Padayon Mindanao: Uncovering Otherness

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I am not historically great in selfies…working on it

In Luis H. Francia’s A History of the Philippines the author ends a section titled “The Crescent Against the Cross” with a few sentences that resonated deeply with me. “Not surprisingly, they subsequently viewed each other with mutual suspicion. Despite racial and cultural ties, each to each was the Other: foreign and hostile—an animosity that persists to this day and complicates efforts to negotiate a lasting piece on both sides of the religious and cultural divide.” This concept of other, is of course not restricted to the Philippines. While I won’t use this medium to express personal opinion about what individuals, cultures, religions, races, nationalities, genders, or sexual orientations that my nation’s government labels as other, it is a topic that has recently generated a lot of fervor and discussion due to radical decision-making by the current politically enthroned. I rewrote that paragraph many times, and I think that’s about as tame as it’s going to be.

Islam and Muslim culture is often placed in the cultural spotlight for both the Philippines and the United States. The reason why Francia’s passage rang loud for me was because of a recent opportunity I’ve had through Peace Corps to work on a project hoping to increase awareness of self and of other. The project emphasized empowerment of the self, and worked to bring awareness about the other toward better (safer, happier, more resilient, communicative, tolerant, open, productive, loving) families, communities, and beyond.  The program, Padayon Mindanao, simply provided the venue, but it was a group of young Filipinos that forged the path that led from other to brother, sister, kuya, ate, buddy, and friend.

Padayon Mindanao (Padayon meaning continue in Hiligaynon, and Mindanao referencing the southern island in the Philippines characterized by having a significant population of Muslim Filipinos) is a three year peace and capacity building project supported by USAID. The Educate and Engage to Empower Youth Camp that I was fortunate enough to help facilitate invited 24 youth participants from Mindanao and 24 from the host region of Cavite.  The project focused on engaging under-served youth from these regions due to increasing numbers of out of school youth and alternative learning system students from conflict-affected areas in Mindanao. Major goals of the camp were to empower participants with self-belief, to increase understanding of civic engagement, and to strengthen links between Filipinos from different regions and cultures.

It wasn’t surprising that I learned a lot while co-facilitating my two sessions; Conflict Management and Problem Solving (oh graduate studies courses will you not leave me alone). In conflict management we talked about the iceberg analogy, the idea that in a conflict there’s a surface level issue or occurrence that we can see (clothing, language, appearance, the physical manifestation of emotion) but the biggest portion of the iceberg is still below the surface. This part of the iceberg remains invisible to others, its home to our cultural and religious beliefs, family backgrounds, personal identity and set of ethics.  The eight day camp (and three days Training of Trainers with our Filipino counterparts beforehand) was a process of uncovering some of that iceberg, sharing with each other, and allowing ourselves to exercise cultural understanding.

As a facilitator during these sessions I watched participants unlock deeply rooted stereotypes, work together across religious divides, de-bunk myths held by millions of people within the country, and cry while sharing the personal conflicts and issues in their lives.  One session ran thirty minutes over because most of the room was crying during a Muslim participant’s story of religious discrimination in their community. Another explained their excitement to visit Manila for the first time only to be disappointed when individuals moved away from them at the airport upon seeing how they were dressed. Raw emotion out in the open. In a room full of people they had known less than a week.  We clapped for each other. Sympathized. We found that many participants faced similar issues in their lives. So we empathized.

Part of my thesis for my natural resource conflict resolution work in graduate school concerned taking the “self” out of conflict situations. I  always stressed the importance of neutrality and impartiality as a facilitator/mediator. When co-facilitating these sessions with my counterpart, I found that to be truly impartial to human suffering, anger, and struggle is to move oneself away from the Other. It closes you off from those who are different; it builds a wall. And I use that analogy very intentionally.

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This experience left me with nearly fifty young, brave, smiling, and selfie-loving buddies. It left me greatly inspired by my co-facilitator, a past participant from this program, an ALS graduate, and a current NGO employee in Mindanao. She is unstoppable and the world isn’t ready for her (get ready world).

