Tuesday, 29 December 2009


I love the canyons here. I love the mountains that they wind through and I love the views they allow.

Today I walked along the Ocean Avenue park in Santa Monica. It's a narrow park that lies between the Ocean Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and affords beautiful views of the ocean, sunsets, and the coastline. On the PCH side of the park, there is a cliff. Erosion is the word. The cliff rises about 50 feet above the beach. I regularly take the California Incline, a road that cuts up the cliff and takes you from sea level to look out.

I met a friend for a walk and some tea. Originally intending to go for a hike, we downgraded our adventure to a leisurely stroll through the park since we were both recovering from illnesses. It didn't feel like much of a sacrifice since it was so beautiful. The sky was blue, the sunshine was warm, and the air was fresh.

From the park, you can see a few of my favorite views: the sun setting over the ocean, the coastline up to Point Dume and the green ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains. (Sometimes they're more brown than green, but thanks to recent rains, everything is green and growing here. It's like spring with less flowers.)

Home for me is on the other side of those mountains. There are a few ways to cross them, but my favorite is coming down Topanga Canyon. That's my canyon. I grew up seeing it. I used to be afraid the car would fall down the cliffs when I was a kid. I remember my brother picking me up from the airport a few years ago after I'd spent some time in Australia and was a little reluctant to come home. He drove me home through the canyon. It was June. Orange poppies and other wild flowers lined the road. It softened the homecoming. For over a year, I drove that canyon to and from work 5 days a week. I've driven it at all hours of the day and night. I've seen bad accidents. I've been held up at road works. There's a man who runs down the canyon every morning. He looks dirty: his hair in dreads, his face brown. His clothes: always a jogging suit of types, either blue or pink, covered in a layer of dirt. The cars you see time and time again. The stop light they put in. The changes to the stores in the little town of Topanga. The shimmering sign at Froggy's that lights up in neon green at night. The Hidden Treasure: a shop which seems to sell a wide variety of what someone considers to be treasures. The post office. The day laborers that line the road side in the morning. The occasional hitch hiker. The lumber yard, perched on the side of the canyon. For a while, I tried to be a hyper-miler and drive from the Top of Topanga to PCH in neutral. If the traffic was right, I could do it. If the traffic was too heavy or the person in front was new to the canyon, I had to switch into drive near the mouth of the canyon. And then there was the ocean.

I'd wait at the stop light at PCH and stare at the ocean. Most mornings there were surfers out there. Some mornings I'd see paddle boarders. On the mornings when the ocean was so still it looked more like a lake, the paddle boarders were the only people I'd see. Some mornings the fog would be thick and sitting on top of the ocean. Some mornings, it'd be so clear you could see Catalina Island. A few times there were dolphins. Sometimes there were pelicans. Always there were seagulls.

My friend and I walked up and down the park. We looked around and we felt lucky. For all of the negative aspects of LA, for the traffic, for the pollution, for the industries, for all of its weirdness, we felt lucky to be standing right there, two days after Christmas, outside, by the ocean, warmed by the sun.

We're both a bit transient. Her a bit more-so than me, especially at present. I at least have a room to pay rent on, even if it's in temporary university accommodation. She is without an address, without rent or a mortgage or a property title to her name. We're both good at making home where we are. We're capable and confident of being able to get by in any situation. But there are some things that make a place feel like home. She said, for as much as she wanted to leave LA a year or so ago, she was thrilled to be on a plane coming back to it. I feel that. Some trips more than others.

I thought about that as I drove home through the canyon. I thought about how much of this place I have yet to explore. Someone told me recently how Aimee Bender describes LA: a shy girl who you think is a bitch but the more you get to know her and she shares all of these fascinating and beautiful parts of herself with you you realize that all along she was just shy. It could be true. LA is a weird place. Hard to get to know because it's so vast and fast. But there are pieces I know and love and that I'd like to get to know better. In some ways it's like a relative: they're family, it's in your blood, it just is, whether you like it or not. But you can choose to get to know her, to befriend her. It's effort, but it's rewarding.

I was feeling grateful for friends, for sunsets, for beauty when a coyote ran across the road in front of my car. I slowed for it and watched it sleek, grey-brown figure glide across the road. How wild.

California is my home. Los Angeles is my home. Topanga is home. Mullholland Drive is home. Oak trees and eucalyptus trees and pepper trees co-habit here with me. I know their smells. The coyotes that howl on summer nights, the white tailed rabbits, the birds (all kinds), the lizards, the snakes, the rattle snakes. The dirt roads that guide me. The hills surround me. Mountains are the boundaries and the canyons cradle me. How ever far I roam, how ever long I may be gone, no matter how many street names I forget, I will always be a Californian. This will always be home.

Monday, 28 December 2009

I <3 Edward Abbey

"A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. . . . We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis."

"Lying within the bounds of a national monument, these rocks and artifacts are protected by law. That is, you are welcome to look, to pick up and examine but not to remove. And justly so. For without such protection the area would soon be picked clean by souvenir hunters, acquisitive rockhounds and the commercial merchandisers of stones. For my own part, I seldom take rocks home, no matter where I might find them; in my opinion they are best enjoyed in situ, where God Himself, so to speak, and the leisurely economy of Nature have seen fit to deposit them."

Manhattan Beach Pier

Today I watched the waves crashing under the pier. The surf seemed unusually high. No surfers in the water. I'm not sure whether that's due to the conditions, the time of day (mid-afternoon), or the beach. The waves stacked up pretty evenly. The big waves that broke further out would crash onto the pylons of the pier in a white splash. To either side of the pier, the waves would reveal a little aquamarine as they rolled over. In some places they just looked brown. At one point, in a spot parallel to the pier, it looked like there was a wave going backwards, out to sea. A crest fought its way from the shore, to the end of the pier. I don't think I've ever seen that before. I really ought to learn more wave and ocean terminology before I write more about oceans.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Long Addresses and Magical Places

Last night I was at a Boxing Day party. One of the guests and I got to talking about England. She said she went to school there when she was young, at a campus in Sussex. It was called something like the American International School. The school building has since been converted into a hotel. The hotel was the site of a poisoning of a Russian spy not long ago.

One thing of note is the British ability to re-purpose and maintain buildings. It's a fantastic quality and it means that ancient structures from the 6th century are still in use today. I'm not a huge fan of London, but I do really enjoy standing somewhere like along the bank of the Thames and looking at the skyline. There's such a mix of architecture in London. One of my favorite spots is near the business district where you can see skyscrapers including inside-out Lloyds Bank building with the piping on the outside and the Gherkin right up against an old flint church--St Mary's? Looking at St. Paul's cathedral from the bleak factory shape of the Tate Modern. The ornate, Gothic look of houses of Parliament across from the heavy, formidable columns of County Hall, and the gigantic spoked wheel of the London Eye.

Anyway, this party guest went on to talk about the school, her fond memories, and how awesome it was that their address was actually the name of the woods in which the building was located. They have the longest address, she says. It's true. Sometimes they're five lines. I've always found it charming that houses have names and that you can send something to a name of a place. How does anyone find that? Well, they also have this cool postcode system which I'm sure helps. (Speaking of post, I love the iconic red post boxes and that you can tell what time period their from by a symbol on the box.) I want to know if the house name has to be old, inherited, passed down from a certain time, or if you can name new houses.

One word she used to describe England stuck out because it's been a word I've that keeps popping up in my own head: Magic. England is magic. Maybe that's just for us yanks, but I don't think so. Certainly that it's 'foreign' gives it a certain mystique, an allure. That is added to by the way it's painted in our heads from early ages through nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and history. In many ways it feels like the home country. None of my ancestors are British -- okay, my grandfather was born in Manchester amidst a move from Poland to the US, but he's 100% Polish -- I have no claim to citizenship, no English, Scottish or Welsh blood in my veins. So maybe it is all through history lessons in elementary school, stories of the founding of the United States, that have produced in me this fictional link to England. Whatever the reason, it still exists. And it exists along with a familiarity and curiosity about the language and the literature, art, personalities, rock music, and movies. I dreamed of England as a little girl. It might have been due to Shakespeare but probably more likely due to Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. It might have been due to movies or art work or whatever else I was reading. England, the British Isles, is a landscape of my dreams. I longed for that lush green country side, the rolling hills right alongside the ancient forests.

Then this lovely lady went on to talk about England in summer. I've lived in England before and visited several times but never in summer. 2010 might be the year. I look forward to warm, long days and very short nights. I look forward to doing outdoor activities with a single layer of clothing and maybe a pair of flip flops. It'll be a chance to experience England in a new way, in a new light and hopefully a chance to experience more of it. On my list of places to visit: Sherwood Forest, any loch in Scotland, Findhorn Eco-Village, anywhere beautiful, anywhere with walking, anywhere with trees.

More Walks

Walking from Big Ben to Brussels (okay, I only did about half of it, but still) gave me a new found appreciation for Lee's journey (www.madridtokiev.com) from Madrid to Kiev. In rewatching the film, I heard new bits, saw scenes I didn't remember, was reminded of the walk I just participated in, and really related to it when he said that he missed the walking when it was over. That afterward, he fell into a depression.

