As I stare beyond my laptop and out of my glass door, the morning light softly hugs the leaves. I notice how the trees have surged upwards. They are great spigots of chlorophyll, mysteriously pushed on by that magic we call life. Upward. Outward. Striving to reach beyond.
Growth. It’s the ambition of existence.
Through the mud frame of my window, all is moving outward. Every twig is now a rash of green flourishes. Every trunk thicker and rougher than before. Even my Mediterranean oak is no longer the scraggy shrub it was when I arrived. I’ve Celal to thank for that.
“Aye if you cut all the limbs back at the ground, and leave juss one, it’ll grow into a tree. Juss like that one over there in Dudu’s land.”
I’d stared at Dudu’s oak in bewilderment that day. I couldn’t see how the mess of brambles before me could ever evolve into that. But it has. Or at least, it’s well on the way. Growing. Ever higher.
Everything in nature grows. We humans have observed this pattern and created our own systems to mirror it; economic, personal, vocational. Unfortunately something was lost in translation. We have understood growth as ‘bigness’, and ‘more’. Thus we join the modern accumulation race. A race we never win.
Growth isn’t just a larger, more numerous repetition of the same thing. No. That’s not how nature does things. For Gaia, growth doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with size or quantity (though a careless glance might misconstrue it that way). Growth can be reproduction. But it can also be adaptation. Or integration. Or evolution. It can be increased complexity, depth and sensitivity too. In the case of metamorphosis, growth is the manifestation of an entirely different creature.
Growth is when an organism stretches beyond the boundaries of what it is, into what it will become. And that space beyond is sacred. Because it’s an unknown. It’s not ‘more’ nature yearns for. Nor bigger. But for beyond.
Which brings me to the subject of this blog. And this website.
“I will miss Mud Mountain blog, and the anticipation of seeing you overcoming all the challenges of your life there.”
My inbox has been busy since my last post.
And slowly it dawns on me. Many think The Mud website is winding down, readying itself for death. This is a little disconcerting. Because The Mud online is not slowing down. Not at all.
It may appear that the cyber element of The Mud is no more than a transparent canvas upon which my Mud world is painted. But it’s not. The website is alive. Just like the trees and the plants. Since 2012 it has grown organically. Changed course here and there. Today it claims nearly 7000 subscribers. I must admit, for someone who didn’t know what a PDF file was five years ago, I’ve become a little enthralled with the internet. It possesses its own kind of magic. Its own kind of growth.
The Mud website is an ephemeral boundary between my mud home here in Turkey and the outside world. It’s a meeting point. The place where the beyond can tap on my window, drop hints and whisper. As time goes by the flow rate between out there and in here increases. When that happens growth is inevitable.
The Mud cannot end, because my fascination with dirt, and earth and building hasn’t ended. My first earthbag building course is on the horizon, and will be detailed in the coming weeks. There are already a number of exciting developments in the virtual pipeline, so stay tuned for those. And if you’d like a say in how The Mud website evolves, then please fill in the survey.
So you see, I may be embarking on a new branch of a my journey, but it’s still a very muddy one. Wherever I go, I’ll be searching for my next Mud Mountain, for my spot of Gaia. I’ll be feeling each space and letting it inspire me, speak to me. Then hopefully, if it allows me to translate, I’ll relay what it says.
Meanwhile www.themudhome.com is growing. It’s no longer about one woman in one mud home on a hill, but about a world of Mudsters. It’s about you as much as about me. Just like my Mediterranean oak, before it was a straggly shrub, and now it’s a tree. It hasn’t simply colonised more space. It’s not really the same plant. Its roots are deeper. Its foliage is fuller. It’s moved beyond.
If you want to read another critique on the failed economic lunge after 'bigness', Paul Kingsnorth's article is well worth a read.
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It’s not like me to write two posts in a month, but then things are changing. When were they not?
There was such a heartfelt response to the bulldozer incident, I wanted to convey better what is happening. Because I sensed I had failed somewhat in my last post. As I scrolled down the comments, both on social media and on the blog itself, I was honoured at the extent people cared. I don’t know why, call it naivety, blind stupidity or a lack of self-worth, but I hadn’t banked on the impact. At least not really. I think Jodie's comment probably sums up the group emotion.
"I had to question why I felt tearful...was it because of the hope you and your place gave me, was it that singular yet amazing day spent with you there, was it my fear that you would be lost without that place, was it fear that all beautiful places are at the same risk and nowhere can be paradise and safe? All of these."
This was pretty much the skein of my own thoughts, too. Though of course, by the time I wrote about it, I’d had two months to integrate the situation, hadn’t I? It was already past tense for me. For you, the excavator was chomping outside your door, there and then. It was brutal.
Then I noticed something beautiful has transpired. It’s called community. Thank you, each and every one of you, for participating with me in it. I so enjoy your company. (Big words for a hermit:))
So without further ado, let’s get this straight vis-à-vis my land: Believe it or not, I am not face down in the dirt, fists scrunched, beating the ground and wailing. Though I did shake my fist at the excavator driver and lecture him on the souls of trees (he looked mortified). I also spent the first week wandering about like a refugee. But since then it has been a little odd. Because as soon as my mind was shunted from one rail of perspective onto another, the sorrow evaporated and excitement prevailed. I pondered on this. Was this because I’m a callous witch? Didn't I care about my land? Had I spent the past five years imagining our connection?
No! Each day since I've talked to the trees, absorbing the light on the leaves, hearing them, hugging them, imbibing each precious moment. Then I remembered a phenomenon the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom observed:
“We found strong evidence that many of the widows who had the best marriages went through the bereavement and detachment process more easily than those who had a deeply conflicted one.” (Momma and the meaning of Life)
Yes Irv. That’s right. And I know why. There’s no regret.
Nothing has topped the joy I’ve felt here on this space. There is not an ounce of remorse, not one single point where I wished I'd done something, but didn't. Nearly every minute here was (and is) incredible. Even the terrifying challenges were incredible. This land completed me. It breathed life into me. My home is a mud womb. I’ve gestated, and about to descend the birth canal. There is no grief in this. People don’t grieve births, they grieve deaths. And they grieve lives never lived.
Now, had I spent £100 000 or dollars on my house, had I mortgaged myself to the hilt, had I compromised my soul and spent years grafting miserably to purchase a patch of ephemeral security, had I perceived the past five years as some sort of sacrificial lamb for a dream future, I’d probably be grieving. Hard.
What I feel at the moment is gratitude. Alright, alright, there are a few spadefuls of trepidation too. Yet this I know: Our planet is a propitious Eden. It possesses powers and gifts we don’t even vaguely understand. I've no idea what my land is exactly, or why it behaves the way it does. All I know is, it has filled me to the brim with a light and a love that make me carefree. I’m profoundly grateful. An unprecedented desire has developed. I want to take that light and plant it elsewhere. Spread it. Grow it. Meanwhile, some other charmed soul will now be able to come here and experience their own adventure. And that is so very Mother Nature, isn't it? Grow. Bud. Drop fruit. Seed. Grow.
So here's the plan.
At this moment, I intend to let go of my land to the right person, buy a van, customise the interior and travel with my dog around Europe for a while. Even the thought of tyres turning on tarmac, the freedom and the unknown, sets me on fire.