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My counterpart Merry Christ!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My experience with the Padayon Mindanao project also left me marveling at the passage I started this entry with. Hundreds wait… thousands of years of not understanding “foreign and hostile” Others, and I watched a group of young Filipinos engage each other and dis-entangled their collective otherness in a little over a week.  They already had the leadership and conflict management skills we focused on, but what we attempted to do, and what I believe we were successful with, was to provide a bit of a lighthouse to guide their ability to become young leaders in a confusing and complicated time. The skill sets and the ability to empower are transferable, and now that they’ve all gone back to their families and communities, the ripple effect continues on.

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E2E Camp facilitators and Project Specialist

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Counterpart and some of my Tribu for camp (tribe)

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Problem Solving session

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Camp Day 1

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Cultural Presentations

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Continue Mindanao, assalam alaikum

d

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Published: “Inle Lake” – Canary

Canary, published by Hip Pocket Press, calls itself a literary journal of the environmental crisis. It’s filled with the sadness, hope, frustration, and wonder of human experience in a time of species and habitat loss. How we explore our existence in this anthropocene, a proposed epoch dating from when humans began to significantly change the earth’s climate composition and geology, is up to us as both individuals and a society. Canary’s mission through this disaster; awareness, understanding, and enrichment.

I’m very excited to have my piece “Inle Lake” in Issue Number 35: Winter 2016-17, you can read following this link. “Inle Lake” was first jotted down during a journey through Southeast Asia in 2012-13, and it seems fitting that it’s published while I work with fisherfolk in the Philippines four years later.  The roots binding me to marginalized fisherfolk and fishing communities in Asia are older and deeper than I realized. It also brings back happy memories of adventure and friendship from my time traveling through Myanmar.

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Fields near Kalaw, Myanmar

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Fishing Community, Inle Lake

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Fisherman, Inle Lake

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Bagan, Myanmar

In regards to writing, this was an exciting year for me.  In 2015 I published my first two poems and faced many many many rejections. In 2016 a lot of new experiences were thrown into a pot and after some major brewing and stewing (sometimes well beyond the boiling point) I was able to publish 11 pieces in literary journals. Each piece is new territory for me, and I’m still trying to figure out how this recipe goes.  Going into the new year I’m excited to add more ingredients to the pot. And more fuel to cook things up.

brew on,

d

Mesastila Peaks Challenge- Java, Indonesia

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As if dropped into the middle of a foreign dream, I find myself in a row of bobbing headlamps jogging single file through dark fields. The drizzling rain flashes in the beam of my headlamp and runners reflect off rice paddies on each side. We run with small, calculated steps, balancing on a thin piece of terraced earth. The Javanese night is cool and soon we begin an ascent into thick, soggy forest.

Java is the 13th largest island in the world and even with the rugged mountains and volcanoes in the island’s center it’s home to over 50% of Indonesia’s population and over 141 million people. Often described as the heart of Indonesian culture, Java is an elegant mixture of language and religion with historical and contemporary Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. You’ll also see smatterings of colonial Dutch architecture. Yogyakarta, commonly called Jogja, brings tourists from around the world to witness the world’s largest Buddhist temple (Borobudur) and the large 9th century Hindu complex called Prambanan.  Moving slowing up Mt. Andong (1726m), the first climb of the 65km route, I catch fleeting views of the lights of the small town/city of Salatiga below. I feel far removed from the World Heritage Sites and tourists of Jogja and Jakarta’s 10 million residents (30 million in the metro area!). The temperature begins to drop. With my hands on the tops of my thighs I ascend a muddy track, propelling myself further and further away from my dry, warm bed at Mesastila Resort.

