EL PUEBLO OAXAQUEÑO

The surf was set to be flat for a week so i decided to escape the heat and return to the Sierra Madre for the third time. The Sierra Madre del Sur traverses Southern Mexico, often very close to the coastline. The range extends over a thousand kilomotres through Michoacán, Guerrero and Oaxaca. It has a major influence over the weather and climate of the coastal regions and I have often witnessed large storms forming in the mountains to the north in my time on the coast.

After arriving in colectivo to Huatulco I noticed a distinct lack of the usual hustle and bustle at La Central. There were no colectivos queing up to ferry people to the next regional centre of San Pedro de Pochutla. I waited, as you get used to doing in Mexico. After a few quesadillas and a coffee, I decided to figure exactly what was going on.

"Hay un bloqueo en la carretera wey."

The taxi driver was right, the main coastal highway of Southern Mexico was blocked not far from Huatulco Airport. Cars were unable to pass, but I was told I could cross the blockade on foot and pick up a colectivo on the other side.

Shortly after we were skirting up the wrong side of the road past an endless line of trucks and semi-trailers to the intersection that had been blocked. Before us were positioned two white semi-trailers, the sun reflecting brightly off their sides into my eyes in the midday heat. The trucks had been purposely jack-knifed to prevent passage by any type of vehicle. Upon passing through the first two trucks on foot, I realised the same had been done on the other two sides of the intersection.

The scene that played out at this crossroads was mostly relaxed. Mexican tourists wandered around, some aimlessly, others on a mission. Then I turned to observe the people around the trucks. These men and women were mostly of darker complexion. They were people of the pueblo - people who lived from the land. And they were sure to bring their tool of choice: the machete. The machete is undoubtedly the tool of the tropics. Every home usually has one. You can open coconuts with them, chop wood, cut grass or tend to your crops. But today this ubiquitous tool had a different, more sombre use. It was not being wielded in a threatening or aggressive way. Instead, its presence represented a subtle yet direct warning that said 'we are here for real.' Police were nowhere to be seen, presumably avoiding any type of escalation.

The faces of the men, women and children who stood in that intersection communicated to me a story of staunch defiance mixed with an unflinching dignity. These people of the pueblo, of el pueblo Oaxaqueño y el pueblo Méxicano, were fighting for their right to live life the way they wanted to. A part of me wanted to take photos of these faces, but something in me remained unsettled by it and the camera remained in my backpack.

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Earlier that same morning, Abraham Hernández González had been kidnapped and assassinated. He was a regional leader in Oaxaca for the Comité de la Defense de los Derechos Indigenas (Committee for the Defense of Indigenous Rights) or CODEDI. He was a man who represented the rights of the people of the pueblos in Oaxaca — the very people that stood before me in that intersection.

It has been a chaotic few months in México. The World Cup fever swept a nation, apparently causing small seismic disruptions in Mexico City when the country defeated Germany in the first game. Then, the day before Mexico was set to play Brazil, the country went to the polls to elect a new leader — something that only happens once every six years. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO for short) was elected in a landslide on a wave of millions of hopeful Mexicans wishing for change. Some people remain less optimistic and only time will tell what the effects of his Presidency will be.

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Las tierras no se venden,
las tierras no se dan,
las tierras se defienden,

con mucha dignidad.

The lands are not sold,
the lands are not given away,
the lands are defended,
with the utmost dignity.

It's a rough translation, and loses some of its poetic nature, but these few lines of prose scrawled in red across an abandoned building on the highway have remained in my mind. I first saw them passing in a car, and then many more times as I made the frequent commute from Puerto Escondido to waves further in the south. Last week I rode past the same building on my bike. This time I stopped. Amongst the early morning shadows casting themselves across the crumbling white wall, those same red letters staring back at me once again.

Oaxaca and Chiapas — its neigbouring state to the southeast  — have the highest populations of Indigenous people in all of México. Indigenous languages are still frequently spoken in these states and large numbers of people live in small pueblos, often in fairly inaccessible areas in the mountainous regions throughout. These pueblos often straddle the delicate balance between modern influences and traditional value systems and ways of life. These two powers can — and frequently do — come into conflict and if we don't use our collective energy to make the process a harmonious one, we risk social decline in so many heartbreaking ways. 

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Another member of CODEDI, Abraham Ramírez Vázquez, has argued that the goverment of Oaxaca has been targeting social leaders who oppose resource extraction and exploitation, and various development projects in the state. A strong claim but one that may have basis in truth.

The people of the pueblos were given the opportunity to vote, an opportunity to influence the future of their country and their lives. At least this is the idea they were sold. But when the leaders representing them are kidnapped and murdered, its not hard to understand why they have to take other measures to be heard.

The people at that blockade were not asking for much. They were not asking unfair demands. These mothers and fathers, sons and daughters were asking to be able to live their lives the way they choose — in harmony with their world and the environment in which they live. It's not much of a stretch to say they were asking for freedom.

I remember something Galarrwuy Yunupingu said in his beautiful essay about life on the land as Indigenous Australian in Yolngu Country:

What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you.

Maybe that's what the people are asking here. For the people in power to relax their grip, even just a little.

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'Rom Watangu', an essay by Galarrwuy Yunupingu, can be read in full here:

https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2016/july/1467295200/galarrwuy-yunupingu/rom-watangu

If you ask me, it should be in the reading list of every Australian.

LA POLÍTICA Y LA DEMOCRACIA

Today is the day of the Mexican Presidential elections. They only come around once every six years, so it's a pretty important day for Mexico and its people. I happen to find myself in the capital city for voting day and the last few days of talking with new friends and acquaintances has left some impact on me as to the state of the country as seen through the eyes of some of its people. It's also led me to reflect on how I feel about my own country and it's political regime for the last twenty years or so. 

Let me preface this by saying that I do believe in democracy and democratic systems. No democratic model is perfect but I do think they make inroads to promoting freedom for citizens. Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite writers and someone whose words I often use. In a recent speech at the Press Club in Canberra, Flanagan was critical of many aspects of Australian politics and misuse of the power given in earnest to politicians through democratic processes. But one thing he said resonated with me.

"Lies are quick but the truth is slow...I'm left believing in very little but I believe in freedom and I believe in truth."

Freedom means different things to different people. I see freedom as a form of opportunity; the more freedom you are afforded the more opportunities you have to choose the path you wish to take in life. If I look at my life up until this point, I would say I've been gifted a lot of freedom. 

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Last week I was walking through the streets of Oaxaca, not far from the Zocalo, when a piece of street art grabbed my eye. The work showed the faces of four candidates painted in black and white across a bright yellow wall. Above the four heads was scrawled three simple yet powerful words: La Mafia Mexicana or the Mexican Mafia. 

Those four faces represented the four candidates running for election today. From what I've gleaned from the last eight months in Mexico, this election is being fought on questions of corruption and misuse of power above all else. Mexicans are sick of being lied to and many people I've talked to don't believe in their government at all. 

I sit on the couch with Sebastian as the afternoon light floods the living room of his apartment. A street vendor's voice drifts up from the street below "Tamaaaales oaxaqueñoooossssssss, tamaaaales oaxaqueñooossssssssssssssss." Sebastian is not going to vote in the election today. He has decided to wave his democratic right to influence the election result. His eyes tell the most important story - it pains him to have come to this point but he doesn't wish to participate in a process which despite all appearances is a long way from representing a true and fair democracy; a place where the hopes and dreams of citizens are carried out by those in power who are supposed to represent them. 

