A Hike and Roadside Repast Outside Cuenca

The principal bus routes out of Cuenca seem fairly indistinguishable to me—an endless array of metal signboards advertising the same kinds of variety goods stores, car repair and barber shops, mixed in between houses that look intermittently finished or ramshackle, with exposed brick, concrete cladding in various states of repair, metal grills, little garden plots, and uneven steps where yappy dogs keep a look out for passers-by.  The jumbled, untidy settlements along the roads contrast with the stately, grand mountainous backdrop of the Andes.

Cuenca’s retired American denizens comprise some intrepid hikers and bikers who have not only mastered the bus routes, but have also explored the little roads that peel off the main routes.  These usually unpaved, unremarkable turnoffs lead into the surrounding Andes mountains, climbing steeply into a verdant and dramatic landscape.  The explorers have carved out walking routes into the countryside on these little roads, and in doing so have become the kind of Cuencano locals you should seek guidance from if you seek to understand the local terrain and surrounding mountains.  Their explorations have paved the way for larger groups who gather for weekend hiking excursions.

The little mountain walking paths are not formal trails—they traverse private land holdings (haciendas owned by affluent Ecuadorian families) or little villages, whose residents are now used to seeing groups of ‘gringos’ trudging through in their colorful hiking gear.  The excursion I joined this weekend was one of these routes.  Its starting point is an unassuming bus stop on route 201 out of the city’s western bus terminus.  No visible landmark sets apart this bus stop on the road, other than a house portico on a side pull off, where two barbeques had been set up, one with a turning spit for chicken and cuy (guinea pig is a regional delicacy) and the other for an entire whole pig, head and all.

Seeing animals stretched out and roasted in their full form made my heart lurch–there’s an obvious violence to it.  Seeing pork chops in a freezer or in the butcher’s counter is simply not as much of an affront, although essentially the same thing.  Most people in Ecuador seem inured to seeing animals in a state of obviously violent killing, with head still intact; it’s commonplace.  This is seen simply as food.  Like in many places in the world, animals are not viewed as fellow living beings with sentience and the capacity to feel pain and empathy.  Species-ism is the unselfconscious norm.  You might be the odd one out if you pay too much mind to treating animals as self-aware life-forms, not too different from yourself.

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Leaving this nameless house-grill-restaurant behind us, our group hiked up hill past little houses along the road.  Their small vegetable fields are cordoned out of impossibly steep slopes, while old Chevrolet- and Tata-brand utility trucks are parked on the roadside.  The local residents were working outside, and inevitably their dogs let us know they were around, running at us and barking to indicate they were on guard.  I’m always glad to be around others who know how to handle dogs, because they scare me.

After some distance, we left the houses behind and climbed into pastures in the rolling mountainsides.  Clouds hung low over the peaks all around.  Very occasionally, a truck passed us on the narrow unpaved track, its passengers politely waving and perhaps somewhat amused at these recreational walkers.  Although the surroundings are green, tall trees were sparse.  The indigenous forests were clear cut at some time past, and not replanted, rather converted into pastures and sloping open stretches.  The only trees we saw were Australian eucalyptus trees whose smell hung around the air mixed with pungency of fresh cow droppings.

 

The roads in the mountains simply lead to settlements or are connectors that local people have developed out of need over time.  We came to an informal gate made of barbed wire strung around flimsy fence poles that demarcated obviously private land holdings.  The practice I was told, is to go through the gates, and leave them as we found it, shut or open.

Around a bend, we came to a modest bungalow residence belonging to agricultural workers, with traditional curved, red roof-tiles.  Large squash and greens were growing in their flourishing vegetable garden.  A little puppy ran around, clothes were hung out to dry (although the frequently fluctuating moisture conditions would make drying the washing a frustrating endeavor—intermittent rain seemed to be the norm here) and a woman with a baby on her hip came out to see what the puppy was fussing about.  We waved, and continued on, climbing high on the path that was littered with cow droppings.  Two calves in the path scuttled off upslope as we approached.

