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Have you ever had a chance to listen to the loons? Maybe you’ve heard one mournful melody rising above the pine trees as a lone loon makes its way across a placid lake. Or a reverberating chorus of several, inspired by some unknown catalyst to join together perhaps just for the sheer joy of hearing their own song echo off the rocky cliffs. Since I first heard the call of the loon, a little bit of my soul has always remained floating on a clear freshwater lake waiting for the loons to return and start telling their stories again.
In August, as the northern summer draws to a close – touches of color appearing like rust stains on the green forest, cool mornings demanding you pull the blanket higher – the loons begin to gather. Normally solitary feeders casually swimming about, diving for fish in their own territorial waters, the loons take on a new social pattern in preparation for the migration south. Throughout the summer they may join with three or four of their kind from time to time, but as autumn approaches, they collect in groups of ten, twenty or more, forsaking their independent spirits for the benefits of group travel. There is safety in numbers and efficiency in more eyes looking for food while en route over unfamiliar waters between their northern and southern homes.
It was during this gathering time that I went to N’dakimenan, the land of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai – the deepwater people. The water that is at the center of this Ojibway First Nation is Lake Temagami, the deepwater lake. It is one of my spiritual centers on this planet and the loons are my fellow summer sojourners, all of us drawn northward by instinct and necessity before returning to the south.
My history on Lake Temagami isn’t as ancient as the loons, but it is as natural. It began in the 1980s when I was living further north in Charlton, Ontario and we would head south for canoe trips over Temagami’s extensive series of waterways and portages. It includes the summer of 1984 I spent educating the lake community about the reality of the acidic rain blowing our way from the Ohio valley and the steel mills in the south, threatening the health of the northeastern lakes. It includes years working with the Temagami Wilderness Society to protect the ancient pines and more years spent supporting the Anishnabai’s struggle to regain their inherent rights to N’dakimenan, their land. Chief Gary Potts was the young leader of the community who took them to the Supreme Court seeking a settlement on their land claim and through his intelligent eyes and careful words I absorbed lessons about patience and justice that have helped me in my own struggles. As he said, you can’t cry over each broken twig or you won’t have the strength needed for the struggle that will save the tree that alone the forest. It was helpful counsel back in 1990 as I entered into the long battle with Hodgkin’s Disease. Gary is as much a part of the Temagami landscape as the rock and pines.
My friend Peter McMillen has an island of rock and pine that has been in his family for generations. It is up the north arm of this deceptively huge lake, several watery spokes radiating out of a central hub. The further you move from the hub, the less civilization you encounter. Peter’s island sits between the two canoe-tripping camps I worked at in the 1990s, Keewaydin and Wanapitei. These camps, and the many others like them, are little settlements of history and tradition. Although the wooden buildings and crib docks are inevitably restored and eventually replaced, it is impossible to completely eliminate the spirit of the past. Returning to the lake after four years felt like traveling back in time a half a century.
Peter and Cocky and I had almost two weeks to listen to the loons, swim laps around the island, watch the occasional boat passing by, catch up with friends and gather news from life in the lake community. For the first few days my friend Jeff was with us, a newbie on the lake. I think he would agree that its serenity envelopes you as quickly as you move away from the public landing and head out of the hub.
Jeff left and Laurie – she of ECO Camp – arrived for her own reunion with the lake, as grateful as I for the holistic therapy it provides. The days were gorgeous, blue skies with enough fluffy clouds to add a little filter to the hot sun. It wasn’t until the day before we left that the weather started turning with warnings of a possible tornado that never appeared, but strong enough winds that we kept the boats tied at the dock and ourselves hunkered down in the cabin reading and napping. It was good that the storm didn’t come, as Peter, Cocky and I couldn’t agree among us where to seek shelter from it. I think we all would have run in separate directions and whoever survived the most intact would be rescuing the others with a big “I told you so” attached.
Besides the requisite R & R, socializing is a big part of being on the lake. Ears perk up when a boat motor breaks the silence. Up the north arm there is very little activity, so it is always a possibility that the sound of a boat means visitors, hopefully desirable ones. Some days we’d all pile into Peter’s boat and head off to see the neighbours such as our friends Bruce and Carol Hodgins at Wanapitei. Sixty years ago, Bruce’s parents took an old fishing camp and later made it into a children’s canoe camp complete with the almost century old stately log chateau that now serves as a rustic bed and breakfast. I worked there for six summers and the place is full of nostalgia for me as it is for the thousands of campers who, over the years, have learned how to paddle canoes through choppy waters, raise a secure tarp in the wind, and cook gourmet meals on a campfire.
