Habitat

Whenever I talk about going to see specific animals, people ask how I know those animals are sure to be there. They ask about fences or enclosures, or whether the creatures are “tame.” For most people, wild animals — being wild — could be anywhere.

One thing I really learned from my time with Finch was about the notion of habitat. There are so many things I learned about the planet from accompanying him, seeing things through his lenses and knowledge, but one of the most profound is about habitat, about where creatures live, and how to find them. How if you look, if you pay attention, if you are persistent, you know exactly where creatures will be, with astonishing accuracy. What they eat plus who their predators are plus time of year plus subtle changes in habitat give you so much information. I learned about what it means to know where you live.

I remarked to someone the other day that being with Finch was like visiting another planet — a planet filled with polar bears and icebergs and whales you can kiss, and jaguars that are just there, looking fearsome and leaving you alone. What’s under the sea, and the earth, and above it, and what’s on it. Where cocoi herons eat fish, and where and when you can find a blackburnian warbler in Toronto, or where an amazonian kingfisher happily hunts fish on a Brazilian river. Where the grey jays will come and eat out of your hand.

Cate Jays 1-1

And now I feel a bit like I got spat through a wormhole and am back on earth, mulling over what it is I saw on my amazing journeys.

parrot
(7.29 – 211)

Searching for the jaguars in Brazil last summer really brought home to me the intense, amazing possibilities of looking for creatures where they live, how a bit of knowledge about why they do what they do, and a lot of persistence, make a kind of miraculous “luck.” We knew that the jaguars live along the strips of river in specific parts of the Pantanal, and we knew they show up more at dawn and dusk, generally, and that they need to come down to the river for water. Add that to guides and scouts who are in touch with each other, and there you are, in your little boat, there you find the miracle.

jaguar light
(2012- #207 – 7.25)

We saw about a dozen jaguars all together, I think, over our four days, including this one mating with his female. Almost no one sees that.

fidel lina

One thing I found deeply amusing was that even as we were searching for them, even as our little boat gently patroled up and down the rivers, every time I saw a jaguar, I gasped, startled. We were looking for them, and they were there, and it surprised me every time. They were so big, so unexpectedly large and present.

tongue

And apparently I have a highly developed startle reflex. I had the same experience when I stalked the mountain gorillas in Uganda a few years ago. We were looking for them — we walked for miles, doing nothing but hunting for the gorillas — the guide said they were just the other side of the clearing — and then as I saw the first blackback male just a couple of metres away, I gasped and drew back, and he pseudo charged me in response.

I was thinking about this notion of habitat because we are planning to see the Chimpanzees in Kibale when we go to Uganda later this month. I am quite taken with the notion of seeing an endangered species in their natural habitat, in the wild, see it as an homage to one of my heroes, Jane Goodall. One of the members of our group is quite nervous, thinking that he prefers them to be “tame,” predictable.

What I learned from being with Finch is that wild creatures are eminently predictable — you know when migrating birds are going to be roughly in an area, and when they aren’t; you know how jaguars and polar bears and whales are going to behave, and how they won’t. You know the snow geese and sandhill cranes will be at Bosque del Apache in February. They’re not going to behave like zoo animals, generally speaking, but if you pay attention, there is no way you are in danger. With the exception of polar bears, very few animals are genuine predators of human beings if unprovoked. You know they stay in their habitat because it doesn’t make any sense for them to stray outside it — it’s dangerous for them, or limits food, or means they cede their territory to someone else.

That’s true for birds and capybaras and their ugly little cubs,

capybara cubs
(7.28 – 210)

and it’s true even for a bloody sea of caimans. Hard to believe that I actually quite comfortably climbed out of our little boat and shooed caimans off the bank so I could pee, albeit a little nervously.

field of caimans
(7.30 – 212)

And it’s true for the much more unexpected creatures, like the tapir we miraculously saw enter a river and swim across right in front of us.

tapir
(7.27 – 209)

Honestly, I didn’t even know what a tapir *was*.

