21 October 2007

Beyond Politics

(The History of the World, Part 2)

A review of Derrick Jensen live

Victoria, BC - 20 Oct 2007

Derrick Jensen speaks much as he writes: eloquently, haltingly, off-the-cuff; his insights and remarks are brilliant, provocative, profound, disturbing, irreverent, politically incorrect -- no matter what your politics are.  While politics in the conventional sense is the game of power and its subsidiary ethics, here we have a more radical approach to living in the world than accepting the myopia of the urban lifestyle; now nature is reintroduced to the equation. 

Nature (including plant and animal species, ecosystems of land, water and air, and traditional subsistence peoples) is no stranger to the inequation of power, suffering these 60 or 100 centuries of abuse, rape, plunder and blunder, burning, rending, killing, enslaving, forgetting.  Now up for discussion, for once, is the Endgame, as Derrick calls his latest two-volume study of what is involved in the necessary dominance and even more necessary demise of civilization. 

Civilization is characterized by cities, which require (DJ’s emphasis) for its people the importation of food and related resources . . . and therefore it requires the coerced or forcible removal of those necessities from the hinterland, the colonies, the rural poor, the wilderness, the stolen land.  The end of the game comes with the end of denial. 

The hardest step in the recovery program is the first step, which is to awake from denial.  So important and so immense, in fact, is this first step, that the entire two volumes of Endgame (I: The Problem of Civilization; II: Resistance) are devoted to it, as was the entire address tonight.  A single questioner after the talk inquired about the kind of society that might replace the one that has brought itself and everything else along with it to the brink of universal ruination; but Derrek begged off that question, as he had the earlier one, “What can we do?” 

“Your actions will come with the gifts you have to bring,” was his answer (and here we find a refreshingly Emersonian version of democracy, to oppose to the current Orwellian distortions of that noble principle).  In the meantime the more pressing matter -- “the axe held over the head” -- must be addressed, immediately, and it will take every ounce of our attention.   The only way we can give it our proper attention is to recognize the extent of the emergency. 

That we actually have an emergency situation on our hands is a logical if not always visible fact of a lifestyle based on nonrenewable or overzealously harvested resources.  But we can only continue to be lulled for so long by belief in the romantic dream and hope of civilization-forever-after, as most of the dying is still hidden (except when 80% of those in the audience raise their hands at the question “How many of you have lost a loved one to cancer?”), and everything keeps whistling away (though at a higher and higher pitch of anxiety and tension), toward the edge of the cliff, with noses lifted high in the air (as if to hide with pride the stench of extinction and genocide) .

Or we do know better, but we pleasantly forget (tonight, after all, was game 6 of the baseball playoffs . . . “Maybe the Indians will win this time,” quipped Derrick).  Or we should know better, but we take action believing our citizen-ship enterprise can be salvaged, and so we continue to vote, and to buy, steal or pray for our clean water and nutritious food from elsewhere without ever giving anything back, not in humble sacrifice of sacred respect or stewardship, nor truly fair price and trade to those in a distant land.  Come to think of it, what would a truly fair price be, in the whole ecological scheme of things?  The answer could well be, as Derrick Jensen suggests, no price at all -- but rather our sacrifice of such power, in favor of the power of our willingness to listen to our local landbase and its native peoples for instructions on how to survive.

In this reflective summary I risk putting words in Derrick Jensen’s mouth: and yet his message was clear and central: we need each to find our own path through these woods, toward new springs. 

As I drove away from the campus auditorium down the highway skirting the city, the reality of civilization struck me with new clarity and naked truth.  I was driving a machine of death on roadbeds of death through a misty night in a world of human creation: the music and heater on, the windows rolled mostly up, those in other cars invisible or oblivious behind separate barriers and windows . . . and then I wondered, in this state of naked awareness, what next?  What do I do about it?  How do I respond to what’s around me and what it represents on a planetary scale?

The short answer is, keep driving.  Relax, breathe, you can do this, you know the rules of the road, it is possible to operate this machine safely.  Once home I turn on the lightswitch, the computer, use the toilet, eat some yogurt and blueberries, make a cup of mocha for this session of writing.  When I was in the car I was inspired with a wave of good music: especially the wailing Middle Eastern fusion that somehow proved a theme song for this world of the automobile, the Oil Age. 

So my answer, like Derrick’s personal reponse, is “I’m a writer.”  I am also a musician, a teacher, an editor, a reviewer . . . With these callings I feel integrity, even though in their present context they are products of civilization.  I can use them despite their compromises also to reach beneath and above and beyond the layers of civilization attached to them, to their core as cultural expressions and as means of reconnection to nature, to human nature, to spirit

As Derrick so succintly put it, he can still use toilet paper while he works to dismantle Weyerhauser.  Or, he can feel despair over the suffering civilization inflicts, while also retaining the capacity for determined resistance and healthy happiness to be alive. 

His brand of humor is black, nearly rude and almost crude throughout the live performance, yet he has a deft touch not to overdo it, and the result was a palpable rapport with a sympathetic and attentive audience.  The same quality of irony comes across in a drier form in the written text. 

