Wild Animals, Wet Markets and a World in Chaos: Exploring the Origin of Covid-19

Apparently, all it took was a global pandemic for me to return to blogging.

“All this because some twat ate a bat.” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard a lot recently, from frustrated family members in the midst of the UK’s current lockdown or in last week’s round of pandemic memes. That bats, which are known carriers of coronaviruses (the ‘family’ of viruses that includes Covid-19), are the origin of the pandemic that has thrown much of the world into turmoil has now become firmly established in pop culture. How scientists around the world investigated this is actually a pretty interesting story of missed warnings, false culprits, illegal animal trafficking and lingering unanswered questions. Let’s dive in.

First, a quick disclaimer before one of my intellectual family members yells at me for quoting misinformation (I’m like my clan’s own Billy Madison): The Covid-19 pandemic is an ongoing, rapidly evolving situation and very active research area. I’ve tried my best to use information from trusted sources for this blog post, from the confines of my living room whilst sitting in my pyjamas, but remember to interrogate any source of knowledge on this subject, look for the most up-to-date research, and fact-check everything. Also, please wash your hands.

One day at a Wet Market in Wuhan:

Coronaviruses are zoonotic diseases, which means they develop in animals and then spread to humans. The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus that emerged in China in 2002 and infected 8,098 people across 26 countries is thought to have jumped from a natural animal reservoir to another animal species and finally to humans. However, the exact species involved in the origin of the SARS pandemic remain unknown (although a jump from bats to civet cats to humans has been widely put forward).

The origin of Covid-19 is also thought to be animal-based, although again determining the animal or animals involved in the spread of the disease is not a simple task. A quick virtual trip to the place linked to the earliest Covid-19 cases will explain why.

Before its closure on 1st January 2020, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China harboured stalls boasting a veritable menagerie of live animals of questionable origin up for sale, alongside more common meats, poultry and fish. It’s difficult to sort through all the hearsay about what was actually on sale at the market at the time of the outbreak (unconfirmed reports of “koala” and “wolf cub” abound). By some accounts though, 30 – 75 different species of wild animal were held there, including civet cats, bamboo rats, and of course, bats.

Housed together in close proximity and unsanitary conditions, this mix of live animals, game, poultry and illegally traded wildlife would provide the perfect environment for viruses to spread between species and eventually to humans. It also makes identifying how that happened incredibly complex. In trying to determine the origin of Covid-19, scientists initially had an unenviable list of potential culprits to sort through.

Luckily, by drawing from the world’s current base coronavirus research, virologists were able to identify a few high-interest suspects.

Poor Old Pangolins:

One of the first animals to have its name tied to the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan was the Pangolin. This elusive, scaly creature really didn’t need any more bad press. Its widely considered to be the most trafficked non-human mammal, prized for both its meat and its keratin scales for traditional Chinese medicine. All eight species of pangolin (4 found in Asia, 4 in Africa) are threatened with extinction due to illegal trade, along with over 8700 different animal species from around the world.

The trade and consumption of pangolins is illegal under China’s Wildlife Protection Law and pangolins were not listed in the items sold at the market in Wuhan. However, as the illegal trafficking and consumption of pangolin is still thought to be widespread across China, researchers were remiss to rule out the illicit presence of the animal during the outbreak. The fact that pangolins naturally host coronaviruses in the wild only added to the intrigue.

On 7th February 2020, researchers at the South China Agricultural University suggested pangolin as the animal source of Covid-19. The research group later confirmed that they had found a pangolin coronavirus with a genome sharing 90.3% of the human coronavirus’ DNA and a receptor-binding domain (RBD – the part of the virus that allows it to enter cells) that was 99% similar. Two weeks later, other research groups from China and around the world identified 85.5% – 92.4% genomic matches between Covid-19 and coronaviruses in other illegally trafficked pangolins.

Yet, none of these were deemed similar enough for the pangolin to be labelled as the original host of Covid-19. Civet cats were only accepted as the probable incubators of SARS after a 99.8% match was found between a civet coronavirus and the one that caused the 2002 epidemic. If the pangolin was involved in the spread of Covid-19 to humans, researchers have yet to find conclusive evidence. The close match between the RBDs of pangolin and human coronaviruses doesn’t rule out its potential role as an intermediate host for Covid-19 however, which brings me right back to where this blog post (and potentially Covid-19) started.

And Now Back to Bats…

Bats have actually been the bad boys of microbiology for decades and researchers have been investigating (and warning us about) the range of coronaviruses they carry in the wild for nearly as long. Case in point – here’s an extract from a journal article written in 2007 that we really should have paid more attention to (apparently we all got tired of experts back in 2016?):

“The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”

Cheng et al. 2007, Clinical Microbiology Reviews, Vol. 20(4)

(Credit to my brother for showing me this one. Again, I’m the dumb one in the family.)

Bats have been found to harbour a huge diversity of coronaviruses, potentially as many as 5000 different strains by one estimate. It’s entirely possible that one of them is the direct progenitor of Covid-19.

(Image credit: Lesser horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus hipposideros) roosting,
Jessicajil, 2005, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As mentioned before, a naturally-mutating coronavirus in bats is widely considered to have been the origin of the 2002 SARS epidemic, after the virus spread from bats to wild animals that were then sold at wildlife markets in Guangdong, China. In 2013, a research team led by Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli sampled the blood, saliva and faecal matter of Horseshoe bats in a cave in Yunnan, China and found a coronavirus strain with a genomic sequence that was 97% identical to the SARS virus found in civets in Guangdong. Last month, the same team reported that they had tested samples from Covid-19 patients in Wuhan against the Yunnan cave coronavirus and found a 96% match. This is closest match between Covid-19 and a natural animal coronavirus that scientists have detected so far.

There are a number of differences between the Yunnan bat coronavirus and Covid-19 however, meaning that even if the virus originated from a bat, it would have to have mutated during its transmission to humans. If the mutation happened naturally, the original host species would have likely had a high population density to allow for natural selection, pointing the finger towards bats and their colony-roosting behaviour once again. However, researchers have yet to rule out the possibility that the virus spread from bats to an intermediate host, such as the poor old pangolin, before mutating to infect humans at the Huanan market. The possibility that the virus mutated within a human host following the initial zoonotic transfer is also still on the table.

As I write (30th March, 2020), no animal coronavirus has been identified that is sufficiently similar to have served as the definite progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, (the official name of Covid-19). This may be because the diversity of coronaviruses in bats and other species is massively under-sampled at present, but a rapidly growing number of studies (including one by Shi Zhengli) have put forward evidence that it’s possible that Covid-19 spread directly from bats to humans, without an intermediate host animal being involved. To stop you from permanently branding all bats as bad though, I’ll end on this point:

This is partially on us.

“The problem is not the animals, it’s that we get in contact with them.”

Sara Platto, Jianghan University, Wuhan, China

By encroaching on wildlife habitats, trafficking certain species, and clearing the forests many animals, including bats, use as roosts, humanity has put itself in closer and closer contact with wildlife, increasing the likelihood of the zoonotic spread of viruses like SARS and Covid-19. If there are no natural habitats available, bats will commonly roost together in buildings occupied by humans and livestock, (in high population densities if they can’t disperse elsewhere) adding to our vulnerability to virus exposure.

Yes, bat species can act as natural reservoirs for a variety of diseases, but they also can promote biodiversity and ecosystem health by eating pests and pollinating plants. There’s even some evidence that Daubenton’s bats practice a form of social distancing behaviour in the wild to reduce their exposure to coronaviruses. Honestly, we have a lot to learn from them.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the link between infectious diseases like Covid-19 and SARS and the current global biodiversity crisis. Scientists have found that new pathogens tend to emerge in places undergoing substantial land uses changes, and often their origins are linked to ongoing deforestation, agricultural intensification and hunting. This means that other biologically diverse countries with high population densities besides China have the potential to become epicentres for future global public health crises. When all this is over, our relationship with the natural world might be the next thing under the microscope of the world’s virologists.


