shearwater census

In the Shearwater Census Black Hole

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Grey mist softens the black night, turning twenty individuals—strung out in a line of silently observant walkers—into a singular mass. We move slowly in a wide circle around the edge of the island, faces down, our head torches drill into the ground and creating an ever-fluctuating dance of fairy lights over grass. Once every ten years, the shearwater census absorbs the lives and night time attention of island staff and an ever-changing population of volunteers. Tonight, I am the backstop, walking the cliff to protect this week’s volunteers—unfamiliar with the terrain—from plunging through the mist to invisible rocks below. Through the velvet grey, the cliff edge is visible only as a half-erased line that merges into open sky. All it would take is a single mis-step, calculated or otherwise, and I would vanish into the mist, unseen, unheard, unnoticed. As long as I see the others, I am seen. I…

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Spoiled for Choice

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It’s easy to dream when you have few choices. But when the world opens up and possibilities present themselves, together with the means to pursue them, you can find yourself suddenly paralysed. The fear of making the wrong choice prevents you making any choice at all. We can have a thousand dreams when we don’t have the means to achieve them. The future is all fantasy.

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The Path to Self-Destruction

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A world without desire would surely be a calmer, less frenetic place. Aspiration tied to accumulation is a modern curse. We work ever harder and longer. We fight to keep up with ever-changing technology that was supposed to make life easier. Saving for the few days of the year when we allow ourselves to kick back, leave behind everything we have worked so hard to accumulate, and enjoy the peace we could have had at any time, if only we permitted ourselves to do so. We are programmed for ambition. To push ourselves. To achieve more—whatever that means. To better our situation, our minds, our finances, our status, ourselves. But our purpose is lost even as it is fulfilled. We are too well trained in anxiety to appreciate the moment of fulfilment for long. And so we want more. More of the same. More distraction from the same. We scrabble around to identify a new…

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Look Where You’re Going

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Children warned to: “Look out for … “ will walk directly into the object they have been warned away from. Their focus has been drawn to what they are supposed to avoid, not to where they wanted to be. Vision guides locomotion. Even as adults, other people’s anxiety drives us to change direction. We may know perfectly well where we are going, but are easily diverted when we believe other people know us better than we know ourselves. We allow other people to place their doubt into our minds. We look at the distractions they identify and move towards them. But only we stand where we stand. Only we see what we see. Only we know where we are going. If we want to get there, we must look where we are going, not at .  

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Jay Walking | Outlawing Desire Lines

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“Jay walking” is a politically loaded phrase. A century-old invention—a derogatory term implying the target is an empty-headed yokel—a term latched onto by the motor industry in a co-ordinated, boy-scout-endorsed rebuttal of a campaign to mechanically limit motor speeds—and a highly successful attempt to put the responsibility for increasing pedestrian deaths squarely on the shoulders of those pedestrians. With the ascendancy of the private motor car, the goal of urban planners and engineers became to allow traffic to circulate unhindered. Streets were for cars, not people. Anti-jaywalking laws were the norm in most US states by the 1930s and have been intermittently and rigorously enforced since. Even New York’s new mayor has been hoist with his own petard, called to account by the press for jaywalking, counter to his own attempts to reinforce the city’s jaywalking laws. Other parts of the world are beginning to adopt a very different approach to road…

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A Line Made By Walking

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The work documents an action by Richard Long – the creation of a transient line in nature made by repeatedly walking back and forth in a grassy field – which he then photographed from an angle at which the sunlight made the line particularly visible. The artist made this work while still a student at St Martin’s School of Art, London, where his contemporaries included the artists Gilbert & George, Barry Flanagan and Hamish Fulton. Long has described how, in June 1967, he took a train from London’s Waterloo station heading southeast, disembarked after about twenty miles and found the featureless field that was to become the site of A Line Made by Walking. Working outside the walls of the gallery in the expanded space of the real world, he created the first of his many works made by walking. For a seemingly simple and prosaic action to be understood as…

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Getting Lost in Ikea

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Anyone who desires to lose three hours of their life can easily do so by making a quick trip to Ikea. Getting lost in this retail behemoth is an obligatory experience for modern urbanites. Ikea is designed deliberately to confuse—to keep you in its warren for as long as possible and maximise the chance of impulse purchases. The labyrinthine layout is the antithesis of desire lines. Sight-lines, the catalyst for desire lines, are blocked. A natural desire for escape is deliberately thwarted and your only choice is social compliance—to be told where to go and what you desire. You desire a Swedish, minimalist home in miniature. You desire life in a 4-metre square bedsit that contains everything you could possible need, except natural light. But you can have candles instead. Grabbing the nearest soft toy or wine glass for comfort, you wander aimlessly through the meandering aisles, hoping that soon, one day,…

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Origins

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I can find no definitive source of the phrase “desire line”. It is frequently attributed to Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space”, but this appears to be a circular reference, each article citing another with the same untraceable attribution. The book itself contains no mention of the phrase. A search for the origin of a phrase is a desire line of sorts. A circular journey in search of a mythical source that spirals back to where it started. Not quite a source, but the intriguing Matthew Tiessen both gives his own delightful description of a desire line and references Bachelard’s evocation of desire lines, if not his actual use of the phrase  in this wonderful article: “Desire lines that are about pleasure are less goal oriented, they are less about going from point A to B. These ones meander, they document dilly-dallying, they succumb to the beckoning of the untravelled…

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About Desire (Lines)

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Desire is heavy, treacle-coated porridge. It is a longing for something beyond our grasp – something forbidden and of questionable virtue. Desire is complex and heavy. It has too many meanings, too many associations to ever be straightforward. It is sexual. It is greed. It is competition and power. Desire goes hand in hand with envy and other sins. It is weighted with judgement, inhibiting us from following our own will. Wherever and whoever we want to be, we are slaves to pre-set paths that take us to where and who we are told we should be. To pursue anything different is to place ourselves in contention with the accepted will of the masses. Walk this way—and only this way. Don’t walk on the grass. Behave—and behave as expected. A desire line is simple. It is a path that is formed from a wish to pass from one place to…

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Standard Definition

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A conventional explanation of desire lines, as found on the all-knowing ever-changing hive-mind of Wikipedia, runs something like this: Desire lines emerge where the shortest route between a point of origin and a destination has not been officially marked and yet is walked anyway. With increasing use, the path becomes permanently visible, its width and the depth of erosion, indicating its level of use. But this limited definition is born of the need to define something born of a need to defy definition. Desire lines do not always leave a trace. On grass and on soft organic surfaces paths may be made obvious over time. But if countless walking feet do not leave an impression, this does not negate a collective desire to walk that route. Desire lines also exist across city squares and hard surfacing where they leave no visible trace. Surely, once a desire line becomes visible in some…

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