Novelist | Singer
They brought her to the dispensary in the bed of a white pickup. A herd of men accompanied her to the door, then left her to navigate the last steps to the platform. She could’ve been anywhere between 30 and 50 – it was impossible to tell. But knowing this was her fifteen child forced me to do quick math in my head. She loosened her sarong-like wrap; simply a section of cotton cloth that all the women wore. It fell to the ground, and she stood before us stark naked.
The air was heavy, the room, dark but for the yellow glow from a kerosene lantern Marie-Jean, the mid-wife had brought along. She a huge African woman, daughter of the village chief and caterer at our wedding two months later. Her stern, solemn expression told me that this birth would not be a celebration, and guilt shot through my chest. Why was I here?
I had asked. Two weeks earlier, I had requested to attend a birth in the village where I conducted the field work for my thesis. Nagero is a scattered but tight community of about 400 people, mostly living in the bush, defending their crops every day during the growing season from marauding protected mega-species; elephants, hippos and antelope of all breeds. Now I was not sure I wanted to be here. I felt bad for the woman—although for her, this was undoubtedly a familiar procedure.
The platform was a large inclined board at an angle of 45° perched on a high table, with a perpendicular plank at the bottom of the slope on which to sit. The platform was comically dressed in a red and white striped vinyl cover, giving it a circus tent appearance. At the bottom of the slope, there was a hole about ten inches across where the plank and the platform came together, with a bucket below to catch the life-giving fluids that would issue from the woman’s body. She climbed up the steps that were affixed to the side and crawled up onto the platform, settling herself down onto the plank to wait for the baby that Marie-Jean had accurately predicted would be in “45 minutes” when she had summoned me at my house.
The pain was clear on the woman’s face, and though she must’ve been in hard labor, the only sound in the sweaty room was soft moaning. After some minutes, Marie-Jean barked at her. The woman fell silent. I was stunned.
Golden lantern light threw shadows onto the ochre wall paint mixed from native clay as night descended on central Africa. The labor intensified, and my stomach lurched and started to turn over. I escaped out to the porch for some cooler fresh air. The sounds of savanna night had begun—the impossibly loud cicadas and their electronic chorus, distant woofs of lions deep in the bush, bats squeaking through the air. The men stood quietly alongside the pickup.
“Mbote,” I offered.
“Mbote mingi,” came the answer in one voice. Very little conversation. This was a task of duty.
Back in the dispensary after I had quelled my rolling stomach, Marie-Jean was in the process of assisted birth, stretching the woman’s vagina with her hands, like someone trying to enlarge too-tight clothes. My gut stiffened. I was sure that childbirth was painful, but this looked excruciating.
How long would it be?
Within ten to fifteen minutes, the woman began to push, and like magic, a small blue-white head appeared from between her legs, crowning immediately. Of course, this was her fifteen child. The baby’s head soon popped free, a tight grimace on the tiny face. And soon, in a whoosh, the body followed. Marie-Jean expertly caught her up and cleared her nose and mouth, then hung the infant by her feet, not unlike a bartender toting two bottles of wine. With a fierce hand, she slapped the baby three times hard, I mean hard, smack on the bottom of her feet. Isn’t that a method of torture? Though I don’t remember clearly, the little girl made a sound, but it wasn’t a cry. Marie-Jean sliced the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors, like a seamstress cutting piping. Then she brought the baby to me.
The baby girl was white. Of course, she was covered in the liquid and tissue that had sheltered her life for nine months, safe inside. But she was white. The shock shuddered through my body. Shouldn’t I have known that? I guessed she wouldn’t stay that way for long. The Mongos and Logos living in this area were the blackest people I’d ever seen, so much so that photos taken on bright sunny days revealed just a black circle beneath the bill of the military hats on the heads the guards who patrolled the park.
Marie-Jean gently set the baby on a table next to the wall and turned her attention to the woman. Awe filled my body. This brand new human being newly emerged from her cocoon lay on the table, arms flung out to her sides, eyes wide with astonishment at her new surroundings. She didn’t make a sound.
I turned to see Marie-Jean receiving the placenta and after birth, which she guided through the hole and into the bucket. The woman lay still for a short time, breathing audibly, then sat up and climbed back down the steps to the floor. The two women spoke low and steadily in Lingala, mostly Marie-Jean giving direction, and the new mother answering in brief monotone sounds. She took the towel that the mid-wife offered and wiped between her legs. She gathered her clothing from the floor and wrapped it around her body. I let out a breath. Marie-Jean issued another stern order and returned to the newborn, washing her deftly in the water held in a second bucket on the table. Meanwhile, the mother carried out her assigned duty; she bent to the floor and swept up the fluids that had escaped the bucket. Then she reached up and cleaned the platform of any bloody residue. This chore was conducted not ten minutes after she had given birth.
Marie-Jean swaddled the baby in a white cloth and handed her to the new mother. I looked in her eyes and she peered silently at me, expressionless. This was an unwelcome chore that ended in another mouth to feed. She quietly exited alone just as she had come, not an hour before.
The men outside gathered around her, barely glancing at the new life in her arms. I stood mute while they helped her into the bed of the pickup alongside the other men. Marie-Jean turned to me.
“You have aspirin?”
“Of course!” I answered in shock. There was not a bottle to be seen in the dispensary. I rode the motorcycle back to my house and soon the truck appeared, headlight beams dancing madly against the trees. By the time one of the men came to my door, I had the bottle and gave him a handful of aspirin, for now, for later. They bounced away into the night.