Some thoughts on THAT banned Iceland Ad

If you’ve been anywhere online in the couple of days you may have seen a lot of furore about a little guy called Rang-tan and the short film advert he stars in (if not here’s your context).

The crux of it is that Iceland (the UK supermarket chain, not the North Atlantic island all your edgy friends have been to) released their Christmas advert last week, only for it to be banned from TV, after the ad regulator Clearcast deemed it “too political”. The advert in question was originally produced by Greenpeace and features a little girl trying to get a baby orangutan out of her room, only to discover the animal has in fact fled from palm oil producers, who have cut down his forest home, killing his mother in the process.

Much of the discussion surrounding the broadcasting ban has been around whether the advert constitutes a political message or not, and whether than message is “too political” for TV. Less discussed however is what Iceland’s message – that it plans to remove palm oil from all of its products (until the ingredient can be produced without contributing to deforestation in southeast Asia) – actually means for the environment, and for the future of the world’s tropical rainforests.

The impact of palm oil cultivation on Southeast Asia’s rainforests, especially on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where all of the world’s remaining Orangutan populations are found, is something I’ve written about before. It’s honestly something I bang on about a lot. So I figured why not bang on about it here, and properly delve into the into my one thing while its still relevant in British pop culture. So let’s begin.

Palm Oil – The Situation

You’ve probably used something with palm oil today. I probably have too, so don’t panic. It’s incredibly hard to avoid using it. As many as half the products in the UK supermarkets contain palm oil, including most shampoos, soaps, cosmetics, processed foods and (heartbreakingly) Nutella. Not only is it everywhere, it’s also pretty good at hiding on ingredient lists. Here’s a list of over 200 alternate names for palm oil that may be written on product ingredient lists (https://www.palmoilinvestigations.org/names-for-palm-oil.html).

I can barely remember to buy ten items in Tescos without the use of a handwritten shopping list on a post-it. I have no idea how any of us are meant to remember to look out for Isostearyl neopentanoate on our weekly shop, or determine if the number of Laureth in our go-to shampoo is an okay one. Living a palm-oil-free life, unlike a meat-free or gluten-free one, just isn’t feasible by individual consumer choice alone.

With this situation in mind, you can see how monumental Iceland’s decision to cut palm oil out of all its products really is. This impossibly hard-to-avoid ingredient, whose production has increased fivefold since 1990, is about to be eradicated from the shelves of one of the UK’s fastest growing retailers. The question remains though, what will it be replaced with?

Palm Oil – The Alternatives

There’s no denying the extremely destructive impact that palm oil production has on the rainforests of Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together make up over 85% of global supply. I saw some of this impact in Sabah, the Malaysian state in Borneo where I worked as a research assistant, and where the majority of Malaysia’s orangutan populations are found. Here, oil palm plantations cover 19% the land area, while primary (undisturbed) rainforests, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, make up just less than 10%, constituting small fragments of habitat scattered across a vast sea of oil palm monocultures. That said though, the oil palm isn’t the only food product causing tropical deforestation, and the orangutan sadly isn’t the only species facing extinction due to our demands for agricultural products.

A sea of palm oil plantations and logged forest in Sabah, Malaysia

For instance, according to a 2017 report from the NGO Earthsight, no tropical forests are being destroyed more rapidly than those in the Gran Chaco region that stretches across Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay and provides a home to thousands of plant types and hundreds of bird, mammal and reptile species. Here, it is estimated that every fortnight, an area of forest the size of Manhattan is cleared. That’s the entire setting of the TV show Friends across all of its 10 seasons, cleared every two weeks. However the culprits behind the loss of Gran Chaco’s forests are not palm oil suppliers, but instead cattle-ranchers, soybean growers, and charcoal producers, with the UK and Germany being two of the biggest markets for Gran Chaco charcoal, sourced from Paraguay.

This matters because given the complexity behind the causes of deforestation, Iceland’s grand plan to swap palm oil for alternative ingredients will involve it having to navigate the multiple murky links between the world’s commercial supply chains and the clearance of the world’s rainforests, all in search of products that are environmentally-sound (assuming Iceland also cares about the other tropical rainforests in the world that don’t contain orangutans). You can guess how simple this will be.

Iceland’s website states that once it removes palm oil from its products, “alternative ingredients will vary depending on individual product requirements, meaning that there will be a mix of oils and fats involved”, and that “these will include sunflower oil, rapeseed oil and butter.” It’s here we get to the catch-22s.

For all its faults, the oil palm is very high yield plant, and is up to 10 times more efficient than other crops such as soybeans, rapeseed and canola in terms of the amount of land it needs. Moving away from the oil palm then might not deliver the win for the environment that Iceland and all of us currently moved by Rang-tan’s story are hoping for. It might just direct Iceland’s contribution to deforestation (which is admittedly fuelled by UK consumers) away from Borneo and Sumatra, but towards the rainforests of South America currently being cleared by soybean producers and cattle ranchers, or towards the other valuable ecosystems currently being cleared to make way for lower yield crops. The alternative “oils and fats” Iceland plans to replace palm oil with will have to come from somewhere after all, and this shift could be more detrimental than you might think. According to the WWF, if it weren’t for the high yield oil palm, nine times as much land would need to be set aside to grow crops to meet the world’s current demand for vegetable oils.

Iceland does note that “there are a number of alternatives to palm oil that are not destroying the rainforest” but doesn’t state exactly what these are. As it turns out, if you talk to an ecologist , or anyone working for the WWF (or even Greenpeace) the best alternative to palm oil may in fact be palm oil, provided it is produced sustainably.

‘Sustainable palm oil’ carries a certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that is only granted if its producers have implemented the most sustainable farming practices, committed to the preservation of “High Conservation Value” (HCV) areas (like the primary rainforests orangutans are found in), and supported the local communities they employ. Progress on RSPO-certified palm oil has been painfully slow, with only 19% of global production meeting this standard, but it has gained traction in recent years.

The RSPO currently counts over 3000 major companies, NGOs, banks and social organisations as members, a number that far outstrips similar roundtables for other commodities such soya, cotton and beef whose impact on deforestation have given us fewer beautifully-animated short films thus far. The RSPO hopes to grow beyond the 19% of global palm oil production it currently oversees, but to do this it has to convince more suppliers to sign on to its certification scheme, and convince more retailers to only purchase from its trusted partners.

A complete boycott of palm oil by UK supermarkets like Iceland may jeopardise this plan. When the market for sustainable palm oil is lacklustre and certified suppliers cannot find a buyer, their palm oil may be sold as conventional palm oil without the price premium the RSPO certificate grants. This provides little incentive for other palm oil suppliers to commit to the preservation of rainforest reserves and the use of the best farming practices required to get certified in the first place. This is already happening. In 2015 only half of the world’s certified sustainable palm oil was actually bought.

The RSPO model of palm oil production is by no means perfect, but if retailers and consumers pull out of the market for palm oil completely, they also lose the chance they have to sway that market towards a better, much less environmentally-damaging future, and to put pressure on suppliers to preserve the rainforest as part of their operations. This may derail the collaborative efforts to tackle palm oil-driven deforestation that have been making gains long before Christmas 2018.

This is bad for many reasons, but not least because the production of RSPO-certified palm oil means us consumers actually can influence the palm oil market with our buying habits. Organisations like the WWF have put together scorecards for over 100 companies based on their commitment to purchasing sustainably-produced palm oil (see here: http://palmoilscorecard.panda.org/). You can search your favourite or most-used brands and see how much they care about Orangutans / the planet.

