Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Africans meet Afrophiles at the Treehouse

When I told Vaki we’re Afrophiles, he said he’d never heard that word. For years I’ve loved the writing of African-American writers. Years ago I took a course at UVM in African culture and even learned a few phrases in Swahili. A writer friend wrote a beautiful novel called The Hissing Tree about a girl growing up in Rhodesia and her fascination with Zulu warriors. My stepson Will has been to Ghana several times, and his best friend married a Ghanaian woman. I’ve never been to Africa, but it claims the first humans and its cultural and geographical diversity entice me.

Vaki brought Africa to Fern Forest. He wanted to do something special for his wife Laurel, and a night in a treehouse was just the thing. Laurel is tiny and sprightly and reached out to us with gregarious warmth. Vaki is imposing. He stands a few inches taller than H, who is well over six feet. He has dark wooly hair and a wooly beard, but his smile lights up a room. The youngest of eleven children, Vaki was born in New York City after his father moved the family from Zimbabwe. In the 1960s Vaki’s dad led the Zimbabwe African National Union whose aim was to overthrow Rhodesia’s white ruling party, and he hired a young activist named Mugabe as Secretary General of the organization. When war broke out, Vaki’s father left Africa and Mugabe was taken into custody and held as a political prisoner in Rhodesia for ten years.

In 1979, when Vaki was born, the war was coming to an end. Mugabe had been released from prison and was hailed as a hero for many Africans. He was elected Prime Minister the following year and called for reconciliation between white Rhodesians and rival political groups. Vaki’s father eventually went back to Zimbabwe, but Vaki moved to San Diego, where he met Laurel.

Vaki missed his sisters, who lived in D.C., so he and Laurel moved back across the country. Laurel runs a B&B in D.C.’s Adams Morgan area, and Vaki works for an architecture firm, doing sustainable design for schools and businesses. In his off time sings lead with Honeyguns, a rock group described as a cross between Led Zepplin and Otis Redding. Their visit to the treehouse was a part of the celebration of Laurel’s thirtieth birthday and their second wedding anniversary.

In the last ten years, the Mugabe-led government has undertaken a land reform program to correct the inequitable land distribution created by colonial rule. Mugabe's policies have been harshly criticized by British and American governments for often violent seizure of land owned by white Rhodesians. The economy of Zimbabwe has suffered as a result, and a million and a half Zimbabweans have migrated to South Africa to find jobs.

Chalk it up to irony that the very next Fern Forest guest is from South Africa. Lexi came with her Swedish boyfriend, Otto, a software engineer in New York City. Lexi works in marketing for hair care products but hopes to enroll in a doctoral program to focus on literature or cultural studies. She was born in South Africa, but when she was a toddler her parents moved to the U.S. to escape growing violence. She has been back to Johannesburg a few times and tells about homes surrounded by high fences topped with coils of barbed wire. Theft is commonplace, both in the markets and in homes. People who can afford it hire bodyguards. When I asked if the crimes are racially motivated, she said they are economically motivated. More and more people are homeless and out of work, and the government can’t keep track of immigrants who enter the country illegally, crossing unguarded borders.

Otto, on the other hand, depicts Sweden as a fine place to live. “It’s in the Vodka belt,” he says and flashes a blond Swedish smile.

Every time I hear the national anthem of South Africa, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” I get a little choked up. The stanzas are in alternating languages, Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. Its lyrics can apply to all of Africa and perhaps to all the world:

From the blue of our sky,
From the depth of our seas,
Over our everlasting mountains,
Where the crags resound,
Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.

From Fern Forest, we say—Amen.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Octopus Fishing in Portugal

Ann was studying in Spain for a semester, living with a Spanish family. When the university had a break, Portugal called. It’s an old country, remains of the first settlements dating back to the Neolithic period, five thousand years before Christ. The Visigoths invaded in the sixth century. In 1986, the hills were covered in wildflowers, and horses grazed in fields crimsoned with red geraniums.

On the southern coast of Portugal, the area of Algarve is dotted with small fishing villages. Santa Luzia, Tavira, Lisboa, Faro, Cape Sagres, Salema. From the gold dust beaches, one can look across the sea to the shores of Morocco. Bathers swim topless—young women, old women, bathing tops cast aside, breasts bared to the sun. Ann felt strange covering herself. She was just nineteen and modest, but she wanted to fit in, to be accepted, even among these strangers on the beach. She’d worn a one-piece tank suit but slipped the straps off her shoulders, rolled down the suit’s upper half, lay back against the sand and closed her eyes.

