Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Link to my current blog

Sorry about not doing this earlier but I've been posting to a new blog as I paddle down the Ohio River. Hope you can catch up.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Socks and other signs of autumn.

After paddling the Youghiogheny River this weekend I have been wearing socks. My feet are decidedly more comfortable in Pittsburgh's damp October.

We are eating veggie/grainy soups and stews.

Roadside farmstands have pumpkins, apples, and little else.

Festivals. We went to one in SW Pennsylvania this weekend. It had a giant pumpkin "contest"--with only 3 entries--one being hundreds of pounds heavier than either of the others. A kiddie tractor pull. And dozens of booths where fried things (some food) could be tasted. I almost ate a fried Milky Way candy bar, but in the end Amy and I stuck to the deep fried potatoes.

We are replacing summer squash with winter oats down at the farm.

Apple cider.


Cold kayaking.

Leaves of various colors. Both on trees and the ground.

7 pm darkness.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Recently Returned.

My first few months back in the US have flown by and though fall is still a few calendar weeks away the temperature is slowly dropping here in Pittsburgh, mine and Amy's new base. We are nearly settled into our apartment--pictures on the walls, books on selves, my kayak in the bathroom closet--I say nearly because we still need a screen for our kitchen window. This opening gives some of our smaller neighbors (2 gray and 1 charcoal colored squirrel) access to our compost bucket and my ever expanding pile of black walnuts.

In Jersey a few weeks back while pawpaws ripened and fell deliciously to the ground a friend introduced me to the tasty native nuts of Juglans nigra. Sensing the impending autumn I (like the squirrels) have began to garner a stockpile for winter.

Our new neighborhood (Squirrel Hill--yes they were here first) is a walkable residential community bordered by several large city parks and two rivers--9 Mile Run and the Monongahela. The Mon joins the Allegheny River a few miles downstream and forms the Ohio River. This joins the Mississippi about 980 miles to the west.

Though many of the region's rivers have overcome their industrial pasts the Mon is one of American Rivers most endangered rivers of 2010 and as far as contact with the waters of 9 Mile Run, I was told "they don't recommend that." (Glad I kept my mouth shut) They, apparently, have never been swimming in Dhaka.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.--Wallace Stegner

On a pile of napkins I used to write my first report back to Watson Headquarters from a mountaintop in the Italian Alps I related anecdotes about the places in Canada and Italy that had become my homes. Displaced and wandering I had found home in bus and train stations, beach bungalows and Alpine retreats, log cabins and prefabricate trailers. From that mountaintop I moved onward and called new countries and cities my homes and added new people to my family. I became one defined by my own motion. I often imagined myself moving like a molecule of water, starting high up in the clouds and racing gravity down to the sea.

The people, places, and the experiences I passed all fell somewhere within a landscape full of high and low points. These highs and lows gave momentum to the events of this year, events which in turn sculpted the landscape of my Watson watershed. Throughout the year my experiences combined and moved me forward. Some days flashed past like rapidly flowing whitewater, while others moved slowly--nearly backwards in motion. I experienced intensely clear moments of understanding and moments heavy with weighty emotions. Emotions whose real relevance might take years to truly settle out. In my last six days as an on the road Watson fellow I caught up with raindrops on the edge of the coast.

Huge raindrops smash into the corrugated aluminum roof. They explode into clouds of smaller droplets. These gather in the roof's slanted channels and begin to flow downward, running over the edge. First drip by drip, then in dozens of small waterfalls as the rainfall intensifies. The sky--deep blue minutes before--is now misty and gray with clouds that obscure the treetops. The shoreline is no longer visible and the only reminder that the Pacific lays 20 meters away is the rhythmic crashing of set after set of frothy white waves. All of the jungle's other sounds drown under the falling rain.

Not far from our beach front shelter, the rain is filling a braided streambed. While we sleep the sky clears and the milky-way blankets the beach, meanwhile the river crests. In the morning we wake and walk out into the sun and continue north along the beach. The river has settled leaving a five meter cliff where there was once a roadway.

In the 365 days I traveled around our planet as a Watson Fellow the jungles of the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica were the most wild of any biomes I explored. There one can hardly walk more than a few minutes without hearing the loud crackle of scarlet macaw flocks, monkeys quickly become mundane, crocodiles commonplace, and only the rarest of animals--tapirs and jaguars--remain elusive.

