Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.
Obsession is something that can take many forms. Many obsessions are subtle, some bordering on addiction. When something doesn't negatively affect your life, you often have a hard time recognizing the affliction. I am convinced that some mild forms of obsession are really more of a compulsion. Some hoard, some eat, some count, some wash, some collect. One of my compulsions only really occurred to me recently. Not surprisingly, that compulsion is stone.
It makes sense really. Rocks form a big part of our lives. Some people are drawn towards the clouds and others are drawn out to sea. Unless you are a miner or a bat, chances are that you can often see the sky above your head. The next time you look up at the sky, look down. What is around your feet? It could be water which covers 70% of the earth’s surface. If not it could be grass, mud, pavement or rock. Sedimentary rock only makes up 5% of the earth’s crust but about 75% of the land surface is covered in it. Sometimes it is under all that grass and pavement. So it would make sense that land, sea and air have been a big part of humanity’s thinking over the centuries. They are inescapable, shaping our minds and lives through both myth and necessity.
Highlights of our lives are often common ones, the relationships that we build, the people that we nurture and the lives that we build around them. Others are more personal, often based on work or play. Fragments of past trips always stick out in my mind and often they involve some unyielding, immovable chunk of stone. I think that it may have started with my trip to the Rockies almost 25 years ago. Standing in the Icefield Parkway, surrounded by the biggest mountains that I had ever seen. I felt so insignificant yet strangely comforted by being in midst of something so huge, and compared to the span of person’s life, timeless. The Cape Breton Highlands are stunning in their own right, but for some reason the Rockies stirred something in me that was only the beginning.
The feeling would stir again and again, seeing Queenstown from Bob’s Peak, the summit of Ben Lomond, Watching Mount Rauapehu - better known as Mount Doom if you are a Lord of the Rings fan - belch smoke from its crater at the end of an active volcanic period. Along the shores of New Zealand you can also find Mitre Peak, the most notable feature of Milford Sound, which is really a fiord. I also found myself at the Punakaiki Rocks, Waitomo Caves, and the Moeraki Boulders. A photo of those same boulders hangs beside my head as I write this. Countless times in folk songs and folklore have both the sea and the mountains been romanticized. These experiences help me understand why so many are drawn to the slopes of mountains and some up onto their peaks. Many have seen more than I ever will but if anything it strengthens my desire to see more and more of those breathtaking piles of rock.
Other places aren’t known so much for their height and enormity as they are for their uniqueness. The Tablelands in western Newfoundland are one place where the earth’s mantle pushed up through its crust. High in iron and low in nutrients the area is largely devoid of vegetation and more reminiscent of a red, Martian landscape than the northern end of the Appalachians. I have to return someday to visit Western Brook Pond, an inland fiord nearby. I have yet to see Perce Rock in Quebec or the Balancing Rock in Digby. The list could go on and on I am sure. Of all of these places, none came to me in me in my dreams, none beckoned me across the miles like one chunk of stone, perhaps the biggest single chunk of stone. And that stone is Uluru, better known as Ayer's Rock.
Check out Part 2, which will discuss my short time at Uluru.
Lovers that bless the dark
October 23rd, 2007. That was a day filled to the brim with memories. The two of us are trying not to get on each other's last nerve while getting ready for our wedding in a tiny hotel room. Krista's feet were blistered from our epic walk the day before. Our trip to City Hall for a marriage license ended up with us walking over much of Lower Manhattan. Many of the cabs decided to go on a one-day strike for reasons that elude me now. Of course, those blisters do not show up in any of our wedding photos.
Then, of course, there was me trying to tie my necktie. It was an experience so traumatic that it is enough reason to not want to get married again. After thoroughly pissing Krista off, I left with my tie tied, some cash hastily stuffed in my hand, and stern warning not to come back to the hotel room while Krista prepared. In the hotel bar, I downed a double (or was it two?) of Jameson's whisky. With my back to the entrance of the bar, I hear someone in the doorway quickly taking photos. Then I hear other people in the bar trying to figure out who I am. I turn to see Sonia, Krista's old friend from Bathurst, smiling and taking another photo of me finishing my last drink.
Sonia goes up to see Krista in our room. I hang around in the lobby wondering if my tie is ok. The two of them show up, and we make our way out to the street and find a cab to take us to Central Park. We are on our way up Eighth Avenue when we get in a fender bender with another car. The two drivers are in a prolonged discussion about the situation. So we pay and walk the rest of the way up Eighth Avenue and Central Park West. Past the Dakota Building, through Strawberry Fields, past the edge of the mall and down to Bow Bridge to meet our photographer, Anthony Vazquez and officiant, Beth Lamont. Krista and I end up getting some photos taken around Bethesda Terrace and the mall while we wait for Beth to show up.
I can remember Beth, Anthony, Sonia, Krista, and I standing in the middle of Bow Bridge with a few onlookers. That is about all I remember of the actual wedding. I can’t recite one word of the vows Krista wrote. Is my tie ok? It came time to sign our Marriage License. We needed to witnesses, not one. So Anthony became our second witness. There was a little problem though. Both Krista and I failed to notice that the license required signatures in black pen. One of the bystanders had just a pen and gladly produced it for us.
