His obsession was the result of unwavering imagination. And so when I'd awake just past dawn and find myself alone in the dome, I'd know where to find him. Coffee cup in hand he stood with a hose or a hoe, ant spray or fertilizer, tending his trees. When I looked at them, I saw their upward form, their tall smooth trunks, graceful few fronds on top, and the coconuts that greened and fattened there, then dropped milky and full. But he saw something hidden, something I couldn't see. His battle was with the roots. The roots needed tending, for it was the roots that would save him. Whatever time of year, the rainy season haunted him. There was never enough time to prepare, to fortify against the torrents that would inevitably come and wash away his land. Roots were needed.
The two-and-a-half hectares sloped down towards the ocean, and when he first bought the land, he'd done two things: he'd planted it with coco palms to stave off erosion, and he'd built a sea wall to fight off waves and the tides. The sea wall could be worried over--was it holding? was it tall enough?--but it couldn't be worked like the trees could be.
Every day was a march against the weather. Mornings, he'd do the weeding, the turning of soil; late afternoons he'd set up a hose from the holding tank at the top of the property, and water the trees. He never stopped, and in the evenings he'd worry because he hadn't done enough--could never do enough.
And in this way it was established that I could never do enough. There was no room in his world for a person who wasn't working. The world was a harsh place, and in Mexico, harsher still than elsewhere. He judged the inhabitants of our villge, our friends, by their willingness to work hard. A person who worked from dawn til dusk and beyond was doing just what was required. And many of our american neighbors shared this work ethic, obsessively fighting the jungle, the decay, the weather, and the relaxed work habits of our hired hands.
He never loved what I loved about Mexico. I loved what he hated, and what he feared. I loved and still do, the almost indecipherable shrug, the turn of the mouth, the raised eyebrow, the words half-praise, half-surrender, "manana, this is Mexico". I love the crashing of the rainy season, pounding pouring rains that leave mud and rivers where there was parched earth yesterday, the sweet smell of fecund jungle--decay and growth indistinguishable, the slow afternoons when friends stop by unannounced and everything stops, meals prepared, games played, conversations go all night chased by laughter.
But in his way, he loved his trees. He'd nurtured and cared for them like nothing else on this earth. For years, he'd kept a year-round caretaker who tended the trees while he was in the states. Now, we lived here, and he bent to the work daily. He'd wrap a shirt around his head for coolness, but leave his brown back exposed to the heat.
After each meal, I'd dump a little bucket of rinds and leftovers into the dirt around one of the palms, then chop the food into small pieces with a long-handled shovel, burying the coffee grounds, the egg shells, the tortillas that had hardened beyond use. The palms near the kitchen got the most compost, and they needed it more than the rest, because they were closer to the salt spray of the ocean. Gardening on the beach is challenging for that reason. On our land the challenges were greater yet, because the soil was loamy. That's why the dirt at the base of the trees needed constant turning. The ground was red with clay, and didn't absorb water well. When the rains came, streams ran down the property everywhere: the driveway, at the edges, and around the buildings. The soil just left with the rain, leaving a new upturning of Huichol Indian shards to be discovered, taking the topsoil and depositing it useless onto the sand.
Perhaps ground cover would have been a more useful obsession. But where I saw streams and topsoil runoff, he saw a bigger calamity. He saw that someday the land would be taken away from him, ripped away by the roots. He knew that no matter who his lawyer paid off, no matter how many trees he planted, no matter how many fences he built, that land wouldn't hold: it would slip through his hands. He was right, the hurricane last year decimated the kitchen and both of the other palapas, but that was just the beginning. After his long fight with the federal agency who originally held the land, it was finally taken away from him early this year. After almost 20 years holding the soil, those trees will come down now, if they aren't already down. In their place will be a hotel, and nobody in those rooms will ever know what toil came before, what held the land, what lost it.
I like to remember hot afternoon breaks. We'd lay a coconut on a stump, then holding a machete high overhead, chip away at one end until a thin membrame was exposed. Then with the point of the blade, we'd pop a hole, and pass the coconut around and drink its sweet thin milk. Afterwards, we'd chop the hollowed ball and chew the fruit until we tired of it, and went back to work.
This post is part of a collective of posts--all in one way or another about Trees and Place--over at Ecotone: Writing About Place Please come and join us for discussion, or add a post. We'd love to have you!
posted by Lisa Thompson on 7:09 AM link | comments 
Keep me away from boxes of old, free National Geographics. Last night on a stroll through Point Reyes Station after dinner, we found a box of them. I only went through half, and had to stop myself from even looking at the rest. The selections I kept range from 1968 through 1994. The cover articles which caught my eye:Animals at Play, and America's Poet: Walt Whitman, december 1994; Irish Ways Live on in Dingle, and Robert Frost, The Poet and His Beloved Land, april 1976; The England of Charles Dickens, april, 1974; 1491, America before Columbus, october 1991; Preserving the Nation's Wild Rivers, july, 1977; A Teen-ager Sails the World Alone, october 1968; Our Ecological Crisis, december 1970; and Ireland, It's Long Travail, april 1981.
