Melting the Ice in the Hearts of the People

Angaangaq Agakkorsuaq, a Kalaallit elder from Northern Greenland told of how two young men from his tribe went hunting in January 1963. As part of the ceremony, they went to touch the wall of big ice to thank the Earth for the hunt. In those days the big ice was five kilometres thick. (Now it measures about three kilometres.) As one of the hunters looked up at the wall of ice, he noticed water dripping, something that had never been seen before. Upon their return, the people didn’t believe them at first. Nor did scientists take them seriously, as they thought it impossible that ice could melt at those arctic temperatures. It was only much later that it was understood how water could flow under the ice. ’Water is a living thing. She will always find a crack to go down. She doesn’t freeze below, that’s how she could flow out.’

A shaman and a story teller, as a young man, Angangaaq was told by his parents to become a runner, to share the wisdom of his elders with the world and to melt the ice in the hearts of the people. ‘I come from the oldest part of the world; a land where there has never been any war.’ In 1978 he went to New York to speak to the United Nations about climate change. ‘I told them, the big ice is melting.’ On his return, the elders asked him, ‘did the people at the United Nations listen to you?’ ‘Oh yes, it went down very well. They gave me a standing ovation.’

’But did they hear you?’

Angaangaq answered his own question. ‘No, they did not. The sun now comes up four days early in the North. That means that the Earth has begun to shift. I need to tell you that it’s too late. I depended upon you to hear the message. You did not change. Now, at the last minute you say we need to do something.’

He turned to face his audience and pressing his fingertips together, Angangaaq told us straight, ‘It is your fault. He turned and faced another section of the audience. ‘And it is your fault. I am a grandfather. I wanted to have a beautiful place to give my grandchildren. I cannot. It is my fault. Why did you not listen to the indigenous world who told you over and over and over?’

Angaangaaq Angakkorsuaq. Thank you to the unknown photographer.

Angaangaaq Angakkorsuaq. Thank you to the unknown photographer.

Angaangaq had started his talk lightly, making us laugh about how he had lost his luggage, joking about the state of his clothes, asking if we had ever been to London, telling us not to bother going. Now the hall was electric in its silence. ‘You didn’t look upon me as an equal because I come from far away, because I speak a different language. Did you think you are worth more? Do you think your education is better than mine? Let me tell you, mine is much better than yours. I know how to hunt. Did you know that animals can understand me when I talk to them? They decide amongst themselves which one it should be, so that my family can live. I step with gentle feet in honour of Mother Earth because that is what we are supposed to do, while you rape her, you cut the forest! What’s the matter with you? What went wrong? Why did you lose your ceremony and the ability to honour and respect others?’ Even as he was impassioned and pained, he spoke without rancour.

’This is the spiritual significance of climate change. You are each a spiritual being because you have a beautiful heart. How do we know this? Because when you smile you are stunningly beautiful! It’s not enough to know this though. We have to learn to live together. We have only one earth, one water, one fire, one air. That’s all we have. You are part of Mother Earth. Just because you are a white man, that does not make you separate. You have never been separate.’

And then Angaangaq picked up the Qilaut, the pair of sacred wind drums, and sang out his wordless prayer, evoking the vast empty tundra. He placed a drum either either side of his head and bent in turn to each person in the front row, enveloping their ears between the drums, creating a channel between them. As his calls resonated throughout the hall, strong and yet wavering at times, those sounds were the only response imaginable to what he had just said. 

 As he laid the Qilaut down, his shirt soaked with sweat, he told us, ‘I cry because of climate change. It hurts me that we came so far apart from each other.’ Then he smiled at us. ‘You owe me a cup of coffee.’ And so he ended his talk in an eruption of laughter and tears and applause, causing the audience to get to their feet.

Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq was one of the speakers at the conference for Climate Change and Consciousness being held at Findhorn in April 2019. Keynote speakers included Vandana Shiva, Charles Eisenstein and Jonathan Porritt. Indigenous leaders attended from communities all over the world, including the Arrernte and Anmatyerr nations in Australia, Maoris from New Zealand, the Arhuaco in Northern Colombia, the Kuntanawa tribe in the Brazilian Amazon and people from Zambia, Malawi, Senegal and Namibia.   

Indigenous elders at the conference. The Qilaut wind drums are in front of Angangaaq on the right.

Indigenous elders at the conference. The Qilaut wind drums are in front of Angangaaq on the right.

