Category Archives: travel

Voyage to the Spirit Mountains

Author and musician, Paul Quarrington, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, eloquently describes his plans to live each day as though it is his last, connecting with singing and the Canadian landscape.

Torngat Mountains

“As we journeyed through the Torngat Mountains, I finally realized what this trip was all about, for me. First of all, let me get a little scientific on you. The Torngats-comprised of Precambrian gneisses-are amongst the oldest mountains in the world, almost four billions years old. They rise out of the water with enchanted austerity. Sitting well above the tree line, the Torngats are stark naked and make no apology about it. Torngat is an Inuktitut word meaning Place of Spirits, and it very clearly is. The mountaintops are usually shrouded in cloud, and it’s easy enough to imagine the Spirits assembling there, going through the itinerary for another year. In short, the Torngat Mountains took what little breath I have away from me. The thought occurred that I was on another planet, and that’s when I realized, no, I’m on this planet, I’m just none too clear on what it actually looks like. I realized that what I wanted to do was spend a little time getting to know the third stone from the sun; it has been my home for 56 years, but I have spent much of it confined in the settlements. I wanted to explore and examine, I wanted to interact – yes, in the broadest, most spiritual sense.”

“So there, basically, you have the two main components of my plan for (what remains of) my future: singing and (spiritual) mountain climbing. For example, I think I’ll go fishing this week, getting to know Mother Ship Earth a bit better. I think I’ll go stand in a river just a few degrees above freezing and toss a yarn-fly into the current, over and over again, in the hopes of convincing some chromium-silver steelhead that the thing is edible. Or, I may simply go walkabout, kicking stones and major rock formations. I will build inuksuit (did you know that was the plural? I learned a lot on my voyages…) and I will try to build them across as much of the landscape as I can. In the meantime, I will be singing, all manner of songs. I will sing in Porkbelly Futures, I will sing with fiddlers and button accordionists, I will sing in Gospel choirs and Glee Clubs.”

Torngat Mountains

Inuit mythology tells of the Torngait, the spirits that a Shaman or spiritual leader looks to for wisdom and power. Torngat comes from this Inuit name and the legends which hold that in this region the spirit world overlaps our own. White people have called this area the Ghost Coast and have commented how the sounds of the winds whistling through the rugged mountains bring forth the feeling that one is in another realm. If the earth is home to ancient spirits they would seek out this land where the rocks are among the oldest on the planet and the landforms hold an otherworldly appearance. Perhaps this truly is a place of spirits.

The Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve is the new name for this ancient place. It is the northern portion of the Inuit homeland of Nunatsiavut, located in northern Labrador. (Nunatsiavut means “Our beautiful land” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) The park reserve encompasses roughly 10,000 km2 and extends from the deep waters of Saglek Fjord in the south, to the very northern tip of Labrador; and from the boundary with Quebec in the west, to the waters of the Labrador Sea in the east.

The human history of the park is rich and ancient. Within the park there are hundreds of archaeological sites including tent rings, stone caribou fences, caches, and ancient graves, all of which tell the story of the peoples and cultures, particularly the Inuit, who have made this special landscape their home.

Ramah Chert

South of Nachvak Fjord is Ramah Bay, home to a unique translucent stone called Ramah chert. This mineral holds an edge that is sharper than surgical steel. It was so prized by the ancient peoples of Labrador that prior to contact with the Europeans, some used this mineral almost exclusively in their arrows and blades.

Paul Quarrington: Each Day Like It’s My Last at National Post.

More at Wanderbird Expedition Cruises.

Ramah Chert.

For Sydney, and for Linda Gordon who loves the landscape.


Stupeur et Tremblements

Stupeur et TremblementsJapan beckons, alluring and elusive; foreigners pay court, but their attentions often remain unrequited. The relationship between Japan and the foreign suitor — a dance of seduction, misunderstanding and rejection — has inspired its own literary subgenre.

In Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling), the protagonist is excluded because she are foreign and typecast because she is a woman. The novel offers a grim, sometimes mordantly funny, vision of a Japan that seems determined to keep outsiders outside — where they belong.

When well-meaning but all too often obtuse Westerners bump up against Japanese standards, the comedy in this novel — and its underlying sadness — emerges. Stupeur et Tremblements takes place at the headquarters of a Japanese corporation in Tokyo.

Elegantly written (as translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) and now — elegantly filmed — it is a chronicle of the startlingly rapid fall of a young Belgian who tries to find a place in a Japanese company. Amélie, the heroine, is a child of foreign diplomats who spent her early years in Japan and so is fluent in Japanese. But it is soon clear that she is hapless when it comes to translating what isn’t said.

She fails her first test: understanding a lesson in humility that her boss tries to teach her by repeatedly tearing up an assignment without telling her what she’s done wrong. Amélie stumbles again when she takes the initiative by performing a task that hasn’t been assigned to her. Yet her fatal error is more deeply personal: failing to understand the psychology of the beautiful, brilliant and underappreciated Fubuki Mori, the woman who is her immediate superior. Amélie senses Fubuki’s desperate wish to be married — achieving a status that would free her from the tyranny of the company but confine her in a different sphere.

Amélie doesn’t see that her own success may be a threat to a woman who has labored for years to attain what little status she has in a country where women are often denied opportunities for promotion. And then she makes the classic Western mistake of attempting to talk over a problem with Fubuki rather than finding unspoken ways to make amends. Matters become even more complicated after she clumsily tries to offer sympathy when Fubuki is rebuked by her own boss. By witnessing Fubuki’s humiliation, Amélie has shamed her, and Fubuki proceeds to exact her revenge.

Nothomb (herself the daughter of Belgian diplomats who served in Japan) demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the intricate ways Japanese relationships are made and spoiled. And she has the classic Japanese corporation dead to rights, sketching out the often mindless and capricious hierarchy, the dangers of spontaneity and the condescending superiority with which many Japanese regard Westerners. While at times the level of cruelty in her novel approaches caricature, Nothomb also has compassion for those Japanese who are imprisoned in this system.

At times, Stupeur et Tremblements may seem unduly bleak, and they offer only glimpses of the kindness and decency of those Japanese who do open their hearts to foreigners. Yet each book captures a truth that the foreign suitor might use to find some degree of peace: loving without blinders means accepting the inevitability of distance.

Excerpted from: Susan Chira, Lost in Translation, New York Times, March 25, 2001.

The Fioretti of Saint Francis

Saint FrancisFioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis) is a florilegium – a collection of excerpts – divided into 53 short chapters, on the life of the fabled saint, which was composed at the end of the 14th century.

The anonymous Italian text, almost certainly by a Tuscan author, is a version of the Latin Actus beati Francisci et sociorum eius, of which the earliest extant manuscript is one of 1390 A.D. The text has been ascribed to Fra. Ugolino da Santa Maria, whose name occurs three times in the Actus.

The text has been the most popular account of his life and relates many colorful anecdotes, miracles and pious examples from the lives of Francis and his followers.

It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you…you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.

Wolf of GubbioFioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals”. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis.

“Brother Wolf, thou doest much harm in these parts and thou hast done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would make peace between you and the people.”

“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

In agreement the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis’ outstretched hand, and the oath was made. Francis then commanded the wolf to return with him to Gubbio.

Meanwhile the townsfolk, having heard of the miracle, gathered in the city marketplace to await Francis and his companion, and were shocked to see the ferocious wolf behaving as though his pet. When Francis reached the marketplace he offered the assembled crowd an impromptu sermon with the tame wolf at his feet. He is quoted as saying: “How much we ought to dread the jaws of hell, if the jaws of so small an animal as a wolf can make a whole city tremble through fear?”

Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis, ever the lover of animals, even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again.