Undoubtedly the most poignant moment of the evening came an hour into the question period after the talk.  One man complaining of nearsightedness came onto the stage and kneeled in front of Derrick to get a close look at his face, and then said how sad it made him feel that Derrick had said “Fuck ‘em” in regard to the supposed threat of a “security” clampdown on his freedom of speech.

Derrick’s voice softened as he spoke, without irony and with great patience, explaining how his epithet was really just a kind of shorthand for not being willing to be coerced into inaction and silence.

Perhaps the most profound moment for me was Derrick’s story repeated from his book, about a conversation with someone presenting the argument of dualism: “Derrick, you’re so dualistic -- so, us and them, bad and good, civilized and natural . . . ”  His response: “Okay, what about dualism and nondualism; dualism -- bad; nondualism -- good . . . ?”  The same question might be posed about “Resistance,” the subtitle of Endgame, Volume II.  The spiritualist might respectfully advise against (if not outright protesting) such a compromise from unitary, all-embracing higher consciousness.  Yet again there is an inherent and ironic complicity in such a judgment: resisting resistance.  The pacifist heroes Gandhi and King were nothing if not fierce and unwavering resistors.  Derrick’s expansive acceptance comes into play more in respect to forms of resistance than to condoning a culture of slaughter and degradation.  His battle cry facing a consumeristic culture whose motto is “Everything must go” would be “Anything goes.”  He draws the moral line at actions like bombing a children’s hospital -- actions committed instead under the banner of freedom and democracy.

When do we begin to resist?  When do we use the word apocalypse?  When do we wake from the hypnosis that everything is fair and fine, or flawed or fucked, but as it must be?  Maybe the last words in this review should be the refrain that Derrick repeated several times in a row, midway through his talk.  The rate of survival in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was better than that of the Jews who went peacefully to the death camps.

Derrick likened his predicament (and ours, now that he has helped us see it), to “living in Germany in 1938.”  Until our awakening to action in our own way, we are the “good Germans” and we are the Jews, riding together at last on the same train to deva-station.  Yet the action we decide and are gifted to take does not come in a written manual or a speech to the masses, nor in any one set of strategies or tactics.  It comes through individual and collective inspiration: through the message of the river that spoke so poetically and precisely to and through Derrick in the closing prose of his speech, and through the implicit community and shared witness of the people assembled to hear him. 

The actions of  resistance are everything that conscious people are already doing.  Resistance continues from each moment to the next, in undefined actions to come, as we awake further and connect more to our fellow humans and fellow species and the resilient land we walk on (if we still walk at all).  Our actions of resistance and survival and renewal will persist and multiply, given the awakened will for facing “the Stone Age” to come, and for navigating the rocky ice-bridge to it with eyes and ears open and hearts full.


A decade ago I wrote a review of some similarly end-of-history overviews, with one notable programme (The Millennium Project) recognizing on the one hand the same impossibility of continuing on the present path of overconsumption, while refusing to “go backward” to an uncivilized state of nature.  The solution instead was foreseen in deep space, where humans could continue their divine mission to “go forth and multiply” indeed forever, through the infinity of space with its endless “resources” for the taking.  This fantasy is moot by now as the window has already passed for such a project to be launched from an overabused earth (as the author warned at the time of its writing a decade ago).  Without that vain hope to sustain us; and likewise without the Maoist vision of a populist agrarian utopia; and likewise without the neo-liberal dream of universal democracy (now blown to tatters by its neo-conservative evil twin embarked on an openly fascist imperial agenda); and likewise without the green delusions of happy hippy ecotopias recycling bicycle tires to the end of time; we are left with the one course that is both natural and humane.  That final remedy is the bitterest pill to swallow; but unlike the “final solution” of the holocaust, it is the path of finding a hard yet possible future by making the hardest choices now. 

It is a hard and bitter path because we have been so utterly convinced that it is the wrong one, the one to leave behind, the one to eradicate and transform and evolve from; and we have grown so utterly dependent on our short-lived alternative, so beguiling with its comfort and ease and excess, so intoxicating with its riches transferred to us from the other side: the invisible earth, the silent victims, the dispossessed.  Of course we don’t want to slide back to the Stone Age.  We will go kicking and screaming backwards, or kicking and screaming forwards -- sacrificing our comfort, or others’ lives and livelihoods, in the process -- but go we will, to the unpromised land, the land finally free of unsustainable promises.  Today or tomorrow, one way or another, by our action or inaction, we will go out of our false and manufactured Eden, into the wilderness; we will find our way home.

03 June 2007

Home Cooking

The Journey continues. 

Back to the home hotel, the cold stony beach, my own scene.  At Gonzales (Goa-nzales) there were wall-to-wall bodies. In Beacon Hill Park, I got chilled to the bone after jamming past sunset (9 p.m.) ... but a hot bath was on tap to make amends.  The baseball footage comes live - but my team plays hot and cold. My travel computer is jealous now of my home unit, back in operation with its larger screen. The dentist wants to see me again.  I survived taxes, a month late. And oh right, chemtrails again, diffusing into haze.

