face-to-face and skin-to-skin encounters, and indeed like many others at this time, I am craving physically connecting in real-time on a dance floor, I’m also deeply grateful for the chance to practise other forms of connection at this time – nature, art and writing are all things that are actually best practised and enjoyed in solitude; so is listening deeply to and really understanding and feeling the music. The ability to do that is absolutely essential to excellence as a dancer, so this time is in fact a real gift to anyone who really wants to be a good and certainly a great social dancer or performer. And that is one reason I can truthfully say that, even as a dancer, this period of ‘inactivity’ is truly a blessing in disguise, as it will enable us to take time out to listen more deeply to the music we all know and love to dance to.
But even on a social level, this time out we are experiencing has benefits. Being an undeniable extrovert as well as a long-time social dancer (I first began dancing salsa 23–24 years ago; I was also teaching a full syllabus of Salsa and Related Latin Dances and writing about salsa for over 10 of those years), I can’t say I don’t feel connected to other dancers, thanks to the above initiatives. Given my dedication to going out at least a couple of times a week to dance, and attending at least a few major international or London-based salsa festivals each year, it is hardly surprising that everyone who knows me expected me to feel quite bereft or at least deeply challenged by not being able to go out and social dance, but truthfully – for the moment at least – I’m fine, even grateful for the break.
…When life hands you Covid-19, make a CoBeatParty!
Admittedly, I’ve missed having a reason to get glammed up, but even that has had its moment online, thanks to the Agozar team inviting me to join them in a ladies’ version of the men’s ‘Brush’ routine, which was a lot of fun (I’m near the end, transforming from my high-vis Bucks Angels volunteer jacket to a congress-ready look).
Although these do have their limits compared to being there in the flesh, at least we now have a range of social media and real-time meeting apps such as Zoom allowing us to connect and chat with each other in real time via text or video. Occasionally, when we’re chatting online, the actual social connection is surprisingly better than the real-life situations it is temporarily replacing, as for one thing, you can actually hear what others are saying. Online chats mean you don’t have to compete with the noise and distractions of a crowded club, dance class, bar, dance festival, or even a boozy congress party, and so and are able to appreciate all the quirks of your friends’ unique personalities.
I’m sure this is the main reason for the popularity of pre- and after-parties at congresses: people just want to get to know others and also be known more intimately, as that way you can make deeper connections and lasting friendships – which of course we can’t really do when we are all too busy dancing. So, by eliminating the background noise and distractions – as well as the desire to run off and dance as soon as we hear a great tune – we can truly focus on what the other person is saying, enabling a deeper, richer understanding and more genuine personal connection.
It’s hard to imagine how we would be able to remain connected without these online channels; we’d probably all feel like we’re hiding out in a dark cave on some deserted island. Which, if this situation drags on interminably – as some suspect it will do, given the virus’s rate of global multiplication – we may well effectively be doing. But right now, it still seems like a gift – a challenge to the most creative among us to make the best with what we’ve got – so perhaps a salsa-relevant version of the saying should be, ‘When life hands you Covid-19, make a CoBeatParty!’
As for me, I’m still feeling grateful… whether I’ll still feel like that after another few weeks or months of non-physical lockdown isolation remains to be seen. Watch this space!
As the global fashion industry comes under increasing scrutiny for its carbon footprint and contributions to social and ethnic injustice, is it time to give high-street fashion the boot?
Increasingly these days, I discover I am not the only person – and notably, not the only woman, since most fashion advertising specifically targets us – who is beginning to the see the connections between the fashion industry and the environmental catastrophe we are facing, and to feel a kind of moral nausea about the whole idea of shopping.
I find myself in a very strange place, having seemingly morphed overnight from someone who used to love to shop, whose eyes glittered magpie-like on the latest shiny, bling-y thingy, into someone who now finds the whole concept of shopping completely uninteresting – even to the point of being physically repugnant. How did this happen?
This sensation inevitably flares up after glimpsing shop window after shop window in shopping centre after shopping centre, all boasting the invariable pre-, mid- and post-season sales racks, with heaving ‘fashion’ items piling up like so many Ghosts of Christmas Must-Haves Past. Following hard is that sinking feeling that comes with knowing that eventually, most of this once-coveted mass is only going to end up swelling landfills in much poorer countries that are already overburdened with the task of cleaning up the West’s discarded seas of plastics.
Therefore, if I/we are ever going to have any hope of getting away from this mindlessly devastating consumerism, we will have to start by asking hard questions that will make us more conscious about what we buy, where (and how) it comes to us (eg the supply chain), what we value and give our attention to, and – more pressingly – why.
Fashion vs. food: how cotton threatens life
My personal queries about the fashion industry began after I watched bubbly investigative reporter (and latterly Strictly Come Dancing star) Stacey Dooley’s BBC production, Stacey Dooley Investigates: Are your clothes wrecking the planet?. Here, Dooley reveals the direct cause-and-effect links between the fashion industry and environmental disaster, showing, for example, how cotton-growing in the Caucasus region had caused the Aral Sea (originally the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake) to shrink to a mere tenth of its original size, bringing devastation to the land, health, lives and livelihoods of its communities.
Sadly, after decades of growing cotton for export, this huge and once-abundant lake had almost entirely dried up, leaving the surrounding communities stranded without any fish for food or income from fishing. And with less fresh water to drink, the people were forced to drink the heavily chemical- and pesticide-laden water from the dried-up lake, resulting in multiple cases of cancer and lung disease.
While I had always considered cotton to be a more sensible, Earth-friendly, natural, breathable and ‘sustainable’ fabric, cotton is actually about as far from sustainable as it gets. It is not at all a ‘nice’ fabric – at least not to anyone who has to grow or produce it.
Cotton – which grows naturally in warm climates in the US, Brazil, Asia (including China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan) and Turkey – is in fact a very thirsty plant. It requires 20,000 litres (5,283 gallons) of water just to produce one kilogram (2.20 pounds) of cotton. According to a Refinery 29 report, “it takes 2,720 litres of water (as much as you’d drink over a three-year period) to make one T-shirt, and 10,000 litres of water went into making your favourite pair of jeans.” That is an awful lot of water, especially considering many countries around the world are already contending with problems caused by severe drought, water shortages, pollution and erratic rainfall. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides, despite using only 3% of the world’s arable land.
Fashion may be fun – but we cannot drink clothes or eat shoes!
But cotton production is not the only factor in environmental damage. The article quoted above also points a glaring fistful of stats at the fashion industry in general: “A 2017 report revealed that, in 2015 alone, the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic metres (nearly 20.9 trillion liquid gallons) of water – enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. That figure is expected to increase by 50% by 2030.” Considering how much water goes into producing a single garment, the environmental footprint of a simple pair of jeans and T-shirt becomes truly unsustainable. In addition, the fashion and textiles industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, and is second to oil as the world’s greatest air polluter.
Therefore, if we care at all about the future of life on our sorely abused planet, we must seriously evaluate the true costs of the clothes we wear – and stop buying anything we don’t actually need. Our planet simply cannot endure much more abuse in the service of our dedicated following of fashion, which typically results in acres of landfill once consumers have tired of their insta-fashion garments and discarded them. The average consumer today buys 60% more fashion items than in 2000, but discard half of these garments. Such blind consumer behaviour is ultimately suicidal: if we destroy our drinking water, air, soil and other resources in the process of creating and following fashion, we are lost. Fashion may be fun, but we cannot drink clothes or eat shoes!
Fashion and slavery: a fundamental evil
Along with the environmental destruction wreaked by excessive cotton-growing as cited in the Aral Sea example, a recent visit to the Charleston Museum highlighted how this seemingly pure, natural fabric is also deeply intertwined with the grave social injustices inflicted during America’s shameful history of slavery. Just as today’s fast-fashion brands rely on the nimble fingers of children in sweat shops to keep consumers queuing to buy their brands, so the colonial South relied on the dirty business of slavery to build its empires of water-hungry cotton, indigo (a plant that produced a sought-after blue dye) and rice.
During the height of the transatlantic cotton and textiles maritime trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, the US became the third-largest producer of cotton after China and India. This was thanks entirely to the unscrupulous US slave traders who purchased and enslaved billions of Africans, and then sold them to plantation owners. The owners then forced their slaves to work in the blistering heat, digging and planting their cotton fields, harvesting their crops, then spinning, weaving and tailoring their fabrics into the fashionable garments craved in ‘polite’ society parlours on both sides of the Atlantic.
The enslaved who were captured and dragged from the wetlands-rich west coast of Africa – an area steeped in centuries-old cotton- and rice-growing knowledge – brought with them the exact skills and experience needed to turn the plantation owners’ swamps into profitable land. But instead of being recognised and rewarded for their skills, they were brutally manacled to the holds of ships bound for major US slave ports such as Boston and Charleston, where they had to endure horrifically cramped, inhumane conditions for 2–3 months, with few surviving the notoriously dangerous ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic (typically one in six perished per voyage). Throughout the journey, and continuing into their lives as slaves, they were frequently sexually and physically abused. Those that survived were ripped from their families on arrival at port, and then bartered for according to their age, sex, strength and skills.
Once the buyers claimed their purchases as ‘legally owned’ property, the slaves were then subjected to all manner of base cruelty and oppression, without any basic human rights or dignities – it was illegal for them to learn to read or write, as their owners greatly feared an uprising if the enslaved had too much knowledge. Yet without the knowledge, skills, expertise and back-breaking labour – often in malaria-infested swamps – of the enslaved, none of the South’s opulent mansions, exquisite silk and lace garments, and graceful antebellum plantations would ever have existed.
A comparison with today’s slave workers
While we may retrospectively deplore this treatment of slaves as barbaric, is today’s society really any different? Especially when high-street fashion moguls such as “unacceptable face of capitalism” Sir Philip Green of British fast-fashion retail giant Arcadia Group (owner of Top Shop/Top Man, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Evans, Wallis, and the controversially now-defunct British Home Stores) have built their fortunes on the backs (literally, in some cases) of the presently ca. 260 million under-15-year-old children employed in slave labour in impoverished areas of countries such as India, Nepal, Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Colombia?
Sadly, the treatment of slaves in the cotton fields of the South foreshadows today’s global fashion industry and its reliance on cheap labour, which specifically exploits the most vulnerable peoples in poorer regions of the world – women and children. The working conditions, threats to health, and lack of basic human rights such as education and a living wage – not omitting frequent evidence of physical and sexual abuse – female and child workers endure are a near-exact parallel to the damning situations African slaves faced.
Above, clockwise from left: Disgraced Arcadia chief Sir Philip Green; children work cotton fields in Uzbekistan; African woman sifting cotton buds; a cotton gin (Source: Wikipedia)
Because of their size and agility fashion chains cynically exploit under-15-year-old children, who are forced into the hard labour of cross-pollinating the cotton plants, harvesting the crops, and then put in further long hours working in cotton mills. There they spin, weave and dye the fabrics subsequently mass-produced as the clothes we buy from high-street chain stores. The children are paid a pittance for their labours, and frequently threatened with expulsion from school by their governments if they do not work the cotton fields during the summer months. Children also rarely benefit from their wages, as these go straight to their parents. Many become ill and malnourished; most have very little freedom to play and enjoy a normal, healthy childhood.
Women in supply chains also suffer gross injustices. A 2018 article in the Guardian cites two reports by Global Labour Justice highlighting 540 incidences of gender-based sexual and physical abuse in fast-fashion favourites Gap and H&M’s supply-chain factories across Asia (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, India, Indonesia) over five months. The report also found the female workers were often forced to put in excessive hours of unpaid overtime and work at an incredible pace due to underbid contracts.
From 2017–2018 in India alone, female workers using cotton gins in 4,000 mills processed 37.7 million bales of cotton – that’s a whopping 8,550.2kg (18,850 lbs – based on a standard bale at 500 lbs / 226.8kg). The cotton was then mass-produced for high-street consumption in the fast-fashion chain stores, where it is sold for competitive prices far above the production costs and pay rates for this extensive labour.
How fashion enslaves us all
While we may lay the blame for such harsh conditions and exploitation on the profit-hungry high-street retail bosses like Sir Philip Green, they are not the only ones who are culpable – such onerous supply chains exist purely to accommodate consumer demand. And if it is was not for our seemingly endless lust for new things, to be in step with the latest fashions, such a toxic, abusive and oppressive system would not flourish.
Let’s be clear: the demand side of the fashion supply-chain cycle is NOT driven by the need to clothe an exponentially growing global population. Yes, human beings do need clothing, however the fashion engine is driven purely by human greed, further accelerated by fashion marketing and advertising, and the scores of celebrities and models who endorse (whether wittingly or un) such environmentally and human-destructive brands. The sole purpose of fashion advertising campaigns is to make us feel we are missing out if we are not seen or snapped wearing the latest fashions. It is no surprise that one of the most popular social media channels carries the prefix ‘Insta’ = instant (fast) fashion.
One of the definitions of fashion (according to Collins Dictionary’s American usage) is “the way in which something is made or done; manner” – except that we are more often not actually the creators or choosers of what we make, do or wear, and the style in which we do or wear it; we are in fact the followers. The leaders are whatever the Vogue or In Style or all the other fashion mag editors and bloggers tell us we must have or do in order to be on-trend, to fit in, to look cool, to be popular, desired or successful. When we feel a compulsion to buy something merely to fit in, we are no longer our own masters, but slaves (as Grace Jones put it, ‘Slaves to the Rhythm’ – but in the case of fast fashion, the seasonal changes are what dictate its rhythms).
It is one thing to follow fashion, to be interested in trends or ways to subtly adapt our style of dress and appearance to be in vogue, and yet another to be completely enslaved by it. That compulsive, all-consuming ‘need’ to be the first to own or wear a garment – that fiercely competitive streak behind the queues of ‘Black Friday’ shoppers lining up outside stores and shopping malls every year after the US holiday of Thanksgiving (an irony in itself) – is symptomatic of a deeply dysfunctional, blindly self-centred insecurity. We won’t be happy until we get that item we believe is essential to our success, status, fashionability or desirability, and we demand to have it now.
And sadly, it is our selfish, ego-driven demands that are feeding the cycles of oppression and abuse in the supply chain; our need to have it now that puts workers under constant pressure to deliver faster and cheaper goods. That is the other reason it is called ‘fast fashion’ – because of the pressure required to deliver it, borne by the workers.
Fashion and capitalism: challenging our beliefs
The capitalist economy underpinning our most obsessive consumerist behaviour is founded on the belief that the purpose of life is to create and perpetuate wealth, and to be able to demonstrate the outward trappings of success – always being one up on the mythical Joneses. It is an inherently toxic and destructive ecosystem purpose-made to accommodate a survival-of-the-fittest, law-of-the-jungle mentality that relies on the cruelty of consumption to remain at the top of the food chain. Yet the same system that so violently oppresses and enslaves female and child garment workers also keeps us slaving away at our desks, neglecting our families and abusing our health, just so we will be able to purchase our much-craved items, stay in fashion, and be recognised and admired by others. Instead, we should ask:
So why do we do this to ourselves, to our only home, and to others who share our planet with us? Can we not simply choose to be content with what we have – or better yet, learn to share?
With all the evidence stacked against fashion, we need to evaluate our part in the cycle of greed that drives environmental devastation, socioeconomic deprivation, injustice and oppression, and ask ourselves why we are so easily manipulated into supporting something so obviously unethical. If we care about making a different and better world – both for ourselves and our children or those we will bequeath it to, we must step away from the cycle, refuse to get on it. We must somehow say no to fashion’s siren call, to the desire to jump on the latest bandwagon to feel included.
