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I’ve been writing this blog since 2008, about the time I published my book Walking with Wolf. Originally this was meant as a marketing tool, but in reality it has served as a writing exercise, a line of communication , a way to relieve my frustrations, and a promotional site for musicians, restaurants and actions that I want to support (that alone a personal diary so I can remember what in the world I’ve been doing!)

Mary Rockwell with Wolf and Lucky

As I go on, and the blogging world gets bigger, I often feel self-indulgent, shallow and silly, but I always approach my blog posts sincerely. I love when I have a real purpose to write – as in the months last year when I was reporting to the great extended family and friends of Wolf and Lucky Guindon through the months of their medical crises. It is so nice to not feel that necessity so deeply – Wolf is doing very well, as good as a man of 81 needs to be, and is so much better than he was during the last couple of years, that to itemize his health issues at this point is over-dramatizing. And Lucky is, well, Lucky!

When I’m travelling and experiencing new places – and feel strongly that I want to share my photos of the beauty I encounter and my discovery of hotels, restaurants, organizations and especially artists and musicians – then it is easy to write and spread the words that come easily.

Being someone who pays attention to the cultural and natural world around me – politically, socially, comically – well, there has been no lack of fodder for my fire. However, I’m finding that there is such a repetition of bad news, incredibly stupid events, and useless government assurances that I am rebelling against spreading the bad news. I’ve always believed in repeating positive news but it is getting harder to find. Perhaps I’ve been an activist too long to believe too deeply that the scraps that are thrown our way will actually ever make us a nutritious meal.

I still stand by the idea that we need to celebrate the small victories because we never know when the next one will be – and any excuse for a collective joyful party is fine with me. The Occupy movement is the best thing that has happened since sliced whole grain bread and I was inspired for a while, but now I’m trying to not get bogged down in the nasty establishment’s corrupt and violent reaction to a very real uprising by the common people – that is, most of us. Well, I don’t feel the need to analyze it, nor explain it, nor condemn it. The actions of the elite, the corrupt, the governments and the multinationals should be understood by all as the disgusting power plays that they are, for the greed that they represent and for the sad future that they herald. And the people who are voting for the right wing politicians who are puppets for the manipulating corporations are probably not reading my blog anyway.

I do what I can – live simply by acts such as giving up my car years ago; live as one with nature despite the mosquito bites and the lack of electricity; practice kindness as my religion even when it hurts; contribute time or money or energy to projects and friends in need. Even though like most people I generally feel that I should do more, I’m not riddled by guilt for how I live….I worked that through many years ago and came to understand that we can’t be held responsible for where we come from or what we are born into – it was my luck to be born in comfortable North America to loving parents – but I can do my best to understand my privilege and that which others don’t have and try to help, in whatever big or small way, to bring the world to some kind of balance. And I don’t think guilt is a great motivator, it is a destroyer of spirit.

My experiences living and working with French-speaking communities in Quebec, the Ojibway and Cree in the north, the Spanish-speaking Costa Ricans and the Afro-Caribbean world in Cahuita – as well as growing up in a majority white English-speaking world divided between the rich, the middle-class and the working-poor – has taught me that life as I knew it when I grew up is only one small version of a complexity that we all share on a very finite globe. Our earth seems huge and phenomenally diverse one day yet small and totally co-dependent the next.

As people we share more similarities than differences, but our cultural and linguistic uniqueness, our adaptation to our distinct natural environments and our social and personal histories affect how our few years on this planet will play out. Some of us have many more options than others on how to influence our own journey but within that privilege we are as varied in our thinking about what is sustaining us as there are covers of “Yesterday”.

During the Christmas season just past, I experienced the festivities in a variety of ways according to three very different communities here in Costa Rica, demonstrating how different are our traditions and our celebrations. In the early part of December I was up here in Monteverde where I have spent the last two Decembers. The Quakers have a long history of traditional activities and community gatherings – the gift exchange, the day of “wassail” and local talent, the community BBQ and the Christmas Eve roaming carolers.  I was only here for some of the preparations including a Sunday afternoon of Christmas carol singing at the Guindon house. I had to leave before the schedule really revved up and was sorry to miss the week of Christmas when the community comes together with their homemade gifts and cookies and laughter. For me, Christmas has always been about family and friends and joyful gatherings.

A week before Christmas I was in San José with my friends Lorena and Edín. Rather than the traditional tamale making, for many years Lorena has been making beautifully decorated shortbread cookies that she gives as gifts to family, friends and colleagues. For her, Christmas is about sharing.

I was able to help her for three days, working in a big modern kitchen in a friend’s beautiful house in the Escazu hills, rolling dough, cutting shapes, baking and decorating through the nights with the twinkly lights of the Central Valley sprawling below us. Every night, somewhere in the city, there were fireworks! I’ve made many Christmas cookies in my day but never ones as colorful and joyful as these nor in an environment as luxurious as this one!

Just before leaving the city, Lorena and I returned to Barrio Escalante in time to enjoy the Christmas program put on by the Editus Academy of Music which Edín, as the guitarist of Editus, is a director of. We sat outside where they had erected a stage and listened to a number of their students, along with the musicians of Editus, playing various instruments and singing seasonal and classical music. It was lovely, even when an intoxicated man insisted on shouting complaints from the street…no party seems complete without a drunk!

The last two weeks of December, I spent in Cahuita with Roberto and Miel the cat. Roberto was raised a Jehovah Witness, as are many of the people in that community. He hasn’t attended this church since he was young, but he is influenced as an adult by his upbringing and celebrating Christmas is not something he does. There were very few traditional signs of Christmas around. In the town there were some nice decorations and many tourists making merry but in the forest the most festive thing we had were the fancy cookies I had brought from our bakefest.