The model for conservation in the Osa Peninsula and for much of Costa Rica's biodiversity is one of separation. Volcanoes, forests, coastlines, and waterfalls are surrounded by shaded spaces on maps. These protection zones enclose enormous swaths of land and biodiversity. They provide living laboratories for scientists to study the processes of natural selection. But the people of Costa Rica are far removed from these places. They speak about their gifts in terms of tourist value and ecotourism potential. Their lives revolve around the marketable of their landscape. And though I have rarely experienced such pristine natural landscapes I fear that they are becoming commodities. As the economic value of protected areas grow benefits to biodiversity and ecosystem services may increase. But solitude, education, and humanity degrade. The landscapes that shape who we are, that renew our souls and feed our creativity become museum pieces that only those privileged with wealth, time, and plane tickets may experience. By marginalizing humans from the landscape we lose our best teacher.

This is not a cry for us to open our forests, deserts, and wilderness to development and destruction but rather to acknowledge the debt we owe to our natural world and allow ourselves to continue learning its countless lessons. Some of these lessons are transferred easily and until recent history well followed. The types of animals and plants that can and can not be used for food, environmental cues suggestive of the coming of strange weather and new seasons, and the strength and durability of certain materials are several examples. There are more complex theories that we gleam from the nature that have transformed our understanding of the world, theories addressing evolution and biomimicery. These have allowed humans to develop medicines that stop disease and elegant building materials that simplify our lives.

But the most important lessons we must heed, and the ones we are currently forgetting, concern the natural world's impact on our cultural identities and our notions of aesthetics and necessity. Mountains, rivers, oceans, open vistas, blossoming flowers, schooling fish, ranging herds, forests, and deserts have shaped thousands of cultures on this planet for generations. Each of these cultures have molded legends and gods from the earth's raw materials. Building have grown to fit the scale and materials of a locale. The colors, medium, notes, and patterns of art and music are borrowed freely from the world. Even our historic notions of what we do and do not need have come from the type and quantity of resources within our culture's grasp. When disconnected from the natural landscapes--whether by private boundary, ecological destruction, globalization, or poor accessibly--we lose grasp of the styles and limits that have created and sustained us.

Spending this year immersed in so many cultures that were not my own I saw firsthand the influence of landscapes. Primarily the complex influence of water and waterways on a people. Rivers test our defenses and designs with unpredictable flooding and frequent movement of their channels. On a human scale rivers sculpt us as if we are slabs of stone, breaking off the worn, weaker pieces of who we are, leaving us in the same place but never the same. Rivers move these worn off pieces of us within their flow. These pieces help shape the lives of others. This dual role, as the shaper and shaped, became clear to me during this year. Constantly new faces, smells, colors, and tastes passed by, over and around me--each helping to push my life forward--perhaps even saving it.

We have been moving sluggishly down the Tonle Sap River for two blindingly sunny, scorchingly hot mornings and afternoons. The landscape, historically part of an extensive flooded forest ecosystem, had given way to dry, scrubby, slashed, and burned grassland. This stretched off to the horizon broken by the silhouettes of tall palm trees, water buffaloes, and the occasionally spindly farm house.

Our dated maps tell us that around the next bend there should be a long canal, a short cut through the flat lowlands. Slowly a huge green mass starts to show on the right bank. In our shadeless, sun-soaked world the promise of large leafy branches is only too welcome. A half an hour later huge branches, large enough to tower as trees
themselves, hang over my head and yellow kayak. Next to the twisted roots the canal--long silted in--enters the muddy river. Though the canal holds too little water to offer much of a short cut the trickle of clear liquid in it looks perfect for drinking. After gathering empty bottles and my filter I began to decant the clean water.

A shirtless child watches us from the top of the bank. A small puppy stands by his feet. As the first bottle fills a man comes over the bank--we exchange greetings. I pantomime my intention to drink the clear water at my feet, asking with thumbs up if it is clean. Instantly he shakes his head, pointing to the farm fields above and successfully communicating that in this clear stream, below this scared tree, flows harmful pesticides. After this lucky encounter the muddy water of the big river taste that much sweeter.

So many moments and days like this one stand out in vivid detail in my mind. Reminders of the world I experienced. Experiences of clarity and beauty, ugliness and happiness--full of smiles, friendship, tears, and thanks. These places and people exist everywhere on this planet at once and they flash through my memory.

