Thursday, November 05, 2009

Iceberg Chasing 101


For more info on this project, please visit my blogs from the sea at the Desert Research Institute's Iceberg III web site. MANY THANKS to Dr. Alison Murray for sharing all of her photos!

The Antarctic has been a place of peace for me, its cool blue waters a respite from the churning engine of the R/V Lawrence M. Gould that sails us from Chile through the Straits of Magellen, and across the Drake Passage to Antarctica's Weddell Sea, nesting us in its swaying belly. It had been 7 years since my last voyage. At times those seven years seemed an eternity, at others a mere instant, the ice still cool and dry to the touch in my imagination.

I knew this trip would be nothing like the others. Six weeks at sea, more days in the desert than Christ spent wandering the Fertile Crescent, though he spent his journey alone and fasting. I'd not spent that much time at sea since my first post-college job, on the Tropical Oceans & Global Atmospheres (TOGA) cruise in 1990, and when I disembarked from the Xiangyianghong 14 after months at sea, I was a permanently changed person. Time at sea can be thrilling, suffocating, exhilarating, toxic, depressing, invigorating. It builds deep friendships and destroys others. One is completely alone at sea, yet always surrounded by others. You are remote as you can imagine, degrees of latitude and longitude away from terra firma, yet you are trapped.

Our project was titled "Free-drifting icebergs as proliferating dispersion sites of iron
enrichment, organic carbon production and export in
the Southern Ocean," but we knew it as "Iceberg III," the third in a series of science and engineering research cruises to explore how carbon in the sea might change when icebergs the size of small cities broke free from the Antarctic continent to wander the open blue waters outside the continental shelf. http://iceberg.dri.edu/blogs.php

It turns out that it's not so easy to find these mammoths, even with the aid of our team at Brigham Young University and the Scatterometer Climate Record Pathfinder, the remote sensing imagery system that would track our icebergs. Consider this: we were looking for a piece of ice 6-km long by 36-km wide...yet the sea is vast and constantly in motion. Wind, tidal effects, and the chance that it may crack into smaller fragments combine to give these floating worlds stealth powers of evasion.



We did finally come across our quarry, yet challenges persisted. The beauty and frustration of basic science is that you are exploring the unknown, trying to predict the natural world, to anticipate its outcome based solely on existing knowledge and the world of imagination. Due to the limited bandwidth available to us at sea, and limits on transmitting imagery, I kept my blogs to the scientific aspects of this trip, which you can read at the DRI Iceberg III Blog. You'll find lots of photos as well as introductory science and a little background on what we aimed to accomplish.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Peering across the Equator

Special thanks to Alison Murray and Joey Grzymski for their diligent photo-doc!



In USAP parlance, it's PQd, as in, the United States Antarctic Program says that i am now physically qualified, and thus can deploy, as planned, from Punta Arenas, Chile on March 6, 2009. This trip feels - and will be - very different. Most obvious is the change in crew. The infamous derelict, coffee connoisseur to the point of absurdity, cosmobiologist and protein-folding specialist, Dr. Joey Grzymski (with me in the first photo) will not be joining us, and his absence is already palpable. Dan, Tuna, and Stephanie, our beloved compadres from the krill lab, are also not part of this journey, though we're all captured together (2nd photo: me, Tuna, Joey, Alison, Dan) from our last trip at Palmer Station, and in the third photo (Dan, Joey, Tuna, Steph, me), attending a "lab meeting" at our field office. Finally, we won't be at Palmer Station at all. We'll be sailing aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer, Antarctica Research Vessel, ice-breaker, and iceberg chaser, as we hunt the riches in the mini-worlds that exist below the bergs. So no Palmer Station, no glacier hikes, no frisbee games, and, oh my, no PUB! It's true... the ship is alcohol-free.

Those of you who've followed our past adventures know that the illustrious, intrepid, tireless, relentless, and energetic microbial genomicist, Dr. Alison Murray (not to be confused with me) has tucked me under the wing of the Murray Field Team for two prior trips to Palmer Station and one sailing cruise on the Extreme 2004 Hydrothermal Vent Cruise, 300 miles from Costa Rica above the East PAcific Rise. I act as resident barrista, microbe culturer, bacterial DNA and RNA harvester, and any other task that is within my level of expertise. With Joey's fresh-roasted coffee beans and Chilean milk, I can whip up quite the mean cappuccino which, on our schedule, is a required nutrient in nearly hourly aliquots. So, I'm practising my Spanish and getting extra sleep, knowing full-well that the unspoken Murray Field Team motto, Numquam Dormiemus, will come soon. I'm envisioning my sea legs, humming the tune of the ship's engines, curling up into the amniotic slosh of the Antarctic's frigid -1.8C waters, and getting ready to learn. The crew, the destination, the means, and the mission may change, but one constant remains - the opportunity to learn. Check back in, as I'll be posting from our vessel as our mission progresses. But I'll leave you with some of the stunning scenery from our last trip to Arthur Harbor, home of Palmer Station.









Friday, January 16, 2009

Alpenglow on Grewingk Glacier















The view from the front deck never disappoints.....

Monday, January 05, 2009

Only a Few Steps Away



NOTE: Thanks to Dawn Reeder for ALL of the photos in this post, including the slideshow at the end!
The wide open, breath-taking views of the Interior’s sweeping tundra are typically marred by something. A cloud of mosquitoes so dense that a single slap slaughters thousands of them. Horizontal rains, blowing unimpeded from Russia, with cynical affection, so that each and every drop defies the best modern technology has to offer, leaving your skin plump, pale, and cold. Or simply, the wind, the relentless wind, buffeting each step, exhausting you before your day has even started.

Only divine intervention can explain the two solid weeks of perfect weather we enjoyed, brilliant fall colors, and temperatures just perfect for walking miles across the tundra that sleeps beneath the DeLong Mountains, east of Kivalina. The tussocks weave a microscopic elfin forest, their valleys home to a wealth of tiny plant life, mosses, ferns, and at least a few rodents whose tell-tale scat paths wind through the channels. The tussock heads host plants that I know, yet they are so much smaller. The land exhales the astringent perfume of labrador tea, clean, spicy, and familiar. It is a perfect day to lie face down on a furry patch and hunt for our coveted Hylocomium splendens. This moss is ubiquitous in northern and coastal climates, but it is unique. H. splendens is likely the easiest moss to age, owing to its unique “stair-step” pattern. Each year, it shoots a new branch at a discrete angle from its former growth. At first glance, you see only a soft, verdant carpet, sometimes moist, and soft to the touch, others so dry and brittle it crumbles under each step. You have to pay attention, to look a little deeper, to look at each strand closely, but once you see it, it’s so evident, it’s crystal clear, there is no ageism in this crowd, each tiny plant boasts its tenure proudly stair stepping its path from birth to wisdom.


The ease of aging H. splendens makes it an excellent air quality indicator, especially for metals. Airborne chemicals from traffic and road dust, mining operations, and even radioactive and chemical fallout, such as that from an accident like Chernobyl or Union Carbide accumulate on the moss’s surface, and may even be absorbed by its tissue. Knowing the moss’s age makes it easier to answer very basic questions: was this plant here before or after an event or operation? does it contain more or less of a contaminant than older specimens? younger specimens? If you Google “air pollution” and “H. splendens,” you’ll find countless references to this common but special plant. The more time I spent looking at it closely, laying in beds of it atop the tussocks, pawing at its soft fronds, the more enamored I was. Even after our work was done and the valley was far behind us, I’d keep an eye open for this humble moss along the trails and paths I frequented, until the first winter snow put the forest to rest.


Amidst the beauty of the western Brooks Range, the Noatak River Valley, the DeLong Mountains, the gentle chant of a mild breeze, and in the company of a dear friend, I’d spent the last week head down, elbows up, picking through the tundra for the perfect patch of Hylocomium “splendor.”