Yet visions are the easy part, aren’t they? It’s when you start living them that your mettle is tested. Who knows? Perhaps life has other plans for me. It may take a while for this to arise. It may not. And yes, the idea of stepping out from this cosy bill-free den of abundance, and into the real world is a little terrifying. But since when has anything of any value ever been achieved without the odd bitten nail?
I owe my land many things: I’m not the person I was when I arrived here. Now I possess a brand new skill set, new drive and strength. Certainly, I feel younger than when I arrived. Before too long, I shall find another patch of Gaia, more remote, wilder, and live this adventure again. Oh let me build more mud dreams, create a mud palace and another beautiful world! Let me meet more animals and trees and spirits. Because it is a game. A magical, divine game. I am privileged to be able to play it. We all are.
I was wakened by a screech so violent, I thought the earth had split in two. As I dragged my fingers across my bleary eyes, I realised it wasn’t an explosion, but the crashing of a massive rock. The ground was shuddering. The house was vibrating. Fear filed out of its network of submerged tunnels and formed a solid army of dread.
There was another crash, and a terrible crack. Beyond that I could hear the gruff roar of an engine. And I knew in that instant it was over.
In fact, I’d known this was coming. Dudu had informed me of the plan a couple of weeks earlier. But I hadn’t expected it to be like this.
“Oof the pomegranates are such a pain. Need too much water, they do, and we don’t have enough rain,” Dudu had said when I popped round for some lemons one day. “So they’ve decided to split the land up into three.” She was talking about her children.
“And...?” I had moved my stool a little closer to her, wondering what was in store.
“My daughter’s gonna take the part by your land. They’re sticking a cabin on it, and making an olive grove. Digger’s coming in a couple of weeks to clear it.”
I’d heaved a sigh of relief that day. Because since I’ve been here, there has been talk of a road being carved between me and Dudu. This new plan would put pay to the road forever. And an olive grove is about as good as it gets. Olives can be grown organically, need little water and create beautiful evergreen orchards. Even the building concept possessed angles of optimism. A small log cabin perched on the far corner of the land.
Yet two weeks later, I was standing at the fence between mine and Dudu’s land, tears rolling down my cheeks, knowing it was over.
Whenever I hear the grinding tread of an excavator, or the teeth-jarring scrape of its bucket on rock, my skin turns to glass. Because mass destruction is occurring. Habitats are being wrecked. Ecosystems are being wiped out. In seconds, ancient trees are ripped asunder (and unless you are dead yourself, you hear the life torn viscerally out of them). It doesn’t sound much different to a bomb going off in a shopping mall. And if you’re a hedgehog, or a snail, or a sleeping dormouse, no doubt it isn’t any different at all.
Not that I’m in any position to preach a sermon. I also had my land bulldozed ten years ago, before I changed. Before the land changed me. I’m not even completely against dozers. Like everything, if they are used sparingly and thoughtfully, they can be excellent tools, for digging a pool say, or creating a flat space for a house. It’s the loveless, uninspired, destroy-everything-within-the-fence-without-even-getting-to-know-what’s-there approach that sends my hair darting out on end.
It took three days for the excavator to complete its dirty deed next door. In truth, as land mauls go, this was gentle. They left the majority of the mature trees standing; the olives, almond trees and a carob. But as that mechanical claw beat the branches from pines and turned the land inside out, it sank in. This was no longer my private world. No longer my secret garden. Someone was moving in next door. I realised the wisdom carob had spoken a premonitory truth back in November. It was time to let go. I could feel the hand of life on my shoulder, gently pushing me on.
This year was the turning point for my valley. Since February a grand total of four plots have been bulldozed in my area alone. None of them are visible, but all of them are within a kilometre of my land. People are coming. It’s getting busier. Though this may not necessarily be the bleak cliché it appears. We’re not talking multi-storey concrete monstrosities. Dudu’s children, for example, are building with a dream in their hearts. To escape the city. To grow their own food. To live more peacefully. This may be the feathery tip of a new wing beating out a more minimalist path across Turkey’s socio-cultural sky. And I’m all for it.
But on a personal level the dozers woke me up. I love, nay need, my privacy. There are times when I don’t want to see a human face for a week or more. I yearn to lose myself in the forest and hear her quiet message. Hear her twitterings, her scamperings, the whisper of her trees. And through them hear myself.
I grieved for three days after the bulldozing. I wondered if I’d get used to the change, whether I should accept it and adapt to it. Perhaps in time I’d warm to it? One day may be I’d be grateful for the company? Eventually however, my mind, forced as it was out of its comfort zone, dared to face the alternative.
Not once in the five years I’ve been here have I ever considered letting this space go. I have imagined growing old here. Dying here. This land and I have grown together after all. It’s both my child and my mother. But when I finally allowed myself to wander the alien territory beyond my home, my eyes opened wide. Wading across the boundary of my rigid future plans and possessive clingings, I stepped into a field of possibility. And as I roamed a little more extensively within it, I realised it wasn’t just a field, but a vast and rambling continent, a wilderness of new adventures waiting to be explored.
The longer I spent in my imagined terra incognita, the more alive I felt. Ideas sprang forth. Visions burst into being. And soon, I realised, new life was flowing. In my veins. In my land’s veins. And in the veins of the world.
To be continued...
(Many thanks for following me on this journey, which isn’t coming to an end, but is drastically changing course. That road is still being charted in my heart and mind, so hang in there with me. I’ve no idea what the next instalment is, but I can say wholeheartedly while sadness is there, it is outshone by the anticipation of new adventure, new creations and new beginnings).
The sky is a little standoffish this cool March morning. A field of ploughed cumulus. Neither up nor down. Sort of in between. As if it can’t quite make its mind up whether its cloudy furrows will bring forth sunshine or rain.
The apricot tree, however, has had enough of fence-sitting. The pink buds she’s been holding onto so tightly slipped through her fingers today. The first blossom of the year is now out. And this is nature. This is life. Cycle upon cycle. One phase begets another, and another, and another. And each year, although spring inevitably follows winter and winter follows autumn, the garden climbs higher. The trees stretch taller.
But what’s this got to do with The Mud Series, and my writing? Well, because everything evolves in seasonal phases, including The Mud and myself. Mud Ball hasn’t yet been out a year, and happily many have been asking about the sequel. Naturally, I’m writing. I’m always writing. I love the feel of words carving pictures on the screen, and the memories they attempt to preserve.
There are three specific phases (or seasons) to my Mud adventure: Transformation (winter), Empowerment (spring) and Independence (summer). Mud Ball is the second part of that trilogy. It describes the spring of this adventure, the visible burgeoning of a new home. The very speed at which my house appeared had a spring-like magic about it. One minute there was nothing, the next an earthbag house. Building my own home granted me many gifts, but one of the most striking was an unshakeable sense of personal power.
However, there was a winter before that spring. When I first moved onto this land, I was depressed and lost. The garden of my life seemed to have shed every leaf. As I’ve stated many times, this off-grid lark was never a dream of mine. I was thrown into it. Yet that psychological winter was perhaps the most magical time here. I still hanker after those wild woman moments, and fantasize about reliving my ‘lost in the woods’ soul journey. You see, it was because of the powers I learned over those houseless months – commonly disbelieved magical powers and forgotten ancient skills – that I’ve lived happily alone up here for five years. This piece of land changed me into someone completely new. Moving off-grid and into nature will change you. It will blow apart everything you thought you knew about yourself. And just like a seed on the verge of germination, you either let go of the husk of your old form, and transform into a plant, or you die.
