Valued or Exploited? #WorkingOutLoud on Types of Trust

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been exploring trust, looking at ways that we can quantify this highly subjective experience with the view to creating a baseline of what trust means to different people in different types of organisations around the world. My hope is that, from this work, I can produce some kind of diagnostic around the types of trust that exist within an organisation, and a view on whether these are functional, the bare minimum we need, or invested, the added value type of trust. In this, the second prototype question, I have asked people whether they feel exploited or valued by the organisation that they work for.

Types of Trust

Both the question and these initial results should be taken with a pinch of salt: my aim at this stage is simply to surface the notions that we will explore, and to identify opposing pairs. For example, is the pairing of exploitation and value a fair one?

In the last piece of writing about this, I discussed how we run the risk of building a house of cards, one subjective understanding upon another. Whilst this is a possibly unavoidable feature of this type of work, the intention is less to provide some kind of fixed score, more to produce a kind of heat map that shows how one organisation differs from the baseline. This may suggest targeted interventions to build and earn trust.

Let’s take an initial look at these results: 31% of people responded that their organisation often exploits them, 19% believed that the organisation sometimes exploits them, 33% believe the organisation usually values them, and 17% believes that the organisation deeply values them. There were 175 respondents to this prototype question, so slightly short of the 200 I am aiming for at this early stage.

The most notable conclusion is this: if we add them up 50% of people believe that the organisation sometimes or often exploits them, and 50% of people believe that the organisation usually or deeply values them. We should be wary of taking any solace from this, because although the positive to negative balance is 50/50, 31% of people believed they were often exploited, yet only 17% believed they were deeply valued. Most opted for the bracket of usually being valued, so we could read into this that opinions are more polarised towards exploitation.

However we choose to caveat this, and allowing for both sample size and imperfection of the prototype question, it is a surprising result, to me at least. One thing I try to hold true in this research is that people can hold multiple, somewhat contradictory, and concurrent views about the organisation that they work for. For example, in one context we may feel valued, yet in another context we feel deeply annoyed, or even exploited.

In the two subsequent questions, which I will look at next week, I explore the notion of value and reward, part of producing a more granular and nuanced view of what trust really means to people.

There is clearly more work to do to understand what people mean by exploitation, and to explore whether this self reporting of exploitation relates to one or two specific instances, or a wider sense of disquiet. From previous interviews, I have noted that often a failure and trust stems from one single incident, but this may not be a generalisable feature.

The intention is to continue to explore a wide range of prototype questions, to expand out the framework of trust, using the notion of functional trust and invested trust, possibly introducing the notion of implicit trust as well. Once I feel the structure of the questions is right, I will build them into a survey to, and repeat the process, to see how replicable these early results are, and to explore cultural, or sector specific differences, for example, differences between Asia and America, or differences between military and industrial contexts.

Once that is complete, I’ll try to prototype the diagnostic tool in a range of organisations, and see where that takes us. As ever, I am working out loud, sharing my thinking and learning as I go, I am happy if this thinking is incomplete, and happy to take feedback and thoughts on how to make it better.

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#WorkingOutLoud on the Types of Trust Model

Trust is complicated: a word we use easily and frequently and yet one which contains a great deal of ambiguity when we try to nail down its meaning. We know it when we feel it, we know it when we lose it, we enjoy it when we have it, and yet it’s very hard to put a circle around it. I have a fairly simple aim with this work: to take the notion of trust and break it down into some pragmatic and practical areas that we can consider. I want to build a baseline of data, through surveying a range of organisations, to show how trust is manifest in these different sub areas, and to help understand the implications when it is lacking.

Preliminary Types of Trust model

Because trust is so subjective, we can’t take a mechanistic approach, imagining that if we do this one thing we will effect this other reaction. The best we can do is to understand that there are nuances trust, perhaps levels of trust, and that some are easier to attain than others.

The reason for this research is that so much of my wider work around the Social Age is founded upon assumptions of trust: the Social Age sees the rise of communities, founded upon trust, developed and nurtured through high functioning connections.

Currently I am prototyping some of the questions which may form part of the baseline survey, and yesterday I shared some thoughts around the first of these, which indicated that many people have low or no trust in the organisation that they work for. Other questions currently in the field explore how trust is felt: for example, many people appear to value a sense of freedom, and it will be interesting to see how this correlates with the tendency of many organisations to restrict and control.

