Thursday, November 27, 2008

An Idiot's Guide to Evolution

“You said you needed more space, more time. Whole dimensions!”

Protagonist to her boyfriend, who has broken up with her. (From a novel in progress, by a writer whose name I have lost, Banff, 1999)

I think there are some things that the human mind is just not capable of grasping: how almost 50% of Americans voted for McCain/Palin, how a remote control really works, and deep time.
I guess it’s not our fault, at least the time part. We’ve buried it under human clutter, roads, houses, malls, sports arenas. Inside them our clocks are set to tick away in bite-sized pieces. We think in fragments of the day, maybe weeks, months, sometimes, though we resist it (look how we ignore history and are in denial about the future) years.
There’s a clock in Strasbourg with a gear that turns once every 1200 years. That’s more like it! You could sit and watch that gear making its infinitesimal progress and contemplate time. Or maybe we should all wear a geological watch, along with our Timex. Then, while we were obsessing about how quickly our kids grow up, how much we’ve aged, or how there’s never enough time to do everything we have to, we could look down at our wrist and notice the millennial hand hasn’t moved.
O.K., speaking of time, you have things to do today, so, where’s this going? This, of course, is about the Galapagos. Because since getting back I am not in culture, but rather in time shock. There are some landscapes that pull us back into the flow of deep time. Perhaps even before we understood how vast time is, we have been drawn to them. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which I picked up in the Houston airport) the party of young people (including the sensitive, intelligent heroine and the man of excellent wealth and character she agonizes over) take the air in Lyme. They went to the sands, to watch the flowing of the tide, which a fine south-easterly breeze was bringing in with the grandeur which so flat a shore admitted.
It is as if certain places quiet our minds, give us a little escape from the relentless micro-timing of life. Places where the land is opened, where we can see its bones: seashores, mountains, volcanic islands.
In the Galapagos the landscape is still being made by an oceanic hot spot. Moving through the islands, from newest to oldest lava is like moving through time, on stages where everything is laid out clearly for us, so that there is no way for us to misunderstand: here is the land, the sea, the tides and currents, here is the life that has arrived and been fashioned through time to thrive here: an idiot’s guide to evolution.
Still it takes mental effort to comprehend how a perfectly ordinary cormorant becomes flightless, sporting tiny stubs of wings, how an iguana, unlike other self-respecting lizards in the world, takes to the sea, its face becoming pug for grazing marine algae, its nostrils spritzing brine from glands which extract the extra salt from their blood.
For some people the effort seems to be too much. Here in the US nearly half the citizens (I would guess the same half that voted for McCain) do not believe in evolution, but rather that the world was created by God, in something like its present form, within the past 10,000 years.
This strikes me as odd. The world didn’t come to an end when we found we weren’t at the centre of the universe. The faithful simply re-arranged God’s cosmos and carried on.
I guess it’s harder for us to give up on ourselves as God’s special favourites than earth being his special planet.
Darwin knew what his theory meant. And he was a reluctant messenger. He waited years to publish. He lost his own faith. But he found consolation in the elegance of what lay spread before him and wrote “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
As for his fellow man, he wrote in a letter to the zoologist Asa Gray, “I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.”
I'm thinking a pair of boots this colour some day. Maybe the next time I'm in Montreal--that wonderful Greek boot maker (Imperial Boots) on rue de Bleury....

Monday, November 10, 2008


We arrived back in San Diego from Catalina just in time for Obama's election speech. And what a wonderful piece of work it was! There is a palpable sense of relief here. Most of the people we know are Democrats. Interesting aside, along the vein of "differences between Americans and Canadians"--Americans say "I am a Democrat" where as Canadians would say "I vote Liberal, or I belong to the Liberal Party". (Another aside, our friend Tracy was shocked that one of our major parties called itself the Liberal Party--liberal is a charged word here, somewhat like socialist.)
I think people here of all (two) stripes are happy the election is over. We are only sorry that Sarah Palin has faded back into Alaska and the spoofs have come to an end.
I'm off to the Galapagos Islands, leading a trip for Hidden Places and Maple Leaf Adventures. See you in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Images of Catalina Island

Catalina Tiles

together but apart, waiting for the tour bus.

detail, Bronze door, Wrigley Memorial

The "Casino". Actually a movie theatre and ballroom, built in 1928.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Company of Women

Tile Mural "The Casino" 1928, Catalina Island

I read the other day that a UK magazine recently canvassed its readers for words and phrases which women use (and which men would be unlikely to use). They included: pilates, body image, book club, empowerment, emotional intelligence, kitten heels, and pomegranate.
I went through the list carefully. I have to say I believe that I have used each of these words myself lately with the exception of kitten heels. Though I did note the reference in something I was reading.
I love my husband. I also like him; I find him quirky, funny, and interesting. We share many passions (beyond our endlessly absorbing children) including sailing, hiking, birding, reading (maybe minus poetry on his side), and music (minus Wagner on mine).
Before we left for this year away, the most common question women asked me was “are you nervous about spending so much time together?” At first I was surprised. It seemed like our lives were so busy, especially before we left, that we didn’t get enough time together.
We have been gone for 6 weeks now. And here’s the thing. I’m not tired of his company. Sometimes I need to be alone and so I just take a day off, go wandering, or painting, stop in a cafĂ© and scrawl in my journal for awhile.
But last week I spent an entire morning lost in blogs, reading about the joys of Clairol Cream hair dye, a great thrift shop coup (which included a pair of plaid mules with kitten heels) and the anguish of failing to conceive after the last of many IVF attempts. As I sat at the computer, tears streaming down my face, I realized what I was missing—the company of women.
While in San Diego I have the temporary but perfect yoga class. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m short on women, but I feel like I could be the best friend of anyone in the class. We could go out for coffee, talk about jobs and children; then we would discuss books and the last great movie we saw, and maybe, eventually share some secrets. But of course the women in yoga have their own lives and mostly they rush off after class to their busy days.
Which leaves me to blogs. I always seem to come late to technology, being preoccupied with pre-industrial crafts. So if you know this already, read ahead. But blogs are amazing. I first started reading one regularly, the wonderful materfamilias writes. What entranced me was how the medium conveys the rich texture of ordinary life. Not that Materfamilias is ordinary—I can unequivocally state that as she is the only blogger I follow whom I actually know. Through her blog I have found a community of stylish, clever, worldly, anxious, ardent women. And, conversely, I feel the presence of my own community of women (because, let’s face it, it looks like “blog” is one of those words women are more likely to use than men) when I think of them reading my own posts.

Blogs I follow:
Materfamilias Writes
La Belette Rouge