The work is very peaceful. I need to pay attention because my samples must be pure, with no other mosses tucked or twined into the strands. They must be of equal mass, and of the right age. I have to remove leaf debris and pieces of other plants from the sample, without removing any of the dust that might contain valuable data. It’s very relaxing. Often, Dawn and I work in silence, which is very comfortable for both of us. We’ve known each other for years, and have often enjoyed sharing the quiet. And occasionally, one or the other will perforate the silence. “Dawn, do you think you’ll ever come back to Alaska?” or “AK, I know a very cool gardener who would love to put you to work, I’ll bet. Why don’t you come down to Paonia for a few months?”


Each morning, Quentin, our helicopter pilot, drops us off at a sample location that we’ve loaded into our GPS. As we work, he goes off to support another crew or project, or get practice flight maneuvers in, to meet his training requirements. While we’re on the ground, our only contact with him is via a two-way Motorola hand-held radio. For most of the day, the two-way sits silent. Occasionally, we hear tidbits of radio traffic between truckers or hunters near the port or going to or from Kivalina. It’s easy to fall into deep thought on this job, so I’m surprised when the radio crackles with Quentin’s voice. “Behind you. Coming up over that small rise.” Without getting up, Dawn and I each turn, slowly, and look over our shoulders in time to see a small family of caribou trot right by us, only a few meters away, the brilliant bull’s head bobbing slightly under the weight of his ivory rack. A doe and her calf follow behind, and they don’t even see us. They take a few steps, and stop, ears pricked, eyes gazing into my soul, it seems. They are so close. The staccato click of the tendons that slide across their ankle bones is soft, but clear. They pause again. We stay still and watch. They take a few steps more, and stop again, repeating the process for five or ten meters. And then, they move on. My eyes follow them until they are beyond a small rise, and I am once again looking across the open fields of tussocks, crimson patches of bearberry, and the gentle sway of golden-tipped willow. Dawn and I exchange gleeful smiles, and then we go back to picking through the moss, piece by piece, looking closely at each strand before we add it to the small plastic bag dangling from our scales.

These are the Western Arctic Caribou herd. The migration is coming any day now, when nearly half a million caribou will cross the valley and continue south to the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta. When the stampede begins, the valley becomes theirs. By law, nothing may interfere with their passage. The caribou are very twitchy. One sound captures their attention, and anything unfamiliar, unpredicted, or unwelcome can alter their path. All road traffic stops when they converge upon the corridor. Everything must wait. Only once does this affect us, directly, and only for an hour or so. The truckers on the Kivalina Road, however, are not so lucky. For an entire day, they stop along the side of the road and watch. And wait. Interestingly, the scattered chatter on the two-way belies no irritation, merely boredom. In the Inupiaq tradition, the chat is minimal and quiet.

“I think that’s the last of them.”

And then silence.

“No, I see more on the ridge, north-side.”

More silence.

“Do you see ‘em?”

“Mm, hmm.”

Though darkness doesn’t fall for another 5 or 6 hours in these long August days, our day is over, and just for a moment, the peace of the day is broken by the propeller whir of the helicopter and Quentin’s voice on the two-way. “Team 2, I comin’ to gitcha.”

Roger that.




We collect the days bounty, numerous parcels of Hylocomium we’ve collected from points across the valley. Boxes. Scales. Water bottles. Backpacks. Light as a feather and ever on point, Quentin touches the skid down right at our feet, just touching the tips of our toes. Ear plugs in and seat belts fastened, our half hour commute passes much too quickly. I press my face against the window, eyes scanning the horizon for whomever else wanders the valley.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

White Christmas

It's still a little dark, but heavenly....
Merry Christmas!

Nothing Seems Too Tender in San Francisco's Underworld

Disclaimer: Some readers may find this post offensive.

I don't go out much anymore. I used to love to hit a bar on a Friday night to open the weekend, maybe even catch some live music, or better yet, get some dancing in. When I moved to Alaska, where people actually smoked in bars, any inkling towards nightlife came to a screeching halt.

Nowadays, I tend to find most bars deeply depressing. Particularly under the judgement of daylight, these smoky-sweet dungeons are akin to wandering the Vegas black-jack tables long after those who still have money in their pockets have gone home, when the joyful shrieks of a winner's bride have twisted into a quiet, but sharp, "Honey, no!" as he pulls a still-sparkling diamond from her finger. Each town has it's hole. When I was in college in San Luis Obispo, it was McCarthy's, famous for it's regulars who settled into their assigned chairs while students rushed past it's smoked-glass window to chemistry and calculus classes. Here in Homer, we have a few such watering holes, places where sitting in the wrong seat up at the bar might make folks a bit uncomfortable.

For whatever reason, all I wanted when I arrived at the Holiday Inn in San Francisco was a drink. Just a beer, and not in my room. I'd arrived on a red-eye from Anchorage and was leaving early in the morning to attend a Permaculture class a couple of hours north of the city. Old college friends had long since left the crushing expense of San Francisco, and I hadn't yet used the couch-surfing network, so I used some travel points to book a "low-budget, upper end" room in the heart of the city. It was a Holiday Inn, yet it had no bar. Not yet dissuaded, I searched the web for a spot I could pop out to for a drink.

It had been nearly two decades since I'd spent any time in San Fran, and even back then, I knew a few districts quite well, and others, not at all. The Holiday Inn was in the Financial District (BART station proximity was a must), but typical for city business districts, it was absolutely dead at night, even on a Friday. My search results turned up the typical meat market, grind fests popular with the 20-somethings, but one odd entry caught my eye: The 21 Club.

I have a confession. If you hadn't guessed, I am a voyeur. I am and always have been fascinated by society's fringes. Not just watching from the edges, but interacting with those at its heart. I've chatted up more than my share of prostitutes, pan-handlers, and street people who overnight in the forested parks of the city. And in Vegas? I really did watch a man pull his wife's ring from her finger as she tried to muffle her enraged protests. Once, an old boyfriend and I spent the night tucked into a window box in the heart of San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park, because we couldn't pay for a hostel. I can't imagine doing this alone, but within the safety of our twosome, we were both fascinated by the seething life in the restless night.

That's why this review of the 21 Club drew me in:
When I contemplate suicide, I go drinking here. The bar tender is a jolly ol' guy who pours a mean stiff drink. The patrons are surly, belligerent, full-time alcoholics. When you sit there and you're drinking a greyhound that taste like it could pull the the paint off a muni, watching young girls hawk rocks to toothless men, wearing hospital bands, while a woman squats between a Buick Skylark and Caprice Classic to either pee, or base some caine, or both, all with the sound track off some angry vet arguing with some professional drunk about which Cat Stevens song to play on the #%^@ jukebox, you know you're alive, and it feels great.

The 21 Club was on Turk Street, about 8 city blocks from the hotel. It was 1 o'clock in the morning. I was alone. One reviewer noted that it was a really, really good idea to take a cab there, and tip heavily to have it come back for you.

In the end, I didn't go. The shrieks from the angel on my shoulder pierced a little too loudly for me to ignore.

But I did head that way the next morning. I had a few hours before Jodi, the gal who'd offered me a ride to the class, would pick me up. At about 9 in the morning, I ambled toward Turk Street.

I love the rapid shift in microcosm that defines deep urban living. It's as if someone forgot to install the sliding glass doors that separate the city's extremes. From the Financial District, I roamed through Little Saigon before I landed in the Tenderloin. There was no transition: straight from the warm scent of Pho to the rancid odor of day-after alcohol, the Tenderloin offers no welcome and asks no forgiveness. I'd never heard of this district, but it was evident that it was home to the city's rejected, dejected, disposable, and disposed.

Liquor stores sported bold-print signs in 72-point font that made the message clear: NO ALCOHOL SALES BEFORE 8 AM! NO EXCEPTIONS! A man wrestled a woman's purse from her shoulder. At first she resisted, then she cuddled close to him, surrendering, nuzzling into his neck while he took what he wanted from her bag. People were everywhere, scattered and battered along the sidewalks. Clusters of men passed brown paper bags, or cigarettes, or a sandwich wrapped in white deli paper, back and forth. A woman touched up her make-up in a side-view mirror. A couple, arm in arm, pleaded with each other, "No you do it, baby" and "But I did last time, baby." The pulse of people pushed me through the crowded sidewalks.

