Adventure & Insight At Fingertips

Best to all in 2024!

FIRST –

The book is out …

I have republished the book “Missing” by Talbot Baines Bruce.

Click here to read more on Amazon.

It’s a quick read and a book you will not put down!

As mentioned in my previous post titled Soon To Publish An Epic Book, Roundwood Press has now re-published a classic and true story from the First World War titled: “Missing” Three Months In Enemy Territory. The ebook is available from Amazon at this link.

The Library of Congress recently issued to me the new copyright for this expanded book, which now includes a new cover, map, introduction and appendices. I spent years tracking down, obtaining and legally securing the copyright.

I hope you will read the book, as it is a quick-paced read which puts into context some of the the tribulations that individuals from past generations have suffered in order to give many people today the incredible freedoms they now enjoy.

CW from Top Left: New book cover, old book cover, ditch point of plane, author, Belgian winter terrain, River Meuse

Sample portions of Chapter Two from the book “Missing” is below. For Chapter One, see the previous Roundwood Press post.

“Missing” Three Months In Enemy Territory – Chapter Two

CHAPTER II.

AFTER Jean had told his story we took a tram for Liège, distant four miles or thereabout. Nothing of any interest happened on the way, but I was haunted by the feeling that everybody knew who I was, and that it was only a matter of time before someone collared me and marched me into the local gendarmerie.

We found the question of sleeping accommodation difficult to solve, as everyone had to produce his passport before any hotel or rest-house would take him in for the night. I was told that this was a local German rule, but think it applied to all Belgian towns at that time; anyway, we tried two hotels, and at each were told the same thing—we could not be admitted without showing our cards of identification. After an hour’s search, however, we found a house where the owner would receive us without that formality; it was not such a place as we would have chosen, but we could not afford to be exacting, and were glad to find any refuge for the night. Even in this humble retreat they had to know who we were. Before I knew what he was doing the landlord pushed his Visitors’ Book under my nose and told me to register; fortunately he was called away in the act of doing so, leaving us time to rack our brains for suitable names and occupations to enter. Jean would not give his own name, as the people at Havelange might have told the authorities that he was helping me to escape. I forget what he called himself, and it does not much matter. My adopted name was ‘Joseph Rosseau,’ occupation ‘cordonnier,[1]’ which I gave only hoping that I might not by any mischance be called upon to exercise the cordonnier’s craft!

Having registered and completed arrangements with the landlord, we went for a stroll about the town, also to find some cheap café where we could obtain a meal. Liège is a very beautiful old city, but as it was by this time quite dark we could not see much of it. What we did see was that the place seemed to be alive with Germans, officers and men; some, I presume, on leave, others stationed in the town. I bought some Belgian cigarettes, having smoked all my Player’s. When I finished one of the latter I was careful to trample out the end with the name; so small a thing might serve to betray me. Belgian cigarettes are much stronger than English; they made me cough and splutter at first, but I soon got used to them.

We found a grubby-looking café after long search, and ordered some meat and vegetables; having had only a glass of milk and an apple all day I was fairly hungry, and was able to do justice to the unsavoury dish set before us. After dinner we found our way to a small estaminet,[2] where we had a glass of German beer. This was extremely good, in fact almost better than our own; and as it was now eight o’clock, and we were tired after a long and, for me at all events, exciting day, we went back to the café. To reach the office where we had signed the book it was necessary to pass through the public room, and in that room were five or six German soldiers with women; some of them looked up in a curious inquiring fashion, but none addressed us, and we passed on to the office, where we found the proprietor, and asked to be shown our room. The man took us up to a small attic on the third floor, containing a double bed, a washstand, and chest of drawers. It was quite in keeping with the rest of the premises—that is to say, uninviting; but we were well pleased to have a bed at all under the circumstances, and bidding the landlord good night, locked the door and sat down on the bed to discuss our future plans.

Border of Netherlands, Germany and Belgium

Jean had suggested two methods of crossing the frontier; in other words, of surmounting the electrified fence thereon. When the Germans occupied Belgium they found there were no means of preventing the people from crossing into Holland and sending the Allies any information they had been able to glean; and for this reason they erected all along the frontier from Antwerp to near Aix-la-Chapelle a closely meshed wire fence roughly seven feet high, which was charged with electricity; and on either side of this, at a few paces distant, another ordinary wire fence to prevent persons and cattle from accidentally touching the electrified fence, with fatal consequences. This barrier, I gathered, was completed at the beginning of 1916. There was a power-house at every few kilometres with a German electrician in charge, and a sentry was posted at intervals of one kilometre. Thus it will be seen that to cross the frontier would be difficult. Jean had two ideas: one, to secure a ladder eight feet long with which we should creep up to the fence by night and, climbing this, jump down on the Dutch side; the other plan was to use a spade and dig a passage under it by night. Both these ideas seemed practicable at first sight, though I preferred the former, realising that digging must cause noise, which was likely to attract the attention of a sentry and result in capture. However, we kept an open mind on the point, and left it for decision when we should arrive at Visé and ascertained the condition of affairs there. We were now only about fourteen kilometres from the frontier, so the question of crossing had become one of immediate importance; and having debated the matter, folded up the map over which we had been poring and went to bed.

I could not sleep that night; I was too anxious and unhappy. I did doze off about five o’clock in the morning, and dreamed that I was back with the squadron and all was well. It was a painful shock to wake to the realities at half-past seven.

We got up, cleaned our boots with rags found in the room, and went downstairs to breakfast, which consisted of bread and jam and black coffee. We had only begun our meal when two German soldiers came in and took their seats at the next table; whereupon Jean whispered that these men had slept in the room next to ours; which provoked wonder whether they might not have heard us discussing plans of escape. We had talked French, but so many Germans know the language that it was impossible to feel sure we had not been overheard and understood. Our fears proved groundless, however, and we finished breakfast with nothing to disturb us but a few inquisitive glances. Having settled with the landlord we went into the town, where I bought something I had missed—a toothbrush. We had the whole day before us, so there was no need of haste; in fact, I proposed that we stay the day at Liège and walk to Visé that night. Jean did not agree; he assured me that the country through which we should travel was as safe for us by day as by night, being very quiet and sparsely inhabited. He knew the region and I did not, so his views carried the day; and we took a tram from the centre of the city to the suburbs, where we alighted and set out on our walk.

The country was thinly inhabited, as Jean said, but by no means so ‘quiet’ in our sense of the word as I could have wished: but I may as well describe our day’s adventures. From the tram, which ran along the bank of the Meuse, we saw a large bridge which had been wrecked in the middle. Jean said this had been done a few weeks before by some French airmen. One bomb must have been dropped fairly on the bridge—one of the most perfect shots that could be made; the man who did it had reason to be proud of himself. A number of workmen were engaged on the task of repair, and it was evident that in a very short time the bridge would be fit for traffic again. Nothing happened during our tram ride. When we got out we walked along the main road, using the signals and precautions employed the day before, and had not gone far when a patrol of four Germans going in the same direction as ourselves attracted attention. Each of these patrols, it appeared, had its own area, and Jean thought the area in charge of the four men in front extended for another three or four kilometres; it would, therefore, be quite safe to walk behind them, as in all probability they would not turn back till they reached the next village, where they would meet the patrol of the adjoining area. We were following about 200 yards in their rear when another patrol, emerging from a side road between ourselves and the four, stopped and looked about them. Luckily we happened to be passing a café at the moment, so went in, ordered coffee, and waited to see what might happen. The two whistled to the four, who waited till they came up, when there was a long discussion. I would have given much to know the subject of their conversation; we were barely twenty-five miles from Havelange, and all the patrols for miles round must have had orders to keep a look-out for us. After their consultation the two patrols separated, the four pursuing their way, the two coming back past our café; they had a good look through the window, but we were well hidden behind a curtain and were not seen; and having watched them out of sight we took the road again.

These patrols when on duty wore spiked helmets and carried their rifles slung over the shoulder; they were sometimes accompanied by a dog, always an Alsatian, which I think the local people must have detested quite as much as they did the Germans themselves. The dog would sniff at any parcel or basket carried by a peasant, and if his interest in it betrayed the likelihood that meat, butter, or cheese was contained therein, the patrol at once stopped the bearer and obliged him or her to show the contents. Whatever food was found they invariably confiscated and took to an office or depot, where it was packed for despatch to Germany; food was growing scarce in the Fatherland, thanks to our blockade. One did not see these dogs with a town patrol; they were often used in the rural districts.


[1] Shoemaker

[2] Small café selling alcoholic drinks

SECOND –

Years ago I published online a paperback copy without illustrations of my book Vino Voices – Wine, Work, Life. I forgot about it and did little to promote the book. I am now revising the book so that it will be available WITH ILLUSTRATIONS in ebook and paperback form.

The book includes interviews with 50 different persons from a dozen countries about why they love working in the world of wine, and what makes that world unique.

Thanks to Russ Keaten-Reed for reminding me of this book. Russ is a professional involved in the wine business who lives in both France and Florida in the U.S. We both met recently in southern France. Russ recently wrote me to say:

“I’m loving your book Vino Voices. It makes me want to get back into the craft. Their stories all feel easy to relate to. Bravo.”

Places and faces of those interiewed in Vino Voices in New Zealand, Australia, Spain, USA, Slovenia … and more

Thanks for tuning in. The 20th anniversary edition of Rivers of Change – Currents of Thought will be available online later this year.

Soon To Publish An Epic Book

This month my Roundwood Press publishing company will release a classic book.

The book is titled “Missing” and was last published more than 90 years ago.

This true story was written by First World War pilot Lieutenant Talbot Baines Bruce of the U.K. Royal Flying Corps. It tells how, after his Sopwith Camel biplane was downed in German controlled Belgium, he escaped capture.

Cover of the new edition of “Missing”

The author spent 13 weeks hiding in safe houses before he escaped into the Netherlands. The fast paced story tells how the author moved between towns while pursued by German soldiers. This riveting recollection was a best seller when it was published in 1930, and it was reprinted five times.

Twenty year old Lieutenant Talbot Baines Bruce in 1917

                  

Map showing route of author for new book edition

The reason for publishing this book is because of a personal connection. My parents moved our family from near the city of Chicago in the U.S. to live in a village in County Wicklow in Ireland for some years. I was a young boy at the time.

Talbot and his wife Mollie were our neighbors in the village named Delgany. They lived a half a mile down an adjacent country lane. My father, then in his 60’s, regularly played golf with Talbot. Once, on Talbot’s birthday my parents invited him to our house for a party. I was 13 or 14 years old and baked and frosted a three-layered cake for him. Because he was born in Australia, my parents cut out an Australian map from the World Book Encyclopedia. We taped this to a toothpick and stuck it into the cake.

Images from the route in Belgium, as well as a Sopwith Camel biplane

Later, my parents told me that Bruce had been a war hero in World War One. They borrowed a copy of his hardcopy book and later spoke about the story.

Almost ten years ago I began researching what happened to this book. I was able to track down and purchase two original hardcopies. I researched what became of the publishers who went out of business, then hired a London law firm to track down the heirs so I could procure copyright to the book.

In reprinting the book “Missing” I’ve kept the original text almost exactly as it was originally written. However, some modifications have been made—including creating a new cover image, adding a book subtitle, replacing the map, as well as enhancing the original photograph of the author. Also, appendices have been added regarding the history, language and context of times associated with the story (as well as a note on the theme of good fortune during Bruce’s adventure).

Entering the town of Battice in winter; Bruce passed through this town via train

“Missing” is a captivating story that begins at an airfield in France one rainy dawn, and ends, after dramatic near misses and confrontations, with a one-on-one meeting between the author and King George in the U.K. You will enjoy the pace and imagery of this captivating book.

“Missing” – Three Months In Enemy Territory will be available on Amazon later this month as an e-book.

The opening paragraphs of the book are below. When Bruce describes dealing with the aircraft, remember that a Sopwith Camel biplane was constructed mostly of cloth and wood.

CHAPTER I.

I HAVE been meaning to write this for the last twelve years, but the rough notes I made after my return to England have lain untouched, owing, I am afraid, partly at least to indolence; but perhaps it is not too late to interest people in my experiences during the thirteen weeks—i.e., from 6th November 1917 to 1st February 1918—I spent in enemy territory disguised as a Belgian peasant, eventually escaping over the German-Dutch frontier.

Let me begin with that memorable day; with the summons of the batman[1], unnecessarily early, on the morning of 6th November, when it was still dark. I cursed the man, and, after a decent interval, got up.

It was raining hard when I walked down to the tarmac and there found three other unfortunates, all very grumpy at that hour. Our C.O. (Major R. Raymond Barker) appeared a little later—he was never known to be absent from the aerodrome when a patrol was due to leave—and we discussed the prospects of the weather clearing. The half-hour it was decided we should wait was prolonged to an hour and a half, and then, the sky clearing, we prepared to go. The mechanics swung the propellers, which started quite easily, and after running our engines full out to make sure they were going properly, the chocks were removed from the wheels, we taxied out into the middle of the aerodrome, opened up, and took off. We left the ground at 7.45.

After circling once round the aerodrome we headed for the lines, leaving Albert on our right, and began climbing steadily. It began to grow thick again, so we climbed through a thin layer of cloud to about 8000 feet, where, looking down through a gap, I could see, very faintly, the straight road between Albert and Bapaume. We continued climbing through other layers of cloud until about 12,000 feet up. My compass had been showing our course as due east, generally speaking, and I guessed we were somewhere near Bapaume. This guess proved correct, for after a few minutes the town itself became visible through an opening in the clouds, and that was the last time I saw the ground for nearly two hours. We were now 2000 feet above the clouds and 13,000 feet up; below was a vast white field which completely blotted out the earth. The sky above was clear blue, and the sun was shining with magnificent effect on the clouds; the glare, however, was dazzling, and I wished for the tinted goggles which are such a comfort under these conditions.

The air was absolutely calm; my engine was going perfectly, and those of the other three machines appeared to be doing the same. We were in very close formation, only about ten yards between each, and flying in the shape of a diamond. We were still heading due east when our leader turned a little to the south; I thought he was going to make for home, as by this time it seemed pretty certain that no German machines would be up on such a day. However, he did not, continuing to fly on a south-easterly course.

The wind had been slightly behind us ever since we left the aerodrome, and had increased considerably in strength; and to this was probably due to the fact that we flew farther over the lines than we intended. After flying south-east for twenty-five minutes I felt that we were going much too far into enemy country, so went as close as I could to our leader, waved to him, and pointed west. He waved back cheerily, but did not alter his course, and we continued flying till it seemed good to him to turn north. He then led us down through the clouds to see, if possible, where we were. To cut the story short, we lost one another in one thick layer of cloud, found one another in a gap between that and a layer lower down, lost one another again in that, and, emerging, recovered formation once more. We had no idea where we were, so the only thing to do was to go on till we saw the ground; we had come down to 300 feet before we recognised Belgian territory by the characteristically small fields, chateaux, and woods. Through the sleet and rain the ground was only just visible, and after hopping over towns, chimneys, and woods for ten minutes, our leader decided to land that we might ascertain our whereabouts, and selected a very good field for the purpose.

It was while in the very act of landing that my propeller stopped; the same thing happened to another machine, but the other two kept going. We got out and joined in consultation, and while talking two farmers appeared from nowhere, as people do on such occasions. It was my lot, as possessor of a very small knowledge of French, to find out from the men the name of the nearest town; and in answer to my inquiry one of the two gesticulated with his arm, saying, “Liége there, Namur there.” That was quite enough; we were at least 120 miles the wrong side of the enemy’s lines, and the sooner we got away the better. The propeller of the other machine which had stopped was set going easily enough, but mine fairly gave up the ghost; we could not get a kick out of it. In desperation I left the machine and urged the others to go: I would enlist the help of local men to start my propeller.

I do not care to dwell on my own feelings as I watched them go. In a few minutes they were out of sight, and I turned away to my own machine, about which some thirty peasants had now gathered. I chose two, the most intelligent-looking of the group, and showed them how a propeller should be swung. They were eager to help, and turned to with a will—I never saw two men swing a propeller as those two Belgians did,—and if sheer physical effort could have started a Clerget engine, mine would have done its duty. Time was precious; and after quite five minutes strenuous swinging by these two noble fellows—it would have been a serious matter for them if the enemy learned they had tried to help me,—I came to the conclusion that further endeavours would be useless, and the best—indeed, the only—thing to be done was to burn the machine and get away before any of the enemy arrived. So I turned on what petrol was left in the tank, not very much, and, kneeling under the machine, dropped a match on it. The petrol burned very quietly at first, but in time the flames mounted, licking round engine and cockpit, and warned me that sooner I got away the better; six or seven hundred rounds ammunition in the belts of the guns, and ere[2] long the explosion of these would make noise enough to rouse the country for a mile round.

[Talbot Baines Bruce. 1930.

Copyright Tom Mullen. 2023.]


[1] Meaning: airman assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal assistant

[2] Meaning: before

Nuclear Bordeaux Part 3 – Bountiful or Bogus?

‘To be a good winemaker, you must first be a good liar.’

I could not believe such words—smoothly spoken by a long-haired surfer perfectionist winemaker from a family of vignerons with impeccable attention toward sanitation and quality. I was convinced this young man was an honest individual, as well as a paragon of integrity and industriousness.

Perhaps he was.

He continued.

This time he referred to the 2017 vintage—when a howling frost knocked half of Bordeaux grapes dead.

‘In years where there are few grapes, believe me—a lot of Pomerol wines will include juice from Blaye,’ he stated, referencing an illegal practice of trucking and then infusing wine from one appellation into wine from another.

His words shocked me.

Could it be?

Perhaps.

During years of living in rural Bordeaux, I had witnessed slivers of brazen but arrogant skullduggery in the winemaking world.

In the year 2010 I purchased hundreds of bottles of vintage 2009 Bordeaux wine on speculation (en primeur), which means the wine was still aging and not yet bottled. After it was bottled, I stored cases in my small cellar in the town of Blaye. Four years later this wine tasted wonderful. I then spoke to a son of the château owners and mentioned still having hundreds of bottles from the 2009 vintage. He was surprised. He admitted their own winery kept no bottles from that renowned vintage.

Curiously, the next year that same winery started shipping out boxes of—yes—(supposedly) vintage 2009. The labels differed slightly from those on the bottles I had: a lighter color and bolder text. Overnight, the value of my precious cellared bottles plummeted because some juice (hardly from that same vintage) flooded local markets. One storekeeper invited owners of this château to a blind tasting, served up their own juices—real and faux—and watched their chagrined faces betray their own sleight of hand.

2009 produced a sound vintage. As did 2010. It came as no surprise then, when somewhere close to the middle of the decade this same château began issuing boxes of faux vintage 2010. When I entered a restaurant in the nearby town of Bourg I saw cases of the supposed 2010 lined up against a wall. Same label changes: lighter color, bolder text.

Or—consider how, after the U.S. government slapped significant import duties on French wines with alcohol levels of less than 14.5%, vast quantities of Bordeaux wines—normally between 12.5% and 14% alcohol—were suddenly labeled as ‘14.5%.’ Perhaps they were—but unlikely without some deft cellar alterations to boost their booze levels. Whenever I asked a jacketed château owner, or some weathered vigneron with a coiffed goatee about these unusually high alcohol levels for the region, they nodded a chin or waved a dismissive hand and explained it was all the result of global warming.

How convenient.

In just a year, apparently, temperatures had skyrocketed enough to boost grape sugar quantities and consequent alcohol levels all over France. Throughout Spain and Italy too.

The truth is that institutional deceit is not uncommon in the wine world. The very premise of the supposedly bedrock backbone classification scheme for Bordeaux wine quality—that of 1855—is, literally, a century and a half out of date.

Although I live here and love it, I now remain somewhat leery not only of Bordeaux, but of the entire wine world.

The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 took place in, of course, the year 1855. At the behest of Emperor Napoleon III—who was hosting the world’s fair (‘Exposition Universelle’) in Paris—scouts visited Bordeaux to discern the best quality wines so they could be displayed to visitors in the capital city. Their selection created a classification system still utilized today and—bizarrely—somehow considered practical by ample wine sniffing professionals.

It’s more like a quaint relic.

Books have been written about this classification, so I’ll avoid details.

But, consider time.

Since that classification too place, two world wars have been fought, the atom split, the airplane invented, the computer created, slaves emancipated, golf balls knocked across the moon, and buggies replaced by automobiles.

In 1855, ballpoint pens, air conditioners, television sets, PVC pipes, cars, washing machines, pasteurized products and elevators did not exist. This was the year missionary David Livingstone set eyes on Victoria Falls, the year Isaac Singer patented the sewing machine, and a year when steamboats transported goods and passengers into the interior of the U.S.