Coming off the first major climb I descend into the first aid station near 15 kilometers after winding through cobblestone paths, brick houses with corrugated tin roofs, and slope-defying agricultural fields.  I crunch to a halt in a gravel area just off the street. Even in the middle of the rainy night I’m greeted shyly by a gathering of mostly young Indonesians. They sit under a shed as if waiting specifically for me, eyes wide despite the time. One records my bib number while a few others offer water, bananas, dates, smiles. Most abundant are the smiles, and there is much laughter when I offer good evening salutations of selamat malam in Bahasa Indonesia. Feeling somewhat recharged (it’s ok to be tired at 15km in a 65km race….right?) I trudge back into the dark street while floating terimah kasih! terimah kasih! thank you! thank you! over my shoulder like a bouquet at a wedding. And then, quickly, I’m alone again. I begin munching one of the dates, or kurma, from the aid station and relish the sugars. I run through the small town as silently as I entered, imagining the many people who have been asleep in their beds for hours already. I imagine myself asleep. But there are three more volcanoes to climb, and I exit the collection of streets and houses the same way I entered, like a spectre, silent and shrouded in darkness. My small light and pack bounce slightly as the cobblestone road again becomes earth.

Nearing the race’s halfway point I slowly climb toward the seeming elusive summit of Mt. Merbabu (3145m). At 10,318 feet, the volcano usually offers views of nearby peaks, green forests, and farmland extending into the distance. At 3:30am, however, I’m hiking through an alpine world experienced through dulled senses. My limbs are heavy and weighted by traveling nearly 30 kilometers over rock, root, mud, and mountain. My clothing is rain-soaked and easily penetrated by the increasingly strong winds.  My hands begin to numb in the cold mountain temperatures, without a doubt the coldest I’ve ever experienced in Southeast Asia so far. Dense clouds have swallowed me along with the top of the volcano, and the light still on my head reaches only a few meters in front of my face.  Outside of this minimal visibility in each direction my world becomes limited to the auditory and olfactory. To sound and smell. Earlier when passing through a small group of houses I was surprised to hear deep drumming and jubilant voices from an unseen location. As I’ve climbed Merbabu the voices have melted far away into the valley that I can no longer see. But the drums follow me upward. They continue late into the night and now early morning. The drumbeat accompanies me up into a dark that had seemed impenetrable to everything else. My heart matches the rhythm. Heart and drum. I carry them both. Or more truthfully, they carry me. I ascend even higher. I begin to smell sulfur. Ash. Leftovers from the earth-making volcano. The ground under my feet periodically takes on an ashy grey hue. Finally the wind pulls back a curtain of cloud to reveal twinkling village lights far below and clusters of stars impossibly above, as if this I the only place that this remains in darkness between two places of shimmering lights.

Over the second half of the race I lose myself and find myself.  During segments there are times when I lose my confidence and my footing. There is a point when I lose myself  for nearly 30 minutes, wandering back and forth on a frigid peak trying to find a small marker that would guide me down through the rocks and bushes. Eventually, over the next two volcano summits, countless rice paddies, and idyllic Indonesian towns, I also lost all the doubt that inevitably crawls into one’s being during an overnight run into unknown territory. When I lost that, I was able to find something much more elusive than the race route. A bit of Self.

I stopped worrying about time, place, speed, location. I was a foot-traveler, wanderer, observer, smiler, eater, and sometimes cusser (here I’m reminded that finding Self is ephemeral, nothing lasts!). It may be that everything in the universe is constantly interacting with everything in the universe. Self is not necessarily carried around with me as much as it’s a reaction between my mind and stimulus.

While I ran, walked, hiked, trudged, rolled, fell, and slipped forward for over 14 hours through the volcanoes of Central Java, I experienced a lot of stimulus, a growing awareness of my own character, and an appreciation for that particular, beautiful place.

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run/lose/find yourself

d

 

Published: “Kingfisher” & Other Poems- Eastlit

This is the first time I’ve had worked published somewhere not based in the United States. Eastlit focuses on English literature and art that’s specifically connected with East and South East Asia.

Three pieces I’ve written since moving to the Philippines titled “Kingfisher”, “Storm in Sections”, and “Bodyworkers” can be found on the Eastlit Content October 2016 page.

Through reading Eastlit over the last year I’ve discovered a lot of inspiration from authors from many nationalities and cultures. The contributors from Eastlit’s newest issue can be found here.

cheers and

שנה טובה (shana tova)!!!

d

 

 

 

Published: “Ashes” -Windfall Journal

Windfall Press publishes Windfall: A Journal of Poetry of Place to engage readers with what they describe as the opposite of globalization; localization. The editors describe poetry of place as “a poetry which values locales, which sees and lets the reader experience what makes a place unique among places.”

