In my latest blog, I’m offering you some samples of the most extraordinary natural phenomenon you are ever likely to see: the Northern Lights or aurora borealis. If you have never seen the aurora, you’ll wish you had!
It’s a glum wet day in Helsinki and I intend to brighten up your virtual inner sky by sharing some photos of the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. The techies among you will know that this wondrously surreal phenomenon – for my money the most profoundly moving, beautiful and enchanting on or around the planet – is the result of collisions between charged particles released from the sun with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. I don’t really care what causes them, but I thought I’d better let you know that. While you’re watching them, you won’t care either, you’ll just gawp in wonder. You’ll feel like laughing. It’s too ridiculously amazing to be true.
I first heard about the Northern Lights in a song by the 1970s band Renaissance. “The Northern Lights are in my mind, they guide me back to you,” their beautiful woman singer sang, to an irresistibly catchy tune. I had no idea what she was on about then. I thought she might be singing about the nighttime attractions of Blackpool or some other northern English city. Now I know what they were on about, I wonder why there aren’t more songs about it.
The first time I actually witnessed this awesome – and I really do mean awesome – natural phenomenon was on a frozen lake in Finnish Lapland in about 1984, when I jumped around in the company of two other more-than-slightly intoxicated Englishmen, like children on a sugar rush at a magic show, shouting and pointing at the sky in mesmerized disbelief, wondering if our drinks had been spiked.
You can’t just see the Northern Lights and tick them off your list. Once you’ve seen them, you have to see them again. And again. It becomes an obsession. I’ve got three Apps on my phone and another one on my iPad telling me when a ‘performance’ might be possible. I’ve flown to Lapland and travelled to remote locations to freeze under starlit skies with the sole intention of watching the aurora. I wander around bumping into trees by the river near my Helsinki home, staring at the sky, in the often vain hope of photographing, or just catching a glimpse of the curtains of colour being shifted around the sky by some giant unseen hand.
So that’s another confession off my chest. If you’d like to share my obsession, assuming you don’t already, you need to be a long way north, the sky needs to be clear, and it helps to get away from urban light pollution. And although it’s great fun to photograph them, try to remember not to get too obsessed with photographing them. Submit to the spectacle. Be transfixed!
The Alaska Geophysical Institute has quite a good site here, with regional maps giving predictive information: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast But unlike some of the tourists who flock to northern Finland with a sighting at the top of their list, don’t assume that you can flick a switch on any given winter’s evening to make the aurora appear.
Oh and that song by Renaissance – you’ll find it here:
Social Media presents a dilemma to creative professionals. You can’t live with it, you can’t live without it. – via My name is Tim, I’m a Facebook-aholic
I gave up smoking in the early 90s. I decided that changes of scene and routine would be the best circumstances in which to make the break, and my companion, now my wife, also reckoned this would be a good plan. So we decided that a trip to Singapore and Bali would be a good time to kick the habit. We had been upgraded to Business Class (those were the days) so we sat in the Lounge at Helsinki Airport waiting for our flight to Singapore to start boarding. We had bought one last ceremonious pack of cigarettes (yes, kids, you could smoke in airport lounges in those days) and sat puffing away over our gins and tonics.
The time to board arrived. There were maybe a dozen cigarettes left in the packet. Solemnly, we crumpled up the pack, making its contents unsmokeable, and gathered our bags to make our way to the plane. This was the allotted time at which we had decided to quit. Then came the announcement: a delay of 40 minutes. Damn. We could have smoked at least four more cigarettes each in that time.
I haven’t smoked another cigarette since. It was actually quite easy. I had tried many times before, aware that I was getting a reputation for smoking that special brand known as OP’s – Other People’s. This time I realized that I really wanted to give up and it wasn’t difficult. Sometimes I still lift a cigarette to my nose and inhale the scent of dry tobacco, finding it strangely pleasant. But I’m never tempted to light it. Sometimes I dream that I’m smoking too, but I never wake up reaching for a packet at my bedside.
So I don’t think I have an addictive personality. I can go a whole week without a drink. Like most people of my age and circumstances, I dabbled with drugs in my youth, but I never tipped into the abyss, although I might have looked into it a couple of times. Until now tobacco was the most addictive drug I’ve ever sampled, and I managed to kick that instantly. But now I find myself facing a much deadlier addictive beast: Social Media.
If you share my addiction you’ll understand. The urge to look at my phone in the morning – before I have my breakfast, before I shower – to gorge on the Facebook ‘likes’ being offered to me, or to feel a deadly slump at their absence, must be familiar to many of you. Likewise the thrill at that throbbing red heart in my Instagram account.
