The Gods who walked and other deities

After the exertions of my hike I had had enough walking, so we rented a car for the weekend and drove around Rapa Nui at our leisure. Later, on the plane back to the mainland, a fellow in an adjacent seat seemed surprised. He asked me if I had felt comfortable driving there.

“There’s a 60 kilometre an hour speed limit,” I said, “the big thing you have to do is watch for potholes and slow down for tourists, horses and cows.” Just like home, I chose not to add.

“I’m from New York,” he confided, “did you get a GPS?”

“There are only two roads,” I said, “and it’s an island so you can’t really get lost.”

“Oh,” he said.

I wondered where he had been for the past few days.

We got a little Suzuki Jimmy, a tin can on wheels with a lawn-mower engine. We used to have one about 40 years ago, but I noticed they are smaller now – the distance from my stomach to the steering wheel was much reduced. I think it’s all these technological advances we keep reading about. The car was sufficient for our needs and cheaper than anything other than a quad bike, which I was banned from even contemplating. We drove around and looked at various moai, some with top knots carved from red lava and some without.

1 Anakena 2

All the moai were carved at the same place, a quarry on the slopes of Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano in the north east of the island. The site is littered with finished moai, over 300 of them, ready for transport but buried where they lay. There are even some half-carved, visible still in the layers of volcanic tuff from which they would have emerged under the guiding hand of a master carver.

2 quarry2

The moai were then moved to their place on top of an ahu in some distant village; nobody is quite sure how they were moved, although various theories have been suggested. One is that they were laid on wooden sleds and then pushed, another that they were rolled on logs. The oral legend is that the moai walked to the ahu, by themselves, which is probably not likely although should not be discounted. Some archaeologists have been able to construct an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys, and “wiggle” a replica moai for about 5 metres. As some are almost 40 feet (12 metres) tall and weigh over 75 tons, the work must have been tremendous. The task was further complicated by the fact that if a moai toppled while in transit, it was no longer deemed worthy, and was left abandoned – in one case mere metres from the ahu. As the carvers were paid for their work, and presumably received payment once the statue left the quarry, the loss of one would no doubt prove a significant ‘hit’ to the resources of the purchaser. Not much wiggle room there.

3 Tongariki3

The top knots, or pukao, were carved at a different quarry, Puna Pau, where the lava beds were red as opposed to grey. This quarry was in the centre of the island, and the pukao were rolled from there to the ahu where they were placed on top of the moai. It was only at this point, apparently, that the moai were considered whole, and the eye sockets were carved, bringing the statue to life and able to watch over the village.

4 moai3

In some cases, eyes made from coral were inserted in to the sockets, but it is by no means certain that all moai had such eyes.

5 Tahai2

It seems that every Rapanuian household must have five members: mum and dad, a couple of kids, and an archaeologist. Certainly, there are lots of learned tomes which have studied the moai culture. The consensus is that this culture emerged in the 13th century, around 1350, which would be six or seven hundred years since the first settlers had sailed their double-hulled canoes into Anakena Bay. The moai period lasted for about 400 years, by which time it appears that the communities had used up most of the limited natural resources. A time of shortages followed, which may well have been linked to weather disruptions being experienced around the world. The first European explorers arrived, introducing new genes and technologies to the island. Inter-clan warfare broke out, and people started to topple the moai in what were now perceived to be ‘enemy’ villages. On impact these often broke at the weakest point, the neck, with the pukau rolling away from the head.

6 toppled moai

The people of Rapa Nui decided, it seems, that their old gods weren’t working properly, and so they should have new ones. In the late 1600s, the cult of the Birdman emerged. We went up to Orongo, a village at the top of Rana Kau, another extinct volcano but this one in the south of the island. The village is different architecturally from the earlier boat house shaped dwellings. Here slabs of stone were laid on top of each other, building a long series of separate rooms, much like a row of terrace or town houses. There are 53 houses preserved at Orongo, although some are off limits as erosion has undercut the rock faces on which they stand. Although not inhabited year-round it was from here that the Birdman cult was based.