We passed a horse that was tethered by a stream, weighed down with the heavy wood and metal saddle, piled with metal milk cans.  Seemingly, he was simply left there for a while.  The suffering of animals makes my heart bleed a little.  We said a few words to him and left.
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The verdant mountain views got better with every gain in elevation.  We saw cows out on the hillsides, at once bucolic and dramatic, because this landscape seemed immense and sheer, not exactly the rolling soft hills.  The Andes are a young mountain range, with pitched slopes that seem to reach into the sky, and dramatic folds along the range.  Yet the green makes them seem softer.

A U-shaped valley lay below us leading the eye down the range.  In the distance and over some folds and hills, you could see the crowded jumble of Cuenca’s buildings and red roofs.

After a decent climb, we turned back, still shooing away the aggressive dogs near every house and driveway.  It was raining fairly heavily now and the mud trails had turned into a slick sliding expressway when we arrived back at the nondescript bus stop.

Roadside Repast

As a hike hurrah, we piled into the little nameless roadside house-restaurant.  The roasted pig (chancha) looked either delicious or galling depending on your perspective.  Their fixed price meal consisted of hunks of chancha served with large kernel-corn (mote) scrambled with eggs and with fried potato pancakes (llapingacho).

If you wanted to go vegetarian, you were served half an avocado instead of the pork.  An alternative for some in the hiking group was roast chicken, which is a heaping serving of half an entire, plump chicken bird.  Most couldn’t finish their meal.  Alongside, on the table you were served “aji”, a kind of chilli sauce made up fresh ground chillies/vinegar/onion.  Everyone who ate the chancha called it juicy and savored their meal.  The rain poured outside, the beers (cervezas) were cold, and it was a thoroughly Ecuadorian finale.

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Listening to Prince in Ecuador

“Could you be the most beautiful girl in the world?”

“Do you want him, or do you want me? Because I want you.”

He belted it out unrestrained by any convention of song or sound.  It was his signature, classic cry that ripped unself-consciously through to the top of his throat, as pure and ecstatic an expression as any human being could produce.  In another body, he might be a central Asian throat singer sending out resonant vibrations into the desert, or a Pakistani ghazal singer creating euphoric crescendos of praise.

He wasn’t.  He was Prince.

The mixed-race, slight man who had been raised in the tree-lined neighborhoods and the urban blocks of Minneapolis, the American heartland of grain and railroads.  He was a son of the city of silos, warehouses, a wide Mississippi River, homes with screened porches built around parks, and gleaming towers built on the territory of the Enishinabe, Lakota, and Sioux.  Prince painted big, electronic sound of technology, over the beautiful melodies and the sounds of jazz, Motown, ballads, funk, and gospel he heard in his rich, musical mind.  He drew from the rich legacy of the American pantheon.  He tapped into a poignancy that his soul could access.  He wrote with raw forthrightness and with honed talent.  He performed (growled, shrieked, tore it up) with edginess, rhythm, and a palpable sexuality.  He brought together weird, profound and explosive.  He amazed us with uniqueness and the unexpected.

Here in Ecuador, in Cuenca, where I found myself, in the maze of streets in this Spanish colonial city high in the Andes mountains, cold at the equator, surrounded by churches and a palpable catholic religiosity.  I was foreign; disconnected from the codes that gave people meaning and roots here.  Indian, American, German, British—all my sources of self and reference points on distant continents.  In this South American family-centric culture and traditions, I was an alien.

I was also unmoored from myself, in the way that being in a strange place removes you from the trappings that make you the person you become, over time, connected and woven by the sounds and the paths and the trees and the repeated seasons of a place.

After yet another hapless day, still trying to get my feet under me in this country, and frustratingly not having found my Spanish language groove, or any groove to speak of at all, I decided to get out of the house, and walk to Cuenca’s central Square as dusk fell.

Unable to find the familiar things that anchored my life back in the United States, I had been feeling disaffected.  (I had arrived there as a foreigner too, but in the United States of twenty years ago, I melted in as other newcomers were allowed to.  Without skipping a beat, I merged into the body and psyche of a gracious liberal arts college life in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I might have pulled a very lucky straw in life.)

The small, tiendas or shops were lit garishly around the main plaza in Cuenca.  I walked into one, selling all kinds of little electronic knockoffs and cell phone paraphernalia.  I had been missing my collection of music and the quality Bose speaker that could transport me to different dimensions.  I realized how much it colored my life alive, because my life seemed empty and invalid without the musical soundtrack that tickled my senses and that I could feel in my bones.  I asked to see Bluetooth speakers and in their unfailing patience and gracious politeness, the shop clerks showed me a couple of small speakers that sounded pretty good for the very reasonable price. They allowed me to test the speakers over and over again with different sound tracks.  A nice lady offered me her opinion, that the smallest one sounded the best.  Somehow, she confirmed what I was thinking.

