Dispatch from Down Under

Facebook greeted me with this today:

Your friends haven’t heard from you in a while. Time to write a blog post.

Ouch. No arguing with that, is there? Welcome to the era of cyber-motivation.

My blogging apparatus is rusty in the extreme — hopefully my brain is still firing on all cylinders. I put the laptop on the glass-and-wicker table in the apartment we’re renting on the 16th floor of a downtown Melbourne high-rise, crack my knuckles and stretch out my arms.

Since I last wrote, we have sold our house, given away or packed up all our things, and moved to Melbourne, Australia where Marc is starting a fancy new job as a BMOC at Monash University. (I hadn’t heard of it either but then again EPFL was also an unknown.)

I’ve known we were moving since late November, but the reality of it didn’t hit until we actually sold our place, and then I had to say goodbye to all my friends and leave Luc behind. I loved Vancouver. I loved the weather, the forests, the ocean. I even loved the rain, and this year there was a lot of it. I loved my yoga classes and the friends I made there. I loved my library branch and the local coffee place. I am still irrationally scared of bears, and I didn’t love the tiny ants that invaded my kitchen every spring and summer, but everyone has their limits.

So why move? It’s about life goals for Marc – this job is a good opportunity. And then he’s been wanting to come back to Australia, where he went to high school and university, for a long time. Mostly in secret, I think, but once when we were in Switzerland he interviewed for a position in Perth and came back with a suitcase full of PR materials touting the wonders of Western Australia. Um, no, I said, somewhat unhelpfully. Perth is about as far away as you can get from anywhere else on Earth. The boys were younger then.

It’s also about novelty and adventure. I have always liked change. There’s no better way to explore a new place (and continent) than to park yourself there for an extended period. We’ve lived in Switzerland and Canada, and the east and west coasts of the US, and each has been such a different experience. With the Internet I can stay in touch, and with airplanes I can visit people. What little family I still have in the US have all promised to come to Australia to visit. You should come, too, if you can handle long airplane flights. That was one non-negotiable for me: business class over the Pacific. So far it has been tolerable.

A few impressions:

It’s winter. Today is the solstice, and it’s light by 7:00 and doesn’t get dark until about 6:00. Much better than the 8:00 – 4:30 light window in Vancouver on December 21. It doesn’t really feel like winter — more like an awesome fall day on the east coast.

Melbourne is a sports paradise. In our first two weeks here we have been to a rugby game (Australia versus Fiji) and an Australian rules football game. Most of the fans at the rugby game were like us. The players were not. Particularly their legs and upper bodies. Tree trunks come to mind. But they were very polite with each other. The man sitting next to me filled me in on the rules, many of which I was a bit fuzzy on, particularly the part where they’re all piled up and appear to be groping one another. I find I quite like rugby.

The fans at the AFL game were a more varied bunch —grandmas, young couples, families, ordinaries like us, probably because the tickets were cheaper. Ours were in the fan zone behind the goal post, which in retrospect was not the best idea. The guy sitting right behind me was simultaneously trying to coach individual players from the stands, berate the referees, and set a record for the number of beers consumed during a match. The opera world missed a real opportunity with that one. We escaped with slightly damaged ear drums and some choice new vocabulary. The game itself is fun to watch – a huge oval field, 18 men on a side, no protective gear whatsoever, no time outs or huddles, just constant action. Bill Bryson describes it as “loosely controlled mayhem” and I’d agree, apart from the words “loosely” and “controlled”. I also quite like AFL. Apparently Australians do as well —the stadium seats 100,000 and there were 58,000 in attendance for our game. Here’s a picture of them right after a score:

Melbourne is a foodie paradise. Huge markets with fresh produce, cheese and meat, specialty Asian grocery stores, restaurants all over the place. People eat out here a lot and at all times of the day and night. You can walk into a restaurant at 5:00 pm and get dinner, or 3:00 pm and get breakfast. (Quite the departure from Switzerland where between 2:00 and 7:00 there is absolutely nothing doing and you’re looked at like a crazy person for asking if there’s anything to eat.) Rooftop bars and pubs abound. We’ve been testing the pubs because the TV in our apartment doesn’t have cable and Marc HAS to know what’s going on in the rugby and football. They’re very relaxed — you can order food and beer, or not, and the food on offer is often quite good. The other night at a pub we shared a table with a well-heeled woman and her daughter (I assume) who were avidly watching the rugby — New Zealand was trouncing Samoa — while quaffing G&Ts.