What if the things that we do to make us safe also erode the trust that we need?

You’ll see in the early work on the model above, and through the writing I did yesterday, that I’m starting to look at trust into tiers: functional trust, and invested trust. Functional trust is the bare minimum required for an organisation to be coherent, trust that you will be paid, that you are physically safe in most contexts, or that the organisation at least has some foundational belief in your value. Invested trust, by contrast, is a layer above this, and we take it for granted at our peril. Functional trust is the foundation, but invested trust is the win.

Trust Survey Results

It’s that layer of invested trust but I’m currently trying to break down and expand upon. Some of the early responses have indicated that freedom is an important component of trust, so in future questions I want to expand upon what freedom means, how do we know it when we experience it or see it, and that is at the root of my existential angst today!

The problem with subjective constructs like trust, freedom and hope comes if we try to define them through other subjective constructs. We run the risk of creating a fallacious web of dependencies that is easily eroded when we differ on one term. To say I’m hoping to avoid that is obvious, but more easily stated than achieved.

And ultimately looking for a pragmatic view of this: the ability organisations to benchmark themselves against others, and to understand specific areas they can focus upon to earn the trust of those very people they have employed into their communities.

So far, the two components of invested trust that I’m thinking about of freedom, and nurturing. Freedom is coming through as a strong theme through the preliminary survey work, and nurturing I will explore further, but intuitively it seems as though in a trusted relationship there should be some developmental context, and intrinsic support for the development.

I’m conflicted as to whether reward will form a component of invested trust. So far it is featuring very low in the survey responses, I may simply be asking the wrong questions. It is possible that reward just forms part of functional trust, but again, I suspect that is not true. Being paid may be functional, but being rewarded over and above that feels like it moves into an invested type of trust.

I’m leaving this here today, in the hope that further research and type reflection will provide the answers.

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A Question Of Trust. #WorkingOutLoud #Research

I’m exploring the notion of trust, some early stage work to provide a baseline and to identify areas for more detailed research. Why trust? Because it’s a much used word with a very loosely defined meaning, and because types of trust are central to many aspects of the Social Age. Social leaders earn the trust that they are rewarded through their actions within their communities. In social learning, we learn within and alongside communities and require high levels of trust to fully engage. In my more recent work on the Socially Dynamic Organisation, I talk about cocreated and co-owned change, but that change must happen with a foundation trust, a trust that the organisation will be fair in the way that it deals with change. I’m #WorkingOutLoud as I develop these ideas.

Trust Survey Results

To kick things off I’ve been doing some survey work with limited populations and will be sharing some of the initial results as I form my ideas. The piece I want to look at today asked the question, “Do you have trust in the organisation that you work for”, and gave four options: ‘total trust’, ‘some trust’, ‘low trust’, and ‘no trust’.

The question was asked in an open forum, on Twitter, and had 366 responses, so whilst unrepresentative, it does provide a baseline, and I will replicate this in other forum to see if results broadly correlate. I was somewhat surprised by the initial response.

16% of respondents expressed total trust in the organisation they work for. 30% had some trust. That gives us a total of 46% of respondents sitting on the positive side of the fence, although with a relatively low number expressing total trust.

20% of respondents said they had low trust in the organisation that they work for, and 34% have no trust at all. So 54% of respondents have low or no trust, with the highest majority stating that they have no trust at all. To me this was a surprising result: I expected more people would hedge their bets in the some trust, or low trust brackets.

We can speculate on a range of reasons why there is this skew towards very low trust. The survey is anonymous and therefore an easy place to express dissent with no consequence: just by expressing that we have no trust in the organisation does not mean we do not exhibit trust -like behaviours. In other words what we are measuring is not a lack of trust per se, but rather an expressed lack of trust that may not translate into actions. We should not take too much comfort from this, because clearly the expression itself of no trust indicates some kind of social discontent and foundational problem within some organisations today.

I’m looking at a range of ways to expand this work out. One obvious thing to do is to explore what trust actually means to people: how will they see the organisation behave when it trusts them, and how will they behave when they have high trust in the organisation. In other words, what do we actually lose in practical terms if the people who work in an organisation have low or no trust. Do they simply express dissent and continue to work as effectively as before, or is something missing?

