Lo, The Terminus

“Oooh! For Christ’s sake let me alone!” cried the wounded man, but still he was lifted and laid on the stretcher.

Nicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in the mist of their summits… There was peace and happiness… “I should wish for nothing else, nothing, if only I were there,” thought Rostov. “In myself alone and in that sunshine there is so much happiness; but here… groans, suffering, fear, and this uncertainty and hurry… There—they are shouting again, and again are all running back somewhere, and I shall run with them, and it, death, is here above me and around… Another instant and I shall never again see the sun, this water, that gorge!…”

At that instant the sun began to hide behind the clouds, and other stretchers came into view before Rostov. And the fear of death and of the stretchers, and love of the sun and of life, all merged into one feeling of sickening agitation.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book II, Chapter VIII


Navigating the terminus of the hollow, melted-out Sphinx Glacier.

The old man, chained, by time, to his wheelchair, looks up at me with eyes wide. Medical paraphernalia exudes from everywhere all over him. On his wrist, there is a coloured band with a name and a number and a barcode – the international accessory of the admitted infirm.

“Are you going to be around here for awhile?” he asks with open palms. Fingers spread, hands pointing up – like a supplicant.

I come to a halt in front of him, keys jangling at my waist, short-wave radio clasped to my belt. In the evenings I work security at the hospital, doing my two-hourly rounds through palliative care. Checking the locks on doors, alarm systems, fire panels. That kind of thing.
“Jack was a logger” according to the life synopsis that the nurses have sticky-taped to the wall next to the door to his room.
He left his native Ontario at age 15 and worked his way across the country on the trans-Canada railroad. A stint in the boiler rooms of the coal-powered ships crossing the Pacific followed; then time in Papua New Guinea hunting “alligators” [sic]. Later, he would “serve as a mercenary” and then, returning to Canada, with the RCMP as a Mountie above the Arctic Circle. Then, he settled down, in the fjords of British Columbia, with his wife and three children. This is the bio of a man who has lived a very full life – an adventurous life. Jack was a “fun hog” in the sense that Chouinard and Tompkins might have used the term.
“Are you going to be around here for awhile?” he asks me again.
I nod, and point to the “Security” embellishment on my uniform. “I’m always around,” I say.
He doesn’t hear me. Jack is mostly deaf and the deafness does not help with the dementia. He beckons me toward him, asking me to repeat myself – and, leaning in, progressively closer, I eventually give up.
I hold up two fingers. Jack can still see. He gets it. Kind of. “You’re here for two hours?”
I nod. Close enough.
“But I need someone to watch out for me,” he says. “Can’t you stay awhile and watch out for me?”
I nod. “I’m here for you Jack,” I say. He doesn’t hear me.
“I need someone to watch out for me,” he repeats.
A nurse at the nursing station, seeing me detained part-way through my patrol, intervenes. “Come on now Jack,” she says, and she approaches, inserts herself into Jack’s surrounding and then smiles at me as if to say, “it’s OK, I’ve got this now. You’re right to go on.”
I look back at the bio sheet on the door again, reading more about Jack’s life. Here, the choice of tense in the wording stands out. Jack “was a logger”; “he enjoyed fishing”; “he took to deep-sea sailing on the West Coast”. Here is a life history written in the past tense – the same tense we employ for the life histories of Norgay, Napoleon, Nietzsche – as though the man were already dead.
A nurse reports that one of the maintenance guys has left the door to the outside workshop open. It’s my job to go and lock it. Access control. I step out a fire escape. The evening is clear and cold in Squamish. No winter rains today. Just the chill as the last of the day’s light disappears behind the Tantalus Range. I look east towards the Garibaldi range. In the distance, the Crosscut Ridge of Mt Isosceles is seen through the valley-gap between Crumpit Woods and the lower flanks of the Chief, silhouetted in the light of a rising moon. In its current state, caked in ice and snow, the Crosscut Ridge is very much in winter condition. Last summer, we’d tried to get in there to climb it, only to be shut down by weather and distance and ability. Late season conditions. Melting glaciers reaching the end of their lifespans.
crosscut ridge

The saw-toothed Crosscut Ridge, “the obscure object of our desire”, centre-right.

I was preparing for another shot at it in the early spring, hoping to use skis to cut the approach time by traversing the ice floes on Garibaldi Lake. This time before the summer sun had melted everything out and before the glacier became a labyrinth again.
I return inside and patrol through the “Intermediate Secured Unit” – where they put the high-risk patients – and then, with my rounds complete, I step out into the main hallway again. Someone else, Jim, an old miner, is complaining that another resident entered his room and stole all his stuff. He seems upset. Upset people can become aggressive and Jim has a history of aggression. For the most part, I ignore him. I let the nurses know about his problem and tell them to raise me on the radio if they need me.
I walk away. I don’t much want to grow old, I think to myself, although I know that one day I will have to. I don’t want to die either but I know that this is not an option available to me.
In pre-modern Japanese society, the base of Mount Fuji was said to be a site for a practice called ‘ubasute‘ – whereby the elderly and the infirm were left before the mountain’s bosom to die. Similar things have been said of pre-colonial Inuit society where “old Eskimos were set adrift on ice floes” – farewelled into Nature’s arms. The historicity of these past practices is the subject of intense debate. They may indeed just be myths. But the fact that rumours of these other-worldly practices have persisted (even if solely amongst foreigners gossiping about the Other), reminds us that the problem of how Man should spend his last days is a problem we have not yet solved as a species. We are uneasy about and perhaps not yet satisfied with the systems we have designed for dying. How can we be?
I walk on through the corridors, passing by the infirm in their beds – respirators on, holding on, clinging on. Televisions play in all the rooms. Just another half hour of television. Hold on just a little bit longer. I feel very happy for my beloved grandfather (just passed in December) that he did not spend long in permanent care before he died. He escaped that fate – the fate of a man dying while surrounded by others who are also dying. Quick and painlessly, he went.
The next day, the rains return but then it clears for a while around midday. I can see my objective again – the Crosscut Ridge. I imagine myself on top of the highest gendarme – picking my way along its plated back. I am looking across my domain – my mountains – and I am wondering what it will feel like to die. I am wondering what it must have been like for Ari, when he fell from Mount Aspiring. What were those seconds like? Those final seconds of falling, before impact on the Bonar Glacier? Surely, there must have been fear. Anxiety. But still, I have to believe, I must believe that he was at peace with himself – that he’d accepted it, and in accepting it, experienced a sensation of something akin to bliss.
Yes, I think to myself, gazing across at Garibaldi and Phyllis’ Engine and the Sphinx – mountains named for beings past, both real and fictive, with their own life histories attached. Death is a problem.
A host of dark questions gnaw at me. How do I stay alive in these mountains? How do I keep living without growing old? How do I face the inevitable without becoming a nihilist? How much more of this beauty can I enjoy before I am too old to keep seeking it out? And will I be able to find enjoyment, find beauty in other things, when I am too old and too weak and I’ve lost my mobility?
A few days later, I clock on again at the hospital and continue on my rounds through the residential home. Jack, in his wheelchair, is in the hallway again. He looks docile now. The feintest hint of a smile crosses his lips. Like the dying Count Bezukhov, the father of Pierre, the protagonist of War and Peace:
“While the count was being turned over, one of his arms fell back helplessly and he made a fruitless effort to pull it forward. Whether he noticed the look of terror with which Pierre regarded that lifeless arm, or whether some other thought flitted across his dying brain, at any rate he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s terror-stricken face, and again at the arm, and on his face a feeble, piteous smile appeared, quite out of keeping with his features, that seemed to deride his own helplessness.”
Jack, half-smiling still, is wheeled back into his room by a carer, embracing the infinite jest of it all. And me, the mountaineer just down from my mountains, the summiteer but after the fact, the security guard on my lonely night patrol – I am left, alone, in the hallway. Alone with another pithy quote. Nietzsche. The so-called nihilist, again.
One should part from life as Odysseus parted from Nausicaa,” Nietzsche wrote. “Blessing it, rather than in love with it.”
I poke my head around the corner and see Jack being helped out of the wheelchair and into his bed. He moves, at a glacial pace – the sound of the crepitus in his bones like the crack and grind of crevasses in the fracture zone. The whole mass is moving downstream to its end. Here, at his terminus, Jack is ready to go. Ready to transition from one world into the next.

Why I Chose To Commemorate Australia Day This Year

As the date marking the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove passes us by, we have all paid heed to the now-annual calls for Australia Day to be struck down in our national calendar. Yes, this year, like every year, we have heard how the date treasured by lovers of barbecues, beer and Triple J is not “Australia Day” but “Invasion Day” – a date which, rather than commemorating some abiding sense of Australianness instead grotesquely celebrates the beginning of White Man’s colonization of the Great Southern Land.

“January 26, 1788 marked the beginning of a cultural genocide which systematically dispossessed the indigenous peoples of Terra Australis of their land, history and future,” follows this line of reasoning. Therefore, proponents of this position claim, it is a national disgrace to be celebrating Australia Day on that date.

This year among the “Down With Australia Day” pronouncements, a popular video produced by Buzzfeed has been doing the rounds on social media. Labelled “an aboriginal response to ‘Australia Day’”, the video documents the responses of several indigenous speakers who discuss what Australia day means to them. Celebrating Australia Day, according to several of these indigenous speakers, is “insensitive”; a commemoration of an “invasion”; a day which is “really really sad” for the suffering sewed by British colonists after their arrival.

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“Don’t you mean ‘Invasion Day’?”

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“Invasion Day… It’s insensitive to say the least”

In principle, there’s merit to some of the arguments advanced in the video. Perhaps a date like Federation Day – that is January 1 – would be a more appropriate date to celebrate Australia Day. For the most part though, the entire production only reproduces viral memetic untruths which add little to serious discussions about “real” issues in aboriginal Australia, like continuing disadvantage in remote-living communities.

It’s a shame, because by regurgitating spoon-fed fallacies about the history and culture of aboriginal Australia – most of which hold no weight anthropologically or historically – it leaves the viewer less informed and the whole debate in a state where only the most reactionary voices are likely to be heard.

The many fallacies orbiting this debate are perhaps best outlined in the form of a listicle. I say this half-ironically, of course, because Buzzfeed-type depth of analysis is at the core of the problem. So. Now. A dissection of some random piece of click-bait I watched on social media – for better or for worse.