Afterwards, there were more photos. I received a gentle ribbing from a NYC firefighter. Krista received a sincere, if somewhat backhanded compliment from a jogger that seemed to be every bit of New York herself. Later, as the sun was sinking over Greenwich Village, Krista and I made our way to a place called Babbo. I had to call a month in advance for reservations. The meal was incredible from what I can remember. It was a seven-course meal with a glass of wine for each course. I wasn't too worried about my tie at that point. Happy Anniversary, Krista.
Ten years gone, holdin' on, ten years gone.
Sitting here working at the computer and looking out at the wind and rain got me thinking about the upcoming anniversary of Hurricane Juan. It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed since that storm swept into our lives, physically changing the landscape forever. Juan left a lot of destruction and heartbreak in its path. It took months for the physical damage to be cleaned up and repaired. For Krista and I the effects were not so direct. Those days surrounding Juan stand out in my mind for more than one reason. Just two days previous I had left my job in anticipation of moving back to Wallace from downtown Halifax. Krista's job was supposed to come to an end at Thanksgiving. Much of our non-essentials were already wrapped up or packed away. The end date was pushed back more than once. It all worked out in the end but at the time it was an uncertain but exciting to me. It wasn't that anything seemed possible. It felt like we were spinning our wheels, paying high rent and working at jobs that didn't leave a lot of room for upward mobility. Those things that many of us take for granted like owning a home, or a car, or starting a family felt like they were out of reach. We had recently made the decision to starting down a new path. A path that had a few detours along the way. That path would lead us back to Wallace, with no jobs or concrete plan. "Living in a van down by the river" was humorous to me but too close to a real possibility for Krista. A decade later we are living by the river. No van was ever part of the story. Wouldn't that have made a helluva lot more tellable though? I'm sure when Krista reads this that she will be shaking her head.
The flip side of living in a modern apartment building was that it suffered no damage from the storm. We lost our power for about 4 hours. Many people went without for weeks. The local news was telling people in our area to evacuate if possible and go to. That was an awfully long walk in high winds. We decided to walk down 15 flights of stairs to see if anyone was in the lobby to give further instructions. There wasn't. As we looked out the lobby doors wondering what to do we watched a cedar bush travel horizontally past the door at high speed. Our minds were made up. We stayed put and began a very humid slog back up 15 flights of stairs. With the power about to go out at any time we decided not to risk the elevator.
Watching the news and looking out our taped up window I could see that one edge of the eye was set to pass right over us. The only thing that I miss about that apartment was the excellent view of the part of the downtown, taking in the Casino, Purdy's Wharf much of the harbour and Dartmouth. I could see sections of Dartmouth going black before the worst of the storm hit. It was so hot and clammy in our apartment we opened the smallest window that we could against our better judgment. The water in the toilet was sloshing back and forth. Lying down on the bed and closing my eyes I knew that sleep would not be an option. It felt like being on a rocking boat, only about 150 ft higher. It wasn't terrifying so much as it was unsettling. After the swaying finally stopped the air was calm and very cool, the silence broken by sirens. Our lights finally went out too. With nothing else to do I went to bed hoping that no one was hurt. Everything else was secondary.
The morning was sunny and cool. The city at a standstill. Our only casualty was a barbecue cover that I placed under a tank of propane. The cover was gone, save a scrap of it still under the propane tank. We brought the barbecue inside the night before so at least there wasn't that flying around. Not wanting to stay cooped up inside, we ventured down to the waterfront, then up to the North End. You have seen the photos. It was more than I expected in a way. Much of the waterfront was gouged away. Leaving the boardwalks heaved or gone completely. Countless dead birds littered the waterfront. There was the roof of building in the middle of the street, so many downed trees, all of those downed trees. It really showed the cities age. Many of those trees likely post Halifax Explosion era. These trees not nearly as pliable as in their early days lay broken and twisted over much of the city. The aerial photos of the hurricane's path could be easily found by the splintered path across Nova Scotia. It wasn't even 12 hours after the hurricane and people were rallying the best way that they could. We walked past an impromptu dance in a street shut down by fallen trees and power lines. Restaurants were cooking up food on sidewalk barbecues and passing it out for free before it spoiled. Others were relaying word of passable routes out of the city. No one seemed to be panicking. But wasn't it too late for that anyway?
Like any natural disaster, many of the fatalities seemed arbitrary, tragically random. Everything else was an inconvenience, albeit a huge one. Many people had no power or water for weeks. The day after the storm I saw people were hitching rides to Lower Sackville, the nearest place with ATMs, groceries, etc. It was a wake-up call to me to always have a bit of cash and extra food and water on hand. In many ways that hurricane changed the way I think about storms. No old trees beside my house, thank you. I get no thrill from watching a hurricane set its sights on us. Katrina was almost too much to comprehend. Last fall, my stomach clenched as Sandy barreled up the coast, taking dozens of people and Bounty with it. At times like that I often think of Juan and despite all the damage, all the loss, I think that we got off pretty easily. I truly hope it was a once in a century storm (or more), but the way things are changing I doubt it.