Would you buy a brand based on the reputation it had 160 years ago?

Many do. Frequently. In great volumes. And at huge expense.

Seriously.

Some argue this classification retains merit because soils underlying grapes have not essentially changed. True. But the world of agriculture was reshaped during the past century and a half—including land management practices, technological innovations, pesticides, herbicides, management techniques, climate alterations, quality control, and economic impacts of multiple external variables–including the invention of sophisticated processing equipment, deployment of air cargo and container ships, and viability of ‘flying winemakers’–able to provide precision advice from having worked vintages in dozens of countries.

Yet if both pedigree and integrity are not magically inherent to Bordeaux, why do its wines maintain their stellar reputation? The reasons are simple but intriguing.

Before revealing what they are, I’ll first share more tales about life in rural Bordeaux.

 

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux Part 2 – The Narrow Gate

(Part 1 of this series is here.)

Decades ago, I worked a plush job in Dubai before that city transformed into a sprawling metropolis. At that happy time, before the city exanded in size and population and popularity, we could casually run into friends at Thatcher’s pub or Fibber Magee’s bar or Magrudy’s bookstore in Jumeirah. The atmosphere was laden with optimism; the city retained a socially optimistic vibe.

Bungee jumping into Dubai Creek

One hot weekend on the edge of an outdoor swimming pool at our El Manzel apartment complex in the Al Karama district off Sheikh Zayed highway, I dangled toes in cool turquoise water—reading a Time magazine. An article included a photograph of a smiling British financier who had moved to France, penned a book about life in the countryside and transformed to a bestselling author. This was Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. The article riveted me, for this is what I wanted! I tore the piece out and kept it. Successful author. Rural France. Sunshine. Wine.

Bingo.

Golfing with South African co-worker Martin in Dubai

Years rolled on and I worked assignments in Angola, Panama, Guatemala, Thailand and Pakistan and spent years in California: Malibu and Laguna Beach. I eventually moved to France. The relocation was not premeditated, but blossomed from that seed of desire planted poolside in the Emirates decades earlier. I moved not to a rolling, bucolic and lavender scented Provencal village, but instead to flatlands surrounding the Gironde estuary— hectares of grass and rough soil and stout old vines ringed around Bordeaux city. I settled in a town too large to embrace any charming intimacy of Pernod swigging denizens recognized by gossiping neighbors, yet too small to shiver with opulent spires of gothic architecture within a grand city. This venue was not as expected.

Dinner with view of Gironde Estuary

Looking back, however, the move went well. Since I first read about Mayle’s bestselling book, Provence had transformed to a Francophone version of Orange County in southern California, with too many cars, too little parking, cringeworthy property prices and a saturation of non-French residents flush with cash, though deficient in linguistic proficiency.

The ancient citadelle in Blaye

The roots of my settlement in Bordeaux hinged on family, history and—mais oui—women.

My childhood had a dose of European influence. After my parents sold their Chicago business, they relocated family to rural Ireland in a move that was somewhat romantic, but displaced in time. This was when poverty was rife and teachers dressed in religious black robes and whacked grimacing student across palms with their hand whittled wooden canes within dim-lit classrooms. This all brutally contrasted to a Chicago north shore suburban school with huge picture windows, ample lego sets and bright lights.

With siblings in Ireland (I’m on left)

Yet, away from those gray, dull, sodden prefabricated classrooms and the smelly concrete toilet block, our home in the village of Delgany stayed comfortable. The parents renovated a rectory originally constructed in 1725. The garden included a running brook and orchard and a vegetable garden. My mother—when not tromping around in Wellington boots planting potatoes or picking strawberries—devoured historical novels by Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt, as well as history books. She then recounted, over dinners of roast beef and fat spuds and steaming green beans, the names and birth years of the wives of Henry the VIII of England, or tales of intrigue from the Tower of London. Sometimes she mentioned Eleanor of Aquitaine within the French region that now includes Bordeaux. Eleanor. Aquitaine. These words smacked of alliteration and intrigue.

Rural Bordeaux countryside

About that time a sister hitchhiked to Bordeaux with an American ally who lugged his guitar case and who—troubadour-like—lit up public parks or hostel hallways when strumming and crooning tunes from Cat Stevens or Buffalo Springfield. Gendarmes once stopped and searched their framed backpacks for drugs, a routine scenario during this post-Woodstock era of bell bottom jeans and dangling ponytails.

During her final years, my mother joined a wine club in the U.S. She received boxes with mixed varieties, poured us dinner glasses during visits, and ignited my eventual interest in international vintages. So also did an ex-British girlfriend and her mother, who sent a gift box of wine while I lived and studied in Newcastle-On-Tyne in the UK. Beer swilling classmates were as intrigued as I that wine was produced in Chile. Finally, a Californian girlfriend gave me a gift—a book about wine. She penned on the inner cover the instruction that I was to learn about wine, then teach her—someday.

Laguna Beach, California

These intersecting interests in France, writing and wine eventually led me to visit the fabled region of Aquitaine, where Bordeaux city and countryside sit.

That brief visit was made over a decade ago while I was studying business in the UK. I flew into Bordeaux and stayed at a bed and breakfast on Rue Saint Genes. That evening I walked to a nearby bar named Nieuw Amsterdam on Cours Aristide Briand, owned by two Dutch brothers. Seated at a bar in the shape of U, I drank beer, and past midnight people began dancing on tables. Trust me—I took photos.

Dancing on tables

Past midnight the front door opened and a whistle blew—a  police raid! How wonderful. A lovely woman seated close at the bar recognized peril for an innocent visiting American. She stubbed out her cigarette, swigged down a beer and summoned me with a waving index finger. I happily followed. We scooted out a back door with her friends, slipped into a van, and drove to her apartment where the party continued until past 3.00 am. Eventually someone walked me to a tram stop and pointed the way back to the bed and breakfast.

My rescuer

I thought: I like this place.

The following day I departed for another pre-booked bed and breakfast. It was in the countryside outside the city. I drove a rented Peugeot 200 south to Sauternes, east to Saint-Émilion and Libourne, and finally north to a town named Blaye (pronounced blye; rhymes with sigh). I arrived late, well after dinner time. The South African owner invited me to an upstairs kitchen inside an old villa on Rue Saint Simon. We sat. He and his sometimes business partner opened a bottle of Bordeaux wine—perhaps Confiance or Cantinot or Le Con. We talked. Eventually, though late, he opened a second bottle. That second bottle was key. I began enjoying hospitality within this little known town.

Libourne

Within years I moved to Blaye and (with the aid of others) purchased wine, cellar, apartment and stake in a winery. I soon learned about a fleet of chromatic, erratic and less than static characters: a delightfully meandering river of personalities.

In Blaye the ancient citadelle fortress was at that time overgrown and neglected (since then greatly improved). For a sizable 17th century complex, its two entrance gates appeared relatively narrow—wide enough today for passage of a single vehicle. Likewise, the entrance door to the building in which I purchased an apartment also included a tall, narrow door.

Entrance to the Citadelle

Not being religious (even after years of caning from Irish teachers in dank and gloomy County Wicklow classrooms) I was later surprised to encounter—somewhere—an apt verse of scripture from Matthew 7:13.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

It was here, not within any sunnier but tourist trampled acres of France, that I found my own narrow gate. Through this, eventually, flowed time, wine, intrigue and a river of stories—which I shall now begin to share.

Allies in Blaye and Bordeaux

 

 

Nuclear Bordeaux

Bordeaux—place or beverage—is a word associated with wine, wealth and a smidgen of bawdy history, while nuclear relates to atomic particles smashed together to generate light and power, or even to snuff out planetary life. Nuclear also refers to tight, bright family structures that sometimes help homo sapiens sail against the inclement winds of anarchy and possible extinction.

Within Bordeaux, the word ‘nuclear’ means both.

The word Bordeaux means, basically, waterside. It is both city and region, and the western portion is a sunny segment of southwest France that sticks into the Atlantic like a thumb, and is known as the Médoc. It is flat as a crêpe and riddled with rounded stones—enough to scare off even potato farmers. Counterintuitively, grapevines love these conditions because vine roots thrive on adversity.

This ‘left bank’ of Bordeaux includes hundreds of wine estates, or châteaux. A few are associated with prodigious wealth. This is a place where individuals named Arnault, Castel, Wertheimer and Rothschild—collectively worth some $100 billion—visit their own well-trimmed and architecturally eloquent wine estates.

But consider this glaring and seldom mentioned paradox.

Take a renowned wine estate, such as Château Lafite Rothschild. This is classified as one of the top five wine châteaux in Bordeaux with respect to quality, according to a dusty, perhaps dubious old classification system penned with quill and ink in 1855 (a century before steel fermenting tanks were even invented). As a crow flies, the Lafite property sits just 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) distant from the Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais. That’s the local nuclear power plant. Only a half mile further away from these buzzing electrons sits Château Mouton Rothschild, another ‘top five’ producer, owned by a separate branch of that same family.

In summary—bundles of wealth, cellars stuffed with gorgeous vintages, and streamlined, green opulent estates all exist in happy proximity—the distance walked during a round of golf—to a facility that generates potentially bone gnawing toxic materials with a half-life of 700 million years.

Some years ago I wrote the following in a blog post:

‘The Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais is located on a plain east of the estuary. This assemblage of four pressurized reactors comprises the local cathedral of energy. It’s been humming along since 1981, churning out thousands of megawatts and employing three hundred locals full-time. It produces a scant five percent of French energy needs and is poised across the estuary from Bordeaux’s Médoc, bastion of some of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines. One nuclear catastrophe there and, well, your precious bottle of Lafite might quintuple in value in the space of an earthquake. Is that possible? Who knows? Flooding in 1999 breached the walls and soaked the plant with 3.2 million gallons of floodwaters, while seismic shudders in 2002 threatened the integrity of its pipelines.’

The word ‘nuclear’ also refers to a basic social unit: the family.

Bordeaux includes strong family ties and complicated inheritance procedures. This sometimes-sun-drenched region was home, close to a thousand years ago, to wandering minstrel troubadours who traipsed its soils and sang love poems to women they fancied. These men regarded women not as chattel but as bright spirits to court and woo and shower with affection in order to win not their subservience, but love. Romance was sacred, and families critical. After beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine inherited vast swathes of this territory in the 12th century, she enhanced her man-magnet status and became—through marriage—first queen of France, then queen of England.

A wise ruler, adventurer, business woman and mother—Eleanor was so powerful that her husband feared she might influence their sons against him, and so imprisoned her for years in Winchester, England. Fortunately, she outlived the bastard, and walked away from her castle arrest.

Bordeaux, nowadays, has this sort of a Ring of Fire paradoxical beauty—gorgeous, although perennially threatened by some volcanic explosion (in this case, a Chernobyl sized sizzling meltdown). Although segments of the populace can be at times stiff, traditional and abhorrent of any mangled use of their delicate French language, they are also—generally, and generously—non-judgmental folk who will not tizzy your head with obsequious gossip or vine country innuendo. They rarely pry and let others—local or foreigner—get on with life unhindered and without prejudice. One magic of Bordeaux is the ease it provides for staying anonymous.

Within a two-minute walk from my small, silent apartment there is a fruit story, fromagerie (selling cheese), café, wine bar, winery, boulangerie (bakery), guest house, park, restaurants, lingerie store, hairstylist, ferry boat, and PMU—where you can bet cash on horse races. A few minutes more walking and there is a massive citadel—some 40 acres (16 hectares) in area, which includes ample crenelated walls, a dry moat, tunnels, gardens, stores, restaurants and grand elevated views of the snaking Gironde estuary, the distant Médoc and—mais oui!—our beloved nuclear plant.

One local high school is named Jaufre Rudel—after a 12th century Prince of Blaye, troubadour and crusader who, legend has it, found his way to Libya after hearing tales of how gorgeous the local princess appeared (into whose arms—apparently, fantastically and no doubt apocryphally—he then died in raptured bliss).

During coming weeks I’ll share stories about living in rural Bordeaux, about a town located less than an hour’s drive from the beautiful, enticing city of that same name. This town named Blaye (pronounced Blye, or Bligh or Blie) is located across estuary waters from most of the great, grand châteaux and to the south of the nuclear power plant. It is surrounded by vineyards.

Stay tuned, and thanks for tuning in!

If you want to read my blog on wine, food and travel – Vino Voices – click here.

And you might want to read my 50 Rules for Life….

 

Strolling Through A Minefield

Spring in Bordeaux

There have now been more than 40 days of lockdown in France. Exactly six weeks. The spring weather, meanwhile, has generally been gorgeous in southwest France. I miss visiting the city of Bordeaux, and miss sharing meals with friends.

During the past weeks I’ve put out five Instagram livestreams about wine tasting for my Vino Voices blog. You can find them on my site on YouTube. Here, for example, is episode 2.

The story below comes from a book of essays I assembled more than 15 years ago, but never shared in total with others. I may have shared this essay before here on this blog. If so, please excuse the repetition.

The point is this: if you think you are having difficulties now – how would you like to farm a land covered with buried landmines?

Below is an essay about an event from when I lived in the country of Angola in Africa. Such a beautiful land that has seen such tragedies.

Serious reason to stop

A Highland Stroll

I stood in a minefield in southern Angola. The afternoon breeze was slack and the highland temperature cool and dry. The earth was slightly moist and the knee-high grass ahead stood green and lush. I reached down and tucked a cotton workshirt into my khaki shorts.

Carefully, I reminded myself: no moving legs or sliding feet.

Twenty meters behind me, two buxom women at an open air market held their stout arms at their hips and watched us. They were both intrigued and fatigued by the sight. Like me, they did not know what would come next.

The day before in the city of Huambo, a Sunday, I sat on the porch of a young British de-miner named Ian. It was his day off work. After he wolfed down a breakfast of knotted bacon and scrambled eggs, Ian rested his feet on a table and opened a book. He clutched his tin mug of strong coffee and looked at me with a boyish, mischievous grin.

“Perfect for Sunday,” he said and tilted the title of the book my way. It was a poetry collection.

Another ‘democratic socialist’ failed state

Ian was in his mid 20’s and was ex-military. He had spent six months training and leading de-mining crews in Afghanistan before he began working in Angola. Between his contracts he had relaxed by flying to New Zealand’s South Island to go helicopter skiing.

Though he was hardened from a life of thriving on adrenaline, testing his physical limits and searching for buried explosives inches before his nose, Ian loved verse. I wondered what rhymes came to him when he crimped detonation caps or taped segments of trinitrotoluene together.  Perhaps the words of Wilfred Owen:

“The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled,

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.”

Or those of Thomas Hardy:

 

“That night your great guns, unawares,

Shook all our coffins as we lay,

And broke the channel window-squares

We thought it was the Judgement-day.”

A lush, remote land

 

I reached over the table between us and picked up a white vinyl binder. The contents included charts, maps and pages of succinct text. After a quick perusal I was assured of the quality of the compilation. Prepared by Norsk Folkehjelp—Norwegian’s Peoples Aid—the report was titled: “Landmine Survey Programme: Angola. Provincial Report: Huambo.”

I read the introduction:

The country of Angola has seen almost continuous war since 1960. During this period landmines were laid for offensive and defensive purposes by several warring factions throughout the country. The huge numbers and large array of mine types are a reflection of the complexity of the changing phases of the conflict; the Portuguese army, FAPLA, FNLA, UNITA, SWAPO, RA, ANC, FAA and Cuban forces have all been responsible for the current problem of landmine contamination. The extensive use of landmines, laid indiscriminately and unmarked, have so far claimed thousands of lives and left more than 70,000 amputees.

The report listed 58 types of land mines that had been discovered in Angola and mentioned an additional 13 types that had been reported, but were still unconfirmed. These mines came from 21 different countries, including Cuba, Hungary, France, Belgium, Romania, Israel, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, West Germany South Africa, China, Italy, Austria, USA, Zimbabwe, Spain, Egypt, and Sweden.

These statistics jolted me.

“Care to join us tomorrow?” Ian asked.

“Sure,” I agreed.

Some plateau hundreds of miles from the nearest gas station, electricity or running water

Ian and I stood in the same minefield. Inches to the sides of our feet lay low wooden stakes joined by twine. These marked boundaries of a half-meter wide trail that Ian’s team had cleared and considered safe to walk across. Within a radius of 30 meters from us, six Angolan men crawled along the earth like bulky slugs. They worked in teams of two and were equipped with flak jackets, metal detectors, probes and trowels. I watched them advance on their knees, centimeter by centimeter, peering through anti-ballistic visors and hearkening for the electronic signature of buried metal. They probed the earth with metal picks and unearthed mines with ugly big spoons. Their work was to locate and unearth explosives, defuse them, and mark—with utter precision—areas they had cleared and regarded as safe to walk across.

The minefield we stood in was next to an old military hospital; the mines were buried in zigzag rows spaced one meter apart.

A whistle blew. The men stop working. “Linea oito!” one team member shouted in Portuguese: probe line number eight.

Ian paced along the thin roped trail before me. He turned two sharp corners, exited the cordoned area and descended a mud slope. I followed him, placing my feet in his exact footsteps.

The man who had called aloud now stood and held the prize he unearthed—a circular plastic box. It looked like a bulky gift box from a drug store that could be filled with Easter eggs and candy.

Ian turned and motioned me backward.

“Wait,” he warned. “Just in case.”

The governor’s house in the town where we lived – bombed out by Soviet MIG fighters

He took the mine from his coworker and cradled it in one hand, as though inspecting an apple for bruises. With the grace of a surgeon performing a familiar operation, Ian removed a black rubber seal circling the mine and pulled the top half away from the bottom. He took a pair of pliers from his waist, inserted the needle nose into the land mine and pulled out a detonator—a pressure-activated piezoelectric switch. The mine was now effectively defused.

“PPM 2. East German,” Ian said. “Have a look.”

He pointed out components within the black box, then reached in and clasped a thumb and forefinger around an orange—white donut that looked like glossy chalk. Its thickness and diameter were slightly less than a disk of lavatory soap.

“110 grams of TNT,” he explained. “Enough to maim a leg.”

“Enough to kill?”

“Maybe. That’s not its purpose. It’s supposed to injure. You can ignore dead men, but you have to help injured soldiers off the field. If two men help an injured partner, that means three less soldiers are available to fight.“

Ian grinned, sarcastically, at the logic.

“Clever, ay?”

I nodded.

“Hold this,” he said and offered the trigger wire. I grasped it between my fingers. Ian pushed the detonator switch in the mine case and I felt a tingle of electric current, enough to detonate the explosive.

“Tricky to find these mines?” I asked.

“Not bad. Others are worse,” Ian replied. “South African mine engineers used to come here years ago. Their anti-tank mines had light sensors and so they blew up as soon as anyone dug them up.”

He smiled again.

“But the batteries only lasted five months. That’s why they’re not a problem anymore.”

Chatting with the locals on a splendidly cool mountain afternoon

He clasped the donut against a second disc he took from a padlocked toolbox, then tied the two together with strips of black plastic tape. He pulled a detonator cap out of the same toolbox and fit it over a sheathed electrical wire. To crimp the cap and wire together Ian selected a larger pair of pliers and performed the task to the side of his body—near the left crest of his pelvis. This was for safety. Detonation caps are explosive. If one blew while he cinched it, it would maim his thigh and not his groin.

With the detonation cord and the TNT ready, Ian warned his team of de-miners to crouch low and motioned the market women away. He then lit the fuse, placed it on a grass bank and paced away, inspecting his watch. The detonation cord was 20 centimeters long, cut to burn an exact number of seconds. Less than a minute later a plume of black smoke flared up and we heard a muffled boom. We returned to the blast site and peered into a 15 centimeter-deep crater.

“We’re concerned about areas, not numbers,” Ian explained. “One mine in an area the size of a football field is as bad as a thousand. If we can guarantee areas are a hundred percent clear, people will move back and plant their crops.”

In a country where mines render an area as large as California unusable—all land declared as safe was considered precious.

Each month over a dozen mine accidents were then recorded within Huambo’s city limits. Ian and his staff frequently drove their collection of unexploded munitions—white phosphorous grenades, mines, and 240 mm mortar bombs—outside the city. They then used explosives recovered from Claymore mines to ignite this pile. Regarded from a viewing point 500 meters away, the blast was visual, audible, and tactile: a strata of orange light, the din of percussion, and a pulse of air flattening grass.