Young people are often criticised for failing to vote. They are seen as being lazy or uninterested; that they are spurning a great opportunity to influence the future of their country. But I don't think this always tells the full story. One thing is true regardless of your opinion on voting: young people in Mexico, and in Australia too, are disenfranchised with the politicians that are meant to be representing them. There's various forms of corruption both in Mexico and in Australia. Mexico's corruption may be a little more obvious, and probably more widespread, but if you peel away the layers in Australia it doesn't take much digging to realise there's entrenched corruption in Australia too. I mean, we're building one of the biggest mines in our country's history right next to our most important natural asset; the Great Barrier Reef. Overworked and underpaid Australians are helping fund it through taxes. If there ain't something funky going on behind the scenes, I'll eat my hat. 

The point I'm trying to make is that when intelligent, well informed and well educated young people decide to forgo their opportunity to vote because they don't believe in the elected officials that represent them, then something must be wrong. 

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Australia faces some of it's greatest challenges at the moment. Our country must deal with issues that strike at the very core of our identity. We must look at how we treat our Indigenous population and the asylum seekers that seek out our island paradise for refuge. We must consider the vital importance of our environment and the threats facing water security, ocean health and much more. The people in power in Australia fail to represent my desires and hopes for our nation in nearly every aspect of policy. I do not say that lightly or feel as though I am exaggerating. Our politics has become little more than a soap opera with petty bickering, name calling and the latest discussions about who's sleeping with who. How did we get here? 

I will continue to vote. I will continue to believe in freedom and in the power of the truth. I will continue to hope for a better version of democracy in my country. But I respectfully refuse to believe my hopes and dreams for our country are being fairly represented by the majority of politicians that govern us because it is a fallacy.

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The Mexican people elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO for short) in a landslide result. He has been trying to attain power for eighteen years, which included a previously disputed election result that resulted in large protests. AMLO was elected on the pretense that he would reign in endemic corruption and the immense power of Mexican drug cartels. Many are hopeful that this is a new era for Mexico. Others, like Sebastian, are more wary. Only time will tell if AMLO represents little more than another member of La Mafia Mexicana.

 

 

CDMX

I don't think I ever really suited cities. I never really felt truly comfortable in them regardless of the fact I had a lot of fun and spent some of the best years of my life living in them. My life in cities, especially towards the end, consisted of trying to escape them at any possible moment. Hobart in Tasmania probably represents the upper confines of what I believe I could comfortably thrive in long term. 

I couldn't live in the city again, but damn are they great to visit. I'm writing this during my first full day in Mexico City and I'm already intrigued and fascinated by it all.

There's so much to look at. I guess when you squeeze twenty million people into a 'relatively' small area you're going to get interesting results. People are forced to coexist whether they like it or not. What comes of this is a wild mish‐mash of personalities and lives all crammed together in one space — all day, every day.

Like the two men selling gas in the middle of Avenida Cuauhtemoc this morning teaching each other boxing moves as they jockied back and forth on the footpath, jumping this way and that. I watched on anonymously in amusement from a distance. It seemed a lot more fun than work.

Or like the kids racing up and down the footpath in front of where I drank my coffee, completely oblivious to passing strangers as they bumped this way and that. A few people even got tangled up in the lead. Some chose to laugh it off before heading off on their way, others seemed utterly insulted. The kids didn't care, they were having the time of their lives.

Later in the day, as I stood in line for entry into Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's casa, a local bus pulled up at an intersection. An old man sat behind the wheel, boasting a belly that many beer‐drinking Aussies would be envious of. He sat with an air of tranquility on an empty bus, smoking a cigarette and appearing nonchalant his afternoon routine.

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Cities are a representation of communities. No, they simply are communities. Massive ones. They are in essence a form of community that is forced upon us. We do not choose who we live next to, who we work with or whose dog runs circles around us in the street. But while we don't choose all those things, we can choose how we exist and how we interact with each other. It's the part we have control of.

I love cities for those beautiful moments where strangers willingly engage with each other, often with surprising and rewarding moments. I don't think I'll live in a big city again but I'll continue to be fascinated by them, and the people that thrive in them, for the rest of my life.

TIME & THE INFINITE LUXURY OF OBSERVATION

I’ve been fortunate enough over the last few months to find myself filling my days with three basic activities: eating, sleeping and surfing. There’s little doubt that surfing is my favourite activity on the planet, but at times I’ve found myself questioning the value of spending months on end with a predominant focus on those few activities.

I’ve come to realize that to a large extent my personal context and the place I was raised – a place that I still call home – has greatly shaped how I see myself and how I place myself in the wider world. I think that our contexts place emphasis on certain aspects of our lives, and encourage us to engage more strongly with certain paths on the long road that is life. This is neither good nor bad really, it just is.

I grew up in something like a paradise, there’s no two ways about that. I’m indebted to decisions my parents made, before I could comprehend them, to move to a small surf town in Northern New South Wales. Lennox Head is safe, it is a haven for wildlife, it is immensely beautiful and it also has the grand appeal of having lots of great waves in close proximity to each other. I can earn a good wage without too much trouble, which then allows me to travel the world. I try not to forget the good fortune that brings me.

But I’ve realised that while the weeks I’ve spent in a small village in Southern Mexico have revolved around those three activites, they have incorporated the wonderful and thrilling occupation of being able to observe a great many things throughout each day. In the last few weeks I have watched the first rains douse a harsh and dry landscape, transforming into hills of verdant green. The first buds appear on branches with such enthusiasm, giving life to trees that one week earlier looked the better part of dead. The birds have returned from the mountains in their hundreds, and with their wonderful palate of colours. The bugs have invaded, and with them a collection of frogs, geckos, tortoises and other little creatures. The morning birdsong has an air of enthusiasm and excitement for the impending months of healthy rainfall.

Every time I’ve called into question my motives about staying still, about indulging in long days of surfing, I’ve come back to this answer:

Time is our greatest gift. It is the only thing we can’t get back. It allows us the infinite luxury of observation of our world around us – plants, animals, our immediate environment and all those other human beings we share it with. And through observation comes fascination. In turn fascination stimulates curiosity and imagination.

Without curiosity and imagination we cease to treasure the gift that is our lives. I’m doing my best in trying to remember that in everything I do.

LA HAMACA

In Mexico babies take daytime naps wrapped up in hammocks, sleeping soundly in their little cocoon. Over half a century later those very same people grow old doing the exact same thing. You'd be hard pressed to find a home in this country that doesn't have the shadow of a half crescent moon painted somewhere across the ground. 

For whatever reason I was never a real fan of hammocks. It may have something to do with my inability to stay still for any length of time. I remember once, many years ago in Brazil, I elected to sleep on hard concrete over the comfort of a hammock because I just couldn't figure the damn thing out.

The last six months in Mexico has changed my ways. I have grown to love this simple yet wonderful invention for its comfort and practicality. A friend once told me he rolled into a town in Michocan on the coast of Mexico to be greeted by two surfers swinging back and forth in their hammocks, engrossed in a tense game of chess as the board sat between the two. 

I used to watch little Jesué snooze in the white hammock placed in the garden where I lived in Puerto Escondido. Any of the numerous family members would gently swing the hammock as they moved back and forth running errands or preparing la comida. I've observed colectivo drivers on the highway awaiting passengers chat amongst each other on the roadside as their hammocks swing together in unison. And every single time I go to the local tienda in Barra de la Cruz I can be assured of one thing — that the old man that lives next door will be there, watching the world go by from the comfort of his purple hammock. 

LA LLUVIA

Apart from the odd drizzle here and there - nothing you could really call rain - I hadn't experienced the sensations of that particular natural phenomenon for the better part of seven months; the sound of muffled raindrops on the forest floor, the chaos of water battering a tin roof or the opportunity to hang my tongue out to catch water falling from above, my face angled skyward.

