New Welsh Review
Kendal Mountain Festival: Levison Wood
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Levison Wood, one of the most renowned speakers at this year’s Kendal Mountain Festival, shares stories about his incredible adventures and the people he meets along the way. Best known for walking the length of the Nile, the Americas, and the Arabian Peninsula, Wood is one of the most inspirational British explorers of the twenty-first century. He has spent his life travelling to the furthest points of the globe, capturing life through his camera and pen.
In his talk, Wood showcases images from his past adventures, from Botswana to Iraq to Afghanistan, and the amazing stories that go along with them. In an insightful conversation with the host, Wood delves into darker subjects such as animal poaching, wars in impoverished countries, and death coming at times when it was least expected.
The talk is shaped around his most recent, photography, book, Encounters, which is reminiscent of an early Steve McCurry hardback, with poignant prose and images that immortalise, on high-shine paper and black card, the wonderful people that Wood met in deserts, cities, jungles, villages.
The very best of humanity is found at home, when people are with their loved ones, looking after one another.
Encounters comes back again and again to the notion that human existence is flawed. As the quotation above suggests, it champions the importance of family, and looking after one another as though we were still in the very same communities we began to form thousands of years ago.
One particularly beautiful story that Wood also touches upon comes from the marshlands of southern Iraq, near the town of Chibayish. The marshes were home, for thousands of years, to the ancient Sumerian people, well known for their thatched houses and genuinely peaceful civilisation. Or at least, that was until the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein tried to ethnically cleanse the region by draining the marshes.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Sumerian tribes were forced to quit their way of life and flee. They struggled as nomads and refugees, unable to find a home that might make up for the loss of their previous life, which had depended upon the marshland.
In 2003, the Iraq War, while devastating to many in the country and region (also bringing vast geopolitical ramifications), brought a mixed blessing to the Sumerian people. The marshes became re-flooded, and return became possible. Over the past fifteen years, the Marsh Arabs have come back to the area in greater and greater numbers, and, by now, it seems that their former way of life is on its way to being restored.
Wood talks about his time spent with boatman Abu Haider and his family, who taught him about their traditional way of life, raising buffalo in the irrigation channels, and cutting grass. After years of hardship, this family had regained all they had lost.
Wood writes, ‘The sound of [Abu Haider] reciting ancient poetry amid this transformed landscape remains a haunting memory.’
Encounters dedicates a chapter to different factors affecting the Marsh Arab lifestyle: frontiers, conflict, heritage, community. In one way or another, we all experience these contrasts, and we all have our own stories to tell. And yet Wood seems to have a dynamic and useful gift for being with the most interesting people at the right time, and this leads to him being one of the best storytellers of his generation.
These stories aren’t exactly linear or chronological; instead, the layout within the book is somewhat scattered, with stories here and there, mirroring the way that, perhaps, humans undertake their own storyline. Wood goes out of his way to educate the reader, letting them in on a little secret that few know: that the key to life is other people.
At its core, Encounters is a piece of storytelling, weaving together heartbreaking tales of loss with inspirational anecdotes of rebirth, and doing its best to truly express the essence of human life. Equally as immersive a public speaker as a writer, it is no wonder that, even during a pandemic, Wood found a way to capture the hearts of audiences everywhere.
Amy Aed here concludes her series of adventure blogs covering the Kendal Mountain Festival 2020.