I procrastinate on purchases, but right then and there I bought a knockoff speaker the size of my palm, with some cheap cables.  The little garish shop delivered.  I brought it home and plugged it into my computer and scrolled through my music.

I found Prince.  Prince, from the great beyond, found me back.  I needed Prince.  I needed the swagger of a maestro doing backflips up and down the guitar and teasing the strings with both intuitive restraint and heady power.  I needed the chords of the familiar songs that made me the person I was.

“The most beautiful girl in the world” burst through, and my heart swelled.  Prince was painting music in the richest purple tones, edged with cyan blurs at the highest pitch of his throat.  It’s impossible not to feel his passion.  It lives.

I was suddenly cringing through the cold, blustery wind tunnels between the old buildings of Minneapolis’ warehouse district , trying to get into a club with a fake i.d. card.  I am suddenly wearing that thrift store coat I bought 25 years ago, the thickest I could find, to ward off Minnesota’s deep winter.

A little speaker makes me feel like myself again, even though I find myself in a strange new city.  The music that has created my emotional life, and made me a person—picking me up when I am down, or making me feel again when I became just a cog in the wheel of a bureaucratic life—is alive here too.

Then, by chance while browsing Internet radio stations through an app called Kubi on the Amazon TV, I found one from Hamburg Germany called “80s80s Prince“.  They curate and stream what would essentially be my own playlist of Prince’s (and Prince’s friends) catalog and provide interesting factoids and tidbits in between.  Total geil.

So I’ve got a private Prince party going.  Sign of the Times, Purple Rain, The Beautiful Ones, When Doves Cry, everything powerful and profound from the late 1980s and the 1990s with Prince’s zingy, ironic, and staccato performance, comes out in shrieking guitars and apt repetitive melodic phrases.

Far away from his hometown of Minneapolis, Prince is rocking Cuenca in the Ecuadorian Andes.  His swagger rubs off on me a little.  That powerful creativity lights a way  reminding me that being unique is the best way to be.  After all, “Nothing compares to you.”  He makes this place feel alright.

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Ecuadorian Encounters: Sunday around Cuenca

Getting out of town
Sundays are quieter in old town of Cuenca.  The narrow, cobbled streets that normally grind and rattle with buses seem empty.  Their diesel-fume and black-soot pollution is noticeably lower, and the air seems cleaner.  Most Ecuadorians, whose harrowing daily routines during the week have them delivering kids to school at 6:45 a.m., picking them up for an extended lunch around 1:00 p.m., then afterwards, working a late evening, while getting caught in traffic throughout, take the day to relax at home.  Shops and restaurants are shuttered for the day.

This particular Sunday at the end of September, I traversed the “El Centro” section of town, which is laid out in the old Spanish colonial grid, heading south towards the Tomebamba River.  I walked past blocks of compact houses and two-storeyed buildings, their facades weathered and peeling .  They were clad in wrought-iron window grills and balconies, and many were adorned with metal signs advertising small enterprises—repair shops, variety stores with grocery items, paper goods and hairdressers.  The unfinished, exposed brick and historical charm has a certain appeal.

As I approached Calle Larga—the main street paralleling the river, three buses in a row hurtled past me, leaving a familiar acrid stench and a brown cloud residue.  I was glad for my surgical mask, brought along as a precaution despite it being Sunday, and quickly pulled it over my nose.  I met my friend, and we crossed a stone bridge across the Tomebamba river which is a fairly narrow, straightened channel lined with rocks as it passes through the town. Our destination was a saddle on the hill high above the Cuenca valley.  A white church called the “Church of Turi” sits prominently in the saddle.  It is a noticeable landmark that can be seen from vantage points across Cuenca for miles.

We made our way down Avenida Fray Vicente Solano (“Solano”) heading further south out of town.  Solano is a wide divided boulevard with trees growing down a center island.  Its layout is a visible departure from the more tightly-packed city grid of El Centro.  With large, gracious homes and buildings on either side of it, its architecture is more spacious, modern, and suburban.