A couple years ago I wrote a poem about the Willamette River. To me, this river itself is poetry of place, and I decided to try and work that onto a page. As with a lot of my photography I tried to remove the human, often feeling like the human element scars and degrades the image. But I was missing something. As a writer, and a being, it becomes more clear with each experience that the human presence and spirit is a part of the very things I attempt to create, place.

I re-imagined, reworked, and reworded the piece. And I’m learning a bit more about the persistence it takes to write the way I want to write. This poem, in some form, had been rejected five or six times. I even managed to hear a rejection last year from this same journal. I’m not frustrated by rejections, here you can read thoughts about failure.

Also:

  • James Joyce’s had Dubliners rejected 22 times.
  • E.E. Cummings had 14 publishers reject No Thanks.
  • Robert Pirsig had Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance rejected 121 times. 121!
  • One of the 15 publishers to reject Anne Frank wrote, “the girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”

 

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Interesting note on contributors: 21 live in Oregon, 4 in Washington, 1 in Idaho, 1 in British Columbia, 1 in the Philippines. (Somebody snuck in to the PNW theme…)

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write, reject, rewrite, cheers

d

 

 

The Need to Lose the God Complex

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First a personal confession. Being an overseas volunteer is an exercise in failure. And still more, repeated failures.  And there’s an “s” at the end of that because it’s plural. As in failing more than once, and at more than one thing. That being said, failing isn’t the crux of the issue when I think about the difficult parts about being a long-term, overseas volunteer. To some extent failing is inevitable. In my mind the problem comes from being afraid of that failure. Being so afraid of it that you lose sight of your direction, the task at hand, and perhaps most problematically you lose sight of yourself in regards to your role in that failure.

I think part of this issue stems from the way we’re trained in America. Instead of encouraging students to test out strategies, experiment with their own theories, and write creatively, most high school and general education programs provide a template or formula. Where there is a right and a wrong answer. A lot of multiple choice testing where a wrong bubble correspond to lower grades. Classes seem less interested in long answer writing that might focus on a student’s process of thinking, instead focusing on whether or not they arrived at the predetermined answer. So it might be that we become accustomed to knowing the right way on a list full of wrong ones. We’re rewarded for being right, which breeds desire for the need to be right. All the time.

Insert that mentality into an individual before placing them in a foreign landscape. Then ask them to collaboratively solve complicated, wicked problems within the context of a different culture.  The right answer, method, solution might be frustratingly absent while the need to be right remains. Here lurks a shadowy and untrustworthy figure, floating somewhere in the loop-da-loop passages of your frontal cortex: the God Complex. This is the unshakable belief in your own ability. Your inflated feelings of privilege. An individual that walks through their day wearing the God Complex like its their favorite scarf doesn’t see much possibility of their own failure. They’re dogmatic in their views, consider them more fact than opinion. By the way, this should be a big red flag.

There’s an important phrase that comes into play here. It isn’t used nearly as much as it should be. It conveys a feeling that’s felt pretty often in my volunteer circle, especially in fields like large landscape conservation, marine protection, livelihood development, and humanitarian aid. At least internally, some form of these words go through the minds of a lot of international workers and volunteers, if they’re being honest. It’s not a secret, I’ll go ahead and share: I have no idea how to do this.  

Fairly obvious? There’s a lot we don’t know how to do. But how many leading professionals, scientists, or especially politicians will stand up there with a microphone, a job on the line, and a critical audience watching and say “I have no idea how to do this”?  Why are we taught that having a wrong answer is more valuable than not having an answer at all?

