The Ancient Holloways of Dorset

holloways holloway dorset england UKEarly last summer I was in the U.K. and paid a visit to a friend living in the Dorset region on the south coast of England. The two of us went on a day-hike through the rolling green hills and pastures surrounding his town. At one point we entered a forest enclosure and found ourselves in a deep gully running through the foliage.

My friend said we were walking through a ‘Holloway’ – a sunken rut in the ground made by centuries of plodding feet, cartwheels, livestock and erosion from rainwater. The name “holloway” comes from “hola weg,” meaning sunken road in Old English.

What made that moment doubly surreal (standing in a holloway is a hauntingly beautiful experience) was that the year before, while teaching a travel writing course, my students and I had read a newspaper article in the Toronto Star about that exact same Holloway in Dorset. I’d never heard of the hidden trenches prior to reading about them in class. Nor did I imagine afterwards that I’d ever set foot in one – let alone that same one.

Holloways are found all over rural U.K. and can date as far back as the Iron Age. Each has a different appearance depending on their size and shape, and the region in which they are found.

You can see a variety of U.K. holloways here.

The Forest People

Colin Turnbull Forest People Mbuti Congo ZaireI just finished reading Colin M. Turnbull’s The Forest People which documents his three years living among the Mbuti pygmies of the Belgian Congo (modern day Zaire) in the late 1950s.

There is a poignant scene near the end of the story when Turnbull and Kenge, his Mbuti friend, leave the confines of the dense tropical rainforest and arrive by jeep to the edges of an expansive grassland and wildlife reserve below the Ruwenzori Mountains near the Uganda border. There they are met by an African park ranger named Henri. It is Kenge’s very first journey outside of the cloistered jungle.

Turnbull’s fascinating description of Kenge’s reaction to the expansive views of the high, snow-topped peaks of the Ruwenzori Mountains and the plains below them is illustrative of how all of us are shaped by our environment. It also shows how obdurate we can be in the face of new information, or new realities, which we had no idea existed before they are pointed out to us:

“Kenge could not believe that they were the same mountains that we had seen from the forest; there they had seemed just like large hills to him. I tried to explain what the snow was – he thought it was some kind of white rock. Henri said that it was water that turned colour when it was high up, but Kenge wanted to know why it didn’t run down the mountainside like any other water. When Henri told him it also turned solid at that height, Kenge gave him a long steady look and said, “Bongo yako!” (“You liar!”)

“When Kenge topped the rise, he stopped dead. Every smallest sign of mirth suddenly left his face. He opened his mouth but could say nothing. He moved his head and eyes slowly and unbelievingly. Down below us, on the far side of the hill, stretched mile after mile of rolling grasslands, a lush, fresh green, with an occasional shrub or tree standing out like a sentinel into a sky that had suddenly become brilliantly clear. It was like nothing Kenge had ever seen before. On the plains, animals were grazing everywhere—a small herd of elephant to the left, about twenty antelopes staring curiously at us from straight ahead, and down to the right a gigantic herd of about a hundred and fifty buffalo. But Kenge did not seem to see them.”

“Then he saw the buffalo, still grazing lazily several miles away, far down below. He turned to me and said, “What insects are those?” At first I hardly understood; then I realized that in the forest the range of vision is so limited that there is no great need to make an automatic allowance for distance when judging size. Out here in the plains, however, Kenge was looking for the first time over apparently unending miles of unfamiliar grasslands, with not a tree worth the name to give him any basis for comparison. The same thing happened later on when I pointed out a boat in the middle of the lake. It was a large fishing boat with a number of people in it but Kenge at first refused to believe this. He thought it was a floating piece of wood.

“When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies. When Henri, who was thoroughly puzzled, told him the same thing and explained that visitors to the park had to have a guide with them at all times because there were so many dangerous animals, Kenge still did not believe, but he strained his eyes to see more clearly and asked what kind of buffalo were so small. I told him they were sometimes nearly twice the size of a forest buffalo, and he shrugged his shoulders and said we would not be standing out there in the open if they were. I tried telling him they were possibly as far away as from Epulu to the village of Kopu, beyond Eboyo. He began scraping the mud off his arms and legs, no longer interested in such fantasies.” (pp. 251-253)

The Forest People, By Collin Turnbull, Franklin Classics, 322 pages.

Indigenous Stone Fish Trap

I recently went on a day trip from Bella Bella, British Columbia to nearby King Island, where I came upon a relic from an earlier time. I was exploring the mouth of a salmon creek near an old Heiltsuk First Nation village site when, in the afternoon, the receding tide on the beach revealed a number of traditional fish traps.

