Thursday, August 22, 2019

Cactus Lessons

Like a caged bird set free, I have escaped the grey, cement confines of the city. Below me spreads the overwhelming expanse of ocean, where at the foot of rocky cliffs waves break over and over and over again, their foam, like shreds of white lace, flying into the air, then receding.

Sea thoughts: from these briny depths the first fish with legs crawled forth onto the land. Mysterious. Infinite. 

These jutting cliffs separate land from sea. The land I stand on is dry, rocky, sandy. This is dry country. Cacti country. I am a visitor in a garden of an astounding variety of cactus and succulents: round, spiky, thorny, smooth, barrel shaped, broad leaves or lance-like; grey-greens and pale yellows; violet, yellow, blue blooms. Prickly beauty at home in this inhospitable landscape, vestiges from ancient times, testimonials to Nature’s adaptability to geographical and climatic change.

Two potted cacti in my garden are native echinopsis (also known as sea urchin or hedgehog cactus). They are very old, handed down to me from a son’s classmate who, supposedly, received them from an elderly woman. In warm weather they produce spectacular, but ephemeral, pink flowers, lasting only a day and a half.

Small potted succulents round out my cactus assemblage. I care for them for they remind me of their donors: my deceased father-in-law and friends - and of special places: cuttings from my childhood family garden.

Yet, I find the cacti family thriving in its native habitat more spectacular, its hardiness and adaptability more evident and wondrous. Lessons for us living in this drought-ridden country.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Reading the Earth

“Horizon”. An expansive, all-encompassing, promising word – and the title of the book I’m reading. The author, Barry Lopez, was recommended to me years ago by the man next to me on a flight from somewhere. I am pleased with my choice. In an autobiographical style, Lopez, a worldwide traveler and nature writer, relates how his interests developed from childhood into adulthood and then proceeds to take the reader to visit memorable places he’s traveled, searching for deeper truths to be found in those places.
I instantly relate to his habit of returning home with mementos from afar. In an earlier life I may have belonged to a hunter-gatherer tribe. When I’m out and about, I can’t resist depositing a unique rock, a seed pod or a feather into my pocket. Offerings from the Earth.
Here in my study a fossil poses on a shelf. Elongated and pointy, the gray-brown rock bears the reddish imprint of an ancient sea dollar. The design stood out in a vast windswept plain awash with marine fossils. Here it was not difficult to imagine that this Patagonian plain was once ocean floor pushed upwards over the millennium to form the Andean cordillera, the vertical column of South America. What an overwhelming thought to know that I was standing on geological history.
If I rustle through the papers in a drawer of my night table, I’ll come across the silky softness of an owl down feather, given to me years ago by the writing coach of a workshop at Los Parronales farm. I was the first to notice the owls there and whenever we return, people ask, “Have you seen the owls yet?” and we cross a field to scan the “owl trees.” The feather reminds me of the joyful companionship of those workshop days. Over the years, urban sprawl creeps closer to the farm.  Once those trees are felled to make way for factories, where will the owls find refuge?

A basket of rocks sits on my round oak table off the kitchen: a shiny black rough chunk of volcanic lava from Easter Island; a wafer-thin oval deposited on a beach by the retreating Marinelli Glacier; a pale grey pumice ball expelled from the Calbuco volcano and propelled by a river into a Patagonian lake; a sliver of shale plucked from the edge of Glen Alpine Creek in the California Sierras. As I hold each in my hand, I am reconnected with the place that prompted me to bring home a piece of that landscape.
I cannot walk a beach without “combing” it, alert to an offering from the sea, the origin of all. Shells in a variety of shapes and sizes: compact bivalves and smooth gastropods left on a sandy strand in Costa Rica or a pristine Galapagos beach, or a sand dollar found on a Monterey Bay shore. I think of shells as feminine. Plain or intricately designed, white exteriors with blushes of pale pink within. I wonder what creature once lived within. Did you tumble in with a crashing, booming wave? How far did you travel? Are you a descendent of the First Mollusk?

Image result for sand dollar

Being a transplant to this country, I’ve made an effort to learn to identify the native vegetation. My book of “Flora Silvestre de Chile, Zona Austral” (Native Chilean Vegetation, southern region) bulges with dried leaf specimens, each inserted into the species’ corresponding page. Not having grown up with these species, I need memory aides to take me back to treks through the lush temperate rainforests of Patagonia, inhabited by wild fuchsia, the ancient alerce and the Nothofagus families of trees, giant ferns, nalca (giant rhubarb) leaves (umbrellas for hidden frogs), the iconic araucaria (monkey puzzle tree). Like the rocks and the seashells, these trees are remnants of ancient times. My eyes follow the trunk of an alerce, up, up to its towering peak and I try to imagine what this landscape was like millennia ago when the tree first took root.
My mementos had their origins in the Earth. They tell an awe-inspiring story too huge to comprehend. I have them here in my city home so that I will never forget.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Rainy Day Travel to the Past

This drought-ridden city has finally quenched its thirst. Rain! Beautiful, pitter-pattering rain. My sequoia tree is waving its fluffy branches in contentment. Clouds opened this morning to let the sun shine through onto freshly fallen snow on the cordillera, ringing the city with a gleaming white crown.