My experience of the end, though on a completely different scale in both time and distance (his being 3000 miles, 7 countries and 6 months on his own; mine being about 100 miles if that, 3 countries and 12 days in a group), was the same. I missed it when it was over. I missed walking up in the morning and walking until I got to the destination. I missed having nothing to do all day but walk. I miss that tired feeling, that's not drained, but used. I miss moving. I miss seeing new things every day. I miss the sense of adventure. I miss the exercise. I miss the sense of accomplishment. (Which is probably more a reflection on how I'm spending my time not walking.)

It was a good routine. Wake up, get ready, have breakfast as a group, gear up and head out. Then walk all day, through different scenery, in different pairings, having different conversations, getting to know the people I was sharing the journey with.

In addition to having the awesome experience of walking in three countries and learning how to walk through England, I had an incredible experience of getting to know four amazing women and getting to be a part of something. For me, the walk came along at the just the right time. I was feeling isolated in my dorm accommodations, removed from the real world and a sense of community and purpose. I mean, all I'm meant to do all day long is to read and to learn with occasional essay writing. I miss working, producing, being a part of a team, feeling like at the end of the day, I've put in my time and made something. This walk was the opportunity to feel a renewed sense of purpose and community.

Women are tricky. So often relationships with women go sour, involve cattiness and egos and insecurities projected onto one another. I wasn't sure how this group would work out. There were four women who were officially going the distance, all 250+ miles of it. There was a fifth who was making a documentary and joined for parts of the walk. And there was me, the sixth, unofficial, just along for a weekend between classes, super excited addition. It turned out to be better than I could have imagined, especially for a bunch of strangers. The two who knew one another best were Laura and Jane -- they had kids of similar ages and had lived in the same town of Steventon, Oxfordshire until Laura moved to another Steventon in a different shire. The one thing we had in common was that we all knew Roz. Or at least had met her once. Actually, it's possible that Jane never met Roz at all before starting and that her husband had met Roz and volunteered her to map the route. Whatever the case, it was a fantastic group. We worked really well as a team. I feel a bit awkward saying we since I didn't go the full distance with them, but they adopted me and I'm grateful for it.

. . . To be continued

Going Solo

I was watching More Shoes with my mom. It's a documentary about this guy Lee's journey to become a filmmaker, a 5000 kilometer journey on foot from Madrid to Kiev. (It's beautiful, you should check it out: www.madridtokiev.com.)

There's one part in it where he talks about traveling with other people. He meets up with a guy who's biking around Europe on his own. Lee asks him if he gets lonely. He says, yes, but lonely travel is free. You don't have to worry about your travel companion(s) wanting to do something else, about when you're tired or hungry or what you want to eat. You can just go and be and see.

My mom asked me if that's why I like to travel alone.

It's a definite benefit, but it's not really why I've traveled solo so often. See, it's not that I prefer to travel alone, it's that I prefer to travel. I've found it hard to find people with whom I get along well enough to travel with, but also who are interested in going the same places I am, at the same time I am. I think if you wait around for other people to do the things that you want to do with you, you could spend your life waiting. So I go.

There are downsides to traveling solo: loneliness, not having someone to watch your back or being able to say hey watch this while I go pee, that feeling of wanting to share a particular experience with someone else to make it more real. I've found that the benefits definitely out weigh the drawbacks. It's better to have seen, to have lived, to have gone, to have explored than not to have done any of it. And while with the right company, sharing the experience of staring at a white wall so long as you're doing it together might be preferable to or as exciting as venturing out into the scary and amazing world by one's self, I sometimes think about regrets. I think about not wanting to have them now or when I'm old. I think about getting old, too old or broken to hike up mountains or fly around the world or go on a three day sailing trip. Too old to see the natural beauty of a place. Or maybe not even too old, just too dead too soon. I can stare at a wall when I'm old. I can tell stories and look at pictures when I'm old. I hope to have incredible memories. As for the company, as for the people I love and have loved and have yet to love, I hope they'll either join me or be there when I get back, excited to hear the stories, and hopefully persuaded to join me next time.

Fresh air

I took my first walk today in over a week. It was the first since the last one through the snow from A&E to the medical clinic at 3am feeling very short of breath and right before being diagnosed with pneumonia. This one was much more enjoyable and I had company. After a delicious brunch, my friend Maria and I went for a brief walk through the streets of the Hollywood Hills. It wasn't the hike up the fire road that we'd both hoped to do, but it was up a hill and it was about all my recovering body could handle today. I wasn't even sure it would go as far as it did, but it's incredible how far you can get just putting one foot in front of another. I didn't think I'd get very far, but I was ready to go, ready to be outside, ready for fresh air. And it felt like fresh air, despite being in LA. Up in the hills there are trees. Tall, beautiful, leafy trees that produce good clean oxygen.

I have missed trees, almost as much as I've missed mountains. And I've been feeling a little short on fresh air. I've been spending too much time inside, not enough time outside. Maybe it was the 13 hours on a plane earlier in the week, but I think mostly it's been being sick and staying inside where it's warm. Inside where the heater is on, drying out the air. Inside where the air just circulates and there's no infusion of freshness.

It was wonderful to be outside and walking. Even if it was only for a short while, it was needed and I feel better for having done it. I need to recover quickly now so that I can spend the rest of my time here climbing hills, roaming the canyons , being outside in the fresh, warm by comparison, California air.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Snow, ice and pneumonia (With a special guest appearance by a fox)

That just about sums it up. But for the sake of word count, let me elaborate.

It's been getting colder here. The winds have definitely shifted. The clouds are no longer coming from the south, but from the north. The winds are bringing cold temperatures with them. It's snowed! Yes, several days this week. Several times without sticking, and then it really started to come down in the most lovely of ways. Snow flakes, the size of dimes but the weight of cotton, floating through the air, being whipped around on gusts of wind, by passing cars. It laid on the ground until the grass was no longer visible, until the paths were no longer distinguishable. Everything on the ground was covered equally in snow. It was lovely.

Thursday I started feeling a little unwell. Not unwell so much as drippy in the nasal sense. My nose wouldn't stop running. I was sneezing. I wondered, is this allergies or is it the start of a cold? I had a cold right before I left for England and it started in a similar way. (There was so much snot, I repulsed my then-boyfriend -- not the best thing to do before leaving for three months.) I was feeling fine except for the runny nose, but I had a feeling something was coming so I drank a big carton of orange juice and lots of water to flush the system, took some vitamin C to boost my immune system, ate hardy meals to give myself the energy to fight it off, and even took an allergy pill--just in case.

Thursday night, when the snow came, it kept coming for hours. I had Anna and Paul over for dinner. I made pasta--washing my hands frequently to avoid sharing whatever germs I may or may not have had. A simple meal, but well received. Then we went off to the Wivenhoe Football Club for a Funny Farm comedy show. The heat wasn't working in the building. I lost feeling in my toes within 5 minutes. They served tea, which was delicious, and had biscuits on the tables. The comedy was okay. But it was great to go to this event which I've heard so much about and to see Anna's friend Hazel on her last night. She's put on the events for the past four plus years. She did a short set in the middle of the show.

Paul was a bit nervous driving there because of the risk of getting stuck, but he braved it. Three and a half hours after parking the car and a full pocket pack of tissues later, we went out to find the car all covered in snow. It had a good 4 inches on it. There was plenty of untrampled snow to play in. Paul made a snow angel that didn't look very angelic but I appreciated the attempt. I was too cold for playing in it. I was looking forward to morning, to a walk along the river, to taking pictures of my little world covered in snow.

Paul started the car and I sat inside, bundled up, watching as he scraped the snow off the windows. Anna and Hazel were still inside the football club. Paul turned the window wipers on and I giggled watching them struggle against the weight of the snow, moving a little bit up and back down. Watching the snow crack. He sprayed some anti-ice solution on it and it started to move with more ease.

Windows cleared and all bodies piled in the car, Paul ever-so-kindly started to drive me home. It was out of his way and I offered to call a cab, but I was very grateful for the ride and the company.

Snow looks amazing in headlights. It was slow going on the way home. The roads were icy. I enjoyed the chance to look out the window and see everything in a new way.

I didn't sleep much Thursday night. Friday I didn't feel too well and it got progressively worse. I went on to campus, spent a little while in the library, went into town to the chemist and to pick up some food. It was freezing. Everything was snowy or icy. The bridge to campus was covered in ice. It made for slow walking. And even slower buses.

Breathing became harder as the night went on. There was lots of coughing and soon I couldn't get a full sentence out without gasping for air. I talked to mom who urged me to go to the doctor. Tomorrow, I said. I'll go tomorrow. It was already getting late.

We kept talking. She kept calling to check in. She was worried by what she was hearing. I wasn't thinking much of it. I figured it was just a full blown cold.

Around 1am, she asked me to go to the hospital. I'm not one to make a fuss over things and I didn't want to go out, but I didn't want her to worry. I called the 24 hour line for the North Colchester Medical Center and was told a doctor would call me back within the hour. I didn't want to go to A&E unless necessary and a doctor would know. So the doctor calls back and after hearing my symptoms says yes, come in. I start calling around for taxis. First, I call the security desk on campus and ask if they can help me get a taxi to the medical center. The guy says, no taxis til 9, sorry, and hangs up. Not what I was expecting, but okay. So then I call all the taxi numbers I have in my phone, without any luck. Some are saying 8:30, some 9, some not until 10:30. I finally reach one that says, yes, am I ready? I'll be ready in 2 minutes, I say, and pile on clothes, put things in a bag and make my way to the laundry room. The laundry room is fantastic in winter. It's open 24 hours a day. It's warm. And it looks out on the road so you can see buses and taxis coming.