Gaining elevation
At the bottom of Solano, we came to a river that runs through the city of Cuenca, called Rio Yanuncay, and almost immediately after it another river, called Rio Turi.  After crossing both rivers, we came to a turnoff, a narrow road going uphill into a residential neighborhood.  We found a little passage alongside a garden wall and kept going, up a somewhat challenging pitched slope.  It seems we had made a sharp cut uphill, because presently we came to a divided highway that was traversing the mountain the long way around, along its contours.  I didn’t feel like making a run across the highway. Fortunately, we spotted a highway overpass built for pedestrians and thus, we made it safely across.  We found the stairs, built from stone, that were wedged into the hillside going up to the Church of Turi.  At over 7,200 feet, Cuenca’s altitude made my heart pound.  I stopped a few times to take breaks for a swig of water, as Cuenca’s air is surprisingly dry.  As we were walking up, we saw Ecuadorian ladies in high heels on the uneven stone stairs.  It didn’t seem to be the most apropos shoe style for this path and made me wince, but they were pulling it off with aplomb.  I also saw ladies carrying their heavy babies in cloth harnesses tied around their torsos, pushing on uphill.  Strong mama bears, certainly.

Once at height, and finally in front of the white Church of Turi, we looked back to see the town spread out from west to east across a wide river valley.  Cuenca in Spanish means “bowl” and it’s easy to see that shape.  The jumbled red rooftops, the blue-tiled cuppolas of the central church, the open landing strip of the small airport, and the round stadium in which the Cuenca football team were playing Guayaquil today, punctuated the city panorama.  Above the city, as it does so often, the skies hung threateningly grey.  They are always dramatic here, just two degrees north of the equator.  And when the sun shines here, its intensity makes my head hurt.

 

A Catholic festival after mass
The church behind us resounded with singing, and churchgoers even sat against the portico pillars outside.  As the Catholic mass came to a close, people began spilling out into the plaza alongside, where a stage had been set up.  We realized we were encountering some kind of religious festival.

People carried idols of Catholic saints, with beautiful expressions painted in various states of rapture, on palanquins in small processions.  The crowd was noticeably led by the region’s indigenous people, whose women wear distinctive swinging skirts in jewel tones like cranberry or emerald, with richly embroidered hems.  Groups of people carried seemingly elaborate offerings that looked like cornucopias of festive foods.  As I got closer to the bright baskets, I realized they featured whole roasted guinea pig and chicken, the animal forms intact, including head, feet, and torsos.

The crowd grew, the microphone announcements got more animated, and we felt it best to retreat a bit from the center of the festivities.  I noticed a young man and woman on mountain bikes also skirting the animated religious festival crowd.  I asked them in my broken Spanish if there were any further hiking trails down the road on the backside of the mountain.  They took a look at us and must have decided we weren’t really equipped to head down the backside of the mountain without landing in some kind of trouble.  So their answer was, “There’s nothing much to recommend really, it’s just a road that goes down past houses.”  I felt a bit stuck.  I wanted to get out of the city, and here I was on a hill above the city, looking at a much greener hinterland yet without the means to get out and explore.

Stray dogs force a new way
The bikers went on their way on their very smart-looking bikes.  We sauntered on a bit just to check things out, tried a side road that appeared to curve around.  Then the dogs intervened.  A very aggressive pack of dogs told us in no uncertain terms that we were on their territory, prompting us to back up.  As we did, we again encountered the same couple on bikes.  We greeted each other.  Now, they pointed to the next peak beyond with a cross on top.  Calling it “Cruce de Monjas”, (the cross of nuns), they told us it was a much better view of the Cuenca valley than from the Church at Turi.  At the same time, they felt it was not safe for us to venture there alone…there was a small community up there, it was unfamiliar, and there were bound to be more stray dogs of unknowable ferociousness.  In a spontaneous offer of hospitality, the bikers invited us to go to the cross on the next mountain, and they would accompany us.  The lady, Dani, began cycling down the road to flag down an all-purpose off-road taxi cab (yes, they exist in this part of Ecuador—they’re pickup trucks with passenger cabs).  She returned with her bike loaded into the back of a pickup truck-taxi, to pick us all up.  Impressive moxie, I thought, and no shortage of stamina.