Temperatures have dropped. A perfect time for warm sweaters and socks and a good book. I’ve been re-reading “Anne of Green Gables,” recommended by my writing group to help me get a feel for the early 1900s. I have this crazy idea to write an historical novel….
The story hooks me. Who doesn’t want to know what happens to an orphan girl who has been passed from one foster home to another? Having watched the first excellent season of “Anne with an e” on Netlfix, the characters feel very real. I do find the book overly sentimental but it was written for the times. I relate to Anne’s deep love and appreciation for nature. Reading the book now feels like connecting with a simpler more innocent world. Though it might come across as “old-fashioned,” universal topics are woven throughout: men’s and women’s roles in marriage, women’s education, empathy, poetry, inner versus external beauty, the peace to be found in nature.
I probably read the book in the 1950’s so it didn’t feel terribly old-fashioned. In fact, as a young girl, I loved reading books set in the past. Some of the books had been my mother’s books: The Little Coronel Series, The Little Princess, Copperhead, Little Women, The Wizard of Oz.

I bought Spanish versions of “Anne of Green Gables” for my twin granddaughters. They’d seen the Netflix version which I hoped would motivate them to read it. But I wonder if a story set over 100 years ago appeals to adolescent girls now in this swirling world of cell phones, Instagram and social media. They might learn a great deal from Anne’s authenticity and faithfulness to her values. Values that will never grow old.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Our Little Miracle

She’s three weeks old today. The day Mila was born, I looked down at her tiny form swaddled in her mother’s arms and kept telling myself, “Just minutes old. A new life.” I had difficulty wrapping my mind around what seemed to me to be a miracle.
Mila is our fifth grandchild, but the first for our youngest son and his wife. Since she’s American and has no family nearby, we stepped in as substitute support until her parents arrived from New Jersey and have followed her pregnancy with close anticipation. Every night I expected the phone to ring announcing that they were on their way to the hospital, until one night a WhatsApp message arrived: “Contractions more frequent. We’re on our way!”
I remembered baby clothes stored for years in a wooden trunk – sweet, impractical dresses from my babyhood, an ivory, lacy bonnet that had donned my mother’s infant head. I washed and ironed them with care. Now they hang in Mila’s closet. Since they live nearby, I couldn’t keep myself away after her birth and stopped by just to gaze at her every day that first week. I also enjoy watching the wonder of my son and his wife as they get to know this brand new person they brought into the world.
One concern was how their two dogs would react to the baby. It’s been fascinating to watch. Mocha, a gangly, year-old adoptee, seems uninterested, though one day she did lick Mila’s ear. To me an animal’s lick signifies acceptance and caring. Little black Frida, their 3-year-old rescue dog, evolved from curiosity to a fierce protectiveness. She quickly picked up the signs from Mila’s parents that she is a loved new member of the family.
All this joy has a downside which I try not to dwell on. Our son took his time meeting the right woman and starting a family. I said to him, “It’s about time!” He answered, “Forty is the perfect age to be a dad.” But that makes us “old” grandparents. When our older son’s twin granddaughters were born thirteen years ago, I still had the energy and flexibility to “play” with them once they grew into the toddler stage. We’d crawl around our house chasing each other pretending we were wild animals. “I’m a fierce lion,” or “I’m a hungry shark!”
What can Mila and I play in a year or two? I tell myself to focus on today. Enjoy her first smiles, her sweet face as she sleeps, the soft skin of her tiny hands, and the cuddly outfits her mom dresses her with, each day a different one. And notice each little change for Mila changes every day.

Mila and Frida

Monday, April 22, 2019

Earth Day

I’m surprised to learn that the very first Earth Day was held in 1970, and gave rise to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Though I was still living in the States at that time, I regret to say that I have no recollection of the event. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962 was the beginning of a growing awareness and appreciation for the environment among Americans. In 2020 Earth Day will celebrate its 50th year. Fifty years. So little progress. A U.S. president denies climate change and rolls back environmental protections installed by the previous administration. I despair.
Last night my husband and I watched on Netflix the third chapter of “Our Planet”, a 2019 National Geographic Series narrated by David Attenborough. Each episode features a particular ecosystem. The jungle was the focus of the third chapter. As in the first two episodes, the spectacular, startling photography had us captivated. Yet, Richard Attenborough’s message was extremely disturbing. With statistics (did you know that the world’s population has doubled since man landed on the moon?) and graphic examples he explained how, through human depredation and climate change, we are fast losing and devastating the earth’s natural world.
This week and last, thousands of marchers have congregated in major thoroughfares of London blocking traffic demanding governmental action on climate change. Over a thousand have been arrested. I want to join the London marchers. I’d be willing to face arrest.
Chile will host the COP24 UN conference on climate change in December. The country, proud to have been chosen, is making plans and organizing meetings. This also puts pressure on the government to do more on the local level. Right now, officials are dealing with organizing streets teeming with cars to handle the explosion of bicycles and scooters. My son, working in sustainability management, informed me that Chile is only second behind China in number of electric buses. A glimmer of hope.
Don’t miss “Our Planet” on Netflix. Extremely important. Spread the word!

