Disappointment in Paradise

People still hitch hike here on St. John. I like living in a place where this is still pretty much a safe way of getting around. The island has way too many cars, and I hate drive the nine miles from my house to Cruz Bay with only me in the car. If I see a hitch hiker who doesn’t look too scary, and I’m not in a big hurry, I pull over and say hop in.

My neighbor, new to island life, came by the other day all in a dither. He was going on an on and all stressed out. A long time resident advised him that he was crazy to pick up people, that the insurance liability is just too great. I said whoa, since when has this changed? It’s always an issue with everything you do, but you can’t let it rule your life.

I’m getting pretty tired of insurance being a factor in everything I do. My cobra is costing me nearly half the amount of my rent, and I have been told over and over that I can’t live without medical insurance. And now I can’t pick up hitch hikers because supposedly my insurance only covers $10,000 per passenger medical expenses, and if my car is more than seven years old I can’t buy more coverage. I haven’t confirmed this yet, but just listening to my neighbor makes me cringe. I don’t remember what coverage I purchased five years ago when living here was still experimental. I admit, I’ve been a little suspicious of the casual style of my insurance company, and my low premium. I should know better, my parent’s were insurance agents. I think I have minimal coverage on my old jeep.

I just hate misinformation. At some point, I’d better get some answers, now that the question has been raised. It’s bound to cost me something.

Today I spotted two tourists on the Centerline Road, near the Cinnamon Bay Trail. I pulled over and invited them in (telling my neighbor’s voice in my head to shut up.) Small world. One was from Portland, Maine and was very familiar with the part of Maine where I used to live. These hitch hikers were two members of a larger group on an extended family camping vacation. They’re doing real camping, with one bare site and one of the large canvas tents on a platform at Cinnamon Bay. Two generations are vacationing together. And they’re not renting a car. Nice. I like these people immediately. The mother, about my age, and adult son were on a reconnaissance mission, getting the lay of the land.

They picked my brain on the way into town. I gave them some pointers on how to get in and out of town from Cinnamon, activities. They were heading to the post office to check on a large package of food they’d shipped themselves, and were counting on it to keep expenses down, planning to do their own cooking. They were surprised it wasn’t waiting for them when they arrived the day before.

“Uh oh. You didn’t send it parcel post, did you?” said I. They answered with a suddenly deflated “ Yep.”

I went on to ask if it was a heavy box. It was. I felt terrible to be bringing them bad news on such a hopeful beautiful day, and I hope I was wrong. They’ll be lucky if the box arrives by the time they come back again next year. My brother-in-law once sent me a small tin of home made cookies for my birthday well ahead of time. They arrived about three month’s later.

Package delivery here can be really problematic. One time the company delivering UPS packages handed a box with some expensive electronics in it to an employee of mine on the St. Thomas barge, saying, you work out there, right? I had spoken with this delivery man the day before. He was two miles away and didn’t want to drive to my place of business, the address on the package.

“You need to use Priority Mail,” I said, “And keep the weight of each box down.” Then we talked about how they might go about getting it sent back if it arrives after they leave.

It’s a little like paradise here, but it’s the real world too. People ship packages that never arrive, hitch hikers sue friendly helpful drivers, medical costs are just as high as everywhere else and people need insurance. But there can be an open friendliness here you don’t often get in a lot of places, and everyone seems to want to tell their story, which makes it fun and interesting to meet strangers.

You just never know what’s around the next corner waiting to burst your bubble. In that way, it’s like everywhere else. But I’m going to continue to live on the wild side, and pick up strangers until the innocence wears off, and I take another look at my insurance policy.

© 2010 Jennifer M. Pierce, All Rights Reserved

The sound of this place

Birds define a place for me. I’m not your avid bird watcher, just an interested fellow creature. If I look back I realize that birds in one form or another weave in and out of my life like the warp threads of a tapestry. Their sound, that is. I was surprised this morning by the realization that even though as a child I internalized the idea that I have no musical ability, I do identify and retain birdsong. And it’s an important part of how I experience the world.

A writing project I’m working on brought me out to the Reef Bay Trail on St. John last Sunday. This was to be the first leg of a five part ramble, a walking meditation. Driving out I began thinking about my past impressions from this trail, and no matter what other aspect I mulled over, I kept returning to the sounds.

