The Lost Passport: An Angler’s Story

(China, Part IV)

          It’s 3:08 a.m. China time or mid-afternoon Eastern Standard Time. I’m lying in a spectacular suite in a hotel within the Yellow Sea National Forest from which I leave in a few hours. I have brewed myself a hot cup of tea with sugar, soaked in a giant bathtub with water from the hot springs, placed soft slippers upon my toes and begun a draft of a poem for the local poets who requested it upon my late entry into the welcoming banquet here at the national park where it seems the entire world knows that this morning I lost my passport and early this evening found it.
          Upon entering that evening banquet late and producing the recovered document I received applause, multiple toasts and hugs from a room crowded with fellow poets and guests.
          But none of that is the story of this post. This recovery has become a story which, like salmon on New Brunswick’s Mirimachi River, grows larger with each telling.
         It was a Wednesday morning, and the Poetry Bridging Continents Symposium portion of the trip had ended with lunch. As I got onto the bus with my bags, Granddad Zhang Ziqing (who on this long journey, has taken over for my daughter to make certain I haven’t accidently fumbled away my visa (once before), my tickets, (once before), my wallet (a number of times) or my family income (close). Ziqing insisted I make sure I had my passport.
          When I felt my pockets where it should have been, it was not there. The feeling might best be compared to a 180-pound cornerback suddenly realizing a 350-pound lineman has somehow picked up a fumble and at lumbering full speed has decided I am the only person left to keep him from end zone glory. Even if one is an American football player, that is not a place one wishes to be.
          We unpacked all my luggage twice to search–no passport. I returned to my room, no passport. At this point I’m delaying a dozen other’s departure for the Yellow Sea National (replanted) Forest and they and I knowing I could not continue without a passport. Since there was nothing they could do, the bus with my fellow poets slowly drove off, much like the lumbering lineman and left me staring forlornly in the driveway of the college’s hotel.
          With me stayed a tall, young and handsome Chinese professor of English and International Exchanges nick-named Phoenix. We searched my room again, saw nothing and then went through all the possibilities from the night before when I did have it. Did I lose it in the taxi when we decided to go out for a beer at the Tai Haole (Alright) Club? There the beer was small bottles of Bud served in a tub with too-loud music set against a giant LED screen of patron texts and photos. After witnessing a bar fight among the patrons, we decided the Alright Club not the best place for to hang out, but was it a repository for my passport? Or was it lost in the low-seated taxi ride back? All seemed plausible.
          Phoenix, my China life-saver, and his driver, Friday, decided they would drive me to the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai for a replacement, but first there needed to be other steps taken. The U.S. Consulate let Phoenix know it now required a lost passport be reported missing at the local police station. Quickly, Phoenix and I hopped into the car with his driver Friday who expertly trundled through the city traffic and arrived at a precinct police station in a less than renovated, Casablanca-like section of town. On the alleys about the station, all the first floor apartments had metal doors and steel grates over their windows.
           Friday dropped us off and we walked into the drab, one-storied station room with two desks and a metal bench. At one desk facing us sat a character straight out of a Mickey Spillane novel. This jaded, middle-aged detective stared at his folded hands as if contemplating all the rough-justice they had been forced to mete out over the quarter century of his life patrolling the streets. He did not speak, eyed both of us, and then went back to staring at his folding and unfolding fingers. Facing him sat an equally jaded sergeant behind an old computer. I took a seat alone on the metal bench which seemed remarkably familiar. Was it the Group W Bench of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”?
          Phoenix explained to the sergeant what the problem was and what I needed–probably in triplicate. Enough body language is universal that despite my limited understanding of Mandarin, I recognized the last thing this sergeant wanted or needed in this world within a world was to type out a lost passport form for a gray-haired, Trump-loving American simpleton of a tourist who couldn’t keep his passport in his pants. Therefore, I sat quietly while Phoenix kept up the banter with the sergeant and an unseen supervisor in the next room. The sergeant slowly gathered the forms, and with the one-fingered style reminiscent of my own early military typing coupled with the speed of a sloth, he typed each letter and took phone calls at every opportunity.
          Phoenix, in his brilliant methodology of letting them know this action was more about helping him than the sub-human foreigner on the bench, kept up his steady conversation with the sergeant and a supervisor inside that other room. When the sergeant chuckled at one comment in Mandarin and the detective cracked just a hint of humor. I began to relax and observe the comings and goings of the precinct. Across the room was the station locker room. It was shift change, and each time a uniformed police officer or an undercover agent entered, the officer would retrieve a set of keys from the sergeant, unlock the door to the changing room and, before entering eye me with the Chinese equivalent of “What the beJesus did he do?” They then carefully relocked the door and returned the key to the desk.
          Next entered the tea lady, an older woman who looked like a reformed Black Market street merchant with whom the department had bonded to keep her above the troubles of the precinct. She carried an aluminum kettle of hot water and poured hot water into every one of the officer’s tea cups or flasks. A hot mug of tea would have felt like salvation and I looked earnestly thirsty, but she scanned me over, decided I must be some middle level degenerate, sniffed, pulled the kettle in, and walked onto the street.
          After the tea woman, came a young couple who seemed to have had some domestic dispute. She had a good chest cold and coughed everywhere. I wondered if this was the time of years for SARS? They presented their case to the desk sergeant who seemed perfectly happy to be distracted from his typing. The fellow, shy a few teeth, then went back to sit in his car and when the girl followed, he had locked her out. She decided rather than stand in the fading November light and cooling temperatures, she would sit on the metal bench next to me and cough from there.
          Just as I thought maybe it might be better to have airport security take me away, Phoenix got his police report and persuaded the supervisor to place his official seal and signature upon it. But of course, the triplicates. So we waited while the sergeant carried the papers upstairs to a printer and eventually returned.

