Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Timely Reunion

Two wonderful and timely reunions took place these last few weeks that reaffirmed everything I am doing this for.

To the hills of New Hampshire, the first reunion was to see Nate and Tim, of the initial four canoes builders (along with Daryl) of the strip canoe in Wisconsin. Nate, the land steward of Glen Brook Camp was in the process of building his next canoe, using a restored woodworking shop erected in 1776 by a revolutionary.

Poor lighting and hardwood in Nate's boat shop.

In a dark basement surrounded by the New England north woods, his cedar strip canoe, piece by piece, is coming to life. We sit in the warming shed at night on the camp's lake and share stories of our previous beauty. Nate's clear headedness and even pace combined with Tim's determined speed on a project and outright perfectionist intensity always inspired me. But this new boat is the next level.

Taking everything we had learned before, Jim's wisdom, countless hours working hard, our invaluble mistakes, Nate is striving for the best work possible. No glue is spilt, the grain of the wood is chosen for its exact design and color in each place of a strip, nothing is done in a hurry, nothing is done half-ass. I am humbled and honored to have worked with these great friends. It was a fresh breath of air in a past moment in life.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was the location of my second reunion of sorts. More than five years ago I first came to the museum's central lobby with my friend Dana on a scholarship lobbying for climate change policy on the hill. I was awed and inspired by the collection of traditional canoes that were displayed. Reed, bark, dugout, kayak (canvass), first showed me how global the canoe tradition was.

When I first lived and worked in D.C. two years ago, Daryl and I came back to the museum to visit the same display. We knew a little more only to know how much smaller our bits of inquiry were.

Just recently, another reunion with NMAI brought me together with a group of builders and cultural preservers from Guam, who had a traditional canoe, or Proa, in that lobby. We quickly connected and shared ideas and I was inspired by these craftsmen's work. A wonderfully woven sail, and intellegently designed hull, among other features, deeply impressed me. My new friends from Guam, Ton and Daniel, I'm sure will be friends into the future. Going to NMAI has become a tradition for me, and in tradition there is always more to learn.

The TASI members with their Proa
On Monday I finally leave for the global journey of the Watson Fellowship. I am ready. It's time to explore, and find in the expression of my passion what I see as truely meaningful and important. Next time you hear from me, I'ttl be from the Peruvian environs with tales of adventure yet to be heard.

NMAI's canoe from Titicaca in Peru

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Canoes and Conservation on Tiwai Island, Sierra Leone

Deep in the Gola Forests of southern Sierra Leone this canoe floats patiently, waiting for you to begin your adventure. After having the above image as the background of this blog for a while, and yes the new background is the same canoe, you must be wondering "where do I find this beautiful dugout and how do I use it to explore those lucious rain forest landscapes?!". Well you're certainly in luck my friend, because I'll tell you exactly where.

You will find it on Tiwai Island. Between two chiefdoms, between two sections of the Moa River, this small rain forest preserve is a unique case of conservation throughout the country. In 2010, and again in 2011, I made the journey to southern Sierra Leone to visit the intensely bio-diverse landscape and wonderful people of the island. The first Community Based Conservation project in Sierra Leone, Tiwai was started by a man name John Oates, a primatologist interested in the rare species of monkeys and chimpanzees that inhabit the island's forests. Surviving through the 90's with civil war and deforestation, Tiwai has begun to rebuild with funding from the Environmental Foundation of Africa.

The island engages and employs local community members in the management of the island reserve. Traditional uses for the land such as harvesting medicines, subsistence agriculture, harvesting construction materials, particularly for the building of canoes, has been banned on the island. In Sierra Leone, with forest cover decreasing from 70% to only 4% in the last few decades, it is evident how dire the situation has become, forcing local communities to look else where for their vital forest products provided to them for generations. 
Two jovial guides at Tiwai Wildlife Sanctuary

Yet Tiwai is about sustainable use, rather than completely excluding humans from their native environments. After all, very few of the community members would be on-board with the project if other benefits weren't able to replace the ones lost in immediate conservation. Rather, on Tiwai Island culture and nature are working to find an interesting balance. Much of the indigenous knowledge kept alive by the Gola Forest Mende of the area revolves around biodiversity, which plants, for example, offer what plethora of uses. People in these regions have been accessing these forests' resources for more than a thousand years. That knowledge, as evident in the local rangers and guides of the island, is crucial in protecting those resources. 

A tree typically used for dugout canoe construction.

The Kapok tree, or Ceiba petandra, the most massive of the rain forest trees (more than 60 meters tall), illuminates well the type of interdependence that Tiwai aims for. In the rain forest the Kapok is home to epiphytes (plants which live only in the canopy of specific trees), birds, mammals, insects, fungi, and various other creates that are found no where else but in the massive habitat created by the tree. The Kapok is also wonderful wood for canoes, a potent medicine, and among the most sacred and ritualized trees in the traditional Mende culture.  All of these uses and points of interaction within the ecosystem create respect for and deep importance of the tree itself.