I spied a woman in a bus shelter across the street. She was frighteningly skinny, a mere x-ray of the human form, shoulders, hips, and knees. Her pants, probably a Size 2, looked way too big. She looked like she was screaming. I crossed the street to go over to her, but as I got closer, I heard nothing. Her mouth was fully open, her lips stretched tight above the tops of her teeth, gums exposed, a silent shriek, nearly splitting her bruised face. She had an outer layer on, jeans, but they were down around her ankles.

"Are you OK?" I asked. She merely swayed back and forth, sitting on the bench, the jeans binding her feet. "Are you OK?" I repeated. She looked at me, but made no indication there was anything she wanted, or at least not that I could give her. This close, I could see her split lips, small spots of crusted blood at the edges, and her thickly-coated tongue. Her eyes looked wild, but it was probably because she couldn't close her mouth. God, it must hurt. "Well," I said, "I hope you're OK."

I walked on, feeling completely useless. Why hadn't I at least offered to help her pull her pants up? She probably couldn't look down with her mouth stuck open that way. Was it lock-jaw? And why were her pants down? What on earth had happened to her? I couldn't stop thinking about her, but I continued on.

I found the 21 Club, right on the corner, it's large glass windows just as one reviewer had described them, eyes into the city. It was open, but I no longer wanted to go in. It would have been enough reality in the wee hours, watching the darkness draw people in, but I wasn't up for it in the daylight. Next door, a liquor store was doing a booming business by 9:30 AM, and in the two or three minutes that I stood near the store front, I overheard a heated exchange between a customer and a man I presumed to be the owner, something to do with credit. Tough place to do business....

A few doors down from the liquor store, I passed a clear-glass fronted shop. Its window was packed - packed - with piles of books and magazines, stacked to the ceiling. The front door was open, so I went in. There was barely room to walk through the maze of piles. Towers of books teetered on the dusty floor, and several stacks of magazines had spilled across it. It looked like they had been there a very long time.

"Well, dear, this place isn't on your Greyhound Tour of the city. Aren't you a few blocks out of your way?" The shop owner - an oddity in this neighborhood in plaid pants, button-down sweater, and thick, black-rimmed glasses - eyed me across a stack on what I supposed was the check-out counter, long ago, before it, too, had become home to yet more scattered books and magazines. "What are you looking for?"

"If I told you, could you find it in here?" I was tempted to toss out a title.

"It doesn't matter. I'd find something you want." Dismissing me, he went back to arranging something amidst the stacks. Someone wandered in, clearly a "regular" in the neighborhood. "Get outta here!" the shop-owner yelled, pushing the man right back out. "Geez, these poeple wander in here like it's a public latrine or something."

"Maybe you should close the door," I offered.

"I wanted the door shut, it'd be shut!" Ok.

I actually found a couple of titles that struck my interest, Aldous Huxley's The Genius and the Goddess and Sam Brumbaugh's Goodbye, Goodness, a title that seemed particularly poignant at the moment. I paid for my books and went back out into the noise and stench of Friday night's morning after.

Definitions for tenderloin include the tenderest cut of the loin, composed of the Psoas major muscle along the central spine, and a city district known for vice and graft. Interestingly, the psoas is a critical factor in our ability to walk upright.

It's so easy to forget that people who barely survive exist, when I live in the quiet, snow-blanketed peace of my neighborhood, but I know these elements are around me. More subtly perhaps, but they're there. Anchorage has Fourth Avenue, and walking through the city's parks - or even outside a friend's back yard - I find people tucked into cardboard, rolled into wool blankets, and shivering through the night, who somehow manage to wake in the morning. Homer's discarded are tucked somewhere I've yet to tread, but they, too, are here, perhaps even camped within the woods and hills that I snowshoe.

Economists tell us that the world cannot take care of everyone, that someone must always fall through the cracks so that the rest of us can live in relative ease. That has always sounded like a cop-out to me, the voice of comfort refusing to venture outside it's own personal beam of sunlight. Walking through the Tenderloin was disturbing to me, but it was also a community, filled with people who are connected by the tentacles of the city. Though the image of the silently shrieking woman is with me still, I was looking forward to Permaculture class, where we'd explore solutions to need on many different levels.

I filled my cup with coffee from the liquor store, took one swallow, and tossed it in the curb, my gut still curdling. The smell of cigarette smoke lingered in my hair as I threaded my way back through dim-sum parlors and barber shops to catch my ride on Market Street.

I'm afraid I took no photos of the Tenderloin during my visit, but I hope you'll get a feeling for the place from this guy's slide show I found online. The site owner says the photo collage was inspired by Rick Smolan, but I can't find out the name of the person who actually put this together.

In a similar vein, this excellent piece by my friend Adam Burke, an independent radio producer, wanders a level deeper into terrain like the Tenderloin, but that exists out of sight of the city, in the subterranean homeless community of Las Vegas's storm drains.

And on a more positive note, the permaculture principle that states "the problem is the solution" is exemplified here in this man's invention, the EDAR (Everyone Deserves a Roof)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Looking Back to Move Forward


Every owner-builder I know sings the same mantra: If I had it all to do over again, I'd do everything differently. Don't get me wrong - I love my home, and am very thankful for it, especially as "the American Dream" eludes so many. Still, it's extremely hard to learn so many new techniques and realize that you could have done everything so much better. Not bigger, not fancier...but better.


Some of you know that I attended an intensive building workshop this summer at Solar Energy International (SEI) in Paonia, Colorado. Our primary instructor, Laura Bartels, is an amazing straw bale builder and the energy behind Green Weaver, her design, consulting, and education business in Carbondale. Laura had just returned from our nation's capital, where she had been working with Builders without Borders to build an eco-friendly information kiosk at the US Botanical Garden, and deliver free presentations and hands-on workshops to get these ideas out to the public.



Assisting Laura, we had Doni Kiffmeyer and Kaki Hunter, a husband-wife design-build team who specialize in earth bag buildings in the tradition of Cal Earth's Nader Khalili, who passed this year. Between our three instructors, we learned the age-old techniques of earth-bag building (1st photo), adobe brick making (2nd photo), straw bale techniques, mixing plaster (3rd photo), and making cob (4th photo). The common element in all of these techniques? Earth, of course. This area of study is often called earthen architecture, or earthen building, which is more accurate than "natural" building.

You might wonder why trees are absent from this curriculum. It's not that timber building is un-natural. Done correctly, it can even be sustainable. For example, the spruce bark beetle plague of the Kenai Peninsula converted miles of open forest to fields of dead conifers. As the beetle worked its way southwest, the lush and verdant spruce forests that defined the region turned to a rust-red brush-stroke across the horizon. These beetle-kill spruce have provided the lumber to build our homes, and the BTUs to warm them. I used the beetle-kill timber to side my home (5th photo). But with the best of that wood used and only the rotten remaining, procuring lumber from Canada or the Lower 48 is costly on multiple levels.

The benefits of working with earthen materials are myriad, but I most appreciated that they were local, and that I could use some of these techniques with the very soil on my own land in Alaska. For example, my property consists of a shallow clay lens, and there is lots of sand nearby, too. If I ever get around to building my root cellar, I could use the clay I excavate to fill earth-bags for the root cellar walls. With plywood at $50 a sheet, and concrete blocks at $15 each, using my own soil to build the walls sounds pretty sweet.

There is a building trend sweeping the western states and parts around the world, but there's not a whole lot about it that's new. In the US, straw bale dates back to 1886, with a one-room school house in Bayard, Nebraska. Cob is known back to at least the 13th century in England. Then there's adobe: California's magnificent missions, Chapel San Miguel in New Mexico, which was built in 1620, and the magnificent towers of South Yemen. So, the natural building "trend" is nothing new, it is simply a rebirth. Check out this tour of natural buildings here in the USA.