I’ve been thinking a lot about habitat because I’ve been thinking a lot about home. I was lamenting to a friend that I don’t much feel like I have a home — like I haven’t felt that way for a long time now. “Home isn’t a place with you,” she said, quite reasonably. “Home is who you are — you take it with you.” I do know that I’ve worked at feeling “home” through technology, staying connected with people wherever I am, through what I shove into my overpriced Tumi duffle. That I felt a sense of home at Finch’s house in the Shire even when it also didn’t feel like home, and that the Austin house had that sense of my territory as well. Space I could rest and live and create in. I just wish I felt more of a sense of home than I do right now.

Finch really lives firmly in that tension between traveling and home, which was one of the core faultlines in our relationship. He wants a very very strong sense of home when he is home — his exploration of the world very counterpointed by a place to come home, lay out the gear, rest it and your weary body, eat the things you really want to eat. For him, that home involves a certain kind of female companion, one who makes home, who cooks certain things, keeps home when he’s not there. And despite part of my wanting to, I knew I couldn’t make his home mine. Not my habitat, the Shire, much as I could be a summer visitor, not my kind of role.

I’ve tried to find home a number of places over the past few years, from the overly noisy loft in Kensington to the ill-advised, expensive and short-lived move out west. Never settled in any place long enough to really feel homey. No cats. No one home when I get back.

I know that if I feel it out well enough, I’ll figure out what my habitat is. What my territory is, where the food sources are, what feeds me and lets me thrive. Right now, it’s feeling like more of a question mark than I want it to be. What I do know is that I need a bit of time in my own space to assimilate all of the places I’ve been, to lick my fur back into place, to think about what all of these encounters with wild creatures have done to create joy, how I’ve learned to overcome the fear of lowering myself into the ocean, to stand quietly even when startled, to watch and pay attention.

sunrise 7.30

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Photos 2012

My friend Age started a blog yesterday, and she began by doing more reflection on my 2012 Photo Project than I’ve done.

https://girlwithadogandgoodshoes.wordpress.com/

A great chum of mine resolved last year to take a photo and write a blog entry every day of 2012. When she pulled herself out of bed on January 1st, 2012 after a night of jollity and breezily-made resolutions, 365 pictures and 365 blogs spread out before her like the distant shore of France teasing a swimmer about to jump into the English Channel at Dover. She could, just barely, see the possibility of making it to the other side, but those 365 pictures and blogs looked like they might just get lost somewhere under the waves halfway across the English Channel. I mean, three hundred and sixty five photos and blogs! Mercy! What was she thinking?

Well, she did it. Not 365 blogs — life does get in the way. Work, and catching planes and Barbara Stanwyck movies on the Turner Classic Movie channel all crowd into life to take you away from your intentions. And that’s okay. You have to go with the flow.But she kept ahold of the spirit of her intentions and she did take her 365 pictures, and along the way recorded a life expanding and growing and becoming free.

I sort of have this thing that I can’t reflect on and finalize that project until I finish posting the unposted photos. And there are about 25 or 30 of them, I think, and two or three half formed longer posts around them. And, I’m in a place (a hotel at Heathrow) where the wifi is rickety and uploading photos is kind of a pain. But I woke up too early to go check in for my flight home, and I’m playing out my last hours in overpriced hotels on this weird journey that seems to have lessons I’m not quite ready to learn, and Age seems to have tossed me a baton.

There were two days I didn’t take a single photo in the year: one day in June, where I got caught up in work and cleaning out my refrigerator and just plain forgot, and December 28th, the day I landed in Manchester and went to sleep at Finch’s house for about 18 hours. I have to look at my camera, but I think I did manage to take one shot at the resort before we left it on our long travel day on the 27th.

Now, some days, the shots were unbelievably quotidian:

nov 15 upside down gym
(11.15 – #320)

My feet while I was stretching upside down in my gym.

