Remember Remember

It’s that time of the year again. These weeks at the end of October and beginning of November mark the change between summer and winter, between lightness and dark, when we switch back from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time. These are the days, roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, when we celebrate, or at least still recognize, some of the old ways. These are the nights of spirits and witches, of the unknown and the unknowable. Samhain to the Celts and Druids, Día de los Muertos to those who speak Spanish, All Souls Day and the preceding All Hallows Eve, which has now been contracted to Halloween. The time of year when we honour the dead, appease their spirits, pay homage to those whom we fear can communicate with both, and generally prepare ourselves for the dark nights ahead.

We had a Samhain bonfire once, when we lived at Ballantyne’s Cove, a small fishing port in rural Antigonish county, Nova Scotia. I was a new assistant professor and my salary would not cover a house rental in town, so we lived some 35 minutes away in a small A-frame house looking out over the Northumberland Strait. A beautiful location in summer and fall, a darned cold one in the winter. There was a steep slope running down to the water, with a convenient ledge on which to build the fire, and we invited our neighbours to join us for a celebration. Their daughter was the same age as one of our girls, and they knew each other quite well. We told tales of witches and ghosts, drank hot chocolate (enhanced for the adults), and snacked on parkin, a ginger cake from Yorkshire made (albeit less successfully) to my grandmother’s recipe.

As the fire drew down our neighbour invited us to join them for dinner. It was nearly seven, so we protested that it was getting late, but were assured that it would be no trouble, “we have to eat anyway.”

We made our way down to their house, which was closer to the shore, and the girls disappeared to play. Our hostess smiled brightly.

“Do you like roast chicken?”

We agreed that we did.

“Great. I’ll just get one out of the freezer”.

Just before midnight we excused ourselves, declining dessert, and made our weary way back up the hill, past the charred remnants of the ceremonial fire.

“Will we see witches now?” our eldest asked. “It’s getting late and they might be flying around.”

But we didn’t.

There have been other bonfires, other ceremonies. When I was young, we didn’t have Halloween. There were no candle-lit carved pumpkins on our street, no half-buried gravestones on the lawn, no dressed up 10 year olds knocking on the door while anxious parents loitered watchfully at the end of the driveway. What we had was Bonfire Night.

When I was about ten, my brothers and I ‘liberated’ a pair of trousers and a shirt from our dad’s collection, stuffed them with straw, and added a discarded turnip from the greengrocer as a head. An old hat finished the mirage, and after putting the ‘body’ in a wheelbarrow we would wander down the street and past the shops, accosting pedestrians as we went. “Penny for the Guy?” we would call, and most people would drop in a coin or two. Soon we would have enough to go to the Newsagents and buy bangers, little red tubes of gunpowder with a short black fuse.

In our downtime, between school and meals and harassing pedestrians, we would build a bonfire. Windfall branches from the woods along the railway line, debris from various building sites, everything would be gathered and then piled up in somebody’s back garden. Various parents would supervise, making sure to add a certain measure of stability to the pile, and we ensured that one post stuck out more or less upright from the top of the pyre. On this we impaled the straw-stuffed Guy, waiting for the fire.

This ritual burning was in memory of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 had tried to assassinate King James I when he and his ministers gathered at Westminster for the state opening of parliament. The conspirators had placed barrels of gunpowder in the cellars under the main chamber and were about to light the fuses when they were arrested on 5 November 1605. And so, on that same day, some 350 years later, the neighbourhood would gather round as the bonfire was lit and the old song was sung:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason, and plot;
I know of no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

As the effigy burned so we boys would roam the shadows beyond the edge of the fire, emerging to throw bangers at each other, or at other unwitting bystanders. The goal was to get each little explosion as close to the target as possible, without the target knowing that a little red firecracker was fizzing quietly by their heel.

Fires and witches, explosions and ghosts, history and present, the seamless merging of pagan rites with modern times. It is no surprise that this is the time of year when we turn back the clocks. The surprise is that they only go back an hour, and not half a millennium.