The sun lulled her to sleep, and when she awoke, she felt eyes on her. Maybe just the sun, she thought, but she scanned the cliff at the sand’s edge. At the top, a gruff looking man stared down at her. His shirt was soiled, sleeves rolled to his elbows. His hair was tangled, covered his ears and curled over the grimy collar of the shirt. A wide belt cinched the waist of the pants, which looked too hot for this summery day. Most unsettling, though, was the look on his face—it was a look not so much of lust as of hunger, as if he hadn’t sat down to a good meal in days.

Ann pulled up her bathing suit and fastened on her skirt. She’d had enough sun anyway, and she was thirsty.

In the village, she struggled with the language to ask for a drink. She was alone, and there was no one to turn to. Then a man asked in English if he could help. From the accent, he was Scottish. It was a relief not to struggle with Portuguese, which was very different from the Spanish she had learned in the last weeks. He said his name was Tommy and, although his brogue was country thick, she felt safe with him.

Tommy lived in a camper near the shore. He toured her through the fishing villages, showed her shops where hundreds of earthenware urns were piled up for sale.

“They’re for fishing,” he said.

“What sort of fish do you catch in a pot?” she asked.

“Not fish—octopus.”

She’d noticed octopus on the menus in the cafes and had even tried one—octópode na sua própria tinta—octopus in its own ink, a black stew swimming with lumps of white flesh. The octopus meat tasted gristly, the broth briny. She ate only a few bites and filled herself with bread.

Tommy took her to markets brimming with color and sticky with aromas of local fruits—oranges, strawberries, figs, apricots, pineapples, mangoes. All over town the barnacle-encrusted pots were stacked outside doors and on porches, haunting her with their dark interiors. He took her to the fishing beach in the morning, when the boats launched themselves onto the sand and townspeople and restaurant owners crowded to bid at auction on fresh octopus.

Since Phoenician times men have caught this aquatic staple of the Portuguese table in the same way. Tommy explained how each terracotta pot is marked with the owner’s identification and is baited with chicken pieces. A rope is tied around the necks of the pots and the pots are strung together four meters apart in long lines and sunk into water ten to thirty meters deep where the sea bottom is sandy and flat. An octopus, thinking the pot a cozy place to set an ambush for its breakfast, climbs into the trap. When the fishermen hoist them in, the pots clink together and water splashes into the boat, but the stubborn octopi hang on, their fatal mistake. The urn’s neck is too slender for a fisherman to reach in his massive hand, and the octopus has no intention of climbing out. When the fisherman squirts a bit of bleach into the pot, the indignant cephalopod flops into the boat. The delicacy is quickly tossed into a cooler and the top locked before the clever octopus plots his escape.

The technique, Tommy said, is called gargoulette.

Ann was bright and inquisitive. She wanted to know more about this octopus fishing. Tommy suggested she go out for a day and see firsthand how it was done. Sure, she said. Why not?

Tommy set it up, and at the crack of dawn the next day he took her to the beach. The man had set his traps the day before and was about to row out to check for catch. Ann recognized him—the same dingy shirt, the same leather belt, the hungry look. But Tommy wouldn’t send her out with him if it weren’t safe.

She looked at the fisherman’s hands, thick with calluses, his bare feet like hooves denting the pale sand. The boat was barely big enough for two, the hull’s pink and turquoise paint peeling, the wood cracked and worn. Tommy took her hand and helped her into the bow, then helped the fisherman push the boat across the damp sand. As she felt the boat release the bottom, the old man sprang in. She was surprised by how lithe and strong he was and thought maybe he was younger than she’d imagined.

He spoke neither English nor Spanish, and Ann didn’t know enough Portuguese even to comment on the weather. It was hot, but she shivered, as if the cool depths of the sea were rising up to her. The man sat on the opposite bench, and it seemed he was rowing toward her, even though they were heading out to sea. When she turned, she could see the shore, Tommy standing with hands on hips, getting smaller with each stroke of the oars. She willed him to fly across the water and into the boat between the fisherman and her. But he had to go to work—whatever his work was. She hadn’t thought to ask.

She looked at the village with its sagging buildings. A few hotels, some bars, a market where one could buy wares from flatbed trucks, one for fruit, one for vegetables, one for clothing. The restaurants—some splashing distance from the surf—specialized in seafood, and octopus was on the menu at all of them. She thought of the octopus and white bean salad she’d seen at one cafe, although she hadn’t tried the dish. Tommy said that octopus is tough and has to be simmered or roasted for hours to tenderize it. Then it’s sautéed in butter but no more than three minutes or the meat gets rubbery. Mostly she ate fruit or a vegetable stew.