We drove down the paved road in the pickup truck-taxi, harangued in spots by packs of stray dogs, and within ten minutes took an unpaved turnoff.  The track was along a mountain ridge with steep drop offs on either side.  It led past a few humbled abodes to a church compound at the base of the peak with the “Cruce de Monjas”.

Cruce de Monjas (Cross of the nuns)
Dani and Javier off-loaded their bikes and together we took the short hike to the top of the mountain.  From the cross, we looked out over the entire Cuenca valley and it was indeed, a more expansive view of the town.  You can see Baños to the west, a town of hot springs and spas, rolling into the outer reaches of Cuenca proper, continuing through the town and to the eastern airport and industrial sector.

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We had a great time chatting with our new biking friends, and snacked on candied puffed mote (the large-kernel corn you find in markets here).  They told us about sports plazas, pools, and quirky corners of Cuenca.  It felt wonderful to get the insider’s scoop.  The dry winds were blowing on the exposed peak, and it got colder.  Dani and Javier portaged their bikes down the hill, and we made our way to the little community to try and call for the all-purpose cab running the mountain route.  We didn’t need to.  Another pickup truck-taxi had just delivered about ten people to the church at the base of the peak…where by now, they were blasting very lively music.  It didn’t sound religious at all.  In fact, I felt like breaking out my dance moves.  Evidently this was a bit of a Sunday party, a gathering on church grounds on a sunny day to enjoy fellowship, music, and fun.  We piled in the taxi for the return trip to the Church of Turi.

Dancing through history
As a final hurrah, the Church of Turi plaza was filled with music and dancing.  We found a troupe of indigenous dancers who were part of the day’s festivities. Their music and step and twirls were an amazing combination of indigenous traditions being celebrated and adapted to a very Spanish Catholic context.

Even though European Catholicism brought over to South America in the 1500’s had nothing resembling these dances, the fact that these dances continue today is remarkable.  The dances suggested to me that, in spite of religious proselytization and subjugation under political ideologies imposed by powerful colonizers,  indigenous people persevered and sustained their spirit.

Their dances carry a longer memory of their unique evolution in this particular land and place than the memory of the Spanish colonialism.  The dances continue threads of cultural expression, happiness, love, and positivity in the face of subjugation.  Expressions such as their dances kept, and continue to keep, their unique ways of seeing and being.  Their dance is an assertion that their life is much more than quiescence and conformance to an occupying, colonizing power.  It expresses the pulse of the Ecuadorian people and their history of indigeneity and adaptation.

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Minding A Stuck Turtle

When I go hiking, I spend a lot of time being quiet. I like to listen to, and bathe in the natural world. I enjoy the sensations.  It feels like therapy to someone stuck in the rectilinear world of square rooms, in severe, tall buildings, along dead-straight streets for the majority of her waking hours.  Here, in the remaining patches of woods, I feel connected to myself as a human being, in an animal sense: vulnerable, excitable, wondrous, and just a component of the rich, diverse community of life.

The dancing sun and shade in the forest, the wind rustling in the leaves painted with the layered orchestral melodies of hidden insects and birds, and the cool scents of earth flush me with a sense of being alive.

In the excessively sanitized and artificially separated human-centric world, only human emotions and human negotiations matter.  Only language carries weight.  The Anthropocene has profoundly wrested, lassoed, and pummeled nature underfoot.  Human detritus has floated to the remotest corners of the planet far afield from where humans themselves live, to threaten and choke life.  From the vantage of the human domination, nature it seems is a neutered and diminished thing.

Yet, when I immerse myself in the woods, if even for a walk, the possibilities of other existence and other meaning are awakened.  I am jolted awake in the woods, feeling myself to be more on an even plane with the rest of the planet’s creatures.  My empathy for the birds, animals, and all the little creatures—whose lives go largely unseen in the modern world—is sharpened.  With just my simple act of presence, often slightly self-absorbed and not even particularly keenly attuned to the natural world around me, I am still richly rewarded.  Usually I witness some brief interaction from the drama and complex negotiations of others’ lives: a couple of blue jays squabbling around the woods, a painted turtle inching along a single-track trail who might so easily be squashed by a mountain-biker hurtling down, a hawk swooping into a thicket and scuffling around for what seems like a mysterious reason only to rise, with a great whipping, with a snake in its beak still squirming and alive.  These moments only become available when I am without distraction, just ready to receive, hear, see, by being there.

