#CoffeeLives

If you are into coffee, you might want to check this out:

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AMRDI is a Colorado-based NGO working on rural development issues in the mountainous landscapes and polar regions most affected by climate change. Their focus is on data-driven development solutions. They work on the ground to research issues of poverty, health and well-being in communities often far removed from policymakers and government services.

I am with them in Nicaragua now, where they are collecting survey data on local coffee growers. Coffee is a product targeted by terms like “Fair Trade” and “sustainable,” but there is very little oversight or on-the-ground research into just how much impact a $5 latte has on the people who grow the beans. AMRDI is in Nicaragua talking to coffee producers and pickers to understand those issues better.

IMG_1473.JPGI’m along to shoot video and document their efforts, working with them on their research and writing blogposts along the way. The conversations we are having are enlightening, and the living conditions of families who sell some of the highest quality coffee in the world are astonishing.

All of this work will eventually find its way into hard print, the sort of data that can help implement lasting change. But for now this is the early stages.

The trip is winding to a close, but if you want a look at what the short story check out the AMRDI blog. I’ve posted a handful of reports (day one, day two, day three and day four) on what it’s like tromping around the Central American mountains talking to people who grow the drink many of us consume every day.

And if you’re concerned about climate change and its impact on communities at the fringes in the high and polar places most affected, get to know AMRDI. Data-driven development work. Cool stuff.

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From the Backseat: Hipster Hunting

Hipster hunting doesn’t mean what you think it means.

I’ve been doing it for about a year. And no, the quarry doesn’t wear flannel or a beard (although if it did, Portland would be rich game grounds). Hipster hunting is hunting as a return to the past, as a return to authenticity, an homage to killing. It’s hunting to personally experience what goes into every meal containing meat.

Because, let’s face it, killing is something we’ve forgotten how to do.

Not as a society — as a people we’re quite adept at killing chickens, cows, pigs, the planet, whatever — but as individuals we’re bad at it. It’s one of many things we’ve outsourced. When was the last time you wrung a bird’s neck? Or smashed a fish over the head with a wooden baton? Sounds brutal, right? A bit barbaric? But here’s the thing: Chicken is GOOD. Fish is GOOD. Who would want to live without fish tacos? Almost every time I order a meal out, I get chicken, fish, lamb, a burger, something made of flesh. So really each time I go out I’m killing a chicken, a sheep, a cow. I mean sure, I’m not the one chopping off its head — that work goes to someone else — but my hunger is the architect of death. I’m basically the chicken Gestapo.

Last night I ordered a burger with bacon on top — not just cow, but a pig on a cow. I killed them, both in one meal. Devastation.

Earlier in the day I grabbed a pair of Otto’s pizza slices, one with bacon, the other turkey. Two more beasts — BAM! — gone.

Some days my fork is set to full auto.

Now I want to be clear: I have no problem with meat. We’re built to eat it, and animals taste awesome. I want cows and chickens and pigs to live happy lives, but I don’t think it’s wrong to eat them.

But we have grown pretty far removed from our food. Some people plant gardens as a reminder of where their carrots come from, but I’ve never been good at half-measures: I signed up to take my proper place in the killing fields—I took a hunter safety course.

But like most half-baked hipster ideas, it’s just not that easy. I’ve been stumbling around the woods for weeks draped in blaze orange and dragging a 12-gauge, but I have yet to experience the primal mix of elation and guilt I imagine accompanies killing.

Hunting is HARD. It may seem like an unfair game — sweet woodland creatures up against a man with a loaded gun — but when the person hunting has no idea what he’s doing the woodland creatures do just fine. I’ve been out a dozen times, and I haven’t shot a thing. I haven’t even swung my gun to my shoulder. The only thing I’ve shot is a paper plate, and if it were moving I’d bet money I’d miss.

I’ve seen game in the woods, but they are a lot faster than I am, a lot stealthier and probably a lot smarter. My best look is their backsides before they disappear into the underbrush.

On a recent trip I got so lost I had to use a compass to find my way back to my car. I followed a course east to the river and then hopped boulders upstream until I came to a bridge. I was tired, thirsty and overheated by the time I got back to my car, and over my two-plus-hour adventure I saw one bird. I didn’t get more than a snap look at him. Trying to follow him I nearly fell in a river. If it weren’t for Hannaford’s rotisserie oven I’d be poultry-starved.

