From the Beagle Channel

As I mentioned, I recently visited my brother on his ship, in Tierra del Fuego. In nearly a year, I had talked to him very little, technology being much less helpful than we sometimes imagine. Inside Sonate, it smelled the same as on the day of their departure, a mixture of tar, iron and coffee, although it was considerably tidier than I remembered. According to everyone on board, leaving your dishes in the sink for the next day is a mistake you only make once on a ship. Finding food scraps and plates scattered everywhere after a rough night out at sea is the sort of thing that teaches you about cleanliness, and fast.

We met in Punta Arenas, on Magellan Straits, in the middle of the lanyrinthine pattern of channels and islands that makes up the south of the Chilean archipelago. My brother rode eleven hours on a bus just to welcome us, and then we rode back together, he and my mother and I, towards Ushuaia, or, Not The Southernmost City In The World as we found out. This honour belongs to Puerto Williams, a tiny little town cobbled together from corrugated iron on Navarino Island, where horses and dogs roam the streets freely and the customs occasionally open late if there was a party the night before. Going through the customs when you arrived on a sailing ship takes ages, but that’s just one of a million things you don’t ever realise if you’ve never spent time on a ship.

Sailing on the Beagle Channel is the sort of experience that is hard to put into words. After a few hours, there are no traces of human passage at all, anywhere. Have you ever been to a place with not a single pigeon in sight? Not a dandelion? Absolutely nothing brought there by travellers? That’s what it looks like over there. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Extermination of the Fuegian people did not happen so long ago, and it’s a bit unnerving, in fact, to see so many pictures of them in Ushuaia, people clad in fur seals and staring at the camera with a blank expression, probably unaware of the fact that their genocide would be turned into a tourist attraction decades later, once all their land had been turned into pasture.

Now the channel is home to legions of birds, more than I had seen yet on any sea I’d visited, and cetaceans too. Dolphins followed us at times for brief moments, and we spied the blows of whales in the distance — or very close, on one occasion, when a humpback whale emerged right in front of the ship and sank under the hull, leaving everyone on board baffled and squealing.

We’re not the centre of the universe. Many places can thrive without us, and it’s a strange feeling to arrive in the middle of a land that is doing very well without humans and where everything, the cold, the gigantic ice fields, the forest growing in steep bogs where every step costs more than usual, tells you that you’re not quite welcome here. It’s even stranger to realise that the only reason that you cn be there at all is that you were part of the few people wealthy and lucky enough to make the trip in the first place, so I won’t pretend that this was some sort of humbling spiritual experience. I’ll just put it in coarse words because subtler ones have been failing me since: sailing in the Beagle Channel slapped me in the face with the fact that I didn’t deserve any of this beauty. Entire people were slaughtered there because other humans wanted more unnecessary meat to eat; whales were slaughtered all so that we could have whale oil to grease machinery and light our cities with, and now we seek contact with a lost natural wonderland as if it was a nurturing experience for our souls, when in fact our souls are the very last thing that matter there. We don’t matter. We should just thank the universe for being randomly born in it.

Happy New Year everyone!

Hope the year is off to a good start for everyone reading this. A few notes from here:

Winter is back. That’s a relief. It’s not so much that I enjoy the cold (although two winters in Québec give you a very different perspective on what qualifies as cold), but there was a time when lamenting the changes in your natural surroundings was a thing only elderly people did. Being thirty and already noticing the animals that are not here anymore, the lack of butterflies or bees, and feeling the change in the temperature is not a great feeling. I know the changes are not stopping, but I still welcome the cold.

I’ve finally registered as a member of the local Family Planning. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, exactly, but I’ll find out in time. So far I was given a very warm welcome and a cup of tea. I’ll find out more on Thursday when I go to the first meeting.

The moth infestation is mostly gone. Now the cupboards smell heavily of cedar oil (hopefully this will work out better than lavender) and our balcony is covered in yarn in plastic bags. My cat is not happy about this, but she’s a nice cat, so she hasn’t complained more loudly than usual.