Although staff at these camps change regularly, at Wanapitei it is Heffy who is the constant. He came to camp as a teenager in the late 1980s and basically grew up there, amassing the skills to construct cabins out of reused materials and keep old boats and tired machines somehow miraculously running until the camp finally replaces them. He has been the year round caretaker for many years now, enduring the two months of summer craziness when camp is in session for the ten months of peace and solitude, the sweet part of the over-wintering job when he makes drums and watches the snow fly.
And you never know what you will see on Lake Temagami. It is remote, but there has always been an active community on the lake – whether it was centuries of the Ojibway community spreading out to fish and hunt, or the heyday of tourism in the first half of the 20th century when celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford would tour the lake on the steam ship, or the last hundred years of hectic summer canoe camps, the decades of mineral and lumber exploitation and jobs, or the years of political struggles when environmentalists and natives blockaded ill-conceived industrial plans for the land and worked for social justice. It may be northern bush but it is vibrant and always interesting.
One of the rules that Cocky and I always adhered to in our many years of living in the bush and on the lake was that just because you are a forest dweller it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dress for a party. Imagine running into celebrities like Bobby McFerrin or Grey Owl, both among the many Temagami part-timers, in your dungarees? No self-respecting bush babe would let that happen! I once facilitated a magical weekend that brought dignitaries from all over the world to camp on the rocks. In the morning we watched as the wife of a Philippine government official emerged from her tent (first time ever camping) dressed and adorned in gold jewellry like breakfast was being served in the palace! She outshone everyone with her grace and provided us with a little morning star-gazing. Another way to look at it is there is so much green leaf, brown soil and grey rock around, one should always do their part to add a little color and bling to the mix.
As it would turn out, Cocky, who can dress up a brown paper bag and make it look runway-ready, was even in sync with one of the Bear Island dogs, with their matching pink animal prints. That’s what I’m talking about – dress for all occasions!
That occasion was a wonderful barbecue on the shores of Bear island with our old friend John
O and his partner Katy. There is nothing as sweet as cool drinks, cool friends and all the trimmings (like schmores) under the pines as the sun sparkles
across the lake and the loons start their evening song.
In my last blog post I wrote about overcoming despair and living with hope. Spending time in Temagami’s natural splendor is a definite tonic for surviving this troubled world. Cocky and Laurie, both therapists, started tending the germ of an idea they had to create a retreat for activists on Peter’s island (I believe I’d be the cook!). They know that many of the people who are working full time to overcome the environmental and justice challenges of our planet never actually get out in her wild places and definitely need time to replenish their energies, so they brainstormed on the idea of a Temagami retreat for renewal. I bet the fireside discussions would be hot! I’ll keep you posted on their plans.
Temagami has always provided that for me. It is where I spent much of my time while in treatments for cancer in the early 1990s and it is where I retreated to on September 12th 2001, out of range of the horrible images that were spreading over our psyches from New York City. This week is the tenth
anniversary of that unbelievable morning. New York and perhaps the rest of the civilized world changed that day, but the lake, the forest, the rocks and the
loon’s song have remained pretty much the same. The smell of the pines –
whether emitting from the majestic standing groves or wafting as campfire smoke when the trees have died – is my incense. Temagami has been a blessing in my life and fortunately I just drank from her waters and
renewed my spirit once again. Thanks Peter and Cocky. These are precious days.
Try as I might to hunker down and get to the piles of writing work I have waiting for me, I seem to be caught in a vortex of distraction. Although I’ve been “home” for a few weeks, I’ve actually been gone at least half that time, so I’m blaming my inability to focus on not quite having my feet firmly planted yet. I can sit down at my laptop but that new addiction in cyperspace, Facebook, proves a reliable source of neglect for all things of actual importance. I find it a wonderful tool for keeping up on what’s going on in the world around me and staying in touch with friends but when I realize that I’m using it as an avoidance tool, it’s time to start putting serious limitations on my time spent wandering around the Facehood.
I was supposed to be up on beautiful Lake Obabika in the Temagami region of northeastern Ontario last weekend. It was the 20th anniversary of the blockade of the Red Squirrel Road, a political action I was very involved in that is discussed in Walking with Wolf. Unfortunately, automotive difficulties changed our plans at the last minute and I wasn’t able to go. Having just returned from a road trip a day before, I was relieved as well as disappointed – now that the weekend has passed, I’m just disappointed. I’m truly sorry that I wasn’t there in the north with old friends – activists, natives, and bush folk – breathing in the pine-scented air. I hope they had a wonderful reunion.