And when it came again as I stood on the beach in the late afternoon, I wished it would never end. Two hours later and back at a friend's place I found myself lying on a deck chair as the deluge threw waves of rain over my body. It felt like some sort of spritual cleansing.

Here I sit, a few days later, on an old wooden chair under the shelter of a rusty tin roof above the clouds in San José del Pacifico. A small detour from the Oaxacan coast means palm trees and coconuts are replaced by pine needles, moss and lichen. And the rain, thunder and lightning.

It's been eight or nine months with the coast by my side. As much as the ocean makes up a large part of who I am and how I see myself, it does not constitute the whole. So here I sit on my wooden chair as the rain performs its intricate harmonies on the roof a metre or two above my head. What a pleasure it truly is to see the shapes raindrops draw in the rapidly forming puddles scattered across the ground. I'm left transfixed by a diverse form of moving water. I'd been watching the ocean for countless hours during my journey south. I'd forgotten how encapsulating rain could be.

I remember reading of Australian farmers as they spoke of the first rains after the crippling droughts that rippled across our country not so long ago; of toddlers crying from fear  as the heavens opened - something they'd never seen before. How must rain have felt for those families?

I imagine it must have been a salvation unlike any other. For these resilient people rain equates to life. It does for every one of us. For rain, like many other things in our world, reminds us how reliant we are on our earth for everything we have. It reminds us of the vast web of which we humans are but one single thread. If that thread is removed, the web may still function as well as before. The web lives on but that thread is gone forever.

The raindrops continue to fall, the intensity of the downpour building into crescendos before fading away again. The rhythm resembles the rising and falling of wave energy; of the continous peaks and troughs. I remain seated, captivated by the show.

 

I think it’s worth mentioning that this piece, once finished, was read aloud accompanied by light rain and some soulful backing guitar played by Andrew as we looked at the view before us. Sebastian then read a poem aloud, and once he’s finished editing it I’ll endeavour to put it here also. 

EL MERO MÉXICO

I grew up with a certain idea of Mexico and its people. This idea – narrow and limited in its scope – was predominantly shaped by American movies and what I’d seen on the news. Think images of men with moustaches and large sombreros walking around a desert scene dotted with cacti and tumbleweeds. It was all I had to go on. Alternative notions of what Mexico could be weren’t presented to me, so why would I think any differently?


There’s little doubt that Australia’s perception of Mexico and its people is fundamentally shaped by Mexico’s northern neighbour. The cultural exchange of ideas between the US and Australia is strong and deeply embedded – we speak the same mother tongue which obviously helps.  But if we were to base our ideas solely on what we hear on the news and what we see in films, what would it look like? On one hand Mexico is a land of cartel killings and violence, on the other it’s ritzy hotels where you sip cocktails on the beach. These contradictory yet equally prevalent representations are based on a complex relationship between the US and Mexico which draws its roots from a tense and conflicted history.

Mexico has its share of problems – politically and otherwise – but I doubt there’s a country in the world that doesn’t. I can brainstorm a dozen gargantuan problems that face my home country in Australia. Many foreigners I've met have complained at will about the state of certain things in Mexico while failing to understand the many parallels that exist in their own nation.  I will dwell briefly on one example. I often hear travellers complain of corruption in Mexico but I have to admit I feel a little differently. While corruption is prevalent, the most common form is out in the open. It can often be accompanied by a handshake and a friendly conversation. That’s not to say it’s right or fair, but there is an effort to maintain a human element to the transaction. The corruption in my country is of a different nature. It takes place behind closed doors between people who believe in power above all else and at any cost. And unfortunately we are often none the wiser. It is a system awash in money – of political donations and undue influence on lawmakers to an extent that I think we tend to forget, or at least ignore. It feels to me like politicians in Australia today have happily ignored that their job is to serve their own people instead of their own personal interests. I don’t wish to delve any more deeply into this, but instead present it as an idea of how we create ideas about foreign countries around the globe while failing to acknowledge our own flaws and examine ourselves from time to time.

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Now that I’m starting to come to terms with just how big México is geographically, I’ve also played witness to the multitude of ways in which people live their lives in this wonderful country. The friendly greetings, smiles and hoots from farmers in the distance that I’ve received while riding my bike along the coast reflect a culture of generosity, curiosity and humility. Towns are awash with colour, whether it be brightly painted buildings or the lively pink flowers of the abundant bougainvillea trees that sway in the midday breeze. Even the cemeteries, which are so often devoid of colour schemes beyond black white and grey in other places, radiate the positivity and optimism of a vast nation.

I spent six weeks in the state of Oaxaca about six years ago. For the first four weeks I was welcomed into a family home in Oaxaca city and spent time with the many personalities of a household that spanned three generations. Although my Spanish at the time was fairly clumsy I was fortunate to observe how a family lived and breathed in that house from day to day. I played witness to the open affection that was given and received by all family members. I saw a devotion to God and the church so strong that the only response I could muster was one of awe and humility. I also ate some of the best food in my life. I left Mexico knowing I’d return – hoping that when that day came I’d speak a much less clunky and awkward version of español.

I think it’s safe to say my Spanish is a little better than it was all those years ago. For me, the best thing about speaking the language here is the richness of story that I’ve had access to. A lot of people have asked me why I chose the Americas for this trip. There’s a lot of answers to that question but much of it comes back to the importance of story. I wanted to go to a place where I could dive into the ocean of story that exists and swim around at will, plucking stories from wherever I could. Considering I only speak two languages, there was no place better than the Americas. As well as a wealth of unique and distinct Indigenous langauges across the continents, Spanish and English would allow me the great fortune of hearing stories from countless people across many latitudes, landscapes and climates. There's been no shortage of story here in Mexico. These personal memoirs from the many Mexicans I have met have reminded me time and again that we are not so different – that our common ideas of love, of the importance of our Mother Earth, of family and of life and death are based more simply on being human than being Mexican, American or Australian.

THE BROWN PELICAN

My first surf on this journey took place on a beautiful beach lined with towering trees of the cool temperate rainforests for which British Colombia is renowned. There was a sense of euphoria and child-like excitement that accompanied my return to the activity I enjoy the most. As I trudged down to the tepid waters of the Juan de Fuca Strait, a group of onlookers glared at me from a distance.  “What are you doing here?” suggested their discontented stares.

The collection of spectators comprised a bunch of Brown Pelicans. Similar in size and stature to the Australian Pelican that I’m accustomed to seeing, the Brown pelican has different coloured plumage and beak colour to that of its cousin on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. The Brown Pelican hunts for food by dive bombing in an almost curious manner. To me it seems much less efficient than the aerodynamic entry of a gannet or cormorant – the large bird seems to twist its neck and beak in the opposite direction to which it is flying. It obviously works though. The move does seem a little clumsy but is often followed by an open beak quickly gulping down a decent sized fish or two.

Somewhere in Oregon I’d decided that my ‘spirit animal’ for the migration south had to be the Canada Goose. Moving in the same direction as me I’d often look up of an afternoon to see the familiar flying V zoom overhead – always moving in a southerly direction as nature and climate dictated terms. The goose was ubiquitous on my travels through Alaska, BC, Washington and Oregon and I was fond of the way they waddled around on beaches, in paddocks, and anywhere with a decent amount of open space. They chat light heartedly amongst themselves on their flying breaks as I watched on, taking a breather of my own from sitting in the saddle.

But it seems that while there was a connection to the Canada Goose, I’d been a little hasty in adopting it as my spirit animal. Since that inaugural surf on Vancouver Island I’ve managed to add over fifty more surf spots to the list. And that has meant a lot of time spent either looking at, or being immersed in, the ocean.