The taxi arrived within twenty minutes. All the way to the medical center the driver talked about the weather and the roads and how long it took to defrost the car and the cars that were stuck and how it's rate and a half due to the weather. Turns out, England--at least the Essex part of it--doesn't get weather like that often enough to invest in the infrastructure to maintain the roads. So when it's cold, icy, snowy and the roads need to be gritted or salted or plowed, you just have to stay home, or walk, or wait ages for a taxi. (Just my luck to need a taxi at a time like that.) He talked about how they're not making reservations for anytime before 9 am, but he was going back to the city to try to pick people up and make some money. As we approach, he asked if I wanted to go to A&E, I said I have an appointment at the clinic. He says it's not open, I must mean A&E. I said, they told me clinic, but I don't know the medical center at all. He said, it must be A&E and dropped me there.

In A&E, I wait for a few minutes for someone to come to the desk. When she arrives, I say I called and they made an appointment and I'm there. She says oh you must mean the clinic. I said the driver told me the clinic was closed. She says yes, in general, but they have someone on call and that's where I want to go. I ask how to get there. She says are you driving? I say, I took a taxi, but the taxi left, so I guess I'm walking. She hesitates. I'm fighting tears. She says you have to walk back out to the main road, then down the road to the second drive way.

There was a man in the door way, wearing a hospital gown, smoking a cigarette covered in blood.

I walked 1/2 a mile in snow that covered my shoes. I huffed and puffed the whole way. It was freezing.

On my way to the main road, I saw a fox crossing the parking lot. I was really excited. What a magical sight to see that shape, that silhouette, that bushy tail that could only be a fox's. I saw it and expected to see it again, but didn't. Then I wondered if foxes are dangerous. Are they like coyotes? Should I be worried? Should I be worried that I was walking across fresh snow with no clue what was beneath it? Hopefully there were no water features to the campus.

When I got down to the main road, there was side walk and road and I stayed on the side walk for safety, but it was all ice. Slippery walking.

I was so relieved to get to the second drive way and see a sign for the place I was going. Then to see the right building. Then to ring the bell and be let in to the warmth and told I was in the right place. Seeing the doctor took all of 5 minutes. She already had antibiotics on her desk for me. She told me it was a lung infection. I asked what kind, she wouldn't elaborate.

I asked if I'd make it on the flight I had on Monday. She hesitated but said I should be able to. Then she asked how long the flight was. I said 11 hours. She said, oh. Do you want steroids? I asked what they'd do. She said they'd make me better faster. I said, please, I want to be better faster. Will I make the flight? She said, if not, your GP can write a letter to the airlines so you won't be charged. Not very reassuring. The doctors visit took about 5 minutes.

I went back to the waiting room, popped some antibiotics and steroids and started calling around for a taxi. One operator said the earliest she could send one was 9:30. I said okay. She said that's 4.5 hours. I said, if that's the earliest you can send it, I don't have much choice do I?

I kept calling, hoping for something sooner. Hoping not to spend 4.5 hours in the waiting room. I finally reached the company that dropped me off. They said, is this Mary? I said, yes! They said, we'll send someone right over. It'll be 30 minutes. I said, great. I'm at the clinic, it's icy, I can walk out to the street if your driver doesn't want to come down the road. She said, honey stay where you are in the warmth, I'll send my driver. Aww, some kindness! I cried. (Pathetic, yes, but in a weakened state. My body ached, my head hurt, my back hurt, my lungs hurt, I kept coughing and my nose kept running. I hadn't slept more than 10 hours in two days. I was done in.)

An hour an half later, no taxi.

I called to see if maybe they'd forgotten about me. Is that Mary? the guy asked. Yes! We came but you weren't there. I've been sitting here the whole time, I said. He said, where are you? I said the clinic. He said, we sent someone to A&E. I said, Oh. I wish you'd called. I could have told you where I was. He said, I'll be right there.

And he was, within 20 minutes. I was so relieved to be going home, to be going to bed. Whether I could sleep or not, I needed to be horizontal.

I called mom to let her know I was home safe, with drugs, and was going to sleep. I saw the sunrise. I saw more snow fall. Eventually, sleep.

Under different circumstances, that walk in the snow would have been a lot of fun. Under different circumstances, I would have crouched down and watched the fox. My first wild fox! But I also know that I wouldn't have done either if the circumstances were different. And while I was crying my way across the medical campus from one place to the next, very short of breath, I was also aware of how beautiful my surroundings were. Everything quiet, in the still of night, covered in white, it was quite literally breathtaking.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009


I've never lived this close to a river before. I can see the Colne from the kitchen window. Well, not directly, but if I lean out and look right, there it is. I can monitor its tides from the warmth of the kitchen. I can see the occasional swan, magical animal, drifting along on it. When I walk out the door, it's about a football field away. There are paths on either side of it I can walk.

When I lived in Washington, DC, the river was there. It was a metro ride or a good walk away. I loved being that close to a river. I loved renting a kayak and going out on the river. I love the perspective of being lower on the water. The trees towering on the shores. Jumping fish. Floating turtles - sometimes just in the water, sometimes on logs. The birds. The curious and opportunist ducks. The peacefulness.

I haven't been on the Colne yet. When the weather improves, or when it freezes over, I hope that change that. I want to visit the houseboats, go on the boat, learn to sail, kayak, canoe, float. I've heard that if you get it at a particularly low tide, you can walk from one side to the other. My love of short cuts and my new found affection for mud have me hoping to try that.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Walking for a Broken Heart

Have a recent heart break? Help put it on the mend with a walking routine. You can exercise your broken heart, bring fresh oxygenated blood to it to help it heal. You can pound the ground. You can count steps to keep your mind focused. You can set your legs on autopilot and let your mind wander. You can walk next to a river, and watch as its tides ebb and flow and meditate on the tide as a metaphor for love in your life. You can walk until your body is so exhausted you can finally sleep. You can find solace in the rhythm of your footsteps. You can walk in a quiet forest. You can walk through bustling cities and be amused by the conversations you overhear. You can think about the twinge in your knee, the jarring on your feet, the pace at which you travel. Notice that it can vary based on the thoughts you're thinking. Feel free to laugh at yourself. Or cry about it. Don't forget to breathe. You can jog. You can run. You can stop in your tracks and stay there. Any sticks found along the way are fair game for throwing, as are pebbles and mushrooms for kicking and puddles for stomping. Mud is good for a slow and concentrated journey. Rocks are okay to sit on. If you stop, you must, at some point, resume walking. If it's cold outside, don't let that stop you: sometimes it can shock some sense into you. Hot? Sweat won't hurt you. Raining? Good. Snowing? The quiet will soothe you. Where ever you walk and however you walk, don't forget to look around. Don't forget to notice the world in which you're walking. A world which is beautiful and continues, forges on, doesn't care whether you're in it let alone about the state of your heart. Decide, when you're ready, to be a part of that world, to be worthy of it, and to do something in it that's worth remembering, worth caring about, worth the effort. Your heart will be fine.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Trashing the Colne (and beyond)

On Friday, I walked along side to Colne from the Hythe to Wivenhoe. It's been a couple of weeks since I last made that walk. It's still the same river, still the same mud, still the same buildings on the dock and in the distance. Some of the purple and yellow flowers that had been out last month are gone now. The sloe berries are disappearing from the bushes. (Hopefully they're being eaten by birds--migrating through or otherwise--and not all being harvested for sloe gin.) A few of the trees have less leaves on them. These changes I had expected. I was even excited to take notice of them because it means that I've been paying attention and getting to know the river. The unexpected changes, the ones that stood out and weren't at all subtle, were the new pieces of brightly colored trash that floated down river, sat in their bulk on the exposed river bed or in the reeds. Had the recent rain washed it all into the river? Had it been thrown in by thinking human beings?

When we got to the Netherlands on the Big Ben to Brussels walk, several of the walkers remarked they were impressed with how litter-free the paths were. Were the Dutch really that aware? That tidy? Or were the areas we were walking through just that desolate? Or was it those on-shore winds that swept everything east-ward? Well, I'm not sure what the real answer was, but I can tell you that the metro stations in Rotterdam were not without their litter. We saw more on the walk as we passed into more densely populated areas.

I know that the trash in the river isn't just accidental. If may be on the majority due to run off, but people are still throwing their trash in the streets. I see it a lot here. And it surprises me. It's not like the Brits have an immense expanse of land that they can think oh this bit doesn't matter, but that bit over there does. It's all so tightly knit. On my walk to the grocery store the other day, I saw at least twenty crumpled and dropped bus tickets. I see plastic wrappers from cigarettes and other products. I see cigarette packs, discarded lighters, broken glass, empty plastic bottles, scraps of paper (especially those little slips from ATMs) and a smorgasbord of other things. No wonder Bill Bryson wanted to start an anti-litter campaign when he joined the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. It's called Stop the Drop. I'm not sure what they're doing with it, but I think it should be in place in each city, each county council, each school, each university. I'm regularly disappointed by the students on this campus who just throw their litter to the ground. They're meant to be educated and aware of the world. How is it that this educated population is so uneducated about the negative impacts of their litter?