My hypothesis is that organisations with low trust or no trust are substantially disadvantaged when it comes to being Socially Dynamic. Much of the interaction within communities, the sense making and sharing, requires high levels of trust, because it requires high levels of disclosure, high levels of support, much nurturing, and a high permission to fail in certain spaces with no consequence. I suspect that sense of consequence and expectation of punishment will closely correlate to sense of trust.

The Socially Dynamic Organisation

One reason for looking at what trust actually means to people is to categorise types of trust, and it’s this that I hope to do from this work. My initial hypothesis is that there are layers trust, and that each incremental layer is harder to attain, but delivers higher rewards. It’s effectively a gradient from very basic levels of trust that allow the organisation to function, through to very high levels of trust, consistently felt, that allow the organisation to be truly Socially Dynamic, highly adaptable, and able to thrive.

For the moment, I’m working with two definitions: functional trust, and invested trust, although I expect to broaden these categories over time. Functional trust is a foundational type of trust required for the organisation to be coherent and work at any level. It’s the expectation that you will be paid at the end of the month. It’s the expectation that nobody will steal things from your desk drawer every day. It’s the expectation that at some fundamental level the organisation is at worst indifferent to you as a person, not actively hostile towards you. Whilst in comfortable Western spaces this may be taken for granted, I suspect there are plenty of organisations operating without functional trust, organisations that rely overly much on systems of control and manifestations of power to maintain momentum.

Functional trust is unable to deliver the Socially Dynamic Organisation, to do that, we need an invested type of trust. Invested trust goes beyond the foundations: it would be expressed as some kind of added sense of value, some sense of belonging and community, some sense that the organisation actively nurtures us and values us, a sense that the community around us brings positive capability and energy, high social capital.

I’m already carrying out some follow-up survey work, asking people to use words to describe what trust means to them at work, to ask how valued people feel. I hope to paint a landscape upon which trust is formed, and to explore some kind of baseline to see the key areas we need to focus on to earn trust, and to fully understand the consequences when we lack trust. At a basic level, I’d like to bring some clarity, at least in my own thinking, to such a subjective term.

If you’d like to take part in the early stage survey work, you can find the polls on Twitter. From this early work, I will create a broader survey tool in Survey Monkey, and share that here in time.

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Types of Trust

I’m starting some early stage research and writing about trust, primarily to explore the impacts of trust on the different Social aspects of the organisation, and to envision the typical ways that trust is built, earned and squandered. I’m starting with some survey work, to distinguish between ‘types of trust‘.

Types of Trust

The hypothesis is that there is ‘functional trust‘, the belief that the organisation will pay you, for example, and other types of higher order trust. Functional trust is almost taken for granted if we bother to turn up to work, but the higher orders of trust are more valuable and more vulnerable. My hypothesis is that higher orders of trust are needed in the Socially Dynamic Organisation.

I will #WorkOutLoud on these ideas as i evolve them out over the coming weeks.

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Switzerland: Tunnels and Bridges

I have an irrational fear of disused industrial spaces: large abandoned warehouses freak me out, especially when they have derelict, decaying doors. Don’t ask me why: i already caveated it with ‘irrational’. Once i stayed in Belgium at the end of a street of warehouses (it was a budget hotel…): the walk home at the end of an evening was so traumatic that i eventually opted to walk the much longer indirect route. Going around the problem rather than tackling it head on. The Swiss would have gone under it.

Switzerland

There are many tunnels here, some so short, that you catapult through with a short blink, others so long that you cross mountain ranges, so long that you lose memory of the light. All are dark, all lost spaces. Tunnels are cheating, and the earth knows it. Tunnels steal space from rocky mass: they make mockery of the landscape, subverting it through pickaxe and dynamite, barrow and train. Tunnels don’t break a sweat with the climb: they reach down through the cracks and fissures, taking the low road, taking the cold road.

Bridges soar: concrete beams carry forces along engineered lines. They are a triumph of aesthetic violence, an equilibrium of entropy and art. Bridges partition air, creating arcs and arches, solidifying space, conjoining disparate edges. They complete and traverse. Bridges are beautiful, either through simplicity or guile.