So the story I’m two thirds of the way through now is a prequel. Dirt Witch delves into those six months under canvas, before the earthbag adventure began. I was terrified of boar, more terrified of snakes, and the first few weeks were spent cowering inside my tent after dark. I didn’t know how to use a spade, nor did I have the faintest idea how to grow a plant. Connecting with ants, scorpions and geckos wasn’t even in my galaxy of experience.
After Dirt Witch and Mud Ball, there is of course the conclusion to the tale. Those who read Mud Ball will know, at the end of the earthbag adventure, I had to return to Taiwan and teach. Those six months focussed me. After that, I aimed to become independent of the system, survive without money. Did I manage that? And to what extent? What does it really mean to be independent, after all? Can we ever be? These are the questions I wrangle and wrestle with in the final part of The Mud Series, just as I did in my life.
So there you have it: the winter, spring and summer on The Mud. But there are four seasons, aren’t there? What about autumn?
Autumn has snuck up on me. I can feel it, despite the lust-driven strides of the tortoises and the pollen dusting my solar panels. I knew something was coming the moment The Wisdom Carob spoke to me this November. There’s no stasis in nature. The seasons roll on. And life always wants us to grow taller, stretch higher, so that our canopies might touch virgin parts of the sky. Sometimes it breaks off entire branches...
So knowing what is inevitably before me, I’m beginning to hoard my mud treasures. I scamper through each day collecting kernels of beauty, wisdom and magic, stuffing them into the pockets of my memory. As the clouds moil and rain drops fall, I inhale each moment. My harvest has been bounteous. My store cupboards are full. I’m ready.
“Lizards are just walking right up to us, locusts are hanging out with me having a shower, it’s very strange. The robin...he sings to me while I pee.” said a friend of mine who’s looking after my mud home, while I make a short trip to the UK.
Ah how I smiled when I listened to his voice message. Yes, the robin is a cheeky little devil. I know him well. All of a sudden my mind sailed out of my dad’s living room in Essex. I was back there in my Eden, with the butterflies fluttering over the kale plants, and the squirrels scampering along the pines. You see, this is why I’m rather cagey about people entering the land. Because it’s true. The wildlife within the magic ring of my property knows me. The beasts, birds and insects trust me. And I trust them. In fact, as my friend pointed out, there are now generations of insects and lizards with handed down genetic knowledge that ‘The Human’ loves them. We are a connected ecosystem. We are family.
But I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, I too killed scorpions and feared the boar. Ten years ago, I would have laid poison and traps, thinking it was simply the way things were, and that I had to protect myself to survive. I wasn’t even particularly bothered about dogs. I’ve changed. Or rather I’ve been changed, and nature is the transformer.
Nature comes laden with gifts so extraordinary, we moderns don’t even believe them possible. When you approach it as a friend or kin, you will witness miracles, some of which leave you slack-jawed. Let’s take the army of ants nesting just outside my kitchen. Ten years ago, I’d have been sure I had to get rid of them. But now? Well, I have observed these incredible insects. At some mysterious agreed-upon day and time, they congregate on the kitchen floor. Masses of them. The earth turns into a dark moving carpet. I wait. An hour later when they have moved on, I see. The ants have cleaned the floor. Perfectly. Yet they never delve into my honey, nor my carob molasses which sit in open jars upon the shelf. How? Why? It is indeed strange.
Typically, when we hear survival ‘into the wild’ type stories, machismo is the name of the game. This is tragic. Of course, machismo has nothing to do with masculinity. It is an aberration; a fake set of values – generally violent and emotion crushing – parading as bravery and hiding cowardice. The glorified wilderness survival tales we have thrown at us in film or book form are a neatly packaged slice of this machismo. They are sold to a modern world that has become so tedious in its convenience that the only excitement left is bungee jumping, cocaine or having an affair. Thus the wild is peddled as the ultimate dangerous adventure. The last frontier.
Yet nature isn’t a frontier. It’s where we all came from. It’s home! Even the word ‘survival’ when talking about living in the wild seems inappropriate, because it is based on a fiction that nature is some sort of alien monster out to attack us, rather than the very thing that sustains us. The natural world is where we belong, the place we are designed for. Anyone who has spent a significant time alone in nature and attempted to get to know it a little, realises this. The indigenous peoples of the forests, those who have evaded the great train of ‘civilisations’ realise this. You don’t see them indiscriminately bludgeoning any animal that crosses their path. They clutch the last remaining shreds of ancient wisdom in their cultures, namely that everything has its place.
Nature is alive, and like all living beings, she’s responsive. She is also very fair; not sentimental, but fair. What you give is what you get with nature. I’ve seen it over and over again. You enter a territory and become the savage hunter, then you will at some point become the hunted. You will not be trusted. You will have set up an energy field of fear and aggression, and every living being that enters that field will reflect that back to you. Hence why I don’t own a gun, nor do I allow them on my property. I don’t want that energy circulating on my land.
The reason I can live in The Mud alone and feel safe, is because I am safe. The energy of my land is one of love and respect, not fear. There is no struggle to survive. In fact, as time goes on the land provides more and more in the most incredible ways. There is a delicious wild plant known locally as turnip grass. It’s rich in iron and vitamin C, and very versatile to cook with. Last year I spoke to the land and expressed how much I love that plant. This year it has sprouted all over the lower end of my garden. I’ve such a surplus, I now give it to Dudu. Struggle? Survival? Nature feels a lot more like Santa Claus to me.
The wildlife has taught me one final lesson; We humans have been blessed with the power to create the emotional signature of our territories. We can choose the energy we want to emit, and the attitudes we hold. Me? I want paradise on Earth. I want a world full of love, respect and kindness. I want wonder and magic. Utopian dream? Not for me. Well, definitely not within my space. Because this land, The Mud, is my world, and within those boundaries my rules apply.
We may not be able to change other people, or dictate what they do with their spaces. That's just as well. Who knows what's right in the larger picture anyway? Still, it takes conviction and effort to maintain a positive state of mind. I struggle when I hear hunters killing tiny birds, apparently just for the fun of it. And I'm no innocent. Things have been killed inadvertently here, and once from a lack of self-belief. Yes, at times I've wanted to buy a rifle and shoot back at hunters too. But I’ve not given up. Like my freshly germinated spinach seeds, I just keep pushing upwards, striving bit by bit for the light, trying to hold the kind of world I want within me. And now I see. My space has responded. It has been created. The gunmen have moved away. The land holds the vibration. Gekkos clean my saucepans. Swallow ballets are performed over my gazebo. Wild boar career through my land, yet leave my potatoes untouched. And now the lizards dance and the robin sings, not just for me, but for my friends.
There is a special corner of hell reserved for tradespeople, and it’s littered with broken promises and half-finished porches. The flooring (I’m thinking the Devil likes parquet) is paint-spattered, the tools are all over the garden, and the thermostat is still broken. But don’t worry. The heating will be turned down next week. Promise. On my life. Seriously, you can trust me. Next week. It’ll be done.
Nowadays it’s a rare day that I hire help. Over the past four years (four! Four have gone. Where?), I’ve developed triceps and quadriceps, and many other muscles that sound oddly like dinosaurs, that I’d never heard of. More importantly, I’ve learned the techniques. And yes there’s always a technique for everything, be it rock dragging or machete swinging. There’s even a technique (which Celal showed me - oh Celal you are missed) for hacking out monster thorn bushes, involving a rake and a well-applied wellie, but that’s a whole different post.