There is much poverty in the area, and though I’m sure there were many celebrations in people’s homes, I have never passed a Christmas season with so little tinsel tradition even though I’ve enjoyed a number of green Christmases.  The Caribbean Sea was very out of sorts during this time, too rough to swim in, too stirred up to snorkel and fish in, too high to even find much sand to lay on – I think only the surfers were happy as there were more waves than usual. Our forest was gorgeous, the wet foliage twinkling in the occasional bursts of sunlight and an abundance of sloths moving about – the local version of a slow partridge in a pear tree.

One of the traditions that Roberto remembers from his childhood is his grandmother making banana cakes. We cook with wood and created an oven using the thick dry husks of the coconuts that burn slowly and with a good heat. I baked several banana cakes over the week, using up our many ripe bananas, and Roberto felt that bittersweet melancholy that comes with the foods of our childhood and the accompanying aromas. We did plenty of dancing, including on New Year’s Eve when the town, young and old, local and foreign, rich and poor, black and white, came out and partied. Even the sloths were in town that night, dangerous though it may be. I then left Cahuita to return to Monteverde, leaving Roberto with the hope of a dryer, sunnier January to start building his little casita.

On my way, I had a final experience of a typical Tico Christmas when I stopped and visited friends who were making one more batch of tamales, something that is very traditional amongst the Costa Ricans at this time of the year – well, at any time of festivities. I was told that many people on the Caribbean make tamales at Christmas, but it wasn’t part of Roberto’s traditions and I can’t say I saw any nor was invited to eat any. I was very happy to have an afternoon in Palmares with Vilma and Keyla, rolling the corn masa in the carefully prepared leaves and ending the day with a good feed of tamales…it felt like a satisfying finale to a very strange, quiet, yet still pleasant, Christmas season.

I returned to a cold, wet and extremely windy Monteverde which gave my Canadian blood a little rush of winter chill. But now the weather has changed towards summer, the sun has been brilliant, the sky blue and the wind, well, it continues to blow but not so harshly. We have just passed through the first full moon of 2012 – what some North American natives call “The Wolf Moon” as it is common to hear packs of wolves howling through the bright snowy nights. For me it has indeed been a Wolf moon, spent distributing books with Wolf, doing a couple of impromptu speaks to visiting student groups, and trying to have patience and resolve to get the translation, Caminando con Wolf, ready for print. It has to happen soon because I’m getting stopped regularly by people on the street asking, “Cuando va a salir el libro en español?” The year is 2012 – let’s hope that is the answer!

I’m riding the Greyhound north savouring the last of Vermont’s colourful October forests. Although we are riding over dry pavement here, I am very aware that elsewhere many people I know are suffering from torrential rains and the subsequent damages they cause. Reports from Monteverde have been full of soggy complaints following about two weeks of downpours, grey skies and lack of sun. That means that landslides are probable and so traveling becomes quite unpredictable, making my hour-behind-schedule-otherwise-smooth bus ride from Maine to Montreal seem quite insignificant.

More seriously, my friends living on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala – an enchanting place I’ve written about frequently over the last few years – have been watching the water levels rise at a rate that they couldn’t imagine and were hoping they wouldn’t see quite yet. The pictures being posted on Facebook are truly alarming. I believe that many living close to the shoreline on the lake have been forced into evacuating their homes, perhaps permanently, for even if the water hasn’t entered the building, it has destroyed septic beds and compromised their water system – and is still rising. They say the lake has a fifty year cycle of rising and the elders know that the lake still has a ways to go. My heart goes out to those who built their homes and businesses only to have their dreams gradually washed away like eroding sand castles.

In Monteverde, our friend Wolf has just spent close to two weeks again in the Puntarenas Hospital. I am happy to say that he is back home and apparently doing fine. He had a bladder infection that they couldn’t control with antibiotics administered at the house so he was put into the hospital to receive treatment intravenously. Experience has shown that bladder infections cause a greater distress in older people, confusion and weakness being common symptoms and I guess that is what was happening with Wolf. Fortunately it seems that Wolf has rebounded well. I am anxious to be back down there, to see with my own eyes how he is doing. Once I’m there, I’ll be blogging about all things Wolf, Monteverde and booklike much more regularly.

I’ll be headed back to Costa Rica on November 16, just in time to attend a concert honouring the late Fidel Gamboa, Costa Rica’s recently departed musical genius. Malpais, the band he fronted along with his brother Jaime and five other great musicians, have decided to disband. I expect that the strength and reorganization it would take to carry on without their main composer, singer and guiding spirit was just too great. I believe it will be an incredible night of Fidel’s powerful music performed by his musical brothers and sisters, his lyrical poetry sung by friends and the night augmented by the addition of Costa Rica’s Philharmonic Orchestra. I am so glad that I can make it back to Costa Rica in time for this last-in-a-lifetime show.

In the meantime, I’ve been paying attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement as it ignites our world. For those of us who have been paying attention to the corporate takeover of the world with trepidation for decades, the rising of the 99% in North America is a wonder to behold. It’s about time! I move around with the sound of Lorraine Segato’s “Rise up, Rise up” playing in my mind – a song performed at Jack Layton’s wedding years ago and again at his funeral in August (for those unfamiliar with this man, I wrote about him a couple of posts ago.) I know that Jack, if he had not died so prematurely of that nasty cancer, would have been joining Canadians in the street and helping to inspire the peoples’ movement.

The timing and strength of the protests has surely exploded with the examples set in other parts of the world – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya – where populations of largely oppressed people realized that they have taken enough abuse from the upper echelons of power. At a certain point, people figure they have nothing to lose but plenty to gain in rising up. North Americans don’t like to think that such revolutions, sometimes violent, could happen here, but I’ve always thought, or at least hoped, that even in the comfort zone of the passified North American consumer society, people would eventually realize the folly of our system. It’s based on the lies and greed that reward a few while keeping the masses distracted with shopping and sports addictions (how many corporate logos can you wear in one outfit or fit on one car?) and fed with the belief that one day they too will get to feed from the golden trough. It would seem that we have reached the tipping point here, where people have had enough of supporting a system that isn’t supporting them any longer. While the 1% licks the cream off their lips too many others never even get to lick out the bottom of the pot.