It's not that this problem is so unusual or so extreme here. The worst litter problem I've seen, is probably along 6th street as you're approaching downtown LA from the west. In the mornings, possibly before the street cleaners (machines and men) make it out to the curb), the street is literally covered with trash. Pieces of paper and plastic bags are lifted and moved around by passing cars. The sidewalks are mosaics of bits of litter. Why? How can people live like that?

How can someone throw his trash into the river and be so disrespectful? So short-sighted? There's TV that is suck in the mud. I saw a mini-fridge floating down the river a few weeks back. There are plastic bags in the reeds. Various bits and bobs of who knows what: bottle caps, bit of wood, bits of building materials, electronics, wires, what about toxins? Research to do. Maybe if I weren't afraid of being where I shouldn't be, getting wet and getting stuck in the mud, I'd go in after the trash. Maybe one day I will. Let's plan a river cleaning.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Do Something

This week I watched a film called 'Invisible'. It's about the toxins that were found in the breast milk of Inuit mothers. The milk was collected in an effort to obtain a 'control' sample, but was soon found to contain more toxins, chemicals, endocrine disrupting substances than found elsewhere on Earth. The experimenters assumed that the people of arctic would be free from the toxins found at lower latitudes because they were removed in space from where the chemicals were being emitted into the atmosphere, the water, the soil, the food. Instead, the Arctic is where these chemicals go to die. They travel thousands of miles, carried through the air, into the lungs of the people, in the furniture they have in their houses, in their clothes, in the food that's imported, and it's concentrated and nicely preserved in the country food that they catch. Yes, the perfect place for collecting these man-made chemicals is in the fat of seals and whales that the Inuit catch as part of their cultural traditions.

This story was simply one of many like it that I've heard over the past few weeks. As I watched, I wondered how it is that we're not simply outraged, how are we not up in arms, protesting, screaming, overthrowing companies, displaying that we are simply fed up with and we're sick and dying from the way things are being handled. And then after the film, one guy responded that it was a good film, but what are we supposed to do with that information? It's not like we can do anything about it, so we should just do our best to be happy.

I simply cannot accept that there is nothing that we can do about it.

I finally sat down and read the full text of a speech the Maldive's President Mohamed Nasheed delivered at the first Climate Vulnerabile Forum. 'As a person I cannot accept this,' he says. That's how I feel. He, as president of one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, is talking about the need for a real, science-based and binding treaty on climate change. Just as many of the conversations I've had over the past couple of weeks have talked about the need to move away from talking about climate change as if it were the sole issue to talking about sustainability, safety, not doing damage, and a more holistic approach. As one of the books I checked out this week clearly points out in its title 'Climate Change, Ozone Depeltion and Air Pollution', there's more than one point for concern, and it doesn't stop there. It includes water pollution, soil degradation and pollution, toxins, chemicals, pesticides, biodiversity loss (plant and animal), deforestation, war, poverty, hunger, genocide, peak oil . . . the list feels endless at times.

It's all of these issues and more that I think of when I read President Nasheed's statement. And I want to stand up and cheer as I read it. 'We will not die quietly,' he says. 'I refuse to believe that it is too late, and that we cannot do any better.'

The world is in need of more leaders like him. I wish President Obama were as courageous and outspoken. I wish the US were leading the way, not just shining a light into the dark, but constructing the tunnel and harvesting renewable energy to power the lights in it. For now, I just have to hope that the sentiment of Mr. Nasheed's statement and his voice is reverberating throughout the world, inviting people to join in, to partake a survival pact, to do what's best for the planet and work together to solve the problems we face.

'I believe in humanity.

I believe in human ingenuity.

I believe that with the right frame of mind, we can solve this crisis.

In the Maldives, we want to focus less on our plight; and more on our potential.

We want to do what is best for the planet.'

His full speech can be found here: http://www.climatevulnerableforum.gov.mv/?p=94#more-94

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Big Ben to Brussels - Day 1

Despite having a bad knee that took me off the footpaths and into the car for the majority of two of the four days I've traveled with the four amazing women making their way from Big Ben to Brussels on foot (and ferry), I've had a fantastic time.

Day one started out at 5am, a train ride to London, delays on the tube, an exit one stop too early, and a hunt for a toilet before I met up with the team. Upon arrival, I was gifted a bright orange jacket and hat, a pack cover with logo, and some lip salve. After a few minutes of changing clothes and adjusting the contents of my bag, I was ready to meet the team. Alison, extreme free skier, UN Climate Hero, campaigner for the salvation of snow. Jane & Laura, two warm, strong, smart ladies: friends who've known each other for 17 years, both mothers of 3. I also had the pleasure of meeting their husbands. Nora, the documentarian, and her film crew. rain and wind, standing on the bridge to Westminster in front of Big Ben. We posed for cameras, interviews were conducted. Earth balls blown up, taken in and out of mesh sacks. I kept dropping my scarf. I was super excited to be there.

We eventually set off, in the rain, first to visit the ghost forest in Trafalgar Square. They were giant trunks, some with root systems still partially in tact from trees that had been cut down in the rain forest. It was moving to see a tree in that state. After the ghost forest, it was straight down to the Thames and along side it to the East. Walking is such an amazing way to see the city. I love walking along the river, seeing all the bridges and feeling like there's a bit of open space in a city that size.

Most of the day was on pavement, we took a turn north to get to the Lea Valley path, and walked along the river Lea almost until the night's destination. It was beautiful, some parts more than others. We cut through a park at one point and went through marsh lands. The river was smooth and put up a good reflection of the trees and sky, the boats that lived on it. We passed along some locks. It's an old tow path, not dissimilar to the one in Georgetown.

We walked and walked until after sunset and then we walked the last few miles in the dark. The conversations along the way were wonderful. Every one was in good spirits and really friendly. The conversation was lively. It was casual, it was about climate change and sustainability. It was about adventures and getting to know one another. We saw Nora and the camera crew for small intervals along the way. We were all thrilled to get to the hotel--especially me. I limped the last 3 miles or so. My knee didn't want to straighten. I had a lot of pain in the back of my knee and my leg seemed to want to bend to the side rather than to the front. I thought I was done for -- destined to hop on a train and head back, defeated.

Dinner was hilarious. The menu was very limited. When asked if it was possible to do a baked potato instead of chips on a fish and chips order, the bar tender responded, looking perplexed, that there wasn't a button for that. When the fish came, it was crispy. We weren't picky though. We were happy to be off our feet and eating. That night I iced my knee, elevated it and hoped it would be pain free in the morning.

Mountain Top Removal

I just saw Garbage: The Revolution Starts at Home (www.garbagerevolution.com), a film that challenges a Toronto-based family of 5 to store their trash in their garage for three months. It looks into the many types of wastes humans generate, including air pollution and their own bodies. It takes the characters to see what happens to their waste--composting with anaerobic digestors, plastic bag mashers, recycling plants. It looks into the contents of detergents with an eye toward water pollution. The ninety day period covers halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas; the last being a huge generator of trash. Buy Nothing Christmas, my favorite way to celebrate that particular holiday, is mentioned. In the investigation into pollution from power generation, the film travels to West Virginia to see a man who lives on land that the coal companies are trying to buy for mountain top removal. The edge of his land overlooks what used to be a mountain. He shows a fissure that's 650 feet deep and 10,000 feet long that was created by the dynamite blasts. Dynamite induced earthquakes. The land is cracking. This man showed the bullet holes in his house and mentioned his dog being shot at. He's being threatened for wanting to stay on his land because some people think that what's under it is more important. He said, Next time you flip on your light switch, think about that. I'm thinking about it. It brings tears to my eyes. We're blowing up Earth, we're polluting it, we're drilling into it, we're draining it of its fluids, we're trashing it, we're turning the oceans to plastic sludge and the rivers to sewage . . . what for? There are better ways to go about meeting our "needs".

What is sustainability? That question was asked of me this weekend. The Brundtland Report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I think sustainability is the same - meeting the needs of today without compromising future generations' abilities to meet their own needs.

We've got a long way to go.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Peer Pressure

The other day in my Politics and Society lecture we were being educated about the difference between the views of Realism and Liberal Institutionalism. Realists believe everything is about security (power) and economics (money). Liberal Institutionalists believe in a complex interdependence and cooperation.

We talked briefly about the upcoming COP in Copenhagen and were tasked with what the outcome might be as seen through these different perspectives. If it's a positive outcome, is it because the nations agree that they are all in this together and should come together to solve it? Or do they act in their own interest because they realize climate change is a threat to economic stability and national security? If the outcomes are negative, might it be because those for an agreement see cooperation as being most important, so they'll keep working to build trust in hope of future cooperation. Or is it because climate change is a Darwinian survival of the fittest test and it's every nation for itself?

The US was mentioned as a road block to reaching an agreement. I think that, in the spirit of cooperation and global security and economics, all of the other states who are eager and willing to move forward and sign an agreement should gang up against the US, put into practice that old fashioned peer pressure via embargo or whatever they need to, to give the US a slap in the face, get them to wake up and take responsibility for its role in creating the problem. Maybe then the US will also start to see its potential role and the benefits (in the form of money and power)from doing what it ought to. Come on, America. Quit dragging your feet and free-riding. You're only making it worse for yourself (and everyone else).