  1. Sweeping Generalisations about Indigenous Australia

What is perhaps most remarkable about this video is the sweeping generalisations and falsehoods many of its speakers make about Aboriginal Australia. This is even more remarkable because the speakers self-describe as indigenous Australians.

“Oldest Surviving Culture”

The first and most obvious fallacy is one speaker’s assertion that Invasion Day marks the survival of the oldest culture on earth. Anyone who has browsed through a tourist brochure selling bite-sized aboriginal cultural experiences is probably accustomed to the “oldest surviving culture” claim.

While aboriginal peoples have inhabited Australia for a long long time, even the most cursory examination of what a “culture” actually is would show us how utterly ridiculous it is to use superlatives like “oldest” or “most survival-ey”.

Anthropology tells us that “culture”, a term which describes the prevailing set of discourses and practices within a given human society, is not static. Rather, “culture” is a continuously evolving set of norms in a state of constant flux – a vehicle in-motion not a petrified fossil. Since culture is ever-changing, ever-transforming, resembling something one day and something else the next, to talk about “aboriginal culture” as possessing attributes like “age” or “survivability” is utterly meaningless. In many ways, it is no more valuable to talk about Aboriginal culture as being “the world’s oldest surviving culture” than it is to talk about the mace carried by the Serjeant-at-Arms of the Australian Parliament as being “a cultural relic of the bludgeoning instruments used by early hominids in the East African Cradle of Humankind”.

Yes, transmissable knowledge (like storytelling and native land management practices) and some aspects of material culture have survived milennia in many parts of Aboriginal Australia. And certainly, where a presiding Aboriginal sense of “being” is concerned, the connection with the past remains important, even if the ontological significance of that connection becomes more abstract as the yawning gap between the Dreaming and the Now grows wider.

Nevertheless, the point remains that Aboriginal culture today is so utterly different to what it was in 1788 (remember, the destruction of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australia is the reason why Invasion Day is so controversial in the first place) that attributing an age value to any currently-practiced customs and traditions makes little to no sense.

For sure, perhaps the greatest irony in this video is the fact that the speakers discussing their “oldest surviving cultures” are wearing European-style business attire and Chinese-made German-branded Adidas T-Shirts, speaking English and talking into Japanese-made video cameras.

Beyond the anthropological falsehoods which the claims of “oldest culture” represent, there is an obvious cognitive dissonance when people speak about “cultural genocide” and “oldest surviving cultures” in the same sentence. Which is it? Were the first Australian cultures wiped out or did they survive? Granted, it’s not necessarily a binary question – but it’s nevertheless a valid rhetorical point.

Personally, I think that the dispossession of aboriginal people in Australia constituted a cultural genocide (see, for example, the destruction of the aboriginal population of Tasmania), a historical reality that would seem to fly in the face of the antithetical assertion that pre-colonial aboriginal culture has “survived” into the present.

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“[Australia Day] pisses me off”

“They were a peaceful people”/”We are an inclusive people”

According to the young boy interviewed in the video (who, it should be noted, is clearly below the age of informed consent as an interviewee), the arrival of the First Fleet was a day when Europeans came and slaughtered “a peaceful people”.

Apart from the historical fallacy that the First Fleeters simply rocked up and started slaughtering people on the very day they arrived (more on this later), there is a more pernicious untruth to the claim that the indigenous inhabitants of Australia were any more “peaceful” than any other people who have ever lived.

Similarly, “inclusiveness” is described as a unique quality for aboriginal Australians. While most of the aboriginal informants I have come across during ethnographic research in Cape York could be described as both “inclusive” and “peaceful” (for the most part, at least)  to claim that either of these adjectives are abiding cultural traits is to make a sweeping generalisation without the backing of the empirical record – an over-simplification which borders on stereotype.

Certainly, in pre-colonial Kuuk Thaayorre society, clan rivalries saw the Thaayorre come into almost constant violent contact with members of the Kuuk Yaak language group (“snake speakers”) – a historical enmity which manifested in the eradication of the Kuuk Yaak as a cultural unit.

No one in the modern Cape York community of Pormpuraaw self-identifies as “Kuuk Yaak” anymore – one is either “Wik-Mungkan” (a language group with strong ties to the township of Aurukun to the north) or Thaayorre. The Kuuk Yaak were literally wiped out. This seems neither “inclusive” nor “peaceful” to me.


My good friend Peret Arkwookerum (nicknamed “Wookie” meaning “flying fox” – also one of his totems – half Wik-Mungkan, half Kuuk Thaayorre, catching a black bream on his first cast at a sacred site near Pormpuraaw

We know of course, that the interviewees are trying to argue that the pre-colonial Eora of Sydney were comparatively peaceful and inclusive – at least in comparison to the world-destroying British. But even in the case of the Eora of Sydney, there is little evidence to suggest that they were any less war-like than any other human group that has ever existed.

Incidents of spearing were common occurrences among the natives of pre-colonial Sydney. Disputes were often settled by violence. Under Pemulwuy, a group of aboriginal insurgents gathered to resist (perhaps rightfully so) the settlers occupying their lands. Around the Eora campfires of Sydney Cove, discussions about immigration and the unwanted arrival of the “boat people” were vociferous and heated. Pemulwuy himself was rumoured to have been blinded in one eye in a violent incident with an enemy from another tribe.

Indeed, with all the violence and exclusivity observed throughout the history of Aboriginal Australia it is fair to say that perhaps one of the most remarkable features about Aboriginal people, historically and into the present, is how remarkably like the rest of us they are. Aboriginal people were and are people – and like all societies, pre-colonial Aboriginal society had its racism and its bloodshed, its in-group/out-group-isms and its conflict.

Peace and not conflict is the exception to the rule throughout most of human history. It was no different in the Australia that existed before the arrival of Europeans. To imagine pre-colonial Aboriginal society as having embodied some kind of Utopian dream-state is to cling to the long-since discredited Rousseausian myths of Early Man and to deny almost everything we know about the evolution of human history. We may as well start waxing lyrical about “noble savages”.


Bennelong, an Eora collaborator described by Watkin Tench as “a second Omai”, the textbook “noble savage”.


Pemulwuy. Aboriginal Australia’s most successful guerrilla leader.


2. Excessive Use of the First Person Plural (“We”, “Our”)

One of the common traps we often fall into when talking about the historical lives of our ancestors is what I would like to call “the excessive use of the first person plural”. When one considers historical persons who lived centuries ago as part of the extended genealogical network which we call “our family” it is easy to start using terms like “we” and “our” in discussions about events that took place during their lifetimes.

Even if we ourselves weren’t there to witness or take part in what happened to these historical family members, the pain experienced by them can be experienced inter-generationally. But it’s also important to remember that the pain experienced by other long-dead organisms is only painful to us if we choose make it so.

Now, I’m not going to claim that there is no validity to the idea of “inherited grievance” or “intergenerational trauma” – the idea that physical manifestations of hurt can be experienced over and over again by descendants of the initially aggrieved. (New research in the domain of epigenetics is shedding interesting light on this.) Nor am I going to deny that oppression and structural violence experienced by members of the same social group can be felt, in real terms, for generations (and still continues to be felt by aboriginal peoples today). Ancestry is a complex issue which is heavily tied to peoples’ conceptions of their own identity.

But my main problem with somebody claiming that January 26, 1788 was “that day that we lost all that we had” stems from the fact that although one might have had relatives who were there and suffered at the hands of the Sydney Cove colonials, you yourself weren’t actually there. That hurt, though it might continue to resonate in the present, was transmitted and not experienced directly.

In a similar vein, some years ago, while munching on a shawarma in a Jerusalem hole-in-the-wall eatery, I listened to an Israeli man prattle on about “how we [the Israelites] suffered at the hands of the Philistines (the pre-modern Palestinians)” – how “they took our land [et cetera, et cetera].” This was why, apparently, “his people” were perfectly justified in wresting the Holy Land back from the Palestinians “all the way to the banks of the River Jordan”.

Naturally, being in Israel and surrounded by heavily armed IDF soldiers doing the rounds through the Old City, my reaction was to smile and nod. Inwardly however, I couldn’t help but think: “Really? Did the suffering at the hands of the Philistines actually happen to youYou personally?”


In the presence of overwhelming firepower one is inclined to agree with whatever one is told. In the Old City of Jerusalem, some years ago.

There’s no easy answer to this question. It’s not binary – it’s complicated. But from this anecdote, it’s easy to also identify a few of the major problems created reaching by back to form connections with events in the past: 1.) it is harmful for reconciliation and perpetuates cycles of violence (as we see in the “who stole whose land” debates in the Holy Land or, say, Yugoslavia) and 2.) it becomes easy to fall into an ancestral phantasm whereby you confuse something that happened to a historical person (who you never actually met) with something that happened to you, yourself.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that the subjugation of the Eora peoples in New South Wales in 1788 is something that has no relevance for a Guugu Yimidhirr person in Far North Queensland in the present.

Events like the arrival of the First Fleet are great examples of the butterfly effect – continuing as 1788 does to generate sociological hurricanes across the continent. A small flap of the wings like the landing at Sydney Cove was the chronological initiate of a centuries-long genocide. History, in this sense, is veritably macrolepidopteran.

Equally, I’m not suggesting that today’s aboriginal Australians should collectively “get over” the dispossession of their ancestors from their native lands nor am I suggesting that it is wrong to draw parallels between the historical suffering of Australia’s first inhabitants and the ongoing structural violence directed against aboriginal peoples.

It certainly would be insensitive to tell anyone to “get over” a cultural genocide and it would be factually incorrect to claim that the use of the first person plural in the context of one’s ancestors never holds any weight.

That said, what I am really railing against here is the excessive use of terms like “we” and “our” when talking about past persons and historical events. I have genetic links to the starving Irish who were loaded onto ships and sent to a penal colony in the Southern Hemisphere. And yet I did not feel their hunger – I am not those same Irish. I have a close ancestral link to Lt Jack Walsh, the first Queensland officer to take a bullet to the head at the landing of ANZAC, but I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what taking a bullet to the head actually feels like.

The past continues to be felt and heard. But only through echoes and through the structures it has left behind.

On the same note, and unlike others who have previously served in the Australian Army, I claim no real inheritance to the “glory of ANZAC”, whatever that is. I wasn’t there, so that particular battle honour should really have no bearing in the formation and worth of my identity.

