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Hike #5 Mountain Springs Road

13 Apr

DSC06454“Look, Daddy, it’s a natural tree tunnel,” shrieked the six-year-old girl in delight.

From behind the wheel of the sky blue Valiant Station Wagon, Ross Figart clapped his strong, olive-colored hands together once and smiled his biggest, sweetest smile. This signified his approval of the moniker his daughter had coined for sections of curving mountain roads where the trees were so old and their branches so outstretched that they literally joined each other over the roadway, forming a canopy.

The diminutive child arched her back, lifted her pointed little chin, pushed her unruly camel-colored hair behind her elfin ears and breathlessly took in the overwhelming vision of deep green hues rushing by and encasing them in wonder.

“It’s like a dream world,” she cooed, peering out the window and into the shady branches as they careened past, hoping to glimpse at least one fairy.

DSC04799The year was 1970 and the roads took us through the forested hills of Eastern Kentucky, where my father made his living as a Southern Baptist minister. He preached not hell and brimstone, but compassion and forgiveness. People adored him wherever he went, whether it was to Hyden or Hazard, Pikeville or Prestonsburg. And he adored the mountain people and their culture, a love he also instilled in me – along with his love of nature and of trees. The greatest gift he and my mother would give me was an idyllic childhood that could rival that of Wordsworth in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on the wooded premises of a summer camp that was part of their ministry.

After I grew up and left Kentucky, whenever we would connect on the phone, I could hear Dad smiling as he’d say, “You’d like where I went today.” He would have just returned home from a trip to some remote community like Whitesburg, Grayson, Pippa Passes, or Booger Branch (yes, this is an actual place). “There were lots of natural tree tunnels.”

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Thirty years later in 2000, eight years after my dad had passed on, I finally got an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream: I went on a quest to find some forested property to purchase in Eastern Kentucky. I will never forget the first time I ever drove down Mountain Springs Road in Estill County, in search of a remote cabin that was listed for sale in an area called Furnace.

DSC06151My sidekick that day was my spiky-purple-haired New Yorker friend Cindi, who had implanted herself in Estill County a few years prior, and quite staunchly I might add. Even streetwise Cindi, who is rarely caught off guard, was taken somewhat aback when I began to shriek like a child at the amazing trees, whose branches bent and met as if in prayer over the winding gravel road. “These are the natural tree tunnels!” I screamed at her over the din of the Rav4’s tires on the thick gravel.

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The cabin itself was situated on a knoll that crowned six acres, two miles in at the head of this heavenly mountain “holler.” The greater forest of which this small plot of land was part teemed with wildlife! To a wood spirit like me, the place was perfect. Tree-covered, rustic, comfortable, private (the nearest communities were all 30 minutes away) yet accessible (I could get to my office in Lexington in an hour) – and with a few improvements and embellishments, it became utterly and completely home. My plan, very simply, was to live out my life on Furnace Mountain.

But fate had other ideas. In a few short years, everything would change. And it all started because I loved – and lost – the trees.

DSC06115About five years into my stay, much of the land around the cabin was unsustainably and mercilessly logged, the beautiful forest habitat ravaged by the largest and most ruthless equipment used in the state. Catalyzed by this catastrophe, which I worked for a year to try to prevent, changes would lead me to let go of the one thing I thought I’d always keep: I sold the cabin.

DSC04808But letting go of what we can’t imagine letting go of always leads to new adventures – to realities that before could have only seemed like dream worlds from a childhood fantasy. Before long, I would be riding through natural tree tunnels in the lush forests of Costa Rica. And from that land of diversity, I’d eventually return to Kentucky to help my mother die, two decades after losing my father.

As I write this, I’m getting ready to spend my last day as a Kentucky resident. Tomorrow I’ll head south and try to make a new life for myself in Asheville, North Carolina. I’ll be living at 3,000 feet elevation overlooking the city and surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, with abundant bird life, resident white squirrels, black bears passing by and natural tree tunnels surrounding me once more.

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Last week, I returned to Mountain Springs Road for a hike with my dear friend Jane, who now has a small cabin not far from my erstwhile home, which is well cared for by its new owners. Every bend in the two-mile road brought memories flooding back. We hiked on Forest Service Road 2057, which I used to walk with my dogs almost every day for the six years I lived there; I was walking on that road when the planes hit the towers. We visited the special rock sanctuary there, a sacred formation known only to a handful of locals. And I said my goodbyes.

I love Eastern Kentucky. And, although I’m not sure what is coming next, I cannot deny that I also love change – probably as much as I love mountains, mountain people, and trees. North Carolina, ready or not, here I come.

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Changes are shifting outside the world*

9 Jan

As a student of English Literature, I learned that for a narrative work of any kind to be truly engaging, the main character has to undergo a change.

imagesIn the terminology of dramatic structure, going all the way back to Aristotle, there is a climax or turning point that marks a change – for better or the worse – in the protagonist’s affairs. Consider the Shakespeare plays you recall: In the comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, things had gone badly for the character up to this point, and now the tide will turn and things will get better. In the tragedies, like Hamlet or Othello, the opposite occurs, and events shift from good to bad at the climax.

Of course, by the time we learn about this literary device, we’ve already been exposed to it many times, from the earliest fairy tales and stories that were read to us as very young children on up through just about every form of entertainment that is a part of our particular age group’s contemporary culture. We can all name our favorites: I recall being enchanted by Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Great Expectations.

images-3As adults, whether we love fiction, theater, opera or rock-n-roll, we are most inspired by those works of art in which a transformation occurs. I will find myself quite bored by films in which the main character never “gets it” and conversely reduced to tears by those in which the change the protagonist undergoes is portrayed in a startlingly realistic way. Some random examples of favorite films are The Razor’s Edge, The Darjeeling Limited, Sally Potter’s Yes, and most recently, Jack Goes Boating. Similarly the music which affects me most profoundly – penned by artists like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, James McMurtry, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle and Vic Chesnutt, just to name a few – does so through its ability to portray characters realizing something transformational.

Joseph Campbell took the Greek notion of dramatic structure a step further to define the common plot element in all stories as the hero’s journey. In any narrative, things are going along routinely, and then the main character is faced with an upheaval of some kind in which all he thought was stable has now changed, requiring him to rise to the occasion and fight a dragon of some sort or another, usually representing a personal fear. It is through this battle that transformation occurs and the hero emerges a new, better, stronger person than before. Think Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Castaway, Avatar, the list goes on and on.

62463I recently watched a film called Finding Joe that expounds Campbell’s hero’s journey concept. It does this through interviews with a dozen or so articulate speakers who have achieved greatness, some well known and others who worked quietly behind-the-scenes to accomplish successful projects. “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” This quote, which might as well be Campbell’s tagline, is one of the main ideas behind this uplifting film, from which you’ll come away feeling like an esteemed squad of cheerleaders including Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood and Laird Hamilton is rooting for you personally.

But to witness another person taking on the ultimate hero’s journey leaves us empty, mystified and lost – because when the final dragon is met and fought with, the essence of what the person was here in this realm of form actually seems to leave us, nevermore to return.