"There is no refuge from memory and remorse in this world. The spirits of our foolish deeds haunt us, with or without repentance." - Gilbert Parker
Tonight I am thinking about Hurricane Isaac and New Orleans and hoping for the best. It has me thinking about Christchurch again. The whole thing haunts me. In the last 18 months of so my mind has wandered countless times to a place I haven't been to in 15 years. Often the significance of many of the things we experience is not hammered home until years later. Can you recall a day that at the time seemed fairly ordinary? It is only months or years after that the significance of it begins to appear. It can either be a moment of quiet elation or perdition. Mine was somewhere in between.
Let's go back to 1997. Not that I always want to but this is where the story begins. It was an overcast spring day in Christchurch, New Zealand. Spring being November in the southern hemisphere. I had arrived the day before with the intention of seeing as much as I could in 2 or 3 days before heading up the east coast. Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand. The city was laid out with the iconic Cathedral Square as a focal point. If you have been in Adelaide or Philadelphia you will see similarities in the layout. Many of the buildings are of the Gothic Revival time period giving the city a distinctive English feel. Christchurch has earned the name of "The Garden City". Numerous, lush parks dot the landscape and the Avon River meanders across the city. I found myself meandering around the city as well. During my time there I spent much of my time near the Avon and Cathedral Square.
It isn't my intention to tell this story to be dramatic or to seek pity. It does serve as a form of catharsis though. I cannot even begin to comprehend what is is like to survive a devastating earthquakes, tornado, bombing. etc. Losing everything in the process, then picking yourself up dusting yourself off and trying to get your life back to a sense a normal that it will never quite be.
You see there is a more to this story but I am only willing to share so much of it. Some things are never old enough to talk about. Not completely. If you ask me to elaborate I won't. I can't. Sorry, but this is all you get and most days that feels like way too much. Even speaking her name out loud feels like too much sometimes. I started this post in September of last year so you get the picture. Anyways, that dreary day in Christchurch was spent with someone that I had met in Queenstown and was surprised to run into her again 500 km away. It was spontaneous. The Lonely Planet guide was tossed aside for a day of random wandering. Many stops were made at cafes and pubs and shops along Manchester Street. We spent that day not thinking of the future. Not worrying. Just enjoying the moment. That is the part of this that is hauntingly beautiful. We meandered along the Avon, past the Pyne Gould Building where 18 people would die in the earthquake many years later. Then back up Columbo Street with many more stops. Finally, arriving back at Cathedral Square.
Now leap forward to a year and half ago there was an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. My wife saw the news online long before it was on TV. Twitter told me much more than world news agencies did that evening. The news of that quake was quickly eclipsed by the huge earthquake in Japan 3 weeks later. Among the flurry of large, violent quakes in the last few years it might seem like a small one. Less than 200 people were killed. 1000s of buildings were destroyed.It wasn't just the older historic ones that suffered. One building less than 40 years old was the site of over half of the fatalities that day.
The first sights that I saw that dark February night were of the many buildings broken and collapsed into the streets. I had only spent a few days in Christchurch but quickly recognized many of the destroyed buildings. They were pulling bodies out of the YHA hostel on Manchester Street where I had stayed so many years before. The square was surrounded by beautiful examples of historic architecture. Much of it doomed. The Press Building with half of its iconic sign and upper floor missing. Nearby in Latimer Square survivors regrouped, tried to call loved ones and waited amongst white tarps with shoes and sneakers sticking out from under them. Deaths from earthquakes are known in New Zealand but had been a rarity in recent years. Looking back at it now I am surprised that there were not more deaths. Once you see all of the buildings that have now been demolished you would agree. Up to date photos of Christchurch show several blocks of the city completely cleared. People lost family, friends, neighbors, homes, places of worship, local hang outs, entire neighborhoods. Then I saw the Christchurch Cathedral.
The most recognizable icon of the city, the very heart of Christchurch itself for everyone regardless of faith, lay ruined. The spire was gone. The same spire that we stood in all those years ago taking in the sites of Cathedral Square. At the time there were reports that people went down with the spire. This later proved to be false. Luckily no one was found in the rubble. My stomach clenched so hard that I physically gagged. The next thought that popped into my head has occasionally haunted my thoughts ever since. Many of the buildings that Zoe and I saw that day in 1997 would be gone in 13 years or so. Worse to me, less than 5 months after our day in Christchurch, Zoe would be gone too. It would another 5 months or so before I found out. They say that ignorance is bliss. I can honestly say that I wish this were the case.
Maybe I have to think about the day for what is was, not what it would become. When you think of a great meal you don't think about what it looks like, what it becomes after you eat it. If you did you would go around thinking about everything slowly turning to shit.
T.S. Eliot wrote it much more eloquently if a bit more obtusely in his poem The Waste Land.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.