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Quick. Write something interesting.

I've been thinking about the Junk Raft project. I've been thinking about oceans. I've been thinking about plastics. I've been thinking, is there something I can do to contribute to the awareness of the nation sized areas of plastic swamp in the oceans? Who do you talk to (other than everyone you come into contact with)? How do you tell the story? How do you get people to give the right people money so they can do their research?

Water is the theme. Ocean rowers. Water projects. Pollution. What can I do with that?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Climate Walking

This weekend I'm going to join a group of women walking from Big Ben to Brussels in a show of support for a binding deal on climate change in Copenhagen. The group is being lead by Roz Savage, ocean rower and UN Climate Hero. I'll be joining for the first 3 or 4 days but getting back to campus for lectures. I'm really excited to get to be a part of this, to get to know Roz, and to learn how to walk from place to place in England. Pray for good weather.

More info here: http://rozsavage.com/2009/11/06/bb2/
Route here: http://rozsavage.com/environment/bb2b/bb2b-the-route/

Sunday, 15 November 2009


Today was my first of what I hope will be many visits to Mersea. It's a place that holds a special meaning for my course-mate Anna and I'd like to get know why. It was a quick but wonderful visit. We started off in East Mersea at the church that Sabine Baring-Gould was supposedly vicar of. There were some great gravestones out in the church yard. One was made out to Wankie. It's a small church, fitting for a small island. It has beautiful windows with some really intricate scenes made on smaller pieces of glass fit into them. The ceiling over the front of a church is a dark arched wood. There's a funny staircase in the side of the wall that leads to a hole in the upper wall. I wonder what it was used for. A cantor? For preaching? There were cushions that were hand knit and showed different aspects of Mersea, from the types of birds you might see there to scenes. There was information about the history of the church on a poster at the back but it's all gone through my sieve-like brain. I remember something about it's use during the civil war--something to do with roundheads maybe? Next we went on to a nature reserve type place. It was mostly a dog park and a kite flyin site from what I could tell, but it was right on the water. A beautiful green grassy path with a view of the Colne estuary and the North Sea. Oh, and a wind farm! On the beach were old sea defenses which look like old fence posts. The sun shone off the water trapped in pools. The tide was out. White birds flocked low over the shore, just at the edge of the water.

From there we went over to West Mersea and a fantastic cafe with excellent scones, good looking cakes and sandwiches. We had our coffees and then went off to meet Stuart who owns a sport fishing fleet. He took us out on his boat to its mooring (not sure if I'm using the terminology right) and we sat on board and talked. Anna interviewed him about his relationship to Mersea, his business, fishing. He was such a lovely man. His friend, a genuine Mersea-an, made us some tea while we talked. It was a real treat to hear his story, his love for the island, and his love of fishing. He invited us to go out on a fishing expedition sometime. I hope we will. We finished with visit to The Coast Inn, a really warm feeling pub with a fire place, fire burning, and a delicious looking Christmas menu.

Anna says a walk around the island takes 6 hours. I'd really like to do it some day. And I hope we get to interview more people. (By we, I mean I hope she sets up more interviews and invites me along.) It's wonderful getting to know places that mean something special to someone else. With Anna, it's particularly exciting for me because I think that while I'm being introduced to it fresh, she's investigating what makes it special and in some ways is discovering it for herself.

Colne viewing: Storm

'T was a stormy Saturday. The river was brimming. It was the fullest I've seen it. The wind was constant. A steady gust for twelve hours. A brave wood pigeon flew west, beak first into the wind. The rain came in fits and bursts with a few instances of pea sized hail. The sound of rain accentuated by the corrugated metal roof that covers the bicycle racks outside my window, three stories below.

My plants bob in the wind as it makes its way from the southwest, into the courtyard and up through the slit made by my barely open window and into my room. It's cool, fresh air. It's clean. The trunks of birch trees at a near constant tilt, their seeds are carried away with the wind. Some stick to my window. Many are blown inside. I find them on my bed, on my chair, in my plants, and on the floor.

I'm amazed that any trees still have a hold on their leaves after yesterday's wind, rain and hail.

I thought about going out into the wind and the rain, going to visit the Colne and see what it was doing with the weather. I chickened out and watched it instead from the kitchen window, warm cup of tea in hand, window cracked so I could feel the wind and the cold in a controlled manner.

The river was gray like the sky. No mud was visible. There was a man on a sea-doo personal water craft machine, speeding up and down the river and making tight turns sending walls of water into the air. I could hear the noise from my kitchen and wondered what the folks in the houseboat thought about it. I wondered if the houseboat was rocking on its wake.


Lectures this week covered a wide range of topics including:

1. Whether democracy or autocracy is better for sustainability
2. The relationship between health and nature which included the concept of Care Farming
3. The relationship between writing about landscapes and painting landscapes and landscape gardening
4. Indigenous peoples and
5. Green Light Trust, a local non profit that's working to plant forests!

My favorite was the talk on indigenous people. It was delivered with a passion and an energy that is unusual in academic lectures. I want to be knowledgeable in the area of indigenous peoples' rights. I want to defend them and do something to help ensure they're observed. Why? I think it goes beyond the underdog hypothesis. I think it's about justice.

I think about the two Lakota grandmothers who talk about how they were moved off their land and shifted to a reservation. How their traditional lands are being mined for uranium. The extraction of it is polluting their rivers. What can I do to fix the situation? What's the most effective way to raise awareness and create change? Where do my talents lie?

I finished Edward Abbey's The Journey Home. A few pages in, I developed a deep affection for the man, which if anything grew through the book (despite his drink driving and littering). I've started Desert Solitaire and waiting patiently in the wings is The Monkey Wrench Gang. (Many thanks to Nick for lending me his prized books.)

I find my head pulled in many different directions. I have standing curiosities to investigate and questions that come up with each new paragraph I read. There are things I think I should know or read so that I can keep up. And then there are the essays. And then the dissertation. It's exciting. It's challenging. It's daunting. I'm trying to stay focused and steady in my efforts. I wonder what I'll think when it's over, what connections I'll be able to draw from the now seemingly unconnected bits. I'm grateful for this opportunity and for the knowledge - even if it's only in outlines right now, it sets me up with a skeletal framework and paths to journey down if I want to. I wonder, what will I make of all these inputs? Hopefully a beautifully crafted output.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


It's really windy tonight. My window keeps blowing shut and making a sucking sound. I regularly find birch seeds in my room. I have just found three new ones. I think this is exciting. There are about 10 birch trees in the grassy hill in the middle of the car park outside my window. I walk past two of them on a daily basis and always say hi in my quiet little way. I like to think the seeds are its way of saying hi back.

I wonder if I should feel sad instead. These seeds that blow into my room will not grow up to be big birch trees. Maybe I will plant them in the soil with my calatheas.

How exciting for a seed to ride the wind. As a pod, it feels the wind, is teased by it. It dances on the wind with its many siblings, bound tightly together. But not until they have dried out enough, not until fall, do they get to fly and fly solo, feel the window on every surface.

My first memory of a birch tree is from Robert Frost's poem, Birches (http://www.bartleby.com/104/66.html). It wasn't until recently that I realized that I knew a birch tree. One stands in the front yard of the house where my father lives. The first house I lived in. And I have seen plenty of birch trees. I have crumbled their seeds in my hands and let them scatter on the wind.

There's a swing in the birch in front of my father's house. I've spent some time on it. And I've seen a little bit of time in the lowest branches of the tree. It's a very climbable tree. I now wonder if it's good to climb trees or if one should only climb really large trees so as not to do any damage. The cherry blossoms around Washington, DC are regularly damaged by people climbing on them, swinging from them or tramping over their roots. Since I learned that, I've tried to step around roots and have yet to attempt climbing a tree. Still, I'd like to meet the tree that Rob Macfarlane talks about in The Wild Places.

For now, I'll tuck these little birch seeds into the soil and ask the calathea's to watch over them.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Colne: Hearsay

I'm getting to know a little bit about the river from people who've lived by it. It's maybe my favorite way to learn about things. Part reality, part imagined, part who knows what, it's terribly exciting.

What I've heard:

There are pill boxes along the river. It was thought that Germans might send submarines up the river to attack. (Risky business on a tidal river.)

Impressively large ships used to come up the river to the Colchester docks before the dam was put in.

In high tides and heavy rains the water front of Wivenhoe used to flood. It was considered a regular enough occurrence that people would just move into the upper floors of their houses temporarily.

(This will grow as I remember what I've heard and hear more.)

No Roads Lead Home

The other day I was walking around, exploring different streets, sort of moving in bizarre concentric polygons. I was feeling a little disappointed by my adventure. It took me a while to realize it was because my hunt, my exploring wasn't turning up what I subconsciously wanted to find: home. It's funny to be in a place where no roads lead to home. There's not even a possibility that one leading to another over 3000 miles will get you to home. Not on this island. And the only thing I could think to counter to that feeling was: enjoy it while it lasts.

Miscellaneous Thoughts From a Foreign Land

I find myself smiling at pieces of conversations I overhear or at warm greetings that people exchange or at the buzz of conversations in different languages on a bus in the evening.

I'm already tired of the cold. It's not even proper cold yet and it's only be improperly cold for about three days now, but I'm tired of it. Reading Edward Abbey's description of the all encompassing hot breath of desert air doesn't help.