We must start making some very tough choices. It requires a deep and radical rethink about what we actually need, a reappraisal of why, some research about the supply chain of the particular garments and brands we most like, and quite a lot of discipline and discernment to eschew the worst offenders and find viable alternatives. We must start making some very tough choices. It requires a deep and radical rethink about what we actually need, a reappraisal of why, some research about the supply chain of the particular garments and brands we most like, and quite a lot of discipline and discernment to eschew the worst offenders and find viable alternatives.
Other bloggers have published their own remedies for avoiding the above issues, including guides to the top brands to avoid; both Attitude Organic and the guide above on US chains, from Vanessa Adams, as well as several others, name H&M, Zara and Gap as the three worst offenders.
Other companies that figure high on everyone’s list of worst offenders include: Amazon, Primark, Mango, Uniqlo, Target, ASOS, Top Man/Top Shop, Forever 21, Monsoon, Matalan, Benetton, Wet Seal, C&A, American Apparel, Pretty Little Thing, Esprit, Dorothy Perkins, TK Maxx, Urban Outfitters, Nike, New Look, Esprit, River Island, Missguided, Sports Direct, Adidas, Boohoo, George, Pull&Bear, Victoria’s Secret, J Brand, Massimo Dutti, Armani Exchange, Peacocks, Charlotte Russe, Next, M&S, Old Navy, Express, Muji, Louis Vuitton… the list goes on.
So how to look good without harming anyone/anything?
First, while de-cluttering is certainly good for our souls as well as our overstuffed closets and drawers/living spaces, the problem with discarding clothes is that unless we know for certain they will be properly recycled to those who need and will wear them, we may simply be adding to the already serious problems of landfill (57% of discarded garments go to landfill; only 10% are actually recycled and 8% reused. The remaining 25% are incinerated). In Hong Kong alone, 253 tons (2013 figures) of textiles and discarded clothing are sent to landfill each day, with 15 million tons of textile waste (of which 12.8 tons were discarded) recorded in the same year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Remember: true ‘fashion’ is as much about how you wear your clothes as what you wear
Therefore, we should: 1) hang on to our garments for longer – and concentrate on taking better care of them so they will last longer. That means employing the ‘Make do and mend’ strategies used by our ancestors in wartime.
Second, if hanging onto items is important for all the reasons above, then surely that also requires us to 2)be much more choosy about what we buy. Along with consciously investing in more sustainably and ethically produced garments (see here for suggestions of European-based brands, and here for US/UK brands), we should be careful that we only buy clothes that are made from durable, natural fabrics, fit well and not too snugly to accommodate weight fluctuations, suit us and are something we enjoy wearing.
If you are unsure what suits you, ask a friend to help you sort through your wardrobe, and consult an online version of the original book such as Colour Me Beautiful to help you work out your colours. That will help you to determine and to 3) stick with a colour palette that suits you, with a few seasonal adaptations.
If you find you have unsuitable colours in your wardrobe, consider 4) hosting a swap or ‘swish’ party with similarly fashion- and waste-conscious friends so that you can swap or recycle your unwanted garments. Alternatively, if you and a friend both like a certain style or colour, and wear similar sizes, you could try sharing items of clothing to get the maximum amount of wear from them.
Along with making do and mending, swapping or sharing with friends, you can also ty to 4) recycle items from your own wardrobe – sometimes clothes you haven’t worn for a while can give you a ‘new’ look, particularly if you try pairing them with different items or accessories, or wear them in a new way – this is actually what fashion magazines should help us all to do. After all, true ‘fashion’ is as much about how you wear something as what you wear. Channel your inner Audrey Hepburn – that insouciant scarf around the hat, turned-up shirt collar, or multi-stranded jewellery always looks fresh, feminine and stylish no matter what decade it was first worn, so any look modelled on her style is likely to have a reliably classic nous.
Last but not least, try to 5) buy ‘new’ clothes from vintage, consignment or charity shopsas a first port of call. If you live in or near an expensive area, you should always look there first as charity shops in these areas are more likely to hold high-quality, better-lasting goods that should also stay in style and in good shape for much longer.
And as we sign off on January’s resolutions, let’s all aim to make this year the year we finally and fully divest from fast fashion in all of our purchasing decisions.
Deforestation – the intentional eradication of trees by felling to clear land of forested areas to make way for other human-created uses (eg houses, buildings, runways, motorways, tunnels, trains and agricultural) – is a major contributor to climate change in general, and to flooding in particular.
Between 1990 and 2016 alone, the Earth lost a staggering 1.3 million square kilometres (502,000 square miles) of forests, according to figures from the World Bank. Since humans first began cutting down forests, 46% of the Earth’s total trees have been felled. Woodland comprises less than a third of the Earth’s surface (30%), but this is disappearing fast as a result of deforestation – in the past 50 years alone, at least 17% of all rainforest has gone as a result of intensive tree felling, with the past 12 years alone accounting for record highs of deforestation in the Amazon.
A significant factor is also the types of trees needed, and why. Although some have argued there have in fact been recent gains in total global tree canopy due to melting polar regions and the growth of man-made forests through timber plantations, mature palm oil plantations, and zealous tree-planting programmes in China and other countries, man-made forests can never compensate for the loss of primary forest – specifically primary tropical forests and savannahs, which host a wealth of unique flora, fauna and vital ecosystems that are irreparably lost when the land is cleared.
Tropical forests, such as those found in the Congo and Amazon river basins and Indonesia, are particularly critical to life on Earth as they are store the most carbon and are the most richly biodiverse regions on the planet, with some 90% of all species on Earth. Tropical forests are also home to many hardwood tree species that have no dormant period, and as such are vital to regulating the Earth’s atmosphere.
The UK is one of the least-forested (13%) nations in Europe (the total landmass of Europe is covered by 37% woodland), thanks to historic felling by the Romans and other invading peoples to clear land for roads and agriculture; further stripping of woodlands to provide ships during the height of Britain’s colonial and naval supremacy, and during the Second World War; and subsequent relentless felling for agriculture and building – including the current felling and irreparable destruction of 108 ancient woodlands to make way for the highly contentious high-speed railway (HS2) project, which some have referred to as ‘Britain’s Amazon’. Of this, most of the UK’s trees are in Wales and Scotland, with only 6.5% tree cover in Northern Ireland and 9.9% in England.
There are many impacts this substantial loss of tree canopy and forest cover will have on our planet if allowed to continue, not only because of their essential link to climate change and biodiversity loss, but because trees are also a vital deterrent to other ravages of a dramatically changing, overheated and destabilised climate, such as sea-level rise, water scarcity, drought and flooding. In this article, we will focus particularly on how deforestation contributes to flooding, both in the wider global picture and within the UK.
Forests serve as the Earth’s temperature regulator and pollution filter. They not only provide shade, material for building and food for creatures including man, but they also act as a vital ‘carbon sink’, meaning they absorb carbon dioxide and monoxide molecules from the air and lock them in, re-releasing them as oxygen through the process known as photosynthesis. Thus, they are effectively nature’s air-conditioning units and weather regulators, as they recycle water, which then forms clouds and later rain, thus helping to cool and water the Earth and enable to plants to grow.
“Without vast tracts of woodland covering every continent on the planet, humans – and indeed, all (or most) other life forms on Earth – would be completely wiped out, as they would not have sufficient clean air to breathe or food to eat.”
Therefore, without vast tracts of woodland covering every continent on the planet, humans – and indeed, all (or most) other life forms on Earth – would be completely wiped out, as they would not have sufficient clean air to breathe or food to eat. Without trees, the presence of the harmful carbon emissions and other noxious gases that have intensified through human fossil fuel-burning would make the air unbreathable.
If the pollution alone did not kill us, the heat would. Without vital tree cover, incremental temperature rises would diminish the protective layer of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby exposing our planet to the sun’s harmful radiation. The entire land surface would become a scorching, uninhabitable desert, where nothing could grow – as is currently the case in regions of the world that are covered in desert, whether hot or cold (note, at 33% of the Earth’s total landmass, there is already more desert than forest).
The lack of trees would also mean the planet would be unable to internally regulate weather patterns; coupled with the impact of the ozone reduction and rising heat, Earth’s weather would rapidly plunge into a wildly destabilised, crisis situation – as it is already showing signs of doing.
We are all increasingly aware of the problem of climate change; we now know that if we do not act soon to reverse the ravages of climate change, our planet is on course for imminent untold disasters due to increasing wildfires, sea-level rise (SLR) and flooding, as well as decimation of vital plants, soils and species. The rise in global temperatures has accelerated the process of evaporation, which in turn has caused global wildfires to intensify in frequency, duration and prevalence, with some 8,100 wildfires in California alone in 2019–2020 and the fire season there now lasting 75 days longer than in the 1970s. Global SLR is also accelerating beyond predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) 2013 report, with more recent data showing SLR could reach up to (or even over) 2m by 2100.
“Along with sea-level rise, wildly fluctuating weather patterns will mean increased and more severe flooding, as higher oceans and air temperatures also mean higher concentrations of evaporation and cloud formation… this then leads to an increase in storms, levels of precipitation (frequency, intensity and duration) and severe flooding”
— JANE CAHANE
Along with SLR, wildly fluctuating weather patterns will mean increased and more severe flooding, as higher ocean and air temperatures also mean higher concentrations of evaporation and cloud formation, which further increase the moisture content in the air. This then leads to an increase in storms, levels of precipitation (frequency, intensity and duration) and severe flooding, with many regions already experiencing higher-than-average rainfall – for example, in October 2019, more rain fell in areas of the UK within a single span of 48 hours than would normally occur over an entire month.
Yet while forests could provide more than one-third of the total CO2 reductions required to keep global warming below 2°C through to 2030, mankind unbelievably continues to chop trees down at an unprecedented rate. In the relatively short period between 2001–2015, over 300 million hectares (nearly the size of India) of tree cover was lost. Such short-sighted behaviour is essentially suicidal – if we continue chopping trees as we are, we will be unable to survive.
Deforestation and flooding
One of the biggest single causal factors in the devastating impacts of flooding is deforestation or de-vegetation. Deforestation contributes to the severity of flooding in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly, as described above in terms of the relation of the absence of trees to the overall impacts of climate change. Indirectly, forests also hold and use more water than agricultural lands or grasslands, which means some rainwater remains on the leaves and may evaporate directly into the air.
The most direct ways deforestation increases the impacts of flooding are by:
increasing the speed and amount of sedimentary run-off;
decreasing the amount of rainfall that is intercepted, as there are simply less leaves on trees and surrounding vegetation to absorb rainfall and reprocess it through photosynthesis; and
the simple fact there is literally nothing physically present to stem the tide of a fast-flowing flood, which may or may not contain additional sedimentary elements.
The top two impacts are connected to the mechanisms by which plants absorb and expunge water. The process of photosynthesis means water is first absorbed via tree leaves and then transmitted to the roots beneath the surface of the ground, which in turn release nutrients into the soil. The water that is not used then travels up along the underside of the leaves and is re-released into the atmosphere as oxygen via evaporation.
When there are no trees and vegetation to absorb the precipitation, the quantity of water continues to increase, yet has nowhere to go. Also, roots absorb water from the soil and make it drier and able to store more rainwater, thereby making the surrounding lands less prone to flooding. Without the roots of trees and other vegetation deep absorbing precipitation deep below the ground, the water will remain on the surface and can more easily become a flood.
Deforestation also results in the top layer of soil becoming dislodged – a process known as erosion – because without the roots of trees and other plants and vegetation to anchor this topsoil in place, it becomes unstable and is no longer able to retain or reprocess any of the water that falls on it. This loose soil then becomes run-off– rain that is not absorbed by the soil. The increased surface run-off in turn increases the risk of flooding, because there is no soil layer to stop or absorb the flow of water. It therefore becomes a fast-flowing stream, with the loose sediment mixing with it to become a mudslide.
A flood of fast-flowing water or mud can also be more dangerous if the force of the current is strong enough to uproot and transport rocks or heavier items. Such items would have more likely been filtered or intercepted by the network of branches, roots and leaves of smaller trees, shrubs, hedgerows and other low-lying but substantial vegetation. Further, the movement of sedimentary run-off can shrink river channels downstream, thereby constricting the flow of rivers and causing them to overflow and burst their banks. Without forests and vegetation present to stem the tides of rising waters, the flood waters surge and move faster, ultimately becoming uncontrollable.
According to Janet Abramovitz of WorldWatch, deforestation in the Yangtze river-basin area played a major role in the massive flood of 1998, which occurred as a result of the region losing 85% of its trees. Although the Chinese government blamed El Niño and denied any complicity due to its logging activities in causing the regional devastation, it subsequently launched a $2bn plan to reforest the Yangtze basin. Says Abramovitz, “[This was] certainly… a very clear sign from the government that deforestation was [the] problem.”
Deforestation and flooding: the case against HS2
As previously stated, the UK is one of the least-forested nations in Europe, with less than 13% of tree cover. Therefore, any programme of deforestation for building, infrastructure and large-scale agricultural projects threatens to increase both the levels of climate change-related air pollution and the risk of flooding in the UK – not to mention severely impacting fragile wetland ecosystems and many unique, rare, threatened and protected species.
One of the UK government’s most ambitious, expensive and deeply controversial infrastructure projects is the high-speed railway (HS2), phase 1 of which is currently being built, with an escalating cost to taxpayers of some £106bn. The HS2 railway scheme proposes to connect London and Birmingham (and, at a later stage, areas of the Midlands, the North of England and Scotland). To build it, engineers have drawn straight lines bisecting large swaths of countryside, including several Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), such as the Chilterns; HS2 officials have also contentiously seized houses and farms and evicted families along the proposed route, citing a World War Two law that allows the government to grab land and houses for ‘a national emergency’.
Yet, according to a survey conducted by the Wildlife Trusts, the work will destroy or irreparably damage108 irreplaceable ancient woodlands (these once covered Britain, but now only 2.5% remain), plus 693 local wildlife sites, five internationally protected wildlife sites and 33 legally protected sites of special scientific interest (SSIs).
While some see the proposed train route as an advantageous – even ‘green’ – development, both for facilitating business and reducing the amount of car traffic through ostensibly providing faster connections between major UK cities, the journey from London to Birmingham will only be 20 minutes shorter, which hardly seems to justify such excessive expenditure and destruction.
Also, HS2 will in fact add carbon dioxide (1.49 million tonnes of carbon emissions) rather than reducing it over its projected 120-year lifespan. And then there is the fact that overall, rail travel is down – the pandemic has proven that remote working not only could become the norm, but for many workers, is preferable. Indeed, even long before the pandemic, train use was in decline; it is hardly likely demand will ever justify its construction.
But despite the risks and the clear lack of viable green credentials, the project poses an even greater risk: increased flooding. This is because several areas across which HS2 is being built are floodplains, and without the farmland and forests – which HS2 is commandeering all across the route – to soak up the surface water and serve as a natural flood defence, this leaves these flood-prone areas even more exposed to the freakish extremes of the weather and precipitation patterns, which have clearly increased in recent years.