Just as mines lay hidden from the landscape they cover, aspects of personality can hide from characters we meet. Ian’s overt pluckiness belied the humility he wielded before land mines; it was subconsciously calculated to prolong his safety. His cultivated attention to risk gave him a sense of balance uncommon for his age. Perhaps, I mused, this same facility enhanced his appreciation for poetry.

Hammer & sickle flag of the government – flying this into rebel territory caused serious problems

In the meantime Ian’s crew worked centimeter by centimeter, mine by mine. When dusk blew in the afternoon they were muddy and tired. They had found and defused a total of nine mines. Walking with them back to the truck I recalled another verse by Owen that mocked the adage of how sweet it was to die for one’s country:

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

Ian stopped and turned toward me.

“If anyone asks how many mines are left in Angola,” he said. “I’ll tell them nine less today.”

Nine down.

Fifteen million left to defuse.

All trim and slim from the latest bout of malaria

 

 

Letter To A Just Married Couple

Snow Hill

In 1998 I flew from Panama to Pennsylvania, rented a car and drove to a rural wedding of my friend Jim Murphy and his bride to be Jackie. I had met Jim in Peace Corps in Malawi and he had visited me in England after he returned from doing field work in Africa. After the wedding he and his wife were going to Tanzania for nine months as part of his research for a PhD.  I wrote this letter to them after the wedding while I was still in Pennsylvania. I have not altered a word. Because I have no photos from the wedding, I’ve included a picture of James (the groom) from Malawi, as well as photos from Panama and a photo of an art gallery.

*                                                                                  *

Jim Murphy in Malawi

The images are still clear; the memories distinct. Time to catch them.

Ten p.m. at Ludwig’s restaurant–the Murphy brothers seated and sipping as though in an Irish pub; Jim’s enthusiasm, Jack’s wit, Jackie’s warmth. Three thirty a.m. in a cramped hotel room talking philosophy, gulping Yinling brews and twiddling the AM dial on a cheap radio; sunrise golfers up and sipping bloody Mary’s. Noontime wedding day: lounging by the poolside while other guests roll in.

Big ceremony in a small church. Boxed pews, quick prayers and a row of bridesmaids clutching crimson bouquets. Prayers for victims of East African embassy bombings. A tangerine wedding program with wise words of land stewardship by Wendell Berry. A line drawing on the back cover: “The earth laughs in flowers.”

The wedding reception: huge strawberries beside a vat of chocolate sauce; Neil takes the microphone. Closing down Eagle Tavern. Rene foregoes sleep to be the designated driver. A two a.m. climb over rails for a cold dip in the pool. The manky morning after taste of Havana cigars.

Late, late breakfast at the Black Horse. Hugs and handshakes to strangers forged into friends and departed from within 48 hours. Too much, too good, too fast. I return to the Hampton Inn and find a hallway without breakfast chatter. No more familiar faces by the poolside. Maids make beds where friends no longer sleep. They tuck in sheets. They tuck away the past. Guests have gone. They have flown and driven east and west. I am alone. Pennsylvania. One day and a half left. In room 210, I drop a phone on the couch and dial numbers. Disappointment. Friends I once knew no longer live in Rhode Island or Glen, New Hampshire. I phone family in Albuquerque and Denver. There is no reply. It is midday on Sunday. The sound of the wedding reception band, the squeal of Molly the baby in room 211 and the poolside splash of familiar faces–gone.

Alone.

What to do?

Kwani Dup Island, Panama

A memory: morning hallway talk with eager Mr. Murphy. The region, he explains, is rich with possibility. With cash and car and free hours, there is much to do. He recommends Brandywine River Museum.

A second memory: breakfast in the Black Horse. Shoveling down scrambled eggs and forkfuls of scrapple and blueberry coffee cake into sleepy guts. For only a moment, Erin, Darcy and Ellen are quiet. Becky, suggesting a place to visit, lowers her coffee mug, looks up with huge liquid eyes, then cracks the silence:

Brandywine.

So I go. Into the Budget rental compact, crank up the air conditioning and leave the memory of a hotel where friends no longer stay. I drive south. Past the exits of Exton and King of Prussia. While moving, an overwhelming certainty arrives. It covers me like paint. My skin glows, as it does when this feeling come perhaps every other year. Something huge awaits. The intuitive certainty is enormous. This sensation rarely lies. At fifty miles an hour I turn onto a side road and pass hay bales and tilted green hills and veer over the impeccable asphalt of one more beautiful American highway. Finally, the museum is ahead.

Photograph of rice workers

Wyeth. Mr. Murphy said Wyeth. Who is Wyeth? He is a painter. Renowned. Of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and of Maine. The counter attendant says his work is on the third floor. Waiting for the elevator takes too long. I skip up wide concrete steps two at a time, head reeling from late nights, and step into a carefully lit gallery. Paintings on a far wall fix attention. I walk that way.

Months ago–when I first arrived in Panama City–an Argentinian engineer named Marcello described his first visit to the canal. For hours, he watched ships raised and lowered and tugged through locks. He looked with awe as cargo tubs passed through the Gaillard Cut single file, like ants over a narrow path. He told how the sight of the work–a marvel of engineering–had been for him an intensely emotional experience. In contrast, I felt no emotion about the canal. Nothing. It looked fascinating, certainly. Intriguing, yes. But something to get emotional about? Come on. What was he talking about?

Panama Canal, Panama

The answer came on the third floor of Brandywine museum. The art, though simple, is shocking. Looking at paintings hanging on the wall untied inner knots of anxiety. It was as though I had been starving–without knowing it–for this sort of imagery. Emotions quietly exploded inside. For minutes, I stood without moving before N.C. Wyeth’s painting In the Crystal Depths, and before Weymouth’s canvas August. River water reflections besides an Indian’s canoe; strands of blue and yellow straw laid out on a sloping field. The canvases satisfied a thirst for detail.

Two days ago, I arrived in Pennsylvania without a wedding present. You both have enough books to study. I don’t know anything about furniture (though Jack briefed me on the merits of a La-Z-Boy on the way back from Eagle Tavern). So I will send you a copy of the print August–the month when you were wed. The details and light, at least to this untrained eye, are riveting. Another museum in Brandywine contained a copy of Life magazine from May, 1965. In an interview, Andrew Wyeth said something that definitely applies to Weymouth’s painting August:

“My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing–if you have any emotions about it, there’s no end.”

No end.

Satisfied with the company of these paintings, I moved through the hallway. More surprise was still to come. The painting Snow Hill hangs from a curtain wall inside the entrance to one room. The image stopped me cold. It left both eyes staring. It caused a shock, a punch of laughter. I felt high. It grabbed drowsy senses and shook emotions and finally left me in a state of calm.

Snow Hill is a wide panorama. It shows a clutch of individuals, including a soldier, a girl, and a man with a hook for a hand, dancing below a maypole in a trampled circle of snow. The image is wide and open and free: limbs elastic, hair flailing and carefree motion captured on a broad canvas. Dance. Celebration. Colored maypole stringers atop a low hill with a barn–a farmhouse?–down a valley and to the left. Perhaps it was the caffeine. Perhaps the sleepless nights. Regardless, the painting blasted me with a sense of hope, of triumph.

Myself in Panama

I then realized that these bubbling emotions were the same caused by your wedding a day earlier. The minister warned you both about difficult times ahead. She cautioned you to resolve these together. This would take work and dedicated effort. Recalling her words, I looked at the soldier on the hill. He was dancing. Life was festive. But there were other times, it was clear, when he would also have to fight.

When entering the museum, part of me was starved for images, for a larger perspective on ordinary scenes. Snow Hill is more than a depiction of dancers. The image also projects a larger, more abstract theme–that of hope. An injured man and a weary soldier dance hand in hand with an innocent girl wearing ancient clothing. For that moment, the weight of their duties, battles, and injuries from the past, are all gone. The painting is larger than just an image.

On the night of the wedding I learned that Ashley was upset. I had convinced (convinced?!) Jack to stay up late drinking beers–caring little about the consequences to his family–Ashley and five month old Molly. But we hadn’t seen each other in six years. Since then, Jack had grown up. He had married and had a family and responsibility. Yet I was the same. I came to your wedding with a narrow perspective and canned expectations. I saw Jack as Jack as he was six years ago. When the weekend ended I also saw him as a man for whom late night cigar smoking shindigs with the boys had hidden repercussions. Although Jack looked the same, the picture of his life, and the people inside of it, had expanded. My ability to recognize that had not.

This reminded me of Jim’s poolside comment on the afternoon of the wedding day. You said that a serious commitment to another person forces you to change your selfish thinking. You suddenly have to consider another person’s needs and desires. As though the commitment to be married forces you to live, and to act, within a larger canvas.

Art gallery (actually – located in Cape Town, South Africa)

I keep roaming the world–Bangkok, Dubai, Luanda, Panama, and across the golden sands of Namibia to a place named Werld’s End. Nine years on the trail. At each new home I unpack an atlas and a dictionary and clutch onto the security of selfish goals: just one more continent to work on, one more project to complete, another skill to tack onto a resume, another language to learn, another acre to buy, or check to deposit into a mutual fund savings account. For years, this wanderlust has satisfied an itching for sights, for novel images. But lately, the joy is missing. Now, when I consider these actions in light of Ashley’s disapproval and Jim’s poolside words, I see myself high on that snowy New England hilltop, whipped by wind and circling a sturdy maypole–but all alone.

Your wedding, your swapping of vows, recitation of prayers, exchange of golden bands (and cutting of cake), has forced at least one person to reconsider selfish pursuits. It has provided a larger perspective on that which is important to life: the people you care for and the relationships developed with them.

The wedding is over. Your journey has begun. It’s now late on Sunday afternoon. I sit on a green bench below a maple tree beside a rural Pennsylvanian highway. Nissan Patrols and Harleys thunder back to Philadelphia after a weekend away. Alone, I recall the wedding and the weekend, the long nights and full days and the champagne toasts. I also recall standing in shorts and sandals before these paintings. Something huge, and unexpected, happened today and yesterday. I do not understand why or how and will not guess at reasons, but the picture of what is important to life has expanded. And your wedding–like the image of dancers on Snow Hill–has given me a huge and renewed sense of hope. About everything.

Congratulations.

 

 

Running Toward Enlightenment?

Estuary in Blaye

I had difficulty waking. Felt heavy and tired. Finally, I got out of bed about 8.00 a.m. to go running. Stepped outside the apartment and saw neighbor Lara—also dressed to run. She suggested we go together. I would usually refuse, as she sprints like a rabbit, but the timing of our coincidental meeting appeared auspicious—so I said yes.

Vines along the running route

We ran down the main street of Blaye and then up the path along the side of the citadelle fortress, then back to the bicycle path leading toward the town of Etauliers, many miles away. Lara pulled out her phone, ignored the headphones, and played a podcast aloud so we both could hear. It was from some ‘Oprah’ inspirational series, and included Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert began by saying, generally, that if we believe the universe is indeed benevolent, then at times she wonders why she has been put into a particular situation.

Country scene outside Blaye

Soon, after a mile of running at a pace too fast for me, I said farewell to Lara and returned to Blaye. Yet the words stayed in my mind. Belief, benevolent universe, purpose of particular situation.

Later, Lara sent me a text saying next time we’d listen to a podcast about Wayne Dyer and manifestations.

Lara (foreground) and her visiting friend

I’d already read a few books by Dyer. I searched my past journals and found this from October of 2013.

Today I took a break from work, checked out my online version of the Amazon Kindle ereader, and found a book Wishes Fulfilled by Dr. Wayne Dyer, which I had read before but began re-reading.  He gives ample consideration of the power of imagination in creating our future lives.

 ‘Remind yourself that your imagination is yours to use as you decide, and that everything you wish to manifest into your physical world must first be placed firmly in your imagination in order to grow.’

From a village in Languedoc, France

This excerpt from a past journal ignited memories of opportunity, and power.

In my own writing, I had suggested that the world is partially objective, and partially a creation of our own thoughts. In a chapter titled ‘Greenland’ from my book The Synchronous Trail—Enlightening Travels, is this:

Humans have not yet learned the geology of serendipity; we cannot discern the common strata that underlies the terrain of coincidence. This understanding will emerge with time and bring with it a different respect for the world in which we live, a world that is partly a collection of objects and partially a projection of thought. 

Ancient ship docked in Bordeaux city

Reflecting on those words as well as on the books by Dyer, and what Gilbert said during the podcast, brought a reminder of the power of what I call ‘rotating reality’—changing the very fabric of future events using thought. If a multiverse exists—that is, an infinite number of parallel and alternate universes—why should we not ‘surf’ to relatively adjacent universes that are more benign, plentiful, benevolent and healthier?

12th century copper – showing respect for sharing, and for the printed word

And even if there is no multiverse, sometimes, when we are calm and confident, we all manage to navigate ourselves into situations we have dreamt about.

Which is why it’s important to remember the power of dreams, and imagination.

From the bookshelf of an ally who actually speaks French

Waking later than planned?

It turned out to be most beneficial.

Rural southern France

 

 

Geography As Mentor

When people travel, different aspects of their experience resonate with them more deeply than others. For some, it is restaurants and cuisine. For others, it may be local languages, history, theater or archaeology.

For me, it has always been geography.

Landscapes can haunt us, often in profound ways.

No wonder I appreciated non-fiction books by Barry Lopez (Crossing Open Ground) and the fictional work titled The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich when in college. Even The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. These book thrust me into different geographies and landscapes and tethered them with emotion.

Then, there came a high altar of writing that invokes landscape—books by Edward Abbey.

I had finished college in Boulder, Colorado, and had a lover named Katie. She had been my boss when I did a door-to-door job (for $4.15 an hour selling subscriptions to The Colorado Public Interest Research Group) in towns surrounding Boulder. She had an apartment located sort of west of, and a block south of, Old Chicago’s Restaurant on Pearl Street in Boulder. While we were there once, she told me about the author Edward Abbey. She was shocked I had not yet heard of him. He wrote the non-fictional book Desert Solitaire, and the fictional book The Monkey Wrench Gang. I loved both books for their raw honesty about the (then) unappreciated beauty of the southwest canyonlands geography of the United States. The author could skillfully translate the attraction of landscape into words.

Soon, because of an interest in rock climbing and participation as a member of the volunteer Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder, I applied for—and was accepted—to an Advanced Mountaineering course in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming held by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). More climbing followed, as well as more reading about landscapes and attitudes. Sand County Almanac by Ado Leopold; Touching The Void by Joe Simpson.

Most other instructors at NOLS were truly inspiring—rabidly intelligent, well read, athletic and craving a life far away from clocks and timesheets and pension plans. They told me of other books to read—Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, Basin and Range by John McPhee. Even A Moveable Feast by Hemingway.

Just before I attended college in Boulder, and long before I Met Katie or heard of NOLS, I read an article in Outside Magazine titled Moments of Doubt, by David Roberts. It stunned  me. It is the true story about a rock climber whose climbing partner died when they climbed the Flatiron peaks behind Boulder. Years later, when I was a volunteer member of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, a young woman near the base of the Third Flatiron died while I was trying to resuscitate her. She had slipped and fallen while hiking a steep trail. That event, also, stunned me.

It turned out—I learned afterwards in a most bizarre way—that she had grown up in the same small town as my family (population 500) in Illinois, and was known by my siblings. A bizarre series of events pivoting around this incident ignited what was to become a life-long fascination with (and interest in learning about) the power of coincidences—synchronicity. (I self-published a few books on the topic, and begin one with the story of what happened that day in Boulder.)

The memory of that event is saturated with recollections of vast, gorgeous tracts of natural landscape in the hills behind Boulder. Since then the realization has grown clear of how important landscapes are to memories of times, situations and relationships in life.

Landscapes haunt us. The sight of peaks and bays and ferns and snow and rivulets and the sound of flapping guillemots or terns or wood pigeons resonates deep within our cranial cavities—even unconsciously as a memory—forever.

Geography still compels me. Work—as in toil and spreadsheets and organizational meetings and the joy of accomplishing long term infrastructure projects such as constructing a rural water system or road, or the bliss of an article being published nationally or internationally—is still exciting. But most of all when these revolve around an immersion in some diverse and intriguing geography. It is the same with food and history—the  memory of a good wine or meal often brings a memory of natural surroundings.

Different memories are powerful for different people. I recall waking up in a tent on the sands of Kilcoole Beach in Ireland with the sound of Irish Sea breakers; the scent and touch of rock while ascending the 14th and final rock climbing pitch on Mount Sacagawea in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming; the recollection of walking over chestnut covered hillsides in the Ticino, or the strange allure of visually barren deserts. Wild or stunning landscapes are not just beautiful: being immersed in them can harmonize with our own desire for having fewer constraints and bigger spaces for our own thinking.

The association of landscape with memory is also practical in at least two ways. First, it can remind us of why it is always good—for health and alertness—to get out and take a walk, preferably in a ‘cathedral’ of wild space or preferably close to natural settings. Second, it is a reminder that we should appreciate the creation of parks, wilderness areas and national monuments to protect gorgeous tracts of natural spaces on this planet from billboards and unchecked growth.

 

 

 

Books and Bizarreness – Strange Coincidences In Malawi

Ample antelope in Malawi

In past posts I’ve written about the power of coincidence and also mentioned  my own writings about synchronicity.

Because I’ll be traveling to South Africa within days, I thought it appropriate to mention past writing related to Africa.

The following is a chapter named ‘Malawi,’ from a little known book I wrote (one of two) about coincidences, titled The Synchronous Trail—Enlightening Travels. This second chapter highlights how notable coincidences can catch our interest. The rest of the book, essentially a travelogue, explains the search for—and discovery of—what ‘meaning’ these events may have in our lives. Chapters in the book are named after locations (such as Colorado, England, Dubai, Guatemala). This chapter begins with a quote from an autobiography written by actor Michael Caine. I took all photos below during three years spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi.

“Nothing in Africa is without its purpose, if you look deep enough.”

What’s It All About?

by Michael Caine

Encounter with roadkill

For years after the accident at the Flatirons I often criticized my interest in coincidences. To link tenuous connections together and declare they had ‘meaning’ was nonsensical. Or was it? As time slipped by it turned harder to deny the obvious. Since that day at the Flatirons, the relevance of such events in my life grew difficult to ignore. Much of this awareness came during three years that I spent living and working in the small Central African country named Malawi.

At eleven o’clock each Saturday morning, a British Airways flight from London touches down at Malawi’s International Airport outside the city of Lilongwe. The plane’s final approach throws a massive shadow over green maize stalks below. From inside the plane I looked down at the countryside, mesmerized by the contrast between the sight of simple mud huts and the technological complexity of the aircraft that carried us.

Looking down from Mount Mulanje

After touchdown our group of Peace Corps volunteers paced through muggy air, across tarmac and into the terminal building. For the next two years this little known nation was to be our home. Smaller than the surrounding countries of Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia, Malawi was packed tight with generous people and strange surprises. This nation of eight million citizens had only two traffic lights. The ruling ninety year old dictator—Hastings Kamuzu Banda—had spent decades working as a medical doctor in both the United States and England before he returned to rule his homeland. The Malawian people both despised and loved Kamuzu. Though they dreaded his iron–fisted rule, they danced and sang eulogies to him whenever a helicopter delivered this leader to villages and towns throughout the nation.

Lush, mountainous, and the fourth poorest country on earth, Malawi was steeped in such paradoxes. Yet the land of rolling green hills stayed tranquil as Tumbuka, Ngoni, Yao, and Chewa tribes maintained a guarded peace among themselves. Over eighty five percent of Malawians lived in rural villages, from lowlands scrunched against massive Lake Malawi—the third largest lake in Africa—to pine coated highlands of the Vipya plateau. Though poor, the nation was clean, orderly, and safe.

Myself center, friends Dave on the right and Cathy on left

I was sent to work in the northern ‘city’ of Mzuzu. Living in this small highland town with its British infrastructure, temperate climate and hills was a dream come true. Once there I was assigned to manage the construction of small water supply schemes for rural areas. The work combined organizing local work crews and traveling through lush mountains. With Mzuzu as a base, I untucked my shirt, laced up both boots and began to build pipelines in the bush. For years our work crews hiked over mountain trails and plodded through rivers—surveying, designing, and working to supply villagers with water.

During these years in Malawi, surprising coincidences wrapped themselves around my life like a shawl. My determination to unravel their essence turned into a personal detective story, an esoteric fascination that few others understood. Each such encounter triggered a feeling of richness, a sense that I was somehow playing catch with magic. The more I dwelled on each of these events, the more intriguing each grew. Though I tried to analyze where these scenarios came from, my crowbar of logic never pried these events open to understanding. This left me to speculate on what purpose, if any, such events might serve. These included the following.