The joke's been that I'm new to weather, but I have done a few winters now. I think the start of winter is the worst - going from wearing one layer of clothing to four makes for heavy walking. I dislike getting dressed. I think that my desire to leave the house is inversely proportionate to the numbers of layers I have to wear to be comfortable (read: warm). I wasn't built for weather.

The rain makes me want to crawl back into bed and sleep until the sun comes out.

I haven't been getting up with the sun as I sometimes think I'd like to. I know that morning is often the best time to catch sun here. I know the days are short and any sun is good. I sometimes wake up thinking I better hurry and get outside while the sun's shining and then proceed to make distractions for myself.

I enjoy exploring, but I prefer exploring with a partner.

I'm intimidated by public footpaths through people's fields.

This is the land of the ever changing sky.

I remember the first time I realized that the beautiful natural scenery that I so admire here in Britain is entirely the result of careful landscaping. It's about as natural as a french manicure.

Yesterday, I was standing next to a bus stop shelter, intentionally, so that I could be in the sun and found myself getting annoyed at the bloke who came up and queued next to me and blocked my sun.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the amount of information there is to know about anything and get stuck before I start.

I'm a little worried that subconsciously I'm subscribing to the idea that if you don't try, you can't fail.


Today we discussed the similarities between landscape painting and nature writing and the roles of painter and writer. In discussing both paintings and texts, it's worthwhile to consider point of view, perspective, style, and so on. The main point, I think, being that painters and texts are constructions. They been created. A person (the artist/author) has decided what to include and what to exclude (somethings intentionally, somethings subconsciously). One could argue (maybe with the exception of a diary) all paintings/texts and presenting or representing what the artist/author wants us to see.

Our reading was particular to John Constable, the landscape painter. The particular interest being that the University is a piece of what's come to be known as Constable country. He painted Wivenhoe Park (though you might not recognize it from the painting) in the early 19th century.

The reading for this week was full of neologisms courtesy of Edward Casey. My favorite is topomensia, which seems to me to be the power of the painter (author) to layer memory onto the visual landscape.

One idea I subscribe to is that walking in a place/space helps you to get to know it. One idea I'm still pondering is whether you need to have grown up somewhere to know it. I think it must not be true. I grew up in Southern California but I think I know more about some of the places I visited in southwestern Australia. Different types of knowing, for sure. And is it important to have grown up in a place or just important to know a place over a period of time and to approach it with a sense of wonder, curiosity and exploration?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Edward Abbey

I've been neglecting my course reading for Edward Abbey's The Journey Home. It'd delightful in its simultaneous deference and irreverence. He has an incredible appreciation and affection for the land and all its features, plant and animal. When it comes to government or society's attitudes, he expresses contempt and uses satire.

In addition to the book being a delight in its own right, I've been finding useful little bits which can be applied to the other readings. Clues, if you will, for how to read "nature writing". While most of what he writes about in this book is the American West, especially its deserts, I think the bits I've picked up on can be applied to any landscape.

"The land here is like a great book or a great symphony; it invites approaches toward comprehension on many levels from all directions." (p 86)

"Any good poet, in our age at least, must begin with the scientific view of the world; and any scientist worth listening to must be something of a poet, must possess that ability to communicate to the rest of us his sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers." (p 87)

"[W]hen all we know about it is said and measured and tabulated, there remains something in the soul of a place, the spirit of the whole, that cannot be fully assimilated by the human imagination." (p 86)

In the introduction to the book, which Abbey writes to revise the expectations of critics, he denies being a naturalist and says his books belong not with nature books or natural history, not with Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, etc. but that they belong in the category of "personal history". He further defines his writing as "simple narrative accounts of travel and adventure, with philosophical commentary added here and there to give the prose a high-toned surface gleam." That they mention aspects of biological science, name flora and fauna and descriptions of geological or topographical formations, he claims, is merely a result of these travels and adventures being set in real places.

The other was he introduces this book is as being in defense of his home. He describes himself as a displaced person and describes home as a place where he's decided to take his stand.

The next thing he addresses in the introduction is the range of styles that he adopts to tell his stories. They include "adversary essays and assays, polemics, visions of hallucinations, fragments of autobiography, journalistic battle debris, nightmares and daydreams, bits and butts of outdoors philosophizing "all stirred together".

This introduction aids in the reading of this particular text, but I think it is also helpful when wondering how to read other texts that are of a similar (dare I say it?) nature. It allows for a compare/contrast to be set up. As we don't really have any standards yet for talking about this literature and we're in some ways making it up as we go, Abbey lends up a vocabulary or at least a list of criteria for this type of "nature writing". He may do it in an effort to tell us what he is not doing and where this book does not belong, but I think he does it all the same. And I think despite his doing it in the negative, he has more in common with the folks he separates himself from than not.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Long Live Dr. Hansen

Two days ago, I received an e-mail from Dr. James Hansen that he sent out to his e-mail list. It came just hours after I was wondering what he was up to. In it, he details his recovery from surgery for prostate cancer. I've been thinking grateful thoughts for his recovery and also wondering who would follow in Dr. Hansen's foot steps? Hopefully, we'll see great changes come in the next couple of years and Dr. Hansen will be able to retire with assurance that his children's and grandchildren's futures and the future of this planet as we've come to know it have been secured.

For Dr. Hansen's posts and presentations, visit: www.columbia.edu/~jeh1

Sunday, 8 November 2009

River Walks: The Colne (1)

I walked along the Colne again today. This time, I took the bus up to Wivenhoe. From there, I headed down river a little ways. The sun was out and the light was beautiful. It was the perfect afternoon for a walk.

I could hear the cows mooing before I passed the sailing club. There was some metal banging work going on across the river in the industrial site. And then the coolest thing: a whole barge full of lapwings. They make a sort of noise one might expect of a squeaky toy. The simple sight of them was exciting for me, but to see them fly, with their beautiful white wings edged in black and watch them interact kept me standing in one place, watching and snapping photos, for a good five minutes. (Approaching loud children drove me and the birds away.)

The other highlight of today's walk was that the river was at high tide and so was full of water. It reflected the sky so nicely and was particularly beautiful come sunset.

I turned back towards Wivenhoe after about a mile and then walked all along the waterfront and towards the Quays. The sun was setting behind the little ridge of hills. The clouds in the sky turning a light pink, the calm river reflecting the sky back. I realized that I sometimes take distant clouds for mountains and then remember where I am. Wishful thinking, I suppose.

My words can't do the sunset justice.

I did see something small swimming down river, just a little head peaking out of the water. It was either a very small duck or some sort of submerged animal. Could it be an otter? Whatever it was, it was closely followed by a mini-fridge. Yep, a mini-fridge. It's door removed, the sterile white inside expose, the whole rectangular cube of it was on its way out to sea (or at least the dam).

(Pictures from today's walk can be found at www.dotphoto.com. Guest username Tigrnite. No password.)

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Suffolk Walks: Minsmere to Dunwich and back

Four of us set out early this morning to visit Minsmere Nature Reserve, just south of Dunwich, Suffolk. It poured rain last night so we were especially glad to have clear skies and sun to accompany us on our journey.

We turned off the A12 and wound our way through Westleton and over to just outside Dunwich, then south to Minsemere. Some of the roads through there are gorgeous. One we went down had an archway of trees. We looked out for animals and saw about as many as you can expect going down small, hedge-lined lanes at fast speeds. There were some red poll, bunnies, dogs, indistinguishable distant birds, and (my favorite!) a pheasant. It was my first sighting of a real wild pheasant. How exciting. With the car at a stop, we watched it cross the road and then casually pecked around a driveway.

At Minsmere, we prepared ourselves for our day of walking with hot drinks in the tea room, then we headed out towards North Hide. We cross over a short walkway over a pond then out into the fields. I don't know what I was thinking--I probably wasn't--but I was surprised that when we arrived at the hide it was a wooden hideout. It was so exciting to climb inside this two story structure, be sheltered from the cold wind, and have a front row seat to bird watching. The north hide looks south over some marshland. The water was a bright silver; the sun, low in the southern sky. The glare made bird identification a bit of a challenge. We raised the windows, lifted our binoculars, and gave it our best effort.

In the marshy area to the west, four ponies grazed with their backsides to the hide. To the east, hundreds of birds, most of them gulls, some of them ducks, two of the swans and two lapwings. I'd been wanting to see a lapwing since I heard that they were becoming increasingly rare in the area. I looked them up because I'd never heard of them before. They're an incredible green color with little tufts of feather onto of their heads. Anna spotted the first lapwing with her binoculars. Then she let me have a look. There it was. My second totally awesome bird sighting of the day. Ducks landing in the water at regular intervals. The swans swam closer. The ponies moved away, in the direction of the gigantic white dome of Sizewell, the nuclear power plant. Soon enough we'd spotted another lapwing. We watched the birds move around for a few minutes before moving on.

We walked down the path, past some well-established oak trees, on our way to the sea. In the tall reeds, I saw a grey heron. It stood motionless, its feet in the water, its back against the reeds. Then it took off, flying low and long, its feet trailing, it's long beak and great breast leading the way. Then over the barrier wall and onto the pebble beach. I set about looking for hag stones.