This year I called on a labourer twice. Once in spring to cut the grass, and once in autumn to chop my wood. Both occasions drove me nuts. It was akin to dragging a belligerent donkey up a steep bramble-throttled hill. So three months ago, when a certain someone, who out of loyalty and fondness shall not be named, explained he had a few weeks free while the courgettes in his greenhouse grew, I leapt on the possibility.
“Yes I’ll take care of that wood for you, no hassle,” he said.
Three months ago. October came and went. November arrived. My wood shed still gaped hungrily. Eventually, I decided action was necessary, so when I saw the afore-mentioned personage driving to his greenhouse one morning, I blocked his path.
“Hey, I need that wood cutting. Today! Seriously. Rain is coming and I’m woodless.” I yelled.
A tousled head poked out of the driver’s window and the mouth within it yawned. “Hmm, we’re tying the courgettes today.”
I widened my eyes. “But you told me you had time. Like a month ago.”
The afore-mentioned personage revved his engine. I folded my arms and remained put in the centre of the road.
“Alright. But I can’t do four hours today. Just two.”
“Two’s fine. I’ll take two hours. Just cut me some wood.”
So the afore-mentioned personage came and chopped half the wood. Better than nothing, I thought. Winter settled. I threw log after log into the wood burner, and soon enough the wood stack was once more depleted. Here we go again, I groaned.
Thus a month ago, I took a long, deep breath and attempted to wring another two hours of wood cutting from the dishcloth of labourer time. I called at the afore-mentioned personage’s house. He said he’d turn up the next day. He didn’t. I called him that evening, and the next evening. Every time he said he’d be there either today or tomorrow. Two more weeks passed and I was down to about five logs. The trouble was, because the afore-mentioned personage had cut half the wood already, only a two-hour cutting stint remained. No one else was going to trek over to my land for two hours work. I was over a barrel.
And this is it, isn’t it? They grab you by the short and curlies and then you’re stuck. Your foundations are in, but the builder hasn’t shown up for a month since. You paid for the pine six months ago, but the carpenter spent the cash on Rakı. Half your wood is cut and now burned. The other half is waiting, and the weather forecast is showing minus 5 degrees centigrade for the coming week. The sense of powerless in the face of this task incompletion is phenomenal. You need the workman. He doesn’t show up. It’s desperate. I felt a wrecking ball of anger begin swinging inside me; a plutonium pendulum of mass destruction. Fine. Just fine. I muttered to no one in particular.
The next morning I wandered over to the afore-mentioned personage’s greenhouse. I gabbled at him non-stop until he pleaded for me to leave. I did the same again in the afternoon.
“Alright alright, I’ll come at four today. I promise,” he said as he tinkered with something under the bonnet of his car.
“If you’re not coming, you’d better call me,” I said. Or what, Kerry? Honestly, what are you going to do?
I returned home. It was two in the afternoon. I waited. I tried to be patient. I tried not to think the worst or to feel desperate.
Time passed, as it does. Four O’clock came and went. The pendulum inside me began swinging. Quarter past four. Half past four arrived. Snatching my phone from the table, I called Dudu. “Have you seen him?” I yelled into the phone.
“Oh, yes. He left five minutes ago," she replied cheerily. Then added, "Drove clean off he did." Just to stoke the fire a little.
BOOM. The wrecking ball smashed through my frontal lobes, destroyed all synapses related to politeness and reason, it took out every gate of self-control and crushed any self-conscious care. I was well and truly pissed off, as we say in the United Kingdom.
I stormed to the shed, yanked out the chainsaw and roared some words which would even have caused the workmen in their corner of hell to blink. An image of me charging up to the greenhouse with the chainsaw, and driving its steel fangs into each and every courgette plant, bloomed happily inside me. Courgette soup for breakfast, dinner and tea for you lot, I cackled. The fantasy ended with me sawing a ‘K’ Zoro style into the polytunnel plastic, and stalking off.
Back in reality, I exhaled, then walked away from the shed, chainsaw in hand.
Now, you shouldn’t start a chainsaw when you’re fuming. It’s really not a good idea.
Except when it is.
Anger gets a bad name, but it’s like money, a knife, or indeed a chainsaw. It all depends how you use it. If you refrain from fixating on the object of your anger, and tap into the power beneath, it's amazing stuff. As long as you don’t actually transform someone’s greenhouse of courgettes into a massive vegan smoothie, all is well. It’s all about putting the energy to good use. And let’s face it, I had a use for it. It was loitering at the edge of my land in huge, bark-encased stumps.
Instead of heading for the polytunnels, I made for those wheels of pine the afore-mentioned personage was supposed to cut. I’d never cut a trunk that large before, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to push through it. I started my death beast up. She roared pleasingly. Rage turned to power, and it surged through my body like a mass-produced eighties rock song. The blade churned through the wood. One huge hunk fell away. Then another. On and on.
An hour later, I couldn’t believe my eyes, but I had most of the set cut into slices. The light was failing. I didn’t care. I was so pumped, I yanked out the axe and began hacking right there and then. There is no job better for a bad mood than wood splitting. With every slew the world became better and brighter.
As darkness fell, I charged up and down the land with the wheelbarrow ferrying the cut wood into the shed. And it felt so good. I did it. It cost me nothing. I burned fat, built more muscles with weird names, and expelled vats of negative energy. The wood was ready. I was saved. It's quite marvellous when you look at it. I had no idea the point of the hired hand was to drive you to such a state of fury you managed the task yourself.
And this is the beauty of home building. This is why you move off-grid and become independent. This is the unparalleled freedom you are granted when you learn a few skills and get in shape. You never need suffer that tradesman torment again. Ever. You are empowered. They can go to their corner in hell (if indeed they can get in, because no doubt the door handle is loose and comes off in their hands), while you sit back, light the fire, and admire your handiwork.
Sigh (long and contented).
So now it seems I only need a workman once a year.
Hmm. Four months until spring and the grass cutting. Oh dear, I'm feeling anxious already.
Note: Of course, there are many dedicated, punctual and conscientious tradespeople out there, like Celal and my uncle Nigel, who have a their own custom-built corner of heaven instead. I just haven't seen one for a while;)
Dedicated to a seven-year-old boy called Maxim.
Perhaps it’s simply my circle, but these days, all about me I see disgust for The System. The way the world is set up. The way the majority of the world’s people are used as toilet paper for the minority that can pay for it. The wars in Africa and the Middle East which boost a number of G7 economies via arms sales. The environmental havoc being wreaked so that CEOs can watch numbers on a bank balance rise. The media tripe specifically designed to pit one group against another. The amount of people who seem to swallow that tripe.
Strange. Over here in Mudland, that System seems no more than a bad dream I slip into whenever I venture online. Right now, the December sunlight is gracing the tips of the trees. I’m watching the pines rise in feathery clusters. A metre from my window, a star agama has thrown his blue head back to grab a ray of extra UV. Dragon flies and butterflies flit over the remaining marigolds. It’s another dimension.
As I absorb the clear breath of nature, I remember something. Someone. A small Taiwanese boy called Maxim. I think about him whenever I consider The System.