When I go out to a favorite wild place along the coast, by foot, it’s still close to the city and naval base and I’m buzzed by helicopters, training flights, and a fleet of kayakers.  It strikes me that this privileged land exists under serious armed guard, and that the taxes I pay are part of the protection racket.

I’m cheating on summer here - not only getting it back to back, but with a bonus of five hours a day of extra daylight.  Still, I sense that the summer will pass quickly here, as it always does.  Six months of travel seemed to pass quite slowly, full as it was of varied and new experiences and destinations.  Six months at home in the same place goes more quickly, the days going by in chunks of sameness, routine, preoccupation ... even when there’s not as much going on as I feared.  One thing I have learned in traveling is to simplify, minimize, be happy with an uncluttered lifestyle.

Now I’ve connected with friends again, secured a music studio for the summer, done a week of sailing and another week of beaching, seen my email needs drop to minutes a day ... what’s left, with summer still to come?  More of the same, of course; and I suppose I’ll need to add some income along the way ... but still, it leaves room for dreaming, and daily practice, and relationship with all that is ... which after all, as a lifestyle for a chronic “achiever,” is a breath of fresh air.


more photos from Victoria, BC, Canada ...

06 May 2007

An Inconvenient Gore

1 MayBibi’s Hideaway, Matei, Taveuni, Fiji

This could be heaven or this could be hell.--The Eagles, “Hotel California”

It’s ironic that even while working daily on a writing project concerned with the central theme of living “in the flow” ... and even as I had worked my way through a wrinkle in traveler’s flow-time to emerge, I thought, squeaky clean on the other side ... I was merrily striding down the road, like a Tarot Fool with his daypack on a stick, when I caught a stick on the road that jammed itself straight into my foot between my big and next toe. It was stuck deep in the flesh, and when I tugged it out, I was afraid to see just how deep it was. I imagined blood soaking my sandal, the way it had two weeks before when I’d stubbed my other big toe on a chunk of Aitutaki coral while walking down the beach in the dark. But I kept on to my destination, Bibi’s Hideaway, which I knew was only five more minutes down the road.

I’d just landed on Taveuni ten minutes before, and in the tiny airport arrival area I’d declined the offer of a $2 taxi ride to my destination – not so much for the money, as for the short walk in my new environment. I was riding high on the wisdom of my abrupt change in plans for the day, thinking myself a master of improvisation, when mother nature’s humble spear of justice was driven home.

I only made it halfway down the driveway when the shock of the injury finally caught up with me, and I dropped to the ground to keep from fainting. From a position half sitting, half lying down, I spread the toes, and found a gaping hole half an inch deep by a quarter-inch wide. Amazingly, there was not a drop of blood; but the depth of it was sobering. I immediately thought, “Oh shit, I won’t be able to go swimming for days now.” Then I thought, “I wonder if I’ll need to get flown out of here. I don’t even know if there’s a hospital on this island.” Finally I realized the irony of my coming here on Matt’s recommendation, though he had warned me to carry good disinfectant after he’d been laid up for days here, unable even to come to this north end of the island because of a badly infected cut on his ankle from a bushwalk. “Oh, no problem,” I had thought when reading his message. “I’ll just be careful walking, and anyway I have tea tree oil and Polysporin with me.”

I had to put those ingredients to quick use now, dousing the hole first with clean drinking water, then tea tree oil, then a generous squeeze of the antibiotic gel. I proceeded to rent a cabin, then dressed the wound more properly with the help of an alcohol swab and three bandaids taping the two toes together. Now, my next-to-last 500 mg. of Tylenol later, I’m hoping the dull throbbing pain won’t return too badly in the night, and that I didn’t leave any fragments of stick in my flesh.

The sleep part is an issue since last night in Nadi I was up for hours with the maddening itch of innumerable sand fly bites which covered my arms and elbows. Those same bites are still tormenting me tonight as well. But at least there’s a mosquito net around me in Bibi’s cabin to keep fresh bugs away. So I sit writing to the familiar sound of rain, with half an hour of electricity left to type by, and wonder, will I actually make it through this scheduled month on Fiji before turning tail for the comforts of home?

The time-wrinkle bit, I have to reflect, might have been rather a pushing of the river on my part, instead of a clever revision of plans. The day started well enough, with just enough time for a quick complimentary hostel breakfast before catching a taxi to the bus stop. My destination, the cross-island city of Suva, had been described by Matt as much like Victoria. More unsettling were reports I was getting locally and in the Lonely Planet guide about street muggings and rainy climate. The other unknown was the matter of connections by ferry or air from Suva onward to Taveuni; it seemed I would have to stay there two or three nights - or to pursue another option I wasn’t sure about either, detouring to some of the small islands off the coast. But I was committed now, and I waited stoically with the other scattered tourists at the bus stop awaiting the 7:30 arrival. The long white bus arrived on time and everyone piled in, filling every seat. Fifteen minutes later came the first stop, at the main ferry port, along with an announcement about transferring to the ferries for various island destinations. I was the last one off the bus, and by the time I got to the driver, I realized I should have confirmed the destination upon boarding it. “Are you going to Suva?”