Once the plan changed, my time filled with alternatives which turned out to be great consolation prizes. The first of these was a photography show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. In 2008, a newly- transplanted-in-the Hammer photographer, Larry Strung, dedicated himself to photographing a person each day of the year (which turned out to be a leap year hence there were 366 photographs) to illustrate the character and diversity of this cool little city of ours. He had spent four years in Liverpool England just prior to moving here and compares our red-brick working class town with its very solid and growing artsy base to that famous home of the Beatles.
I met Larry while he was taking another woman’s photograph and ended up being one of his models (February 26 at http://www.hamilton365.com). No matter where I was throughout 2008, I would go online and see beautifully-shot faces in a very familiar landscape. I knew so many of these people – either personally or simply from seeing them on the street – that this website became a lifeline to home for me. And Larry became a good friend.
Larry has taken all those digital photographs and developed and framed the prints. There is now a colorful display of his artistic photography and all those endemic faces of the Hammer hanging in the city’s art gallery. There was a gala for his “models” on Friday which I attended with my friend Susan Peebles, bumping not only into Larry and his patient wife Monica (who watched him head off on his bicycle or by foot every day of 2008 in search of a model, without ever bringing in a penny for his effort), but also a number of other friends and acquaintances. Two of these were Barbara Maccaroni and Peter Ormond.
Peter renovated an elderly little house in our fiercely proud northend neighbourhood, paying close attention to recycling materials, sustainable construction and eco-sound systems. It is now known as the Green Cottage. He’s run for the Green Party here in the last couple of elections, is a tireless campaigner for our earth, and can be found at pretty much every activity in the city that has to do with smart-living, besides playing a mean piano. Barbara has just started her own raw food catering business out of the Green Cottage (see http://www.blove.ca), is a yoga-instructor and also happened to house-sit my own abode last winter when I was in Costa Rica (as I recall, I came home to happy plants and the place being cleaner than when I left!) When these two hooked up, they created quite the dynamic-duo-of-wise-living, besides being just a little too cute for words (but pics don’t lie).
I got out of the big city for most of the rest of the weekend, returning to see my friends who live in a little camp north of Toronto. I hadn’t seen Treeza and Rick since visiting them in Guatemala for Christmas last year so there was lots to catch up on. I love being with friends who live their lives in alternative ways – besides their little cottage in Nvelte (once a camp in the wilderness now an oasis of simplicity surrounded by out-of-control suburban development), they are in the process of building a home in San Pedro in Guatemala. I fell in love with this place (see: In the land of the Mayans and the Hippies or The Magic of San Pedro blog posts) and know that I will return on one of my trips back and forth between Canada and Costa Rica.
Treeza and I went to The Dominion on Queen Street East in Toronto on Saturday night for a great night of rockabilly. My pal with the honey voice, Lori Yates (www.loriyates.com), was singing a set with a very hot rockabilly band, the Royal Crowns (www.myspace.com/theroyalcrowns). Rockabilly is the music that merged rock and roll, blues and hillbilly but I think of it as the punk of the country world.
The Crowns have a sophisticated and smooth-as-hairgel jazz sound mixed in as well. Lori added her sexy voice and another layer of kickass attitude to the trio of Danny Bartley, Jason Adams, and Teddy Fury. The place was packed, the costumes were vintage, old cars were polished and lined up on the street and the music – well, it rocked this filly.
I spoke with Wolf this morning. He is getting over a cold but seems to be getting his medication situation under control. I’ve been gone long enough that he’s starting to miss me – Wolf has learned to equate my arrival in Monteverde with “work”. We are both excited about getting steps closer to the publication of the Spanish translation of our book but are practicing patience. What we were very sad to discuss was the passing of our friend Rachel Crandell.
Rachel and her late husband Dwight worked enthusiastically for years to raise funds for the Monteverde Conservation League through their organization MCLUS, providing protection for the area known as the Childrens’ Eternal Rainforest. She was also a talented writer and photographer who produced beautiful books such as The Hands of the Maya and The Forever Forest: Kids Save a Tropical Treasure. Back in 2003, Rachel was responsible for Wolf being nominated and then receiving the international Conservation Action Prize in St. Louis, Missouri for his own dedication and lifetime of hard work for the future of tropical forests. She was a teacher and a mother and a great inspiration for how to get things done.
Both her and Dwight will be greatly missed not only in Monteverde but I’m sure in communities throughout the world. I’ll end with the words of Edmund Burke, words which provided Rachel herself with inspiration:
“Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little”.