Now the beach with its miles of sun-bleached sand was just a sliver. How strong the fisherman was to travel so far so fast. Again she wished Tommy had come. The southern coast of Portugal was known as Europe’s last undiscovered tourist frontier, and she’d hoped to be the first of her friends to travel there. But none of her friends knew where she was on this morning. She hadn’t told her parents about octopus fishing, either. In fact, no one knew she was in a boat on the sea with a stranger who looked hungry—no one but Tommy, and she didn’t even know his last name.

“Go back,” she said. When the fisherman smiled, his teeth were like little baked beans.

She pointed toward the land and made a circle with her hand. “Take me back.”

The fisherman shook his head.

She had watched Tommy the night before at a bar. He knew the waitress. She was pretty, and he flirted with her. There was then the beginning of a new knowledge of men she should have learned from her father, the Indian man she had never met and who had been with her mother no more than the few moments it took to begin her life. Men don't marry you—they marry an image of respectability. If they marry at all.

Perhaps, she thought vaguely, the fisherman had made the arrangement with Tommy, rather than the other way around. Perhaps some money had passed hands. Perhaps she had misjudged the Scottsman.

At last the fisherman slowed his rowing, and the boat rocked on the billows. There was no land at all, and Ann couldn’t tell which was east, which south. Even Morocco had disappeared so that there was nothing but green sea and foamy bubbles. She had studied in history about Prince Henry the Navigator who was determined to broaden Europe’s horizons and sent sailors farther into the unknown than anyone had gone before. Before Henry, before Columbus, the world had been flat and the sea dropped into mysterious oblivion. When the explorers returned—if they returned—Prince Henry questioned how far they had gone, what they had seen, even if their ships were wrecked, their spirits full of frustration as they washed ashore.

Ann looked at the stubble on the fisherman’s face and wondered about its prickly feel, like the spines on a sea urchin. She was suddenly afraid of the stubble against her cheek, against her breast, against her stomach. Even from a distance of three feet she caught the aroma of the sea about him, salty and fishy. A woman can pray, but in the expanse of ocean, how could God hear her? She pushed from her mind the fleeting vision of having her clothes stripped from her, her neck broken, her limp body sinking to the bottom of the sea and resting among the pottery urns filled with soft legged creatures who were wise enough to hide themselves in the hard casings. She would not live long enough to become a psychotherapist, to marry and have a son. She would not survive long enough to leave a mark of any kind to show that she had lived.

A fin broke the water—shark or maybe dolphin, animals at home in this watery desert. But Ann was far from home. Far from her Spanish family and even farther from the mother and father in Philadelphia who had adopted her. She remembered vaguely the orphanage in North Carolina and then the foster home she was sent to because her dark complexion made her look foreign and she was considered unadoptable. But one family had wanted her. And that family had taught her courage and self-reliance and a woman’s strength.

The fisherman pulled in the oars. On the surface of the sea, there were no floats that marked the urns. There was nothing but the rocking of the little boat and this giant of a man with his hand on his wide leather belt.

From deep inside her, Ann felt herself swell. She grew bigger than a dolphin. As large as a whale. She straightened her back and looked the fisherman in the eyes. Clouded eyes shaded with bushy eyebrows, his skin both sagging and shrunken by the sun. And then words formed in her mind and fought their way to her tongue.

“Me larvar de volta,” she said.

And again, louder—loud enough to draw curious gulls and pelicans.

“Me larvar de volta—take me back."

The fisherman looked at her and then scanned the sea. Slowly he picked up one oar and then the other. Even more slowly the oars dipped into the water and the boat began to turn. Without meeting her gaze again, the fisherman rowed, but never once did Ann take her eyes from him.

When the boat neared the beach, she jumped into the briny water and swam and then waded to shore. She offered no thanks, not even a backward look. Within the hour she had packed her bag, paid for her room, and hailed a ride back to Spain.

Ann told me this story when she visited Fern Forest to stay in the treehouse with her boyfriend Wes. Wes had found my book, WHILE IN DARKNESS THERE IS LIGHT, and had begun to read about the young men’s adventures in Australia. I had told them that one of the themes of the book is why young people take dangerous risks that they know can be disastrous. Ann told her story first. Then Wes began his.

It was not his story, exactly. It was the story of Josh, his best friend, who with another friend went to Peru. They tied logs together to make a raft Huck Finn style and launched the homemade vessel into the Amazon River. One night, camped along the shore, a Peruvian stumbled onto their campsite and began to talk. Josh and his friend knew some Spanish and offered hospitality.