So hipster hunting is thus far not a resounding success. All my meat still comes ordered off a menu. I’ve found new respect for those who can actually go out and harvest something for the table, but my personal ethical escapade has been fruitless.

Killing. It’s grisly business to be sure, but so far my tally is zero. Maybe I’ll have better luck next week.

CDS Column: Lost Hiker

I don’t hike much anymore.

I used to. I used to hike all the time. Through high school it’s all I wanted to do. When I graduated I wasn’t ready for college, so instead I went hiking — first on a cross-country road trip to hike Colorado, the Grand Canyon and Jackson Hole, then on the Appalachian Trail. At 18, I walked from Georgia to Maine. It took four months and transformed me from relative backcountry novice to old hand. Night after night, firing up a tiny backpacking stove, filtering water, sleeping among the pines, hiking became my first full-time job.

From there I moved to mountains, to rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering and skiing, added tools to get me to the top, techniques to push adventures to new heights. “Hiking” became something I did to get to the fun part: the snow, the rock, the vertical parts where the rope came out. I hiked on 14ers in Colorado (the state’s highest peaks), volcanos in Washington and the knife-like ridges of the Tetons, to rock faces in the Shawangunks in New York and Yosemite Valley in California, but keep in mind none of it was hiking.

And over time it moved even further aside. It got renamed “the approach” as I traveled to South America, Europe and Africa for mountains, rock and ice climbs. “Hiking” meant carrying a rope, harness, helmet and all the climbing gear for the adventure ahead, and thus weighted it became more work than fun. The sport once again found itself on my periphery.

But recently I’ve found myself back in the woods. I find myself there with no summit in sight, tramping between trees and ducking under spruce bows, the trail unbeaten and unmarked. I’m out there wandering, splashing through creeks and past logs downed by beavers. It feels like a return, a recovery of my hiking spirit.

But it’s not. It’s from before my high school days, before hiking boots and Gore-Tex and double-walled tents. It’s from my very first explorations of the woods, back in late elementary and middle school when I would pull on duck boots, grab the dog and vanish into the trees out past the cemetery at the end of the street. There were trails, but they were serpentine and poorly marked. The spruce and pine hung close, and though it was only a few hundred acres hemmed in by road on one side and ocean on the other, it was enough to get lost in. There were rotting logs and moss-covered rocks to climb over, and a canopy so thick sunlight struggled to reach the forest floor. It was just woods, more rugged than any hiking trail. My Australian shepherd Cody and I would walk for hours, wandering deer-paths looking for stray antlers and animal signs, imagining ourselves intrepid explorers, Native Americans maybe.

But that’s where hiking began for me, those first forays into woods as pretend hunters and explorers. The nylon windshirts, LED headlamps and ultralight stoves came later, the slick well-marketed modern trappings that now adorn that early call.

My earliest role models weren’t looking to stand on top of things. “Because it’s there” is a modern concept. They were looking to survive, to find enough to eat or the safest/quickest route. “Adventure” was an accident borne of necessity. Hiking wasn’t the approach to those explorers, it was the pre-industrial equivalent to a trip to the grocery store. It wasn’t sport, it was just part of life.

What brought me back to my roots? To the root of my roots? My new hiking partner—not an Australian shepherd, but a 30-year-old Sears and Roebuck 12-gauge.

That’s right, hunting is my new hiking. With my dad’s old shotgun I wander, no vertical objective calling from the horizon. I find myself stumbling through undergrowth, pushing aside tree branches, mucking across marshes and otherwise tramping, the original forest call. I’m not ticking off another peakbagging summit or trying to break my speed record up Washington; I’m just walking, wandering the woods, looking for antlers and animal sign.

And with the walking the wonder returned. The things I used to love about hiking — noticing the feathers scattered among the tree roots marking some kill, walking an old logging road in the cold morning air that eventually peters into nothing, tripping on the rusted hulk of an old peavey left by some long forgotten logger — now lives in blaze orange. It’s exploration with a walking stick of wood and steel.

And just like those early walks with Cody, when I go hunting I have no idea what I’m doing. I get lost. I get wet. I find myself tired and hungry and running low on water. I overdress or underdress, wear the wrong socks or wrong hat. It’s all those things I used to struggle through while hiking, but when there are summits involved I’ve long since learned my lessons. Not in hunting though. In hunting I’m still the utter beginner, more akin to that elementary school kid than ever.