In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “The weakening or dissolution of form, whether through old age, illness, disability, loss, or some kind of personal tragedy, carries great potential for spiritual awakening – the dis-identification of consciousness from form. Since there is very little spiritual truth in our contemporary culture, not many people recognize this as an opportunity, and so when it happens to them or someone close to them, they think there is something dreadfully wrong, something that should not be happening.”

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Trying to come to some terms with my mother’s death over the past five months has been like trying to wake up after being heavily sedated. One is so overwhelmed with the grieving process that it’s like being mired in physical, psychological and emotional quicksand. After many months of struggling just to get through each quagmire of a day, finally, strangely, you begin to process emotions and information like yourself again.

A few weeks ago, I was driving through the woods at sunset feeling as if I had been a victim of amnesia and was trying to remember something about who I had been before. It was like hearing snatches of a melody and parts of a lyric hovering just below the mind’s surface, almost reachable and yet, still distant.*

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After chasing my ethereal thoughts for roughly a 24-hour period, a revelation of sorts began to emerge from the clouds, like mist rising from a mountain ridge. It was slowly dawning on me that just because I can no longer see and hear and feel my mom doesn’t mean she is not still on her journey.

Separate wholly from any learned connection between death and religion, the simple truth becoming less and less dim was that, given our limits of understanding, there is no reason to believe the changes do not go on. Changes are very likely still shifting outside the world as we know it.

As Tolle explains, during illness and finally in death, “what is lost on the level of form is gained on the level of essence.”

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The night my mother died, I awoke from a deep sleep having heard some sound in our shared room. When I reached her, she was unconscious but still living. And then I experienced something I never could have anticipated. Her essence, what some would call her spirit, left her body and very rapidly spread out around me with a palpable aliveness. It is impossible to describe this because I didn’t see or hear it or even feel it. (I was actually quite devoid of emotion at the moment it occurred.) I simply experienced it. And when it was over, her body had become a shell, not unlike that of an insect. Her essence went on. It was tangibly not trapped in the shell, which had died.

From that point on, I knew that to honor my mother was no longer to look at or touch her body, for it was no longer her. And so I sat near the body for only a short time, and then left the room and did not watch when it was carried out of our house.

Mother had fought the ultimate dragon; she had faced her fear and gone through the consummate change. Or had she?

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The way we experience time in this realm of form brings a horrible finality to this type of separation from someone we love. But, we need not lose interest in the plot as we might do when watching a movie where no transformation seems to be occurring. Change can still be going on – and who are we to say that it couldn’t be? Maybe the essence that used to appear in the form of my mother finally found the doors where before there had been only walls. For all I know, Mom is now on some level of the hero’s journey that is beyond my comprehension.

My continued closeness to her essence gives me the impression that changes are indeed shifting outside this world and that she is still learning, growing and changing as she has always done.

Nature photography courtesy of Nathaniel J. Miller. Computer generated paintings by Kathleen Farago May.

*The title of this essay is an intentional misquote from the song No More I Love You’s in which the lyric actually reads, “Changes are shifting outside the words.” The Annie Lennox cover of the song written by Joseph Hughes and David Freeman provides the very personal aural backdrop against which this essay was conceived.

What’s cooking… in MY Kitchen?

21 Aug

While summer is still sizzling, I want to share with you some of my latest local recipes. But wait – before your mouth starts watering – it’s not what you think!

Although I totally appreciate food as an art form – and absolutely admire my friends who try their culinary skill at exotic dishes, artisanal recipes and ethnic cuisine – I might as well just come out and say it (for those of you who don’t already know): I don’t like to cook.

I basically just want to write.

MY kitchen is made up of words.

But food and words are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of my favorite recent creations was written from an interview I did with local Kentucky chef and restaurant owner, Ouita Michel. I could relate to her comment, “For me as a chef, using locally produced foods gives everything that we are doing a sense of authenticity. At each of our establishments, we are expressing what Kentucky is today through the use of Kentucky artists and Kentucky farm goods and preserving old Kentucky locations.” In the travel industry, this is what we call “sense of place,” and it is critical to the authenticity of tourism product.

I wrote the piece for Business Lexington, the Kentucky Bluegrass region’s local business journal. Back in May, Editor-in-chief Tom Martin asked me to do some coverage of travel industry trends and sustainability issues, as well as profiles of interesting local figures as appropriate to fit each weekly issue’s theme. Here are some more of my articles from the past four months:

Aug. 19, 2011 interview with fine artist, musician and film maker Patrick McNeese

July 22, 2011 interview with Lexmark’s sustainability director John Gagel

July 8, 2011 overview of sustainable restaurant scene in Lexington

July 8, 2011 Lexington residents share favorite places to eat

June 24, 2011 overview of tourism trends today and tomorrow

June 24, 2011 overview of Lexington’s hospitality industry

May 27, 2011 tourism as an economic factor affecting sustainability

May 27, 2011 three ways businesses can be more sustainable

And so, while I may not love to cook, when it comes to mixing up ideas, flavoring them with just the right words, and baking it all into a delightfully tasty creation, I’m as talented as any chef. A blank Word document is to me what a clean kitchen must be to a culinary artist, a tabula rasa ready to become the palette for the next tantalizing masterpiece.

What do the Rolling Stones have to do with Gratitude?

25 Mar

I got a call today from an old college friend, a friend who knows me well and appreciates my eccentricities. When he asked what I was doing, I replied that I was watching a Rolling Stones video. I then tried to explain that I was doing research for my blog and that the Stones were helping me practice Gratitude. This ended up sounding lame even to me, and I had to tell my friend to just wait for the blog, and then it would all make sense. And so, here it is…


A year ago at the time of the Spring Equinox, I was living in the tropics, taking part in an exotic international experience full of adventure, romance, fun and excitement. Immersed in the beauty of the ocean environment, I relished gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, thrilled to amazing ecosystems and rare wildlife sightings, all the while embraced by the warmth and openness of the Latin American culture. The full moon rising over the Pacific Ocean on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica took my breath away. There was never a dull moment.

Over the past year, my mom had some health issues back in the states, my romance became more challenging than nurturing, and I realized that in order to be true to myself, I needed to transition away from the exotic life of travel, and back to what I felt was a much more mundane existence: living with mom in my bland, dull, ordinary, conservative hometown, what some half-affectionately refer to as “Rifle Town,” Winchester, Kentucky.

Then, in one of life’s awesome little ironies, my former husband gave me this book called “How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of the Ordinary” by Timothy Miller. And I opened myself to the possibility that maybe life was not so bad.

This is not a book about anti-materialism or voluntary simplicity, as the title might suggest. It’s about how to stop constantly wanting something other than what we have right in front of us. Miller is a cognitive psychologist who writes in a very simple, straightforward style, exploring ideas based in Eastern philosophy from a modern psychology perspective. He examines how we drive ourselves crazy by focusing so much attention on our human desire for more of everything… more wealth, more stuff, more power, more attention, more sex, even more spirituality or more love! According to Miller, whether what we want is good or bad for us doesn’t really matter; it is the act of focusing on the desire that prevents us from living in the here and now, appreciating what we have, and treating others the way we want to be treated.