Despite all this, I can’t refute that the Christmas advert that sent me down this rabbit hole is a beautifully-made and fairly powerful short film, and I’m sad that it won’t be shown on TV this December. As I said, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the link between everyday supermarket products, palm oil, and deforestation being made in mainstream British pop culture. The success of the film in generating comment and discussion about this issue outside of environmentally-focused books, journals and other such echo-chambers should not be underestimated. I just think Iceland’s message for the holiday season needs to be taken with a pinch of ethically-sourced and sustainably-produced salt.

As I also mentioned, palm oil is impossibly hard to boycott as an individual consumer, given its prevalence in UK supermarkets. But boycotting deforestation is even harder. So, putting aside the role of public action and commentary around palm oil for a minute, the fate of the world’s rainforests in the face of intensive agriculture and logging ultimately lies with the retailers and suppliers driving that agriculture and logging, and the decisions they make about the way they produce their products and who they partner with. Decisions like Iceland’s.

If those decisions weigh up the whole of deforestation with all its complexities and multiple drivers, rather than just the most publicised causes, and lead to wiser, stricter and more sustainable ways of producing our supermarket products, then Iceland and Rang-tan might be onto something. Otherwise, short films about the plight of the world’s rainforests may start to pop up more than once a year…

Sources (seriously, this topic is a real rabbit hole):

Support rainforest conservation in Borneo! Donate to the World Land Trust:

A Week in Washington: An Art Nerd Takes D.C

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to spend a week in the instantly-recognisable United States capital city, Washington D.C, and explore its nationally-important and internationally-renowned art galleries and museums. A LOT of my time in D.C was spent navigating the National Mall and deep-diving into America’s foremost art collections. They luckily did not disappoint. Here are a few of the things I saw from my week state-side.

The context of some of these to come.

The Freer | Sackler Gallery – Asia meets America and Whistler gets into Peacocks

First up: a visit to the co-located Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries which together hold the Smithsonian’s collection of Asian Art, sharing the tagline, “where Asia meets America”. In true American style, the two galleries are the result of their founder’s specific creative visions and their lifelong effort to achieve it.

The Freer Gallery for instance houses the personal collection of Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer who began acquiring art from across Asia in the late 19th century, amassing a considerable number of works by the time he gifted them to the US government in 1906. This gift did not come without a strict set of conditions however.

Freer stipulated that his American art collection could not be expanded, no work could be loaned to another gallery, and no works from other collections could be displayed alongside his own. The gallery therefore remains true to Freer’s unique artistic vision and taste, which is best demonstrated by the collection’s flagship piece, The Peacock Room (1877), an extravagantly decorated interior merging English and Japanese aesthetics that, prior to the construction of the gallery, had been installed in Freer’s Detroit home.

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, James McNeil Whistler, The Freer | Sackler Gallery

The Peacock Room itself came into being as the result of one man’s compulsion to achieve his vision without compromise. The room was originally designed by architect Thomas Jeckyll as the dining room in the London home of wealthy Liverpudlian shipowner (would have been a great twitter bio) Frederick Richards Leyland (1831–1892). When Jeckyll fell sick, the task of finishing The Peacock Room then fell on American painter James McNeil Whistler, the man who would later become close friends with Charles Lang Freer and introduce the industrialist to the arts of Asia.

At the time of Jeckyll’s illness, Whistler had been decorating the entrance of Leyland’s home and, after Leyland decamped back to Liverpool, was left to make some “minor” alterations to the Peacock Room. Whistler of course went decidedly apeshit, covering the room in gold leaf paintings and lavish peacock murals evoking Japanese art. Upon returning to London Leyland was shocked by Whistler’s adjustments to the room, sparking a bitter feud between the shipowner and painter that only fuelled Whistler’s artistic vision.

On one of the dining room’s walls he painted a giant mural of two fighting peacocks in gold (I suspect Whistler was really into peacocks) said to represent himself and his embittered client. The Peacock room ultimately remained in Leyland’s London home until his death in 1892 and was then acquired by Charles Lang Freer twelve years later and brought to Freer’s home in America.

To save time, I’ve skimmed through the story of The Peacock Room. But if you have a spare moment and like me are obsessed with the lives and quirks of famous artists, I emplore you to look up the full story behind the room and the feud between Leyland and Whistler. It’s an extraordinary tale about just how bitchy artists can be. In one notable episode, after Whistler had declared bankruptcy, Leyland who was the artist’s chief creditor at the time, dispatched a group of creditors to conduct inventory on Whistler’s home for liquidation. When the creditors arrived they were greeted by a large painting of Leyland as an anthropomorphic demonic peacock playing a piano whilst sitting upon Whistler’s house. Yes, you read that correctly.

Sculpture of Tamon-ten, Guardian of the North and one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Japanese Buddhism, Freer Gallery of Art

An underground passage takes us from the house that Freer built to the Arthur M. Sackler gallery, another museum housing one man’s celebration of Asian art – this time physician and medical publisher, Dr Arthur M. Sackler. Unlike Freer however, Dr Sackler did not place any restrictions on his collection when he bequeathed it to the Smithsonian Institution, and so the gallery has a much more contemporary feel.

My visit to the gallery coincided with two new exhibitions, one showcasing the detailed ironwork of China’s ancient metal bells while the other displayed a collection of ikats, intricate dyed fabrics originating from Central Asia. It turns out you can spend a surprising amount of time staring at wall-size dyed cloth patterns and listening to an audio track consisting entirely of metallic hand bell chimes. To give time to the other artistic attractions along the National Mall though, let’s move on.

The Hirshhorn Museum – Pumpkins, Time and Space

Next up – The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. What better way to beat the summer heat  in D.C than with a sculpture garden? And a giant spotted pumpkin.

Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C

Of all the sculpture pieces I found in the garden circling the donut-shaped Hirshhorn Museum, Yayoi Kusama’s yellow polka-dot pumpkin was by far the most distinctive. The pumpkin has long been a key motif in the avant-garde artist’s work, stretching back to her childhood experiences in rural Japan, while her extensive, repeated dotted-pattern designs, often covering entire rooms, gallery installations, and even Kusama’s own clothes, link to her own experiences battling depersonalisation and hallucinations.

After spending much of the 1960s as a key figure of the New York art scene and establishment movements, Kusama returned to her native Japan and in 1977 voluntarily moved into a psychiatric hospital where she continues to reside today, producing new works from her adjacent art studio. She has expressed no desire to hang up her paintbrush any time soon though, stating that “I am determined to live to be 100 years old and continue to struggle with my art”.

Given the recent return to prominence her work has experienced, and the power of her all-encompassing polka-dot environments, I wouldn’t be surprised if I start seeing yellow pumpkins all over the place from here on out.

A quick trip around the circular gallery floors of the Hirshhorn brings us to Seascapes by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Through a series of abstract photos of the horizon above different water bodies around the world, Sugimoto squares in on the connection between water and air, two elements that in his words “vouchsafe our very existence”.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke in front of the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C

It’s a subtle yet effective photo series. The five photos in the Hirshhorn, taken decades apart at different points around the planet, form one continuous horizon line stretching across time and space. Sugimoto calls photography “a fossilization of time” but I also think his photos exemplify the art of simplifying that so many photographers, grappling with muddled compositions, changing light conditions and large apertures, try so hard to master. Also, his description of Seascapes contains what is probably the best phrase to use to try and hype a trip to a museum or art gallery – to “embark on a voyage of seeing“.