I remember reading something Tim Winton once said about surfing. He made the point that when you go for a surf, the time you actually spend riding waves is a pretty small percentage of the time spent in the water. Winton emphasised that much of the surfing experience lies in engaging with and observing the world around you. Of waves and their form, the landscape, the sky and all the wildlife the ocean contains and supports. On Vancouver Island I was navigating my way through clumps of leathery kelp as massive Western Hemlocks and Red Cedars swayed in the breeze behind me. Yesterday’s view was of coconut palms and tropical coloured fish that swam below my feet.  I’ve travelled through countless climates, landscapes and a few countries and the trusty Brown Pelican continues to swoop in low near the face of an unbroken wave, using its updraft to coast effortlessly along the coast – expending minute amounts of energy as it goes. It is a truly beautiful sight and one I am unlikely to grow tired of.

I’ve seen many a Brown Pelican ‘ride’ waves at sunrise, sunset and everywhere in between. They’ve cruised through the lineup on crowded days and days when I’ve been surfing alone. I’ve seen them when it’s offshore, onshore, or when there’s not a puff of wind about. I’ve seen them soar across the swell lines alone or in groups as large as twenty or thirty – each bird mimicking the movement of the bird immediately ahead of them, creating a type of caterpillar like delay in the occasional flapping of wings.  This simple gliding manoeuvre leaves me transfixed every time. I often wonder how they read the wave. Is it similar to how a surfer reads it, or is it completely different? Does it give them the same feeling of euphoria that waves gift a committed surfer? Unfortunately, I’m unaware of a Brown Pelican that speaks English (or Spanish for that matter) so these questions have been left unanswered.

With a journey of this nature, I find myself subject to constant change in a dynamic environment; a state of flux. But within this state, it’s always nice to pick out some constants. The constants help to make me feel a little more comfortable – like the way I repack my bike every morning. Every object has its place, and it’s comforting to go through that process with a sense of familiarity and routine. I guess the Brown Pelican is another constant in ever changing environments. Maybe one day I’ll get to ask one what it’s like to ride a wave with wings.

 

BAJA CALIFORNIA

Growing up on an island, albeit a massive one, there's a number of things that always feel a little strange. For me, one of those things is crossing land borders. As an Australian travelling in the modern age I became accustomed to departing my country to arrive on a different continent, and more than likely a completely different climate as well. It always has such a jarring effect. I still remember my first time overseas - the electronic sliding doors silently parted as the stifling heat and humidity of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam suddenly overwhelmed all of my senses simultaneously. The smells were more intense and it was almost as if my skin reacted to the blast of heat in an instant. Oppressive to the unprepared, the heat was a far cry from the mild temperatures of autumnal weather back home.

The last time I'd crossed a land border on this trip was up in the Yukon in July. It was also the coldest I've been in the last seven months, so I didn't really care to appreciate the fact I was crossing the border into Canada. All I wanted in that moment were three things: dry clothes; a cup of hot tea; and that the customs lady would stop grilling me about my earning capacity as I stood shivering in the mist and rain, soaked to the core, in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

Thankfully this time around it was a little warmer. As Marge & I crossed the busiest land border in the world from San Diego to Tijuana, the landscape didn't radically change. In fact, it didn't change at all. It was still just as dry and just as dusty. The surrounding mountains felt the same and the Pacific remained unchanged – still as vast as ever.

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Baja California - or Baja as it is lovingly known by many - is an extension of the California peninsula. Apart from the arbitrary presence of modern sovereign borders, Baja shares similar geology, flora, fauna, and countless other characteristics with its northern neighbour over the border. The peninsula extends about 1500km from Tijuana and Mexicali in the North to Los Cabos in the south and is divided into two states: Baja California and Baja California Sur, which are divided by the 28th parallel of latitude.

By its very nature as a peninsula, Baja is surrounded by water. On the west lies the endless expanse of the Pacific, while the Sea of Cortes to the east separates Baja from mainland Mexico. In the past the peninsula was attached to the mainland states of Sonora and Sinaloa before plate tectonics shifted it westward, allowing for the creation of a new body of water. As I have recently discovered the ocean surround Baja is absolutely teeming with life; whale sharks, humpback, grey and blue whales, dolphins, sea lions, and a vast array of seabirds flourish in the crystal blue waters. The landscapes down the peninsula and the archipelagos in the Sea of Cortes make you feel like you could be in New Mexico or Arizona. The stark contrast of desert hues to lively shades of ocean in beautiful blues and greens is a truly breathtaking sight.

I've spent the last month or so contemplating Baja California and its people and I've arrived at this conclusion. To me it feels like a Mexican-American, Californian-Mexican hybrid. Much in the way that Southern California is an entity unto itself, Baja feels different to the mainland of Mexico. Spanglish is ubiquitous, as are the Mexican versions of hamburguesas and hot dogs. The cultures of California and Baja California intertwine in a way that is at times almost impossible to separate. And I believe it points to the influence that climate and geography impact on the way in which people live, their view on the world, and their understanding and perception of time. There's still plenty of differences between the two, but the similarities point to how our micro world shapes who we are and how we exist within it.

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Riding through the desert in Baja brought with it a return to a more simplified daily routine. It was something I hadn't really experienced since leaving Alaska all those months ago. I no longer had to worry about traffic, or whether someone was going to catch me out where I'd put my tent, or where to get my next eight cups of drip coffee. Food, water and shelter. It was a welcome return to the simple things.

Reverting to this mindset brings with it a certain clarity of thought. It gives you the good fortune to allow yourself to slip away from all the noise of modern world. For me one of the greatest pleasures was to wake up of a morning, get a fire started, boil some water for a coffee and take the time to drink in the desert colours of a morning; to take those fifteen or twenty minutes and allow all my senses to observe the world waking up (as the coffee allowed me to do the very same). In observation we learn more than any other medium. Whether it be plants, birds or people or otherwise, observation allows us to engage multiple senses simultaneously to gain a greater understanding of something, or things. We may not be able to translate that understanding to words. In fact, if we can't translate it into words then it's probably much more important than anything we can read or hear about it.

As the days passed, I felt as though the desert was slowly becoming a part of me. And me, a part of the desert.  I can only imagine what people who lived here for lifetimes must feel about the place. And the silence. The silence is something I won't soon forget.

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Baja also holds legendary status among the surfing community. I could see it in the eyes of the many surfers I met as I made my way down the west coast of the States. They were always keen to tell me of their exploits on the edge of the desert. Voices changed pitch, slowing their words for extra effect. Back up north in Leo Carrillo State Park Robyn & I had met a fellow Australian also named Tom. He looked me in the eyes in the late afternoon sun, his face taut with a mixture of seriousness and elation

"There's lots of good, well-known waves down there, and they're not too crowded either.

But if you go looking, you'll find some of the best waves of your life. And there'll be no one for miles. No one."

I'd heard all the rumours and the stories. And I'd had a pretty fortuitous run down the west coast of the US, so I had every reason to be excited. After a few fun surfs in Northern Baja, Marge & I entered the desert for the next stretch of fairly uninhabited road - my surfboard in tow.

It felt almost comical riding through these landscapes with a surfboard trailing along behind. And I quickly learned that while Baja is the stuff of surfing legend, it ain't overly conducive to someone towing their surfboard on a bike. My water carrying capacity was about eleven litres at most, which would last me the best part of three days if I was lucky. Most of the roads to the coast would mean a full day detour just to get to the coast. (assuming there was no soft sand - big gamble). Once I factored in a day’s return, since I wasn’t to know if there’d be anyone down there that could spare me some supplies, I was left with a day of surfing for two days of detour. No thanks. And what if it’s flat?

The legends of empty desert waves were left unfulfilled on this trip. I was still lucky enough to score an unseasonable south swell down in San Jose del Cabo with one of my best mates, including three surfs on Xmas day. I think the solid week of surf thoroughly cleaned the endless amounts of dust out of my hair for good.

