The allure of Pan

After a few hours in the city yesterday I drove back just as kids where getting out of school. It was sunny, though cool. The traffic slowed with the speed restrictions, and with the after school congestion. I was in no hurry, and for a change patiently went with the flow. It was a good opportunity to listen to an audiobook.

I listened to a short story by an English author of about a century ago, E. F. Benson. In his day I think he was a popular author, and he writes well, but I doubt if many know of him these days.

I became acquainted with him when I was a teenager. I read everything back then, pretty much as I do now. One of my favourite genres was horror, and more particularly, supernatural stories. Benson made his name as a straight writer, but dabbled in stories of the supernatural I would read in the great anthologies I scouted out.

The story yesterday was The Man Who Went Too Far. Like many stories of the era there is a naturist angle to it – a yearning towards something more elemental, more primitive. These tales describe a return to nature, and glory in the basic and eternal beauties contained within it. You have to figure that stories like this were reflective of a society perhaps wearying of the hustle of a developing civilisation, the

These aren’t pastorals though, and each story of this type has a twist. What is revealed just about every time is that nature is not as ideal as our high-minded principles would have it. Within nature there is contained the seed of something darker. That’s true enough in reality – in nature organisms subsist off each other. There’s light and there’s shadow. It’s not all harmony and Strauss.

In these stories that dark thing is more forbidding. The inclination towards the ‘pure’ is human nature, but the pure doesn’t really exist except in our idealised notions. Nature is painted in brilliant colours in these stories, but on just about every occasion the high-minded protagonist is consumed by what he professes to worship. Menace lurks in the shadows. Purity is an illusion, and innocence a myth.

A common figure in these stories is that of the ancient Greek god Pan. Pan was the god of nature, half-man, half-goat, gambolling through nature playing the pan flute. He’s a seductive figure who weaves from his flute beautiful and compelling tunes. Those who hear the magical tunes are captured by them. They are lured onwards, by the music, by the ideal it seems to epitomise. Too late do they understand that Pan is a pagan god, and a god given to dark and playful  impulse. Beauty and death combine; ultimately nature itself is too great for any man to survive.

Pan seems to me a forgotten god these days, but back then he was a familiar trope. Saki wrote about him as well as Benson, Machen too, and Lovecraft, and others I no longer remember. The common theme throughout is that nature is not as idyllic, or as innocent, as it may seem, and we are foolish to thoughtlessly give ourselves over to it entirely.

Listening to this on my drive home my own thoughts were counter-intuitive to this message. I was drawn by the idyllic scenes depicted, and to the simple life described. As it has to me before it touched upon that part of myself that yearns to live more simply, and closer to nature. A hundred years on the urge to simplify remains.

I almost decided there and then stuck in traffic that this I would do – really, must do. I have to get away, find that enchanted cottage in the countryside, look upon blue skies, listen to the birds trill and the burble of the stream outside. All in all, become closer to the world.

I seem to write it tongue in cheek – it’s easy to mock such naive aspirations – but it’s true even as I sit here writing this. To work with my hands and observe the natural world around me is an alluring concept. If I were able to, to grow my vegies, cook in my kitchen overlooking the hills, and if in this I can truly write… Well, why wouldn’t I take that?

Hot and marginally bothered

It’s been a warm summer in Melbourne. It’s been warm all over. There have been a few days of what they call ‘extreme heat’, though probably no more than usual. Sydney had their hottest day ever – 46C; and the weather bureau were forced to add another colour to their charts – purple, for temperatures in excess of 50C. The amp went up to 11.

In general the cooler days have been fewer, and warm to hot days the norm, from coast to coast. It’s a bloody big country Oz, which is what makes some of these records seem so remarkable. From north to south, east to west, a territory thousands and thousands of square kilometres, heat records were set: the hottest day on record across the whole of Australia on January 7 of 40.3C average maximum, and January the hottest month on record; 70% of the country experienced extreme heat conditions; there were 7 days in a row in which the average maximum temperature across the country was in excess of 39C. In all 123 weather records were broken, amid a strange summer full of cyclones and floods as well as the usual bushfires.