Sadly, no. And the bus I was supposed to be on had already departed for Suva. So the driver called around on the radio and sorted out that I could catch the next bus from Nadi town at 1:30. He dropped me off there at 8:30. It was a city I’d wanted to, tried hard to avoid, having heard it described as “horrible” for its pestering touts. In truth it was rather mild compared to places I’d been to in Bali and India. In any case, I thought I could spend some painless time along the dingy main street catching up with email and sipping coffee, so I proceeded to do just that. After email I stopped into a travel agent’s to inquire about ferries and planes from Suva. He didn’t know about ferries but gave me dates and prices for flights; the first seats available were in three days. I left looking for a good coffee over which to mull that possibility. A tout had followed me in and sat in the travel agent’s waiting for me, and showed me where to go for coffee. It wasn’t the place I was looking for, but a curry house – run, no doubt, by a friend or relative of his. I walked on and found another travel agent to ask about Suva ferries, but the information still wasn’t promising.

As I turned around and headed back down the street, I was struck by the sudden impulse to ask again at the air travel agent’s about flights from Nadi to Taveuni. If any were available I could just forget the whole Suva business and head straight to where I knew I wanted to go, Taveuni. Once there I would have plenty of time to figure out a return trip via Suva, if I still wanted to go there. I thought this whole swing in my plan rather a coup, even though the bus driver had gone out of his way to be helpful, and even though, with some hours of delay, the Suva plan would still have worked out rather providentially in its own right. But no, now I was taking charge; I was honoring those misgivings I had about Suva and the priority I was feeling about Taveuni, and taking the disruption in the day’s plans as an opportunity to act boldly in a new direction. Canceling my reservations with the bus company and the hotel in Suva were the last moral hurdles, and both were easily cleared by phone from the travel agent’s office. When the choice was presented to me of today’s flight at two o’clock, I was filled with certainty in the impulse of the moment and said, “I’ll take it.”

Finally I retired to a proper breakfast of scrambled eggs and latte at the upscale Bulaccino, overlooking the pastoral river at the edge of the city. I spent a pleasant hour there after the meal editing, and becoming reinspired by, my ten-year-old manuscript about living “in the flow.”

As it happened, later in the cabin on Taveuni, the book I was reading (Shantaram, by Gregory Roberts) consoled me a little regarding my small wounds and discomforts, by its contrast of the vivid suffering of its narrator in a Bombay prison, who was beaten all day by guards with sharp bamboo canes, and set upon at night by thousands of body lice, “with their wriggling, itching, crawling loathsomeness ... a frenzy on the surface of my skin.”

Hardly the kind of consolation one should need, the far side of paradise.

4 May

Turning for Home

I’ve now spent three full days here at Bibi’s Hideaway, while the hole between my toes slowly heals. With regular doses of tea tree oil and Polysporin, and bandages covering it the first two days, the wound has remained clean and free of infection while gradually closing. Meanwhile I have taken care to minimize my walking and to keep the foot away from water, dirt and sand.

Staying put, however, has its drawbacks in a place called “The Garden Isle.” Usually “Paradise” is reserved for those hot and dry enclaves of sun hoarded by the traveling rich; the rest of us in search of vacation havens make do with the rainy sides of tropical islands, the edges of jungle, rocky shorelines, bush bungalows. All of the above generally mean one thing, where warm weather is concerned: mosquitoes.

I’m not sure what’s been biting me here, adding to the itchy braille lining my arms, legs and shoulders, because whatever it is, it’s usually silent and invisible. I’ve seen and heard some mosquitoes, for sure; along with smaller bugs like no-see-ums; and near Nadi they told me the culprits were sand flies. Whatever they are, they leave bites that are sometimes welts and sometimes pustules like a case of poison ivy, which itch for days and nights on end. The bugs are a little more scarce in full sun, but then I can’t swim here yet, so a half-hour broil is about the limit of that remedy. The shade is worse. Then I have to cover my skin in tea tree oil every half an hour, and still I manage to get bitten; the alternative is to use toxic DEET or mosquito coils, but these are also only partially effective, besides having odious side-effects.

So after a morning’s consideration of alternative plans, punctuated by the usual stings and bouts of scratching, I finally became inspired by a single mission: escape. I walked to the airport, was told to come back later, and continued up the road to the top of the island of Taveuni. It was a sunny day after much rain, and my foot was feeling well enough to walk, so it felt good to be out on the open road again, with the breeze cutting through the midday heat and keeping the bugs away. The shoreline was beautiful as advertised, though again I could not take advantage of the opportunity to swim. Finally I came to the point where I knew there was no point in walking further. I’d come to the top of the island in the middle of the world, or the far side of paradise, or mosquito heaven - and it was time to turn around. It was time to go home.