Seascapes, Hiroshi Sugimoto, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C

No Spectators – A Trip Inside The Temple

Our voyage of seeing has one final stop – The Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum on D.C’s Lafayette Square to help satisfy anyone who has toured the eleven museums and galleries dotted around the National Mall and yet still demands more (if this is you that is genuinely impressive). First things first though. It’s time to pose like a moron by the monument to the Marquis de Lafayette and hug a 13 ft bear statue made out of coins.

Context – the Marquis de Lafayette (1757 – 1834) was a French aristocrat who fought with the Continental Army in the American revolution and has now been immortalised as the one who raps fast in the musical Hamilton. I’m a moron. The resulting Polaroid was inevitable. As for the giant copper-coin bear? Well that’s just part of the Renwick’s latest exhibition, ‘No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man‘.

If you haven’t heard of Burning Man, it’s an annual festival dedicated to self expression, reliance and individual creativity. Each year since 1990, tens of thousands of attendees (known as “Burners”) come together in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and create a temporary city filled with colossal wooden buildings and sculptures (including the eponymous ‘Burning Man’ statue). As you may have guessed, at the end of the festival following several days of revelry, creative endeavour, and self-organised desert living, the installations of ‘Black Rock City’ are set alight and all MOOP (‘Matter Out Of Place’) brought by the burner community is removed.

The Renwick exhibition holds several sculptures, installations and personal items from burners that have thankfully been spared from this incendiary fate (or have at least been recreated by some of the most prominent artists in the festival’s global community). Anamatromic, pulsating mushrooms, giant copper-coin bears, and cuboid light installations all attest to how diverse and ingenious this community is, but it’s David Best’s giant wooden ‘Temple’ interior that gives the best insight into the core values underpinning the world of ‘Burner art’.

The Temple at The Renwick Gallery, Washington D.C by David Best

‘The Temple’, the giant wooden structure constructed in the middle of each iteration of Black Rock City, is an instantly recognisable feature of the event, even though its overall design changes from year to year. Best has designed over half of the Burning Man temples since 2000, having built his first structure at the event as a memorial to his friend who died in a motorcycle crash on the way to the desert.

Just like a real-life place of worship, Best’s intricate installations provide the residents of Black Rock City a place for remembrance, grief, and renewal, and in keeping with the event’s “No Spectators” principle, participation by all visitors. The same can be said for Best’s Temple Room in the Renwick, where visitors can pick up a small wooden square, write a message on it, and slot it into the pre-fabricated temple walls. I’ll have to leave you guessing what I added to The Renwick Temple.

Hybycozo, Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu

From the many photos covering the exhibition’s walls from throughout the event’s 32 year history, the festival looks like a mega-sweaty way to spend a weekend. But I’d missing the point here if that’s all I focused on. From the photos of Mad-Max style cage fights in the desert, to the steam-punk inspired everything, it’s not hard to be inspired by all the creativity and individual artistic labours that go into each year’s celebration of radical inclusion’, self-reliance and expression. The exhibition is a good reminder of how art works best – when someone brings their own vision or unique take on their surrounding to life and decides to share it with the wider world.

Come and see the work of the man who insisted that gold-leaf peacocks are the only aesthetic worth caring about, the woman who covers rooms in polka dots-to process her own experiences with mental health, or the guy who took to the high seas to embark on a voyage of seeing, and see what it makes you think about your own surroundings (and do it for free if you’re at a Smithsonian Museum.) It’s ok if you ‘don’t get it’, because that in itself can be a worthy opinion to have. Modern art is what you make of it, but there’s plenty to explore when you delve into why it was made.

Enjoy this weird Art Trip? Read more blog posts here:


Portfolio 2018: 10 Favourite Photos From The Last Few Years

This is a photography website, and yet somehow I have managed to go all this time without writing a single blog post actually about photography.

Yes, I’ve typed out my thoughts on GIF art, German food and literary wolf-children before even taking the time to discuss the very thing I would consider to be my main interest. Today I’m going to fix that and present you with ten of my favourite photos that I have taken over the past five or so years.

The list is a fairly personal selection and is presented in no particular order. I’m also loathe to label these photos as my ‘best’ ones because for me photography, like any skill, is all about practice, learning new things, and trying to improve. Photographer / Youtuber Jamie Windsor actually discussed reviewing your old work and learning to move past it in a really articulate way in his recent video. So, I’m going to add on to this by putting together a record of my favourite shots for now, so I can look back on them years down the line and hopefully see what I’ve improved on and what I’ve managed to develop further out of the aspects I like in these photos. Plus there are a few good stories from what was happening around me when I took them.

Get it? Where my fellow photography nerds at?


10. The Edge of the Crown, Lanzarote


The fun you can have at the top of an extinct volcano with a camera, a polarising filter, and half an island on view. La Corona (‘the crown’) in the northern part of Lanzarote, is the second highest point on the island, and because the rim of the caldera towers above so much of the surrounding landscape, it offers plenty of visual trails and vantage points to make arresting photo compositions out of. I chose this perspective, staring down the northern edge of the caldera as I liked to contrast between the steep, shadowy slopes inside the crater, and the gentle rolling vineyards and villages outside it. Not bad from an island with a undeservedly bad reputation (Lanza-grotty no more!).

See more Lanzarote photos here.

9. Twin Peaks, Busteni, Romania

One of the things I love about photography is that every so often, you can take a photo that authentically captures a particular moment or experience forever. For me this photo does that, taking me back to a hiking trip in Romania with my two friends, halfway through our first year of post-graduate, “real” adulthood. The soft, winter sun and exposed brown trees gave the scenery a desaturated almost muted feel, which was something I then tried to bring out whilst editing this photo in Adobe Lightroom.

The result was this ‘vintage postcard’ effect that I feel helps give off that nostalgic tone whilst also zoning in on the main features of the landscape that struck me the most at the point I took the photo. It’s also pretty representative of the main way I think about photo editing – as a way to bring out the qualities of a particular location or feature that made the biggest impression on me at the time I took the photo.

See the rest of the Romania album here

8. Night Monkey Encounter, Peru

The core challenge of wildlife photography is getting close enough to your subject that it takes up more than just a tiny dot in the picture, but not so close that it runs away, or – in the case of slighter bigger, toothier wildlife – goes into attack-mode. However the flip side of this is to photograph an animal within its natural habitat to give some detail or context to the encounter. This is what I focused on with this encounter with a Night Monkey in the Peruvian Amazon.

Night Monkeys, as their name suggests, are the world’s only truly nocturnal monkeys. However, this guy couldn’t help peeking out of the nest it had made in a tree trunk in full day light, to oogle at the humans like myself looking back from below. Photographing animals in rainforests is always tough. The dense foliage, variable light conditions and the acrobatic tendencies of most subjects provide plenty of obstacles to getting a good shot. With this photo though I like how it captures that feeling of being watched by something much more adapted to the surrounding environment than you are. A representation of another being’s life enclosed within a different world to yours – something I would love to try and capture again if I get another chance to lock eyes with an endangered species.

See more photos from Peru here

7. Flam Valley Life, Norway

Norway is probably a contender for the title; ‘earthporn capital of the world’ and out of all the many photos I took there (I got very liberal with my use of the shutter button) this is the one that I hope does the country’s beautiful landscapes justice. I took this photo from the cabin of a train hurtling down the Flam valley towards the shores of the Naeroyfjord. I had just a couple of seconds to capture this view of the valley before the train moved on, but luckily managed to get the town of Flam and its surrounding scenery in full. I like how the pylon cables, usually something I try to block out whilst photographing landscapes, actually guide you through the picture. Also who doesn’t love a bit of red Nordic architecture?