&&&

Medicine men – or Gule Wamkuli

One day in the Capital Hill sector of Lilongwe city I sat inside the United States Information Service library. I was turning pages of a Harpers magazine when another volunteer named Fred trudged through the doorway. Fred was short and burly and had eyelashes that seemed to swim when he laughed. For reasons I never understood, he constantly encouraged me to become a writer, a ‘beat reporter,’ and to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac.

I watched Fred select a thick red book from a shelf.  He then sat down across from me at the same varnished table. I spied the title of the book he opened: Poems by Alan Ginsberg – 1947 to 1980. He tilted it my way and pointed to a poem titled ‘Howl.’

“Masterpiece,” he said. “Kerouac, Ginsberg and Cassidy—the Beat Generation. Rode the railways together. Hitchhiked west.  Saw life from a different angle than everyone around them.  This poem is Ginsberg’s masterpiece—you have to read it.”

With little conviction, I nodded at Fred and then flipped to the next page of Harpers magazine. I stared in shock: there were the opening lines of the poem ‘Howl,’ followed by an interview with Alan Ginsberg.

&&&

Looking off Mount Mulanje into clouds

Mike, a British friend who lived in the town of Mzuzu, met and married a woman named Sylvia from the country of Sierra Leone. Several of us attended their wedding celebrations on a hillside above Mzuzu. Weeks later, Sylvia became ill. When her sickness worsened she was admitted to St. John’s hospital, a compound of simple brick buildings run by missionary staff. Sylvia soon went unconscious with a rare and severe case of Hepatitis–B. Though Mike kept vigilant by her bedside throughout a long and harrowing weekend, Sylvia remained in a coma. Word of her condition floated throughout town, paralyzing the reverie that we volunteers usually celebrated our weekends with.

Sylvia died on a Monday night. Her sister, the only other person I ever met from Sierra Leone, remained by Sylvia’s bed with Mike. After learning the news at the hospital the next morning, I left the grounds remorsefully, bid farewell to an Irish priest who provided her with last rites, and drove my motorcycle home. Once there I sat on a small concrete porch shaded by a skinny paw–paw tree. I sipped Malawian tea from a cheap green plastic cup and opened a pile of mail. One letter was from a friend in Chicago. She had not written in over a year. On the second page of her letter she apologized that the first page was only a copy of a general letter she had written to her landlord the same day. He now lived, she wrote, in Sierra Leone.

&&&

Northern Region motorcycle tour with then girlfriend (and still a good friend)

One afternoon, while sitting at home down Kaningina Drive, I remembered a short story I had written months earlier. It was about time spent living in Ireland as a boy. The piece described hiking above thrashing waves of the Irish Sea and along the Cliff Walk in County Wicklow. It contained dialog between myself and a friend named Koenraad. After remembering this short story, I searched through folders, found the piece, and spent hours editing paragraphs. I added a new line that described the harbor in the town of Greystones, located where the Cliff Walk begins its coastal ascent toward the town of Bray—five miles to the north. While editing the syntax, I remembered Koenraad. It had been over a year since he last wrote.  I had given up hope of hearing from him in the near future.

Later that day I received two letters, both from Ireland. One was from Koenraad. The other was written by a friend named Susan. She sent me a Christmas card. The cover showed a picture of Greystones harbor.

&&&

Natural jewelry

Several days after this event, a group of volunteer friends stopped at my house to spend the night. They were driving north from the capital city of Lilongwe toward Nyika National Park, where they planned to spend days hiking over highland acres and spying Roan and Sable antelope. They pitched tents on the small lawn behind my house or unrolled their sleeping bags on the floor of my home. On the porch, a woman named Laura started reading a book. I asked her its name.

She tilted the cover toward me: Matryona’s House.

“By Solzhenitsyn,” she said.

Another volunteer standing nearby—Michelle—chirped in.  “I started reading the same book yesterday, without knowing Laura had a copy.  Isn’t that wild?”

“Some coincidence,” Laura agreed.

A third volunteer stood near to us.  She added, in a deadpan voice: “My mother sent me that book last week.”

&&&

‘Strate perm’ hairstylist in Chitipa

Even as an engineer on the cold–blooded trail of logic in life, I recognized something amiss about these events. None tallied with the diet of cause and effect I had been weaned to believe in. An unknown energy seemed to lasso these events together, though how or why I had no idea. Trying to guess the cause of these events was confusing, though I began to suspect that reality’s fabric might be more pliable than most of us are aware of.

Just as a geologist discerns patterns in granite to help reveal the earth’s history, I wanted to inspect features associated with coincidences to learn more of how they operated. I hoped that doing this might improve my understanding of the surrounding world.

Tea fields at the bast of Mount Mulanje

My fascination with coincidences derived from intuition, not logic. During my years in Malawi I wielded the engineering tools of physics, mathematics and empirical friction loss equations on the job. At the same time I was immersed in a sea of inexplicable phenomena in which events, images and people often seemed attracted to each other for no apparent reasons. When I switched off the inner babble of work details and took the time, instead, to wonder what was taking place around me, I noticed more and more coincidences. It seemed as though an open mind actually amplified the recognition of their occurrence.

Antelope on Nyika Plateau

The more I thought about these bizarre events, the more mysterious they turned. During evenings I often paced down a dirt road behind Mzuzu and onto a trail that crossed three short wooden bridges over Lunyangwa River. One evening during this walk I realized that what bothered me the most about coincidences was not that they existed, but that so few people noticed them.

Something bizarre yet important was going on in the world—a simple phenomenon with potentially massive power—that few others considered relevant. It was as though I had dreamed of a wheel in a wheel–less world. Only when I read about other people’s fascination with coincidences did I feel that my curiosity might one day be vindicated.

&&&

Just saying hi

In his book The World The World, the author Norman Lewis wrote of a surprising incident that took place during the 1940s. He had arranged to have proofs of his new book Within the Labyrinth sent to the address of a friend in London.

“It was to this address that I arranged for the proofs of Within the Labyrinth to be sent so that I could correct them before leaving. The proofs, however, failed to arrive, so I rang up the publisher and was told that by mistake they had been sent to 4 Gordon Square. This was about a hundred yards away so I walked across to collect them, only to discover that a second Norman Lewis lived at this address, and that he, too, was a Cape author who had recently completed a hugely successful updated version of Roget’s Thesaurus. Unfortunately, I was told, the second N.L. had left the country only two days before, and was presumed to have taken my proofs with him. Three days later I stepped down from the Air France plane at Beirut, where Oliver awaited me. ‘We’re having a little party for you at the embassy,’ he said, and minutes later I suffered a surprise from which I have never wholly recovered, for the first introduction was to the man with whom I shared names, who had also stopped off at Beirut on his way to some Eastern destination. It was a circumstance that further encouraged Oliver’s fascination with the paranormal, and inspired him to begin a work to be entitled The Mechanisms of Coincidence, although the book was never finished.”

A little known bay on Lake Malawi in the northern region

In another book, titled One in a Million: The World of Bizarre Coincidences, Philip Schofield described another example of someone being reunited with their text.

“Actor Anthony Hopkins agreed to play a leading role in the 1974 film of the novel The Girl from Petrovka by George Feiffer. His attempts at acquiring a copy of the book to give him an insight into the story were not successful. After trawling the London bookshops he went to catch a tube train at Leicester Square and noticed a book discarded on a platform seat. It was a copy of the novel he had been searching for. Someone had scribbled notes in the margin, but he was pleased to have found it at last.

Well worn tennis shoes on the Viphya Plateau, Northern Region

“When Hopkins finally went abroad to start filming, he met George Feiffer for the first time. The author complained that he had lost his own copy of the novel which he had annotated. Apparently, a friend had borrowed it and mislaid it in London.  The actor produced the copy he had found at Leicester Square. It was Feiffer’s lost book.”

In his autobiography What’s it all About? the actor Michael Caine describes how he first met and fell in love with his wife. He was watching a television commercial about Maxwell House coffee that was filmed in Brazil. Caine thought that one of the women dancing in the commercial was beautiful. He felt so attracted to her that he immediately wanted to fly to Brazil to meet her. Instead, he discovered from a friend that she lived just down the road from him in London. After sharing telephone calls and then meeting, a romance between the two soon blossomed. He and Shakira were soon married. After describing this in his autobiography, Caine wrote: “Coincidence is a funny thing. I have been writing these last few pages on 14 February 1992, St. Valentines Day, and Shakira called me a little while ago to watch television for a few minutes, as they were playing that commercial and telling the story of how I met her.”

Paddling youngster on Lake Malawi

In her book Out of Africa, the author Karen Blixen described how a bad train of fortune disturbed her life on a farm in Kenya. She then reflected on the wave of events.

“All this could not be, I thought, just coincidence of circumstances, what people call a run of bad luck, but there must be some central principle within it.  If I could find it, it would save me.  If I looked in the right place, I reflected, the coherence of things might become clear to me. I must, I thought, get up and look for a sign.

“Many people think it an unreasonable thing, to be looking for a sign. This is because of the fact that it takes a particular state of mind to be able to do so, and not many people have ever found themselves in such a state. If in this mood, if you ask for a sign, the answer cannot fail you; it follows as the natural consequence of the demand.”

Usisya village on Lake Malawi (I designed that white house on the hill)

Blixen described how she walked outside and witnessed the spectacle of a chicken pecking the tongue out of a lizard’s mouth. This action ensured that the lizard would die a slow, labored death from hunger. Blixen interpreted this event as a sign, an arrow that pointed toward her future. She suspected that bad harvests would continue to ruin the livelihood of her farm, causing it economic death, as slow and painful as that suffered by the lizard. She then decided to leave the farm. She believed that the coincidental timing of her searching for a sign and the unfolding of this scenario reflected the truth that she was ready to leave Kenya.

Fishing for ‘usipa’ fish on Lake Malawi at Usisya

These stories make amusing anecdotes. The problem is that the only rational way to explain coincidences is to attribute them to sheer chance. Believing that coincidences might be anything else butts heads against the thought processes that built the dams, bridges and highways pictured on the walls of the engineering college in Colorado where I spent five years studying. Most of the professors who drilled calculus, physics, mechanics and thermodynamics lessons into my head would probably have labeled my interest in coincidences as wacky. For them, looking for ‘meaning’ in such events would likely ring with the sound of mysticism.

While I wrestled with the truth that I stayed intensely curious about something illogical, coincidences kept dropping all around me, like leaves in autumn.

Excerpt From The Synchronous Trail – Enlightening Travels, by T. Mullen. Roundwood Press.

Thanks for reading Roundwood Press again! Please also check out posts from my wine blog: Vino Voices.

My latest Forbes posts are here, and include three fresh pieces posted yesterday, about Italian wine, Azorean tours and Bordeaux dining.

 

Hearing More Of The Past

An ancient round tower in Glendalough (‘glen of the two lakes’) in Ireland

I recall a trip taken to Kansas over a decade ago, and a post written about that event. The story included only half the original writing.

The first half of the story was about meeting someone in Kansas, and their connection to Ireland.

The second half, just found in my computer files and included here, is about Kansas.

It’s taken from journals of a trip penned while retracing the route of Lewis & Clark across the United States. For almost six months I followed the route these explorers took over two centuries ago, while in my small camper. Most of it was along the Missouri River. This excerpt takes place in and around town of Atchison, Kansas.

It recalls a strangely peaceful moment in life.

Here it is, as originally written:

View of the Missouri River

“The next afternoon, with a leaking nose and goosebumps, I dodged cold breezes and paced through Atchison. On Commercial Street I nipped inside the Magnolia Bakery and Café and huddled at a varnished table below a shelf filled with Crispy Dilly Beans and cans of Hot Pepper Jelly. The waitress served me a mug of Colombia Supremo decaf, a bowl of Tex Mex corn chowder and a blueberry oatmeal muffin. I stopped eating twice to cup my chilled hands around the glowing coffee mug.

The Southern Pacific railroad could take passengers from Kansas City to California in the 1920’s

Afterwards, I drove past signs outside Atchison. The country route led to a grassy lane at 16701 286th Street, a location far less cluttered than its address. There, a meager airstrip, hangars and a lone building constituted this well tended anachronism, a cluster more insulated from time than the main street in the town of Weston. Grass surrounding the runway was trimmed like a fairway purloined from a tournament golf course. A parked Piper airplane aimed toward scrumptious views of inclined Kansas farmlands. The only sounds were the pecking of bird calls and the odd whack of a breeze. I saw no one else until a hangar door slid open.

A bald man with a silver mustache wheeled his Suzuki 500 outside the hangar. Oblivious to my presence, he cursed the bike.

I coughed, then spoke.

“Always this quiet?” I asked.

He sniffled, then stopped to light his drooping ash pipe. He looked not only eccentric, but rustic, a character cut out of a Sherlock Holmes book and pasted onto a postcard of Kansas.

“Quiet day,” he drawled. “Been some touch and go landings this morning. Not many. You’re welcome to visit the lounge.”

He pulled a red, white and blue helmet with cracked stars onto his head, then patted the space between us and chugged off.

I looked out toward peaceful fields and thought again of Charles Lindbergh—the man of pleasure, risk, and danger—and recalled how he described a portion of his transatlantic flight:

“Each flight on my mail route took me over its junction with the muddy Missouri. Now the movement of the ocean waves below, extending on to the straight line of the horizon, reminds me of the river’s wheatfields. They too bent and rippled in the wind.”[i]

More of the Missouri River, nicknamed the ‘Muddy Mo’

I moved toward pearl colored bricks and blue trim windows of the tiny airport terminal, the size of a single family bungalow. The structure belonged to another era. Scotch tape held an advertisement to the glass of the front door.

FOR SALE 1966 CESSNA 150 IFR

LEARN TO FLY, CHECK YOUR CATTLE, GO FOR PARTS OR COMMUTE TO WORK…

I stepped inside. The interior looked like a doctor’s reception from the 1960’s. A couch and overstuffed chairs faced a glass wall before the airstrip and distant gliding meadows. Large windows flooded light inside and a Cordley Water Cooler hummed. A 20 inch wide rotary dial General Electric television stood inside an ornate, wood paneled box. An odd, almost hallowed silence made me wonder if I had somehow stepped back in time.

In the nineteenth century, Alfred Otis arrived with his wife—Amelia—to work as an attorney and judge in Atchison. When the town’s railroad prospered, the couple’s wealth soared. They chose to live high on the bluffs of Quality Hill overlooking the Missouri River Valley. Their daughter married a railroad attorney from Atchison named Edwin, but was disappointed when his income did not buy the lifestyle she was used to. The topic of money strained their relationship and caused their eventual divorce. The couple agreed that their two daughters should continue schooling in Atchison.

Throughout school years these girls lived with both grandparents in their spacious home above the Missouri River. They spent summers with their parents in Kansas City. The daughter born in 1897 was an unabashed tomboy. She wrote about how she and her sister wore the first ‘gymnasium suits’ in town. “We wore them Saturdays to play in and though we felt terribly ‘free and athletic,’ we also felt somewhat as outcasts among the little girls who fluttered about us in skirts.”[ii]

Nicknamed Meelie, this rambunctious, devil-may-care girl later recalled “mud-ball fights, picnics, and exploring raids up and down the bluffs of the Missouri River.” For her the river “was always exciting. There usually were large and dangerous looking whirlpools to be seen in its yellow depths, and the banks were forever washing away. Not that any of us ever got very near the banks, but—a few of us remembered dimly the floods of 1903 when water crept up to the gutters of buildings and swept away bridges and spread out over the lowlands as far as the eye could see.”[iii]

Both granddaughters left Atchison in 1909, though Meelie returned a year later to attend college preparatory school. While there she aided both aging grandparents until they passed away within months of each other. Meelie never followed through with her plans to become a medical doctor, a decision that changed not only her life, but the world around her.

I moved in silence to another room inside the airport building. Chairs circled two chipped tables and six brown school desks. Patches of cloth torn from shirts of soloing flight students hung pinned to a white corkboard. The first was dated September 17, 1928, and belonged to an aspiring aviator named Charlie Brown (the comic character with the same name did not exist for another 20 years). A drawing next to this board showed Atchison in 1880, with steamers gamboling upriver past splotches of coal smoke.

For half an hour I meandered about this empty airport interior. No one entered or left. While pacing I thought about the little girl who played along the Missouri River, the would-be doctor turned pilot, the woman who wrote: “How can life grant us boon of living…unless we dare?” Framed newspaper articles on airport walls celebrated this town’s most famous aviatrix, the tomboy transformed to a strong, attractive woman.

Mild gusts knocked against the hangar panels outside. The sky suddenly coughed with the drone of a nearby plane and I hurried to the terrace and circled my head, inspecting the sizzling blue skyline. Was someone checking cattle? Commuting to work? The bulky whirring dissolved. There was nothing to see. And yet, I was so certain I had heard an airplane directly above.

Although without company, I did not feel alone that afternoon. Instead I sensed a presence in the air, as though that spirited tomboy who flew a Lockheed solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932 was somehow close to me. No doubt this woman who vanished over the Pacific during her round the world flight would have approved of how Atchison named its airport after her.

I meandered about the peaceful grounds for several more minutes, alone but for the sound of wind and the strange certainty that Amelia Earhart was still fluttering somewhere above.

 

[i] Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis, Scribner (Simon & Schuster), September 1998.

[ii] Interpretive Display, Atchison County Historical Museum.

[iii] Ibid.

Colorful Days In A Ravaged Land … from Roundwood Press

Someone wrote today and asked if I wanted to work in Angola, Africa.

That brought back memories of having done that before.

That was a colorful, crazy, debonair, sinfully, wretchedly beautiful experience.

Here are a few journal excerpts from long ago.

Typical bridge in war ravaged rural Angola

Luanda

Luanda leaked. The city was incontinent—streetside floods and soggy lawns streamed out of broken pipelines. The city’s water supply was so unreliable that homeowners paid handfuls of pink Kwanza notes to truckers who filled their water tanks once a week. This city on the mend formed a landscape of burglar bars and humming private generators. Those who had money carried hand held radios because the local phone system was often on the fritz. From table to table at expensive cafes and chique restaurants their incessant buzz mingled with foreign accents, relaying flight data and transport requests. Before the Atlantic Ocean stretched a boulevard lined with palms. The sight of the water always gave me hope—symbolizing a big open doorway that headed out.

In 1995 Luanda was not pretty. It was a city of cracked windshields, open manholes and random dispersion of rotting garbage piles. Here and there walked debonair women wearing tight dresses with rich Portuguese men. They had gold fillings in their teeth and ate lobster with hot lemon sauce on the porch of the Barracuda restaurant on the Isla. Cash from diamond sales and oil revenues skewed the economy. A bunch of grapes cost $9, a bottle of water $5 and a two bedroom apartment with inadequate plumbing rent for $5000 a month. That was years ago.

The hills of Uige province

Many foreigners who visited Luanda wanted to stay. They learned about the best restaurants and bars and knew who threw the hottest parties. This social insight gave their lives an edge. Frustrated by a country at war they often forgot about work and gripped onto the niceties of their selected social circuit. They learned the names and faces of other Norwegians and Spaniards and became part of Luanda’s expatriate furniture. By then it was too late. They became comfortable with rich food and close friends and radio chatter from the field. Once they were in that groove and tasted the comfort of expatriate parties and loud music and big drinks and sweaty Friday evening flirtations, they realized that to visit the field would be to forgo such routine pleasures and the bliss of privacy at home. These supervisors started ladling out excuses like gravy why they had to skip traveling to the field. Rather than describe reality in their reports they wrote recycled second hand garbage pulled from radio conversations and included graphs and statistics extracted from old U.N. brochures. These supervisors who wallowed in expatriate delights eventually skipped all travel to rural Angola. After all, who wanted to step into a muddy war zone? And yet, that is the reason they came in the first place.

This rift formed the divergence between field workers and those who yawned and counted hours in offices in Luanda. It often grew huge—like a separation of the island of Madagascar from continental Africa. As differences wedged wider apart, workers in the city and those in the field found their goals, attitudes, methods and relationships differed so as to be practically alienated from one another. Eventually the only thing shared by those in the field and those in the city became a Luanda bank account and a few boxes of letterheads. When this happened to you—if you had your wits about you—you knew it was time to leave Luanda. You had to get into the countryside or out of the country. Otherwise you turned soft, self centered and, eventually, cynical. But if you were switched on and realized how removed from reality you had become, you would get a plane ticket and get out.