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I’ve been on mainland Mexico for about a week now. I was also lucky enough to spend six weeks in the state of Oaxaca four years ago. These two experiences have cemented the feeling that Baja California is an entity unto itself. It’s not California, but nor is it Mexico. It exists somewhere in between. It interweaves both worlds and left me trying to figure out exactly what Baja is. Maybe that’s the beauty of it?

 

THE (STILL) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

I don't really cry very often so when the time comes it's usually for a pretty good reason. Over the course of the last six months most of my productive thinking time has occurred on the bike. There's something about movement that stimulates thought — whether that be walking, riding a bike, driving long distances or even flying. At times I've cursed myself for not having a dicta-phone as I worry I'll lose those wonderful thought-trains forever.

Yesterday as I weaved my way through the backstreets of La Jolla to my last stop on this whirlwind American odyssey, I couldn't help thinking about all the people who have made this trip what it is. And I'd like to make it clear that when I speak of the last six months, I'm including all the wonderful Canadians that I've met too. The generosity, kindness, curiosity and overwhelming love that has been extended to me is something I cannot possibly express in words. Without it, my trip would be nothing. So it was only fitting that I was brought to tears by it all in a few quiet moments of reflection, much to the bewilderment of a few elderly ladies walking past on the sidewalk. 

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If we look at the current state of affairs in the US, and in the world more generally, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that division is the flavour of the month. To many Americans I have met Trump is the very embodiment of this division — Paul had shirts for sale in his LA shop with a photo of Trump and a caption that read "Divider in Chief". On a global scale, the constant flow of vast rivers of refugees out of Syria, Myanmar and other parts of the world are an issue for the entire global population — not just their immediate neighbours. The way the government in my home country treats people who are fleeing this death and destruction is so shameful that it almost makes me physically sick. To me, the question here is this: what have we forgotten? 

One thing I learnt in Year 11 Economics is that we look at the economy on two different levels. The macroeconomic level and the microeconomic level. Personally I always preferred macroeconomics, and when you're dealing with money and all that stuff it seems a lot more interesting. But does that interest translate when we're looking at human nature? I don't think so. When we look at the world (and all the humans in it) we have a tendency to think on a macro level — to always think big. But there's an inherent danger there and it often leads to feelings of helplessness and despair — the scale of it all threatening to overwhelm even the most optimistic of us. What happened to the micro level? Small and random acts of kindness aggregate to a vast wave of love in the world. The importance of these acts cannot be underestimated; they harness the power of the human spirit in a very unique and powerful way. 

If I've learnt anything in the past six months it's that everyone has a story. Every human on this earth has a collection of experiences, emotions, opinions, beliefs and a unique perspective that should not be neglected. Their story may not align with exactly with yours, but if you peel back enough layers and really get under the skin of it all, you'll discover similarities that are much more powerful and profound. And who knows, maybe they'll help to change your mind about something? All you need to give them is a little of your time, and for them to give you a little of theirs. Because time is really one of our greatest luxuries. We spend our lives in pursuit of a myriad of needs, wants and desires and I think time is too often overlooked. At the end of the day it's really all we've got. Maybe that sounds a little rich coming from a young vagabond who's riding a bicycle for a few years but I don't believe it detracts from the truth of it. 

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It's safe to say that riding a bicycle long distances attracts a lot of attention and a LOT of generosity. Americans have proved that in spades. Ok, sure I've got a bike that's laden with all kinds of stuff (too much if you ask me) and I do look a little scruffy and, yes, there are heaps of holes in my shirt (but I can't retire it yet). On the other side of the coin, I'm simultaneously afforded the good fortune — through sheer luck of being who I am — of not attracting too much unwanted attention. I'm a white, twenty six year old male, and I believe I am fairly well-versed in the luxuries that provides. I didn't choose to be born this way, it's just who I am. It's what I do about that fact that counts and I'll try my best to take advantage of those luxuries to do something I believe in. 

Many of you have been drawn to my journey by curiosity, some by chance and others by pure luck. You have made the last six months some of the most rewarding of my life and for that I am forever indebted to you and the world. What I wish to say is that we all must remember that everyone we come across has a story just as unique and fascinating as mine may appear to be.

To all the Americans & Canadians reading this, and to all of you generally, I would like to emphasise one thing. If we all take five minutes out of our day — even five minutes out of our week — to learn a little of the story of another, I believe the world would truly be better for it. People will surprise you with their honesty, inspire you with their excitement and leave you speechless through their humility. Your fellow human beings, given the chance, will remind you what it is to be human. We are not numbers and we are not statistics. We are stories. Every story has its place in the vast web of human history and each one is of equal importance. 

The America that I've experienced is still United. The unconditional love I have received on this trip has come from all kinds of people — and not always the people you'd necessarily expect. This love has transcended all those things that some try to exploit in order to divide us; race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, beliefs etc. The categories of division are endless but the language of being united rests on the fact that we're all human. Through all the diverse and wide-ranging forms of story this fact can be recognised and — more importantly — embraced. 

Finally, a huge and sincere thanks to all of you who've helped me in any way — the big and the small, the macro and the micro. You all know who you are and the fact that our paths have crossed has been, for me, an immense pleasure that I won't soon forget. 

OCEAN

It was a pretty typical afternoon on the Oregon coast: windy, cloudy and cold. After hitchhiking for almost an hour for a ride to cover the six miles back to Scott's cabin with my load of groceries, I decided I'd just bite the bullet and walk back.

Huge seagulls tried in vain to fight the same headwind I was currently walking into. The old adage in Oregon had come true; "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." The relatively warm, sunny day had suddenly transformed into a windy, cold afternoon thanks to a change in wind direction and the imposing arrival of a vast front of sea fog. The tepid oceanic waters of the Pacific Northwest were, for me, the first time I'd really witnessed how sea fog can totally alter a whole climate. The scale of it was impressive, and its arrival could change the ambient temperature by up to ten degrees Celsius. A fact I was now experiencing first hand.

I plugged away, step after step. I was in a funk. Ramona the bicycle was in pieces back at Scott's place, and I'd forgotten how damn slow walking was. My mind was plagued by the uncertainty of bike maintenance problems for the first time on the trip. I felt strangely incapacitated. I also felt like I needed at least two more layers of clothing, as the biting wind tore straight through my woolen jumper — it felt as if little needles were jabbing my bare skin.

I kept my head down. The ocean roared as waves crashed to my right, filling my ears with that constant rumble that I've never heard any place else. As I neared Arcadia, and the promise of respite from the wind, I noticed a man standing on the beach staring out to sea. Even from a distance of a few hundred metres he seemed hypnotised, remaining remarkably still as his gaze reached out over the vast expanse of water before him.

As I neared the man, my curiosity increased. Not wishing to disturb his peaceful moment, my intention was only to acknowledge his existence with a friendly smile and continue on my way.

"What do you call these things?" he asked quizzically, pointing to a small transparent blob on the black sand between us.

I turned suddenly, aware that this man was talking to me. I mean of course he was, we were the only two people on the whole beach.

"I'm not too sure actually. We used to call 'em jelly blubbers. When I was a kid my friends and I would throw them at each other."

"Hmmmm."

The man slowly turned again, his gaze returning to the ocean. I followed suit. I waited, knowing this man had more to say. As a writer, and more simply as a human being, I've started to recognise the beauty in those small silences before something important. It's almost as if that fleeting moment is charged with an energy that transcends the words that follow. Too often in my life, I've missed moments like these because of my tendency to want to tell everything all at once. I'm sure of it. This time, I made sure I didn't.

We continued to hold our gaze westward as the wind whipped across our faces.

