thoughts, dreams, and visions

authored by john lok

i write about everything. the author is john lok.

meet and depart

in the past two months i have spent time with many people. it is funny how people who have never met each other or have any history can meet and become good friends. have a good time, perhaps our paths will cross again in the future.

i always have this impending sense of not being good enough. there is fear i guess. but it’s also an indication, which is good. it’s your heart telling you to practice more so you don’t have to say “oh i’m not very good at it” – someone said yesterday to me, there are some people who say “oh yeah, I am good at that” – because they spend all their time practicing. i want to be one of those people. perhaps go out less, spend less money, dedicate your life, practice as hard as you can, stop going around and around in circles. what do you want to be good at? do you want to be sorry that you never practiced hard enough? it’s not too late to start now.

start now. what’s your passion?

the other side of the hedge

seaside

i read a short story recently by e.m. forster. it is a beautiful story that is about humanity and the way we choose to live. you can read it here. i’ll share some of my favourite parts with you.

the story starts off like this: “My pedometer told me that I was twenty-five; and, though it is a shocking thing to stop walking, I was so tired that I sat down on a milestone to rest”

this story is about “walking” – about how we are always trying to go “forward”. right at the beginning of the story, the word “milestone” is used, indicating that some type of progress is being made and indeed, that progress is measurable. the word “milestone” in my mind is a corporate cliche. it resonates with me that it’s being used this way.

“And I had already dropped several things — indeed, the road behind was strewn with the things we had all dropped; and the white dust was settling down on them, so that already they looked no better than stones.”

the author makes no mention of what these things are. when i read this, my first thought was of our dreams, desires and passions that we neglect. those many things that you want to try or used to love but gave up because they got too heavy – how are you supposed to live your life carrying so many things when there is such a long way to go? a choice must be made between the things you love. how do you choose?

“The road sometimes doubles, to be sure, but that is a part of our discipline. Who can doubt that its general tendency is onwards? To what goal we know not – it may be to some mountain where we shall touch the sky, it may be over precipices into the sea. But that it goes forward—who can doubt that? It is the thought of that that makes us strive to excel, each in his own way, and gives us an impetus which is lacking with you.”

the main “character” who is actually you since the story is written in first person, meets a man. this man shares with him his surroundings and shows “you” the path that you have been walking on. the above passage is spoken by “you” – it is taken as common knowledge that we are walking “forward” – but are we really? we don’t know the goal or where we want to go, but we walk forwards nonetheless. there are milestones, but no destination. the main character then scolds the man for having no motivation to walk forward.

“This is where your road ends, and through this gate humanity—all that is left of it—will come into us.”

true value

it’s been raining for two days at the farm.

on Monday, i learned to use a machine which takes soil from a furrow and places it to the side. you run it between rows of crops to give plants more soil. the plants like this. in the afternoon, i helped clear a field.

on tuesday i baked bread. i am getting better at it. you have to let it rise. some things are like bread. they take time to develop.

on wednesday i planted an entire field of sweet potato. this work was “back-breaking”. many of our sayings have their roots in farm work. “grow like a weed”, “you reap what you sow”, “hedge your bets”.

on thursday morning i hadn’t finished planting the sweet potatoes. i spent another morning finishing the job. the rain started. in the afternoon the last seedling was planted. Isha cooked the three tiny eggs our hens had laid. it was really good.

today i picked quinoa off the stalk. a person named jason had arrived. he has worked in “private security” and is a big fellow. i cannot find my phone. i spent the afternoon sharpening tools. it was fun.

i’ve been feeling very tired for the last few days. planting sweet potatoes is hard work. imagine squatting for three hours in anxiety-inducing heat. then you have to dig the soil. sweet potatoes propagate via cuttings. they take root at nodes.

the fireflies are out. so are the termites. they swarm during heavy rain. they are also attracted to lights.

nature isn’t all pretty. some of it is pretty damn annoying. flies like high protein food sources. i ate meat on tuesday night. on wednesday morning they hovered around be, giving me no end of acoustic aggravation. that is to say, they buzzed the fuck out of me.

farming and making food is really hard. i’ve lived in a city for so long. this is a new perspective. it seems to me that large cities are quite wasteful. food has to be packaged, transported many miles, and stored in supermarkets which play shitty music and keep the fridge on to keep the food fresh. the food in the stores isn’t even all sold. it goes into the landfill.