A few weeks before the conference, I heard that Polly Higgins, the visionary founder of Ecocide Law and the Earth Community Trust was very sick with an aggressive abdominal cancer. Thousands of people were praying for her life. She was a keynote speaker and wanted to be at the conference in any way that she could, so If she felt strong enough she would speak via Skype. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez had also been unwell and was going to speak via Skype as would Bill McKibben and Christiana Figueres. In their different ways these speakers had been feeling under pressure and needed to look after their health by not making the long journey to Scotland. It seemed that many of these brave ambassadors for the Earth were burning out. As the warnings from scientists about climate change get louder, as business stubbornly persists as usual, as the toll of murdered indigenous earth protectors rises year by year, the pressure mounts upon those who are a voice for the health of the planet.

In his opening speech, Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and a pioneer of the climate change movement certainly seemed weighed down. He stressed that we are out of time. ‘We don’t know if we are going to win this fight.’ He described how for the first fifteen years of his career he believed that once scientists had proved the reality of climate change, governments would do what needs to be done. He sighed deeply as he talked about the devastating discovery made five years ago, that the fossil fuel industry had long understood what was going on. Whistleblowers revealed that in 1982, Exxon, one of the richest companies of the world, used their own scientists to research and calculate the implications of continuing to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The company actually took into account rising sea levels when planning future oil rigs. They were marking the spots they would be drilling in the Arctic once the ice had melted. The fossil fuel industry lied about its findings to maintain business for a few more decades, even at the cost of the planet. ‘That lie has to be the most consequential lie in human history,’ said Bill. It’s bitter to reflect on this, particularly since last year’s IPCC’s report gave us only twelve years to limit climate change catastrophe.

Sometimes the conversation about climate change reduces it to being a problem of too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere causing global warming. I recently heard the presenter on the Radio 4 program, Costing the Earth, refer to carbon dioxide as being a ‘pesky problem’ and a ‘public enemy’, as though it were an inconvenience that isn’t to do with us. While sucking carbon out of the air with machines, storing it underground, converting it into fertilisers, plastics, synthetic oils and building materials might sound like an effective bullet to a worrying problem, this approach proves a commitment to keeping things as close as possible to how they are without really requiring us to change. 

‘If greenhouse gases weren’t a problem, would it be okay to cut down the Amazon?’ Charles Eisenstein.

 ‘We’re used to declaring war on a problem whether it concerns terrorism, refugees, disease or climate change. We want something which will attack the cause and solve everything,’ said Charles Eisenstein when he spoke at the Findhorn conference. While not denying the value of quantitive measures, he spoke of the need to respond from a different place, one where we recognise that geological, political, social and psychic climates are all interconnected. ‘It is not enough to to act because we are worried about all the bad things that will happen to us...So long as we are disconnected we are going to be addicted to one sort of consumption or another. Keeping all of that in place and switching fuel sources won’t solve anything.’

He referred to climate change as an initiation. This made me think of how young human beings are relative to life on earth. Most of us are like a bunch of wayward, entitled teenagers, grabbing and snatching without thanks, leaving a mess behind us: teenagers needing boundaries, in acute need of initiation. The outcome of initiations are by their very nature unknown. Of course we do not know if we will ‘win this fight’. It depends whether we, those undergoing the initiation wake up to a different consciousness or not.

If we realised that the Earth were alive, said Charles Eisenstein, we might understand that the mangroves, the coral reefs, the sea grass meadow, the rivers, mountains, forests and the soil are all the organs of a living being. He made the connection between our objectification of the Earth and our abuse of her. ‘If you knew that she could feel, you would stop.‘

Charles Eisenstein. Thanks to the unknown photographer.

Charles Eisenstein. Thanks to the unknown photographer.

Polly Higgins worked as a barrister to protect future generations and the sanctity of life, her client being the Earth. Since the 1950’s most of law making has been financed by industry, rather than what is in the best interest of humanity or the rest of the planet. By setting up Earth Protectors and working to get Ecocide recognised, Polly was restoring our faith in the justice system.