"I've never seen the ocean before. It's so big. It makes you feel like an ant."

As the words slipped out, they seemed tinged with a mix of disbelief, awe and unshackled joy. I stood there dumbfounded. I didn't know what to say. More importantly I didn't need to say anything.

Forrest was from Idaho, and he'd come to the Oregon coast with his mother for a two week road trip. She'd been diagnosed with cancer, and with not long left to live they decided what better way to celebrate life than to get out and see what they could of this wonderful planet. They say that the cure for anything is saltwater; tears, sweat or the ocean. It wasn't going to cure his mother's cancer, but I hoped with everything I had that even for that afternoon, it provided an escape for Forrest from the suffering in his life. Open-ocean swimmer Lynne Fox says that the ocean allows you into your own thinktank, and through this it allows you to let in "as little or as much noise as you like." I'm confident the ocean was allowing Forrest to silence the noise and have a few quiet moments alone.

For me, meeting Forrest was one of the most powerful human interactions of the trip. It probably lasted less than five minutes but I think about it nearly every day.

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Mai Huli`oe I Kokua o Ke Kai

The words above come from an old Hawaiian proverb that I read somewhere in the last few months. While we all know the limitations of translation, the sentiment effectively refers to this:

Never turn your back on the ocean

Over the course of my trip — and my life — there's been times where I've turned my back on the ocean. Maybe to light my stove while shielding it from an onshore breeze, or maybe to face a travel companion. When I do an uneasy feeling arises within me. I'm letting down my guard. In my twenty six year relationship with the ocean — one of the longest, most reliable and beautiful of my life — I've learnt countless times of the risks involved with complacency. To turn my back to the ocean is to ignore its power. The ocean gives life but can take it away with similar ease. Like any healthy relationship, mine with the ocean has its foundations in deep love, mutual respect and shitloads of fun. Any time I've disrespected or become complacent with that entity, it has taught me hard lessons that I won't soon forget.

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This morning Matt and I paddled out in front of his place. The waves were knee height at best. As we waded out, I mentioned I'd stepped on a few stingrays the day before and how I'd been lucky not to get stung. Half an hour later I'd stepped on another, only this time I didn't possess the same good fortune.

I was presented with an all too familiar situation — my foot stuck in a bucket of very hot water. Except this time it wasn't urchin spines or bits of coral but the presence of venom from a stingray barb.

I'd been wanting to watch Fishpeople — a new documentary by Santa Barbara filmmaker Keith Malloy — and now was the perfect time to do so. As I sat immobile, Matt and Robin generously made me breakfast and regularly refilled the bucket with boiling water. "You should get stung by a stingray more often" laughed Robin. I couldn't help but agree. After a frustrating duel with technology, we finally sat down to watch Fishpeople.

The film explores the lives of six different humans who all share a deep and inextricable relationship with the ocean. It's beautifully shot and beautifully made and I recommend it to anyone. The important thing was that it reminded me of all the diverse groups of people who share that love and rely on that same important relationship. Surfers, fisherman, divers, swimmers, children, adults, birds, dogs and the plethora of marine life on our planet. Without it we humans would cease to exist.

I've never been that interested in space. Sure, it's infinitely fascinating and I absolutely love staring at the stars whenever the chance presents itself. But the wonder isn't there for me. In my endless pursuit for knowledge, I choose to leave space in the realm of the unknown. There is too much wonder and beauty on our current planet for me to use my time wondering about what's out there. Even if I had a thousand lifetimes, I feel I'd only be in the early stages of understanding the earth. And that's a pretty beautiful thing if you ask me. The endless wonder of our oceans is there for anyone who wishes to explore it, in whatever capacity they wish.

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I know now that my relationship with the ocean will last a lifetime. As I get older, and — I think — a little more patient I've realised that I am capable of being away from the ocean, at least in a geographical sense. Our relationship doesn't end when I can't see it, or smell it, or hear it. It exists within me and no amount of physical space can take that away. I can work in the mountains — a place of equal and infinite wonder — and not get antsy. Because every time I return it feels like coming home.

 

 

 

 

 

COMMUNITIES

For whatever reason, community has always been a tricky concept for me to put my finger on. I've been lucky enough to come into contact with so many communities in so many places. It's a word that's thrown around a lot in the modern age but what really constitutes a community? Is it a willingness to commit to a common goal? Is community achieved less through desire and more out of necessity? These are questions that probably have both affirmative and negative answers, depending on the type of community we are observing and how our context and perspective influences these observations.

I'm sure of one thing and it's that communities are abundant anywhere. From the small communities of moss growing on the footpath to human communities the world over, the presence of communities assures us of one very important fact: all life exists only in relationship. I mentioned this idea — an idea taken from Gregory David Haskell — last time I wrote on here but it's a simple fact that I keep returning to. Sometimes we choose our communities and sometimes they choose us. All the communities we exist within influence the way we live, shapes our personal contact, and irrevocably affects the way we view our life on this earth.

I guess I've been a surfer for around thirteen years now. It feels strange to put a number on it, but when I finally transitioned from lying down to standing up it was undoubtedly a life changing event. I've often questioned the existence of a surf community and whether it's universal. On this trip I tried to put that theory to the test, and here's what I've found...

Surfers are funny bunch, and apart from our common love of riding waves we've all got our fair share of differences. The lifestyle attracts people of all ages, and in all climates. Whether it's slipping on some boardies on a hot summer's day or wrangling into a 5mm wetsuit as snow falls on the beach, we ride waves because we can't imagine doing anything else. At least that's what I believe.

On this trip so far strangers have taken me in, shown me local secret spots, let me use their surfboards and performed countless other generous gestures in good faith. Sometimes I'd met these people in person, other times their generosity and kindness has stemmed almost completely from the fact that I surf. This has meant that my surfing experiences over the past three months have been filled with joy and euphoria. Surfing is one of those things that, while I do enjoy doing alone, is always better shared. The wild hoot as a mate scores the set of the day; the shared stoke after a beautiful wave; and who could forget the fun involved in a party wave? (where two or more friends willingly share the same wave).

These moments have been frequent as I continue to ride south. Yesterday after crawling out my tent — which was perched right in front of the wave — I shared a pre-sunrise session at Lower Trestles with Bill, an old hand of the local lineup. Gary joined us soon after, and we shared waves and conversation under a brilliant orange sky. A week ago Matt, Ethan and I scored a semi-secret spot just outside of L.A. on a Sunday with no one out. Even the local heckler, who told us to paddle down the beach, was eventually unfazed as our infectious enjoyment surely pacified any negative energy. 

The fact is that the surf community does look out for each other. Look at the circumstances with any unfortunate run-in with sharks — people rush to each other's aid. Sure there are acts of aggression and occasionally the ugly side of staunch localism rears its head. But these instances are in the minority, and they by no means represent the community as a whole.

As Billabong famously says, "only a surfer knows the feeling". The surf community isn't just strong because we choose to be, we are also strong out of necessity. You can't reasonably refuse anyone else's right to enjoy riding waves; you're part of the same community whether you like it or not. They know that same feeling and share the same healthy addiction. I think all of us would do well to remember that.

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Some time in the last few weeks I was extended an invitation to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. While a friend assured me that all would be well, I have to admit I felt a little uneasy about intruding upon a space in which I may not be welcome. Luckily I couldn't have been more wrong. This opportunity gave me a valuable insight into observing a new and unfamiliar community and the lessons I learned will help to inform my future thinking about communities in a positive way.

There were around two hundred people crammed into a hall, and as the buzzing conversation subsided everyone was graciously welcomed. The speaker reminded everyone to exercise common courtesy to each other during the meeting before addressing some regular administrative issues.