Surely the movement has been fueled by the frustration of people trying to get ahead with hard work, if they can find it, but without the rewards promised. We pay for insurance that doesn’t guarantee security, for schools that don’t properly educate, for health care that isn’t available when you really need it. The two industries that seem to thrive in this harsh climate, that people are forced to seek work within, is the military and prisons, neither of which offer any hope for the future or health benefits for our society. Even here in soft-shelled Canada our very conservative government has decided to buy into this draconian way of creating jobs and controlling the poor.  As French/Basque musician activist Manu Chao says, a country that spends more money teaching their citizens to kill than they do on education is a country based on fear, not hope for the future.

Besides following the leads of other dissatisfied societies around the world, perhaps the 99% movement in the US is taking advantage of having a president in power who may be somewhat sympathetic, at least enough not to have the protesters immediately tear-gassed and jailed, though there are signs that mayors in some cities are going in that direction. Although there is plenty to be disillusioned about with Obama’s presidency, it was always obvious that he was up against a corrupt and well-entrenched system that retains power and wealth for the select few in a historic perfect storm of global collapse. I believe that he can still do the right thing as this movement gains strength, and I will continue to believe that deep in Obama’s gut, there is a spark waiting to burn a hole from where his real strength and humanity will fly. I like to imagine that he and Michele watch the news at night and embrace each other, happy with the knowledge that the citizens of the United States, as elsewhere, are passing the goblet overflowing with empowerment and justice. When it makes its way to them, the Obamas will be ready to replenish it. At least that is what I like to think.

Being Canadian, I obviously didn’t have a chance to vote for Obama, but I joined with the millions who celebrated his election and believed in his message of hope and change. A simple fact of global life at this point in time is that though the citizens within the confines of the US may be able to live in ignorance of the governance of other countries, the rest of us are as deeply affected by the politics of the USA as we are the global governance by multinational corporations.  How to explain what has been going on for the last three years? A system so entrenched in corporate power and elite privilege that even a man of deep principles and experienced in community welfare can’t remain immune nor stand up to the force of its greed. I remember Obama’s 100-days in power interview when he answered the questions “What has surprised you the most?” What has troubled you the most?” by expressing his not-so-naive understanding of just how difficult it is to work within the system, that change in Washington (and on Wall Street) comes very slowly, that even in the middle of a big crisis the discussion is lost to a lot of partisan bickering. Even as President of the USA, he can’t make the bankers do what he would want them to do or turn on a switch and have congress fall in line. Well, that is why he needs the help of the population to stand up and insist that the corporate rulers, the bankers, and the outrageously wealthy pay their share. It is time to get the power back into the hands of the people.

I also believe that it is the responsibility of people everywhere to stand up to the massive brainwashing that has created a global epidemic of consumption. The belief that owning a bigger home, a newer car, a better wardrobe, every new appliance and electronic device available, that all these things are going to bring happiness and peace to your soul – well it is time to step back and stop the madness. How can one possibly defend the needs of those who own several mansions, a fleet of luxury vehicles, whose bracelet probably costs more than your monthly salary unless you are thinking that it your own goal? This kind of ostentatious outlandish decadence is setting the example of so-called fulfillment. It has tricked everyone else into supporting those who feed this dream to us even as it is making people physically, emotionally and mentally ill. If one can’t afford the luxury items, they shop with the same abandon in the dollar stores. Junk, stuff, tomorrow’s landfill. It is insanity and, to me, it is a big part of the problem, this desire for more and more of everything. The drug lords are the corporations, the pusher is the television, the addicts are everybody…and the loser is the earth.

Instead of spending so much money on the war on drugs and the criminalization of marijuana, the government should be cracking down on the real crack – stuff!!!!!

Those of us who are the protesters, the 99%, whether we are living in a tent in one of the occupied city parks, or disseminating information through the social media, or speaking up in support of the Occupy Earth movement at every chance we get, know that it is time. We don’t need a “leader” or a single headline for the media to grip on to that will simplify their job. It is impossible to narrow the issues into one stream when it is already an ocean out there, full of inequality, insane policies and despair. The “free market” system, capitalism as it is called, has stopped working for the majority of not just the humans, but all creatures who share this fragile earth. A few may be getting rich – even very very disgustingly rich– but most are experiencing life as one crisis after another with nowhere to hide. Climate change, environmental degradation, health decay, economic collapse, fiscal mismanagement, the inequities that pit workers against workers and the middle-class against the poor… the absurdity of it all is well beyond a single slogan or one spokesperson. It is time. Gather your loved ones, put on your dancing shoes, be peaceful, open your mouth, feed your mind and RISE UP!

temagami lake

Today I realized, while looking at a poster of the event that hangs on the wall behind me, that exactly twenty years ago I was standing on the steps of Queen’s Park in Toronto, facing a crowd of 1500 concerned citizens. I’d come down to the big city from a remote camp on a lake in the Temagami area of northeastern Ontario. For six weeks I’d been living with a group of activists who were blockading the construction of a logging road. I was a member of the board of the Temagami Wilderness Society who had initiated the blockade. We started off with over two hundred enthusiastic supporters in September, many who were arrested for standing their ground against the big machines, and as the weeks went by we held our position but with less and less visitors. They were either cops or construction workers, Indians from the area, the occasional journalist with a budget to fly-in, or committed souls hardy enough to make the day trip paddle into the camp. Those of us who lived fulltime in the bush throughout the several weeks of the blockade were all folks who thrived in this natural environment, but by the sixth week we were definitely getting kind of bushed.

poster

 

 

When a rally was called for October 29, 1989 in Toronto to support the action in the Temagami forest – “Halt the Chainsaw Massacre!” the t-shirts proclaimed – organizers wanted someone to come and describe what was going on up there. So I cleaned up and went south to the city.  