There’s an inherent problem with positively knowing the answer, or telling yourself that you do, when you’re actually feeling very unsure. If you know the answer then you’re not searching for it anymore. And you’re certainly less open to the possibility of alternatives, whether it be another direction for the project, another way of funding it, or scraping the project and taking on something else entirely. It takes away the possibility of learning throughout the process.  Somewhere I’m hearing an echo of James Joyce writing that “mistakes are the portals to discovery.”screenshot-2016-09-07-at-4-21-26-pm

I’ve found more successes in projects where I’ve checked my self-assured notions at the door and opened myself up to the fact that I’m not really sure what’s best. I’ve found more positives from chasing failures than from following the “right way” that seems so obvious to me. I’m still learning. A lot. But I’ve come to trust a few things.  

Bury the God Complex.

Open yourself up to your failures.

It’s okay if there’s still an “s” at the end.

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site of my first rice planting failures

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tiny island #samstand

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this beautiful male washed up at my site

 

cheers to losing the god complex, checking yourself, chasing failure, and being okay with it.

d

Layered Living at the Halfway Point

 July and the early parts of August have perhaps been the busiest months of my Peace Corps Service thus far. Words that are not actually words characterizing my feelings during this period include: body-enlivened, deliri-confounded, furry dog-weary, wild-minded, wonder-happy, and dream-juvenated. I think at the end I looked a little like this picture of Frodo.Screenshot 2016-08-08 at 1.48.22 PM

When people think about building a new home they they often use the metaphor of growing new roots. Like the roots they had previously must be upended, dug up, or cut from the earth so that they may transplant to their new location. There’s a metaphor I like more. Layers. We become such complicated individuals as we gain experience after experience, and I’m beginning to understand more fully how these are layered on top of each other.

Don’t freak. I’m not going to compare people to onions or cakes. I do, however, think that we’re each layered with how we see ourselves. How we see ourselves in our hobbies and homes. Our personal identity.  It can get confusing, I see myself as an Oregon native but Montana resident who is living in the Philippines. A ultrarunning mountain-poet that has added scuba to a passions list that also includes chicken caretaking, baking, handstands, and international development work.  I didn’t yank my roots free from the soil back “home” in order to grow new roots in the Philippines.  My roots simply branched off into a new layer, a deeper soil horizon, new layers on older ones and so on.

Family Visit

In July, in an amazing and even confusing mixing of these layers, some Happy Weinmans visited from the U.S. It was the first time seeing them in over a year and the first time I’d seen Shosh for probably 14 months.  Picking them up in Tacloban was a strange experience. I watched them take in scenes from the street, the markets, the crowded terminal, and the bustle of the jeepneys and trykes flying folks back and forth. All things I’ve gotten used to, have taken for granted as a part of my life here in the Philippines.  Back on Biliran we visited waterfalls, went island-hopping, walked through organic farms, and ate traditional BBQ along the port in the province’s capital Naval. B and D are working a lot back in the U.S. and Shosh is living an exciting but stressful existence in New York City, so they were also fairly content to relax along our beach on sunny days while reading and eating tropical fruits. I think in the end they managed to sink some teeth into fresh papaya, pineapple, mango, and dragonfruit.

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Introducing my family-family to my host family here was a fun but sort of stressful situation. Twas super seeing them both interact, exchange gifts, share food, and just relax on the porch, but it felt like I was also asking myself to blend layers that hadn’t previously interacted. Two parts of my world becoming acquainted. Part of my new self that has grown and learned so much while being in the Philippines being reminded of my previous me from back in the US. Oh to me caught off guard by your own historical self!  Even my cousin and his wife were able to visit from their teaching positions in Korea. Screenshot 2016-08-08 at 8.25.11 PMMaybe the weirdest part was that previously I felt I had come to this rural island in the Philippines and nothing from my pre-PC life would ever find its way to me…nope.

PCRA

While visiting with my family, I was also preparing for a major CRM project at site. The Manta Tow assessment in May was the first coastal resource data taken in Almeria since 2004, but it didn’t take nearly as long as another 12 years to get more data for our blossoming CRM program.  At the end of July LGU-Almeria teamed up with the Bureau for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources for our first Participatory Coastal Resource Assessment (PCRA).  A PCRA is an inclusive process for gathering data with various community members, resource users, politicians, educators, and other stakeholders.  This local knowledge is critical for gathering information regarding the fishery sector and for assessing coral, mangrove, and seagrass habitats. Peace Corps Volunteers sometimes use methodologies that combine technical expertise with local knowledge, and it’s a great way to merge higher scales of government (regional and provincial) with fisherfolk at the community level.  Over the course of four days, BFAR representatives and I engaged almost 70 community members and gathered socioeconomic data for the eight coastal barangays in my municipality.