We’ve certainly known about the heat in Melbourne. We had 14 days over 30C in February, and most around the mid-thirties. Now it’s March, officially Autumn, yet we’re staring another record in the face. If everything goes according to forecast we’re facing 10 days running – and possibly more – of days with a maximum of over 30C. Now 30C is pretty easy to handle, but the reality is again that pretty well all of these days are forecast to be 33C plus. Again, perfectly tolerable, but it does begin to wear on you.

In truth I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. It used to be I revelled in the hot weather, as if it were some kind of Olympic sport we were highly competitive in. I’ve moderated that attitude in recent years. I can do without the days in excess of 40C. The hot nights I can definitely live without. And I’ve become very fond of air conditioning. Still, much of the weather we’ve had in this stretch has been beautiful. If you were on holiday, close to a beach, or with a cool drink close to hand, it’s hard to imagine more perfect weather. There have been days I’ve walked out into the sunshine and consciously felt privileged to be alive.

What I realise though, is that I like the variety that Melbourne normally provides. I lived in Brisbane once and got bored with the general sameness of the weather there (when it’s not storming and flooding). I like the fact that in Melbourne traditionally it can be 43C one day and 18C the next. I even like the fluctuations within the day, precisely what Melbourne is famous for. I guess I’ve become conditioned to it, and look upon it as a charming climatic eccentricity.

I also find I think differently in different weather. I love the social possibilities of hot summer days, but equally enjoy the more introverted aspect of our winter months. Truth be told I feel so much more creative when it’s cool outside, or when it’s overcast or stormy or rainy. It focusses my mind, and shifts it into a different gear.

Regardless, there’s nothing I can do about the weather except cop it as it comes. Given this seasons extremities it’s hard not to believe that global warming is true, and that we have a heavy hand in that. I think most people now believe that. That’s not the problem. The problem is actually getting governments to agree to do anything about it. I’m not going to get into it, but I think that horse has pretty well bolted. Let’s act, sure, but needed to act sooner.

On a more prosaic, practical, and personal note, this unseasonal heatwave we’re in the middle of spells trouble for H. I’m due to go in for a small surgical procedure tomorrow morning. I’m meant to wear a stocking on my leg for the 30 days after. I’ll do it, but can’t promise I’ll enjoy it when the temperature is forecast to be 37C. It’s a tough life.

Glorious winter

Raining again last night, like every night, and the roads this morning dark with it. Then the sun comes out, a bright white glow that lights up the trees and warms the road until clouds of team rise from it. Beside the road are gnarly trees bare of leaves, their branches knotted and reaching for the sky.  Beside them stand the perennials lush and green, glorious in the abundance of winter. There’s a stark beauty at this time of the year. A few weeks ago I was walking Rigby in the cool and damp and looking about me. For a few moments it was clear, the sun briefly exposed before the clouds drifted by it. I thought of the old Mamas and the Papas classic, California Dreaming: “…all the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey…”. The leaves were turning then, and many were that beautiful russet brown. In places they had fallen. I looked upon it remembering seasons upon seasons when the leaves would fall and gather in thick mounds beneath the trees. As a child you would swish your feet through them; as an adult curse the extra work they made. We walked and my mind wandered, pleased to be here and witness again to this change of season, glad to appreciate the beauty of nature and feeling somehow enlarged by it. So often you see these things, but they are backdrop only, they don’t register. There is a wonder to all of this though, the eternal progression of seasons and nature following the course it ever has, oblivious (largely) of us.

I suppose this might be the time to make mention of the newly introduced carbon tax, but I can’t be bothered except to say that anyone who opposes it is a mug. In any case they’ll come around. Me, I feel at peace. It’s hard to feel off when things look so pretty, and when you swallow the wonder of it. For now it gives me clarity to, what’s right, what’s not, how to act. Long may that remain.

The love of animals

To own a dog is to understand that love is innate in living things. While it may not seem a revelation, there is something deeply significant about it I think. We humans place ourselves on a pedestal, and for obvious reasons, but often in that we presume things for ourselves that we discount for the other creatures of the earth.

People often comment on how Rigby gazes at me. Often he sits and just looks upon me. When I move his eyes follow. We were out last night at a bar and the girl I was with commented on that again. “Look at how he he looks at you,” she said with some wonder. I am at the centre of Rigby’s universe. There’s no doubt that he adores me. I’m the personification of all things good to him, a brother, a father, a God. And I love him.