One of the passages I like the most talks about how meditation – or taking a meditative approach to life (however you choose to do it) – is conducive to wanting what you have because when you meditate, you realize over and over again that you just need to stop thinking about what you want and just sit there with an empty mind. “If you meditate regularly, the cycle of desire and renunciation is repeated thousands of times,” Miller writes. “You might think of it as reprogramming a computer. The original program essentially states, ‘Try to get what you want. Try to gratify your instincts.’ Meditation gradually alters the original programming.” Meditation also is conducive to helping us practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, which are the disciplines Miller advocates to facilitate wanting what we already have.

When I was talking to my friend about this earlier, he reminded me that Sheryl Crow must have read this book when she wrote “Soak up the Sun,” which has that line, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.” But I actually use three other songs to remind me of the three practices that Miller advocates to keep us focused on wanting what we have: Attention, Compassion and Gratitude. You are free to try this at home, and the videos provide a fun way to remember the ideas.

Practice: Attention

Artist: Carly Simon

Song: Anticipation

Theme: “These are the good old days.”

Concept: Being here now and realizing this is the precious present. We can all easily remember the line that ends this classic tune, and remind ourselves that even though we tend to always look to the future and think of what we think and hope is going to happen, even that future, when it does occur, can ultimately only happen “in the now.” If we use the reminder “These are the good old days” as a way to bring our attention back to the present, it becomes easier to see how good we’ve got it, right now, and to realize we have no control over what will happen.

Watch the video.

Practice: Compassion

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Song: Hungry Heart

Theme: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”

Concept: Empathizing with others and seeing that everyone you encounter is just trying to get the same things you are in life. In another of life’s little ironies, I’ve never been as big a Bruce Springsteen fan as is the partner I recently left behind. But I have to admit it resonated with me when Miller mentioned “Everybody’s got a hungry heart” as the mnemonic to help us in realizing that even the people who annoy us most (he uses examples such as neighbors with barking dogs or kids scrawling graffiti on our town’s infrastructure) only want the exact same things we want in life: acceptance, shelter, power, love.

Watch the video.

Practice: Gratitude

Artist: Rolling Stones

Song: You can’t always get what you want

Theme: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”

Concept: Being happy with what you’ve got and thankful for the things that surround you each and every day. Remember the opening funeral scene of The Big Chill? This song was the perfect choice for expressing the resolute nature of grief when we lose something, or someone, we thought would always be there. This theme is a perfect way to remind me that, even if I may not have everything I think I want, I always have all that I really need… and then some. And that realization makes me immensely grateful.

Watch the video.

This year, the Spring Equinox visited central Kentucky with an appearance of the incredible super moon, the same moon that shines over the Pacific Ocean, and over the tropical beaches I have now left behind. I’m now focused on taking part in what adventures, fun and excitement I can find in and around my old Bluegrass stomping ground, immersed in the beauty of a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home in a wonderful park-like neighborhood with older trees, squirrels, rabbits and lots of bird species. Here I am embraced by the warmth of very close friends, some of whom have known me for more than 40 years. I relish this special time with my mother, here and now, a relationship that is precious and which I know I cannot have forever. When I practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, there is never a dull moment… and occasionally, if I’m lucky, I even get to soak up the sun.

Watch the video.

Read another cool blog post about this book.

How can tourism be responsible? Let’s ask Ged.

23 Mar


I expend a great deal of energy supporting and promoting various forms of responsible travel, including types of tourism known as “ecotourism” and “sustainable tourism.” And so I often encounter the legitimate question: How can tourism be sustainable at all? Doesn’t it, by its very nature, contribute to the planet’s demise? You bring hoards of people into pristine natural areas, altering indigenous cultures, running roughshod over endangered species’ habitats, and releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere with all the flights and other nasty forms of transportation.

Touché. True, if we all wanted to do the most sustainable thing possible, we’d each stay put, on our own plot of land, grow our own food, create our own homes, draw on natural resources for energy and building materials, manufacture our own supplies, and NOT travel, or at least not go very far from our respective communities. However, few of us in this day and age have the skills to go into the wild and live off the grid – much less the disposition to stay in one place. Whether international or regional, travel is how we expand our horizons, how we learn about the world around us. And, as long as we can, as an enterprising species, we are going to do it.

So, then, given human nature, the more practical question becomes: How can those who offer travel experiences ensure they improve the lives of the local people and the ecosystems their trips affect? Fortunately, there are many answers to this question. One of them is to build into the price of the tour funding that will go directly to conservation partners and programs that help the animals and the local people on the ground in the places visited. That is the approach taken by Ged Caddick, who runs Terra Incognita Ecotours. What follows is an interview I did with Ged last month for my Sustainable Travel International column, The STI Inner View.

Nominated for Best Tour Operator in the 2006 First Choice Responsible Tourism Award, Terra Incognita Ecotours is based in Tampa, Florida, and operates tours to Belize, Borneo, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Galapagos, India, Madagascar, New Zealand, Peru, Rwanda and Tanzania. Gerard “Ged” Caddick founded Terra Incognita Ecotours in 2004 after more than fifteen years of working in expedition travel. Ged worked for Lindblad Expeditions as an expedition leader from 1992 to 2004, and for International Expeditions while living in Belize in the 1980s. He has led trips for the World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History as well as many College Alumni groups, the National Audubon Society and the Smithsonian Institution. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography from the University of Liverpool, and a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida. As one can imagine, I had a hard time getting Ged to sit still for this interview as he’s usually on at least three continents each month. We spent a little time together recently when he had just returned from at trip to India setting the foundation for yet another ecotour.

Frances: Where were you in India and what did you see?

Ged: We were in Banhavgarh and Corbett National Parks and had some incredible wildlife experiences. We saw tigers and Asian Elephants on multiple outings, but also the monkeys called Common Langurs, Plum-headed Parakeets, Jungle Cat, Wild Boar, lots of Spotted Deer, Brown Fish Owls, eagles and much more. It was very, very cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoons. We will be offering India in early 2012, probably in February.

Frances: In a nutshell, what is the philosophy behind Terra Incognita Ecotours?

Ged: We are committed to making a difference to our guests and to the places we visit. Our commitment is to provide travelers with opportunities to participate in ecotours that explore the world with a sense of discovery and wonder, and to preserve our environment for future generations. We draw on our legacy of adventure, experience and knowledge to do this. And as we do so, we strive to create ecotours that are as enriching and memorable as they are comfortable and fun.

Frances: How did you decide upon the name Terra Incognita?

Ged: Terra Incognita was chosen as this was the term you saw on the edge of the maps drawn by early explorers to show that the edges of the map were undiscovered, uncharted or unknown land. I love the romance and idea of exploration this invokes.

Frances: How did the experiences and dreams of your formative years foster your leadership skills and shape your interest in travel and animal conservation?

Ged: I grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Liverpool, the oldest of ten children! We had dogs chickens, geese, pigs and various other animals as pets, as well as horses for riding when I was a young teenager. Always being around animals and loving them, I dreamed of being a game park warden in East Africa, Kenya or Tanzania. I even applied for such jobs there as I finished University. I traveled a lot within the UK, to the Lake District every summer with my family and as a teenager all over England, Scotland and Wales, plus a couple of trips to France.