I was a teacher for about 15 years and it taught me a bit about controlling groups of people. A traditional classroom is a type of mini-state; a nation of thirty small(ish) beings and a non-elected adult manager wrestling with a largely meaningless curriculum in a concrete box that wouldn’t normally be deemed large enough for a couple to cohabit. It’s actually a microcosm of the greater System it is part of.
Over the years of classroom teaching one thing always baffled me; the students never revolted. There were 30 of them and one of me after all. Sometimes they were teenagers and towered over me. It should have been anarchy. It never was. You see, teachers learn something airily termed ‘classroom management’. It used to be called ‘discipline’ or ‘classroom control’, which was at the very least more honest. And I’m ashamed to say, it was something I was good at.
Yes, I’m a recovering autocrat.
Any trained teacher knows, one of the most effective ways to ‘manage’ students is to divide them into teams and make them compete for a paltry prize. Yup, Machiavelli lives on, even in 21st century education. I can attest that the strategy works brilliantly. You experience very little dissidence, and it’s cheap. In Taiwan, a few stickers or a packet of pencils was all it took for students to do almost anything. In the UK boys school I worked in, it was a fantasy football league. It’s basically party politics in a classroom. Divide and rule, it never fails.
Another convenient method for ‘directing’ 30 free-willed souls is to offer them limited choices. You never ask; ‘What would you like to do today?’ Instead, you put forward two or three choices. The students are so busy debating the optimum choice, they forget all other options. Like rats in an alley, they are forced along the paths the teacher assigns.
I was taught both these strategies (and plenty more) on a PGCE, and it was at a very progressive university in London.
As it goes with schools, so it goes with populations. Give the poor saps a vote, offer them three ropey candidates, keep them busy squabbling over it, throw them a few meaningless rewards if they slog their guts out their entire life, meanwhile . . .
My last experience with classroom teaching was in a primary school in Taiwan. It was the end of my career. I hated The System I was now once again a part of, and did my upmost to controvert it. I began to experiment. Instead of managing, I had a bash at liberating.
Initially, when I discussed my ideas with my students, I was surprised none of them wanted to hear they weren’t free. Sometimes, out of sheer frustration, I began to ask older classes, ‘Do you think this school is a democracy?’ Most were adamant that it was, even when I pointed out that they had no say in what they did for the entire day, no say in who taught them, no say in the classroom management rules, and no say in whether to attend the class or not. They were legally bound to be there. Of the few that did consider the implications of this, most looked as though the foundations of their universe had dissolved. When the truth is unpleasant, folk generally opt for denial.
And yet, happily there’s always an exception, isn’t there? You can always find one or two little gems in a class who see through the ruse. Back in Taiwan, one of these was a Grade 2 boy called Maxim.
Maxim was small for his age, quiet but not shy, and he loved animals, especially pigs. He would resolutely sketch animals all over his Math book, his Science book and his English book. He thought the rewards were stupid, and didn’t participate in the class unless it was about animals. If you made him stay in at break, he didn’t care, because he would just draw more animals. One day, I was standing at the blackboard chalking up team points, and I finally realised there was nothing I could do about it.
Children who can’t or won’t fit into the education system have always been labelled something. These days it’s ADHD, before it was ‘difficult’ or ‘a sod’. Whatever the label, these are the system challengers, and there are two kinds; There are the protesters who disrupt the class using any range of methods from shouting to violence. Then there are the non-participaters like Maxim who aren’t rude or destructive, but simply don’t join in.
Protesters and non-participaters.
As time went by in Taiwan, I noticed something about the protester students that gave me reason to pause.They unwittingly upheld the system. They were always a tiny minority, a fringe group the mainstream didn't aspire to being, and as such were a deterrent for the rest of the students. Certainly, if the entire class had risen up and begun throwing chairs about, or run round the room screaming, there wouldn’t be much a teacher could do about it. But that never happens. Because a protester is in herself a negation, she is not really offering a creative alternative to The System, just a reaction to it. The predominant energy that the protester taps into is anger.
Non-participaters, however, are a different kettle of fish. For an autocrat, they are notoriously difficult to deal with. What do you do when someone simply doesn’t join in? Even if you resort to the most draconian measures available, they will at best be half-participating. It’s as if they are sucking the juice out of the engine of the system drop by invisible drop.
Maxim wasn’t angry, aggressive or openly challenging. He was polite and a rather cute little boy. Because he wasn't disruptive, and because even the most dogged leaders have limited energy, it was easier to let Maxim sketch animals than try to coerce him into joining the class. Without realising it, I soon found myself incorporating more lessons on the subject of animals just for his benefit. It also dawned on me that after a term of Maxim never completing his workbook and drawing animals everywhere, that it really didn’t make much difference to anything. The workbook was on the curriculum, but it was by and large nonsense. Maxim could still read and add up. Hmm.
In the end, I decided to get rid of the workbook for the others too. I chose the most useful pages for the students to work through, and let them quickly copy the answers for the rest (I was also being checked on by superiors and would be hauled up in front of a supervisor if pages of the workbook were missing). Eventually, I went the whole hog. I let my Grade 2 class do whatever they felt like. Was there anarchy? Was there war? Were there 30 seven-year-olds running wild around the class because they were bored? Did the world collapse? Did they all become stupid, uneducated fools? Nope. None of the above.
The projects those pupils came up with once the curriculum was abandoned took my breath away. Some designed huge crossword puzzles for their friends, others created storybooks and hung them around the class for the others to read, some made model rockets, others read books. One boy just sat and day dreamed. Maxim drew picture after picture of animals. And when he was done with contemporary ones, he drew dinosaurs. Brilliantly. Expertly.
Take note: Thirty students. One of them changed the system, just by not participating and doing what he loved.
This is big news for those of us who realise the majority don’t or won’t see through the ruse. Ever.
Now, I have been of an activist temperament most of my life; opinionated, rebellious and passionate about justice and the environment. I have a big mouth and don’t mind using it. I’ve taken part in protests. I have voted in every election I was eligible for, both in the UK and Turkey. Even when there has been no candidate worth a minute of my time, I’ve still voted. I’ve participated.
And that’s just what The System loves; people who participate.
After Taiwan, I took a leaf out of Maxim’s pig-decorated practice book. I donned a pair of wellies, left the world of work and began scribbling notes on the internet. Why? Because I like writing. I also like building. I love not doing a day job. I live on about £200 a month, so my contribution to those CEOs’ bank accounts is pretty minimal. I’m not plugged into a grid.
Of course, I’m not System free. I use the internet and pay a company to provide it. Maxim wasn’t System free either. He was still at school after all. And like Maxim, I do my best to only participate in what I love, and pull my energy out of that which I don’t. Every detail counts. Every moment I'm voting with my soul. Because in truth, The System isn’t some vague malign entity ‘out there’. We are a part of it. We create it. And with every single action we take, no matter how small it may look, we are changing it.
The carob is one of nature’s less illustrious confections. Unlike honey, the carob doesn’t look much; a hard brown pod, warped, dry and on superficial examination, disappointingly ungooey. The locals call carobs keçi boyunuzu or goat’s horns. But looks often deceive. The carob is the treacle of life. It is virility and life force in seed form. When crushed and boiled for hours in a cauldron, thick black molasses are formed; this dark elixir is endowed with all sorts of powers; it boosts immune systems, enriches haemoglobin, and sends libidos rocketing to Mars.
