The Wisdom of Goats and Mountains and Things

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I want to take us all back to Morocco and my life there circa 2008. Seems like just yesterday but when I see pictures of myself from then I realize how much time has passed and how much I have aged. Kids will do that to you, hell life will do that to you. So here is a journal entry from late January 2008, more or less verbatim. Enjoy!

Its Sunday. Souk (market) day. A beautiful cloudless day with a strong sun. We just finished cleaning some of our house – did the dishes, swept and mopped. Mud houses are dirty, especially in winter when we bring a lot of dirt and mud into the house via our feet.

Two nights ago we celebrated another Moroccan holiday called Ashor. Apparently Ashor was originally a Jewish holiday that celebrates Moses “parting the Red Sea”. It is also celebrated by Muslims. Given the very small, in my opinion, differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I just don’t get what all the hatred and fighting is about. All three have the same god, typically capitalized as God, Yahweh or Allah (different names, same god) and all three groups of followers are known as “People of the Book”. Perhaps its like species that occupy very similar niches and that must either create a new niche through adaptation or out compete each other. Seems as though the three monotheistic religions have gone the competition route. This is an overly simplistic explanation and surely there is more going on. I digress. In order to celebrate Ashor, we went over to our  family’s house and ate couscous with tikhordasine, which is something quite unique. It is salted meat, organs (like the lungs, yum) and fat that has been stuffed into the stomach and then wrapped in the small intestine. It is then dried and left out for some duration of time (months).  Sounds delicious eh? It actually wasn’t too bad but not good either. Incredibly salty but with a mix of spices in it, so it was edible for sure. It looks like a small bomb and I remember Moroccans telling me that they traveled with these in their luggage to visit ex-pat relatives in Europe and the U.S. Lucky they didn’t end up in Guantanamo.

Yesterday we went for a hike up a new mountain for us – Jbel Lkars, the mountain north of Tounfite. We left at 9:30am and it took us quite a while to get out of town what with meeting friends and getting besieged by children and all. It was a beautiful, cloudless day. The walk took us through the winding streets of the oldest part of Tounfite with its ancient, multi-storied mud houses and narrow alleyways. We soon crossed the river on a tiliguid (bridge but I love the softness of the word) and wound our way through cultivated fields before crossing the road that leads into town. From there the walk became a hike as we started our first ascent. Starting off tree-less (due to overgrazing and firewood collection), we soon entered a forest of dwarf oaks. We continued up to the first ridge and then turned south-southwest climbing steadily upward towards the next summit. This mountain, like all the mountains in our area, consists of a series of summits along a rolling ridge. In our area this is the first mountain in the High Atlas range – the Middle Atlas Mountains can be seen off in the distance to the north and northeast across the wide Zaida plain, in which lies the dusty town of Boumia. And to the south and west the High Atlas Mountains loom. As we continued to follow a sheep trail, climbing higher and higher, the trees got larger and more numerous. The dwarf-oak woodland transitioned into an Atlas cedar forest and suddenly the air was alive with the sound of bird song. We made our way through the majestic cedars and soon found ourselves on a bald mountain ridge surrounded by the large, Frankenstein-like Atlas cedars and near-panoramic views. To the north the Zaida plain was tiger-striped in red earth and white snow with the forested Middle Atlas beyond. To the southeast lay the majestic giant, Jbel Ayachi (over 12,000 feet tall), sleeping quietly beneath a soft blanket of snow. And to the south lay the town of Tounfite nestled against slate-gray foothills, buzzing with the activity of a souk (market) day. Jbel Maasker loomed over the gray foothills and Tounfite like a giant protector waiting silently. The rest of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains, the Idrar n Idrarn (the “Mountain of Mountains”) extended farther than the eye could see to the southwest all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Oh how lucky we are to call this place home, even for ever so short a period of time.

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Jbel Ayachi (over 12,000 feet) screened by gnarled, old Atlas cedars.