Understandably, many residents, particularly in the Midlands and areas of the North of England along the proposed HS2 route, are fearful that its construction will put their homes at even greater risk of flooding. Some critical MPs and reporters such as BBC News Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith have even suggested that HS2 itself will be a casualty of flooding. Indeed, a map produced by the Environment Agency revealed that areas already severely hit by flooding run an almost indentical course to the proposed rail line, including a 45-mile section of Staffordshire and a large area around Leeds station. In fact, had the rail line already been built through this section, it would likely have been submerged several times over.
While various spokespersons for HS2 have claimed, and continue to claim, that drainage systems near the construction locations will be put in place as works continue, recent flooding of what was formerly the South Cubbington Woods – home to ancient woodlands and the beloved Cubbington 2015 ‘Tree of the Year’ pear tree, which were recently felled to make may for HS2 – makes such claims vastly unreliable. In view of such evident increase of flooding in an area that would have otherwise been soaked up by these woods, local residents are justifiably angry that money being spent on what many see as a ‘white elephant vanity project’ has not instead been directed towards erecting greater flood-prevention defences.
Speaking after the major flooding incidents caused by Storms Desmond and Eva during the Christmas 2015 holidays, which saw record-breaking rainfall hit Lancashire, Cumbria, southern Scotland and parts of Wales, former UK MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber Mike Hookem said: “Flood defences are not something that the government can palm off on charities and communities… rather than pouring billions of pounds into projects like HS2 – while at the same time cutting the flood defence budget, as it did in its recent spending review – the government must get its priorities right and make protecting the homes and businesses of hundreds and thousands of people from flooding an absolute priority.”
As an island nation normally subject to intensive rainfall, it is clear flooding is about to become even more intense for the UK due to rising sea levels, increasingly erratic and dangerous weather patterns, and the other issues of climate change-induced flooding made infinitely worse through deforestation. While the government has recently agreed to new 2050 targets for achieving net carbon neutrality and becoming a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases, its continued support for the HS2 project is in direct opposition to these goals, due to the fact the project itself is adding to rather subtracting carbon emissions.
Perhaps the flooding in areas already deforested for HS2 is a sign that even if the government refuses to halt this work, nature herself will ultimately have the final say.
This article was originally written for the Earth Fast 2021 website in relation to this year’s theme on water – please see here for further articles and information about how to join the fast, and how to fast safely.
Like many of you, I rejoice that creativity in all forms is not in lockdown – and as I posted previously, I am very grateful to remain a connected, active member of a number of groups, including the Shoal of Art Meetup group, which I first got involved with a few years ago when I joined the Meetup group that usually meets at the National Gallery in London, and also for various portrait sessions likewise based in London.
As I mentioned in last month’s post, I am also writing an historical novel, and grateful for the daily discipline of joining the Writers’ Hour sessions at the London Writers Salon to aid my progress in that. Being connected with other artists, writers and creators online during this time has been a huge part of the reason I have rarely, if at all, felt lonely, and instead have remained upbeat, fulfilled – even excited – throughout lockdown.
So, here is a small sample of artworks I have created since lockdown began – mostly in order of creation from most recent to shortly after lockdown began in 2020, they include: various portrait and landscape sketches (charcoal, pastel, watercolour, pencil); watercolours, pastels and acrylic paintings of animals (birds, particularly, as well as some animal-themed banners and sashes I created for the HS2 Rebellion March in June 2020 [I have also made countless effective placards, some of which have been lost while en route to protests in London and elsewhere]); contour pen and pencil drawings of live and static models; a few autumn-themed acrylic, watercolour and mixed-media landscape paintings; and interpretative copies of works of known artists (Monet, Rembrandt, Matisse, Gauguin, Bonnard, etc) from the National Gallery and other sources. Most of the portrait sketches were 15–30 minute poses.
Below: various images of sashes and placards I created to highlight specific species threatened by HS2 for the June 2020 HS2 Rebellion March
I certainly have a long way to go yet in developing my skills, individual style and knowledge of various media; while I have been drawing and painting all my life (and only with a small amount of university, etc art training), I am unable to say whether much of the below constitutes improvement.
However, I do consider that, as God has given me some measure of natural talent and/or artistic ability, the only way I will ever really improve is through practice – and so I continue to do just that. Thank God for lockdown giving us the time and space to do it!
What began as an intended series of light-hearted travel-and-food blogs (it still is, in part – see rijstaffel recipe below) has now become a compendium of thoughts and reflections on Amsterdam and its impact on the world (and on me). That is because it is both a chief location for the historical novel I am writing (as explained below), as well as a place in which I formerly briefly lived, and which radically altered my life. Therefore, I invite you to take from this what you wish and leave the rest – like a liquorice all-sorts, some flavours may appeal more than others!
Since mid-October, when an ornament on display at the ‘Kimono: From Kyoto to Catwalk’ exhibition at the V&A gave me the initial idea and inspiration, I began working on the preliminary concepts, genres, character sketches and plotting for an historical novel, which is set in mid-17th century Amsterdam and Japan. (Note: The above image is a collage I created during a recent Shoal of Art session where we were looking at surrealism; as I had just come fresh from my research, the image I created ended up being a mix of Dutch-, Japan- and VOC-related paintings with some of Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist creations, including her blood-stained gloves – which I decided are a perfect metaphor for the ‘staining’ power of colonialism.)
As I’ve discovered, writing an historical novel requires a tremendous amount of research and total immersion into the period, locations, conventions, clothing, habits, morals and attitudes to make the characters believable and as factually accurate as possible (some are based on real-life characters). This can be both fascinating and frustrating. I’ve already learned quite a lot about my subject(s) and the time period, as well as some of the conventions of historical fiction, but I have also realised how even tiny details require an awful lot of time to find on a Google search, and how easy it is to get sidetracked or fall down research rabbit holes in the process. That is one reason for sharing some of this excess information here – it’s a golden opportunity to tell rather than show!
To aid my progress, I’ve joined an online writing group – the London Writers Salon (it’s called that, even though many participants are actually based in the US, Europe and further afield) where you log on to Zoom and write collectively for a solid hour, with a few minutes’ check-in with other writers at the beginning and end. It’s perfect for writers like me who often write best when held to account by others or to an external deadline – and while it is a different incentive to the paid writing commissions I do as a freelance journalist, copywriter and editor, it still gives me a deep sense of satisfaction in setting and achieving goals (I am still working on getting my novel research and plotting, etc NaNoWriMo ready by January – but am nearly there).
Writing a novel is something I have intended to do all my life, but have somehow been too distracted (usually with salsa, which of course I cannot do now) or discouraged (eg not believing in my message or talent) to get down to it. Therefore, I am grateful to the coronavirus for giving me the incentive to forget all that and get on with it. This quote from a recent LWS session has really resonated with me: “Remember this year? It was a good year, actually. This was the year you stopped waiting around for things to happen. And somehow, as soon as you stopped waiting, as soon as you started doing things, making things, claiming your own space, speaking up for yourself? That’s when your real-life began.” (Heather Havrilesky, How to Be a Person in the World).
Being that my novel will focus on the explorations of new worlds, among other things, here’s to all of us continuing to explore and discover the ‘brave new worlds’ and exotic riches of creativity within us all, and to a new year full of new beginnings!
Travel and spices: how a craving for exotic flavours led to capitalism
In the same way probably the most British dish you can eat is curry, as a result of the colonial heritage from the days of British Raj in India, the most Dutch thing you can eat is likely an Indonesian rijstaffel (see recipe below), thanks to the Netherlands’ long-term trade via the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (the VOC, or the Dutch East India Company) with the famed Spice Islands of the East (the Maluku or Molucca Islands). This small group of islands in the Molucca Sea, in the north-east of Indonesia between Sulawesi and Papua New Guinea, is the world’s largest producers of mace, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. As a result, Indonesian spices and flavours have long been familiar Dutch staples, including in the wonderful street varieties found in Amsterdam.
European trade with the Spice Islands began in 1512 after Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India that connected the Indian and Atlantic oceans; before that, obtaining spices, Chinese silks, Indian cottons, Arabian coffee and African ivory was a costly and time-consuming affair, as these goods had to be shipped and then transported overland, passing through many traders’ hands before eventually reaching Venice – the chief point of trade contact between Europe and Asia – where their cost was up to 1,000% higher than the price originally paid for them in the Spice Islands.
You may wonder why the desire for such a small and unnecessary-seeming thing as the subtle, delicate flavourings and aromas of a certain spice or herbal ingredient would motivate our European forebears to undertake such long and arduous sea journeys to unknown lands, yet if you try removing all spices and herbs from your cooking, you’ll soon understand how valuable these indeed are.
Once you discover how much depth, texture, pungency and richness of taste these can add to your otherwise boring or bland-tasting food, your desire to repeat these sensations becomes very addictive, and you experience an intense craving for more of these amazing taste-sense experiences.
Therefore, an insatiable desire for these pungent ingredients is what drove the expeditions and travel of these brave, curious explorers, who succeeded in opening up new transcontinental maritime routes, ultimately paving the way for our modern globalised world and its complicated (and ecologically disastrous) supply chains.
Such demand led to many wars and acts of piracy between European and Asian nations as they fought to outdo each other in the race to claim ‘ownership’ of these exotic lands and their goods, thereby creating the ensuing horrors of slavery, exploitation of indigenous peoples, deforestation and ethnic wars caused by the disrespectful mapping of colonial conquerors, who simply drew up boundary lines willy-nilly to suit their own aims, which were utterly out of sync with tribal peoples’ boundaries.
Another factor in terms of what motivated this vastly lucrative, competitive and destructive trade is that, while spices and extra ingredients were hardly the stuff of necessity – you could still eat potatoes, vegetables and meat without them, as sadly the poor who could not afford them had to do – their very subtlety and unnecessariness is actually what made these goods so compelling (the spice equivalent of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, if you will). The ownership and use of such luxuriously unnecessary spices became a distinct mark of social and economic ‘arrival’ for many of the ambitious VOC merchants’ families and the other wealthy patrons who could afford them.
These spices were also deemed valuable because they derived from mysterious far-away lands, which their purchasers could boast of either visiting or financing expeditions to. Well-off hosts revelled in the one-upmanship of displaying their ostentatious wealth through hosting elaborate banquets. This desire to show off their exotic acquisitions in turn gave rise to the artistic trend that emerged during the Dutch Golden Age of depicting fruits, shells and flowers from these strange new lands in meticulously detailed and expertly crafted still lives, which became very fashionable at that time – the 17th century version of Instagram, if you will.
Another direct result of this demand for spices was the VOC’s creation of our now-familiar, but then-pioneering financing methods. The VOC was the world’s first corporation, and financing it relied on the purchase of stocks, joint stock corporations, investments in maritime insurance, futures trading, favourably (or unjustly) tilted trade negotiations and agreements, warfare, actual and financial acts of piracy, and (often violently) enforced monopolies. It was the first conglomerate, and the first company to be listed on international stock exchange – in effect, the beginning of capitalism as we know it.
“Exposure to new lands through travel and the sense-stirring revelations of heady new spices made our world what it is today. The demand for these far-flung fragrant spices and other exotic goods not only contributed to laying the foundations of today’s consumerist society, but also to all of the horrendous after-effects of colonialism and the global supply chain – the single-biggest driver of climate change”
It is probably no surprise, then, that the originally Dutch settlement of 1624 on the southern tip of the Hudson River, known then as Nieuw Amsterdam, eventually became Manhattan, New York – and the world’s leading exponent of capitalism.
Therefore, it was due to this exposure to new lands through travel and the sense-stirring revelations of heady new spices that made our world what it is today. The insatiable demand for these far-flung fragrant spices and other exotic goods not only contributed to laying the foundations of today’s consumerist society, but also to all of the horrendous after-effects of colonialism and the global supply chain – the single-biggest driver of climate change, the greatest existential threat mankind has ever known.
If you think about how we ‘commoners’ today enjoy goods from far-flung lands as everyday ingredients in our mass-produced food, you can see how the ‘trickle-down’ economic concept was expected to work; of course what you don’t see is all the dreadful exploitation, slavery, child labour, deforestation and devastation of resources going on in these countries now – but that is a topic for another blog.
Yet we would not recognise our modern life if we did not have what has now become daily access to commodities such as:
chocolate (cacao – from South American and Asian rainforests);
cinnamon (from Sri Lanka, India and Burma, also the West Indies and South America);
garlic (China and Middle Asia [Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; from there to Egypt]);
pepper (India and Indonesia);
sugar (originally, Papua New Guinea, then South East Asia, China, India, Haiti and Dominican Republic);
turmeric (South East Asia and Pacific islands [Tahiti, Hawaii, Easter Island]);
tea (China, then Japan and later India);
ginger (India and China; throughout South East Asia);
coffee (North Africa, originally; now South East Asia, Central and South America, predominantly);
tobacco (originally South and North America; today, China, India, Brazil and the US are the top producers);
vanilla (originally Mexico, now mostly Madagascar, Tahiti, Indonesia and Uganda);
chilli and paprika (Mexico); and
saffron – officially the world’s costliest spice by weight, it comes from the dried stigmas of a particular crocus flower, Crocus sativus (originally cultivated in Greece, now also cultivated in Iran, India and Morocco).
Amsterdam and the Netherlands – in all their spicy ‘glory’
They say if you like Amsterdam, you will love Europe; while every European city is different, it is true that, being a seafaring country and having both a Catholic and Protestant heritage – not to mention all those amazing canals, frequently superior in construction to their Venetian cousins – Amsterdam reflects some elements of nearly every European country.
Thanks to its early explorations of Asia, South America, Africa and the Caribbean during the Dutch Golden Age period of (particularly) the 17th century – and its colonial acquisitions in countries and islands such as Curaçao, Aruba, New Zealand Surinam, South Africa, Indonesia, Sint Maarten and Dutch Guiana, and parts of Australia, North America, Japan and India – Amsterdam has long had a tradition of open-mindedness, tolerance and outward-lookingness, especially towards other cultures and religions (not excluding its famously liberal attitudes towards sexuality – an altogether different form of spiciness! – as a more recent development).
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Dutch culture became a model of tolerance and leniency towards drug use, euthanasia, abortion/birth control, prostitution and homosexuality, with a globalised sex industry expanding beyond the red-light districts in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities (as I myself have experience of through outreach to prostitutes from Santo Domingo and other colonial outposts, as I explain later). However, the influence of a heavily judgemental Calvinistic streak has also left its mark on the psyche of the nation; even if 82% of Dutch people no longer believe in God or attend church these days, they still adhere to the virtues of integrity, truthfulness, hard work, respectfulness, reliability, acceptance, self-discipline and efficiency that derive from a heavily Calvinistic background.
For those who do not know, John Calvin was a highly influential theologian and preacher of the Reformation movement that swept Europe in the mid-16th century as a result of the teachings of German Martin Luther, which emphasised a personal faith through one’s own reading and interpretation of the scriptures. Later, the French-Swiss Catholic-turned-Protestant John Calvin became a leading proponent of Protestantism, and his teachings were eagerly embraced by the Dutch people – including then-leader William of Orange, as well as a large percentage of commoners.
Prior to the Reformation, all of Europe was Catholic, and therefore under rule from Rome. However, there were also many inter-national economic rivalries and wars – such as the Eighty Years’ War between Spain (under Philip II) and the Netherlands. This war came about as Spanish Catholics began a campaign of harsh persecutions against Dutch Calvinists, which led to resentment and resistance via a wave of rebellious, disorderly attacks known as the Beeldenstorm (image storm) of 1566, in which Catholic images and statues were destroyed. Inevitably, the Dutch broke free from Spain in 1581 and formed the Dutch Republic. One wonders what the world might have been like were it not for Calvin’s preaching!
