Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Capitalism and the Zeitgeist

Michael Moore's documentary 'Capitalism: A Love Affair' kept me up later than intended at the weekend (ironically it was an excessive quantity of adverts, rather than the length of the film, that padded it out until one in the morning). If you haven't seen it I highly recommend seeking it out so that you can be depressed and amused by some hideous examples of American capitalism's worst excesses.

On balance the documentary left me feeling optimistic, because I think it signifies the start of a shift in the Zeitgeist, clarification that capitalism itself is to blame for the hitherto non-specific malaise that infuses contemporary society. Until now the best summing up of this pervasive existential angst was to be found on LTJ Bukem's Earth Volume III, when he noted astutely that the 'New Millenium lifestyle' was 'playing games with people's minds'. Now we have identified both the villain, the Capitalist system itself, and the solution, a reclaimed democracy that prioritises people over capital.

Our society's emphasis on individualism often leads us to underestimate the power of the Zeitgeist - the spirit of the times - it being more convenient for us to believe that history is shaped by the actions of individuals. Let me give you an example: Rosa Parks, the black woman who is often credited with starting the civil rights movement in the US. She refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person, as required by the law of the time, and the court appearance resulting from this crime galvanised the oppressed populace into action. To me the identity of Rosa Parks is irrelevant - the groundswell of opinion existed before she made her stand. Had she not provided a focal point for this Zeitgeist then someone else would have done, change had become inevitable. A similar example could be built around Ghandi and the end of colonial rule in India.

I ruminated over these matters as I ran over the hills on Sunday morning. My reward was the crystallisation of an idea that illustrates perfectly the evil of the capitalist system. Consider this: if I had sufficient capital, I would be able to profit - through share ownership and interest on loans - from almost every act of work completed in the world. In doing so I would be actively impoverishing almost every worker. I could do all this without even leaving my gated compound.

Mull this over as the austerity measures bite, as the fruits of all our labours are transferred to the bailed out bankers and the holders of our national debts. Let the Zeitgeist shift intensify...............


Thursday, 20 May 2010

Coigach Campsites

Achnahaird Bay in Coigach: the great expanse of machair to the left of the sands was home to the best campsite in Scotland, if not the world, until 2008, when the proprietors retired and the estate who own the land chose not to renew the lease. Over the years I spent many a happy weekend there, enjoying the view of the peaks of the northwest highlands: Suilven, Cul Mor and Cul Beag, Ben Mor Coigach and that most spectacular small peak, Stac Pollaidh.  We paid the site a last visit in September 2008, climbing on the sea-cliffs of nearby Reiff by day and burning Scandanavian Candles among the dunes by night.

A new campsite, located near the pub on the other side of the peninsula at Altandhu, was promised for the 2009 season, but the credit crunch made the bankers hold back the necessary funds. A dubious decision given the 'stay-cation' mania that accompanied the crunch, and a cruel blow that kept a lot much needed money out of the local community. The lady in the Polbain Stores estimated that she was down about 6,000 pounds last year.

Construction of the new campsite is underway at present and it is forecast to be partially open by July or August this year. You can make out the considerable earthworks that are underway in the picture above, installing roads, leveling pitches, digging foundations for shower blocks.

It seems absurd to go to such lengths to carve a campsite into an unsuitable location when such a perfect site lies lonely and unused nearby on the machair at Achnahaird. This is a fine illustration of what is wrong with the land ownership situation in Scotland. One individual can make a decision that deprives the nation of one of its treasures,  negatively impacting many thousands of people. Assynt and Coigach is one of Scotland's National Scenic Areas. I don't know precisely what this means, but I believe there are some planning restrictions involved. Would it be unreasonable to modify the relevant legislation such that there is a statutory obligation to provide minimalist drive-in campgrounds with established fire pits and composting toilets in our 40 National Scenic Areas?  

It is true that under Access Legislation there is little that anyone could do to stop responsible wild camping at Achnahaird, so those who are willing to and capable of carrying their equipment will still be able to use the site for camping, as the archaeological record shows our ancestors have done for many thousands of years. However, much as I enjoy backpacking, I wish we had more campsites along the lines of those found on public lands in the US; spacious, established campsites with limited facilities that you can drive to, with a good distance between pitches. The private sector so often fails to provide adequate campground facilities; packing in too many tents or worse still, giving the best pitches over to static caravans and squeezing tents and campervans into squalid, viewless corners.