I lay awake for hours, not believing what I had just witnessed with my own eyes. Yes, I had always wanted to attend a birth. I had never had that chance, or since. But it was not the event I had expected. There was no crying, screaming or Lamaze breathing. There were no medications, needles or instruments. There was no oxygen, running water or antiseptic. There were two women, one the mother, one the mid-wife. There was one lantern for light. There was a high, slanted platform covered with Barnum and Bailey vinyl, a bucket underneath to lessen the mess. And the loudest sound in the room; there was no joy.
I visited the family a few days later. The woman, now smiling with the infant wrapped in a sling tight against her body sat just inside the door of their mud house, sheltered by the palm thatched roof. She was cooking rice over a small fire. The baby’s skin was already darkening. I smiled and asked to see her. The mother revealed the infant’s face, but did not offer her to me to hold.
I opened my hand and held out another fistful of aspirins. She smiled and took them graciously. Atolobako interpreted her question: What was my name? I told them it was Barbara, and they looked at each other. I guess Barbara didn’t cut it.
“My middle name is Louise.”
The woman’s face broke into a wide grin. After all, we were in Francophone Africa, and they all knew the name Louise.
So to this day, there is a young woman, aged 22 in Nagero, Republic of Congo, headquarters of Garamba National Park along the banks of the Dungu River who is named after me. I think of her often and wonder if she is married, has children. I hope her life is much better than some that I saw. I fear it is not. I wonder if she is still alive.
Those Africans living in the high savanna of Zaire are the toughest people I’ve ever met. Whenever I have the chance to complain about something unfair in our country, in my life, or the lives of any of my friends or family, I think of little Louise and the way she came into the world. That memory alone is sufficient to silence my tongue.
I accompanied my old dog on a walk tonight at 1:00am. Not the best time for a walk, unless you happen to have an old dog. An old dog does exactly what they want, and will figure out how to get it. They also have the loudest mouth in the house.
She is good. She is more than good. She is one of the best beings I have ever known. She will never lie to me, because she is unable to lie. Everything that comes out of her is the exact and honest truth. And she can’t help it, because she is a dog. She will never learn to lie like her proverbial best friend, the human being.
I have nearly given up on the human race, apart from my friends, and my family. I might be simple minded, as I am from the Midwest, but I know one thing: I was raised to trust human beings and what they say. Shame on me.
She lurches one step at time down the 27 steps to the driveway, then proceeds to limp decisively up to the street. I know where she is headed. There is the stretch of sidewalk by the street. She has always gone there, and I’m sure that is where the neighborhood dogs have made their mark. Their marks are not for her. It is for them and their territory. But she is sure of the fact, that at almost 15 years old, even a dribble of urine from her failing system will trump any newcomer on the dead-end street we call home.
The reason I accompany her has nothing to do with me. There is a point in life that I hope everyone will eventually attain. That point is this is not about me. My husband tends to ignore this particular need in her life. To him, she must maintain the pecking order that he has set up in his own mind, and he pretends it exists to this day. I follow his lead, only with the knowledge that this is not true. We all know whose needs are most important.
Caring for Lila is so much like caring for my mother in her battle with Alzheimer’s. Sure, when Lila barks me awake at 4:30 in the morning, I resent her for her bossiness that will by its very nature supersede my tolerance. No one can ignore a barking dog. I launch myself from the warm bed, dress for whatever the weather is providing, and get myself out the door. Sometimes she really tries my patience. It pisses me off. She goes out on the deck, and lies herself down on the step, flipping a look up at me; knowing that I will enable her to live her life like life should be lived.
Dogs are amazing. They don’t connive, though it seems from our over enlarged brains that they do just that. Me? I tend to believe that if you fulfill the needs of a dog, you will attain the greatest reward you can imagine. That is only possible if you believe that a dog, while capable of deception, will not deceive you for their own gain. They have nothing to gain. They are simply living their life.
Sometimes I do the math, the math that speeds up at a manic pace. By my own miserable calculations, which have never been my strong suit (ask my husband – he won’t let me near the checkbook), she is over 100 years old. I never expected her to live this long. And shame on me, because sometimes I wish it would be over soon.
What good is she? She used to guard the house, the car, anything that had a connection with us. Now that she is old, she is seemingly useless in this capacity. Unless she knows more than I do, which is a distinct possibility.
Friends, family, people she knows can walk in our slider just as they please at any time of day or night, and the explosive reaction from her is history. She simply raises her head, sometimes wags her stump of a tail. I shake my head. She used to be such a good watch dog.
But perhaps, just perhaps, she knows more than I do. She is blind and nearly deaf, but her nose works better than any of our eyes and ears. She knows that everything is safe. The data I lack is the unknown. What would she do if a total stranger came through the door? My somewhat educated guess is that they would have a real situation to deal with.
She rounds the top of the driveway and heads straight toward a clump of ornamental grass growing in the front neighbor’s yard. That is stop number one. We have done this same drill hundreds of times. Then she wobbles out to Cross St., very near the traffic that could end her life in a millisecond. The traffic that she has survived for 12 years in this, her territory. Her kingdom.
She ends at the grass stretch on the road side of the neighbor’s house. It is green and lush and not yet mowed this year. She thrusts her snout deep into the grass, and I can hear her snuffles audibly from ten feet away. She is in nirvana. I envy her. I especially envy her, because I am the enabler who understands exactly what it is she needs at this twilight time of her life, and I hope that someone will know this about me when I am over 100 years old.
I hope they will take me outside and let me bury my feet in the dewy grass, thrust my face into the moist green life of the earth and wait patiently for me to finish fulfilling my needs.
I stand patiently and watch her. She moves from clump to clump of grass, snuffling in the rich smell of spring earth, not concerned with my time. She knows her time is priority, and that most of the day, she will relieve me of watch duty as she snoozes around the turn of the clock.
How long must I wait? Is it ten minutes? Fifteen? Isn’t this worth the time that I have been given to watch my old dog burying her nose into life itself?
