Unstrung meaning

We spent most of our time in Brazil in the Pantanal, a great stretch of savannah and cerrado forest in southwest Brazil, ranches and humpty backed cows and jaguars and capybaras and macaws and monkeys and parakeets and parrots and crazy huge jaibaru storks.

Chachalachas chattering and fluttering from tree to tree, guans chirruping, flitting among the cows.

Countless herons and ibis and kingfishers and hummingbirds.


(Cocoi heron with fish)

And caimans. Just bloody hundreds of caimans. Everywhere, on every bank, and next to the road, idly being lying there, mouths open to cool off, being prehistoric.

There’s one long slow dusty line of a road running down the length of the Pantanal, which proved to be too much for the already rickety keyboard of my flimsy 11 inch macbook air. Before I left, I had some major issues with the thing, when a bit of damage to the screen inflicted when a client knocked it off a podium in February suddenly spread, until it looked like a tiny 3 year old had been unleashed inside my computer with a sharpie.


(7.16 – #198)

I actually had to buy a new, shiny computer before I left, for my work, since the Geniuses couldn’t fix the display inside of a week, and I needed to work on a massive lit review, and couldn’t read on the tiny, scribbled on screen. But I thought I’d bring the crapped out one with me to Brazil to download photos and blog a bit, around the screen ooze. Meant to get the display fixed when I got back, to have a travel computer.


(7.21 – #203)

And then we drove on the Pantaneira, dust clouded into our lousy Fiat Dobro — the same vehicle whose door had to be tied shut with my belt on the way to the airport after we banged the car around the outback for two weeks — and despite the fact that the Air was in my photo bag, the keyboard was destroyed. Like the line of angry chigger bits that flared right around my waist, all of the keys in the middle of my computer were welted and scraped by the fine dust. After the second day in Brazil, typing on my Air produced unpredictable strings of letters, or nothing — including when I pushed the space bar. Hard to even organize photos, when the attempt to call a folder “pygmy kingfisher” generates pgmkigfissader.

Not being able to write things while I was away created a lot of unfinished strings for me. Like jellyfish trails, opaque and vague behind me. Turns out that I make meaning of things when I write about them, when I craft some narrative that brings images and words together, gives me the meditative space to live into reflective self. It’s like emotional stuttering for me, to not be able to write my way through things I’m experiencing, to see them take shape, not flutters of feeling and sensation and snippets of sentences. And I realized on this trip that I am no longer capable of really writing with a pencil or pen, more than a sentence or two — even if I could have kept from losing all the pencils I brought.

It was something of a revelation, traveling loaded down with kit — heavy duty Canon 7D with three lenses, ipad, kobo e-reader, iphone, compact Lumix camera — and discovering how much my experience is mediated through my technology. I see more because of the binoculars, study the space around me when I shoot photos, “own” the birds when I pull them out of my camera and onto my computer and choose the best images. I joke with Finch about stealing a piece of the birds’ souls, and it really upsets him — he’s always careful to say thank you to birds and other creatures after they’ve quietly sat with him, shown themselves to him. I don’t really feel like a soul thief, but I do feel I “have” them in a new way once they’re in my gaze, in silico, shared.

Now, I find I’m kind of encumbered and feverish after a couple of days when I can’t assemble images and sentences. I am just fine being away from wifi, and the boat trips to Baja and Svalbard were good relief from connectivity. I don’t have to be able to SHARE them. But not being able to craft words, make a story — I don’t feel whole.

There is a fair bit of theory in the realm of narrative psychology about how things become “real” when we can tell them as stories. That saying “I saw a harpy eagle” is not very meaningful in and of itself, without the context that harpy eagles are rare and spectacular, that they are in the “top ten” for many birders of what to see ever in their lives, that they are only seen in thin stretches of south america, that seeing one requires patience, that I am not the sort of person who brings a lot of patience to most endeavours, that I have not been an explorer for hard-to-see birds most of my life, that I not only saw a harpy eagle but named it, spent several hours in its presence over three days, ran around a ranch when the adult was spotted, sat alone in a forest clearing looking directly at this young bird while it looked at me. Found myself a person loving an individual, far away bird. Affirmed a Cate I wasn’t, say, five years ago, who would care about and have such a profound encounter with a bird. Seeing the bird is one moment of grace; weaving together all of the elements that makes it so powerful crystallizes it, deepens what I’m experiencing, grounds me simultaneously in the moment and echoes forward into a reminder that I will need to be grateful for that moment always.

There is, of course, a tension in this — a question about how to stay present to what is in front of you while simultaneously aware of what the story or meaning of this experience is. I have a pretty visceral reaction to some of the ways that things like “bucket lists” are described, where important experiences seem to take on a checklist form, for bragging rights, or people engaging in things so they will be able to say later that they did it. There is always some of this — we do things because we think of ourselves or want to think of ourselves as the kind of person who does things like this. Barnett always described stories lived and stories told (along with a whole series of types of stories unlived and untold and untellable and heard and unheard). I think living in this tension is about holding loosely to stories lived and stories told at the same time — part of truly living and being present to a moment is about understanding, at some level, what is making this moment significant or memorable. And that’s about a context.

Sometimes I wonder if writing and blogging and taking photos is a practice of gratitude for me. Sometimes writing is just about sorting out — what connections are there that I can’t make without sentences and narratives? what ways are there to understand this? what comes together with metaphors and ideas that suddenly appear out of my fingertips when I shape a paragraph? what feels like the best way to talk about this, makes it feel integrated and most whole? And sometimes, the practice of blogging or writing or shaping and sharing is about gratitude — about honouring moments of grace or connection or humanness, about inviting other people to honour them with me. Starting to flick into a question about “what do I most want to remember or share about this moment?” — even as I’m experiencing it — has the effect of deepening it. It deepens even as I’m noticing the immediate, what’s there, trying to look closely at the blue dacnis and white woodpeckers, feel the prickle of grass and irritating whiskering of sweatbees on my skin, hear the full soundscape, the twittering and songs and calls and wingbeats AND the cars on the road AND the siren and bangings from the mine down the valley. Being there is full; and it becomes fuller in the noticing; and the noticing happens partly because of an impulse to capture in some way.

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3 thoughts on “Unstrung meaning

  1. Wow there is a lot to think about in here. Bookmarking and pondering. For me, I know I do find meaning when I write things down…so what does it mean when I go long (long) periods of time without doing any writing?

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