Switzerland

Tunnels have none of this: they are all bleak mass. Shale and power. Tunnels are about removal and loss. They are wrung from the earth, carved and shattered, blown and chipped. The earth resists the tunnel, denies progress, resents completion.

Rock is a fickle thing: sometimes solid, immovable, ‘standing like a rock’, to be ‘my rock’, a rock in times of trouble, but sometimes frail, friable, rotten and loose, splintered shales and sandstone slipping, rock slides, rock falls, collapse and catastrophe, shifting, biting, trapping, moving, earthquakes and volcanoes spewing forth molten rock, punishing, pushing, progressing, sometimes geologic but sometimes immediate in it’s timescale, never certain, never truly solid, changing colour in the wet: smoothed and polished, washed and tumbled, hard yet sculpted by water or the hand of man, made beautiful yet with that beauty fragility and risk, the sculpture cracked, the mountain hewn, the flint knapped, the ragged edges ground to dust.

When you fracture flint you can see the conchoidal fracture: concentric rings of warbled stone that look like frozen ripples in a lake. The tension within exhibited for all to see: frozen power and grace. Stone is like this: the outside rough and weathered, the beauty within. Frozen at formation and teased out by artist and architect, or simply the action of sun and ice.

Switzerland

We can imagine the bridge designer standing at the edge of the abyss: staring into the void, captivated by the vista that stretches around them, horizon to horizon, the shape of the mountains, the curve of the river, calculating the span, estimating the reach, thinking about loads and forces, newtons and pounds, traffic volumes and pedestrian views. Bridges are the sweep of pencil curving across the paper, the graphite gliding smoothly, completing the art. Bridges are cables and decks, suspension and cantilever, redirected force and leveraged power.

The cables of bridges are spun in place: looms running up and down the wire, interlocking, interlacing, weaving and twisting, tiny strands uniting in strength and tension. In some sense, they are single strands, a hairs width, twined and intertwined into enormous hanks of potential and tension.

Switzerland

Bridges impinge upon the landscape, they are part of the landscape, they extend the reach of our journey, the distance the last stride. We talk about ‘bridging a gap’, as if the gap must be closed, the circle complete. We bridge between spaces: to bridge is to connect, to align, to cross. We bridge the divide, we bridge a gap in understanding. Without the bridge there is simply ignorance: it completes the knowledge, it empowers exploration.

We ‘build bridges’ when we want to reconcile, when we wants to befriend, when we want to close years of conflict through simple acts of conversation and connection. We build bridges of olive branches, reaching out, across that which separates us. The bridge is literally the symbol of connection: a disjointed bridge would collapse.

There’s an interesting thing about arches: they can crack and move in three places before they collapse: they are resilient through design, through form, resilient through their actual beauty. The Romans knew this: it’s the keystone that locks them in place. You can build one yourself out of bricks: build a wooden former, then lay bricks sideways over it, until you lock it with the keystone. You can remove the wooden former and the arch remains intact: the forces locked in. The weight is not lost, held or displaced: it’s transferred, moved sideways and down until the earth itself can bear it. Arches are almost magical in the way they transfer force through simple beauty.

Swiss Mountains

Tunnels, by contrast, are beasts of need: we undermine, we dig deep, we burrow. The tunnel is never visible except where it ingests and disgorges. Dysfunctional in the extreme: function over form the nth degree.

The tunnel is never the destination: it’s sole purpose is to get us there, to increase the speed, to reduce the distance, enable passage where previously we simply stopped.

Stone Age man may have retreated into caves to avoid predators, to seek shelter, but the tunnels of today are not new caves, but rather places sacrosanct, reserved for cars and trains, these places do not beckon with the light.

As I travel through Switzerland I experience both: incredible bridges sweeping over water, deep tunnels taking me underground. They are two parts of the same journey: the journey cannot be complete without them both, and yet both are not equal. The bridge engages me with the view, completes the vista, whilst tunnels dislocate and separate, providing successive snapshots of reality, disjointed by the dark.

In this landscape, this is a thing of necessity. Switzerland is a truly chequerboard landscape, some squares green and farmed, others scoured from the slopes, terraced and planted, reclaimed and sometimes ancient, other squares just inaccessible, mountainous and precipitous, sharp and deadly. This is a fractured landscape, beautiful in its disconnection, but nonetheless almost impossible to traverse in anything approaching a straight line. Switzerland is corners and curves, this is circumnavigation and relocation, it’s about height and depth, not simply North and South, it is about angles and slopes, not simply left and right.