And I noticed through the year a real reliance on the sunsets from my window to provide me with something “worth” taking a photo of.

October 16 Sunset 290
(10.15 – 290)

That is one thing I took from the project: something about noticing, and something about weighing what is “worth” photographing.

october 17 sunset 291
(10.17 – 291)

If I scan across the photos for the year, I started out in Indonesia, spent a lot of time at Finch’s in northern England, had the magnificent space of Brazil, and then went underwater. Some time with Finch, mostly lovely, in the lost house in Austin. In between, it’s a lot of shoes, and sunsets, and images of food as I went about my daily life. A few transcendent moments, like the Triadventure, and time with my niecelings.

I’m not sure I became a better photographer in any way by doing this project, really, although I definitely spent some real effort with my camera in Brazil, and in Austin (deep focus to capture a single dragonfly at a garden centre stands out for me), and on some of the spring days in England. I was pleased with what I was able to do with a recalcitrant compact underwater. I did spend a bit of time playing with settings on the sunset shots, and occasionally, creating little still lifes in my condo, which is surprisingly difficult to light at night. But the vast majority of days, it was me and my iphone, snapping something that caught my fancy. Shoelaces or salmon.

When I put together a little meditative slideshow for a couple of events I did, I was pretty pleased by my meagre little “portfolio” — but the majority of those images were from trips I took with Finch, where the subject matter was inherently breathtaking, and I was able to do one of the many things he taught me about photography, which was to wait, take many shots, keep calibrating. Waiting, many shots and calibration are kind of the opposite of what I did in the daily shots.

I do notice that I tend to see photography in many ways as illustrative of a story that also calls for words, not as narratives in themselves. I want more narrative, and I want more comfort with images that might include other people. I took one shot, for example, from way across the street one day in October. Two people sitting in the window of a restaurant, at noon on a workday, completely canoodling.

oct 15 press club
(10.15 – 289)

What was the story there? Lousy shot because taken with an iphone from across the street and then blown up, but I think it was a moment that I noticed because this project has given me a higher antenna about Things that Could Be Photographed, Moments to Notice, Things That are Happening around me. Sometimes, the photos prompted some really meaningful longer posts from me — and sometimes they illustrated something that would have burst out of me anyway.

I suppose, on balance, being a person who notices more, who pauses more, is not a bad legacy from this project. I do know that some of the deeper noticings — like the two sets of delightful dragonfly images I did in Austin at different times — were scaffolded by being with Finch, by doing things like accompany him to the garden centre with my camera. Being with someone who takes photos creates the space for attentiveness. I need to figure out how to bring that attentiveness and that extra burst of energy to my own life now, to wedge myself out of my condo and go down to the lake more, to the Spit, to gardens and places to walk on my own. To watch people on the street more closely.

I think I’ll continue this project in 2013, but I want to give what I do with it more thought.

Under the English Channel

Ever since they started talking about the “chunnel” in the 80s — my grandfather, a great traveler, was very taken by the idea — I had a weird little hankering to take the magic train from England to France.

So taking the Eurostar this week did have a funny little thrill to it, despite the morass of emotion and unwellness I was carrying around.

On the way out, I slept curled up in the seat while 14 year olds shrieked and ran up and down the train, until some stentorian teacher finally yelled CALMEZ-VOUS. (It didn’t work).

Coming back, I left my hotel at check out time, got to the Gare du Nord, and set out to explore a bit on foot. I had about three hours.

I ended up at the exquisite Place des Vosges, which turned out to be actually rather a long way to drag my luggage. I walked through the gorgeous square, which suddenly seemed to be the only place lit by sun in the city, had a cup of coffee and a bottle of water in an outdoor café, and then suddenly got cold, and while I’d been intending to walk back through the relatively quiet streets, grabbed at a passing taxi with a sudden rising sense of scarcity and got to the Gare quite early.

I managed to get onto an earlier train, and thought I understood what the woman was telling me — that I didn’t have an assigned seat, but needed to either find one someone didn’t show up for or sit on the little fold down jump seats.

