On The Red List

I wrote this post earlier this week because of an image I saw on Facebook.  It was the photo of a sad baby rhino who according to the article was scared to sleep alone.  That story inspired this post but then after reading it, I thought no, I won’t publish it because the world doesn’t need another whiny post from another animal-lover and passionate conservationist.  But then … an egomaniac decided he and his estimated 20 000 guests would feast on elephant and buffalo meat at his 91st birthday celebration and that dear readers and friends is why you get to read my post.

From Grade 1 to 3 our school would take us on ‘field trips’ to the zoo.  Even then, as a curious and fierce animal lover I did not like zoos and dreaded those trips.   Something –  I knew not what – was wrong with the Polar Bear and something was definitely wrong with the Siberian Tiger.  It wasn’t until I went on my first safari that I realized what that ‘something’ was and why their lacklustre coats and sad eyes filled me with horror.  Lost to those animals behind thick iron bars and high walls is the life coded into their DNA.  These animals have been abducted and abused for profit and yet …in some cases – and this is increasingly becoming the case – animals are being saved by zoos.

Do you visit zoos and aquariums?  Do you feel we need them? 

To save animals from human beings you have to capture them and imprison them, because demarcating swathes of land with walls or barbed wire and declaring them ‘wildlife preserves’ do not stop poachers.

Here’s some quick rhino related facts: the Western Black Rhino has been wiped out by poachers; there are only five Northern White Rhinos left in the world, all in captivity and all unable to breed.

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Image from discoverwildlife.com

Beautiful, shaggy orangutans (above) are on the endangered list (Borneo).  These gardeners of the forest are responsible for ‘seed dispersal’ but human encroachment has impacted negatively on their population.  Snow leopards, sea lions, Green Turtles, Fin Whales, African Wild Dogs, Black Footed Ferrets…if you have not yet heard of these wonderful creatures or had the privilege to see them in their natural habitats, familiarize yourself with them today because soon they will join a chorus of Dodos and Passenger Pigeons.

So today I encourage you to visit a wildlife refuge or zoo if it means you get to see and fall in love with ‘exotic’ species or something within you wakes up to the realization that we’re not as ‘superior’ or as special as we like to think we are, because of our Big Brains and Big Plans for more, more and more until nothing is left, just a list of names in the interverse.

Characters That Stay With Us

I have an odd assortment of good friends.  Most of whom are made of flesh and bone but a few are less solid, having been penned to life.  These paper friends visit me in dreams.  Wang Lung, a great-grandfather (at last count he had eighteen grandchildren) still visits tea shops and is able to walk over to his beloved fields. I often find him standing at the top of an emerald hill staring down at the place where he will come to lie below his uncle and his father and not far from his devoted wife, O-lan.  Having worked hard to claim for himself property and success he is still a man humbled by nature. There is so much I want to know, I say, but I dare not ask him. I wonder if he feels bad about the way he treated O-lan? I wonder if he still yearns for Lotus who was far prettier than his wife and slender as bamboo?  Does he, I wonder, still bend down to scoop up earth with his hands.   Does he appreciate each day on the good earth  with his sons and Pear Blossom who remain faithful and attentive?

I know Huck Finn is adventuring in another world but he likes to tell me about his grand adventures in the Wild West after he and Jim parted ways.  He tells me he crossed paths with Pawnee raiders and rescued more than one damsel in distress.  I have Huck to thank for introducing me to the evils of slavery, robbers and conmen and to floating down the Mississippi river on a raft.  Huck Finn is the reason I crave adventure.  He also gave me the courage to plan my own escape when I was seven.   I didn’t follow through with my childish threat to run away but I had a satchel packed and ready just in case my mother threatened to tan my hide again for something my sister did.

I once threatened to ‘tar and feather’ a bully in primary school, thanks to Huck.  She stopped bullying me after that.

Reverend Stephen Kumalo and I still weep for his son Absalom who was found guilty of murder and condemned to die in apartheid-era South Africa.  I wonder if he and James Jarvis have undertaken any new projects? James, who after his own son’s death was forced to face the racial issues that divided his country.  James who tried to make amends. I wonder if the good reverend’s village Ndotsheni has prospered or if the men are still leaving to find work in the big cities?  I think I know the answer to this question but to hear Kumalo speak of these things in person would be a precious gift.

Which book’s character/s continue to live with you? 

