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It’s an overcast morning in Cahuita. While torrential rains saturate the rest of Costa Rica, and perhaps most of Central America, it remains relatively dry here. We can hear the thunder rumbling up in the mountains behind us but that doesn’t mean we are going to get wet down here close to the sea. Dry on the Caribbean still means humid, drippy and lush but we are always warm and if we pay attention to the sky as we plan our day, we won’t get caught in the sparse rain showers as we walk to town or collect wood. If we take the umbrella, it’ll probably be used to shield us from the sun more than the rain.
Roberto just saw our occasional neighbor, the spectacled cayman, who comes to hang out in the stream several meters from the rancho from time to time. We now are keeping an eye on the shady wet refuge where it hides. I’ve only seen its eye at night, a big green diamond glaring at us out of the darkness, no doubt annoyed by the flashlight. We found some caca on the edge of the water along with the marks that some animal dug around while depositing it. Now we are more curious than ever, as we can’t imagine that a cayman’s droppings look like that of creatures such as racoons, yet we don’t know what animal would have got that close to the water with a cayman lurking close by. Unless it was the cayman itself who pooped there.
I’m used to being able to google questions such as “what does a cayman’s poop look like?” instantly while online. It feels prehistoric to not have the cyber-gods at my beck and call…alas, you can’t have it all.
Although I didn’t write much on this blog while I was in Ontario in July and August, I did have a lot of fantastic times with friends, heard great music, danced a lot and swam as often as possible in the clear cool waters of both Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario. I took lots of pictures and thought I’d sprinkle them throughout this and the following posts with as little comment as possible. After all, I know people like the pretty pictures as much as anything and it’s a shame to take nice photos and not share them.
To report on Mr. Wolf, the news is good. According to his son Benito, who I talked to by phone the other day, Wolf is getting stronger, with more oxygen filling his brain and body, and now the problem will be keeping him from overdoing things. He is, as Benito said, getting cranky with his limitations. He will have to get busy or his caretakers will grow less inclined to listen to him. Wolf is definitely not used to having to sit for too long and it has been several weeks now. You know the man is starting to feel much better when he wants to get out and swing his machete again.
There was a great response by people to the Monteverde Friends Monthly meeting request for donations to help Wolf take care of his medical needs. The final bill for the pacemaker operation was well over $12,000 (which doesn’t seem like much by North American standards) and they have collected over $15,000. Wolf will have to continue to return for checkups with the cardiologist and these are expensive, so the money collected will continue to be used for his ongoing care, including the cataract operation that is coming up next. Katy Van Dusen, the clerk of the meeting, sent an update and thank you letter. I expect that some of the readers of this blog may have donated money – if you wish to, you still can by reading the letter on my post “Happy 80th Birthday Wolf” which has the details – and I want to also extend my gratitude to those of you who have been so kind as to help the Guindons with these life-saving expenses. May Wolf walk many more miles with the help of that new pacemaker and a better quality of medical attention.
The sun has poked through the cloud cover and things are heating up. One of my favorite neighbors here is the kingfisher family – I’ve seen five species on our stream from the tiniest American Pygmy to the large Ringed Kingfisher. One of these big noisy beauties just came by, chatting away about who knows what. That is something about life in the tropical forest – there are a lot of outspoken creatures who live here creating an almost constant cacophony of chatter (like a bunch of almost teenage kids), but it is hard to understand what they are trying to say. If I did, then maybe I wouldn’t miss that google thing so much. I bet one of them would be able to tell us who shit in the woods.
Another week has passed – finally, time is going quickly. I’m less than a week away from heading back to Costa Rica. Although I’ve been super busy, these two months seemed to have passed very slowly. I think the pace picked up in New York City – since that great night in the Big Apple, time has been on my side. Now it is working against me as I try to take care of book business, prepare my house for Ben, who is going to come and live in my house this summer, and cut the vegetation in my urban jungle back as much as possible, including a rotten tree that has been dropping big limbs over the last year. What seemed like it was taking ages to get here is now around the corner and I’m rushed.
The pear tree is blanketed in blossoms, the tulips are kissing, the young leaves are stretching, and so the great summer growth has begun. Although I’m appreciating springtime in all its beauty, my heart is elsewhere and so I’m thinking more about what is happening with the sticks of ylang ylang and croton that I put in the ground back on Roberto’s land in Cahuita – he’s told me they are coming along slowly. For a gardener, planting in the tropics and planting in the temperate zones of Canada are total opposites, although here in the Hammer, it isn’t anything like the north where I lived for years. But the north is the north – while the temperature is just heating up here, I’m packing clothes for the constant warmth and humidity of the Caribbean coast.
Last week I left Philadelphia and New York City in temperatures hovering around 90 degrees Fahrenheit (that night out in NYC was like steamy mid-July), by the time I got to Petawawa and my friends the Bairs, it was much cooler, and there was still a big pile of snow trying to melt at the end of their driveway. It was warm enough to walk without a jacket in the daytime – but I feel like I’ve spent the last two weeks changing clothes, adjusting layers and looking out at blue skies that mask the chill in the air. Soon I’ll be where hot is just…hot.
While at the Bair’s beautiful home, I managed to sell a few books to visitors – among them my good friend Fretz, who I worked with for years at Camp Wanapitei on Lake Temagami in the 90s. It seems to get harder and harder to see each other, but she came for one of Al’s great dinners and we caught up – that will have to do for awhile. I’ve lived and worked in a lot of places throughout my life and hang on to my friends. I return to visit them when possible, love to see them when they come and visit me wherever that may be. Once in awhile you either lose touch or give up on friendships that are no longer working, but for the most part, if you have loved people, it is always wonderful to reconnect. Although time may change your situations, it doesn’t need to change the spark that made you friends.