 

blockade-rae[1]

I was on the same bill as half a dozen people, including a powerful anti-racist and warrior for aboriginal rights, the late Rodney Bobiwash, as well as Bob Rae. In his finest hour, the year before he became Ontario’s first NDP premier, Bob came and supported our action in the woods, getting taken out in the paddy wagon. He also helped keep the issue in the news and on the government’s agenda. That afternoon on the concrete steps, each of us spoke about the need to protect the old growth pine forests and the integrity of the wilderness surrounding Temagami and search for long term solutions for jobs for people living in the area. We also spoke of the great responsibility the government had to finally settle the local first nation’s land claim that had been steeping in a bowl of tepid  tea for years. The Teme-Augama Anishnabai’s struggle for justice was peaking. It was a very powerful time, one of those moments when you think that what you are doing might really make a difference to the future of your community and our planet.

 Pyramid road tiesI remember walking up those steps, feeling a little shaky, and turning to face a sea of excited and expectant faces After having lived a very primal existence for weeks, albeit one kept charged by constant intense discussion and political awareness, I felt like a wild beast who’s been invited to the dinner table.  I truly don’t remember exactly what I said but I know it was received warmly. I knew that TWS wanted me to explain our present position – that the action was still alive, we were hoping more people would come and stand strong with us against the construction, that we were still in talks behind-the-scenes with the government to get the road stopped. Organizers had told me that people needed to put a human face on activism and so to just speak from my heart (which tends to be the only way I wanna go). Because the blockade was five hours north on the highway and another several hours in by lake, they wanted me to bring the thoughts and feelings of the protestors to supporters in the city who couldn’t take that long trip north.

chainsaw[1]

The fifteen minutes that I spoke flew by in a haze of culture shock that I survived due to my great belief in the cause and my ability to ramble on. I didn’t get to see a recording as this was before everyone carried a cell phone.  I only know that it was a powerful hour or so that we spent on the front landing of Queen’s Park. And I came to realize, clearer than ever before, that there is nothing in powerful political action that can substitute for sharing first-hand experience, bringing the issues down to the human level, maintaining open dialogue, and feeling passion for justice.

Bonnie%20Raitt[1]

The other thing I remember about that whirlwind trip to Toronto (I quickly retreated back to the camp the next day) was going to see Bonnie Raitt in concert but ending up falling for Lyle Lovett. One of my buddies in the bush, Eddy, knew that Bonnie was going to be playing and insisted that I buy a ticket for myself with his credit card and enjoy the show for the dozen or so folks left at camp. Her latest album, Nick of Time, was one of the few cassettes that we had with us to listen to at camp on our little battery-run cassette player – it became a big part of the soundtrack of the blockade and we were all huge fans.

lylelovett[1]

With my friend Cocky and a couple of others, we went to see the concert. This guy we had barely heard of shared the bill with Bonnie. By the time Lyle Lovett and his Large Band played their larger-than-life set, we were all blown away by his talent, energy, and the range of his music. We were exhausted by the time Bonnie came out – she was fantastic too, but Lyle had been the bomb.

Yes, October 29, 1989 was an amazing day in my life.

k & boys

Twenty-years later, I find myself living half of my life in a city (the hard rock Hammer), the other half in Costa Rica (which I barely knew a thing about in 1989), communicating through a thing called a blog, staying in touch by e-mail, and hanging from time to time in a strange community called the Facebook.  I’ve written a book about a man, Wolf Guindon,  I hadn’t yet met in 89  (but would soon) and loved then lost a few men more. I had cancer but it didn’t kill me. I just spent October 29, 2009 healthy, happy and with pretty much the same political beliefs and value system that sent me from a camp in the bush to the steps of Queen’s Park twenty years ago. And music is still a huge part of what I love about living.

peace_1222692145_01

They say as you get older you get more conservative. Fortunately, that particular sickness doesn’t seem to have struck me. I may better understand and anticipate the results of my actions and the risks I’m willing to assume in all matters of life now, but I still believe in working for social justice and that still falls on the left side of the pendulum swing. I believe in the power of the grassroots, that establishing peace is paramount, and that a just world would be a healthier world (and vice versa). Besides that, it’s more complicated than ever, the questions becoming more numerous, the answers always dangling ahead of us like a carrot that baits the rabbit that  tempts the dog – in the end no one wins if we don’t hook on to the solution. I try not to lose perspective or hope. I refuse to not feel joy on a daily basis despite all the news that forces a thinking person to the dark side. I continue to retreat to the bush or the jungle or to the base of the nearest tree to regain my balance, renew my passion, and self-medicate myself with nature’s restorative elixirs.

tropical

 

 

Fortunately, in about three weeks, I have a date with a tropical cure.

mating bugs

The last several months have been filled with love and wonder, but it would seem that the cross-cultural, cross-countries relationship between Roberto and I is being put to the test. We have taken a break and today he headed back to his home on the Caribbean coast. I am here in Monteverde with my three dog friends to keep me company. Relationships are hard to make work and sometimes you just can’t. Despite the many things that we have in common, the chemistry and the cooperative effort, we may not be able to get past some basic differences. In the meantime, we carry on…

campbell pasture

As I write this, the earth just shook, another tremor, and thunder is rolling around the sky. I awoke with a troubled heart, but the day arrived with an almost clear blue sky and the hot sun consoled me. At some point,  layers of cloud drifted down through the trees and the whole world turned white with a green base. And now the gods are rocking the joint and showering us with yet another deluge. The world around me seems as unsettled as I do.

besa2

I have taken on a contract with Bosqueeterno S.A., the organization that owns the original Watershed Property that the Quakers set aside in 1951. It would be the original “Reserve” in Costa Rica and became one of the first pieces of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve puzzle in the early 1970s. In more recent years, BESA has amassed some money and is considering ways to spend it such as local eco-projects that it can support. They have hired me, largely due to the fact that I wrote Walking with Wolf, to write a history and description of this beautiful primary forest that sits at the top of the mountain, skirting the Continental Divide and protecting the spring waters that furnish the community to this day with its clean, clear water.