There’s none more pure love than that of a dog for his master. It is untainted, unselfish, entirely given over to the other with little thought of the self. We humans so often twist and complicate our feelings with our thoughts, our fears and prejudices and abject hopes. A dog has none of that. It loves you from one minute to the next. It is constant and forgiving. It loves you for who you are, not for what you have come to represent. In a funny way the love of a master to his dog is not dissimilar. I have often thought if I find a woman who loves me as Rigby does then I’ll be a lucky man; but likewise, if I love someone as I do him then the love will be true.

If we accept this as a reality then our perceptions of the animal kingdom should be more complex than what they are in reality. In our mind we have conveniently pigeon-holed the different parts of the natural world. Dogs, for example, are much beloved members of the family. Cattle are dumb animals bred to be consumed. The environment is there for us to plunder to maintain our lifestyle. And so on. Almost without challenge we have placed ourselves at the pinnacle of the food chain. We have accepted without thought that we rule earth, that we are the living gods of this place, and that the abundance of the earth is here to serve us. We accept the love of our pets because that is within our home, and our due besides; the minute we begin to contemplate a world more complex than that – of which we are but a part – then these carefully constructed beliefs begin to crumble. Our blithe and arrogant ignorance protects us from what we don’t want to know.

It’s an interesting dilemma. Here I am proselytising on the subject, yet I understand how that ignorance can be necessary. Every chance I’ll be happily chewing on a steak tonight with little thought of the poor cow it’s been sliced from. If I do give it any thought – as I do now – then it’s just as easy to shrug my shoulders with a kind of winsome regret. What can you do? I like my steak. We need to live. And so on.

There is wanton hypocrisy in human society. In parts of the world they eat dogs, but if that happened in our society there would be an outcry. Why though? What is the difference really? We happily step on a bug, but protest at the cruelty to animals. What is the difference though? Where lies the line?

We have deceived ourselves because we have argued, correctly, that we are of higher intelligence. We have consciousness. We think, we reason, we feel, we love. But doesn’t everything? I know there are arguments that many animals are so ‘primitive’ that that isn’t the case. Even if that is true it’s clear that there are many species which do think and feel. Rigby loves me, as I’ve said. He’s smart enough to know that when I put my glasses on I’ll be getting out of bed. He picks up my moods and responds to them. He feels, he has intelligence, he possesses intuition. We discriminate ultimately not because we possess what are absent in animals, but that we possess those attributes to a more sophisticated degree. We have more, not different. We may not admit to that, but it’s true. But is it right?

There are philosophers who pontificate on these subjects. There are many who hold strong beliefs that we as human beings do evil. There is truth in that, but I think the question is much more complex than that of morality.

I saw The Rise of the Planet of the Apes last week. I thought it was ok without being great. What was interesting was how I, and most of the audience, were rooting for the apes in their battles with the human race. We were sympathetic because we saw how through their eyes. We understood that they had feelings, that there were connections, ties, affection between them. We saw how mistreated they were, objects of scientific experiment or entertainment. This was a movie, a contrived piece of theatre, yet it exposed the truth of our relationship to them – our slaves and chattels; and the hypocrisy of our attitude. I went from the movie having cheered on the apes and had a chicken burger.

It’s spin though, as everything these days is spin. Certainly it’s true, they are our chattels, our slaves, bred for feed or experimentation. And absolutely it’s hypocritical to decry such treatment in the abstract of a movie and then go out and exploit such treatment. But it’s also true that if we didn’t farm livestock for our feed then our society would be very different: better some say, crippled others. Likewise many of the medical advances that have changed our lives would not have been possible without such experimentation. Where is the line? What is ‘right’? As the leading intelligence on earth, what are our responsibilities?

I don’t know. I know I love my dog and that I’m a committed herbivore. I don’t think morality – whatever it is – comes into it. Ultimately I believe we live within the fold of the earth. We should be sympathetic to it – as we so rarely are – but also use it productively, and as sensitively as possible. We lack humility, and spin it every way but true to make it easier on ourselves. It’s easy to coyly deceive ourselves with shallow justifications when right demands that we own up to what we do, and understand why we do it. Forget the weasel words. We exploit the earth not because we’re more sophisticated or intelligent, or even because it our God given right to exploit. We do it because we are the dominant species on earth. Might is right. Until that changes we will continue to – but let’s be honest about it.