Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Faroe Islands (My 1000th Post!)

Sage on the top deck of the ship
This is my 1000th post.  I started this blog in 2004 and I had no idea I’d still be writing in it eight and a half years later.  Over the years I have written a variety of posts:  memoirs, adventures, trips, poetry, satire, political commentary and book reviews.  In 2011, I took a break from this blog to start a new blog (riding rails) which highlighted my sabbatical journey from Indonesia to Europe and on back to the United States via ship.  After getting back, I never finished the story (the last post, I was leaving Dover on a ship.  This is one of the missing stories as I tell about visiting the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic.

A map "borrowed' from the internet
I take breakfast at the buffet on the promenade deck, sitting strategically where I can see out both sides of the ship.  Off starboard, to the east, a cloud bank lies over the ocean, obscuring the sunrise.  The skies are clear to port.   Savoring my coffee, I alternate between reading Simon Winchester’s The Atlantic and starring out across the water.  I’m surprised when land appears off port, one of the outward islands of the Faroe archipelago, our destination for the morning.  

The Faroe Islands are rocky series of volcanic rock that rise like fingers above the Atlantic halfway between Norway and Iceland.  The islands tend to be long, running from the southwest to the northeast.   They are narrow enough that there is no place on the islands that one is more than three miles from the sea.   There are few trees on the islands, mostly just thick grass and rock.  People have lived on the island for at least 1200 years, maybe more.  Legend is that the first settlers were monks from Ireland who sailed there in 461 AD, but there is some question as to the validity of such claims.  It is known the Vikings settled here late in the first millennium of the modern era.  Since then, the population on the island has been somewhat stable as they make a living from fishing and raising sheep.   

We sail past the islands of Suduroy and Sandoy and a few smaller ones.  The sun rises over the fog as we sail into the port of Torshavn, capital of the Faroes.  The city is beautiful, with its neat houses nestled between the water and the mountains alive in the morning light.  Soon we’re docking, the deckhands handing the heavy ropes to moor the ship the bulkhead.  I head back to my cabin and pack a bag for a day of sightseeing.  We’ll have a little over seven hours before we sail and, as I did not arrange for a tour, I’m not sure what I’ll see.  But we’ve been informed there is a lot of shopping and exploring in the capital city.  The only commercial tour available was to see puffins.  Those signing up for this, at an additional cost of $250, would not have time to see the city at all as they’d spend the day on a boat around the cliffs of the island.  The price seemed steep and when I later learned they only saw a couple of puffins as the rest of the birds had already migrated, I was even more glad that I skipped out on the tour.