Sometimes, however, I go walking outdoors with others who may not have the same proclivity to tune into the hidden world of nature in their surroundings. They are in it for exercise, companionship, health and sunlight, a change, or whatever else.  I don’t want to impose on them, to quieten down to be able to observe and sense their surroundings more keenly.  I think nature is the best teacher of attention anyway, so much better than I could possibly be, with a didactic summons to listen rather than to talk and chatter about the human world.  Everything in its own, fitting time: that’s how nature seems to work.

And that is exactly how she opened up a moment of revelation when I went walking with a friend who, like most modern, urban people, wasn’t raised to pay attention and give importance to the quiet ways of nature.  I brought her along the main walking trail around a lake, not even the small forest trails along the rises and gullies of the hills.  The main trail has tall trees and good views, but is frequented by many recreational users and doesn’t reveal the enchanted, obscured life of the forest too much.

Along our path, we suddenly notice a turtle who has crossed it, likely dodging cyclists with decent luck, to get to the pond on the other side (it’s an artificial one that receives runoff from city streets through a combination of streams and pipes).  Except there’s a problem.  The turtle has run into an unexpected hurdle: a chain link fence.  There in that moment, the drama of a turtle, confronted with a fence between him and his destination pond—his safe haven—joined us into the drama of being a small creature in an unpredictable and dangerous world.

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The turtle was blocked on his way to a pond by a chain link fence

While safely ensconced in sterile urbanity, we humans feel seemingly omnipotent and above threat.  Yet we have the vulnerability of childhood still within us.  We remember what it feels like to be vulnerable.  As children, we knew by instinct that if we were to lose our mother, the ultimate shield from the dangers of the big world, we would suffer devastating loss.  That closeness to the condition of other species, whose babies are equally lost without their mother, and who are not as powerful as the dominant human species, brings us empathy and compassion.  We sense and feel the pain of animals sooner than adults do, tough as they have grown, to the ways of the world, having survived different challenges over time.

As witnesses to the turtle’s confrontation with this metal, man-made barrier which with his tiny legs and impossibly inflexible and outsized shell, he has little chance or capabilities of overcoming, we are immediately folded into the pathos of existence.  We sense that tragedy and cruelty is in close proximity, particularly when uncaring humans, blinded to the ways of the rest of creation, insert themselves.

I drew my companion in by stopping and focusing attention: the turtle’s problem surely is our problem now.  We hovered and peered at the fellow. Would we be able to help?

My companion spotted a solution sooner than I did—there’s a hole in the chain link fence a short few feet away.  The turtle might have been a moment slower or might have already identified the gap and I didn’t realize it, but he was already cautiously feeling his way down the length, traversing the fence laterally. (A short moment later I realized I was not giving the turtle his due respect: wouldn’t I do exactly the same, not give up, but search for another way? Or maybe unbeknownst to me, oblivious humanoid, turtle has done this trick a few times before and was just going back to a known crawl spot?)

It could be that turtle was more wary of my undivided attention on himself, than of the barrier the chain link fence posed.  He dragged himself on, keeping one eye cocked on us, to find a way through the barrier.  How stressful to be cornered against the fence with some humans to make a show of it.

Slowly but surely (there’s a reason for this phrase that surely stems from the turtle’s comportment) turtle inched closer and closer to the depression in the ground where the chain link fence had a crawl hole beneath it.

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Turtle finds a crawl space to cross the man-made barrier

He almost toppled down the slope with his unwieldy carapace.  The relief could be seen in his gait.  (Although, he might just have been happy to have the chain link fence between him and the large human.)  I almost wanted to give him a friendly butt pat on his shell to send him on his way.  As soon as he crawled under and through the fence, I don’t know, he seemed to gain a self-confident swagger to his crawl, and off he went at quite a different turtle pace than before.

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That’s more than a turtle pace: how he picked up his step once he forded the fence

Even the most distracted of walks can bring you close to the natural universe that modernity continually, humiliatingly denies.  As modern people we have disowned and dissociated ourselves from our universal family. We consider them beneath us, not as important.  But are we so grand?  Look at how our grandeur has devastated the entire planet to the point that our own existence is threatened.  Look at how our language and our tools have distanced us from our roots in nature and our kinship with other living beings.