Similarly, while it is perfectly valid for me to claim that my ancestor the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy McGregor was “one of us” (“us” being “Clan Cattanach”: “touch not the cat, bot the glove”), it would be excessive to claim that everything McGregor lost and experienced at the hands of the English was not also physically lost and experienced by me as his ancestor.

To claim Rob Roy McGregor’s suffering as my direct own would not be dissimilar to claiming his achievements as my own, in a way which conjures up today’s “ugly American” laying claim to “the liberation of France from the Nazi”. As if it were one of his own personal achievements (see comedian Doug Stanhope tear this sentiment apart).

3. The Date Itself

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Perhaps the most eloquent speaker in the video is the bloke in the red and blue shirt. His understanding of Australia Day, as he describes it, is like “if a guy comes into your house, does horrible things to your family, and says ‘we’re gonna have a party and have a barbie and listen to Triple J on the date we turned up’.”

If read solely as a celebration of “the day White Man turned up” (a date which symbolically represents the beginning of a cultural genocide), it’s true that Australia Day might fairly be interpreted as a bit “sadistic”.

And again, I agree that there is some merit to the idea of picking a different date to celebrate Australia Day. Perhaps a more neutral date like the date of Federation in 1901 would be more appropriate – given that it doesn’t carry the same historical and emotional baggage as the arrival of the First Fleet.

But to play devil’s advocate, if we as Australians have a responsibility to “never forget” what happened to Aboriginal Australians under colonial rule then doesn’t it make sense to commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet in much the same way that “never again” commemorations have memorialised the tragedy of genocide in Rwanda or South Africa?

Isn’t it a good thing that counter-cultural “Invasion Day” is dredged up every year simply because of the date on which Australia Day falls? Wouldn’t all the awareness-raising efforts about the atrocities in Australian history fade into obscurity if the PM just went and changed our national day to the whatever-th of July?

Similarly, if one is being faithful to the historical record, one should also acknowledge that January 26, 1788 most certainly was not the bloodiest chapter in the history of European colonialism in Australia. There were no slaughters or massacres carried out on the day of the Sydney Cove landing.

Arthur Phillip didn’t simply arrive and begin slaughtering (though his miscreant gamekeeper would later develop a horrible proclivity for that).

According to my reading, the actual “invasion” – the very first boat landing – was actually a few days before January 26 anyway – the 26th was merely the date where the colony of New South Wales was formally declared. Indeed, compared to some of the other dates in the colonial history of Australia, January 26 was a comparatively tame one.

Australia Day does not commemorate, for example, the date of the first landfall made by Europeans on Australian shores – June 1605 – when the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon, made the first contact with aboriginal Australians at Cape Keerweer – a contact which was characterised by the massacre of “savage, cruel, black barbarians” who had slain some of Janszoon’s sailors.

Neither does Australia Day celebrate travesties like the Black War in Tasmania, part of which involved the formation of an extended line by the 63rd Regiment to corral Tasmanian aborigines into a penal colony on the Tasman Peninsula.

Certainly, while the landing at Sydney Cove marked the beginning of colonization, the date of the landing itself – January 26, 1788 – was a pretty low-key, native-friendly event. Per the accounts of Watkin Tench and others, the amicable relations between aboriginals and settlers continued peacefully for at least the first year until the Governor’s game-keeper, John McKintyre, started slaughtering Eora for fun on his hunting parties, resulting in his own death at the hands of Pemulwuy.

That said, saying that it is acceptable to celebrate Aussie Day on January 26th because January 26th is not as bad a date as other dates isn’t necessarily a way to make a good moral argument, so I’m not seeking to revise the history of the First Fleet’s arrival by painting it as a harmless event in our nation’s history. It may have been the contingent event upon which modern Australia was founded but that doesn’t make it something to be overly proud of.

More than that, what I’m not calling for is an Andrew Bolt version of Australia where Aboriginal people just move on from the wrongs done to them and “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps”. Nor am I advocating for any particular position in the discussion over who gets what in modern Australia – the ins-and-outs of Native Title and post-reconciliation reparations still need some work.

What I am calling for is a little bit more intellectual honesty in the way we discuss the past. Yes, the colonisation of Australia and the dispossession of its native peoples was a travesty of genocidal proportions. But no, the First Fleet did not land at Sydney Cove and immediately begin “slaughtering” people in droves.

Yes, aboriginal Australians have inhabited Australia for a period dating back at least 50,000 years. But no, Aboriginal culture is “not the world’s oldest surviving culture” because the very idea of an oldest surviving culture is a load of anthropological horse-shit.

And anyway, what about the uncontacted Yąnomamö peoples of the Orinoco basin or the grumpy resistant-to-contact North Sentinelese who appear to have to survived the Boxing Day Tsunami? These groups continue, for the most part, to live in the isolation they created for themselves many thousands of years ago.

And finally. Yes, there are many nice aboriginal people around the traps today but to imply that every member of the hundreds of language-groups which constituted pre-colonial aboriginal Australia was uniquely “peaceful” or “inclusive” is utterly misleading – doing a great disservice to history as discipline of rigour. 

Ultimately, it’s worth emphasising that the above video was produced by Buzzfeed (under the rather stomach-churning watermark “Buzzfeed Aboriginal”), the internet’s chief purveyor of clickbait-for-profit, so perhaps it is not really worthy of serious intellectual consideration.

Indeed, we know from the outset that the video is designed to emotionally-manipulate us into sharing and spreading (not unlike war-prop videos produced by ISIS or the Lions of Rojava in Syria). And yes, sharing and spreading is something that many all over my Facebook newsfeed have certainly done… by my last count this video has 2,082,458 views.

Indubitably, the white demographic of the video-sharers is worthy of note. Conspicuously absent from the re-share meme-train are any of my aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends on Facebook – probably because they are too busy catching barramundi or counting crocodile eggs with the Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers program or doing other, more useful things… like protecting the country.


Wookie examines one of his totemic ancestors (“minh pinch” is the Kuuk Thaayorre word for “crocodile”)

As for me, while my aboriginal friends are out fishing and drinking beer on Australia Day lapping up some or other gorgeous Cape York sunset, I’m writing this from the cold depths of wintry Canada and I’ll be spending the rest of the day dreaming of barbecues, thongs, beaches and Triple J.

After that, I’ll be waiting out for ANZAC Day – sharpening my pencils for the annual debate over whether the remembrance of the landing at ANZAC constitutes a day for the mourning of dead sons or a day when Australians unite to glorify bloodshed and violence. Probably, ANZAC Day (like Australia/Invasion Day) is a little bit of both – a celebration for what we have and a remembrance of what we lost.


Sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Western Cape York community of Pormpuraaw. Reminds me very much of the Aboriginal flag.


A Few Words on Existential Threats, Syrian Refugees… and the Mongols

While Donald Trump and the various Republican fear-mongerers have been crying Lacoön about the so-called existential threat posed by Syrian refugees and outlining vague stratagems about how just a few extra bombs will solve the Middle East’s problems, I’ve been doing some learnzerizing about the Mongols.

Yeah, the Mongols. You know…. Genghis Khan and his prodigal general Subutai. And the sons and grandsons of Genghis as well – Ögedei, Batu, Hulagu and Möngke. Those Mongols. “The fearsome Mongol hordes. The infamous horse raiders from the Eastern Steppe.

I got onto this tangential Mongol reading binge after noticing some parallels between the apocalyptic horse-borne invasions of the Khans and a popular trope in jihadist eschatology which prophesises the arrival of the Mahdi (the redeemer of Islam) at the head of a great horde coming from the cold netherworlds of Khorosan (a historical region to the northeast of Ancient Persia).

The prophecy of the Mahdi has its origins in an unauthenticated transmission from hadith which says: “if you see the black banners coming from the direction of Khorosan, then go to them, even if you have to crawl over ice, because among them will be Allah’s Caliph – the Mahdi.”

Jihadists, of course, see themselves as the manifestation of these storied Riders of Khorosan and in keeping with the spoken tradition that the Mahdi’s Army will one day defeat the Anti-Christ at the gates of Jerusalem, a patchwork of jihadist cells linked to Al-Qaeda Central (the AfPak coven led by Al-Zawihiri) were reported to be operating in Syria under the moniker “Khorosan”.

Screenshots from jihadist videos dealing with the prophecy of the Mahdi and the “riders of Khorosan”


Imaginariums of all-conquering “black swan”-type hordes from the East have played an important role in the history of Islam. Apart from their role in the fantasies of modern salafist-jihadists, the prophecy of the Mahdi and his Black Banners was also invoked by the Abbasids during the revolution of 750 which overthrew the Ummayid Caliphate.

Elsewhere, and from a position which saw the inscrutable East as the dwelling-place of a great and unimaginable evil, the Qur’an contains a story where Alexander the Great is helped by God to build a wall with which to contain Gog and Magog (the tribal personification of chaos) in order to prevent them from wreaking havoc upon the world. Indeed, these apocalyptic ideas remained so strong for believers that centuries later, when the Mongols arrived to sack the Muslim and European worlds, the Khans were seen by many as the Quranic “Gog and Magog” worst-case-scenario finally realised.

A 13th century bestial representation of "Juj and Majuj" (Gog and Magog) from the Qur'an

A 13th century bestial representation of the mischievous “Juj and Majuj” (Gog and Magog) from the Qur’an

Certainly, the Mongols, as far as medieval Muslims and Europeans were concerned, were the ontological (and visceral) successors to the Huns of Rome-sacking fame – a pastoral people from the East who, having formed an almighty confederacy, had mounted an unstoppable cavalry charge to conquer the known world. To Medieval Europeans, the Mongols were like the Four Horsemen of Christian eschatalogia – destroyers of worlds. To the Muslims of the Middle East, the Mongols’ arrival served up an equal helping of doom – the end of the Golden Age of Islam.

Writing about the arrival of the “Tartars” in Muslim lands, the 13th century Arab historian Ali ibn Al-Athir began with the following: “to whom, indeed, can it be easy to write the announcement of the death-blow of Islam and the Muslims, or who is he on whom the remembrance thereof can weigh lightly? O, would that my mother had not born me or that I had died and become a forgotten thing ere this befell! … Nay, it is unlikely that mankind will see the like of this calamity, until the world comes to an end and perishes, except the final outbreak of Gog and Magog.” Even professional historians it seems, had trouble recounting the horrors of the Mongols.