They’re into coffee in a way I have never experienced. It’s the usual espresso stuff — latte, long black, short black, and flat white — but also cold brew, filter drip, and other things I haven’t registered because I immediately go for the flat white, which has become my new favorite food. No Starbucks (maybe one) here, but loads of little cafes where people flock for brekkie (smashed avocado on toast and/or eggs) at any time of day. At 10:00 the office workers all go buy coffee. Many of them take their work with them — I’ve seen meetings being held, notes being taken, computers pulled out and figures discussed. My current favorite is the League of Honest Coffee, a couple blocks from our apartment. I sit down, a guy comes over with a bottle of water and a glass, and I tell him I want a large flat white. No worries, he says, and a little while later he’s back with a bowl full of happiness.

The trees are strange and different, and the birds, too. Flocks of raucous lorikeets congregate in the tops of the palm trees. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the beauty of a bird’s feathers and its vocalizations. I haven’t seen any kangaroos yet, but we plan to rent a car this weekend and find some.

Not only do people drive on the wrong side of the street, they walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk. It took me at least a week of constant near-misses to learn to hug the left side.

While walking around Richmond, a slightly dodgy neighborhood like Baltimore’s Hampden oozing with “local character”, we spied an open barber shop. (It was Sunday afternoon). Marc being in need of a haircut, we went in and waited his turn. It slowly started to dawn on us that this wasn’t your average barber shop. Various stuffed animals (taxidermy stuffed, not plush stuffed) jutted from the walls and perched upon surfaces, most of them wearing rakish hats, some with Barbie dolls astride. There were several posters of attractive vintage women, all with mustaches added on. The waiting room reading included politically correct fairy tales and a comic book of bunny suicides. When Marc went up to have his trim, he was offered a beer. The conversation included AFL, of course, Richmond having lost the match the previous day by a slim margin very late in the game. Here are a few pics:

Speaking of Sunday afternoons, I had been worried that things would stop on Sundays here, like they did in Switzerland, but that appears not to be the case, except for the coffee shops in the city proper, which are mainly fueled by office workers. Life goes on. You can buy groceries, go out for a meal, get your hair cut. Phew.

In two weeks we move to a townhouse in a neighborhood a bit to the south called South Yarra. It will be good to have our feet on the ground again, and not up in a high rise. I’ve got my eye on a yoga studio called the Humming Puppy and maybe I’ll take dance classes. I tried a “barre fitness” class here —$50 for 2 weeks and they guaranteed I’d love it — but I didn’t. The women were all so very young, not terribly friendly, and the body-sculpting focus gags me. I don’t need that at this stage – or maybe I do, but I don’t want it. And at this point, I’m not going to pay money to do something I don’t enjoy. I’ll keep looking until I find a vibe like I had in my Vancouver yoga studio, Semperviva. Maybe I’ll do a Yoga Project, Melbourne edition. Namaste, mate.

That’s all for the moment. All about me, sorry. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about neuroplasticity, and I promise I’ll write about it in a future post. Now I have to go get ready to take the train out to Monash and meet all these people Marc is working with for the first time. No worries!  One last picture to hold you til the next post:



For the forests

Today an interesting thing came up in my Facebook feed: it’s the International Day of Forests. No kidding.

What a coincidence, I think to myself. Here I am, mulling over the idea of writing a blog post on something, anything, as long as it’s not depressing or political in nature, and my latest obsession comes and knocks at the door. Me! Write about Me!