7 Orongo houses

To get prestige, and power, each spring the various chiefs would sponsor a young man from their clan to compete in a race out to some rocky islets about 2 kilometres off-shore. The purpose was to run or scramble some of the way down the 1000-foot cliff from the village, dive the rest, and then swim out to the islet without drowning or getting eaten by sharks. On arrival at Motu Nui, the largest islet, the racers would climb up and wait for the arrival of the first manutara or Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus). Each would watch a nest and (eventually) steal an egg, put it in a pouch around his head, swim back (no sharks or drowning) and climb back up the cliff with the egg. Without breaking it. As a result of all this the sponsor of the winner got the title of ‘Birdman’, which was a position of power much like being a paramount chief, and which he would hold for the next year. The winning clan got an increased share of the available resources, and the young man got to visit with a young lady who had been selected as a sort of Homecoming Queen, and who was waiting for him in one of the slab stone houses of Orongo.

8 Orongo islets

It was a pretty vicious competition, with oral histories indicating that over half of the competitors died from falls, drowning, being eaten by sharks, or being killed by their fellow competitors. The Birdman cult became defunct after the 1860s. One reason was the slave trade, where as many as 1500 islanders were taken to Peru. Although there was widespread condemnation of this action, only 15 people were repatriated, and they brought smallpox with them when they returned home. A census in 1877 found a population of 111 people, down from the estimated 12,000 who inhabited Rapa Nui during the moai period. In 1866 a permanent Catholic mission was established and the Birdman cult was abandoned as Christianity was adopted across the Island and became dominant. Some people say that this, in turn, has now been usurped, and the cult of the empanada (a sort of savory filled pie) is now risen! We had some of those as well.

9 empanadas

The crater of Rana Kau contains a lake, one which supports all types of flora found nowhere else on Rapa Nui. The reeds floating in mats on the surface of the lake are apparently the same as those found at Lake Titicaca in Peru, which has led to speculation by Heyerdahl and others about human patterns of migration. Core samples taken from the sediments in the lake include pollen that shows the reeds have been in the lake for over 30,000 years, long before human contact. Unfortunately – albeit appropriately – one is no longer permitted to descend inside the crater and instead has to view the reeds, and the lake, from the rim, which is about a kilometre in circumference.

10 Orongo crater lakeWe were rewarded one evening by a clearing of the clouds, and a dramatic sunset. For the people of the moai it must have been a good way to close the day, knowing that such a robust presence had walked to their village, and was watching over them as they slept.

11 Ahu Ataranga3


Hiking for Moai

HM Basalt landscape

It’s about kilometre 8 of my hike across the basalt-strewn slopes of northern Rapa Nui when we come across the fallen moai at Hanga Omohi. This is one of the smallest moai and, according to our guide, one of the key pieces of archaeological evidence showing the evolution of these cultural icons. Through the marvels of science, it is now known that the first moai were small obelisks with some rudimentary carvings, placed on a flat layer of stones known as the ahu, or altar. Over time these evolved, with the carvings becoming more confident and bolder, in both design and execution, and the ahu becoming larger to bear the weight of the increasingly large moai. Early in that sequence of events was the moai at Hanga Omohi, which immediately struck me as looking like an owl, although such birds are not found here.

HM Hanga Omohi
Hanga Omohi

It’s a hard place to get to, Hanga Omohi. The car picks you up at 0630 and takes you to Ariki, where you pass through the park gate before dawn – this early in the morning there’s nobody there to check your park pass. The long narrow lane is guarded by a bull, whom we sidestep cautiously – I’m glad it’s still dark, as otherwise my red baseball hat would be a real concern. An old pick-up truck rattles down past us, the farmer on his way to market. I’m told we’re surrounded by fields of pineapple, but I have to take the guide’s word for that. We continue up the slopes of Maunga Terevaka, at 511 metres the high point of the island. We don’t make the summit, though, instead angling to the west and then dropping down towards the Pacific.

There are only two of us on this hike, plus the guide – apparently not too many people decide to leave their hire cars behind. Although it’s a technically simple hike (keep the ocean to your left, don’t go too near the cliff edge, walk for 16 kilometres) you’re not allowed to do it on your own. This is partially for protection, for the hikers in case of injury and of the cultural assets of the island in case of theft, and partially to provide employment in a small community. All three reasons seem reasonable to me.

We passed a number of what are locally known as ‘Rapa Nui greenhouses’, basically walls of basalt stones piled around a small depression, known as a lava tube cave, so that soil is accumulated, the winds don’t pass through, and the temperature is moderated a little. Here are bananas, lemon grass, sometimes sweet potato or taro.

HM greenhouse
Rapa Nui Greenhouse

The added benefit of the walls is that they keep the feral horses away from the leaves and young shoots, providing a bit more protection. As James Cook noted during his visit, “there is little potable water on the Island, and the natives seem starved of fresh foods”. Things haven’t changed much, with a sea lift provided by the Chilean Navy for dry goods, and fresh food brought in on the daily plane.