Finally, she is done, and gives me that old dog signal. Yeah, I’m done. Let’s go home. I accompany her back to the driveway. She is panting every step of the way, and I worry. She will be gone soon. And I will have in my treasure chest, these midnight forays that made her later years worth living.
Perhaps I am simple minded. Perhaps.
“Ben, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes I am.”
“Exactly how do you mean?”
“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
Everyone past a certain age remembers that scene from The Graduate, released in 1967. I was seven years old, so I probably didn’t see the film for the next ten years or so. My parents would never have allowed it. When I recently reconnected with this scene, it struck me hard. He actually said, “There’s a great future in plastics.” He was right. We have already arrived at our great plastic future. There is plastic everywhere. And consumption is maniacal.
If I think hard, I can almost remember what life was like back then. We didn’t own much, didn’t buy much other than food or a few sets of clothing for the school year. Other than a couple of dresses (Easter and maybe something I could wear at Christmas) and some skirts, most of my clothes were from my two older brothers. Yes, hand-me-downs from male siblings, but fashion didn’t play a part in our childhood. Our clothes simply covered our bodies and kept us warm in the winter. We played outside with toys made by my dad or recycled from cousins or neighbors. We explored in the woods or at the nearby reservoir. It was a great way to grow up, almost free from adult supervision. Free to explore our world on foot or by bicycle. Oh, yes, and the bicycles were not new. They were also recycled hand-me-downs. The great thing was we didn’t feel poor or unprivileged. People pretty much lived the same. Possessions lasted a lifetime. I still own tools that my father had from before I was born.
Fast forward fifty years, and we now live in a high-speed world with frantic over-consumption, excessive garage disposal, overwhelmed workers, and environmental threats that exceed our mental ability to process them. Within my lifetime, we have gone from simple life with basic necessities to a society so excessive in production and consumption that it is literally choking our natural world.
Do a small experiment. Wherever you are at this moment, turn slowly in a circle and identify the plastic around you. In my home, this is a quick exercise, as I don’t have plastic items in many places, except for maybe my kitchen. Plastic is ubiquitous in the kitchen: the clock, utensils, appliances, containers, garbage bags, cutting boards. Then take a ride around the streets in your car and try the same experiment. Every couple of seconds, you will pass something made of plastic: signs, wire housing, fences, siding, car trim and bumpers, trash along the street. We are literally surrounded by plastic. And plastic is a wonderful thing; it lasts a long time, is not subject to decay like rust or rot, and withstands weathering effectively. We all use it. We all buy it. We all throw it away, or it blows away until it finds a resting place, by default, our ocean. We know there is a problem in our oceans, but recently, I have come across reports about plastic in our water. Not our ocean water—our drinking water.
By now, all of us are aware of the huge plastic patches in our oceans. The Pacific plastic “patch” (a misnomer, as it is not necessarily composed of visible pieces of plastic, but rather a plastic “soup” of microfibers) is estimated to be between the size of Texas and Russia. Though this is concerning, is way over there where none of us can see it. But the terrifying statistic involves invisible plastics in our drinking water. Evidently, 85% of tap water and 75% of bottled water contains plastic microfibers. Scientists have also discovered that when plastics dry in the sun, they shed microfibers small enough to be borne in the air and inhaled; small enough to fall to the earth in rain. We are literally ingesting plastic. Plastics that contain toxic substances. And when it enters our bodies, what happens? Do the microfibers stick to the alveoli in our lungs? Does it pass through our bodies or get stuck somewhere? I’m pretty freaked out about this. Shouldn’t everyone be? We can no longer ignore the results of our consumption and disposal.
So many of our environmental issues are out-of-sight, out-of-mind. We can carry out our daily lives without witnessing disposal problems. We separate our trash and set it out on the curb. In the morning, it is magically gone; something we don’t think about again. We don’t think about its ultimate fate; where it goes or what happens to it when it gets there.
Ideally, we separate paper, bottles and cans, rinsing them out carefully to make sure they don’t contaminate the rest of the load. I was shocked to read that ¼ of easterners do not recycle because it’s too much work. Funny. I’ve never noticed the “work” involved in recycling. You simply put the glass, plastic and paper in one container and the trash in another. I can understand to a certain degree not recycling if it is not available to you, like life in the south. But for us who have this free service–everyone should be willing to participate. Surprisingly, the Echo Boomers (age 18 – 30) are some of the worst offenders. One in three don’t recycle at all. In total, 23% of Americans do not recycle. That’s a lot—a lot of garbage that simply goes into the ground.
Add to this the other waste disposal method—composting. In our kitchen, scraps go into a container on the counter which gets transferred into the tumbler in the backyard, eventually becoming soil that goes back into the garden. I feel good about this; that I am doing my part to reduce the waste that comes from our moderate life style. It can be involved and physically demanding, but laissez-faire composters (me, for example) also have the option of simply dumping the scraps in the pile and throwing a shovelful of dirt over the top. Our resident microbes take care of the rest. The miracle that happens requires some delayed gratification, but oh what a prize at the end! And it’s free fertilizer to boot.
And yet food waste accounts for almost 15% of our garbage headed for the landfill according to the EPA. Organic materials produce methane in anaerobic conditions (our landfills), which is then release into our environment. Never mind that methane is a greenhouse gas with more warming potential than CO2, but those who have ever lived near a farm know that methane is not something you want to breathe. Maybe people don’t know how to compost, or maybe are afraid of attracting garbage raiding pests, but there are ways around it. I’ve finally foiled the rats who used to come over from the marsh.
Human beings are clearly the problem, but we can be the solution as well. With responsible disposal, the garbage flow could be slowed substantially. But how does one escape plastic in our world? We must start packaging goods in paper or some other biodegradable material. We must choose another option than a great future in plastics.