On Easter Sunday, during the conference and just four days before she was due to speak, Polly Higgins died. Many knew her there and were greatly affected by her death. Clare Dubois, founder of Tree Sisters, spoke of Polly’s fierce courage and her willingness to call the world to account. She described the relief that many of us feel when as long as a leader, such as David Attenborough, Nelson Mandela or Polly Higgins takes up the baton, somehow we feel we don’t have to. Despite her positivity and warmth, Polly had trouble accepting help at times and went through intense patches of depression. Several attempts on her life had been made within the last six months. It was poignant to watch an interview with Polly, looking vibrant and beautiful, recorded in February just weeks before her diagnosis. She had been working with her team to leave a strategy in place. Apparently, Polly died with a smile upon her face, knowing that she had just about managed to do so. ‘If we put ecocide law into place things can change on a pinhead,’ she said in the interview. As Clare Dubois said, ‘Her passing is a passing of the baton to us all.’ One of her legacies is setting up Earth Protectors. Each person who signs up to be an Earth Protector, not only protects themselves legally when defending life on earth, but also strengthens the case to make ecocide a crime.  

You can sign up below.

https://www.stopecocide.earth/become 

https://www.treesisters.org

Polly Higgins. Thank you to the unknown photographer.

Polly Higgins. Thank you to the unknown photographer.

Walking out amongst the dunes at Findhorn, I saw livid smoke banking up on the horizon. It came from the wildfires on the Scottish moors, a sobering reminder of the world ‘out there’. During that week another cyclone hit Mozambique and Malawi. One of the indigenous elders came from Malawi and he spoke of the devastation to the people and to the land, which made it feel more immediate. As Bolsonaro schemes to sell off the Amazon for oil, as machines pulp and pellet forests, as the polar ice melts, of course we lose heart and despair at times. ‘What can I possibly do?’ is a natural question to ask oneself.

Within the last few days I heard somebody say how human beings are worse than vermin, that the Earth would be better off without us, which is perhaps an attempt to manage the unbearable reality of our present condition and the impotence we feel in the face of that. Still, it is shocking to me that we might think so little of ourselves. Another friend spoke of her despair at the prospect of 5G, at what consequences such extensive exposure to short waved radiation might have upon our health. ‘The only comfort to me,’ said this young mother, ‘is that perhaps it will finish us all off sooner rather than later.’ How devastating that she should say that, when all her instincts are to protect her child. After all, it isn’t just about us. To those who say, ‘well even if we blow it, the Earth will be alright’, Charles Eisenstein says, ‘You wouldn’t say that to a mother about losing her children would you?’

There is no simple solution. Climate change is as intricate and interconnected as the Earth and all her living systems. ‘It’s good to realise that you have no idea what to do and that we need each other.’ Charles Eisenstein also spoke about how part of admitting that we don’t know is to begin to listen to those who have been excluded. Our ‘fossil fuel mind’ which Vandana Shiva referred to, originated in industrialisation, was built on colonisation, which was founded on slavery. Everything became about the efficiency of the machine. The Industrial Age gave no value to the Earth herself, but saw her as dead. ‘The fossil fuel age created us as consumers of energy when we are actually creators of energy. We are Shakti!’ She beamed at us, beautiful in a green silk sari, radiating intelligence and energy.

Vandana Shiva. Thank you to the unknown photographer.

Vandana Shiva. Thank you to the unknown photographer.

Charles Eisenstein mentioned various indigenous responses to why we have climate change, which go way further than simply creating excessive greenhouse gases. To reflect on these responses points us towards living connections.

 ‘It’s because you are not allowing the rivers to reach the sea.’ - Zuni.

’It’s because people are stealing the metals. The gold is the heart and soul of the mountains.’ Brazilian Amazonian.

’It’s because you have removed sacred artefacts placed on key energy points and stopped doing ceremonies. These artefacts and ceremonies are part of a covenant people have to maintain our climate.’ Dogan.

Charles Eisenstein lists our priorities as follows:

1. To protect intact ecosystems and the people who live there. Gaia’s memory of health still exists in places such as the Amazon and the mangroves of South East Asia, a memory which can be transmitted eventually to other areas.

2. To regenerate damaged ecosystems by taking care of the soil and planting trees, by asking, what does the land want, rather than say using drones to plant millions of trees at a time.

3. To stop poisoning the planet on a tissue level and cease dousing the world in toxic chemicals and radioactive waste.

4. To reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases.

‘Every action we take is a communication and declaration of who we are and what the world is to be. Somehow that affects the climate.’ Charles Eisenstein.

Whether we think it’s too late as Angangaak Angakkorsuaq told us, or whether we believe like Jonathan Porritt does that we still have a small window of time to affect climate change, it’s a burden to be alive now, knowing what is going on. It is also an immense privilege. Sometimes I can’t quite believe that I am alive at this particular time when it seems that everything is coming to a head. The antidote to despair is to come together. In 2016 I joined the water protectors at Standing Rock, living together, praying together in ceremony and protecting the water together. It was there at Standing Rock that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found the inspiration to go into a politics founded on social justice, initiating a startling new kind of political conversation and coming up with the Green New Deal. As Jonathan Porritt said, ‘this is important stuff!’ 