Monday, April 1, 2019

Calendar Thoughts

I just turned the page on my Molly Hashimoto bird calendar. Goodbye to March and your regal long-billed dowitcher and hello April with your multi-colored cedar waxwing.

Another month, 31 days gone forever. At the end of the year we take stock, but what about at a month’s end? Or a week’s?
I’ll start with the past week, less taxing on my shaky memory. I have my handy paper (non-digital) datebook as my memory-aide. The brightest spark in my week was the launch of my book, “Notes from the Bottom of the World”, for English-speaking family and friends here in Chile. Many commented afterwards how relaxed and natural I appeared. That was probably due to my experience last November in California presenting my book to a variety of audiences. The highlight of the evening was seeing my 14-year-old twin granddaughters in the audience. I hadn’t thought they’d come due to their busy schedules and multiple interests. But their mom made a special trip to pick them up at school and drive them across town in heavy traffic to hear their author-granny. The only downside of the evening was a whopper of a cold that hit me that morning. Perfect timing.

This week I witnessed the arrival of our hummingbirds, another sign of summer’s end. For some reason, they take off to other landscapes for the summer. I prepared the syrup and hung out the feeder which they found immediately.
Speedy Gonzalez, out pet tortoise, was giving signs of wanting to hibernate; eating and wandering less, so I put him in his cardboard box in the shed to sleep through the next 6 months. He inner senses signaled it was time. And he was right. Yesterday, we had our first rain, a wimpy rain, but rain all the same.
 In March we finally had the outside of the house painted (after way too many years) and I love how it looks! Clean, bright, fresh. We had a setback when, Nelson, the painter we hired, quit after a week! He didn’t like that my husband pointed out a couple of things to be corrected. Actually, I think he quit because he realized the job was too difficult for him at his age. In no time, a friend gave me the name of a younger painter, Guillermo, who did a great job and was pleasant besides.
There was dinner with friends visiting from the States; a drive out to the country for lunch at favorite restaurant under its grape arbor with two friends; book club where we discussed Tara Westover’s “Educated.”  Weekly meetings with Santiago Writers. Pilates classes and gym workouts filled my days. During free moments, I sat in our garden to enjoy our mellow fall days and read.
I’m in a Scottish frame of mind. I’m researching my Scottish ancestors and late twentieth century Scotland in preparation for writing a historical novel based on my great-aunt’s unusual life. Reading “A Scot’s Quair” by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and dealing with the dialect has been a thorny challenge but I’ve now got the hang of it. Soon I’ll be speaking like a Scot.

Remembering kindles appreciation. March was a good month.

Now I look forward to what April may bring.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Little Joys

The words spoke to me. While scanning my email Inbox, the title of Maria Popova’s latest “Brainpickings” post caught my eye: “Hermann Hesse on Little Joys, Breaking the Trance of Busyness, and the Most Important Habit for Living with Presence.” I opened the post.
I read that in his 1905 essay “On Little Joys”, Hesse reflects on the busyness, the hurry-hurry and the aggressive haste of modern life. Terms coined over a century ago. I’ve learned the wisdom and truth contained in his words. Perhaps I developed this philosophy for living due to life’s circumstances and to the person I am.
Hesse advised everyday contact with nature. I grew up immersed in the natural world of a small northern California town. Trees occupied the views from every window in my childhood home. Camping vacations amidst redwoods started me on the path to becoming a tree hugger.
There were other signs. Searching for my first apartment, I’d check for the view from the windows. My chosen Berkeley apartment had a distant view of San Francisco Bay. In the slim space between my building and my neighbors’ grew a leafy redwood tree and a small garden tended by a few of the residents. I was forced to move out when the owner decided to demolish our three-story building in order to build a bigger, seven story construction. Last time I went by, the redwood tree was gone.
When I moved to Chile to marry my boyfriend, we settled in the capital, Santiago, now a city of six million inhabitants. I learned to develop personal strategies for noticing little joys in this urban setting.
It is just a matter of noticing.
 As a teacher in a school situated in the foothills of the Andes, in free moments, I’d gaze out the window at the glorious sight and feel nourished and replenished. During lunch hour, I’d walk a few laps around the hillside track and maybe spot a kestrel perched on a post or hear the twitter of quail.
These city streets offer dozens of small joys: flowering jacaranda and ceibo trees, a well-tended garden, a friendly dog, the chatter of playing children.
Now, although retired, I don’t get out of the city as often as I’d like. I miss the freshness of forests and the tang of sea breezes. To counteract this deficiency, each morning I step out into my backyard to inhale the exquisite fresh air still untouched by the scents of human activity. The dew releases a potpourri of fragrances from my redwood tree and the flowering buddleia. Nights I make another mini visit to my backyard to breathe in the nighttime air and gaze at the few stars visible in our city sky. Sky. Sometimes I realize that I haven’t looked at the sky all day.

Jacaranda tree

Hesse advises us to cherish the little joys, inconspicuous and scattered liberally over our daily lives. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!
            Lessons for living.