See more of Norway here

6. Glacial Mirror, Czarny Staw pod Rysami, Poland

Reflections are fun to play with, especially when they create trippy patterns like these. I took this photo in the middle of the Polish Tatra mountains by a glacial lake, having spent a couple of hours scrambling up a slope to it with a bunch of other hikers. And also a wedding bride. Yes to this day I still have tremendous respect for that woman I saw hiking up a mountain slope in a wedding dress and sneakers in order to get the perfect set of outdoor, lakeside wedding photos. Oddly enough this isnt the only photo on this list I took in the company of a high-altitude bride. I guess wedding couples in the Tatras love a scenic photo op as much as I do…

See other glacial lakes and landscapes from the Tatras here

5. The Forest Seat, Plas Brondanw, Wales

The most-recently taken photo on this list and also one of the most personal. I took this while travelling round Snowdonia and visiting my family there for the first time in nearly 10 years. It’s also part of my growing interest in architecture / portraiture photography, something I’ve been exploring more and more in the last year as I find myself jumping between different cities of late. With this photo though I was able to bring this new interest of mine to a more rural setting and give an urbanite gaze to the North Welsh landscape.

See the rest of the Snowdonia gallery here

4. On the Wing in the Alps

Of all the ways to beat the January blues, taking a 6am flight from the UK to Munich, and then one day later boarding a train up to a mountain top in the Bavarian alps, will probably go down as my most drastic. Luckily though it afforded me the chance to photograph the views from Mt. Wendelstein in all their wintery glory, and then play around with some new editing techniques after returning home. A little bit of exposure blending here and there and suddenly, with some alpine shots to pour over and post here, January seemed survivable.

3. Nunbird in the Jungle, Peru

Photography, like any art form, has its fair share of trends and motifs that get repeated widely. Stair trails, pastel backgrounds, Boyfriends of Instagram – the list goes on. So, sometimes you’ve got to acknowledge when you jump on the bandwagon for something, as I did with Bokeh. Remember Bokeh? That aesthetic quality produced when a camera lens renders an out-of-focus light source? It not exactly a dead trend but I think it definitely had a ‘moment’ in mid 2000s photography and media. Tumblr posts, wedding photos, that terrible student art film I made about ‘urban wonderland’ when I was 17 – all part of the great 2007 – 2012 Bokeh-fest. The photo above is no exception to this fad, taken in Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon. However it’s probably my favourite black and white photo that I’ve taken, and five years down the line, I still like how it nicely encapsulates the sunspots and tree shadows you can play with when doing photography under a forest canopy – a nice distraction from the usual high humidity and ever present mosquitoes…

2. Sun in the Tatras, Slovakia

Yep, I saw a bride here too, this time whilst on a fairly suspect chairlift coming down from Lomicke Sedlo (the mountain slope in the top left of this photo). The bride-to-be and the groom where on the up-slope chairlift, with their mountain-savvy photographer perched on the lift in front of them, snapping away as both he and the happy couple ascended into the Tatras. I still don’t know if these marital mountain climbers were part of a great competition for the best outdoor wedding photo that Poland and Slovakia are bitterly fighting each other over, or just hiking addicts like me. Either way they have really raised the bar for if ever go into wedding photography.

Anyway on to the photo. Whenever I’m photographing landscapes, I sometimes try and focus in on a particularly vivid detail in my immediate surroundings, and use a wide angle lens to show that feature in the context of its environment. This is the photo where I feel like I did that best, zoning in on the rocks and reeds underneath the clear waters of Skalnate pleso in the shadow of some of the highest peaks in the Tatras.

1. Morning in Malaysia, Sabah, Malaysia

I’m honestly a little bit sad that I don’t wake up every morning being sassed by a hornbill stretching its wing out towards me. I guess I’ll always have the photo…(and these ones too…)

Finally, to make this a little less about me and my experiments with a camera, here’s are some photographers and photography blogs that have been keeping me inspired lately:







Where have I been?

The answer to a question no one asked.

I’m pretty sure the only people who visit this blog are myself when I’m searching for typos, and the 5 bots that are currently following me on Instagram. However after several months of silence on this website, I’ve decided to push myself to return to blogging for the end of 2017, and give you, the good people of the internet, another amateur “National Geographic-crossed-with-Buzzfeed” article to enjoy.

However the problem is that as we come to the end of year, I’m still trying to work out what I actually did in the last six months, and what lessons were learnt in all that time. So bear with me on this one while I use this blog post to mentally backtrack through the last six months of 2017. I promise there are some decent photos below.

Failing to blog

Here’s a little behind-the-scenes scoop; I actually wrote an entire blog post back in August about the two weeks I spent travelling in Portugal this summer, complete with illustrations I had drawn for it. Alas, it will never see the light of day. Believe it or not I do exercise some level of quality control on this blog, and it turns out a long-read post about solo-travelling in Setubal bay, complete with musings on growing up, and the history of Portuguese discovery of the Azores didn’t make the cut. The main problem with that post was that I tried to end it with a weak conclusion about adulthood and the importance of staying hopeful and curious as you grow up. Yet here I am at 22 with even less of an idea of what I’m doing with my life than last year, and honestly it doesn’t feel great. Overarching narratives are hard to come by –  hence why I’m writing a listicle.

Pretending I’m a Morning Person

Full disclosure, this pretty much only happened once, but since this is a blog I’m going to take one small detail in my life and make a really big deal out of it. I hate getting up early, and can barely function, let alone engage in small talk, before 10am on a good day. However, a few weekends ago, my friend persuaded me to get up before sunrise to drive with him out of the city we live in, and into the rural clines of England for an early morning photography shoot. You can see some photos from that adventure below. Watching the sunrise over a field of frost crystals did make it worth getting up at 6am on a Saturday, and it was a lot of fun to literally see the area I live in a new light.

Pretending I’m German

Back in September I travelled to the Black Forest in southwestern Germany with my family to visit some old friends, get reacquainted with places I visited as a child, and rediscover my love of German food and culture. It turned out this is a pretty intense love, and I spent a lot of winter 2017 wearing a “Die Schwarzwald” baseball cap, eating spätzle, making Feuerzangenbowle, and getting really into the Netflix series Dark. I’ll level with you, this was a bit of a tragic obsession, (especially considering I can’t speak German at all), but some really good food came out of it. You can see a visual journey through my obsession with Germany here.

Making Mistakes

Oh boy. Let’s backtrack a bit more for some context. For the first half of 2017, I felt as though I made some really positive moves in my life. I managed to work through some insecurities I had about myself and my past (more info about that here). I made some professional achievements and worked on some projects I’m still proud of. I moved to a new house, travelled to some new places, improved my physical fitness, and also at some point learnt how to play the ukulele. Part 2 of 2017 however, was not nearly as successful.

I spent a lot of it saying goodbye to or falling out of touch with friends as they moved away, or started intense, unsociable work schedules. I got bitter and petty about things I had worked hard to not get bitter and petty about anymore, (namely people with poor communication skills, putting effort into maintaining a friendship and getting little back in return, and other first world problems), and to make things worse I kept distant from people, because I didn’t want to explain the ridiculous, irrational things fuelling my bitterness. All of this left me feeling like I’d regressed into the worse, more anxious and neurotic person I was prior to the past year, which is a bit of a hindrance when you’re trying to get into the festive holiday spirit. So time for my first new year’s resolution; I’m going to try and dial down on the social media for 2018, and try to spend less of my life getting frustrated at my messenger app. It looks like I’m not the only one hoping to begin the new year this way, and besides, if I let anxiety and bitterness get the better of me, I’m doomed to keep making the same mistakes, and to keep getting angry about the same things. Among other things, that might make this blog a bit repetitive.