As we gathered in Findhorn, Extinction Rebellion stopped the traffic in London, birdsong was once again heard in Marble Arch and over 1000 people volunteered to be arrested in order to bring attention to climate change. Soon afterwards the British parliament declared a climate emergency. A little over a year ago, Greta Thurnberg protested alone outside the Swedish parliament. Over 1.4 million students have since joined her school strikes. The genie is out of the bottle. Things happen when we get together, things which only a short while ago would not have seemed possible. As the polar ice melts ever more, I think about how after Uncle Angaangaak spoke at the conference, so many were in tears. I found tears coming to my eyes for days afterwards. It seems that to wake up from this mad dream of endless economic growth and separation, in order to feel reconnected once again to our place in the intricate web of this beautiful world, the ice must melt in our hearts.

The highest law is the consciousness about being part of a sacred universe.’ Vandana Shiva.

Shifting Heavens

It was like being in a scene from a film. I remember the urgency with which the young man rounded the corner, making my heart leap there in Bethnal Green. Was I in the middle of a chase? Had Betty the dog and I got caught up in something?

’Look at the stars, look at the stars!’ He never stopped running as he shouted at the top of his voice, for it seemed that his mission was to astonish and wake up as many oblivious people as possible. ‘They’re all moving in the sky!’ My first thought was that here was another mad person. There are so many lucid mad people in London. 

I looked up at the sky, and sure enough he was right. All the stars were moving. Quite fast. The chimney pots and the roof tops were steady, but the stars, strangely clear in that London sky were all veering off in their constellations in an arc to the right. Were the stars moving or perhaps were we spinning faster than usual? My response was quite the opposite to the young man’s. I stopped still and looked and looked up at the sky as Betty tugged on her leash. Then there was a young couple standing beside me also looking up at the sky. They were sober and clear eyed and we verified with each other what we were seeing. What I cannot remember now (this was in the summer of 2013 or 2014) was whether the stars stopped falling, or whether I simply decided to go back in. Life went on. Betty peed on the grass. A drunk was flat out by the bushes. I could hear the evening getting going down Brick Lane, a faint roar of people determined to have a good time. I didn’t see it, but I suspect the dark silhouette of the fox was somewhere close by, sloping against the darkness of the walls or amongst the trees. Above us something had shifted in the heavens, clearly measurable against the London skyline.

The next day I searched the newspapers, I looked online, but it seemed that no one else had seen it or remarked upon it, other than me and the sober couple and the lad pounding the pavements. What was remarkable was how many people ignored him: another nutter, another somebody high on drugs, another person off the rails. 

 

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Thank you to the anonymous photographer who took this.  

Children of Burkina Faso

Walking about Dano, in Burkina Faso, I noticed how often the women walked in groups with each other, how the men sat in groups under the trees and how the children went everywhere together. As they made their way home from school, dressed in green uniforms, they would rush up to shake my hand and say hello. Up on the hill, outside the school, they shared with me the fruit they had been picking from the tree. 

I remember that evening down by the Total garage, when a group of us went to look for some dege, a millet pudding made with fermented goat’s milk. Quite a few of us had got a taste for it, and we had cleaned them out at the garage shop within days.

’Come back at six ‘o’clock,’ said the cashier. So here we were. The woman smiled broadly at us and pointed to the empty shelf in the fridge. ‘Wait for a bit, as I’m expecting a delivery,’ she said. 

We waited outside the shop as catchy music played on speakers. A family of pigs rooted about amongst the rubbish and savvy goats crossed the road with confidence. Women walked tall, carrying wood, fruit, grain and all kind of bundles upon their heads. The smell of roasting meat wafted down the road from where men were barbecuing pork in old oil drums. People stopped to tank up their bikes, babies strapped to their mothers’ backs. Many of the bikes were piled up with goods; boxes of fruit, an upended table, a goat folded into a basket with feet tied together, . 

And then suddenly there was a bunch of children in front of us, smiling and moving to the music. One minute there were five of them, the next ten, then twenty. There were little ones of about four years old and boys and girls as old as about twelve or so. Sarah, a bright young woman from Seattle, immediately started to engage with them, joining in with their dancing and calling out ‘hello!’ ‘Hello’ the children said back. They were quite used to doing call and response. I joined them too and within seconds there we were, pointing our fingers up at the stars. ‘Les etoiles,’ I called out. ‘Les etoiles,’ they called back, their eyes bright and their faces wide with enthusiasm. ‘La lune!’ We pointed up at the moon.