The new campsite may well avoid these pitfalls and prove to be a very nice site but it will not have the space for children to run about, the beach access, the fud-deterring absence of showers or, crucially, that outstanding panorama of the peaks of the northwest.

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Monday, 10 May 2010

Wildflower / Bush Tucker identification in the age of the smartphone

The persistently chilly north wind is a reminder that winter is still lurking nearby, yet spring, that most optimistic of seasons, is very much upon us. Wildflowers are popping up all around and this year I have resolved to identify the little devils as they appear. This isn't the first year that I have made such a resolution but this time it will be different, thanks to the novelty value of being able to send photos of flowers directly from phone to blog. In order to add further sport to my botanical investigations I'll be referring to Ray Mears' excellent book 'Wild Food' and commenting on the edibility of any plants I identify.

Note that I am not recommending that anyone eats the any of the plants below! Do let me know if you spot any misidentifications, you may save me from poisoning myself.

Excuse the variable quality photographs, I'm still working out how best to get my phone camera to focus on flowers.

It's worth noting where the yellow flowers of the Lesser Celandine pop up, for below the ground lurk small tubers which, according to Ray's goatee-beard-but-no-mustache sidekick, archaeo-botanist Gordon Hillman, would have provided a tasty treat for our ancestors.  Photographed in Strathnairn, 08/05/10.

Another tasty treat, Common Dog Violet.  The leaves and flowers are reputed to provide very good eating, but the seeds and roots are to be avoided. Strathnairn 10/05/10.


Wood Anemone, photographed in Glen Affric by the Dog Falls car park, 07/05/10. No suggestion from Ray and Gordon that these bad boys are edible.

Wood sorrel, both flowers and leaves are folded up, waiting for the sun. I'll be sampling this little beauty, for not only do the edible leaves make a good addition to salad or stuffing for fish, a rummage below the ground may reveal a sweet and tasty tap root. Another photo from Glen Affric.

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Monday, 3 May 2010

Back to reality: from one outdoor paradise to another

During my visit to the Grand Canyon I was reading John Wesley Powell's account of the original exploration in 1869 (I think). In his summing up he suggested that, should one be desirous of a full appreciation of the vastness of the canyon and of the variety of its landscapes, it would be necessary to spend an entire year within its confines. Accordingly I'm not going to bother describing my superficial brush with the Grand Canyon's South Rim. Suffice to say I will be back. The idea of a rafting trip or a through hike from rim to rim is very appealing.

Not being a believer in the phenomenon of jet lag I found the invitation to join an overnight skitouring trip in the Cairngorms that greeted my arrival to be irresistible. Less than 24 hrs after arriving home I looked out my National Park pass and drove down to the Park Headquarters to see if they had any wilderness permits remaining for the Coire Cas trailhead. We hoped to reserve one of the highly prized backcountry campsites in the Loch A'an Basin, but what were our chances on a Bank Holiday weekend?

What relief I felt when I remembered that we do things differently in Scotland. Our access legislation means that there is no requirement for a Park Pass; no need to obtain a Wilderness Permit; no need to book a campsite or even decide in advance where we would stop for the night.

This will seem strange to any North American readers, but we simply parked our cars and wandered off into the wilds of the National Park without processing any paperwork or paying any fees.

Upon arrival I found that the rest of the party had decided to accommodate themselves in a 3 man tent. With characteristic generosity Mearnsey offered to share a second tent with me; the only slight snag being that due to his already overflowing bag I would have to carry the whole thing myself. I declined his offer, gambling that the weather would be suitable for simply dossing down in the open.

And what a fine bivvy it proved to be, I excavated a depression on a relatively flat snow patch beneath the Shelter Stone. The howff below the stone itself was as commodious as I recall from the last time I overnighted there but some residual snow inside, the melting of which had resulted in muddying of the floor. This made a bed of clean snow in the open air a far more appealing prospect.

And the consequence of the permit free access to the Loch A'an Basin? Far from being overrun we saw the torches of only two other parties shining among the moraines and boulder-fields.
In Powell's book he discusses the indigenous inhabitants of the Southwest. In keeping with the language of the time he describes them as savages, but he does concede that some had almost effected the transition from savagery from barbarism.

Come morning Neil was kind enough to use his shiny new avalanche probe to transfer a bacon roll from the tent to my nearby bivvy. I felt like a hungry savage receiving a handout from benevolent barbarian neighbours.

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