Last time I went to refill the sunflower seed distributor on the window sill, I found myself half a metre away from a feeding goldfinch. I don’t remember goldfinches feeding here last year. I didn’t move until it was gone. It spent a little while bickering (not too agressively) with a crested tit before they both left. That makes it the fifth species to feed on our window sill: great, blue and crested tits, siskins and goldfinches. I’ve seen a couple of robins and possibly blackcaps (although they’re more difficult to identify, being extremely shy birds) feeding off the seeds that had fallen to the ground.

So far, the besting box is still up, which means I can probably count on my neighbours’ tolerance if I hang another one. No one has hung their dog’s house in the tree either. I knew we could all live in harmony…

Happy new year to you all!

Doghouse in the tree

I met my neighbours (mother and daughter) juste outside our building a little while ago. I was trying to set up a nest box for blue tits in the chestnut tree just under our window. Because I like blue tits and also why not. So, my neighbours saw me perched in a precarious position on a tiny stool (somehow evolution failed to calculate that I would end up being one metre sixty and that’s really not practical when tits refuse to nest in places lower than two metres).

Their very natural reaction was to lose it. But they’re too polite to show it, so they just watched me with aghast faces.

‘You shouldn’t do that, you know,’ the mother said. ‘We don’t mind, but people are going to be very unhappy.’

‘They have no reason to be. And then if someone really dislikes it, I’ll take it down.’

‘It’s going to attract pigeons.’

‘The hole is tiny. It’s for blue tits. Pigeons won’t even notice it.’

‘It’s very… visible.’

‘Once the leaves have finished growing, nobody will see a thing, I promise.’

‘Well, if you must. But people are going to disagree. You know how people are around here.’

Side note: I just love it when someone uses ‘people’ as an excuse for telling you off while trying not to sound too close-minded. ‘People’ are such bastards.

The daughter watched me with obvious disapproval, while I did my best not to land on my backside with a massive nest box embedded in my chest (did you know how heavy these things are? Because bloody hell, they are heavy).

‘Well, I think it’s very big,’ she said with pursed lips. ‘And I say that if people start doing whatever they want around here, then I’ll just come down and put my dog’s house up in the tree, and let’s see what people will say!’

So here’s the moral of the story:

You know the famous ‘slippery slope’ argument? Aka. when people tell you that if you take some ever so slightly progressive steps in society, then everything is going to magically descend into chaos because there will be no limits anymore, and that’s why doing something perfectly logical and reasonable like allowing everyone to marry whoever they like (or hanging a nest box in a tree that’s regularly visited by birds) is for some reason going to cause people to do all sorts of ugly things like committing incest and starting the apocalypse that will wipe out mankind?

As far as I’m concerned, this argument is now known as the ‘doghouse in the tree’ argument.

And if you’re curious about what became of the nest box: it’s still there, but I put it up too late and no bird took residence in it yet. In any case, incredibly enough… ‘people’ have failed to complain.

The last butterflies

Cycling around Aix is a breath of fresh air, on so many more levels than the litteral one. The fields alternate with groves of pines and white oaks, there are few sounds aside from birds, and one just has to glance at the side of the road to see more plants than in a whole week working in Marseilles. Then there are the smells, too, those smells of early summer you could spend hours picking apart: wet leaves, drier leaves, earth, elderflowers, rosemary, wheat fields. One hour out there and it feels like the part of you that got the best workout was not your legs, but your brain. There is so much going on: a jay taking flight from a cherry tree, a bid of prey soaring up with a snake in its talons, willow pollen tormenting your eyes, the sweet, sudden smell of elderflowers, unknown plants pricking at your legs, roots working their way under the roads and making them bumpy, the temptation to snach almonds from a branch leaning out of a garden, tiny streams that would barely have registered as rivulets back in Québec, but that are dignified with a name and a signpost here, the red assault of a cluster of poppies, your whole body feeling the change when you leave the side of the field and enter the drier regions of pine woods, with their dry warmth and deep aromatic scent, the changing silhouettes of trees, sinuous for oaks, straight for pines, mangled for plane trees, bushy for elders…