’I love you,’ called out Sarah. ‘I love you,’ came back thirty fold. Such a wave of love.

It seemed we were in a real live flash mob or else life had turned into the best kind of musical, where everybody just breaks out into song and dance.  

Soon Sarah was leading them pied piper fashion, circling up the steps and down again. A boy of about eight wanted to dance with both his hands in mine. I was torn between wanting to do this with him endlessly and wanting to include the others in our dance. 

At a certain point, I noticed a small girl sitting on the bench. She was about five or six years old and she seemed to have a different light about her, where that of the other children was sunny, hers was a cool blue. I’ve wondered since whether she would have stood out so much had we been in London or anywhere else in the West. But there on the garage forecourt, in Dano, in Burkina Faso, amongst all those smiling children whose faces were as open and bright as the full moon, she sat apart. There was something terribly alone about her, broken. Sometimes a child would reach out a hand to her, but she kept her own hands to herself and stayed on the bench. She seemed to just want to look and look at this dancing troupe. 

As we followed our pied piper twisting past the bench, my boy dancer’s hand in my right hand, I put out my left hand for her, and magically she caught it and now we were all snaking around the forecourt together. Her face remained serious and she didn’t want to talk. I was honoured to feel her small warm hand in mine. She made my heart ache. 

The conga broke up and then a twelve year old boy started to dance. His friends pushed him forward and he was breathtaking, isolating his body parts, moving with captivating elegance. We cheered him on. We cheered ourselves on. And then it was time to go home.

The next evening, as we were hanging out in the hotel dining area, Sarah and I noticed an array of small black heads popping up from behind the wall. We went over to let them in. It was the amazing dancer with four younger ones. He said they were his brothers and sisters.  

Sarah, Hazel and I decided to walk them back into town, and on the way I asked Amadou if his mother knew where he was. ‘She is deceased,’ he told me matter of factly. ‘And your father?’ ‘He is also deceased.’ They were orphans.

This landed like a stone in my stomach. I knew that being one of the poorest countries in the world, Burkina Faso has many children orphaned by AIDS. But knowing that is quite different to meeting some.

Amadou balanced along the kerb as we walked and told me that they lived with his elder brother. I didn’t have the heart to ask how his parents had died, but it seemed it was only last year.  His little brother held my hand and Sarah walked ahead with another brother and sister. The youngest sister was walking behind us, her hand in Hazel’s. ‘Is she tired?’ I asked Amadou, looking back at his little sister, who was walking slowly. ‘She’s hungry,’ he said.

I didn’t want that walk to end. I didn’t want to let go of the small hand in mine. I wondered whether the big brother would be waiting for them. At the Total garage, I brought them dege pudding, yogurts, sesame biscuits, packets of crackers and a box of cheese. As we got stepped outside the shop, a lady on a bike seemed to know the children, and they gathered about her. As I handed Amadou the food, I told him, ‘you are a true dancer. Never stop dancing.’  He nodded at me. ‘I know,’ and he took the bag of food.

 

 

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Dano, Burkina Faso

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Dano, Burkina Faso

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Market day in Dano

 

 

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Women making bean flour fritters, Dano.

 

Wolves and Hawks

There are wolves about. I heard a knock on my door and there stood Jérôme, a hunter from the village. He was holding a big bag for me, heavy with a quarter of a wild boar he had hunted. I staggered under the weight of the meat as he handed it to me and it landed with a thump on the kitchen table. He said that there hadn’t been so many boar about this year because packs of wolves have been scaring them off. Some lambs and a goat had been taken on the other side of Cereste. I already knew that the odd lone wolf comes down from the mountains, as my neighbour Mylène told me she saw one last year, but I hadn’t realised that there were whole packs of them around. 

Hearing this I felt a tremor of excitement, or is it fear? I don’t know, but it makes me feel alive, and reminds that where I live is wild. Wild, and that the balance of nature here is changing. Up until recently the wild boar and the deer had no predators other than the hunters and their guns. 