I didn’t quite understand that these were between the cars, among the luggage.

photo

Strangely, weirdly, it turned out to be the perfect spot. There were two seats, and I could put my feet on one, knitting on my lap, ipod in my ears. I knit and listened to music and watched the French countryside as a kind of rapid slideshow, then went into the magic tunnel.

When we came out, I was knitting and listening to music and watching the 415 pm English winter darkness fall and I felt… happy. Not joyful but okay. Also not feverish, literally or emotionally. Finally.

Paris 2012

When it became apparent that Finch and I weren’t going to spend New Year’s together in England as planned, I came up with this brain wave to go to Paris. I’d never been here, sort of always waiting for the partner who wanted to come with me. None of mine ever did, and I decided it would be a good city to wander aimlessly in, to walk off the angst of the end of my relationship, the extreme difficulty of this last couple of weeks.

photo-11
(12.29 – 364)

I also had the notion that this would be a good place to do some reflection, on everything from what the 365 photo project had turned out to be, to what I am really doing on this earth, what it is I’m enacting in my endless quest for love and adventure (and how maybe they shouldn’t go to together, huh?).

The universe had some other plans for me. My body has taken a bit of a whacking, between the travel and the emotional stress and the diving. I had an intermittent high fever with chills the last two nights in the Philippines, and carried it home with me. I stayed at Finch’s house 24 hours (slept about 18 of those hours straight after landing and barely got out of bed the rest of the time, scrounging snacks from the very bare larder) then headed off for France on the Eurostar.

Saying goodbye to Finch at the airport was brutal, just brutal. Hard to leave someone you’ve loved so deeply, and we had Big Talks on the way home, leaving us in a more peaceful and forgiving but sad and bereft place.

My first morning in Paris, I hopped up and walked more than an hour to the louvre, realizing just how far from everything my hotel was (and learning that French joggers will give you nice and clear directions, but they will correct your pronunciation first — not, le looovre, as I said it, but le loooovrruh).

photo-12
(3.30 – 365)

I then realized that my own personal little quest was being played out in a heaving sea of people. I added myself to the incredible queue, read the Julia Child biography on my kobo, waited patiently to get inside, waited further for tickets, and when I was almost at the elusive ticket machine (an hour after I arrived at the Louvre), I just up and… fainted.

Everything did indeed swim and go black, and I thought I was going to vomit, and I found myself on the floor. I got some help from a security guard, and went to the café and had sprite and water and a ham sandwich, and didn’t feel a whole lot better, so took a cab back to my hotel and slept for about 6 more hours.

The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been time-shifted and dopey and sore, and my body has just buzzed with weird physical symptoms. More fever, headache, weirdly swollen and itchy hands, odd skin eruptions on my chin. I think I’m just emotionally exhausted, coupled with some kind of Thing, a virus or possibly even malaria. (The fever is very unlike me).

I get home the 2nd and I’ll see a doc then, but I suspect it will be cleared up by then. It’s been a tough time.

Yesterday, I bought a ticket for one of those hop on/hop off tour busses, which I thought would be a restful way to see the city. It wasn’t restful to wait in the bus shelter with an increasingly antsy crowd for an hour waiting for it in the morning, but I did see many of the things that make me want to come back.

I got off at Notre Dame, and happened across the beginning of a mass (after another 30 minute queue). So I went to Mass at Notre Dame.

photo-13
(3.31 – 365)

I may be a pope-hating atheist (seriously pope-hating — just read in The Guardian that this pope blessed the woman introducing the legislation in favour of the death penalty for gay people in Uganda), but I’m still a cultural catholic of French ancestry, and I’ve hankered to go to Mass in Notre Dame for a long time. (The priests were mostly African, for the record). It was comforting.

After lunch, that was it for my energy, so there was sleeping and watching the entire series of Call the Midwife, and then pasta puttanesca from room service for desert. Just couldn’t face crowds, walking, being in the world. Set some intentions for the year, reflected gently, and wished for a 2013 where I can live into who I most want to be.