Getting off the boat, I head with a group of people to the tourist office to pick up a map and to get the local scoop on the trip.  There, someone tells us about the bus service in the Faroes.  In a few minutes, there’ d be a bus leaving for Kloksvik, some 90 km away in the northern islands and we were promised a wonderful ride that will show off the best of the islands.  It’s only 90 Krones (about $15), but we have to exchange money into the local currency as the driver won’t accept pounds, euros or dollars.  The Faroes have independent home rule but are a part of the Kingdom of Denmark and depend on their mother country for defense, judicial proceedings and currency.  Over the centuries, the islands have been a political football that’s been kicked back and forth between Norway and Denmark.  During World War II, after the fall of Denmark, the British “invaded” the islands, in a friendly take-over that kept Germany from claiming the islands and having an outpost in the North Atlantic.  
A local billboard advertising Facebook
 Having obtained some local currency from ATM, about a dozen of us from the ship get on the bus along with a couple of locals.  The group from the ship include an extended Chinese family, from Hong Kong and Vancouver, who have become with my daughter and a few other stragglers.  We take off, climbing up the steep hills behind Torshavn, the hairpin turns providing a grea view of the view of the city below.  The roads in the Faroes are surprisingly good.  The islands are warmed by the Atlantic current which keeps the temperature moderate.  It’s never hot, nor is it very cold.   Winter temperatures are generally above freezing and they only occasionally have a dusting of snow.  Summers are warmer, but temperatures seldom rise above the low 60s (10-12 C).  It is often rainy or foggy, giving the island s a mysterious appearance.   Soon after we leave on the bus, the morning sun disappears and t he rain begins.  Throughout the day, it’ll be rainy or foggy or sunny, all subject to change on a moment’s notice.   
Because of the steep mountains, there are a number of tunnels on the islands, both between mountains and under the sea that separates them.  Our bus takes us to the center of the island of Streymoy, then down through Kollafjerour and along the south bank of Sundini, a fjord separating Streymoy and Eysturoy.   We pass a couple of small fishing villages and a waterfall that tumbles down over the side of the cliffs rising up from the fjord.  Although most of the homes are modern, we see a few traditional houses with sod roofs.  There’s a little farming, mostly hay, but lots of sheep.  The word Faroe comes from the Norwegian word for sheep.  
We are surprised to see a small bridge at the narrow part of the fjord, which the driver brags that it crosses the ocean (which it does as both ends of the fjord are open).  We cross over to a new island and stop in the rain to drop off and pick up a few passengers.  Leaving the village of Tordskali, there’s a long tunnel cuts through the mountain.  On the other side, it’s dry and the sun is shining (for a few minutes anyway.  The road runs to the southeast, along the northwest bank of Skalafijordur (another fjord), before cutting over a peninsula of land and by a few more villages.  At Leitvik, we drop into a longer tunnel that runs under the sea to the Island of Bordoy.  Coming out of this tunnel, it’s just a short distance to the town of Kloksvik, our destination.  We have an hour to explore this small fishing community, before the bus returns.  The highlight of the town is a Lutheran Church with a Viking boat hanging in the rafters.  About 85% of the population is Lutheran, with the next largest religious group being members of the Plymouth Brethren.  We walk around looking at boats and stopping in a few stores, picking up some snacks to eat on the way.   
As we make our way back to the bus station, the rain returns.  Our return trip is just the reverse, except that it’s raining even more.  As we wait, I strike up a conversation with a young Dutch couple who are backpacking.   They’re spending a few weeks in the Faroes, hiking around (and taking the bus through the tunnels).  Sometimes they camp, other times they stay in hostels or hotels.  They take the bus to the next island and then get off and we see them head up into the hills as we drive away.  As we enter Torshavn, with a few hours to spare before boarding, the driver suggests a shopping mall and we all get out and eat.  Afterwards, most everyone shops for wool yarn or handiwork, but I decide to walk to the lighthouse and an old fort that guards the port.  We meet up later on the ship.

Eurodam at port
sailing through the fjords

As the ship leave Torshavn, we still not done with the Faroes.  The captain sails around the southern point of the island of Streymoy, then steams north through Hestsfjordur, Vagafjordur, and Vestmannasund, a series of fjords that will allow us to pass through the Faroes, between Streymoy and Vagar.  I head up to top deck on the ship.  It’s cold and exposed, but the views are incredible as we sail by small villages and remote homes, watching sheep graze on the steep hills.  On the intercom, our resident geologist (he got on the ship in Ireland and will sail with us to Nova Scotia), tells us about the islands and explains their geology as well as their history and culture.  We see where another tunnel under the ocean, that connects Vagar to Streymoy, descends below the depths.  Two hours after leaving Torshavn, we leave the fjord and are
back on the open ocean, sailing to toward Iceland.    

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Redbuds along the river

Thornapple River
This is my 999th post!  I wonder how many of them have been about canoeing?  Any suggestions as to what I should write for my 1000th post?