Despite my track record though, I am going to try and write some more blog posts here in the next few months. There’s something oddly cathartic about creating content online, rather than just continuously consuming it like the internet is some kind of all-you-can-eat buffet. Which brings me to how I’ve probably actually spent the past six months…

Scrolling through David Harbour’s Instagram.

Further evidence that I need to take a break from social media, and also from binge-watching Stranger Things. Seriously though guys. EVERY. POST. IS. GOLDEN.

Yep, that pretty much covers the second half of 2017. Here’s to a successful and photogenic 2018 that involves me getting a life. I’m looking forward to sharing some exciting stuff with you very soon…


More Blog Posts Here:


Keep Your Mind Moving | Entertainment For Any Journey

Summer’s here! It’s arrived at last and for me that means one thing – journeys. I’m not talking about deep introspective journeys through life so oft experienced by the protagonists of mid-noughties teen dramas. I’m talking about the ‘good-old-fashioned-this-is-getting-a-bit-boring-and-I’m-still-two-hours-away-from-my-destination’ kind.

Yes, my summers usually involve me taking whatever planes, trains and automobiles are available to visit friends, take a quick holiday, or generally seek out more interesting experiences than my immediate surroundings can offer. I’m sure I’m not the only one spending the summer this way. Maybe you’re visiting someone, or returning home after finishing another year at school or university. Maybe you’re heading off on that all-important gap-yah. Or maybe you’re spending the summer enduring sweaty commutes for the foreseeable (I’ll be honest, that’s how I’ll be spending a fair amount of mine this time around.)

However, sweaty-commutes don’t make for great blog posts, so let’s return the focus to the journeys that many of us may embark on this summer. You know the scene. You’re sitting or standing there in your chosen vehicle of transport with several hours between you and your destination. You’re getting bored, and you need some new sources of entertainment to dig into to keep going. Well rest-assured I’ve got your proverbial back. I suppose this particular scenario also requires you to value my opinion on pop culture, but we’ll gloss over that part to keep the scene realistic.

Here are my musical, podcast-ical and literary suggestions for how to kill time whilst travelling this summer.

(Quick Disclaimer: The suggestions mentioned here are based on my own opinion and my friends’ recommendations, and are in no way promotions I’ve been made to work into this post – I WISH people paid me to write this stuff…)

HAIM– Just can’t wait to get to where you’re going? Keep the hype train moving with HAIM’s two new tracks Right Now and Want You Back. Both songs offer an infectious mix of slapping bass lines, riffs, refrains and three-part harmonies to make even the most boring journey bearable. Extra points if you deploy any of HAIM’s dance moves from this music video upon arriving at your destination.

Bleachers – Gone Now – Maybe you’re on your way to see some old friends, or heading to your graduation ceremony and you realise your journey is quite literally a nostalgia trip. It’s cool fam I’ve got you covered. Start-up Bleachers’ second album Gone Now, and you’ve got the ideal soundtrack with which to recall the good times gone by. Thanks to killer hooks from lead singles Don’t Take The Money and Hate That You Know Me you can ensure your real-life trip down memory-lane has the artistic semblance of a John Hughes movie. The album’s a little front-loaded when it comes to the balance between singles and fillers. However, lead vocalist and songwriter Jack Antonoff (the guy who basically wrote most of the pop songs that have been stuck in your head from the past 5 years) cleverly works in a few repeated refrains over the course of the record that build to a satisfying finale in the last track Foreign Girls, so you’re all ready to move on when you move on.

Aquilo – Not all those who wander are happy about it. Plenty of us have been on a journey we can’t wait to see the end of, or maybe you’re heading far away from a place you weren’t ready to leave behind. So work through the summertime sadness, with Aquilo’s debut album Silhouettes. The UK ambient synth-duo have a heap of songs to get you through the hard grind, from the pulsing You Won’t Know Where you Stand to the melancholic Almost Over. When you’re done with the album, Aquilo have several stand-alone singles for the final hour of your journey that pack just as much of an emotive punch. So Close to Magic is likely going to be the soundtrack to all my Christmas-season reunions with family and friends from here on out.

Terrible, Thanks for Asking – Make your time stuck waiting on an overcrowded train worthwhile, with some heavy emotional catharsis, courtesy of Nora McInerny in Terrible, Thanks for Asking. In each episode McInerny delves into the rougher parts of life, exploring grief, loss, trauma and recovery, and drawing from her own experiences after suffering a miscarriage, the loss of her late-husband to brain cancer in 2014, and her father’s passing just weeks after. Fair warning, this is a podcast that really hits heavy, but with a mix of humour and real-life wisdom, McInerny makes a compelling and beautiful case for accepting that it’s ok to not be ok. TTFA’s 1st season brings a set of life lessons showing how us talking openly about the tough times with others can often be the start of a wonderful way forward.

People Fixing the World – Perhaps by some twist of fate your flight or train gets delayed and you need reminding that this world is anything but cruel and unjust. Do what most Brits do in a crisis and turn to the BBC for guidance. Courtesy of the BBC World Service, People Fixing the World features a global set of stories and news-bites documenting the innovative, out-there solutions people are deploying the make life better for themselves and others.  Learn about cloud-catchers in Peru, the young Amsterdamers living with refugees, and the Haitans working to reduce plastic pollution and poverty at the same time – and feel better about the world as you do!

The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium – Need a narrative to keep you going? Featuring the voice of Jermaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords fame) as esteemed botanist Lord Joseph Banks, The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle’s Bertie’s Botanarium delivers a serialized story in a mock 18th century setting, that sees Lord Banks set sail on a voyage from the Gravy Isles in search of the rarest and most controversial of plants, the Heaven’s Clover. The resulting podcast is a fairly mad mix of historical conventions. The story plays like a mash up between Blackadder and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, with pieces of a Jules Verne novel thrown in for good measure. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea (or pint of Cat-milk in the world of Uncle Bertie) but with 24 episodes, and a pretty cinematic music score, there is plenty of audible content for you to burn through as you embark on your own voyage this summer.

Honourable mentions that have kept my friends entertained for the long-distance:
Call your Girlfriend, Excess Baggage, My Dad Wrote a Porno and Private Parts with Made in Chelsea’s Jamie Laing. Here’s my friend’s personal endorsement of that final suggestion:

“Basically, it’s just posh boys chatting shit, and sometimes when you’re in the middle of nowhere that is exactly what you need to feel grounded.”


Train Dreams – Nothing kills time better than beautiful writing, magical realism and the occasional wolf-child, all of which can be found in Denis Johnson’s short novel Train Dreams. Telling the fictional story of Robert Grainer a railroad worker in the American West at the start of the 20th century, Train Dreams documents Grainer’s life as it unravels and encounters the seemingly irrational and fantastical forces brought into the fold as America emerges out of its shrinking wild frontier. In just 116 pages, Johnson tells you the tale of one man swept up in the destructive creation of the modern world, allowing you to race through a person’s life, strife and adventures in the space of a single commute.

Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow– So you’re in it for the long haul and need something to really keep your mind occupied? Try Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. Yes really. Sure, this suggestion is a bit of a deep venture down the rabbit hole of America’s revolutionary history but it’s a rewarding one. Thanks to the strength of Chernow’s research and writing, Hamilton provides you with an oddly-engrossing and fully fleshed-out account of Hamilton’s life, from his early days as a bastard-orphan (son of a whore-and…) trying to escape an impoverished life in the Caribbean, to a revolutionary figure in America’s premier government, fighting ideological battles (sadly not of rap-variety) with the fledgling nation’s other founding fathers. If it’s too much history for one journey, I hear there’s a pretty good musical that sums it all up for you rather nicely…

Books that have kept my friends mellow whilst on the move:
I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh, I Found You by Lisa Jewell, and the oddly engrossing-yet-somehow-also-comforting works of Agatha Christie.