butterfly

As with all historical accounts, there are varying versions on the flow of events, the participation of different people, and the roles that were played. My job is to search for the common details which all can agree make up this story of visionary-planning by the community. Many of the original players have died and in some cases it is the second generation – some who were very young children when the Quakers founded Monteverde in 1951 and others not yet born – who are interested in telling their family’s involvement. 

besa 1

In my travels with Walking with Wolf, I have seen the need to publicize Bosqueeterno and tell about this example of forward-thinking, as many people don’t know that the present day Reserve was started with this 554 hectare piece of land as a major part of it. Many confuse it with the Bosque Eterno de los Niños (BEN), a much larger (22,000 hectares) piece of protected land that is managed by the Monteverde Conservation League and was largely funded, back in the late 1980s, by schoolchildren and the government in Sweden. The Swedish kids named it Barnens Regnskog which translated to Children’s Eternal Rainforest and became another “Bosque Eterno” when translated into Spanish, thus causing confusion in the public mind. Due to the League’s websites and higher public profile, BEN is known internationally by tourists and rainforest conservation groups whereas Bosqueeterno S.A. is not nearly as well known, even here in the community.

toucan

I have been hired to collect the stories, write the history and then create a website, or more likely a blog, that will increase the public profile of the land and the people behind its conservation. Local nature guides and environmental education teachers will also have this information so that visitors and school children can understand how that early group of Quakers, hardly aware in 1951 that there would be deforestation and water shortage issues within a few decades, was inspired by God (as one of them told me) to protect this forest that in turn protects the headwaters of the Rio Guacimal.

kevin talk

This was the nineteenth year that the Monteverde Institute has run its Sustainable Futures course. It brings interested university-level students here for ten weeks to look at the issues of planning and functioning in a community in a sustainable way. This year’s participants gave their presentations a couple of days ago and I went, specifically because a friend from northeastern Ontario, Kevin Fraser (son of Susan and Doug, he being a great biology teacher as well as one of Al Gore’s disciples) was part of this. Kevin and a couple of his classmates created a design for an ecological garden on a piece of land directly behind the large Institute building right here in the center of the Monteverde community. This land had pine trees and cypress on it that the Institute harvested a couple of years ago to use for lumber, and so the lot has been sitting waiting for a brilliant idea to come. The students presented their plan for a small interpretive building and trails running throughout a multi-faceted garden.

heliconia

This would be planted with a variety of organic, native and diverse plantings that would cover everything from food crops to a heliconia collection to bird and butterfly attractions. Having lived near and walked through this empty lot for the last couple years, it was great to see this intelligent and creative design. One can only hope that it will be implemented by future groups, volunteers and community members. That would be a wonderful cooperative project that would give us a beautiful place to wander, learn, sit and even eat from. 

wolf and banking

In my last blog post, I spoke about not worrying about the possible calamities awaiting us at Roberto’s in Cahuita until we got back there. As it would turn out, they happened here – first I lost my wallet with my VISA and bank card, which I was able to cancel before any damage was done, but it makes getting money from Canada impossible. Secondly, Wolf and I found out that the local bank, where we do our book business, was mixing up our book accounts with his and Lucky’s personal accounts. We were able to rectify the situation and get their money back to them but it drained our business accounts. Sigh. Noone ever said that I was writing a book to make money. Or that Wolf, Lucky nor I were good book-keepers!

bar amigos

Then Costa Rica lost (but almost won) against Mexico to go into the finals of the Copo d’Oro, a major soccer tournament that Mexico eventually one.  Roberto and I went in to Santa Elena and Bar Amigos to be part of the festivities – always joyous when winning but quickly subdued, even funereal,  when the score goes wrong.  But I love being around the passion of the Ticos in their favorite sport.

roberto & cukes

 

 

And then of course Roberto left. Another sigh. I will miss him and his great humor, warmth and vitality, but fortunately I have learned something about love in my life and am relatively calm about the whole thing – or at least philosophical.

 

 

 

sloth

 

As in all relationships, there are tensions and hopefully through discussion, respect and compromise, consensus will be reached to the mutual benefit of everyone. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, but one must continue working in that direction.  Personal relationships can be ended, but communal ones will continue even when the individual participants change. And cooperation is important to our collective well-being. When there are good examples of positive community-work, they need to be recognized and then can hopefully be repeated.  Just as you hope that sometime in your life, you will stop repeating what doesn’t work. There is always hope that with time, effort and love, we will learn. One last, but not least, sigh.

One of the most constant, fascinating and sometimes frightening realities of life in Costa Rica is the presence of bugs – and I immediately must clarify that I mean the general word used for insects rather than the specific classification of the true bug – the Hemiptera – which is, of course, equally well represented here. I have had many friends visit from the north country who swear that they’ll never be able to deal with the spiders or scorpions or army ants, but they tend to get caught up in the exotic extremeness of it all and before you know it, they are drawn into bug-watching. 

Having been a bush-living Canadian, I’m used to our own serious bug situation – as in a season that comes on strong in May with annoying mosquitoes, followed soon by clouds of black flies, with localized deer and horsefly outbreaks throughout the summer (personally I think we should be calling the largest of them the “moose fly”.)  Then there are the big green horned worms on the tomatoes, the nasty little earwigs that get everywhere, and other garden-variety (and -centric) insects who fill out the non-frozen season. We don’t need to think so much about these things between September and April except for a few indoor creatures like spiders and cockroaches.

red spider

Then there is Costa Rica. The little isthmus with the mostest for biologists of all kinds, it particularly feeds the needs of the entomologists. At the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada, where I studied horticulture, the most enthusiastic prof I had, bar none, who drew us all in with his love of the subject, was he who taught us about the fascinating world of insects and the huge role that they play in our lives. Except for a general awareness of the fleeting beauty of the monarchs, the gentle crawl of the daddy-long-legs, and the constant chorus of the crickets, I just wasn’t paying that much attention to the insect world. But since having my eyes and mind opened by this bug freak (I’m sorry, the name escapes me – Second Year Entomology, U of Guelph, 1982 – great guy), I have a much greater respect for the winged and wingless, 4- or 100-legged, often camouflaged, and always outrageously designed phenomena known as bugs.

blue bug

Monteverde draws in many biologists because of its great biodiversity and welcoming atmosphere for researchers. It is hard not to get caught up in the interest and knowledge that abounds out of these maniacs, I mean scientists. A social gathering here starts with guests walking in the door barely able to control their excitement, shouting, “Hey, you’ll never believe what creature we saw on the way here”, and at some inevitable point in the evening, everyone gathers at the window, identifying the hundreds of flying insects drawn by the interior lights. Costa Rica is one big cocktail party of creepy crawlies. 

