Monday, April 26, 2010

Valdesca: On Cancer and Courage


"Fear is the field where courage grows"

Fifteen years ago, one of my best friends died in a plane crash.  We had been planning to meet for dinner that night; in fact, we and several others had planned a Halloween night party.  Instead, on the first leg of his journey, the plane, a turboprop used on short commuter hops, had been forced by a landing queue to circle in freezing rain for an hour.  Ice built up on the wings; the plane became unstable, flipped and slammed into an Indiana bean field.  Nothing larger than a bread box, it was said, could be plucked from the wreckage.  No identifiable portion of my friend's body was ever recovered.

In the weeks and months following this accident, I came, myself, disassembled.  The simplest things seemed difficult, even impossible; I did not know how or why I ought to struggle on.  I had not known death could strike so suddenly so near.  I had not known it would start to call me too.  I gave myself over to death in some way, even while it terrified me.

While I was in this state, another friend--an acquaintance really--came to visit and decided I needed a change of both scenery and ideas.  He packed a picnic lunch and drove us from Montreal to Lake Placid, in upstate New York.  There was someone there he wanted me to meet, he said, a man in his nineties, a veteran of the "Great War."

I don't remember much about that day--in fact I couldn't remember at all where we'd gone; I had to look it up in a road atlas and make probable guesses. I can't even remember either man's name: such holes in my recollection are signs of how terrible those days were, how far I'd dropped into sorrow.  But I remember the meeting--in the library of a private school--green and maroon volumes in wooden shelves ranged along the walls.  And I remember the story the old man told me, for it was about his own experience of grief.

He'd come home from the war, body intact, but mind utterly blasted, another shell-shocked survivor, unable to imagine how he might rejoin the legions around him simply living everyday lives and petty concerns.  "I knew nothing," he told me. "On my own, I would not have survived.  But there was this school here, and someone asked me if I could look after the primary students during recreation times.

I did not think I could.

Children terrified me.  They were fearless, wiggly; they moved erratically and asked questions.  They were energetic, alive, a kind of future--and I wanted nothing to do with them.  But standing with them while they played, that was my job.

At first I stood at the back of the playground, my face to the wall; I couldn't even look at those children.  But they would not and did not leave me alone.  They asked me questions, wanted me to throw a ball or look at a bloody knee.  And gradually, day by day, as they played, they returned me to the world. 

For you see," he said, turning to look me in the eyes, "fear is the field where courage grows.  If I was to live, I had to dare to walk there.  I was brave--I had been in the war--I'd seen terrible things.  And because of that, I was afraid.  I entered my fear like a shell and tried to hide there. But as the man who gave me the job of watching the children knew, I couldn't stay there and live."

When we left Lake Placid a few hours later, I felt as if I'd been delivered an oracle. But exiting the state I was in wasn't easy--it took years, in fact, of effort and therapy.  Grief casts a long shadow; once it touches you it never quite leaves, but always hovers just there, alongside you, over your shoulder, almost out of sight. 
Still, what I took from my meeting that day was a handhold, a grapple, a tool I've since used again and again when I've needed to haul myself back to hope, to reason, to the pleasures and accidental joys and engagements of life.

Often at sea I think of the old man's line--fear is the field where courage grows--and use it, like a mantra, to calm myself down.  For even if you set out feeling fearless, a match for anything, the sea will educate you otherwise.  An experienced sailor is someone who's been scared silly again and again but refuses to be paralysed.

Fear is the field where courage grows: you don't do brave things because you're somehow especially brave, but, in fact, because you're mortally afraid.

We go to sea in a stout, ocean-capable "blue water" keel boat packed full of survival gear and food and a watermaker and spare parts and tools and communications devices and elaborate medical kits--everything that Marike's lifetime of sailing experience and our combined foresight can imagine to put together. And still, often enough, I feel anxious, bounced around, at some edge.  So when I see people who embark on long voyages in kayaks or other small boats I am full of admiration--these people must be very courageous indeed.

One small boat in particular moves us--the Drascombe Longboat, a yawl-rigged open boat--in part because it is so pretty and so practical at once.  NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) operates a small fleet of these "teaching boats" in the Sea of Cortez, and it is a lovely thing to watch them come around the corner and into a sheltered cove.  They're versatile--one can attach a little outboard motor, or row or sail these 22-foot beauties.