Today, amid the busyness that is a normal job in a normal life, I escaped from my head long enough to remind
myself how really good life is, and how we are given guardians and f
riends when we most need them.
It is January, and the time of year that I most think of my friend Atolobako Vukoyo of Nagero, Zaire.
How old would he be now? 52? 53? I try to imagine him at that age, but can only conjure the young face he had when I was living in Africa. He was my assistant in Garamba National Park in 1993 and 1995 when I was doing my Master’s field work. That was before the military coup, before the civil war that left the already crippled country in tatters. A time when Zaire existed in relative peace.
Garamba was established in 1938 for the protection of the northern white rhinoceros and along with it, many other African megafauna. Atolobako and others who guard protected animals take that responsibility much the same way as soldiers who go to war. They carry AK-47s and patrol in the brutal African sun through twelve foot grass, at any time potentially stumbling onto buffalo, elephants or even a pride of lions. Worse yet, they could encounter a camp of poachers also armed with AK-47s, or any hand-made firearm they can concoct from discarded pipe and wire. Poachers are often friends or neighbors, complicating an already dire political and economic situation. A dead poacher is also worth a ten dollar bonus; equivalent to a month’s salary (in the mid-90s).
Atolobako was a very special man. We met on an excursion into the park to retrieve a rhinoceros collar that had been rubbed off in a mud hole. Rhinos were collared for research and protection measures. His first words to me were a warning of crocodiles in the Dungu River that forms the southern border of Garamba. It was almost dusk and we were summoning the “bac” (French for pontoon), a little home-made ferry that had to be pulled by hand across the river. An old junk truck wheel and a hunk of metal hung askew on a decapitated tree nearby. They served as the calling card for the bac. No matter what time of day or night, the clanging of the wheel brought people to the other side, where they would wait until enough gathered to pull the bac across the river to our side. As this took a while, I had jumped from the truck bed and was walking toward the river bank.
I don’t remember in what language he spoke, but I’m certain it wasn’t English. It might have been a mix of French and Lingala, but I knew exactly what he was saying, and I listened. Atolobako didn’t speak English when I met him. We never really shared a language, but communicated perfectly. Already at our first encounter, he was looking out for me.
That was September of 1993. I was a volunteer at the park, setting up a project for my Master’s study. Over the next several months, we became acquainted, and as I began my field research, he was suddenly my assistant, almost without being assigned. He started speaking English without any encouragement, picking up the sounds that he heard mostly from me. Everyone there spoke either French or Lingala, or a strange mixture of both. I spoke what I could of both languages, but being proficient in neither, I defaulted to English for lack of any other words. Atolobako remembered and repeated, without a book or lessons, and within weeks, was speaking passible English. It was amazing.
We spent a lot of time together, 6 days a week, 6 or 7 hours a day. It didn’t occur to me until much later that although he was there as a liaison between the farmers and me, he accompanied me primarily as my protector. While we were usually near some habitation and not deep in the bush, there was always the chance of running into any kind of animal, even during the day. He generally did not carry a weapon, but at times when we went far afield, he packed his AK-47. It became quite natural to walk through the African bush with this black camo-clad man bearing an assault rifle. We talked a lot in our rounds through the farms and adjacent bush bordering Garamba. Farms planted and harvested by hand; large fields of millet, rice and cassava which by necessity were guarded day and night by subsistence farmers from marauding wildlife. Elephants, monkeys, duikers and hippos mowed down the farmers’ hard-earned yields in a few midnight snacks that could devastate whole properties in the course of one night. Those who had been forced to move far away from the river forming the border of the park were in better shape than the ones who dared to stay within a mile. Everyone suffered from the destruction of the charismatic megafauna protected by conservation.
Atolobako was always helpful, always there for me. He was a good worker and never complained. Every morning he joined the daily run with the guards to the intersection with the main road and back, a distance of several miles, dressed in boots and fatigues. We always heard the cadence penetrating the foggy tropical air before we saw the runners, complete with intricate rhythms and harmonies and sung in that musical language of Lingala.
I was lucky enough to accompany the crew of four men including Atolobako into Garamba to complete vegetation transects, part of the field study for the rhino project. I had a rip-stop nylon tent and polyester sleeping bag, among my other western camping gear. The boys had blankets and canvas pup tents that were right out of Beetle Bailey, with the open ends, vertical poles to the peak, and guy lines to peg them tight. One night we stayed near water that supported a population of hippos. After dinner as we sat by the fire, the hippos would approach the yellow circle of light, their massive eyes shining like two dinner plates out of the black night. It was scary, to say the least. Every once in a while, one of the boys would jump up and yell to scare off the hippos, who would bolt away to howls of laughter. There’s really no fun like spooking hippos on a Friday night. The men’s teeth shown like beacons in the firelight, but the rest of their faces were masked from view. I must’ve looked like a ghost to their eyes.
One full-moon night I brought out my binoculars. Nights in Africa were incredibly dark. We were hundreds of miles away from any source of artificial light. Atolobako and I sat side by side near the fire and shared the glasses. He gasped as he viewed the moon for the first time “close-up.” I will never forget that night.
Another vivid memory involved the breakdown of the dirt bike we were riding at the far reaches of the village. We took turns kicking and kicking the starter, and in the waning twilight, finally abandoned the bike and started walking the 4 four kilometers back home. The baritone woofs of lions were often heard in the moist stillness of the bush, and I was plenty nervous without a flashlight or any kind of weapon – not that it would’ve done much good. Maybe Atolobako felt my nervousness. Maybe he was simply done with work for the day. He started teaching me the song, “Biso to uti na Nagero.” It was a local song that tells of someone returning to Nagero after a long absence. Atolo had a beautiful voice, a baritone resonance that would be the envy of any singer. When my husband and I got married there in the village on December 3, 1995, he led a group of guards in a lively Lingala song to honor our union. Those and many, many more memories remain from my time in Africa, and the most present are of Atolobako Vukoyo, my friend who gave his life for the wildlife in his world.
