Reflection in an age of mass distraction

We are marinating in information and distractive technologies. I noticed recently that I check my phone quite regularly from the time I wake up until the moment my head hits the pillow – just after I’ve plugged the phone into the charger. I do occasionally make actual phone calls, but mostly, the phone functions as a universal information device. It is the camera I have with me – as well as the computer on which I process some images. It enables me to upload those images to social media.

Sunlight through trees

The phone is my instrument tuner – whether at practice or concerts. It also generates tones for tuning the plates when making instruments, and it is a decibel meter for loud places, and a recording device to improve my music practice and to record soundscapes – an image of another kind.

The phone gives me a data-rich means to monitor my fitness and provides feedback on progress towards my health goals. It is the GPS to guide me from place to place. It is the universal translator for travel overseas, and helps me reach my language learning goals.

Its library catalogue helps me avoid buying duplicates in bookshops (it wasn’t always the case) and it is a universal look-up and research tool – particularly when in wifi range. It is a travel blogging tool (with a small bluetooth keyboard), and it keeps my ebooks handy for a good read over coffee.

I watch a little TV in the evenings, but spend more time on the internet. I enjoy social media – it keeps me in touch with real friends and family near and far, and they – with the members of photo interest groups – provide (mostly) constructive feedback on my photos, and a reading list (blogs/zines/static sites) to help me follow my interests.

So I have a data-rich life, but how does that affect my ability to reflect? I thought to reflect on this when I read an article – encountered via social media – in the New York Times, titled “The End of Reflection” in which Teddy Wayne makes the following observation:

“There are many moments throughout my average day that, lacking print reading material in a previous era, were once occupied by thinking or observing my surroundings: walking or waiting somewhere, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or before mustering the energy to get up.

Now, though, I often find myself in these situations picking up my phone to check a notification, browse and read the internet, text, use an app or listen to audio (or, on rare occasions, engage in an old-fashioned “telephone call”). The last remaining place I’m guaranteed to be alone with my thoughts is in the shower.”

For me, that ‘last place’ is probably on my morning photowalks that masquerade as a fitness regime – walking 5-10km per day in the near countryside among the trees and kangaroos and birdlife around our national arboretum (yes we have a tree museum in Canberra(!)). The phone accompanies me on these walks, but is rarely used other than to monitor my distance travelled. I do stop to smell the lavender, and I observe the wildlife as it observes me.

kangaroo

kangaroo

For many, the device is all-absorbing, and part of a culture of instant gratification – indeed I still see a disturbing number of drivers texting while driving, or at least while stopped at traffic lights (haven’t they heard of Siri/hands-free?). I take a perverse delight when I see someone texting in the car behind at the lights, in taking off smartly when the lights change, leaving the hapless texter exposed with a queue of cars behind them waiting for him or her to notice the lights have changed.

As I contemplate undertaking the pilgrimage walk of the Camino de Santiago, I see people advising others to ‘leave the phone and camera at home’ as though they worry that somehow they won’t experience the Camino, but instead will have their noses in their devices all the way. But of course, it is more complex than that. I understand that it is important to ‘disconnect’ from the day-to-day world of the office or the hurley-burley of modern life… but… like it or not, we are a technological society.

Walking in solitude

Walking in solitude

I would have missed much of what I observe today if not for a camera. The camera has taught me to observe, to consider the nature of form, of contrasts light/dark, cool/warm, how light plays on the water. Am I not observing nature when I consider how best to take a photo of frost on red and green leaves? Am I not observing nature in marvelling at the texture of light at dawn and play of rays through the morning mist.  I don’t look at life through a camera lens, but I do set out to capture for later recollection those wonders I see with my own eyes.

Leaves with frost

Leaves with frost

For those who think that carrying a device means being less authentic, consider that the early travellers and pilgrims carried books for reading and sketchbooks for capturing those scenes that caused them to stop at the dew on a branch, or a sudden view of a lake or ruined castle.

By all means take the device, but I think it is important to keep it in perspective – the device is secondary to the experience, but it can enrich that experience enormously.