The seasons change, and so do I ...--The Guess Who, “No Time”

It hasn’t been all bad here. The privacy has been lovely - except when the lawn crew advanced on my cabin area with their weedeaters buzzing like mechanical mosquitoes. I’ve actually been able to parlay the combination of private space and ambient noise of grass cutters and power generator into a rare opportunity to practice flute again. It’s been a refreshing break from the hostel scene. The time for healing has been a fruitful time also for reflection of my overall needs for happiness, whether on the road or at home. As always there are tradeoffs, but now the various factors stand more clearly outlined: misery from mosquitoes vs. cold weather; social boredom vs. long-term friendship; solitude vs. musical opportunity; sunny heat vs. quality food and water. On balance I realize that the place I call home, Victoria, is actually at the top of the list, all things considered. Even in winter it ranks with the best of the tropical travel locations I’ve experienced on this trip.

I embarked on this trip six months ago on the premise that warmth and sunshine were of first priority, and therefore I had to get out of Victoria. That was true for me then ... when I barely got out of town in the midst of an ice storm. Of course, now after I’ve had my fill of sun and heat, my priorities appear on the other side of the scale, with friends and music and having my own space again - mosquito free.

10 MayCaqelai, Fiji

Fiji Redeemed

Rather than leave a false and one-sided impression of Fiji based on my limited misadventures here, I should report that there is one small corner of this nation of islands, tiny Caqelai (“Thangalai”), that has lived up to my hopes for what it might be like. The whole island is small enough to walk around in fifteen minutes. There is nary a mosquito to be found; the water is warm and pleasant for swimming and the snorkeling opportunity right off the beach is vast and marvelous; the tourist impact is minimal, with just a handful of us here, in a few tents and basic beach huts, forming a congenial social group; the local staff is friendly and laid-back and treats us to nightly bowls of kava. I couldn’t be more satisfied to have found this final resting place for my wandering soul before heading home.

At the same time I have no regrets about a change of flights to return to Canada two weeks earlier than planned. Four days is ample time to soak up everything Caqelai has to offer. In my first three hours here I managed to have a good swim, sunbathed, played flute before the vast panorama of the South Pacific, explored the exposed reef stretching out to even tinier Snake Island, and walked around Caqelai twice.

It took some doing to get here, which is one reason Caqelai has so few visitors despite its pristine beauty. (Another likely reason is the absence of a bar, as the resort is owned by the Methodist Church.) I stayed in Suva three days in order to figure out all my travel details, but finally, after a local bus ride and an outboard boat ride down a river and out to the island, I made it here with three other travelers. Every day has brought a slight turnover in the dozen or so guests here, while the group continues with a loosely stable identity of people with, at least, similar tastes in travel. Conversations trail on long after meals and then, gradually, we make our way back to the beach, and out into the tranquil waters to explore some more of the living reef at our doorsteps.

Today as I sit on the shore by the lapping waves, the picture is overlaid by the waves of the northern Pacific that I imagine sitting beside in five days’ time, back in Victoria. And when that time comes, I imagine these present ripples will still be echoing forward in time, overlapping my new experience with the memory of this one. So there is compensation in the large transition from country to country, equator to temperate zone, as the soul adjusts and balances the journey that will occur in a day at unnatural speeds of flight. The real journey, on the inner plane, happens more at the speed of a sailing vessel, and so as I write it has already begun.

19 April 2007

Paradise Lost and Found

Here on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, the “Paradise” word just comes naturally. The climate is tropical, with just enough light sprinkles to keep the lush plants green, and just enough hot sun to keep the tan dark. The level of tourists is low enough, and the pace of life slow enough, that the locals are happy to spend time chatting in a friendly and familiar way. The tourists too are congenial and friendly, gathering at random for lagoon cruises, “Island Night” drum and dance performances, or beachside fires.

I began in a beach hut at, you guessed it, Paradise Cove. Now I’m well set up in another little “garden cottage” down the endless white-sand beach, at Matriki’s, still a coconut’s throw from the mesmerizing aqua-and-turqoise lagoon. With nine days here, I have time on my hands to walk, bike, swim, snorkel, write, compose, read. Oddly enough, the last few things that have come my way to read here have presented me with quite the opposite picture to the paradise outside my window.

When I checked in here, my host, Riki, suggested a book in the travelers’ collection she keeps in a dresser drawer on the porch. Left to Tell is a harrowing account by Immaculee Ilibagiza of her survival of the Rwandan massacres of the nineties, by hiding for months with seven women in a closet-sized bathroom in a pastor’s house. With the soothing background of distant surf crashing past the silent lagoon, I was compelled to immerse myself in that other reality of madness and butchery, for two days and nights.

Of course I had heard about the situation in Rwanda by scattered reports, from afar, when they were happening - or more likely, after the fact. To begin with, I wasn’t plugged into the news back then, as I was immersed in another sort of paradise in backwoods British Columbia. And anyway the news coverage at the time was limited, as the West by and large turned a blind eye to the usual rumors of “bad stuff happening somewhere in Africa ... again.”