Spring has been beautiful this year as all the flowering trees seemed to have peaked at the same time.  Last year, we had such unseasonable warmth in March and then after everything bloomed prematurely, which killed all the blooms and created an economic nightmare for apple and cherry farmers whose crops were wiped out.  This year, it stayed cold and the blooms came out at the right time and the past week we’ve been treated with lovely colors as the trees came back to life after a winter siesta.  Knowing that the magic time was here, it was time to get out in a canoe. 
Redbud Reflections

Last Friday was my first chance to get out on a river and it wasn’t looking good.  Rain had moved in Thursday night and the skies looked dreary.  Since the rain was supposed to diminish in the afternoon,  I decided to paddle a section on the river that I knew had lots of redbuds (which are more purple-like).  In the bow was an artist-in-residence from the Netherlands who is spending three months at a local nature center.   It was fun to be on the water and to watch this artist’s excitement at things like tree roots and the various hues of green.  We had a wonderful trip even though the weather forecasters lied and the rain continued.  But at times it would let up and fog would move over the water. 

I doubt anyone has been down this section of the river since the floods a few weeks ago and there were several tight passages as we squeezed through fallen trees and accumulated debris.  The only real problem was at the old trestle, one of five along the river.  The pilings had amassed all kinds of logs and brush.  We had to get out of the boat and work it over the logs and get back in on the other side of the trestle.    However, the banks along both sides of the trestle were dotted with trillium in bloom.   

Coffee shop parking
Another find is that the new Biggby Coffee shop off Michigan 37 is can be easily reached from the river. We were able to paddle up a creek a short ways, beach the canoe and climb up the bank, where we were able to enjoy a hot mug of coffee on a wet and cool afternoon.  

Redbud reflections
Although there were many redbuds and dogwoods along the way, after the old railroad trestle, they became even more numerous.  Although the weather was lousy, the scenery made up for it.  We got to see lots of waterfowl and birds, several deer, two muskrats, and a beaver’s calling card.   
A beaver's handiwork