I’ve been waiting for 19 years to be struck by a scorpion in Monteverde.  I’ve lived in houses here notorious for these hidden, hot-tailed alacrans, have seen many, even taken a mother with her brood of babies on her back home with me to Canada (by mistake) one year, but despite my expectations have yet to be strung by a scorpion. I’ve watched an assassin bug drag a tarantula across the road, drank tea with a woman friend as regiments of army ants marched their way across our ceiling, and been bitten by something hidden in a bag that made my finger throb for hours. I’ve also been bitten by many ants, fleas, bush lice, no-see-ums and sand flies, the thing that gave me papalomoya. Of course there are the mosquitoes which I find much less ferocious here than in the north (laid back like the people) though they can carry a powerful punch of malaria or dengue. And then there was the squeezing of the botfly larva out of my boyfriend’s butt (see Kukulas of Cahuita and…)…I’ve had my share of bug-related moments.

 A year ago I wrote about being at Wolf and Lucky Guindon’s house when the termites erupted and for several days the house was filled with gossamer wings.  A couple of weeks ago, Roberto and I returned to Cahuita, arriving in the late afternoon. We were nervous about what we would find – perhaps someone would have come and robbed the place or some natural disaster would have left trouble behind. Fortunately, all was in order and we could just sit down and relax, make coffee, do a little dancing in the fading daylight to the calypso music on the radio. We started to notice a few flying critters in the air and soon it was hard to ignore them. In short order there were clouds of termites, that they call ‘duck ants’ on the Caribbean, encircling us, darting into our eyes, getting tangled in Roberto’s dreads, making serious pests of themselves. The clouds were thickest right around the casita as the termites were probably erupting out of the old wood that was used in the structure and for firewood. We moved our dancing down the path a ways but they quickly followed, drawn by our movement and body heat I guess.

bamboo

Now seriously annoyed, we decided to go lay on the bed where we would be safe under the mosquito net, but no, they were too attracted to us. Somehow their not-so-small bodies were able to stick through the fine netting and in no time they were crawling on the bed, through the sheets, over and under our bodies, dropping their wings, not biting but menacing nonetheless. We finally gave up, changed our clothes from those littered with discarded wings and tiny black bodies, and went to town. When we returned hours later there were no more flying critters in the dark, but the mosquito net was dark with their little carcasses and shorn wings. Fortunately that has been the only night that the termites came to town.

spider on daybed

I’ve grown used to shaking out my shoes and clothes in case of intruders, and that just becomes habit as many stories I’ve heard from people being stung by scorpions were attacked from within their clothes. At Roberto’s I am now paying closer attention to everywhere I put my body. Besides the fact that a snake could have moved under the bed at any time, there is also the impressive and somewhat unsettling variety of spiders – large, colorful and quick. It could get ugly if you put your foot right on them as they crawl across the end of the outdoor daybed.

julio house

On our way to Cahuita from Monteverde, we passed through San Carlos, near Arenal Volcano, and stayed a few days at my friend Zulay’s. The area is on the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide and though many miles inland, the vegetation is very similar to the Caribbean.

wood gallery

 

I stopped to visit Gerardo, a friend from my first year here in Costa Rica. He was always a talented musician as well as an artist with wood. A couple years ago he opened a Wood Art Gallery on the road to La Fortuna’s waterfall where he displays his own sculptures, done out of fallen wood, as well as the work of other artists.

volcano

This stunning collection of wooden creations is displayed with the majestic volcano as a backdrop. The big beast has been belching a lot lately – they had to vacate the National Park once again because of activity. For forty years, Arenal has been an active volcano and that gives it the record for the longest-running active volcano in the world. And she doesn’t disappoint! Unless, of course, she is shrouded in clouds. Zulay and I brought home a variety of heliconia plants from Gerardo’s ever-expanding garden. By the time Roberto and I left Zulay’s for Cahuita, we had a bag full of cuttings, roots, seeds and branches which we planted following the full moon that was upon us.

garden in july 09

The yard around the casita is becoming more and more diverse with our combined enthusiasm for gardening – Roberto mostly concerned about food crops, me adding a few flowers and colorful leaf varieties like the crotons. Since we recently left again for about a month (back up here in Monteverde), we no doubt will head home in August wondering if not only the house is okay but if all these plantings have survived in our absence.

kingfisher

 

 

 

I’m appreciative that, while we are out gallivanting about, there are bats, flycatchers and kingfishers on guard back there, doing their part to keep the insect masses in check.

lizards

 

 

 

That alone the lizards, salamanders and geckos, when they aren’t busy eating each other.

 

 

 

rainy path

 

We aren’t that concerned about the new plantings getting water as July is a rainy month on the Caribbean and we have already seen great regular downpours. I’ve been digging trenches trying to direct the water away from our living space, but the paths fill quickly. It is something to watch the little benign Quebrada Suarez rise into a heavily flowing river in a matter of an hour, especially having the knowledge that it rose so high last November that it wiped out Roberto’s former rancho and swept all his belongings closer to the sea.

under the net

We won’t start thinking about all the possible calamities awaiting us in Cahuita until we get closer to heading back. Instead we’ll enjoy our time here in Monteverde where mosquitoes are rare (we don’t have to sleep under a mosquito net) but scorpions could be lurking…anywhere…

wolf

And a quick word on the Wolf.  He is doing okay, although he is now injecting insulin rather than regulating his diabetes with pills. I think that will help to get him regulated although he still has a way to go in keeping his diet under control. He is presently in San José being equipped with a 24-hour monitor as a follow up to tests that were done a month ago. He told me on the phone (where he sounded strong and fine) that he has still had episodes – I’m prone to think that the combination of medications that he is taking, and the inevitable changing of them, is what is messing with him. Wolf will be turning 79 on August 17 – age is no doubt a factor, but don’t we know that drugs, and the unknowns involved when you combine them, can mess with your mind and body…Wolf just walked in to Cafe Cabure where I am working and said that except for low blood pressure that he experienced, there are still no answers. But he looks very alive to me – and is asking for coffee, so all is normal.