This year, in San Juanico, we encountered another Drascombe, home for three months to Claudia, a geologist, and Tim, an artist.  Right away, Claudia asked for our story--how had we come to be sailing in the Sea of Cortez? What accident of life gave us the urge and the capacity to be away from Nova Scotia for a chunk of time and living on a boat there? Mix the feeling that life is short and not to be squandered--we'd left jobs we hated after too many friends had died and tried to make a new life-- with the wish for a boat, the chance that the boat we most wanted was for sale at a very good price in San Diego in 2003, and our story unspools from there.  Having answered, we turned the question around--how did you two come to be sailing a Drascombe here? we asked.

The answer was short, sharp, shocking and very clear: Claudia, a geologist who had worked for Los Alamos labs, had had three rounds of cancer.  Last April, everyone had thought she might soon die: she'd even registered for a place in a palliative hospice, so it would be available when the time came.  But then she got an idea. She'd quit her job and get into shape and they'd have an ADVENTURE in the Sea of Cortez, where she'd done fieldwork for her PhD. And that made her feel like living, which is exactly what she was doing. When we met her, she looked hale, tanned, strong; you'd never guess she'd so recently been so ill. 

In many respects, the way they were sailing took a lot more physical strength, planning and courage than the way we were sailing.  It could be much colder, much less sheltered; they were constantly closer to the elements, at risk of being swamped; they had to camp on the beach each night to sleep. But Claudia was clearly thriving--obviously much to Tim's relief.  To risk her life was, not to save it so much as to seize it and make it worth living; because she had courage, because they had courage, they were also utterly alight. 

Same lesson, different, thrilling, example.  Thank you, Valdesca, thank you.

For more on Claudia and Tim's adventure see

For more information on the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and their sailing program in the Sea of Cortez, see

Saturday, April 17, 2010

ONE RIVER--Window on a Universe

Wade Davis.  One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

8 March 2010

How to characterize a book that cracks a window on an entire universe?  No summaries are possible. A dozen roads radiate from this point, each a potential and remarkable journey...

In One River, Wade Davis testifies to the intellectual, cultural and geographic origins of his own work and thinking.  A tribute to his mentor at Harvard in the ethnobotany program, Richard Evans Schultes, and another of Schultes' students, Timothy Plowman, with whom Davis worked, the book tracks two circuits of ethnobotanical research in the Andes and Amazon river basin--Schultes' work of the late 1930s, '40s and early '50s, and Davis' own introduction to Amazonian rain forest botany with Tim Plowman in the 1970s.  Written when Schultes was an old man, and just after the sudden and premature death of Plowman in 1989 from AIDS, this book traces the contours of lost worlds, of languages, cultures and lifeways stamped out by the obsessions and ravages of capitalism, the American "war on drugs" and widespread neo-colonial attitudes, in which an Indian not indentured or enslaved probably ought to be dead.

The book is tinged by great sadness--above all for the disappearance of worlds, lifeways, views, knowledge, habits and languages that it can only point to in small, piercing vignettes, as when Plowman explains to Davis, in chapter two, how the Kogi people, weavers, journey, as in a weaving, across the landscape (52ff).  Or Plowman's account of the perspectives that different languages hold.  For a group in Uruguay, one of the Gaurani groups, he explains, "the word for soul was 'the sun that lies within.' They called a friend 'one's other heart.' To forgive was the same word as to forget.  They had no writing, and when they first saw paper, they called it the skin of God--just because you could send messages" (37-8). 

Davis recounts one awful colonial history of destruction after another, but is able to separate insightful missionaries and clerics from ignorant proselytizers.  He gives a short (and terrible) history of rubber production, recounts a tale of the creation and marketing of cocaine from the 1850s onward, tracking America's embrace of false promises and then its overactive prohibitions and international "interdictions."

I find here a thousand stories I want to follow up on: I realize I need to find out much more about the rise and fall of the Incas and their remarkable building projects--dependent in part, upon seeing stone as a living thing (434-5):  "stones are dynamic." Likewise, I think now, having read this book, I'll make better sense of the work of Mick Taussig, and of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff.  I want to look at Davis' photography (Light at the Edge of the World), and the films he's made with National Geographic.  I want to read Weston LaBarre on the peyote cult of the US Southwest--part of the last gasp of indigenous resistance against the totalizing spread of white culture and spirituality and the reservation system.  And I want to live and travel in South America, but as a much better informed and fluent Spanish speaker.  Too, I see the contours of another novel-sized tale that would take up my obsessions with flight and religious ideas in the story of the US evangelists in Ecuador in the 1950s, their attempts to placate and domesticate Indians already driven off and exploited by the Shell Oil Company at Shell-Mera (256-67).