Thanksgiving

I have been remiss in writing a blog these past six weeks. It seems that every time I sit to write about something which has happened in the world, and to which we should pay attention, something else happens! The Canadian election campaign has provided all sorts of food for thought, from racist theatrical make-up to institutionalized racism, from scripted soundbites to the white noise of a people talking over each other and calling it a debate, from smart one-liners to personal putdowns. About the only things missing are discussions of policy or passionate descriptions of what a brave new world might look like. A brave new Canadian world, that is, contextualized as it must be by the outrageous actions of the President to the south of us, and the consequences of those actions in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere; contextualized by Brexit, which rips apart not only the UK and Europe but the British and French history of Canada, not to mention the major trade partnership between Canada and the EU; contextualized by the harsh realities of climate change, and the carbon debate which threatens the oil producing parts of Canada with economic chaos and rest of us with the growing understanding that life in a harsh northern climate becomes increasingly untenable without light, heat, and sump pumps. It is now Thanksgiving, and so I think that I will ignore all that doom and gloom until next time. Instead, I’ll ponder on the wilder side of life.

The wild wet weather of an Atlantic fall (autumn) has rapidly made us all forget those long dry days of summer. The rain of Tropical Storm Erin was followed by the rain and wind of what was officially described as a Post-Tropical Storm with Hurricane Force Winds; we just called it Dorian. Except for the good people of Halifax, who insisted that it should be renamed, or at least have the letters rearranged, to represent the famous fast-food delicacy which was invented in that city. To them, this storm was known as Hurricane Donair.

Really! See https://www.kingofdonair.ca/

Whatever the name, the storm battered the Island, bringing down trees, flooding roads and homes, toppling power lines, and generally causing mayhem.Dorian2

That said, even those whose trees fell, who lost power for 7 or 8 days, who couldn’t get into work because of a broken culvert, all were grateful that it hadn’t been worse. Like many around the world, we had spent the previous two weeks watching the devastation that Hurricane Dorian had brought to the Bahamas. The images of an apocalyptic landscape were seared in our minds and as we looked around the Island, we were grateful that we had been spared that experience. Although a local annoyance, in the greater scheme of things, a few toppled dry bean stands really didn’t count for much.

Dorian beans

The storm surge brought all sorts of interesting debris to the beaches, including a rare blue lobster which caught Kula’s attention.

blue lobster

Once we added some mussels and razor clams, a crab and some scallops, we had a veritable post-storm buffet.

post-storm buffet

We could have added elvers, washed up in the eel grass that littered the dunes, but we decided to stay with shellfish.

eel grass and eel grass2

We’ve had two more major storms since then, and there has been another special weather statement issued for later this week. The ground is saturated, and there is a fear that more strong winds could bring down more trees. These are still in full leaf, which look beautiful as they turn to autumnal golds and reds, but act as sails when the wind blows. Until then, they will continue to provide shade and shelter for the beehives which line the fields, hired out to a farmer to pollinate a blueberry field.

beehives

The leaves will also act as catchment areas should it snow. I was out in Calgary at the end of September and had a rude reminder that winter is on its way.

September snow

Until that cruel day arrives, I continue to plant the bulbs which hopefully will bring bright spring colour to the end-of-winter drabness. The garlic bulbs are planted, following my grandmother’s rule that they should go in after the autumnal equinox and before the new moon of October. And there was a first in my garden – somehow a frog found the pond and surprised me with its presence.

pond frog

To misquote Rick in Casablanca: “Here’s lookin’ at y’all.” Happy Thanksgiving!

Zero +2

Heavy horse pull Dundas 2019The Labour Day weekend is here, marking the official end of summer for most Canadians. On PEI there is not the same agreement. Although all would agree that September and October are magnificent months, with warm days and cool nights, most people argue that summer finishes as the winner of the Gold Cup and Saucer Race crosses the line on the third Saturday in August, an event which marks the end of Old Home Week. This is a ten-day period of harness racing, agricultural and RV displays, and a large midway with rides of varied severity and rows of carnival activities. Lots of neon lighting and the smell of candyfloss and corndogs overload the senses, and those fortunate enough to live close to the event grounds happily have visitors park on their lawns at $10 a car. Personally, I think this is an urbanized view of summer.

