summer’s end

Morning, morning.
Another day, already shorter by many minutes of daylight, with the light — yes, that precious summer daylight — now streaming lower, as if tired of hanging too high for too long. Overhead: two-tone passing clouds, shifting shadows and dark foliage of trees. Below — and almost underfoot — sweet slugs on mushroom stems, moss cushions and tall ferns: taller than ever. It has been a wet month, so wet that shrooms emerge already moldy and our heads spin as the barometer jumps up and down like a flea on speed.
Never mind: we have what we have, and the wet is considerably better than the dry and many destructive forest fires out West. We slip our shoes on, check the straps tying our canoe down, and go. It is usually eight minutes to our home lake, a bit longer now that Hurley Mountain Road became a detour for Rt.209 while one of its bridges is being replaced. We pass a growling 18-wheeler which brutally squeezes us right on a tight turn, an empty school bus, some pickup trucks seemingly just cruising back and forth, and join state highway 28W which unspools its 280 rural miles between Kingston, NY, and the Warren County way south. 
Before we turn off the highway a few minutes later, I notice a bank of clouds already assembling above the Catskills. The recent forecast of our local Hudson Valley Weather is a replica of yesterday’s. It starts with a neighborly concern and then tells us what we already suspect. 
We hope everyone made out ok after last nights storms. Unfortunately we are not done with the unsettled weather; it appears that passing showers and occasional pop up storm will be possible into the early afternoon. A more organized line of storms looks to propagate through the region from NW to SE. This will bring a new threat of storms with heavy rain, gusty wind and frequent lightning.
We park by the lake which came up several inches overnight, gather our paddles and push off. Usually we turn right first, heading for blueberry bushes hanging above the water. But today the bushes move, and another berry eater looks out of the thicket. A yearling whitetail buck, with rusty velvet covering its young antlers. Soft mobile nose. Alert eyes. And the berries he nibbles on are the last of the crop, for everybody has been feeding on them all summer: blacks bears, Green herons and Canada geese, chipmunks, squirrels — and us. We never take many, just enough to feel included at the lake’s table, and we like their intense and tangy sweetness. Surely Mary Oliver has something to say about them?
She does, of course:
Picking Blueberries 

Once, in summer
in the blueberries, 
I fell asleep, and woke
when a deer stumbled against me.

I guess
she was so busy with her own happiness
she had grown careless
and was just wandering along

to the wind as she leaned down
to lip up the sweetness.
So, there we were

with nothing between us
but a few leaves, and wind’s
glossy voice
shouting instructions.

The deer
backed away finally
and flung up her white tail
and went floating off toward the trees –

but the moment she did that
was so wide and so deep
it has lasted to this day; 
I have only to think of her – 

the flower of her amazement
and the stalled breath of her curiosity, 
and even the damp touch of her solicitude
before she took flight –

to be absent again from this world
and alive, again, in another
for thirty years
sleepy and amazed, 

rising out of the rough weeds
listening and looking.
Beautiful girl, 
where are you? 
©Mary Oliver

We move on, keeping Edy the canoe close to the lake’s shore: this is where we are the least visible and disturb little. We see a young Green heron we noticed some weeks ago when he, still a fledgling, was trying to fly and kept crashing into the bushes. Then the larger of the two resident families of Canada geese — our Periscopes — floats out of a green eddy and swims close to us. The lake is warm and thousands of bluish bubbles cover its surface. They probably emerge from a cyanobacterial floating mat which trapped these miniature gas domes filled with the gaseous byproduct of the algal bloom, and may disappear during the day.  And these painted turtles on the log behind the geese? I want see the turtles but John takes Edy among lily pads. He wants one, with — as he calls it — its heart of gold. Rendered in pixels. I do not have Mary’s soaring words but I have my pixels, all these digital zeros and ones.
And there is a tiny baby turtle, sunbathing confidently on a lily pad: as is grows larger and heavier, it will need a solid sun porch. This one is perhaps three inches across and seemingly unafraid: it stays put as I lean out of Edy this way and that to avoid sun reflections on its smooth shell. 
In the meantime we lost the sight of our geese. Where did they go? Already by the east side of the lake, swimming in the same tight formation they held for several months. And soon they split: both parents and two big chicks swim left and come close to Edy, while one youngster turns right and takes a nap: an individual preference clearly stated. The chicks will stay with their parents for about a year and then take off and become adult birds of consequence.
Having made sure everybody is accounted for, we move to the sunny west side of the lake and look for more wildlife. Here are two dragonflies in their late summer lustful unison.  But we already know our home lake summer is almost over. We may still come and paddle and watch for a few days, and the life will continue. The showers held off this morning and the sky is still bright. But we are already sensing the slowing down movement of the season, clearly ebbing away and losing its “let’s grow” explosions of passionate energy. It is different now, more contemplative and grounded. It is advancing like an avalanche loaded with small events which add up and change everything in a profound way. Day after day. Hour after hour. Rain after rain. 