Carob trees are two a penny in my neighbourhood. But there’s a special one. A secret one. One I haven’t told anyone about. Until now. Rotty, Apo and I pass her on our morning walk each morning. She’s an incredible carob tree. Probably a good 60 – 80 years old. I call her the Wisdom Carob, and I climb into her ample arms whenever I have a difficult question to ask. Well, she’s seen a lot that carob has. Her eyes run long and far through her wood. An enormous umbrella of boughs sprout from her multiple trunks. In summer she’s a leaf-spattered dome of shade spanning about twelve metres in diameter. Well, she was...
Every moment, the Old is leaving and the New is arriving. Just recently I’ve been hearing the New knocking, albeit timorously, at the door of my own soul. Only I’ve not known quite how to let it in, or even if I want to. I’ve been in decent places before only to throw them away for ‘a dream’ which inevitably became a nightmare. I have no dream now though. No idea of how I could better the now. Yet I know I’ve filled the container of the Old to the brim, to the point it’s overflowing. There’s a surplus of joy and wonder and life. But there’s also a great unknowing. When you feel complete, where do you aim for next? Is there any point aiming?
So a few days ago, I walked to the Wisdom Carob. Her massive woody hand reached out of the earth and plucked at the warm autumn air. I climbed between two of her trunk fingers and sat for a while, back cradled by those huge boughs, legs swinging. I let my dilemma float from me. It wafted through the branches and swirled between the evergreen leaves. The sound of an accordion drifted hauntingly up the valley. I shivered. The sky darkened momentarily. Gusts of wind agitated the carpet of dead leaves below the carob’s canopy. Then Wisdom Carob spoke.
“You have to let go of everything for the New to have a chance,” she said. “The past, the images in your head. Let go of prejudices and dreams. All of it. Everything. Every preconceived notion you have about what the New could be. Because the New simply isn’t the Old.”
Urgh. I hopped down and mooched back to my land. I didn’t have the slightest intention of letting go of everything. I mean I don’t mind letting go of a bit here and there. But everything? I wouldn’t know how to even if I tried.
The very next day I headed for the city to visit a friend. I stayed overnight and the next morning indulged in a sound therapy session. As I relaxed on the couch, my friend randomly picked an oil to work with. It was chamomile. Turning the page of a well-fingered oil book, she read aloud, “German chamomile promotes a letting go of the old and stale, so that the fresh and new can evolve...”
I closed my eyes and groaned. There's no escaping the talons of destiny, eh?
The following afternoon I returned to the sun stroked folds of the valley, stopping by at Dudu’s house to drop off some bread. Dudu sat on her sofa, her brown green headscarf slipping off her silver hair. She was rocking a new born baby to sleep, the grandson of the late Celal, my loyal garden help who died of a heart attack last year. This little baby has also been named Celal. Yup, Old Celal, and New Celal. I sat by the baby’s head and began rocking the cradle with her while we chatted.
Suddenly, the dogs began barking. Dudu and I looked up. A white haired man appeared at the entrance to Dudu’s land. I recognised him immediately as the man who owns the land with the Wisdom Carob. I hadn’t seen him since mid-summer when he’d harvested the pods.
“Do you reckon we can get our tractor up this road?” He called from the track, while shooing off Dudu’s polka dot mongrel which was yapping at his ankles.
“Yeees,” said Dudu. “If the pomegranate truck made it, you can.” Then she turned to me. She was sitting at baby Celal’s feet. I was at his crown. “They’ve cut a carob back there. It was sick,” she said rocking the infant so vigorously his head shook.
I sat stock still and felt my eyeballs straining. No, no, no.
“He’s cut down that amazing carob tree? That beautiful, massive old one?”
Dudu grinned at me affectionately. She found my emotional attachment to trees somewhat unfathomable.
“Not all of it,” She cawed through her wrinkles. “Just the dead boughs. The tree’s still alive.”
I left Dudu’s in haste. Rotty the dog and I marched down the earthen track (well I marched, Rotty skipped and jumped and ran in and out of the forest oblivious of my concern). We passed my land, and walked along the forest edge. The dirt avenue opened onto the Wisdom Carob land. Mount Olympos rose in the distance, his southern flank bathed in coppery fire. I stopped. The umbrella of Wisdom Carob was gone. In fact most of her was gone. There were a couple of branches left with plumes of green spurting out.
I expected to feel devastated, but I didn’t. Even from this distance, I knew it was all alright. But I decided to wait until the next day, until the owner had cleared the wood from the site, before inspecting any closer.
It was yesterday that I approached the small fountain of green that is the New Wisdom Carob. What I saw made my arms prickle. The owner had cut off exactly the same two boughs I’d been sitting on two days prior. It was too eerie for words. The muscles along my spine shivered as I took it in. When I inspected the severed limbs, they gaped like ligneous arteries, hollow and dead. Dead boughs drain the life of a tree. They slow its growth. If they are diseased, they can even kill it. Then something else dawned on me. I noted with intrigue that the severed boughs had been the original trunks of the tree. What was left were two new trunks that had sprouted from the old. There was nothing remaining of the original carob. Yet it was still very much alive. Just disconcertingly New.
Hmm. Yes. And isn’t that the way of it? For all of us? All the time?
I turned from the tree. As I ambled along the forest edge back home, I considered the various ‘mes’ scattered along the tracks of my past, the dead limbs of my youth, the severed branches, the hollowed out pieces of me I’d forgotten about. Some of them no doubt infecting me. Those Old selves felt like strangers. Was I really once her? I wondered. And yet somehow, those defunct Kerry’s begot this one. And this one will beget the New. And once it does, it too will be the Old.
Perhaps it already is.
I arrived home. That evening something else dawned on me. I searched for my wallet which is always a little time consuming as it only sees the light of day about once a week. Eventually, I found what I was looking for. A slip of paper from my dentist given to me two weeks earlier. There on the white square I read the date and time; 11am, 18 November 2015, extraction. Two of my wisdom teeth are slowly rotting. If I leave them in they’ll slowly infect the gum. It’s time to let them go.
Wisdom teeth. Wisdom trees. Carobs only know what’s coming next. But something is.The New.
The sun loops lazily from east to west. Having pounded us all summer, it has now lost its ambition, fatigue dragging it back from the apex of the sky. The rustling draws near enough that I open my eyes. I’m sitting in my forest reading room. Two red squirrels, no more than a metre in front of me, are frantically yanking carobs from an old tree. The branches bow and bounce as these furry acrobats leap from one precariousness to another, stuffing the long brown pods into their mouths as they go.
As I watch them gorge, I ponder on the subject of need. Do those squirrels really need all those carobs? Are they being greedy, or just trying to survive? What do I need? What do you need? What exactly is need?
Most are au fait with Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. It’s been more or less engraved upon the educated modern mind. According to this wonderfully simplistic diagram unbacked by any empirical study and yet nonetheless taught to high school students the world over, needs are fulfilled in a set sequence. According to Maslow our primary needs are related to physical survival, once they are fulfilled we strive for psychological security, then emotional fulfilment, and then self-expansion. Apart from the ubiquitous skyward ‘thrust’ of the thing, it errs in many other directions, as properly pointed out by this BBC article. For example, if our survival needs are the priority, why do some people leap from buildings when they lose their job or fail an exam? Why might someone risk their life for a love affair? What about homeless artists or death-flirting adventurers? It seems our needs are less organised than we are given to believe.