Muck Dives

I did two dives this morning, me and the Finns, since Rachel continues to have an ear infection.

Muck dives are not pretty dives — they’re hunt and discover dives. Mostly they’re in sand or gravel, and there’s little coral and few plants, but what you look for are the few odd creatures that show themselves if you’re patient, if you’re lucky.

Like this almost buried manta shrimp.

manta shrimp

Or this snake eel.

snake eel 2

I found muck dives kind of interesting the first couple of times I did them, but I think I’m not really that kind of diver. I don’t like the ubiquitous, creepy little garden eels that wave at you, and it feels bleak. Another woman here agrees — “I’m risking my LIFE,” she said. “I want to see pretty things!”

Or maybe it just wasn’t the right day for me. After a couple of days of greater ease, everything felt tight and hard today. Christmas, PMS, nearing the time that I’m going to have to contend with my now ex on a fairly arduous journey home. Everything just felt… hard.

I’m trying to breathe through it, feel the complexity of all the stories at play here, know that really, both Finch and I are trying to find deep connection in our own, different ways, find compassion for myself and others, be very very conscious and aware that there are a lot of people in the world experiencing much greater sorrow and loss than I am right now. I’m in a bleeding dive resort in the Philippines with everything I could possibly want at my fingertips. I am blessed, and I know that. I’m just feeling a bit tattered, but I find that diving with it, like running with sadness or anger, can really fill the well with whatever emotion is most present.

Today that emotion was pretty eely.

white eyed moray 2
(white eyed moray, to be precise)

One of the things you learn early in diving training is that your regulator stays in your mouth at all times, and that you can do anything in a regulator — cough, burp, laugh, vomit. I have gradually got a lot more comfortable with the notion that using a reg isn’t like sucking air through a straw, which is how I imagined it — but really, it sort of creates a little pocket of air around your mouth. It’s comforting to cough and realized you’re not going to die. I learned today that you can *cry* in a regulator. The mask makes it a tad hard to wipe your nose, though.

Even as I type this, it feels like absurd self-dramatizing. It was a relationship that had an expiry date; people do their best; get over yourself. I hold all of that to be true, and the overlay of decades of Christmas expectations is hard not to engage with, the desire to feel cherished and to cherish most foregrounded then.

I got tired of being underwater at about the 40 minute point on both dives, was ready to be done. But the relational aspect of diving kicked in, and I realized there was no way I could propel the Finns out of the water early, just on my own restlessness, especially on the second dive, which was their last. So I sat with it, just observed how I was feeling, kept my eyes open.

In the last 5 minutes on the first dive, we were rewarded with a Flamboyant Cuttlefish.

cuttlefish2
(12.25 – 360)

They’re wee and cute and amazing.

On the second dive, one of the Finns requested an octopus. Sure enough, our divemaster Wing found us a wonderpus.

wonderpus

I didn’t realize how wondrous it was until Rachel exclaimed when I showed her the photo. It takes a lot to impress her, with her fancy camera and 333+ dives.

One flamboyant cuttlefish, one wonderpus, and one visit to the singapore airlines site to change my seat: I surface, breathe again.

Whale sharks

Christmas Eve, 2012: 10 hour journey to snorkel with the whale sharks for an hour.

whale shark head
(12.24 – 359)

They were oddly “tame” — coming to the boats where fishermen feed them — but it was still quite stunning.

gills

They didn’t swim quite as much as I’d imagined — they just kind of kept their voracious mouths open and gurgled food.

feeding

The journey was more prolonged than we expected — first a drive, then a ferry, then a drive, then the outrigger to the whale sharks.

When we were done swimming, we had sandwiches and waited by a series of souvenir and food shacks, and were serenaded by a rasta with a guitar singing a muddled version of O Holy Night.

o holy

The woman in the food hut joined in, with a stunning, surprising, clear voice.