The next ten years of life could unspool from here. I have a lot to learn from Davis' openness and curiosity, his generosity and attention to detail.  Let the work begin!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Adrift in Paradise

7 March 2010
Puerto Escondido, Baja California Sur, Mexico

What strange creatures we are: adrift in paradise, and thoroughly squeezed by terrors.

I had a terrible dream last night.  Like a 1940s movie, it unspooled in black and white.  A cityscape.  Long sidewalks, skyscrapers, busy people, cars, and buses that somehow tilted into intersections, their back ends raised over the sidewalks. 

In my dream there had been a warning, a rumour that sometimes these back ends lowered without warning and pedestrians were crushed by them.

I paid no attention to this information really; I thought the tale was a myth meant to scare its listeners. 

And then there I was on the sidewalk, waiting to cross the street.  The back end of a bus hovered over me and I jumped aside, but not quickly enough.  It lowered, lowered onto me.

Help! I cried, help! but the rattle of the bus  and the rest of the traffic made my voice inaudible. 

Slowly slowly--but I could not move quickly enough to extricate myself--my back was crushed by the weight of the bus. 

In the last shot, I'd disappeared.

8 March 2010 Puerto Escondido

This morning I dream some one has handed me two sheets of paper.  They are folded--this is a letter of some sort.

I open it expectantly, eagerly--there is a message here I want to understand.

But before I get to the first word, I awaken.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

That Old Song Again (A Finch Story)

A Rough Sketch, A Sense of the Fold

2 March 2010
Ballandra Cove

Trying to capture the folds of the mountains, but the boat swings around too quickly for me to finish the sketch. Oh well, a sense of the fold is there, the spiny cordillera.

It's a beautiful morning: cool, clear, wisps of cloud reach across the sky. I am feeling well in my body, relaxed after our six hour walk up and back along the stony path carved by the arroyo through the mountains. We'd aimed for Salinas, but stopped short at the last range crossing the island.  There the stream bed had become narrow and steep and strewn with boulders; water, when it ran, had etched a canyon into the range.  We'd not started early enough to keep going and still make it back, and we were hot and a bit tired--the sun in our faces the whole way back.

In that other world in there, in the mountains back of the sea, there are flowering plants, birds, lizards, even long abandoned waterholes and ranching projects.  And clinging to everything, the heady purple scent of flowers in bloom.  Even in the middle of the night, beneath the full moon, when we got up to haul the dinghy, to stop it from banging against the hull as we rocked in the swell, the scent was still there, billowing out from the land and perfuming the cove.

Today the bees send out messengers to investigate us: they are looking for water but sip remnants of yoghurt; they cling to the rims of our breakfast dishes, buzzing, wings aflutter.

The water is clear and light green today, each ripple reflects the red rock of the mountains, so the whole looks like a weaving of red and green strands glittering in the sunlight.  Wind catches the flag and slaps the halyards against the mast; we turn to the north, nose into the wind.

Emotions wash over me out here when we are afloat--yesterday, for example, we spoke about my poor dead wolf dog Binky, and then I found myself weeping, missing her, feeling sad for all of the times I'd misunderstood her.  I think often of my grandmother too.  It seems strange to do so, to remember the orderly stones bordering her garden, the rows the petunias, the passion flower--a single vine--she trained up the side of the house. Everything so genteel, so well-ordered, at times, so ersatz-- at all like this wild environment where nature (sun, desert, dust, heat, sea, wind, creeping vines) overtakes signs of culture within weeks and months, breaking apart most human endeavours, rendering them transient, decomposng their order almost immediately.  Why here, then, do I think of her?

Why do I carry a sense of her with me like a comfort, a guardian angel?  Perhaps because she, of all of my nearest ancestors--grandfather, father and mother--was not a worrier, but had an adventuresome soul.  A weak heart, but little or no paranoia. 

Perhaps I hold her to me here as the ancestor best to travel with, the one who would let me be, and not plague me with too much fearfulness.  Those others, they're installed in my body, in my shortness of breath, in my nausea and mild seasickness, in the anxiety that grips we when we're away from the boat: what if it's drifted off of its anchor; what if we encounter an uncharted rock; what if something we don't know how to fix breaks down?  These are the worries that make me leap up in the middle of the night to look around or to stow the breakables as we rock gently side to side in the swell.

