Wind, Sand and Stars

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I don’t want to reduce my favourite book, my favourite words, my favourite author to a quote that chokes in the thin air of the internet. But if these lines make you want to dig into more of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s memoir Wind, Sand, and Stars, then maybe that’s ok.

These are the lines so perfect that it’s impossible not to put down the book for a moment, look up at the sky, and smile:

“I know what I love. It is life.”

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

These are the quotes that have probably already been shoved into the ‘inspiration’ sections of Brainyquote and Goodreads. These are the quotes that have probably already been dressed up in hipster typography and pasted onto an Instagrammed photo of a sunset. I hate that my girly heart secretly loves the generic prettiness of Pinterest quotes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that, “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say, “I think, I am,” but quotes some saint or sage.” I have always wanted to revel in the irony of quoting that line. Ah, it felt good! Point is, he was right.

At least the following Exupéry quote is too long, too subtle, too tender to go on Pinterest or Goodreads or Brainyquote. The following quote is the conclusion of Wind, Sand and Stars, when Exupéry is in France and wandering through the third-class train carriage of men and women broken by poverty.

“Into what terrible mould were they forced? What was it that marked them like this as if they had been put through a monstrous stamping machine? A deer, a gazelle, any animal grown old, preserves its grace. What is it that corrupts this wonderful clay of which man is kneaded?

I went on through these people whose slumber was as sinister as a den of evil. A vague noise floated in the air made up of raucous snores, obscure moanings, and the scraping of clogs as their wearers, broken on one side, sought comfort on the other. And always the muted accompaniment of those pebbles rolled over and over by the waves.

I sat down face to face with one couple. Between the man and the woman a child had hollowed himself out a place and fallen asleep. He turned in his slumber, and in the dim lamplight I saw his face. What an adorable face! A golden fruit had been born of these two peasants. Forth from this sluggish scum had sprung this miracle of delight and grace.

I bent over the smooth brow, over those mildly pouting lips, and I said to myself: This is a musician’s face. This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this. Protected, sheltered, cultivated, what could not this child become?

When by mutation a new rose is born in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, tend it, foster it. But there is no gardener for men. This little Mozart will be shaped like the rest by the common stamping machine. This little Mozart will love shoddy music in the stench of night dives. This little Mozart is condemned.

I went back to my sleeping car. I said to myself: Their fate causes these people no suffering. It is not an impulse to charity that has upset me like this. I am not weeping over an eternally open wound. Those who carry the wound do not feel it. It is the human race and not the individual that is wounded here, is outraged here. I do not believe in pity. What torments me tonight is the gardener’s point of view. What torments me is not this poverty to which after all a man can accustom himself as easily as to sloth. What torments me is not the humps nor hollows nor the ugliness. It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered.

Only the Spirit, if it breathe upon the clay, can create Man.”

For me, Exupéry is the best philosopher there is. After reading any of his works, life seems to fill up with lightness and truth. And then I end up scrolling around on Buzzfeed and Facebook by accident. Caught up in the pettiness and smallness of human thought once again, the world slips back into shadow.

Spend your holidays camping alone

Every year, I go on a solo camping trip to the West Coast of Scotland. So ok, the longest I’ve actually spent away is four days, and I don’t technically pitch a tent, but sleep on the back seat of my mum’s car instead. After all, a few sheets of tarp aren’t exactly going to protect me from night monsters. So sure, by most standards my trips aren’t exactly a wilderness adventure. Yet I couldn’t care less.

Image via Pinterest

You can often have Achnahaird beach to yourself.

This summer, I borrowed my mum’s car and drove five hours past stoic whisky towns to a secret bay of pure white beach called Achnahaird. Well, not that secret. There’s usually another car or bike or camper van parked there by the sea. Still, in those quiet moments when there are no hikers or dog walkers, I feel free. Here are a few of my notes from on the road.

