Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Wolf at the Door

My grandmother’s pithy sayings included ominous warnings about keeping the wolf from the door. For her it seemed to mean being on guard against forces more terrible than hunger. Having lived through the depression on the prairies as a minister’s wife with six children, she knew that in times of adversity one had to guard against the even greater dangers that lurk on the fringes of clamity.

I am jolted out of bed at 5 am by a phone call advising me about a opening in a workshop on wolves.

“I could care less about wolves, especially at this hour,” I retort in a voice slurred by sleep.

“Dr. Paul Paquet is a world expert on wolves and he is a great teacher,” my friend continues. “You have always said a good teacher can make any topic interesting.”

“If I said that I wasn’t thinking about wolves,” I snort.

“The park is beautiful at this time of year,” she continues cheerily, “and I have already paid for your ticket.”

So this is how I come to be driving out to Riding Mountain National Park thinking about wolves and grandmothers. Little Red Riding Hood, Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing, The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Keeping the Wolf From the Door. What do these stories about wolves have to tell us? Well never mind, after this weekend I will likely know more than I want to about wolves.

I arrive at the Visitor’s Center at the park late Friday night. The slide show by one of the biologists has just finished. Good, I think, one down

The audience, outfitted in anoraks, duck boots and plaid jackets comes alive with questions as the lights are turned up. There are farmers and lab techs, lawyers and nurses, teachers, vets and accountants. Two young biologists have driven for 18 hours all the way from Illinois to hear Dr. Paquet. People's interest in wolves is equally wide ranging. One man has spent years watching wolves from his farm on the edge of the park; another is interested in the stories of feral children like Mowgli, said to be raised by wolves; a student has spent the summer tagging wolves; others mention the connection between dreams of wolves and eating disorders like anorexia. Clearly this is going to be more interesting than I have anticipated.

The next morning we are up early. The park is languidly shaking itself awake. Bison lumber out from hollows shrouded in blankets of mist. A graceful flight of snow geese hoot eerily overhead. We scamper along the wet grass on the verge of the road finding prints of elk, deer, moose and wolf. We move excitedly from heaps of bear dung full of bright red cranberries to piles of wolf droppings.

Scat, we are advised, is the best non-invasive way to determine what animals are eating, how healthy they are and what is happening in the ecosystem. Coyote, for instance, are enjoying a bumper crop of grasshoppers. We pry apart several coyote scat to find hundreds of tiny grasshopper legs. Coyote scat is rarely wider than your thumb, while wolf scat is rarely narrower. But avoid moving your thumb too close. Scat, no matter what the size, is a four letter word that begins with S and ends with T.

Nights are spent howling at the moon. After hearing tapes of wolf calls, the group, lead by Paul on cue let out a collective spine tingling howl. It is wonderfully therapeutic to experience the night and feel our place in this evocative way. We are answered by elk, coyote, moose but never by wolf, who lives up to his reputation for cleverness and cunning and clearly isn't fooled.

Dr. Paquet tells us about his wolf research in Banff. At the apex of a vast food pyramid, the wolf is threatened not only by more and bigger hotels but by the multi-lane highways that careen through the narrow Banff valley. Clearly, while we are making highways safer for vehicles in Banff, we are making the planet unsafe for wolves and ultimately unsafe for ourselves.

We wind up on a sunny Sunday afternoon ranged around the fire pit outside of the church camp where we have been staying. Autumn leaves are ablaze around us. A cool breeze swirls through the evergreens lining the lake at the edge of the campsite. We reflect on global sustainability. On what it means to have one of the larger mammals on the planet such as the wolf disappear, or as environmentalists now say, "wink out".

On my way back home, my head is full of wolves. It is said of our times that we need new myths. I wonder if we couldn’t do with a fresh look at old myths. Wolf has long been a warning about the perils of greed, avarice and foolishness. In these times of plenty we have not only forgotten the message of Wolf but we may be at risk of losing the messenger. This might be what my grandmother meant by the greater danger lurking on the edge of privation or catastrophe. The Wolf to be kept from the door in our times may be loss of our own humanity and connectedness with the planet.

Photos: Wolf WS tracking, scat examination, sequence of wolves setting up a howl in harmony from Barry Lopez, Wolves & Men.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Basket Heaven

In a three-year period in Uganda in the mid 80s we survived two wars, a coup and a period of civil unrest. At such times non-Ugandans, given sufficient warning, skedaddled across the border to Kenya. During the coup we were notified by radio phone to pack up our valuables and leave within 15 minutes. I gathered my passport, travelers cheques, a change of clothes and packed a duffle bag with my baskets.

My friends laugh when they see me with my bag of baskets and insist I leave them behind even though it is my car we are taking.

“We were told to bring our valuables. Well, these are my valuables,” I protest.