So hopefully the above suggestions will keep you entertained this summer, regardless of where you go and where you end up. Between the aforementioned sweaty commutes and more exciting moves elsewhere, I’ll be looking for new ways to pass the time whilst travelling and will hopefully share them here soon.

(With thanks to everyone who gave me their suggestions for how to stay entertained on a journey. I’ll happily endure all manner of planes, trains and automobiles to catch up with you.)

Candles & Carpathians

I’m in Busteni, a small town in Romania nestled in the Prahova valley below the Carpathian Buchegi Mountains. I’m travelling with two my friends Dan and Debbie, also from the UK. We had come to Busteni from Bucharest, courtesy of a lift from Andrei, our Airbnb host who, accompanied by his 11 year old son Marius, drove us out to the mountains from city. We are staying for a weekend in Andrei’s family home, a picturesque mountain house owned by Andrei’s mother, a kind grandma-character who doesn’t speak a word of English. She dabbles in a bit of French however, mixed with her native Romanian. So, with the use of my remaining French skills, our rudimentary understanding of Romance languages, and plenty of hand gestures, we are able to communicate.

We’ve spent our time in Busteni hiking in the mountains that loom over the town. On our first day, we took the cable car up to the mountain plateau behind the peaks. The snowpack had begun to recede, but still covered the plateau as vast white bands stretching across the undulating terrain. It made for great sledging opportunities, though the lingering snow cover also added an extra challenge to our attempts at hiking. We learned this the previous day, when we trekked up a pass between two peaks and encountered a massive ice flow covering part of our train, and descending down the mountainside. One wrong step and the ice flow would become an impromptu slide down the mountain, to somewhere in the valley below. It was an un-nerving prospect that after some deliberation, lead us to turn around and journey back down to Busteni in a much slower (and safer) fashion.

After walking back into town from the mountains we encounter Andrei standing by his car with Marius in front of his mother’s house. He’s spent the weekend catching up with old friends around Busteni and has come to say bye to us before he drives back to Bucharest with Marius later in the evening. He tells us he is going to take his mother to visit his father’s grave before he drives home. The graveyard is on the outskirts of town a short car ride away.

“You’re welcome to come if you like” says Andrei, pointing to the seats in his car. “You can see a real Romanian graveyard!” he says laughing.

Andrei is friendlier than we expected our host to be. Not only did he drive us to Busteni from Bucharest at start of the weekend, but also he gave us many tips for hiking routes. He even spoke with some of the cable car workers on our first day to check it was running, and that we would be able get to the mountains. I get the idea that Andrei genuinely likes meeting travellers from different countries, and not just because of the occasional airbnb revenue. All the same, we try to be polite and not intrude on something so personal.

We reply that if the trip to Andrei’s father’s grave is mainly for his mother, he doesn’t need to worry about taking us with them. Andrei understands and nods but at that moment his mother comes out of the house, checking that Andrei is all ready to go. She asks after us and Andrei explains in both English and Romanian that we are not coming, but that answer doesn’t seem to land. Andrei’s mother looks at us and immediately gestures towards the car seats. It becomes clear to us that our oh-so British attempt at being polite is not going to work here in Busteni. We take up Andrei’s mother’s offer for us to go with her, Andrei, and Marius to the graveyard, and the six of us settle in, with Marius clambering into the boot, as Andrei starts the engine.

After 10 minutes of driving up the valley side above Busteni, we arrive at the town’s graveyard. It’s a sloped field covered by rows upon rows of stone gravestones of varying heights and shapes, overlooking the town’s turreted houses in the bottom of the valley. In a rare display of self-restraint on my part, I decide to not take any photos while we’re in the graveyard. It feels odd to break the quiet with the rapid sounds of a camera shutter closing. I also think it would be pretty disrespectful to Andrei’s family, and I actually do believe that some things are just meant to be experienced, not crammed into a camera screen.

We walk between several rows of headstones down to Andrei’s father’s grave. It’s a white headstone with a cross on top of it, adorned with Andrei’s father’s name and birth date written in thick black letters.

Andrei looks at the cross and smiles. He tells us that his father was a ‘crazy character’, and when asked about funeral arrangements, he told Andrei to take any money for a cross and spend it on beer.

“My mother couldn’t have that though” Andrei adds, “and here we are now.”

Despite this, there’s no denying that the family cross and headstone holds a certain kind of beauty. In fact the whole graveyard is beautiful, if it’s possible to describe a graveyard as such without seeming macabre. The graves cover part of the slope running up from the bottom of the valley, with the setting sun behind the mountains standing in the background. The peaks are covered in a blue hue of the early evening, with only the snow-capped summit still cast in orange.

Andrei uses a lighter to light a small tea light candle, which Andrei’s mother takes and puts inside a metal lantern positioned in front of the headstone. The flame flickers in the breeze passing through the valley, but it holds steady in its metal casing, like a miniature version of the street lights in the town below.

Before we had come to Busteni, Dan, Debbie and I explored the old town area of Bucharest, where we came across an ornate little church perched on the corner of one of the old town’s cobbled streets. Behind the church was a small courtyard surrounded by terracotta roofing, and supported by multiple carved stone columns. At one side of the courtyard was a metal cabinet split into two sections, both containing several stick-candles positioned upright. A small grey-haired woman came out of the church and noticed our intrigue towards the cabinet.

She spoke as she gestured towards the left-hand section of the cabinet. “Alive”, she said first before moving her arm to the right-hand section, “and dead”.

Her soft-spoken, kind manner undermined her stark separation of life and death, but we got the message and bought three candles from her to light for the living.

In the graveyard at Busteni, with Andrei’s son Marius running around past his family’s memorial, I feel that same stark separation of the living and the dead. However it doesn’t feel overly sad or gloomy. Instead I feel lucky. Lucky, because I get to see the history of a place and of a family after only in a single weekend in Busteni. Lucky, because I have that history too. I have a family and friends that show where my origins are rooted. Members of the ‘living’ category that always tie me back to home, regardless of where I am.

I am not a particularly spiritual person, and if it’s possible to be raised atheist then that would be an apt description of my upbringing. But on that valley-side in Busteni, with blue Buchegi Mountains behind me, I learn that I like lighting candles on hallowed ground. If nothing else it gives me a moment to think about someone else’s life. Someone now gone or someone from the ‘alive’ category of candles, with an existence completely external to mine but also interlinked. I think about family back home, and Andrei’s who are so happy to share their lives with us.

Later that evening, Andrei and Marius say their goodbyes to us as they set off on the drive back down south to Bucharest. We watch them snake through the town, with the tail lights of Andrei’s car drifting off down the valley.

Memories in Motion


I take a lot of photos. If you’ve met me or have spent even a little time on this website, you probably already know this. However what’s a little less apparent are all the video clips I’ve filmed over the years. After spending the last weeks of winter stuck in an artistic rut, I decided to delve into the decade’s worth of visual media I’ve stored up on my laptop, and use a new art-form to relive it all again.

As the number of various adult admin tasks ramped up, I ended up in a bit of a rut. Sometimes it’s a little hard to be creative when you’re going through the motions of a weekly routine, with few stand-out experiences to kick-start that creativity. So I turned to the more artistic corners of the internet I spend my free time in, and looked to an always reliable inspiration source – the Art Assignment.

If you haven’t heard of the Art Assignment I recommend checking it out. Essentially it’s a web series hosted by Sarah Urist Green, former curator of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (with occasional co-hosting duties carried out by her husband, writer and vlogger John Green). In keeping with its name, the series sets art assignments provided by different professional artists, for the viewer to try out. As I turned to the webseries for some inspiration, one assignment set by New York-based artist Toyin Odutola caught my eye.