The simple act of walking, graces the world with presence, and even without asking, brings rewards of relationship and connection.  The turtle’s struggle is one in our own heart.  He reminds us of the source of our shared impulses for life, for survival, for home, for safe haven.  We cannot turn away.

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Gifts

Today, in the woods
I chanced to look up
at the exact moment
when the cardinals converged,
on a branch across the path,
as sunlight danced rambunctiously
on the eager foliage.

With a tuft of red on grey,
the lady loped in from the left,
to a breathtakingly precise maneuver
from her man in rich scarlet regalia,
who dashed in
from a low thicket on the right.

I saw the exulting kiss,
a small flame of red
among the green flags
fluttering giddily
in the spring afternoon.

This baring of love’s delight
is a gift of nakedness
that compels the eyes
and makes the heart stammer.

How did they know to meet
on that branch?
Had they been confirming details
of their discreet pas de deux
across the labyrinth of tree limbs,
sing-trilling their plans while
I was obliviously trudging the trail?

What are the chances, I marveled, that
I would be gifted witness to this,
singular moment,
Unhidden just above me
on a branch,
where passion ignited from throat, chest, and wing,
presses beak points into each other,
among the tens of thousands of branches
along this miles-long circuit in the forest
(I travel so slowly and rarely these days)?

In a half breath and a flash
he has sprung off into the woods.
Again I am taken aback.
Can it be just that?
Cad, I immediately conjecture–
the wily one who has other visits to rush on to,
in other quarters.
No doubt a hunt is always on.

She stayed behind,
but just a moment longer.
Just long enough, for me to see
the worm in her mouth.
Fruit of his toil,
coiled in her beak.
She carried it off squirming.

There was after all
more than just that.
He delivered
as a gallant man does–
coin and nourishment,
praise and offering,
sustenance and substance–
these gifts of love in
a wriggling worm.

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Woodpecker

There I was, glasses in hand, stumbling on,
a joyless morass leaking out in salty tears,
Resilience frayed into tattered fringes of despair.
Even the sunlight’s dance in the trees
could not gladden
this labyrinth of loud loneliness.

But the path goes only one way through the woods,
I could not leave it. Elsewhere,
the brush is too thick or the bog too muddy.
It’s certainty carried the legs on
that cold spring day,
when no other thought would be formed
about direction or destination.

I was simply, fixed on the way ahead,
dully aware of an occasional jogger passing
Hoping nobody would catch a glimpse, and betray their pity
for this hard face of despair
Their recognition of it,
would be more than I want to bear.

So I was grateful for a quiet stretch,
and solitude through the bog just coming alive in green
through winter’s detritus.
When just at the periphery of my bleary eye,
in a messy pile of woody roots, I caught
A bright scarlet comb on the forest floor,
and heard a loud knocking both, at once,
blurring, poking at my blunt senses.

I turn, and stop. The curious instinct larger than me,
red, feathered flicker gripping me inspite of myself.
I wipe the eyes and fix the glasses, to ascertain this surprise,
To which all that was wild and alive in me leapt back in response.
A bird with a perfectly straight red comb on its head,
Glassy eye, soft white throat, and zigzagging black line.
He is an astonishing sight in the heap of brown brush.

Elegantly, the Pileated Woodpecker hops around the logs,
Never minding me,
steadily working, busy, preoccupied,
absorbed in the search for life’s meaning: insects and joy.
Darting now to another branch low to the forest floor
He is everything I am not: fast, dazzling, sharp.

But I am, here, in his circle.
I am included. I am somebody. I am in the family of things that are alive.
My heart steadies at this avian debonair’s
bustling distraction.
How he goes about his business with certainty and purpose
dispels my doom.
“Thank you” I whisper, for letting me be here, next to you.

But equally suddenly, he is gone. Then, I might have seen a wispy flight, a flickering shadow in the trees.
He zips clean over the path, up into the high trees further into the woods,
Dark wings flashing, magnificent mohawk, lively and pert.

The path stretches on, beckoning,
But I am mollified, softened into ease,
Suddenly at home in reflected glory.
I am with kin
and the promise of belonging.