An elderly native couple is sitting quietly below the slow moving Arctic sun. The last of summer's fish are drying in the first cold breaths of autumn. A retired school teacher is walking his dog along a beach he knows but almost lost to his failing vision. Two homeless lovers are passing a minty bottle of mouthwash between each other to satisfy the morning's thirst. A fisherman is waking up to start another 18 hour shift on the Adriatic water ways. An immigrant housekeeper is buttoning her starched blouse. A farmer heads into his vineyard before the day's heat sends him back into the barn for a break from the sun. Tomatoes and grapes ripen on a vine. Junkies awake bruised and disoriented. An ancient man hitches an equally ancient cart to a team of burros. A city made of stone awakes to the morning's sun. A little girl is napping along the beach--free from the men who torment and pay her during the night. A young man uses surfboards to save others from that little girl's fate. A rickshaw driver is paid pennies by a sweaty man in a business suit. Lunch is being served in enormous ricey piles. House boats rock in a river's current. White thunderheads start to fill the sky. Shallow brown water begins to roll in low waves--each crest tinged bright green by algal blooms. Storm clouds are illuminated internally by the constant flash of lightning. Large raindrops resonate on tin and bamboo roofs--they fill barrels and pots with clear cool water. Innumerable stars replace fading clouds. At the mouth of the Mekong an old man uses his only arm to start an outboard motor, the engine breaks both the river's smooth surface and the afternoon's silence. As he accelerates, the wind hits his dark cheeks, and he smiles. A deaf man dreams of a deaf wife who lives in Hartford. Behind on rent payments a restaurant owner thinks of selling his family's business. Smiling raft guides lead plastic boats through silty whitewater. Cows graze on a hillside. A full bus lurches down a steep, switch-backed roadway. A young woman from the city looks off the porch of her small home in the country. A child sleeps quietly in a the slow swing of a cloth hammock.

These people, places, and memories are inseparable from who I now am. They and all those I know, will know, and will never know stand equally on this planet. We breath at the same time. I may laugh when they cry or wake when they sleep. I will always be thankful for the lessons we learned from each other and those I have learned from this world.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Gimme Shelter.

Under the cool rain the vegetation glows bright green against the white sky. It's falling fast enough to soak anyone or anything out in the open. Below palm fronds and banana leaves its aim is more sporatic. Patches of soil and bark remain dry in the rainshadow.

It is the perfect day to watch--with warm coffee in hand and leaky roof overhead--the hummingbirds visit sheltered blossums, squirrels gorge on ripening bananas, and leaf cutter ants march under their tiny green umbellas.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rinse and Repeat.

Wake up.
Gallo Pinto con huevos.
Walk (avoid snakes!) or ride in tractor two kilometers.
Put on helmet/life jacket/etc.
Kayak, 2 hours.
See monkeys.
Eat pineapple.
Rain heavily.
Back to put in.
Kayak, 2 hours.
Rice and beans.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

South to the Mouth.

The van pulls into a gravel driveway off a small side street. I grab my bag and an old women directs me down a narrow alley on the left side of the house. Behind the house is the Mekong. A narrow plank connects the shore to the small boat that will take me six hours down river to northern Vietnam. Nearby several young men unload bricks from a large barge. Our boat's engine starts and we ease into the current, heading south.

After several hours floating past dry farmland and buffalo pasture we arrive at the Cambodian border. The police checkpoint is in the colorful courtyard of an old country home. A guard stamps my passport while a budda watches us from the opposite wall. In a few minutes the process is repeated at Vietnamese customs, though here the atmosphere is different, a giftshop clerk watches over the transaction.

At the border we change boats and soon turn off into a side canal bound for the delta's northern city of Chau Doc. The water is overhung with branches--shading hundreds of free ranging ducks and providing diving boards for local children.

South of Chau Doc towards the coast lie hundreds of kilometers of busy waterfronts and markets, rice fields and shrimp farms.

Like Cambodia, southern Vietnam is waiting for the overdue rains of summer. Each hot afternoon the sky looks ready to burst. But aside from heavy winds, distant lightning, and rainbows the dry season continues.

The aquaculture industry appears to have brought economic stability to the delta's communities. It's small cities are busy with store fronts and motorbikes. In the countryside newly renovated levees stand guard over fields and homes whose natural protection--mangrove forests--have been cleared away in exchange for rectangular ponds. Ponds filled with shrimp larvae and fish fry, aerated by plastic paddle wheels that churn idly in the sunshine.

Along a secondary road a small path branches off to the east. For nearly ten kilometers it runs past small homesteads and football fields; through dry rice paddies and bamboo thickets. The path parallels a small brown canal, bridging countless tributaries. In some places small patches of mangrove forest remain. In one of these an old man digs snakes from the sticky gray mud. The path and canal end together at the Brassic River--one of the "nine dragons" of the Mekong Delta. Here blue/green tidal waters mix with the dark brown run off from the delta and slip slowly into the sea.

For nearly 4,400 kilometers people fish and float on the river. Boat props, paddle blades, and bare feet churn its muddy bottoms. Fish, otters, and springtails live and die under and on its shores. Here at the mouth of the Mekong an old man uses his only arm to start an outboard motor, breaking both the river's smooth surface and the afternoon's silence. As he accelerates, the wind hits his dark cheeks, and he smiles.