These legends exemplify the Franciscan mode of charity and poverty as well as the saint’s love of the natural world. Part of his appreciation of the environment is expressed in his Canticle of the Sun, a poem written by the saint in Umbrian Italian shortly before his death in 1226, which expresses a love and appreciation of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth, Brother Fire, and all of God’s creations personified in their fundamental forms. In Canticle of the Creatures, he wrote: “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” His Canticle is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language.

It is an affirmation of Francis’ personal theology as he often referred to animals as brothers and sisters to Mankind, and rejected material accumulation and sensual comforts in favour of “Lady Poverty”.

Image: Saint Francis instructs the Wolf, Carl Weidemeyer-Worpswede, 1911

Les Maîtres de l’Affiche

Masters of the PosterAt the turn of the century, Parisian magazine subscribers were treated to colourful advertising posters which were included in the monthly issues. Each magazine contained four small 11 x 15 inch posters. For 60 months, subscribers also received a monthly original lithograph by one of 90 French or foreign artists, numbered and imprinted with the mark of Atelier Chaix, the magazine publisher.

Subscribers paid nothing for these prints, other than the price of the magazine. Today, though, if you want to purchase one of these posters, you are looking at a price of several hundred dollars apiece – more for the works of the more famous artists.

An important catalogue of 256 of these prints, Les Maîtres de l’Affiche, offers a representative selection of art of la Belle Epoque.

Jules CheretPublished in Paris, this collection reflects the well-deserved pride of the French at having invented the artistic commercial poster. Jules Chéret, the artist-director of the printing house, was the father of this artistic genre. For his role in launching the golden age of the poster, he was awarded Légion d’Honneur.

He believed that advertising design at the time was vulgar and lacked redeeming artistic features. Chéret was the first to associate a woman with a product; for example, beverages such as Dubonnet, various pastilles and soaps, music halls such as les Folies Bergère.

His salon artists covered the buildings and walls of Paris with images of beautiful women, turning the city into a plein-air museum.

It was not only the French who collected these posters; it is estimated that 6,000 American subscribers also had a collection. Major museums such as the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, also acquired these works for their permanent collections.

Alphonse Mucha

One of the best-known Maîtres de l’Affiche was Alphonse Mucha. His images were appropriated during the 1960s for theatre posters, and they often featured actress Sarah Bernhardt. Another well-known contributor was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose art celebrated the Parisian cabaret and the bohemian life in Montmartre.

The complete set of 256 prints illustrated in Les Maîtres de l’Affiche or its English-language counterpart, Masters of the Poster, provide an enticing glimpse into the bohemian life of la Belle Epoque.

A Moveable Feast

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

A Moveable FeastBegun in the autumn of 1957 and published posthumously in 1964, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast captures what it meant to be young and poor and writing in Paris during the 1920s. A Moveable Feast is considered by many to contain some of his best writing.

A correspondent for the Toronto Star, Hemingway arrived in Paris in 1921 with his young wife, Hadley, and baby son, Bumby (John), and the ambition to be a great writer. In that small tranquil world there was no need for a formal introduction. Everybody frequented the same cafés and ate in the same restaurants. Acquaintances were easily made and in a very short time Hemingway knew everyone who was someone÷or destined to be.

This was three years after the trauma of the Great War and at the beginning of the transformation of Europe’s cultural landscape: Braque and Picasso were experimenting with cubist forms; James Joyce, long living in self-imposed exile from his native Dublin, had just completed Ulysses; Gertrude Stein held court at 27 rue de Fleurus, and deemed young Ernest a member of une génération perdue; and T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk in London.

According to Hemingway, there was nothing lost about his generation. There was no movement, nor any tight bands of pot-smoking nihilists wandering around looking for a cause. There were a lot of people of the same age who had been through the war, and they came to Paris to write or compose or do whatever they had in mind. Paris gave them the freedom they needed.