Here I am on the eve of leaving for Guatemala. I have yet to pack, but I’m pretty good at that so the idea that I have to get three months worth of things together in the next few hours is not really a problem. Instead of doing that however, I’m in the middle of baking butter tarts because my lovely friends in Guatemala, Rick and Treeza, requested that I bring some with me (apparently they only just learned of the pleasure of the BT a few years ago and they seem to like my version.) They don’t have an oven so we can’t be making them there.
Sheesh! What one is willing to do in the spirit of Christmas…it isn’t the making of them, but the transporting them whole (as in not in crumbs) up into the mountains of Guatemala over the next three days that has me thinking this is nuts…but whatever, I just chopped those nuts up and threw ‘em in the mix and can smell the tarts baking now. I’m thinking that they better be the best damn batch I’ve ever made.
After my two weeks hanging out in Guatemala – where I can envision myself sitting with my laptop, warm sun beating down, one day looking out over beautiful Lake Atitlan and writing something on this blog – I’ll be getting to it again in Monteverde. Wolf is anxiously awaiting my arrival and we will be doing our best to get Walking with Wolf further afield throughout Costa Rica. If you are down there, you’ll no doubt find one or both of us sitting at the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, in our own version of a meet and greet. The guides often bring their groups over to introduce them to Wolf, the man hugely responsible for this stunning protected forest, who will be sitting there with a cup of coffee in his hand and a big smile on his face. I’m looking forward to seeing the staff of the Reserve, many who I have known since I first went the Costa Rica, all of whom have been very supportive of the book. They treat me like visiting royalty – not to suggest that I’m a princess, much less a queen, but I know when people are being that nice to me I better lap it up!
I managed to get eight more boxes of books (big KACHING) off to Toronto to be shipped in early January to Costa Rica. I’ve also forwarded another seven boxes with my friend Laurie who will be driving to the west coast and able to deliver them to my sister in Washington and Wolf’s son in California. I plan on following them next summer to do a book tour and it’ll be great to have the boxes there already. That leaves only five boxes here in Hamilton – available for my friend Kathryn who will be back in charge of mailing orders that come from this blog, and for me to take to Philadelphia and NYC at the end of April.
That means we’ve almost gone through 2000 copies of Walking with Wolf - or at least distributed them – and it will be time to do another printing! I’m pretty thrilled about that, though the idea that my living room, which has just finally cleared of boxes, will be a depository again isn’t as thrilling.
My good friend Tory Byers came and got me and my boxes and took us to the Toronto shipper. We then spent a couple days together at her home in Toronto, just visiting and relaxing, as her partner Jamie Grant fed us real good food and Macie the beagle kept us entertained.
Tory is this beautiful talented woman with a heart that takes everyone and thing in. She has been working for one of the Toronto cruise ships that people hire to float about in the lake while they get married or drunk or both with the Toronto skyline sparkling behind them. While working down on the waterfront, Tory has met up with a colony of feral cats who live around one of the boatyards.
Along with her friends Sandy and Aaffeine, she has been providing food for these abandoned cats, many who were once quasi-domestic street cats living with the squatters at Tent City, a makeshift home for street folks that was eventually dismantled a couple years ago. The people left for other fields, the cats moved into this boatyard.
The women look for homes for the cats – since they are feral, they won’t really become house cats but some are tamer than others and will be outdoor cats who can handle a little human interaction. They have found homes for many kittens. They purchase big bags of catfood and cans of sardines and take turns going daily to feed the felines. They also have constructed cat shelters out of recycling boxes and tarps.
This is Hemingway – papa to many
The three women and their friends have taken all this on and fortunately are starting to get support from others who can contribute time or money or catfood once they hear about the Cherry Street Cats. They don’t want people to know exactly where they are as they have already seen that people will drop off unwanted cats there, figuring that they will be absorbed into this colony and the ladies will take care of them. Meanwhile, not only is that terribly irresponsible and cruel, but those domestic cats don’t necessarily fit in with the tougher ferals…so it is a bit like throwing your pup to the wolves.
If you want to see what the ladies and cats are up to, or look at other pictures of the cats, or donate, go to Tory’s blog on wordpress – cherrystreetcats.wordpress.com. It gives you a look at a different community in Toronto.