packaged processed food wastes energy and contributes towards a bad diet. the hustle and bustle of day to day work leaves no time for the preparation of food. many people don’t even have time to sit down in a restaurant. take-out is common and adds to the packaging problem.

some “eco-conscious” food stores are doing quite well in terms of business. they sell the idea that you can live in a city but still consume your way to a better planet.

sweet potatoes take half a year to grow.

i have written in a non-sequential manner. i’ve lost nearly four kilograms of weight since i’ve been here, which is nearly three weeks. this is healthy.

that’s it for now. i’m writing an article on growing corn. will try to finish it soon.

petroleum assisted massacre

today was a mixed day.

in the morning, me and isha raked the dead grass off a field. it had lain fallow for too long and the weeds had overgrown it. yesterday, phil had cut it all down. we were to make large piles of dead organic matter which would be saved for later use.

the thunder rumbled in the distance. not too bad of a morning. humid as a sweaty armpit that hasn’t been washed, which caused beads of sweat to roll down my forehead into my eyes. it started raining, and we continued.

the rake and the pitchfork were our friends today. it was a bit of a forced relationship really. i found them too heavy for my liking, but we eventually got along. i would switch the rake to different sides of my body so that i could use my muscles evenly. i found that holding stick end of the rake with my left hand at the base and my right hand providing fine control near the rake end of the instrument to be the best combination.

the pitchfork i used was a hybrid. it was not as big as a “pitchfork” – it was the length of a shovel with the head of a pitchfork. phil could lift an entire pile at once, which weighs around the weight of two fully loaded grocery bags. i had to settle with a slightly smaller load.

after the work was done, we went to lunch. olive, the cool dude who runs the orchard here brought us to a nearby taoist monastery. they serve free vegetarian lunch every day. this in itself was new to me. it was excellent food. unfortunately i had to sit in the trunk section of a 15 year old clunker with no seatbelt on and a lunatic at the wheel. however i haven’t died yet so i suppose it wasn’t too bad.

after lunch i was asked to mow a section of the farm. i don’t like mowing for several reasons. first of all it’s loud as fuck. the second is that it’s heavy. the third is that it kills things.

the mower is a frightening device. this is not an exaggeration. it is a two stroke motor with a long shaft. at the end is a large two sided metal blade that spins at many revolutions per second. think “propeller on a stick”. should i wish, i could inflict grievous bodily harm to a person of my choice.

i tug on the cord that starts the engine. it coughs and then it starts. its whine drowns out the sound of nature.

i told a fellow volunteer…”i don’t like mowing. i killed many things today.”

i have destroyed the homes of many insects. i have personally shattered the shells and splattered the innards into the air of several beautifully formed snails. i have created noise and air pollution as well as destroying the environment. i watched the wings of an eviscerated butterfly float onto the ground. i am a monster.

so much of this is happening on a even larger scale so that we can have a few nice pieces of furniture or go to a nice steak restaurant and have a dinner. sure, the existence of oil and its associated products have helped us create miracles of modern science. but then at what cost?

stories

“have you ever written any stories?”

i was asked this question yesterday, which got me thinking. what exactly is a story? can anything be a story? as a journalist i write “stories” on certain subjects. but then, “authors” also write “stories”. is there any difference between these stories? one may use the qualitative aspects of each to define them, but then that seems to be being pedantic about definitions. however you could also argue that writing about the meaning of the word “story” is also pedantic.

the first definition i find from a quick search is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment” – this to me sounds like a weak definition. the origin is the latin word “historia”, which eventually becomes “estorie” in anglo-norman french, and then becomes “story” in middle english. stories are so much more than recounting events for entertainment. they are how humans communicate. there is the story the boy who cried wolf. there is the story of cinderella, of hansel and gretel. there are more complicated stories like lolita, anna karenina, 1984, etc. these are all stories. what’s the difference between them? what are the similarities?

the first similarity i can think of is that there is reason that these stories were written. it might not be immediately obvious to the reader, however. here is where literary analysis comes into handy. one can analyse so many things – you could analyse the structure, syntax, and choice of vocabulary. or you could analyse the characters and their relationships. it seems that for some stories, the characters are metaphors, and the actual “story” is something other than what is written (damn these authors, but praise them too), and for some of these stories, the message and meaning they want to convey is more clear, for example in the case of 1984 and Animal Farm (George Orwell).