The Dutch rebellion against Catholic and Spanish rule also ignited their determination to overthrow the monopoly of the spice trade and send their own ships east, thus forgoing the necessity of trading with Spain and Portugal. The Dutch soon became the leading maritime explorers of the 17th century, thanks in part to the fleet construction of their East Indiaman ships, which were lighter and more compactly built than the heavy Portuguese and Spanish war ships (they were also initially faster than other European ships, however, as the British began to use copper sheathing in the construction of their ships’ hulls, their speed eventually overtook the Dutch, who delayed using this innovation for various reasons).
The Dutch are certainly some of the world’s most incredibly ingenious, hard-working, tenacious and resourceful peoples – for example, their advanced abilities to reclaim land from the sea using dikes and polders is an amazing feat of engineering. After the catastrophic North Sea flood of 1287 (aka ‘St Lucia’s Flood’ – considered one of the worst floods in history), which killed 50,000 people and destroyed the many small earth-mound villages protected by dikes at the time, the Dutch had to work extra hard to push back the newly formed Zuiderzee (‘South sea’) created by this flood. They slowly pushed back the Zuiderzee by building newer, stronger dikes and creating polders (land reclaimed from the sea through draining water using canals and pumps, which were then maintained to keep the land dry and prevent further flooding). This ingenuity has given rise to the proverb, ‘While God created the Earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands’.
The Dutch are also master linguists; while their own language is incredibly difficult for any non-native to pronounce correctly or master, they seem to make up for that by mastering everyone else’s language, so if you but open your mouth to speak – even if you are trying really hard to learn and practise speaking Dutch – they will immediately discern your language and start communicating with you in it instead. Whether this is because they are proud of their seemingly almost supernatural gift for this, or embarrassed that their own language is so difficult and contains so many challenging sounds, is hard to say. (Dutch is actually the closest linguistic relative to English, specifically the version (Frisian) spoken in its most westerly area – Friesland, or the Frisian Islands. The Frisii (Frisians) were the first tribe to settle the Netherlands in 400 BC.)
It was also largely in part due to French-Dutch explorer François Caron’s mastery of Japanese (one of the factors in my novel) and other languages that the Dutch ended up having a trading monopoly in Japan – which goes to show how essential language skills are to the evolving development of international trade and diplomacy.
Chiaroscuro: my personal history lessons in Amsterdam
I lived in Amsterdam (or A’dam, as we called it) for a brief two years during my early 20s, during which time I worked in the fundraising and communications office of Jeugdt Met Een Opdracht (Youth With A Mission, an international, interdenominational Christian missionary and relief organisation, which I had previously trained and travelled with in Latin America before I felt specifically compelled to come to Europe). YWAM’s Amsterdam HQ – situated in a large building opposite Amsterdam’s Centraal Station (main train station), which proclaimed ‘God Roept U’ (God Loves You) from its top storey – was set up by The Father Heart of God writer Floyd McClung, Jr. and other former hippie-trailsters-turned-Christian-evangelists who had previously used two disused house boats (known collectively as ‘The Ark’) as a base for outreach to the city’s large drug-using/abusing community, and to scores of disillusioned young people asking deep questions about the meaning of life.
By the time I joined YWAM in A’dam, it had attracted a fairly large corps of international volunteers, most of whom either lived in shared temporary communal housing or in flats in various parts of the city (I lived for a time in the Bijlmermeer – at that time, a cheap but very rough neighbourhood, considered a Dutch ghetto – and afterwards in the outlying provincial [and then rather boring, though much safer] village of Purmerend).
While my ‘day job’ was all about boosting funding through producing a newsletter for the ‘Friends of Amsterdam’ and recording various audio-visual productions, I spent much of my spare time doing outreach to the (mostly) Spanish-speaking prostitutes in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s Red-Light District. This is one of the reasons why, despite my efforts to practise and learn Dutch properly in the two years I lived there, I could never master it – instead, my daily language ended up being a very weird kind of ‘Danglish’ (Dutch-Spanish-English) hybrid; for some reason, I also developed another weird habit of speaking in a form of transliterated English whenever I find myself in any situation where I feel like a foreigner – which I still do occasionally even now!
During my time in A’dam, I experienced much of the sharp moral and other contrasts of its inhabitants, witnessing at first hand their inherently Calvinistic qualities and simultaneous liberal attitudes. Such ambiguity (hypocrisy?) was possibly a contributing factor in my personal experiences of spiritual abuse at the hands of YWAM Amsterdam’s leadership, as while seeming to be forward-thinking and open, and emphasising compassion, it was in fact controlling, legalistic, dismissive and misogynistic (after submitting something I’d been asked to write that displayed my command of vocabulary and contested the viewpoints of the main leader, I was criticised for being a ‘dangerous female intellectual’ and asked to leave the organisation – an event that subsequently caused me to stumble in my faith for several decades after [and which I can only recently claim to be healed of]).
Yet as I also witnessed some very powerful and dramatic spiritual confrontations between the powers of darkness and the power of light during various street-outreach sessions, I will forever associate Amsterdam with the concept of chiaroscuro – the technique of highlighting contrasts between dark and light, which Rembrandt and other Dutch Golden Age masters are famous for.
Despite the above negative experience and my fruitless efforts to acquire the Dutch language, those two years in Amsterdam changed my life immensely – for the better, mainly. I developed a more European (and truly cosmopolitan) view of life, and became very aware of (and deeply ashamed by) the US’s war-mongering footprint across the globe through understanding how this was perceived by other nations. While generally kind-natured, the Dutch are also typically very blunt, and do speak their minds; it took me a while not to take it personally if they criticised US foreign policy whenever I opened my mouth, though this certainly made me determined to develop a stronger Irish accent so I no longer felt obliged to apologise every time I opened my mouth!
By the time I returned to the US, I no longer considered myself American – the insular, imperialistic values the US manifested seemed completely out of sync with a more tolerant, globally aware and objective European vantage point. I felt like a stranger, a permanent exile (or expatriate), which led me to return to Ireland to study, and thence to my marriage and relocation to London.
I had also become used to the Dutch way of life – cycling to the shops each morning to fetch a bouquet of fresh tulips from the market, along with my food for the day (typically, some broodje [bread], kaas [cheese, usually Gouda], jam and koffee for breakfast and lunch, with the makings for a savoury pannekoeken [pancake], a rijstaffel, curry or vegetarian stir-fry for dinner).
I particularly loved the street snack of frites met sate (chips or French fries with spicy Indonesian satay sauce), available from many street vendors around the city, and the wonderful stroopwaffelen (two waffle biscuits or cookies cemented with a thick caramel-like syrup). I also learned to love (and still crave) the Dutch dubbel zoute (or double salted) liquorice, though even many Dutch people can’t take its strong flavour! I was thrilled to discover you can get a gluten-free version of this at London’s Borough Market.
As for raw herring – just… no! That was simply one cultural adaptation too far!
I am grateful for very fond memories of some lovely Dutch people I knew from that time, such as Peter and Marilyn Gruschka, who always demonstrated the most exemplary hospitality, fun and fellowship on their colourful houseboat, and other international friends I made during that time – some of whom I am still close to (or have renewed contact with, thanks to Facebook).
I am also deeply grateful for the many long hours I spent at the Rijksmuseum, admiring and sketching from the works of the Dutch Golden Age painters – Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Pieter de Hooch, Adriaen van Ostade, Jan Steen, Nicholas Maes, Frans Hals and many others. This has made me a lifelong, devoted fan of this period of time, particularly of the genius of Rembrandt.
Being that we are unlikely to be able to travel any time soon (even short-haul, as in to Amsterdam), all this talk of far-flung spices has whetted my appetite – both for revisiting (mentally) many of the wonderful places I have traveled to or lived in, and the crave-inducing foods I savoured on these trips. So I hope to write a few more shorter travel-and-food blogs along this vein, but this will do for now. Meanwhile, I will leave you (and end this blog, finally) with the background about and a few recipes for creating a traditional Dutch-Indonesian rijstaffel. I intend to make this for a New Year’s treat – though I will hardly need to cook a whole rice ‘mountain’ just for two!
The famous Dutch-Indonesian Rijstaffel
The traditional Dutch-Indonesian rijstaffel (literally, ‘rice table’)was modelled on the Indonesian custom of serving a ritual feast, called a ‘selamantan’, which featured a variety of dishes surrounding a cone-shaped, turmeric-seasoned rice ‘mountain’ to represent the metaphysical Hindu Mount Meru – the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmologies. The selamantan (and consequently the rijstaffel) was an elaborate spread of 11–21 dishes (always an uneven number, as even numbers were seen as somewhat inauspicious), served with various condiments and a literal mountain of rice.
One of the reasons the rijstaffel became so popular with the Dutch is that it offered the wealthy merchants and VOC colonists a way to sample and balance a range of exotic flavours and consistencies (salty, sweet, crunchy, smooth), and to show off all their spicy and exotic acquisitions to their friends and the business associates they wished to impress.
Below are a select few recipes for some of the more memorable dishes of the rijstaffel – once you get used to these wonderfully pungent and aromatic flavours, you’ll understand why the Dutch developed such an addictive craving for the exotic flavours of the Spice Islands that they outdid every other nation in dominating the East Indian trade – or at least I do! I’ll start with my favourite sauce in the whole world, Gado Gado – this crunchy spicy peanut sauce would certainly make me endure months at sea and travel halfway around the world, although obviously that isn’t necessary now.
Gado Gado 1 small onion, chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced 2 teaspoons ground coriander seed 1 teaspoon ground cumin seed 1 tablespoon dark-brown sugar 1–2 teaspoons sambal ulek (a spicy Indonesian pepper paste, found in the world foods aisles of many supermarkets) 2 tablespoons kecap manis (a thick, sweet soy sauce found in Asian food stores) 2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar 1 1/2 cups smooth or crunchy peanut butter (according to taste) 1 tin of coconut milk chopped peanuts, as a garnish
Fry the onion, garlic, coriander and cumin in a little oil until the onion is soft. Add the sugar, kecap, vinegar and sambal, and stir until combined. Now add the peanut butter to make a thick paste. Slowly stir in the coconut milk and combine with the peanut-butter mixture, continuing to whisk the ingredients together.
Once the sauce is smooth, let it simmer on a low flame for about 10 minutes, remembering to keep stirring to keep it from burning. Thin with water or broth as needed, and then serve warm with salad, chopped raw or cooked vegetables, beancurd and egg. For grilled chicken, pork, fish or seafood kebab skewers, use the variant known as sate or satay* [see below for an easy recipe] – both versions go well with everything, and are great with chips (in Amsterdam, ask for ‘Frites met sate’ from a street vendor).
As a final touch/for extra crunch, add a few chopped peanuts as a garnish.
*Sate [or satay] sauce
1/2 lime, juiced 1 tsp honey 1 tbsp soy sauce (I use the gluten-free variety) 1 tbsp curry powder 3 tbsp peanut butter (smooth is best for this version) 165 ml coconut milk
Mix the first five ingredients in a bowl, blending well, then transfer to a small cooking pan. Gently pour in the coconut milk and heat, stirring continuously. Simmer for 5 minutes and serve.
Ajam Kecap (Chicken with Ginger and Soy Sauce) 900g chicken meat (preferably thighs; can use breasts) 4 tablespoons vegetable or coconut oil 2 large onions, chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced 3–4 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger root 2 tablespoons ground ginger 4 tablespoons kecap manis 2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar 1 teaspoon sambal ulek 1/2 cups chopped crystallised ginger
Cut the chicken into one-inch pieces. Season the meat well with salt, pepper and two tablespoons of the ground ginger. Heat the oil and fry the chicken pieces until they begin to brown. Add the onion, garlic and ginger root. Cook until the onion softens, then add the kecap, vinegar and crystallised ginger pieces. Cover the pan and simmer on low heat for about 40 minutes.
For an alternative version with pork (known as babi kecap), substitute 900g of cubed pork; or for a vegetarian version, you could perhaps try tofu as a substitute.
Serundeng (Coconut Peanut Topping) 1 to 2 tablespoons coconut oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced 1-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and grated 1 teaspoon ground cumin seed 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar Juice of 1 lime 11/2 cups dried unsweetened shredded coconut 1 cup roasted salted peanuts Salt to taste
In a large non-stick frying pan, fry the onion, garlic and ginger root in the oil until they are soft and fragrant. Add the dry spices and the brown sugar and continue to cook, so the sugar dissolves. Add the lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Add the coconut and continue to cook, stirring all the time until the coconut has absorbed all the seasonings and is toasted and dry. (You can do this last step by spreading the mixture on a baking sheet and baking it in the oven. The coconut should be dry and golden; make sure it does not burn).
Last, add the peanuts and toss to blend. Serve this over rice, or over anything with peanut sauce.
Cook’s note: Serundeng is a condiment served with rijsttafel. It is like an Indian dry chutney, something to sprinkle over rice or vegetables. Its sweetness will balance out the heat from spicy dishes.
Udang Kuning (Shrimp in Turmeric Sauce) Note: You can prepare the spicy paste ahead of time, and lightly sauté the shrimp in the sauce just before you are ready to serve it.
1 tin coconut milk 2 djeruk purut (lime leaves; only use them fresh) Juice of 1 fresh lime Basil or coriander leaves for serving 450g raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
For the spicy paste: 1 medium onion 3 cloves garlic 1 teaspoon coriander seed 2 stalks of fresh lemongrass, inner white part only 2 inches fresh ginger root, chopped 1 tomato 1 teaspoon sambal ulek, or 1 fresh serrano or chili pepper 1 teaspoon turmeric powder 1 teaspoon salt
Chop all ingredients for the spice paste and blend them together in a food processor until smooth. Heat a little oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the spice paste for a few minutes, until it gives off a strong, fragrant aroma.
Then add the coconut milk and the lime leaves, and simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes. Strain the cooked mixture, squeezing the solids to extract the flavour. Add the lime juice for extra flavour. Before serving, lightly sauté the raw shrimp in the sauce until cooked through.
*Note: Most of these recipes have been adapted for UK shoppers and to suit my personal gluten-free needs, but derive from Josephine Nieuwenhuis’s blog on rijstaffel – please see her blog for the full-gluten, US version.
This is the first year I won’t, as a US expat living in the UK, be serving turkey for Thanksgiving, which I have celebrated faithfully in the traditional way for each of the 25+ years I have lived in the UK. But with the Covid lockdown, family gatherings aren’t happening – and anyway, who wants to cook a big turkey just for two?
So this Thanksgiving night, we are simply polishing off a moussaka I made earlier in the week. I know other US friends and family will likewise be giving the traditional turkey roast a miss, whether due to Covid or the ongoing economic crisis – at least it’s good news for turkeys everywhere!
But even where traditional festivities may be lacking, the main point for rejoicing – that is, for me personally, and at least circa six million of my fellow Americans – is that after four years of turmoil, racism and disgust, we are finally about to lose the perma-bronzed turkey in the White House. And to that most of us can say a heartfelt Amen!
With President-elect Joe Biden rapidly filling his cabinet with some forward-thinking and impressive appointments, and his affirmed commitment to addressing urgently the twin threats of Covid and climate change, we can at least feel some hope for moving forward in addressing these in 2021, even while the gloom persists as numbers of Covid cases continue to rise in the US (roughly 12.9 million cases, with 262,831 deaths recorded thus far).