His territory ran the length of the Boulevard Montparnasse from the Closerie des Lilas at the Observatoire to the Restaurant du Petit Trianon opposite the railway station, and by one route or another down to Saint Germain-des-Prés and the Seine.

Closerie des Lilas

Among these small, reflective sketches are unforgettable encounters with the members of Hemingway’s rag-tag circle of artists and writers, some also fated to achieve fame and glory, others to fall into obscurity. Some of the prominent people to make an appearance in the book include Aleister Crowley, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Hilaire Belloc, John Dos Passos, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

Hemingway spends a great deal of time in the cafes, drinking and eating rather well for a pittance. His kindest comments are about Sylvia Beach, the American who ran an English bookstore called Shakespeare and Company — it was a hangout for English-speaking authors and others, and was an oasis for individuals seeking English-language books.

Ernest and Hadley HemingwayHe depicts his genteel poverty and his obsession with gambling on horse races. He is deeply in love for most of the book with Hadley, who loses all of his manuscripts at a train station. He courts influential people such as Ford Madox Ford, who is described very unfavourably, and has great admiration for war veterans. His artist friend Pascin invites him to share his models, but he declines.

His friend Ezra Pound is trying to get up a collection for T. S. Eliot to rescue him from mundane bank work. He teaches Pound boxing. He cuts off his friendship with Gertrude Stein, repulsed by her lesbian relationship with Alice B. Toklas. He debates the merits of Dostoevsky with poet Evan Shipman. Ezra Pound charges him with delivering opium to the addicted poet Ralph Dunning, but Dunning rejects the help. Hemingway devotes three chapters to the very annoying F. Scott Fitzgerald and his hawkish and manipulative wife Zelda.

In the bittersweet final chapter, he describes an idyllic time spent in the Austrian Alps with Hadley. Pauline Pfeiffer arrives and an affair develops which eventually destroys his marriage.

It was during these years that the as-of-yet unpublished young writer gathered the material for his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, and the subsequent masterpieces that followed.

“You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

This is the Paris that Hemingway knew as a young man – a map drawn in his distinct prose of the streets and cafés and bookshops that made up the city where he, as a young writer, sometimes struggling against the cold and hunger of near poverty, honed the skills of his craft.

Satori in Paris

Jack KerouacAlthough he was born and raised in Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s family was French-Canadian, and he was proud of it.

Published in 1967, when Kerouac was at the height of his fame, Satori in Paris tells the story of a ten-day visit to Paris and Brittany in search of his ancestors.

On this hectic odyssey, fascinated by everything and everyone he met, from a faded French beauty in a Montparnasse gangster bar to one of his strange, foppish Breton namesakes, Kerouac experienced a feeling of transcendence, a satori, which was to the Beat generation the culmination of all experience.

Andrew Sarris reviewed Satori in Paris for the New York Times in 1967. Here is is blunt and accurate, in this blogger’s opinion, excerpt.

Satori in ParisIf the latest spiritual adventures of Jack Kerouac lack the ebullience of earlier explorations, it may be because he is hunting down a pedigree rather than an identity. (“As in an earlier autobiographical book I’ll use my real name hear, full name in this case, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, because this story is about my search for this name in France.”)

By his own admission, Kerouac was 43 years old when he braved Paris and Brittany. That’s a bit old for a Dharma Bum drunk on Dante’s Beatitude, a Rover Boy with a yen for Zen, a traveler of the fifties who managed to bypass Marx and Freud on the road across the American continent.

Kerouac can still write a blued streak, but his skyrocketing prose no longer illuminates the landscape. He now travels alone, out of his time and place, more like a Babbitt than a beatnik.