Bearing witness to an approaching Mongol horde must have been terrifying. When Genghis Khan entered Nishapur, one of the first major cities he encountered on the edge of Persia, the riders under his command were said to have murdered 1.7 million people in a matter of hours. The skulls of the slaughtered were piled up in pyramids next to the city gates.

When his grandson Hulagu reached Baghdad (the centre of science and government in the medieval Islamic world), the city was sacked so thoroughly that the Tigris, which had once been described as a river running through town “like a string of pearls between two breasts” now “ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of martyrs”.

Mustasim, the Caliph of Baghdad himself, was awarded special treatment. Accounts vary between the more “conventional” tale that he was simply wrapped up in a carpet and trampled to death by Mongol horses and the more fantastic story told by Marco Polo in The Travels – that he was locked in his own treasure room without food or water and told to eat as much of his own treasure as he “wilt”.

The havoc wreaked by the Mongols set off a great deal of fear-mongering in the lands of their enemies and in many ways, when we listen to the various pundits taking over our newscasts, we can see much of the same threat rhetoric now being employed to describe the hordes of ISIS.


Mongol cavalry on the move

ISIS cavalry on the move

ISIS cavalry on the move

I should say that the threat rhetoric surrounding ISIS isn’t, in and of itself, wrong. Indeed, if we compare the “Riders of the Khan” with today’s “Riders of Khorosan”, we can observe some astonishing similarities between the Mongols and ISIS. First, there is the almost-unique proclivity for cruelty and destruction. The Khan’s gold-feeding method of execution seems like it would slot perfectly into one of ISIS’ snuff films. And though ISIS’ war on archaeology is perhaps even more intense than the cultural destruction reaped by the Mongols (the Khans were apparently quite respectful of the mosques, cathedrals and pagodas in the cities they conquered) both groups proved themselves very good at making ruins of fine things.

The second similarity however (and the most crucial similarity to this piece), is the one we see when we look at how the Mongols and ISIS were able to exploit the internal divisions of their enemies. Hulagu’s Mongols, it seems, were able to exploit existing grievances by driving a wedge between the Sunni Caliph and some of his non-Sunni subjects. In the final years of his rule, Mustasim had gained some notoriety after throwing a copy of a celebrated Shia poem into the Tigris – an unforgiveable insult to an already-livid Shia population. The Caliph’s own Shia vizier would later defect to the Mongols and prove integral in the eventual fate of Baghdad.

Likewise, in modern Iraq where a post-Saddam Shia-dominated government oversaw the widespread repression of non-in groups, ISIS was able to obtain bay’ah from the anti-Maliki Sunni tribes in Anbar, creating a tribal union which accelerated ISIS’ military advances in early 2014. Indeed, just as the Mongols took Baghdad riding on the coat-tails of internal weakness, so too ISIS has shown itself capable of riding Baghdad-ward on the backs of angry Sunni tribesmen.

Ex-Pres of Iraq Nouri Al-Maliki. A modern day stand-in for Caliph Mustasim of Baghdad? (note: "malik" means "king" in Arabic).

Ex-Pres of Iraq Nouri Al-Maliki. A modern day stand-in for Caliph Mustasim of Baghdad? (note: “malik” means “king” in Arabic).

Insofar as these problematic internal divisions can be observed in our own society, there is perhaps no clearer example of Mustasim-style division-making than some of the recent discourse concerning the moral value of Islam (and its place in our society) and the “threat” posed by the Syrian refugees waiting on our borders.

When, just days after the Paris attacks, it was revealed that one of the perps was carrying a (rightfully- or wrongfully-acquired) Syrian passport an uproar about the so-called existential threat posed by Syrian refugees  (and Muslims more generally) began in earnest. Donald Trump began talking about a religious ID card for American Muslims (with terrific responses from those same Muslims). Marco Rubio proposed refusing entry to certain refugees based on their Syrian-ness. Letting Syrian refugees into the West, these people have argued, might be akin to “letting in a Trojan Horse”.

A similar bout of refugee fear-mongering began when the Mongols arrived on the doorstep of Medieval Europe. Having conquered most of Asia, when the Mongols descended upon Hungary, they did so harassing the fall-behinds of a wave of refugees from a place called Cumania. The Cumans were a nomadic Turkic people (i.e.: they looked different and had a different God) and when a wave of about 40,000 of them were allowed to settle in the lands of King Bela IV, many of the Hungarian nobles immediately suspected the Cumans (in particular their leader Köten) of having Mongol sympathies.

A medieval mosaic depicting a Hungarian noble killing a Cuman... the two groups had some baggage

A medieval mosaic depicting a Hungarian noble killing a Cuman… the two groups had some baggage

Eventually, discord between the settled Hungarian agriculturalists and the itinerant Cuman pastoralists reached boiling point. Köten was assassinated by a group of angry nobles on suspicion of being a spy. A rabble of angrier Cumans began plundering the Hungarian countryside. Things fell apart. Unfortunately for all parties concerned however, this internal discord also happened to coincide with the eve of the main Mongol invasion – the real existential threat menacing Europe. The Hungarians were routed, utterly, at Mohi. And Hungary suffered a similar fate to that of Baghdad under Hulagu.

Bearing in mind that for the most part, we humans as a species are very bad at learning from the lessons of the past, there are some very important takeaways from the case of the Cumans in Hungary – the main one being that we should be careful about domestic fear-mongering when there are real threats overseas.

While we’re on the point of refugees, I should point out that history is replete with negative repercussions caused by sudden mass immigration. Just ask today’s Gazans what they think of the Jewish refugees who ended up on the shores of British Palestine. Multi-culturalism is not always pretty. Racism is common in ethnically-diverse communities because, as a general rule of thumb, people tend to get along better with people that look like they do and think like they do.

But though I’ve commented extensively about the need to return to a more isolationist world outlook, ultimately, there’s really only one course of action to take on the refugee issue. Let a few of them in. Because what harm can these people really do? At the very very worst, our post-Paris fears are realised and some kind of shoot-up occurs.

Indeed, as an article in Foreign Policy recently suggested, ISIS-inspired attacks “will not disappear, but they will be too few and [too] small in scope to topple a government”. A terrorist attack – hell, even a nuclear terrorist attack – is not an existential threat to our society. A nuclear bomb exploding in Sydney or New York would be a real bummer, but it wouldn’t spell the end of our society.

Indeed, the real “existential danger”, as political anthropologist David Killcullen has argued, is that “our response to terrorism could cause such measures that, in important ways, we would cease to be ourselves”.

The refugee crisis is more complex than some commentators like ex-soldier Harry Leslie Smith have painted it to be. The economic reality is that Western countries can’t open their borders to everyone from every warzone around the world. We have to be comfortable, if only for the sake of our own sanity, with the fact that we can’t eliminate the suffering of all of the world’s refugees.

But if we follow the medieval Hungarian example and begin demonising people based on who they are (Muslims) and where they come from (Syria) then all we are likely to achieve is the creation of a society with widening schisms between the different faiths and worsening tensions between the different ethnic groups. A recipe for a domestic societal crisis. And all this is likely to do is weaken us against the real existential threats – such as the Mongol-Khorosan hordes on our doorstep.


Every Man is, in fact, “an Island”


I was in the middle of the Utah desert when six co-ordinated terrorist attacks rocked the streets of Paris, expunging the life from the bodies of 129 people. In my desert world, wandering through my Kingdom of Rocks and Sand, I knew nothing of the World Outside. I had disconnected and unplugged – finding solipsism in my solitude.


The Canyonlands of Utah. No jihadists in this desert…

I emerged from the desert to news of the attacks – live updates on the BBC; terrorist profiles on Le Mondegood analysis, bad analysis and everything in between from internet news sources, everywhere. Aside from the initial shock which came with reconnecting with the horrors taking place outside my little bubble, I also couldn’t help but think that my very existence, the life I’d been living for the past three weeks – rock climbing in the Utah desert – was empty, selfish, maybe even abhorrent, given what was happening elsewhere in our burning Global-Village.

But then, when I read the news shorts about what other people were doing in the rest of the world – beheading journalists, dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, stigmatizing minorities based on their religious preferences – I realized that really, what I was doing – living a life of my own selfish choosing in a beautiful place – wasn’t so bad after all. I wasn’t hurting anybody was I?



Arches National Park. No jihadists here either…

One of my desert climbing partners, Dan, was an Infantry Recon soldier in the 10th Mountain Division. Dan had spent 27 months of his four year stint in the US Army deployed to Iraq, fighting a hopeless war in the service of a misguided political philosophy. 19 of the 300 men he deployed with never returned home. His brothers-in-arms were practically decimated.

So, craving a better life, Dan had finished his military service, and like me, had decided to withdraw from the World Outside, retreating to an island of relative isolation (Durango, Colorado) in order to pursue a lifestyle which, though perhaps more selfish than the selfless servitude of military life, would never require him to pick up a weapon and put a bullet between somebody’s eyes.


Dan in his natural habitat.

Indeed, I thought to myself, as I read over what a New York billionaire was suggesting we Westerners do to solve the problems of the Middle East, maybe our outlook going into the future ought to be a little bit more isolationist. Maybe, instead of focusing our attentions outward – by busying ourselves with projecting force and influence into places where we’re not wanted (under the guise of selfless humanitarianism or “spreading democracy”) – we ought to become a little bit more inwardly-focussed, a little bit more selfish. We need to change the way we engage with the rest of the world, I would argue.


We should have listened to this guy…

The Global-Village in which we now live affords us great opportunities for economic interdependence, expanded networks of trade, innovation through the sharing of information, and diplomatic engagement to tackle tough issues like climate change. But the Global-Village also presents a series of complex and dangerous threats to our way of life. It shortens distances between Us and Others, bringing us closer into contact with those who would do us harm. It creates electronic pathways for dangerous ideas to flood our idea-scapes, radicalizing our youth with info-bites from foreign wars.

In an era where the UN, NATO and R2P blend into practically-synonymous acronyms representing the same ideas, we have told ourselves that our liberal humanitarianism bequeaths us with a responsibility to protect the downtrodden in other parts of the world – invading and occupying countries in order to free them, destroying villages in order to save them. Our paternalistic obsession with effecting “positive change” in linguistically- and culturally-distinct parts of the world, I would argue, is doing little to secure the safety and dignity of oppressed peoples in the Third World and even less to secure our own safety.