There Are No Victims Here

Most of us are familiar with the idiom ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ and most of us will agree it is untrue.  Words hurt. Words can be turned into weapons that pierce hearts, crush dreams and break spirits.  I have always been particularly sensitive to how we use words and what compels us to choose one word over another.

If you watch the news or keep up with events online or in print, you will have read or heard a phrase like this a thousand times over  ‘he/she was victim of a heinous crime’ and description of said crime.  The truth is most of us (if not all of us) have been ‘victims’ of something less-than-desirable through no fault of our own.  We have been victims of neglect, absence, abuse, unfairness, misfortune and crime and not because we ‘deserved’ to be victimized but because things happen all the time to the best (and worst) of us.  That’s life.

I am one of those people who crave the ‘after story’.  I want to know more about said ‘victim’ of wolverine attack, avalanche, burglary, rape, molestation etc.  I want to know if you saw the road ahead fork in two.  I want to know if you believe in second and third chances.  I want to know if you still get up in the morning to shower, brush your teeth and get on with creating your life.  I want to know if you hope again, love again and dream again.  I want to be inspired and am inspired by people who refuse to be labelled or prescribed to.  I am inspired by people who will not be defined by an experience or a poor word but fear for those who continue to play the victim card.

Words can also heal.  They have resurrective properties. Someone who has overcome; someone who has fought back; someone who has clawed their way back out and up and resisted is a survivor.  I wish more journalists would adopt the word ‘survivor’ and drop the word ‘victim’ when reading the news. I wish more of us realized this world is populated by survivors. Victims are dead.

What word do you find pejorative or inadequate and wish would be dropped from the lexicon?

Trampling Grapes – A Childhood Memory

The subject of my alcohol-fuelled childhood recently came up and not in therapy as one would imagine.

Both my grandfathers were Portuguese and both were winemakers like their fathers before them.  Growing grapes and making wine was never an option for either one of them. It was just something they did.  I don’t recall ever seeing my grandparents buy a bottle of wine just like I can’t recall a time when there wasn’t an open bottle of wine at the dinner table.  Each year at harvest time, my sister and I were brought in to help with the picking and making of wine and since our grandparents lived on separate properties we were really busy.

I guess this was our first experience with work although we loved it so much we didn’t think of it as work.

My sister and I were the only ones allowed to trample the grapes in the winepress.

We had the sense from the way our grandfathers sought us out – and only us – that we added ‘magic’ to the process as we sang our childish songs and trampled those grapes with an enthusiasm I sometimes wish I could recapture.  I seem to recall we would wear the absolute minimum for the job – bathing suits and very short shorts and raggedy t-shirts.  We were sticky and sweet for days 🙂

By now you must be thinking my grandparents lived on farms but no, they nurtured their vines in their suburban gardens; those vines offered shelter from the harsh African sun under which we enjoyed extended barbecues and spilled gloriously green and abundant over their respective garages and boundary walls.

There was of course a reason for our enthusiasm.  My sister and I knew what would happen as the grapes were left to ferment in large vats.  Samples had to be taken during the process of fermentation and someone had to be on hand to turn the tap and pour those first drops of sweet nectar.  My sister and I were available.  It’s not like we had anything else to do but attend school.

You may think we were drunk a lot.  I don’t believe we ever were.  We were allowed to drink wine (one small glass each) from an early age and I credit that experience to the fact that I know when to stop.  I have been ‘wasted’ a record one time. And it wasn’t on wine and I was well into my twenties (boring I know).

My question is not whether you started drinking as a toddler but what activity did you participate in as a child that is now frowned upon or considered risque? 

What’s Stopping You?

I was the kid whose stories and poems were read aloud by teachers and whose artwork was put on display and slapped with five gold stars.  Back then I’d write novellas for my friends and teachers and family members alike would describe my work in superlatives.   But as I got older that changed, because when the praise stopped so did the writing – and the drawing.  There were a series of comments made by teachers and family members – none of them constructive – about both my writing and my art that led to increasing self-doubt about my abilities as an artist but it was one particular comment delivered in a flippant manner just before I graduated high school, that sealed the deal for me and, here is the striking thing, the person who delivered said nasty comment wasn’t even a teacher or someone I cared for – yet, the criticism stung and the comment stuck like tar.