Quickly, we hopped into Friday’s car, Friday who knew every back alley in the city, weaved through the rush hour traffic and took us to the BIG station: Chinese State Security because, as Phoenix explained, it is not enough to have a replaced U.S. Passport. One must also have a replaced Chinese visa—which according to regulations, must take four days—the day we are scheduled to fly out of PuDong International Airport. I began to see that 350-pound lineman again..
          Here Phoenix showed his true affinity for his moniker as he began to raise my troubled psyche from the ashes it had descended into. We walked into this multi-storied, polished tile bureaucracy of a building with endless glass-fronted teller stations lining the atrium of the interior. There young girl after young girl stopped her work behind her glassed-in clerical station and yelled a greeting or waved hello to Phoenix. We turned a corner, and a smartly uniformed cadet smiled at Phoenix, said hello in good English and chatted. They were all his former students from the university.
          A young officer ushered us-into the lost passport offices and a second set of reports were more quickly and more attentively typed. I was even offered tea–ah tea, the universal settler of nerves. Then ex-student after ex-student made an excuse to stop by and peek in at “The Poet” who lost his passport at the Alright Bar (and was HE involved in the fight? And was it over Trump?).
          Shortly, paperwork was produced that also provided for a China Visa in one day which could then be inserted into the replacement passport. But that visa also required an official letter of invitation from the university. Friday roared us back to the university for that letter, but just as we approached the gate, Phoenix realized, we will also need a new photo for the new passport and the visa. No gate, with squealing tires, Friday u-turned and smoked it out to a shopping street nearby where a one-roomed street-front portly photographer operated his photography business. Inside sat the over-exposed photographer. On the walls were posted washed out photos of graduation groups. To one side, a traditionally-built wife sewed peacefully. An unwashed crock pot, with six or seven pairs of well-used chopsticks inserted, steamed in the corner.
          Phoenix was about to cash in another favor. After a brief exchange, the man motioned me to follow him out behind the shop, down a set of bare concrete stairs into the rear of the tenement style row of shops. The field behind the shops was overgrown with weeds and littered with trash. Underneath his shop a one-bay gray concrete garage with the door opened and two light stands which served as his studio. He brought out a plastic bench, sat me on it, arranged the light standards, snapped a few photos and took us both back up the concrete steps to the shop. Once in the shop, the photographer printed out three sets of photos to make sure one of the sizes would match correct sizing for both Chinese and American consulates. It was then I noticed an old man on crutches had stomped into the shop and wanted to know if I spoke Chinese? I quickly exhausted my four phrases of Chinese: Nihao, Xie, Bu, and something like Tai-hoa-le (Excellent Time) Bar. He was satisfied and stumped off. Had everyone in this city heard about the poet who lost his passport? Was he a spy?
          Phoenix and I jumped back into Friday’s car and she wove us through the back streets toward the campus again and this time through the gates. Here where Pheonix would create another Letter of Invitation from his office. As I walked through the English Language Department, I met some of the faculty I had met earlier. They sadly offered me more tea more as if it were my last supper than to calm my nerves. It was clear we would not make it to Shanghai, 250 miles away, today. Another day ticked off the visa clock.
          At that point, another faculty member we had passed on our way in, knocked on the door, excitedly opened it and showed everyone his iPhone on which was an image of both me and my passport!
          He said he recognized me by my out-of-control gray hair as I walked by. But more importantly, I was not a spy! The passport had been found! Not in the Excellent Goodtime Alright Bar, not in the low seated cab to the bar, not in the lower seated taxi from the bar, but in my own hotel room where it had slipped between the bureau and an end table and where a conscientious staff member moved heaven and earth to be sure it wasn’t there and lo, it was.
          And so this episode of the Lost Passport has ended, thanks to the intrepid work of Phoenix, his intrepid driver, Friday, and the strong will of the hotel cleaning staff. It was a happy evening drive as Friday brought Phoenix and I to the Yellow Sea National Forest hotel where I could belatedly rejoin the pilgrims on their way to the Yellow Sea. 