thinking and writing about “stories” – perhaps i could also try categorising different stories. for example, the Sherlock Holmes or Artemis Fowl series (Eoin Colfer) are more “entertainment” – in that i feel that the stories are very accessible and that it’s the type of book that gets you hooked on turning their pages. we can learn a lot from these authors in terms of pacing and character development. however in the case of the Artemis Fowl series, entertainment can also help change the world. in the stories, humans are known as the “Mud People” as we used to live in mud huts. a second race exists on the planet with magical powers. The author makes a point of depicting humans as backwards, polluting and warlike species (which we are to a certain extent), whereas the fairies are depicted as technologically advanced, environmentally conscious, peaceful beings. in an implicit manner, Eoin Colfer used a children’s book series to make a comment on human beings as a whole. an admirable use of the story medium.

there are also stories like 1984 and Brave New World – these books are *entertaining* but they are also creating worlds which we can experience without actually having to be in those worlds – “what-if”. i think we are much better off reading about Orwell’s vision of a world under surveillance and cultural control than actually living it, although some would argue (and perhaps i would agree) that many of the things that he wrote about were prescient, and they are already happening. the great thing about these types of stories is that they help you realise what is happening, since in your daily life you are like a fish in water – the water doesn’t occur to you. these stories add food colouring to the water (if you would grant me the pleasure of extending my simile).

each of us has a story too. that type of story would be the type you live out on a day to day basis, that is written during every second. you aren’t writing it, but imagine that someone is writing it – how would you feel like reading it? our stories affect others, and others ours. live a great story, tell great stories. i think that’s what matters.

we will never win

today’s thought: we will never “win” against nature. what do i mean by this?

this means…well, here are some things i did today that make me think this. i went weeding this morning, which is the act of removing plants from a crop field which are undesired or not the crop that is being grown. i’ve gotten used to it and i would enjoy it if it weren’t for the heat and dizziness you get from crouching down too long, which is exactly what i experienced. you get to hear the birds singing and the toads croaking. you also get to see lady bugs as well as bumblebees which have made their home. you also get to see really cool insects and egg formations (this is a thing).

credit to whoever took this photo

so i spent the whole morning doing this excercise. the main muscles involved are probably the lower back and legs. plants have amazing regenerative powers. for the type of weed that i was destroying, if you didn’t cut all the way down to the roots, they would regrow. in an area of a tennis field, i took the whole morning and i had barely made a dent in the weed population. there is no way that the weeds will ever be all destroyed. they grow too fast. we can’t win this battle. nature will do what it likes. it tolerates our existence for now.

after a nice lunch of soy curds, potatoes and cabbage, and sesame noodles it was my duty to bring the compost bin to the composting area. but this was after i learned “autumn leaves” on the piano. it’s a beautiful song, with a “simple” chord progression of II, V, I, IV, VII, III, which is pretty simple to remember once you’ve got it down. it’s a jazz standard apparently, so I’ll have to practice and get fluent at it. but i was talking about composting, yes.

the thing about composting is that it doesn’t smell very nice. fresh compost is pretty gross. our senses were designed to think of rotting food as “inedible” so we naturally find it gross. but flies like it a lot. in fact they lay their eggs in food waste, and start eating away at the super nutritious food waste. it’s a sight to behold. worms, worms, worms everywhere. technically i think they are maggots, since they eventually become flies. but there they were, having the time of their lives, reproducing and gorging themselves. olive, our mentor, taught chichi (another volunteer here) how to scrape the maggots using a dustpan and a painting brush into a container to be used as feed for chicken. that’s where your organic eggs come from, maggots from rotting food fed to chickens. it’s safe, i promise.

tasks included turning the compost so that the different areas of compost could get some fresh air and decay going on. compost also requires heat, moisture, and a suitable mix of green and brown matter. fresh food waste is considered as “green” matter, whereas old compost, leaves and woody bits are considered “brown” matter. we were instructed to shovel “fresh” smelling food compost as well as chickenshit mixed with food waste, which smells wonderful. sort of like the opposite of flowers in the breeze. so i suppose if you asked me to make compost now, i could probably attempt it. microorganisms is where it’s at. they are the shit (literally).