It is as inevitable as the wind and rain in Monteverde, that one day my time will be up and I have to leave. I don’t worry about going and I quickly transfer my thinking to arriving instead – back to Canada, friends there, familiar haunts, a different kind of music and the beautiful northern landscape. As long as I have the privilege and ability to return when I want to Costa Rica, then I can leave with a simple “nos vemos” – “we’ll see each other”, rather than “adios”, which feels much more final.

 

Of course this year also takes me back to Canada with a whole new purpose in life – bringing Walking with Wolf to the masses, doing publicity, marketing and distributing of my precious little tome. So there is an excitement at the back of my brain that I try not to get too caught up in, but will soon – within twenty-four hours now, I’ll be full on ready to conquer the north. I have until September 6 to prepare for the first big official book launch in Hamilton, and then the following weekend I’m returning to my old community in the northeast to do hopefully three presentations over a few days. This is the part of the world close to Temagami, Ontario, which I talk about in the book. I have many old friends there who have been very supportive and I am really looking forward to the book parties there. And in the second week of October, I think I will be doing a presentation at Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, which we also talk about, Wolf’s alma mater, for their Homecoming weekend. This hasn’t been decided yet, but the idea seems to have interested the director and so I will soon be in touch with him about the possibility. 

 

Having received such wide spread acceptance and praise in Monteverde from the people who are closest to the story will truly help me go out in the big northern world and hold my head up, proud of our book. I know that I was most nervous of the reaction of the biologists – sticklers for detail that they are, strong-willed, educated and quite sure of their own versions of the world – but several of them have spoken up for the quality of the book and have enjoyed reading it and shared a minimum of criticism (maybe I shouldn’t have called the tropical cloud and rain forest “jungle” but to the outsider, that is truly what it is, by dictionary definition as well.)

 

One of the surprises of the reaction to the book is how many people have said to me that it has revived in them the spirit of the community. Wolf’s stories about the founding of Monteverde, and my modern day descriptions have given them a renewed sense of what a special community they are part of. I had always hoped to properly present Wolf’s life and accomplishments but it had never occurred to me that our book might be a positive factor in the community. How proud can one be for playing a role such as that?

 

I have also heard from friends in Canada who don’t know Wolf, Monteverde or Costa Rica, and have said they love the story and the writing. So that bodes well for the future of the book simply as a piece of literature. I think it’s deepest purpose is the telling of Wolf’s interesting and dedicated life with all its flaws and colorful tales, and that is what I feel the most able to go out and talk about. His is an inspirational story of humor, hard work and humility and I take great pride in being able to tell this story.

 

In the week that I was offline, I returned to Monteverde, saw friends, packed and repacked, sat down with Wolf and signed a whole box of books to take back to deserving friends in Canada, did some dancing, had some great conversations and enjoyed my final days of tropical life. I spent a day down in San Luis waiting for the arrival of fifteen teams of oxen who were coming from the low lands for a festival, but unfortunately had to leave by the time only one team had arrived (those beasts move very slowly). I managed to get bit on my finger by something – I thought an ant, but now think maybe a spider – that now, four days later, is still swollen up in a bunch of itchy bumps. What a year for bites! I think it may be caused by the rainy season, as I found the bug population rampant. I ran off to Cahuita on the Caribbean for twenty-four hours and was blessed with sunshine and a starry night, whereas there had been pouring rain for the days before I got there. Here too I was bitten while swimming in the sea, something that rarely happens at all, especially in the Caribbean. But I was floating and some seaweed wrapped itself around me and four sharp stings (jelly-fish? Some say sea fleas?) sent me out of the water, waiting to see if I’d have some weird reaction like that poor Australian nature guy. You just never know these days. My papalomoyo seems to be under control, though I’ll continue with my sulpha treatments in Canada – and I still have a series of bitemarks on my thighs that we think are from mites of some sort. Hmmmm, August in Hamilton, the bug situation should be pretty tame in comparison.

 

I spent the last couple nights with Edin Solis (the photo is me with one of his Grammies) and his wife Lorena Rodríguez, he of Editus, she an interior, exterior and just about all round everything designer.  Edin was finishing the work on the soundtrack to a BBC documentary production called “The Winds of Papagayo” – about the changes of the environment in Guanacaste, the northwest province of Costa Rica.  How interesting was that – not just listening to the musical themes that Edin had composed (great surf beat dude) and admiring how the music followed the images and the story of the documentary, but the information within the work itself. It promises to be a very interesting piece of journalism (with a beautiful soundtrack) about what is happening with development on the fragile Pacific coastline. I had never realized that the winds collect and transport great fertility that has risen from the huge Lake Nicaragua to the north, as well as from the potent gases of the various volcanoes that run in a chain straight through Central America. The strong winds we know in parts of Costa Rica do have an important purpose besides blowing us around and keeping us cool. The doc also focuses on the over-expansion of development on the coastline, the extreme change of community life in less than thirty years, the changes in the winds themselves, and the struggle of the turtle population to survive the many forces that are working against them. 

