Monday, February 24, 2014

Walls and Fences

This is a city of fences and walls. A fence of metal bars with sharp, pointed tips separates our front garden from the sidewalk. In the spaces between the bars passersby can enjoy looking into our garden. To open the front gate requires two keys, another two needed to unlock the front door, a necessary precaution against ladrones. Our backyard is surrounded by a tall wall, keeping us from peering into our neighbors’ yards or them into ours, providing privacy and a measure of security, though not hindering a quick conversation with Soledad next door.

My family home in California had no front fence, nor did anyone in the neighborhood. The few fences in my hometown are low, picket ones. When I visit there, I stay with friends with a large yard, open even to let the neighbor’s two goats wander onto their deck. I made the mistake one day of leaving a door open, the goats taking this as an invitation to enter. I learned one thing about goats: they do not come when you call. I managed to coax them out by waving a granola bar in front of them.

 I agree with Robert Frost. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…I’d like to live in a wall-less place with open vistas and no fear of intruders, but it’s an impractical idea for city living. Yet walls and fences only reach so high, enabling me to view from my second floor window the rugged, majestic Andes topped by luminous mushroom clouds.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Paying Attention on a February Day in Santiago

Things I saw:

In the metro—
Three passengers across from me glued to their cell phones
Next to me a young woman reading John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” in Spanish. I wanted to tell her how I’d loved the book, but she was plugged into ear phones.

On the street –
Three yellow hard-hatted workers pushing three new yellow wheel barrows
Two young women standing by a magazine rack of Jehovah Witnesses’ literature
A full bicycle rack of blue city-bikes
A middle-aged woman in shorts, something unheard of when I arrived 40 years ago
Tee-shirt logos: Grand Forks, Red Sox, Subversive Exchange, Nike, Rock ‘n Roll

In a tree –
A red-breasted father plant cutter (a bird) feeding two raucous chicks

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Signs of fall already? Officially autumn doesn't start for another month, yet…cooler nights and mornings, the sun at a more northern slant, sycamores already shredding leaves and my petunias looking lank and leggy. Then to break the sameness of hot summer days, the sky clouded over this afternoon and – what do you know – a shower! Brief and wimpy – a tease – but bringing with it the unmistakable scent of rain, though not enough to wash the grit off the foliage. How to describe the scent of rain? My nose recognizes it, my brain labels it rain, but cannot provide a word to describe it. Poets compare the scent to things (earth, leaves) and emotions. I found this definition of the scent of rain:

Petrichor. That's the word that describes the smell of rain on dry earth. The term derives from the Greek words petra, meaning "stone" and ichor, which is the fluid that flows in the veins of Greek gods. The word was coined in 1964 by Australian researchers who found that the smell was created by an oil that is released by certain plants during dry periods. When it rains that oil is released into the air, giving us that wonderful smell that brings Spring time to mind.

Perhaps the smell of rain is really a collage of scents, released when stone, leaf, earth, wood, cement are touched by water. It takes on its greatest potency in the presence of vegetation, and each blade of grass, leaf and tree must haves its own particular scent, creating a blend our noses recognize as rain.

Our reptilian barometer, Speedy Gonzalez (our tortoise), knows change is in the air. He appears from his sleeping quarters (a depression in the ground behind the bougainvillea trunk) later in the morning, moves about less in the garden and retires earlier. Like sunflowers, he seeks the sun.

I say this rain is a tease because another year of drought is predicted for central and northern Chile – the fifth. There is much reference to the drought in the media – but where are the campaigns to conserve water? I feel guilty watering my garden, but it’s my refuge in this dry landscape.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Gaps to Fill