When they heard rustling in the nearby woods, Josh asked who was there. The Peruvian said he had some friends. The other men burst from the trees, pointing rifles. A shot flew into the chest of Josh’s friend, and he fell into the river and disappeared. Then the strangers opened fire on Josh. He took a bullet in the arm and dove into the river, swimming underwater as shots buzzed past him. He came up only for quick gulps of air and then dove down again. The attackers pursued him for hours until he was nearly dead of exhaustion.

Eventually he came to a village, where the natives treated his wound with homemade medicines. They took him to a larger village where he was able to call for help. When finally he reached a hospital, he was given medical attention, but the body of his friend was never found.

“What impact did Josh’s experience have on you?” I asked Wes.

“Josh asked me to go to Peru with him,” he said. “I was supposed to be the traveling friend.”

That night I dreamed of being shot, of rape, of drowning and woke well before morning. Fern Forest was quiet. The colored lights that outline the treehouse were glowing red and blue and green—happy colors. An owl hooted. The moon was half full, dimly lighting a peaceful night. Even so, it was a long time before I slept again.

The next morning I told Ann she should write down her stories. If she writes them half as well as she tells them, they will be worth reading. Wes has adventures to spiel, too. I suppose we all do, which is why I love having stories come through Fern Forest. Some of them, like Ann’s and Wes’s, stay with me. I know there’s more to tell, but that’s enough for now.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Oo-roo" Melbourne, Australia

A British study found that Australian men make the worst husbands in the world. For one, they loathe helping out with the housework. Aussie men are known for their sexism. Mel Gibson addressed a female fan as “sugar tits.” The former Prime Minister of Australia once told female reporters: "I will not be harassed by journalists, even pretty ones like you. Nick off." A Sydney magistrate, peering down at a young female defendant in a mini-skirt, told her: "Come back when your IQ is as high as your skirt." Union leader Martin Ferguson described women campaigning for paid maternity leave as "hairy-legged femocrats." (dailymail.co.uk) Generally Australian men are known for drinking too much, starting fights, and “bitch slapping.” Women would do better to eschew Australian men and look for a mate from Scandinavia, the U.S. or Britain.

“Henry doesn’t seem Australian,” H said.

“Of course he’s Australian,” I said. “He’s from Melbourne.”

“I know,” H said. “But he’s..he’s..he’s not….”

H doesn’t bad talk anyone. And even if he did, there’s nothing bad to say about Henry. He’s one of the quietest, most unassuming guys we’ve had at Fern Forest Treehouse. For four days we hardly knew he and his girlfriend Stacy were on the property.

The two have been traveling for six weeks, landing first in L.A. and then skimming up the coast to Oregon and across the northern part of the country, nearly freezing their arses off in Glacial National Park. They go by public transport—mostly train and bus. Forget renting a car; neither of them has a driver’s license. They prefer to walk. And they walk for miles.

Henry worked in music copyright in Melbourne and until this trip lived with his parents to save money. Stacy is an art buff and aspires to own her own gallery. The only art they saw in Fern Forest was drawn by nature.

H picked them up in Burlington and drove them an hour south to the treehouse. I was worried that they’d get bored without an auto. Worried that we’d have to drive them everywhere. But there was nowhere they wanted to go. We invited them to Bristol to shop. “Nowr,” Henry said, “we just want to hang out.” We invited them to the Bobcat. “Nowr,” Stacy said, “we brought food.”

They’re vegetarians, and one night I made them butternut squash stuffed with garbanzos, carrots, Brussels sprouts and couscous. Stacy made a salad, and she and I drank wine. Henry preferred beer. They were appreciative and ate every bite. Other than that dinner and morning breakfasts, we hardly got a glimpse of them. They read in the treehouse. They slept. They took walks. They washed clothes, but only after I invited them to use the washer. Stacy said they hadn’t done laundry since Chicago, but Henry said they were fine..they just turned their undies inside out a few times.

H and I went to Australia a few years ago and explored the coast from Sydney to Cooktown. At the Lion’s Den on the rutted road leading to Bloomfield, men bellied up to the pubs before noon to scowl and laugh and drink. Women who seemed to have stepped out of the war protest era with long flowing skirts and bare feet sold bead necklaces from Indian bedspreads draped across the grass.

Melbourne is in New South Wales, an area established by Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788. His company included eleven vessels holding over a thousand settlers, including 778 convicts (192 women and 586 men). Within the next eighty years, 161,700 convicts (of whom 25,000 were women) were transported to the Australian colonies of New South Wales, two-thirds of them thieves. It was an inauspicious start to the newly colonized area, and no wonder H couldn’t associate Henry with his forebears.