What followed was a long, dark fallow period.  Over a decade of ‘having nothing to say’, ‘nothing to write about’, ‘nothing to draw’.  Then one day, about eight years ago, on a trip to a bookstore with a casual acquaintance of mine I was telling her how I had always dreamed of being ‘a writer’ when she turned to me and asked ‘So what’s stopping you?’ and that’s when *lightbulb moment* I realized I had to let go of what people think and write for myself.

What’s stopping you from doing what you love?

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I also realized that criticism only hurts when it mirrors what I think of myself.  The kinds of criticism that stayed with me: the time a group of teenage boys called me ‘thunder thighs’ when I played field hockey, the time the art teacher said my drawings were ‘mediocre at best’.

These comments helped me realize I had serious doubts about my physical appeal and artistic abilities.

What criticism are you holding onto because of a negative belief you hold about yourself? 

I’m not going to pretend I don’t care what people think.  I do – but to a degree.  I am someone who has always valued constructive criticism so that is always appreciated, but I have also learned that receiving feedback tells me more about the person giving the praise or criticism than it does about my abilities.   We are quick to forget that we are all different and that we are blessed with a unique set of abilities and taste.  What appeals to you may not appeal to another. Consider for example a work of art.  Do you prefer a Picasso to a Rembrandt?  or Comedy to Horror? Feedback gives us the facts about the preferences of the person giving the feedback.  It can’t speak to your worthiness or talent.

Yet feedback is critical not only to artists and writers but to everyone.  If you’re tinkering with a new invention or drafting a work proposal or preparing to give a TED talk you need feedback.  You need to know if what you are doing is understood, appreciated or if you need to improve in some or most areas.

Are you seeking feedback from the right people? People you hope to influence or engage with?

A Look Ahead

January named after Janus, Roman god of gates, passages and archways; god of beginnings and transitions.  Janus, of the two faces. I think of Janus as I play catch up with friends.  I think of Janus as I rush through a third (or is it fifth?) draft of a short story I started in October of last year.  I think of Janus as I hurry from one appointment to another even though I only return to work next week and this week should be a time of relaxation and reflection.

So I try. To relax. To reflect.   I give it my best shot. I find myself alone, looking at the cold glass eye of Rice Lake, high up on the side of a mountain and with notebook in hand try to shape sentences out of what I am seeing; what I’m feeling. But I am not seeing and just as frustration sets in, he arrives.  A seagull.  Tripping, I think or lost.

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He watches me with curious black eye.

I capture him on my mobile.

The longer we sit there daring each other to move, the more I realize the more I look, the less I see.

Habit is good but it is also really bad.  Here’s the problem with habit:  it stops us from seeing or perceiving things as they really are.  The Horsechestnut tree in the garden has become yet another tree composed of trunk and leaves, the banana in the fruit bowl just another piece of fruit and the seagull – bless him – another bird of feather and bone.

Our family, friends, nature, art – all lose their complexity and gloss.  This year I resolve to see things anew.  This year I commit to WONDER and ATTENTION.   I commit to finding enthusiasm like a child does, devouring whole continents and discovering shells, centipedes, crayons, fossils, piazzas, dunes, comets, thunderclaps, geraniums and craft and words…more words.  I want to be alert.  I want to be astounded by the world.

What are you committed to changing or doing this year?

The Bear On The Bridge – Short Story Part II

And here friends and followers is the conclusion… if you have not read Part I please click here.

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I finally caught up with old Baker scratching his back beside a creek.  It was quite something to watch him in broad daylight; so relaxed and at peace in his wilderness.  He was rubbing his back up against the rough bark of a tree; eyes closed, lips curled in satisfaction.  When finally he opened them, our eyes met and I thought I saw in them recognition.  Certainly it was not the first time Baker and I had locked eyes.  I had chased him from my orchards with gunfire and clamoring pans more than a dozen times over the years and always he would amble away with a casual sneer.  He saw me as the two legged apple keeper and I went from seeing him as a nuisance neighbour to a murderer.  I raised my .338 and aimed at that spot between his golden eyes.  He took that bullet with an amicable smile.

I thought of old Baker three months later when my wife and I bumped into Tom Yates having dinner at the only restaurant in town with the deceased’s Mrs Yates’ younger sister Alvira.  I thought of him again when we attended their wedding the following Fall and Alvira wore her older sister’s wedding dress ‘in tribute’  she had said to me but to my wife she had said something else altogether.  She had said her sister had been a ‘large woman’ and so the dress was wide enough to hide her baby bump.

