Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Morning in Yelapa

For what it's worth (if anything), here is a video taken one morning last winter in Yelapa as April was preparing our breakfast and we were surrounded by the raucous calls of chachalacas, a pheasant-like tropical and sub-tropical bird that lives almost entirely in the trees. In Yelapa they compete every morning with the crowing of roosters in the village.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Back to the Land

My wife April and I came to Canada as Back-to-the-Landers at the end of the Sixties. Recently we were asked to reminisce about those thrilling days of yesteryear almost forty years ago, and I'm now moved to offer the following little piece, written initially for a reading in Nelson and later published online in The Tyee as "Note from an American Refugee." I should note here, as I did for The Tyee, that I was not a draft dodger at the time, having served in the U.S. Navy before Vietnam, but was certainly against the war and a supporter of those resisting it. This is the original (revised) version of the piece:


November 13, 1970. Friday the 13th. We arrive in British Columbia after a three-day drive from my native Minnesota.

The first day we’d traveled northwest from Hamel, Minn., to Minot, N.D. The next day we drove straight north to the border, reached the Trans-Canada Highway, and drove west across the prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Medicine Hat, Alta. The third day we drove through the Rockies and down the valley of the Kootenay River, then over the Salmo-Creston Skyway and, after dark, along that empty stretch between Salmo and Nelson wondering where in the boondocks we were getting to. Finally, about 9:30 in the evening, after the 25-mile drive up the West Arm of Kootenay Lake to Queens Bay (and noting with some relief the pleasant-looking cottages along the lake, reminding us of the shore of Lake Minnetonka, near where I grew up), we found the rented house in which we would live communally with April's sister and her husband and her two children by a previous marriage, and which, by the following summer, would include, in and around it, some ten of us Back-to-the-Land expatriates.

At the little border station on the cold prairie north of Minot, the Canadian guard had peered into our '64 Ford piled high with virtually everything we owned — including April's sewing machine on the back seat; the trunk was weighed down to the car's axles with my books — and said with the suggestion of a wink, "Just visiting, eh? Well, you're entitled to look around, but if you decide to settle, I'd advise you to see Immigration." And waved us through.

We felt like refugees from eastern Europe after having passed successfully through the Iron Curtain.

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times (to borrow from the start of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities). There'd been the Kennedy assassinations — both of them; the Detroit race riot of 1967 (I was a Detroit mail carrier that summer, walking streets strewn with broken glass and discarded loot to deliver to addresses that no longer existed because they’d turned to rubble overnight, while gangs of young blacks went by in cars with police cars following them, shotguns sticking out of the windows, and Army trucks carrying National Guardsmen trundled by, and police helicopters hovered overhead); Martin Luther King's assassination; the riotous 1968 Democratic National Convention; the much-protested Vietnam War . . . this in the face of self-indulgent prosperity.

As we crossed the border, we were only dimly aware of Canada's own brush with the tumultuous times — it had been in the news just a couple of weeks before: the October Crisis. What was that? Something about Quebec, a late battle in the war between the French and English that was supposed to have ended in 1763, just as the American Civil War, a hundred years later, was supposed to have settled the differences between the North and the South, between blacks and whites.

Certainly it was, or had been, the worst of times for my wife and me after breaking up in Mexico the winter before and since then struggling to reconcile our differences. This trip to B.C., this escape from our troubled past and the troubled U.S., this final remove from "the city" (though we'd lived the last two years in the country, outside Minneapolis, on my parents' golf course — once part of our family farm), was, besides a last-ditch effort to save our marriage, our enlistment in a movement. Somewhere in the boxes of books we'd hauled with us to British Columbia was a copy of Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life. It would be our bible.

A week or so after our arrival in Nelson, I was reporting my first impressions to friends back in Minneapolis:

Here we are homesteading in the Kootenays of British Columbia.

We're living in an old farmhouse with April's sister and her husband, on a slope above Kootenay Lake, 90 miles long and two to three miles wide, like a Norwegian fiord with its mountainous shores and the play of light and cloud on the forested, frosted slopes. With the house are a couple of outbuildings, shacks, and a little orchard of apple trees.