Nothing really moves at such moments: the bowls and cups are all stuck fast with inertia.  But I move perhaps so I will not be, and pay the price with anxiety, with fear. 

How to find the balance between these emotions, these bodily sensations, that's the struggle, every day. Most days, that's nothing more than a very rough sketch.  If that.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Arroyo Walk

1 March 2010
Puerto Ballandra
26 01.106 N
111 09.895 W

Today we are in Ballandra Cove on Isla Carmen, one of the Marine Park Islands off of Loreto, Baja California Sur.  We can see the lights of Loreto at night to the west, strung along the sea, below the steep mountains of the Sierra de la Giganta. 

Ballandra is enclosed on three sides by mountains covered in cacti and desert vegetation; the cove is really a steep underwater canyon, with reefs formed of lava flow from an ancient volcano. Sea birds colonize the cliffs--the gulls trade commentaries that form a sort of continuous laugh track to life in the cove, and boobies and pelicans swoop through repeatedly. A shack, a rough sort of lean-to for the fishermen sits at one end of the beach, and behind that is a pool of brackish water, all that remains, we discovered today, of what must be a pretty fierce run of water during the rainy season.

We've meant to hike up that arroyo seco for years now--we saw on a chart that you can hike all the way across the island to Salinas--once a great saltworks known worldwide, but now a ghost-town/museum with a caretaker.  This year, the days are cool enough to bear such long inland walks, so this morning we set out with our hiking boots and straw hats and sunglasses and each with her liter of gatorade.  Marike rowed us to the beach, we hauled the dinghy above the tide line and tied her painter to a bush and skirted the muddy watering hole, crossing salty flats towards a narrow gap between the mountains. 

A grassy trail led to the dry river bed, which was sandy, then gravelly, then, in its upper reaches--well the reaches as far as we got--filled with stones and water-carved rocks and steep banks and clusters of deadwood and roots and plants wound round one another when water once rushed past.

As we walked I remembered--or half remembered --a fragment of one of poet Jose Marti's Versos Sencillos: " El arroyo de la sierra/Me complace más que el mar"--loosely translated, "a mountain stream pleases me more than the sea."  (While we'd be hard pressed here, of all places, to agree utterly, the line is beautiful, as is the sentiment it expresses within the metaphorics of Marti's verse, where the line completes a thought which begins "Con los pobres de la tierra/ Quiero yo mi suerte echar // With the poor of the earth, I cast my lot."  In this arroyo, this wrinkle in the earth, I find my destiny, which is at once small, common and uncommon.)


Plants all around us were in bloom and the scent was haunting, crushing--tiny purple flowers like violets, pale pink bells growing out of grasses, complex white flowers, rather like a passion flower with prominent stamens and a powerful attractiveness to bees--at first these clustered on low bushes, but soon the bushes twined with trees and became the size of trees....Something like spirea with cloying bundles of white blossoms with tiny purple tips, and flitting all around, butterflies of every colour and description...

Lezartijas skittered under every bush or ran ahead of us as we hiked along.  The arroyo wound through the narrow pass, and birds sang and called and flitted by--Marike even saw a cardinal on our return.  We also saw hummingbirds and dove-like birds--all kinds of creatures we did not know how to identify. 

At times, the river bed narrowed and we clambered over stones and roots; trees grew alongside the banks, and in the shade, we could feel the coolness of nearby water, even smell it, but we never saw it.  Our boots filled with stones and sand; we had to stop several times to shake them out.  And above us, on the mountains and along the higher banks, cacti grew, along with yellowed and dying grasses.  We walked beneath red cliffs, stopped below trees that smelled like juniper, carry red-purple fruits and light yellow peeling bark.  Marike crushed and rolled some of the bark in her hands--hours later her fingers still smelled like bitter oranges.

At one point, above the bank of the riverbed, we came across a building of handhewn stone.  A few rotten roof beams had fallen into a chasm in the centre of the building.  Beside it was a rounded concrete cistern of some sort, with a trough low enough for cattle or horses to drink, and a single chain, anchored to the ground.  Marike thought the building was perhaps the remains of a pumping station of some sort, the ensemble what was left of some effort to keep livestock on the island. 