The morning after, Betty the doglet and I walked down the road to collect the post from the box. The track up to the house is too long and too rough for the post woman and her yellow van. Every blade of grass, every twig, every rock was outlined by the sunlight, everything still wet after the soaking rain. I could smell snow in the air. The mountains were nearer, brought into focus, smoothed out by snowfall, lit up and shining. Betty traced the ground with her nose, zig-zagging, avid, making the secret map of animal scents visible. She was onto something, a fox, a hare perhaps, a wild boar. A wolf? I continued walking down the road as flocks of chaffinches took flight from the bare poplars, wheeling and dipping and proclaiming the blueness of the day. 

In the distance, out of sight, car horns insisted, jarring and beeping. We might be far from Paris and Marseille and the most violent of the protests of the gilets jaunes, but their presence has been felt here too. They have set up shacks in the middle of the roundabout on the way to Forcalquier, where they burn scrap wood to keep warm. Every now and again they march slowly around the roundabout, bringing the traffic to a halt. My friend, Lesley missed her flight when her bus was blocked from getting onto the motorway. Most cars have a yellow vest showing on the dashboard in a show of support, although it might be expediency, as sometimes the gilets jaunes won’t let people through the blockades otherwise. They can be bullying at times. The police too have been heavy handed. It does seem that most people support the gilets. Taxes are high here in France. For many it’s hard to make ends meet. People are sceptical about whether the proposed higher tax on diesel was actually being levied for ecological reasons. They are en colère, disillusioned with Macron. He is seen as elitist, out of touch with the people. Revolution is in the air. 

 As I walked along the road, past some crows pecking at pumpkins which had been left to rot at the side of the field, I thought about the week before, when I joined family and friends in Parliament Square in London for Extinction Rebellion 2. Many were dressed in black, and a coffin was carried, as this was a funeral procession for all those species we have lost and face losing, including ourselves. There were passionate speeches calling for our government to wake up and to treat climate change as the emergency that it is. Sam Lee sang a beautiful old song that brought a tear to my eye. People stopped the traffic. We marched and called out for climate justice. We marched for zero emissions. When the police surged in to stop people digging a hole for the coffin in the middle of Parliament Square, the MC urged everyone to stay peaceful, to breathe. It was an edgy moment. The police kettled the hole as everyone about them linked arms and sang a gentle song. One or two of the policemen looked embarrassed.

Here in France, walking along the road, the distant dissonance of the car horns made me think of the uneasy change that is being felt. Europe is shifting. The old ways are crumbling. People are threatened and afraid. None of this is convenient. Something new is on the way, and we don’t yet know what that will look like. 

I thought of the wolves changing the ecological balance. Fewer deer and wild boar mean more trees will grow, which will affect all wildlife. This isn’t convenient to the sheep farmers, nor does it sit well with the hunters, but there is something bigger at play, something so big it is hard to really see the impact.

At this point I looked up and saw a hawk perched on top of the telegraph pole, surveying everything below, keen. It pierced me with its yellow stare and then it took off.  Yes, I thought, this is what we need now, the long view.

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Wolf and Hawk. Thanks to railtoonsanimations.com

Wise Cook

There was something trusting about the way that everybody slept on the night bus from Huatulco to San Cristobal. Upfront, the driver listened to romantic Mariachi songs for all ten hours of the drive, while behind him slumbering bodies were curled up and draped every way over the seats. Cáli and I were amazed to see a replacement driver emerge from a tiny cabin next to the luggage hold where he had been sleeping. There was an air grill so that he could breathe.

Pilar was waiting for us at our rented house with a huge grin on her face. ‘Welcome, welcome! You are going to love it here!’ The adobe house was in a courtyard behind a gate not far from the centre of San Cristobal. I was excited to see that we had a small fireplace and a stack of wood to burn in the evenings.

We hadn’t put our suitcases down before she was suggesting a trip to stay in a cabin in the country with some friends of hers. ‘You should come. It’s going to be great and you are going to love it. We’ll eat by the fire and walk to a waterfall. But I’m leaving in five minutes. You want to come?’

’Sounds great. How about tomorrow?’ I said, feeling my weariness after the journey. Cáli and I exchanged looks. ‘No, no, tomorrow is too late. I was supposed to have left fifteen minutes ago.’