embellished, 1-6-20



Food for Thought
(or China, Part III)

         I often wonder if Yeats in his “Second Coming” theory of the falcon no longer hearing the falconer in its “widening gyres” or Eliot, as he contemplated “Time present and Time Past” with “The Still point” in his Four Quartets, or perhaps even the prophets who scribed Elijah’s “great wheel,” had ever sat down at the great circle of a gorgeous, Chinese banquet table with dishes upon another concentric circle revolving slowly, and eighteen poets and scholars singing that circular French round, Frѐre Jacques in French, English, and Mandarin. Circles within circles, harmonies in three languages.during a sumptuous Chinese meal.
          Time takes on a different flavor at this end of the globe, or perhaps for clarity, time feels more timeless—or as Eliot puts it in the opening to “Burnt Norton”:
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps contained in time future,
And time future contained in time past.”
          How much different is that from Einstein’s Relativity when at the speed of light time slows to a stop? Maybe physically we can never reach that still point, but there are no speed limitations to the imagination so let us run time in a circle here at Taicang, this port near Shanghai at the edge of the Yangtze’s entrance into the Yellow Sea. The port of departure for Admiral Zheng He, one of the great early fourteenth century maritime explorers, whose fleets set out to circle the known world and certainly reached Africa while others have posited those mariners even reached the Americas almost a century before Columbus.
           And so, by stint of at least ten of those circular banquets in the space of seven days, where each banquet celebrated and toasted thousands of years of poetry from East and West, a conundrum has arisen:
What do banquets, physics, and metaphysics have to do with poetry?
          All I can say is these circles within circles these, rounds of verse again and again became an intellectual wormhole that leapt both oceans, and time even reaching back to a small college one summer at Oxford where Eliot’s abstractions laid the foundation that four decades later make more sense than ever:
“In the beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon, . . .”

                                                                      T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
First night feast, Shaaxi Business Hotel, Shanghai, 11-11-2018
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
In an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, . . .”

                                                            T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”
Preapring for our first luncheon, Yancheng Teachers University Hotel, 11-12-18 l-r, Mark Long,Rodney Obien, Maura MacNeil, Celia Rabinowtiz (back to camera) photo credit: Claire Golding

“I do not know much about gods,; but I think that the river
Is a strong, brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable …”

                                                                            T.S. Eliot, “Dry Salvages”

Yancheng Teachers University Hotel, Evening Banquet setting, 11-12-18
 “… Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond on ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror . . .”
                                                                                                               T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
Dinner, 11-13-18, Dongtai National Forest Hotel, l-r: Rodney Obien, Chen Yihai, Celia Rabinowitz, Maura MacNeil, Susan Roney-OBrien, Mark Long and Zhang Ziqing, (Let’s just say I am missing because of a private adventure which may become 2018 China Blog Post IV) photo credit: Claire Golding

“… Tea leaves in my cup are hesitating
Sometimes they are iambic
Sometimes they are trochaic
Only two leaves refuse to sink
One is called Li Po
The other is called Li Ho . . .”

                        Chen Yihai, “At Dusk, I Am Sitting down in Tang Poetry”

Above: Another luncheon banquet, tbd, photo credit: Claire Mowbry Golding

Below: Early Dinner, 11-15-18 International Writers Center between Yangzhou and Taicang. l-r: Maura MacNeil, Celia Rabinowtiz, poet and calligrapher Zhang Huangbo, poet and journalist Zhai Ming
Dinner, 11-14-18 International Writers Center between Yangzhou and Taicang.
“A flower falls from the branch
Drawing a curve in the dark
While it is mid-air, I hear
—‘a cry’

A teenage in the dark
His shadow elongated by starlight
The words he puts forward
More mysterious than the whites of his eyes.”

                                     Jiang Hua, ”What Is Disappearing Quietly”
Luncheon banquet, Shaaxi, 11-16-18 l-r Clair Golding (back in red) Rodger Martin, Zi Chuan, Zhang Huangbo, Zhang Ziqing, Rodger Martin, Zi Chuan, Mark Long, Celia Rabinowitz, photo credit: Rodney Obien

“…I thumbed the history of the Lixiahe:
Its countless rivers, its nameless waters.
And though my ears were tuned
to the hustle, screech and bump of city
I heard the faintest sounds of this country.
They keep my sleepless.”