It brings a certain third dimension to geography, not simply an inconvenient hill, but an impassible range. The language of bridges and tunnels is one that was hard learned, learned by necessity, and mastered as an art. We talk about landscape as if it is natural, but this landscape in many ways is man-made, connected by man. Without us, it would still be disjointed, fragmented, but with these railways and roads, carried through the tunnels and bridges, it becomes enjoined. It becomes coherent. The Canton’s become connected, and through these connections is built a nation.

Whilst mountains are measured in feet and metres, tunnels are measured in years, years taken to construct, and often lives lost during that construction. The danger is apparent: these things are hewn with dynamite and drill, pneumatic pressure to fracture, cracked and leveraged, shattered and broken, pulled from earth, stone pulled from stone. They are excavated not simply built. Whilst the bridge builder looks out and imagines arches, the tunneller is all angles and distances. It is all fine tuning and brute force. It is engineering at it’s most violent. It’s the primitive instinct to dig and hide, tamed and entrusted to deliver us to our destination.

Breakthrough.

Bridges are built slowly, the purpose apparent from the outset, slowly constructed, hands reaching out across the water, they are built in stages and sections, and as they do so, they slowly gain grace, slowly gain form, bridges can be almost organic in the ways that they stretch, the ways that they finally connect. There is no sudden surprise in the completion of a bridge.

By contrast, the tunnel is abstract until the breakthrough. The final stick of dynamite, the final few metres, the final explosion. Rock, noise, and dust. Smoke and trauma. And, finally, after all the years, after all young lives, daylight.

The tunnel is only a tunnel when it is complete: this is the final fracture which gives it purpose, which makes it functional, which proves its meaning. Without it, it is simply folly, it is quite literally just a hole in the ground. The tunnel exists in a digital state: it either is or is not. Like a flickering zoetrope, it is true purpose is only visible when the light flickers and the movement is apparent.

The journey through Switzerland is one of beauty, a hard-won beauty, beauty of connection. The viewed experience, the journey that we paint, the maps that we draw, are drawn through the connection of many spaces, bridged and tunnelled, but finally complete. The final span, the final flicker, the journey complete.

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Switzerland: Lost And Aimless

There is something most wonderful about being both lost and aimless. Lost in a new world, a new space, exploring and questing, spontaneously discovering, roaming and wandering. With just a map and travel card, and an old-fashioned, old world, curled paper book as a guide, one can travel the railways around the country, aimless and lost, building a new understanding, a new reality, finding a new sense of place.

The Swiss Alps

In today’s world, it’s hard to be lost: lost geographically, or lost for a lack of knowledge. Everything is at our fingertips, and to be lost is a bad thing. It implies we are out of place, dislocated from our meaning, irrelevant and pointless. And yet to be lost is to discover, to become enlightened through walking, to create a new sense of meaning, outside of our everyday reality, but born from our experience. This is not somebody else’s journey, but mine, mine to be found, mine to be lost.

Maps are beautiful: abstractions of reality, representative and yet not the thing. A simplified version of the thing. A dream of a shadow of the thing. A faint echo of the thing. Even photographs are mere pale reflections: captured frames and colours, shadows and form, but not the spirit and soul of the thing. We are limited by directions: forwards and backwards, left and right, up and down. That simple range of choices, travelling forward through time, are the tools through which we construct our journey. And yet through those simple acts of movement and exploration, we learn, and discover. We navigate through space and build our understanding.

Exploration could be considered an act of subdivision: first review the vista, the widest spaces, the broad sectioning and layout of the new cityscape. Then we cross it, recross it, and cross it again, subdividing the large into the small, walking the trail, walking the streets, filling in broad swathes of detail, interrelating one to another. We take this roughly painted picture and repeat it, subdividing, reducing, discovering, until the point where we stand or sit in one place, motionless, looking at one building, one painting, one brick, down to the finest level of granular detail.

Switzerland

We are found in the moment, in the place, I am here, I am now, I understand how this place relates to the widest reality. I understand where I stand upon the map. I was lost, but I am found. I am here. I am now.