 

I think of Costa Rica in general as about as fragile as a population of olive ridley sea turtles. Even though I know so many dynamic, charismatic, kind, intelligent and hardworking people in this little country, over all I feel they are all under threat. Out of control development, foreign influence, fear, and an economy that isn’t servicing the people at the lower end of the scale are all signs of a difficult future. The country has great “green” policies but doesn’t seem to have the backbone to enforce the laws. Most people I talk to have little faith in the government, having had three of their last presidents found guilty of some form of kickbacks. The president of the day, Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work in the 80s on bringing peace to the Central American region, had the constitution changed, by the vote of 4 judges, so that he could be re-elected (up until the last election, Costa Rica had a rule, similar to the USA, that presidents could only serve one term). He also supported CAFTA, the free-trade agreement with the USA, which many people are extremely leery of. This all adds up to a disgruntled society in an over-stressed country with a frustrated view of the future.

 

I love these people and this country.

 

The very talented Sofia Zumbado, award-winning saxophonist and her beautiful mom Myrna Castro

My friend 100-year old Otilia Gonzales and her daughters Gladys and Margarita

Luis Angel Obando, Head of Protection, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

HEY! How’d this guy make it in here?

 

Everyone I know in Costa Rica is involved in some interesting project, not only to make a living, but to bring some new awareness to their life. I wish them all well. Tenga fe mis amigos, nos vemos pronto.

 

 

It is Sunday afternoon.  I’m back at my wireless aerie here at Bob and Susana’s Cabure Cafe.  The soft clouds are floating about, obscuring the treetops and reducing the view of the ocean today, but the sun is on the other side of the clouds and so it is warm and bright.  Monteverde’s mists change the scene as constantly as our lives do – we go from great moments of clarity to dark clouds on our horizons to foggy obscurity and back to sun-sparkling visual bounty. Life constantly sends us down different paths and the peek around the next corner is sometimes taken with great anticipation, other times with great trepidation.

Wolf and I made a presentation yesterday to a group of visiting administrators from protected areas throughout the world from Conservation International.  Representatives of Ghana, Guyana, Brazil and Figi along with a dozen other countries were there.  We didn’t have more than a little time as their program was already very full, but it was nice to talk about the book and Wolf’s contribution to conservation to a group of people who participate in this work in protected areas every day.  I never write down anything when I talk in front of groups and then often wish I had remembered to say such and such. However, I forgive myself and carry on. With each presentation, I’m sure I’ll get better, but it is also a matter of gearing what we say to our audience, adapting to English or Spanish, and the amount of time we have.  It was an honor to have the time that we did to speak with these people – we left before we had a chance to sell books and our friend Mercedes was going to take care of that in the coffee break.  Hope we sold some as just to know that Walking with Wolf would maybe end up in southeast Asia, Africa or South America soon is very exciting.

One place the book is going is to the Ukraine.  This is very poignant for me, as my father’s parents were both from the Ukraine, having arrived as teenagers on the Canadian prairies in the early 1900s.  My last name, Chornook, is the result of a Canadian customs agent’s choice of spelling – my grandfather was the only one of his family who was given this spelling from his original name Cherniuk.  A woman here in Monteverde, Betsy, bought a book to send to her son who is a peace corp worker stationed in the Ukraine.  So it was exciting to sign the book with the hopes that her son may run into one of my Cherniuk relatives while sitting with a traiga of vodka in a cafe.

The Quaker meeting this morning was, as always, silent – up until the last ten minutes or so.  The first person to stand and speak was local biologist Mills Tandy who stood and thanked Wolf and I for writing the book and speaking so honestly about the community and recording this important history.  He said, “I’ve waited with great anticipation for this book since I heard about it and have to say that it has far exceeded my expectations.”  Well, his words brought tears to my eyes and they stayed there for the remainder of the meeting.

When it got to what is called after-thoughts, that is the moment after we have broken the silence and greeted each other but a chance is given for further thoughts to be expressed, Wolf’s wife Lucky stood up and, fighting her tears, talked about how people come and go in this community but so often come back and are always welcomed – and that is what makes it the dynamic place it is.  Her son Antonio, wife Adair and their children Skye and Sam are headed back to Connecticut after one full year here. They left in a taxi for the airport right after meeting.  Well this comment by Lucky started an outpouring of similar messages by a number of people both retiterating her thoughts or expressing something similar.  Katy Van Dusen spoke about Ann Kreigel, a woman who lived here back in the 70s and then died suddenly and prematurely in the early 90s after being bitten by a squirrel.  She had had a profound effect on Katy’s life and on many other programs and events in the community and was a great example of someone who came and left their valuable contribution here.  Her sudden and early death was a reminder about the importance of expressing your love for those you care about each day.  Katy also spoke through tears.  It was hard to break up the meeting today – people seemed to want to stay and share their appreciation for this community and this meeting that gives us all a chance to be reflective, communal, spiritual and social all at once.

It is also Father’s Day and that of course makes me think of my father, Andy Chornook, who I write about briefly in Walking with Wolf, who died of cancer very quickly after diagnosis in 1996, twelve years ago.  How the time has gone by.  And thinking about that makes me think of the people I now know who are struggling with this nasty disease:  my friend Lori Yates’ mother in Hamilton, who has just started chemo for lung cancer; Monteverde’s friend, Andy Sninsky, who is in Austria being treated for what is maybe bone cancer, maybe leukemia, maybe something else – Andy and his wife Inge have run the Good Times quarterly magazine that highlights Costa Rican and Nicaraguan tourism destinations for several years and have done a number of pieces of early publicity for our book.  Wolf and I, as the rest of the community, have them in our hearts.  And a female Andy, Andy Walker, who has lived for a few years with her talented family here in Monteverde and just left a day or two ago for further treatments in Texas on a difficult melanoma.  Our thoughts follow her as well.

These tales of cancer diagnosis, treatments, survival and sadness go on relentlessly.  As a survivor myself, I both identify with the fear and the difficulty, but also send messages of encouragement and strength. None of it is easy and I’m forever greatful to have lived to tell my own story as well as Wolf’s. For the most part I look down the trail with excitement and courage, but I know all too well just how scary that unknown bend in the trail can be.

February 2017
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