I find the sight of a pebble beach mesmerizing. With so many textures and colors, shapes and sizes, I can't take my eyes off it. What might I miss if I take my eyes off the beach? We wandered down the beach a ways and then headed back in land to mount the hill in search of toilets. We opted not to stop for tea and a look in the shops but rather to keep on heading north to Dunwich in search of what I'd been told are the best fish and chips. We wandered down the road, stopping to look at toadstools and I got my first glimpse of heather.

I don't know much about it, but it's a word that seems to have always been in my head. I think Emily Dickinson put it there. I had just been thinking about her a few days earlier and how she didn't live that far from the sea and was it really possible that she never saw the sea? Was it not common to visit the water in her time or was it simply that she was that much of a shut in? I'm so grateful to have had the opportunities to have seen as much as I have seen. And now, especially, to have one upped Emily and seen not just one heather plant and not just a whole hill full of them but a whole hill covered in heather and the sea simultaneously.

We wandered down the road, back onto a path, through a forest with birch and pine and chestnut trees. The path was carpeted with fallen leaves. The varied colors and shapes made a beautiful pattern. We came to another road and went past a fenced in area with chickens. Down another path to one that went past the ruins of an abbey and paralleled the cliff. The cliff is a reminder of the erosion that occurs here. It's said that the coast extended two kilometers east of where it lies today during Roman times and it's losing about one meter each day.

We left the cliff side and walked down some steps that let out by the Ship Inn and continued down the street toward the fish and chips shop. I don't know that I'm qualified to jug what's "best" but the fish and chips were fantastic. Really fresh tasting fish, deliciously battered and fried with hot chips. It was great. We ate outside and froze in the wind and shade.

After eating, we headed east and then walked south along the beach. My neck is sore from all the looking down I did. We found hag stones, semi-precious stones, lobster and crab shells, fishing nets, seagull feathers and pieces of colorful plastic cups. We walked in the shadow of the cliff, between it and the sea, all the way back to Minsmere, stopping briefly along the way to rest (as required by eight-year-old legs) and study rocks. Once we stopped and I tried to make a pebble angel. It was a very square angel. Back at Minsmere, we got the last of the day's sunshine. We saw a robin and a big deer. We saw a bunny and a blue tit, a magpie and a pheasant. Not a wildly successful day in terms of rare bird spotting, but I was quite happy with what I'd seen and just to have spent the day outside, in the sun, moving.

Back at the car park, we loaded in, we raced the setting sun, and headed for Southwold Pier. We saw a baby dear and tons of pigs along the way. At Southwold, we saw the lighthouse from the pier, and just a sliver of it's light. We went through the arcade and out onto the pier, in the wind and the cold and the deepening dark. At five o'clock, we watched the water clock's show. The couple in the bathtub sitting up, the tulips blooming, and then the pants on the two boys standing by the toilet dropped, and they peed in its approximate direction. It may have only lasted 30 seconds, but it gave us a good long laugh, ending the day on a high note.

Afterthought: I have a growing affection for pebble beaches. They're fascinating and mesmerizing. I could pick through the rocks all day. I love that below the sun dried and wind blown top layer the rocks are wet. And a pebble beach sure beats a sandy beach, especially in the most likely to leave without sand in your pants category.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Campus Walks: Meeting the Willow Tree

Today I went to visit the willow tree.

I've seen it a few times from a distance, mostly from the fifth floor of the library. I decided it was time to introduce myself.

The willow tree stands on the eastern edge of the pond closest to the library. It's in good company with few giant oak trees near by. I bundled up and set out in the cold and wind under gray skies and walked across campus to arrive in the grass next to the willow tree.

I grew up thinking that willow trees had some magic to them. They're such great beings. They're unlike other trees. They have gentler, more down to earth feel to them. It might be that my mother passed along her love of willows to me. Or maybe there was a book or a cartoon that had a willow tree in it. It might be that I imagine willow trees as wise old men, their slopping branches an aged frame and delicate leaves like a beard.

I startled a lady duck as I approached the willow. I stood still until she was comfortable enough to go about her business. I stood next to the willow tree and admired his shape, the way some of his branches dipped into the water, creating perches for resting ducks. The branches came down around the trunk in a circle like am umbrella. I walked around the edges in a semicircle and then I stepped inside. From there, it looked like the willow tree had claimed his little bit of water and was looking over all the creatures that took refuge in it and came to visit. I stood there for a little bit, took a few photographs, noted the metal tag nailed into its bark, and listened.

It was an awkward first meeting. I didn't hear anything. I stared blankly at it for a while, waiting for it to make the first move. I watched the ducks around it for a while, seeing if I could take cues from them. I looked at the ground to see that I wasn't trampling any roots. I looked up, searching. Then stepped out from its cover. From right next to it, I wondered it maybe instead of an old man, it was a terrible teenage girl flipping her hair. Maybe that's why she didn't talk to me--I wasn't cool enough.

From a few feet away, I wondered it the willow tree was a witch like character, with crazy out of control hair and bony limbs, stirring up trouble in the pond and putting spells on the birds.

I still think willow trees have the souls of old men. Wise and worn, kind but with mischievous smiles. I hope my visits will become less awkward. Maybe he's just shy in fall -- leaves changing color, branches exposed, feeling vulnerable. I'd like it if we could be friends.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The River Colne

I've decided to get to know the river Colne.

Here's what I know so far: I can see it from the kitchen window. I've walked beside it a few times. I've sat near it's eastern bank and read while waiting for laundry to wash. It's a tidal river. I like to guess, before I see it, how high the water will be. When it's very low, it's a small stream flowing through a wide mud valley. People live in houseboats on it. There are gulls and swans and ducks that float upon it. There's a big red ship tied to the doc just north a little ways. Reeds grow alongside the river and in them you can often find trash. There's a TV half-buried in the mud of the riverbed that's maybe 100 yards from the Quays if you walk towards Wivenhoe. Footpaths run parallel to it. Water flows into it near the industrial site to the southeast, creating foam. Just past Wivenhoe, there's a dam. There are some marshy areas. It meets the North Sea to the southeast just above Mersea.

I have yet to learn where it comes from, it's moods, how the tides work, what grows in it, how it's been used, how long the dam's been there, about its mud and the creatures that use it for food or transportation and things that I haven't even thought to wonder about it yet. Let the learning begin!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A Second Look

In today's Wild East seminar, we looked over photos that Julie had taken during our Orford Ness field trip last week. I was surprised that my response to many of the photos was to laugh and smile. How bizarre, how absurd, is it to see a sign stating "unexploded ordnance"? I suppose absurd is a fitting term for a place where, in taking a break from your job at the lighthouse to stretch your legs, you just might be blown up by a landmine. I laughed at the picture of the sign that reads "Information Building". It's on the side of a building which I know to contain information about the island but, as a sign alone, it made me think of building not as a noun but rather a verb and how that structure upon which the sign is posted is attempting to undertake that very act: pulling bits and pieces, facts and fiction, to build a coherent body of information. Since much of what was done on the island in the 20th century was done under a shroud of secrecy, any information about that time period has been built, and, due to lack of facts and documentation, is likely to have been built out of best guesses, made up and imagined bits of information. Then there are pictures of some of the structures on the island that remind me of the mid-west of America. They look like farm houses and silos in the middle of the planes, the structures rising out of a flatness and standing at a distance from one another or grouped together based on functionality. We passed a tumbleweed made of rusted wire. I wouldn't have guessed there would be anything in the whole of England that would remind me of that part of the world.

It surprised me to have this response to the images because that's almost opposite of the response I had while to the island while on the island. There was an eeriness to it, a confusion to it, it's a place in transition, a place that's being left to "continuous ruination" (Duncan's phrase) but selectively being maintained or altered based on "need" and "value". It's a place where decommissioned labs (stripped of valuables) are left to nature's will, the light fixtures inside with their peeling glass are victims of gravity, and a place where roofs are repaired, information is collected and displays are dusted, where sheep are imported annually to keep the grass a certain (or varied) length to entice birds to visit. It's military. It's nature. It's disciplined. It's wild. It's land. It's sea. It's plant and animal. It's part of but disconnected. It's fertile. It's barren. It's bird and hare. It's creation and(/for) destruction. It's delicate. It's hardy. It's going to ruin. It's being conserved. It's always changing but a footprint lasts until something else come along to displace the rocks that hold it. It's left to nature. It's rearranged to suit people. It's erosion. It's deposition. It's recharing. It's rock. It's plant. It's bold and subtle. It's flat. It's ridged. It's rare yet it's like so many other places.

Erosion is happening all around the east coast of England and coasts all around the world. It's happening in Nigeria, in Bangladesh, in France. Where I come from it's mainly an issue because rich people have built their houses on cliffs, which came to be because of erosion, a process that doesn't stop once you've shelled out a few million for the land and cake-topper house. It's happening around the arctic. In Shishmaref, Alaska, erosion is occurring at an increasing rate because declining sea ice allows for higher storm surge and the thawing permafrost makes it more vulnerable to erosion. (The people of Shishmaref, much like the millionaires in their cliff houses, are now debating whether to stay where they've been for who knows how long or move their community somewhere else.) Some glaciers are eroding (calving) at record speeds. By erosion doesn't just happen on the coast and it's not always seen as a negative. Erosion is how the Hoodoo of Bryce Canyon, the 12 Apostles of Victoria, Australia and the Pinnacles of Western Australia developed. It's Victoria Falls. It's the story of the grand canyon and all canyons. Erosion is the great mission of water and wind.