                    Zi Chuan,“Winter Night in the Region of Rivers and Lakes”

Above: Final banquet, hotel in Taicang 11-16-18 l-r: Claire Mowbry Golding, Maura MacNeil, Celia Rabinowitz, Zhang Ziqing, Zi Chuan, Zhang Huangbo, Rodger Martin, photo credit: Rodney Obien

Tea Ceremony, Bu Lan-Chen’s House of Poetry and Music, Slender West Lake, Yanzhou, 11-15-18

Tea Ceremony at Hongqiao Academy, Slender West Lake
(For Bu Lan-Chen, Yangzhou, 2018)
Within the Academy of Rainbows, its courtyard
bounded by the Taihu water sculpted stone,
a girl, silk soft, sits behind a silent table
set with five stenciled, porcelain cups.
Incense rises from an alembic at one side,
fine tea fills a small, carved wooden scoop
on the other. A second girl plucks her gugin;
its music meanders through a mountain meadow
and returns to the girl in silk who sifts leaves from teak
into a bowl, then pours steaming water over them.
Like the vapor rising from the tea, time disappears.
Forearm formal as a crane, she pours
from the lip of the bowl into a porcelain teapot,
then from the spout of the pot into five cups.
Five patrons each tap two fingers twice.
Ten fingers meditate around each cup.
Five times she does this,
five times they tap,
five times they sip.
If heaven watches from above
and the earth stretches below,
the crane who both walks the earth
and flies with heaven
has gifted this center, this middle
to man, water, and tea.
                                    Rodger Martin  (updated 11-30-18, 2-27-19)


Observations from the background,
Jiangsu Province, China, Nov. 10-17, 2018

In Shanghai, whose Twenty-first Century night skyline makes Manhatten look seedy and past its prime, time feels like a twisting, turning, double helix, where skyscrapers become LED light shows and co-exist side-by-side with Buddhist, Confucian and Tao temples. This is a place where one city and its metropolitan suburbs have more people in it than the entire Northeast United States or almost all of California if one prefers The West, or Texas and Florida, if one prefers The South. That’s a lot of representatives in Congress.  
The Bund at night, one portion of the Shanghai skyline
A garden in Taicang
  When the air over Shanghai (likely not over Beijing) is still as clear as the air over Philadelphia, when even a so-called slowdown to 5 percent growth results in astonishing progress to infrastructure, when talking to both young and old, it is clear this is a nation looking forward and outward, while the United States as a nation is governed looking inward and backward.
          FDR said of the 1930s, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” What kind of American fear is loose in a government that denied last year visas to three of five invited poets from China? Visas which would have provided three poets the opportunity to visit New Hampshire during foliage season and participate in a poetry conference.
          According to the three poets who were denied visas by the United States, two were journalists.  I suppose that could be expected given the general politician’s fear of journalists.  But the third wished to bring his spouse who was denied because she looked young and might secretly try to smuggle an unborn baby into the country for birth. It’s possible with a small boost from the gods, that one could conceive and give birth within the two week window of that visit, but it feels highly unlikely.   Then again, if I were a current State Department policy maker and my agenda was something other than the well-being of the nation and the planet, I too might fear poets, journalists and babies.
          Not that all is well on the other side of the world either. Remarks on Tiananmen Square are nowhere to be found or heard. There are re-education camps for the Uighurs, and both Google and Facebook are blocked along with the New York Times (but not The Washington Post–respect for Amazon maybe?). But in something different from 2015, less than flattering remarks about the Cultural Revolution are spoken publicly, and we watched a subtitled film in a local community Cineplex based on a novel by one of the U.S. visa denied journalist poets, Zhai Ming, which dealt directly with that period in stark terms (That is if the subtitles accurately reflect the dialogue which they appeared to do).
Speaking of Poetry
          In the United States, a rule of thumb I use is that if ten people show-up for a poetry reading not part of a college campus, that reading is a success. If 15-25 attend, the night was wonderful, if over 25 attend, the night was spectacular. On campus one knows a large audience of young people may be assigned or given extra credit to attend and a good speaker can generally easily judge the level of engagement from such an audience. Poetry events in China take on more of the atmosphere and size of music concerts in the United States. The opening event for the Poetry Bridging Continents Symposium at Yancheng Teachers University  brought a standing-room only crowd of four hundred or more, including reporters, television cameras, and Photographers.
Half of Shiyuan Hall for opening event, YCTU, Nov. 12, 2018
The second evening event on November 13, brought another four hundred:
The crowd for night two performance.
           And the sessions generally filled with fifty or more, including students who were beyond filling up space for class credit but fully engaged Unlike most American poetry events, poetry in China combines art forms as these photographs indicate. Below, a YCTU Student above creates her own calligraphy.
Calligraphy showing good form.
    Four students dance another poem.
Another student does a traditional recitation of a poem with the poem in two languages on screen behind him. 
          Or they combine it all with music, costume and drama as they re-enact the classic poem “Muhlan.” Some American performance poets are beginning to use these concepts, but more of it combined with superb poetry makes for an unforgettable experience.
“Muhlan” Legend

        But in the end, students in China are no different than any other student anywhere else on this globe. 