Atolobako was captured by Sudanese rebels on January 16, 2009. His body was found three days later.
I know he had a wife and children. The community is strong and will help them because they have to. They are accustomed to hard living. In Nagero, there is no other choice.
I think of him often, of the impact he had on my life; the safety he provided, the songs he taught me, the example he set for his people. But particularly at this time of year, he lives in my thoughts, and I am reminded of how good our lives are in these United States.
My dear friend Jeni Mitchell had this posted on Facebook a while back, and I just discovered it hiding in my files. All great words of wisdom that she certainly lives by. Thank you for this Jeni!
Live beneath your means. Return everything you borrow. Stop blaming other people. Admit it when you make a mistake. Give clothes not worn to charity. Do something nice and try not to get caught. Listen more; talk less. Every day take a 30-minute walk. Strive for excellence, not perfection. Be on time. Don’t make excuses. Don’t argue. Get organized. Be kind to people. Be kind to unkind people. Let someone cut ahead of you in line. Take time to be alone. Cultivate good manners. Be humble. Realize and accept that life isn’t fair. Know when to keep your mouth shut. Go an entire day without criticizing anyone. Learn from the past. Plan for the future. Live in the present. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.
Here we are at Winter’s Door once again. Little surprises like an extreme temperature plunge are certainties. The earth itself has cooled, having slowly given up its summer radiant heat through long chilly nights. The ocean surrounding our Gloucester island home is chilling as well, though it’s still acting as a blanket to insulate us from the more frigid temps.
Grey envelopes our skies, our excursions to the outdoors, our thoughts and even our dreams in winter. The magical angle of the winter sun brings a golden haze, casting long skinny shadows even at noon. The sunshine is hot in the lee from the perpetual north wind, but this is still the season of the blues. No wonder we have holidays and celebrations sprinkled throughout the dive toward winter. This cooling down period allows us the perfect environment for self-reflection and examination. We begin to reminisce about the year even though we are not yet at its end. Holidays loom ahead with their own brand of built-in stress. Thank goodness for the internet, which rescues me from crowded stores that make me want to flee for the exits. Though “winter” won’t arrive yet until after the New Year with the snow and icy wind, the long slide through fall into the holiday season provides plenty of prep time to adjust to the big chill of our island.
Among the holiday celebrations we cram into our calendars, one of the most significant is the Winter Solstice. In our modern “connected” existence, we are sheltered from the harsh reality that terrified northern residents years ago, when light, warmth and its benevolent growing season dictated their very lives. Several years ago, I started a program to celebrate the solstice and its ancient significance at Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, MA. Though this is done in my role as the coordinator of programming for Massachusetts State Parks, it primarily fills a primordial desire for the return of warm weather, green plants and life-giving sunshine. At this stage in our human evolution on Planet Earth, winter is a mere inconvenience for many northern residents. For those living at a subsistence level hundreds of years ago, winter was a frightening time, and warm weather and a growing season was paramount to their survival. One failed crop season could mean the end of their existence. Winter was dark, cold and barren.
Even thousands of years ago, the winter solstice was certainly well known as the shortest day of the year, and became a major celebration in northern climes. Following is a list of some of them, though undoubtedly, there are many more:
In acknowledgement of the sun’s return, the men carted large logs home. These became known as Yule logs. One end of these logs was set afire, and people would feast until the log burned out, sometimes taking as many as 12 days.
Impressive monuments have been erected principally for the sunrise or sunset on the winter solstice, among them Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, colossal structures requiring exacting measurements and years of work.
Amazing that all these myriad festivals, celebrations and landmarks arose independently around our earth, all in recognition of the same day. Some believe that the timing of Christmas actually began with the celebration of the winter solstice. So where does that leave us in our modern technologically-driven existence, replete with central heat, supermarkets bursting with food, water at the turn of a handle, cars with heated seats and electric lights operated by voice-activated Alexa?
Perhaps with an empty feeling. What a missed opportunity for our own spirituality. Some people are not conscious of the solstice passing, though it is announced by The Weather Channel, news and radio stations. We don’t greet each other with “Happy Solstice” like we do Christmas, New Year’s and even St. Patty’s Day.
Certainly, the solstice does not mark the sudden return of anything. Rather, we are just heading into the worst part of winter, awaiting bone-chilling wind and snow storms for the next two months. Though each day brings increasing daylight, it is barely noticeable until about the middle of January, at which time we are buried in full-on winter weather, and full days with no sun at all. Day length near the solstice increases by mere seconds, hence the meaning of the word “solstice” – or, the sun stands still. By March, day length increases by almost 3 minutes, a very noticeable difference. So is there really any cause for celebration on December 21 after all?
I think so. Ritual celebration is sadly absent from our society in general.
Our ancestors recognized the significance of the winter solstice as far back as 10,000 B.C., in the Neolithic period (the new stone age, when farming first originated), making the Winter Solstice celebration one of the oldest on Earth. Unfamiliarity with the solstice’s significance is fairly recent in human history. Despite our conveniences and protection from winter, we still owe our survival to the ability to grow plants which in turn feed every organism on earth.
This writer will celebrate the winter solstice and the return of life-giving light every year. It is the humble recognition of our vulnerability to the elements, the honor of our resilient ancestors, out-lasting winter in less fortunate living conditions, and certainly owning the awareness of what truly sustains our existence.
