Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Queen and the Soldier

The soldier came knocking upon the Queen's door
He said, "I am not fighting for you any more"
The queen knew she'd seen his face someplace before
And slowly she let him inside.

(Suzanne Vega, The Queen and the Soldier)

Suzanne Vega’s haunting ballad has many possible interpretations. One way to think of it is from the perspective of the soldier with the Queen representing an ideology or belief once held high but then questioned and walked away from. In doing so the soldier, or at least that part of him willing to fight for the cause, dies.

Twenty five years ago a group of university students marched onto Tiananmen Square calling for government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the restoration of workers' control over industry. That group became large, influential and unmanageable. On the night of the 3rd of June, 1989 the Chinese government, after failed negotiations, broke up the protest with an open display of lethal force. The death toll from the massacre lies somewhere between a few hundred to several thousand. The Chinese government does not talk about this. 

It is arguable that the events leading to what is now known as the June 4 Massacre provided the momentum for subsequent reforms that allowed China to rise as an economic powerhouse - whilst China’s elite retains an ironclad control. Her people are more wealthy and able to palp more stuff. They have greater aspirations but remain mostly silent. It’s not exactly what the protesters wanted. And a burgeoning middle class will demand more.

Whether you think it is a good thing or not, it takes time to transition to a western-style democracy. It took a heady mix of underlying disquiet and galvanising events to realise the disaster in Tiananmen Square. In this case the force of ideas and a demand for change stood little chance when facing off the open end of a cannon. The events now taking place in Syria and Egypt indicate that the unseating of despotic regimes requires an equally formidable force. And they bring with them many of the authoritarian traits of those they are trying to remove.

The energy and quixotry of youth may well man barricades and try to bring about a revolution. Age and experience often treads a more pragmatic path. In-between, and, in particular, for those that watch from afar, there is that risk of becoming disillusioned: to abandon ideology for the pursuit more immediate fulfilment. To seek material gain as an end in itself and to use a comparison with others as the principle measure of worth. 

The dictates of doctrine often need to be bent to fit the practicalities of a real world. Otherwise we may give up altogether and with that a little bit of what makes us human dies. Take enough away and what’s left is a certain emptiness of a life without meaning.

It matters. Because the human capacity for abstract thought means that some of them will actually use it. 

Suzanne Vega plays at the Powerhouse in Brisbane tonight.

Twenty five years ago on the 15 April, 1989 some Chinese students started gathering on the grounds of Tiananmen Square. 

The soldier came knocking upon the queen's door
He said, "I am not fighting for you any more"
The queen knew she'd seen his face someplace before
And slowly she let him inside.

He said, "I've watched your palace up here on the hill
And I've wondered who's the woman for whom we all kill
But I am leaving tomorrow and you can do what you will
Only first I am asking you why?"

Down in the long narrow hall he was led
Into her room with her tapestries red
And she never once took the crown from her head
She asked him there to sit down.

He said, "I see you now, and you are so very young
But I've seen more battles lost than I have battles won
And I've got this intuition, says it's all for your fun
And now will you tell me why?"

The young queen, she fixed him with an arrogant eye
She said, "You won't understand, and you may as well not try"
But her face was a child's, and he thought she would cry
But she closed herself up like a fan.

And she said, "I've swallowed a secret burning thread
It cuts me inside, and often I've bled"
He laid his hand then on top of her head
And he bowed her down to the ground.

"Tell me how hungry are you? How weak you must feel
As you are living here alone, and you are never revealed
But I won't march again on your battlefield"
And he took her to the window to see.

And the sun, it was gold, though the sky, it was gray
And she wanted more than she ever could say
But she knew how it frightened her, and she turned away
And would not look at his face again.

And he said, "I want to live as an honest man
To get all I deserve and to give all I can
And to love a young woman who I don't understand
Your highness, your ways are very strange."

But the crown, it had fallen, and she thought she would break
And she stood there, ashamed of the way her heart ached
She took him to the doorstep and she asked him to wait
She would only be a moment inside.

Out in the distance her order was heard
And the soldier was killed, still waiting for her word
And while the queen went on strangling in the solitude she preferred
The battle continued on.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

When the fagus changes

For a dry, sparse continent Australia has a plenty of interesting trees. We have our own bottle tree (Adasonia gregorii) from the genus of baobabs made famous by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s delightful “Le Petit Prince”;  the ancient, critically endangered and genetically homogenous Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) discovered twenty years ago in a gorge less than 200km from Sydney’s CBD; a remote but hardly redoubtable beech commonly called “fagus” (Nothofagus gunnii) one of Australia’s few indigenous deciduous trees; and to the southwest of the country lie a cluster of Christmas trees (Nuytsia floribunda) known for their striking floral displays and secret parasitic roots.

The “turning of the fagus” is an annual event for bushwalkers, sightseers, nature lovers and fellow travelling tree-huggers. A winter deciduous tree means the leaves of the fagus change colour in April-May just as the days get shorter and the weather less inviting. Particularly relevant in the remote, wet highlands of Tasmania where this small, Australian native happens to be found.

The Autumn landscape in the Tasmanian highlands can be truly spectacular for those that go out of their way to see it. Weather permitting. 

Every year, as I tick off the seasons, I like to think about that.

Gillespie Pass circuit

Holidays are great fun. Especially when you have a new camera. I am no photographer but Mr Olympus has made something that does flatter my ability.

Olympus OM-D EM-1 with M.Zuiko Digital ED f/2.8 12-40mm (24-80mm equivalent) lens.
Something suitable for tramping/ holidays (weatherproof, easily accessible, compact yet versatile, fully automatic) and with the capacity to take me further should I accidentally head in that direction. Something to replace my 10 year old compact that had decided (intermittently and frustratingly) not to turn on. 
I know nothing about cameras but, luckily, I do know someone who does.

The Gillespie Pass is a popular, accessible, 3-4 day alpine walk in the South Island of New Zealand. It is usually walked without a guide but I chose to do it with Aspiring Guides an outfit that caters to mountaineers, trampers and skiers around Mount Aspiring National Park. In addition to a guide equipped with a satellite phone (excellent for weather reports) they also arrange the transfers, the DOC (New Zealand’s Department of Conservation) paperwork, and food. You can carry your own food if you choose. 

This circuit trip was done anti-clockwise.

Walk with me.

Day 1: Walk to Young Hut

Weather update with DOC workers out setting stoat traps.

At Young Hut I discover that there’s an art mode in the camera. 

This is the boomified image using the “pop art” setting.

This is “grainy film”.

This is “dramatic tone”.

Day 2: Young Hut to Siberia Hut

Early start with heavy rain predicted for the evening. Image stabiliser maxed out.


Ka-Boom! A land of pixies, fairies, elves and trolls. Cameras have come a long way over the past ten years. 
(all images are hand-held using full-automatic settings and uploaded in jpeg format with no post-processing)

Ham-fisted approach to image manipulation but it’s good fun.

The storm closes in behind us.

Day 3: Day trip to Crucible Lake

All the gear and no idea.

City boy does not enjoy getting feet wet.

Meet Phil. 

Phil is a 65 year old hut warden that works on the Routeburn. Tomorrow he is walking the Gillespie Pass. 
He has had both knees replaced. 

In his younger days Phil was faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. 
Today he is out there still saving damsels in distress.

Day 4: Walk out 

Brenda, my most excellent guide, has to walk out with extra gear (stashed in secret locations along the way) as the tramping season for this area closes soon. 
Her pack must weigh over 20kg on the last day.