There’s room for any hitchhiker who can climb aboard

Good Days

In October of 1995 I traveled to Angola to work with the International Medical Corps. When I arrived in the capital city of Luanda, one U.S. dollar was equivalent to 10 million Angolan Kwanzas in the local currency. Because the government printed 10,000 and 100,000 Kwanza notes, you had to carry a cardboard box filled with bundles of notes wrapped in rubber bands just to buy groceries. Wallets were obsolete. When I caught a small plane that flew from the capital city to our work site—a town named Maquela Do Zombo—our team tried carrying the equivalent of U.S. $100 with us. The cardboard box filled with Kwanza notes was so heavy that the pilot weighed it on the runway by placing it on a bathroom scale. When he considered all our luggage, his verdict was clear.

“Overweight,” he said.

We had to repack the box, leaving bundles of cash behind us for the Luanda staff to take back to the office. We managed to bring the equivalent of $20 along.

After we arrived in the town of Maquela do Zombo in the northern province of Uige, I bought fourteen ‘penny nails’ for 7 million Kwanzas at a local market. It took five minutes to count seventy notes by hand. The vendor then rejected half of the bills, complaining they were torn. We next drove to ‘Ton-Ton” the local bottle store. There we sat outside and drank liters of Skol lager. On Friday afternoon a bottle of beer cost 12 million Kwanzas. By Sunday morning the cost was 14 million Kwanzas. By early afternoon the price jumped to 15 million Kwanzas. Lest the cost hiked up while we drank, we had to agree on the price of a liter before ordering it.

The government then issued a new currency. They lopped three zeros off the Kwanza value, creating the Kwanza Readjustado. One handsome pink notes (showing a hammer, sickle, red star and an offshore oil platform) was 10,000 KR—the equivalent of a dollar.

The green hills of Uige

Ah, life suddenly turned easy again! I could use my wallet. Machines that counted bills stopped fluttering throughout Angolan stores.

Outside Luanda our team (mostly doctors and nurses) worked ‘behind the lines’ in rebel held territory. For weeks after it was printed, the rebel government of Jonas Savimbi did not accept the new money. When they finally did, the old Kwanzas were declared worthless overnight. No matter how many boxes of bills a family might have stashed as their savings, they could not exchange the bills for new notes.

Rampant inflation kept soaring. After a month, the Kwanza Readjustado was worth only fifty cents and a month later it was 25 cents. When I left Angola months later, it took five notes to buy one U.S. dollar. Wallets grew fatter as inflation grew. Banks ran out of new notes and started recycling old Kwanza bills. Their counters lay stacked with towers of old notes.

The economy was bizarre in this war impacted country. Money was generated by UNITA rebels selling diamonds and the FRELIMO government selling oil. Women wore fashionable dresses and ran around dialing cell phones, moving between bustling restaurants that accepted both Kwanzas and dollars. Travel agents refused to accept credit cards, yet when I offered to pay $388 by personal U.S. check to fly round trip from Luanda to Harare, Zimbabwe, they agreed without question. The country’s strange economy was also ridiculous. During the peace process a team of International Monetary Fund specialists visited the nation. Weeks later they threw up their hands, declared themselves baffled by the lack of bookkeeping, and flew off, clueless as to how the government accounted for its cash.

That didn’t matter where we worked in rural Maquela Do Zombo. We carried money to the local market in cardboard boxes, then doled out stacks to buy rice and razors. If we ran out of cash during a drinking binge, Ton-Ton’s wife extended credit without fail. We had food and beer and friends. A group of bored United Nations Peacekeepers once built a volleyball net from mosquito netting in our back yard. What more did we need? Life was simple. Racehorse inflation was simply part of it.

When I look back at those brief months in Angola, it all seems to have been a ludicrous dream, an Alice in Wonderland chapter turned real. Yet for many, this was their daily reality.

If I hear in the U.S. how the price of a sirloin steak tripled in two decades while salaries only doubled, I’m hardly worried. We are living in some very good days.

Dr. Samson with enough cash to buy a few oranges

Spirit

Our porch lanterns threw scant light onto the streets of Maquela Do Zombo. Five of us sat at an outdoor porch table near the kitchen: myself, a tall Swede, a serious Dutchman, a drunk French logistician and a debonair nurse from Spain’s Catalonia province. We finished eating a plate of cheese and sliced apples (flown from the city of Luanda that afternoon) and cleared sticky beer glasses away to the dark kitchen. Our flutter of movement cut the silence like bat wings. A cool wind rubbed our backs and we stepped into a vehicle.

We drove like intruders through the empty main street, searching for cold beer. Little else moved that Saturday night in Maquela Do Zombo.

Our favorite bottle store Ton-Ton was closed, as were three other bars in town. The Swede drove down the twisted trail of a muddy hill and braked outside the nearest bottle store—a dirty brick room named Kola-Kola.

I stepped outside, then knocked a fist on a battered wooden door. “Cerveja! Faz favor, cerveja!”

Silence.

Remote and colorful

Xavier lit a cigarette. He wobbled over and leaned against a porch column. He was a brash, egotistical and drunk Frenchman in his late 20’s.

“Why is everything so quiet?” I asked.

“Christmas is over,” he giggled, then pushed a lighter against his cigarette. “New year is over. People are tired. They have no money.”

The bottle store owner woke. She stepped out of her dark home into the cool, wan light.

“Quanto?” she asks.

“Oito.”

She vanished, then returned lugging a crate of eight liter bottles. Xavier and I paid her in pink 10,000 Kwanza bills. We counted out twenty four between us. We then thanked the woman and drove back to the sanctity of our porch table.

Xavier had arrived at our building earlier that evening, drunk, giggling and reeking of tobacco smoke. He came to tell the Catalonian nurse Magda to return to their Medicenes Sans Frontieres house where she lived up the road. She refused. She had also refused earlier in the evening, when Xavier sent a car and driver to find her at 9:00 pm.

Jacques did not like Xavier. Jacques was a crew-cut Dutch policeman who worked with the United Nations UNAVEM group. His shirt was pressed and his handshake was firm. While Xavier sat with us and flopped around in his chair like a minnow in a teacup, Jacques drank tonic water and watched him.

Waiting for the Hercules cargo plane to fly out….

After Xavier left to the Medicines San Frontieres home and office—their pink castle on the hill—Jacques spoke.

“Who is he? Always drunk,” Jacques said. “Telling Magda to come home, as though she is a child. These French people and their organization, I don’t like them.”

Magda was bright and playful, a Catalonian with curly hair, colorful t-shirts and white tennis shoes. She was 34 years old. Unlike others in her organization, she never hesitated to venture away from their pink castle for a spontaneous social visit. But then, she was different.

Whenever we invited the Medicines Sans Frontier team to our house for dinner, they arrived as a group. When, in turn, we visited them, they presented plates of French chocolates and aperitifs on the porch table before us. Our gatherings were warm and cordial. Yet they considered it taboo for team members to make forays away from their lair. After months of virtual social imprisonment due to these ridiculous security rules imposed on employees, Magda broke the protocol by coming to visit us. And what happened? Within hours Xavier chased her down, then insisted that she return to their base.

The local post office. Some MIG plane bombed it back in the day.

“Don’t like him,” Jacques repeated.

“He’s strange,” agreed Matts, a tall UNAVEM police officer from Denmark.

I just put away glasses and cleared the table.

The night watchman, an Angolan, sauntered over to our table and whispered. He looked frightened. He described in Portuguese how two men had just walked by the front porch and pointed rifles at him—commanding him to urge our group to stay quiet. On hearing this I wondered what to do. Should we follow their admonition and snuff out our glowing little party on a quiet Saturday night? I told the watchman not to worry. I decided that if the men returned, we would invite them to come visit the governor with us the next day. That would certainly frighten them. Above all, these men heeded power; they cringed before authority. That was how Magda differed from most others in town. Unlike those in her organization and unlike the Angolan men in this dark town, Magda did as she desired. She ignored rules and followed her spirit and intuition. That was why life drew this woman to Angola. Such a rich, unusual time in life.

You Don’t Know But Life Really Is A River

I’ve written a wine blog for about seven years, as well as this blog (related to publishing) for about four years. I also write about five articles, online, each month for Forbes. Truthfully, the posts are little read. I have no online guru pumping some algorithm to rake in zillions (or even thousands) of hits. No worries. But…

What is popular? What do most people want to read about?

Here is The Secret.

Beautiful spirals from a winery near Barcelona (photograph taken at Albet i Noya winery a few weeks ago) 

Which posts do the best? Which topics receive the most hits? Which headlines score most viewers? Which subjects are most favored?

The answer to this is also a Key of Life.

Simply put:

You Don’t Know.

Gorgeous evidence of the beauty of transformation (photographed recently in Barcelona)

You cannot predict in advance.

Let me emphasize that, more deeply.

You have NO IDEA. All of those publicists, publishers, online gurus, marketing wizards and experienced messiahs who promise to blow your Little Post into a Viral Stratosphere?

Nonsense.

They don’t know!

Seriously.

You never know what to expect when you visit another home

Sure, you can pay to boost online hits, and comb through huge databases to jack up your hits by a minor fraction of that total. You can opt to pay and have a jillion subscribers (although only a few hundred will actually ‘like’ your posts).

The Ancient Truth of Marketing is this:

You DON’T KNOW.

Thank goodness.

I look over my past years of running three blogs, two personal, and one for Forbes.

Everything is unexpected.

The article I thought would rage that mentioned the Prince of Monaco probably got in the hundreds of hits, while the piece about biodynamic wines racked up in the ten thousand range. The article on a bizarre day trip to obscure sections of the lesser known city of Poitiers quickly scored thousands of hits, while the article about the colorful, ancient, renowned, semi-mystical Jurad wine festival of beautiful Saint-Èmilion city turned out to be a virtual flop.

Goregous festival in Saint-Émilion. But how do we interest the world, and do we even want to? (Photograph taken this fall at the Jurad Festival)

As I wrote in my book, Visual Magic:

“The successful outcomes we visualize often arrive on their own schedule. Actor Richard Gere told a Los Angeles Times reporter about the mysterious process of maintaining his high profile in the movie business. ‘The only level of career you have to maintain is to have a hit movie,’ he said. ‘Nothing more, nothing less. You can still play in the game if every once in a while you have a hit movie. But it’s not like you can pick them. That never works. It’s all by accident. There’s an alchemy out there that no one can figure out.’ “[i]

[i] Los Angeles Times, P. E6, January 6, 2003.

So, too, with life.

Life is often a feast when you least expect it (this photo was taken at the Albet i Noya winery outside of Barcelona)

I visualize and believe and pray and often this leads to munificence and benevolence and rich beauties in life. But, often and unpredictably, life shifts in directions our haughty egos can never predict. This is the beauty of life.

The era of my life most charmed, beautiful and rich with jewels of experience and fortune, that made me feel as though I lived in a dream while my thoughts transformed uncannily into sweet reality, were my volunteer years in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa. And yet these were followed, at times, by heartache and pain and a wondering—why can’t I go back?

The appearance of bliss changes every day (this photograph was taken this summer near Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, France)

This is a truth I learned:

Life is fluid. When we cling to situations, beliefs, memories, or ideas as being ‘ideal’ or ‘pivotal’ or ‘bedrock,’ we are likely to be shocked when that state of affairs, that mindset, that paradigm, that reality, that state of governance, that code of ethics, that canon of belief, that trope of manners, that code of morals, shifts.

We cling to the past because it is comforting. Secure. Known.

Yet life changes. Reality alters.

Unless we are prepared, occasionally, to drift with those changes, we will ourselves turn obsolete.

This is not a question of being conservative or liberal, because the shape of those very definitions also morphs.

Lake Columbia, Canada (photograph taken back in 2001)

I wrote about this in my book Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark.

In Chapter 34, Birthplace of Montana, I wrote:

“The truck radiator boiled over south of Fort Benton, and I pulled into a rest stop near a cluster of hay bales. There I stood at the edge of a semicircular rimrock wall hundreds of feet above river and plains. Below, the Missouri River curved like a rope, carving a path parallel to this cliff. It seemed as much a presence as a river. I envied the farmer who lived below and woke each dawn to this vista of cliffs ringed by muscular water.

The Yellowstone River (photograph taken during my trip in 2001)

The vista below reminded me of Alan Watts’ words from his book The Wisdom of Insecurity. He told how life is a state of flux and that wanting fixed security—stasis—is to desire that which is not a part of life. When we try to stake ourselves and our egos to a secure shore, we often find that the river of life drifts away, inflicting us with a sense of unease that makes us yearn for even more security.

‘It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in the universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity,’ he wrote. ‘If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness in which we feel insecure.’

His words were inspiring. I believed that by maintaining optimism and flexibility, the future would unfold in a way both benign and prosperous.

Street Art in Barcelona, Spain

The day felt suddenly easy. I moved away from the cliff and breathed deep beneath a mackerel sky. Uncertain of what lay ahead I was willing to roam and learn. For a rare moment in life both hands stayed loose of certainty while the hours swelled with the rich bliss of knowing that nothing stays secure. There is no predicting where the river of life will carry us.”

Amen.

***

Thanks again for tuning in. I write this blog and another (vinoexpressions.com) and also write for various publications (shown below). I appreciate your visit to this site and hope you will continue checking out Roundwood Press.

Also, unless otherwise noted, all images shown on this blog are my own photographs.

 

The Controlled Trickle that Saves Lives

Fifteen years ago I greeted spring by driving a mini camper through Heartland USA – Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska – and onto South and North Dakota, researching my book Rivers of Change.

Despite the occasional emotional criticism aimed at the US Army Corps of Engineers for having damned and channeled the Missouri River, I met and talked with bright, dedicated individuals – working for the Corps and for the US Fish and Wildlife Service – eager and determined to enforce the Endangered Species Act. And sometimes in magnificent ways.

Below is the chapter.

Chapter 22

FLOODGATES, TERNS AND PLOVERS

Before leaving the Lower Missouri River, I wanted a final briefing on the acrobatic duo so many riverside dwellers spoke about—the piping plover and least tern birds.

In a Corps of Engineer office adjacent to Gavins Point Dam in Nebraska, biologist Greg Pavelka sat before a spacious computer monitor. An adjacent Nature Conservancy calendar blasted an image of velvety wetlands.

Greg sat facing generous windows on the east wall. A set of binoculars mounted on a windowsill tripod aimed toward whirlpools near the base of the slate gray dam. Though a biologist, Greg’s reserved demeanor reminded me of an engineer from the Corps. His brown hair was clipped above ears. He hushed a light cough in his fist as though it might introduce an element of the unknown into our conversation. He was eager to talk about the endangered birds he helped protect.

The bird subspecies known as the interior least tern flocks to wilder segments of the Missouri River still lined with sandbars. During their journey, explorers Lewis and Clark categorized this bird as ‘frequently observed.’ In the nineteenth century the bird’s number diminished when its feathers and skin started adorning hats. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Act clamped down on this trade in avian plumage. But this protection did not last. After the Missouri River was confined to one channel the birds’ sandbar habitat was virtually eliminated. By the 1970s the population of terns dropped to twenty percent of its numbers during World War II.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 6.35.47 pmPiping plovers flutter north to the Great Plains in late April, a month before terns glide in from the tropics. Males the color of sand stake out territory along naked sandbars that form lookouts against predators. From there they surge into rituals of courtship, displaying graceful and intricate overflights. After mating, birds stay united to defend their young. If a predator looms near their eggs, the orange-legged male will lurch onto the sand in a ruse, dragging one wing while moaning to distract the intruder. Biologists like Greg hope to prevent either plovers or terns from going extinct. If these birds are to survive in the long haul they need homesteads — sandbars. To grant them this, Reservoir Control engineers need to be able to create this habitat by letting more water spill downriver from Gavins Point dam; they need to allow at least one sizable pulse of water to roar through the river’s course every few years. Unfortunately, the very floods that create and maintain sandbars are those that the Corps is supposed to eliminate.

The result is that the river’s flow, regulated by upstream dams, only surges when some of that control is lost. Floods not only create sandbars; they clean them. Although the high water of 1997 cleaned vegetation off sandbars between Gavins Point and Ponca, weeds blossomed and covered these again. This created a problem.

“The birds like a little vegetation so chicks can hide,” Greg said. “But if there’s too much vegetation, they desert the area.”

Another high water pulse was needed to shave these sandbars clean again. But how to do this without waiting for a flood?

“Generally the river’s flood pulse has been eliminated,” Greg said. “That’s part of the reason the birds are endangered. They’re adapted to a system that changes, but now the system is more or less constant.”

The unchanneled section of the lower river that Dave and I canoed remains sprinkled with the sandy habitat these birds love. To protect terns and plovers there, they need to be monitored to ensure their eggs don’t vanish. Staff from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps have developed a plan to accomplish this. During months when these birds visit the river, teams of biologists traipse along sandbars to record the location of each nest.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 6.36.49 pm

They then pass this reconnaissance intelligence onto Greg who pastes a summary of this data (including exact GPS coordinates) onto the Corps’ internal website. Greg pushed his coffee mug aside with the back of his hand. He rotated his computer monitor my way.

The sheet read: Threatened and Endangered Species Data Management System. He scanned the data.

“We’ve had a total of 112 piping plover nests so far this year: ninety-four hatched, fifteen destroyed, three —fate unknown,” Greg said.

“The crew surveyed from river mile 785 to 805 yesterday,” he added. “They’d observed twenty-three chicks. More than a hundred have fledged the river from near here.”

Even a small rise in the river level can wash onto a sandbar, flushing eggs downriver. Heedful of this danger, field teams note which nests sit within eighteen inches of shore. Greg then ‘red flags’ these waterside nests on his spreadsheet.

He tapped his highlighter against the monitor. The screen identified four nests perched along this foot and a half wide danger corridor at River Mile 839.5. Once Greg entered this data onto a spreadsheet, Bob from Reservoir Control inspected the figures, phoned Greg to get an estimate for when the last chicks would fledge, then fine tuned water releases from dams to protect each precarious nest.

This truth was refreshing and amazing. The distribution of millions of kilowatts of energy and the flow of over twenty cubic miles of impounded water depends, at times, on whether a single tern weighing less than a demitasse of espresso has flapped its wings and flown south in the direction of Guatemala. Until this final chick makes its departure, the interaction between dam flows, nest data, field teams and power output remains as coordinated as a four-chambered heart.

The day before, Reservoir Control wanted to increase water releases from South Dakota’s Fort Randall Dam. They phoned Greg to find out the status of all nearby birds. Greg retrieved fresh data from field teams on five nests near Niobrara bridge, then phoned Bob to discuss water levels.

“I told them if Lewis and Clark Lake stays at 1206 feet above sea level, it shouldn’t effect nests. It was at 1205.8 yesterday, so they’ll be watching their gauges.”

Based on Greg’s data, Reservoir Control then unshackled identical quantities of water from both Fort Randall and Gavins Point dams to maintain a steady level along Lewis and Clark Lake.

Within days, when the last birds fledged and headed south, Greg would let the engineers at Reservoir Control know.

“We’ll tell them the reach is clear—that they can change flows to their heart’s content.”

“Are there other threats to birds beside flow?” I asked Greg.

“Big things are weather and predators,” he explained. “Hailstorms, heavy rains. If a mink gets onto a sandbar, it could wipe out an entire colony. You also have avian predators—hawks, owls, gulls, crows. And there’s the possibility of human disturbance. These birds nest on sandbars. People with dogs can destroy nests without knowing it.”

“Their adaptation is camouflage,” Greg explained. “If disturbed, they freeze in place and try to blend in with the surrounding area. The idea is if you can’t see me, you can’t eat me.”

Greg turned a group of photographs over on his desk. White pebbles around the perimeter of one nest looked like rock salt on the rim of a daiquiri glass. Camouflaged eggs lay circled inside this ring.

“Nests are just depressions in sand,” he said. “Eggs are colored to blend in. In the old days a flood coming down the Missouri could wipe out a colony. The birds would then renest again because they’re adapted to a constantly changing system.”

When fall weather blows in, plovers flap as far away as Laguna Madre and the Caribbean isles while terns hightail it to the sunny Baja peninsula, Central America, and Venezuela.

Perhaps, Greg added.

Biologists were unsure exactly where birds went when they migrated. Such uncertainty is critical. “There’s a big emphasis on birds up here on the breeding grounds,” Greg said. “But one thing kind of overlooked is that they spend the majority of their lives, from nine to ten months, down in wintering grounds.”

In other words, the Endangered Species Act helps protect these visitors for the quarter of their lives they spend raising families on temperate U.S. terrain. Meanwhile in other countries smoking chain saws may be garroting their tropical rainforest homesteads. If the birds are to survive, other nations will have to recognize the need to protect them.