          Finally, poetry is more than just teachers and students, it is poets, it is … well, Bu Lan-Chen, a poet of Jiangsu Province knows exactly how poetry bridges time and continents:
A Tree
A reflection is a ray of light
that barely penetrates bedrock.
A tree’s reflection ripples on the river,
the point of contact between water and air,
two opposing visions on a jittery plane,
nothing to do with humanity.
This tree, alone, unnamed,
no instruction from anyone,
absent in its own thinking,
stands, the only original shape
of its world.
Translated by Zhang Ziqing,
Edited by Rodger Martin
excerpted from For All The Tea in Zhōngguó,  Rodger Martin, Hobblebush Books, 2019
Poet Bu Lan-chen and spouse

Face to Face with the Jurassic Ghost

Ichthyosaur and Plesiosaur, 1863 by Edouard Rio
          Like rural New England, Lyme Regis is a place one can’t get to easily from here unless one drives the narrow, winding coastal byways of England’s Channel Coast. But one could take a regular London train out of Paddington, exit upon Axminster’s gentle curve of a platform,
Axminster Station

and then catch a bus or cab for a trip down, down, down, to Lyme Regis nestled along the beach beneath some of the highest cliffs in Southern England.
          It is here on dark nights the imagination runs wild.  There, wallowing in the low tide off the Cobb, are those eight-foot diameter fossils of shrimp shimmering in the moonlight waiting to snare an unwary wader?  That swirl of water?  Is it a submerged and very hungry Icthyosaur?  And is that whoosh of  large wings swooping off the clifftop a Tetradactyl looking for its meal?  What about that dark thing that looks like a bone protruding from the cliff face, is that really a bone as large as your body?  
Golden Cap just east of Charmouth.
This is the place where the remarkable creatures of Tracy Chevaliar show up at your feet rather than on your screen, a place where one-hundred million year old ammonite fossils curled like huge shrimp remind us how absurd in comparison is the huffery and puffery of over-pumped human beings.
          Iron pyrite might be fools gold to a prospector claiming a square in California or the Klondike, but down the beach near Charmouth, beneath the watchful eye of Golden Cap, the touch of iron pyrite to an ammonite fossil turns it into a dark, quarter-sized coin flecked with reflections of gold—a specie whose face value devalues anything U.S. coinage has produced this past half century.  Where have our Saint-Gaudens gone?
          Lyme Regis is also the place where Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot cracked open the closed minds of male British geologists with the discoveries of giant reptile fossils. Not that it came easy for them as they were at first dismissed, and when dismissal made no more sense, other men reached for credit, but “nevertheless they persisted” and a new museum is open that celebrates Mary Anning’s and Elizabeth Philpot’s contributions to geologic and zoologic history made because of their persistence.
          I have a small trilobite fossil found at Lyme Regis which if Britannica zoologists are to be trusted is between 300 and 500 million years old and puts even dinosaur history to shame. As it rests in the palm of my hand, it feels like an ancestor which deserves more respect than it gets as we race our own carbon guzzling jalopy down the superhighway of extinction.
Trilobite fossil credit: fossilmuseum.com
          There is more to this place than its geology and Tracy Chevalier’s novel Remarkable Creatures.  Jane Austen set Persuasion in Lyme Regis. John Fowles used Lyme Regis as his setting for The French Lieutenant’s Woman while Meryl Streep made it famous in film. But there is one story with more reach than all those novels, albeit the protagonist is more well-known than the location.
The end of The Cobb made famous in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
          But there is one story with more reach than all those novels, albeit the protagonist is more well-known than the location.  The Daily Mail ran a story on the one-hundredth anniversary of World War I about a Royal Navy ship torpedoed off Lyme Regis. The bodies of seven seamen dead of hypothermia were laid out in a seaside pub near The Cobb awaiting disposition when a local border collie licked the face of one of the dead seamen and that seaman, John Cowan, stirred to life again. The name of that border collie cross? Lassie.
          The Mail points out the Yorkshire author of the 1938 Lassie Come Home, Eric Knight, was 18 at the time of the sinking and there is no evidence he was aware of the story, but his own collie was named Toots and one wonders when Knight searched for a title for his book and his dog if that 1914 New Years Eve story was still rooted, like the fossils of the Jurassic coast, somewhere deep in his subconscious.