Evening of Summer Solstice, Achnahaird Bay (carpark)

Freedom. Freedom is no pollution, no news or people’s thoughts popping into my inbox – just this light and this beach which has remained the same for thousands of years. Freedom is feeling strong, clear, alert, alive. Pushing my body into a run in the quiet summer light of country roads, for no reason other than because I can. Wildflower cliffs billowing high above the sea. Salt and sunshine in my bones, the air, the earth. Taking all my clothes off and hiking in just my mum’s old hiking boots, because it feels exciting, because the sun’s warmth on my winter white body is medicine. Diving into the great roaring ocean, belly white and rotund over the top of my swimming bottoms.

Freedom is Stac Pollaidh – the mountain’s call, pulling me, dragging me to the top of crumbling mystic pinnacles named ‘Lobster’s Claw’ and ‘Madonna and Child’; huddling behind the limestone peaks of its summit as a sudden wind whips the dark North Sea to a roar, the once blue sky a memory as freezing rain smashes hard into the lochs and mountains below.

Freedom is not caring a jot because I’m free. Free to scramble from the top like the sheep who seem closer to mountain goats than the bleeting herds who wander dully round the pastures of my childhood home in Grampian. Freedom is the sound of the tiny skylarks who burst from clifftop wildflowers to sing their sweet song, fluttering and glinting golden in the sun.

It’s the oystercatchers with their long red beaks peeping ‘kleep kleep kleep’ as they soar over rocky beach. The curlew’s cry like a shrieking baby – no wonder these parts are filled with folk tales of monsters and faeries. The red-mouthed shrieks of tiny gulls as they curiously surround my blanket while I burn sausages on a paraffin stove for tea.

Freedom is taking an evening walk to the village on the other side of the cliffs: a little shop, some crofts, a quiet campsite with a pub. The Summer Isles beyond look like Norway, Iceland, Scotland. They look like Home. I sit down on a pebble beach at the end of the village, close my eyes and listen to the ocean. It sounds like cars rushing by. I worry about what living in cities has done to my perception.

Freedom is curling into the duvet in the back of my mum’s car, dreaming of being aged four on a family holiday to the isle of Eigg, being mesmerised, paralysed by the romance of the wild-haired gaunt-cheeked man standing at a perfect sunny cove, sea turquoise bright and sand as white as Hawaii’s – the most beautiful spot I’d ever seen. Freedom is falling asleep with the aching sigh of the sun.

Freedom is a whole other way of living. It’s solitude, a feeling, a lightness, a truth. It’s going to the edge of the world where the cacophony of humanity is less than a murmur; technology and modernity buffered by the sea, praying for purity. Freedom is easy – it’s being outdoors all day, eating well, sleeping well, maybe getting a few hugs once in a while. Freedom is in the flowers and trees and ocean and love. Freedom is lightness and holiness, sometimes boredom and loneliness. Never self-consciousness.

It’s boiling tea on the paraffin stove for breakfast and reading Zadie Smith on an old blanket by the sea. Millions of endorphins bursting like glittering bubbles every time I read a line so good I have to stop, breathe, and smile. Freedom is writing, pen to paper, the words falling out like hot stardust in frantic meditation. Or is it? Just like photography, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter; writing drags you away from the moment you’re in, forces you to acknowledge your vanity and desire to have yourself and your work recognised by others.

Freedom is pure. It’s greasy hair and no make-up for days, rushing into the North Sea and out of freezing dark waves into the glittering morning sun. Everything washed away – the blonde highlights and bronzer, the clumpy black mascara – to be claimed back by nature, pale and salty clean. Freedom is stomping around the wildflower bogs of Scotland in a fleecy pink Primark dressing gown and crumpled Panama hat, because why not?

Freedom is being on the edge of the world by the great roaring ocean, lungs full of sea air. Mind fresh, body alive as Marram grass dances faint in the sunlight. It’s a tiny patch of land by the sea which I can call mine for a few days. I am Queen of the Hills, King of the World, the Laird of Achnahaird! ‘Tap tap tap.’ Something at the car window. I drop my pen, jolt up from the embryo position I’ve been writing in from my stuffy cocoon of duvet and crumbs and crumpled paper, and roll down the car window.