This prompts some thoughts about how the present and following generations of Americans will come to view the past four years of Trump’s reign. A proud and ego-driven Trump now appears to be spiralling into a stupendous fall as his increasingly ludicrous claims of voter fraud fail to find any fruition.
In spectacular bad-loser fashion, Trump has instead eschewed the spotlight, holing himself up in the White House and making only rare appearances to negligible events, and generally appearing to be only a shell of his former bombastic self. He almost begins to acquire the patina of a tragic hero; one wonders what Shakespeare, was he around today, would have made of this – in the hands of a skilful writer, the real-life material presents an unbeatable opportunity to draw a brilliantly scathing portrait of a man both at war with his rival and himself (or, in Trump’s case, the facts). Not that anyone should feel sorry for such an innately self-centred individual, who has continually put his own needs and greed for power ahead of the good of the nation.
In the hands of a skilful writer, the real-life material presents an unbeatable opportunity to draw a brilliantly scathing portrait of a man both at war with his rival and himself (or, in Trump’s case, the facts)
One also wonders what the Pilgrim Fathers would have made of a Trump presidency. Surely the four freedoms – religion, speech, press and assembly – they originally fled to the US in the hopes of preserving have been severely threatened by the Trump administration, which has frighteningly evidenced many of the hallmarks of fascism in recent months.
A tradition born of conflict
Yet even as Biden has spoken today of the need to heal and move forward from “the grim season of division” that has riven America both before and since polling began, it is interesting to recall that the traditional Thanksgiving celebration was actually begun during a similar period of national division: the US Civil War – the very bloody, divisive and destructive ‘War Between the States’, which lasted from 1861–1865 (and for which, some argue, the rationale has never truly been resolved, as is indicated by the racist rhetoric and stance of many Trump supporters).
While the Pilgrim Fathers did indeed celebrate a feast to give thanks for their safe arrival in North America and the bountiful food generously provided by the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts (and no doubt to deeply resented by every Native tribe since), and this did indeed provide the inspiration for the official four-day holiday celebrated by Americans across the US (and the pond) ever since, the actual holiday came into practice directly as a result of the frictions that triggered the Civil War and its ensuing deadly battles.
After the Northern states of the US overwhelmingly elected abolitionist Abraham Lincoln as president, thus dealing a supremely enervating blow to the proud slave-owning Southerners who had profited enormously from the centuries of hard work done by their African ‘inferiors’, the South retaliated with their own brand of coup by firing on Fort Sumter – a strategic declaration of war directed at a federal fort smack in the harbour of the leading slave-port city of Charleston, South Carolina. This open declaration of rebellion and secession signified the South’s unrelenting unwillingness to submit to a unified federal government that denied it the power to continue twisting laws regarding slavery to its own benefit and thus enhance its power.
And so began four long years of hellish conflict as brother fought brother across borders demarcated by the famous Mason-Dixon line (a line separating the officially Northern [Union – Yankee] states of Pennsylvania and from the Southern [Confederate – Rebel] states) in what was then alternatively described as the ‘War Between the States’, the ‘War of Secession’, the ‘War of the Rebellion’ or the ‘Great Rebellion’, or the ‘War for Southern Independence’, depending which side of the line you fought on.
In late 1862, the Northern Yankees were returning home in the midst of what seemed an interminably long, dark, cold and depressing winter with their metaphorical tails between their legs. Many thought of giving up the fight. In acknowledgement of their pain and suffering, 17 governors instituted a four-day state-wide thanksgiving holiday
In late 1862, the Southern Confederate armies seemed to be winning. After suffering horrendous casualties in the first two years of fighting, the Northern Yankee troops were returning home in the midst of what seemed an interminably long, dark, cold and depressing winter with their metaphorical tails between their legs. Many on the front lines of the battle were demoralised and secretly thought of giving up the fight.
In acknowledgement of their suffering and hardship, 17 state governors decided to institute a four-day state-wide Thanksgiving holiday, with New York Governor Edwin Morgan declaring that despite it being “numbered among the dark periods of history” there were still reasons for giving thanks, because “Our Government and institutions [being] placed in jeopardy have brought us to a more just appreciation of their value”.
This prompted President ‘Honest Abe’ Lincoln to set a series of national days of thanksgiving over the next years of the war, in which the tides progressively turned, and the Rebel Confederate armies of South finally capitulated in shame and defeat.
These various days of celebrating thanksgiving at different times during the four long years of the Civil War ultimately culminated in the eventual date of the last Thursday of November, which was thereafter set as the day in which “all Americans in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands” were urged to observe a day of thanksgiving to God for the endurance of democracy and the emancipation of formerly enslaved people and set as a permanent national holiday.
New rifts – and new urgencies
Now, nearly 150 years later, America faces new internal fractures and rifts, both to its population through the ever-increasing Covid toll and its economy.
As with Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War attempting to heal the rifts caused by that bitter division through celebrating the lasting preservation of the unifying ideals of democracy and freedom, President-elect Biden has rightly chosen the theme of the war on Covid as a unifying rallying point in his Thanksgiving address: “We need to remember we’re at war with a virus — not with each other. This is the moment we need to steel our spines, redouble our efforts and recommit to the fight. Let’s remember – we’re all in this together.”
Biden reminded all Americans that staying home and forgoing traditional celebrations is actually a truly heroic act that can help save lives in a time where the country is seeing 160,000+ new cases of coronavirus a day. He is notably always publicly wearing a mask – unlike the prize turkey who has noticeably been without one more often than not, a signal of his carelessness and lack of empathy while presiding over the nation’s gruelling death tolls.
Biden also echoed Lincoln’s urge to celebrate America’s democratic institutions in a not-too-subtle slingshot at Trump’s efforts to overturn the election process by stating, “America was tested this year… [but] we are up to the task. [Here] we have full and fair and free elections, and then we honour the results. The people of this nation and the laws of this land won’t stand for anything else. Through the vote – the noblest instrument of non-violent protest ever conceived – we are reminded anew that progress is possible… [so] today can be better than yesterday, and tomorrow can be better still.”
I well remember the sleepless, nail-biting and near-despairing days of the election, watching anxiously as votes were counted and states turned red or blue, with some stripey-swings and others as yet uncounted, undecided. The time differences in the reporting of results regularly played havoc with my sleep schedules, with days spent fighting off the inevitable exhaustion and brain fog.
At one point when it all seemed to be too much, I lay down for a brief nap respite from all the stress, praying silently to God. And I then very clearly heard the words of the apostle James 4:7, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” As I closed my eyes, I suddenly had a very clear picture of Trump and Biden fly-fishing a few metres apart in a fast-flowing stream. Trump suddenly hoisted a big fish and began yelling out, “I got a whopper! I got a whopper!”
Meanwhile, ‘Sleepy Joe’ – as some have called him – then got a sudden tug on his line as a huge fish started to pull well below the surface. I took that vision as a much-needed reassurance to bide my time and trust, and so managed a few hours’ much-needed kip.
At that stage in the election drama, Trump was still all full of swagger and braggadocio about his sure win. Yet Bidenwas quietly, calmly and with an eye to the needs for unity for the whole nation just going about his business, already demonstrating a soundly presidential air
At that stage in the election drama, Trump was still all full of swagger and braggadocio about his sure win. Yet Biden was quietly, calmly, and with an eye to the needs for unity in the whole nation just going about his business, already demonstrating a soundly presidential air, just as he is currently doing in preparing to get on with job even while a defeated, ego-bruised Trump is lashing out like his grounded whopper in its last throes.
While we have yet to see what the new year will bring for the US and the rest of the world in the ongoing battles against Covid and to preserve democracy, we can be truly thankful that even in a quiet Thanksgiving 2020 where leftover moussaka takes the turkey’s pride of place on the table, we still have food to eat, we still have our hard-won democratic freedoms, and we still have the ability to choose whom and how we will serve. And as long as these last, let us indeed give thanks.
For all my friends on both sides of the pond, I urge you to continue to pray that wisdom, kindness, truth and justice for all will prevail.
I also wish to acknowledge Heather Cox Richardson’s excellent blog post for details of the Civil War background, forwarded by my mother while I was in the midst of writing this.
‘What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?’ — Henry David Thoreau
As it is now a year since I began my journey as an environmental activist last October, starting with Extinction Rebellion and continuing to the fight against HS2 (the high-speed train line from Euston to Birmingham, which will cut straight through the heart of 108 of the UK’s remaining ancient woodlands), it seems an appropriate time to reflect on my experiences – including a recent event that caused me to lose my voice. There’s a certain poetic irony in losing my physical voice while trying to speak for the birds and trees and woodland creatures that have no voice – but I hope this blog will help me to plead their case.
Extinction Rebellion: Affinity and anarchy I grew up in the US, where – even as far back as the early 1970s – scientists were already concerned about the impacts to the ozone (the part of the atmosphere that protects the Earth from the sun’s harmful rays) from global warming, which I have written about at length here. As a young adolescent, I was deeply disturbed by this, convinced the world would end in my lifetime. Back then, there were no teenage activists like Greta Thunberg around to confront the system – if so, I would have joined them.
My first encounter with Extinction Rebellion (XR) was in early April 2019. I was taking an alternate route home from work via the South Bank Centre when I heard a loud commotion coming from Waterloo Bridge. There, around 100 rebels were occupying the bridge and obstructing traffic. While amused at their hippie-style, rainbow-hued clothes, banners and makeshift tents, I felt a deep affinity with their message about climate change and their demand for the government to take this seriously, as this echoed everything I had been reading while researching topics for investigative reports for my then-job as editor-in-chief of an online investigative journalism start-up.
After the grim findings of the air pollution report I had recently commissioned and contributed to (see here), which revealed that inhaling London’s air was equivalent to inhaling a half a pack of cigarettes daily, it was delightful to see London’s normally grey and congested urban landscape transformed by their artfully arranged pop-up gardens and vegetation. I found the innocent-seeming joy emanating from the musicians strumming folk and reggae, and their shamanic (shambolic?) dancing uplifting and inspiring, so I determined to find out more about XR.
Towards the end of September 2019, a team of representatives from XR came to do a press conference at Reach (the commercial wing of the Mirror newspaper group in Canary Wharf, where I was then working) ahead of the planned two-week International Rebellion starting on 7 October. I went to one of their London-based meetings and immediately signed up to join the Rebellion and help with their media work.
I was soon contacted by an Oxford professor about joining the SE Press Working Group, whose task was to write press releases and articles for the national and regional newspapers about the Rebellion. This group comprised mostly white middle-aged female PR and media professionals from around SE England. As most of us were new to XR and so not clued in overly about the daily plans for the Rebellion – usually decided on the hoof and relayed through a plethora of social media channels – it was a challenge to keep up with all the various protest actions taking place all over London, while attending and then writing about them, which felt quite overwhelming, chaotic and confusing at times. We quickly decided to work from a generic press release template for each event, adapting it for our respective regional newspapers.
I also joined my local XR ‘Affinity Group’ in Marlow just before the Rebellion began, but as I hadn’t had time for a proper induction or to get to know my fellow local rebels, my initial efforts to interview them for press quotes were viewed suspiciously – understandable given XR’s reasonable distrust of journalists. As most of my local group were seasoned rebels, they seemed to know exactly what they were doing as soon as we arrived in London, whereas I quickly lost them amid the crowds at Whitehall. Eventually, a few of them talked openly to me about their reasons for joining XR, and I amassed some usable quotes. But I quickly realised gaining the trust and support of my local affinity group meant not only joining actions in London, but attending as many local evening meetings and discussions as I could.
One local event was actually a climate change comedy night in High Wycombe, which admirably managed to be funny while presenting some very hard-hitting climate facts. This included an infographic showing the spectrum from climate-change denialism to scepticism to the ‘cautious’ to the ‘concerned’ (eg those already ‘doing their bit’ by recycling, petitioning, using renewable energy, etc) and finally to the ‘alarmed’ – those deeply anxious and angry about the climate emergency and the failures of government to protect us — which was where most rebels found themselves on the spectrum.
The October 2019 Rebellion
The October Rebellion was planned with the aim of targeting the major tourism, financial, retail, media and government centres of London, with rebels occupying areas in an effort to stop ‘business as usual’ and force government leaders to confront the climate emergency. Most of the actions were centred in and around Whitehall, Westminster, The Mall, Trafalgar Square, Victoria Embankment, Downing Street, and Lambeth and Westminster Bridges, with additional protests in locations like Oxford Circus, Bank and Canary Wharf. Sub-groups, including Doctors for XR, Scientists for XR, Animal Rebellion, Ocean Rebellion and others featuring different threads of the extinction theme, also held actions in relevant locations.
I usually headed first to Trafalgar Square, from where I then joined marches and protests in and around Westminster and Whitehall, typically punctuated with dancing and music from the colourful samba bands. At the time, the famous Extinction Rebellion ‘Tell the Truth’ pink submarine boat was stationed in Oxford Circus, where celebrities such as Emma Thompson and Guardian columnist George Monbiot addressed the crowd before being dispersed by police – sometimes quite forcibly. Police aggression towards protestors usually provoked a chant of ‘We’re not violent, how about you?’
One evening after a day’s marching, I was sitting with a crowd the drizzling rain in Trafalgar Square, listening to a talk about the need to organise citizen assemblies, when someone asked if anyone was willing to be arrested. I suddenly thought, ‘Why not?’ and joined a band of young women ranged around the base of Nelson’s Column with their arms linked and knees covered by a plastic sheet – all singing and in good spirits, despite being soaked through.
Someone else passed through the crowd handing out ‘bust cards’ with instructions on what to do if arrested. While it didn’t concern me too much when the police began to surround us, I was a bit worried about how my husband would feel if I had to phone him from a jail cell, and also suddenly realised I’d left some medication at home.
As I was pondering this, a woman approached me, saying, ‘I feel very strongly you should not be arrested – you need to save your beautiful sword. Please, go home now.’ While I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by ‘saving my beautiful sword’, I knew I hadn’t had any arrestee training yet, so didn’t feel ready. So I decided to take her advice and go home, stopping to watch in mesmerised awe as the mysterious Red Brigade (a group of men and women clad head to toe in red, with white mime-face makeup) enacted a solemn ceremony on Whitehall, which seemed to evoke a deep sense of grief and mourning for the planet.
Although I did get the arrestee training shortly afterwards, I realised it would not serve my purposes to be arrested. Yet in the coming days, it seemed progressively harder to avoid. While some police, such as the policewoman I spoke to as her fellow officers herded us out of the Bank area where we were protesting financial institutions’ support of fossil fuel industries, had initially seemed sympathetic, even laughing and joking with us or joining in the dancing, as of the 11th – only four days into the Rebellion – at least 1,000 activist arrests had been made, and were increasing. Tents were slashed open and goods confiscated from the occupied area of Trafalgar Square, while aggressive police carried protestors away forcibly, despite many of them being locked on (usually by supergluing themselves to statues or railings).