 




The world beneath your feet – Sydney and its imprints

Imprints on the landscape around Sydney’s The Rocks area reveal a number tangible elements of Australia’s European foundation narratives which you can see today if you know what to look for. As you walk around Circular Quay you can see small brass medallions laid out along the shoreline of 1788 – the year the First Fleet arrived with the first European settlers.

But one imprint struck me in particular, and that was the imprint of Governor Phillip’s first Government House, which can be found at the intersection of Bridge Street and Phillip Street.

Above the Museum of Sydney

Above the Museum of Sydney

This is what appears now on the site, which doesn’t tell you very much, other than that this is a dynamic and vibrant modern city.

Now take a moment and look down… At first it looks like a fairly random pattern of lighter and darker stones set into the ground – perhaps an artistic statement of some kind. Now look closer, and it resolves into a life-sized architectural plan – indeed these mark the foundations of the walls and doorways of the official residence of Australia’s first Governor – built in 1789 for Governor Arthur Phillip.

Outline of Governor Phillip's house

Outline of Governor Phillip’s house

According to my walking guide supplied by the local tourist office, the building and its grounds were an important place of early European contact and cross cultural exchange between Sydney’s aboriginal population and the colonists. And this was particularly exemplified by the relationship between Governor Phillip and Bennelong – a member of the Wangal people.

While Bennelong was captured and held at Government House, it appears he developed a real friendship with Governor Phillip and even after he escaped he maintained cordial ties with the Governor and often dined at Government House with his wife Barangaroo. No doubt the real story is far more complex than indicated here, but in those early years it is clear that there was some meaningful interaction, and not just those of conqueror and vanquished.

Some of the archeological record is revealed both at the museum and beneath a viewing chamber which shows part of the actual foundation and the adjacent original road a couple of metres below the surface of the current street.

Governor Phillip's house foundations

Governor Phillip’s house foundations

The site of the iconic Sydney Opera House was named Bennelong Point in his honour.

So when you are exploring a new city – or even walking around your own city, don’t forget to look down and see the imprints of those who have passed that way in earlier times.

Trekking pole tripod – camera mount

Travel with a tripod? Planning for a long trek on foot, it is important to pack and travel as light as possible. But does that mean you have to compromise on recording the experience? I pondered that when considering alternatives to a camera tripod. For the Camino de Santiago de Compostela I will be taking my DSLR camera because I anticipate some unique sights – perhaps in low light, or long exposures. For this, I would normally take a lightweight tripod. But walking is serious business, and weight is a serious issue.

After some online searching, it came down to either a really small low tripod or finding a convenient rock or wall or post. But, being a bit of a tinkerer I also checked out Thingiverse.com and, sure enough, there was a design for a trekking pole camera mount. What a great concept! Of course, my wife and I will be walking with trekking poles for stability and to keep weight off our knees – which means we have four between us.

I considered making something like that from wood – fairly straightforward – but if you know someone with a 3D printer – or happen to have recently acquired a hobby-level one then it’s time to put the machine to work and make something more useful than a plastic unicorn…

It took a couple of tries, but the finished mount came out light and strong

Trekking pole camera mount

Trekking pole camera mount

I added a 1/4 inch x 1/2 inch bolt to mount the tripod ball head

Trekking pole camera mount

Trekking pole camera mount

And then it was time to test the full assembly with the upturned trekking poles – and it is very stable! I have no hesitation in trusting the weight of the camera to this setup:

Trekking pole camera mount

Trekking pole camera mount

For the addition of a few grams I now have a very workable alternative to lugging a tripod. The key thing here is that sometimes it’s worth taking a fresh look at what you already have to find creative solutions:-)

 




Camino training

Our preparations have begun in earnest for our stroll across northern Spain later in the year. When I say stroll, 800km is probably a bit more than a stroll and so a bit of training is called for.

On a training walk

On a training walk

Living in Canberra’s south-west I have easy access to the Weston Ponds – a storm water sump that has been set up to look nice for the new suburbs being built around them. And this has brought in the water birds – including ibis and blue herons, several species of duck, masked lapwings and many other photogenic birds. So for a while, I have been grabbing the camera at Dawn and going for photo-walks (I never liked the idea of exercise for its own sake).