We decided to stop and have lunch. At this most beautiful of restaurants, we lit a fire and brewed strong mountain (green) tea and ate our lunch of local bread, La Vache Qui Rit (The Laughing Cow cheese), and hard boiled eggs. We soon met an old Berber man shepherding his flock of thirty goats or so who was accompanied by two dogs and his grandson. We greeted each other in the local manner of “Peace be upon you”, “And also upon you”, “How are you”, “How is your health”, “How are yours”, and on and on.  Greetings here can be quite complex, formal and lengthy. He smelled pleasantly of animals and wood smoke which would become a very comforting smell by the end of our two years living here.  He kissed my hand (a sign of respect) and I returned the gesture (thus returning the respect) before we parted ways and they headed off in the opposite direction of our route. I could hear him talking to his grandson as they walked along. Perhaps they were discussion the meeting with the strange arumin (foreigners) or maybe he was imparting the wisdom of his man years on this earth – the wisdom of goats and mountains and things.

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Running up a snow-field on Jbel Lkars.

As the late afternoon light started to fade, we headed back down the same way we had come. Through the Atlas cedar forest and the dwarf oaks and on into town which had come alive and swelled with interesting mountains folks who have come into town for the weekly souk. What an interesting and charming life we are living in this dusty little corner of the world!


Ebb and Flow

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“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

~ Henry Miller

The tide comes in gently hitting the sandy shore of this protected cove and then goes out, ebbing and flowing, waning and waxing being pulled by heavenly bodies. I watch it come in and go out. Shorebirds chase its edge eating unseen creatures, small invertebrates I suspect that come in with the tide. The rhythm of one matches the other. There is a lot of life in these margins and in these rhythms; living on the edge is no mere marginal living. There are whole worlds in the cracks, in the in-between. Just ask the sanderling or talk with the sandpiper. My daughter darts here and there, running in and out of the water as the tide comes and goes, with a rhythm both her own and like that of the waves and shorebirds. Her delight echoes off the cove and then gets swallowed in the immensity of the Pacific and its rolling, crashing song.

My thoughts come and go as I watch the waves crash against the sandy shore and then retreat to their watery world. This is the nature and rhythm of waves, thoughts and much else. Our lives are like this as well, although we fool ourselves into thinking that things are linear, consistent and permanent. Our life ebbs and flows. We retreat inward and then curl and open outward. Maya Angelou once wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer them.” We mustn’t think that just because we don’t have an answer to a question now that we never will. The answer may be found in the unknown writing of years hence or perhaps its already lying here right in front of our face, in this very cove. Time too is not linear – it is not a straight line between two points, two object, two selves. It expands and contracts like well-functioning lungs and it may breathe life into something or simply take it away.

I don’t really know what I am trying to say today. Actually I am not trying to say anything; I am simply trying to write. There was a slight crack that I noticed. Someone else’s writing made me notice the crack or perhaps it was an edge. Either way, I went with it and here I write about edges, margins, cracks and the flowing rhythm of it all. My writing ebbs and flows also; and today it feels distant like a strong spring tide with both sun and moon pulling together. Let the words flow like a river or crash against the shore with profundity like waves. Not today. None of that. Just words and not too many. Sometimes that is the best you can hope for and you gotta accept it for what it is. Just another ebb and flow in this dynamic and beautiful life.


Silence – The Most Honest of All

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Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
~ Khalil Gibran

The cold winter air settles along the Elk River valley as I meander my way upstream like the salmon I see spawning in the once silt choked gravels of the river. I put on my winter cap and cram my hands deep into the pockets of my light down jacket. After crossing the river at the three mile bridge, I ascend into the upland redwood forest where the warmer air and physical exertion of the climb have me soon removing both the jacket and the hat and stowing them in my daypack. What a wonderful experience of the physical nature of air and temperature and its relationship to landform! Hot molecules of air move and groove (yes that is the technical term for it –  the old “move and groove”) and therefore are less dense so they rise and the cold air molecules sink. Fairly easy concept but it remains just that, a concept, until you experience it directly.