As a result the animals of the forest are safe. I see game, but everything in the woods moves so much faster than me. I have yet to get my gun to my shoulder much less get a shot off before my quarry disappears. It’ll be a long time before I kill anything. When I see something I wind up chasing, but the animals know the hiding spots better than I do. So I search, walk in circles sometimes for hours.

It’s the most hiking I’ve done in years.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

From the Backseat: Oceans Apart

14188296_1606188992740513_8342364284182226130_oI used to think the North Atlantic was mean. All the stories of shipwrecks and European sailors tossed around in icy waters. Growing up I watched winter waves pommel the shore, saw fog swallow roads, houses and fields, watched hurricane swells grab a 40-foot lobster boat and toss it like a seashell. The sea was raw power, the North Atlantic menacing.

Then last fall I visited the Pacific. I wanted to see the Olympic Mountains, to soak in hot springs, wander rainforests and paddle the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Out West, cities face inward. They sit on water but don’t risk open ocean: San Francisco has the Bay, Seattle the Sound, Portland the Columbia River but north of sunny Southern California few outposts brave the sea. And so the Pacific is forgotten. Those placid and welcoming bays and bodies come to represent western water. The ocean lies eclipsed.

But four hours west of Seattle it sits guarding America’s edge: water dark as arterial blood rolling and falling onto itself like a wounded animal, roiled, frantic, ferocious. Unpredictable. Great trees tumble among a constant roar. Seafoam stretches for miles. Wind dashes the shore with tendrils of saltwater, everything glistening and cold. Drizzle falls from a sky only a shade lighter than the water. More trees sit half-buried in sand, ripped from the shore by past assaults, now imprisoned.

This is no Puget Sound, no tranquil shoreline. Here the full force of 5,000 unbroken miles slams unceasingly without stories or reputation to precede it, just a quiet pounding of the American West. Uprooted trees the size of small buildings swing like toys in a perpetual grey of clouds, drizzle and churning. The Pacific marks an endpoint, and there is no mistaking its edges. America closes and it takes over. No abbreviations.

New England is different. The East Coast is warmer, more gentle, dotted by islands and inlets that break up a full assault. Any water runs only a short distance before intersecting land. Only hurricanes carry the intensity of the everyday Pacific.

But home carries its own mysteries.

I arrived in early evening. The ocean stood calm, a mirror of lobster buoys and boat masts. Fog sat heavy, the coastline waning in either direction, an easy day to get lost. I parked at the boat ramp and pulled a paddleboard from the roof. An oversized surfboard mostly meant for lakes and ponds, on the ocean it feels like a thimble. But there is magic in braving something so vast atop something so small. A seagull screeched from the rocks. Cormorants dotted the nearby mooring balls, their wings outstretched like goblins. Everything stood suffocating white. I buckled my life jacket, slid the board into the water and cast off.

Under my feet the mirror shook. Strands of seaweed buoyed by air sacs stretched towards the surface. A loon called inside the mist. The blanket muffled a bell buoy and held shorelines distant. I coursed around a small island at the periphery of the bay, a line of rock mostly buried by the tide. Huddled pines climbed above a highwater mark so low winter storms must sweep the whole of it. But the only moisture touching the pines today was fog.

I paddled to the island’s beach—sand and stone dotted by shells and seaglass—and pulled ashore. White-grey peeled its way across the water, but for a moment the sun broke through. Trees opposite peeked green. From my perch I watched the Atlantic’s shifting mood, an ocean in utter calm.

Our constant neighbor, moody but not malicious. Our porch and guest space for welcoming in the wild. Angry? Mean? Barely. So much more gentle than the Pacific, she allows us to sit on her islands, lets us look into her reflection.

The clouds descended with resurgent fog. I looked back to the mainland’s faint outline, only silhouette now, and walked back to the sea. I slid my board into the mirror, the only ripples ours.


This piece appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: A Shot in the Dark

CDS Column: A Shot in the Dark

IMG_7944-1I’m not much of a hunter.

Last year was my first season. I took the hunter safety course in the southern part of the state, a consequence of waiting until the last minute to sign up. But three days of spoon-feeding later — information distilled so simply failure wasn’t an option — I had state approval to walk the woods with a gun.