Frances: What was the event that first interested you in environmental conservation?

Ged: During my university days in Liverpool I spent vacations working as a volunteer for the “British Trust for Conservation Volunteers,” doing trail maintenance, cleaning old footpaths, canals and other such tasks.

Frances: Did you have a mentor who directly inspired you in terms of your ultimate career choice in working to protect animals?

Ged: My first job was a zoo-keeper at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, a zoo dedicated to captive breeding and conservation of endangered species. My mentor there was Gerald Durrell, the founder of the zoo.

Frances: How did you first get the inkling you wanted to work in travel or tourism?

Ged: In the mid 1980s, when living in Belize and working at the Belize Zoo, I started doing guiding for International Expeditions as they started tours to Belize. They needed local people who knew the wildlife and culture of Belize. It was then I realized how much I enjoyed sharing my love of conservation and wildlife by showing people natural spaces and species in-the-wild.

Frances: What were the challenges of living in Belize long-term and what did you love about it?

Ged: The biggest challenge to living and working in Belize was the isolation and the fact that simple tasks presented many more logistical challenges; communication, building, even getting supplies takes much more effort there. What I loved was that you could make a difference, that my work at the zoo was helping to change people’s perceptions of wildlife and nature in the country of Belize. You become a big fish in a small pond when working in a small country like Belize; when I was there, the population of the entire country was less than 200,000 people.

Frances: What were the things you most admired about Lindblad Expeditions? What elements of the job did you find challenging? Were there aspects of the travel experience you wanted to emulate when you started your own travel company?

Ged: My time at Lindblad was very enjoyable, and particularly important was the commitment to excellence. Dealing with “difficult” people was always the main challenge! I knew when I started my company it was going to be important that we made a positive impact on the places we visited, that we made a difference, that our presence was a force for good, for improved conservation efforts.

Frances: What are the greatest challenges and the greatest rewards of being a tour operator for you?

Ged: Attracting customers through marketing has been my biggest challenge – and I am still learning. The most rewarding facet of the work is helping the conservation organizations and other partners we work with in each destination.

Frances: Empowering local people is a huge component of ecotourism and sustainable travel. Give an example of seeing local people become empowered as a direct result of your tours.

Ged: On our Rwanda trip last September, many of the group were so moved by their experience they asked what they can do to help the kids we met around the Virunga Lodge where we stayed. Most of these children attend primary or elementary school as that is required by the government. But high school is elective and costs money, so many bright children do not continue their education as they simply cannot afford to. I have been sponsoring three children through high school, covering their fees and uniform costs etc. Well, many in the group wanted to do the same; they asked about each sponsoring a specific child. So on the next trip in December, I personally took over some funds gathered by these clients to sponsor about eight kids through a year of high school. And we’ll continue to do this sort of thing on a yearly basis.

Frances: Can you describe an “aha!” or “wow!” moment where your clients really “got it” in terms of ecotourism?

Ged: Every single time we take people to see the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, people experience an “Aha!” moment, they realize their presence is helping to save the Gorillas. Every single trip, someone is reduced to tears by the moment. I have had similar experiences when we see Pandas in the wild in China.

Frances: And I understand you got to meet someone very special last summer while on a tour to Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Can you tell us about that as a closing anecdote?

Ged: We were so fortunate last July to be in Gombe simultaneous to Jane Goodall being in Gombe, simultaneous to the 50th Anniversary of Jane’s pioneering work in Gombe and simultaneous to the visit of Lara Logan and the 60 Minutes film crew as they interviewed Jane and filmed the Chimps. Indeed several times we found ourselves being filmed by the 60 Minutes crew on the trails as we met Jane, and again as we arrived outside Jane’s house on the shores of Lake Tanganyika when we actually joined Jane for sunset cocktails! So we sat glued to the TV one Sunday night in the fall for the airing of 60 Minutes to see if we made the episode! We did not make the final cut, as not surprisingly the focus was on Jane, her research and the Chimps, not on our small tour party that overlapped so fortuitously with this filming! But we are in a behind-the-scenes clip that you can see at this link (the Jane Goodall segment begins at about the 8:15 mark).

To learn more about Ged Caddick and Terra Incognita Ecotours, please visit the company’s web site and follow them on Facebook.

8th Bird of Christmas: Crested Caracara

2 Jan

Today’s bird follows nicely on the heels of yesterday’s – it’s another falcon, but it is more a scavenger and less a predatory species than the Guaco. Seeing this chicken-like raptor that frequents roadways where it can find carrion efficiently always reminds me of one specific incident which begs the question: “Which came first, the car or the Caracara?”

Photo by Bruce Smith

Like many people, I went to Costa Rica initially to experience ecotourism and the resorts and parks that make sustainable practices their focus. The incredible abundance and diversity of plants and trees there in turn support an incredible abundance and diversity of wildlife, which is what makes the country such an amazing ecotourism destination.

Ticos realized the need to protect their country’s natural resources as early as the 1850s. A century later, a commission was created to study places in the country that should be declared national parks and by 1970, the first parks were established to protect the flora and fauna that make this destination so special. Thus Costa Ricans seem to have a true understanding of how important animals are to their economy – alive rather than dead.

Photo courtesy J Centavo.

Given this history of environmental consciousness, I was amazed to witness every single day I lived in Costa Rica, no matter where I went, an insidious threat to animal life in the form of speeding vehicles.

One day I was walking along the gravel road that leads into Curu Wildlife Refuge, when a taxi sped by me so fast it nearly hit me and a couple of horses. Five minutes later, having picked up a customer at Curú’s Information Center, it raced back down the park road at equally dangerous velocity, this time threatening a Crested Caracara to within an inch of its life. At the expense of any life (wild or otherwise) that happened to be in the way, this tourist was going to get to her next ecotourism activity or hotel muy rapido!

Mexico’s national bird, and found in the southern US, Caracara cheriway combines many characteristics of other species, simultaneously resembling a hawk, vulture, chicken and roadrunner. Called “the bone carrier,” cargahuesos in Spanish, it perches on a low branch, walks around on the ground, or glides low to the earth with wings crooked and bowed, showing the white patch at the base of its primaries. Cruising above roadways in search of roadkill, it occasionally takes live prey or pirates prey from other birds, especially vultures. Vocalizations are dry rattles that give it the moniker “caracara.”

One solitary hike found me face to face with a juvenile who seemed merely bemused by my capturing many photos while he or she preened and looked unconcerned. I could never figure out why this young individual seemed to have an egg actually attached to its chest just under the feathers, which you can see in these photos. If anyone knows the answer to this mystery, please chime in. A tumor perhaps?

So, to return to the question, “Which came first, the car or the caracara?” I think we know the answer. This road running raptor will always be a reminder to me that wherever we go on this planet, there will be cultural challenges and social mores with which we will not agree, but to which we’ll of necessity adapt with cautious tolerance.