“Allo? Allo? ‘Ot tea and cake? A benign-looking man with a thick French accent and rosy red nose, his short grey and black hair patted under a woolly black hat,

“Cake? ‘Ot tea?” He says, holding a plastic beaker of milky tea and a plastic-wrapped shortbread in one hand, smiling awkwardly while the sunset fades on the bay behind.

“Oh, uh, thank you. Thank you so much,” I smile, my tongue hot and limp from not talking to anyone for three days.

“Are you ok? You are ok?” He says.

“Yes, yes. Thank you” I smile.

“Ok, enjoy.” He thrusts the beaker and biscuit through the window and walks away.

I sit up under the duvet, take a sip of hot weak tea and wonder about what he sees – pink dressing gown, crumbs, pale face. He doesn’t see a wilderness explorer at all, does he? Just a kook, a weirdo, a strange young woman sleeping in the back of her car on a lonesome road. Does he think that I’m homeless? Battered? Mentally ill? What 25 year-old woman chooses to spend her summer holidays sleeping alone in the back of a car? I wish that French man could see me on a normal day. I wish he could see me in a sundress, mascara on. I wish he could know that I live in Berlin, where the wild and free drink and dream and collide in the streets and exhibition openings and all-night bars til dawn. I wish he could see the real me. Except he just did, five minutes ago, sitting alone in a crumpled Panama hat by the sea.

Are We Musk Deer?

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There is a type of deer that emits the beautiful fragrance of musk from its navel; one of the loveliest scents in the world. One day, a young musk deer noticed the scent and was driven wild by its sweetness. Where did the fragrance come from? The little deer searched manically among the rocks and flowers of the forest. He searched along the riverbanks and under the leaves, but he couldn’t find the scent’s origin anywhere.

Siberian musk deer

Frustrated, he tried searching for the beautiful scent again the next day, telling himself that he wouldn’t stop looking until he found the source of the fragrance. The deer ended up spending his whole life fruitlessly searching among the valleys and mountains, the deserts and meadows. Eventually, he grew to be an old weary deer. Lame and tired, he died without knowing the source of his happiness was inside him all along.

This is something that musk deers actually do. Humans too: http://www.radhanathswami.com/2012/04/in-search-of-a-lost-love-lessons-from-the-musk-deer/

24 Hours in Mexico: Mountains and Music Videos

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In the Mexican mountains of the Sierra Norte, a perfect combination of latitude and longitude conspired to create my ultimate dream of butterflies and birds and wildflowers hidden among sunny pine forests 3,000 meters above the sea. Above the clouds, past mountain streams and secret meadows, the valley light was so clear.

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I spent my days pretending to be a Victorian botanist, sketching the flowers around me.

sierra norte meadows, mexico

Life was so quiet. Well, it would have been quiet if it weren´t for the village donkeys honking like doors hanging off rusty hinges.

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Anyway, the alpine dream is now over – this morning I took a chain of buses from the mountains to the capital, past snowcapped volcanoes and dusty canyons, cactus forests and parched yellow grassland that waved under a sickly light pale as a convalescent´s smile.

So now I write to you from the great ricocheting bowl of pollution that is Mexico City. Its sinewy streets are tangled in grime as the sky turns to night; a night that will hold no stars, just skyscrapers and crippled street lights nodding above the grunting motorbikes and taxis and police cars. Sometimes I feel like a turtle, drawn towards the bright lights of the city even though my whole being says I was born to follow the tidal pull of the moon, the stars and the sea.

Still, the city is alive and perfect. This evening, I met some music video producers from LA, and I get to “help” them produce a video for a Mexican band… and by help I mean I eat tacos and carry guitar cases.

With Encore Sessions

With Encore Sessions

It's a rap! With Encore Sessions

It’s a rap! With Encore Sessions

But still, that’s the beauty of travel. When you’re free to suggestions and ideas, a lot can happen in 24 hours.

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