As I wind may way upward, following the Little South Fork Elk River trail towards its terminus in an old-growth loop, I find myself giving some honest (pun following and intended) thought to a concept I was recently made aware of thanks to an essay by Andrea Heljskov (see http://andreahejlskov.com/) for a wonderful and thought provoking blog). It’s funny how a phrase or even a single word in a conversation or essay can take you off in a direction seemingly driven by someone else, some outside force. This happened to me recently while reading Andrea’s blog: two words hidden amongst seven-hundred others like blades of grass in a field. She briefly mentions visits to her homestead from people practicing the “hip trend of radical honesty” as she puts it. This one line got me curious: what is radical honesty? And then I got to thinking, “what is honesty?”

First, let’s take a look at radical honesty which I know very little about. According to the all-knowing, all-powerful Wikipedia, radical honesty is “a technique and self-improvement program developed by Dr. Brad Blanton which asserts that lying is the primary source of modern human stress and that practitioners will become happier by being more honest, even about painful or taboo subjects.”

It sounds like how you get when they have had a few too many adult beverages. I am not sure why there needs to be a program for this; seems cheaper to me just to go down to the corner market and buy yerself a twelver of Oly (that’s “Olympia” for those not in the Pacific Northwest). After a half-dozen cans or so, you can bet you will be inebriatingly honest, if not radically so. Well I suppose someone with an advanced degree had to come up with a theory, technique or program, so cheers to Dr. Brad!

Now let’s got on with this bit about honesty. As defined by the American College Dictionary honesty is “uprightness, probity or integrity; truthfulness, sincerity, or frankness.”  Simple enough; yet it occurs to me that this is all predicated on there being some absolute truth that we are somehow instantly and always tapped into. We could probably argue about this one until we are dizzy like a dog chasing its tail but what occurred to me on the trail is perhaps more immediate, more direct and certainly more relative. In any given moment my brain is secreting thoughts left and right, which is what it does. And in that moment, in the immediate second after a stimulus, I have many honest thoughts that are secreted by my brain. So which do I choose to bring forth, to let loose on the world? And which is the most honest: the one that came first, which is often impossible to tell; the most vociferous; the most subtle; or the most kind? I could go on and on. However, my point here is that there are many honest answers in each given moment and so how do you decide which is the most honest?

To illustrate this further, perhaps beating a good horse dead as has been said, lets entertain (pun intended) a scenario. You are invited to dinner at a friend’s house and the host serves up boiled face including the supposedly delicious eye fat. (You may think this an outlandish scenario but I experienced this in Morocco where there is a compliment that goes “you are tasty like eye fat”). The meal arrives and you try the eye fat. Suffice it to say that it does not tickle your fancy and you vow to never use that (un)compliment again. So what do you say, if anything, to your host at the end of the meal? Those practicing radical honesty, I suppose, would tell the host that this was the worst meal that they have ever had and that they look forward to vomiting it all out in just a few moments. Harsh but honest right and if honest then it somehow makes themselves feel better about themselves even if at the expense of the other. Or you could say that this wasn’t your favorite meal and that perhaps eye fat isn’t all that tasty. You might say that it was an interesting meal, your first time eating eye fat. You could even thank the host for the effort of cooking the meal, which probably took hours.

My question is: which is the honest answer because they all seem honest to me? I would argue that we have many honest selves that could respond truthfully.  The beauty of this is that the nuances of each moment require paying attention and the skill to respond appropriately. Sometimes it’s being kind, sometimes its being brutally honest while at other times silence is the most honest response.

As I reach the old-growth loop, I remove my shoes and socks and walk slowly and silently among these ancient giants. The oldest coast redwoods are over two thousand years old and surely some of these are a thousand years old if not more. How many truths have they known over that vast time period? What have been their honest answers to climate change, fires, earthquakes, landslides, loggers and hippies? Each requires the stoicism and presence to respond appropriately and differently, I think they would respond. The deep silence of this place tells me that silence can be the most honest of all.