Thursday, May 09, 2013

An Interview with an author: Susan Zakin

A while ago I reviewed Coyotes and Town Dogs by Susan Zakin.   I am pleased that Susan has graciously allowed me to interview her for my blog.   Enjoy the interview and keep your eye out for her upcoming novel.  You can also learn more about Susan and her work at her website and Facebook page.  
This is the first real interview I’ve done and I now join the ranks of a few blogger friends like Michael Manning, Charles Gramlich and Ron Scheer.  In the interest of honesty, I should point out that Nevada Jack has done a few faux-interviews such as the one with the guy who held Michael Jackson’s umbrella.
Sage:  Susan, As one who has lived a chunk of my adult life in the American West and a fan of Edward Abbey’s writings, I enjoyed reading your book, Coyotes and Town Dogs.  Thank you for taking me back into a time when I (and perhaps the nation) was more idealistic.  Your book brought back a lot of memories such as the time I helped organize a protest of James Watt, when he was speaking in North Carolina.  I was just a few years out of college at the time.  A lot has happened since then.
I was amazed at the organizers of the Earth First! movement.  They appear to have been libertarian in their political philosophy who valued freedom and at the same time were “good old boys” who enjoyed a good time.   You referred to Abbey’s writing as being “fun” and I agree.  It’s a treat to read him just as it would be fun to hang out with these guys.  I found myself envious of being there and wondered if, in your research, you get to spend time in their element, in a bar or around the campfire, swapping stories?   If so, are they as fun as they seemed?
Susan:  I didn’t hang out in the Zona Rosa whorehouses.  I’m a journalist,  so I kept some distance, particularly from the main characters.  But I did become friends with a few of the minor characters, including environmentalists and at least one of the guys who prosecuted them.  In the case of the prosecutor, though, he resigned from the U.S. Department of Justice after Dave Foreman’s trial in a crisis of conscience.  But not before he wrote a killer indictment.
Sage:  Earth First! had its beginning five years or so after the publication of Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.  Although Abbey had based his characters on real people, the novel inspired a movement instead of a movement giving inspiration to a novel.  As an author, do you find this odd? 
Susan:  I don’t find it odd in the least.  In America, we tend not to value art or intellect.  This isn’t only a problem with right-wingers who want to stop funding subversives.  Environmentalists are rarely voracious consumers of culture, and, as a result, they’ve lost the initiative and are stuck in a reactive mode.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Oscar Wilde, who trumpeted the idea that art was more real than life, so bringing The Monkey Wrench Gang to life made perfect sense.  Major historical changes always have been accompanied by revolutions in art.  Artists and revolutionaries inspire each other.  It’s a call and response, like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Sage:  I read Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tide after having read most of Abbey’s writings.  I found myself wondering if Luke Wingo in Conroy’s novel was inspired by Abbey’s “Hayduke” in The Monkey Wrench Gang.  Have you read Conroy’s novel and if so, what are your thoughts about these two characters?
Susan:  I haven’t read Pat Conroy. But I did read books by William Eastlake and Jim Harrison about monkey wrenchers.  Bill Eastlake was a friend of Abbey’s.  He lived near Bisbee, Arizona, and I was fortunate to meet him shortly before he died.  I had a young, strapping boyfriend.  Eastlake gave him the once over and cracked wise.  “Are you her bodyguard?” 
Yeah, my boyfriend said. 
“Do you have a gun?” Eastlake asked him. 
“I don’t need one,” my boyfriend said.
They just kind of smiled at each other. 
Sage:  The book was published just a few years the Prescott trial.  Do you know what has happened to the members of Earth First! since that time?
Susan:  Dave Foreman went on to co-found several environmental groups, all devoted to the principles that were at the core of Earth First!  What many people don’t realize is that the men and women who started the group were among the first non-scientists to pick up on conservation biology, a new branch of ecology made possible by computers that was just starting to gain traction in the early 80s.  Research by E.O. Wilson and others gave us the bad news that national parks were not large enough to ensure the continuation of natural processes.  So this was a big deal, and not many conservation organizations were paying attention. If they were, they weren’t quite sure how to incorporate this startling news into their way of doing business.
Sage:  There are many who considered Earth First! a terrorist group.  However, since their popularity in the 1980s, the United States have seen both domestic (Oklahoma City) and foreign terrorist attacks (911) that make Earth First! look as if they were kindergarteners.  In your book, you tell that Dave Foreman was upset when some people spiked trees without letting anyone know, making it dangerous for the loggers.   How would you respond to someone who refers to Earth First! as a terrorist group?
Susan:  I always say that the FBI took Earth First! more seriously than Earth First! took itself.  Earth First! had more in common with the guerrilla theater of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies than any terrorist group. 
But I do think Earth First’s popularity surprised the hell out of the founders.  They had this idea and went for it, but they were what the organizational psychologists called “goalless planners.”  One thing led to another, and suddenly several thousand people were running around calling themselves Earth First!  There wasn’t much accountability because they were all supposedly anarchists.  It’s possible that one of those people would have been nutty enough to do something really bad.  That was the only risk, in my opinion. 
But nothing like that happened.  I think it would be more dangerous to promote some of Earth First’s ideas now.  But come on, guys.  These are environmentalists.  Nerds, basically.  Dave Foreman lasted about a month in the Marines.  