Soon we will grab our folding canoe we named Julia and drive maybe north to Maine, and then west once the distant forest fires burn themselves out. Where? We have no idea but it will all take shape, slowly, as we go.
©Yva Momatiuk

the persistence of memory

There is a mountain lake high in the Rockies where aspen trees spill their reflections across the surface, and if the October breeze jumps over the surrounding peaks the reflections would keep dancing until your heart spins. John is already waiting for them on a high bank of the lake while I, far more impatient, pace the shore, as if moving could snag the magic and spread it over the water. “Got any good snaps?” asks a trout fisherman as we pass each other on a narrow trail.  “No,” I tell him, and it is true: ever since morning I have been trying to find a spot, the angle and the moment when… how did he say it? a good snap could happen. But magic has its own hidden agenda and tells me nothing. 
I walk among tall aspen trees, stare up their feathery golden crowns and touch the smooth skin of their bark. Still — nothing. Instead, I see every obstacle: the profusion of their dead black twigs, the cloud invading the clear blue of the sky, and the unforgiving harsh light which sucks brilliant colors from the leaves. I am coughing, too: a persistent respiratory bug has settled on my bronchial branches and sits there like a dark bird straight from hell. 
Hours trickle by and I think I’ve had it. No luck, and the sun is dipping behind another cloud. Better find our camper and start cooking. End this fruitless day. Wave my white flag and surrender. Then I round a corner of the lake where a low dam keeps the water from tumbling down the valley. And there, just past some dead leaves cruising in a small eddy full of dirty foam, there are reflections of tall aspen trunks broken by the evening breeze, dancing. They expand like elongated balloons and shrink into fine lines. They bend and twist. I only work with stills, yet so much is happening in their movements. The golden hues of their leaves are dancing, too, and I suddenly think about Salvador Dali’s painting “Swans Reflecting Elephants” where the reflecting swans turn bare tree trunks into elephants and the Catalonian landscape behind them goes afire.

What elephants? What swans? Here in Colorado, on 10.000 feet? But the persistence of memory holds. I am suddenly looking at the tips of my patent leather shoes and the elevator floor when the door folds open and Dali walks in first, with Gala, his wife and muse, following. There are only three of us in this small elevator of Gallery of Modern Art, at 2 Columbus Circle in New York City and the year is, I think, 1967. The painter and his wife are both small and stand very still, dressed in conservative dark clothes, while my mini skirt suddenly feels very short. We do not speak but I quickly look at his eyes, dark and alert, and kill my urge to touch the tips of his upturned mustaches. Then it all fades, and I am back at my mountain lake, with white aspen trunks dancing among small waves.  ©Yva Momatiuk

Fall of Babylon

We emerge from the ranks of rocky hills dressed in bright spring wildflowers the way a night sky may be studded with stars well after midnight. Sea fog rises and falls, and the Atlantic coast of western South Africa is still invisible, but we can see mounds of tailings stretching for miles. A mine. We poke around a seemingly empty building — a guard station? — until two uniformed security guys show up. Yes, a mine. Diamonds. And another company town, hushed against the ground, barely lit, subdued. Miraculously, the guys let us stay in the mine’s parking lot and spend the night.

“Do you live in Alabama?” one of them wants to know.  I tell him no, and he sights: “Alabama…” “Have you been there?” I ask. “No,” he says, “but I watched a TV show. From Alabama. I liked it.” 

We park, and before we cook our nightly soup we have visitors. Two tiny owls perch in the tree above our camper and then screech their way to the nearest roof and sit there, little hunchbacks with pointed Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan ears. The fog eats the land, traps the day’s warmth, and holds it till the daylight returns many hours later. We roll on to the coast.  