What's particularly tricky about working with these earthen materials is that there is no magic formula. Everyone wants the perfect recipe, but there is none. It's unique to each soil type, and that goes beyond merely the moisture, sand, clay, and gravel content. Each of those elements can have different binding properties based upon the parent material (like silica), the grain size and shape (round? angular?), the elasticity of the clay component, and a variety of other properties that define how well it binds. So, there's no way around testing your soil and experimenting to get just the right consistency. What's the right consistency? Alas, that comes with experience, that magic "je ne sais quois" that only the trained hand can detect.

There's a trick when it comes to working with earthen building materials if you live in cold climates. Earthen buildings breathe. The whole mechanism by which they keep mildew from forming and critters from embedding is by moisture transfer - a concept that is completely foreign to modern building science for high-latitude regions. In colder places, buildings are designed to be very tight, to keep heat in, and to keep "glaciers" from forming on the roof and eaves. Our buildings can be so tight that indoor air quality problems arise from the lack of ventilation. Vapor barriers are built into the system to prevent any moisture movement. Of course, if the vapor barrier fails, it's just as likely that you're locking moisture into your structure. Tight, vapor-barrier construction conflicts directly with the "breathable" quality of earthen materials. If you want to build an earthen addition to your home, or add a straw bale skin to increase your R-value, you'll mate two incompatible systems - one that depends upon zero moisture transfer, and one that relies on nearly complete moisture transfer. So for now, we cannot mix these techniques without taking on a tangible risk for rot, mold, mildew and, ultimately, failure.

Oh, if I had it all to do again.....

So for 5 days, we learned the inner science of clays, plasters, coatings, pigments, stability, emerging building codes, ensuring breathability, securing bales, load-bearing versus non-load bearing techniques, and more. I left with so many ideas, and the hope that I can somehow build an earth-bag greenhouse on to the southern aspect of my home. If not that, I at least hope to build a few cob benches, like these whimsical creations in Toronto's Dufferin Park. And at City Bike in Portland, Oregon. And the inspiring design flexibility and creativity that these techniques encourage, as shown in this video tour of cob features.

Check out this cool video, where natural building architect Scott Kelly walks us through a state-of-the-art efficient, low embodied energy office building.

It's hard not to be excited about this trend in perfecting and updating these techniques that, though not quite lost, seem to have been hiding from us for the past few generations.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Road Less Traveled, part II


NOTE: be sure to read Part I first.

The delicious Eel RIver passes through California's ancient redwoods and eventually feeds the Pacific. It's shallow enough to dive to its sandy bottom, and deep enough to jump in from the banks. It's swift enough to enjoy a mildly vigorous upstream swim, but calm enough to simply float downstream to another town. Rejuvenated by a long swim in the peace of the river, I was ready to get back on the road. I called Bijou to join me and we headed back up the bank. As instructed, I stopped just below the ridge and called out "Blind man! Blind man!"

It was silent but for the occasional snap of a bullet in the distance. "BLIND MAN! BLIND MAN!" I yelled.

"Blind man! Hold your fire!"
"Blind man! Hold your fire!"
"Blind man! Hold your fire!"
The call ricocheted through the woods.

"Clear!"
"Clear!"
"Clear!"
The process repeated itself, until it seemed each member of the battalion had ceased fire. The familiar voice of the group leader called out "OK! Clear! Come on up!"

I had just popped over the ridge, when the unmistakable zing of a bullet whipped through the tree tops. I just caught Bijou's collar as she pounced back towards the river.

"@!#%!@!" he screamed, "I said hold your fire, @^#%!^&"
"Sorry..." someone replied, feebly.
"Are you ready NOW?"
"Clear...."

"OK, CLEAR! Come on up!"
"Are you sure?" I ventured.
"We're sure, gal, come on up."

Cautiously, I peered into the woods as I stepped onto the trail, but I saw no one. With Bijou in tow, I bolted all the way back up the trail to my truck, calling "thank you" as I ran.

Safely back in the truck, I sat at the wheel for a moment, shook my head, kicked the ignition, and left Redway behind as I continued down the Redwood Highway. "What a trip."



Several days later, I picked up a hitch-hiker outside Ukiah, a few hours north of San Francisco. He looked young, a little bit dirty, but harmless. He was a bag-head, as a friend describes the hippie boys who tuck all of their hair into woven wool, sack-like hats.

His name was Scott, and coincidentally, he was from Redway.

"Oh my God, I have got to tell you this crazy thing that happened to me." I reiterated my Eel River swimming saga.

"I'm not surprised," Said Scott. "I've only heard talk of those guys, they're something of a rural legend. I believe you stumbled upon the Humboldt County militia." Scott went on to describe a group of Humboldt County locals who believe that the time of a resource-based ground war is imminent. They fear food and water shortages that will send a surge of the urban masses up toward the relatively plentiful water, soil, and land in the redwoods. The militia has plans to counter the assault by taking out all access routes from the surrounding areas. You know, blowing up highway bridges, blocking waterways, and protecting air space. Huh. It sounded to me like the stuff of rural legend, but then again, I've heard folks in Wasilla, Delta Junction and the outskirts of Fairbanks at least SPEAK the same sentiments - I'm not sure if anyone is acting on them. Just a quick web search on the concept of a Humboldt militia yielded some pretty out-there info, such as this futurist's vision of the Humboldt Nation.

"You don't understand," Scott said. "California is at war right now. Between the pot growers and the corporate farmers and the folks who just want to raise a family, there is a lot of competition for resources here."

I started paying a little closer attention. For example, in Hopland, CA, a town formerly known for it expansive fields of hops, but that is now home to extensive vineyards that serve the upscale tasting scene, I noticed hand-made signs posted in the grocery, bar, and coffee shop. The notices were pushing a proposition to repeal Proposition 215, which had essentially legalized possession of up to 25 mature plants for personal use. Locals were rethinking its legalization, as problems arose, including the life-threatening issue of water use in the parched region.

A few days later, I was traveling a segment along the coast and picked up one of those fascinating left-end of the dial pirate radio stations. It was a call-in program, and yet again, coincidence ruled. The discussion over the repeal of Prop 215 was getting ugly. Callers, who seemed to consist largely of those who supported the decriminalization of pot, were furious, and wanted - yikes! - government intervention. One man raged about how his well had gone dry from the increased water use within the aquifer. A mother seethed that her children couldn't walk to the school bus anymore, as their previously small town became a seasonal host to 'unsavory" workers hired to harvest the pot. One caller started a whole string of angry listeners with a discussion about the Drug Enforcement Agency presence in Eureka. "They're telling us they're here for training, but there are like, 100s of these guys here! I mean, we need help, yes, and we want help, but our town has become a police state!"

Only hours later, I was passing through Eureka. Low and behold, I was stuck behind a large, UPS-style box truck, government green, with the DEA seal clearly printed on the back door. Whoa. I flipped on the local radio station in time to catch the news of a DEA raid somewhere in Humboldt County. One witness who lived in the neighborhood where the raid occurred decried the effort. "We're a family, we live here. They screamed at my wife, they scared my kids, and no one would tell us what was going on. This is NOT helping things."

A couple months later, I read of a raid on a medical marijuana dispensary in Culver City.

Holy cow, I thought. Scott was right: there WAS a ground war going on in Cali.

So maybe the idea of a local militia wasn't as out there as I had thought.

I didn't know what to make of it. What I do know is that, though I saw nothing in the larger media, something was going on in Mendo and Humboldt this summer and people were getting twitchy. I could certainly see how "stealing" someone's water, truly or just perceived, could be intuited as an assault. Yet the men I met at the Eel River were kind, friendly, and made me feel safe. Seriously - I felt absolutely no threat from them. Could these same men really be capable of rallying a ground war to defend what they see as rightly theirs? I don't think I'd want to be the one on the front to find out.

The Road Less Traveled, part I

Caveat: I know it’s been forever since I’ve posted, but I’ve decided to throw chronology to the wind and simply post events both current and since my last post, and try to be more habitual. Thanks for your tolerance!

A wrong turn so often takes us down a road we probably wouldn't have chosen but that, once there, we're glad we didn't bypass.