They remind me that we have enough experience with looting armies to know that they make off with cameras, radios, tape decks and even clothes. Occasionally they eat a meal that was already prepared. Foam mattresses and even bars of soap are carted off. But baskets? Baskets are never looted.

Over time, this tale about me and baskets is retold and embellished. The weird and outlandish provides much needed balance, humour and perspective in such situations. Such stories have a way of taking root and also of bearing fruit, so I was chuffed a couple of months ago to be asked by Jill, a friend who shared those Ugandan days, to present a talk about baskets to her Basketry Guild.

Jill and I have exchanged emails and Xmas cards but haven’t seen each other for twenty years so I am also looking forward to spending a weekend with her and her partner before the presentation. Jill now makes baskets, gardens and assists her partner to run a thriving and energetic home cheese making business. On my return from Uganda, I have a week to photograph my baskets, pull together a presentation and pack the favourite baskets into the car for the three-ferry journey to her home.

Seeing Jill and her partner again is wonderful. We have been in many of the same countries, so the first thing I notice is that she has examples of many of the baskets I have brought with me. She is now a distinguished teacher of basket making. Her large basement workroom contains coils of rattan in all shades of the rainbow hung on the wall, shelves of her own exquisite creations in birchbark, willow, cedar and oak shakes as well as various projects and commissions underway. There are traditional designs and exotic, inventive and creative examples of basket art. One of Jill’s baskets has been included in a book of modern basketry art. I am beginning to wonder what I could possible contribute here about baskets.

It gets worse. I am an aficionado but an amateur when it comes to baskets. I posses about 15 books, a pile of postcards that friends have been sending me over the years and a binder half-filled with articles about baskets. In the room where I will be sleeping are two floor-to-ceiling bookcases stuffed with basketry books and a whole row of box files containing instructions, notes, articles and pictures of baskets. When Jill and I were in Uganda, there was almost nothing written about African baskets. In the last five years, it seems, there has been an explosion in publication of international basketry books. I spend my time delving into these wonderful documents. It feels like I am in basket heaven. And I am starting to have serious reservations about my upcoming presentation.

But it gets worse. The next day we go for a hike around the shore, take in the scenic view on the local mountain and visit Jill’s friends. Stacks of willow, grown on the property, have been harvested, cut and graded into bundles outside one home. Inside the house, ranks of the owner's own willow baskets dangle from the rafters, cover the light fixtures and serve as kitchen drawers.

That afternoon, Jill offers to teach me how to make a Hopi-like basket. She is an excellent teacher and it is apparent that her enthusiasm feeds the well spring that has manifested in an active guild and a flourishing of basketry in such an isolated spot.

When I share my crisis in confidence with her, she reassures me.

“Don’t worry, they are very keen to hear anything about baskets. Just show your slides and tell your stories.”

Stories, I think, that’s the clue. Most of my baskets are associated with stories. Stories of where and how I found them. Stories about relationships. Stories about encounters in the search for baskets. So I go to work on my slides, ruthlessly cutting them to one-third and weaving my stories around them.

I acknowledge to the group that I am an amateur, a word derived from amore meaning to love.

I recall meeting a Nascapi hunter heading 25 km. home on snowshoes in Labrador after sighting caribou inland. When quizzed about whether he would always share the information about finding the caribou herd with others in his community, he replies yes.

“Even if this means others may get a caribou and you may not?” we persist.

There is a pause as the Nascaupi considers the matter, before he nods firmly in the affirmative.

“Would everyone always share the information?” we ask thinking that we probably would not.

He thinks long and hard about this before saying, in inspiration, “Oh, you mean the professionals!”

In Labrador, the professionals, when it comes to caribou are the wild life biologists who come by helicopter to survey the herd and often fly right back to Goose Bay without even telling people in the community, who depended on the caribou, what they had seen.

At the time, I thought, those awful biologists.

But later, on reflection, I have to admit that I, too, belong to such a profession. Physicians publish in arcane journals which only we read. We speak in convoluted language with all sorts of provisos.We use a vocabulary that makes it difficult for laypeople to understand and challenge us. Overall we have done a very poor job of sharing useful health information with the community.

During my basket presentation there are lots of questions. Questions I can’t answer such as: How is Labrador sea grass harvested? What materials are used to decorate Bidayuh baskets? How do the northern Algonquin achieve that stain? Why is the red and black double design from Sarawak so similar to that of the Coushatta Indians in Louisiana? Afterwards, Guild members handle my baskets with reverence, intrigued most by a tiny Xmas ornament of a singing quail cage made by the Abaluhya of East Africa that starts from an open hexagonal weave.

Like the amateur I am, I am enthusiastic about sharing my stories and I return home having made my very first basket.

Photos: Kigezi kids with baskets, Coils of colored rattan, group of Rwandese baskets,Sabah women with baskets, Burmese biker with baskets, Inuit baskets by Deborah Atatsata, Nain


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