Three things led me down this path (irony intended):

  1. We moved to British Columbia, home of the world’s most amazing temperate rainforests. The forests here are epic. I have never seen anything like it. Words like Majestic, Awesome, and Humbling come to mind.
  2. I read Eating Dirt, a non-fiction book by Charlotte Gill about a person who has a summer job planting seedlings in the wake of clear cuts. It’s full of information about forests, like the fact that the crowns of those massive douglas firs don’t ever touch each other.
  3. We hiked through huge aspen forests in Colorado, and I investigated aspens while writing about the hike, and we hiked through Oregon, which is mile upon mile of lodgepole pine forest. My intuition meter was buzzing. These forests are not just a bunch of trees standing around. They are entities. I felt it.

In honor of International Day of Forests, I watched Suzanne Simard’s Ted Talk today – bonus fact: she’s a UBC professor – in which she explains how trees and the underground microrhizome community form a network. Using this underground superhighway, trees communicate with each other, share nutrients, warn each other about insect attacks, and nurture their young. Forests are communities.

“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees; they’re complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate and provide avenues for feedbacks and adaptation.”

I’m right in the middle of reading The Hidden Life of Trees, written by a German forester named Peter Wohlleben. He started out like every good European forester, managing the crap out of his forest, thinking he knew what it needed in order to be healthy. But the years went on and he started paying attention, managing less and listening more. He learned how trees communicate, how they share with and protect one another, how they are born, grow old and die. It’s a fascinating book. I was going to wait and write this blog post when I had finished reading it. But this isn’t a book report. This is an ode to forests.

Incredibly, his book is a best seller in Europe. I say incredibly, because Europeans have for centuries have done everything in their power to manhandle nature to the point where there is very little of it left (just read my diatribe on the great Swiss lynx debate or my thoughts on wolves if you want my not-so-humble opinion on this). I’m surprised – and heartened – that they still apparently care so much.

See, our Western Judeo-Christian heritage is based on a book that says that the world was created for us. For us to use, kill, exploit, whatever. We’re the pinnacle of the pyramid, the apex species, everything else is just there so we can have a good time of it. From that perspective, a forest is nothing more than a resource. It’s not a single organism. It’s just a bunch of trees that happen to have other things living in and around them, and these trees, in turn, can conveniently and simply be classified as board-feet of lumber.

In fact, forest exploitation was the major driving force behind the European colonization of America. From the Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant:

“Logging is an industry that, while unseen by most of us, has altered this continent – indeed, all inhabited continents – even more completely than agriculture. This has been the case […] for millennia. Logging is the prerequisite for life as we know it: first and foremost, the trees must go.”

[…] Even at this late date (nb 1894), with much of the East and Midwest “slicked off”, the forest was still perceived as “an enemy to be overcome by any means, fair or foul.” The push to open the West, coupled with the sweeping changes effected by the industrial revolution and urbanization led to the woods being viewed – and treated – with a kind of aggressive contempt. The noun “lumber” was itself derogatory, meaning anything useless or cumbersome. North American immigrants were a restive people who tended to view land less as a “place” than as a cheap commodity. They cut the forest as they breathed the air – as if it was free and infinite.”

The news in British Columbia today is still full of references to “softwood lumber” and threatened US-Canada trade deals. Clear-cutting still occurs on a massive scale around here. “Experts” in the forestry sector still somehow think that single-species tree plantations are a good replacement for a forest.

News flash, guys! They aren’t. They are tree jails, in which the inmates can’t communicate with or protect each other. They can’t benefit from the presence of wildlife or other tree species. They’ve lost the wisdom of their elders. It’s a bleak, barren substitute for tree existence. It’s exactly like factory farming, where animals are raised in crowded pens, in abject misery, for one purpose only: our stomachs. The thought infuriates and depresses me. And I promised this wasn’t going to be depressing! Sorry.

Many of today’s articles celebrating forests devote an inordinate number of words to the ways in which forests benefit us. Sure, the Japanese love their forest bathing. It’s good for your stress levels to go for a walk in a forest. That’s a no-brainer. Just try to find a real forest these days. Good luck with that.