We saw numerous different stone structures on this northern hike. There is the ahu, of course, the altar-like platform on which the moai was traditionally stood. These are usually built much like a drystone wall, with rocks laid next to each other and varying in size and angle. Some, however, are large slabs, cut and lain horizontally, edges carefully chiselled to form an interlocking bond. These, apparently, reminded Thor Heyerdahl of the Inca platforms he had seen in Peru, adding fuel to his theories of South America being the origin of most Polynesian peoples.

Unlike Heyerdahl’s theories, the oral histories of the Rapa Nui talk of the first canoes landing at Anakena Bay. Archaeologically this has been dated to three hundred years before the turn of the first millennium, around 700 AD. These two canoes were led by a Polynesian chief, Hotu Motu’a, and crewed by his sons. They brought with them families, and chickens, and some seeds, all of which proceeded to multiply. Each son was given an area of the Island to rule as his own and did so for many generations. It was only after the Europeans came, with their trade goods and their missionaries, that a more mercenary system of life evolved, one that eventually resulted in the civil wars that led to the deforestation of the Island and the toppling of the moai.

The ahus conceal underground crypts, where originally the bones of dead kings were lain. In more recent times a single bone of a person might be laid there as well, in the belief that the spirit of the person would live on in the moai. The body itself, however, would be cremated, and near to (usually behind) each ahu is found a crematorium.

What surprised me was that the moai faced inland, away from the sea, and instead looked out over – and gave protection to – the village. It was by looking in those areas that the archaeologists found examples of fire pits, the stone foundations of boat houses, flakes of obsidian left from the making of tools, and other examples of human life. On the edges of one community we saw the remains of a birthing house, estimated from the foundation to be a small round structure with a ceremonial red lava stone bowl at the door, in which the placenta would be placed and, later, burned.

HM Birthing house
Birthing House

The archaeologists also found caves, deeper hollows naturally formed in the lava flows and cunningly concealed by piles of stones. Here the women and children were hidden whenever a strange ship sailed into view, leading many an explorer to wonder at how they found an island populated only by men. The entry to one showed that those who sought sanctuary there were much less rotund than a late-middle-aged Canadian male.

HM refuge cave
Refuge Cave

There were petroglyphs, including one which clearly depicted the tuna, a favourite fish of any ocean-going people. Within the body of the fish were carved stories symbolizing that of the Birdman, who will be the subject of another blog, and other objects of importance. It was at such times that the guide was essential, deciphering the various carved images and linking together the history of the Island.

HM petraglyph

Although not many examples remain, we were fortunate to see an observatory. This conical building, constructed of stones and yet open at the top, contained on the floor of the chamber a large stone which had been carved to the shape of a shallow bowl. The stone was filled with water and the shaman, sitting in the small cramped space, would watch the reflections of the stars and the constellations and use this knowledge to foretell the weather, a forthcoming eclipse, and other astronomical events. Far more common were the chicken coops – long narrow piles of stones, roofed with slabs, with one key-hole stone that could be removed to let the chickens in – and out again.

After 10 or a dozen kilometres I started to fade, my legs and knees showing their outrage at the abuse I was giving them. We had seen few living things – a few frigate birds sailed past, one solitary Boobie which reminded me of a gannet and, I was amazed to learn, is called a Gannay in Rapa Nuian. There were herds of semi-feral horses, a falcon or two, but no other humans. The sun was hot, and I wished I had brought one less camera lens and one more litre of water. There was no shade. Gilbert, my fellow hiker, a Brazilian-Canadian of Italian heritage now living in Germany but missing his Uruguayan girlfriend, kept talking and kept me going. Normally I would have preferred the silence and solitude of the hills, but his incessant chirping served to keep me awake and focused on the path.

HM feral horses

It was just after kilometre 15 that we plodded up the final rise, stands of coconut and banana and flame tree starting to show that we were re-entering the settled world. Gilbert and the guide started comparing family histories and discovered that each had been born a few months apart, in 1973. I felt ridiculously pleased with myself that I had given them a 20-year start, and yet we still arrived together at the end of our trek.

As we crested the hill, we saw the white sandy beach of Anakena Bay, fringed with coconut palms and guarded by a row of moai. Waves lapped up on the shore, and through half-closed eyes I faded out the tourists frolicking in the surf and saw instead the canoes of Hotu Motu’a, months in the journeying, gliding in on the long Pacific swells, and beginning life in the navel of the world.