Sage:  Although I do not consider Earth First! to be in the same camp as Al Qaida, I found myself pondering on the idea that they both had a decentralized structure that allowed lots of activities to occur without top-down control.  It is also interesting how our government seems to have hard times engaging in such movements.  Any thoughts?  
Susan:  I completely agree.  When I covered Redwood Summer in 1990, it wasn’t just the FBI agents who were stymied.  The reporters were going nuts.  They couldn’t figure out where to go, and the protests were miles apart.  Marc Cooper, who teaches at USC now, was reporting on it for The Nation.  He kept shaking his head, and saying: “We didn’t do it this way in the SDS.” 
As I understand it, Occupy adopted that model, too.  It’s a good idea, when you look at the history o f the FBI destabilizing political movements.  When I was researching the book, I looked into COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program started by the FBI to fight domestic Communism in the 1940s.  In the 1960s, there’s compelling evidence, based on a court case, that COINTELPRO agents provocateurs infiltrated the antiwar movement in the 60s, as well as the Black Panthers.     
Sage:  After twenty years, what new insights would you provide if you were to republish the book?   
Susan:  I think of Earth First! as a delightfully eccentric expression of America’s soul.  Every day we get more evidence that America has abandoned the values that really did make us exceptional.  Our landscape was the embodiment of freedom, democracy with a small d, a chance for the common man to stake a claim. 
I love the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, because it’s so much about the wild man of the West, as Bernard DeVoto described the Westerner, and the civilizing, emasculating influence of the East, but really about civilization and its discontents, the conflict within all of us.  John Ford knew it all in 1960.  The sense of loss...
So, history.  I would have a broader historical context.  I used to see the environment as the overarching issue and human concerns as relatively petty.  But globalization is a steamroller. 
Coyotes and Town Dogs had a second wind as a textbook, but it’s finally gone out of print.  I’m going to come out with a new edition, both as an ebook and a print-on-demand, with the book cover I always wanted. 
Sage:  Which one is that?
Susan:  It’s a photograph by a guy named Len Irish that was in Outside magazine.  The guys are standing on the Great Salt Lake, looking tough, but there’s a reflection at their feet that I want him to Photoshop so they’re wearing suits. It’s kind of literal, I guess.  But I’ve always wanted to do it.     
This goes back to your first question.  Earth First! was incredibly fun, even if you were just a reporter hanging around.  After Earth First!, the environmental movement turned into exactly what the group’s founders were reacting against: an army of careerists whose passions had been reduced to the art of the possible.  
Was that the right direction?  Maybe, maybe not.  I tend to think that you have to win people’s hearts, not just their minds.  That’s where art comes in.  Ed Abbey knew that.  If you look at the last thirty years of so-called pragmatism, the possible got very narrow indeed.
Sage:  Susan, Thank you for this opportunity to interview you for my blog.  I enjoyed how you brought in additional research from a variety of fields as you explored this story, such as providing an insight into anarchist and populist movements to the study on organizations and how they change as they mature.  Where did you receive the background to write this book?  Had you studied political and organizational theory?
Susan:  I had an old-fashioned liberal arts education.  At my girls’ school on the east coast, we studied Aristotle and Plato in ninth grade.  In eleventh grade, we read John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, the Enlightenment political philosophers who influenced the founding fathers. 
At Columbia University, I studied with the historian Eric McKittrick.  His specialty was the Federalist Era.   Everybody talks about Thomas Jefferson and the agrarian ideal - and most environmentalists still embrace that vision - but Hamilton’s financial policies laid the groundwork for the American empire.  So the Coyotes and Town Dogs debate started early.  I snagged the title from Mark Twain, by the way, from Roughing It.  
Sage:  Susan, you are primarily a journalist, right?  This was your first book and it certainly involved an extensive amount of investigative and journalistic work.  Recently, however, you’ve published a novel set in Africa and the United States.  Would you comment on the differences in writing a novel verses a historical study and on your new interests that seem a long ways from the American West?
Susan:  I’m just editing the novel now, actually.  It’s about a young West African army lieutenant who gets caught up in a coup d’etat, and a white Kenyan reporter.  They’re about the same age, and psychologically speaking, there are similarities in their backgrounds, so they feel an affinity.  But it gets complicated, because they’re not always on the same side. 
About halfway through writing it, I realized the story had some similarities to Coyotes and Town Dogs.  It’s about young men struggling to find their places in a world that’s changing very fast, and in ways they don’t necessarily like. 
The writing technique is very different in fiction.  But I used my journalism experience.  After working as a reporter in the U.S. and in Africa, I finally understood how power worked, how the trajectory of a life plays out in the context of historical change.  We’re not divorced from history.  That’s a peculiarly American delusion that’s fading along with our affluence.  We are history.
But I needed to get out of journalism for a while so I went back to school to write the book.  What a luxury!  I think MFA programs are a national treasure.  The only problem is that fewer writers are bumping their heads against the world.  Graham Greene was a reporter and a spy before he wrote novels.  It was a different kind of apprenticeship.  I’ve been lucky to have both kinds.