Cynthia Cusick, artist interview

9 Dec

My friend Cynthia Cusick – a native New Yorker turned Eastern Kentucky farm girl – graduated last year from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor of fine arts degree. I remember visiting Cindi in her studio in late March of that year when she was preparing for her senior show. I stood amazed at the incredibly personal expression she had accomplished through metal and glaze stoneware sculptures. Looking at the scope of the work, I was reduced to tears – and then so was she. We shared one of those moments between friends where no words are really necessary, and then we proceeded to unload some of the then current hardships in both of our lives, while all around us an incredible collection of psychologically rich shapes and figures fresh from the kiln glistened and shone like the tears drying on our cheeks. Since then, Cindi, who turns 48 next week, has created a body of work that is only just beginning to be known and make an impression in the art world. I interviewed her over coffee yesterday about her life and work.

Cindi’s web site, where you can see all of her current work, is here.

Frances: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Cindi: Lots of things. I used to have one of those Pocket Books for each grade from Kindergarten to High School where you filled in your school name, the teacher’s name, your friend’s names, your likes and dislikes, attached a picture and each grade had a pocket to keep all those stellar report cards. They had a check box section at the bottom of each page to check what you wanted to be when you grew up. It was segregated by gender. I never liked the options for the girls so I felt I had to check “nurse” or “teacher” until I started checking “other” from age 7 on up. Some of my choices were “Archeologist” and “Horse Owner.”

Frances: What was your family’s attitude toward creativity?

Cindi: Actually, my family was very creative, especially Mom, but more towards the performing, song and dance, plays-on-stage type thing. They did a lot of parties with their friends and at church that had themes so they were always getting dressed in costumes and Mom was usually the one to draw up the invitations and posters. Mom has a lot of artistic talent that she never fully realized, I don’t think. I know she sent away for a “Commercial Artist’s Course” that gave instructions in this big printed book, chapter-by-chapter, about how to draw advertisements. Think Coca-cola ads from the 1950s. I still have the book. Mom and Dad grew up in the ‘40s so there was a “safe zone,” a very conservative type of creativity. Not the avant-garde type of stuff, at all.

Frances: What were your first creations as a youngster?

Cindi: Ha! My brother, Larry, and I once made an entire town out of construction paper on the window sill of our room when it rained during our entire school break. We also created our own newspaper. We both did a lot of drawing. God, I drew constantly. I was horse crazy from an early age so I was always drawing horses. My brother, Larry, is a year younger than me so we grew up like twins from a young age until about 13, 14. I do remember when we would play outside behind the apartments on Garth Road in the woods; I would dig in the dirt looking for clay. I imagined I was on some Indian trail and would try to find clay to make pots. Of course, it was mostly regular dirt, not necessarily clay but I did like playing in the mud even then.

Frances: How do you feel your family shaped your attitudes towards feminism and gender issues?

Cindi: Wow. Typical Baby Boomer family. Dad was a WWII vet, Mom was the wife and home-maker. Older siblings born in the 50s and then a gap of 8 years between my older brother, Jimmy, and me, born in 1962 so I was in an odd place. By the time I was finishing elementary school and entering puberty, it was 1972 and Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan and the like were in full swing. Women were burning bras, feminists and feminism were on the news, Ms. Magazine was launched and the options for girls was opening up. Although Mom and Dad were what I would call very conservative and traditional in gender roles, they were also less demanding on my brother and I since we were like a second family with eight years between me and Jimmy, so there was less concern that I was playing with GI Joe’s along with Barbies. They were less uptight raising Larry and me, I think. I grew up with an attitude that whatever I wanted to achieve, I could do it although, having said that, there were still gender specific expectations at home, like I should know how to cook and I should have a natural inclination to be a mother. Which I didn’t have.

Frances: When you lived in NYC, were you conscious of the artistic community? Did you realize that you were living in a place where art was a lot of more accessible and integrated into the social structure than in many other places?

Cindi: You can’t be from the NYC area and NOT be conscious of the artistic community. That’s like asking someone from Denver, Colorado if they were conscious of the mountains. NYC=ART, end of story. I suspect the same can be said of Paris, London, Berlin and other big, culturally  important cities. In a way, I think the intensity of the artistic climate, the fact that it is part of the fabric of NYC made it incredibly intimidating to me. I had dreams, as I grew up, drawing horses and then people and things, of being an artist but I was too scared to do it because look what I had to compete with? The rest of the world. I don’t think I was ever really aware how integrated art is in NYC, and how diverse and forward-thinking art is, not fully, until I left NYC to come to Central Kentucky.

Frances: What type of art or which artists do you remember first being affected by?

Cindi: Modern art. Picasso. Mondrian. Bauhaus architecture. the Abstract Expressionists, Pop Culture. Andy Warhol. I hated all of it at first, because I think I was expected to hate it coming from a nice conservative, Catholic family. But at the same time, our family was a little bit weird so I was really, really drawn to the difference from traditional, “safe” art all the same. What really drew me in and kept me going back was the subversiveness of it all. I was ultimately attracted to the power those kinds of art had in making people think.

Frances: You worked as a graphic artist for many years. How did you eventually decide you needed to move your creativity out of that realm and into a new direction?

Cindi: Graphic design was a cop-out for me. It was a “safe,” productive, respectful way for me to “be creative,” i.e. I could make a living at it earning a steady paycheck and appear to have some creative input into the things I was making. The reality was that I was always doing the bidding of the client and creativity, as far as I defined it, was an illusion. It was immensely frustrating. “Stifling” is the word I’d use. Plus so much of graphic design is promotion and product-oriented which left a bad taste in this old punk rocker’s mouth. When you see the ins and outs of media manipulation, it takes the joy out of life. How did I decide? One word: divorce. Nothing like a divorce to make you sit down and say, “Right. What the hell am I doing and why? Time for a change!”

Frances: Moving from the sophistication of New York City to live in rural, and intensely traditional, Irvine, Kentucky, has been a challenge that you have both relished and risen to. How have you learned from the culture around you and how do you feel it has shaped your artistic philosophy?

Cindi: I think I’ve always felt I would have to leave the environment of NYC to fully express myself. I’ve always yearned for the outdoors, the woods, the dirt, the rivers, the oceans, the wild animals and weird plants, trails, hiking, National Parks – I love National Parks. New York doesn’t have a lot of that. Because of that, I had a deep desire to go back to those profound, visceral relationships with nature that I experienced in my childhood in the woods behind the apartments. Being able to come out here to Estill County and own my own acreage allows me to indulge that part of me whenever I need inspiration. Estill County is traditional in one sense, but this part of Kentucky also has some quirkiness and eccentricity that I feel comfortable with, almost like walking around Thompson Square in the East Village – but you have to drive longer distances and people have funny accents. To me. As for artistic philosophy, I think I get to be one of the eccentrics. I enjoy my role as a weirdo New Yorker, an outsider. You get a much better view, in my opinion.

Frances: You have explained your work as referencing organic objects as a metaphor for life experiences. Please explain this statement.