so when we die, that’s what’s going to happen. maggots will eat us, the chicken will eat the maggots, and humans will then eat those “organic” eggs and chicken. we will never win, so we might as well enjoy it while we can.

bread and meat

i’ve been thinking about the things I’m doing. i actually try to do it so that i can write about it after i do them.

in the morning, i ate two bananas for breakfast. if there’s one thing there isn’t a shortage of here, it’s bananas. everywhere i go i see bananas. i can’t walk for five minutes without seeing a banana tree. they taste good, but also smell pretty bad when they start rotting. perhaps i’ll write a poem about bananas in the future. i’ve probably eaten some kind of banana-based food every day i have been here. i may get sick of them soon. the point is, i ate two bananas for breakfast.

then, i started making bread with subeer. we started last night, creating the “base mix” by mixing whole wheat with yeast and water. this morning we measured out the proper amounts. the number of cockroaches i saw in the bakery alarmed me, as well as the little baby cockroaches. there isn’t any hot water or soap to wash things with. maybe we are too clean. it seems that the human body can tolerate a certain amount of bacteria and pathogens.

we added some refined white flour to the whole wheat dough. whole wheat has certain sharp particles that cut the gluten in the dough in half, so it’s easier to have more white flour than whole wheat flour to keep the dough elastic.

we then used a machine to knead the dough. the machine is pretty powerful, and i imagine if you stuck any bodily appendage in there it would probably hurt. if the kneading was done by a human, it would probably take a big muscular dude to do it (hence in my mind bakers are now super muscular, strong men). after that was done, we let the dough rest for a while and to let the yeast do its work. the dough can get pretty big and it’s very fun to slap. you can a nice “SLAP”-ing sound when you slap it, like hitting a fat behind.

then came the process by which you release the air in the dough. you stick your fingers in there and make holes. you also flip the dough so different parts of the dough get to rise. i worked with a 12kg dough. it doesn’t seem like much, but if you are doing a lot of them, you would probably get strong pretty fast.

then came the baking. before there were non-stick pans, before baking paper there were cast iron moulds and oil. and also a lot of cleaning and washing as the dough tends to stick to the moulds after baking. this meant that i had to clean a lot of stuff. note to self: remember to clean dough off utensils before it hards (it becomes hard and sticks to whatever surface).

and the bread was complete. bread is good. it is tasty and nutritious (if you use whole wheat).

we finished early so i headed out to town on a half broken bike. the brakes were not functional so i had to stop the bike using my boots. a kindly man and a store pumped up my tires and gave me directions to the nearest bike store. when i reached the bike store i asked to fix the brakes and how much it would cost. a man came a long and fixed the front brake in a minute at no cost. i think people try to be good.

i then went to a vietnamese food store i saw before. i then thought about how good it would feel to have a bowl of beef pho. is there anything wrong with eating meat? what of the ethical concerns? after eating vegetarian food for several days, i really wanted to eat meat. i suppose it’s understandable why people would want to meat. it’s a luxury, really.

in hong kong however i feel that we eat a lot of meat. every meal includes some type of meat product. aside from being bad for the environment, much of our meat is produced in factory farms. animals are subject to unliveable conditions. on one hand however, factory farming reduces greenhouse gas emissions. on the other hand it causes disease and many farms discriminately use antibiotics to “help” the animals grow faster, produce more eggs and milk. there are many videos. the way we raise animals for meat could do with some improvement.

then i thought about how many of the problems of the city come from overcrowding. why do we use so much electricity? we have too much concrete and the land absorbs too much heat, so we have to turn on air conditioning. why do we not separate our waste? there is no space and the waste transport service is too convenient. why do we work so hard and spend it all so quickly? we don’t create our own food. we have not labored and sweated for our sustenance. it seems that we do “knowledge work”, but what are we actually doing? it’s so small. you watch a device project images at you, and you react to it. of course, i know i am generalizing, but i know that many jobs in hong kong are of a similiar nature. apparently all of this is in pursuit of money, so you can spend it on more luxurious goods. as if some goods are more “luxurious” than others.