Over the past few years, I’ve had my own preconceived ideas about need turned royally upside down. I’m now altogether uncertain where the line between ‘need’ and ‘desire’ actually is. Before my home was complete, back in the days when I still owned a car, I had a vision of what I thought I needed. Basic requirements were: a fridge, a washing machine, hot water and wheels. According to every disaster news broadcast I’d seen, to live without the above was to have slipped into the ragged economic terrain of the world’s impoverished. It wasn’t sitting with a swollen belly and flies gathering about my eyes, but it was one step away.
Thus, at the outset of this Mud adventure, I made up my mind to acquire my basic essentials one by one. You know; to have a ‘proper’ home with at least the minimal ‘necessities’. And then something odd happened. Rather than acquire more, I started getting rid of the little I had (the car and my fridge have already left The Mud). I still have no hot water. I’ve got used to cold showers and heating water on the stove. Even the washing machine idea has hit the wayside. Huh? No washing machine? Why?
It has dawned on me this year that acquiring a washing machine is more of a pain in the butt than the washing it’s supposed to liberate me from. It means scouring the concrete-throttled streets of a city for someone who can a) sell me some solar panels and a larger inverter b)install the afore-mentioned technology, c)is prepared to drive about 30 km to do this d)is competent enough to set up the system without screwing up the system already in place. It also means I’ll have to construct some type of shed for my machine so that it doesn’t get wet. Then it is going to go wrong (because technology always does). I’m going to have to find a repair person willing to drive 30 km to repair it, and pay them half the price of the machine to do so. You see, when I in remote Mud Mountain land look at that financial outlay and the effort involved in owning a washing machine, then look at my meagre washing pile, it just doesn’t make sense. I quite like hand washing my clothes. When you’re not roasting for 8 or 9 hours a day in corporate hell, you’ve got plenty of time. So who cares? And for my bed sheets? As you know, I also have good friends, all whom own washing machines, who’ll help me out once a fortnight in return for some organic beans:)
The point I’m trying to make in this rather convoluted rinse and spin cycle, is that so many of these ‘basic necessities’ are simply options. For me, this distinction is crucial, because the idea that you need something creates a lot of fear and stress. It squashes you into a corner and impels you to do things you’d perhaps rather not. If you think you need something, you become easy to manipulate.
But let’s get back to Maslow and ridiculous diagrams that really don’t explain anything. Just for the devilish fun of it, I’ve created my own utterly erroneous, over-simplistic chart of need/desire. And just for a change (because we could do with a change, we really could) I’ve ditched the pyramid, and drawn a spider. Why? Why not? I like spiders. They have eight eyes and no eyelids. They have threads coming out of their bottoms and make silk art out of them. And you can never really be sure if they’re moving up or down or round and round.
So the spider’s body of need is all the stuff that we die without; food, water, air, decent sleep which is probably dependent on shelter. Once we’re breathing, have had a drink and filled our bellies, for a few hours at least we’re zipping along a web of choices. Do you prefer a more solid roof over your head or a new pair of jeans? Do you prefer health insurance or an internet connection? Would you rather have a washing machine and do a job you hate, or paint rocks and wash by hand? There is no hierarchy. There is choice.
But wait. My spider is coming unstuck already, because this analogy doesn’t work any better than Maslow’s. What about happiness? Peace? Creative expression? Love? Can we really live without them? Are they less important than breathing? No, I’ve got it all wrong. I see. The body of the spider can’t be food, air and water. I’ve inadvertently fallen into Maslow’s trap of prioritising the physical. Why is happiness so important to us? Why do we need meaning and joy? Because we don’t exist only as physical beings. Our souls fight to survive just as hard as our bodies. Happiness, joy, meaning and love feed our will to live. It’s that will which is at the heart of it all. Lose that and you’re already dead.
I’m back in the forest. A confusion of twigs and branches grope at the shade. I've made no progress. Needs are weird. I can't nail them down, or separate them out for long enough to make head or tail of them. They come and go like rain clouds.The carob tree in front of me rustles again. One of the squirrels stops mid-munch and notices me sitting there. Cocking her head, she gives me a once over, the branch bobbing below her like a springboard. Her mate then performs a staggering tree-to-tree leap that looks pretty much like flying to me. The pair of them hop and skip and bound along the arms of the pines, followed by their cheerful red tails. The squirrels know autumn is knocking. It’s time to fill bellies and store. But hey, let’s be honest, it doesn’t look like a drudge job. Need, desire, play and adventure are intertwined, not separated into competing choices. As I crane my neck to watch them disappear, a flush of wonder rises in my chest. Life on Earth appears not just to be programmed to survive, but to enjoy surviving, to express that joy and to share it, mostly all at once. The natural world doesn’t really do plodding hierarchies. It’s not fond of tidy conclusions either. It prefers interconnected webs, scampering from limb to limb, and taking maniacal leaps of faith, instead.
Any better ideas? Feel free to add them in the comments below.
Last week it was announced that Rupert Murdoch and Fox group were taking over National Geographic. Coincidently, the same week in a talk on urbanisation, an unrehearsed sentence slipped out from between my lips. When I watched the YouTube video of the talk later, I flinched. The sentence was, "we now have the internet so we’ve taken over the media." Oh dear, where did that embarrassing exaggeration come from? I thought.
Still, no matter how ludicrous an idea might look, when spontaneous utterances such as these scuttle out from nowhere, as they are apt to from time to time, I’ll often ponder how much truth is in them. Was that a subconscious desire I wanted realised? Or was it a flash of intuition? Was another part of me trying to tell me something? That rogue sentence sent me on a little research binge. Two days later, I am squiffy-eyed but far better informed. So if you’ve been feeling a little powerless of late, as though the world is controlled by a few ecocidal sociopaths in suits and you have no voice or way to stop them, keep reading. In five minutes time you’re going to feel exceedingly empowered.
First, let’s take a look at the Fox "Goliath" that is all set to take over our beloved Nat Geo. Prepare yourself for an Emperor’s New Clothes experience. When you hear talk of Fox News ratings increasing to almost 2 million in prime time, you are given the impression that these are great numbers. They are not. From an online perspective they are fairly trifling. I actually checked them on six different sources, because I couldn’t believe they were that low. GOP debates aside, this year in the States an average total of about 2.8 million viewers switch on to Fox, MSNBC or CNN for prime time news each day (and those figures are sliding yearly). Now compare that with Facebook. 57% of American adults use Facebook and half of those use it daily. According to the last census there were around 250 million American adults. So...that’s around 125 million Americans on Facebook (more if you factor in the under 18s), and a good 60 million flicking through their news feed each day. Just to recap, Fox News, MSNBC and CNN combined net a piffling 2.8 million in prime time, while Facebook grabs a staggering 60 million Americans.
“Oh but wait!” You say, “Facebook is not a news outlet, it’s social media.” True enough. Yet whether or not you log in to Facebook with the specific intent of learning the news, your friend’s posts roll into your feed regardless (and they roll in even better if you hit the ‘most recent’ key). Facebook is, for example, where I learned that Murdoch was about to take over National Geographic. It is often argued that this doesn’t really count, because the source of the news is still a major news outlet, but the point is, you get to choose which news to share, and which to allow more viewers to see. You contribute to the broadcasting process. And as I am going to demonstrate a few paragraphs down, this has already radically changed the news media game. The world of newspapers is experiencing something of a melt down because of it.