HM Anakena Bay

Hola amigos

It’s 1.00 pm on the Wednesday afternoon of Holy Week and the little map on the seat-back screen in front of me tells me we’re at 10,362 metres and travelling at 774 km/hour.

That’s about as much use as the map can be, however – the rest of the screen is blue, with a line coming across from the right that has a small aeroplane icon on the end of it. I’m about three quarters of the way across the huge swath of Pacific Ocean between Chile and Rapa Nui, as Easter Island prefers to call itself. Places across the Pacific are being reclaimed and renamed, from Ayers Rock to Uluru, from Easter Island to Rapa Nui.

Eight months ago, this seemed like a good idea, to go to Easter Island for Easter, as a sort of grande finale to my teaching career. I thought I would have taught my last class, marked all the papers, and have a few weeks break before Convocation, and the next big event on my professional horizon – cleaning out my office.

Being a natural – indeed, champion – procrastinator, the idea of an idyllic few days away was promising. I have to say that so far so good. We’re crossing almost 4000 kms of open
ocean and travelling a bit more slowly than usual due to the head wind. I suppose it would be worse if we were on a boat, although from this height I can, with just a little imagination, see the wakes of Roggeveen and Cook.

Yes, Cousin Jimmy made it here as well!

No doubt the place itself will show up on the map soon. If we miss it then it’s another two thousand kilometers to Pitcairn!

I’m not really sure what to expect from Rapa Nui. It’s quite small, both physically and also from a population perspective, with about 7500 residents. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and apparently none of the buildings are allowed to be higher than a single storey. From my reading it seems that everything has been deforested, a whole island clear cut, but I’m not sure whether that’s still the case.

Then there are the moai, of course, those ancient stone heads, which will hopefully astound me with their magnificence. But like all the things that one has been looking forward to, there’s always the frisson that reality won’t match up to expectation. We’ll see.

It’s hard to get here, the Islanders are trying to maintain their sanity I suppose. If one lives on a desert island, then I guess you want to keep the numbers manageable. Tourists and Chileans alike have to go through an ID and security check before boarding the plane and have to show both that they have reserved accommodation somewhere and have a return flight home – with a maximum stay of 30 days.

The plane itself is not the tied-together-with-string aerial equivalent of a tramp steamer that one might expect, but a rather swish Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Indeed.

We spent a few days in Santiago on the way down, after a quiet overnight flight from Toronto. It’s my first time to Chile, indeed to anywhere in South America, and I am wondering what took me so long.

Santiago itself has over 7 million people, so it’s a bit busier than Charlottetown, but once you’re out of the city then the countryside itself is beautiful. We went up to the Andes, the van crawling along a single track, dirt road with a hill on one side and a 40-metre drop to the valley floor on the other.

Oh, and two lanes of traffic trying to fit themselves into one, with much cursing and backing up and scraping of cars along the hill edge or scattering stones off the other, and every now and then someone jumping out and directing traffic to clear the snarl – at least until their vehicle came through, at which point they jumped back aboard and left the masses to fend for themselves.

I was disappointed in the amount of garbage blowing around on the high hills. It seems people drive up on weekends for picnics and the idea of “leave only footprints, take only memories” hasn’t really worked its way up to the Andes yet. But I did see a condor, the huge bird slowly crossing the valley, impossibly big for something so high and yet moving with purpose and speed.

Apparently, they are becoming a problem lower down in the foothills, where new housing developments are encroaching on previously barren slopes. We were out for dinner with a Chilean teacher whom I know from when she was studying at UPEI, and she was saying how people have had to telephone the city by-law officers in a
panic, “there’s a condor on my deck, eating the bar-b-que meat!” A rich person problem, I suppose.

We saw a splendid example of entrepreneurship in action. As one travels up the dirt road, every here and there one comes across a small house or cabin, surrounded by wire corrals and accompanied by a couple of small stables or sheds. There might be a horse or two in a paddock, and a dog or six wandering through the dust, but most of the animals – sheep, cattle, llamas – are still up on the hillside in their summer grazing areas.

llamas !!

One such encampment was different, as in addition to the house and sheds and corrals there was a large toilet on a plinth, and a sign proclaiming “BANOS”. We pulled in and parked outside a rather basic 2×4 and plywood outhouse where for 500 Chilean pesos (about a dollar) we availed ourselves of the facilities. The fellow was doing a roaring trade, with van loads of tourists pulling in on a regular basis. I asked if there was a ‘day pass’ rate and he said no and charged me again – with a laugh – when we stopped on the way back down.