There is an ongoing debate about whether spending your time on a computer is likely to make you less intelligent in the long run, and I’m not going to voice an opinion on it, but I wonder if we are not missing something crucial from that debate. The point is, perhaps spending your time online may allow you to reach more information, or perhaps it only allows you to memorise paths to that information and cripples your capacity to remember things by yourself, I have no idea. But what about all the information that cannot be found online? The smells, the feelings, and the dizzying diversity that remains there even though we have done an awe-inspiring job so far at destroying as much as you can? Half of the butterflies are now gone from European fields. Yet when you cycle through the countryside for a couple of hours, you come across half a dozen species, at least. There is more diversity in the last of the butterflies than in what the average person browses online in a week–and for that matter, in what could be found in most libraries of the world. There is a certain type of knowledge we have learned to conveive as all-important, and that is knowledge that can be expressed through words on a page. I’m not denying the importance of that knowledge. But what about all the information we are depriving our brains of, the sound of a lizard in the grass, the prickly touch of weeds, the way the smells change in the spring?

I recently read about a species of ants that evolved to live underground, then came back to the surface after a few thousand years. While living underground, their brains adapted to their new conditions. But they did not simply become different; they became atrophied. Life underground is much simpler than life overground. There is almost no light, there are fewer sounds, the touches and smells are mostly all the same. With so little information to process, brains can become lazy. They simply stop being ready for an overload of information that will never come.

We couldn’t turn into ants underground, could we? I hope not. I hope that there is something I’ve failed to notice in the videos and online conversations my student spend their lives following on their smartphones. I sincerely hope so, because if there’s not, our descendants will know the fate of the ants underground. Their brains will be shut to the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. And so much will be lost to us.

Stork country

The area known as Alsace, a very peculiar place that has changed hands between France and Germany over the course of several wars, is famous in France for being the home of most French storks.

We visited Alsace last week and didn’t hope to see any–they do migrate, after all, and it’s not nesting season. In a shop where I bought an embroidery kit featuring a traditional stork pattern (I know, I know…), I was told that storks actually annoy people around there. They’re huge and noisy and their nests weight up to half a ton, so they can easily destroy a roof, it seems–and some of them do stay all winter, what with global warming and all. Still, I would love to see storks try to destroy my roof…

Taking a late-evening walk with a friend, however, he suddenly pointed towards the roof of a very posh house. There, on a platform specially installed for such an occasion, was a massive nest, and by massive I do mean absolutely huge. On the nest were two tall, lanky, entirely still birds.

‘Oh, wow,’ I said. ‘But… are they real?’

I’ve never seen anyone laugh like that. To my friend, it was a very funny idea to put fake storks on a roof: the birds are so common people don’t even look at them anymore. To me, it was like suddenly being in another country. They looked so beautiful someone might as well have put fake ones there on purpose.

Eventually they started moving, and there wasn’t a doubt left. We walked back home, and I thought about the little nesting boxes I recently bought for the blue and black tits back home. People who build whole platforms for five-hundred-kilos stork nests take the commitment to quite another level. I’m very fond of my tiny birds back home, but I will keep treasured memories of stork country.

Tales from Antarctica

A few weeks ago, two new colonies of emperor penguins were discovered near the Dumont-Durville base in Antarctica. The ice melt apparently cleared a way to the place where over fifteen thousand penguins had their home, and had previously been undisturbed by big clumsy humans. Luckily though, humans today try to be a little bit less big and clumsy, especially when they go through the trouble of sailing for two weeks between icebergs for the sole purpose of studying penguins. They're content with sliding on their bellies down icy slopes to tag them, and watch them for hours with binoculars, and the colonies can still live in peace.