Reef Bay trail follows a major system of guts, rock embedded drainage channels that collect an enormous volume of water from the steep flanking hillsides and send it tumbling onto the flats and pans at Genti Bay. It’s a deep gut in the midst of land owned by the Virgin Islands National Park. The trail is nearly three miles long. Descending it is a journey from the island’s busy Centerline Road to the Caribbean Sea. It’s an aural retreat from the annoying sounds of un-muffled jeeps and low slung sedans with speakers the size of coolers booming bass notes. The trail leads into a moist woodland of near silence.

Near silence. This is the thought that captivates me as I spin around the hairpin at Bordeaux, then drive down the Centerline to the trail head. I recall two distinct sounds from previous hikes, and I have come to think of them now as “the sound of this place.” When I begin this hike, this thought is vague and I let it go by. By day’s end, the meditative part of this ramble has set this notion in mind, like mordant does to dye, and it will stay with me.

When I reach the Jossie Gut Sugar Plantation ruins the road sounds are gone, unless a truck with a wide load back on Centerline warns other drivers with incessant horn honking. The vast quiet of this place usually saturates the gut at this point, leaving the hiker alone with the sounds of nature and at times, human voices. On this early Sunday morning I’m the only one around, so it is immensely, deeply quiet here, a bit surreal. I become aware that my ear is waiting in anticipation, not only for this deep quiet, but for the sound of this place.

Then I hear it. It’s a throaty tentative moan, sounding much like a person blowing over the top of a glass bottle. This first call is answered from somewhere far off with a similar note. It makes me glad. I hike on and this sound accompanies me for the rest of the hours I spend here. The thought comes and goes that in the thirty years since I first heard it, I have never identified this bird. I appreciate this thought, let it go and keep going, doing my own form of meditation.

Near the Petroglyph trail, where the land has begun to level out, I am startled by a jerky movement on the trail ahead. At first it seems like a gray root is moving but then my mind recognizes the outline and behavior of a dove like bird. It’s feathers are a rich tapestry of iridescence. It has salmon pink legs and a shocking white eye stripe. My awareness is jogged, like the wobble of this bird’s slow walk, and I think I’d better memorize this combination of colors so I can look it up in the bird book. Then I notice two more in the bush to my right. They are doing what looks like a dance. Then I notice it’s a face off. The closest bird charges the farther, then hops and with it’s shoulder nudges the other bird away. I think they’re vying for the one I saw in the trail. I am captivated by this sight, but move on. I’m not here to study birds today.

Just before I head back up the stone and coral stairs to my jeep, I stop to allow the day’s impressions to sink in one more time. It’s been a good day, I’ve only passed thirteen other hikers. A rustle in the trees draws my attention to a shadowy imperfect silhouette deep in the bush, but I can not make out the bird. From somewhere far off I hear it again, the deep throaty whistle. I think as I climb the last step, I don’t want to know the name of this bird. I’m satisfied that it’s simply the sound of this place.

Days later, researching a different dove whose conversation I hear while sitting on my deck at first light, I encounter this sentence in Peterson’s guide to Birds of the West Indies “A prolonged booming note, reminiscent of the doleful sound of a fog-buoy.” I turn to the color plate for a look at this bird, and there they are, Bridled Quail Doves, looking exactly like those dancing on the trail.

© 2010 Jennifer M. Pierce, All Rights Reserved

Just before dawn

You’ve heard the saying. The darkest hour is just before the dawn. This isn’t the first time I’ve been thinking this is more than figurative language. I feel fairly certain it’s a physical principle of sunlight as seen on earth at eighteen degrees north of the equator. Somehow it was usurped by people who never sat outside in a place with few light sources early in the morning. This expression came to mean that there is always hope. My question is, what’s so bad about the darkness?

Darkness is what gives meaning to light in the first place, and I personally revel in it. Here’s what I notice. At that darkest hour all sources of light seem to intensify briefly and then fade quickly with the first rays of the rising sun. On a clear morning at this hour stars and planets are brilliant, almost searing in a way I never experience in the earlier hours of night. The light they cast is beyond brilliant, seems pure.

At this darkest hour, artificial light, those infernal street lights on the distant hillside and yard lights in the villas cascading down the slopes seem to brighten for just a short time then recede with the coming dawn.

Here’s what I discovered this morning, once my coffee mug was empty and sunshine had overtaken the far slopes. I’m back at the proverb now, having been inspired by my mediation in the dark. There is a song titled with this phrase by Emmylou Harris on her Roses in the Snow album. An American thrash/punk metal band is named Darkest Hour and according to Wikipedia “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn is the first album of The Birdwatcher, the alias used by Dan Matz.” Without any idea of what kinds of sounds are on this album, I decide this last explanation of the proverb is the best. Here’s why.