Chile is such a long thin country – like a chili, one of the tour guides proclaimed – that you can go from high alpine to sandy beach in a day. So, on another day we drove the other way, to the seaside towns of Viña del Mar and Valparaiso. At the former we watched the sea lions lazing on the sand outside the fish market, replete after the morning scraps had been thrown into the sea. The surf came rolling in and was
ignored, only a lazy wave of a fin to try and swat the breaker away. Most of the fish had been sold, although there were still crabs and sea urchins and mackerel for sale, and the fishermen on the wharf were mending nets under the watchful eyes of gulls and pelicans.

Vina del Mar sealion

At Valparaiso the houses in the older parts of town are painted in bright primary colours, and we heard that each house is a different colour because the paint is that which was left-over from when they painted their boat, or because that way a drunken fisherman can figure out which house is his when they are all otherwise alike. Those are the same stories I have heard at Cheticamp on Cape Breton, at Staithes in Yorkshire, at St. John’s, Newfoundland – perhaps fishermen are the same the world over.

We went up and down the hills of Valparaiso on the funicular cars, refurbished remnants from a colonial past, and then walked around the streets admiring the incredible art murals. These adorn pretty much every building, although some streets are more decorated than others. It’s not fair to call it graffiti as that implies illegality – this is street art. The artists ask permission, and the regular graffiti folk seem to respect the work, as they are signed instead of being covered with tags.

Some pieces were simply decorative, whimsical views of landscapes, people, animals, birds. Others were more abstract, incorporating a feature of the wall – a window, a drain pipe, a crack in the plaster – and building on that element for the rest of the image. And some were political, powerful statements or rants about various aspects of history or social inequality. On one particular wall was an artist’s view of the history of Chile, a sort of painted Bayeux Tapestry, telling the story from the indigenous people through the Spanish conquest to the modern day. It was clear and graphic, painted only in black and white with gory scenes as well as humour. At one place a pike spear was being wielded against an unarmed woman, at another a hand was grasping a fast food bag where the M was emblazoned on the local dialect word for faeces. At last we took the funicular down the hill again and went for lunch.

lunch Valparaiso

And now I see a small green dot on the map, the dotted line pushing the aeroplane icon ever closer, now 398 kilometres to go until we make landfall on Rapa Nui.

Depending on which map you study, the names change and blur one into the other. Ilha de Páscoa, Isla de Pascua – Easter Island on the cusp of Easter. I wonder whether we will find a restaurant serving the Pascal Lamb. Or perhaps here it’s a Pascal llama?

Goodbye March

I must say that I’m pretty pleased to see the back of March. I always find it a bit of a blah time of year here in the Maritimes – winter hasn’t quite gone, and spring is not yet here. I think that we should consider adopting the calendar used by the Cree and Dene peoples of northern Saskatchewan, which has six seasons. There is summer, of course, those hot months July and August, with the shoulder months of June and September, followed by fall, the glories of the autumnal forest ablaze in reds and golds, and then there is freeze-up. This is the time of year when the leaves have fallen but the snows have not yet arrived; when the geese congregate on the estuaries and prepare to head south; when the rivers and lakes begin to freeze but the slush means that you cannot land a plane on floats; when the ice is not yet strong enough to support the weight of a dog team or a person.

Once the snow is down and the lakes are frozen, then there is winter, which is its normal wintry self, and this in turn is followed by break-up. Here the snow has gone, or nearly so, just the tattered remnants left in the ditches and the woods, but the ground is still frozen; there is a yellow standing water sheen on the sloughs and ponds, but not even the dogs will cross the thinning ice that shivers beneath them; here the pussy willows come out, and the first geese return. Then spring, which here is usually in April and May, crocuses and daffodils and the first buds on trees and vines, and then summer once again.

Winter – break up – spring – summer – fall – freeze up … a much more truthful calendar than the one we currently use.

And I’m not even going to start about the abomination of daylight savings time!

No, I don’t like March very much. Although the middle of the month is always fun, the Ides of March on the 15th, when in honour of history one of my colleagues always makes Caesars at noon! They are the non-alcoholic ones, of course, but it still seems “naughty” to stand around and drink during the day!

And of course, the seeds ordered from the catalogues have started to arrive, and been planted under the lights in the basement, and some have even been potted on once already. Soon they will be strong enough to go out to the greenhouse for a couple of weeks, and then it will be May, and they can go in to the ground. So, there is some promise to which we can look forward.