Cindi: I’m really interested in nature, in general. My niece, Allison, is a biologist, and I think that is the coolest thing. I’d love to do some of the things that she does. She and I observe nature. She records it differently than I do but we’re getting at the same thing. We’re both trying, I think, to make a bridge between the organic world all around us and ourselves. Particularly now, in this day and age of technology, much like the Industrial revolution, I suspect we humans have this tendency to disassociate from the rest of the natural world because we’ve conned ourselves into thinking we can live without it and in spite of it, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are nothing but an elaborate container for some sophisticated DNA whose mission is to reproduce itself with as much variety as possible to ensure biological success. We are organic. Driving a hybrid car, watching a flat panel TV, having 1,000 “friends” on Facebook is us deluding ourselves that we are removed from nature. Or above it. So I like to use seeds and other organic references as a reminder of our vulnerabilities. We can crap on the planet and ignore climate change, but we’re only hurting ourselves in the end.

Frances: What role does observation play in creativity and in producing art?

Cindi: Art is about observation. In order to produce art as opposed to replicate art, you have to really be aware and observe without judgment, initially. Then, when you take in the information around you, you can analyze and say something about what you see. Without observation, it’s all just paint-by-numbers.

Frances: Your work often centers around feminist themes and women’s issues. What is your stance on feminism and do you consider yourself a feminist?

Cindi: All women in Western culture, as far as I’m concerned, are feminists, even if they chose to adhere to more traditional roles. The very fact that you can have a choice about that means you support the feminist point of view, whether you realize it or not. Unless you want to give up the right to vote, you’re a feminist. Going back to school as an older woman, and a non-traditional student, I was always struck by these teens and 20-somethings that swore off anything feminist just because they were so far from the roots of the movement. I would just politely and directly contradict them when they would say, “Oh, I’m not a feminist!” “Bullshit,” I would say, “You’re a student here, right?” They missed the irony in their enrollment.

Frances: Why did you gravitate toward clay as a medium and why do you love working with it?

Cindi: I blame Joe Molinaro, my ceramics professor at Eastern Kentucky University. I was simply trying to get my BA in Metalsmithing and had to take a Ceramics I class. He told me I needed to be a ceramics major. I felt threatened so I caved. Okay, I’m kidding, but he did encourage me to become a ceramics major. There’s something basic, fundamental and Zen-like about working with, well, dirt. How much more basic can you get? Maybe air, but it doesn’t hold a form the way clay does. I think Joe recognized that I had a connection to the process of working in clay as well as a sense of proportion and design. He saw my relationship with the material, I think. I work in other material besides clay, mind you, but his guidance and direction helped me find my artistic voice that had been silent for a long time. Okay, maybe not silent, but my voice prior to school was directionless and lacked confidence.

Frances: Some of your work involves the use of metals, but usually juxtaposed with other materials. What does metal represent or signify for you?

Cindi: Oh, I love metal. I’ve been on a bit of hiatus from metal and I’m itching to get back in to it. I really think I have some quality metal pieces inside me that have yet to be expressed. I can sense ideas percolating but I think they’re in the future a bit. I love the strength of metal as a medium and the flexibility, if that makes sense. Metal can be illusory. It can be thick and clunky, filigree and delicate, shiny or dull, smooth and polished or textured, ominous and dark or enameled and colorful. You can set stones in it, wrap it around objects, pierce it with things, use it to pierce things, even flesh. It brings different possibilities to the table than other media. I just saw some enameled vessels that had me drooling the other day. Talk about sexual! Mmmmmm….

Frances: Themes you have explored include very personal and autobiographical experiences related to parental alienation. Talk about how that came about and how it is evolving in your work.

Cindi: My first theme or thing that I felt compelled to say in artistic form was in metal combined with gourds, organic objects that represented the human form. I was going through an intense, emotionally exhausting and draining custody issue with my husband (concerning his ex-wife) during the years I was getting my BFA from EKU. His son, who is now, seventeen, was seven and a half when I met him. He is an only child. The effect of being in the middle of two adults who were angry at each other was painfully obvious. I was appalled at the behavioral changes we saw in him as he tried to cope. Watching a child suffer when one parent willfully manipulated his natural feelings towards both parents in order to gain a legal advantage was something I never contemplated being involved with in my lifetime. Basically, parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse, as it asks the child to give up their natural love for a parent in order to make another parent happy. It’s about exploitation of power relationships of parent and child, and development of co-dependency. Eventually, you hope, depending on the kid, that they figure out what’s going on, and a lot of kids do, but it’s at the cost of a wound that can take a lifetime to heal. In our case, my stepson is on a path of awareness, now, so that’s good for him. I’m sure I’ll find some way of expressing this “turning of a corner.” Needs time to ferment.

Frances: You have said to me before that the only constant in life is change. I have noted how you, like many artists, are able to find relative calm amid a myriad of chaotic events and situations. Talk a little bit about your ideas surrounding chaos, change and constancy.

Cindi: Well, it is true that the only constant is change, that’s what this universe does and yet when you step back and observe, all that change makes a whole picture at the same time it’s changing. In fact, some times we can see not change, itself, but the still moments and effects of time and change, and then we sense the process it took to get from one place to the next. I always like to say we’re all in a race for the pine box or however you choose your finale. In the mean time, as we race, we hit mile posts and then reflect on them afterwards. I think it’s been helpful to me to embrace change instead of fighting it. It certainly makes things a lot more enjoyable and fun. When I feel a chaotic situation, if I take the time to step back from the chaos, I can find some beauty and pattern in the illusion of randomness. It reminds me of those fractal patterns, in each part of the fractal if seems there is no pattern or direction to the graph, but when you keep the algorithm going and step back, this weird snowman-like pattern emerges. It’s a meta experience. Think of those videos where it starts in the middle of a busy, chaotic, ugly, urban street and then zooms out further and further until your view is of the planet and the swirling atmosphere. Just depends on your perspective.

Frances: An area of exploration in your work involving change is that of sexuality and the natural progression of a woman toward infertility in the form of menopause. How does your work explore this?

Cindi: I never wanted to have kids. We’re biologically programmed and built to procreate and recreate. I had all the desire to do the procreative act, but not the follow-up, which I never had to do. As a result, I’ve always had questions – either from within or more often foisted upon me from without – about defining myself as a female, as a woman. What does it mean to be woman if you do not fulfill the biological plan of bearing children? Even if I didn’t want children, just the fact that I was still technically able to have them somehow fulfilled that part of my identity as “woman.” So what happens when you go through menopause and now, you can no longer have children? What becomes of the female identity then? What about sexuality? The libido drops but there are ways around that and you can still have sex without the childbearing. But I already do that so what’s changing and will my perspective on my sexuality change much as a non-mother, as opposed to a woman who has been sexual and had children? I’m also really fascinated by issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s so fundamentally biological and yet we humans make things so complicated.

Editor’s note: Cindi has an entire series of work exploring menopause. You can see it here.

Frances: You have said that a recurring theme in your art is a trust in the intuitive. Please elaborate.