Add this to another stack I've got secreted under a bookshelf in my bedroom, and to the stack of current and partially unread magazines on my table: Utne Reader, The Economist, Wired, Orion, Bay Nature, Harper's, and a pamphlet about Swedenborg. Don't even mention the books piled next to me in bed: The March of Folly by Barbara
Tuchman, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, by Geoff Dyer, The Witness of Poetry, Czeslaw Milosz, and the books waiting patiently on shelves waiting for their turn as book of the moment, book in bed, or even book in the bathroom ( Myth and Reality by Mercea Eliade, and The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass.
It's okay, I tell myself, and the patient books and magazines waiting all around me, and all the writers they represent. I'll get to you all. I'll never throw you away unread. All of your words matter to me. I tell myself, one or two books per week, perhaps another 40 years of reading, if I'm lucky, and my eyes hold out, that's 2,000 to 4,000 more books. Yikes! That's not enough. Maybe I should pick up the pace.
don't even talk to me about blogs...
posted by Lisa Thompson on 9:24 AM link | comments 
Lately, I'm trying to swim for twenty minutes. Instead of swimming straight out from shore towards the middle, towards the open water where I can see Hog Island to the north, and the Inverness Yacht Club to the south on clear days, I'm following the shoreline, 3/4 of the way to the Whitney's pier, then swimming back. Some days I do it alone, other days with one or another of my swimming buddies. Dog stays put, and is always waiting at the end of our pier for me to come back, watching for signs of me, or perhaps watching the entire way. Two of my friends want to try the northern swimming route, to the Shell Beach swimming platform and back. The beauty of that swim will be the reward. Hauling out on the platform, lying prone in the sun on those warm wooden planks, rocked by the bay, recovering our strength. It's a longer swim, maybe by half.
It's been unusually calm this summer. The days mostly warm or hot, the water soft and gentle, the wind turned to breeze. Even foggy mornings mostly burn off to sunny afternoons, to shorts and hats and bare feet. But two days ago the wind came up, running down the bay gathering waves as it came, so that we were swimming against large swells. I stayed with breast stroke, and picked up my pace ...stroke, breath, wave crash, stroke, breath, wave crash. Breast stroke is hardest on my back, but I prefer it to all the other strokes for bay swimming. I love the view from there. I'm mostly eyes level with the water surface, or just underwater then poking my head up like a harbor seal, or like a duck. Backstroke is my next preference. I move much faster, and can watch the sky. But I make more noise, and feel less in harmony with the other animals that swim, who rarely cause such disturbance.
My own invention is the back-breast stroke. I lie on my back, and use the same arm and leg strokes of the breast stroke. It's fast and quiet. But freestroke is best for utility swimming. When you need to make progress, workmanlike, not too interested in where you are, just wanting to get there, go freestroke. Head down, you see little, but can absorb yourself in the swimming, in the movement, in the act itself.
Swimming is the yoga I've done since childhood. I earned my swimming certificate for making my way an entire pool length at 2 years old. There was a famous school where LA parents took their babies to learn swimming called Crystal Scarborough. I can remember my first race there, before swim teams became commonplace in my life. They put me in the pool with another little girl, another toddler, really, and told us that whomever reached the end of the pool faster would get a ribbon. Already, at that age, I cared nothing for the girly, for dolls or baubles, and a ribbon didn't mean anything to me but something to put in my hair. When I realized later what they meant, I wished I'd tried to win. Already, at that age, recognition was important, and from there came my competetive spirit.
I don't compete anymore. Now I swim for the way it makes me feel. But, I like marrying the ideas of swimming and destination. This kind of swimming is like taking a walk around the neighborhood. Someday I could swim to the Inverness Store, or out to dinner at Priscilla's, or across the bay to Tomasini Point to identify a bird, or something washed ashore that I can't make out. When I take these long swims I'll take my time, looking around, swimming as quietly as I can. No ribbon in mind.
posted by Lisa Thompson on 8:11 AM link | comments 
The Swainson's Thrush song that filled this woody canyon stopped while I was away last weekend. It called me outside in the evenings to curl in a chair and feel that winding song carry my spirit at the end of the day. Now I long for those evenings, those spiral melodies, and for summer which slips away.
Each summer day spins a long tale of endlessness. But I'm not fooled. Each barefoot day, each sunny moment, each succulent cherry and strawberry whisper to me the regret of beauty, the razor edge of desire. I listen just enough. I don't want to be caught unready, but am unwilling to spoil the bounty of being unclothed in July. I surrender to the summer mistress. When she goes, she goes gracefully, gently turning the hot red beauty of summer over to fall's light. So as strawberries make way for tomatoes and huckleberries give way to blackberries, I will hang on to what I can of summer's gifts. I will miss the Swainson's Thrush song, but soon these trees will sing with a returned chorus, and for now I curl up in a chair in the evening and enjoy the warmth, and the silence of this still wood.
posted by Lisa Thompson on 7:29 AM link | comments 
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