Some of you know that I took a 2-month long road trip this summer. It didn’t go unnoticed that, after living in Alaska for 16 years, I finally decided to make the pilgrimage down the Al-Can during the record highest fuel prices the US has seen. There’s no need to get into my motivation, but it was an excellent opportunity to collect a complete set of fuel economy data for Ellie May, my trusty road-trip steed. A 1994, 4-WD, extended cab Toyota pick-up truck, complete with beater camper shell ($35!), and loaded to the hilt with myself, living-out-of-the-truck gear, the dog, and the occasional passenger, I was amazed at how she performed against her industry rating of 19 mpg hwy/16 mpg city. Check out the data.

I’d been on the road for nearly two weeks during a searing heat wave that had no intention of easing it’s grip on the parched earth of southern Oregon and Northern California. Those of you who know this area of the Pacific Coast realize that it’s beauty is typically shrouded in dense fog and its cliff-lined shores are pummeled by winds that turn a day of beach-going into an inadvertent beauty treatment as the sand sloughs any exposed skin layer into the sea. Yet, even the coast was burning with 90°F+ (32°C+) temperatures. As I continued southbound, the highway wandered inland where the heat intensified.

The sea-foam green body of the Eel River winds back and forth beneath Highway 101, aka the Redwood Highway, and it teased me with its siren call to cool off in its luscious waters. Ah, yes. But each time I spied an access to the river, I had already passed the turn-off. Getting a bit impatient, I elected to hop off at the next exit, regardless of its name or destination. As luck had it, I spied a side road complete with a group of trucks parked at what certainly appeared to be a trailhead.




Towel – check. Swim trunks – check. Water – check. Dog – check. I nearly danced down the path toward the river, delighting in the refreshing calm to come. Suddenly, the staccato shout of gunfire erupted from somewhere deep in the trees. Kids with toy guns, my immediate assumption, was dispelled as a shower of leaf debris fell around me. I stopped – “Hello?”

“Blind man! Blind man! Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” echoed throughout the woods. “Hello!” I shouted again. One by one, a small group of men appeared from the woods, dressed in camo gear and eerie black combination hood-face shields, and assembled around me. One came forward and lifted his face shield. The others followed suit, though they stayed back a bit, forming a semi-circle around me. They were adults but for a couple of young boys, that were maybe 10 or 11 years old.

“Uh, I’m looking for the river, but I guess I took the wrong path.”

“Are you aware that we’re firing live 300 meter per second rounds?” the group leader demanded. Don’t quote me on that velocity, but that’s what I thought he said. And no, I wasn’t.

“Well, I suspected something was up when the leaf shrapnel fell on me. Look, it’s hot, I’ drove down here from Alaska, and I just wanted to cool off in the river, but it’s no problem, I’ll just go back the way I came - ”

Suddenly friendly, the group leader interrupted me. He explained that the Eel River was right down the path, not 5 minutes away, the waters were safe, and that I should go on down. He explained that I would be perfectly safe down there. It was extremely unlikely that I would encounter anyone else (no kidding?), and that I should enjoy my swim. Then he described our safety plan.

“When you’re ready to come back, just be sure you wait right below the top of the river bank and call out ‘blind man, blind man!’ Don't move until you hear me yell ‘clear, come up!’ before you come back on the trail.” One of the men had brought out a cooler they had stashed somewhere, and he offered me a pop and a pork sandwich. Though I declined, I appreciated their hospitality.

I admit I was a bit wary, but Alaska is a gun state, and I didn’t feel threatened by these guys at all. I just never expected to come upon a scene like this in California. Wasilla? Kenny Lake? Sure, but Humboldt County?

Thus briefed, Bijou the Wonder Dog and I skipped down the path and off to the peace of the river where, surprisingly, the gentle flow of the river buffered any sounds from the highway in the distance or from my personal guard unit in the forest above. To be continued….

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Common Ground: Seek and Ye Shall Find


First, my apologies for slacking on my posts. This entry is actually from March 19,2008. I am back on the road again, so I plan to post weekly. Thanks to everyone who has expressed interest.

So, March 22, 2008 marked my last day in Kuwait, with no more work there on the horizon, but good-bye has rarely been so rewarding.

Kuwait, for me, was not love at first sight. Her sands are grey: neither the rich, lustrous gold of the Saudi dunes nor the virginal white of the California shore. The stunning aqua of the Arabian Gulf’s waters is marred by the ever-present smog that hangs above and the sting of sulfur that often fills the air. Though they are not at war, there is no peace. Sirens, horns, and the city’s hive of traffic create a discordant opus, deafening and ceaseless. The piercing tirade wanders far out into the desert.

For many westerners, Kuwait is a lonely place. Family ties are strong here, and even those are laden with strict social taboos. The Kuwaitis I work with are very friendly, speak nearly perfect English, and enjoy sharing their knowledge of the United States, and many have studied or have family there. While men and women socialize freely in the work place, once outside they are expected to return home to their families, the only social circle outside the office. Western contract workers who travel to Kuwait solely for work have no families to go home to, and most often return to their four and five-star hotels for the evening. It makes for something of a Disneyland experience when you’re greeted daily by people paid to be friendly and served perfect meals that, though delicious, don’t come from the heart of a love-filled kitchen.

When I was here in March, I found the AWARE Center, a group dedicated to nurturing relationships between Westerners and Kuwaitis. The AWARE Center is an amazing place. Warm and welcoming, its calendar is rich with learning opportunities, and lectures are offered throughout the week. Hassan Bwambale, the center’s education coordinator, is a friendly Ugandan who moved to Kuwait quite some time ago to perfect his Arabic and pursue his studies of the Qur’an. We’d met at a diwaniya, one of AWARE’s discussion groups , and Hassan asked me to give a lecture. Since he knew so little about me, I was surprised asked “about what?” “Anything!” he replied. I told him I could discuss the potential opportunities for Western expats to assist Kuwait with some of its environmental problems, so that was that. My lecture was scheduled for March 19, so I prepared my discussion and, the week before my lecture, the government scheduled the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) for – you guessed it – March 19. His birthday follows the lunar calendar, so varies year to year. The show will go on, Ms. Noelle of the AWARE Center assured me, and so it did.

At the appointed hour, a lone guest arrived. He was a corrosion engineer from Scotland, and seemed quite eager for me to present my talk, so I did. It was a little awkward at first, but in a show of support, each of the AWARE Center staff came in to listen as well. I started with a PowerPoint presentation, the bane of public speaking in the 21st century, and meandered into informal discussion. I’d found a great You Tube video – in Arabic! – of a small living roof project in Egypt , and shared this with the group, as well as information on Tree People's Urban Runoff Recovery Program . The more I discussed the possibilities for Kuwait, the more excited I became, wishing my days in Kuwait were not at an end, wishing too that I could pursue some of these ideas here in Kuwait.

The more I travel through the Arab world, the more I learn that we are so much the same. As in Lebanon, many Kuwaitis are concerned for their waters and their fisheries. They too worry at the logarithmic increase in asthma among their children. Like Alaska, their wealth comes from the fruits of the ground. Oil pays for everything. Their schools, their roads, and their daily lives, are funded by the oil industry. Finding the balance between oil's wealth and its impacts, and between a society's lifestyle and its impacts. remains a challenge for all nations.

Kuwait’s challenges are many, but differ little than those of other nations. In fact, I opened my presentation with a slide show depicting the similarities between Alaska and Kuwait.. Like Alaska's extreme cold, Kuwait’s extreme heat drives a need for energy far beyond that of many less-hostile climates. Like Alaska, oil’s wealth has fostered a consumer culture, blinding many to the costs of polluted air and ocean dumping. Urban runoff, insufficient water, polluted oceans - these are issues the United States has struggled with, and we've found some creative solutions. And the Kuwaitis at the AWARE Center expressed the same concerns I have at home. At that moment, I ceased to be Alaskan, they ceased to be Kuwaiti, and we were all just people.

It’s always a bit risky to touch on religion, but it’s imperative. Christianity and Islam both preach preserving the gift s that God bestowed on mankind, and I see polluting the Earth’s resources as a violation of this edict, and therefore sin. Perhaps it will be the priests, pastors, clerics and imams who bring this message home again to their congregations - and to industry's leaders.