What initially struck me was people's willingness to introduce themselves to each other, in a way that felt both genuine and without a common human tendency to pass judgement. I met the people around me, and they were curious as to my progress as a recovering alcoholic. I quickly explained my real motives for attending the meeting, and all were enthusiastic and welcoming in equal measure.

The hour-long meeting began with celebration of birthdays. Birthdays refer to milestones in a recovering alcoholic's journey, celebrating various increments of time: 30 days, 90 days, six months, one full year and so on. On the week I was there someone was celebrating their 47th birthday — a very humbling feat in itself. Each birthday announcement was followed by a short speech from the recipient. These orations ranged in length from ten words to two minutes. Every single speech reiterated the same conclusion: that these individuals would never have achieved their amazing feats of resilience and mental toughness without the support of their AA community.

The community they spoke of represented people from all walks of life; of all classes, races and religion. This was evident just by looking around. People had come together out of necessity and gained friendships, support and hope through shared experience. One thing was certain: they weren't going to forget how their community had changed their life forever.

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These parallel experiences of community have proved to me the power of the collective. Many people dwell on the fact that in the United States things appear to be falling apart, due to the actions of their "Divider in chief". I don't wish to contend that there's a real concern there, but I think this causes many in American society to question whether it's better to act in the interests of themselves — the individual — or as part of a wider community. The actions of the powerful few wish to paint us as individuals in a struggle for success, or happiness, or whatever you want to call it. We must remember that we exist only in relationship and we must remember that communities — whether imposed upon us through necessity or created through a common desire — are the only way that we will continue to be human, in every sense of that word.

 

 

NOTHING BUT CHANGE STAYS THE SAME

Nothing but change stays the same. A simple sentiment, but I struggle at times to find a more steadfast truth than this one. Today is a great representation — Australia finally stood up and told those in our government that we are ready to change our marriage laws to give everyone equal rights to love whoever they damn well want to.

Do we as humans really have a resistance to change? It's an idea that certainly seeps into our collective consciousness at times; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But I'm not so sure we're as adverse to change as some of us believe. 

I would argue the opposite. Humans, in my understanding of all I've encountered in this life, are extremely adept at not only dealing with, but thriving through change. Technological change has occurred at an unprecedented level in the last half century. While met with some resistance at times, I believe the overwhelming majority of humankind has embraced these changes. Sure it's not perfect. Nothing ever is. 

The internet and social media has irreversibly altered the way we interact and there are certainly some downsides. But the opportunity for like-minded people to form communities across the world without ever meeting each other in person is a truly fascinating phenomenon. I have no doubt it has helped countless people across the globe feel a little less alone; that their trials and tribulations in life are shared by fellow human beings. 

I've always had a love/hate relationship with social media. In the past, I frequently drew on the negatives when discussing how social media has changed us. I disconnected from multiple social media platforms after reflecting on the fact I felt I was wasting time with petty issues. And to an extent, I was. But through those platforms I was able to engage in political discussion, exchange of great music between friends, appreciate the varying creative talents of friends and acquaintances, and learn more than I could have ever imagined from all types of people. 

I still have my reservations about certain issues including the ability of social media to pigeon hole people and issues and create a type of tunnel vision that could be dangerous in the future. At the same time, I'm beginning to see the value of these online communities. Social media is neither good nor bad. It is a tool and it's up to us how we use it. 

Shortly after the beginning of this trip, my mum and sisters decided to start an Instagram account on my behalf — presumably to share the photos of my trip with those back home who were interested. At the time, I had little or no interest in being involved. I was concerned about the narcissism and self-promotion present within the platform. A large portion of my good friends use Instagram — they're not narcissistic, nor are they remotely interested in self-promotion.

So many people I've come across on this trip are stoked on it. And I'm stoked that they're stoked, which usually just results in a cyclical upwelling of happiness that is great for everyone. But more than that, people have taken a genuine interest in following the journey wherever it leads. And for that I feel both pride and a sense of humility. I feel proud that I'm able to do something that makes other people stoked, and I feel humble for the opportunities I've been given in life to allow me the great fortune of embarking on this trip. I am indebted to my parents, sisters, my wider family, wonderful friends, numerous acquaintances and countless strangers. My trip would have been impossible were it not for the involvement of many great people.

Gregory David Haskell (in another bloody interview with Richard Fidler - it's the only thing I ever listen to) said that humans exist only in relationship. The idea of the individual that is sold to us in the modern capitalist world is a total myth. Humans exist only through relationship. The Earth exists only in relationship, as does the universe. We are all connected — we always have been and we always will be. Of that I am sure. 

The modern tools of communication are here whether we like it or not; it's about how we use them that counts. Maybe it's time I started heeding my own advice, and thriving on change instead of resisting it...

LOVE TRUMPS ALL

And when will we learn that it's hate that breeds hate?
Only love is the cure, don't leave it too late.

Those are some wise words from a song called Dark Days by New Zealand group Fat Freddy's Drop —  a band that's been getting a lot of playtime on my trip so far. And this theme has weaved itself through my trip. Everyone knows who the President of the United States is. What he represents, in the wider scheme of things, varies depending on who you are. I've met wonderful, kind and generous people on this trip who believe Donald Trump is genuinely good for the United States. If I've learnt anything in my twenty six years on the planet, it's that nothing is ever black and white; there's infinite shades of grey.

A lot of Americans that I've spent time with have discussed their escape plans — Australian citizenship, a move to Europe or disappearing into the bush where no one can find you. Some talk in jest, while others possess a more serious tone when discussing these plans. But when things get hard, are we meant to run away?

What's impacted me most are the countless acts of rebellion in the face of fear-mongering and attempts to spread hatred amongst this vast and diverse nation. Or, more accurately, the sea of nations that we call the United States of America. These acts of rebellion are acts of love and of hope in the face of fear and hatred. They unite people in a way that hatred never can. They appeal to the best in all of us, and it's heartening to see so many examples of it throughout my travels so far. However subtle or simple, these acts aggregate to a huge outpouring of love and resilience in our current world. It shows us that we can always find common ground with anyone, anywhere.

Last week I rode into a little town of four hundred people in Northern California. A group of old pine trees lined the right hand side of the road, standing guard over the town as they swayed in the afternoon breeze. Nailed to these trees were the following signs:

"In Point Arena we believe that:

No human is illegal
Diversity is strength
All lives have value
Water is life
Science is real
Kids are the future
...And kindness is everything!"

The little community had taken it upon themselves to make a statement in the face of all that isn't right in their world. They seek to make it clear that what is happening in this country is not being done in their name. But, most importantly, they are using love and kindness to make this known, instead of anger and hatred.

Here's a few other examples of those little acts of rebellion I've seen in the last few days. There's been countless more, and I'm sure there's more to come.

 

 

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SOME THOUGHTS ON LOCALISM

After returning from my regular summer stint in Tasmania, I was looking forward to a month at home prior to heading off on my bike trip. As it turned out, the month was filled with great waves. At home, there's one place in particular that has a special place in my heart. It's kinda out of the way, and as teenagers we used to surf it regularly. You had to walk down a steep track to the beach, the adjacent gullies littered with pandanus trees clinging to the hillsides. It's a truly beautiful spot and it makes you feel a long way from anywhere, even though you aren't really.

Owing to the remarkable natural beauty of the place, it slowly started to appear in travel magazines and those annoying "Ten best beaches in the world" type lists. It's part of an inevitable process that is impossible to fight against. All the old boys have their stories of how their local spot was forty years ago. Some dwell too much in those days, and end up grumpy and bitter about special spots being overrun by weekend (or even weekday) crowds. And it's understandable. My mum pointed out, at the heart of it all, that these are feelings of grief. Feelings of loss at what we once had. Humans are good at clinging to the past like a barnacle to a rock, resisting the waves of change that flow over us.