Ten minutes later we were on the back seat of Pilar’s car, squished up against bags of food, jammed against a great coffee urn and some blankets, while other bags spilled over with flutes and shakers, ribbons and children’s toys. Pilar thrust spoons and pots of yogurt in our hands along with some biscuits, which added to the feeling of being a kid going on some holiday without quite knowing the destination. Pilar’s teenage son sat in the front. He was as silent as she was talkative. Words spilled out of her in florid torrents, sometimes in English and then when she got particularly enthusiastic she switched to Spanish. She even managed to interrupt herself. ‘So many topics, so many histories!’ After a stolen doze in the back, we arrived at her friends’ place in the mountains. We said hello to five friends, their three children and our hosts, Antonio a geologist, and his wife, Maria de Guadalupe. Her full name consisted of about ten names which is why she was known as Lupita. A table was set up in the shade of a tree, tortillas unpacked, a pot of steaming beans was produced along with omelettes and roasted green pueblano chillis doused in lime. We drank black coffee from paper cups and ate breakfast together as Antonio, a kind and intelligent man, told the story of how he met Lupita. He first set eyes on her where she lived in the jungle as a widow with her two young children and it was love at first sight.

Pilar clapped her hands in excitement. ‘How I love romantic histories!’ When he told the bit about how they flashed sunlight off mirrors so that they could find each other in the wilderness, Pilar couldn’t contain hersel; she leaped from her seat and made an impassioned stomp on the earth before sitting down again. ‘That is sooo romaaantic!’

As we got our beds ready in the cabin, Pilar told us to meet the other campers at dawn because she wanted to do a goodbye ceremony for Antonio and Lupita as they were shortly leaving for New Zealand on sabatical. ‘I want everyone to participate,’ she said, shaking a rattle above her head. I thought I detected an eye roll from Lupita. Both Cáli and I were exhausted, longing for sleep and Pilar’s enthusiasm was beginning to grate; it now felt more like desperate hyperactivity. It was a relief when everyone left the cabin so we could go to bed. Cáli and I agreed we would get up when we woke up, dawn or no dawn, ceremony or no ceremony.

It got very cold at night. We were at over 2000 metres of altitude and the cold air whistled between the boards of the cabin as we shivered on our lumpy mattresses, despite sleeping fully dressed under our blankets. When we awoke we were of one mind. We would make our way back to San Cristobal after breakfast and leave the friends to their celebrations. We had got swayed off our course, and over breakfast it was becoming evident that there was some tetchiness brewing amongst the friends, that they weren’t quite as close as we had thought. 

We walked over to visit Julieta and her family, neighbours to Lupita and Antonio. They lived in two bamboo huts: one was a kitchen with a fire burning on a waist high fireplace which Julieta tended, burning slim branches and dried corn husks; the other was where the family slept, and it was also where they kept their scythes and animal feed. The family invited is into the kitchen. There were a couple of small benches where Julieta’s husband and son were eating their breakfast of plantains and tortillas with coffee. The door was open and the son, a grown man wearing a leather cowboy hat, was caressing his favourite cockerel and feeding him tidbits. Julieta moved easily and efficiently about her kitchen as she made nopales in a frying pan on the fire. The cactus was trimmed of its spikes and sliced into fingers, fried in a pan and sprinkled with salt and a squeeze of lime. It was fresh and sour and had the slippery consistency of okra.

Ranged upon a couple of shelves, Julieta had everything she needed to hand and yet nothing more. Plastic bags and utensils were stuffed between the gaps in the bamboo walls. Julieta emanated sane goodness, the essence of which I can only compare to the most delicious tostadas I have ever tasted: golden, toasted tortillas made with home grown corn, roughly ground and cooked by Julieta on her fire. The taste was warm and fragrant and nourishing. It stayed with me all day and I think it shall stay with me much longer.

Next to the huts was a substantial altar, with statues of Jesus and Mary, family photographs and offerings of flowers, candles and husks of corn. Beyond the huts, the family grew vegetables, corn and nopales cactuses. A couple of dogs roamed around. Another was tied up and barked at us. We fed the breakfast leftovers to the chickens and turkeys, while pigs squealed in their sties, and rabbits and guinea pigs spread themselves out on the earth and panted in the shade. 

A look of curiosity crossed Juileta’s face when Cáli and I told her that we had travelled from Europe and from Brazil. ‘Muy lejo,’ she said thoughtfully - very far away. She was planning to catch one of the rabbits and cook it for dinner that day and she looked disappointed when we told her that we would be leaving on the bus for San Cristobal soon. I got the feeling she was enjoying sharing her kitchen with us. Cáli and I were also sad to leave her, yet it was time to make a move back to our base. 

Before Pilar would drive us back, she insisted on a group photo. But first of all she wanted us to shut our eyes and breathe deeply, ground ourselves, stretch this way, then that way, look down, bend our knees, connect with positive energy and think of something that would make us very happy. I went with the first thing which came into my mind which was a fervent longing for this extended photo shoot/workshop to be over as soon as possible.