My first job on arriving here was to help Al trim the apple trees, then drag the branches to the garden where we burned them for fertilizer. Worked one day for an old lady up the road and got paid for it. Cut wood with a chainsaw and threw the furnace-sized chunks into the basement. Dug up the septic tank and drainage tile, bucketing out the former and spreading it in the garden, lifting out the latter and re-laying it. A good job done, as the mess in the septic tank was like a great biscuit ready to take out of the oven. We put yeast in the tank after emptying it, so in about ten years (hopefully no sooner) there'll be another biscuit all nicely formed for us. Got the tank and tile work done just prior to the freeze-up.

Our life here is generally comfortable, if at a subsistence level. We exist, right now, almost entirely on the $300 a month Dianne receives for child support. Al, who has a definite talent for organization and a good bargain, sees that we buy in bulk: five-gallon drums of peanut butter, for instance, cans of honey, sacks of brown rice and powdered milk. Of necessity we're vegetarian — except for the odd windfall: last week someone brought us a side of venison; he'd chanced on the animal, still warm, a roadkill. I wish I'd brought my shotgun for grouse.

This is country where Vikings, you imagine, could come rowing out of the mist on the lake, or Valkeries ride down out of the dramatically clouded sky to fetch some hero to Valhalla. It’s a landscape, in short, out of the Romantic School of painting, the light streaming down on the mountains like God's grace in a holy picture.

I think I like it here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Those Great Old Classic Comics

Who, among those of my generation, didn’t read, and thoroughly enjoy, comic books when they were a kid? And who, particularly those who otherwise read books, didn’t read, and thoroughly enjoy, Classic Comics (later called Classics Illustrated)?

I went to Google recently and was happy to find, in Wikipedia, a listing of all the Classic Comics and Classics Illustrated titles ever published. The series ran, according to Wikie, from 1941 to 1971. Since then there have been revivals of the series, I gather, in North America and England, but the original, the “classic,” series will remain, for old nostalgia buffs like me, the one worth remembering.

My introduction to the series, unless memory fails, came on Christmas Eve of 1942. I was five days away from my eighth birthday, living with my parents and my two younger sisters on our dairy farm in Minnesota, and because of regular chores on Christmas Day morning and mass at the nearest Catholic church afterwards, the folks had arranged for Santa Claus to visit early on Christmas Eve, early enough for us kids to receive and open our presents from the old elf — and from the folks — before bedtime.

I forget what Santa brought me that year, but I remember vividly the boxed set given to me by my parents of the first four numbers of Classic Comics. They were: The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Last of the Mohicans, and I read them all, one after the other, sitting hunched before the heat register in the dining room of our old farmhouse (the heat coming up from the coal furnace in the cellar) far into the night, long after the folks and my sisters had gone to bed. That I’d been allowed to stay up, I suppose says something about my parents’ leniency or neglect. Anyway, I was perfectly absorbed, that long-ago night, till about 2 a.m.

After that, I started collecting Classic Comics, and eventually Classics Illustrated, until I had piles of them in a drawer in my room: Numbers 1 to about 105, I think, after going down Wikie’s list and recalling with pleasure the many titles. Moby Dick, Westward Ho!, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Deerslayer, Huckleberry Finn, Two Years Before the Mast, The Moonstone . . . Title after title, engrossing story after engrossing story (the series went to 169 titles), all wonderfully filled with vivid, if rather slapdash, illustrations. Those comics led me to many of the books themselves as I was growing up. I’m sure they’ve led others.

And oh, if only I’d kept them — they’d be worth thousands now, I imagine, on eBay. Instead, as I was about to leave for Navy boot camp in January 1955, or a couple of months later, as I was heading for San Francisco to wait for assignment to my first duty station, I gave them to my twin younger brothers, who in turn, I guess, gave them to our kid brother, who may have passed them on to friends . . . until, one by one or in bunches, they disappeared.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Lunch in Yelapa

Here, in the winter of 2008, April is preparing our lunch on the back (kitchen) balcony of our rented place in the coastal village of Yelapa, just south of Puerto Vallarta, where we've gone to escape British Columbia's cold, gray months since 2005.