It is a celebratory, happy day. It is the recognition of the return of life-sustaining light. It is the end of our plunge into increasing darkness. Ancient peoples devoted entire days and even weeks to its significance. In 2017, it deserves at least one day.
Barbara Buls Boudreau will be hosting a public Winter Solstice Celebration on December 21 from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. at the CCC pavilion located on Middleton Rd. in Harold Parker State Forest, North Andover, MA. Come share the fire, drink a cup of hot chocolate, and share the mystery of one of our oldest celebrations on Earth.
Her eyes are the first thing I see as I pad out from the bedroom in the morning. The frosted lenses follo
w me, so I know she sees something, but I’m never sure how much. Cataracts have overtaken the brown of her retinas – leaving shadowy gray discs. Sometimes I can even get all the way into the kitchen before my movement wakens her. She sleeps much more deeply than before, which was not deep at all. In those days, she could go from snoring to running and barking in a split second. She is my good girl.
Her ears perk as I make the coffee and tuck the cups from last night into the dishwasher. As usual, she has placed herself right in the middle of my path, so I have to coax her to move out of the way before dad wakes up and roars at her. It’s funny – she doesn’t mind it a bit, just drops those ears a hair, does what he says, and then it’s over. I move her mostly so I don’t have to hear it. But I caught him talking gently to her on regular occasions. We both know that she is getting old.
Now her timer is running. If I don’t feed her within a couple of minutes, I’ll hear it. She is accustomed to being a priority and will remind me if I forget or neglect any step of our morning routine. Sometimes she starts soft, yet urgently – a bark that can be heard from the living room into the kitchen. If she is in a feisty mood, however, she’ll skip the intro and commence with a full-on bark – that sharp penetrating Aussie yap that makes sheep sit up and notice. That bark can be heard from the other side of town. It will wake Al up, and I don’t want the morning to go that way, so I give into the demands of the oldest member of our family, my 14-year-old Aussie shepherd Lila.
I grab a fistful of kibble from the canister with the leopard spots and drop it into her bowl. She loves that sound. Now she is up and standing at the entrance to the galley kitchen, the stub of her tail sending vibrations throughout her entire body. Her nose angles higher and just the black rubberish end twitches. How is it possible that she can actually smell the brown, non-descript tablets of chow? They don’t smell much like anything even if I put my nose right above the bowl. Nothing I’d like to eat anyway. She does her 30 second slurp of breakfast and lies down to lick her chops. Now she’ll be fine for the next twenty minutes or so until she decides it’s time for her pills. Two glucosamine chondroitin for her arthritic joints, one Rimydyl for the pain, and one fish oil for general health and a shiny coat. She eats them all with zeal. She started eating the glucosamine when I was gone last winter and she was staying with a friend. Jennifer thought maybe it was her way of protecting HER pills from the other dog in the house. It’s so much easier than the messy peanut butter routine.
After her pills, she’ll hobble to the slider where she awaits release for her morning stroll. For twelve years, she has made the trip down those twenty seven stairs, taken her solo neighborhood expedition, then back up the twenty seven to bark at the screen door for admittance. I’ve always been a bit nervous about her daily neighborhood route, but unable to put a stop to it.
What if she gets hits by a car? What if she runs into some wild animal? What if she gets hold of something nasty, or something poisonous? Over 4,000 times she has made the trip without incident, so odds are in her favor.
Those excursions occupied a wider circle when she was young. Twice she cost me beers at Pratty’s when she found her way down there looking for the hotdogs Cousin Tony used to give her late at night when we stopped in after gigs. “Do you have a dog named Lila?” is a heart-stopping opening from an unknown caller. Perhaps I was negligent. But she has enjoyed a freedom most pets do not, and she deserves freedom, after her punishing first two years inside a crate. That was before she came to us.
I know it’s not over yet, but Lila is nearing the end of her life. Every day becomes a reminder that she is indeed still vital; barking, pooping, sniffing—everything a dog does when she is still full of life. But before she goes outside I find myself helping her more every day as I dress her in her new vest with a handle for boosting, and I can feel that the grieving process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) has already begun. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be caught in the depression stage. There are many days when one look at her will bring tears to my eyes.
What is she thinking? Does she know she is getting old? Does she wonder? Can she feel herself failing? Does she question her fate—why was I able to run before and now I can barely walk?
Dread fills at least a spot of every day as I witness yet another symptom of her advanced years, the hitch in the step, the labored attempts to stand, the increase in water intake. I am not ready to lose her, and wonder if I will be when that time comes. Possibly, I am anticipating the weight of responsibility for being the one responsible for ending her life. How many times have you heard, “Why can’t we do that for people?”
What??? How could we ever bear that responsibility, although with our advanced language skills don’t we make detailed wishes heard? We can ask for the end as a dog cannot. What will I base it on? Certainly pain will drive my actions. I won’t be able to bear seeing her in pain. She is my good girl.
There are things a dog fulfills that I have never experienced from another human being. There is a look unique to a dog, and one that wrenches my heart from my chest. Oh, yes, we look into the eyes of our lovers, spouses, children and even best friends, but the look that a dog delivers is somehow deeper, more meaningful and more trusting. That one look says,
“Do you know my life is dedicated to your safety, that I would gladly give mine for yours?”
“Do you know that I put myself in the way to ensure I will wake and be vigilant whenever you make a move?”
“Do you know that life has no meaning for me without you in it?”
“Do you know I love you more than anything in the world?”
The look is profound and endless. She stares right into my eyes with an all-knowing power of connectivity. There is no embarrassment, no hesitation. It is complete, unfathomable and soul-filling. It is the sweet meat next to the bone. It is the meaning of life itself.
In the past, I think maybe she was not aware of the impact of her gaze. At those times, she smiled and did her frenzied tail dance, butt tucked in, bumping into my leg intentionally. Maybe she is just joking about the gaze. “That’s OK Mom, just blanked out for a second – sorry I was staring at you.”