Roughest Town in the West

A television mini-series titled Blood and Oil includes Don Johnson (think Miami Vice from long ago) and takes place in a western US boom town named Rock Springs, North Dakota. Scenes revolve around the oil bonanza exploding there in recent years. ‘Rock Springs’ is a fictional location based on the real town of Williston. There, the influx of wild workers, astronomical rental prices, and general mayhem hits a town undersized to handle the influx of thousands of people seeking their riches.

Fifteen years ago – long before this oil boom – I visited Williston. I was researching and writing my nonfiction book titled Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark.

The visit to Williston made for an intriguing episode.

Here is the chapter:

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.33.16 pm

Town streets in Williston, North Dakota looked sinister and immutable, as though frozen in time. The brown brick walls of J.C. Penney and the New Grand Cinema (Our Screen Talks) came from another era.

In a corner bar I spoke to a forty-year-old man who acted twenty-five. He had blue eyes, a red face and a silver necklace. He ordered a dollar bottle of Bud.

“Buildings around here look preserved,” I said.

“Founding fathers don’t want to change things,” he explained. “They own the buildings. Want to keep everything the same. Keep new people out. That’s what I think. You passin’ through?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Good thing it’s not winter. It gets too cold here. Thirty below for five days at a time. I have to chain up to drive out to the oil rigs to work. The older I get, the harder time I have with it.”

A lean man with deep eyes entered the bar. He was a darkly handsome fellow who looked toughened up from living in a town governed by the fist. He inserted himself on a stool next to me, with the stealth of a bobcat. He looked in his early thirties.

“Hello sir,” he said.

“Hi.”

He eyed me like prey. In turn, I swigged down my beer and asked him about camping.

“Going upriver? Doin’ the Lewis and Clark stuff? Don’t camp on that reservation. Don’t do that. All alone? They’ll kill your ass. You pull over for the night and somebody’ll slit your throat. Don’t go up there. They kill ya’ unless you got local blood. Like me. My name’s Winston. I went to school in Missoula, Montana, then came back to the rez.”

I decided that for that night, I would pull into a town parking lot to sleep.

“You want to learn about the river? Then you need to talk to tribal elders,” he said. “Always bring tobacco if you visit. If they’re sixty or seventy years old, take unfiltered cigarettes. Remember, when an elder comes into the room, stand and offer your chair, even if there are a hundred empty seats. And don’t speak or interrupt. Just listen.”

I nodded.

“Another thing. If you go into a room and get a bad feeling, step outside. If it’s quiet out there, if there’s no sign of birds, squirrels – or any animals, then get out. Fast.”

We talked for an hour. After he stepped away another man staggered in. He scratched his crotch and shook a shank of black hair as though he were a teenager in a shampoo commercial. A mashed green X was tattooed on his lower neck. He sat close. He gave a vicious scoff at a half-heard joke and managed to convince the stranger — me — to buy him a drink. I asked for a beer and he changed the order to a shot of whisky. He gripped his glass with fingers resembling talons. This accentuated his image as a thankless harpy.

The conversation turned black. Fast.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Passing through. Researching the river.”

“You strangers built that dam,” he snarled. “Maybe tonight, maybe I kill a stranger. So, eh, buy me another drink,” he demanded.

His jabbering was a nuisance. Yet eager to avoid confrontation thousands of miles away from any known face, I complied.

He eyed my notes.

“Journalist?” he asked.

“Engineer,” I said before realizing that was worse — my ilk had erected dams.

“Where you stay?”

“Camper.”

“That one outside? You keep notes, tapes? What if something happens to your camper? Maybe it burns up,” he said, and smiled a row of serrated brown teeth.

“Let me see these,” he said, and grabbed the papers from my hands.

“Hey!”

“Gonna see what you’re writing,” he blurted, “Else maybe you don’t leave this town. Not alive.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.36.23 pm

Lovely, I thought. Though I wanted out, timing was critical.

He opened the papers and read. His face oozed with enmity.

“You write like a doctor. But I can read it,” he said.

He lied. No one could read my scribble.

“Write this down,” he demanded.

Considering the pen-mightier-than-the-sword option as a peaceful exit to an asinine situation, I wrote down what he dictated.

“This was a life of a friend that I met in a bar talking about Williston. Name unknown, but he was a good friend. Thank you.”

After I wrote this he thrust the papers back and slithered off to the bathroom. When he disappeared from sight I breezed outside through a corner door. Under starlight I looked sideways, then listened. There was no sound of bird, squirrel or any wildlife. Winston was right. It was time to leave.

Fast.

 

Hearing the Past

In the year 2001 I quit my job and bought a pickup truck and small camper. I spent five months traveling along the Missouri and Colombia rivers in the US. I then wrote a book (Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark) about the people I had met, and how changes to these rivers had impacted their lives.

One of the stories I collected and wrote about is below. It was not included in the book because it’s not about Kansas or Missouri or rivers.

It’s about Ireland.

Dingle, Brandon Beach mountains

Dusk on the dunes in western Ireland

 

Hearing the Past

While traveling alongside the Missouri River, I stepped into the Benedictine college library in Atchison, Kansas. I was curious about how monks had first arrived there.

“Speak to Miriam,” the sleek attendant at the front desk whispered. “She’s in charge of rare books.”

Miriam looked trim and cautious. She was light, buoyant, and articulate – a woman enraptured with caring for such volumes as the library’s 1538 Speculum Monachorum – or Mirror for Monks. She led me upstairs past white cinder blocks and a poster of Pope John Paul. I sat down at a table surrounded by tall bookshelves inside a sort of literary kennel. She vanished, then reappeared a minute later. She laid down a copy of the book Kansas Monks before me.

“Did you grow up near here?” she asked, prying to learn what I knew of local history. Like her long dress, Miriam’s voice flowed.

“No. Chicago, then Ireland,” I told her.

The last word charmed her.

thumb_Dingle, Ballydavid Head lil lamb_1024

“We have this son,” she sighed. Stiffness disappeared from her shoulders. I noticed her shake of head and tweak of dimples and recognized the signs: another river was opening up.

I pushed Kansas Monks aside.

Beside the Missouri River there were other flowstreams along my route, meandering creeks of history and anecdote that opened of their own volition. Some stories spilled with convoluted, often brilliant connections. Inside this college library one of these now flowed from Miriam, a tale that made me wonder whether humans can, at times, hear their ancestry.

“Our son heard the bagpipes and Irish flutes when he was fifteen,” she began. “He got it into his head that that’s what he had to do. How would you say, he just ‘had it in him.’ Course someone had to make a set of bagpipes for him which cost us thousands of dollars – which was supposed to be his college tuition.”

thumb_Dingle, Brandon Beach_1024

Her smile broadened.

“But he was driven. He was also good at languages. He went to Lebanon to study Arabic for six months. When he came home he went to New York and met a fiddler who invited him to his house in western Ireland. The fellow probably didn’t expect him, but one day Ciaran showed up at his doorstep. Stayed a few weeks and hitchhiked all over County Clare. Ciaran now says that his two favorite places in the world are Doolin Bay and Corrofin.

“He returned to study Arabic at Georgetown. Course the east coast of the U.S. had Irish music. Maybe that influenced his choice. But they closed the Arabic program down during the Gulf War. So Ciaran went to study at Trinity College in Dublin and continued with music. Now he plays professionally. Has a fiancé. She’s a fiddler and he’s a piper. But it’s not an easy life – feast or famine.”

thumb_Dingle, Ballydavid Head gorgeous_1024

Looking west across the Atlantic

She sighed, then asked about my trip.

I yakked on about Nicholas Biddle’s map and Manuel Lisa’s fort and how axe-swinging hoards of settlers had moved up this continent’s rivers to crisscross yellow rimrock, sloppy geysers, and wilting sagebrush – a route I had chosen to follow.

“Everyone’s dream,” she said. “Get up and go.”

Her words formed a poultice. Recent rains, a leaking camper and nail biting slumps of loneliness had thrashed at my days, invoking doubts about the value of this solo excursion. Already I had reached a discreet state of mental exhaustion. Yet Miriam’s simple phrase banished so many clawing uncertainties that day. Refreshed, I reignited the subject of Ireland and told her of having published a short story about bicycling through County Clare. This admission kindled a curious response.

thumb_2007, May 24-30, Robin's Ireland Pics 055_1024

“There’s an odd quirk to this whole piping thing,” she added. “Ciaran went to County Clare in 1987, when he was sixteen. A very young sixteen. He played pipes in his room at first, then got out and played with others. When he told us we decided to visit. My husband Mike’s great grandfather was born in 1841 and came over from Ireland. Before our trip to Ireland we got interested in family history and searched for the gravestone at a cemetery in south east Kansas. It was an Irish cemetery, surrounded by a wall. The gravestones had Celtic crosses. We found the headstone. The spelling of the name had changed, but it told where he was born, which we never knew.”

Miriam smiled.

I knew what was coming.

“County Clare,” she said.

New Book about Food and Wine

Update – 

Books from Roundwood Press with greatest reader appeal during recent months include Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi (my first book), Synchronicity as Signpost,  The Synchronous Trail, and Visual Magic. Between now and the end of 2015, if you decide to purchase any books from Roundwood Press I’ll contribute a second ebook for free. Just let me know.

Even if you receive emails notifying you about this web log (‘blog’) I suggest you fill in your email address as a subscriber on the main page. This will protect your subscription in case future changes to our email delivery system cause delays or deletion of addresses.

Finally, we’re investigating a merger of both blogs – Roundwood Press and Vino Voices – to make both accessible from this one website.

Another New Book – 

As mentioned recently in our sister blog Vino Voices – I’m collecting recipes from winemakers for a new book titled The Winemaker’s Cooking Companion. It may take a year or so to collect the material, but I’ll publish many recipes online here (or at the Vino Voices site) – together with stories about who provided them.

Gnarly looking cepes

Gnarly looking cèpes

This past Sunday afternoon a group sat outside the wine store and local bar in the outdoor plaza – Place de l’Europe – here in Blaye. A friend’s phone buzzed. He muttered quietly, hung up, then nodded for me to join him in walking around the corner. There we met Patrique, who opened the back of his car and waved at a box of massive cèpes – local mushrooms in season. We forked over some Euro bills, divvied up the spoils, and carted our boxes back to the Place de l’Europe to resume a lunch of Chablis and fresh oysters.

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Fresh from the forest

A cèp (singular; cèpes is plural) is a wild mushroom – available fresh for only weeks every year. It grows naturally in forests in the northern hemisphere and was introduced elsewhere – including South Africa and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere. It’s called a ‘penny bun’ in England, ‘porcini’ in Italy, and ‘California king bolete’ in the USA. It’s delicious and healthy – with ample protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. This is a choice mushroom for cooking.

That night, the La Cave Wine Store manager and wine consultant, Julien Pouplet, stopped by to show how to cook cèpes. Julien is a wine wizard – often able to discern the year, location, and sometimes specific hill slope from where a French wine originated. His attention to aromas in the wine and food world (he began being exposed to wine scents when he was four years old) makes him tuned into subtleties of taste.

As expected, this recipe is unforgettable. The key – go low and slow: low heat, slow cooking.

 

Parsley Mushroom Omelette – from Wine Consultant Julien Pouplet

Comments –

Julien adds –

“If you want to store cèpes, slice them, then lay them flat inside a plastic bag. Very flat. Perhaps only one mushroom per bag. Then write the date on the bag, and store in a freezer.”

 

Preparation Time and Quantity –

20 minutes to prepare; 40 minutes to cook. Serves 2 people.

 

Ingredients and Amounts –

Cèp mushrooms (large) – 4 (if using other mushrooms of medium size, use 8)

Eggs – 4

Parsley – four fresh sprigs, or about 2 teaspoonfuls (30 grams) of dried leaves

Garlic cloves – 2

Butter – 5 knobs, each the size of a thumb

Olive oil – 2 tablespoons

Cream (medium or heavy) – 1/2 cup (10 cl)

Salt – 1 teaspoon

Pepper – a sprinkle

Recipe –

1. Prepare the mushrooms. Do not wash the mushrooms in water. If they are dirty, wipe them with a paper towel. Cut off the last 1/2  to 1 inch (1 to 2 cms) of the base and discard. Slice the mushrooms in a direction parallel to the stalk – with each slice being about 1/8 to a 1/4 inch thick (1/4 to 1/2 cm). If these really are cèpes – you’ll notice three distinct bands of colors  on each – brown, white, and green. Set aside.

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Slice

2. Dice garlic and parsley individually, then mix together and dice the mixture even more. Set aside.

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Dice

3. Crack four eggs in a bowl and whisk. Add cream and whisk again. Set aside.

3. Place the sliced mushrooms in a pan over low to medium heat. Do NOT put any liquid in the pan – no butter, oil, or water. Sprinkle salt over them. The purpose is to dry out the mushrooms. This will take 15 to 30 minutes, during which the volume of ‘shrooms will reduce noticeably. The aim is for the mushrooms to be crunchy.

Fry to dry

Fry and dry

4. Add the butter dollops on top of the mushrooms.

Butter time

Let her sizzle, but not burn

5. Drizzle olive oil on top (‘just a touch of oil,’ Julien suggests).

6. Add salt and pepper. Fry over low to medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes.

7. Add the parsley/garlic mixture. (“Ah! Now, you enjoy the amazing smell of garlic, parsley, butter, and mushrooms…” Julien insists.)

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Add parsley/garlic mixture

8. After one minute, add the egg/cream mixture.

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Add egg/cream mixture

9. Leave undisturbed on low/medium heat until the the mixture becomes firm enough to fold in half with a spatula – creating the omelette.

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Flip

10. Fry another minute or so before serving.

Enjoy

Enjoy

Julien suggests serving this to Miles Davis music (‘Kind of Blue‘), together with a baguette (essential in France) and a bottle of medium-bodied red wine (Gros Moulin Heritage 2013 from Bordeaux is excellent, as is any red wine with Cabernet Franc – including from the Loire Valley).

To store extra mushrooms for using later, first slice as described above, then place them flat inside plastic bags before freezing. Take the bag out of the freezer the night before using, and put it in the fridge  When ready, sauté the mushrooms, or cook them in the oven.

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Worth freezing for the future

Thanks for tuning in.

Tom M.

The Power of Coincidence

“Remember, the universe takes care of the “how” through coincidences, serendipity, and synchronicities. We just have to take care of the “what.” 

Jonathan Manske

From the book: “The Law of Attraction Made Simple – Magnetize Your Heartfelt Desires.”

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Ocean waves may roll, break, and crash, but there is rhythm to their motion. Birds vary their migration paths, but the annual long-distance flights they take follow a general pattern.

So it is with life. There is, as Shakespeare said, a tide in our affairs which, when seized at the right moment, can lead to fortune.

Yet our daily lives are bombarded by thousands of details – picking kids from school, shopping for food, paying bills, cleaning dishes. Who has time to discern WHAT important patterns we would be wise to pay attention to? Even if we did, would we have the courage and faith to focus on those patterns with the unknown hope that they could somehow improve our lives? By ‘improve’ I generally mean by providing us with greater control over our circumstances – allowing us to have more free time and less stress, more opportunities to do what we want, and a greater ability to free ourselves from multiple daily tasks, many of which we resent.

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This is where coincidences can help. Meaningful coincidences, or what Carl Jung called ‘synchronicities,’ are often little signposts indicating in which direction we can adjust the course of our lives to better follow our strongest desires.

As author Manske expresses well:

“The more that you listen to and act on intuition and nudges, the more that synchronicity will show up in your life. The more often that synchronicity shows up in your life, the easier your life will get.”

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You cannot look for coincidences. There is no formula for making them appear. But when they do show up, pay attention. Below is a chapter from my book titled Synchcronicity as Signpost, highlighting a decision I once made, and how synchronicity helped me fully accept the value of that choice.

Signpost: Good Choice 

Synchronicity can not only help us make choices – but confirm when a choice aligns with our profoundest desires.

I was working in a coastal town in southern Angola when a friend relayed a message via radio: another company from the United State had called to offer me a job in Washington DC. My friend encouraged me to take the position.

Two weeks later I moved to DC. The city, job, and work mates turned out to be excellent. A month later this friend sent me a cryptic e-mail from Africa that he later told me was simply a joke. His message instructed me to do the following:

“If you find yourself alone in DC this weekend, go to Georgetown. Ask any woman if she knows a good used bookstore. Keep asking until you get the answer you need, enter the indicated bookstore and start counting bookcases from the door. Go to the seventh bookcase on your right, the seventh shelf down, and select the seventh book from the left. Displays around the cash register do not count as bookcases. If the bookstore has an upstairs, go up and begin counting there. If it has a basement, by no means enter it.  If someone asks if they can help you, do not keep these instructions secret. Loiter as long as you like, buy the book and then peruse it over a mug of coffee.”

I replied immediately. There was big news. That same day the company director had told me that in two weeks I would move to Panama City to work and to live for at least a year. Panama was an ecologist’s playground and a banker’s heaven. A fifty-mile long canal split the nation. I also knew that Panama was home of the Darien Gap, the dense jungle that separates Central from South America. The Darien is so thick and wild that in the 1960s the first vehicles to cross it had to float across its swampier portions by raft. Members of a later expedition recruited the British army to push and winch a fleet of laboring Land Rovers sixty seven miles across the Gap. The effort took ninety nine days, half of the total time the expedition took to descend from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

I knew that Panama was also home to the Kuna Indians, bawdy and spiritual folk who defend their autonomy with a vengeance. Most Kuna live on the San Blas islands, more than three hundred lush mounds splattered across the Atlantic like drops of tan and green paint. Binding tradition pokes through Kuna customs: women are forbidden to marry non-Kuna men; lobster divers cannot use compressed air to descend through water; men (both elders and youths) are obliged to spend three full days inebriated on chicha homebrew during a woman’s coming-of-age ceremony.

Excited about this upcoming move, I wrote this friend to share the news. Still, I wondered about his bizarre Georgetown instructions.

That Sunday in Washington DC I caught the metro from Bethesda to Dupont Circle. I walked up Q Street into Georgetown and asked a petite woman where I could find a secondhand bookstore. She shrugged her thin shoulders and waved me off in another direction. I then ambled below a curbside maple tree and asked directions from a tall brunette. There’s one in Dupont Circle,” she replied,” wrinkling her nose coated with adobe brown freckles. I thanked her, started off in that direction and then stopped. My friend’s directions were explicit: find a bookstore in Georgetown, not Dupont circle. While considering this I bought an orange juice and a chocolate chip cookie, then moved north on Wisconsin Avenue. A pizzeria employee taking his break leaned against an alley wall. He sucked a cigarette and then coughed out a cloud of gray smoke. When I asked about where to find a second-hand bookstore he wiped his hand on a tomato smudged apron and pointed downhill.

“M Street,” he mumbled.

I then realized – shocked – no way! My friend’s instructions were clear: ask women – not men. I next flagged down a collegiate blonde and again spewed out the by then well-oiled query.

“Reservoir Street,” she said and twirled her wrist, indicating that I should turn around. On Reservoir Street I asked a young Asian woman for this elusive bookstore.

“I’m new around here,” she replied.

Exasperated, I was prepared to forget this chase when she spoke again.

“But I did see one around that corner,” she said.

There it was. I pressed my forehead against its windowpane and looked inside: small, bulging with books, and filled with promise. A cardboard sign taped to the window said it opened at noon. It was eleven twenty five. I crossed the street, sat in a twee café and drank a cup of coffee. At midday I entered the bookstore. A bearded man with a Middle Eastern accent perched next to an ancient black cash register. We swapped nods. I started to count bookshelves from the right. One, two…and then came across a pile of milk crates filled with loose hardbacks. The crates were stacked so I decided they constituted a bookshelf. Three, four, five, six…  There were no other bookshelves along the same wall. I wheeled around and faced the opposite side of the aisle and faced bookshelf number Seven. Next I counted down seven rows.  One, two, three….

The books on the seventh shelf stood in a vertical pile. I counted from the top down and plucked out the seventh book.

The paperback had a blue cover, gold border, and raised white lettering. The publisher had artfully removed a square from the cover to reveal a portion of an inner page drawing – a man silhouetted below a gaslight at the top of a subway staircase. The back cover highlighted the book’s merits: “National Bestseller…a choice of the Book-of-the-Month club…a New York Times Notable Book of the Year…written by Eric Zenecy.”

Stunned, I read the title aloud:

PANAMA

I took the job. For the next three years I lay in hammocks on the Kuna islands during weekends, or boated up the Panama Canal, or consulted with Embera Indians in the Darien region for work. I learned from Panamanians how life can be woven as a tapestry as well as forged like a metal. My days in Panama stayed varied and full.