there is also the rampant selling of “lifestyle” that gets on my nerves. every day i see some type of advertisement that proclaims to make you better, feel happier, be accepted by society more, be more attractive. if we didn’t spend so much time in a sedentry lifestyle perhaps we wouldn’t need these products. perhaps if we ate better we would not need so many gyms and beauty products. luxury goods are a lie. they are a slap in the face for many people on this earth.

i cycled home and passed a temple. i arrived at the volunteer quarters and started writing.

i am listening to the tones of miles davis, with the sound of cicadas and the warm evening air making me sweat slightly. for now, i don’t need anything else. there is one thing i want though. one person in particular :).

seeds

皇帝豆 is the name of the type of beans/seeds i was asked to sort. in english i believe they are called broad beans.

i was asked to find beans/seeds that were of a particular character. they had to have no discolourations (indicating freshness and vitality), no wrinkles on their skin (showing that that particular bean did not shrink due to rot), amongst other factors.

then i started thinking about how i was choosing the beans. i think there were around 200 beans i had to sort (by hand). any bean that was not “suitable” was discarded, regarded as unfit for propagation. or perhaps i am over thinking things. they probably would not germinate anyway.

amongst these two hundred beans i found a parallel to us, as humans. out of all the beans, statistically speaking perhaps one out of ten beans were “suitable”, and out of those “suitable” beans, perhaps one out of ten of THOSE were “perfect” beans.

i guess i have a platonic ideal of what a bean should look like.

my point is probably that humans are probably similiar. if all humans were beans and i had to pick them out of a basket. human beans…

first day

sometimes i think a factual recount of all the things i do in a day is not worth the time it takes to write up. but! i will write it up anyway, to see what happens.

i woke up to the sound of birds. again. they seem to be a noisy bunch. however, the sound of birds chirping is infinitely preferable to the whine of a double decker bus, which i used to wake up to. you would know that “business is open” back in the city, but here it’s more like “hey! we have woken up and we are going to talk as loudly as possible to wake up, it is likely that you may want to wake up now!”

i did not feel particularly great. sleeping on a new bed is always a challenge, and this time it seemed that certain muscles were strained during my sleep. during my sleep! sleep costs energy. it’s why we feel hungry in the morning, which brings us to breakfast. the breakfast was one guava and two bananas. i think it was enough.

the night before i met a fellow called “subeer” or something like that. he informed me i would be working with a person called “phil” in the morning, although i have heard him referred to as “fiero” and “pharoah” amongst other pronunciations. i walked around at 730am in the morning, seeing whether this mythical person would show up.

i was asked destroy some weeds. he is a middle aged man, i would guess around thirty. he wears glasses and has no fat on his body at all. his getup was suited to his job. long sleeved undershirt, big straw hat, rain boots. ah yes, the weed destroying is called ‘weeding’. i get to use a weeding tool, which is a curved serrated blade. you stick it in the soil and pull it towards you and all the plants you don’t like suffer a painful death, if they could feel pain. i felt like a person who could judge whether a living being was fit for survival or not. i had the power to decide whether a plant was destroyed or kept.

judging plants are difficult, especially if they look the same. some plants have hairs on them, some plants have heart shaped leaves with points, some plants have heart shaped leaves with no points. under an unrelenting, nuclear powered ball of gas (the sun) it is not an easy task to separate weed from desired foodcrop, especially if you are wearing a no sleeved vest (my fault) and you are not used to crouching.

if you like bugs and insects you should probably go weeding. i saw many, many different types of insects just on my short weeding trip alone. i saw insect eggs on the bottom of leaves. i saw ladybugs. i saw dragonflies like floating matchsticks. i saw a bumblebee glaring at me from his burrow in the ground. i tried to avoid him/her.

subeer took me on a trip around tainan. he missed many turns and got the date of a music concert completely wrong. we did however get to eat excellent economical taiwanese food, which is something i wanted.

stay tuned for the next installment of “John Works on an Organic Farm”…

i’m here…or there?

the birds sound different.

i am lucky to live in a countryside area. i wake up to the sound of birds. i can never see them but i can always hear them. some of them go “oo oo ooo ooooo oooooo” and some of them go “yip yip yip”. today i heard one go “bobobobobobo”.

i start work tomorrow. i will work on the vegetable patch for the whole day.

on monday i will work in the morning with Olive, the orchid manager. in the afternoon i will work with Phil.

i am alone here, but i am in tune with nature. i can hear them outside.