Yesterday I read an essay entitled “The Book of Knowledge” by Steven Harvey, the last in “The Best American Essays of 2013”. The author recalls his fascination with the encyclopedia set his mother bought, his delight studying the colored plates of birds, butterflies, moths and beetles and more. Suddenly I pictured The World Book Encyclopedia set that filled almost one entire shelf of the redwood bookcases flanking our fireplace in my childhood home. Each olive green volume bore gold letters indicating the alphabetical span of topics. In my student days I resorted to the knowledge within those tomes to research assigned topics which I wrote in uncertain longhand on lined binder paper.
Other books on the shelves remain etched in my memory. They must have been my mother’s books as my father limited his reading to the newspaper and Time magazine. There were several books of poetry, although the only one I remember actually reading was a collection of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I was attracted to its vivid colored illustrations of Hiawatha, deep primeval forests and Paul Revere’s dramatic ride, and the rhythmic, narrative text, accessible to my young mind. Alongside Longfellow were Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Robert Burns’works (probably my Scottish grandmother’s), neither of which do I recall reading.
I still have my well-worn copies of A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, Now We are Six and Winnie the Pooh, that my mother first read to me before I later read them on my own. One of my childhood favorites, which I kept on my own book shelves was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, even attempting to write poems in his style, none of which were saved for posterity. Older, my exposure to poetry was limited to occasional selections in high school literature texts.
Now I live in a country that cherishes poetry, being the homeland of two Nobel poets, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. I’m attempting to become more comfortable with reading poetry, my writing group being a great source of suggestions. A few years ago, I decided to fill a big educational gap and read some of Laurence Ferlinghetti’s and Allen Ginsberg’s works as background for a magazine article. I lived in the San Francisco-Berkeley area in the 1950s and 60s, but the Beat Generation held no interest for me then.

So many gaps to fill, brilliant works to read and so little time. 

Monday, February 10, 2014


The topic came up yesterday as Mr. S. and I were heading toward the freeway to visit friends out-of-town. We were passing through one of those grey, seedy neighborhoods. You know the kind surrounding freeway on- and –off ramps. Mr.S. pointed to the center of a long graffiti-covered wall depicting a large, brightly-colored hummingbird sampling a flower as well as a red-headed giant woodpecker, like those found in southern forests here. The artist wasn’t a simple street gang kid. Mr. S asked if I’d seen the giant rat painted on a retention wall of the Río Mapocho. He thought it was pretty cool and well-done. From there the conversation turned into a discussion – me defending the artistic value of some graffiti, he claiming all graffiti defaces public and private property, except the rat. I reminded him of the wall murals of Valparaíso, which decorate the stairs climbing the city’s hills - outdoor galleries depicting history, traditions and artists’ rants and loves.
A couple years ago I walked along the edge of a park with a friend. There we saw two young women painting lush tropical flowers and bright swirls on a low cement wall bordering the park. We stopped to talk. An internationally-known designer brand was paying them for the work. “Aren’t you worried that “grafiteros” will scribble over it?” we asked. No, they were not concerned. The mural remains untouched to this day. Months later they painted an overpass in the center of town in pastel colors – a great improvement over concrete grey.

I support these artistic endeavors, I told Mr. S, the paid ones and the volunteers if they are well done in a spirit of embellishing rather than defacing. They can put a smile on the faces of stressed-out city-goers – at least those who slow down enough to notice them. Perhaps the most effective way to discourage the defacers is to encourage the embellishers, not just grafiteros but other public artistic expressions. What fun to encounter park trees wrapped in wool sweaters and scarves, product of knit attackers!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


A new calendar page already, this one with a delicate watercolor of a ring-necked duck – and all those clean empty squares again for me to shape and fill. February is vacation time in Chile, a good portion of Santiago’s inhabitants heading off to beach, lake, farm and beyond. Mr. S. and I have no vacation plans this summer. It wasn’t possible to plan ahead, his mother being so ill. I’m content to stay at home to enjoy our garden, work on my writing (and there’s a lot to do if I ever want to finish my memoir) and some outings with friends. Mr. S. will need a vacation though. March is a possibility – fewer people out on the highways.

I did have those tranquil days at Los Parronales, which, by the way, means the grapevines. Saturday we had a farewell barbeque. Two local teenagers in traditional dress, performed the cueca, a folk dance for us. My throat tightened, and tears welled. Was I becoming sentimental about Chile? I think it was a sense of pending loss. Such pride in their young faces, the boy stomping his black boots, spurs jangling, the girl twirling coquettishly around him, swirling a white kerchief in the air. In this small town, few remain to carry on the country traditions: the horsemanship, the music, the dancing. Spreading urbanization – industries and massive storage lots for new imported cars – is devouring the fields that produce grapes, tomatoes, alfalfa, and prickly pear fruit. Cars instead of horses and cattle. Metal, glass and plastic instead of alfalfa, furrowed soil and weeping willows. 
Where will the owl family find refuge?