Trapeze by Clare Trenchard, Lyme Regis Sculpture Trail

Lyme Regis
The moon dispensed blessings to each tufted wavelet
Channeling worship against the stone cobb.
A glistening tidal sanctuary buttressed
against the striated shale cliffs that fanned
beneath the studded, crystal skies. Diana rode
her mare along the crest and pondered the lights
of a town that still survived the sea.
Just woman, Saxon blood, her blonde genes
boiled with dreams of foal, and hare, and lithe men
whose buttocks rippled. She had yet to foresee the night
young Clark stumbled from the Rock Point Inn
and she hid in the Norman shadows saying, “He’s drunk
again; don’t let him see me.” But this night
only shells echoed, and she nudged her mount toward town.
The Blue Moon Series, Hobblebush Books, 2007

A Watery Jaunt through the Great Glen: Loch Ness to Loch Oich

          Midway through Loch Ness on the other side from Urquhart Castle are the Falls of Foyers.  Another fifteen minute walk according to the map.   Indeed the falls are a short distance inland as the crow flies but alas we are not crows and what is not apparent unless one has a topographic map is that the trail not only goes inland but also goes up and up and up a few hundreds of feet from the water’s edge to reach the gorge where the River Foyers bursts through a highland ridge and plunges almost one-and-fifty feet into a pool below. One could, of course, take a bus tour and drive to the tour shops at the top and view the falls with all the fellow bus riders, but the gorge is best seen in less populated encounters because it is likely this is what much of the Highlands looked like before the forests were removed for timber and sheep. The water levels vary to great effect and like Niagara Falls, there is a hydro-electric station which diverts some of the river for power.  Still the magic of what Scotland once might have looked like is reward enough for the climb.
Falls of Foyers, Loch Ness, photo illustration: Sebastien Mehegan
          In order to link Loch Oich with Loch Ness one must enter the Caledonian Canal at Fort Augustus which lies at the southwestern end of Loch Ness and featured, this spring at least, snow-capped Ben Nevis and Aonach Beag looming on the horizon. Fort Augustus has five locks and boat travelers pull their own weight to get up or down the five locks. As crew wait for the water to rise or fall they chat with other boaters who just might be a Royal Navy nuclear submariner veteran who knows the best places to eat along the lochs (such as Oakwood Restaurant in Dochgarroch where one might have a face to face stare down with a Langoustine (Norway lobster).
Royal Navy Submariner (right) and myself with the ropes waiting for water levels to balance at Fort Augustus.
          With five of the seven locks between Ness and OLich at one spot, there can be, shall we say, some competition between boaters to fill the lock before it is closed isnce it takes an hour-and-a-half to go up or down and then a reverse before the next load can enter. Normally the locks take about six boats at a time, I counted eleven at the berth outside the lock. When it opened at 8:30 a.m. for a return trip, there was a mad rush and six boats quickly filled each side of the loch. We decided we had a lnog wait ahead of us except the loch keeper then summoned us to glide right down the middle between the six other boats. If there were three inches clearance on each side of our boat between the craft already in the lock, that would be an exaggeration. Still, with brother-in-law on the wheel, we easily glided through the center channel between the six and lashed ourselves to the craft on the right. Since both boats are pulling together through the locks, 0ne gets ample time to know each other, as noted the Royal Navy submariner above, or his spouse who provided my partner w on the other set of ropes with the diagrams for a lovely Scottish shawl.
Eriskay lashed to another boat for the drop through the five Fort August locks.
          Loch Oich may be the shallowest of the lochs, and is the highest, requiring to reach it, navigating the five lochs at Fort Augustus and two more on the canal, but it’s the solitude which surrounds that separates it from Loch Ness and as Eriskay docks, it is clear the why salmon and trout anglers flock to the region.   Whether berths at  evening or early morning there is a silence here that again undoes the present. It is not absence of sound so much as absence of any mechanical sound. The soft footfalls on the trial to Invergarry ruins likely sounds as uninterrupted today as they did in 1878 or 1718 or 318 when the Romans gave up trying to Romanize the Highlands and simply built walls to keep the Scots out. Like King Offa’s wall was supposedly bnuilt to keep the Gaelic Welsh out, Hadrian’s Wall is a physical recognition the geography of Scotland is distinct from England, and that geography also created a people with a distinct different attitude from the Roman province that eventually became England.   It makes one wish the current American president and his insecure advisor Stephen Miller could understand walls are more about keeping people in than keeping others out. It makes one wonder just what they are trying to keep inside.   But, alas, that is why one cruises a boat on the Caledonian Canal–to escape, for a moment, the insecurities of the contemporary world.  
The eyes of May, Invergarry Castle, Loch Oich.
          These ruins come alive with the differing lights of the day. The eyes of its windows remind the traveler that all is not as it seems and psychologically the human race has been at these kind of junctures many times before.  And it seems the ruins have been doing so for centuries as artist George Blackie Sticks painted during the Victorian era.
Invergarry Castle ruins during Victorian Era by George Blackie Sticks (1843-1900)
          The active Glengarry Castle Hotel which resides nearby has a different approach for the traveler. At first sight, the building is suggestive of Fawlty Towers,
Arriving on foot at the Glengarry Castle Hotel
but upon entering, the single malt samplers, excellent cuisine, and the exuberant attentiveness, albeit somewhat youthful, of the servers adds a charm that again promises all is well and to peek behind the façade because what at first entrance looks like a single manor house is anything but that.  The first house is connected to an almost identical second manor house, then a third until one discovers there are at least six fine houses telescoped together to create one hotel. This design arrangement might prompt a visitor from Asia to observe that between Glengarry Castle and Invergarry Castle ruins we have the yin and yang of architecture.
Glengarry Castle Hotel credit: www.glengarrycastle.com
     Such is the serenity of this spot, It calls one to linger, to infuse the atmosphere and step quietly.
Rhododendrons lining the path to the boat.
         And the next morning when one awakens to the same serenity, enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the boat.
The Eriskay IV crew at breakfast.
Linger, and linger,
and then,
linger more.

