It is a warm evening here in Philadelphia. Today the sun was shining brightly enough to raise the temperature up close to 80 degrees (or 25 Celsius) – I returned to wearing the shorts I had been living in down in Costa Rica. I find myself in the heartland of the Quakers, Philadelphia Pennsylvania, and it isn’t just the air that is warm here. I’ve met a lot of friendly Friends over the last three days, kind-hearted souls with questioning minds.
When I left Maine on Tuesday, I stopped for the night at Carlos and Lidieth Guindon’s in New Hampshire. Carlos is getting near the end of translating Walking with Wolf. It is very exciting. When he is done, his hard work will be passed on to an editor and we will be another big step closer to seeing Caminando con Wolf become a reality. The poor man is not exactly translating English to Spanish – he is translating Canadian and Alabamian to Costa Rican. Carlos is not a professional translator, just a very smart man with a big heart who wants to see his father’s story made available to those Costa Ricans who don’t read English. It was a very enjoyable evening, discussing details of the book and catching up on our lives. It was particularly great to see Lidieth, who I knew back in the nineties when they were still living in Monteverde but who I haven’t seen in at least a decade. No matter where I go, when I run into Monteverde folk there is a strong connection, a common thread that binds us – our mutual love of that community and culture and remarkable natural landscape. And when they are Guindons, it is that much sweeter.
I left early in the morning from New Hampshire to get to Philadelphia for an evening talk. It was a very easy drive, right through New York City, on I-95, across the George Washington Bridge. The only bad traffic I ran into in eight hours of driving was the bottleneck that occurs on the east side of that bridge – there seems to be eight lanes of traffic on four different ramps all merging – it took me an hour to get onto and over the bridge, much of which I spent sitting beside this cemetary - not a particularly peaceful resting spot I’d say.
It gave me a chance to look around and snap pictures – I was sorry that I was moving too fast while on the bridge that I couldn’t take a good shot of the Empire State Building that I could see in the distance along with the rest of the famous skyline. Now that I have passed through the Big Apple, I am not at all intimidated for when I return there this weekend – maybe I’ll manage to get some good skyline pics this time.
I arrived mid-afternoon at my first Philadelphia stop, Westtown School. A Quaker school started in the late 1700s, this beautiful campus sits out on the west side of the Philadelphia area, incorporating some of the last farmland as part of its grounds – much in the area has been eaten up by development, apparently in just the last ten years – McMansionland, as someone called it appropriately.
Whitney, Quincy & Nora
My contact there was Whitney Suttel, a teacher who taught a few years ago at the Monteverde Friends School. She arranged a beautiful room for me to do my slide show and present the book – and a room in the Farmhouse, the overnight accommodation for Westtown. I was amazed at the size of the buildings of Westtown and the chimneys!
I’m not sure how many topped the high roof of the main building but they are so proud of their chimneys that they are spoken about in the school’s literature. Westtown is just one of many Quaker schools in this area – I’ve heard of so many Friends’ elementary, middle, high schools and colleges, I’ve lost count. There is no doubt that Philly must be the epicenter of earthQuakerism in the United States.
The talk was attended by a few students but being their free time, they were more tempted to be elsewhere. But each time I talk, there is always lots of enthusiasm by those who know Wolf and Monteverde and the others pick up on it. This was no exception – Whitney told her own stories of her experiences of walking with Wolf and there was also a student, Laura, who had lived with the Guindons when she did an exchange with Wolf’s granddaughter Noelia last year. And the biology teacher who has taken a number of groups to Monteverde and stayed down at Eladio’s in the Peñas Blancas valley – everyone has their own tales of their times spent with Wolf. There could easily be a second and third volume added to our original book, Walking with Wolf.
Early the next morning, I had to make my way into the Center City to Greene St. Friends School. The Spanish teacher, Sandra Rodriguez, had asked me to come and speak to the grade 7s and 8s – she goes to Costa Rica each year with the grade 7s – so all of these students had been in Monteverde. I started out from the bucolic countryside of Westtown, leaving in plenty of time and should have been able to arrive easily half an hour before I was to talk. However I ended up getting horribly lost, driving in the morning rush hour traffic, following cars up and down the wooded hill and valley roads, past the mansions and numerous academic institutions housed in big old stone buildings surrounded by big old hardwood trees. It would have all been lovely except for the fact that I was starting to think I would miss the whole class time and would be doing all this driving for nothing and leave Sandra very disappointed wondering where I was.
I finally drove past a corner store where I could ask directions and when I found out that I basically had to return to the point where I think I had gone wrong in the first place – by a different way, but still, miles backward it seemed – I was sure that I would never make the school in time. The traffic was thick everywhere and I was still not really sure how far I was and time was passing quickly. But just as I was truly feeling forlorn, I somehow miraculously came across one of the roads that I recognized as being where I was to turn to get to the school – and pulled into the parking lot with about 15 minutes to spare, enough time to set up the projector, get the power point in position, and wipe the sweat from my brow.