Exploring can be the purpose in itself: my home is my reality, my world is my known world, but when I travel I leave it behind.

I am displaced, i am lost, I am renewed, I am new, in a new place, new spaces, new people, new corners and directions, I am lost, and yet I understand how to be found. I walk, I look around, I build my understanding, time and again, from one place to the next. I travel around Switzerland and build the journey as I go, aimlessly wandering, and yet not aimless as I explore, not a predestined, or preordained journey, but an emergent one. A journey of the soul.

Switzerland

I draw, not to capture, not to immortalise the thing, but to understand the spirit of the thing, to make sense of the thing. Photos are still abstractions of reality, drawings even more so. They do not capture the spirit, they reflect it.

Travel is exhausting. Travel is exciting. Not because of the distance we walk, but because everything is new, everything. Everything is change. Every footstep changes the view, every vista that opens is different from the last, we are built in our heads to understand things, to make sense of them, to codify and make them simple. We build our scripts and schemas to make us self-sufficient in the every day, but as everything changes around us, our scripts become worthless.

We are constantly lost, constantly trying to be found. We have to build and rebuild our understanding of where we are, without any notion of where we are going. This is what it is to explore.

Whilst feet may walk the miles, the discovery may be in our heads. To travel is to learn, sometimes to learn about ourselves.

Switzerland

We say ‘I know this place like the back of my hand’ to describe a place that we know intimately, where we know every detail, every crease and fold, every line and wrinkle. I use this phrase to talk about the fields and hills of home.

We use it to imply intimacy and knowledge, comfort and security. I cannot be lost to because I know it like the back of my hand. You can take comfort, you can take solace, we are not lost, we are found.

The back of our hand is the lanes of our childhood, the paths of our youth, the routes we take to find comfort and hope. The back of our hand is familiar through experience and from simply being right in front of us: we see, we see the familiar, and in the familiar we find comfort.

Hands age: are these my hands? They crease and burn, used endlessly, worn and travelled, our hands are the map of our lives. I remember seeing a blacksmiths hands, thickened, hardened by fire, strengthened through iron, hand of work, hands of the story. Our hands are the maps of our lives. The blacksmiths story written upon his skin. The back of his hand.

But what is the opposite of this? What do we say when the hand is hidden? I am lost, lost without a trace, lost without hope, lost in the twists and turns, lost in space, lost in time, hopelessly lost. That sense of hope and loss goes together: if I am found I have hope, without location I am hopelessly lost. If we constrain ourselves to security through simply being found, we lose the joy of discovery and exploration.

And yet being lost can give hope, hope of discovery, hope of renewal.

It is possible to hold both loss and dislocation simultaneously in mind: the landscape of Switzerland stretches out around me, I am in a village, I’m in a town, I am not lost, I understand how it fits, how it conforms to the pattern. I am here, I’m safe, I am now, and yet I’m lost in the overall scheme of things. I do not understand the distance to Geneva, I do not understand the distance back home, I am in some abstract position on a map but I know not where. The map cannot help me I know only where I am, but not how where I am relates to where everything else is. I am in a state of comfortable uncertainty.

Switzerland

Maybe that is a metaphor for curiosity: standing upon a solid foundation, and yet peering with curiosity out around us, staring at the mountains, looking into the tunnels and caves, wondering where to go next, uncertain, and yet deeply curious, curious what is around the corner, curious what is over the peak, curious where we will end up if we walk through that mountain pass.

Whilst fear may ground us, curiosity may drive us forward. Surely to explore, one must be curious, dissatisfied with what we have now, with where we are now, with what we know now, curious about what is unknown and uncertain, unseen and invisible. It is curiosity that gives us momentum and momentum that carries us over the mountain.

I feel the momentum in my travel: I feel catapulted from place to place, driven by internal and insatiable energy. This is not the dislocation of travel by aeroplane, but the momentum and energy of travel by train, travel by foot. This is a long journey, I feel far from home, dislocated by days and miles, dislocated by endless flashing scenes from the railway window, dislocated by my transition from known to unknown, but carried forward by curiosity, carried forward by that desire to know what comes next, and in this context, does the journey ever end? Do I loop around full-circle, back to the place that I know like the back of my hand, do I end the journey, or do I continue forever, carrying forwards, carrying on, every new turn, every new twist, extending the journey, endlessly travelling, endlessly journeying, endlessly curious?