We waited, and I knitted, and there was driving, and then waiting for an hour and a half on a ferry that didn’t move. We finally got up and got off it and drove another 20 minutes to a different ferry.

A bigger, better ferry.

photo-6

We waited for a while among the chickens and indolent dogs, and finally sailed back. I knit, more. There was a young girl with silver braces wearing a fuzzy polar bear hat.

photo-7

Rachel and I have long joked that if only we could apply, we’d be great on The Amazing Race. We decided today that we’re ON The Amazing Race: Surreptitious Edition. I can’t wait to get some sort of prize for this trip.

I’m appreciating Rachel and her live-and-let-live-ness.

When we got back, I felt too wrung out to go through the palaver of getting ready to dive, so I went for a short run, up on the main road. I like to feel the soil of a new place under my running soles, and to run off the edge of turmoil. I saw a “tricycle” — motorcycle with sidecar type hut — emblazoned with “Jesus is my Shield,” completely stuff with melons. Children greeted me with Merry Christmas, and a trio of musicians waited for a bus, one of them with an enormous harp with a horse head on it. A Coca cola sponsored sigh jauntily enjoined, Thank you for Leaving!

For Christmas dinner, we had white tablecloths and turkey and bubbly servers eager for us to finish so they can go home, go to Mass, eat pork and chicken and cake with their families. I felt grateful for the many many incredible people I have in my world.

Vernie, our divemaster, keeps looking at me with sad eyes. “You didn’t sleep, miss cate?” He thinks I am sad, but admirable, because I told him about the kids in Uganda, and he wants to ease my path. He dresses me like a waterlogged valet, slips my fins off for me so I can climb the ladder back into the boat. We talk about his impulses to immigrate somewhere, anywhere, maybe Bahrain.

I asked him the other day the deepest dive he’d done. “100 metres,” he said. “It was a bullshit dive.”

“A bullshit dive?”

“To retrieve the body of the course director.”

Using the computer of the buddy who survived, but who was brain damaged forever, they think he ran out of air.

We took a second day trip to Apo Island today, three sedate and peaceful dives. My camera packed in on the third dive again — it was Finch’s old camera and housing, and the battery connectors just seem tired. I’m still learning to breathe more smoothly and not suck up all my air too soon, and these calm, shallowish dives are good for practicing.

Until I start swimming with green turtles.

turtle face
(12.23 – 358)

This one was unbelievably unbothered by Rachel swimming with it and generally getting up in its business.

rachel turtle

We were anchored offshore, which meant that pedlars of sarongs and tshirts paddled out to us in a little kayak type of outrigger and hauled bundles onto the deck. When they appeared on the outrigger in our first trip, I couldn’t quite process where they’d come from. “Jeez, everytime I look up I see someone I didn’t notice was even on this boat,” I said to Watson, the Thai American who dives in a jaunty two piece red and black wetsuit.

“I don’t see anyone,” he said.

“Those women,” I laughed.

“Hallucinating gypsy women is the first sign of decompression sickness.”

The village was drumming and singing today, it being Sunday and just before Christmas. They have an enormous Christmas tree on the beach.

village tree

If you look closely, you can see that instead of a star on the top, there is a boat.

I thought it was charming and perfect for a village that makes its living from the sea. One of the Finnish women was perplexed by its non-stellar-ness.

Just before my camera pffted out, I found a particularly Christmassy nudibranch.

green nudi

Our ride home was rough, and the woman from Boise lolled nearly unconscious on the bench, limbless, felled first by seasickness while diving and then from the overdosing I gave her on seasickness meds. Her son’s Taiwanese girlfriend spent the ride back clinging to an empty cylinder, hunched over the side, apologizing to me with a small smile before she vomited politely. I found a well of relaxation in my stomach for the first time in days, rolling with the boat, not clenched against seasickness. I put on my raincoat and sat on the cooler in the middle, getting drenched, reading a sodden copy of Dark Star Safari, enjoying the ride.