Cindi: A visiting artist to EKU once said to me, “If it comes from your hands, it’s good.” English wasn’t her first language so she may have wanted to be more elaborate, but the simplicity of what she did say had such a profound effect on my work. I went from simple gourd forms in clay to bending the form and finally, my carving exploded. I stopped planning what I was going to do and trying to get my hand work to match the expectations in my head. As a result, I was able to let go and just let my hands do their thing and then stop and look at what I had created. I began a dialogue with myself about what I was trying to say to me. I became my own best feedback. I let my intuition guide me and then tweaked and guided it to help express what I was trying to say. In effect, I let go of my artistic control freak that had been holding me back.

Frances: What is your relationship to spirituality and how does this play out, if at all, in your creative process?

Cindi: I’m an atheist from a good Catholic background! If I had to identify a spiritual philosophy that most resonated with me, it would most likely be Buddhism and Zen, although I’m not into all the ritual. But from what I know about Buddhists and Zen practitioners, they’re not so hung up on the ritual. I do have an aversion to religion and religious structures and dogma. I find all religions have some philosophy that is simply humans trying to understand their place in the universe and to a degree, they function like different languages saying the same basic message. Unfortunately, it’s the hierarchies and dogma that muck it all up, in my opinion. I’m not sure that spirituality plays out in my creative process, itself, as much as the creative process is my spirituality.

Frances: How do you define wisdom and do you think this differs for women and men?

Cindi: Wisdom! Ha! I know nothing. What is wisdom, anyway? I think wisdom comes, also, from keen observation and awareness. And some detachment from the emotional. In that sense, it probably does differ for women and men, but merely by the path it takes, I think. Ultimately, I think we’re all capable of attaining some wisdom at some point in our lives. Before we die.

Frances: How do you define balance and how do you achieve it?

Cindi: Balance, for me, is being able to come back to a place where I can begin again. It’s like yoga poses. For every pose, there is a countering pose to strengthen the whole. So if I’m very focused for a time, I need some relaxation and goof-off time to counter it. On the other hand, if all I’m doing is goofing off, I need some task, goal or chores to counter my idleness. Chop wood, carry water. When things get really out of sorts, I always try to remember to come back to the basics, food, shelter, water, chores. When in doubt, wash the dishes, sweep the floor. You can get a lot of thinking done without thinking then. And the other great thing for balance and a nice reality check are my animals. Nothing puts it all in place like my cat’s purr, my dog licking my hand or leaning on me for some head pats or the nuzzling of my horses, sinking my face into their coat and breathing in their smell.

Frances: What are your current goals with respect to your work in the next five years?

Cindi: I’m looking at the year 2010 as a year of transition for me, which makes 2011 Year One. So, we begin. In five years, I’d like this to be a comfortable process, the making, the creating, the showing, the thinking. I’d like to keep my ability to see the beautiful patterns in the chaos. I’d like to see my work evolve from media specific to more integration between clay, metal, organic and so on as it’s called for. Right now, my goals are getting the most exposure for my work as possible, as far across the region, country and globe as possible. And also to keep making work. I wouldn’t mind doing something unexpected and/or collaborative, either. All in good time. I’ve got a whole second half of my life to enjoy this.

You can follow Cynthia Cusick, artist, on Facebook, here.

Yoga retreat at New Years on an island in Nicaragua, anyone?

24 Nov

Nicaragua, the next big ecotourism destination

In recent years, as social stability and economic growth have come to Central America, travelers with a taste for the cutting edge are discovering that Nicaragua is one of the undiscovered treasures of the Western Hemisphere. Visitors to this country will find that tours, accommodations, food, activities and transportation are affordably priced. And perhaps an even more important distinction, locals are truly authentic and welcoming. The interactive traveler who likes to be the first to discover a new destination and actively engage with the locals, knowing that their visit to the country is giving back directly to the community, will love Nicaragua. And it is only a two- to three-hour flight from Miami (American), Atlanta (Delta) and Houston (Continental) into the capital city of Managua, and no visas are required.

Nicaragua’s newest eco-resort, Jicaro Island Ecolodge is managed by the award-winning Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and was created to capture the country’s true essence.

Set on a private island, the eco-luxury lodge opened in January 2010 and is located just a short boat ride from the colonial town of Granada, Nicaragua’s top tourist town. Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Matthew Falkiner, the lodge offers nine two-level and very private casitas, hand crafted using indigenous wood. There is a floating yoga platform (shown above), gorgeous lounge areas and pool. Meals are created using seasonal, local ingredients, and highlight Nicaraguan recipes and flavors. Jicaro Island offers spectacular views of the Mombacho Volcano across Lake Nicaragua and over 100 different species of birds have been sighted since opening.

Jicaro Island Ecolodge is also quickly gaining a reputation for its yoga and wellness retreats, of which four are scheduled for the very near future in partnership with Big World Small Planet. I recently had the opportunity to interview the leader for the first of these, Peter Sterios, the founder of Manduka, a company providing high-quality yoga mats and other accessories, who will be offering Gravity & Grace: Resistance As Your Inner Teacher December 29, 2010-January 4, 2011.

Interview with yoga instructor Peter Sterios

Peter lives and teaches in San Luis Obispo, CA. His classes reflect over three decades of study and practice in the US and India. A writer and former contributing editor for Yoga Journal, he has been featured in their yoga calendars, Beginners Column, Master Class Column and web site. He has taught at numerous yoga conferences, and continues to conduct workshops and teacher trainings throughout North and Central America, Asia, and Europe. He founded Manduka, a leading eco-yoga products company in 1997. His first yoga DVD “Gravity & Grace” was released in 2007 and recently honored by Yoga Journal’s Richard Rosen as “one of the top 15 yoga videos of all time.”

Frances: When you were young, what did you think you would be when you grew up?

Peter: A pilot.

Frances: What early interests, studies and career choices led you toward your current focus?

Peter: I ended up in architecture school because of an intense fascination with LEGOs from about the age of 4. I liked creating things, building things, and ultimately learning how structure works in buildings and then eventually in bodies as a yoga teacher. It was a roundabout journey though from architecture school to India to study yoga. Once yoga entered my life for real, I sought out teachers and places to study to understand the roots of the practice in an effort to simplify the instruction and make it more accessible to beginners. As a result, I’m now a yoga teacher, a writer, an architect, and a yoga product designer for Manduka which I founded in 1997.

Frances: What types of yoga instruction do you focus on most specifically?

Peter: Yoga for those with healing “opportunities” – people who have a health condition that requires their personal involvement to deal with it successfully.

Frances: What is your philosophy of yoga instruction, in a nutshell?

Peter: Get out of the way of the student’s own experience of the practice so they can uncover the “inner teacher” for themselves.

Frances: Explain your use of “resistance” as an “inner teacher.”

Peter: Resistance is a spot or place in the body that communicates to the mind that more attention is required there. Once you learn the language the body uses to send that message, your practice is just listening to what is needed at that spot.

Frances: What can guests expect from working with you in a luxury eco-retreat setting like Jicaro?

Peter: Lots of rest, a little sweat, lots of breathing, lots of laughing, and more rest… oh, did I mention amazing food?

Frances: Do you like to work with people who are advanced in practice or new to yoga, or both?

Peter: I prefer to work with anyone with a desire to learn more about themselves, experienced or beginners. Frankly, there isn’t much difference between the two when it comes to learning about the power of the mind to create your own self healing.