Hondeklipbaai. What is this collection of dwellings held together by tin and old paint, and a few better cabins with blue trims? The place seems to speak of little money and much struggle to hold on. Is it a fishing village? Surely not, what with its piss-poor harbor, barely protected by a few coastal rocks and smacked hard by every wave which happens to show up. A vacation spot? Again, not with these shanty-flavored outhouses, two deserted campgrounds and bumpy gravel roads ending mostly nowhere, even though the community —
with tiny patches of gardens and no trash anywhere — is not unloved. 

But we are wrong. A man we ask says it is both, and more: it is also a mecca for men diving for diamonds. Does he fish? Yes, for lobster, but the government makes it harder than ever by cutting fishing quotas to the bone and allowing big boat boys to have their heyday. Does he dive for diamonds? Yes. How deep? Down to 18 meters. Dry suit? No. But the sea is cold, we say, and suddenly understand the wet suit he obviously uses is not his choice: it is what he can afford.  

We need drinking water, so I pass the harbor with its diamond diving boat and several bobbing skiffs, and head for a funky coffee nook, one of the few establishments in town. The owner is blond and very helpful. She does not have much water to spare but will let me have some, except I may not like it. Is it bad? I ask. Well, it is brack, she says, and some folks get sick from it. She has a small filter she uses but I have been already battling my African intestinal unrest three times and will skip her brackish water unless we run totally dry. 

Her tiny open kitchen is crammed with paintings. Yes, she paints, and the whole dusty outdoor gallery is hers and her husband’s. We 
talk. I feel my brain slipping into my old “just listen” journalistic mode as easily as my feet slide into my old hiking boots. Her name is Madelaine but she did not like being called “Mad” and added a “z’ to the end: Madz. Madz the artist, from Hondeklipbaai, South Africa.
I take her picture . “Should I hold a brush?” she asks, and I say yes. Then John and I eat her breakfast food, a toastie with slices of ham, tomato and cheese. We hug. She gives me her business card. It is all so simple and unforced I want to sing.

Outside I bump into her man, Deon. Red face, small pony tail, quick, followed by a posse of dogs. I tell him I like the paintings in the yard, and he informs me they sell from as little as 500 rand to as much as 2,500 for the big ones. Some go to America, and one just went to Iceland. Wow, I say, and he invites me to his studio, a tiny white trailer half buried in blossoming flowers and half occupied by a bed which has not been made for a while. He tells me he never invites anyone in, not even his wife, because he likes to be antisocial there and just paint. But now he just talks. 

I listen, and feel as if the last three months of watching great African animals abruptly ended and I was now among my own herd, attuned to its needs to be heard and understood.  Deon tells me about his early painting days when he just played with pictures and moved all around the country. And then about his five years in prison and two out on parole. Armed robbery. Some fellow owned him a chunk of money but would not pay back, so Deon went and took what he could. Had a gun. Got caught. 

My eyes slide away from his easel with a bright seascape under construction and move onto a wall. A nude, standing by a chair. Red hair. Dark nipples.  Great composition. “Oh, she was my social worker in prison,” Deon says. “No, she did not pose naked. One day, she came into my cell — it was really tiny — and I suddenly saw her like this.  And here she is, just as I saw her.” He says that after the prison he just wanted to hide and have a quiet life by the sea. Came here. Got to paint a lot, to sell. Met Madz on Facebook. In a few years, he wants to be one of the best 10 painters in the world.

He watches my eyes really closely now, and follows them to a painting sticking out of a pile of seascapes sitting by the door. I can make out some vague outlines of monumental structures collapsing as if under their own great weight and a pair of bare breasts. But there is more.  Deon dusts the canvass off and slaps it extra hard to get rid of some grit I cannot detect. “This one,” he points to a woman in a on top of the picture, “is my ex-mistress. And this one is my ex-wife.  They both just cut my head off — see?”  I see: it is his head, long haired, bloody, inert. And then he adds: “I call it Fall of Babylon.”  

We leave the studio. Shake hands. The sky begins to brighten. I will send him the pictures I took. And he can be antisocial again and just paint. Maybe more landscapes, maybe his life. Whatever comes next.  ©Yva Momatiuk

not here

Quiver trees — also known as kokerboom — thrive in the southern Namibian desert.