On the 1st of April I taught my very last class. For those who think that a most appropriate date, I will remind you that jokes are only allowed in the morning, and I didn’t teach until the evening!

It was a graduate class with 24 students. It’s part of our Global Perspectives cohort within the MEd degree, so there are students from all over the world – Canada, China, Egypt, Syria, Taiwan. Which makes for interesting discussions, as the class is International education and international development. Anyway, the last class went well, I thought, and then as I finished things off one of the students interrupted me.

“Excuse me,” she said, “we would like to thank you for this class.”

And then they proceeded to present me with the beautiful gift of a Calla Lily, a ‘Happy Retirement’ card signed by them all, and a plate of home-made cupcakes – which we all proceeded to eat. I had my camera in my bag, and a student passing by in the corridor was enticed in to take a photograph – which I am delighted to share with you here. What a wonderful finale to my teaching career!Dad's Last Class

Another milestone accomplished. The last class taught; the last papers marked, and grades submitted; my last PhD student has submitted her revised dissertation and is ready to graduate in May. I still have two more reports to write, one keynote talk to present, and two panel symposia to attend – and sometime soon I’m going to have to take a serious look at cleaning out my office.

Twelve marbles in the jar.

A Week in February

This week has been brutally cold. We had day after day of -15C to -18C temperatures, with the windchill approaching -30C. The sun has been conspiring in this, shining brightly out of clear blue skies, so one might look outside and think “oh, that looks nice” and then go outside and go up on your tip toes in horror, fur fluffed out as you try to scratch back in through the door before it closes. That’s what the dog did, anyway. The cats just sat inside and looked out, refusing to go anywhere near the door at all.

I do take the dog for her regular walk to an area of common land which is designated as an off-leash park. There are paths through the woods, and views down to the river. It can be very pleasant. Or not. Especially when you’re tentatively picking your way down a slope of ice braised clear by the wind, knowing there is no other idiot out there with their dog and so if you slip and break something you’re probably not going to be found until the spring. The dog runs and huffs and sniffs, you scan the ground for bare spots with the intensity of someone clearing land mines. Carefully placing one foot after the other, shuffling like the 80-year-old you’d like to be one day, you navigate the terrain. And then you hear the crows start their predator alert, a cacophony of cawing, and looking up watch a huge bald eagle soar over the trees and glide along the river bank in front of you. Majestic doesn’t do enough to describe the scene, and your steps are lighter as you make your way back to the car.

The cold snap broke eventually, it got up to almost -5 the other night, but with the warmth comes the next storm. It came from New Brunswick, after hammering Toronto and Ottawa and Montreal and Quebec, almost 30 cms. of light dry snow falling through the day. And then the winds, picking up to over 70 kms/hour and picking up the snow from the ground to mix it with that still falling. Horizontal snow, pitting your face like a flurry of stones thrown up by a car racing through a turn.

It’s on days like this that one faces the age-old conundrum. Did we buy enough storm chips and, if not, whose turn is it to go out and get some more?

Storm chips are a bit of an Island phenomenon. They’re basically just potato chips, or crisps to those of us who grew up in England, on sale in every supermarket. A tradition developed where people buying emergency supplies before a storm – candles, water, tinned food, and so forth – would also throw in a bag of chips, as comfort food for those long evenings when the power’s out and there is nothing to do. A few years ago, a young woman called Jill Ross, a B.Ed. graduate who was helping with administrative duties in the Faculty of Education at the time, tweeted that her family was ready for an imminent storm because she had “got our storm chips”. The term was picked up and retweeted by others and is now so widespread that a local company manufactures bags of “Storm Chips”. These are all the leftover bits from the specific flavour bags and so you have no idea whether you’re going to get something plain, salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, or whatever, they’re all mixed up together! I know it sounds disgusting but they’re actually pretty good. Especially when sitting by the fire with a nice cup of tea or other beverage of choice!

I was doing just that the other evening – sitting by the fire, munching, sipping – and thinking about the delayed class I taught this week. It was supposed to have been on Friday, but we had a storm then as well, so it was deferred to Monday. This was special as it was my last class as a teacher educator. I’d like to say that it was the best class I’ve ever taught, or that we finished with a cake and a sing-song, but we did none of those things. I taught the last topic on the syllabus, the students made presentations about what they had learned, and we all left the room. I did insert a last slide, where I tried to synthesize what being a teacher meant to me, but I don’t think anyone really noticed. I think the students were too preoccupied with their upcoming practicum placements. They’re all going out to schools for the next 11 weeks, half the time in an international placement and the other half in Canada, and their focus is on the practical needs of teaching – the what-will-work-on-Monday sort of stuff.