The weekend after the Gold Cup and Saucer Race is the Dundas Plowing Match, an old-fashioned country fair. Here fancy breeds of poultry are proudly displayed, a raucous mix of chickens, geese, ducks, pigeons and doves. Some are for sale, and this year we acquired two prize-winning buff ducks to join the flock. In the other barns are cattle, sheep, goats, and rabbits; a small stage hosts a series of local musicians singing gospel and country songs; and in the community hall examples of baking, jams, fruits and vegetables are displayed and judged. Teams of oxen pull plows across an adjacent field, old red tractors huff and wheeze their way around the grounds, and pairs of huge horses show off their strength to pull wooden pallets loaded with concrete slabs along a dusty track. There is a midway, but here the rides are mainly for young children and the Ferris wheel only takes passengers 15 feet above the ground. There are sausages on a bun for sale, and ice cream by the scoop, but no neon lights or candy floss to be seen.

Heavy horse pull Dundas2 2019(1)

For me, the final heavy horse pull at Dundas marks the real end of summer, which this year was praised by tourists and beach lovers but of concern to farmers. There was a three-week period where we had no rain, the ground turning hard and dry and difficult to weed, although that didn’t stop Nesinake and Hadil from getting everything looking beautiful for the garden party. It was delightful to see these two working together – Nesinake is from Papua New Guinea and was a student in my early years of teaching, while Hadil is an international student from Syria who was in the last graduate class I taught. Nesinake now lives in Melbourne and came over for my retirement party; afterwards her husband Neil and I installed a 1200 litre (320 gallons) water tank to collect the rain from the roof of the shed, but it was purely a decorative feature for much of July.

The dry weather did make it easier for Gavin, a good friend who visited from Calgary for two weeks, and me to drive the cedar posts and fix wire panels so that the ducks and chickens, or chucklings as one woofer affectionately named them, now have a huge fenced area in which to roam. The ones that are going to overwinter are starting to reach egg-bearing age; the ones that aren’t are starting to get measured for the freezer.

In the garden the first tomatoes have ripened on the vine, and the drying beans are beginning to pod on the tall wicker tripods, only one of which has fallen over into the squash and pumpkin plants. The early garlic has already been pulled and stored, the rest are ready to be gathered this week, and the leeks, onions, beets, parsnips and carrots are all filling out. They were helped in this regard by the remnants of Post-Tropical Storm Erin, which in late August brought some wind and a fair amount of rain, and temperatures failed to reach 20 degrees Celsius for the first time since I retired.

The pond is holding water well and the recent rain has topped up the levels to the stone edging we laid earlier in the month. The edge of the liner around the top of the pond is still an exposed eyesore but must stay until the spring, when it can be removed and replaced with strips of sod and wildflowers. The dragonflies don’t seem to mind the unfinished nature of the pond, cruising around over the single, white, water lily flower and the shade it casts for the goldfish beneath.

The small scale moai from Rapa Nui gazes benignly over the sunken garden, a tangled mass of weeds which lies firmly on the ‘do next year’ list of tasks. The massed ranks of Black-eyed Susan in the surrounding meadows have started to fade and will be cut this week to encourage new growth, and to provide a broad swathe where we can snowshoe in February. The formal flower beds are red and gold in late summer hues, the roses are on their second or third bloom, and the bounties of the herb garden are slowly transitioning from flowers to seeds. The fruit trees in the orchard are starting to shed their leaves in readiness of the winter to come, and the posts for the vineyard are laid waiting for me to get organized enough to get them in to the ground.

The past two months have flown by so quickly that it is only just sinking in that I don’t need to go to the office on Tuesday. I suppose that I shall now have to turn myself to the myriad of small household tasks that never seem to bubble to the top of the to-do list, the things that are so boring and/or repetitive and/or uninteresting that they get left until someone else gives in and does them first. Or the tasks so herculean that the mere thought of starting them brings palpitations and cold-sweats – the dozens of bankers boxes full of photographs and carefully preserved black and white negatives which need to organized and archived; the filing cabinets with old research notes that have to be kept for a precise number of years prior to being shredded; the diaries and notebooks that will one day be fictionalized into short stories and perhaps a novel.

But on this first day of September it is another warm Sunday on the Island. The sun is shining, the soil is still workable, and the harvest continues to burgeon. Time enough for those other tasks to wait until the rains and snows of winter keep me indoors. Time still to procrastinate on the to-do list, and instead to eke another day of summer from the year.

What’s in a Name?