And sure, we’re finally starting to understand, probably because we have destroyed so many of them and suffered the consequences, that intact forests play a critical role in the health of our planet.  They safeguard water supplies by preventing erosion, they capture rainwater in their branches and filter it through the soil as it flows into creeks and rivers. They are a major component in global climate control as they transpire moisture back up into the air and capture carbon in their tissues.

All this is great and wonderful and we should be grateful and stop all the slashing and burning, if only for our own survival. Right.

I firmly believe, though, that aside from how great they are for us, forests should be celebrated just for being forests. For being entities. We don’t appreciate polar bears because they’re useful to us. We think they’re cool because they’re polar bears. We feel they have a right to exist. Why should a forest be any different?

I’d also argue, as I have before, that we are definitely not the apex species on this planet. Not everything has been put here for us to use. In fact, nothing has been put here just for us to use. Eventually, it will all come back around and bite us in the butt and we’ll die like flies on a hot day. (That’s more of an Eastern concept, by the way, otherwise known as Karma.) In the end, long after we’re food for the worms that till their soil, the bacteria and the fungi will still be here. And, in all likelihood, a forest or two that nurtures them, and that they nurture in turn. Take that, you pestilential bipeds!

If you can find a forest, go for a bath. Hear the sound of the wind in the branches. Listen to the way the birds warn each other that you’re there. If you can find a remnant near a clear-cut, like I did in Oregon, be conscious of its pain. If you can find an aspen grove, some of which are tens of thousands of years old, entrust the ashes of your loved ones to it, like we did, so that they may be cradled in the arms of a being of extraordinary resilience and wisdom whose roots run as deep as the planet itself.

Reading list for the intrepid tree-hugger that you know you want to be:

End times


That’s the only word I came up with today. Write something on your blog, Mary, I told myself. Maybe it will be therapeutic.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become increasingly dependent on the Internet to soothe my restless mind. I lose myself in a labyrinth of interesting articles, the antics of friends from around the world, silly videos, TV series on Netflix. I quell my boredom and at the same time avoid doing anything of note, including blogging. Oh yes, I do emerge for yoga and some running, I do read actual books to the tune of one or two a week. But still. The rest of the time? Drugged.

Until lately. It’s no fun any more. Everything is so awful. Everyone is yelling. And since last Friday, every day just seems to bring us one step closer to the apocalypse. Is it even legal to gag the EPA? Or is the “liberal media” telling me a whopper? Who’s lying, who’s exaggerating? What the fuck is really happening? Can this be real?

I marched on Saturday, with loads of lovely people, everyone was so polite, so optimistic, so motivated. All over the world, we marched. We agreed — we must hold one another up. We must care for our planet.

But what is unfolding in front of our unbelieving eyes is instead the opposite. There is no reason to support one another! People should be responsible for pulling their own selves up! They should stop complaining and start working! There is no reason to care for our planet. It will be here long after we die! We must achieve. We must take advantage of the rich abundance of the natural world. That’s intelligent. It’s our God-given right! We have a duty to make progress, to continuously grow the GDP, to use the resources for ourselves and to build personal wealth. Those are our American values.

I despair that the story lines have become so entrenched that dialog is no longer possible. That this will end in lives lost, hearts broken, landscapes obliterated, a broken planet. Earth will survive, you can be sure of that. Cockroaches will not suffer, nor bacteria. But humans, as a species? It’s not looking good. Might feel fine now, to be rich, to have achieved, to have built wealth and comfort on the pain and suffering of the less fortunate and the bounty of the earth, but in another hundred, two hundred years, what will humanity look like? What world will our children’s children be inhabiting, if they are even around? I shudder.

I should buy some live chickens, stockpile some rice, canned salmon and vitamin C. Good thing I have backpacking survival equipment. I hope my cat Minnie doesn’t eat the chickens. I’ll need some cat food, too. I should make a list.

I need to take a tech vacation, too. Internet rehab. Otherwise my brain is going to fry itself out with post-apocalyptic nightmares. I don’t sleep well these days.

Thank God we’re moving to Australia. Did I mention that? Yes, we’re moving to Melbourne.

But when I get off the Internet, and I feel untethered. It’s like a craving. What happened? Has anyone sent me an e-mail?