Largely, I blame Brexit and Trump. Both of them make me so angry that I need a way of venting my fury and receiving confirmation that my fury is shared. But I also blame my work, not because of the pressure it incurs, but because Social Media (or ‘Some’ as it’s now being called – oh dear) is the canal de choix for anyone involved in media production, especially if you’re freelance. A large part of my work is as a travel writer and photographer. So I get to boast about all the cool places I’m lucky enough to visit. It’s actually desirable for me to do this, so that people know that I ‘walk the talk’ in terms of travel. You’re not much of a travel writer/photographer if you never go anywhere, are you?
The conventional wisdom is that a presence on Social Media, whether Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Sprinkle or LumpedUp – OK, I invented the last two – is essential if you want to build and maintain the kind of visibility that converts to financial income. You don’t even exist without a presence on SM. Only a few brave souls are prepared to challenge this idea.
The knowledge that I am addicted means that I have a love-hate relationship with Social Media, especially with Facebook. It doesn’t stop me living an active and interesting life (and lets me brag about its best moments), but it’s like speaking in a parallel voice that I don’t always recognize. I find myself getting sucked into outraged political arguments with people I haven’t even met, for example, afterwards suffering from the kind of guilt that you feel after a night in a pub making a lot of noise and with the vague sense that you misbehaved in some way. Or am I the only one who knows what that’s like?
Meanwhile, my dependence continues. And I am relying on yours to spread the word. So please feel more than free to share, tweet, re-tweet, post, re-post and like this blog to your (and my) heart’s content.
If you follow this blog you won’t have to keep looking at Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/timbirdphoto) to see when I’ve published a new one. And like a barman at happy hour, let me tempt you to visit my Instagram account at @tim_bird_photo
Varanasi on the Ganges is one of India’s oldest and holiest cities. It’s also about as intense as it gets in India. If you survive the Varanasi test, you’re ready for anything! via Not counting the days or the deities
In my last blog I told you why coming to India is the ultimate way of getting out of one’s comfort zone and encourages Creative Stress. It feels like I arrived in India a month ago but in fact I’ve only been here less than a week. I just had to get off the plane at Delhi and sit in a cafe while waiting for a connecting flight to sense that I had landed on a different planet or shifted to an alternative dimension.
This was the headline that jumped off the page of The Times of India. I mean, can you imagine reading a headline like that in Europe? How does somebody swallow that many nails – how does someone swallow a single nail – without serious consequences, by which I mean, fairly imminent death? Even if you were schizophrenic? Not to make light of a serious psychiatric condition, but did he think he was a lump of wood? Finger nails, OK, but 2-inch metal nails? The patient was said to have had a plasma-and-albumin imbalance, but presumably not an iron deficiency.
So here I am in Varanasi which is one of the oldest and holiest cities in India, on the banks of the revered Ganges and a place of joyous pilgrimage for Hindus. To take a dip in the river is to cleanse the soul. The cynical Western view would be to point out the irony of bathing in what is, in a material sense, and putting it mildly, some fairly unpure water. To reach its banks one needs to tread carefully, too, partly because of the sheer volume of humanity heading in the same direction and partly because the city’s pitted pavements bear plenty of evidence of its significant cow population.
But Hindus rejoice just to be here and although I’m an atheist their faith fascinates me greatly, even if I could never share it. Their devotion and the mythical complexities of Hinduism are, in any case, another example of how coming to India feels like being plunged into a parallel universe. I mean, there are reckoned to be 330 million Hindu deities. 330 million! Who has counted them, I’d like to know? Wikipedia tells me: No one has a list of the 330 million goddesses and gods, but scholars state all deities are typically viewed in Hinduism as “emanations or manifestation of genderless principle called Brahman, representing the many facets of Ultimate Reality”. OK, fair enough.
I’ve seen this river in many spots, including the Himalayan foothills near Rishikesh where the water has a healthy shade of glacial blue. The burdens placed on Mother Ganges downstream include heavy metals from factories, added to by the ashes and, it must be said, sometimes only partially incinerated remains of human bodies. Because of its especially holy status, Varanasi’s burning ghats, where bodies are ceremoniously ignited on huge pyres of logs, add to this load. Although the river has the power to clean itself of such an organic deposit, it finds it harder to deal with those heavy metals. Including any undigested 2-inch nails.
The soul of anyone so cremated is believed to be purified, first by actually leaving the body at this location and secondly by virtue of the cremation taking place on the river banks with the ashes deposited into the water. It’s a humbling spectacle.
I came here now to see a big festival, Dev Diwali, on the banks of the river, more expressions of devotion to the mighty Mother Ganges. I was so excited about it I smothered myself in foot cream thinking it was mosquito repellent. The mosquitoes will have nice soft feet at least.
For the festival, the ghats – the platforms and steps lining the river bank – are dazzlingly decorated with candles and lanterns, and there’ll be a lot of banging of drums, ringing of bells and chanting. I’ll be watching it from a boat, along with countless blissful pilgrims. You can’t really relax at an event like this. The boats will be barging each other in the same way as the traffic in the narrow streets, edging into the best vantage points. The noise will be cacophonous. I can’t wait!
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