On Thursday night, I made it to a Christmas party at the Earthroots office. Saw my old friend Amber Ellis – the only person I know who is still there after all these years. This non-profit environmental group grew out of the Temagami Wilderness Society, of which I was a board member in the late 1980s during the time of the blockade on the Red Squirrel Road in northeastern Ontario. In September 2009, we will be having a 20-year anniversary reunion of the blockade up on Lake Wakimika, on whose beautiful shores I lived with several others for seven weeks in the fall of 1989. I stay in touch with alot of people from those days and I hope that many of us will turn out and spend a couple days together, reliving what was a very powerful time for many of us. If September is kind, it will bless us with warm sunny weather – the way it was that first day that we gathered there on September 15, 1989 for a camp-in that, because of the massive support and passion of the hundreds who came deep into the bush that weekend, grew into the non-violent blockading of a logging road extension.
Other than that little trip to Toronto, I’ve been real busy taking care of business, getting ready to go, catching some great music in town, doing a little dancing, and spending evenings with friends who I won’t see for a few months. Of course there is the usual enthusiasm from folks who swear they are going to come to Costa Rica and visit – but I’ve learned not to get excited until they have their plane ticket in hand.
Last night I went up to spend the evening with the Poag, Marskell, and Johnston clan – the family that subs as my real family though we are only “pretend” cousins. Although I do have some blood relatives in the Toronto area, I seldom see them. I spend most of those big holiday occasions – Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving – if I’m in town – at Bob and Kathryn’s with their big extended family. Kathryn’s parents, Doreen and Bill Poag, and my parents were close friends from before they all had children and we continue the friendship on.
Throughout my childhood, my parents hosted a Christmas carol and euchre night the weekend before Christmas. We all grew up looking forward to that one night of the year when we all sang these great songs together. Doreen Poag and Bea Marskell, the singing Miller sisters, would accompany us on our piano. Their husbands, Art and Bill, sang in the International Harvester Choir and Bea and Art also were in this rocking seniors club called the Geritol Follies that put on musical cabarets for years. So there is a lot of singing going on in that clan.
After my parents died in the late nineties, my sister and I gave our piano to Kathryn and Bob. Maggie didn’t want to transport it out west and I didn’t have a home for it. So when the piano moved to their house, so did the carol singing. For the last ten years, an ever-growing crowd gathered at the Johnston’s. Once we were done with the trough of fantastic food, we carried on the tradition of singing with Bea playing the songs on the piano and Doreen beside her turning the pages of the music books.
Bea died last year and not only was it a very sad day for us all to lose her, but it wasn’t good for our carol singing – we needed her loud enthusiastic key-tinkling to cover up the general uproar of our voices.
When I was young, my dad would tape our carol-singing on his reel-to-reel – and when we would listen to it, ouch! There are some great voices amongst us, but collectively, we can be pretty pitiful - fortunately we laugh as much as we sing. I was sick last year and didn’t make the party, but they told me that it was very sad – Bea had just recently died and no one was quite ready to take over providing musical accompaniment. The spirit wasn’t strong enough that night to overcome the loss of our friend Bea. If I had been there, I’d have tried to help as I’m often one of the ringleaders, keeping track of the musical requests, making sure we sing the best verses of each song and dictating who has to sing the part of the three kings or Good King Wenceslas and his page.
Last night, we gathered again and the spirit was great. We now have a variety of musicians to accompany us on different songs. Everyone is trying to keep it alive. The lovely Madelaine played her clarinet – very well, I might add. Rich and then Don and then Keira played the piano and Lindsay’s guitar was a real great addition. So we managed to get through the majority of the carols we wanted to sing and once in awhile, we even sounded pretty good. Two years ago I took all the various songbooks we were working from – it would get very confusing as everyone was looking in a different book (that were so old they were falling apart) so I consolidated them and made new songsheets. That seems to have helped us move forward as well. Trying to keep this great family tradition not only alive, but fun enough to keep the next generations bringing their friends along to partake is worth the effort. All that great food, along with the riotous fun of this family, helps to ensure that people will continue to come out. And I am forever grateful to have had these wonderful folks in my life, all my life, and proud to be a family-member, if only of the pretend kind. I’m also extremely grateful that Kathryn agreed to take over my book sales while I’m gone – although I hate the idea that it could really keep her busy, that also has a nice ring to it somehow.
Well, my butter tarts are done and not bad, if I do say so myself. Now I have to figure out how to pack them, along with everything else. In case I’m not online or able to blog for awhile, and in the spirit of last night’s swelling of joy amid Christmas tradition, I will wish you now all a big HO HO HO, a very Merry Christmas or whatever you are celebrating, and leave you with the hopes for a miracle called worldwide peace in 2009. And also with a quote from my favorite carol, that being Good King Wenceslas:
“Therefore Christian men be sure – wealth or rank possessing – thee who now shall bless the poor, shall themselves find blessing.”