But with our sights set on Santiago de Compostella it’s time to get serious in order to give ourselves the best chance of completing the walk. So, a while ago we set ourselves the goal of building up to walking to the National Arboretum around 6.5km away and return – 13km round trip.

A few days ago we found the side entrance near the pine forest and today for the first time completed the walk – rewarding ourselves with coffee and croissant at the Arboretum cafe before returning home.

Arboretum sign

Arboretum sign

With walking 5-10km per day, I noticed subtle changes beginning to occur – the walks became easier, I could handle the Summer heat better, and gradually I began losing a bit of the spare tyre around my waist – although my weight hadn’t changed. But I did get a strong sense that walking is what the body is built to do best.

And I had time to take in the sights and sounds around me – the light at Dawn is spectacular with the Sun’s rays streaming through the pine forest.

Pine forest at dawn

Pine forest at dawn

And sometimes there are balloons – indeed the Canberra Balloon Festival is due to start soon, so I will be writing about that when it happens. But the prevailing winds often take the balloons into and over the Arboretum, and this morning we were treated to this sight:

Balloon over the Arboretum

As we climbed the hill toward the Arboretum the view was truly breath-taking – and well worth taking the time to pause and admire the scene. We could see the whole of Canberra’s south side spread out before us.

Canberra from the Arboretum

Canberra from the Arboretum

And this was my reaction at reaching our goal for today 🙂

Reaching the Arboretum

Reaching the Arboretum

So this will now be a regular part of our training – aiming for 2-3 times a week interspersed with a couple of days of shorter (below 5km) walks to enable our bodies to recover and build strength. Eventually, we will be doing this with full packs, rather than just a few litres of water and a camera.

More on our training regime soon!

 



Camino de Santiago de Compstella

I must admit I’m just a bit excited. I’ve had some time out from this blog and I’ve been thinking about doing a very different kind of travel – something to challenge me and at the same time giving me space to reflect. Mindful travel requires time to process the experience. Sometimes we travel to mark a turning point in our lives. And, with a significant change coming up in my own life as I contemplate the potential for an early retirement from the formal workforce, it seems timely to look at a special kind of trip.

Pilgrim sign

Pilgrim sign

The old pilgrim routes are gaining in popularity, and the best known in modern times is the Way of St. James or Camino de Santiago. This route runs about 800km from St Jean Pied de Port in southern France, over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain to Santiago (Spanish for Saint James).

The route has a mirror in the sky, and a clue lies in the name of the route. The place name Santiago de Compostella means St James of the field of stars – and intriguingly, the route across Spain mirrors the shape of the Milky Way – perhaps pilgrims hundreds of years ago used the night sky for navigation.

The modern Camino does not require pilgrims to be Christian or even religious. The popularity of the route for long distance hikers has led to three categories – those who walk for religious reasons, those who walk for spiritual reasons, and those who walk as tourists – perhaps seeking a healthy slow-travel vacation. This is reflected in the certificate of completion, known as a Compostela. To earn the Compostela one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km. In practice, for walkers, the closest convenient point to start is Sarria. This latter is popular with those who have limited time, but are seeking some time out from a busy modern life.

But to walk 800 km requires careful preparation – both physically and mentally. And to give us (yes, my wife Sharon will be accompanying me) the best chance of success we want to have our gear well sorted and well practiced.

These boots were made for walking

These boots were made for walking…

We began our equipment with the boots – in our case Scarpa GTX goretex hiking boots – at least a whole size larger than our normal footwear. This is to accommodate the way feet expand with exercise and heat, and to accommodate two pairs of socks – a liner to wick away sweat, and a woollen outer sock to contain the sweat and to reduce direct rubbing which can lead to blisters.

And then there are trekking poles. I had never previously walked with poles, and there are techniques to use them which I will discuss in later posts as our training continues. Join me as our journey of preparation progresses.

Training for the walk

Training for the walk