Baker started visiting soon after the wedding.  I’d wake up to the sound of falling apples and munching and when I looked out my bedroom window and down into our small orchard he would be there reaching for those apples, the bullet hole clearly visible in the moonlight.

I started doubting myself.  I woke my wife up more than once and asked her to take a look when the munching roused me from my restless sleep in those predawn hours but the occasional bear she spotted she said, was nowhere near old Baker’s size.  Besides she didn’t believe in ghosts especially not in the ghosts of animals coming back to haunt their killers. She said she worried about me and that I should go see a head doctor. Instead I took to checking on Baker’s remains in the post office and was not comforted by the fact that he was still there.  After I had shot him, Tom had Baker mounted as a ‘man-killer’ and put on display at the post office.  Such a big bear the townspeople said would draw in crowds of visitors.  But very few crossed the bridge to come and stare at Baker.

Earlier this year Baker caught up with me on the bridge.  I had been standing there in the half-light of dusk with my hands in my pockets staring down at those two rivers running side by side, wanting to think of trout and pink salmon but instead thinking of Tom Yates and his second wife and their three sons when Baker made his presence known.  He was on all fours, panting and heaving on the town side of the bridge.  I think I laughed at him.  I remember bending down to pick up a small stone and throwing it at him.  I told him I was an old man now.  I told him to leave me alone.  But Baker just kept on staring at me with those golden eyes.  When I tired of waving my fist at him I got into my truck and drove through him and into the wide cedar that stood behind him.

Collecting Stories

I’m in the middle of a 14 day work shift.  I’m having the kind of month that I just know I won’t survive without my daily attitude adjustment, double shots of Emergen-C and quick intervals of yoga stretches (if I drank coffee I’d be on a caffeine drip).

I had to participate in a 4 day trade show and if you’ve ever exhibited at one of these long 12 hour day trade shows you have an idea of how I’m feeling.  Knackered.

Of course my way of getting through any event or function is to connect with people because not only do I like people but I also like their stories.  Stories energize me.

How do you stay energized in stressful situations?  

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I have never had a problem with getting people to tell me their stories.  Of course whether their stories are true or false I wouldn’t know and I’m not sure it actually matters.  I don’t intend to write biographies but I do intend to steal elements of their stories.

Does that make me a bad person? 😀

Which makes me wonder.  What is the purpose or intention behind the story-writing?  Do we write because we are collectors and memory-keepers or futurists and mirrors?  Perhaps, all of these?

Over the course of the last few days I have met a man who survived a grizzly bear attack and wears a bear claw to prove it; another man whose father saved a few hundred Polish Jews from Hitler’s invading army (in such an ingenious manner that I can’t believe more decent people didn’t think of it); a young woman who raised all five of her younger siblings on her own and a man who while out hunting for deer was himself hunted by a pack of wolves.

You can imagine how all this has the writer in me buzzing with excitement.  I can’t wait to get a day or two off so I can start planning another batch of short stories despite having to work on two others that require extensive ‘tweaking’.

How do stories wing their way to you?

As if…And Thoughts On Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and I am looking forward to many things not least the feast that I am to prepare (because no one else volunteered).  This year will be the first time – ever – that I’ll be attempting apple pie. So if you have any advice or tips (like which are the best apples for pie?) please leave me a comment.  Much appreciated 🙂

via Penguin Books

Image: Penguin Canada

It will also be the first year we’ll be celebrating without the Mr.  because he’s away on business. It is also why there will be apple pie – Mr. hates apple pie as much as he does anything with coconut which is to say he hates it  A Lot.  He doesn’t even believe in using it as a beauty aid which is a pity really, I love coconut.

So anyway, the boys and I have decided we will end up celebrating again in November with our American neighbours.  I have no complaints.  Life is always cause for celebration.

Our family has been celebrating Thanksgiving for eleven years now despite only living in Canada for seven years.  We started celebrating in South Africa before we knew we had been accepted into Canada and I think this act of faith or practical magic definitely helped pave the way to our new home.    I am a firm believer in ‘acting as if…’  are you?

Of course what made this extra special and powerful is that we started giving thanks BEFORE we got what we wanted.  That’s the secret you see, give thanks not only for what you have (and we all have a lot – don’t believe me? use the bathroom or open a tap) but also give thanks for what you hope to attain as if you have already received it.