I try to remember if I was like that when I was a student, impatient with theory and focused only on what works in the classroom. I don’t remember it that way – I remember enjoying the texts on the philosophy and sociology of education, entering in to the arguments about conscientization and the teacher as subversive, learning the nuances of Vygotsky and Freire. I still think it makes for a better teacher, one who considers practice to be the result of thoughtful consideration, not simply reactive behaviour.

I’m also not sure that a teacher education program offered by a university is the place to learn the practical skills of teaching. I still believe that the university is supposed to be a place of ideas, of challenge, of debate, not a place where technical skills are taught or prioritized. I know that the classroom has changed, that student teachers today are facing challenges quite different from those of nearly half a century ago. The ubiquitous cell phones in everyone’s pocket contain more information, and more computer power, than anything even dreamed of when we were setting the world to rights. Each school where they practice is going to be different, and so equipping our students with the intellectual skills to understand the contextual nuances of every different classroom they experience seems likely to be a more useful learning process. That’s why we call it teacher education, not teacher training.

And then I think, ah, you’re just getting to be one of those ‘seasoned veterans’ (aka old codgers) who remembers the good old days as being better than anything happening in the here and now. After all, nobody writes songs any more like Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Townsend and Daltrey. For heaven’s sake, you still read books, and walk around without wire dangling from your ears, and go to a coffee shop only when you want to drink coffee. How reactionary is that?

So, I was sitting by the fire thinking these things, and feeling all introspective, when the universe righted itself and brought life back in to balance. I received an e-mail to inform me that I have been selected as the recipient of the inaugural UPEI Faculty of Graduate Studies Award for Outstanding Graduate Student Mentorship. I consider this a huge honour, one of the high points of my career as a prof. Working with students is something I’ve always enjoyed, and their success is something on which I’ve tried to keep focused, so to have this recognized in such a way is incredible. The nomination was apparently made by students from both UPEI and Calgary, they all got together and wrote letters. I am truly touched. The Committee is charge of this award have asked me to give a keynote presentation at the spring Graduate Studies Research Conference, so I guess I’ll have to try and think of something to say.

There must be a line I can steal from Leonard Cohen …

Ascending into Retirement

A couple of years ago, one of the vendors at the Farmers’ Market told me that on New Year’s Day she had filled a jar with 36 glass marbles. Every week when she went home from the market, she took one marble out of the jar. When the jar was empty, at the end of the summer, she was going to retire, and stop getting up early every Saturday to load corn into her truck and drive into town.

I was thinking of this last week, when a colleague asked me if I was really going through with my decision to retire. “Of course,” I replied, “I’ve put my letter in and everything.”

“But what are you going to do?”

And that’s the question everyone asks. I think that this highlights a deep gap in our lives. It seems sad to me that we have talked ourselves into identifying “work” as normal. As though there was nothing else one could, and perhaps rather would, be doing. As though our position as cog in the wheel of commerce is the only thing that could possibly take up our hours in a meaningful way.

It seems to me that I’ve done OK in the rat race we disparaged in our youth. I didn’t win, but I think I placed. I started teaching 45 years ago, in July 1974, and came to Canada 35 years ago, in 1984. This year seems a good year to move on to a new chapter of life.

I am still going to work, but just not for the university. I had a life before the academy, and I hope that I can create one after it. In a way it’s “forward to the past” – many of you know that my first life was as a teacher of art and geography. I plan to keep writing, albeit in creative as well as scholarly styles. Like many, I’ve often thought that I have a novel in me somewhere, and this will be a chance to find out if that’s true. I want to continue to build my skills in the creative arts, in painting and photography, and perhaps see if I can get good enough to exhibit my work somewhere. In my offices there are files full of research data that I haven’t really published yet, so there might still be some academic life left in me. I know I’m not quite ready to quit my development work, and after the summer will be actively looking to see if any short-term contracts are available.

Yes, that was a hint, if you know or hear of anything!

Indeed, I have lots of plans, in addition to the normal “now I can sort out all those boxes of old photographs in the basement” sort of thing. I intend to complete the structured garden at Grandview, and perhaps open it to those who would like a quiet place for contemplation. I also intend to make sure that the garden produces enough vegetables to feed us through the summer, and though canning and pickling to support us through the winter. I am looking into building a cash crop that will help make such expenses revenue-neutral, and I am aware that I’m fortunate to have a pension which should cover most other costs. I shall miss the camaraderie of colleagues but am confident that I’ll keep in touch with my many friends from the Island, from across the country, and from around the world. That is one of the glories of contemporary communication networks.