At the end of the talk, those few in attendance rewarded me with vigorous applause, warmth and encouragement. The AWARE Center and my new friend, Ms. Noelle, awarded me a lovely plaque for presenting my talk, and I left feeling sad to bid my final good-bye to Kuwait. Based on my experience that evening, I was filled with hope for Kuwait. What better way to leave a place that has slowly worked its way into my heart.

Here's the PowerPoint presentation I prepared for my AWARE discussion. If you can put it to use, then share the word!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fighting the Good Fight, with Energy to Spare



Walking the shoreline along Beirut’s Corniche, I ponder the fisherman as they cast, watch, and wait. From traditional dress to professional-casual, the men along the rock wall could be on break from University or a day at the office, or this could be a daily ritual to wile away the hours. No one seems even mildly concerned that only one year ago the seafloor was a blanket of oily tar, and an obsidian ring of petroleum sludge defined the high tide line. In a country frighteningly devoid of environmental controls on industrial pollution and where tons of litter is discarded directly on the beaches, the idea of the natural habitat as anything other than something to exploit is counter-intuitive to mainstream Lebanon. Attempting to overcome these entrenched views is a staggering task; it’s easy to simply let things continue as they have. C’est la vie….

Easy for some, anyway. It amazes me how often some form of good comes from trauma, pain, and disaster. Last year, the July War and the oil spill were devastating for Lebanon - economically, ecologically, and emotionally. But the oil spill gave birth to a new vision for environmental action, born right here in Beirut from – no surprise – the inexhaustible Wa’el Hmaidan and Zena El-Khalil. If you followed this blog last year, you’ll recall Wael and Zena as the energy behind a grass roots effort to clean the oil spill from the beaches. They hosted me for one month while I volunteered on the oil spill in November 2006. Frustrated with the lack of freedom and inevitable bureaucracy that evolves within non-profit organizations – as well as in government, private industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – Indy Act was born. This union for independent activists (thus, “IndyAct”) serves as an umbrella non-profit for independent thinkers. Members can qualify under IndyAct’s non-profit status for grant funds. They have IndyAct’s organizational resources, interns, and volunteers available to them. Yet, they are free to pursue their own projects and solutions without the oversight and restrictions that come with most non-profit organizations. In a single year of operation, IndyAct has assembled the talents of three independent activists (“league members”) from Lebanon to achieve numerous successes within their three environmental, social and cultural campaigns . With local interest growing in global climate change issues, their volunteer ranks recently swelled from 50 to 80, and their staff of interns will grow from eight to twelve by January.

This week Wa’el and this storm of volunteers are putting the final preparations on their 9th December Walk-a-thon for global climate change awareness in the Arab world. In preparation for the event, they’ve strung “seawater level” tape around Beirut’s neighborhoods, as a visual reminder of the potential effects should Lebanon, the Arab nations, and the rest of the world decline to take action. They’ve created murals around the city (see 1st photo) to spread their “Draw the Line” theme. This is IndyAct's first major public education awareness campaign. It's concurrent with a global event timed to coincide with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The road to renewal is painful. During my work here last year, the Ministry of Environment’s lead officer told me quite bluntly, “Why do I care about oil on the beach? Cleaning the oil will not feed my child.” I cringe, curse under my breath. How can he be so selfish, so short-sighted? I resist the urge to mention that the fat boy on his screen saver hardly looks hungry. Instead, I remind myself that it took fires on streams and in landfills, the near-disappearance of several animal species – including our national symbol - and Rachel Carson’s strident writings (insert link to Silent Spring) before North Americans began to rethink the benefits of “better living through chemistry.”

It’s easy to understand the nation’s collective exhaustion with their country’s nearly constant role as the world’s battleground since the 1940s. It’s easy to understand the lack of interest in any future that looks further than tomorrow. Last year, I walked every day through Rafiq Hariri’s pet re-building project – the downtown Beirut Central District (BCD). Though it had a disturbing Disneyland quality to it, it was a hub for the faux riche and provided jobs for quite a few Beirutis. Brought to life after 10 years of post-civil war re-building effort, now it sits silent, evacuated, with Hezbollah’s empty tent city in place of its outdoor cafés. Political persuasions aside, no truly human member of the global village we call Earth, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Confucian, Agnostic, or Atheist, could peer into this scene with anything other than disgust.

There is a long, bumpy, pothole littered, bombed-out road to travel from an age-old habit of disregard for the Lebanese coast, to Lebanon’s tiny (but energetically) emerging environmental movement and ecotourism industry. The Lebanese who truly hope for clean air, water, and beaches have a challenging road to walk. Yet projects like the Eco-Village , an environmentally sustainable holistic retreat, and the Al-Chouf Cedar Reserve show the promise Lebanon holds. Protected areas are growing and Lebanon is using these areas to attract the coveted eco-traveller. Al-Chouf is a forest preserve established to protect the last of the brutally over-harvested cedars that signify Lebanon’s ancient history and decorate the nation’s flag. Together with Lebanon’s largest remaining wetlands area, Aammiq Wetland, they comprise a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. All three of these projects testify to the power of the people in Lebanon who truly value their country and its unique gifts, and are committed to passing them on to future generations. I took the 2nd and 3rd photos during our visit to Al-Chouf this week.




Days before the Arab Climate walk-a-thon, the IndyAct office is alive with activity. Well into the night, people come and people go. The faces change as the evening passes, but there are always at least 5 people in the office. It’s the final push to get the word out. Their goal is aggressive. In a city that at least superficially seems indifferent to the pulse of their world, IndyAct wants 5000 participants in the walk-a-thon Saturday morning. If any group can do it, I have faith that IndyAct has the passion and the commitment to achieve its goal.

Escaping the Mall to Explore Jihad



I’d read through several travel guides for Kuwait, yet all seemed at a loss for suggesting how best to pass time in Kuwait outside Kuwait’s apparently insatiable yen for shopping. Locals most often asked me, which malls have you visited? The Avenues? The Marina? Al Kout? At some point, it’s impossible to avoid the mall culture that has become the national past time. Meetings outside of working hours are inevitably conducted at mall coffee shops, and most typically, Starbucks. Yes, the world’s worst coffee has invaded the Middle East. The old-world Arab coffee shops tucked along the side streets are small outdoor patio affairs with dirt floors, benches, and a few scattered tables and chairs. Men in pairs, men alone, but men, always men, chat idly and gesture lazily to emphasize their points. As a filthy menstruating female, I am prohibited entry to this world, but I peer inside whenever I pass. I listen to the soft gurgle of men sucking on water pipes. I squeeze back a dry cough deep inside my chest, and hold my breath against the cloying sweet smoke of the sheesha as I walk on to the Marina Mall. Or maybe it was the Avenues. Or Souq Sharq. I don’t know, which. Each mall is a “deja vu” collection of over-priced clothing, jewelry and perfume shops, the recurring line of storefronts occasionally broken with a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee shop. The monochrome field of white dishdashas and black abayas, the dancing script of westerns shop names in Arabic script, and the presence of gender-segregated prayer rooms are the only clues that I am not in Minneapolis or Los Angeles or Dallas or Tampa or Omaha.

Infinitely bored with the mall scene and its expense - one 250-ml (8 oz) Starbucks cappuccino was $4.25!!! - I believed that there had to be more to Kuwait’s nightlife than the malls, there simply MUST be. I’d heard of the Advocates for Western-Arab Relations (AWARE), a local non-profit cultural outreach organization, and had finally managed to attend one of their diwaniyas. This was my first experience with the concept of the diwaniya, a discussion group intended to inspire thoughtful discussion and reasonable discourse among those with various opinions. I was both wary of and fascinated by the discussion topic for my first diwaniya, “Islam vs. Terrorism.” Wary, because I wondered how truly open any discussion of religion can be, yet fascinated to hear Muslims speak their opinions on what connection – if any – exists between their beliefs and the violence perpetrated by some “in the name of Islam.”