That last week of my road trip was made up of visiting friends like that – people I have loved for years who live in eastern parts of Ontario – as I wound my way home to the Hammer. Al and Jean Bair are on the top of the list. I met them in 1995 when they had a home near Monteverde in Costa Rica.
They have a fascinating, dynamic, purely positive large family who I also adore – I was meant to be from a big family but missed my chance in this life. So I grasp onto large families like a street mutt – if they will take me in, I’ll love ‘em forever. And the Bairs are one of my favorite. Al and Jean came into my life right at the time my own parents died and although I don’t think of them as surrogate parents, they have been part of my Costa Rican life and my Canadian life and have dispensed great advice and supported me emotionally. And we constantly laugh and discuss serious politics and philosophy – Al’s favorite line about me is that I have a serious speech impediment – I have to stop talking to breathe once in awhile. I’d say he suffers equally but I’m not sure he’d agree.
We had four wonderful days together catching up on my travels and their recent trip to southeast Asia. They listened to me moan on about my kabanga blues, and sent me off down the road with renewed vigor, as if I had just spent a week at the spa. Love those folks.
Next stop was in Westport where there is a whole whack of friends who I can’t get enough of. I’ve seriously looked at property there a couple of times in the past ten years but never made the move. If things truly happen for a reason, perhaps I wasn’t meant to be there so that I could make this move to Cahuita – it would be much more difficult if I was in the middle of developing a beautiful piece of property in eastern Ontario.
I went and visited my friend Paul McKay – musician and investigative journalist extraordinaire. He has written several books, most recently on the scandalous marketing of nuclear reactors by the Ontario government at a time when the rest of the world is taking to the alternative technologies – wind and solar – that are available and functioning well. Speaking with people of great knowledge and intelligence like Paul always gives me great hope for the future – his optimism points to the good things going on in the world, advances that you don’t hear about in the media. Paul lives in the bush, where he picked wild leeks (one of my favorite Ontario bush foods – makes the best French Onion Soup) for our dinner, and then we passed the evening doing what we both love – listening to a wide array of fantastic music, dancing, talking.
This particular evening was augmented by his strange pilates machine I spent a long time exercising on (kinda gym-dancing) while I listened to the music – by the time I got off of it, my poor legs, atrophied from close to three weeks driving a car, were cramped from top to bottom, but a little more dancing was the cure. Although I expected to be crying out with cramps in the night, it didn’t happen.
I went into Kingston the next day to see Turid Forsyth’s beautiful artwork in a show put on by the Kingston Field Naturalists. I’ll be speaking at their October meeting (third Thursday in October) about Wolf and Monteverde. Turid lives near Kingston but also in Monteverde – and so I see her in both countries and it is always an interesting time. She is a very talented writer, gardener, artist and photographer. How lucky am I to know these people?
The night was a big fiesta for Carolyn – her 50th – played out at her and Chuck’s home on Faeries Hill. This is a house totally off the grid – a wind turbine was reeling in the stiff breeze, the solar panels were cooking in the sunshine, and the power came in to fuel the rockin’ band of Spencer Evans, the Cowen brothers and Bunny Stewart, a hot sax player from Kingston.
I’ve talked about these guys before, playing at the Cowen family’s bed and breakfast, The Cove in Westport. Spencer puts on a great show with his incredible array of tunes and sometimes it gets kinda “shticky” for the crowd at the restaurant – but those talented twins, Seamus and Jeff Cowen, just keep the whole thing going as a tight jazz duo behind whatever Spencer decides to do with his piano, clarinet and voice.
However, for this occasion, they lowered the “shtick” and raised the bar, and along with the smokin’ saxophone, performed a very funky show that kept us dancin’, dancin’, dancin’. This is always a dance floor that is full of spirit and joy and beautiful people.
So big happy birthday to Ms Carolyn – take it from your slightly older fifty-ish friend – it only gets better as long as you got the right attitude (and good health and a little bit of luck on the side) – and honey, you got it!
And just throwing in a plug for all the hard work Carolyn’s been doing with everybody’s favorite Basenji dog, Zig – he can now jump through her hooped arms – we made him do it a quadrillion times as I tried to capture the movement in the right moment on film…he was exhausted by the end of it (already worn out from a night of partying) but just kept jumping. Love that Zigmeister.
I carried on to Toronto, still heading home – to catch my friends Donna Akrey and Janine Miedzik’s show on the Danforth – “Oh”. Donna lives in Montreal where she teaches art at Concordia so I rarely get to see her anymore. Over the years I’ve gone to many of her art shows which usually involve documenting or collecting junk off the streets and creating installations and bizarre scenarios. Recycling and reusing with a fine arts degree. I’d say a great use of higher education. Oh yah.
The last night of my road trip was spent with my pals Jamie and Tory (along with Jamie’s mom, Joan, and their houseboy, Chris) in Toronto – dining outdoors, throwing toys for Mazie the beagle and enjoying the last night of these three weeks on the road with wonderful friends. It really has been a fantastic time. I put off returning to my house as long as possible – a full day in TO with Sol buying a Blackberry for a friend in Costa Rica was really pushing the limit on avoidance – as I knew that the moment I got in the door the work would begin, and now it has. So enough already, there is a tree to come down, a garden to seriously weed, and a blue sky to enjoy. And only six days left before my heart starts to sing again. Oh yah!
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.