But now that she is old, the gaze is prolonged and intent, and happens more often. It is clear that she is conveying thoughts; telling me her story. And we both know her story. Where she was born, what she endured in a crate for two years with a shock collar cinched around her neck.
I can hear her saying, “I am here, you are here. Everything is just fine.”
She is not worried. She is my good girl, and though her faculties are impaired, her spirit remains vigilant. And so must I.
In our time remaining, I will find a way to embrace her old age; to ignore the “old” in her and focus on wisdom, trust and steadfastness. I will talk to her and also listen; to her words and her glances until her cloudy eyes no longer see. The ego that often dictates human action cannot derail the remainder of our journey together. And however it goes, we have had a great run.
I was recently in the Bahamas to escape at least part of the winter. I don’t mind winter, just the length of it, so even a bit of away is a bonus. We sail and fish, and I spend a great deal of time just sitting and looking and pondering the amazing world in which we live. During this trip, the incredible mangrove caught my attention.
Mangrove forest is both tough and tender – strong enough to survive hurricane winds, yet gentle enough to nurture the babies who feed the world.
They are some spooky snorkeling, and not much to see until you slow down and really look. Millions of silver baby fish wiggle by in orderly schools, not a bit scared; just looking. The ghostly roots and branches provided excellent cover as their algae–draped limbs snake down through the shallow water to anchor deeply into the mucky substrate—deep enough to endure wind over 100 miles per hour and the waves driven by such wind. It is little wonder that the mangrove has been chosen by nature to guard its most vulnerable young ones.
Another testament to its toughness is its mindboggling ability to live in salt water, a deadly environment for most life. Mangroves put up more carbon than their inland forest counterparts. Their soils are constantly waterlogged, they filter salt out with their miraculous roots, just sipping less than a third of their temperate counterparts.
The picture is equally as impressive as trees that grow on high, frosty mountain slopes or rugged, hot wind-swept plains. The resilience of our fringe environment vegetation puts the vulnerability of Homo sapiens to shame. We northern hemisphere residents are even unable to drink water from natural sources without boiling and filtering first. Oh, boy, are we in for trouble when the lights go out. Mother Nature is by far the most selective force on the planet, and she occasionally puts on a demonstration just to show who’s boss. Do we listen? Some do.
Those living in close contact with nature generally step back and let Mother do her thing. Others regret their ill-conceived decisions: driving in a blizzard (on round wheels, no less!), chasing tornadoes or hanging around for the hurricane party. Meteorologists talk about the wind speeds, which are a substantial force. More powerful yet is the water driven by the wind; storm surge, terrifying waves, with power enough to destroy bridges, concrete foundations and transport tons of sand out to sea. But not our humble mangroves standing guard over the babies. Their waxy leaves may be stripped temporarily, but these are by design expendable and will grow back after a storm. The hundreds of twisted roots anchored deeply into earth and their beautiful above-ground counterparts hold fast through tempest and blasting heat waves, eventually releasing their fishy guardians to the world as a reliable seemingly never-ending food supply.
And yet, when coastal development takes place, those are the first plants to go – those ugly mangroves. With one fell swoop of a heavy machine, not only is all the future food supply gone, but the wind and wave protection as well.
Wahhhhhh????? In their place, we import plants that won’t survive unless we water them – never mind when the sky turns black and the water rises. The story doesn’t end there. Many human decisions are ego-centrically (though not intentionally) opposed to nature and financially lucrative for the inventor.
Chemical solutions for everything from high blood pressure to bugs on vegetative monoculture we call “food,” these things that will eventually poison us. The whole myth of “low-fat” and manufactured foods being better for us than butter and animal products. Bottle-feeding rather than nursing our own babies are just a couple of examples of how far astray we allow ourselves to be taken. Homo sapiens; the strangest creature on earth in defiance of Mother Nature. Few comedies are cleverer.
Thankfully, certain factions among our kind have the wisdom and foresight to preserve the very things that save us from the destructive power of nature. We have protected marsh and forest. We’re getting better at seeing where we have gone wrong. Among these discoveries, The Everglades in Florida is now up front and center in recent news. And though much of the Everglades is grassland, the entire western edge of it is—guess what—mangroves. The nursery and guardian of our baby fish and shoreline.
There are loads of sources on-line that tell the natural history and ecological story of the mangrove. Like our northern marshes, mangroves are the glue that holds the southern environment together. It’s worth a read.
Upon our return from the winter get-away, what a greeting I discovered in our mail pile. An a bubble-wrapped copy of “Garamba – Conservation in Peace & War,” a coffee-table book from Dr. Kes Hillman-Smith, the woman who acted as my “boss?” “advisor?” when I was doing my Master’s field work in Zaire in ’93 and ’95. After I left Africa, Kes contacted me about writing a chapter for the Garamba book on the research focus of my Master’s thesis, and of course, I said yes. It’s been a long time coming – more than 15 years, I think, and now I have the book in my hands. It is much more book than I expected! They are $187.00 on Amazon!
I am so fortunate as a contributing author to have been sent a copy. I realize that this is not something that people would just click and purchase because they are loyal friends, but wanted to add it to my network anyway. You should see the book. It is GORGEOUS. Considering the fact that conservation projects in places like Africa are always starving for funding, I hope they sell thousands of them. Whatever the case, it is a product worthy of the fantastic story of Garamba National Park and all of those who gave their talents and some much more for the preservation of fabulous wild land and irreplaceable creatures. Africa always sounds so exotic and fabulous (which it is), but living there, particularly for the native people is exhausting and labor-intensive. In many places, water must be carried home every day from one well. That is just one example of the difficulty of everyday life.