Embed from Getty Images
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Refuge

In the mud flats
I found my perch on a fallen branch,
to catch the winter afternoon sun
blazing in perfect refraction
off the blue-black skin of Lake Accotink.

Fatigued by fluorescent lighting and
fractured into shards
by screens in square rooms
I come here, as I often do,
to put myself back together
in the company of water and birds
on a lowly log in the thicket.

Here, winter’s emptiness is fulsome–
The loose sharp air
The softly rocking water
The staccato crackle from the marshy island in the middle
where black spiky birds fuss
and erupt periodically in crescendos.

From her high nest on the tulip poplar
the Bald Eagle plunges into her grand circle
slicing through the air,
scattering a retinue of wing birds,
steely eye on the still snake
sunning in the brush.

Below, mute turtles poke their silhouetted necks
in different directions,
alert but indifferent
to the scolding Canada geese.
The Great Blue Heron lurks
at the lake’s edge
imperceptible almost, among grey rocks,
until sudden, immense spring uncoiling,
she stretches her wings into waves of flight.

cardinal

Northern Cardinal at Lake Accotink

An amber ant, tiny and translucent,
ambles down a blade of last year’s dried grass.
A red cardinal’s gaudy flash appears in the golden brush.
Finches leave traces of whispers
moving air in the dried leaves.

The kerfuffle in the rookery,
sweet trills, hidden rustling in the brush,
beak knocking bark,
feathered flutters–
Wash me in wordless comfort.
Animal senses piqued
in pulse, gut, cells, and sinew,
from ancient imprints in the throat and ear
evolved over eons
in this same sunlight.

A few genetic removes apart, all of us
swelling in giddy delight
in the afternoon rays,
longing for longer days,
sniffing for spring,
The unobtrusive, spirited lives of the lake
seeking refuge in this space,
mud yielding to water,
a cordoned vestige of what was once
infinite majesty
a natural world that inhaled deeply
and held out hands of grace.

Across the lake a leaf blower’s roar
rips out from beyond the thickets,
where the suburbs have straightened out wooded hills
into square lawns
and black tar miles
of squat, concrete obtrusions
with glass facades
that offer tricky imitations of sky and trees,
so birds fearlessly fly to their hard deaths.

This rectilinear world
that men have remade in their image
technological muscle flexed,
respecting no natural grace,
employs any violence for endless taking–
levers primed to bend and bow nature down,
blow out its bowels for ores and oil
upend forests
and  blanket endless acres in bitter chemicals.

Cordoned inside glass walled palaces
that glower with light at all hours,
men sit, removed from their own nature,
tapping out calculations of value on keyboards
their ears deadened to bird song;
pulses lethargic; forgetting to race
at the mighty flight of the heron with delicate wings.

greatblueheron

Great Blue Heron on a stone

If they could, they would
send in heavy machinery
to drain the lake, dig up the trees,
eviscerate muddy islands of bird chatter;
slash the tulip poplars’ sway
build out lines of concrete walls
blocks of houses
for sale in three model choices.

All the houses in the world are no home
when we have stripped
the majesty of sunsets on the water,
the rustling of birds and the quiet ants;
No refuge remains
when we unmake our home.
We would imagine ourselves proud kings,
with machines and guns,
But we are only
in the eyes of our beholders–
rude dominaters, uncaring, unmoored from our own nature
as vulnerable
as the smallest bees we poison.

In the mud flats by the lake,
my refuge,
I cannot turn
from the hawk holding up the sky,
the eagle’s flight through dazzling, tumbling planes,
the quiet mysteries of birds and turtles

baldeagle

Bald Eagle at Lake Accotink

When the cardinal sings irrepressibly,
it is to the invisible, spirited lives, and to us,
lifting the song coiled up in my heart.
To be human is animal,
self is every species borne
of the same womb,
our blood of this same soft substrate,
soil, water, cell, and sinew
drawn by hands of grace
A mother’s endless wellspring of love.
Her ancient calculus tends to limits
of reciprocity and respect.
She offers infinite wealth,
that we would cut, and ravage,
and imagine we are richer
in the taking.

This poem is dedicated to my friend Mark, enthusiastic hiking companion, wily-eyed bird identifier, and the best kind of ally who puts his feet and money where his love is: in nature.   
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