I become tired, tired by everything new, tired by discovery, tired through that sense of dislocation. I start to think of home: back to the places this I know, back to the certain familiar. We yearn for the mountains, but we yearn to go home afterwards. If we don’t close that loop, if we don’t finish that journey, do we remain endlessly curious, or simply endlessly lost? If it has no end is it truly a journey? Do we become lost and aimless if we don’t choose to end it? Do we simply become lost within our soul? Geography may simply be a metaphor for what happens within our own heads.

I travel, i am lost but not aimless, endlessly curious, looking round the next corner, but certain that one day soon, I will be home.

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Switzerland: Mountains

Mountains are undemocratic, unreachable, exclusive and aloof. They are not common land, not landscape for everyone, but rather reserved for a select few: a few who are categorised by trial where the prize of immortality is countered by the risk of death. This price of membership is what marks them apart, keeping them somehow separate from the rural and urban spaces that spread around them. It is not height alone which keeps them from us, but rather the untouchable nature of the summit, a distance not simply physical, but psychological.

Swiss Mountains

Switzerland is a country of mountains: defined by, encircled by, father by. It’s a landscape where vertical distance is a factor in any journey, be it by foot, car or rail: not the distance from A to B, but the exhaustive climb in between.

It’s all about water.

Mountains are thrust up from the fractured, tinted earth. Collisions of continents, spewed from volcano, crusted engorgements over geological timespans. But mountains are not forever: there’s a Swiss Army Knife ‘starter kit’ for sale that contains a small piece of wood for you to whittle. And the mountains are whittled too: eroded by water, through ice and cold, heat and grit. Erosion: deposition. Many climbers are killed by rockfalls, the beating heart of the mountain as it’s eroded to dust. Fracture, split, fall: endless streams of moraine cascading into the valley. Look upon my mighty works, fallen to dust and ruin. Mountains are the frozen wave of rock, captured in the photographic light, painted upon the horizon, before falling in the spray of millennia back into the earth from whence they came.

Swiss Mountains

© Julian Stodd

There is a circularity to rock: the fragmented detritus of the mountain washed away, down stream, down river, into seas and lakes, deposited, crushed over millennia, heated, kneaded, reworked into sedimentary rock, heated and crushed yet further into metamorphic before finally spewed in heat and fire of igneous fury back onto the mountain top, lava as the molten birth. Lava as the life.

Water falls as snow: dusting and encrusting the mountain. For climbers on the infamous North Face of the Eiger, the wall of death as it’s known in a German burst of irony, increasingly it’s favoured to climb in winter when the ice binds together the rotten stone, cementing it in what they hope will be a frozen face to clamber upon.

Snow tumbles and drifts, compressed and reformed into ice, birthing glaciers.

I walk upon a glacier: broad, white, calm, yet nearly a kilometre deep. This thing weighs more than elephants. This thing weighs more than the mountain. A mountainous, monstrous weight of ice that flows: yes, flows and cracks, creases and crevices, crevassed into deadly folds and fractures. This thing weight heavily on the minds of climbers who use aluminium ladders to bridge these gaps: tentatively crawling across the void, weight balanced, weighing up their chances, weighing the odds. Odd behaviour. Crazy chances to take, and yet that is the pull of the mountain: it’s weight giving gravitas: gravity. An endless pull.

Swiss Mountains

The tug of the mountain: it draws you back. It pulls people in. It lures people in. To wonder. To beauty. To die upon the slopes, crushed and fractured, frozen and alone. A gravestone in Zermatt to a seventeen year old who died on the ascent of the Matterhorn: ‘i chose to climb’, it reads, but it haunts me still. Chose to climb? Chose to sacrifice? Is a life led as one reckless plunge worth more than one sedentary and long? This price has been paid. Many times over. The Matterhorn has claimed more: 500 at best estimate. Five hundred lives lost, claimed, fought over and spent. Invested in the fury of the climb.

The Matterhorn is an improbable mountain: existing not in real life, but as the embodied children sketch of the essence of all mountains. It is the jagged faced, unrealistically steep, improbably angled and utterly impenetrably shaped epitome of mountain-ness. It is the jaws of death, the shard piercing the sky, the unenviably fought for trophy, the nemesis and failure, the hubris of the few.

