Star Trek in the Amazon

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There are seven countries in South America that still have indigenous people having had little to no contact with the outside world.

That statement floored me. I had believed that since the days of Livingstone there was no one anywhere that hadn’t been greatly impacted by the juggernaut of modern civilization. The further you dig into the story tho, the more interesting it becomes. There is actually a job in the world that involves making first contact with isolated tribes! The sertanista of Brazil are (or rather, were) trained in first-contact, the idea being to reduce the impact of modern civilization on them as well as the impact of loggers and miners who often enter these remote regions in force.

One of the more famous, who was fired last year after he criticized the head of the department, has been promoting a doctrine of non-interference with the tribes. It all sounds eerily familiar to Star Trek fans as the “Prime Directive”. He has noted, over more than 40 years that once these tribes come on the radar of the state, they fell prey to disease they had no acquired immunity to, relocation from dams, highways and cattle ranches. But this paled to what happens as their culture is absorbed by the state and their mythic universe is lost to them. He described poignantly how people who were proud, even aggressive would over the course of a year become slack, emaciated and begging for food.

Q&A With Iconoclast Who Makes First Contact With Amazonian Tribes: Scientific American

Prime Directive for the Last Americans

It’s an interesting approach, one that seems almost a no-brainer to anyone raised on the adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Draw a big circle on the map and don’t go there until you’re invited.

Of course that’s easier to do when there aren’t people lobbying for stuff inside the circle. For the longest time the Amazonian hinterlands provided protection enough, but there can’t be many blanks left on the map, contact is inevitable.

So is exposing a culture that is ignorant of our presence ‘right’? Morality issues aside how do you even prevent it when the state has little presence there?

About 359 years ago the idea of sovereignty within a nations borders was born. The Peace of Westphalia signed in 1648 introduced the concept of “territorial integrity”. So you aren’t allowed to invade, parcel up the spoils between your family and friends (or Catholic church, in the case of the 30 year war) and rename it as part of your own country.

Now it doesn’t take much of a history buff to realize how successful that particular doctrine has been over the last few hundred years. How do you ‘enforce’ it when state’s act like schoolyard bullies when given half a chance, usually rationalizing it as ‘national security’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘spreading the word’. For that matter, can you be a nation within a nation simply because they hadn’t found you yet? From our distant perch it seems like if you were there first you have ‘sovereignty’, but of course things work differently in the global schoolyard.

Without a higher authority to enforce such global rules, they inevitably fall to more local desires.


Magnificent Failure


pine burst

October was quite awhile ago. The other side of the solstice. That’s how long it’s been since I last wrote an entry. There are all sorts of things floating through my mind to write about, but sitting down and actually writing hasn’t happened. Finally the voice in my head that keeps me sane said “stop thinking about writing and write something”. So here it is. What am I writing about? It seems I’m writing about not writing…. However, I’ve included a recent photo I was happy with, so I’ll talk about that.

It’s part of what I call my ‘Leica rebellion’. If any lawyers from Leica are reading this (‘get a life!’ springs to mind) it’s meant as a backhanded compliment. Modern lenses are SO good, they leave NOTHING to the imagination. Point-n-shoots compound the problem by automatically setting the exposure and shutter speed, focus, etc.. So I’ve learned a number of ways to ‘trick’ my camera into giving what some might call ‘less than perfect’ results. One great way to isolate a subject is to make everything else out-of-focus. In this case, to make a close-up of the end of a pine-bough, I stuck a magnifying glass in front of the camera and shot through it.

What does this have to do with writing, or not writing? I think comfort must be the antithesis of passion. The more comfortable your existence gets, the easier it is for your passion to become hidden. Layers of soft plush pillows and soothing TV’s all cause it to recede into the distance.

But with time, the mind and body become restless. My restlessness begins to rear its head and I fidget. I get shack-whacky until finally the voice in my head comes to the rescue and says something sarcastic.

“You’ve been sitting there so long you’re growing roots.”

“Are you sure you still know where all the letters on the keyboard are?”

“Stop trying to write and write.”

I keep coming back to that last line, in some variation or another. It’s been a background thread in my thoughts for years. TV society (what we learn from watching sitcoms) wants us to get points for ‘trying’. But trying is a slippery word. It’s like one of those taco dinner mixes that comes with everything you need. It has a built-in excuse, an escape from failure. “Well, I tried.” My sarcastic little internal voice, the one you can’t let out in company, says a try is a practise. Do or don’t do, succeed or fail. There is no try (apologies to Yoda for the paraphrase….).