Frances: Why are you excited about coming to Nicaragua for the New Year and this retreat adventure?

Peter: Lots of rest, a little sweat, lots of breathing, lots of laughing, and more rest… oh, did I mention amazing food?

Frances: Ha, nice repetition! As a former contributing editor to Yoga Journal, have you always enjoyed writing and communication?

Peter: Yes, but I enjoy it more after the deadlines, when the articles are finished. The writing process for me is always a test, and I struggle with finding the minimum amount of words to get across what I want to say.

Frances: Well, I think you have succeeded in being both succinct and articulate. Thank you for your time!

Peter: Thanks for getting the word out for this retreat. Adrienne at Big World Small Planet has done an amazing thing creating the setting and the opportunity for all of us to have a little adventure this New Year’s. What better way is there to start 2011!

For detailed retreat information and registration, click here.

More Upcoming Retreats at Jicaro Island

January 8 – 14, 2011. Celebration of Nia & Wine with Mona Melms. Nia is an innovative workout integrating 9 movement forms based on dance arts, martial arts and healing arts, inspiring you to find tremendous joy in moving your body…barefoot…in the tropics!

January 29 – February 4, 2011. Real Wellness with Alycea Ungaro. This highly experiential week integrates a diversity of modalities and practices focusing on Alycea Ungaro’s Six Principles of Wellness while studying and enjoying Pilates, nutrition and the surrounding nature.

February 5-11, 2011. livWHOLE with Jennifer Galardi. Many of us have been operating on automatic; eat, work, gym, sleep, rinse, repeat. Jennifer guides each participant to take a look at wellness as a whole instead of the sum of its many parts.

Photos of Jicaro Island Ecolodge by Martin van Doorn, courtesy of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and StoryTravelers.

Yin and yang in the Old Pueblo

10 Nov

Honoring death and survival in the American Southwest

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”   ~Emily Dickinson

Raven

Joy

I am writing this week from Tucson, Arizona. My journey here was undertaken to visit two friends – one a 50-something African American gay man named Raven, the other a 26-year-old female adventure travel guide named Joy – both of whom have taken time from their busy lives to show me around this remarkable region and shared equally vital wisdom about life, love, spirit and survival in the desert. Just as these two friends look vastly different when placed side by side, so this journey has presented itself as a study in contrasts – and in learning to exist with balance among them.

The trip was timed around an annual celebration here, the All Souls Procession, which honors the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. The signature procession through the streets of downtown Tucson, which anyone can join, attracts roughly 20,000 people, about half of which are costumed in elaborate face paint and colorful skeletal garb reminiscent of Grateful Dead iconography. Joy and I walked in this mile-and-a-half-long procession together, at times somberly, at times with gleeful elation. This was, after all, a celebration – but a celebration of death! We, along with thousands of others, were there to honor and remember those who had passed away – or even passed out of our lives, for one reason of another. We were there saying, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five: “Farewell, Hello, Farewell, Hello.” This was an event so compelling that I would like to make it an annual pilgrimage, returning each year to the desert, where life can be a struggle for all beings.

Bobcat at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The day after the procession, I visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a wonderful fixture of this arid region, where visitors and natives alike can learn about the flora and fauna that have miraculously learned to thrive throughout the centuries under harsh, inhospitable and unforgiving conditions. At once a peaceful outdoor area with hiking trails, a natural history museum, a botanical garden and a zoo – albeit in the very best sense – this amazing attraction allows guests to see local mammals like the coyote, javelina (collared peccary) and bobcat; birds such as Gila Woodpeckers, Gilded Flickers, road runners, owls, hawks, falcons and hummingbirds; as well as butterflies and a host of reptiles and amphibians. Gracing the beautiful desert landscape here are a myriad of desert plants, shrubs and trees, among them the Saguaro Cactus – state flower of Arizona and symbol of the desert southwest – found only in the Sonoran Desert.

Gilded Flicker in Saguaro Cactus by Warren Lynn

Much has been documented about the efficient way the saguaro stores and utilizes water to keep itself and the ecosystem that depends on it alive. “The saguaro has a thick waxy skin that restricts loss of moisture. The outer surface is covered with pleats, which allow the stem to expand during water uptake, preventing the cactus from bursting. A mature saguaro can soak up 200 gallons of water during a single rain storm. A saguaro is typically more than 90% water. Water is needed for survival, but also plays an important role in heat regulation. The water within the cactus heats slowly throughout the day (preventing the cactus from cooking), then releases its heat at night, keeping the cactus warm.” Source: Todd’s Desert Hiking Guide. Like all life in the desert, the saguaro has to be efficient in every way in order to survive.

And survival can be an issue here for any living creature. Tucson is only 60 miles from the border with Mexico, where new immigration policy is taking its toll. “These walls being erected have their consequences on the environment,” said Joey Burns of the Tucson-based alternative country-rock band Calexico. “Regardless of the human border, the local wildlife has to be able to travel back and forth; it’s important for their survival. But they’re also having a hard time because of all the traffic that goes through there: drug smugglers, immigration, border patrols, vigilantes, humanitarian aid-workers trying to prevent these immigrants from dying of dehydration in the middle of the desert… Putting up a massive wall isn’t the solution to any of these problems. It’s certainly not going to stop desperate people from trying to cross, and it sure doesn’t help the relations between the United States and Mexico.” Source: Anthony Carew at About.com.

November 7 All Souls Procession through downtown Tucson

Border issues notwithstanding, one of the most compelling aspects of Tucson, known to locals as the Old Pueblo, is that, unlike so many homogenized geographical regions in the Unites States, it retains a palpable and dynamic culture, an authentic sense of place! This is brought out in traditions like the Day of the Dead, where Mexicans and Americans come together for a communal celebration of both life and death. And it is also reflected in the Latino influenced musical traditions that have naturally emerged in border regions such as this one. Calexico – whose concerts now traditionally close out the annual Day of the Dead festivities – represents that blend of cultures and musical genres perhaps better than any other border band in the southwest. The concert they gave as the finale to the All Souls Procession at the historic Rialto Theatre, the locus of Tucson cultural history since 1920, benefited the non-profit organization Many Mouths One Stomach, a Tucson-based collective of artists, teachers and community activists who support “festal culture,” the fulfillment of human needs through public celebration, ceremony and ritual. The performance not only fused many world genres, especially those that inspire the southwest, but also brought together in celebration many cultures in one uplifted community spirit. Calexico’s music, which has been called “desert noir,” and described as “a melting pot for country, indie rock, various Spanish rooted sub-genres, jazz, and many other musical styles,” will be the subject of an upcoming interview I’ll post here in the coming weeks.

Calexico’s Dia de los Muertos concert at the Rialto Theatre

I started this entry with a quote about hope, for hope represents one of the greatest mechanisms of balance we can employ in times of challenge. No matter where we may live, like creatures in the desert, at times each of us is faced with the perils that threaten our survival in a harsh climate. And yet, hope is the thing that keeps us moving on, traveling to new places, alive and celebrating life, even in the face of difficulty and loss, each and every day. The yin and yang of coexisting cultures and of death and survival in the desert are nothing if not testimonials to hope.