As with many (all) of my projects here, some components went well and some things were as useful as a boat with a broken motor…and I used that metaphor with a lot of intention. In fact, it’s as useful as one boat with a broken motor and another without fuel…some days are more frustrating than others. That being said, with my site mates’ and BFAR’s amazing contributions we were able to pull of a very Biliran-style PCRA and continue the positive momentum of our projects.  After a long year of hard work, confusions, obstacles, stall-outs, broken boats, empty meeting rooms, and too much merienda…Almeria is really starting to look like a community with a CRM program.

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focus group discussion PCRA

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PCRA

Resource Volunteer

Another crazy realization. The new batch, batch 275, has been here in the Philippines for nearly two months.  A year is a trip around the sun, and the trip this time around was certainly more sun-filled than most. It’s unreal to think we could already be nearing the halfway mark of our service. I was given a great opportunity to spend a week with the new group of CRM trainees in Morong, Bataan, sharing my experiences as a volunteer and assisting with technical sessions for manta tow assessment and PCRA. Whether they saw through my ill-concealed guise as a PCV with actual wisdom or not is unknown, they were too cheerful and kind to say either way.  But returning to the setting of my own community-based training definitely made me realize how much I’ve learned in the last year. I’ve become more comfortable in this country. More confident in my language and my work. More at home with the whole experience.

and now some pictures of this whirlwind whopper of a Habagat season

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sisters and sister

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When your site mate and sister decide they don’t need you anymore

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also when your sister wears your shorts

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mostly not my family here, but a gang from Philly that explored Biliran with us!

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how to get sand from someone else’s foot into your mouth…

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Shosh and family from South Korea

cheers,

d

Published: “Bad Phonecall” – Sweet Tree Review

When I first came across Sweet Tree Review I was mainly excited because it’s an online publication. Previously I’d always been a huge fan of hard copy publications. There’s just something about holding the poetry in your hands, about seeing your name in print.  That mindset changed a bit since moving to the Philippines and not being about to get my hands on as many publications.  The online portal has become more of a lifeline to art, writing, creativity, and sanity.  And Sweet Tree Review is a free, online publication, OH MY GULAY!

I started reading  some words from the editors. Things that included “a sweet tree is everything you need it to be and nothing you expect it to be” and a request for submissions reading, “confront us. Endear us. Scare us. Sadden us. Show us things we don’t understand; things we didn’t know we wanted to understand.”  It seemed like a project I could get on board with.

You can read my piece, along with some other really nifty pieces from the Summer 2016 Issue here.

keep on writing,

d

 

 

 

When Larches Become Lionfish

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I am not certain how long it takes to know a place.  It might take longer if your office is inside instead of out in the field. It might take longer if you’re learning about it from reading about it. Certainly it takes longer if you’re tuned out of your surroundings and tuned in to your iphone or television screen.  Over the first 25 years of my life I explored the wild places of the Pacific Northwest.  I became familiar with its cities, which at times seem filled with more wildness than not.  I came to know jagged ridgelines and mountains and had random encounters with many of the hardy and unique things living in those harsh climates. Screenshot 2016-06-30 at 3.33.44 PMPaintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) scattered mountain trails provided encounters with bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) and black bears (Ursus americanus), and I was able to take quiet moments under the shade of rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis).  There was miles of trail in dark and lush temperate rainforests along surging rivers, winding through western redcedar (Thuja plicata), rhododendron (Ericaceae), and even carnivorous plants. These places were relief from life’s obligations and a period away from the requirements of being a “civilized being”…which is what I think I might be for at least some of the time.  