He now seems to revel in a calculating callousness, particularly in his country-club put-down of “a half dozen eager or worried future writers with their manuscripts all of whom gave me a positively dirty look when they heard my name as tho they were muttering to themselves Kerouac? I can write ten times better than that beatnik maniac and I’ll prove it with this here manuscript called Silence au Lips all about how Renard walks into the foyer lighting a cigarette and refuses to acknowledge the sad formless smile of the plotless Lesbian heroine whose father just died trying to rape an elk in the Battle of Cuckamonga, and Phillipe the intellectual enters in the next chapter lighting a cigarette with an existential leap across the blank page I leave next, all ending in a monologue encompassing etc., all this Kerouac can do is write stories, ugh'”–Ugh, indeed. No there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-and-Grove-go-I feeling in Kerouac’s credit-card sensibility.

At times, his aggressive religiosity resembles Cassius Clay’s: Methinks women love me and then they realize I’m drunk for all the world and this makes them realize I can’t concentrate on them alone, for long, makes them jealous, and I’m a fool in love With God. Yes.”

As for what a satori actually is, he explicates in quasi-religious terms: “Somewhere during my ten days in Paris (and Brittany) I received an illumination of some kind that seems to’ve changed me again, towards what I suppose’ll be my pattern for another seven years or more: in effect, a satori: the Japanese word for ‘sudden illumination,’ ‘sudden awakening’ or simply ‘kick in the eye.'”

Unfortunately, the illumination comes at the end of a shaggy dog story by a saloon Sartre who manages to get gushy over the straighforwardness of a Paris cab driver.

New York Times Book Review (sign-in may be required)

Murder on the Iditarod Trail

Hot on the heels of Lance Mackey’s amazing 2008 Iditarod win, back to back with a win on the grueling Yukon Quest, and the second Iditarod championship in a row for Mackey, here are two Alaskan murder mysteries for after-mushing brandy-quaffing by the fire.


Murder on the Iditarod Trail

Murder on the Iditarod TrailThe Iditarod, sometimes called The Last Great Race, brings thousands of competitors and their dog teams to Anchorage each year. The racers cover 1150 miles of some of Alaska’s roughest, most majestic terrain – jagged mountain ranges, iced-over areas of Norton Sound, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coastline. The temperatures frequently fall well below zero, with winds that can cause complete loss of visibility. Hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills are always present.

It is an arduous sport, but not a deadly one. Until now.

When a veteran musher smashes into a tree and is fatally impaled by a branch, Sergeant Alex Jensen is called in. In the midst of race proceedings, he begins a homicide investigation. The next day, another death. And then another, each one more brutal than the last.

Someone is systematically killing the top competitors. And as the mushers thread their way through the treacherous trails, Jensen races to find the murderer – before more blood stains the frozen Alaskan range.

Jessie Arnold has been training long and hard. This is her big year; for the first time she’s got a shot at winning. But as her position in the race improves, so do her chances of being the killer’s next target. Amid the tensions of the race and the threat of murder, Jessie and Alex Jensen are drawn together.

In a stunning finale, the race and the case come to a close simultaneously, and the savage truth emerges just as the winner crosses the finish line.

Murder on the Yukon Quest

Murder on the Yukon QuestJessie and her dog team are well prepared for the tough Yukon Quest sled race, but her one regret is that her longtime friend and lover, Alex Jensen, isn’t there to see her off. Alex has been called home to Idaho for a family emergency and Jessie begins the big race without her biggest booster.

Well along the trail, Jessie is stunned to learn that a young novice racer she met at the start has been abducted and held for ransom. The girl’s distraught father has been warned that no one but Jessie Arnold is to be told – especially not the police. Feeling isolated and alone, Jessie must decide what to do in the face of terrible odds.

As other mushers push on toward the finish line, Jessie forges ahead in a race all her own.

Sue Henry is the author of six novels in her award-winning Alaska mystery series: Murder on the Iditarod Trail, Termination Dust, Sleeping Lady, Death Takes Passage, Deadfall, and Murder on the Yukon Quest. She has lived in Alaska for almost a quarter of a century, and brings history, Alaskan lore, and the majestic beauty of the vast landscape to her mysteries. Based in Anchorage, she teaches writing at the University of Alaska.