Now, it may just be that what is needed to destroy ISIS once and for all is a good bombing campaign targeting Al-Baghdadi’s stronghold in Raqqa, but for the most part what I can take away from this foreign and domestic crisis that is all things ISIS, is that the Western world should return to a position of political isolationism.

Here we might learn from the mountain republic of Switzerland, whose greatest military humiliation (unlike our repeated humiliations in Vietnam Afghanistan and Iraq) in recent years has been the fashion choices of its soldiers in the Vatican. Or here too, we might learn from the North Sentinelese, an island-people adrift in the Andaman Sea who, rather than worrying about where ISIS is going to strike next haven’t even heard of ISIS because they live in hermetically-sealed isolation, having had almost no contact with the outside world. The Swiss and the Sentinelese share two things in common – they are largely insulated against negative developments in the World Outside (ie: they are isolated) and they profit economically from their neutrality (ie: they are selfish) – the Swiss through their banks and the Sentinelese through their safe and secure hordes of coconuts.

Therefore, I advocate, rather than continuing on a tangent of selflessness and interventionism (as has been the trend during the last twenty years), we the people of the West might profer from a new outlook of selfishness and isolationism.


This Sentinelese guy knows how to deal with intruders. Source: survival international.org

With all these case studies in mind I propose a substantive retreat from the Global-Village in order to create a hypothetical island-village on a new Island – the Island formerly known as the West. This hypothetical Island would be our Island and ours only – a new polity whose primary political ideals are isolationism and selfishness.

Social harmony is created and sustained on the Island by agreeing on a series of basic principles on which everybody can and must agree if they are to live on the Island. These principles should not be religious or cultural, since there are already many different religions and cultures which make up our Island’s demography. Naturally however, since the Island in question is being created in “the West”, these basic principles should be “Western principles”. Some of these principles might include the assumption that democracy is the best way to govern the Island; or that, fundamentally, people have a series of basic liberties which enable them to lead the life of their own choosing, in the manner which they deem fit and in a way which does no harm to others. “We on the Island like freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of worship” – et cetera, et cetera.

In addition to these agreed-upon principles there are barriers which will inhibit and even prevent entry to Others who would come to the Island from the World Outside. An island, by definition, is not easily accessible to outsiders. There is an ocean which separates the Island from the World Outside. Island-dwellers, therefore, live (at risk of being seen to inappropriately quote from A Few Good Men) in a world with barriers. And these barriers are good for those who dwell on the Island.

There are naturally-occurring, geographic barriers (the oceans) which provide an immediate barricade against external aggression. And there are human barriers – sea mines and battlefield blockades and walls with soldiers on them – which provide another layer of defence in-depth. On some level, the Islanders must be prepared to defend their Island and to defend their way of life. And they should do so. When the crazies board their little jihad-boats and cross the seas to do harm to our little Island, the Islanders must stand ready to blow their boats out of the water.


The author surveilling shipping lanes on a reconnaissance patrol with one of the Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Units. Intruders not welcome.

Creating this Island is not the same as creating Utopia. Utopia is Fantasy and the Island will be Real (at least, hypothetically real anyway). The Island will still have its problems. Christian Islanders will have to get along with Muslim Islanders. Brown people will have to get along with white. For the good of the Island.

In addition to the isolation we will make for ourselves, we Islanders will be a selfish people. We will cease to concern ourselves with liberating the un-liberated. De oppresso liber be damned – I’ve got some barramundi fishing to doWe will cease dropping cluster-bombs so that others may revel in the virtues of democracy. We will be selfish.


Kill eels, not Arabs.

In retreating from the woes of what is happening beyond our Island, the West will have achieved two great successes – 1.) dodge culpability for negative developments in the World Outside (eg: the rise of ISIS in post-Saddam Iraq); and 2.) be better prepared to defend ourselves against external aggression due to the reductions in cost (both in blood and treasure) from not engaging in foreign wars.

All islands have limited real estate and fixed finite resources. This means that everybody cannot come to the Island. As any Sentinelese will probably tell you – there are only enough coconuts for so many. This unfortunate (perhaps even “inconvenient”) truth means that not everybody can come to the Island. Australia’s national anthem: “for those who come across the sea, we’ve boundless plains to share”, may need to be revised.

But here of course, we arrive at the difficult question regarding what to do about refugees who come to the Island. What do we do about those miserly  refugees from Syria?

Refugees from the World Outside will want to come to our Island. This is natural. Inevitable. Who wouldn’t want to drink coconut water and dance with our beauties on our white, sandy beaches? Should we help these asylum-seekers? And if we did wouldn’t this go against our lofty principles of Islander selfishness?

Here, I would argue, Islanders can both take in refugees and still remain true to our selfish ideals.

Firstly, altruism, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily the antithesis of selfishness. People give money to feel-good charities so they can post the pictures of their sponsor-child on Facebook and accumulate “likes” from their friends. Priests give blessings to the elderly so they can get into Heaven. We can still do good things for our own selfish reasons. And we should. Because it helps everybody and hurts no one. And this is one of the Island’s chief principles.

In addition to this, there are other benefits to accepting a few people from the outside. Accepting some outsiders onto the Island will prevent us from suffering the ills of what anthropologists call “endogamy” – marrying within (and only within) the tribe. A society without immigrants just like a gene pool without new genes, will stagnate. Societies need new ideas, new inventions and new foods if they are to survive – Japanese robotics, Ethiopian intuitive road safety, Middle Eastern cuisine – the Island will benefit from all these fresh and new things. And we will need migrants to bring all these ideas, inventions and new foods to our doorstep.

So yes, inhabitants of the Island should accept refugees provided that these refugees can agree to abide by the principles of Island living. Let those who would do harm to our Island, leave the Island and let us still vet everybody who would come to the Island… For the good of the Island.

Thus, we arrive at the chief point of this piece. Retreating politically from developments in the World Outside is not the same as not having a foreign policy. Just as the Swiss gladly take foreign rich people’s money and the North Sentinelese stripped an Indian anthropologist naked and took his glasses, we can still have a give-and-take relationship with the World Outside – but we can do so from the isolation of our Island.

Perhaps the most pleasant consequence of dispensing with our old “selflessness” in favour of selfish isolationism will be the end of the liberal interventionism for which the current crisis in Iraq and the ISIS-pocalypse in Syria can partly be traced.

John Bolton may be right that a new state for Arab Sunnis is exactly what the Middle-East needs (although his designation of “Sunni-Stan” proves that he can’t differentiate between the languages of Central Asia and the Arabic-speaking Middle East), but it is not for us to say.

Others (including myself), have perhaps made similar blunders in their policy suggestions – confusing things which are happening overseas with things which might effect us. In a recent Washington Post article, Liz Sly has made a valiant effort to determine whether or not “it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East?” The answer is of course “yes” it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East. That place went down the toilet a long time ago. Ultimately however, Sly’s question is the wrong one to ask. The real question is: “should the West try to solve the problems of the Middle East?” or “was the West ever capable of solving the problems of the Middle East in the first place?” The answers to both of these questions is “no”. Since we can’t do anything for the Middle East I would argue that we shouldn’t bother trying in future. Thus, the Island.

It may indeed be that ISIS has become too big to ignore. Intensified military action may be required to destroy, finally, the little jihad-island ISIS has created for itself in Raqqa. We might need to drone Baghdadi’s death cult into oblivion before retreating into our little shell. You can call it pre-emptive isolationism. But after this war is over, after ISIS is defeated – it may be an Island mentality which will prevent us from inadvertently creating another ISIS – the ISIS of the future.


Russian tanks line the beaches of Soqotra – an isolated island adrift in the ocean between Yemen and Somalia


The island of Soqotra is home to an Arabic-speaking Bedouin people, hundreds of endemic species and a peace which is endemic in the region.


Academic Nastiness: Is This The Worst “Academic” Blog on the Internet?

For some years now, I’ve been rather partial to reading the rantings and ravings of a blog called “Zero Anthropology“. I won’t deny that this has been something of a guilty pleasure of mine – dipping into the erratic online biblios of lefty anthropology. Sometimes I worry if I read Zero Anthropology too much and if the NSA is going to get wrong idea about me and come after me (lol). Similar thoughts sometimes enter my mind when my research inquiries into the global phenom that is militant jihadism sees me sifting through the online articles in Al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine or ISIS’ Dabiq rag.

Lately however, I decided that despite this secret guilty pleasure, it’s time the anthropological blogosphere actually did something to contest some of the rubbish which gets posted on this website. Our discipline is full of measured, critical thinkers, I want to show the outside world – we are more than just a cult of left-over Marxists dancing around a cauldron in the woods, fuelling the cauldron’s fire with our own self-importance.

But what is Zero Anthropology all about? And why do I really care?

Zero Anthropology is about as high-profile as anthropology blogs get (which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, isn’t really that high profile anyway). It has a blog archive numbering in the hundreds of posts and a Twitter following numbering in the thousands (thousands of Twits?)… it’s pretty popular.

It’s run by a guy named Maximilian Forte – who, though his name suggests that he is a trench-coat wearing character from The Matrix come to liberate our minds from machine-enslavement – is a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in my Canadian hometown of Montreal. His Wikipedia page looks suspiciously like he or one of his grad students wrote it but at various points in his life, it seems, he has taught Anthropology 101 at Concordia and published various works on the topics of militarism, US foreign policy, imperialism and anti-imperialism (or “struggles for human dignity in the face of empire” as he puts it). In and amongst this, one learns after reading his bio pages, Max Forte has also “achieved Permanent Resident status in Trinidad and Tobago” – a most inspiring achievement indeed (no really, kicking it back in the Caribbean sounds idyllic).

Forte’s side-kick in his blogging venture is the disgraced but since-resurrected Jamil M Hanifi, an admittedly highly-knowledgable Afghan-American anthropologist whose long and expansive academic career has shone light on Afghanistan in a refreshing post-Orientalist (he often writes from an emic perspective) kinda way. Lately it seems, Hanifi has taken to the inter-webs in cahoots with Forte to rage against the horrors of US imperialism – especially as it applies to Syraqilibyafpakistan.

All of the above is fine/unremarkable/not really problematic in and of itself. You can click on the various articles, get your fill of anti-Americanism and then carry on wasting more time elsewhere on the internet. But more and more as I come back to this blog (and here, I admit, I am solely to blame), it all starts to become a little too much.

