A change of direction – 3 years on

Posted on 07/05/2017 by

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It’s been three years since I last posted to my website, which reflects a major change of direction in my work and personal life. Even before then I had been slowly moving away from my work as a freelance journalist, and into more hands on practical projects, such as the cycle promoting Innertube Map project – and in the last three years, I’ve been more and more engaged in projects that are about restoring the land in Scotland. More about that in a moment.

With hindsight I can see that my work had shifted too far into the online and social media realm, and that I was spending way too much time in front of a computer and online. The high point of that experience was working for the Guardian as an online journalist, when the demands of maintaining a flow of stories, and keeping up a steady stream of twitter updates, saw me stuck in front of my laptop for most of the day, rather than out meeting to people and finding stories the old fashioned way I had as a radio journalist.

It was a prestigious job, but during that time I think I lost what made me good as a journalist, which was literally going the extra mile to immerse myself in a place, and to draw stories out of people.

In that sense, I think my best work is still from when I was ducking and diving as a freelance radio journalist, cobbling together a career with commissions from independent American radio shows like FSRN, Living on Earth, Making Contact, and the Radio Cafe show at BBC Radio Scotland.

In particular I miss the edgy, raw, street real feeling of working for community radio stations like Leith FM and WPFW in Washington DC (where I started my career) and from teaching youth groups and prisoners radio. I’m still proud of the numerous stories I did for Indymedia back then, probably more so than the work I did for the Guardian. As I became more “professional” in my career, and technically more successful, I feel I lost that edgy authenticity, and started to sink ever deeper into adopting house styles of other people’s journalism. Above all, I lost my passion for the work, which at one time had felt like a resource that was inexhaustible.

There were other factors too of course – my daughter Scarlett was born in 2009, and was a baby during my manic time as a Guardian journalist – and working from home meant I struggled to do either role well as a result. But even after that job came to an end, and I engaged in more grassroots projects again like the Innertube Map, I was left with a legacy of a grade A addiction to the internet and social media which has persisted to the present day. Again, more about that, and about how I manage it in a subsequent post.

Fast forward to 2013, and my first boy Ash was born. Sarah and I were looking for a different path, and I was doing my first ever building project – building a shepherd’s hut in the woods at Wiston Lodge in South Lanarkshire, and forging a lasting friendship with Simon Colley, a proper man of the woods, craftsman, and an all-round inspiring guy.

Simon had regenerated a large area of clear felled plantation woodland, and having a similarly enthusiastic, go-for-it attitude to projects, we quickly decided to set up a project that would buy up cheap clear-felled woodland and convert it to healthy forests. ReforestNation was born. A lot has happened with that project since then, and there have been major successes and failures.

In 2014 we launched a successful crowdfund to raise funds for a tree nursery and mobile sawmill, and with some other families, we managed to purchase 47 acres of rough grazing land to reforest and to try start a small community. We got married on the land in 2015, and had so much hope for our life there. Sadly the interpersonal challenges and different needs of the three families were too much, and whilst we are still reforesting the land in stages, the small community of friends we’d envisaged fell apart, causing a lot of pain for everyone in the process.

Fast forward to 2016, and my second son, Oran was born. After what had already been a gruelling year, it was a very tough and traumatic birth, and Sarah was in a very serious condition afterwards for a week. She pulled through, but life had started to feel increasingly dark and menacing, and we were both suffering from a dread of what would happen next – a heightened state of anxiety I now know is called catastrophe syndrome, when you come to automatically fear the worst possible outcome from even moderately challenging or stressful situations.

We needed to escape and make a fundamental change, but our daughter Scarlett was very attached to the Steiner School in Edinburgh, and to her many friends. It seemed impossible to to stay in Edinburgh, but impossible to leave.

 

 

Fast forward again – to the present – and we are living in Findhorn in Moray, in the North East of Scotland. What started as a week long holiday in a caravan park became a cascade of good fortune and positive decisions that has led, after just six months, to us having a lovely new home within a short walk of the sea, wild sand dunes, and a vast tidal bay that I fell in love with from day one.

We and the kids are living as we’d hoped and dreamed we could – spending time in nature, growing food in the garden, cycling in to a great school, and experiencing the richness of living in an active community. It’s not without challenges, but there is something special here ever day, and after six months I feel that we have replenished much of the emotional and physical energy that we burnt through trying to found a small community of our own from scratch against the odds.

My interest in reforesting and restoring the land continues, and I have become involved in a group called the Findhorn Hinterland Trust which works to improve and protect the wild sand dunes between the Findhorn Eco-village and the sea. I recently became a trustee, and I’ll be writing their quarterly newsletters. I’m also involved in the efforts to reduce the unrestricted shooting of the thousands of wild geese that flock to Findhorn Bay every year in the Autumn, a spectacle unlike anything I have seen before, and I hope to start making some short films about that soon.

Simon and I continue to plot grand plans for ReforestNation, and I am actively looking for a second site to reforest in Moray or even further north. But I am also remembering to enjoy the simple joys of planting seedlings and acorns, and accept that creating new woodland requires far more patience than I ever had in my previous career. I’ve also learnt the hard way that whilst planting trees may be relatively simple, creating and sustaining communities is not. Again, we are in a good place now to learn from that experience.

As for my work as a journalist, I am still unsure if and when I will return to the profession. So much has changed in the media landscape and profession since I began my work – and many of the independent media projects I worked for have had to close down; FSRN, Leith FM, and Indymedia Scotland are all gone, and budgets have shrunk for independent and in-depth programs. But new projects spring up too, as shown by the excellent online investigative project The Ferret, which is going from strength to strength. Things change and evolve.

I think I have also somewhat lost the faith I once had that stories can change the world – or that anyone is really listening. Again, the internet has proved something of a cursed chalice. It opened up publishing to anyone, and allowed a wave of independent media to spring up to challenge the established institutions.

But in the long-run it also led to the tendency for people to simply read the sources and stories that reinforced their existing point of view, entrenching their positions even deeper. Social media has attenuated our attention spans and made us more reactive, more angry, more like petulant children than considered adults. No wonder Trump is President.

In an age of advanced political cross-dressing, it has allowed right wing and politicians and movements to pretend to be champions of the people, and to spin outrageous falsehoods in the knowledge that  “a lie can run round the world before the truth can get it’s boots on.”

So for me, despite having cultivated the skills of a photographer, film maker and online journalist, it is still radio that I come back to as my first love. The simplicity of it, the joy of gathering the raw material – foraging for the ingredients in the air.  The unobtrusive way it lets you speak to people and lull them into moments of honest authentic storytelling. You can always tell that moment, because the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

And perhaps it’s the antidote to the internet. Switch on the radio, and you get what you’re given – no clicking on a link to a juicier story. It’s the difference between a one pot stew for dinner, or ordering from thousands of takeaway options on a menu.

Yes, I still have a profound affection for the medium, for the way in which it allows you to convey place and emotion without images, and I would love to be part of a grassroots radio station again one day. The old storytelling urge is still in there, and little like a seed waiting for the spring – but for once in my life, I’m in no rush. For the time being, just being here, and spending time with the kids out in the dunes, one the beach, and paddling in the bay, is enough.

 

 

 

 

 

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