Suddenly, at 9pm on the 14th, the police banned all of the Extinction Rebellion protests in a move deemed ‘chilling and unlawful’ and ‘an attack on democracy’
Suddenly, at 9pm on the 14th, the police banned all of the Extinction Rebellion protests in a move deemed ‘chilling and unlawful’ and ‘an attack on democracy’. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas described the ban as a ‘huge overreach of police power’, while advocacy group Liberty said it was a ‘grossly disproportionate move by the Met and an assault on the right to protest’. Lawyers for XR launched a judicial review of the ban. But despite this police action, XR continued its protests at the Department for Transport, at which leader Gail Bradbrook was arrested after climbing atop its entrance, and the Google and YouTube headquarters, where Guardian journalist George Monbiot and Green Party leader Jonathan Bartley were also arrested.
However, it was the ‘surprise’ actions of a rogue contingent of XR activists (including a few Christian Climate Action members) who went against the general advice from many in XR with an action at Canning Town tube, which held up the trains from running during the morning rush hour. A handful of activists climbed on top of and then glued themselves to London Underground trains, thereby preventing many in the predominantly working-class region of East London from getting to work. I was against this action, as I knew only too well how unfair this would be to any London commuter, and how unlikely it was to gain any sympathy.
The resulting backlash in the press following the Canning Town incident was significant, and had the effect of splintering XR. Although the London Rebellion hadn’t officially ended until the last big action at Oxford Circus and Big Ben, in which activists climbed structures to lock on and unfurl banners announcing a Citizens Assembly and ‘No pride on a Dead Planet’, the negative press about Canning Town and increasing arrest momentum led many of my fellow local rebels to stay home and seek ‘regen’ (peaceful, healing, peace-affirming self-care actions). Other actions involved targeting airports.
When I later met up with members of the SE Press Group in London, we discussed the Canning Town incident and how this affected the success (or lack thereof) of the Rebellion. Over the next few days and weeks, this incident provoked heated debates across many XR social media channels, with some groups – including what I termed the ‘virulent vegans’ – seeming bent on making Extinction Rebellion all about their own particular cause, which had a dis-unifying and disarming effect.
Although I briefly considered joining a group going to Madrid for a protest around COP 25, in the end I did not go, preferring to take some time out to reflect and reconnect with myself, God and nature. Some members of my local XR group kindly provided some much-appreciated ‘regen’ sessions, however I felt I needed a different kind of regen – one where I could feel I was actively helping the environment. This led to my next phase of environmental activism.
It’s not really about a railway…
On the day of the Canning Town incident, a few of us from my local XR group decided not to go into London, but to support a local protest at Link Road in Great Missenden (near the Roald Dahl Museum, about a 20-minute drive from my house) instead. There, two hippie-ish, but very gentle-natured, well-informed and quite decent-seeming ‘tree protectors’ were camping out to stop the mature trees along Link Road being felled to make way for a haulage road for the HS2 railway project. Several local residents – most of whom were not aligned with XR, though some were members of the Stop HS2 campaign, the existence of which pre-dated Extinction Rebellion by a good six years – were also actively supporting this protest to fight HS2’s impact on our Chilterns Area of Natural Beauty (AONB).
One Link Road protestor, a member of the River Chess Association, told me the planned drilling into the River Chess’s chalk aquifers to create the tunnels for HS2 would be a major cause of pollution of the drinking water for local and London-based Thames Water and Affinity Water customers. (In the latest update, because pollution was seen immediately as the drilling into the chalk aquifer commenced, Affinity Water decided to cease abstracting from the two bore holes that descend deep into the source of the River Chess’s spring. This, and the agreement between HS2 Ltd and Buckinghamshire County Council to forego taking down most of the trees on Link Road, are two very small victories in the battle with HS2.)
This same protestor also explained that drilling into the aquifer would deplete much of what little remains of the once free-flowing and extremely rare chalk stream, which is home to many threatened wildlife species – including water voles (on which the character of Ratty in Wind and the Willows is based – now Britain’s most endangered species), ospreys, water rails, mayflies, brown trout and brook lamphreys, and the very rare, critically endangered Bechstein’s bat, which inhabits the Link Road trees. Please note: HS2 Ltd does not have now, nor has it ever had,any licencesto disturb or destroy bats’ habitats. (I later checked this out with HS2 Ltd and its allied vehicle, Natural England, both of which took several weeks to reply, and in the end only returned some vague PR spin that did nothing to address my complaint; I also attempted to get answers from the Bat Conservation Trust, and discovered they had also seemingly sold out to HS2 or could/would do nothing to stop the destruction of the bats’ habitats.)
Another knowledgeable Stop HS2 protestor explained that not only would this high-speed railway destroy our AONB, but it would also inevitably damage the hearing of local schoolchildren because the decibels of the screeching, fast-moving train would exceed the limits for safe noise levels. While I knew trees provide a vital first-line defence against respiratory conditions such as asthma and other health impacts of air pollution as they filter harmful carbon dioxide (CO2), I hadn’t considered the impacts of noise pollution until then.
As I made successive visits to Link Road and other nearby resistance camps (Dews Lane and Harvil Road), I met many local farmers threatened with eviction from their houses, farms and lands to make way for HS2 and its haulage works roads. According to several I spoke with, HS2 represents the greatest compulsory land-grab by the government since World War II – it is not at all about a railway, but is a massive government gambit to steal land from farmers and reclaim it for other purposes (for example, once the HS2 building work is done, the once-biodiversity- and soil-rich farm lands will likely become useless brownfield, and then be sold off for housing developments to profit private companies).
Many of these farmers have been bullied, threatened and intimidated into compliance, despite only being offered a pittance in comparison with the real value of their homes, farms, businesses and lands
Many of these farmers have been bullied, threatened and intimidated into compliance, despite only being offered a pittance in comparison to the real value of their homes, farms, businesses and lands; they have also been told they will not receive any compensation until after the works are completed. In many cases, their properties are literally miles away from the proposed railway path, compounding the sense of injustice. Most have welcomed the resistance campers on their grounds, as at least this has provided a delaying tactic; however others, like the Ryalls, have had their lives, businesses and lands (in their family’s possession since Shakespeare’s time) completely destroyed.
I later interviewed the Ryalls as I had heard one of their staff had committed suicide because of the unjust situation they face; other farmers I spoke with have revealed the terrible mental, emotional and financial suffering they have experienced as a result of having their homes and livelihoods effectively stolen from beneath their feet.
Until I met these protestors and learned of HS2’s looming impacts on families, nature and people’s health, I was completely unaware of the scale, cost, and lasting environmental and health damages HS2 will cause. Like many, I had ignorantly assumed that as a train, it would be good for the environment. However, HS2 is clearly not really about a railway; there is obviously another, more dubious agenda going on. It will also not be carbon-neutral not for 120 years – by which time it will be too late to do any good for the environment, and in fact will harm it greatly.
The UK is one of Europe’s least-forested nations, with only 13% tree cover left – therefore the carbon sink that would have been provided by the 108 ancient woodlands in HS2’s path will be lost forever– not to mention the loss of vital flood defencesthis represents
The UK is one of Europe’s least-forested nations, with only 13% tree cover left – therefore, the carbon sink that would have been provided by the 108 ancient woodlands in the path of HS2 will be lost forever – not to mention the loss of vital flood defences this represents. And there is no way HS2’s pathetic handfuls of newly planted saplings will reduce CO2 sufficiently to keep us all breathing healthily.
As my eyes began to be opened to this horrendous and tragic ecocide unfolding literally on my doorstep, I realised that this indeed is Britain’s Amazon, and therefore I must throw all my energies into fighting it.
Further HS2 revelations and actions Over the next weeks and months, all through the winter and into the new year, I continued to join various protests and resistance camps at Link Road and other sites along HS2’s proposed 125-mile route from Euston to Birmingham – Harvil Road, Dews Lane, Denham Country Park, Colne Valley Nature Reserve, Steeple Claydon, Poor’s Piece, Cubbington Woods, Crackley Woods, Calvert Jubilee Nature Reserve and Jones Hill Wood in Wendover.
I became determined to write an investigative report to expose HS2’s crimes, and eventually completed a short report – initially published on the Ecologist website, where it went viral overnight, and subsequently republished here and on the Stop HS2 website – highlighting the threatened, rare, endangered and legally protected wildlife species at Denham Country Park and Colne Valley Nature Reserve, which will be destroyed forever by HS2. I included all the wildlife laws (UK, EU and international) HS2 is breaking, and backed it up with ecologists’ evidence, checked by a wildlife biologist.
I have tried to urge other journalists to collaborate with me to expose HS2 further; to my knowledge, there has never been a thorough ‘follow the money trail’ investigation to expose the corruption behind HS2’s endlessly escalating costs (the most recent projection is a whopping £231.32bn). As this project is being paid for with taxpayers’ money, it raises immediate questions as to who stands to profit from it (apparently HS2 Ltd’s CEO Mark Thurston is earning ca. £650K a year for his ‘contributions’; I have heard HS2 construction workers, and the hired police and National Eviction Team [NET] thugs that enforce its evictions earn £250–£350 per day, which is a lot of money for them to stand around all day as most of them seem to do. Clearly, this is money that should be funding our cash-strapped NHS and helping struggling businesses, not this travesty!).
I have also witnessed HS2’s supposed ‘ecologists’ at work; they turn up, poke a stick around in a bush for a few minutes, and leave – there has never been any evidence of actual mitigation (apart from a few planted saplings, often left un-watered until they die) or translocation work to remove any threatened species.
As I began to question this, one of the Stop HS2 founders alleged there was copious evidence linking the HS2 project to trade deals with China as part of the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative, which intends to link routes from China across Europe. This seems a potentially likely explanation for why the project is being pushed through by the UK government, despite the fact the vast majority of the British populace never asked for and clearly do not want this railway. I am sure the facts will eventually become clear, but I do wonder why this project is not being challenged or investigated properly – most newspaper coverage only ever presents HS2’s positive PR spin, and (like Natural England, the Environment Agency and Buckinghamshire County and other entities) seem either to have taken backhanders from HS2 Ltd or otherwise been silenced.
Fortunately, BBC naturalist and presenter Chris Packham has taken a clear stand via his Stand for the Trees legal petition against HS2, launched in early 2020. I was at the resistance camp in Crackley Woods when everyone shouted with jubilation as we learned the lawyer representing the case had amassed irrefutable evidence showing HS2 had no licences for the bats and other wildlife ecocide it is committing.
Sadly, although Packham’s lawyer did an excellent job of arguing this evidence, his petition has so far been unsuccessful. And although work on HS2 was supposedly suspended while the Oakervee Review was being considered and before the PM officially gave the go-ahead in February 2020, the vegetation-clearing work and tree-felling had actually continued throughout Johnson’s supposed review, throughout the spring nesting season (which is illegal), and throughout the coronavirus lockdown. While the lockdown has certainly proven that no one needs this ludicrously expensive white elephant with its spiralling and vastly unjustifiable costs as so many workers have successfully transferred to working from home, even that has continually fallen on deaf Parliamentary ears.
I have also witnessed and recorded ample evidence of – and even personally been threatened by – violently aggressive acts against peaceful protestors by HS2 Ltd’s bevy of hired goons (construction workers, Metropolitan and Thames Valley Police, and NET officers) in the course of my visits to several HS2 sites.
Some activists who have been violently assaulted have shown me X-rays of broken collarbones and fingers, and I have been present when NET officers have cut tree protectors’ precarious zip lines, causing them to fall into streams or onto cherry pickers and tree grabbers.
Throughout my weekly visits to protest sites and woodland camps, which I continued to do during the Covid-19 lockdown period, I have met so many truly warm, compassionate, witty, dedicated, decent, caring and truly awe-inspiring activists, whose heroism and selfless commitment to protecting Britain’s countryside by persevering and camping out through all weathers is incredibly inspiring. Joining them in the front-line fight against HS2 has made me feel far more engaged in actively protecting the environment than marching through the streets of London with XR ever has. I began to ask the question, as had many of the other camp warriors, where was Extinction Rebellion, and why wasn’t it more actively engaging in this fight that so clearly constitutes Britain’s Amazon?
XR joins the fight against HS2
While I knew a few other XR members who had been actively resisting HS2 for several months – apparently, some scaled trees in an act of resistance at Colne Valley as far aback back as April 2019 – XR’s involvement with HS2 on the whole was a more gradual process, eventually culminating in a new channel called HS2 Rebellion, which became more publicly active towards the end of May 2020.
According to its Facebook page, HS2 Rebellion is ‘an alliance of various groups and individuals who are campaigning against HS2’ – including Stop HS2, Stand for the Trees, Save Cubbington Woods, Crackley Woods protection camp, Wendover Active Resistance camp, Harvil Road protection camp and Extinction Rebellion’– and alongside other XR splinter groups such as Wildlife Rebellion, Animal Rebellion and Global Rebellion.
One of HS2 Rebellion’s first organised protests, from 20–27 June 2020, was a high-profile Rebel Trail march, which galvanised XR and other local protestors to hike the full 125-mile length of the HS2 route from Birmingham Curzon Street to Euston Station in London. This helped focus media attention and divert some funding and needed supplies to the various HS2 resistance camps.
Although an untimely knee strain prevented me from joining the march, I at least succeeded in organising several of my local XR group to join, and made my presence felt by providing them with several hand-painted placards and clothing sashes highlighting the various wildlife species threatened with ecocide by HS2 (hedgehogs, barn owls, great crested newts, eels, European water voles, water bugs, hazel dormice, common shrews, stag beetles, tawny owls, European badgers, harvest mice, muntjac deer, polecats, snipes, teals, lapwings, and a range of bats – Leisler’s, Natterer’s, Serotine, Brandt’s and Bechstein’s).
Shortly after this march, HS2 Rebellion joined with other local groups to try to prevent HS2’s destruction of the Calvert Jubilee Nature Reserve, with several XR activists camping out there to delay the nature reserve being razed to the ground. Unfortunately, this tragic devastation went ahead after XR’s Red Brigade was despatched to perform their solemn mourning ceremony there, as they have done at other sites once the battle to save the trees appeared truly lost.
Sadly, efforts to save the much-loved, 250-year-old, 2015 ‘Tree of the Year’ Cubbington Pear Tree – including an action in which HS2 Rebellion activists turned up to sing to the tree – have thus far failed; even after over 20,000 petition signatures forced it to be addressed in Parliament, it has so far only received a temporary reprieve, and is still due to be felled soon.
Increasingly, and supposedly at the invitation of the HS2 resistance camps, young XR activists had begun to turn up at several of the camps, often remaining within their own cliques while drifting casually between the various camps. While I heard rumours of disputes over funding and leadership in the camps between the older members and the newer arrivals, with some grumbling about XR activists causing rifts by trying to impose XR’s values and culture on the camps (apparently, HS2 Rebellion had been awarded a total of £32,000 to help fund the camps, but had only distributed the funds to those camps that agreed to abide by XR rules), I have been assured these issues have since been resolved.
However, where there was a more harmonious integration between the younger XR campers and the veterans, this has been very effective. Some XR activists have got stuck into the camp life and have valuably contributed fresh skills, enthusiasm and creativity in places such as Jones Hill Wood in Wendover, where they recently helped host a family-friendly ecological discovery day to showcase these beautiful and biodiversity-rich woods, which has helped to increase support for the camp among local residents.
The two-week XR Rebellion in London in September 2020 was massively curtailed by a heavy police presence, who eventually confined most of the protest to a single square in Westminster, supposedly due to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. This Rebellion included a one-day march around Euston, where HS2 Rebellion activist Larch Maxey was among others camping in trees on the grounds near the building works until their recent arrest and eviction.
