Lichens and Habits
There are worlds within worlds: look closer and you will see.
Here, in The Alentejo, it is the season of rain. Heavy, insistent Atlantic rain, or fine, cloudlike cover, blanketing all in moisture, swaddling in grey. Ridgelines vanish, to reappear as suggestions, trees as spectres, and the woods mere hints. When they do appear, these ancient hillsides are clad entirely in emerald, gone is any vestige of brown, any trace of the bleaching of the long hot summer. Instead, all things grow, fast: from grass to trees, mould to citrus, and lambs to calves, they are all flourishing.
The rain, coupled with winter bus schedules and lockdown routines, means there is little chance to enjoy the outdoors as I would like. The trails around here are fantastic for walking and cycling, but in this weather their unpaved nature makes both activities a sticky but slippy disaster waiting to happen. The apartment becomes a vessel on a sea of rain and green, sheets of water passing by, when they do not seep through the concrete and tiles.
Yet there is much to see, if only you look. The storks are back, a war for the best nests underway, with much clattering, swooping, and delicate battle. To gain territory is one thing, to hold it in this weather, another — the present victors are miserable, sodden and bedraggled birds, heads down, feathers drooping and dripping. Beneath, the ground is strewn with the fallen cannonballs of oranges, some already green or white with mould, others fresh and tempting. There is so much fruit, just falling and rolling down the streets and lanes, like so many escaped balls.
The birdsong is gaining in intensity, with the blackbird, the blackcap and something I do not know currently the most vocal. They are joined by others, occasional voices adding to the chorus, sometimes startlingly so, a strange new song trilling through the window, but nothing to be seen in the grove below. It will not be long before the first migrants reappear, depending on what is going on in Africa, the winds, and the rains and the outlook for the coming season. Perhaps some of them are already here.
Look closer, and other worlds are present too. The rooftops here are nearly all covered in orange tiles, which fade with age, slipping into burnt ochres and deeper, brown-reds. Even as the clay ages, the tiles gain other colours — the greens, greys, oranges, yellows and startling whites of moss and lichen, cloaking and coating, spreading and demonstrating the cleanliness of this air, some of the best in the world. The irony that, outside, the air pollution index is at 0 but, inside, the constant battle against the spores and spreading black mould means that, on days we cannot open the windows, the air just feels wrong, is not lost on me. The very damp and freshness which brings this welcome breathability, means the mould flourishes.
The lichens here remind me that despite lockdown, despite the inability to get out, there is much to learn, much to observe. These are tough colonisers, withstanding pouring rain and big temperature fluctuations. I dread to think how hot those tiles get on a sunny summer’s day. Yet they are also a wonderful indicator of the health of the air, pollution will kill many of them.
Across this microflora ranges microfauna. The insect life here is rich, and there are times I wish I could take the time to observe this more, to take macro shots of the beetles, the flies, the bees and all the other tiny crawling and flying things. Entire epics can be imagined, tales of these tiny worlds, of their dangers and their viewpoints.
Yesterday, I saw a Thing. I do not know what it was, but it was thin and brightly striped with reds, black, and yellow. No longer than my little finger nail, it sat on the wall outside, as I made tea, then it was gone. Then I noticed the first mosquito of the year, sitting on the kitchen window, staring in, seemingly looking longingly at me. Or so I like to imagine — and imagine I do, for stories tie all this together.
(If you look hard enough, you will see nature staring back, everywhere.)
It is warmer here. The numbing cold of an unheated apartment slowly vanishing from memory, replaced by the ability to open the windows, bring the warmth indoors, along with fresher air, taking spores and damp back outside.
We are nearing the point when our belongings will be fully packed, collected, and sent on their merry way across a Europe very different to that which we ourselves crossed a year ago in the campervan. Then, there were whispers and hints of lockdown, swiftly followed by panic over hand sanitiser, and facemasks snatched wherever available. Now, the world has changed.
As always, it is easier for many to dwell on the negatives of any situation, rather than the positives. I have spoken of this before, of switching my mindset to be less cynical, less pessimistic. Now, I can see that this current global pandemic could be the pause and reset we need, to reignite what truly matters, to reconnect with nature and become a more caring, fairer society. For some years now, I have bored various people with discussion of late-stage, last-gasp capitalism, of how new ways to be are inevitable and, I suggest, these will only be hastened by Covid. Indeed, some economists believe we are already in the first years of a post-capitalist society.
I am likely to talk more about this in coming months, about how we can leverage and utilise the new tools and thoughts available, in order to create more art, and bring some balance to what should be important — as opposed to what certain hierarchical powers have told us should be important. As a teaser, an example of this is the increasing number of nations offering long-stay, remote work/digital nomad visas. This will only grow in popularity and in application, and rightly raises questions of fairness, privilege, and exploitation, whilst also showing a different way to be, different futures, different possibilities — watch this space for more on this topic.
Although you cannot yet tell, there will be a minimum of two newsletters this month. The main reason for this is that I am taking part in two different group promotions during February (more below), and I decided to trial sending a slightly-shorter-than-usual newsletter per promotion. In theory, this means more work for me, more words to share, but then that isn’t really a bad thing, is it? I am also determined to up my marketing methods in other areas too, more on this soon.
If you know anyone who you think would like this newsletter, do please share — the more reading, the merrier.
Free Review Copies!
Until March the 3rd, Death & Taxes is available as a review copy, here on StoryOrigin. If you choose to download it, you will also get access to the free novella, A Clean Death.
This group promotion, “Another World Awaits” features over thirty works by other authors, also available as ARCs and review copies. It really is worth a moment of your time to have a look, to see if something is of interest.