OK, Max and Jamil. I get it. You don’t like “empire”. OK, Max and Jamil. I get it. You don’t like the US. OK, Max and Jamil you don’t like “puppets”, “collaborators” and anthropologists whose research sees them engaged in “scientific imperialism”.

And here again, I should add that I have no problem with any of the above. I love a good rant against America as much as the next Canadian/Australian. I love cranking out the “e” word from my list of descriptors for expansionist nation-states when conversationally raging against the machine with my mates. Although in academic writing I have typically strayed away from the use of the term “imperialism” in post-colonial contexts (I see “imperialism” in much the same way as I see “terrorism” – a word that is so loaded with subjectivities that it has lost most of its utility in objective academic contexts), I can read Noam Chomsky without burning his texts in a book-burning effigy with my other mates – the evil neo-con ones.

But while the anti-empire/anti-everything blog theme is totally fine, what I really have against this blog is what I will call “academic nastiness” – that is, the use of pseudo-academic discourse to deliver personal attacks against other academics (typically other anthropologists whose findings differ from those of Forte and Hanifi) and the unique vitriol with which Zero Anthropology’s criticisms are delivered.

In essence, Hanifi and Forte’s style of academic criticism takes the form of “fisking” (named after the father of this style of rebuttal, Robert Fisk) whereby the author will selectively reprint passages from the target’s source material before embarking on a line-by-line dissection and refutation with the intent of “savaging an argument and scattering the tattered remnants to the four corners of the internet” (as the Guardian so wonderfully put it).

While technically a valid way to critique somebody’s work (since “fisking” is effectively a form of systematic review), rather than politely “reviewing” somebody’s work these two Fiskers prefer to denigrate in a way which is unusually vindictive and, put concisely, just mean.

Let me demonstrate what I mean by this, beginning with a series of posts dating back to 2010.

Over the years, one of Hanifi and Forte’s favourite targets has been the now-defunct and highly-controversial US Army Human Terrain System – a military social science program designed to put anthropologists on the ground in Afghanistan in support of brigade-level operations. The trove of literature both for and against the HTS is immense (Montgomery McFate, the founder of the program, has some early thinking on a military-anthropology marriage published here and some of the better criticisms of the program can be found here and here and pretty much everywhere).

In joining the ranks of those anthropologists who rose against HTS, Forte and Hanifi took their criticisms of the program and its participants to new lows with their vindictive attack on Ted Callahan who deployed with a Human Terrain Team to Paktika province in 2009 and whose dispatches they Fisked in a series of posts found here and here).

Their online castigation of Callahan began by labelling him a “pinecone anthropologist” (a very odd insult, I thought), ostensibly because after spending some time with the Zadran Pashtun, Callahan surmised of a solution for the recruitment of young men into the Taliban by developing a local pine-nut business. To Forte and Hanifi of course, Callahan is a “mercenary”, an “imperialist”, a despicable spy, a Manchurian post-doc candidate who has deep-seated himself inside their beloved discipline and is worthy only of professional denigration – and all this just because he once took the King’s shilling (or perhaps “McFate’s shilling” is more accurate?).

Indeed, rather than actually reading and then dispassionately critiquing what Callahan is actually saying in his dispatches, Hanifi and Forte choose simply to nitpick what can be used against him and burn him at the stake.

When reflecting on his investigations in Afghanistan for instance, Callahan self-deprecatingly remarks on the role which ego might have played in his research: “to investigate the world of the Zadran comes close to my dreams of an ideal HTS,” he writes. “I drive to remote places and do work which hopefully saves human lives. In my imagination I transform more and more into a kind of Lawrence of Arabia, and I take more risks. I venture out on trips along the ‘rat line’: Taliban supply routes. I venture out on the streets without protection by the GI’s, a stupidity which violates all rules.” (Callahan quoted in ZA 2010: 18)

If you read it a few times it does sound a little bit awkward but rather than appreciating this as an honest moment of candour however (an excellent expression of self-critical reflexivity if you ask me), Forte instead compresses this passage into a big-banner pull-quote which reads:

“In my imagination I transform more and more into a kind of Lawrence of Arabia…”

The implication of course is that Callahan is an egotist, a fantasist, just another neo-imperialist (and blah-blah whatever else) who is not worthy of our time and not worthy of our consideration as a professional in the field of anthropology. An attack on the character, not the content produced by that character.

In a follow-up post by Hanifi, the personal attacks against Callahan are more severe. Callahan is “pretentious” and “lethal” – a “savage killing machine” whose diary is little more than the “confused imaginings of a young American adventurer” (Hanifi 2010).

At times some of Hanifi’s criticisms do seem reasonable. Hanifi is Afghan-born and his linguistic and cultural proficiency is clear when he offers the following in his critique:

“With his Dari competence Callahan could have interacted without an interpreter with the local Zadran and Kuchi population. Why then the presence of Rex, the interpreter? Here is a stark collision between Callahan’s claimed linguistic competence and local cultural and linguistic reality. Callahan writes: “As soon as they (the Kochis) noticed that I understand, they’ll lift their hands and say: ‘Azeemat’, Well done”. But, the morpheme ‘azeemat (in Dari and Paxtu [from the Arabic root ‘azm, firm resolution, determination]) means departure, leaving, starting to leave. The accompanying body language (lifted hands) underscores this equivalent of “goodbye.” The Kuchis say goodbye, Callahan thinks he has done well! In the absence of adequate local cultural competence, especially linguistic competence, how can an ethnographer, especially an anthropological ethnographer, meaningfully and properly process the surrounding social and cultural multilayered complexity?”

It is here that Hanifi’s argument reaches its efficacious zenith. Unfortunately however, Hanifi loses it when he describes Callahan’s efforts as just part-in-parcel of an “enterprise against preindustrial Muslim Afghanistan initiated and maintained by fascist Zionists”. The crazy it seems, just cannot be contained.

Aside from the natural sympathy I feel for Callahan (as someone who has mistranslated and misunderstood many times over in the areas I have visited as a language student and as an ethnographer), perhaps what is more “pretentious” (to use Hanifi’s own lexicon) than Callahan’s claims about himself (e.g.: proficiency in Dari) is the implication that anyone who doesn’t speak the language as well as Hanifi does is automatically lacking in local cultural competence.

The entire fieldwork underpinning Frederik Barth’s “Political Leadership amongst Swat Pathans” (a foundational text in political anthropology) is invalid, Hanifi might argue, because Barth himself acknowledges in the introduction that he sometimes used a translator in the field.

The greater implication being made of course is that there is no place in anthropology for the non-native ethnographer – the one who sometimes fumbles and stumbles with the language. Indeed, Hanifi seems to be arguing, there is no place for the “etic” account at all and white men will never really get it because… well, they represent White Man.

From my own reading of his field notes, rather than coming across as a culturally-inept fool or a mindless cog in the American war machine, what is most striking about Callahan’s perspective are the concerns he has about the program’s efficacy.

He’s aware of the ethical dilemma posed by working under a military chain-of-command:

“Most scientists think it’s objectionable to go to war. The American Anthropological Association condemned the program: Can people get killed with the knowledge provided by social scientists? Does a respectable science risk degenerating into espionage? Who determines that the Afghans speak freely to the scientists and are not forced? Can one conquer hostile people? Even I asked myself the same questions.” (Callahan quoted in ZA, 2010: 8)

Callahan is aware of the cultural divide between himself and his Pashtun informants (and the problems that poses for his dataset) which comes with living and working inside an FOB:

“The area in which I will live is a gigantic transit region for fighters of the holy war. The Afghans name it “Yagistan” – “Country of the Unruly”. In FOB Salerno one does not notice that aside from the occasional rocket attack. Here are fitness studios, fast food restaurants, massage parlours. Every meal we have comes with ten choices: four sorts ice cream, three sorts of pie: cherry, apple, pecan. Everything is flown in, nothing’s recycled. We use 30,000 plastic bottles of water daily. Once per week, there is lobster, shrimp, crab. An army of Indians, Nepalese, Kyrgyzstan nationals and Afghans look after our comfort.” (Callahan quoted in ZA, 2010: 10)

Callahan sees the program’s functional shortcomings and is not afraid to talk about them.

“… The army does not always hire the most qualified people for the HTS. I also believe that ethnographers should do research alone and not in a team.” (Callahan quoted in ZA, 2010: 10)

“Ethnography is a chaotic discipline, more art than science. It’s important to ask the right questions at the right time. The problem is that the Army expects concrete investigative leads… I start with friendly chit-chat [but] the soldier that’s assigned to protect me interrupts and requests that I get to the point. So, the murdered girls? The men claim no knowledge about that. The Taliban? They never saw any. I don’t get any further with that, so I asked about their daily lives, about trade and camels… The soldier looks bugged, carefully I try to redirect the conversation to my original questions.” (Callahan quoted in ZA, 2010: 11)

Indeed, what is most illuminating when reading “Ted the Tongue’s diary” is that he is able to appreciate the fundamental incompatibility between ethnographic research and brigade-level operations:

“The [Kuchis’] message is clear, “if you don’t help us, we take side with the Taliban.” The logic of the rebellion is of compelling clarity: no ideology plays a role, no religion. Only the conflict around resources and the desire for safety and progress… I would like to get back to [the] Kuchi to get to know more, however, the rules are that several soldiers are needed for patrol. And to run the 100 meters to the village is considered a “patrol.”… The result: 69 hours on our way, an eight-hour interview with the Kuchi, and of that maybe four hours of useful information about the reasons for the outbreak of violence in the area. This first mission taught me the most important military rule: time is not at one’s disposal. With such restrictions I will hardly succeed in diving into a foreign way of life. Patient research is regarded as the greatest ethnographic virtue–it doesn’t play a role in HTS.” (Callahan quoted in ZA: 2010: 12)

With Callahan’s own views in mind, it’s worth voicing my own opinion that many of the criticisms levelled against HTS and its surrogates were/are sound. Speaking as someone who has served (without distinction) in a Western military, I believe that the HTS concept was probably always destined to fail and the idea of incorporating anthropologists into a military-intelligence cycle was probably an idea that was best left un-thought. There are many unanswered ethical issues associated with doing anthropological fieldwork in the context of a war but there are obvious ethical issues with doing anthropological fieldwork as a part of a military unit’s on-the-ground capability. The function of military forces is to kill the enemy. The function of the anthropologist is to collect information about people and to translate this information cross-culturally (taking care to protect one’s informants). It doesn’t take a genius to see the ethical conflict here.