After a short and very dry Power Point presentation that explored the international definition of terrorism and its sub-types, as well as references from the Qur’an that prohibit killing the innocent but do allow for killing only in self-defense, the topic was open to the room. Ever the critical thinker, the vagueness of “innocence” and “self-defense” disturbed me. Who decides one’s innocence? Who decides what constitutes self-defense? If one feels oppressed by another nation (e.g., Palestinian resentment towards the presence and/or expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestine Occupied Territories), is it right to assume the “oppressing” nation’s people are not innocent, and that re-taking settled land by force is self-defense? I could see how a devout Muslim might be able to justify to him/herself an act of violence towards Israel as “self-defense” in this context. When Dr. Lesh, the mediator for the diwaniya, affirmed that self-defense and innocence could only be determined in a court of law, my mind went to the many United Nations Resolutions that condemn the settlements (UN Resolutions 446, 452, 465). By no means am I advocating acts of violence against Israel; however, I left the discussion completely unclear on how Islam would interpret such an action.

One Westerner asked, “But what about jihad? What is it?” Muslims in the group insisted that jihad refers to personal or daily “struggle,” not war. Jihad is an element of daily life that can include striving to feed one’s family, to educate oneself, to raise one’s children as good citizens, or any other aspect of life that requires effort. The Muslims in the room felt that fundamentalists had redefined “jihad” for political purposes, much the way that ultra-conservatives in the US have co-opted the word “freedom” to promote military objectives.

The Muslims in the group wondered, why are only events involving Arabs reported as terrorism? What about the genocidal acts of the Janjaweed in Sudan or the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, or the brutal massacres of Seung Hui Cho at Virginia Tech and Pekka-Eric Auvinen at Jokela School? Aren’t these, too, acts of terrorism? I admit it’s hard for me not to disagree. Why aren’t these reported as acts of terror? Of course, the discussion was about Islam and its view towards acts of terror, not the role that media plays in creating bias. That topic alone could consume many diwaniyas.

One Kuwaiti woman argued, “Westerners know nothing about Islam. When’s the last time you saw a book about Islam in the US?” “Every day,” we answered, nearly in unison. She was not aware that US bookshelves, in stores and in libraries, are flush with books on Islam, and that new ones are released every day. Americans are starved for information about an elusive world they’ve only recently been exposed to, and that’s become part of their daily lives, through the media.

This reinforced the idea that we all censor based on what we absorb from the print, broadcast and Internet media. Everyone, regardless of political, religious, or cultural affiliation, stereotypes each other. When I left I hoped that everyone in the room would acknowledge bias on all fronts, and consider its power in the stories we hear. The diwaniya was intriguing, but it seemed most of us left with more questions than we came with.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Islam, Wasta, and the Changing Roles of Women

What's refreshing about Kuwait is that challenges to tradition - and status quo - are openly discussed in the opinion pages of Kuwait’s two English-language dailies The Arab Times and The Kuwait Times. Muna al-Fuzai is a devout Muslim woman journalist who waves the flag for anyone she deems under-represented. In recent editorials she has openly debated against Kuwait's pro-male dominant paradigm on issues of maids and rape, absurdly spoiled children, graft within the government, nepotism and "wasta" - the assumed benign practice of using influence or bribery to bypass the system. I have never met this woman – but I’d like to. What drives her to risk possible reprimands from her family, or is there no risk? Kuwait is making progress in terms of human rights very quickly for a country under Sharia Law. Women drive, they vote, they are highly educated (often in engineering and medicine), and the Kuwaiti Ambassador to Geneva recently encouraged women to seek seats in Parliament and become more involved in Kuwait’s legislative process. Yet many remain fully covered in public, and once married, live a dull existence with maids to cook and clean for them, au pairs to raise their children, and nothing but time on their hands. Internet Blogs and Opinion pages are heated with the debate over Kuwait’s proposed reinstatement of a curfew prohibiting women from leaving the home after 8 PM, under the auspices of protecting them from increasingly male violence. A few of the western men I’ve met here are disgusted by Kuwait’s treatment of women. What these men don’t recognize is that, at least in Kuwait, these issues are debated and discussed openly – quite unlike in their Wahabbist neighbor to the south.

There is brand of western chivalry in the American men I meet here that irritates me in its ignorance, until I realize that I’ve been guilty of the same before I came to the Arab world. American men erupt when I wear long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, wondering “why the hell I’ve gone native.” Of course, they aren’t the targets of the hard, disdainful stares, the hissed curses uttered under breath sweet with sheesha, or sometimes (though rarely) spat upon. It’s easy for us to become belligerent on another’s behalf, when we don’t personally pay the price for violating tradition.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Kuwait's Broken Families

With typically three and often four generations of Kuwaitis living under the same roof, it's difficult to perceive an anti-family attitude in the culture of this wealthy oil state tucked between the deserts of Saudi and the turmoil in Iraq. Yet for the Southeast Asian expatriate workers who constitute nearly 60% of Kuwait's population - and the breath that feeds her thriving oil economy - living and working in Ku8 tortures their loved ones. Largely from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India, this portion of the expat populace ekes a living on about 100KD (Kuwaiti Dinar, 4KD = US$1 as of 13 Nov 2007) each month. By law, no expat may bring a spouse or child into the country unless s/he earns 250 KD/month. And NOT collectively. So, a two-income household where one spouse earns 245 KD and the other earns 245 KD still cannot meet the income requirements. I work every day with men who left their families 5, 10, or even 15 years ago to come to Kuwait for jobs in the burgeoning service sector (drivers, waiters, housekeepers). They work hard to manage one trip home each year, and their marriages suffer for it. They barely know their sons and daughters, but earning enough to keep their children in school is a price they gladly pay. Until yesterday, I'd only heard rumor of this policy, but Muna al-Fuzai's column in yesterday's Kuwait Times confirmed this ( A mother's deprivation of rights! ). Rage and resentment - long quelled beneath the brilliant smiles and easy demeanors of these critical cogs in Ku8's machinery - is now coming to the surface, and Ku8 will likely have to remedy the situation soon. For many, the income policy is interpreted as blatant racism that belies the sentiment "Come, clean our toilets and nanny our children, but don't plan to have a rich life outside the workplace." Today, with another story on the demise of the family in Kuwait, it feels as if a small social crisis is simmering in this otherwise safe and somewhat sleepy Arab nation ( Majority of families live in alienation ).

When you create an industrial society that cannot meet its own workforce needs (only 30% of Kuwait's population are actually Kuwaiti), your expat Laborers bring both the exotic (curry, cappuccino, and cardamom) and the unexpected (belly-dancing, un-shrouded women, and Urdu). Like every nation before it that experienced a surge in "foreigners" - and even currently, with Italy's increasing (and derided) population of mosques and Romanians.

Considering that Kuwaiti women only won the right to vote last year, and learned to drive not long before, the Kuwaitis - like all nations - face the same challenges of globalization that families around the world confront.

Joseph, a Sri Lankan, drives us each day to the Kuwait Petroleum Company complex where I work during this project. Since I work different hours, I'm often the only passenger on the way home in the afternoon. Recently he took the opportunity for a detour to a Catholic church nearby in Al Ahmadi. Since I'm American, he assumed I'm Christian, and since I have dark hair, he probably assumed I'm Catholic. Not a bad guess. Though I left the Catholic Church as soon as moved out from my mother's roof, I was raised tightly in its rituals for nearly 17 years. Though nearly in the majority by nationality, Joseph is acutely in the minority in this Islamic state. It touched me that he thought to take me to Church - and also prescient. Even though I no longer practice, I do try to visit a Catholic Church in every country I visit - only to pray for my mother, who is still deeply devout.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A few more views into Kuwait




Unlike the steamy outfits and wild parties that define the Beirut Central District on a Friday night, Kuwait is a truly alcohol-free Islamic state, under Shiria Law. Along the beach near one of Ku8's many exotic hotels, women fully clothed in black hijab and abaya waltz into the sea, the fabric flaoting around them until, ever so slowly, it sinks into the salty surf and clings to their skin. Surely this cannot contribute to their buoyancy, and I see no women wander further than the surf.