I'm curious to see the oak tree Duncan spoke of that's been there for ages but not grown very tall, battered by the wind. It's miracle enough that a seed can find something to grow in on that pebble beach, but then to get to grow, to establish roots, that's pure luck.

My favorite place on the island was lab 2(?). The one in which we climbed down into the pit lined with metal elongated crosses and a ruler on the wall and listened to unseen birds. The quality of the sound was incredible. If you closed your eyes and followed the sound of their chirping, you could imagine yourself some place completely different . . . with really awesome acoustics.

I remember Rob pointing out the hag stones adorning a wire fence. I remember finding hag stones on the beach. I had never heard of or seen a hag stone before. I just did a quick search to see if I could find the process by which stones become hagged. I haven't come up with the answer to that question yet, but I've stumbled some interesting sites. (I'm by no means endorsing these sites or the information they contain. Just sharing for amusement.)

One site says, helpfully and I'd guess somewhat accurately as similar things are said in other sites:

"Hag Stone is a stone with a hole through it, which is believed to ward off the dead. In European, this stone keeps the "evil hag" spirit away in order to prevent her from stealing horses and children. (see Hag) The hag stone is especially used as a favorite talisman by Cunning Folk to dispel the evil eye. Other people hang this stone in bedrooms to prevent the succubus-hag from ridding on people's chests during nightmares.

In Italian Witchcraft the holed stone is associated with fairies, and often referred as the holy stone. It is considered a doorway, or key to the doorway, into the fairy kingdom. It Italian folk magic, it is believed these stones have the power to bind a fairy to one's service for a length of time. A.G.H."

And then there's this one:

"Hag stones are . . . gifts from the goddess Gaia, our Earth Mother, to remind us of the divine feminine, and the magic and wonderment of creation. . . . During the 'Middle Ages' the Christian church told people that by wearing such a stone they were protected from witche. However the truth has always remained the same- witches since the dawn of time have used these stones as protection from negativity, using them as portable amulets that epitomize the strength and protection of the circle; one element surounding another, in the case of a hag stone earth surrounds air; another natural example is an island, earth surrounded by water, hence islands were sacred places."

Yeah. To lean back in the direction of credibility, ladies and gentlemen, the OED.

"1787 GROSE Provinc. Gloss. Superstitions 57 A stone with a hole in it, hung at the bed's head, will prevent the night-mare; it is therefore called a *hag-stone."

Then there's my personal challenge of being able to rethink the whole 'take only photographs, leave on footprints' approach to nature. What do I think about taking a stone as a memory aid? What do I think about taking one as a treasure? Certainly I've collected stones. I had a whole bag of rocks -- so heavy it tore through the plastic. I'd been weeding out the ones that no longer seemed significant, but recently set the remainder of them free. Sure, some of them only got as far as my backyard, but they're outside.

It's said that the rocks used in hot stone massage should be returned to the earth every so often so that they can recharge.

I did a lot of work in my mom's backyard this summer. One project I did (with the help of my boyfriend) was build a retaining wall. It wasn't one of my pre-planned projects but rather it came about because of a misunderstanding--I asked if the gardeners who tend to the mostly dirt backyard could cut back a plant and they ripped it out. So my boyfriend and I spent a few hours one Saturday building a retaining wall to keep the dirt slope that was left where the plant used to be from washing onto the patio just in case it should rain. When we started digging to create a line where the wall should be and also to even out the distribution of dirt behind the wall, we found that the dirt was full of stones. Whether this was used as a (largely unsuccessful) drainage technique or just as filler I'm not sure. But we pulled the rocks out and there are at least three good-sized buckets of rocks in the backyard now. I guess my point is that the rocks I collected aren't alone either in terms of having no company or in having been relocated.

Rob does talk about taking the stones back to the places they're from after he's had for a while. A catch and release program for rocks. I can romanticize that. Taking and giving back. You take a little some from the rock and give it back with a little something -- an energy, an oil, a warmth.

This reminds me of the "text work" by Richard Long that was introduced the first week of class. Crossing Stones, it's called. He walks a stone from Aldeburgh on the east coast of England to Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales and then picks a stone from Aberystwyth and walks it to Aldeburgh. The image of the journey for me is stunning. We joked at the time that we'd quite like to try and find those stones. Maybe they'd be easy to spot. Where they the same type of rock?

My block against taking the rocks is because, while the argument has been made to me that taking a few rocks wouldn't make a difference on the beach, surely it would make a difference if enough people with that thinking were to come take rocks. I think it aids the erosion. It's anthropogenic erosion. So was talking along the beach, each step displacing the rocks and sending many rolling down the slope towards the sea. And in place, too, where our footprints last, our every move makes that place different. It may not matter in the greater sense as this beach is moving and the rocks we take won't stop that process, the process by which water and tides redistribute materials. But, really, I should let it go. It's not a matter of right and wrong and I'm being repetitive. The good thing to come of my all-too-frequently thinking on the issue is that I've had to reconsider it, take a closer look and appreciate a different perspective and approach to nature (say British vs. American). One that doesn't regard it as pristine or sacred, but rather as something you can pick up, hold in your hand and take home with you. I've enjoyed theorizing the reasons for that difference.

Campus Walks: Shortcut

There is a well tread shortcut through the grass between the zebra crossing on the service road and the middle bus stop on campus. It's not a great time saving shortcut, but for those of us who like straight lines and get a tiny thrill of rebellion for nonconformity, it's the preferred route. I rarely see people take it, but it must be well liked because it takes the work of many feet at frequent enough intervals to wear a dirt line across a field of grass.

On my way back from campus this afternoon, heading west to the Quays with the sun just above a cloud bank, I opted for a change and took this thin dirt track which runs at a diagonal to the pavement. I expected it to be a bit muddy as it rained yesterday and it didn't disappoint. I was surprised to see tiny needle like blades of grass coming up through the dirt, trying to reestablish itself. I felt a sense of wonder at how quickly it must have grown. Was it only since yesterday when it rained? I hadn't noticed it before. Did this mean I had for once in my life walked somewhere with my head up? I liked to think it was a day's growth, all happened overnight. What an ambitious plant. It's magic: dirt one day and grass the next. And as I walked, marveling at the delicate and determined blades of day-old grass that passed beneath my feet, I did feel a bit guilty.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Natural evolution?

Can the shift in nature writing from poetic descriptive language to the inclusion of the language of the natural sciences be considered simply an evolution of the genre?

In geography there was a shift called the Quantitative Revolution. It was in some ways necessitated by the threat of it being eliminated from academia where it had previously been housed under geology which considered it a soft science. So the shift was made from descriptive geography to a quantitative geography. Psychology and Political science (among others) are also thought to have gone through such shifts. Numbers were introduced to make the "science" more solid.

So is the shift from Wordsworth's poem to a butterfly to W.H. Hudson's essay about hawk-moths a natural progression from admiring nature to investigating it and then documenting both the wonder and results of said investigation? And that investigation turns up words that can be used to provide accuracy and context. Then there are writers like Barry Lopez who has done quite a bit of investigation and does a good job of bringing the reader up to speed by sharing his learning, defining terms and building in context. In doing so, he uses multiple lenses and creates a more full experience. Natural shift? Not at all related? Not sure.

New leaf

I should be sleeping, but a new leaf on my calathea zebrinas is unfurling and I can't take my eyes off of it. Meanwhile, the many leaves on my noisy and indecisive calathea ornata are scraping up and down the wall. It seems unable to can make up its mind as to whether it wants to stand at attention or hang its stripped heads.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Where I come from

Where I come from, a lot of what's said about nature and weather is about how inconvenient or scary it is. How dreaded rain is because it means traffic will be terrible. How high the electricity bill is because it's so hot and we've got to keep the air conditioning on all the time. How tragic when someone's two thousand dollar intentionally tiny pure bred puppy was eaten by a coyote. The looming threat of forest fires. How annoying parking under that tree is because you come away with your car covered in bird poop. The blood thirty mountain lions. The vicious rattle snakes. The brush that you have to spend so many hours or so much money clearing every year. The smell of skunk. The mess of a tipped trash can after a raccoon's paid a visit. The hiss and sharp teeth of a startled possum. That insistent chirping of birds that wakes you up at three a.m.. The steady accrual of leaves, petals, or pollen that you're endlessly trying to wash off your driveway. The weeds. The amount of fertilizers and water required to grow anything in this desert! The drought. Not being able to water your lawn every day and the horror of brown grass.

I love the wild things where I live. The oak trees, the snakes, the lizards, the birds, the wild flowers. I love the two weeks of green hills in the spring. I love the howling of coyotes on summer nights, rare skunk sightings. I love watching mischievous squirrels in my backyard. This summer I put up a bird feeder. A squirrel chewed through the plastic handle that held it up. The bird feeder attracted a diverse group of birds including some that I'd never seen in the yard before. Some with golden breasts. Some with flashes of yellow. They'd come in groups and leave in groups. What a treat to wake up to the tweeting of birds.


I'm accustomed to the sky holding water as clouds, dropping it as rain. Fog is something else. It is water suspended. Floating. A type of anti-gravity.