In 1970 Robert Smith wrote an article entitled "The canoe in West African History" where he describe the origins of the first dugout canoe, or so he speculated. The creation of an idea of a dugout canoe, he thought, must have come from a log which had fallen, or been felled, into water and then balanced upon as a flotation device for travel across a dangerous river. Smith's thought is an interesting one as it alludes to how close we really are to the origins of our materials..

I know relatively nothing about the construction on these particular canoes, as I spent no time building. However, I always thought the process would be relatively simple. My concept of simple was shattered when I spent time with these builders and community members, realizing how deep their knowledge bases is. It made me realized that the loss of our cultural resources and knowledge is also the loss of our natural resources, forgetting how to manage them properly. While the loss of our natural resources inevitably becomes the loss of the cultural resource dependent on them. A living analogy for this back and forth is the down-sizing of the traditional canoe in this region. As the large trees are logged, smaller trees must be used, which make more tippy canoes. Pushing us closer to a difficult situation to balance.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

"We are resilient": The survival of the sailing canoe among the Rama of Nicaragua

A Co-post with guest, Ervin Hodgson, of the Rama people of eastern Nicaragua

 Two Rama sailing canoes on Bluefields Lagoon. Photo by Will Meadows and Lauren Greubel, also in, Peoples of the Sea
National Council for Science and the Environment, Oceans 2030, January 2011 

In August 2010, I first met Ervin in Bluefields, an old pirate town at the edge of Bluefields Lagoon, home of the some 4,000 Rama people who inhabit the rainforest islands just inland from the vast pacific Ocean. We were friends right from the start and began discussing issues of culture, environment, and education just about as soon as our eyes met. Lauren, my girlfriend, and Sergio, Ervin's brother, contributed to our dialogue in the front of an old inn as the evening grew closer. The next day, Ervin had invited us to Rama Key, the capital island of the Rama people, whom migrate much of the year using canoes called Doris (plural) or Uut in Rama.

It was the mark of our friendship when we first got into the Dori at a small dock at the edge of town. It was unconditional trust from the both of us, and for the canoe, to get us to the island safe. Ervin's mother, a wonderful woman with a great sense of humor, kept noting the waves crashing into us and how she didn't want to get wet as Sergio powered the small motor away from the town and towards the Rama lands.

An upturned Dori blending in with the beach at Rama Key.
The island, teeming with life and a beautiful community, hosted us well as we discussed and ate savory drum fish and sweet plantain with Ervin and his family. Rama Key, an island with two hills set in the middle of the Lagoon, is best accessible via boat or canoe. It is an incredibly peaceful place with a Rama community that is always welcoming. Ervin's home, nearly visible from the picture above is open air, looking over the waters. Rama pass through the main island village periodically throughout the year as they migrate from fishing and subsistence work on their traditional lands.

Our conversations rarely strayed long from serious topics. Ervin, the sole environmental studies teacher at the island's school, as well as the only Rama with a computer and one of two to obtain a master's degree, is a visionary with his mind focused deeply on environmental and cultural challenges. Those challenges, often one and the same, have deeply scared this land. 

Loss of language, traditional practices, and tribal property has been due to colonial pressures for hundreds of years on the Rama lands. Recent issues including climate change, the agricultural frontier and the government's refusal to recognizes indigenous lands, logging, and violence, has made it hard to maintain economy and identity for the Rama. The changes in the canoe over time reflect the changes in the cultures.  Though much is unknown in history, it is clear that the styles of the canoes have changed over the past few thousand years, particularly influenced by the arrival of Europeans and the adaptations to the Rama sail. Materials have become harder to find as logging takes the biggest of the trees and felling too many trees conflicts with Rama traditional ethics. Motors and materials besides wood receive mixed feelings, though useful to the Rama. 

While under vast changes, the Rama, as reflected in the changes in the canoe, survive and maintain who they are. The canoe is the mode of transportation, what allows mass harvesting of food such as fish and rain forest crops. It is of chief importance to the people and part of their being.

A Dori from the base of Ervin's family's house.
Traditionally the Dori or Uut is built along a river bed deep in the rainforest. A tree is selected by an expert builder. The builders usually spend five days or more along the river bed carving the inside first and then the outside of the canoe once they have done the felling of the tree. Traditional tools are few and far between these days, axes and steel blades making up the majority of the tools used. Three different canoes are built for the purposes of transpiration, hunting, and for children's play. 