It’s the Birdwatcher alias that attracts me. Left to my own rhythms I rise well before dawn most days. I like to move around in the dark, listen to the waning night sounds, check out the early morning star show and then sit quietly, and watch the day come on. Other than hiking alone in the woods, along an empty beach or swimming out by the buoys it’s as close to a meditative state as I can get. It’s the time of day for me when my night dreams, the input from the previous day and the awareness of space around me in the moment get sucked into the vortex of my mind like a vacuum, and I get a moment of rests from my relentless curiosity. But only a moment. If I do it right, the active part of my day, which comes on with the light, is fresh, open and energized.

Once I come back to earth an idea strikes me that I just can’t resist writing about. Today is another one of those days.

The Birdwatcher. The Darkest Hour. This morning it was very dark, no moon, overcast. I went out on the deck where my kitchen is and started some water for coffee, enjoying the night sounds of crickets and frogs just giving way to those of the day. Pearly eyed thrashers, locally reviled scoundrels called thrushie birds, are apt to make a loud statement at almost any hour here. A solitary burst deep in the Reef Bay watershed can leak through your car window as you pass by it in the dead of night. But in early spring of January, thrashers start softly speaking to one another en-mass, in tremolo chortles and mews, in the hour before dawn. Frog croaks and cricket chirps give way to a whole woodland of soft conversation. It’s one of the sounds I think of as defining this place. I know this sound was written in my memory during a visit to St. John in January twenty-three years ago, sleeping in a tent at Maho Bay Camps. For me it is the sound of the darkest hour. No rock band or lyric, no time altered proverb needed.

© 2010 Jennifer M. Pierce, All Rights Reserved

Earth Knowledge

In my continuing thirst for knowledge, I came across an interesting quote this morning, on the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Page. I was going through the alphabetical listing under the heading LEARN:

100% Chance of an Earthquake

There’s a 100 percent chance of an earthquake today. Though millions of persons may never experience an earthquake, they are very common occurrences on this planet. So today — somewhere — an earthquake will occur.

It’s almost impossible to imagine that we are floating on a very hot sea of molten iron and liquid melted elements; unless you’ve been to hot springs or in the proximity of an active volcano, that is. Or perhaps you’ve traveled deep into the mid ocean trenches where jets of steaming hot interior gasses are leaking into the surrounding sea along with oozing pillows of plastic rock; where the planets’ crust is spreading. In one place this crust of hardened minerals is moving away from its neighbor, in others, it’s sliding under. This movement goes on all the time, 24/7. We only sense it in these sorts of places, or when these floating plates build up too much friction and let go with a snap, a grind or a hot blast. Earthquakes, volcanoes, hot springs.

I live in a place where there are daily tremors. Most go unfelt. Three, maybe four times in the last five years I have felt my bed undulate like a waterbed when a fellow bed mate gets up in a hurry, my tent roof flutter like a sail in the dead zone, the bar my feet were resting on vibrate like a twanged elastic. I have never experienced a damaging quake, the deep sea trenches, active volcanism or sulfurous springs. Other than these felt tremors, my experience of this living earth has been through my imagination, through my own curiosity, through reading.

Beyond curious, I find I need to know more than I can experience directly. I find this place I live, earth, to be a fascinating organism. Each phenomenon I encounter draws my curiosity deeper into the core, to the place where the iron ore is molten. I found an old college text book in an antique mall one day. The title was simply “Earth.” I had to have it. The textbook, by Press and Siever, has since been revised to incorporate all the recent science. I want it. The date of my book is 1978, antique by the accelerating time scale of earth science. In the forward, Raymond Siever wrote in 1977 “The startling new developments continue to roll in and challenge our scientific powers and imaginations.” Even the experts are wowed. He’s talking about Plate Tectonics, the engine driving the solid earth’s formation and reformation. In 1974 when the first edition of this book was written this was a newly recognized theory. I was already several years out of high school in 1974. I thought science was a done deal, that what I learned then was how it was. What a surprise. Like the earth itself, knowledge is about change.

This Earth I love is somewhat spherical, a circle of imperfect circles describing a solid, enclosing a hot plastic center. It’s geometry and physics and earth science in the flesh. I live in awe of it, will never learn enough about it, will one day just move on to becoming an elemental part of it again without my present ability to know I am. In the meantime, I’m going to Amazon to drool over and dream about acquiring the newest edition of Earth.

© 2010 Jennifer M. Pierce, All Rights Reserved