Can anyone tell me how to stop this, how to exit the cycle of despair?

Maybe if I try to blog every day, a single, beautiful thing. Maybe that would help.

Yoga Project update

I have been remiss. I launched the Yoga Project, started my quest for enhanced mental and physical flexibility, and then went silent. You’re probably wondering how it all turned out. Have I become a human pretzel? Have I attained enlightenment? Continue reading

Book review – The Martian

You probably went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this winter. Did you happen to notice how everyone can breathe just fine on just about any planet or asteroid? With no space suits or visible means of  life support? Come on. It’s a reasonably good story —lots of action, romance, family drama, plenty of cute wookie and robot scenes —but the lack of attention to scientific detail drives me insane.

Last year I translated a book about space written by Swiss author Philippe Barraud. It was a fun project. I learned an enormous amount — the unfathomable enormity of the universe, the practical challenges inherent to interplanetary travel, the unlikelihood of survival as a species off our own planet, and most of all the mind-boggling absurdity of our conviction that humans are the most advanced lifeform in the universe. We are stunning in our stubborn tendency to put ourselves at the center of everything.

During our months of work, Philippe mentioned The Martian, saying it was a fantastic book. I’m not a sci-fi fan, so I filed it away and then forgot about it. I didn’t have a hankering to go see the movie when it came out, even though Matt Damon.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Whistler, waiting for Brendan and his friend Cassandra to weary of skiing in the rain. Due to bad planning on my part, I had no reading material. No journal. The free Whistler paper takes about five minutes to read. Front and center in the Whistler Village bookstore: The Martian. Thank you Fate. Continue reading

Book Review – Manuscript Found in Accra

Jerusalem’s about to get sacked by the Crusaders, and instead of packing, residents gather around a wise guy and ask him a bunch of deep questions. Read a longer, better summary at Goodreads.

Brazilian author Paolo Coehlo is scorned by the literati, probably  because he’s so popular—he has more than 10 million followers on Facebook. His mythical treatment of human pilgrimage, The Alchemist, started out as a total bomb, but became an international best-seller. I first read that one in French and loved it. So call me plebeian. I don’t give a rat’s ass. I like what I like. Continue reading

Homesick hiker

It has been months since we finished our thru-hike of the Colorado Trail. I wrote the blow-by-blow here on the blog; you might even have read it. What I have been less able to articulate is how the hike has affected me now that I’m back home again.

I still think about it every single day. I didn’t think this would happen to me. If I’m completely honest, I didn’t even really believe I could complete the hike, so I never thought about what would happen when it was over.  Continue reading

I gave at the office

Did you know about #GivingTuesday? Me neither. But it’s a Thing, the brainchild of someone who was nauseated by the consumerist mayhem of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, an attempt to reclaim the spirit of Thanksgiving from the clutches of corporate greed. It even has its own website.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave away 99% of his FaceBook shares yesterday. I myself got an e-mail from of the university. There wasn’t an explicit ask in the mail, nothing really on offer, just a big DONATE button at the bottom of the page. And as we head into the “holiday season,” the asks will keep rolling in right and left. Continue reading

Butterflies of love

The other day a friend asked me if I was still volunteering at the hospice. I told her I was.

That must be so hard, she said. Actually, I get that comment a lot. It must be so hard.

I didn’t quite know what to say. My immediate reaction was to say that it wasn’t hard. But I couldn’t explain why. Continue reading

An Epic Adventure

Eight rice and bean dinners, with dried kale, red peppers, onion and cheese powder from a box of Annie’s mac & cheese. Eight scrambled egg dinners, with dried green chile and salsa bark and more cheese powder. Three dehydrated green chile stew dinners. Twenty-eight one-cup bags of quick-cook steel-cut oatmeal, with milk powder, cinnamon and dried fruit. Four bags each of dried banana circles, apple slices, and sweet potato leather.

No, I’m not being prudent and stocking up in advance of the Big One that experts predict has a 33% chance of obliterating Vancouver in the next 50 years.

We’re heading for the hills. Continue reading