A few months ago, I was checking my professional development account and realized that I had some money left – not a lot, but enough to cover a couple of plane flights or conference registrations. Over the past 25 years I have always tried to attend both the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) conference and, also, the one held by the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS). These are traditionally held in early June and mid-July, respectively. As this was going to be my last year as a full-time (i.e., paid!) prof, it seemed appropriate to try and go out with a bang. So, I submitted a proposal to each conference and was, fortunately, accepted.

I contacted Accounting to confirm that the PD money was there, and to make sure I could use it as I envisaged. For my Canadian conference in Vancouver there were no issues, but the BELMAS conference in England posed a problem.

“But it’s not until July.”

“Yes, but I want to buy the ticket now, in March, because there’s a seat sale.”

“But you’re not travelling until July.”

“And I have to pre-register before 30 April to get the early-bird rate.”

“But the conference is in July.”

“Yes.”

“And you are retiring after 30 June.”

“Yes.”

“So, you can’t spend the money for that. It won’t be available then.”

“It’s available now.”

“You’re not retired now.”

We went around this a couple of times and then I gave up. “I’ll show them”, I thought, “I won’t put my university name on my name badge.”

I registered for the conference and when I arrived in Leicester, I was pleased to see that my badge read ‘Private Scholar’.

DSC_1352

That’ll show them, I thought, that’s putting it to the man!

A number of colleagues commented on the badge, as it was the only one there with no university affiliation, and I happily regaled them with the story. Most laughed, some just shook their head, but one colleague and friend of many years said: “Why Private Scholar? It sounds like a rank.”

We chatted about that for a bit, and then he suggested “Independent Scholar” would be more appropriate. I said I’d consider that for next year. And we left it there.

Then, as I was driving down from Leicester to London, I started thinking about his comment. What would happen, I wondered, if I turned up at a conference with such a name badge. What would people think? Would they take umbrage at my audacity, would they feel that I was ‘having a go’? After all, are not all scholars independent?

If I were to define myself as such, then what am I saying about everyone else? That their independence has been compromised by their positionality within the academy, by the salaries they receive from the institution? Surely that wouldn’t be what I meant at all.

The second question that came to mind, then, was why is the name of the institution included at all? If all scholars are of independent mind, then what is the purpose of stating where they work? Is there an inherent status involved, so that one might adjudicate the value of a contribution based on the working domicile of the professor? This issue carries on to the various sessions, where anyone in the audience who wishes to ask questions of a presenter is requested to state their name and where they are from, in a job sense. To what end, I wondered, as I navigated the merger from the M40 to the M25.

I have spent the past quarter century going to conferences, and I have acquired a huge collection of name badges identifying me as being from (in sequence) the University of Saskatchewan, University of Alberta, St. Francis Xavier University, University of Calgary, and University of Prince Edward Island. Is this just the academic equivalent of the name on the headband of a Wimbledon tennis player or the shirt of a footballer, basically the name of one’s sponsor? When I transfer ‘between teams’, is it simply expected that I have to wear the colours of the new team and show my allegiance?

In a profession, or a vocation, such as education, where ideas are paramount and contributions are measured by both their experiential and conceptual clarity, then what is the added value in identifying oneself as a person from a particular institution? If the idea is good, then to what extent does the provenance matter? We no longer expect to see a gender identified, and many of the name badges at contemporary conferences do not even contain an academic rank such as ‘professor’ or ‘Dr.’ So why the institution?

Perhaps it is now time to go the next step, and simply have a name badge with one’s name on it. Apart from anything else, this would have the advantage of providing a more sustainable alternative. One could have a name badge prepared for one’s first conference, and then simply keep reusing it until it fell apart or was lost. Or the conference organizers could prepare one for you, with your name and theirs, and then collect them at the end for re-distribution the next time you attended.

But then, of course, one would not have a collection of 100 name badges hanging from a hook in one’s office, to show new colleagues and graduate students quite how prolific one has been in one’s career!