Even if one is happy to put the ethical questions aside, one wonders, given Callahan’s observations, how useful the HTS was anyway. What was the point in marrying social science with the US army, other than Montgomery McFate’s desire to be a force for cultural change inside the military?

The ethnographic dataset was compromised by Callahan’s inability to work independently. The locals thought he was a Special Forces soldier. The soldiers thought he was in the CIA. No one really trusted him because they didn’t really get him. It’s clear to Callahan, and it’s immediately clear to anyone, that collecting any useful ethnographic information was going to be an uphill battle so long as the ethnographer was working directly with the military, in a uniform, kicking around with a military patrol.

But regardless of how flawed the Human Terrain System was in the first place, Forte and Hanifi’s method of criticism is the problem being raised in this post. The point is that by using what effectively amounts to an ad hominem attack on Callahan the man, any useful commentary which these so-called intellectuals could have added to the HTS debate immediately falls by the wayside.

As a response to Hanifi and Forte’s fisking, one commenter – a colleague of Callahan’s at Boston University – wrote:

“[Callahan] is both a rigorous academic and an astute fieldworker. This slanderous post amounts to little more than a personal attack and is an awful welcoming to an aspiring PhD candidate to our discipline. Without seeing his dissertation, how are we to judge his academic and cultural competence in a fair and sound manner?

Far from considering himself to be a detective or special forces operative, my impression of Ted is that of a humble character genuinely interested in making a difference.”

Given all of the above, Callahan seems like he’s probably a good guy. Forte justifies his attacks on him because “the issues we are debating go well beyond any one person’s bruised little ego”. I beg to differ and would argue that even if you’re right about something – if you’re an asshole about it, you’re still an asshole.

Callahan is now working in an anthropology/behavioural science role for RAND directly supporting SOJTF efforts in Afghanistan… So I suppose he remains on Zero Anthropology’s “Top Ten Most Wanted Agents of Imperialism”.


A Stroll through Squamish (#MyMeru)

One must imagine Sisyphus happy – Albert Camus

Everest climbing and anthropology are united to the extent that they are both pretty useless – Mike Thompson, mountaineer/anthropologist

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

Climbing (n.): “A ritualised performative act, driven by individual free will and centred around the ascent of mountains and/or rocks and rock faces, which serves no immediately apparent function other than self-validation and the Sisyphean pursuit of ‘fun’ (and/or suffering).”

That’s about as good a definition of climbing as my anthropological training can produce. Depending on who you ask, climbing might also be a ritualised example of “deep play” where the only immediate benefit to the climber is the visceral proof of his or her consciousness (this, according to Steve House who had Mishima’s “cut the apple and reveal the core” metaphor in mind here).

“It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”.  Some rotten day in wintry New Zealand a few years ago.

The key point to note here, is that yes, climbing is a meaningless pursuit (and yes, this is true even despite the best efforts of these American-Filipino auxiliaries who thought that climbing the city walls of Manila could be militarily useful). Climbing has neither function nor currency and thus resists any true anthropological explanation (at least within a structural-functionalist mode of attention). But on one fine September morning, the apparent uselessness of it all had done nothing to prevent us from wanting to play the game anyway.

Of course, climbing is not merely a single homogeneous game but a multiplicity of thematically linked games taking place in different kinds of terrain (boulders, crags, frozen waterfalls, granite big walls, snowy mountains) and using different rulebooks (boltless? O2-less? sleeping-bag-less? ropeless? trouserless?). Today, the game we had chosen to play was a game involving not just a single ascent of a single peak but rather an “enchaînement” of multiple peaks conducted according to the rules and parameters of what Lito Tejada Flores called “the super-alpine game”, albeit in a significantly more people-friendly environment than that of “the real mountains”.

The goal we had set ourselves was meaningless. The timeframe, arbitrary. We wanted to climb all of Squamish’s great rock faces in a single day. Shannon Falls, The Papoose, The Malamute, The Chief and The Squaw – all in one push, linking them together on foot. (Actually we had wanted to include the Smoke Bluffs as well but 19 hours in we got lazy). I like link-ups and traverses. Scaling granite big-walls seems like it might even be useful when you use climbing as a means of travel – as a way of getting from point A to point B… A par cours (à la David Belle and the French urban free-running crowd).

Of course, in hindsight, the funnest part of our day was scoffing fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries from Maggs 99 (the best Mexican cantina in North America) at midnight in the Apron parking lot, but we’d told ourselves at the start of the day that such an endeavour might be fun.

As more than one mountaineer has put it (and generally this comes from the kind of mountaineer who refers to himself as an “alpinist”… à les alpinistes de l’Haute-Savoie qui grimpent “léger expresse”) – it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.

So with this essay by Jon Krakauer about futility and entropy in the back of my mind and this essay by Mark Twight about drive and energy goading me on, I went climbing with my friend Andrew, even if it was all just a bit of useless fun. And we climbed all the great rock faces of Squamish over the course of a single day and afterwards, with our egos temporarily slaked, we retired to our vans.

So here’s a photo-essay of our 19 hour stroll around town.

1. Shannon Falls (Coastal Salish: “Kookx-um”)

The day began in the van. It was dark outside. 4am dark.

Ellie was still asleep so I fired up the jet-engine stove and russelled around noisily in the dark. I ate some oatmeal. Apple and cinnamon flavoured. When I opened the door and rolled out of bed, Andrew was there with his head torch (North Americans call these objects “headlamps”) on his head and his harness around his hips. We ran to the base of Shannon Falls. The running wouldn’t last.

We looked up at the route. It was soaking. Glistening wet in the light thrown out by the shipyard across the Sound. Who’d have thought that Shannon Falls was a big seep?

Shannon Falls is sacred in Native cosmology as the place where Xwechtaal, the hero-founder of the Squamish nation, slayed the two-headed creator serpent, Sinulhkay. Legend has it that in order to acquire the powers required to defeat Sinulhkay, he first had to bathe in the sacred waters of the falls. A couple of lessons to take away from that one, the most obvious being that if we were going to do our little link-up it seemed logical that we’d have to do some waterfall-bathing. The route goes at 5.7. Pretty cutting edge – more so in the wet. Skyward bound, we slip-slid and grovelled into the dark.


Andrew’s head torch was out of battery by pitch three. I pontificated about preparation. We ran back to the car to get new lithiums and jogged onto the next cliff-face.

2. The Papoose (The Baby)

We hit the base of the Papoose and started up the first pitches, ascending into a racing dawn. The early morning sky was pale and grey. The cliff was pleasantly dry.

A quality iPhone panorama, courtesy of Steve Jobs.

A quality iPhone panorama, courtesy of Steve Jobs.

Just as the five fingers of the Hand of Fatima massif are imagined by the Fulani as the five members of a man’s family, the granitic monoliths looming above Howe Sound are personified accordingly. “Papoose” means “baby”; the Malamute, the trusty dog; the Stawamus Chief, the head of the family and the “Squaw” (now known as Slhanay), his wife, sits cracked and cackling on his left side, looming over the meth-dens and trailer-parks (and rather nice, cookie-cut estates) of Valleycliffe.

The Papoose is a round batholith of glacier-polished granite – baby bum smooth. There is some quote-unquote “real” climbing on the Papoose. I climbed a crack. It was fun.

Some nice glacier polish on the Papoose

Some nice glacier polish on the Papoose

Andrew takes it to the top.

Andrew takes it to the top.

3. The Malamute (The Doggy)

We topped out, went back to sea level, ran along the highway and filled our water bottles up at the Chief carpark. Then we sauntered across the bridge and down the side of the Malamute, hungry for the next leg of our skyline stroll. We hit the railway.

Running along the base of the Malamute via the logging yard.

Running along the base of the Malamute via the logging yard.


Andrew led the first pitch on our way to the top. Lay-backing on wet rock. Mint conditions.



I got the second half of the Malamute.

I got the second half of the Malamute.

4. The Chief (“Siam Smanit”)… Big Daddy

We continued onwards and up the Chief – Big Daddy – the second biggest granite monolith in North America. Second comes right after first. Squamish legend says that the Chief was once a longhouse which, at a time of great flooding was transformed by two magical brothers into a refuge for the Squamish people. The Chief is Canada’s very own Ark. Pretty cool, really. Wondering where the Transformer Brothers had been two weeks ago when my van had been leaking like a sieve in a rainstorm, I climbed on.

The lower half of the Apron took us twenty minutes. We’d both climbed the route before. We started up the second half on a route that neither of us knew. It took us two hours. Easy slabs. Much wondering. Mostly run-out. Forgettable. We got lost a few times.


Yellow cam in a hollow flake. No more protection on the pitch. Bomb-squad.

We carried on up the Squamish Buttress. I snaked the sharp end for the crux pitch. I huffed and puffed. I sent. The Buttress was the first big route I’d done in Squamish so what better way to herald in the end of the climbing season than with a re-send of my first route up the Chief?

Top of the Squamish Buttress

Top of the Squamish Buttress

From the top of the First Peak, I gazed over the Coastal Range, spying out the jet black knife-point of the Black Tusk off in the distance. It’s a nice little peak. I’d hiked it with my girlfriend earlier in the season. The Black Tusk is known as “T’ak’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7eh” in Coastal Salish (but really, who can pronounce that?) meaning “Landing Place of the Thunderbird”. Finding itself in plum position in the heart of the Garibaldi wilderness, it remains one of the more inspiring pieces of choss I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Artful contemplation...

Artful contemplation overlooking Squamish… #MYMERU


Ellie getting to know the meaning of the word “scree” on the Black Tusk, earlier in the summer.


Another panorama from the Black Tusk

5. The Squaw (Slhanay). 

We descended from the First Peak and looped round the back toward the Squaw. We weren’t running anymore. We traced along the base of the Second and Third Peak and around the Cirque of the Uncrackables Wall.

We decided against including the Cobra Crack into our link-up

We decided against including the Cobra Crack (5.14b) into our link-up

We arrived at the col between the Chief and the Squaw just as the sun was setting behind the Tantalus Range. The view was decent.

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

The Squaw was given its name by the first Western settlers – beer-swilling types who came to town with lumber on their minds and the displacement of others in their hearts. I guess they thought that the big granitic dome next to the Chief, rather resembled a devious wench chained to her master’s left-hand side. “Bit sexist,” the council later decided, so with the McKinley/Denali debate in mind, they picked a new First Nations name – “Slhanay”… which still ended up meaning the same thing – “woman”. Regardless, everyone still calls the Squaw, the Squaw.