As it would happen, that was one of the nicest audiences I’ve talked to – maybe forty kids from diverse backgrounds, all who understood Quakerism, all who have been to Monteverde, many of whom have aspirations to write themselves. So when I finished my talk, there were lots of great questions and enthusiasm on the part of these young students. I always tell kids (well, anyone) that if I can write a book, anyone who can construct a good sentence and has a good story to tell surely can write their own book. It was a message that a lot of these kids seemed to want to hear.
When that was over I bravely faced downtown Philadelphia and headed to the University of Pennsylvania to drop off a book at the office of Dan Janzen, the famous biologist/conservationist who wrote the Natural History of Costa Rica. He has agreed to write a blurb for the back of the Spanish edition and I thought that dropping the book off at his office would be cheaper and easier than mailing one – ha! After driving up and down the busy streets then walking through the maze of university buildings for close to an hour trying to find his office, I once again questioned my reasoning.
I took the slow road out of the center of the city toward Pendle Hill, the Quaker spiritual and educational retreat. I have heard of this place from people in Monteverde but really didn’t know what to expect. It is a beautiful collection of old stone buildings on grounds full of native trees, with the magnolia flowers just fading, the redbuds shining brightly, the daffodils nodding happily and the leaves starting to appear throughout the canopy.
I spoke last night at Swarthmore College – originally a Quaker college made up of more large stone buildings on beautiful grounds very close to Pendle Hill. Mark Wallace, another former visitor to Monteverde, had invited me. Unfortunately the crowd was super small – Mark and a student and Sybil, a woman I know from Monteverde but haven’t seen in a few years. She was thrilled to come out and get a copy of the book and we all engaged in a great discussion about our experiences in Monteverde. It turned out that Mark and his children had been on the same hike that Whitney from Westtown had been on with Wolf, doing his crazy Tapir Trail in 2004, the year that he wasn’t able to complete the trail. I made the connection when Mark started talking about how his daughter had seen a fer-de-lance while on that hike – and remembered that Whitney had told the same tale, of a young girl seeing a fer-de-lance. It is a small world – they don’t know each other but had actually spent a few days in the wild and wooly cloud forest of Monteverde together and now work only miles apart from each other here in Philadelphia.
Here at Pendle Hill, Lloyd Guindon, Wolf’s nephew, is the groundskeeper and today, under that sparkling sun, he took me on a tour – telling me the history of some of the trees – such as the Dawn Redwood, a native tree that completely disappeared in this area until some were found in China and brought back – they are meta-sequoias, similar to the California Redwoods but not the same, and were just leafing out like the Larch or Tamarack trees (as we call them in Canada) would be doing.
There is also the State Champion American Beech tree on this campus – I always remember the beech trees at our cottage and how the smooth yet wrinkled grey trunks looked like elephant legs – this big ol’ tree was no exception. It is humungous – one has to wonder how much longer it can spread its big branches out but perhaps being recognized as the biggest in the state will keep it going for awhile longer. As do most of the staff here, Lloyd and his wife Robin and their children live in an old stone house on the campus. He is obviously and justifiably very proud of his work, taking care of this partially forested, partially meadowed land with a big organic vegetable garden and numerous flower beds, mostly filled with native plants and perennials.
At each meal I talk with some of the people studying and working here. There are several writers about and I find myself being the “published author” and sharing my own experiences – when did this happen? I often wonder to myself. When did I become someone who knows something about writing and publishing a book? I amaze myself – enough to think I can write another one.
Tonight I dined with Lauri Perlman, the director here at Pendle Hill. She explained some of the history of the place to me – how a small group of Quakers decided that they wanted to start this spiritual retreat as an alternative to Swarthmore College – and made the decision to go ahead back in 1929, four days after the big stock market crash that brought on the Depression. As she said, what a courageous move they made, and obviously a smart one as Pendle Hill is thriving eighty years later. She said that she uses that as an example when people are so concerned about going forward in these times of great economic worry – if that group of visionaries could stick with their plan to expand the small meeting at the time into something of this relevance and make it work during the Depression, then maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about taking risks in these troubling times either. If you have a smart plan and work at it diligently, you just might find success despite the fears that rain down from the doomsayers that abound, in our neighbourhoods and in our media.
Tomorrow I will be reading from the book and hopefully having an interesting discussion with folks over the lunch hour. I’ll then be set up to sell and sign books for a couple of hours in the bookstore. It is supposed to be getting close to 90 degrees – I’ll no doubt be wishing I was swimming in the ocean. As soon as the work is done, I’ll be getting back in my car and driving a couple hours north, back to New York City, to go hear my friend Memo play with a Cuban band in the city and do a book presentation on Sunday afternoon. I am very thankful to Lloyd, Mark, Sandra and Whitney, the folks who brought me here to beautiful Philadelphia. I leave with very warm memories of the Friends, their stone houses and the rich green life that flourishes around them.