Ebbs and Flows

It seemed apt that the first person I met after I registered at the last conference I will attend as an employed professor was an old colleague from St. Francis Xavier University, which was the first place I worked when I left the real world and joined the academy. We chatted and caught up on our news, which was actually very similar – he also is retiring at the end of June. He’s leaving Nova Scotia, though, as he and his wife have been living a version of a traditional Maritime life, where one person stays home and the other works away. She continues to work away, however, and so they are relocating to Ottawa once he retires. He commented that it will no doubt be difficult to pack up and move from a small town where he has spent his entire career, to a place where he knows few people, and where the social networks have all been developed by his wife. It seemed to me that the ebb and flow of life is splashing up against his shins.

Later I had brunch with a colleague with whom I shared a couple of classes when she was a doctoral student and I was doing my Master of Education degree at the University of Saskatchewan. She is still academically strong and is a very productive scholar. She has negotiated with her university to move to a half-time position, where she will continue to teach and research from August to December and then be basically unemployed from January to July. Apart from anything else, this gives her the opportunity to travel, and to see those few parts of the world she has not yet visited, and to do so far from the trials of a northern winter. She told me that she couldn’t just stop working, it would be too difficult as she feared she would simply shrivel up with nothing to do, there would be no purpose to her days. It seemed to me that the ebb and flow of life is splashing up against her knees.

At a reception that evening I met a retired professor, one whom I remember from my own doctoral student days at the University of Alberta. He still comes to the annual conference as it helps him feel connected to what is going on in his field. He told me that he enjoys talking to students and trying to help them by providing answers to their problems, most of which he has heard many times before. It is the highlight of his year, he said, to come and listen from the edge of a room. It seemed to me that the ebb and flow of life is splashing up against his hips.

As I look forward to the next few weeks, time to empty my office and see if I can give away any of my books – books! What quaint objects! Who uses those now, I wonder, those once treasured artifacts of an ancient time? – and fill a blue bag with research papers and other documents to be shredded, I consider myself fortunate to not be facing those pressures. I am not relocating to another province, I am not going to be lacking purpose in my life, I am not going to try and maintain a presence as an elder scholar. Nonetheless, I feel a gentle splash against my toes.

Three more marbles in the jar.

 

Where Did May Go?

Where did May go? How can a month disappear? When I wrote my last blog we had just arrived back in Santiago after flying in the Ghost Plane across the Pacific. I meant to write about that, and the lonely seal doing laps at the Santiago Zoo, but too quickly we returned to Canada and became immersed in life. Of which I shall write later, but first to pick up those three themes.

The runway at Hanga Roa extends across the island, so the plane cruises in from the sea, touches down, and then as it turns you see the sea on the other side. Pretty impressive, and Sally thought that a photograph from the slopes of Rana Kau might show a decent panorama of sea – runway – sea, one even that could be made even more impressive if a plane was landing at the time. As we drove up the road which climbs the side of the volcano, we heard a plane roar overhead, but it was an hour earlier than the scheduled flight, so we didn’t pay much attention. We found a good look-off spot and pulled into a layby one of the gods had made for our purpose and watched the recently landed plane taxi into the terminal. I was surprised to see that it was painted white, and had no markings, not even a call-sign number.

Naturally my imagination went into overdrive and I contemplated some secret government agency flying around the Pacific, dropping off death squads or conducting random renditions. I was musing on this when a minivan pulled up and some other tourists got out to marvel at the view. Their driver wandered over and said hello. We chatted and told him that we were waiting for the scheduled flight from Santiago to land. He looked puzzled, then said he could check the flight. He called someone and then looked back to us:

“No, that’s the only flight today. It’s the regular flight but it got here early.”

Disappointed at missing the photo opportunity, I mentioned the lack of markings and asked if he knew anything about that. He laughed.

“We call it the Ghost Plane,” he said.

Apparently Latam Air has two Dreamliners, the one which we had flown in on our way to Rapa Nui and another which had unfortunately developed a crack in one of its engines. That plane had been returned to Rolls Royce, who were in the process of fixing the problem, and who had arranged for Latam Air to borrow a plane while the repairs were being made. Sort of like when you put your car in for a service and they give you a courtesy car, a loaner, for the day. Only this is for planes. Who knew?

ghost plane

This explained the lack of markings, as the plane was never officially part of any fleet. And like many loaner cars, the temporary drivers didn’t give it much respect either. On the way back to Santiago I could not get my chair to recline. One of the flight attendants came over, pressed a few buttons in seemingly random order, and said “try again.” When I pressed the recline button the chair just kept going backwards, so I stopped it and spent the flight sitting comfortably upright.