A traditional native American fish trap and weir located in British Columbia, CanadaThe traps, in this case piled stones arranged in a U-shape around 3 feet high, are an age-old method of catching fish, particularly salmon. Various types, each catered to its own environment and prey, have been found in coastal areas around the world. Many date back thousands of years.

The stone walls of this particular trap were built at a spot where they’d be submerged at high tide, but exposed at low-tide. As the tide began to roll out, the catchment area within the U-shape of the stone walls, facing inland, retained water. Any fish swimming there, unaware that the tide was receding, would eventually get trapped and be unable to escape.

In earlier epochs, salmon were more plentiful and returned to creeks and rivers in much larger numbers to spawn. At low-tide the fish traps would be teaming with them. But the inhabitants only selected certain salmon, and the amount they needed, before releasing the rest.

Kitlope Journey

Canadian travel blog Toque & Canoe ran a story about a schooner trip I took to the remote Kitlope region in Haisla Territory, British Columbia. Read about it here.

A sailboat in the Kitlope region of the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada

Water

It’s without doubt the most valuable resource in the known universe. Talk to anyone living in a place where it’s especially scarce, and they’ll confirm that. Sometimes with hair-raising stories to prove it.

Yet most of us take fresh water completely for granted.

A dock at a remote lake in northern British Columbia, Canada

I live in Canada – perhaps the most waterlogged country on Earth. We have so much fresh water tied up in a mind-boggling matrix of lakes, rivers, ponds, streams and glaciers, that it seems virtually unlimited. And that’s reflected in our habits. Many of us in Canada take interminable showers, leave sprinklers running forever, and overuse our toilets and washing machines.

Water is so plentiful here that international corporations fight to bottle it for profit. One of them, Sun Belt Water Inc. of California is suing Canada right now for $10.5 billion dollars because the province of British Columbia has refused to sell it to them.

My own conditioned blindness to how precious fresh water can be was driven home on a trip through Egyptian Sahara a few years ago. I was on a two-week jeep excursion through the Libyan Desert, one of the driest and most inhospitable regions on Earth.

Atop a sand dune in the Great Sand Sea, Western Desert, Egypt

Once we travelled beyond the last oasis towns, there were no more grocery stores selling bottled water. We had to carry every drop of our water with us ourselves into the void. Boxes and boxes of it. Stacked on the roofs, and piled into every last niche of storage space. It was our heaviest freight.

Yet, even though it seemed we were carrying a lot of water, it was just enough to last us a few days beyond our itinerary. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t much.

At first we went through it as one does beer at a Oktoberfest. Guzzling it. Dribbling it. Spilling it. We even washed our faces with it, recklessly drenching the insatiable sand. But after a few days, as we started to see our supply dwindle and the empty bottles accrue, we became more careful with it. Ever more measured.

By around Day 10, all of us – tired, dust-besotted and ensconced in a landscape so dry that it sucks the moisture out of you – became paranoid about its scarcity.

Being in this headspace culminated in a bizarre moment:

During one of our meal stops, a porter removed several bottles of water from its cardboard box and placed them standing side-by-side on the ground beside one of the vehicles. At first I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. But as I kept looking at the sleek units of water, something happened: the labelling and details of the bottles, their commodified appearance, melted away leaving behind glowing blue capsules in their place. They looked alien, futuristic, glimmering in the way bars of gold might to the greedy. Each radiated life and insinuated fertility like a miraculous Planet Earth set in the desolation of space.

Desert travelers bathe in a Saharan hot springs near Farafra Oasis, Western Desert, Egypr

Travel at length in the desert and your cognition changes. The absence of objects, defined borders, hard angles and a sense of scale had obviously altered my perception. It made me see things “differently.” But the very absence of water, the profound appreciation and implicit yearning for it, also helped me regard it in a way I almost never do: as a rare element brimming with magic.

This was so much the case that when we returned sand-encrusted and unwashed to Farafra Oasis we flung ourselves headfirst into the local hot spring as madly and senselessly as we had romped through the dunes after first leaving the road.

ISIS and the Blame Game

We live in a blame culture. When things go wrong, we tend to point the finger at one person, event or factor that we can declare ultimately responsible.

But often that singular “cause” is just one part of a longer succession of intertwined events.

Here’s an article I co-wrote, with colleague John Bell, about how this applies to the formation of ISIS.

Ghost Ship

I’m interested in how and why people see and believe in things that are considered by most people not to exist. I’ve done a lot of reading about optical illusions, mind tricks, expectation, the power of suggestion, misidentification and how the brain acts on its own to generate caricatures and make sense of incomplete information.