Up until this time, I had only participated in and written press releases about a few local XR actions ahead of the Rebellion, including a few Black Lives Matter protests and an action involving unfurling ecocide-themed XR banners on bridges over the M40, but I did feel motivated to join this particular London-based protest, as well as an ocean-themed event.
Towards the end of XR’s London Rebellion, there was a planned attack on Murdoch’s press empire as rebels mounted artfully erected wooden cranes to blockade the entrance to several printing presses. I had only heard about this after the fact as the action was kept secret to avoid police intervention. Although it only really caused a temporary delay to papers like The Sun reaching its mostly older newspaper-reading fans – so was actually more of a symbolic gesture, given that most people get their news digitally these days – It provoked quite a backlash in the press, with several arrests made in the following days and substantial fines imposed on the activists involved.
Swampy and the Battle of Jones Hill Wood (aka the ‘Battle of the Bean Can’) Shortly after this, the dreaded 1st of October arrived – the day anti-HS2 activists referred to as ‘National Tree Killing Day’ as it signalled the day HS2 would ‘begin’ felling trees at the various threatened sites. Despite being recently antagonised by XR, the UK national media suddenly switched tack and rushed to report on this, with BBC, ITV, Daily Mail and other cameramen and journalists turning up in droves to film at the Jones Hill Wood resistance camps.
Why the UK national media was suddenly so interested after months of unreported clashes between HS2 and the dedicated activists at other resistance camps is hard to say – although clearly they were expecting some sensational action, even if their news coverage of the events in Jones Hill Wood left a lot to be desired. No doubt they were also drawn because of the higher-profile XR activist presence and the fame of these woods’ associations with UK author Roald Dahl, and the boldly courageous dedication of camp protectors such as West Berkshire Green Party Councillor Steve Masters, who had been living in a treehouse in the section of the woods threatened with eviction. However, it seems their presence was most likely inspired by the rumour (subsequently confirmed) that famed 1990s eco warrior Dan Hooper (aka ‘Swampy’) had joined the battle at Jones Hill Woods, and was presently inhabiting a large treehouse atop a 30ft tree, known as the ‘Bean Can’, with his 16-year-old son Rory.
It seems the heavy media presence was most likely inspired by the rumour (subsequently confirmed) that famed 1990s eco warrior Dan Hooper (aka ‘Swampy’) had joined the battle at Jones Hill Wood, and was presently inhabiting a large treehouse atop a 30ft tree known as the ‘Bean Can’
On this day, I went along to join the protest with several other locals who regularly visit and support the camp with food, supplies and dry clothes, etc. As we began making our way across the field towards the camp, we encountered several BBC journalists flying camera drones over the woods – I can’t say why, as none of this aerial footage was reflected in the televised news reports I saw later that evening.
As soon as we were in the woods, it became clear HS2 workers, assisted by 40 of HS2’s hired NET and police officers who were out in force as of 5.30am, were going to become quite nasty and aggressive in their eviction attempts. As they began to erect fences to separate what was supposedly ‘their’ part of the woods, it also became clear they were putting fencing on parts of the wood that still belonged to local farmers, and had not been legally injuncted (or stolen) by HS2.
Because these farmers had given their permission to the camp members and protestors to be there, the protestors were actually within their legal rights to be present, but the HS2 workers were guilty of trespassing illegally on those areas of the woods they did not ‘own’. As has since been proven, the area of woods they fenced off encompasses sizeable chunks of the woods not included on any official maps of their works area, and therefore not belonging to them legally.
However, when I asked them civilly to produce paperwork showing they were within the boundaries of land they supposedly ‘owned’, they did not. Led by a particularly nasty NET thug named Lawrence, a physical struggle began between the NET and police officers as a few of the female protectors gently attempted to resist them and were manhandled aggressively. This was very alarming, as the majority of NET officers were disrespecting Covid distancing rules by crowding into protestors’ physical space.
As had happened to me at a few other HS2 sites on other occasions where I witnessed such out-of-order behaviour, criminal trespass, callous disregard for others’ safety and illegal disruption of peaceful protestors’ democratic rights to protest, my anger flared up. I began shouting at them to get behind their side of the fence, demanding loudly that they produce the paperwork to prove they were within their bounds and stop manhandling female protestors. As most of the other protestors present in this stand-off along the fencing were either quietly recording or observing, rather than displaying any fighting spirit, I felt my shouting was entirely necessary.
I continued shouting at them virtually non-stop for several hours, which at least had the effect of unnerving some of the HS2 goons, one of whom complained I ‘talked too much’ and was being ‘hysterical’. I retorted that he hadn’t seen hysterical yet, but if he wanted to, he would bloody well get it! While I was later ashamed of the language that came out of my mouth in those hours of wrangling with HS2 by their illegally erected fencing, I was not at all ashamed of having shouted to that extent – as I said to several there who expressed their admiration to me for my ‘heroic’ efforts to stand up to them and put them off, ‘What is the point of being a loud, annoying American when you can’t use it where it counts?’
‘What is the point of being a loud, annoying American when you can’t use it where it counts?’
Alas, exercising my vocal cords to that extent severely strained my voice, and it was not long before I effectively lost it. At this point I removed myself from the fray and sat on a log some distance from the battle, which at least allowed me a few moments’ peace to listen to the gorgeous birdsong in the trees, pray quietly and be reminded of the reason for our fight, which was to protect that beautiful wood and all of the lovely creatures that inhabit it, which we had recently observed ample evidence of. (I had camped there recently one night, and as I was too cold to sleep an wide awake, had heard several animals rummaging outside our tent through the night and observed bats flying as dawn broke; I also later saw night-vision recordings of badgers, glis glis [edible dormice] and rare Barbastelle bats, evidence of which is even now being used in further efforts to pause HS2 works).
I tried to alert some of the ITV and BBC cameramen to the locations of several badger setts, which were right below the fencing HS2 had just erected; having seen badger setts deliberately blocked by HS2 on other sites, as well as trees with nesting birds in them callously felled by HS2, I fully expect these will not be properly translocated by any of HS2’s supposed ‘ecologists’.
My woodland reverie was suddenly interrupted by loud shouting from the opposite end of the camp, where HS2’s tree grabbers and cherry pickers were forcibly attempting to remove tree protectors from their vertiginous perches. They had even cut the zip lines for one female, causing her to fall on top of the cherry picker. While this aroused immediate reaction from the protestors and witnesses at the camp who recorded it and later shared it on social media, these villainous actions by HS2 somehow escaped reporting by the BBC journalists present, who seemed too busy being distracted by ‘urgent’ phone calls.
This battle between the tree protectors and the NET raged on for several hours, punctuated by continual shouts and cries from tree protectors who were having their lives threatened by the wilfully violent and aggressive actions of the NET
This battle between the tree protectors and the NET raged on for several hours, punctuated by continual shouts and cries from tree protectors who were not only having their lives threatened by the wilfully violent and aggressive actions of the NET, but whose possessions were callously removed from their treehouses and cast onto the ground in heaps. I was horrified to read that HS2 Ltd had made all sorts of untrue allegations to the press, for example blaming the tree protectors for the piles of rubbish left on the forest floor that they themselves had created, and wildly claiming tree protectors had thrown their faeces at them, which I knew from subsequent visits to Jones Hill Wood and other channels was an outright lie.
Although my weakened vocal cords and painful feet forced me to go home and rest, I continued to monitor news reports and social media communications from the camps regarding Jones Hill Wood as the fierce battle between the protestors and HS2 raged on into the night and over the next several days, with a few tree protectors left dangerously dangling as cherry pickers ruthlessly cut their lines.
Eventually, after several days, the ‘Battle of the Bean Can’ stand-off between the NET and Swampy, along the other activists with him in the Bean Can treehouse – known by their code names Pigeon, Satchel, Scrap, Sky, Biscuit and Peahead – came to an end as they were all forcibly hauled out of the treehouse, arrested and led away in police vans, as the Daily Mail reported on 8 October.
While Swampy and the other evictees have since been charged with trespass and released on bail, other anti-HS2 camps are bravely continuing the fight, even amid further evidence of police brutality and NET aggression used against them. These include breaking a protestor’s jaw even while they were supposedly off-duty and hospitalising a 19-year-old protestor who was savagely cut down from a tree.
‘Extinction is Forever’ – so what about HS2?
Wary of straining my voice or any further antagonistic interactions with aggressive NET and police officers in the wake of these reports, I hesitated about joining the next HS2 Rebellion action held in front of the Denham HS2 works entrances on Friday, 9 October 2020. However, in the end I went with a few from my local XR group; on the whole, it was a peaceful and relatively easy-going protest, with good support from XR and other activists. Even though there were far more police present than was necessary given the peaceful nature of the protest, most of them (especially the Hertfordshire officers, who said they had instructed NET officers to leave) appeared to be relatively sympathetic to our cause.
In a show of great irony, this action was entitled ‘Extinction is Forever’ in allusion to PM Boris Johnson’s speech as he signed a biodiversity pledge along with other UN leaders in a virtual meeting on 27 September 2020. The PM verbally committed to ‘restoring nature to 30%’ by 2030, with a plan to protect an extra 40,000 ha of land. In the PM’s own words, ‘Biodiversity loss is happening today, at a frightening rate… if left unchecked, the consequences will be catastrophic for us all. Extinction is forever – so our actions must be immediate.’
It is hard to imagine how this same man, who gleefully authorised the lawless tree-felling only a few months ago, can sleep peacefully at night after uttering such words. The PM has consistently lied about his real intentions regarding the HS2 project; clearly, his concern about the urgent loss of biodiversity does not extend to all the UK nature reserves and unique biodiversity he has authorised to be destroyed to make way for HS2! One wonders if he wasn’t thinking of this as he mentioned it is ‘happening today at a frightening rate’, as surely this is the case.
Meanwhile, I and my other anti-HS2 activist comrades continue to hope against hope that someone will finally take those non-bat licences seriously, and work on HS2 will be stopped for good. Until then, we have no option but to keep up the fight!
Addendum:I’ve just received the positive news that, thanks to the work of diligent activists recording and recording rare Barbastelle bat activity at Jones Hill Wood, authorities have forced the HS2 works to be paused until 2021, until full bat surveys are completed. Although HS2 can never be trusted, let’s hope they will be paused for good!
As we settle down to our Zoom interview, Magna Gopal is her usual energetic, affable, extroverted self, eager to chat. With the kind of easy-going, confident-yet-self-deprecating charm she exudes, it’s easy to see why she is enduringly popular as a teacher, performer and public speaker beyond the international salsa scene that has made her name. Yet underneath, she’s one tough cookie — as well as a deeply philosophical person eager to share her tips for transformational empowerment with the rest of the world.
For those who don’t yet know her, Magna was born in India and moved to Canada as a child. She learned salsa while studying Economics and International Relations at the University of Toronto, and intended to pursue an MA in conflict resolution afterwards, but the demand for her to perform and teach salsa classes professionally in Toronto and abroad grew, so she moved to the New York City metropolitan area to pursue her passion for dance.
A self-taught salsa teacher, her methodology is based on an analysis and deep understanding of body mechanics in dance. Combining her personal philosophies of empowerment and commitment to helping others, she has continuously developed her ‘Mpowered with Magna‘ brand through various channels, including teaching and performing dance around the world, public speaking, mindset coaching and writing.
JC: Your ‘Mpowered with Magna’ brand seems very focused on your personal philosophy of relationships, communication and connection. Why are these important to you?
MG: I believe human beings are essentially communal animals. Even if you are an introvert and your happiness means being on an island all by yourself, you still need someone to take you there and to help you survive, so you still need to be connected to others.
As communal beings, relationships are important. So, the more we understand them, the easier it becomes for us to have those relationships in a way that not only benefits us — that helps us get closer to our goals — but gives our lives meaning and purpose, which is also about contributing and giving back. Now, how do those relationships function? They function through communication. So, it’s important to get better at communicating. Sometimes we can get very good at speaking, but terrible at listening. As a result, we hear things that upset us, take offence, and end up receiving hurt and pain, which affects our relationships negatively.
Usually when we think of relationships, we think of depth — and we think we need years to develop those relationships. But in dance, you realise you can have deep connections very quickly, even after only a five-minute dance. Granted, I might not know all the background of that person, but sometimes even after just one dance, I just instantly know we are going to be friends.
JC: How does what you’ve learned about communication through dance translate to a non-dance audience? MG: I’ve actually written quite a lot about the importance of smiling and touch as non-verbal forms of communication. Dance gives us so many opportunities to communicate and share our joy through smiling and touch. Because we share our passion with so many people in dance through smiling, we get more confident at smiling at others and more used to doing it. Then we can go out into the world and meet another stranger and think, “Maybe I can also enjoy five minutes with you?” and go ahead and smile at them. This helps us grow in our ability to connect with other people.
Touch is also important for connection. When you dance with someone, it becomes easier to differentiate between touch that is sexual or has another agenda, and touch that is purely for connection. When you realise you can connect through touch without an agenda — which is what the world usually thinks touch is about — it is liberating.
“As you get more comfortable with giving and receiving touch, it makes you a better communicator.”
Dance enhances your skills of reading others’ non-verbal cues, which helps you to be better able to read and give off those signals when you encounter others outside the dance scene. If I am giving a speech or talking to non-dancers, I can work out the right amount of contact. I will know whether I can break that barrier and make physical contact with them without them feeling like I’ve invaded their space, or like I have some kind of physical agenda — or like I’m inviting them to exercise one.
JC: How do you feel about non-smiling dancers? MG: That reminds me of someone I danced with recently — I can’t remember if it was a salsa or a bachata — he was a very good dancer, but very straight-faced. I said, “How come you don’t smile more?” And he said the lyrics were about losing someone, so he was feeling that emotion. So now I’ve stopped judging him or other dancers who don’t smile, because maybe they are responding to the music in a different way. If I hear John Mayer singing ‘Slow dancing in a burning room’, I’m not going to be smiling. But if I hear ‘London Bridge is falling down’ — not that I want it to fall down! [laughs] — I’ll probably smile. If we hear any type of trigger in the lyrics, we’re going to express the emotions we attach to that song. But I still always try to get a smile out of somebody — at the very least, at the end of the dance!
There are also times people aren’t smiling as a result of fear or insecurity, or an uncertainty, and in those cases, you can usually tell. Sometimes it’s the other end of the spectrum, when it’s a kind of cockiness or arrogance – like “it’s not cool to smile!” Whenever it’s one of those moments, I try to influence those situations. If it’s insecurity, I’ll make jokes. Or I’ll screw up on purpose and apologise. If it’s arrogance, I’ll try to make fun of that. If they’re not even making eye contact, then I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I can dance like this too [tosses her head nonchalantly].” If they ask, “What are you doing?” I’ll say, “You’re so cool! I’m trying to copy you so I can be cool too!” Usually they end up laughing, and then boom! we’ve broken the ice and can be human with each other.
JC: What key moments contributed to your philosophy, both as a dancer and as a person?
“My entire life is the source of my philosophy. Dance is just an extension of the way I communicate generally — I wouldn’t box myself in as I’m a dancer; I’m everything. That’s how I look at myself: I’m whoever I want to be in that moment.”
I was lucky I found dance, because it appeals to so many facets of my personality, like being an extrovert, being very social, being physically active, moving, developing an awareness of my body, connecting with people, travel, experiencing new cultures and food, and all that stuff. Dance is very much aligned with who I am.