From time to time, however, I still marveled at the strange prescience of that past e-mail and the book it delivered. I also mused over one quote that came from the text of the book Panama:

“Adams drew the thick, cool air through his nose. Seven years, he thought. Six Decembers. The year was sliding toward it. But this year it might go more easily; perhaps, he thought, there was some magic in the number seven.”

The event had startled me – but jolted me into fully accepting the chance to work in Panama.

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River of Dreams – Reviewed by the University of Durham

book review Tom_2The Business School alumni magazine from the University of Durham recently reviewed my book River of Dreams. The fictional story is set in medieval as well as modern times in the region of Durham in northeast England. The positive review by Brad Atkinson includes intriguing mention of the ‘tardis’ – the police box Doctor Who uses to travel through space and time. The book’s plot links present and medieval characters through a series of dreams.

“…the book will allow you to re-experience specific locations and moods of characters across the North East….reading this book will provide you with a tardis-like experience, where the threads of time are both non-linear and bigger on the inside than they are on the outside, as you join a collection of lives that are intertwined by the waters that flow through the region and, ultimately, each of us.”

 

book review Tom

What else is new?

In the coming months I’ll announce publication of new books within the coming year, including titles by other authors, at least one title dedicated to charity, and a photo collection. We also anticipate producing a new podcast series, an expanded video series, and a new book imprint. The sister web log (‘blog’) Vino Expressions (which publicizes my book Vino Voices, and includes the proprietary Vino Value scoring algorithm for comparing wine values throughout the world) will also become more closely linked to Roundwood Press.

Thanks for keeping informed about Roundwood Press. Stay tuned for a vibrant future 🙂 .  Please click on the Home tab and enter your email if you are not already a subscriber.

 

Bar Fight, and a Renegade from Battle – First Chapters from River of Dreams

Here are the first two chapters from the book River of Dreams. The book tells about three characters in a young man’s dreams who help identify a murderer. The story is set in the university town of Durham, in northeast England, as well as in Paris.

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Durham Cathedral – almost one thousand years old

 

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Fight

Graham Keane did not appreciate winning the bar fight.

At eleven minutes past eight o’clock on a cool September evening, Graham pulled his blue Range Rover Evoque off the Newcastle Road. He parked in the lot of the Duke of Wellington restaurant and pub at the edge of the small, ancient city of Durham in northeast England. Autumn enveloped the land, and darkness had fallen.

Graham turned off the ignition, unfastened his seat belt, and let out a deep sigh. He knew other staff members at the University of Durham had noticed his recent dark moods. Seated alone for a moment, he felt the peace of solitude, of having to make no effort to mask his depression. For after twenty-six years of what he considered to be a glorious marriage, Professor Keane arrived home three weeks earlier to hear his wife Margaret confess to deceit, betrayal, and – worst of all – enrapture with a lover.

Graham opened the vehicle door and stepped into crisp evening air. He combed four fingers through mahogany colored hair and adjusted the dark collar of his oxford shirt. He tilted his head forward and looked down to inspect the symmetry of his black leather shoe laces, then raised his shoulders and marched into the Duke. Once inside, he relaxed and smiled. He relished the warm glow of orange lamps in the public house, the bright gas fire, the softness of thick carpet, and the hum of social banter. He paced with measured confidence to the bar and ordered a pint of Black Sheep bitter from a hefty bartender with a Union Jack tattooed across his left wrist. It was Thursday evening. The laughter of postgraduate students and the mumble of professionals and local families numbed Graham’s shaken spirits. He listened to dips and lulls of cackles and stories, comforted by the buzz of conversation that enveloped him in a cocoon of anonymity.

The bartender placed his pint on a green beer mat. Graham moved his right hand forward to take the drink. At that moment, another man slammed an angled shoulder into Graham’s back.

Graham winced at the sharp thud. Within seconds he realized that this muscled thrust was not delivered by accident and was not attached to any apology. Someone had inflicted pain for a purpose.

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“S’cuse, guv!” the assailant said in a gruff, mocking voice. Graham wheeled around. He looked into the cold eyes of a bald man who looked prematurely aged. This man pulled back and lunged again, slamming his upper arm into Graham’s right shoulder. Graham recoiled. He squinted at the half toothless smile of a sneering stranger, a gloating bully who appeared to delight in harassing someone he did not know.

The stranger wore a collarless black shirt and a brown leather jacket. A silver chain with links the size of thumbnails hung around his neck. He reeked of whisky, tobacco, and petrol. Graham realized that the man fit into this family restaurant scene about as much as a football hooligan would fit in with a London opera audience.

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Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island

 

Graham retreated. He took his drink and stepped away from the bar. Immediately, the stranger stepped into his path, knocking the pint out of Graham’s hand. It fell with a thud onto the carpet.

The stranger laughed. Graham realized the truth: this sadist had found his prey and would likely continue his taunts.

“Awww, sorry guv! Spilt yer pint did yeh?”

Graham wanted to retreat. Instead, he obeyed the inner voice of a man who had taken enough.

“Fuck you,” said Graham.

He reached into his pocket, then deposited three one pound coins onto the cotton bar mat. He nodded to the barman to pull another beer.

The stranger reached forward. He clasped a calloused, oily hand onto Graham’s right shoulder.

“Speakin’ to me toff? I’ll fuckin’ brain yeh.”

The brute squeezed Graham’s shoulder. Hard. Graham turned his body toward the man, wrenching away from his grip. He realized how determined this imbecile was to cause trouble. Graham’s thoughts also alerted him to a second, more important truth: the thug was no bigger than he was.

The assailant lost his grip on Graham, but smirked and rubbed his hands together. Seconds passed. Neither man moved. Graham glanced at the bar, then clasped his fingers around a fresh pint, this time a Worthington Creamflow. He gripped it, faced his enemy, and inverted the glass, pouring a stream of amber ale onto the jeans and mud caked boots of the oaf intent on ruining his evening.

“So sorry,” said Graham. He rubbed a hand through his hair and smiled at the bully.

“Yeh’ll hurt for that,” said the bald assailant. He coiled a fist and shot it, knuckles clenched, into the side of Graham’s head. He then darted his left hand forward and began choking his victim’s throat. Graham’s eyes bulged. The light atmosphere that reigned throughout the pub only minutes earlier turned dark and silent. The barman reached for a phone to summon the police. Customers fanned back from the dueling pair.

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Durham Castle

 

Jake McGiles, thirty-four years old, felt sudden glory as he began squeezing the life out of the worm who dared dribble ale on his clothing. Jake bared his teeth, absent of dental care, and spoke in a throaty rasp.

“Yeh Durham bastard.”

Jake planned his next moves. He would knee his prey in the crotch and send him to the floor. He would then walk outside and ride his motorcycle northward, arriving at his aunt’s home in the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne in time for a late dinner.

Jake squeezed harder. The barman yelled. Forty-seven year old Graham started to slump. A customer shouted. Jake bared more of his rotten teeth as a gesture of defiance to those before him, a crowd he perceived to be academic wankers and snooty families.

He squeezed harder. His smile turned to a grimace. He was ready for his prey to buckle.

“Fuckin’ wanker!” he called aloud.

A mother screamed. The bartender shouted again. Customers pulled out cell phones to dial the police. Then, from where no one expected, Graham landed a single kidney punch that made Jake wince and loosen his grip. Graham recoiled, gasped, and sent another punch upward to Jake’s head. And another.

And one more.

His final well aimed punch sent the assailant to the carpet.

Jake McGiles never breathed again.

 

Apparition

IMG_1621The soldier huddled behind the trunk of a stout oak tree. He heard at least two horses. No more than four. They moved too fast for riders out hunting for deer or renegade Scottish troops. After the sound had passed, the soldier stood. He squared his broad shoulders, then stepped to the edge of the thick wood. Wet leaves clung to his wool socks and bare calves. The riders must have been farmers, he concluded – likely riding to the market in Durham.

The tall, black bearded soldier was about to retreat into the woods again when his right eye caught a glint. He looked ahead. A sudden blast of white light filled the space before him, radiating from a single point within the soggy green field. Brightness filled his eyes, like a tavern lantern swung too close. The soldier lifted his calloused left hand to shield the view. He was surprised that his senses, which snapped even at the sound of mice rustling through leaves during recent days, reacted with neither fear nor alarm. He considered this truth as unusual. After all, he had spent every moment of each recent day alert and poised for danger.

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Lindisfarne Priory

In less than a minute the fiery white glow tapered off and vanished. In the silence that followed this hardened young soldier named Angus felt a sense of serenity.

A cold wind hushed. Angus stared ahead to the open meadow beyond trees. A man now stood where the light had shone, staring at him from less than twenty paces away. Angus saw that this stranger’s body was that of a timid youth. His chin was free of stubble, like the head of a bald elder. He wore smooth, untarnished clothing and his face lacked guile. The adult appeared tamer than even a shepherd boy. Angus realized that he could see through the stranger’s clothing into the field beyond, as though the garments were fashioned from mist.

Seconds later, this apparition vanished.

Angus dropped to one knee on the damp soil.

“Spirit,” he said aloud. “You’re not of my time or world. Forgive my sins, God, and keep me unharmed,” he whispered.

The wind picked up and rustled upper boughs of nearby oak trees. Bruised clouds scudded in from the northwest, while goose bumps erupted across the soldier’s bare arms.

Angus exhaled, slowly. He knew the presence was not an enemy. The vision was unearthly – a lad who evaporated before his eyes. Yet he felt no awe or reverence, and doubted he had witnessed the presence of anything Almighty. The youth who materialized for a moment did not appear to be a god, saint, or angel. Angus shook his head at the ludicrous truth about the situation: the stranger had appeared to be lost.

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River Wear

 

Angus knew that the bizarre apparition imparted no lessons, bestowed no wisdom, and wielded no justice in his savage world. He reached down. He clutched a handful of soggy brown leaves and rubbed them on his forehead to be certain he was awake. He then recalled the eyes he had seen. He had glimpsed into a troubled face. Intuitively, Angus suspected this ghoul of bright light was like himself – a traveler, a lost soul seeking a pathway home.

Angus stood. He walked out of the woods, this time unafraid.

“You’ll return,” he said to the empty, verdant countryside.

He laughed, hard and loud, and shook his long black hair. For the first time in weeks, he felt magnificent. Angus gripped his sword, rubbing his right thumb along the straight guard before plunging it back into its black, leather scabbard.

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The editor at work

Steaming Along Lake Malawi

This week the book Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi has been professionally re-edited, re-formatted and re-launched. If you purchased a copy in the past and would like the revised edition, please inform me and I’ll email the updated ebook.

During the coming weeks the same updates will take place with two of the sequel books in the African Raindrop SeriesThe Deep Sand of Damarland – A Journal of Namibia, and Water After War – Seasons in Angola.

In celebration of this first book update – here is an article about a journey I took along Lake Malawi long ago.

**

In 1858, David Livingstone pointed his steamship Pearl up the Zambezi River and headed into trouble. His plan, to follow the river upstream into the interior of East Africa, was twisted by an unforeseen problem: the Pearl was too large to navigate the river mouth waters. Undaunted, he abandoned this ship, then puffed upriver in a wood burning launch named the Ma Roberts. This tactic proved futile. Steamy rapids and the dangerous gorge at what is now Caborra Bassa in Mozambique blocked his way.

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Ilala docked at Nkhata Bay

Refusing to give up the expedition, Livingstone sidetracked up a little known tributary of the Zambezi named the Shire (SHEE-ray). Wary Portuguese sailors had warned him of its dangers: the waters were reputedly clogged with duckweed, and visitors were targeted by poison arrows from riverbank tribes. Ignoring the advice to steer clear, Livingstone persevered and became the first European to view what is now named Lake Malawi – the third largest lake in Africa.

Today, the lake can still be dangerous. Canoes are overturned by hippopotamuses, and crocodiles scan the shores for prey. Earlier this year the Nyasa Times reported a hand-dug canoe capsizing, drowning one fisherman and causing two to disappear. The recently published book This is Paradise is titled after words written in a letter by a 25-year old Irish volunteer to his mother. He was describing the coastal village where he lived along southern Lake Malawi. In the letter, he urged her to visit. Two days after writing the letter he drowned in the lake. His mother eventually visited the site and established a modest health clinic, described in the book.

A few decades ago I boarded a newer version of the steamship Ilala as it was about to chug up and down the western periphery of Lake Malawi.  The journey was both scenic and informative: the steamer plowed up the Great Rift Valley, and provided ripe vistas of coastal Malawian villages.

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Ferry between the Ilala and the shoreline at Usisya

I boarded the Ilala at Nkhata Bay, a lively cove tucked between hills mid-way along the western lake shore. The little steamer snorted smoke as it rounded a final hill toward the port, appearing squeezed out of the colonial past. Once I was aboard, a steward named Patrick showed me my cabin. It looked somewhat like a furnished boiler room – though freshly painted, clean, and comfortable. Despite the ship’s age (launched in 1951) the Ilala looked a handsome craft. It was one hundred and seventy-two feet long and could hold 460 passengers – a small fraction of them in the seven first class cabins. For those who traveled first class, the complete upper deck was ours to stroll along, or to relax on in deep, bright deck chairs.

But while it was still docked at Nkhata Bay, this deck was fair game for everyone to visit. Locals crowded onto its open bar and drank and danced until a loud speaker shooed away the wobbling last stragglers at three a.m.

This was the second Ilala. The original ship was launched in 1875, named after the village where Livingstone died in what is now Zambia. It was built in Scotland and sent to East Africa, then piloted up the Shire River to the Murchison Cataracts. Once there it was taken to pieces that were painstakingly carried over land – on the heads of sweating villagers – up to the lake, where they were reassembled. The Ilala was the first steamer to circumnavigate Lake Malawi. Its presence was intended to help spread the missionaries’ faith and send a clear warning to slave trading dhows: that their commerce was no longer welcome.

The Ilala finally puttered north at four a.m. By six, sunlight shattered the morning as rays poured off the distant peaks of Tanzania. A set of knuckles rapped on my door, and Patrick entered to serve tea. The ship anchor had dropped near Usisya – a triangular patch of land scrunched against steep lake shore peaks. Villagers gathered at the beach in an early morning frenzy. Chains clanked as two of the Ilala’s launch boats splashed into water. These ferried passengers with their crates, sacks and bulging suitcases to the shore. Their luggage was a jumble – bed frames, beer crates, a wheelbarrow, and chickens squawking in a basket.

I reclined in a deck chair looking at the mountainous shore as the Ilala pulled away. Before steamboats penetrated up Lake Malawi, Arab dhows had crisscrossed east and west along its waters, packed tight with their lucrative cargo of slaves. Malawi then provided rich pickings for Arab slave traders who tethered their captives in chains, marched them to the shore and then shipped the bodies to the eastern lakeshore in dhows. From there, prisoners were whipped and corralled on foot to ports along the Indian Ocean, where they were sold or traded, then exported. Conditions of this journey were brutal; the majority died before reaching the coast.

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Lake Malawi lakeshore at Usisya

Livingstone tried to squash this slave trade by creating alternate lake-based commerce to compete. Only after he died did his efforts take off with the help of the original Ilala. The steamer ferried troops to chase slave merchants away, thereby opening the lake waters to alternative trade.

I finished drinking coffee on the deck and walked downstairs. The entrance aisles were crowded with open crates. I plucked a plastic bag from one. It was clear and filled with water. Inside, striped fish darted back and forth. Their colors, bright and showy, sparkled like jewels.

“They’re for export,” said Patrick. “My last job was to dive for them.”

For collectors of tropical freshwater fish, Lake Malawi is a cornucopia, boasting a greater variety of species than any other lake in the world. The predominant ‘cichlids’ are as important to the study of evolution as Darwin’s finches, occupying virtually every possible ecological niche in the lake.

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Shore house along Lake Malawi that a friend and I designed and built as volunteers

High above this ship, along a steep escarpment, sat the Livingstonia mission, far removed from its original placement along the lake’s southern end. The scourge of malaria had prompted its transfer to this more northern site. Livingstone himself, sadly, never even ventured far enough north to see the site where the mission eventually settled.

At midday I sat for lunch in the small dining room where avocado salad, grilled chambo fish, potatoes, and chunks of fried mango slices were served. For dessert I ate a plate of paw-paw crumble and drank Malawian coffee. As I finished eating, a barefoot young boy tip- toed in and timidly handed out a miniature dugout canoe for sale. I paid for it and stashed the souvenir in a pocket.

By the time we pulled into Chilumba port in the early afternoon, the distant peaks of Tanzania grew sharper.  A thunderstorm cracked open and lightning split the distant sky. I was sweating. The heat came not from sunshine, or exhaust fumes from grunting engines, but from malaria.

Worn rubber rings tethered to the boat’s side groaned as the Ilala knocked against the port. It was as though the past rubbed against the present. Leaving along the gangplank, I ducked under bundles that wobbled on top of women’s heads, then stepped onto the new concrete dock. I watched a crane hoist bulging maize sacks from a barge while nearby men loaded wood crates onto a truck. Legitimate commerce was now firmly rooted where slavery once flourished. Livingstone’s goals of replacing lakeshore slave trade with alternative business had eventually been realized.

If Livingstone could stand on the Ilala today and watch the dockside bustle, he would be pleased at the sight of the progress. His persistence to establish commerce had paid off.

When my motorcycle was finally unloaded from the ship, I revved the engine and drove to Mzuzu – to home – to rest and recover.

 

 

Thousand Years Since Ireland’s Battle of Clontarf

This month marks the one year anniversary of the birth of Roundwood Press online bookstore, and of this website.

Irish Sea shoreline – scene of this ancient battle

 

This month (Easter, specifically) also marks the thousand year anniversary of Ireland’s Battle of Clontarf, a fierce encounter along the shoreline of the Irish Sea.

The battle remains epic for two reasons. First, Chief Brian Boru united Ireland’s most powerful tribes for the fight. Second, Boru’s forces delivered victory by smashing the power of Viking invaders on the island.

Vikings plundered Irish monasteries and chapels, including Glendalough and Clonmacnoise

 

Events during this year’s anniversary will celebrate the grim gray day when longboats from as far away as Iceland beached the shoreline north of Dublin city, filled with warriors gripping battle axes and spears. A Hawaiian art collector will return a painting that depicts this fight to Ireland, while a concert tour through the island will celebrate the event.  Yes, the movie is being made, and even the Danes – Vikings of past eras – are keen to participate in these events.

What of the great chief whose reign instilled and sparked this mighty battle – Brian Boru? Ireland’s tourism board is promoting his story. I also include a chapter about Boru’s life, from childhood to Clontarf, in my book River of Ireland. And my book Leadership Lessons from an Irish Warrior is based on the life of Boru – an obscure leader whose bizarre and challenging vision for his era helped shape the fortunes of the Irish people.

 

 

 

Echo-Bravo Spells – Ebola

An unfortunate outbreak of Ebola, a type of hemorrhagic fever, is now attacking medical personnel as fast as it is decimating civilians in Guinea, west Africa.

This dire event plays out in a region already ravaged by economic woe.

How dire?

Over a decade ago, our team of medical and engineering staff were quarantined in a town in northern Angola after a student died from hemorrhagic fever. This episode is recounted in a chapter in my book titled Water After War – Seasons in Angola.

The event began when one of our staff invited medical personnel to the town where we lived so they could be trained as vaccinators.

The local post office – a bombed out and derelict casualty of war

 

“Using UN vehicles that traveled in the region, Ana Maria sent out letters to health officials throughout Uige province. She requested that they each send one delegate to attend a vaccination course she would hold in Maquela. All fourteen invited health delegates appeared days before the course began. One walked two hundred kilometers in four days. Several others had walked more than one hundred kilometers each.

“One of these students grew ill in Maquela. His headache and fever gave way to vomiting blood and he entered Maquela’s hospital unconscious. There was blood in his urine. He bled from his nose. In the poorly lit and primitive conditions of Maquela’s hospital, where reed mats were used as beds rather than mattresses, Dr. Karen and nurses from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) filled this patient with intravenous solutions, then provided him with a blood transfusion.”

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From left – Dr. Karen, nurse Ana Maria, Dr. Samson

Before the widespread use of cell phones, we used a radio in our vehicle to communicate the symptoms to our headquarters in the city of Luanda, Angola’s capital. Staff then transmitted this information to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US. Our French friends sent the same information to the renowned Pasteur Institute in France.

“On a dirt road in rural Maquela, four of us sat inside the vehicle with our ears tilted toward the crackling, high frequency static. Dr. Karen spoke to a nurse from our organization with years of emergency room hospital experience. Karen requested that we switch to speak on a lesser used radio frequency, and afterwards spoke again.