We went to a whole lot of trouble to find a turkey in South Africa in November (we didn’t realize Canadians celebrate in October).  We went to various (very expensive) speciality stores and got presented with game meat like grouse, quail and the obligatory South African ostrich but no turkey.  We drove out of the city and into the smaller towns and asked around and found butchers (and farm hands) selling crocodile and wildebeest, which the Mr insisted on sampling.  I tried the crocodile and I’d like to say it tasted like chicken but really it tasted of silt and muddy banks.

We found a turkey in the most unlikely of places.  Or maybe it was likely but we were nevertheless pleasantly surprised. When venturing far and beyond city limits we always stopped at our favourite ‘country restaurant’ for brunch or dinner or anything in between.  That day, we chose a table by the window with a view of the duck pond and the rolling green mountains and – yes you guessed it! – spotted a gobble of turkeys.

The Mr wasted no time in ordering one to the waiter’s amazement.   I hate to think we claimed for ourselves one of those tame ‘petting zoo’ types though I have a hard time imagining a turkey subjecting itself to a few childish pats on the head.

A lot has changed since then.   We noticed when we visited South Africa last year that turkey is sold in most stores.  In fact I got the distinct impression that more people were celebrating their own version of Thanksgiving which makes my heart smile.

To my Canadian friends Happy Thanksgiving! and if you live in a country where they don’t recognize Thanksgiving as a holiday don’t let that stop you from celebrating the harvest and the many blessings in your life ❤

Trail Magic

This past weekend the Mr and I went adventuring in new terrain.  Mt Seymour is covered in forest and has as many as forty trails that are popular all year round.

Once you reach the top you find yourself gazing on the magnificent Mt Baker in Washington State.  My cellphone camera did not do it justice but I wanted to share something of the view with you.  I hope you like it as much as I do 🙂

Mt Baker

We reached the top via a series of dedicated and winding trails and if you’re ever in this part of the world I highly recommend you visit the North Shore mountains which are part of the Cascades Range.   We weren’t long on Old Buck trail when we came across scraps of cloth tied to a single tree trunk.  What made this particularly interesting was that this ‘marker’ (if indeed it is a marker) is bright and colourful.  There is purple, red and white cloth and for some reason I felt that it was somehow symbolic but of what?  Did it have something to do with tree identification? or did someone fall here or worse?

Mr. was having none of my ‘theorizing’ and so I wasn’t allowed to linger but no worries…I know why I walk in the woods.  It’s for the vital stimulation of my imaginative membrane and not as the Mr. says for ‘peace and quiet’.

A little further along I spotted a purple cloak hanging from a low branch of a tree a short distance from the trail.  It was hanging in such a way that if you are not observant as opposed to attentive you would have walked past it with nary a care. This purple cloak is like one of those velvety cloaks worn by magicians or wizards or deathly-afraid-of-the-cold unicorns. Yes, I know.  You’re thinking I am making this up.  I’m not.  if you haven’t already, read earlier posts to see how I am confronted with intrigue at almost every turn.

I want to add here that I despise litterbugs and that for the most part hikers in our part of the world are decent human beings with a respect for the environment, so it probably goes without saying that I don’t like finding items of clothing (or condoms and beer cans).

Pointing to the tree from which hung The Offending Article, I asked the Mr if he thought Harry Potter was visiting.

“What?”

“Harry Potter? There’s a cape hanging from that tree.” I said pointing.

On seeing the cape Mr. shook his head.

‘Let’s keep moving.”

“Why? you scared of magic?” I think I pulled one of those ‘you’re- a- scaredy-cat – and- I’m -going-to-blog-about-it’ faces.

Mr felt the need to remind that he has ‘years’ of military experience.  Something about ‘reconnaissance’ experience in the field.

“Yeah.  Whatever.  I’m going to look at the cape.”  Off I trudged.

The cloak looks new and clean and is a mystery as is the circle of painted rocks (purple, yellow, red, blue) a few metres from the cloak.   I did take my cellphone out to take a picture but something stopped me.  Was it fear of reprisal from the faeries or a circle of wizards?

“Teenagers.”

When faced with the unknown or the inscrutable and confusing Mr. sums it up to ‘the work of teenagers’.

‘Teenagers, then.” I said, leaving the mystery behind me.creek

Do you have a theory?  I would love to hear from you.