But the mindset I approach everything with — like relationships and communication — I’ve had since childhood. I remember at 16 cutting off all my friends who were drinking and going to parties, and weren’t on the path to further education, because I really wanted to focus on getting into university. For a while I was shunned — I went from being super-popular to being a loner. But it enabled me to push forward and succeed. So, I realised I didn’t need other people’s acceptance if they weren’t aligned to my goals — support, yes; acceptance, no.
When I got into dance, it was a similar experience. I got a lot of criticism for how I dance and how I act — why am I hyper and always joking around? But I just kept pushing forward, and that’s what’s allowed me to succeed. So, my mindset is about understanding you don’t need others’ acceptance if they don’t align with your goals.
The other thing that’s important is always growing and learning, and adapting to what is happening around you — which involves embracing change, embracing discomfort and the unknown.
As a child I was really curious to experiment — I would go to the park and climb trees, and I would see a bug and be like, “Oh, what kind of bug is that?” And when I got into dance, it was the same thing, because I would say, “Oh this is new!” or “I’ve never tried that! I’ve never danced with this person, so let me try this.” Or I travel somewhere new and I see all this food, and I think, “Oh, I’ve never had this, let me try it!”
Embracing those new experiences has impacted my dancing, because it allows me to truly flow with another human being. I don’t approach a dance with an idea of what it’s going to be like — even though they might have an idea, it almost never goes the way you think it will.
“When you’re comfortable with discomfort, when you can adapt and be resilient, every situation becomes a positive outcome, because you acknowledge your influence on it. You don’t feel like a victim, but a contributor.”
Even if it was negative, you can say, “I did something that allowed this to happen — what can I take out of it?” It’s always integral to your learning experience because that’s part of the process. You are not a victim because you’re participating in the process, which is about how you are learning and developing as a person.
So that allows me to be comfortable with change — to realise every situation can be a positive because I am always learning from it. Even if it is a negative, it’s still part of my growth and development.
JC: Where are you now in your journey? Have you achieved your goals? MG: Well, I’ll never feel like I’ve ‘made it’ per se — there are so many other levels, I have chosen not to go there! [Laughs.] But one of my goals in dance was to disrupt this community and enhance it, and I feel I have done that — just by changing things up, by changing the role of a follower, by changing the idea of what it means to be a woman and a solo female artist in a male-dominated industry. I feel I’ve contributed to this dance in a way that enables more people to find their voice and expression, and not feel boxed in by definitions from 20 years ago.
But the lessons I’ve learned in dance aren’t just dance lessons — they are life lessons that can be 100% successfully applied to improve people’s relationships, happiness and fulfilment, their profession, their vocation, their passion — all those things. I feel what I was able to take from dance was a gift, and I want to be able to give it back. I like the idea of balance in life — I don’t want to hoard what’s been given to me; I want to find a way to give it back, so that in this life I have taken, but I have given more. And right now, I don’t feel like I’ve given enough — but I don’t feel like I’ll ever get there.
“My next goal is to find ways to take these lessons and convey them to a non-dance audience. My TED talk was one step in that direction, and I’m continuing with my Mpowered videos on my YouTube channel, which takes some of those titbits from dance to find out how we can apply them to our lives.”
JC: Speaking of that, how was your TED talk? Was it as nerve-wracking for you as public speaking is for most people? MG: I’ve done plenty of two-and-a-half-hour seminars at salsa congresses with people just sitting the entire time. At the end of the session, they’re like, “Aw, is it done already? Can we just carry on?” so I felt comfortable with that part. But the TED talk was nerve-wracking because it was a different audience, and the challenge was “Will I be able to communicate this very important lesson to a non-dance audience by giving dance examples?” I was also thinking, “What do I wear?” because I didn’t want to come in a business outfit because that’s not me. So, in the end I just wore jeans and a nice shirt and some heels, which felt right.
When we were all backstage, the first thing they told us was the order of the speakers. And they said, “Magna, you’ll be opening.” And I was like, “Maybe they think I suck?” But they said, “We think you’re our strongest speaker, so we want you to open.” So, then there was the added pressure of going first. When I looked at the very old rickety stage with pieces of wood missing from the floor, all I could think was, “My God Magna, you’re going to walk out and your heels are going to get stuck in that floor, and before you even say a word to this audience you’re going to fall flat on your face!”
Fortunately, I got past that, but then we were in this tiny little box so we could be within a frame for their cameras, and I felt like a lion in a cage because the space was so tiny and I couldn’t move. When I got into my speech, I really wasn’t sure I would be able to communicate my message well or look comfortable, but once I started speaking and realised the importance of what I was talking about, it started to feel better.
I would actually love to do more TED talks, or more talks like that in general. There’s just so much people don’t know that if they only knew – even just a small hint of it – it would totally change their life. Even a simple thing like my talk on rejection, which means instead of sitting this song out, you could be happily sharing your passion on the dance floor. Or how being able to smile with someone can make their day. Or how much more connected giving a hug instead of a handshake could be. So yes — there are so many more lessons from dance I would like to give — I’m determined to put those out there.
JC: If the Covid-19 restrictions continue, how will you go forward as a dance teacher?MG: I like Bruce Lee’s concept of ‘Be like water’ — learn to flow. I believe we have to adapt — so if next year means knowing I can’t travel abroad and teach dance, then I have to go with the flow. If I was stuck at home with no social dancing and no congresses, I can do online classes, and I can teach people how to become better communicators.
Actually, lately I’ve been doing fitness sessions online for private groups. It’s something I’m good at, and I can get better. Now I know how to create workout programmes and add all these variations, target different muscles and package that all together in a way that challenges people — and although I never ever thought of doing that, because of this situation, I found a way.
“I like Bruce Lee’s concept of ‘Be like water’ — learn to flow. I believe we have to adapt — so if next year means knowing I can’t travel abroad and teach dance, then I have to go with the flow.“
I’m also coaching one of my students who is a university teacher, helping her find out how to build and engage with an online community. Many teachers haven’t grown up with this technology, so they need to learn how to adapt.
There are plenty of other opportunities, and I believe in the ability to rise above this — I don’t ever doubt I can do something if I want to. Going back to embracing discomfort, I don’t have to be a victim — I’m a participant. I can sit there and say, “Why is this happening to me?” or say, “This is happening, and this is what I’m going to do with it and how I’m going to add to it.” This is just another situation for me to apply my philosophy, to advance myself and stick with my purpose — which is to help other people.
JC: What do you think makes you successful as a teacher, and how do you adapt your teaching for different people? MG: There’s a great sense of satisfaction in seeing others improve — that’s the quality of a good leader or teacher. With some people, once they get to a level of authority, their focus turns inward. They forget that the reason they got to that level of authority is because they were busy helping other people. But when I am teaching, it’s always about my student, about the person in front of me. When I am with you, nobody else matters — it’s about giving you as much as I can. And if there’s gratitude, fantastic. But if I don’t receive the gratitude, but I can see you grew, then I feel I’ve done something right.
The base for my teaching is ‘Mpowered with Magna’ — so whether I’m teaching dance, fitness, or whatever, it’s always about getting my students to feel more empowered. I adapt my teaching on the information I receive, which goes back to the dance analogy of leaders and followers. There’s not a clear leader and a clear follower — they are fluid roles. Being a good leader or teacher requires the ability to be a good follower, or learner. Similarly, a good speaker needs to know how to listen. The only way I can lead my group is to listen, and to pay attention — whether they’re speaking or not, I need to observe how and what they’re saying, including their body language. I take all that information and figure out what will best resonate with them to help them get better.
I do have a kind of motherly, care-taking, parental quality — I don’t have kids, and don’t even have pets, but I do have plants, which are finally starting to survive. When people ask me “Do you have any kids?”, I’ll say, “I’m working on my plants!” If they say, “That’s not what I asked you!” I reply, “But didn’t I answer your question?” My plants were struggling, but they’re doing pretty good now, so maybe I’m ready for a pet! [Laughs.]
As an example of this quality, I have a friend I call ‘Munchkin’. He is not a kid as he’s 26 years old, but I always feel I want to take care of him. And if someone’s in my class, I want them to know that with me, they’re safe. If they fall, I’ll help them up. If they are struggling, I’ll show them the skills and help them find the strength to get through. If they are nervous, I’ll show them there’s nothing to fear. If they need to go into battle, I’ll be right there beside them. That’s how I am with my friends and my students. I want them to know I’m there to protect them and help them to enhance their abilities so they can face this world and maximise everything they can from it.
JC: Who or what challenges you or has ever challenged you?Have you ever felt you were wronglyjudged by anyone? MG: Well, it depends on the way the challenge is delivered. If somebody challenges me in a fun way, cool. Then, even if it’s a competition, we’re both winners.
But if it is a situation where there are people who are cocky and arrogant, or who are maybe coming from a very insecure or malicious place, and if they challenge me in a way that attacks or has the intention to hurt, my response would be different. I would brush them off, saying, “You’re hurting, but I don’t need to take that, and I don’t need to contribute to that pain.”
“Growing up alone most of my life — having to fend for myself, be my own cheerleader, be my own person in the corner of the ring supporting me and training me to fight — allows me to step up to those kinds of challenges.”
If they come at me with words, I can find my wit when I need it, so I usually snap back at them. And most of the time, those people speak not to be spoken back to; they speak to silence [you]. They’re not really trying to fight, so as soon as you put up your fists and say, “Okay, let’s go!”, they back off.
The fact I’ve travelled a lot and seen people in many cultures has helped me to not take a certain delivery or action or set of words as something personal. I can just say, “Maybe that’s just how you grew up. And if I grew up with you, we would be speaking exactly the same. But I didn’t, so I accept you came from a different background.”
I always say I don’t want to assume the worst of people because I have no idea what they’ve gone through. And if I’m not going to take the time to find out why, I’m not going to take the time to judge. Back in the days of survival, you had to make quick judgements about whether something was going to attack you. And whether you’re being judged or judging, you have to decide where you want to go with it. If you see someone’s action triggers things you don’t want to deal with, you can decide not to associate with that person — but if you see them do one small action out of context and decide to tell the world about it, that’s another story.
Judging is as actually natural as breathing. Everyone’s breathing all the time, so you can’t say, “Oh, he exhaled in my face!” because he was just breathing.
JC: How do you help people cope with rejection? If one of your students was going to their first congress, or had just broken up with their girlfriend, what do you tell them? MG: Coping with the rejection — and then going to a salsa congress to have more rejection! [Laughs.]
I tell them, “Some of the most beautiful things you have experienced in your life are because of the chances you’ve taken. Maybe you feel that heartbreak and that pain now, but you did feel joy at one point. And the reason you felt all of that joy was because you took a chance. You gave it a shot. So instead of focusing on this pain you can’t control, why not go out there and aim for that joy again? You have to move past that fear of rejection and try things in order to experience more beautiful things.”
In my opinion, every relationship has its expiration date. Everything ends. Whether it ends because you part ways, you start thinking differently, you move away from each other, you find new friends or a new hobby or a new love or a new job, or you die — one way or another, every relationship comes to an end. And sour milk really does not taste good. So, it’s better to enjoy it while it lasts, then let it go and move on.
“If I can feel this much in only a five-minute dance, why can’t I have that level of intensity off the dance floor?”
JC: If you had one message to give to dancers and/or non-dancers, what would it be?MG: Going back to that dance analogy of having a very intense connection with someone within five minutes, I wish people would look at that dance as an entire lifetime — sometimes it does feel like that. You’re being introduced, you’re sharing, you’re touching, you’re moving in sync to the music — things some people can take years to do outside the dance floor!
Maybe we can take that five minutes and apply it elsewhere as well? Ask yourself, “If I can create such an intense connection in five minutes, shouldn’t I be doing more? Sharing more? Experiencing more? How many five minutes have I had in a 10-year relationship?” It should challenge you to revisit your relationships, and to realise that any relationship can have that same intensity of give and take if you look at it in the same way as a five-minute dance.
JC: So, what’s next for Magna? MG: I’m actually doing a lot more writing. I write a lot, really — in general, I just put a lot of my thoughts down, and I have tonnes of stuff I’ve written, but I don’t really publish anything. So now I’m focusing more on publishing, because I have a lot of content and I need to get it out there. So, thanks for inspiring me to add to my blog!
Apart from that, I want to focus on developing my ‘Mpowered with Magna’ YouTube channel, to put these messages out there and see where it goes in terms of coaching and public speaking and helping people. Even aside from communication and building healthier relationships, it’s also about creating community.
I’m also debating whether to do my own podcast. I have one with Leon already, the ‘Naked and Counting’ podcast, which we’ve been doing for a while — I think it is probably the longest-running podcast ever in the dance community, and we’ve done it religiously every bi-weekly Wednesday, with just a few exceptions.
So many times, when I’m talking with friends and we’re just shooting the shit, there are so many important messages that come up, and I just wish I had a quicker way to share them that didn’t require me to shower and get dressed up for it! [Laughs] … I could just speak into it and record something anywhere, and then put it out there instead of this whole production number of having to look decent so people are not like, “Ah! What’s that on the screen? I can’t watch that!” [Laughs.]
I also want to get more into mindset coaching, because I realise that throughout my entire life, my mindset has been the only way I’ve been able to get through all the hardships — and there have been plenty: the negative push against me as an Indian female and a solo female performer in a male-dominated Latin culture; I don’t have family here in the US as my family’s in Canada; most of my best friends live in other countries, so it’s not easy to see them; my entire year of gigs gone just like that. And how did I cope with these things? It’s my mindset.
“It’s the way I think about things that has helped me succeed, so I want to share that, because I think a lot of people are struggling now with uncertainty, and they need to feel empowered.”
As an empath, when I see someone in pain, I want to help them move past that. I try to find ways to relate to people so they don’t hate the world or are resentful — so they can still feel loved, still feel there are opportunities and possibilities, and that there’s still hope. Life is not bad, people are not bad, relationships are not bad, break-ups are not bad — they are just experiences that you’ve had and have gone through. [In relation to relationship coaching] there’s no point in saying, “Yeah, everybody sucks” — because maybe they don’t, maybe they were actually pretty good to you, maybe it’s just that the timing is wrong or your goals don’t align. This person wants to go flying, and you want to go swimming — how are you going to align? If you need that aquatic connection, maybe you should look for a turtle? Then you might make it on land! [Laughs.]
I don’t think people should push pain or negative experiences away, because when you compare joy to that, you realise if you didn’t have pain, how would you even know what joy is? How would you experience the richness of your happiness without those contrasts? Compared to negative moments of pain and discomfort, joy really feels amazing. So, developing that empowered mindset further is where I want to go, because it allows people to overcome whatever difficulties they have in their personal lives — whether it’s through dance or personal relationships, or leadership, or work, or whatever.
JC: You mentioned earlier you were writing a book. I’m sure your fans will want to know something about the backstory behind your positive messages! MG: There are so many times I think about it and then I’m like, “But who the hell wants to know about my life?” But actually yes, there’s a book I am working on now, which is about an experience that happened to me a while back. I’ve already written about 13 pages with 10,000 words in sort of chapters, so I guess it’s a book. I have a whole bunch of things I want to tell about that in detail, because I think it would help other people to understand the way I was thinking and processing things as they happened. There were two people who were involved that struggle, and as far as I’m concerned, I won!
On that tantalising note, we conclude our discussion about the possibilities of that book project. From what I have already learned about Magna, I’m convinced it will be, like her, a winner. Watch this space!