After sunset, the crowds converge upon the main street in Farwaniya, ducking into air-conditioned shops for relief from the still-stifling heat.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ku8 City - a different view of an Islamic state


My first trip to Ku8 was this past July, an oddly cocooned experience at a time when the wise evacuate the 55 degree + (131 F) mid-day temperatures. In this type of heat the silence engulfs you. The random noise of the city is absorbed into a percussive wind that throbs against my ears. Wandering along the shore amidst the surreal plaza fountains (first photo), the strum of a Kuwaiti man's flapping dishdasha echoes across the warm wind. That day it reached 138F. I forced myself out into it - just to know what it would be like if I had to go outside, to live like many in Ku8 do, in unheated metal sheds by the sea with only a stifling hot breeze to wick the perspiration from their faces, throats, and chests. Long flowing fabrics make the most sense in this climate and support a thriving business in cotton shops, tiny glass-fronted stores with shelf upon shelf of white fabric. Are they all the same, I wonder? I am curious to wander inside and feel each piece, look closely at its weave, but this is clearly a man's world. I've yet to see a woman inside. I am surprised how long I manage my walk rather comfortably in silk pants and caftan - until I'm overcome by a wave of nausea, and rush behind a shop to submit to the bile up from my gut. Dehydration - subtle, yet powerful, it overtook me in a mere 20 minutes.

This first trip was rather lonely, the streets of Farwaniya empty until the sun slid out of site and could impose less ill. I did meet several wonderful shopkeepers, including two wonderful pastry bakers. They made real Lebanese beklawa! Their English was as limited as my Arabic, so we made much of swapping hand gestures and gifts - they, fruit drinks and sweets, I Homer-roasted coffee and smoked salmon. I also wandered into a wonderful spice shop, owned by an Iranian father and son (2nd photo).
Again, the Arab - er, Persian - tradition of hospitality lived on in the souq. Shopkeeper and son pumped me full of "cooka-coola laay-eet" (Coke light, the equivalent of Diet Coke), exotic fruit candies, and a wonderful deep roast coffee perfumed with ground cardamom.

A Canadian acquaintance took me out to the coast to meet a boat builder, a master of the Arab Dhou in life size and miniature. He lives and works in the grinding heat of summer (3rd photo)
, and welcomes the chance to run indoors to show me his small hand-made ships. A testament to his craft, each piece is hand cut and secured with tiny dowels. His full-scale work has been in progress for 8 months.

I return to Ku8 in November, and am hopeful this time that I will meet the Kuwaitis who came to Lebanon to help collect environmental samples from the oil spill last year. I look forward to visiting these places again with kinder temperatures. Best of all, I will return to Lebanon - far too briefly - at the end of November, to revisit good friends and a hopefully healing coast.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Post-partum




Dawn rises quietly today over Beirut (first photo), as seen from the balcony of Wael & Zena's lovely home in Achrafieh. Well, the post-partum depression phase is not quite here yet, but I've fewer than 3 hours before lift-off from Beirut, to London, then on to Anchorage via Boston & Salt Lake City. The past few days have been a blur, and despite nearly a week of sleep deprivation, sleep would not come to me. The 5 AM call of the muezzin, hypnotic and calming, was a welcome interruption from the incessant buzz of a particularly tenacious mosquito. Boxes and bags packed, goodbyes spoken. And, despite my own disappointment with how much I was able to complete on the OSCP, Wael seems quite satisfied and eager to move forward toward its completion. At this point, there is little to be done about the oil that has weathered to a tarry crust on parts of the nation's rocky shore. The fisherman's port of Delieh continues to act as a sump for a mysterious source of thick oily mousse that laps back and forth on the miniscule tide of this tiny bay.

The Lebanese pastry shops (second photo) are works of art, sparkling clean arrays of tiny nut and honey bites of heaven arranged on shining silver serving plates. The Greek baklava can't compare to the absurdly decadent "beklawa," the Lebanese pride. The baker asked me what brought me to Beirut, and we got to talking about the oil spill, what the long-term effects might be, and what might still be done. With so many other issues on Lebanon's collective mind, the oil spill is far removed from the daily events that teeter toward full governmental collapse. "Every day, I drive by Delieh, and still there is oil, like a bowl collecting if from where, in the sea? I don't know," the baker tells me. I am glad someone has noticed, because the fisherman in the port seem to have come to accept its murky presence and its filth on their hulls, its scent in their nostrils. "Can we really do anything about this now?" he asks. Of course, I reply - we learn from it and plan for the future. Even if warfare once again splits a coastal energy plant's' fuel supply and spits it into the sea, we can try to push it where we want it to go, we can use tools to protect certain areas, we can act faster to reduce its damage. He nods and seems comfortable with this idea. Yes, for later....and it feels good talking to someone outside, who can think about the future. Although, I don't utter my greatest hope - that we can resolve the religious hatred of this war-plagued area and achieve a common goal that ends the useless destruction.

Walking the Corniche in yesterday's unflagging heat, collecting pieces and flavors of Lebanon to bring back home to family and friends, I taste the salty breeze of the Mediterranean, basking in the brief cool breeze that blows the city's stale air high above the city. As every day, men and boys fish along the sea wall, others dive from the nearby rocks and splash about in the flat sea. I watch a passionate game of "combat backgammon" ensue, with the Hard Rock Cafe and other western touches oddly out of place in the background (3rd photo). The long walk home, laden with packages, will be my last through these streets for quite sometime, but I still prefer it to taking a taxi.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

It pains me to see this, he says.



It's interesting that where one person sees hope, another sees conflict. In so many ways, this typifies the root of Lebanon's unrest. Although they've tried to maintain a "sectarian" government, where no one belief system is espoused as the that of the entire country's, they've also had to design representation to include the main religious groups. Thus, the president is always a Maronite Christian (who, unofficially, must meet with Syria's approval), the Prime Minister is always Sunni, and the Shia are represented by the governmental ministers. Somewhere amongst the members of Members of Parliament, the Druze and other lower-profile groups vie for representation.

The other day, I listened to the bells toll from St. Georges Church downtown, sitting in a slice of shade to protect me from the sun's mid-day blaze, and looked across the street at the Church tucked right up close to Hariri's famous mosque. A Christian church and a Muslim mosque, no just on the same street, but right next to each other. I wondered and hoped that there was a t least a gentleman's agreement that kept the muezzin call and the church bell toll from over-lapping. Apparently there was none in place to prevent the "elves" who, overnight, managed to paper the city with billboards of the young Gemayel's face next to his shot-up car in which he was assassinated last Tuesday. The one you see in the 2nd photo is right in front of the Mosque and the Church.

As I sat day-dreaming, awaiting Nina for another potentially fruitless day at the Ministry of Energy and Water, a Security guard joined me. "This, it hurts me, to see my mosik next to this church." Hm. "How odd," I replied, "I was just thinking what a beautiful sight it is to see two houses that praise the same God, albeit differently, sitting aside each other, bringing believers to this place." He politely but firmly disagreed..and I we parted. What will it take for people to get beyond this need to have every one of us praise in the same way? In the state's we have made strides, but need to go so much further. As disturbed as I was, I had to remind myself that these were the thoughts of one man, who by no means represents all of Lebanon. Many people seem to take their beliefs seriously without needing to impose (every aspect of) their own brand on others. But still...

One aspect of the Druze faith that I find both disturbing and a relief, is that you can only be born into it. You cannot convert or join the faith. What disturbs me is its exclusion, similar to that aspect of Judaism which precludes marrying outside the faith (and for many years was also a tenet of most Christian sects). On the other hand, it means the Druze are not out actively forcing conversions or imposing their sect on others, which is a painful element that has been the seed of most wars. For now, I'll take comfort in the daily sight of veiled women walking with fully westernized girlfriends, snuggled up next to them and laughing between themselves, and to the nod that passes between a Muslim man in his headdress and a Christian man rubbing his rosary beads.

The 1st photo above is one of Beirut's many eerie reminders of the Civil War that raged through the nation in the 70s and 80s. I find it oddly beautiful, as it crumbles into the surrounding palms and the white sand beach.