The assignment was simple – think of something intimate that is indispensable to you and depict it in the form of a GIF. I instantly took to the task because while I’ve happily shared many a GIF on social media (this one is particular favourite), I’d never made my own one before. Also the assignment solved the lack of creative experiences in my weekly routine by allowing me use what I already had – namely the shit-tonne of home video clips I’ve captured over the years and stored on my laptop.

With my next creative goal sorted, that I set up a GIF-maker account, and went to the archives of my laptop hard-drive in search of something indispensable from 10 years’ worth of visual media.


Water colour medley of the video clip motifs I GIF-ified

Most of the videos I found are just clips of me and my friends hanging out and talking about music. Some are more adventurous, capturing the Peruvian amazon at sunrise, the Berlin skyline at night, the Batu caves in Malaysia, and a furry music festival-mascot with a playful sense of humour (all below- the last one I mentioned is a lot more PG than that description suggested). However the majority are just home-video style videos of my teenage years in the suburbs (where, judging by the content of these videos there apparently wasn’t a lot to do). But it’s these ones that were the most intriguing to me, because whilst watching the typical happenings of my teenage life and that of my friends, I realised how much had changed between now and then, more than my blurry memories of teenagehood had suggested.

I’ve always had memories, but it’s only now, after taking all these videos and reviewing them like archival footage, that I’ve realised I have history too. I have history now. There’s a distance between who I am now and who I was four, five years ago that I was only able to see whilst watching these old video clips. Differences in the way I look, move and talk. All visual evidence reminding me of who I used to be. Not all of the reminders are welcome however.


The lamp post on a river-island in my home town – a favourite hang out of my teenage self and beloved nerd gang.

My usual reaction to the past is to let it serve as a reminder of how far I’ve come in the years leading from it to now. I’ve always painted my adolescence as a sequence of awkward, embarrassing teenage experiences I would do well to distance myself from. This negative view of the past is the counter-side I‘ve often used in moments of success, to make those achievements seem greater or more unlikely given my perceived shortcomings. It’s the reason I never really liked going back to my hometown between uni terms, or seeing old pictures of myself. ‘Teenage Me’ isn’t a fondly recalled figure in my mind. He’s insecure, awkward, overly defensive, unpopular, and particularly lanky in the 2011-2013 era.

However Teenage Me as I imagined him wasn’t the main feature of these old videos, and neither was the uncomfortable adolescence I’ve tried to keep a distance from. The video clips showed me a different perspective of the past then my own. They showed me a more objective one, detached from my own insecurities, where my friends and I were just being ourselves, together in all our nerdy, awkward glory. In the clips from my last years at school, when I used to wonder if other people could tolerate my weird, awkward self, I saw acceptance from my friends as we planned our own themed parties, discussed Mario-Kart strategies and filmed each other sledging in parks on snow days (again there is not a lot to do in the suburbs).

I’ve remembered my teenage years as cringe-worthy or embarrassing for sure, but rarely as fun ones.  However that’s the gap in my history the videos filled. When you are constantly reminding yourself of what you lack, sometimes you need another perspective to show you of what you have.

It’s taken me a while, but now I’m finally realising that maybe the past isn’t just a realm of insecurity and embarrassment I needed to distance myself from or overcome in order to succeed. Maybe it was part of my successes, an indispensable part that gave me plenty of good experiences for every bad one. The friendships I started back then (and still have now) that showed me that even at my nerdiest and most insecure, I still wasn’t alone. The fun I had growing up – simple fun like making a gif to share in a group chat or on a blog.

So that’s what I got from this little visual nostalgia trip. Something fun, simple and available to replay any time I want. For me, that’s a whole new way of looking at the past.


My Art Assignment – A series of past, indispensable experiences in GIF form:

puffins-gifperu-birds-reverse giphynorway-fjord-gifperu-boat-ride peru-longhouselaughbatu-caves-gifpark-innmonster-gifcable-car-gifbear-parade



From all across the Internet, commenters have labelled 2016 as ‘just the worst’. There’s certainly no shortage of material to fully condemn the past year, with Brexit, Syria, Donald Trump and far too many celebrity deaths often brought up as its flagship moments. It’s a year that in many people’s minds was composed primarily of major societal shake ups and global tensions. However as 2016 drew to a close I was left wondering, was that the full story?’

Many of us have a tendency to focus on the worst case scenarios in life. I’ve been guilty of that myself more than a few times. The most shocking news stories of the day and the inadequacies within us often inform our judgements more than our successes do. Media coverage of volatile political battles and disparaging world events draw more commentary than the achievements of the everyday, especially when those achievements happen in contexts far from our own.

These everyday achievements and moments of perseverance though, should not be forgotten. They remind us of the resilience and competence we can exhibit when we commit, even in the face of adversity, to improving our own circumstances and those of the people around us. So I started looking into the flip-side of 2016; the stories and events that presented the successes of the year, rather than its nightmare scenarios. What follows are the results of that search and the conclusions I have drawn from it.

The success stories I found and present below surprised me, not just because they counteract the bleak picture many us have of the past year’s global affairs, but because they weren’t just small, everyday moments of perseverance. Many of the stories concerned national and global achievements that genuinely bettered people’s lives, but (in my millennial news bubble at least) were seemingly swept under the rug.

Whilst witnessing one political shake up after another and the fallout from ongoing civil conflicts in Syria and Iraq a lot of us neglected the background trends and changes in 2016 that have gone some way to heal some of the world’s ills. So here are just a few:

Hopefully those stories can remind of the advances the world has made whilst not undermining the severity of the issues the world currently faces. The purpose of this blog post is not to sugar coat the truth about the past year and tell you everything is wonderful, because it’s not. Climate change and the current plight of refugees across the world are happening now and remain serious issues the world will have to deal with in 2017 and the years that follow.

There are plenty of trials ahead for the world to endure, but we can’t forget we often have the capacity to face them. If we look at the stories listed above, then we can remember that 2016, despite being a terrible year in the eyes of many people, was a year in which the health of thousands of people, and some of the planet’s most valuable ecosystems, still empirically improved. Despite the hardships of the last year, the dedicated efforts of the world’s conservationists, public health officials, and poorest citizens still managed to persevere and yield successes.

The last year can be seen not just as one of volatile societal shake ups but as a year where international collaboration still managed to succeed and bring greater environmental protection, and where notable medical and ecological achievements were made. Rather than just subduing us, the events of the last year can remind us of what is possible and achievable. We can’t stop calling for and working towards a better world, and we need to remember that such a goal is possible. As the American cultural-anthropologist Margaret Mead once put it “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Sources for the Good News in 2016 Infographic:

Dhamtari District, India, free of open defacation:


Sri Lanka free of Malaria:


Tiger, manatee and Panda numbers on the rebound:


ALS research breakthrough funded by Ice-Bucket Challenge:


Portugal running on renewable energy for 4 consecutive days, the world circumnavigated by a solar-powered plane, the Ozone layer ‘healing’, and CO2 emissions stable for the third year in a row.


Largest protected place on the planet created around Antarctica:


A little piece of optimism about the future from a certain Mr. Bill Gates:


In Search of Undiscovered Giants


In the northern corner of Borneo lies the Maliau Basin, a huge crater-shaped landform surrounded by a steep mountain rim and covered by a dense tropical rainforest. The basin remains one of the world’s last true wildernesses. It has never been permanently settled by humans and only became known to the outside world in 1947, when a British pilot nearly crashed his plane into the cliffs of the basin’s northern rim. Here, deep in the rainforests in the basin, stands an 89.5m tall Yellow Meranti tree. For five months in 2016 it held the title of the tallest tree in the tropical latitudes. This is the story of how I helped measure it. Continue reading