So, what am I going to do? Am I going to become one of those people who say, “retirement? I’ve no idea how I ever had time to go to work, I’ve got so much happening in my life!”? Perhaps. I know that I’m going to be busy, that there will be other deadlines and other commitments, but that’s OK.

The vendor at the Farmers’ Market still grows corn, but she sells it from a small shed in her yard, instead of driving into Charlottetown. She opens when she wants, with a sign on the road telling people if there is corn available or not. She has time to chat, now, and to make her own decisions.

I only put 26 marbles in my jar on New Year’s Day, as my new beginning will be on 1 July – Canada Day.



Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

So here we are, a month later and still the sky hasn’t fallen. The roads are not blocked by cars racing each other at 3 kms. per hour down University Avenue. The sidewalks are not littered with semi-comatose youth giggling uncontrollably. The police haven’t been swamped with calls to out of control parties in the upwardly mobile parts of town. Nope, it’s all much the same, even after Canada decriminalized marijuana.

It was all a bit bedraggled, as one might expect from a process so long in the anticipation. At our local store one fellow waited in line for three hours, just so he could have the distinction of being the first person on PEI to buy legal pot. He was not young, probably in his fifth decade, and he admitted to having sometimes inhaled in his younger days. I know this because he was interviewed by our local TV station. It all seemed totally appropriate when he was interviewed a second time, on the way out, and we discovered that he hadn’t been allowed to make a purchase because his ID had expired. At least he was the first to cross the threshold, and if it were New Year he’d be lauded as the first-footer.

Everyone else in the initial line-up got served, and a conversation started as to why Customer One had needed to be ID’d in the first place, as he was patently over 21. It turned out that the shop was scanning everyone’s driver’s licence or whatever. They said they weren’t keeping the data, but nobody really believed them, and when a computer geek checked the hand-held scanner he found that the data were being stored for “up to 48 hours.” So that caused a bit of a ruckus and they stopped scanning.

Apparently they still were checking everyone’s ID at the door, though, in a sort of vestibule before you were allowed inside. So that started another conversation, about how as pot was now legal it should be treated the same as booze, and people should only be required to show proof of age if they looked under 30. I think that’s what they’re doing now. I use words like ‘apparently’ and ‘think’ because I haven’t been in there yet. I just haven’t had time to even drop in for a look at how it’s set up.

When I do, I’m going to have to take cash. There’s some degree of concern about credit card and debit card data being ‘readable’ on both sides of our border with the US. The fear is that if a border agent asks you, “Have you ever smoked pot?” and you say, “What, me, officer? Of course not!” then he’ll be able to have a look on his computer and say “Oh, so this fifty bucks you dropped at FIGR (Cannabis PEI), what’s that for then?” So that’s still got to be worked out, as although some states have long permitted and legalized marijuana, it’s still illegal at the federal level in the US.

Interesting times.

One of the unanticipated consequences of the whole thing has been the challenge which legalized dope has brought to the world of etiquette. Specifically, dinner parties. For example, we had one last week, there were a dozen or so people over for a big roast beef dinner on the Sunday night after our fund-raiser. I was especially proud because the vegetables – leeks, carrots, parsnips – had all come from our garden, and everything except the wine and some of the cheese was from within 50 kilometers of town. Anyway, after the cheese course I brought out the usual suspects – some single malt, brandy, liqueurs, and so forth. Then I wondered – should I have gone to the shop and bought some joints to put out as well?

And when people had arrived, they had given Sally some chocolates or flowers or wine as a hostess gift. In future, would it be appropriate to bring a gram or two? We’ve not really had that conversation yet, as far as I know, so any ideas would be welcome!

So here we are, a month after decriminalization day and all is well with the world. The government is making money from the new taxes, and some others are making money in this new business. The initiative I like best so far was started by a small restaurant two doors down from the dope shop. I was in there for lunch the other week and noticed that he now has three menus on the table – the regular menu, the lunchtime specials, and the Munchies Menu! It turns out the owner is from Nepal, where they know a thing or two about marijuana, and he figures people who smoke dope crave certain types of foods. And so now he’s offering them, no doubt in the hope that people will stop by on their way to, or from, the retail outlet and grab some munchies before heading home for round two.

Or three.