Anyway, the final pitches up the Squaw were horrific – and not because the climbing was hard but because our bodies were wasted. She proved to be a bitch indeed. By the end, we were cruxing out on 5.7 lay-backing. Alex Honnold eat your heart out.

Tonight there was a lunar eclipse but the red moon was shielded from view by the looming walls to which we had chained ourselves. We still had a bit to go at around 10 o’clock. I was starting to feel less like Sisyphus and more like Tityos – the Greek giant who was chained to a rock to have his liver feasted on by a pair of vultures – big-wall climbers can probably relate. Down in town, our friends were watching us from Mag’s – two little pin-pricks of light, doddling up a rock in the dark.

We topped out, cheered some, wondered why we had just done what we had done and headed back down to the road, running the last few kilometres along the Mamquam FSR to the car. Ellie was waiting there with fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries and a large Coke to wash it all down. Then I went to bed.

Happy is a climber back on flat ground after 19hours of verticality.

Happy is a climber back on flat ground after 19hours of verticality.

The next day I posted a short excerpt about our climb on social media and then I wrote this blog post about it. And as the comments flowed in, I saw that #Meru and #TheNorthFace was still trending on “InstaTweetMyFaceGram” and people were hashtagging their adventures everywhere, all the time. As per usual. Which leads me to wonder if perhaps – despite all the theories about “deep play” and “Type III fun” – if perhaps climbing does have a “function” after all.

Cultural capital” (see Pierre Bourdieu). But that’s another blog post.


Mother of the Wind

We are homo sapiens – the tool users. We earn the name by developing tools to increase our leverage on the world around us, and with this increased technological leverage comes a growing sense of power. This position of advantage which protects us from wild nature we call Civilization. Our security increases as we apply more leverage, but along with it we notice a growing isolation from the earth. We crowd into cities which shut out the rhythms of the planet – daybreak, high tide, wispy cirrus high overhead yelling storm tomorrow, moonrise, Orion going south for the winter. Perceptions dull and we come to accept a blunting of feeling in the shadow of security. Drunk with power, I find that I am out of my senses. I, tool man, long for the immediacy of contact to brighten my senses again, to bring me nearer the world once more; in security I have forgotten how to dance.” – Yvon Chouinard, “Climbing Ice

Everything is quiet in my little glass box as it rises through the clouds. The rain has subsided. Only the mist – thick and grey – remains, clinging to the green hillsides. The leaves of the Douglas firs shiver, renewed and alive. I know the air outside is cold and wet but inside the gondola cart, the air is warm and dry. I am comfortable as I ferry a cartload of French fries from the base to the summit lodge.


The day grows older and the clouds begin to part, the first rays of sunlight piercing through the white. I return to the base again with a new shopping list. When I arrive back at the summit later in the afternoon there is a horde of tourists lined up in the cafeteria hall. They file along the bain-marie with the relentlessness of a factory assembly line. The cooks in their black uniforms pile mac and cheese, burgers, pork ribs and poutine onto freshly-wiped plastic trays. The horde moves on. They reach the till, they swipe their cards and with their trays overflowing, they move out onto the observation deck – a grazing ground with a view.

After eating, the iPhones and SLRs come out. Buttons are pressed, shutters flicker, high-powered lenses click into place. Here, as anywhere, it is not the view itself but the photo of the view which is important. It is not what the eyes have seen but what the wide-angle lens has captured. The panoramas, the selfies.  The view is what you pay for. The scene becomes pixels, memories reduced to data. Instagram snaps, Facebook profile pics – they’re all here waiting for you. Ride the gondola. Eat some food. Take some photos. Make some garbage.

Another busload arrives at the base and a conga-line of packed glass carts arrives at the summit. The daily cultural tour begins – a representative of the local First Nations arrives. With a crowd thronging around her, she gesticulates wildly at various points of interest. She’s wearing a feather in her hair. Designer sunglasses – made in Italy. North Face jacket – made in Vietnam.

“Natural medicines were sourced from plants in the woods around us,” she says. “The Squamish people never had need of a drug store.”

She points up at Skypilot, the rocky peak watching over the Shannan valley. She begins talking about it. Bare of snow and ice to keep it glued it together, Skypilot is crumbling beneath itself. The glacier which feeds Shannan creek is almost gone. Last winter was the driest on record. The falls have become a trickle. At the height of summer, the gondola was taking water from Shannan creek. An emergency agreement with First Nations and BC Parks. The toilets must keep flushing. The kitchen faucets must keep running. The customer does not like to go without.


Now the cultural tour is over. There are no more pictures left to take. What reason is there to linger? The horde begins to thin. No one takes the walking trail back to the base. That’s what the gondola is for.

Remaining at the summit, on the back end of the assembly line, I pile garbage onto a cart, prepping the detritus for downloading.

I board a glass cabin of my own. The doors close behind me. Everything is quiet again on the way back down. Below, the contours and colours of the landscape – the forested hills, the bulges of granitic mountaintops, the wide flat expanse of the Sound and the distant glaciers of the Coastal Range – meld one into the other: shades of green, of grey, of blue, of whitest white. To me, on the other side of the glass, the view may as well be a postcard – a messy watercolour of jumbled hues and shades. There is no texture, no depth of field, no ignition of the senses – just a scene.


I look to my right. It is the white of the mountains that arrests my attention more than any of the other colours. the far-off, the cold, the uninhabited. Inside my box, I feel a disconnect between me and the world outside. I am aware that a seaborne breeze is blowing hard against the cabin but I do not feel it cold and fresh and salty on my skin. I see the colours but I do not feel myself amongst them. I observe but I am not apart of.

High on the Chief, a day later, I slide my hand into a crack in the granite and flex my palm and thumb. My hand jams into place and I climb higher, hanging off skin and bone. I reach a small ledge. Two ring bolts and two hangers await me, affixed to the wall. I did not place these anchor bolts but I clip myself to them, trusting them implicitly, and belay my friends towards me. As I pull in the slack, I take in the granite walls around me, rising up on either side. I hear the rumbling of a truck in the distance and look over at the mine site across the way. The sound of exploding rock in the quarry. A copper mine. Sometimes I’ve wondered if the green deposits in the Sound are glacial or man-made.

Rowdy car horns are sounding on the highway below. A traffic jam has built up on the road back to Vancouver. A tugboat chugs down the fjord, dragging a bundle of wooden logs, bobbing side-by-side, through the water. Kitesurfers wallow about in the shallow water either side of the spit. A busy scene.

Squamish. An old logging town. An old mining town. An outdoors town. I hear the shouts of climbers elsewhere on the walls of the Chief. I pull in more slack and my friends climb higher towards me. Here I am, hanging from a pair of bolts that I did not place, climbing a granite big-wall with just four abseils between me and a supermarket. Somewhere below, a long-line helicopter waits dormant on a helipad – a search and rescue team always on standby. I am insured against calamity.

My friends arrive at the belay and we climb on, navigating the complex ridgeline of the Angel’s Crest – climbing toward the second summit. A gust of wind rustles through my hair as I traverse the razor-backed knife’s edge of the Acrophobes tower. I feel comfortable in my sticky rubber shoes and I remove one hand from the rock. I look down at the town again.

The Acrophobes, The Angel's Crest.

The Acrophobes, The Angel’s Crest.

Squamish. Skwxwú7mesh, in the Native tongue. When said aloud, it seems more a whisper than word. Whispered with the sighing of the wind through the spruce trees. Whispered by the last glimmer of the sun as it sets behind the Tantalus Range. Whispered by the waters of the Sound as they change from green to blue and from blue to ultramarine in the evening. It sounds old – primordial. Squamish. “The Mother of the wind”.

There was not always bolts on the Chief. There was not always the hustle and bustle of the town below. In earlier times, Squamish warriors would scale the low-angle faces of the Chief in barefeet and full battle garb to harden their minds and bodies. What must the fjord have looked like in those days? Before the copper mine? Before the pulp mill? before the golden arches next to Highway 99? Before the gondola? Before Man? What must this place have looked like?

The author high on the Chief (Photo: Pete Harris)

(Photo: Pete Harris)

Standing at the base of the Chief, in the climber’s campground, I look up at a prominent line of basalt – the Black Dyke – which snakes its way from sea level to summit. Squamish legend tells of a mythical serpent – Say-Noth-Ka – who, fleeing the might of a Native hero, slithered up the walls of the Chief, leaving this glistening path of geologic slime in its wake. Say-Noth-Ka fled across the landscape, carving out mountains and valleys and runnels for rivers and waterfalls. After hiding in the pools at the base of Shannan Falls, the warrior finally tracked Say-Noth-Ka down and slew the beast. Shannan Falls thus became a sacred site for the Squamish people. Today, with the glaciers bare and the rivers dry, the falls are reduced to a trickle. A line of bolts goes the whole way up the Black Dyke.

Down from the wall and back at work, I sit in my little glass cabin, moving French fries, once again, up through the mist. Working in logistics means keeping the summit fridge stocked. I arrive at the top. The crowds are thronging as usual – a camera lens between iris and panorama. There is the sound of French fries in the deep fryer, the chink of glasses at the bar, the rachet and jingle of the cash register as another North Face jacket goes into a shopping bag. The customer, his pockets a little lighter, his stomach a little fuller, steps outside into the mist. He rips the jacket from the shopping bag and pulls the new jacket around his shoulders. He struggles with the sleeves but then zips it up tight to the neck. The shopping bag and receipt goes straight into the garbage…

Eager are we to armour ourselves against Nature. So eager, in fact, that our armour has become inescapable. It has smothered us. It is only by breaking free from this armour, by leaving Civilisation behind us on the trail of the known and the comfortable, and by exposing ourselves, our whole selves, to Nature and her rawness, that the worth of Man can truly be found.

On the gondola ride back down, I gaze up at the mountains – Garibaldi and Atwell and the Coastal Range beyond – hanging white and wild and mighty. The Mother is calling me to be with her children amongst the tops.

At the Rubble Creek trailhead, I slide an ice axe into the straps of my backpack. I watch the sun rise over the Douglas Firs, and with my gear stripped down to the bare essentials – the minimum I need to survive – I shoulder my pack and walk into the wild.