But the shift in how and why people use media is not just about Facebook. The internet has transformed us from a people used to being spoon fed limited and selected information into an entirely different beast. Today, millions of people around the world have taken to searching for their own information. Wikipedia, (seventh most popular website in the world today) has 500 million unique visitors a month. That’s over 16 million a day, 3.5 million of them in the US. Remember Fox TV back there with its 2 million prime time on a good day?
Then there are the petition sites. www.avaaz.org, the well-informed online activist group, boasts 42 million members. That’s not 42 million page views a month, nor unique visitors, that’s a colossal mailing list. As any online marketer will inform you (if you just submit your email address), an email list is a far more effective way of reaching your audience even than social media. At any time, at the mere press of a button, Avaaz can talk to 42 million people.
It doesn’t end there though. Let’s turn to online news outlets; the actual sites who create the articles we are sharing on our social media or searching for in Google. Don’t be fooled by what the tabloids are telling you. According to today’s Alexa statistics, the highest ranking online news outlet today isn’t Fox News (no way near). Nor is it tabloid. It’s actually CNN ranked 74 by Alexa. CNN is very closely hustled by the increasingly popular BBC online website (ranked 82 and rising) which has managed to gain 40 million users a week (120 million plus a month). This ought to encourage us, because despite its issues, unlike Facebook the BBC doesn’t advertise, and it still has a vague ethic to broadcast properly researched stories. Where’s the Fox News’ website by the way? Oh...let me find my binoculars. There it is floundering back in the distance, ranking around the 190 mark with only 30 million odd monthly views. Why is that? Because you and I share more BBC and CNN posts on social media. Realise your power. Seriously.
What about the online newspapers? Despite the age-long cries that we are dumbing down, I’ve long suspected the internet was actually upgrading people’s news and article reading. Folk tend to share posts not only because they deem a topic important, but to promote their self image. Thus Facebook users will often share posts more highbrow than they might have read privately in a newspaper. This has changed the entire landscape of the British newspaper media. Which paper do you suppose scoops up the highest traffic these days? Remember when The Sun was the most popular daily? Not any more, at least not online, which is where the majority of readers are coming in from. In 2014 it was actually The Guardian with a pretty healthy 4 million daily visitors. Yup you got it. More people are reading The Guardian every day than are watching the top 3 US cable TV news providers combined. OK you can bring that lagging bottom lip back up now.
So if this is all as I have written, why are we so unaware of it? Because unless you’re a driven blogger or working in online marketing, you don’t check web stats very often. The traditional media has cast a mysterious ring of superiority around itself that magnifies its own importance. I first started to sniff the power independent online media wields as a result of book publishing. My book sales stats show clearly that when a blogger or online site mentions me or reviews for me, my sales increase by between 600-2000% depending on the site. When I’m mentioned in traditional media, the increase is more like 200-300%. I have learned to use traditional media sources for validation, not for sales. This is an interesting point. Apparently, people still trust traditional media outlets more, though it’s hard to say why, when researching the sources on any online article is so much easier if links are provided. Personally, I think it’s an outdated belief system, a bit like in the middle ages when everyone gamely gulped down the opinions of the priests. The print pages of traditional broadsheets are like pulpits, they tend to elevate the writer’s words in the mind of the reader.
As I said, it’s tricky to discern to what extent the internet is sweeping up, because traditional news outlets tend not to be all that happy about it. This BBC article from last year has it that digital news ‘catches up with’ traditional news. That isn’t what the figures show, though. Exactly how was the question in the very limited Ofcom survey worded, I wonder. Was it, “Where do you go to find the news?” Surveys can be incredibly biased depending on the questions asked. For example, if someone asked me where I go (actively) to search for the news, I’d say the BBC online. But that’s not how I in fact come across the news. It’s social media that is swinging the axe. I generally pick up a story from Twitter, or Facebook (Twitter tends to be more current) and take it from there. Twitter has 100 million users a day globally, 40% of whom are only logging in for the latest news in a topic area. Facebook has a 1.4 billion users and 83 % are outside North America (ONE POINT FOUR BILLION, that’s a fifth of the entire planet!) There is no one traditional media outlet that can compete with those numbers or that global scope.
Facebook has many limitations when compared to Twitter (which currently offers the most democratic news feed). The news you receive is dependent on your friend circle, for one thing. You don’t see all your friend’s posts, for another. And it’s now long on the road to becoming a commercial venture. Even so there’s no denying, when using social media we engage in a virtual wave. We have a say about what is shared, and we actively influence the type of stories generated in the future. News outlets that have cottoned on to the power of social media sharing (The Huffington Post, The Guardian, and this year The Daily Mail) have seen a dramatic upturn in their fates, while those that don’t are fading. Many traditional media outlets now refer to ‘what’s trending online’ in their publications, or as with The Daily Mail, who hired Buzzfeed’s chief operating officer to overhaul their website, visibly change the slant of their stories to get more shares.
Print newspapers have already lost to the internet. TV is so obviously next. Netflix is trawling in the majority of the traffic in the entertainment sector. Not to mention youtube which is the third most popular site in the world today. Some of you may be shaking your heads at that. Are you over 40 by chance? Because if you are, you are in a steadily dwindling group of traditional media worshippers. A recent study in the States has shown that the over 60s are watching between 40 and 50 hours TV a week, the 30-50 year olds around 35 hours, while the under 30 year olds are only watching between 15 to 30 hours a week. For the young, those TV viewing hours are declining every year, and fast. Ten years from now things are going to look very different.
So yes indeedy, Rupert Murdoch has taken over Nat Geo. But does it really matter? Everyone now knows about it, so most likely as with the The Sun, Fox news and the rest of Murdoch’s steadily eroding media empire, Nat Geo will lose its readership. Or perhaps Murdoch will have a road-to-Damascus moment and abruptly consider there might be a tiny climate issue. You see Murdoch might have his fossilised old hand in the news agenda his companies dish out. But he isn’t in control of what the majority of the planet shares or sees. You are. You perhaps just didn’t realise it.
5 ways you can influence the media that you might have been unaware of:
1.Consider the type of article you share or like on social media. What you share is what you are voting for an increase of in the future.
2.Set specific Facebook posts to "public" if you want them to gain a wider audience.
3.Comment on FB posts you want to gain more publicity for (because FB algorithms are set to place the posts with the most comments and likes into the news feed)
4.Just for your information, Pinterest drives more traffic to a website than Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus combined. When you pin, you are sharing amplified.
5.Commenting on articles, be they in traditional media or on blogs, drives traffic. In the same way, reviewing anything, from books to films, automatically pushes it into higher visibility. Amazon, the sixth most used website in the world, is basically a massive search engine with algorithms like Facebook that pick up reviews and then boost a product. So if you want to promote the work of a small business, a book or film discussing a subject you deem important, or an indie artist, review for them. It’s actually more valuable than buying the product!
Nielsen.com (Official US TV Ratings)
BBC 'Digital News Catches Up With Papers'
Journalism.org Cable News Fact Sheet
Journalism.org 'State of the News 2015'
The Guardian 'The Guardian overtakes NYtimes in Comscore traffic figures'
The Guardian 'Ofcom Report Indentifies Emerging Generation Gap in TV Viewing.'
Pew Research Centre '6 New Facts About Facebook'
Variety 'Fox News Dominates Cable'
Marketing Charts 'Are Young People Watching Less TV?'
Kids Count Data
By The Numbers '150 Amazing Twitter Facts'
Atulya K Bingham
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