Though I have been published on other platforms (newspapers, magazines and journals), this is perhaps the one which makes me most proud. This is due in part to its dedication to my African assistant, Atolobako Vukoyo who gave his life to protect the wildlife in his world. Kes also added a beautiful photo of Atolobako (pictured) from those days, a handsome young park guard who served as my guide and protector in the African bush. We endured many blistering hot days together in the hand-planted agricultural fields of Nagero Park headquarters, struggling with a creative mix of English, French and Lingala, but were always able to communicate the most abstract of ideas. He hovered over me when I got too close to the banks of the Dungu River and its 15 foot crocodiles. He looked after me as if it were his sole responsibility to make sure I made it out of Africa in one piece, and perhaps it was.
I wish I could show you all the book (which echoes the stunning cover) – it represents the culmination of a very worthy project that ended prematurely due to political unrest. I often think about Garamba and all the people still living there, the constant failures of conservation as poaching rides on the coattails of political unrest. All of it can be overwhelming. It is heart-warming to see such a beautiful product of story interpretation arise from all the struggle.
When I checked the last blog I wrote, the date on the file was two months ago. Good Lord, how could this happen? I’m a writer.
It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been doing LOTS of writing; emails, emails, emails and emails. They do count, don’t they? I’m also sure to make appropriate edits and spell checks. And I have an exhibit project in motion at one of my major parks, which means intricate writing—slow, meticulous “no word but the right word” kind of writing.
No wonder I’ve been so jumpy. I’m testy and tired and bumping into walls – literally. The straw that broke the llama’s back (I prefer them to camels—they’re not quite so cliché) was Sunday morning. I yearned for my T’ai Chi like a dog pants for water. When I arrived, the class was in full swing and serenely parting the horse’s mane. What? What had happened? Turns out that I had indeed been sent an email about the time change to a half hour earlier. I had read it, and weighed in – yes, that would work for me as well. I had no recollection of that email until I walked through the door.
The tardiness at T’ai Chi was just that particular final straw. T’ai Chi is my anchor; the practice that keeps me tethered to Earth. I finished up the abbreviated class and jumped in my car, tears fat on my bottom lids. At home, I broke down and sobbed on my husband’s shoulder. He was perplexed. I wasn’t one to cry about something so minor – in fact, I hardly ever cry except in the case of major crisis or a particularly poignant movie. But things had come to a head. Life was just too busy and I had lost control.
Most of the rest of that day was a little dreary and slow, but being a problem solver, I had to erase my pout.
I set about exploring what had brought this on. My active curiosity tends to push me over the edge on a runaway train of constant busyness, along with the expectation of heaven resulting from doing the right thing and serving a fellow human-being. We learned that as little kids in Sunday school.
It has been a rough summer at work. I supervise eleven seasonal interpreters who present natural, cultural and historic programs for the public, and it can get intense. If I had to choose a tough season, I would say summer every time. Not only are the days mercifully long and warm, but there’s just oh so much to do and experience. I have to live in the north just so I won’t burn myself out. I’d last about two years in a warm place, and would eventually be discovered face-down in the lapping waves on the beach.
Clearly, if this is happening to me, I’m either causing it or allowing it to happen. Self-reflection includes swallowing some interesting admissions. And it’s so difficult to let go. Life has so many choices – too many for me. I’m lucky that regular TV doesn’t appeal to me or I would explode from overstimulation. It can make for some pretty embarrassing conversation. I’ll bet I’m the only person in the country who hasn’t seen Game of Thrones.
As I calmed my racing mind, I stood for a bit in the middle of the living room, frozen in space – unable to make a move for fear it might be the wrong one. There were a million things to do – things that I had on my many lists and had left undone. Things that plagued me with guilt. Things that I know realistically would remain undone because I don’t like doing them.
I took a deep breath, released the T’ai Chi interruptus and began to visualize what I would most prefer to do at this point in time. Writing would be a great idea, except in this frame of mind, I would write myself into circles, and I didn’t want to have to straighten it out at some future date. Visualize and breathe. Visualize and breathe.
Make something. Creation with the hands. Tactile stimulation that is logical but requires very little thinking beyond modest geometry and entailing no measurements. Something simple, and square.
Once I glommed onto it, my spirit peeked around my ego; I caught my breath and straightened my spine. Down in the bottom of a drawer, I found three beautiful pieces of material that I had had for a couple of years, planning eventually to make pillow shams. Boring? A little, but this was good material of three different patterns. And, a square pattern. Perfect.
I dedicated the remainder of the day to creating my pillow shams. As I gently smoothed the cloth with my hands, measured, cut and inserted pins, I could feel the quietude of creative invention envelope my consciousness and calm my mind. By the time I had broken the last of my sewing machine needles (gotta get that Kenmore serviced), I was in much better spirits. My new outlook felt like a warm Snuggie and actually allowed me to think.
Full engagement in life is a true blessing. Being run by life’s chores is not. Especially now, with social media and digital everything, having access to your entire network at any moment can be overwhelming for a small town girl raised in simpler, slower times. I will always be busy because there are so many options in our world today; compelling adventures, interesting pursuits, great books and fun projects. But you know what they say, “You can’t do it all.”
The answer? To learn to say no and let a few go. That’s hard—especially when you believe in what you are doing every day.
Another solution is to tap into the healing power of creativity. The spirit feeds off creativity. Turns out there is a connection between the size of dopamine-rich regions of the brain and creativity. No wonder it worked so well on my truncated T’ai Chi day.
Life will never become slow and sedentary under my roof. I will always have a to-do list of uncompleted tasks and loads of percolating ideas that may or may not take root. But life is good, and I enjoy my incredibly busy job. It also allows for creativity. Let’s face it—creativity is the essence of life.