“What did you say?” asked the nurse, named Paula. “I didn’t copy. Something bola?”

“That’s Echo Bravo,” Karen said, prompting her with phonetic cues. “Echo Bravo Oscar Lima Alpha.” Paula traced the letters for E-B-O-L-A on a writing pad before her voice turned stern.

“Give me the details.”

And so the waiting began.

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Visiting a rural clinic outside the town of Maquela

“The virus we dreaded was discovered in 1976 in the area of the Ebola River in northern Zaire. There had been few major outbreaks since then, although we knew that one occurred in Zaire earlier that year. Alarmed, we read what we could about the sickness from the sparse medical texts in Maquela (we had no access to the internet then). First, we knew there was a two to twenty-one day incubation period before an infected person grew ill. This was followed by symptoms that included headache, fatigue, muscle pain, and fever. These worsened to a condition of vomiting, diarrhea, and massive bleeding from all body orifices. There was no effective treatment or preventive vaccine for the sickness. Ninety percent of those who contracted Ebola died.”

We were instructed not to leave the dilapidated town where we worked, and United Nations supply planes halted their visits. We were cautioned not to leave our base.

“When we informed MSF of a possible outbreak of Ebola, they cordoned this patient off with a rope. They also posted a special guard before the hospital entryway who wore rubber boots and a white face mask. They next dismissed all non-emergency patients. Six local nurses, alerted by the word Ebola, fled into the hills.”

After the student died, our French friends passed on news from the Pasteur Institute.

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A derelict health post set in the beautiful rolling hills of Uige Province

 

“The antibodies had been for hemorrhagic fever in general, but not specifically for Ebola. Because there were several types of such fever, the results did not necessarily indicate a highly lethal strain. Once again, our sense of alert diminished. Ebola was no longer a concern.

“That evening Dr. Karen and I sat on our front porch. I asked her about the four other types of hemorrhagic fever.

How many are found in this part of Africa?”

“All,” she replied.

We never encountered another case of hemorrhagic fever. But the memory of how the symptons were described, how the nurses fled, how the town was locked down, and cohorts and colleagues maintained physical distance from one another, still provides a grim reminder of the importance that nations maintain the capability to diagnose, track, and contain viral outbreaks.

Sympathies to all of those impacted by this nasty outbreak in West Africa.

Cycling to Dun Aengus in Western Ireland

Years ago, my mother was ill in the hospital before she passed away. One day I visited her and read aloud a short story I had written about Ireland – and which had been accepted for publication. The book publisher (Travelers’ Tales, of San Francisco) had sent their formatted galleys in case I wanted to make any last minute revisions. I read the piece aloud. She listened for cadence and substance, then suggested one or two modifications before nodding her head that it was good to go. I still appreciate her input and attention to rhythm.

This true story is about riding a bicycle in western Ireland to an amazing old stone fort named Dun Aengus. It’s also about how landscapes alter our perception of time, and how time can enhance how we appreciate the places we visit.

The book includes stories by Frank McCourt, Nuala O’Faolain, Colm Tóibín, Maeve Binchy, and Rosemary Mahoney. I still feel proud to be included in this anthology.

Still, times have changed. Now there is a visitor center at Dun Aengus, and you have to pay a few Euros to enter the site. Apparently there are lots of visitors, though when we visited we were alone. Mmmm…did this piece written decades ago help encourage even a few more visitors? From now on, think I’ll keep news about exploring these jewels quiet…

Traveler's Tales - Ireland

Copyright Travelers’ Tales

 

This bicycle trip in western Ireland helped inspire me to write – years later – a book that weaves historical fact with fiction to produce a tale spanning five millennia of Irish history. Titled River of Ireland, the book tells of Viking raiders, warring chiefs, crafty politicians, romantic musicians, and a brave Spanish Armada captain – all who helped  shape the character of Ireland’s culture.

Read the short piece titled – Cycling to Dun Aengus. 

Read about the book Traveler’s Tales – Ireland.

Read more about the book River of Ireland.

As the Gaelic saying goes, An té a bhíónn siúlach, bíonn scéalach. Or – who travels has stories to tell.

Check out this recent New York Times article about another desolate, windswept sanctuary for worship off the west coast of Ireland, called Skellig Michael.

Or check out this YouTube video of Dun Aengus. There’s not much of a structure left – but you can imagine looking out from a fortress toward a wild ocean view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Fiction Book from Tom Mullen – Dreams, Murder, History

Happy November, all.

Hope that weather and life go well for you.

I’ve just published a new book, titled River of Dreams.

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Cover art by sister Trisha Ray

This easy read tells how three characters in a young man’s dreams – from three different periods of history – provide clues as to who committed a murder. The story is set in the ancient and mesmerizing city of Durham in northeast England.

I began writing this while living in Durham. Although the first draft was completed a few years ago, I recently got around to final editing and formatting. The video below tells a little about the book.

The cover art was produced by my sister, Trisha Ray, who also recently produced a beautiful book about travel.

You can also learn more here about the magic of Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral: ancient, moonlit, gorgeous

After a thousand years, Durham Cathedral keeps its magic

The blurb (included on the Books tab of this website) tells more:

In the wake of murder, three characters within a young man’s dreams identify the culprit. But putting the criminal behind bars creates another challenge. Set within England’s beautiful and ancient university town of Durham, River of Dreams braids together stories of a medieval battle, construction of a Norman cathedral, and a failed French rebellion – to help solve a murder mystery. A soldier, a milkmaid, and a rebel transform to unusual allies in this fresh storyline that oscillates between centuries and flicks between nations. 

I do hope that you enjoy this book.

Learn more about River of Dreams.

For three months, the book will only be available on Amazon.  After that it will be available on other ereader platforms. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle app to your computer, phone, iPad, or other electronic media reader.

Also – you can now have an electronic signature for any ebook from Roundwood Press. The ‘Author’ tab of this website shows how. Or, just click on the icon below.

Get your e-book signed by T. Mullen

How Wonderful is Malawi – Warm Heart of Africa?

Before being accepted to join the Peace Corps years ago, I momentarily imagined being sent to some small, beautiful, unique country no one (or very few people) had heard of.

As they say, be careful what you wish for. When the recruiter told me via telephone that I was being sent to Malawi, I mumbled ‘sure,’ hung up, then drove to the library to find out which continent Malawi was on.

I spent three joyful years living there.

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Malawi maize tossed in wind

What is unique and attractive about this small, landlocked African nation?

Here’s  a list.

1. Cichlids.

Lake Malawi is over 550 kilometers long and more than 70 kilometers at its widest. When you sit at the shore, it’s like sitting by the ocean. There are hundreds of cichlid fish that evolved in the lake. Some live hundreds of feet deep. Some consider cave roofs as their home, so swim upside down. Different species occupy various vertical layers of water, having evolved in a wide range of ecological niches. This means the diversity is huge. Lack of industries along the shoreline and little pollution means the lake has excellent snorkeling and diving in relatively warm water.

Check out this trailer, one of several films about these cichlids, from Earth Touch.

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Usisya shoreline and Mphandi Hill along Lake Malawi, north of Nkhata Bay

 

2. The Jet.

Finally, some clear political thinking about prioritizing health versus well-being appears to be glimmering in this portion of Africa. Read this Daily Telegraph article. The bottom line: President Joyce Banda is selling a presidential jet, valued at $15 million, to raise funds to help provide food for Malawians during a drought. She also cut her own salary and is selling dozens of Mercedes-Benz vehicles used by government cabinet members. Go girl.

3. Geography.

Malawi’s diverse geography is generously mountainous. The Mount Mulanje massif, flanked by gorgeous tea fields, is a place where can you spend days hiking along different trails crisscrossing a plateau, and staying at basic cabins or camping out.

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Gorgeous and massive Mount Mulanje in the south

Massive and tranquil Lake Malawi fills part of Africa’s north-south running Great Rift Valley, and has spectacular snorkeling for an inland lake.

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A Jewel by the Lakeshore

In northern Malawi, much of the Vipya Plateau highlands are covered by an enormous pine tree plantation. The trees and cool high altitude make staying at a cabin there like being in Scotland or Bavaria. Another little known geographical jewel in the far north is challenging to get to because of remoteness: the Misuku Hills. A friend and I once motorcycled here and stayed at a guest house belonging to a coffee plantation. Here, school children peer off the edges of soccer fields into deep valleys more reminiscent of Nepal than Central Africa.

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Watching a waterfall from Livingstonia, in the north

4. Wildlife.

Malawi has five national parks and four wildlife preserves. Lions stalk prey in Liwonde National Park a few hours south of the capital city, zebras, sable and roan antelope cruise across highland Nyika National Park in the far north, and you can sit with binoculars in an elevated ‘hide’ at Vwaza Marsh watching hippos wallow along mucky shores.

Below are a photos I took using Kodachrome film while living there (as with all photos on this post).

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Vwaza Marsh hippo

 

 

Elephants Liwonde 89

 

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5. Music.

Check out Peter Mawanga music.

6. The People.

Malawian people are the country’s primary attraction. The country was established as a British Protectorate, but never colonized by a European nation. This meant that Malawians have enjoyed living life according to their own cultural norms (except at the whims of one long running dictatorship). Soils are fertile, the lake has abundant fish, and high altitude grazing has kept cattle clear of flies that transmit sleeping sickness. These factors historically helped keep Malawi’s people agriculturally self-sustaining and exposed to little stress, which appears is reflected in their warm hearted and generous attitude, even to foreigners.

In conclusion, Malawi is quite wonderful…

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Radiant landscape, warm smiles

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Reading list:

Brazenly, I recommend my own book – which includes hundreds of photographs as well as tales of life as a volunteer working throughout Malawi.

Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi, by T. Mullen.

Cover Water and Witchcraft

 

 

Last night, I began reading Vuto by A.J. Walkley. The author spent time in Malawi as a volunteer. Vuto, in the Chichewa language, means ‘problem.’ and this fictional work describes the hardships of a Malawian mother coping with an intriguing circumstances.

1.Vuto Book Cover

Also – you might want to check out this classic from the 1950s, when the renowned author explored both Mount Mulanje and Nyika Plateau in Malawi.

Venture to the Interior, by Laurens van der Post

Cover - Venture to the Interior 2

 

 

 

And this book is an inspiring true story – The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

Cover - Boy Who Harnessed Wind

You should also check out the TED video of the author speaking. This may well make you shake your head in amazement.

 

 

 

 

The Synchronous Trail

Catharsis, coincidence, and death at a splendid spot in Colorado

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This story begins in Boulder, Colorado, and moves through…

Completed years ago, The Synchronous Trail – Enlightened Travels has been updated and is now available as an e-book. It’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Here’s a little history about the book.

I finished a draft fifteen years ago, then edited and updated the text several times. The book explores powerful coincidences, and how they can have a major impact on our lives. It’s about a search throughout the world for why and how ‘synchronous events’ – as psychoanalyst Carl Jung called them – occur.

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…northeast England…

This was a tough book to write. Why? Delays and uncertainty. At the beginning I had no idea why some events can knock life off its trajectory or open our minds to view reality in a different way. This meant that writing the book was like making a movie before the screenplay is finished, or constructing a building before the blueprints are ready. There was also the added complication of not knowing if I would ever conclude why these ‘synchronous’ situations impact us. In other words – why start a book if there might be no ending?

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…the highlands of Guatemala…

 

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…Africa’s Great Rift Valley…

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…the Persian Gulf…

I originally wanted the structure to resemble that of Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – to provide an engaging, entertaining, simple story. Originally, this ‘story’ was going to revolve around my experience of building rural water pipelines in Malawi. But after beginning to write in Africa, I realized that synchronous events were still a mystery. In other words, I could start the story, but not finish.  So I scrapped the idea and instead wrote Water and Witchcraft -Three Years in Malawi – a memoir about colorful years spent in that country.

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…Morocco…

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…New Mexico…

Eventually the puzzle unraveled. I learned powerful reasons why synchronous events can impact our lives. When I was finally ready to assemble this book, an excruciating task lay ahead: gathering and dissecting past writings and journal entries and weaving these into something that resembled a coherent whole (not as coherent as I would like). This involved paring down often intricate and complex events into simple scenes to provide a clear and simple narrative. The years rolled by as this came together. Finally, I assembled the story as a travelogue – where colors, scents, sounds, and imagery from multiple geographies help ground the context of each chapter.

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…and the Namib Desert

The resulting book is a journey of discovery about how life is far more pliable than most of us realize. Incidentally – my other book titled Synchronicity as Signpost is just the distillate of lessons learned while writing The Synchronous Trail. The difference between these two books – Trail and Signpost – is that between writing the two, I realized that sometimes you just have to relax, and listen to what life is trying to tell you.

I hope you enjoy.

Click here to read more about The Synchronous Trail.

Click here to learn more about Roundwood Press.

Click here to read about other books from Roundwood Press.

 

 

Watchful in a War Zone

On a forgotten and rutted dirt road in Angola, our Land Cruiser got stuck in mud. The nearest town was a four hour drive away. I got out and sat on a log and realized I had malaria. We ate mangoes and sweated and waited five hours before the first random vehicle approached.

Check out our happy rescue tow-truck:

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An unexpected tow truck

This scene epitomizes Angola – where tragedy mixes with joy, beautiful landscapes are sprinkled with land mines, and sweetness is never far from sorrow.

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A questionable bridge

But here is the strange thing: after living through decades of bombings, machine gun attacks and watching the slaughter of friends and compatriots – these people still laugh. A lot. They smile. A lot. They sing and joke and flirt with open abandon. They think that helping strangers stuck in mud is nothing short of a grand adventure. That’s an eye opener. Talk about resilience.

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Buying black market gasoline

Angola is beautiful. There are lush green highlands, horseshoe shaped waterfalls, gorgeous glens and tranquil beaches. It was clobbered by civil war after Portuguese settlers pulled out. The war lasted decades. Roads decayed, telephone lines disintegrated, and buildings were punctured by aerial bombs. The scenario grew ugly.

These are a few photos from my e-book Water after War – Seasons in Angola.

 

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A rainbow of hope

I had the fortune to spend a few months in northern Angola in the late 1990s. Later, after leaving the country to work in a cushy job with a poolside apartment in Dubai, I ended up returning to Angola for a few months. Why? The landscape is seducing, and addictive. The cease fire between wily rebels and a Marxist government lasted for over a year before guns rattled again and bullets flew and rocket launchers downed United Nations helicopters delivering food to internal refugees.

The rolling hills of Uige

With beauty…

 

Careful

…lurks danger

When peace arrived and the war – which was more about egos than ideology – ended, Angolans were happy to leave the memory of those decades behind. Now they have roads to improve, bridges to repair, mine fields to clear, crops to grow and inflation to reign in. They’re still smiling as they go to it. They are a proud people looking ahead, not behind.

Click here to read more about the book Water after War – Seasons in Angola. [Click, then scroll down the new page.]

 

 

 

Namibian Magic

Thanks for the recent show of interest in the book – The Deep Sand of Damarland – A Journal of Namibia.

Below are a few photos of Namibia from the book.

 

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The massive sand dunes of Sossflei, Namibia

This book is a simple tale about living and working in an African country – it’s also about the power of shifting how we think.

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Within days of arriving to work in Namibia, I was flustered, semi-despondent and ready to resign.  My girlfriend lived on a different continent, the project I was assigned to manage was a mess, the boss skipped out to another country and told me to deal with visitors to the project, and I lived in a hot remote town in an alien land.

But I stayed.  After all, there was nothing to lose.  That realization was relaxing.  When I regarded the job and situation as a playful challenge, reality seemed to bend itself to accommodate desires.

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94 Alice Rob Swakopmund - a - psRebecca and Marie PCVs - psAlso – after a few drives across a harsh, barren, desolate desert – the landscape itself turned beautiful.

During these months I met intriguing characters – a German bicyclist who recalled – with joy – the adventure of getting mugged in a distant city, or cowboy contractors who could have been plucked from a storybook.

(“…he told me how as a boy, he lived rough and wild and used to ride out to the bush on horseback to lasso giraffes.”)

 

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The sands of time

The more I relaxed, the more the entire scenario became like a dream.  Desired friends and situations began appearing from nowhere.  By throwing away the notion of an ‘ideal’ life and embracing free time, open space, and  a mesmerizing landscape (plus the odd and random sighting of elephants or giraffes), living off the beaten track turned magical.

You can click here to read more about The Deep Sand of Damarland.

 

 

Leadership Lessons from an Irish Chieftain

Today – Roundwood Press releases a new ebook.

Okay, it’s a pamphlet.

Irish Chieftain Cover NEW Updated Cropped

How powerful are these lessons?

Nine hundred and ninety-nine years, one month, ten days and give or take about an hour ago (as of this posting), Ireland’s greatest ever chieftain – Brian Boru – wielded these lessons to change the destiny of an island, and crack the power of Viking invaders.

On Easter Day in the year 1014, these lessons powered the man who grew up as a shepherd boy to galvanize a thousand tribes, summon enemy longboats from as far away as Iceland to do battle, coalesce the energies of vibrant but disheveled island people, and smash the raging armies of arrogant foreign plunderers. Boru’s greatest battle – at Clontarf along the Irish Sea – raged all day, but the outcome was clear by mid-afternoon.

This pamphlet summarizes challenges faced, and victories won, by Brian Boru, and highlights lessons he mastered to change the fate of Ireland.

Today, these lessons are still potent – whether to gain personal victory, or to reshape the course of life.

This is the first publication from the new Dreaming Leader series. It kicks off a series of concise, inexpensive lessons that are clear, simple, and practical.  Upcoming titles will include lessons from a Carthaginian general who invaded and defeated the Romans, as well as lessons from Eleanor of Aquitaine, a powerful but unconventional female ruler in France.

The main Roundwood Press website page will soon be updated to include this new series.  In the meantime, click on the cover image above for information from Amazon, or click here for details from Barnes and Noble.

You don’t need an ereader – you can download the Kindle app or Nook app to your phone, computer, or Ipad.  We realize and understand how you love printed books.  So do we.  And they are not going away.  But the time has come to also enjoy another format for reading – that of ebooks.

We appreciate your visit to Roundwood Press.

As the Irish say – Go raibh míle maith agat.  

Let a thousand thanks be upon you.

Click here to read more about Leaderships Lessons of an Irish Chieftain.

16 Writing Tips

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Here are a few writing tips.  They include lessons learned over time, as well as insights harvested from writers who shaped the tastes of generations.

"There is no friend as loyal as a book" - Hemingway

“There is no friend as loyal as a book” – Hemingway

1.  Make your writing active, not passive. “The Visigoths defended Carcassonne” instead of “Carcassonne was defended by Visigoths.”  Your subject should perform the action, rather than be the receiver of action.

Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  Read it every year.

2. Use short words and short sentences.

Why?  Read The Art of Readable Writing by Rudolf Flesch.

3. Minimize adverbs.  He ran.  Not: He ran quickly.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez (author of One Hundred Years of Solitude) tries to eliminate every adverb from his writings.  This makes the text tighter and easier to read.

4. Spice up your writing with smells, sights, and specifics – she stuffed six pairs of dirty Levis in a green cotton laundry sack before breakfast. Or this from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd: “Moments later shadows moved like spatter paint along the walls, catching the light when they passed the window so I could see the outline of wings.” Got it? Spatter paint. Wings.

5. Ground your scenes in some physical space. Don’t float. Whether a castle, a cast iron bed, or a mosquito ridden swamp – people have to be somewhere.

6. Dialog. Use plenty.

7. Outline, outline, outline. James Patterson (the highest earning author of 2012) described this as the key to writing when he spoke at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books years ago.

"I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil" - Truman Capote

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil” – Truman Capote

8. My mother’s advice – when it gets too serious, crack it open with levity.

9. Surprise. Now and then. Ken Follet writes that, “There is a rule which says that the story should turn about every four to six pages. A story turn is anything that changes the basic dramatic situation.”

10. Write first, then get it right. Write it down. Edit afterwards.

11. Show, don’t tell.  In Moby Dick, Melville writes,  “What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks?” instead of, “I had concerns about the trip.”

12. Break the rules – judiciously. But first earn that priveledge by learning when the literary police take off for a lunch break.

13. Write about what turns you on. Need inspiration? Read Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.

14. Here’s potent advice from Ernest Hemingway: Finish What You Begin.

15. This is odd, but essential advice I once read about writing:  be a likable person. Otherwise, become one.

16. Read. Novels, cookbooks, comics, newspapers, blogs, laundry machine instructions, magazines, dentist office Monster Truck magazines….whatever.

Most importantly – enjoy!

Read more about Roundwood, and this website.