We walked up the riverbed for more than three hours, climbing higher into the mountains, and over steeper stones, following switchbacks as the water carved a shallow canyon in the rock.  Finally, stopping for a sip of gatorade, we decided to turn around, since another hour forward would also mean another hour back.  Altogether, we walked for nearly six hours in the heat of the sun.

We never made it to Salinas, but we discovered a whole world in these mountains back of the sea, these desert mountains that, when we first looked up at them years ago, appeared like so much "disorganized dirt" as Marike used to say.  We're scratched up by our encounters with desert thorns and spines (everything in this environment must be able to defend itself and its water-supply--I was carrying burrs so needle-ish they drew blood, and narrowly avoided one half the size of my knee) but we are deliriously happy, utterly transported by sound and scent and sight.


For more photos of this walk see

For more on Marti, see and

Adapted by Spanish composer, Julián Orbón, who lived in Cuba between 1940 and 1960 to the popular early twentieth-century tune "Guantamera", these famous lines from Marti's 1891 versos have since become the best known version of "Guantanamera." See

For a version of this song contained Marti's words and performed by Compay Segundo, see

Friday, April 9, 2010

Little Tsunamis

27 February 2010

We've been in San Juanico a week now, and every day I think it grows more beautiful.  It is as if we must settle into the landscape, enter its rhythms in order, truly, to see it.

Today we hiked over the hill on a stony trail and then along a sandy road to La Ramada, a little inlet on the north side of the hills that form Caleta San Juanico.  Here, surf crashes on a crescent of sand beach; green water gradually gives way to blue depths, cliffs tumble to the shore and Punta Pulpito rises in the distance, a purple and pink stony face, sheer against the sea.  Songbirds flit among the cacti on the dry hillsides, egrets stand on outcroppings and peer, unmoving, into the water, while buzzards cast dark silhouettes against the hills.  They seem to follow us up the dusty road, so that when they rise into the sky, their shadows drop behind them and pass over us--poor trudging mortals, ignorant of our fates.

Worry dogs us this trip and I am not quite sure why.   In truth it accompanies us on most trips, but this year I feel almost dangerously distracted.  Is there something I'm forgetting?  What if? What if --I don't even know which what to feel iffy about.  A sense of my own fragility follows me; I am less supple, more tired; I feel the weariness of days as in no other year.  I am afraid for my heart. Afraid of some hurt. Am I being complacent if I don't carry with me a constant sense of dread?  I feel too brittle some days to handle all of the things I think must be done.

And.  But.  Then.  We've begun a practice of getting up and heading off in the mornings while it is still calm.  Walking.  Drawing.  Marike is nearby on the beach, painting.  For some reason I can't fathom, but related to my impatience with myself in other endeavours, I can't seem to muster any enthusiasm for my own drawing or painting.  There are the camera images, there are words: these I can handle, but exercising myself, putting myself through the stretches that have kept me well, drawing, letting myself relax into a delicious langour on the beach, these things I find hard, if not impossible to do.

The water breaks further and further out; several lines of surf roll into shore, moving against the wind.  Now and then a gust throws sand into my face.

I wonder if now, having said I can not, I might be able to draw something....


A strange thing happens this afternoon in La Ramada--perhaps it's related to the earthquake and its aftershocks in Chile.  The water seems to receded in the inlet, sand flats emerge, and rows upon rows of waves break, quite far out.  Then suddenly, within just two or three minutes, the water rushes in, east to west, running into every little gully and depression.  The waves settle, flatten, then, bit by bit the water recedes and the whole process begins again.  It's curious--we've watched it for several hours--and waded across the flats to a nearby spit before deciding to swim out beyond where the water was breaking.

The swim was cold but refreshing.  We've dried now, and changed our clothing.  Marike has gone back to painting and I'm sitting in the sun watching the water ebb and flow and listening to a yellow finch call and sing in a nearby bush.  A seagull waddles to the edge of one of the tidal flats and runs along the water, bending, stooping, plucking.  I imagine he's clamming.  Then the water rushes back in and the circle around him narrows....Now he wades and cries out.

How weirdly alike our two species are!


For information on the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that occurred off of the coast of Chile at 3:34 am on 27 February 2010, see

Non-dangerous peculiar wave effects of the sort we observed at La Ramada were also observed in Hawaii and other parts of western Mexico.

For more photos of San Juanico and La Ramada see