A Watery Jaunt through the Great Glen: Inverness to Loch Ness

The Waterfront Pub, Inverness, the perfect music and food to begin a voyage.
          Exactly how should one approach the first visit to Scotland. What and where to focus? The Royal Mile, Sir Walter Scott or the crown jewels in Edinburgh?   Chase the monster in Loch Ness? Climb Ben Nevis? Tour the distilleries on Islay? Meditate at Culloden? Listen to Mendelsohn in the Orkneys?
          All should be first on a list. Then a friend who visited Scotland a year ago mentioned that as he and his spouse looked down from the Highlands they saw small boats crossing Scotland on the Caledonian Canal. The image felt right—a virgin trip to Scotland should start at water level and work itself up and the tectonic fault that split Scotland 400 million years ago and created the Great Glen is a good place to begin.
          When one thinks of a great rift, the current example is the valley created in Africa as Africa drifts away from Europe and Asia or the San Andreas fault in California which has the Pacific plate moving one (northwest) direction and the North American continent, another (southeast)—a fault somewhat similar to what happened in Scotland all those millions of years ago during the Devonian Period—which began as the age of fish and ended with the first terrestrial plants, first amphibians, first vertebrates and the great forests which later became the Carboniferous age that laid down the coal and oil deposits we overuse today.  Even dinosaurs had yet to become a twinkle in the evolutionary eye.  An artist’s rendition of what it may have looked like is below.
Devonian landscape as imagined by Zdenek Burian. 1956    Credit: http://paleobotanical-photography.blogspot.com/p/devoniandevon.html
          This fault is the Great Glen in The Highlands of Scotland, twice as old as the worn down Appalachians, and the remnant of tectonic forces which split apart another great continental mass long before geographic Europe, Asia and Africa or the Americas existed.
          This educational explanation by Britain’s Geologic Society clearly illustrates why Scotland looks like Scotland and not like England.
“The Great Glen is a huge valley, eroded by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. These glaciers carved the valley below present-day sea level, forming a series of deep lakes. Loch Ness is the largest and most famous of the lakes.
The Great Glen follows a line of rocks weakened by fault that moved between 400 and 300 million years ago.
Scientists have matched up rocks across the fault to show that, during this time, the northern part of Scotland moved over 90 km (60 miles) to the north-east.”[I]
Credit: Quarterly Journal of The Geological Society: The Rock Cycle (Used with permission)
Strike-slip fault, Great Glen, Scotland
          It also might explain why the Scots are not like the English because Romans fifteen hundred years ago never successfully navigated beyond or defend against these geological rifts, finally gave up and built Hadrian’s Wall.
          In 1803 England began construction of canals that would link the four lochs in the Great Glen and allow ships to pass in 60 miles from the North Sea in the east to the Irish Sea to the west ad bypass the hundreds of miles sailing around the northern islands of Scotland. The canals were completed in 1822 with a total of 29 locks and the passage has been in use ever since.
          In Inverness on a quiet Monday in May, our crew of four boarded a 35-foot Caley cabin cruiser named Eriskay IV and after navigating like a drunken sailor until I learned that at slow speeds responsive steering takes time, we passed through Tomnahurich Swing bridge, through Loch Dochgarroch and onto Loch Duchfour where gorse in all its gold flowering filled the landscape.  
Gorse in bloom at Loch End, Loch Ness, May 2018
          There is an interesting sign at that first swing bridge reminding skippers…well read the second paragraph:
photo credit: Linda Warren
When I looked back at our flotilla leaving Caley Cruisers with one boat sideways in the canal, one boat backwards, I didn’t feel so bad about my unbalanced lumbering while I developed a feel for the wheel.   I also began to understand why crowds gathered at each lock to enjoy the show.
          In the long run, my brother-in-law was an experienced seaman and whenever things got a bit tight, he effortlessly took the helm and guided us expertly through.
          As one slows into the rhythms of water, time begins to lose its drive as well—the present becomes more focused than the past or the future. Where ever we docked and began to walk to a castle or pub for dinner, the standing joke on directions is everything in Scotland is a “ten or fifteen minute walk away.”   Walking to Urquhart Castle ended up being an hour-and-a-half of “ten minute walks” only to discover the castle was a strong fly fisher’s cast from where we moored the boat. But since we could not walk on water, it was inland until we found a bridge and by the time we hiked to the ruins, the castle had closed. And then the hike back.
Urquhart Castle from above at the end of about a dozen “ten minute” walks.
[i] The Great Glen Fault. William Quarrier Kennedy. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 102, 41-76, 1 April 1946, https://doi.org/10.1144/GSL.JGS.1946.102.01-04.04
updated 6-24-18