The Matterhorn

The Matterhorn is an impossible mountain: when Whymper mounted the first ascent he did so at the cost of four lives from his team of seven. Frayed ropes and accusations of foul play. Mountains are the reckless expenditure of youth and arrogance.

The glacier scours: as it inches down the mountain side is sandpapers the edges, it scrapes and devours, eating away at rock face and valley, carving out canyon and slope. The glacier is the death of the mountain.

The streams fill as snow melts, as glaciers fail: the streams fill and fall. Splashing down, over rocks, into waterfalls so high that they seem like clouds until you hear the roar and see the carved stone they leave behind. Streams turn to rivers: raging torrents that wail through villages and have to be encircled, bounded, ruled by walls. Worshiped and feared: carrying trees and boulders. The river in spate is the angry voice of the mountain: the tears for the dead?

Mountains encircle: they stand in ranges, vistas, panoramas. They define and daunt the landscape around them. The valleys cut by water or ice differ: flat bottomed or V shaped, scoured or smoothed, products of erosion of varied flavours. Water or ice decides their fate, decides their shape.

In the valley, the mountain is just ‘scenery’, the backdrop, the painted set upon which life plays out. I walk: traversing the side of the valley. A woman sells bread and cheese from a table: local cheese, shadowed by the mountain. I have a picnic opposite the face of the Eiger. This is an ironic mountain: you can sit in the sun with your crusty loaf and cheese, listening to cowbells across the valley, looking down upon tranquil villages and sun drenched meadows, whilst in front of you is the deathly wall. The juxtaposition is unreal: people perish on desolate mountains, far flung places, remote and reckless. Not in front of the picnic spot. And yet that is what differentiates the mountain: it’s a jagged separation of what is ours, what is mine, and what is meant for none of us. It’s landscape claimed by nature and never to be surrendered.

Mountains are not inaccessible: they are unfathomable. You can climb them, but there is a certain human arrogance to claim we conquer them. A languished enemy does not sit back up to slay again and again. The mountain never falls: it rises.

The summit is evocative: we ‘summit’ a mountain, to get to the top. We host a ‘summit’, bringing people together. The summit may be a holy site, or simply the space we grab and gasp for breath before beginning the most perilous descent.

It’s no coincidence that God or gods are found on summits: intersections between heaven and earth, the point where they touch.

They say the most dangerous part is the descent: the fight is to reach the top, to stake everything on the game, to strive and fear, struggle and claw. But, once there, what is left but fear? All that remains is to go back to the world of men, the fall from grace.

Between the mountains, passes. In ancient times people would forge a way through: to trade, to travel, to seek truth. They would wait for the thaw, for spring, to drive cattle, to cross. To control the mountain pass was to control society, to control trade, to have power.

When we learnt to bridge and burrow we eroded the power of the mountain: driving underneath or over the top, connecting and smoothing, linking and crossing. Mankind seeks to control or subvert nature, but everything comes to dust, even the arches of the viaduct and curved mouth of the tunnel. Nothing is forever, not even the mountain itself.

Toblerone chocolate is modelled on the Matterhorn: this trivial fact was unknown to me, and i consider it as i munch through a bar, staring at the silhouette of the mountain in the midday sun. Tasty. It reminds me that i must go to the dentist when i get home.

Today we ski on mountains, we walk upon them, we cycle down them, sometimes at great speed, but one thing that we never do is own them. They remain aloof, untamed, dormant maybe, but always shadowing, overlooking, warily eying us swarming upon their flank.

As i travel through Switzerland, i realise i become mountain weary: on the first day, i was riveted, wonder and amazement still captures me every time i see their beauty and might. But soon, the canvas dims: the wonder is still there, but we tame and temper it, we come to believe that we are safe, that we are secure, that we are in a landscape tamed.

Mountains are pent up fury and ice. We can watch, we can enjoy, we can frame and capture, we can sketch and paint, but we can never own, we can never truly master, we can never control.

Mountains are the other world, the wild teeth of the storm in winter, the ragged beauty of nature that will forever remain aloof and proud, touchable, but only at a cost.

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