Once reading a firsthand account of such atrocities, though, they hit home. The people become more than just numbers (a million murdered). Considered “cockroaches” by their killers, and nameless “casualties” by the Western governments and media, the victims and survivors become intimately real and human in the narrative. The tragedy, word by word, becomes a part of who I am, a larger concept and feeling of shared humanity. Maybe it’s not really a matter of contrast to this ultra-peaceful scene I inhabit here - but more a matter of the peacefulness here being so full as to invite and include and gently absorb the reality of violence and hatred. Immaculee’s transformative forgiveness was possible in just such a way, as her confinement forced her into deep and peaceful communion with her God, full and deep enough to accept even the murder of her family and tribe.

Dragon of the Mangroves is another gruesome tale I was given to read while here, by a Japanese author who sent me the book as a .pdf file. Yasuyuki Kasai has researched and written with accurate detail the account of an evacuation by Japanese soldiers of a coastal area of Burma near the end of World War II. As if the constant threat of approaching British military forces was not enough of a nightmare for the weary stragglers of the Empire of the Sun, they had finally to escape to freedom across a crocodile-infested river.

Once again my land of pleasant living had to expand substantially to include visions of man-eating crocodiles, and to recognize the intimate humanity of the soldiers I was raised to think of as “the enemy.” The initial challenge to one’s preconceptions becomes an opportunity to embrace a reversed worldview, where in the new text “the enemy” is the Allies. This reversal is achieved by the clear and dispassionate writing of the Japanese writer in English, and also by the dramatic plot hinging on the more primal figure of the reptile as ancient enemy of humans, whatever nationality or empire they might belong to.

As if these two large doses of death and destruction were not enough to complement the otherwise overbearing sweetness of Aitutaki, I picked up a second book from the dresser drawer, John Grisham’s recent nonfiction title The Innocent Man. Again it’s an account of a murder, or more accurately, a murder trial representing a gross miscarriage of justice in Oklahoma. The spark of interest for me began with the victim of this legalistic crime, Ron Williamson, who was drafted as a major league baseball player before his life started winding downhill.

What Grisham’s book shares with the other two, in this idyllic setting, is that it too serves to overturn standard misconceptions and cultural blindness. Who are the good guys and the bad guys? Who are “they” and who are “we”? As the “we” expands to include the “they,” paradise becomes not lost but found.

As a final anecdote in this tale of tales, I recall the story I overheard the guide telling after lunch on the lagoon cruise, on Honeymoon Island. In the old days in the Cook Islands, tribal warfare was common. On one of these islands a warring group was intent on taking over. The plan was to kill all of the men, leaving only the women and children alive. It was at that point that the Christian missionaries arrived, convincing the warriors that we were one family as humans and should kill one another no longer.

On hearing this, my preconceived bias against the Christian missionaries lost its hold on me. I forgave them, even for leading the charge of civilization which has transformed the former South Pacific paradises into touristic marketing packages and nuclear testing grounds, full of congregations dutifully carrying out devotions from medieval Europe.

Maybe it was all worth it - the genocide, the war, the years lost in prison, the giving up of an old way of life - for the grace of forgiveness; for the widening sympathy of our humanity; for the liberation from bias and prejudice.

Paradise here has invited me to look beyond the marketing gimmick, the sunset postcard. The horizon is so empty that I begin to see dragons and demons as I look over the edge. These are not the kind that lurk there waiting for my arrival, however. The longer I peer at them, the more they begin to seem familiar. Are they a fleet of arriving war canoes, missionaries, kayak-paddling tourists? I’m not sure. Anyway, I will prepare coconut and papaya for them, and a fire on the beach ...

Cook Islands Photo Album

27 March 2007

Rainy Day in New Zealand

During the rainy days when Hakka [Taiwan native] men did not do the farm work, singing mountain songs and playing instruments with friends were their major activities. . . . The ideal lifestyle for Hakka people in the early days consisted of farming and studying. Therefore, a famous Hakka phrase which represents Hakka life is "Chiny-geng Yu-du" (in Mandarin). That is, "Do the farm work on the sunny days, and study on the rainy days."

-- Apricot Hun, "Brief description of the characteristics of Hakka culture"

After a whirlwind tour of New Zealand’s North Island north of Aukland the past two days, I took a drizzly day off today to relax, catch up on laundry and computer work, and enjoy a leisurely stroll to the "Treaty Grounds" where the Maori chiefs (whether they knew it or not) signed away their lands to the British, their imposing 100-foot war canoe notwithstanding.

Aukland is much like Vancouver in size (1.4 million), climate (moderate and cloudy), and ethnicity (British and Asian). I didn’t find much to do there except research tour options, the most efficient way to see the country in a short time (10 days).