One Who Stands Alone

          Fifty years ago this winter, I was just returned from Vietnam, shoulders heavy with war and on my way from a home in the Pennsylvania Amish country to a new posting at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. I drove late into the night until the cold and fatigue caught me as I crossed the Connecticut/Massachusetts border on I-84 and found a rest area on the Mass Pike likely near Sturbridge. I pulled in, and as all good soldiers know how to do, went right to sleep in my car.  
          At dawn I opened my eyes and spread before me was the entire Central Massachusetts landscape: the Connecticut River valley on the left, Quabbin Reservoir to the center, a distant Boston far to the right. Presiding over it all was a tree-lined, snow-capped mountain with a granite peak—Monadnock: He Who Stands Alone.
          I did not know then of Monadnock and Emerson, Monadnock and Thoreau, Monadnock and Older, or Monadnock and Kinnell. It was the vision I recognized and experienced at that moment. Upon this great rock I would anchor the rest of my life. Only much later did it become clear how it has anchored so many others of this culture and those before that, the ones who gave the rock its name.
          The mountain is a mystic, magically transforming its few thousand feet of altitude into a height recognized around the planet. Even the dictionary finds its attempt at clarity undermined by its connotations: “monadnock – In geology, a single remnant of a former highland.” Monadnock, the last man standing.
          The mountain befuddles most photographers and painters—revealing its power to mesmerize only to those who can see beyond their craft. 
          I recall a mid-winter in early 1990s when Chinese poet and translator Zhang Ziqing visited to see for himself this place of Thoreau and Emerson. Snow piled to the eaves of houses as we drove out to good vantage beyond Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and stopped.
          Zhang pulled out an Instamatic camera to take a photograph and because I had tried and failed many times to use an Instamatic to photograph the mountain, I knew it would miss the magic. It was like photographing a ghost in a mirror. I said, “No, no, the picture won’t come out.”
          Something got lost in the translation because he put away his Instamatic, but when he returned to Nanjing University, he wrote an essay about how Monadnock is so sacred that one is not permitted to photograph it, and so, out of a cultural misunderstanding, was born the Monadnock Pastoral Poets and their sacred mountain. 
As the decades have passed and I have witnessed its effect again and again on others, it has occurred to me that Zhang was right. The mysticism of He Who Stands Alone had taken possession, and I did not know it. According to the 2014 Fairpoint phonebook, Monadnock has possessed at least 117 other businesses as well: Monadnock schools, Monadnock banks, Monadnock dairies, Monadnock dentists, Monadnock septic tank cleaners, Monadnock Music and Monadnock Writers’ Group, Monadnock Family Services, and Monadnock Fence. The list—like the mountain—goes on and on.  
          We are as spiritually under the influence of this gray whale of a rock today as were Henry David Thoreau, painter William Preston Phelps, and Mark Twain, who wrote in his autobiography about its magic during his summers in Dublin, New Hampshire. How does a mountain just a hair over three thousand feet high do it? It’s a mystery. 
          One can drive south to New Salem, Massachusetts, and look north to see Monadnock stun the Quabbin Reservoir with its image. One can drive just as far north to Pitcher Mountain and look south and there is Monadnock again lording over the horizon. Go west to Vermont and drive east from Brattleboro on Route 9 or Putney from Route 12 toward Keene and one comes around a hilltop curve expecting to see more of the traditional Appalachian ridges. Instead one gets this thing that looks like another hill except it just keeps on growing, morphing into a tree line and the gray granite visage of a mountain that should be out West. Go east to the coast and drive west. At each rise from Portsmouth or Boston, there is the dark profile of Monadnock on the horizon—its image almost Biblical–speaking in the tongue of the mind: “Come ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Mount Monadnock by Linda Thomas, New England Memories, June 2018
This essay and photo was first published in New England Memories, Summer 2018 issue
edited 6-20-18