The passenger in the window seat in our row did manage to get her seat to recline, and from her gentle murmurs had a very pleasant snooze as we flew back across the Pacific. As we started our descent, however, she was unable to return to the vertical. Four flight attendants pressed buttons and pulled on levers and shook the fabric of the chair, but to no avail. The poor woman was still horizontal as we landed in Santiago.

While in Santiago we decided to visit the zoo, thinking that we might see all sorts of South American wildlife that is not often seen in the north. I particularly interested in seeing jaguars, howler monkeys, and perhaps a condor. We walked a few blocks across the city and found the funicular that goes up to the highest point, San Cristobal hill. On its way up the funicular stops at the zoo, so you can get out and have a look around, and then catch a later car and go up to the top. You can’t go to the top first, because the car doesn’t stop at the zoo on the way down. So, we bought our tickets and clunked up the disconcertingly steep track to the zoo.

Which obviously is on the side of the hill and is therefore laid out as fenced areas – in effect, cages – on each side of the path, which descends – and ascends – in a series of hairpin bends. As zoos go it gives you more of a workout than most. But it is interesting to look at a group of llamas, and then a strenuous few minutes later look down on them as well.

llama(1)

That said, I found the zoo disappointing. We must have been there in what is in effect their off-season, summer having finished and winter not yet upon them, and many of the exhibits were closed for repairs. There were more carpenters than tourists wandering about, and the sound of hammering drowned out even the macaws, which I never did find. It must be a cost-efficient way to run a zoo, to have empty cages with signs describing an animal that once was or might one day be there, but no actual animals. Those animals that were there often appeared as single specimens. I did see a jaguar, high up on a concrete plinth, and a condor pacing aimlessly before fluttering up to a perch and turning its back. There were chimpanzees and gibbons, and lions and tigers, and other ‘traditional’ zoo animals, but no tapir or howler monkeys to be found. I watched a seal swim lonely laps around a concrete rock in a concrete pool, and we decided enough was enough.

Jaguar - Santiago zoo

We took the funicular up to the top of the hill, where we sat on a cobblestone patio and ate a microwaved stuffed pastry, a disappointment after the empanadas of Rapa Nui, ourselves and the city watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary, shrouded in smog.

condor

During the rest of our time in Santiago we wandered around the city centre, eating in small restaurants and trying to absorb as much as could, including the stunningly good Museum of Pre-Columbian History. This is quite compact, and it only takes an hour or so to see all the exhibits. The range of artefacts is incredible, and I found it interesting to put the Inca and Aztec cultures into a wider socio-cultural mosaic.

Mayan censer

I wish I knew more about the history and societies of our southern neighbours; it was noticeable that events which were commonplace to locals were so eye-catching to me. On one corner a line of people selling food, which they do in small batches from coolers and cardboard boxes; the only rule, apparently, is that the food must be home-made. The thousands of students marching down a major boulevard, shadowed by police and trailed by water cannons, the whole cavalcade concluded by a line of street sweepers picking up any discarded trash. The random kindnesses of strangers, pointing us in the right direction as we tried to match street to map.

And then it was time to return to Canada, and the month of May which has flown by. It has been a long cold spring on the Island, with daffodils and tulips only now coming into bloom. I set up some grow lights in the basement and started a variety of flowers, vegetables and herbs from seed, but it has been too cold and wet to prepare the beds for transplanting, so everything is languishing in my daughter’s greenhouse. I finished a couple of paintings that were included in an exhibition of work at a local gallery, which sounds a lot grander than it really was – basically, all of us who take classes from Henry Purdy RA were asked to submit something! That said, it’s fun to see one’s work on the wall in a public space, even if it is a bit nerve-wracking to wander around incognito and hear what people say about your efforts. I’ve spent time on campus, where I finished a book chapter and met some students and attended several meetings and started the process of cleaning out my office. There’s still a long way to go, however, but that will have to wait. As I write this, I am flying over the Rockies on my way to Vancouver. I am on my way to my last education conference, at least the last one that I shall attend as a working professor. There will be another conference in July, in the UK, but by then I shall have officially retired and be an independent scholar.

Four more marbles in the jar.

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