Yesterday I boarded the Dune Rider to explore the northlands, including a power zoom straight up the sand on Ninety Mile Beach, with sand boarding as the highlight activity, and the exposed point of Cape Reinga the apex of scenic beauty. Throw in a few giant Kauri trees, a quick wade in the surf, and the rest of the trip was largely a blur of sheep pastures. On the way up from Aukland the day before, the highlight was a brief swim near Goat Island ... about the temperature of BC ocean swimming in late summer. A bit of a shock after the tropics ... but hey, it’s March.

Tasmania, where I spent the week before, was quite an interesting blend of familiar wild landscape and friendly, alternative-minded people, and all-different flora and fauna. The family that hosted me for drumming workshops there was extremely hospitable, and added a kayak outing and a couple of excursions into the alpine to a full music schedule: several workshops, plus a rehearsal and final performance for a drum group much like a scaled-down Masala, at a venue in downtown Hobart.

Hobart, Tasmania’s capital city, at 40,000 is a pleasant, laid-back city, kind of a cross between the BC cities of Nelson and Victoria. One of its electoral ridings has the highest Green Party vote in Australia. The drum group I played with, Tumba, was featured on World Music night at the Lark Distillery, a monthly engagement for them.

The act we followed was a one-man show, a talented musician who played two didges, various wind instruments including sax and clarinet, keyboards and synthesizer, and HandSonic--practically all at the same time, and with some great pure jazz licks. He joined us for some inspired accompaniment for our closing piece.

To backtrack a bit, the four-hour rehearsal for that set had been a bit of a stretch for me, since it happened afternoon and evening of the day I arrived, following a night flight from Bali on which I had no sleep. On top of flight fatigue I was somewhat sick, quite hungry, and poorly adapted to the cold (looking out over the water, the next land mass over the horizon was Antarctica) ... but these are familiar sacrifices for the gods of music; and afterwards a large sandwich and full night’s sleep in a cozy sleeping bag set me back on the right track.

A philosophical digression . . .

Which brings me back to today, finding my center at rest again, if only temporarily. Today in a café at the Treaty Grounds I read a couple of chapters in Arthur Koesler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe. The long account of the career and personality of Nicholas Copernicus was rather dry and academic, but came to an explosive and inspiring conclusion:

Once the apparent daily round of the firmament was explained by the earth’s rotation, the stars could recede to any distance; putting them on a solid sphere became now an arbitrary, unconvincing act. The sky no longer had a limit, infinity opened its gaping jaws.


The universe has lost its core. It no longer has a heart, but a thousand hearts. The reassuring feeling of stability, of rest and order are gone.


The Golden Chain was torn, its links scattered throughout the world; homogenous space implied a cosmic democracy.


Homo sapiens had dwelt in a universe enveloped by divinity as by a womb; now he was being expelled from the womb.


A.D. 1600 [following Copernicus] is probably the most important turning point in human destiny after 600 B.C. [the time of Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Pythagoras].

There were several Greek thinkers following Pythagoras who put the sun at the center of the revolving earth and planets, but it took nearly another 1000 years for that vision to take hold again in a fearful, repressive medieval Europe, whose scientists and citizens tried to take comfort in a stable, earth-centered model of a fixed, limited, mechanistic universe ordered under a hierachical Chain of Being.

Now, nearly 1500 years after Buddha and Lao-Tze articulated their exquisite models of human liberation, it seems most of us (myself included) are still stuck for the most part in a similarly limited view of human nature and human being. It is as if we have recoiled in existential fear from the implications of a boundless universe with no definitive shape or body of laws for humans. Sartre’s existentialism was not freeing but "nauseating." In the face of an expansive and dissolving vision that began with Copernicus and has been elaborated by relativity, quantum physics and chaos theory, we continue to retreat into the ego-eggshells of our personal identities and social roles, seeking solace in our creature comforts and primal (whether reptile- or primate-driven) relationships of economics and emotions. Lacking the supporting structure of lawful divinity, we have replaced "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" with "I, me, mine."

It is not that this condition of separate individual identities is unhealthy or obsolete in itself. We do after all have our "animal nature" to take care of, and even enjoy, as an ongoing part of our "human nature." Rather, the point here is that to be too confined or stuck within the boundaries of the individual, physical-emotional-mental-social self can deny us the opportunity to enjoy the boundless freedom of our "cosmic nature" - which implies also connectedness with one another and all beings, and empathy for the suffering entailed by physical existence.

In the face of a larger reality of "Universal Energy," our response does not have to be shrinking into historical patterns of fearful comfort and conditioned delusion. We also have the choice of identifying with that transcendental and all-pervasive energy, enjoying life as "life force" as shared by all things, beyond the roles we have chosen to live or that have been chosen for us.

Buddha and Lao-Tze didn’t bother charting the heavens; they bypassed the star charts to map instead the polarities and epicycles of human consciousness and psychology. Whether we choose the outer route of finding a definition for human being in the observable cosmos, or the inner journey toward joy and peace of mind, there is an option for us that goes beyond both the blind denial and obedience of the medieval mind, and the reflexive withdrawl of the modern individual into self-concern. That option is to open to the concept of universal energy not only as a vision of cosmic science, but also as a field of loving play for the human psyche.