"Language is observation about the environment" Ervin would tell me, speaking of identity and how with the loss of a language, can mean a loss of an entire way of thinking about the environment. Described as "moribund" in previous decades, the Rama Language, with the leadership of the late Miss Norah Rigby, has regained its natives speakers from two to a few dozen in recent years. Canoes are another observation about the environment, deeply embedded in culture, about how we interpret and deal with our material world. Ervin tells me of the vast lexicon in Rama language that describes knowledge of the seas, the trees and weather; the simple, barely noticeable, yet vital, tricks needed to build a canoe properly and sail it well. This is the importance of language.

A Dori off Rama Key
Ervin and I paddled a Dori further into the lagoon on our last day together. "We are resilient" he said to me. Those simple yet powerful words stuck with me. They are put to action by Ervin and his work to protect the environment he loves and the Rama community's work to protect the culture and traditional knowledge sustaining them.

Ervin, with watchful yet peaceful eyes looking over his beautiful home.
To read more, see an article I wrote with Ervin in 2011 for Cultural Survival Quarterly

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Varanasi and the tiny flames on Mother Ganges

A boat on the Ganges. Note in the distant center a herd of water buffalo kicking up dust. 

The holy river, from the Infinite crescent of ghats (stairs leading to the river) that are the Varanasi bank.  Floating on her are the traditional ferry boats, market boats, fishing vessels in a complex heat. The boats, paint chipping as sweating boatmen push bamboo oars through the opaqueness. This water is polluted. But only on the surface of it’s being. This is the Ganges, as these are the vessels, carrying happy and suffering lives as if to celebrate continuously, like a many-thousand year hum.

I know nothing about the art of these boats. They are not canoes. In 2009, when my eyes met the Ganges waters, I knew even closer to nothing about boats.  Who really cares what they are? They are the boats of this river, a place of incredibly long continuum of societal change. The boats are a metaphor for the spiritual journey to be had, the expectations to be broken, and challenges to be met. That is a lesson that I decided to reminisce on in this journal. Defining something, ‘the art and ecology of a canoe’ is less about what insights I might have on them, and more about how it exists in its rightful place. That is a principal guide in this journey, to allow things to be as they are rather than how they may be defined in comparison to others. The boat simply floats as it does. Get on it.

A boatman on the early morning Ganges. Varanasi ghats in the entire background.
Civilizations on the Ganges have come and gone. So have the boats. This water is old and wise. The city itself feels as if every building has a wall from every different eon of time, 500 years apart, with construction still happening where it is loudest. Being in a boat on the Ganges feels the same, as if the collective pieces from all eras make up one time-less existence, recycled to different purposes as souls are thought to be in the Hindu tradition.

Embodied in the Hindu tradition as a Goddess, the river is energetic and ever moving. Her healing properties, able to purify all that is unclean, come from her ability to create immense movement. In the Ganges, change is the way to purity, even as the river is said to be one of the top five most polluted in the world. Four hundred million people survive on Ganges. Every day people step into her water to bath themselves. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said “you can never step in the same river twice”. In the Ganges, you are always stepping in the same river, but you yourself are changed.

Every night in Varanasi fire dancers conduct a ritual of gratitude once the sun is down. They perform slow movements endlessly as the flames reflect on the still water. During one of these rituals a small boy about the age of eight came and sat with me. In front of me an ascetic covered in clays and paint was moving closer and closer to us with his hands help out. His massive dread locks and intense glare were locked on me, and I become consumed by him. It was an attempt at a trance. Closer he got and the more I tried to match his intensity. Once he was a few inches from my face he realized I wasn’t going to give him money, for whatever reason. He looked at me in disgust and moved away. The boy, not saying much the whole night leaned over and said “that’s alright, he was just going to buy drugs anyways”. I was shocked by his honesty. It seemed to float my understanding of the situation. The boy then gave Lauren, my girlfriend, a free drawing of an eight pointed flower in gold and red before parting.

The boy’s name just happened to be Siddhartha. His pragmatism and insight humbled me. In Buddhism there is a saying that attaining Nirvana is like crossing a river, the practice is simply your boat to crossing that river. Some even have compared the Buddha to a Ferryman. We didn’t see him again after that evening.

Before leaving Varanasi, I rowed a boat on the water early one morning. As a common ritual, candles are floated down the river in little baskets in incense. The candle, just floating on the surface during certain pilgrimages can light up the entire river. In some ways it reminds me of the lotus flowers I had seen in Sarnath just up-river, where the Buddha first taught. The lotus, living in the water, comes to float a flower on the surface, as, goes the Buddhist allusion, a mind rises to find understanding. And just as the bodies of the dead are burned on the ghats, like constant candles they are dedicated to the holy river. And those candles are carried by a boat. 

A candle floating out into the Ganga