They eat rocks and drink sand, take many years to grow, and as they expand their girth their bark splits and reveals a smooth underlayer in different shades of rock and sand. I like to think that if they were snakes they would shed their tight old bark. But no: they just allow it to crack open and stay, maybe forever. The bark is hard and smooth but the innards are surprisingly spongy and serve as reservoirs of many gallons of water sucked in by the trees during rainy seasons. This pliable softness made it easy for the Bushmen of the Kalahari to hollow out the trees’ branches and use these tubular containers as quivers for their deadly arrows.
And here is what happens when John and I look up at quiver trees: we get dazzled. This is because no other trees we know flaunt such exquisite split bark lines along their bodies, the lines which twist, bend and disappear around the next turn. And when we photograph them in a sweet open shade of dusk they also shimmer and cover our lenses with a film of a waxy dust so thin you would never believe how hard it is to get it off.  We know all this, because some weeks ago we spent a whole evening out in the desert with three of them, until the evening became night. And then we had quiver dreams, too, as if unwilling to part with their beauty.
That was some time ago, but it sent us looking for more. And now we are on a quiver tree farm, reputed to preserve the densest quiver grove in all of Namibia, and coupled with some desert acreage covered by large boulders and called, as such places usually are, a playground. Of giants, I think, or some such. 
There are signs here sternly detailing “forbidden” behavior, and clean toilets and a spacious campground, and even a restaurant and a pet warthog and a couple of cheetahs. The cheetahs get fed at 4pm, sharp. Yes, this is a commercial enterprise, and we are not to forget there are certain charges. We understand the owners of this land want to present it to visiting tourists but also prevent any potential problems which often follow the opening of one’s hospitable doors. And since we fell in love with quiver trees, we hope we can put up with what any commercial venture can be expected to inject into our tree experience.
We take a look at the giant boulders which are brown and unremarkable, and quickly move on to the trees. There are some walking trails here, and a good number of quiver trees of all sizes, bolstered by more brown boulders. We walk and walk. We look and look. And try, and try again. Then, as the evening darkens, we meet somewhere on the slope and silently shake our heads. No, it did not happen. No pictures. No enchantment. No music lifting our spirits. A flat void. 
Later we try to dissect the reasons. We quote the signs suggesting prosecution by the owner of the grove: perhaps our minds became too tight and worried because of these naked threats?  We also come up with the wrong age of the trees: are they too old and already outlived their most beautiful stages? I even remember a noisy tourist who seemed to be everywhere at once, talking incessantly to her two silent male companions: maybe her loud voice prevented me from concentrating and really seeing what I came to see?  We string all these and other reasons into an impossibly convoluted web of excuses. But it all sounds lame and untrue.
“Listen,” I say to John, “I think I may have a picture I like. At one point, I put my head inside the canopy of a really old tree, and met a rock hyrax who came up from the other side. We almost bumped our noses, and it was totally unexpected for both of us.”  We find the frame and look at it together. The hyrax, bright eyed and alert, is — after all — considered the closest living relative of an elephant, and even if we are not sure if this information is reliable it is nice to think you can meet it up the tree when all else is lost. 
We look again at my little picture and suddenly understand what we are missing here. We miss the enchantment which comes with solitude and not knowing what will happen next. We miss the sense that we must trust some forces outside ourselves which can make things happen unexpectedly at any time. Yes, there is the grove and the trees and the trails to walk around them. But it is all too set, too ready to be appreciated and photographed to be magnificent and dazzling. It is predictable and finite, and we cannot make it intimate and our own. And except for the little hyrax there are no surprises, the very essence of what we need. He saves the show a bit, but just enough to see that such well appointed offerings are alien to us and as many times removed from our joy as he is from his distant elephant cousins.
©Yva Momatiuk