Tasmania photo album

New Zealand photo album

13 March 2007

The Last Tourist

Here at Lovina, on Bali’s north coast, I can feel what it’s like at the end of the jet age. The tourist industry never recovered here after the second Bali bombing in 2005, though that happened on the other side of the island two years ago. There are beautiful black sand beaches with no one else around except local fishermen and a few women desperately trying to sell me a massage or items of clothing and jewelry. The resorts and restaurants along the beachfront stand empty.

Offshore there are dolphins to be sighted and snorkeling areas to go to by boat, and every young man around wants to take me there, or sell me handicrafts of shell, or give me “transport” by motorbike. When the local bus arrives each day there is a crowd of touts to converge on the hapless newcomer, offering “cheap price” for accommodation--though the bus company provides free lodging for a night precisely to discourage such a rude welcome.

In the more central area of Lovina there once was a thriving tourist industry. Charming lanes with guesthouses, restaurants with local character, brick walkways along the shore now are deserted, except for the locals hanging about, waiting for you to appear with your sunglasses and camera and traveler’s wallet.

Hello, mas-sage? Hello sir where you going? You come look my shop, just look for free. Hi sir, what is your name? Hello transport? Hello, sir, excuse me, sir, hello? Transport? I have nice things for you look. Hello where you stay? I have cheap price for you. Transport? Hello transport?

When I first arrived in Lovina I saw my German friends from Ubud, whom I kept running into a few times after spending the day on a temple tour with them. They did not look happy, having arrived the day before me and already decided to move on right away to Java. Besides the constant soliciting, there were, they said, hordes of mosquitoes here, day and night, that made life impossible. The supposedly beautiful beach was full of garbage. It was all very disappointing.

I took their warnings to heart and resolved right away that I would leave on the next morning’s bus myself and flee down to Kuta. Kuta, ironically, is where the bombs went off, yet ironically, Kuta is where the tourists all still congregate in obscene numbers. Go figure.

Ubud was a lovely attraction, complete with a sacred “Monkey Forest” full of mossy dragon temples and tame macaques, nightly performances of gamelan music and dance, shadow puppet theatre, fire dance, and Kecak “monkey chants” as seen in the film Baraka. All that on top of a wealth of art galleries, music and bookshops, and trendy cafes like Bali Buddha and the Jazz Café (offering nightly live jazz).

Completing the range of contrasts from Lovina, where I feel like “the last tourist”; Kuta, dubbed by Lonely Planet as “Beach Babylon”; and Ubud, a tropical version of Santa Barbara, CA or Nelson, BC; is Padang Bai, a small fishing village and ferry port to the neighboring island of Lombok. The days I was there, trucks loaded with fruits and vegetables were lined up for 3 km and waiting two days to get on the ferry, which had been cancelled due to high waves. Meanwhile there was a plane crash and deadly mudslides elsewhere in Indonesia, an earthquake in Sumatra, and a typhoon in the vicinity...but no shortage of tourists about.

I spent just two days in Padang Bai, one each at the two small charming clear-water white-sand beaches, but fell into my usual funk with the “small town” syndrome. Not enough people around to be anonymous and blend into the background (like Kuta or Ubud); and not few enough people to have real solitude (like Lovina). Sort of a limbo in between, where to fit in, you really need to have or make company with the few familiar faces around you.

The funny thing about Lovina, it turns out, is that the much-advertised mosquitoes proved practically nonexistent. With a bright. comfortable and quiet room, I went to bed happy and woke up to birdsong. Free lunch, free room, free breakfast, doesn’t hurt. As for the touts, after awhile I just learned to keep my space, respond if I felt like it, even accept to pay for a massage on the beach and to buy a nice shirt and pair of pants, and then politely but firmly refuse all other offers. In their eagerness to sell, some would sit and chat awhile, and then the selling became secondary, or faded away, and I could share personal stories that were larger than the central thread of the story here: that tourism is finished.

Stupid, I say, when people are still flocking to Kuta, while poor lovely Lovina suffers. Then the dilemma gets passed on to whoever does venture to come here, on the other side of Bali’s stunning green mountains. At first it seems that the mosquitoes and the relentless touts will be unbearable, along with the feeling of alienation that comes with being, well, a lone alien in a place of humble but serious poverty. Then comes a willingness to see it through, to go deeper, to relax into the place, to claim a place here even for a day or two, to walk freely on the road or lane or beach, and to talk past the sales pitch into an understanding, us and them together here now, smiling humans in the gentle air.

more photos from Bali

Tri Hita Karana Doctrine

In accordance with Balinese Hindu philosophy, peace and tranquility are obtainable in our lives only when we respect and observe the three harmonious relationships known as the Tri Hita Karana Doctrine:

1. The Gods blessed life and created nature and all of its contents.

2. Nature offers sustenance to support the needs and activities of human beings.

3. Human beings have an obligation to establish a traditional village structure, to build temples in which to worship, to hold various ceremonies, to make daily offering, to preserve nature and to solve problems together.