Thomas Edison said “I know more ways not to do something than any man alive”. That’s part of succeeding or failing. You fail at something, you learn something and move on. Maybe in failing to do something you unexpectedly learn something else. To fail 10 times makes the success that much sweeter. To say “I tried” 10 times just has a trivial sound to it. Maybe it’s because tried can be made to sound like a whine? I failed has a harsh, anglo-saxon sound to it (yeah I know, I looked it up. French from Latin). A lesson was learned. Well, I suppose that’s an assumption. Failure isn’t much of a teacher unless you learn from it.

Ok, the whole failure thing has other angles, especially in the artistic world. There is an inspirational, and somewhat surreal, interview with Malcolm McLaren on This Spartan Life. A lot of people would say he is best known for a string of failures. Or even that once something becomes successful, he shifts gears and goes elsewhere. He sums up his take on things creative by quoting a professor from when he was a student.

“Any kind of benign success was never worth having. Much much better to fail magnificently.”

Now, I’m not a fan of failure for failure’s sake. By being so against something, so passionately, you still believe in it. Otherwise it would be meaningless to you. But the thought of being willing to fail, magnificently, stikes a real chord. Unless you are willing to embrace the prospect of failing, to accept it, until it doesn’t matter one way or the other, then you are free to do, instead of try.

Ok, enough preaching, thanks for listening and I hope all my new friends in the WordPress world have a Merry Christmas!

Memory and the sense of numbers


mums sunrise

My mum has decided to move into the nearby town, closer to my youngest sister, closer to amenities. She had commited herself to a winter in the old house to see if she could make it. She spent two, but it’s a lot of house and a lot of work for one person.

So I’ve been helping out, running down on weekends to clean out the garage, fix things that need fixing, break things that need breaking. My biggest project was cleaning out the last repository of dad’s memory. The garage that he built from a torn down house across the road. When he built it I made sure there was a room for me in the upstairs. I blocked all the places light could sneak in and made window blinds from garbage bags. It was my darkroom and there I first learned to develop film and print. But it had been abandoned by me years ago, and had become a parking lot for boxes of things that were really garbage but hadn’t faced that reality yet.

Last weekend was the last time I would see the old house. After I finished cleaning out the garage I walked the logging roads I used to explore as a child. They were there, but changed. Other logging roads had cropped up and aged since my excursions years ago. It was the same and different, an alternate reality. Losing that didn’t really affect me. It was like forgetting a dream when you wake up.

The house, well, both parents smoked and I don’t. I grew up in the house but can’t spend a lot of time in it, I get squinty-eyed and raspy. No great loss there in my subconscious.

What struck me was the phone number. For over 30 years the same seven digits were my connection to home, to my parents, then to just my mum. Driving home I realised in another week those numbers, burned into my brain like the menu on an old bank-machine, wouldn’t work any more. There was a brief sense of panic, looming loss. Suddenly it came home to me. There is no going back.

What am I doing?



This month is a busy one. I have pieces in four different galleries in our town, so there isn’t a stitch left in the house. Walls covered with little nail heads and thumbtacks!

In the process of trying to put down an artist’s statement so I could drum up some publicity I went from writer’s block to “Run Martha the dams a-breaking!”. So I thought I’d share one excerpt from it with you lot. I’m pretty sure there are other artists out there that sympathise. Drop me a line!

I’ve started a series I’ve variously called “lost worlds” or “dark and blurry” (depending on how I feel about it that day). It is a revolution against the perfection of my camera lens. Not that my lens or camera are particularly advanced. The average photographer has far more sophisticated gear than I do. But the camera companies, in their quest for optical perfection, make gear that, to me, is just too good!

I feel the camera and its lens contributes as much to the image as the light falling on the scene. The interaction of all these parts make the whole, but the camera and lens have become almost ‘transparent’ to the scene. Not that it’s a bad thing. I’m sure there are more people out there who would rather get sharp images than blurry ones, but there can be real magic in those wonky accidents from less-than-perfect gear. The $30 Holga camera is a perfect example. Professional photographers gladly dish out the cost of a good meal to have a badly made film camera that vignette’s the image, leaks light on the film and has poor optical quality, because of the amazing images they can create.

The LensBaby is another great example. A tool for making your photo’s sharp at a spot and blurry everywhere else. But it is a wonderfully creative tool! So if you’re part of ‘the revolution’ then drop a comment and link to your ‘lost worlds’!