Could be that Henry’s father is English. He and Henry’s mom met in the sixties when they were in training to become computer programmers. A computer in those days nearly filled a warehouse and functioned about as well as your calculator. Imagine the changes they’ve seen over the last forty years. And they’re still at it.

There’s a certain reserve about the English, H believes—a certain polish. That may be what sets Henry apart from his countrymen. From Fern Forest, he and Stacy will touch down in Boston for a few days and then perch in New York City for a month at an airbnb site in Brooklyn. They’ll look at galleries, mostly. Henry hopes to absorb some New York culture. After a month of emersion, they’ll know the city better than most Americans. Then it’s a long flight to Japan for a fortnight, and they’ll be back in Melbourne before Christmas.

When they return to Australia, Henry will enroll in graduate school to study business. Stacy will pursue a grad degree in arts management. These two know what they’re doing. Henry has the trip planned out pretty much to the minute—how they’ll travel, where they’ll stay, at what point they’ll mail nonessentials back to Melbourne.

When we asked, “Is there anything you need?” “Can we pick up anything for you downtown?” The answer was always “Nowr.” They left the treehouse as they found it—clean and tidy. Stacy brought in the sheets and piled them neatly in the laundry room with the few towels they’d used. They packed up, and we drove them to Burlington, gave them a hug and a godspeed. Or, as they say in Australia, “Oo-roo.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Of Parietal Lobes and Love

Albert Einstein said, “Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.” Perhaps that’s true. But contemplating the science of the brain boggles my mind. The mental organ is so complex, according to experts, that we have no words to describe it because we have no concepts with which to imagine it, not even in science fiction.

Just ask Cristin and Ethan. They are both neuroscientists who married a week ago and spent part of their honeymoon at Fern Forest camped out in the treehouse.

Cristin recently defended her PhD thesis and is packing up to move from Philadelphia to Baltimore to live with her new husband. Ethan is doing post-doc work at Johns Hopkins University in neurotransmitters, specifically looking at causes and cures for muscular sclerosis. Cristin landed a job with the FDA in D.C., where she’ll be researching the way the brain controls neuroprostheses, the new technology for amputees. Her work is underwritten by the U.S. Army to help those who lost limbs in the war in the Middle East.

The two met in graduate school, and I can see why they fell in love. Ethan is handsomely swarthy with curly black hair. Cristin is blonde and willowy and lovely. They’re both brilliant. Brain collided with heart, and the rest is recent history.

As far as neuroscience, I know words like neurons and synapses, but I have no idea how they work. Neither do most people, even those schooled in the field. Here’s what I found on a website about neuroprostheses:

Control of prostheses using cortical signals is based on three elements: chronic microelectrode arrays, extraction algorithms, and prosthetic effectors. Arrays of microelectrodes are permanently implanted in cerebral cortex. These arrays must record populations of single- and multiunit activity indefinitely. Information containing position and velocity correlates of animate movement needs to be extracted continuously in real time from the recorded activity. Prosthetic arms, the current effectors used in this work, need to have the agility and configuration of natural arms. Demonstrations using closed-loop control show that subjects change their neural activity to improve performance with these devices. Adaptive-learning algorithms that capitalize on these improvements show that this technology has the capability of restoring much of the arm movement lost with immobilizing deficits. (http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144233?journalCode=neuro)

Curtsies to anyone who can interpret that for me.

I also read that when Einstein's brain was removed after his death, it was found to be missing part of a groove that runs through the parietal lobe, specifically the area that deals with mathematics and spatial reasoning. Scientists think the missing groove may have allowed neurons in that area to communicate more easily. If so, it could account for Einstein’s extraordinary talents. Sounds pretty “groovy.”

I don’t know much about MS either, except that it affects the ability of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to communicate with each other. No one knows what causes it—maybe a result of some combination of genetic, environmental and infectious factors.

But we didn’t sit around for four days discussing the brain. Cristin and Ethan went shopping in Burlington. They ate pizza from Cubbers and climbed Mt. Abe. They soaked in the spa. They slept in and ate a hearty breakfast every morning. In a word, they chilled. When they return to Baltimore, they’ll have plenty to do, including picking up their two dogs on the way, and Cristin wants to get her antique dress business, Stellate Reflections, going again. And there’s the business of the brain.

When they left Fern Forest, Cristin and Ethan planned to go to an orchard in Middlebury to pick apples.

“Apples are like little parietal lobes, aren’t they?” I said.

Ethan laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “Everything we see reminds us of the brain.”

The two are setting out to discover some of the brain’s mysteries, and we wish them success in their challenging research. As Einstein said, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”