Though realizing that humans often do make errors, I’ve often found it hard to understand how a person can actually see something that isn’t supposed to be there – especially something at fairly close range – unless it’s actually there.

We all remember times we’ve mistaken strangers, lookalikes, for people we know, for example. But as much as I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to catch more dramatic examples of this sort of misperception operating in myself.

But on a recent trip to Quebec I was finally able to experience something of this phenomenon – catching it just after the fact.

I was travelling on the freight ship Bella Desgagnés in the Atlantic, along Quebec’s remote Lower North Shore. We had stopped for a few hours at the small Innu First Nation village of La Romaine, and I got off to get some air and stretch my legs. I ended up going for a long walk along the rocky shoreline towards a small, enclosed bay, which I could only see the mouth of. A thin veil of fog covered the area. But visibility was relatively good.

At one point I noticed a rowboat with two fishermen in it floating in the mouth of the bay, just ahead. But I paid the boat little heed. I was more interested in the beach and shoreline, looking at the colourful rocks, twisted driftwood and skeletons of dead crabs.

Minutes later, I looked out again towards the water and saw a large rock exactly where I had seen the fisherman just before. I was puzzled – where had they gone? Perhaps further into the bay? As I followed the turn in the shoreline and found myself looking towards the head of the bay, I saw neither the punt nor the fisherman. They had completely vanished. If the boat and its crew were actually there before, they had disappeared – which was an impossibility.

It dawned on me that I must have mistaken the rock in the water for the boat. Or my brain did, rather. I had seen many fishing punts in Quebec over the previous two weeks – so my brain conjured up that image, that pattern, automatically. It took a perceptual shortcut. Triggered in part, perhaps, by the ambiguity resulting from the light fog.

It made me wonder how often things like this happen in our everyday lives – but go undiscovered. And how our perceptual mistakes, visual and otherwise, COLLECTIVELY impact on the world.

Invisible Labyrinth

A friend and I were recently hiking in the woods near the town of Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, east of Vancouver. At one point the trail we were following led out of the forest and into a large clearing, where just ahead we could see the Chehalis River flowing. When we emerged from the trees, the path petered out. It was nowhere to be seen.

After a fruitless search we assumed (we later learned, wrongly) that the trail continued into the woods on the other side of the 100 foot wide river on whose banks we found ourselves standing. We made preparations to cross.

That summer there was little rain in B.C. The river, as a result, was running at half its normal volume. The water was knee-deep and many of the large rocks and boulders that made up its bed protruded above the surface.

For fun, my friend and I decided to see if we could cross the entire width of the river by hopping from boulder to boulder, without falling into the water – a similar idea to the old video game Frogger. It didn’t look too hard as there seemed to be enough rocks providing ample trajectory to cross.

But once we began, we realized the task would be slow and difficult.

Many of the rocks were further from each other than had appeared on shore – too far to hop between. Others were either wobbly or they just barely jutted out of the water, so that you couldn’t get a stable enough footing with which to balance. Those sorts of obstacles were a kind of “dead-end” in our trajectory. When we couldn’t go any further, we retraced our steps and attempted a new rock route across the river.

Because of this, it felt as if we were navigating a kind of invisible labyrinth – one without walls. What had seemed a simple idea had turned into a large undertaking, as complex as any board game.

It took us around 3 hours that day to cross half the width of the Harrison River. When we noticed another hiker behind us plodding the trail which we’d lost, we threw in the towel and turned back.

Though we didn’t succeed, we both noticed something interesting by the time we got back to the trail: our minds, our sense of perception, seemed somehow expanded. Novel ideas, on the topics we silently mulled, flooded in. Connections between disparate things revealed themselves. There was a feeling of heightened mental balance and flexibility.

Could we have given our minds a special workout by that river crossing exercise?

Probably.

In order to navigate and physically cross the river, we had to employ mental modes, which though different, were complimentary.

On the one hand we were required to look directly in front of us while stepping from rock to rock (a left brain exercise). On the other, we had to constantly shift our attention to the bigger picture distribution of all the rocks in order to plot a route through them in the distance (which is contextual, a right brain operation).

We had likely stimulated, equally, both hemispheres of the brain, which helped them to function in a more synchronized, holistic way than normal.

I wonder what might happen if we were able to deliberately bring such stimulus to bear on our minds on a more regular basis – while cutting down on the tyranny of screens, categories, time, sequential linear experiences, and hard visual lines and edges that are the hallmark of our concrete lives?