talking to animals

“Yes, you, the little springbok. Get you head up.”
“No, not you.. the one behind you.”
“Please do not cover his horn with yours. Please.”
“Now, move to the right and stop scratching. I cannot see your head when you do this.”
“How about a drink? And may I see your lapping tongue?”
John and I are huddling at a remote waterhole in Etosha National Park in Namibia, and I am trying to communicate my artistic needs to several dozen animals who drifted in from the surrounding flatness of the desert to get a drink. And the more actors appear on my stage, the harder it is to find a composition which moves the heart. I see my monologue falls on deaf ears but hey, it does not hurt to try.
“Please don’t move! Not one step.”
“Turn… turn… turn… a bit more. More. Thank you. This is really good.”
“Stay there if you can. Please. I am still waiting for that oryx.”
“Where are you going? They may finally all drink, and you will get in front of them.”
“Keep moving! Now you are overlapping with my ostriches.”
Only this morning I realize that as soon as I bring my eye to the viewfinder of my camera to photograph wild animals, I begin to talk to them, usually in my mind. But here in Africa I actually speak. Softly, in a low and constant patter. I am polite but also maddeningly persistent. And I offer a string of suggestions, even though the animals are oblivious to my desires.
“If you just move left, this foal could also get in and get a drink, too. And I need him there.”
“What are you doing? Please stay out of my frame, just for a moment.”
“You are about to cover my oryx, and you don’t want to get into this mud anyway.”
“See? This was no good. Just stay where you are: your ass looks perfectly good there.”
“Oh no! This was such a wrong move… My mistake. Sorry.”
Persistently, and at times desperately, I am trying to choreograph the animals coming into my frame. They do what they want, but I do not quit. But why am I not content with what I see, and instead try to direct them, even if what I do is so ridiculous? Perhaps some ancient cultural imperative of all humans is making me try to rule this wild and unruly roost. Or maybe I want these photographs to show the awe I feel when I am in their presence, and I need my animals to help me. But this is not it.
I just love them. The little springbok, who ruins my composition. The ostrich, who shows me his plucked ass when I need his head and overlaps with another giant bird. The oryx, who seems to walk on someone’s back. 
And I feel this love makes them my good and tolerant friends. They may not do what I want but at times they will suddenly do far more than I had ever asked them for, and overwhelm me with their wild and boundless generosity. They will suddenly show me what I could not even imagine possible. And it will be perfect in every way.

Not today, but maybe soon.     ©Yva Momatiuk

Makgadikgadi Pans

Kubu Island, Botswana

Somewhere in the enormous expanse of Makgadikgadi Pans in central Botswana there is a sickle-shaped island of pale rocks piling up like waves on its raised beaches formed by an ancient lake. It is called Kubu Island, and since in Setswana kubu means a hippopotamus, perhaps this old lake used to be kind to the biggest of all aquatic African mammals, who need water to protect their poorly pigmented skin from the burning sun. The salt pans form the driest and the most desolate part of the Kalahari Basin but after much rain they can turn into a milky blue lake of still water and reflect billowing sails of passing clouds.

But this is a dry season, and the pans are bone-white with salt and very dusty. We arrive late, welcomed by a whole family of big-bellied baobabs growing on the rocky ridge and resembling hugely oversized potatoes crowned with a bundle of roots. Some of them may be several thousand years old but, since they do not develop typical sequences of growth rings, no one knows how old they really are. You can carbon date then all you want, and still come up empty. 

But their actual age is not everything: it is the importance of a baobab that matters. If I were a Bushwoman, I would know that this tree had once offended God who, seething with anger, grabbed it by the top and planted it upside down, so its convoluted roots became the sky-scratching branches. And that if I ever picked its flower after it blossomed during a warm spring night, I would soon be torn up by lions. Yet there is also a faint hope of salvation: if I soak the tree’s seeds and drink the infusion, all crocs will avoid me forever.

No water anywhere, and no crocs tonight. The evening sky flares up orange, and then deepens into a pewter soup with shimmering lights of the Milky Way. The air cools. We find a baobab which hugs the most stars and settle for the night. John disappears among the rocks to ponder the sky and tree spectacle, and I play a luxurious animal and savor the cold, some red wine, and the desert breeze.

Next morning we wake up well before dawn but the baobab which embraced the night sky is already glowing ruby red. It is an old tree, its trunk scarred by the sand blowing from the winter-dry salt pan we slept on, and by the mind blowing length of time it took to raise it from the seed against all waterless odds. And some of its broken branches, heavy enough to flatten any living thing passing under their falling weight, litter the ground below: a battlefield of growth and gravity.

I see — with the sun still under the flat horizon — that I am shadowless, with only my feet touching the ridge. This is a magical time, with the colors saturated and strong, and I want it to last forever, even if I must donate the rest of my life’s daylight hours to anyone who wants it. Here, in the blinding light and deep shadows of Africa, such moments are rare.

I walk up and touch the tree. The baobab is smooth and dense and cold, like a column of steel, and as I rest my back against it I feel the night’s coolness radiating from the core of the trunk. I look across the miles of the white salt pan toward a huge expanse of Chobe National Park with its many animals and the people who come to see them. But here, in the raw center of the country, all is quiet, remote and self-contained. And when the sun emerges, faster in the tropics than anywhere else, all the birds — did I mention the birds?–go silent, too. 
©Yva Momatiuk


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