A hunting license, paired with no idea what I was doing. An old hand-me-down 20-gauge I’d been given in high school would serve as my long sword, and a few stops at the L.L. Bean outlet set me up in blaze orange. I was suddenly poised to kick around the woods with a loaded firearm, crisply dressed and legal but still far from lethal.

So, for my first day out I recruited an experienced friend to lead me in my pursuit of ruffed grouse, an appropriate-seeming challenge. We walked Jackson woods on overgrown logging trails waiting for an explosion of wings or the sound of their distinctive drumming, but we saw nothing. Instead of entering the arena of primordial provider, I took a pleasant afternoon stroll.

Lots of hunting days, my friend explained, are spent like this, more wandering through empty woods than shooting. The gun on those days is a hiking accessory.

Two days later, I was back, this time on my own. A grouse, I was determined, would find its way to my table. I drove the same dirt road looking for deciduous forests along sunny slopes, the sort of place a healthy grouse might opt to make roost. I parked at a pullout, donned my orange vest, loaded my shotgun, laced my boots and set off into the forest.

The explosion caught me off guard, barely five minutes in. A rustle catapulted a bird into the sky, and it streaked from left to right like a football bound for the endzone, wheeling around trees and darting out of sight.

My gun never came up. The lightning bolt erupted faster than I’d imagined, and I stood dumbfounded. This was going to be harder than I’d thought, I realized.

But I’d seen it, noted its general direction. It wouldn’t go far. This was its territory and it’d stick close. So, I followed it, tromping dead trees and downed limbs looking for wherever the football had landed.

Fifteen minutes later, my steps triggered another explosion, this time streaking back right. I’d found it, but again I was flat-footed. My gun hung across my thighs, never approached my shoulder. I didn’t have a chance. This bird was better equipped for survival than I was, and another hour of walking failed to scare it up for a third time. I walked back to my car with nothing but a shotgun in hand.

More wandering in the woods than shooting. It was proving true.

But the shooting was what drew me to the woods, what pushed me to hunt: Not the sport of it, but the killing. Like most of us, I am happy to eat a hamburger or chicken on my Caesar salad. But I have never killed a cow, never chopped the head off a hen. Our food does not demand such commitment. It’s easy to eat steak without ever coming face-to-face with a living, doe-eyed cow, much less having killed one. Our killing today, like so much in our economy, has been outsourced, and not just to the neighborhood butcher.

Not that I’m opposed to the killing. Every carnivore and omnivore does it, all without the guilt humans wrestle with. But our habit is to kill from a distance, to leave it to others while reaping the benefits. It’s a tendency that engenders complacency. Ignorance in the face of death lets things to get messy in dark corners.

Across Idaho, Utah and Kansas vast feedlots line the highway. Herds stand crowded into brown squares stripped bare of grass. Cows stained dark with mud and feces stand resigned to lives hemmed in on four sides, the bovine equivalent of cubicle-bound.

These are not happy cows. They live this way as a consequences of distance, the result of ordering the sandwich without having to raise the meat. It is a system built to maximize efficiency at the expense of humanity (or bovinity perhaps). Bullfights may be decried as cruel, but the ring offers more life than the feedlot, and everyone winds up hamburger by dinnertime.

The factory farm, however, lets us keep our hands clean. The bullfight, meanwhile, occurs center stage in blood red. How curious one is banned while the other is good business.

Hunting was my reckoning. I went into the woods to walk among feedlots, to take my part in the killing up close, a shotgun filling the space of captive bolt pistol, no more handing off the task at reduced rates.

But it didn’t happen. I didn’t even raise my gun, not that day nor any of the following. I wandered woods and watched birds streak like footballs through the foliage, but my reflexes were too slow, my gun never reached my shoulder.

Left to my own devices, I determined, I would starve. Ideas about ethics and ideology would play no part. The only meat would be store-bought, and questions about the veracity of my carnivorous spirit remain unanswered. The ferocious hunter I was not.

It is, however, that time of year again. Lucky for the birds I’m not much of a hunter.


This column appeared in Wednesday’s Conway Daily Sun.