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I have been away from these places for over a year. Many days I desperately feel the need to pop a freshly picked huckleberry (Ericaceae) into my mouth. Run through an open Montana prairie filled with lupine (Lupinus sp.) and arrowleaf balsamroot (Balamorhiza sagittata) blooms. Stop during a walk to rub some sage (Artemesia tridentata) into my mustache because…well who doesn’t like the smell of sage and want to bring it with them?  While a year is not forever, it sometimes feels too long to be away from these escapes. My task and heart are in the islands of the Philippines right now, and over my time here one of my major challenges has been to come to truly know this place as well.

This knowing, for a self-described mountain man/poet/runner/lover, has not been easy.  The plants and animals here seem foreign, strange, and sometimes outright life-threatening.  While I’ve learned some of the many species in the forests and mountains, the heart and core of this area’s biodiversity is underwater.  The opportunities for me to enjoy great amounts of marine biodiversity while in Montana had been, well, zero. Additionally, large bodies of water, specifically oceans, have always been a great fear of mine. I could list reasons such as their being vast, unknown, dark, etc., but for me it came down to something much more simple. A fear of drowning. This has made my introduction to scuba an intense, if not especially rewarding, experience. I’ve been in the water with a few close friends here in the Philippines already, and many know the few personal rituals I’ve turned to in order to focus, not hyperventilate, and become comfortable breathing under the surface.  Also, having one of your best friends at site be the dive master that taught you everything you know about scuba has worked out nicely.

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Besides training oneself to deal with inner demons, getting to know something is perhaps the best way to lose your fear of it.  In turning towards whatever small part of myself was meant to be a marine biologist, I’ve found a deep reservoir of enjoyment in meeting the critters below the surface.  Each creature seems to teach me lessons and unravel new secrets.  Watching the colorful schools of striped eel catfish (Plotosus lineatus) hover closely to massive corals while the blue streak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) dart in and out of large coral limbs might tell you that the reef is healthy, the area is somewhat protected from harm, and that fish are using the area as a nursery.  Mistaking a chinese trumpetfish (Aulostomus chinensis) for a seahorse and a “real” clown anemonefish (Amphiprion percula) for a “fake” one show me that I’m new in this world and have a lot to learn.  Rainbow-endowed parrotfish (Cetoscarus bicolour) remind me what colors are, and while it lies stealthily along the rocks the variegated lizardfish (Synodus variegates) proves that little monsters of the earth’s deep places still run (swim) free.

Sometimes I know what I’m seeing right away, I know to watch the spotfin lionfish (Pterois antennata) from a short distance, it looks like it may be dressed for gladiator battle. The moorish idol (Zanclus cornutus) is an iconic reef species here and I think I was familiar with them before I back-rolled off the boat.  But if being ultra-familiar with these things makes me happy and comfortable, finally identifying something after months of failure makes me delirious.  I encountered the mostly solitary two-lined spinecheek (Scolopsis bilineatus) and it’s lightning-esque markings gliding in and out of my line of sight for months before I could figure out what it was. It’s commonly seen in Biliran’s reefs, and when it parades through corals next to the multi-colored moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare) I send out mental “eat-your-heart-outs” to those who only see the crescent of the moon from above the surface.  I’m still working at telling clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum) from the rest and honestly to my eyes most butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae) look like the same species. It can be confusing identifying from only a brief moment, but when swimming with black tip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) I can see right away that I’m look at a perfect hunter, one with the fins, body, and movement of an evolved killer. That is unless I think it’s a black tip and it turns out to be a tawny nurse shark (Nebrius ferrugineus).

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2014 Le Grizz 50 Mile Ultramarathon…larches turning yellow in backdrop PC: Myke Hermsmeyer

I miss seeing small black bears roll through the underbrush in the wilderness right outside of Missoula. I miss it when the larches (Larix occidentalis) turn color in fall. These were known things, familiar things I could count on during the seasons. But I don’t have to trade meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta) for monitor lizards (Varanus olivaceus) or give up huckleberries for hawkfish (Cirrhitidae).  I have memories and experiences belonging to one of those ecological worlds and still enough space to begin loving this new one.

some of the jellies have been stinging me really badly…I’m trying to find space to appreciate those too.

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