’That woman has so much energy, she should find some chickens to herd!’ said Antonio afterwards,

We loved our days in San Cristobal surrounded by wooded mountains and the smell of woodsmoke in the cool night air, and the silvery sleigh bell sound of the gas bottles ringing against each other in the delivery truck running through the streets. We spent many hours in shops and markets buying clothes. We admired exquisite embroidery and woven cloths in the textile museum. More about the those to come soon.

Before we left, Pilar came round to the house with three bottles of Pox, (pronounced ‘posh’) a feisty liquor made from corn and sugar cane. Each bottle was flavoured with different fruits and had different properties. Pilar told us that it was medicinal and had been used by the Mayans for thousands of years in ceremonies. ‘It’s very sacred. We must try them all.’ She told us that she hadn’t much enjoyed the day with her friends on the walk and that now she was going to spend a few days by the sea and take care of herself and her cough. She had spread herself too thin. She shed a few tears and so did we and then we all toasted each other with the Pox, drinking to our dreams and our good wishes for our futures, our friends and our families and then we had hugs all round. We left her, feeling warmed, slightly more patient and just a little tipsy.

 

 

Julieta cooking nopales on her fire   

Julieta cooking nopales on her fire

 



Julieta cooking beans  

Julieta cooking beans  

The family altar  

The family altar  

Nopales cactus. Good for inflammation and for the stomach too. 

Nopales cactus. Good for inflammation and for the stomach too. 

Mexican Colours

Nearing Oaxaca as the bus twisted around the bends in the road, the sun slipped down behind the mountains, revealing them to be a series of profiles: dark velvet outlines of sleeping beings lying head to head, their noses and lips rising reaching skywards, some aquiline, some rounded, some more delicate.  

In the Zoccolo beside the cathedral, the square joyfully hummed with flutes, marimbas and  chatter. Couples of all ages strolled hand in hand under the trees, children running free holding onto enormous bright pink and orange sausage shaped balloons. There seemed to be almost as many vendors as there were people, selling tamales and tacos, soup and cakes and delicate birds made out of dried grasses. Women with long braids hanging down their backs walked about trying to sell the colourful embroidered clothes loaded upon their arms and onto their backs. I found myself smiling and smiling at this sense of fiesta on a Monday evening, at how the Mariachi bands burst into their serenades with comical timing, at how the grinning young girl half walked, half danced, her glossy black ponytail swinging behind her, making her way towards something good across the square, at the baby tightly wrapped up in a shawl strapped to the back of his mama as she sold coloured sweets, at the long line of people waiting for corn on the cob from the guy working exuberantly from his tiny stall, vigorously smothering the corn in mayonnaise, rolling it in cheese and then squirting it with six kinds of chilli sauce, ranging from vermillion to deep umber. I seemed to have burst through the cobble stones into a magical world where everything is designed to be as fun and colourful as possible. 

And then, walking home, I noticed a group of tiny older women, their dark braids woven with crimson cloth, cooking and eating and talking together upon the low wall. They had pitched up tents and made a little village in the square. A large sign demanded justice and care for indigenous widows. Their husbands had been killed in a massacre in 2010.

Cali (my travelling companion) and I headed up to Teotitlán del Valle, which is a village where everyone makes carpets. Pastora, from the women’s collective welcomed us and demonstrated how the natural dyes are made using herbs and barks and cochineal beetles which live on the cactuses nearby. She changed the colours in a flash by adding a few drops of lemon or a pinch of wood ash; orange turned to lime yellow, plum to fuschia. Later she unrolled the carpets and pointed out the symbols: of the four cardinal points, water, thunder, light, of the commmunity.

After another long bus ride, we arrived in San Agustinillo on the coast near Mazunte, Here the air is warm, the light crystalline and the sea clean. As Miriam, a local healer, gave me one of the best massages of my life, my inner vision was awash with colours, lime green, amber, ochre, sand, rust reds, spiced orange, deep turquoise, emerald green, hot pink, saffron, on and on they swirled in front of me, an endlessly moving sea of colours. 

Before going to bed I went to look at the inky ocean under the stars. I thought of the shadowy whales swimming out in the distance. The moon lit up a band upon every wave turning it silver and iridescent the instant before it crashed into white foam.

 

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Natural dyes for wool

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White cochineal beetle on cactus, squashed beetle on hand, some with a drop of lime added