Ended Hiatus

Ended Hiatus

13730801_1553661621326584_6611188446585815400_oOK. So I’ve been working in Belize for the last month, which has meant I’ve not been keeping up with my posting duties. Internet access was temperamental, time was limited, etc., etc. But I fly back to the U.S. in a few days (currently hanging out on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world), back to my car (parked just north of Seattle), and figure out whatever is next.

And honestly I don’t have any real idea what is next for me. I had thoughts of staying out west, but over the last month a number of things have been calling me back to New England. Not enough that I know I’m heading directly there, but I’m looking harder at a handful of opportunities near what has long been my home.

It feels good to have that pull. Belize has been amazing—working with American high school kids running a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary students focused on improving their literacy skills. It was a time out, time off from the road, from climbing and adventure, time for human contact and connection and cultural exchange.

Belize-3503And it was an ecological exploration. Belize is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, multiple ecosystem zones, caves, jungle, mountains and savannah. Iguanas crouch in the trees, tarantulas roam the forest floor, toucans haunt the air. I saw a manatee, two Harpy Eagles, a jaguar, held a boa constrictor, swam with sea turtles, pondered over leafcutter ants and got bitten by thousands of bugs. It was an awesome amazing trip, one I’ll be writing about more. But before that happens I wanted to share a video. My dance with sea turtles reminded me of it. At 2:25 is the job I think is probably most interesting in the world: sea turtle wrestler. Heck yeah! Lifetime aspirations! 🌊🐋

Flipping Sharks

Flipping Sharks

IMG_8391The Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to the mainland was the end of the trip. It’d been a day of chasing whales—an orca museum combined with Lime Kiln State Park, the best spot in the world to see whales from land. We did not, however, see any whales. Tim, Lev (Tim’s two-year-old son) and I had made a day of it, but now we were on our way back to Mount Vernon, Wash., and Tim’s farm.

Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “There will be a presentation on whales at the rear of the boat. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.”

Whales. I’d be there.

The naturalist presented to several rows of kids and families, but the kids quickly lost interest. I stayed, peppering her with questions about orcas. And she told me something peculiar. I was asking if changing ocean temperatures were causing more interactions between local orcas and great white sharks, and if so what was the outcome. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, “they are meeting, and they fight. And when they fight the orcas win.”

“The orcas are pack hunters,” she said. “The sharks are loners. The orcas have learned that if they can flip the sharks upside down they essentially can put them to sleep. Killer whales are smart enough to take advantage of that fact. They’re pairing up and using the technique to put the sharks to sleep. Then they drown them.”

Whale versus shark, the whale wins. Awesome. And what’s this about putting sharks to sleep?

Less than a week later I found myself in Belize, snorkeling “Shark Alley” on the second longest barrier reef in the world. The sharks there are nurse sharks, a tame cousin to the white shark. Our guide Carlos took the opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the naturalist 2,600 miles a way had explained—he swam directly over a 6-foot nurse shark, put one hand on its back, another on its belly, then rolled. Instantly the shark went limp. He carried it in his arms and swam it over to us, let us pet it and touch its skin.

I wanted to try. I could see them swimming just six feet below, brown arcing bodies in the reeds. I dove down several times before I could work up the nerve to touch them. But then I went after one, put my hand about where its shoulder blades would have ben if the man-sized shark were human. Its skin was course as sandpaper. I swam with it, tracing its path, one hand on its back, then kicked myself down close and slid the other hand under its belly. We were tight together then, the shark and I. I rolled.

The shark rolled with me, and as it flipped and its belly rose toward the surface it went limp. I held it close, kicked my way upward, cradling the ancient beast in my arms. It felt about like holding a worn out Rottweiler in my arms—things were fine, but how long would they stay that way? After a few kicks I rolled the shark back over. It flicked its tail and instantly resumed swimming. I released my arms. It carved away.

I did this three times. One of the group members caught it with a camera.

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It was amazing to be so close. I have since learned that what our guide was doing is frowned up, and that I shouldn’t have followed his example. I probably could have guessed that had I thought about it, but I didn’t. I looked to him for direction, and when I saw an opportunity to do something that scared me, something that seemed both amazing and stupid at the same time, I swam at it full steam. Literally. And so I got to carry a shark in my arms. Life is an experience and that was a unique one, even if it was foolish, illicit and perhaps damaging. Now I know. So don’t flip sharks. But it works. Orcas do it, and I have too.

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