I have now been graciously gifted two reviews of Death & Taxes by this method, the second of which was by someone who found it not-entirely to their liking, but still left a 4* review. Personally, I find this means a lot to me — that they found parts too gruesome but still appreciated the writing is a very good thing. And, to be honest, ‘A little too gruesome’ or ‘a dark story’ might be good taglines — or warnings. This is, after all, dark fantasy, close on the spectrum to Grimdark but, I like to think, something slightly different. I want hope to be there, as I believe there is always hope, no matter how terrible a situation. Is Hopedark (or Darkhope?) a thing? If it isn’t, perhaps it should be?
Subdivision of fiction is at times annoying, as it can be in music. Too often, works can fall into different categories, all at the same time. I suppose this is a good advert for what I want to achieve with acquiring more reviews — I want people to say what the story meant to them and if that is useful, such as letting others know that, yes, there’s violence and yes, it’s a bit gruesome, that’s as useful as knowing that the story is well written.
Writing and Habits
As discussed last month, seeing as concentration is my word for the year, I have been increasing my good habits of late, focussing on ways to be more creative in a more, well, smooth fashion.
I have always been a last-minuter. I have always felt deadlines, especially self-set deadlines, are more points in time where the work needs to start. I have several theories as to why this is the case, as to where I developed these bad habits. Perhaps it was due to hating homework, hating having to take time away from the worlds I lived within, whether crafted by someone else in novel form, or whether created by myself, my siblings, or friends in the medium of, say, Lego.
I always left revision until the last possible minute, sometimes quite literally, walking down to a university exam, rereading my notes as I went, for example. I began writing my undergraduate dissertation on the day it was due, handing it in four days later (the maximum allowed, with an added 8% percent deduction), exhausted, but with a solid effort (I had done all the reading and thinking before, thankfully). For some years I liked to pretend I was proud of this fact but, now, it just irritates me. I got a good mark, but I would have undoubtedly got a much better one, had I actually drafted, redrafted, edited and re-edited as I should have. I am quite forgiving to my past self — that person was not the person I am now, but there are times I wish I could travel back and give myself a glimpse of what is possible and, perhaps, a little shake.
One day, I will go into more detail about these bad habits, and how they shaped me for too long. It is essay material (of which you will be seeing more this year), something which needs space and, indeed, more time to redraft, ponder, edit and reshape. Over and over.
I have set deadlines for this year. But I am approaching these in an entirely different way to past deadlines. Simply put, I do not have the time to mess around, to squander the opportunity I have to complete work which , quite frankly, I feel needs and demands completion.
A big part of this push has been helped by breaking things down, chopping tasks into segments and recording these, then scheduling. I have been using my journal considerably, along with taking notes on my phone (I use D-Notes, backed up, of course, with the plan being to copy them by hand into my journal, at some point soon).
One other thing I would like to mention is how I introduce good habits. Too many people set too many things to do all at once. It’s the 31st of December and you write down a big list of all the resolutions, which last for a day or two, then fizzle out and dies. For me, the best thing to do is take stock, look at where I am and then gradually introduce things.
For example, I got a year’s Masterclass subscription from my sister Clemency for Christmas but, rather than start it immediately and waste a month, when I knew I wouldn’t have time to build the habit needed to make the most of it, I held back until late January. Then, for February, I added a line to my monthly tracker for Masterclass lesson viewing (self-development is so very important, and often overlooked by far too many people). It is a daily entry, but I will be happy if I have 5/7 days per week. For February, thus far (and several days beforehand), the entry is full. This is how I introduce habits and, just as importantly, when they slip but I know I still want to pursue the habit, I keep them there on my tracker.
Doing things in bite-sized chunks, at a time when you choose, when you are ready and believe in yourself, is the key to success but, to succeed, each part of this process needs careful consideration and careful adhesion. And by ‘you’ I mean, of course, ‘me’.
If this paragraph is boring, I do apologise — I find process and method a fascinating subject, and I’m always keen to learn new ways of doing things, or to see who does similar and who does the complete opposite. We are all different, but that doesn’t mean we should not inspect the toolboxes of others, see if something might be useful, even if it is pressed into a service for which it was not originally intended. Change and growth are good.
As a part of my scheduling and breaking things down into chunks, I have started a spread in my journal dedicated to photo ideas for this newsletter. Originally, when I started, I had intended to share pictures of the previous month’s adventures, places visited, trees met, clouds recorded. However, the world changed. Now, there are weeks that go by with very little in the way of new photos, hence the shift to sharing other, older, things.
I have tens and tens of thousands of photos, on a further myriad of subjects, so I am not going to ever run out of images to share. I have a healthy list now and, as another bite-size to-do morsel, I will be creating albums of these subjects ahead of publication time, which will ultimately save considerable hours. It is something my creative brain can do when too weary for words, for example.
However, if there is anything you really want to see, do let me know. The theme can be virtually anything, from Thai street scenes, through to animal tracks and signs, via the pastels of a calm Scottish winter sea, the deep and rich blue-green-purple-black of a storm, or walls I have known. Just comment on this piece, or hit reply, if you have ideas or requests.
For this piece, the theme is lichen and moss, which fits with the introduction. These have always been favourites of mine, even more so when I learnt the science and biology behind them, especially lichen (and I’m well aware that I’ve only just scratched the surface of this topic; like all of nature, there’s just so very much more to learn).
This last photo also features a great tit, having just left the tree in the centre — I really liked this accidental shot, with the feathers on one side and the spreading foliose lichen to the right. All these photos were taken in the Atlantic (or Celtic) rain forest, at one time or another.