It's a beautiful discovery, and an important one, too: since humans elsewhere than in Dumont-Durville are still big and clumsy and mostly very stupid, it is very likely that we'll need penguins to teach us all they can about global warming. Learning that there are several thousand more emperos penguins than was previously believed is extremely important to modelise their population dynamics. I'd better stop here before I start blabbering nonsense about biology stuff I don't understand much, but still, it's big. Also penguins are the only creatures known to ruin a perfectly good Lovecraftian moment by showing up in the middle of the Mountains of Madness where a shoggoth was expected. And I hear their chicks are cuter than baby seals, koalas and kittens in a basket of flowers. So, there's that.

Here are two pictures from the discovery:

manchots 1    manchots 2

Antarctica looks like a beautiful place, doesn't it? Look at those colours–blue shadows and tiny black specks, and a perfect sunlight overhead. And there's another moving thing about these pictures: they were among the first ones ever taken of the new colonies. And certainly the best, too: wherever the newspapers write about the discovery, you'll see them in the articles. What the world knows about the new colonies, it knows through those two or three pictures: penguins in the distance, then closer, walking about as if nothing happened. It's the one tiny piece of this spot in Antarctica we're allowed to visit. And they're wonderful pictures.

And the photographer is my brother.

Finding the Crows’ Cave

A few years ago, my mother and I went to the Alpes for a few days of hiking. We ended up strolling to a mountain refuge, and asking where the paths led from there.

"You could go to the Crows' Cave", they said. "Follow the path up the mountain. Then leave the trail and walk up and to your left until you find the cave. There's a river running through it. Here, take a torch to have a look inside."

Up we went, then, off the path and into a long stretch of green grass and rocks (that's the Alps for you: one side of the mountain covered with woods, blueberries, raspberries and other yummy edible things, the other miserably bare, and we'd picked the bare one). Naturally, it wasn't very long before we had no idea where to go. It's much harder to find a cave than, say, a peak. The slope was very steep, but we hadn't looked at the map yet and so we were unaware that it broke into sheer cliffs right below us. Then at some point, we decided to try a new orienteering technique. The place was called the Crows' Cave? We could just try to follow the crows!

And indeed, there were a whole flock of them, up the mountain, hovering above rocks with shadows at their bottom, that could just as well look like a cave. Suddenly the idea sounded very exciting, especially since it felt just like a slow-motion dice roll in a particularly good D&D game. The "roll", then, took us all the way up, in the sun, with a huge sense of purpose. And, well… failed by a few points.

The shadows were just that: shadows, and no cave to speak of. Climbing even further made no sense, as rivers don't usually run at the top of mountains. We try to walk down and look for the cave on the way. It was not very easy (it's one of those places where you don't lose your footing because of the grass, but where the declivity slows you down an awful lot, and even though it's quite safe, you can still count the vertebrae of the various sheep or mountain goats that crashed there at some point). And the throw was definitely a failure. We found the river, but no cave. We walked back on the blueberry path as a consolation prize.

Having come back this summer, though, we decided that one failure was enough and that we had to see the cave. We headed up again–the weather was even hotter this time around–, said hi to the dead mountain goats, and…

We found it. I'm happy to say that our first intuition had actually been the right one, as there were a lot of crows nesting in the cave; we simply should have followed them some more. Also, the dry weather had thinned the river down, and we could see a ways down the cracks in the mountain. It also revealed a smooth trough in the rock, which could be used as a slide of sorts, not by us of course, because we're grown-ups (all right, maybe we played in it just a little), and the only cold place in the whole side of the mountain. We ate cheese and dried sausage and smashed plums, and headed down.

Afterwards we intended to take the other trail, to a pass in the mountains, but we were defeated by a dastardly army of blueberries that robbed us of the better part of the day. But next time…