But for every one of those grumpy old suckers, there's plenty who take the present sitatution for what it is, accept it, and go out and have fun anyway. Sure, there's plenty more people in the water, but look how happy they are. Look at the surfing community — the relationships it helps to form, the shared happiness of seeing a fellow surfer get shacked out of his or her mind when it's pumping. It ain't all bad.

Who remembers that graffiti that faced the lineup at the Pass for so many years, scrawled in white across the rock:

LOCALS ONLY

Until the day it was eventually changed: BK Rules and Love Only. BK was in reference to Ben King, a local surfing legend who died tragically and suddenly, and I think the change was reflective of a change in attitudes — or at least a reluctant admission to the futile nature of fighting the ever-increasing crowds.

It's safe to say I'm no stranger to localism. I've seen things happen at Lennox Point that are better not retold. I've been punched in the face (twice) in Maroubra —  funnily enough on my birthday. I've seen aggro in many places, and I've heard all the stories about tyres being slashed and cars being waxed at various secret spots up and down the east coast of Australia. So when, after considering the plight of my favourite little beach and the full carpark I'd rock up to after lunch during midweek, I was hardly surprised when one day I jogged down the path and noticed a new sign scrawled across the beach sign in wax. The all too recognisable threat:

LOCALS ONLY

And a part of me thought, "Hell yeah! Stay the fuck away." But what right does a local have to a place? The beach and the lineup cannot be owned, although in places it is still fiercely defended. The interaction between locals and 'blow-ins' can be fraught with violence and plenty of vulgarity, especially if the relationship strays away from the basic pillars of respect and etiquette.

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I'd been riding all day, faster than my knees really wanted me to, in order to get to a surf spot on the Oregon coast that I'd been told about. I arrived mid-afternoon and the waves looked good. So after suiting up (hood, gloves, booties —  the works!) I paddled out. I was quickly greeted by a local.

"Keep paddling, buddy", the man in the hood said, motioning south.

He was insinuating I paddled away from the best peak, down the beach to a spot that was significantly worse. I obliged, not wishing to cause any trouble. As fate would have it, as I paddled south a wide set came through, straight to me, and my first wave was a good one. Instant karma? I wasn't sure, but it definitely felt like it.

I sat wide for the rest of the surf, picking up scraps and wide sets and still had a really enjoyable time. There were no further encounters, apart from a few stares from the group of local guys.

The following morning, as the crisp offshores blew, I headed down for another surf. The swell had doubled in size and the crowd had thinned to three people. After another fun surf, I sat on a picnic bench, trying in vain to defrost my frozen, crab-claw fingers. The same guy who'd given me a hard time the day before walked by. As he passed, I caught him doing a double-take out of the corner of my eye. He was eyeing the bike-surfboard-trailer setup. Eventually he came over.

"Hey man. Sorry about giving you shit yesterday. I didn't realise you were here by yourself."

As it turned out, earlier that same day a crew of Canadian surfers had arrived — a group of ten or so, and preceded to paddle out and heckle for waves straight on the peak without giving any thought to the locals. To make matters worse, they had a camera setup. I soon discovered the spot I'd been surfing wasn't too well known:

"This coast isn't filled to the brim with spots. This is really all we've got"

After politely asking the Canadian crew to cease filming, they refused. Then the local crew had to resort to threats in order to see any action occur. The spot has a few recognisable landmarks, and in the age of Instagram and Google Earth, a local secret can turn into a busy spot with the click of a few buttons. I knew that fact all too well.

Given the context of the whole situation, it was understandable how I'd been treated. The guys thought I was part of the crew from Canada — the crew that had blatantly disrespected the basic rules of respect and etiquette in surfing lineups. There are times when locals are at fault, but in this case I found it hard to see where they'd gone wrong. They were trying to hold onto their special place in a way that seemed fair and people had come in and trampled over all their efforts.

As fate would have it, the guy who gave me stick ended up putting me up at his place for two nights, driving me sixty miles south, giving me a ding repair kit and a t-shirt, showing me some of the local waves, and letting me use his single fin (even after I almost lost his favourite board after leaving it on the roof of the car). So cheers to Kyle for all the hospitality. He didn't have to apologise, and he certainly didn't have to invite me into his home, but he did and for that I am very grateful. If you ever need a board shaped —  be it a single fin, log or performance shortboard —  he's your man. Just check out Eggnog surfboards.

Oh, and there's no waves in Oregon. Don't bother coming here.

 

 

ANY DAY'S A GOOD DAY TO BE A SURFER

I woke to a crisp, clear morning in Newport, Oregon before devouring four scrambled eggs and three cups of deliciously weak drip coffee. The turquoise steel frames of the Newport bridge gleamed brightly in the morning light as I navigated the narrow sidewalk with my bike and surfboard, forcing myself to muster up more concentration than I really wanted to. I wasn't complaining though — at least there was a sidewalk, this wasn't going to be a repeat of the scary four miles of riding across the notorious Astoria bridge (notorious for bikers, at least).

After a mile and a half I leaned into a swift right turn to enter South Beach State Park. Home to huge sand dune systems, South Beach belies it's size until you see the tiny humans walking the seashore which give it some sense of scale.

The chilly breeze blew lightly offshore, and I dabbled with the prospect of adding yet more weight to my bike by buying a hood for my wetsuit — a fairly small addition, but I'm already way overloaded.

After a good few hours in the ocean, the numbness of my hands gauging the culmination of the morning's surf, I decided to head in. While wrestling with my 4mm neoprene straitjacket, a man walked past with his two dogs. The smaller of the two began to sniff my leg, before giving me a thorough once over.

"Good day to be a surfer today?" the man asked jovially and probably rhetorically

"Yeah. It's not too bad. A few out there if you're in the right place at the right time. And it's such a beautiful morning"

The man smiled before continuing on his morning walk.

"Wait. Can I change my answer?"

"Sure."

"Any day's a good day to be a surfer. That's my answer."

The man simply smiled, turned on his heels and walked off. I stood there like I'd just had some kind of epiphany.For me it articulates in the simplest terms how surfing has changed my life.

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A surfer once said something that has never left me. He said that he surfed because he was always a better person when he came in.

Those words were actually spoken in a Billabong marketing video, but I don't think it lessens their importance. And the man who spoke those words was the great Andy Irons — a man who many know had his fair share of demons

The fact is, I just feel incredibly lucky to have found an activity that allows me to meditate, that rejuvenates and invigorates me, and just makes me really bloody happy. To froth out, essentially.

I don't really know how my surfing looks — as photos and videos are few and far between — but at this point I don't really care. But I am slowly becoming more aware of how it has become an expression of me, of how I'm feeling, and (maybe) of my soul. I can tell I'm in the right place because even though the waves aren't as good as home, my surfing feels better than it ever has. It feels freer, less self conscious, and more open to whatever feels good — because that's how my life feels at the moment.

A lot of people have asked me why I chose to do this trip and I think I just found the answer: to try and understand the wonder and ecstasy of what it is to ride a wave, and how we humans can harness that profound power to make the world just a little bit sweeter.

 

NATURAL BORN STORYTELLERS

Before I left Australia, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted this trip to be about. I decided that the most important things were the following; that I would try to never feel like I was rushing (unless I was trying to escape the impending rains in Oregon), and more importantly that I would listen to anyone and everyone -  because we all have a story to tell. I believe humans are natural-born storytellers and this trip has only confirmed that belief for me. I mean, it makes a lot of sense. If we look at many of the oldest cultures — Australia being a great example —  we see that life revolved around story. It helped us make sense of the world in what I believe to be the most beautiful and sincere way. Stories are always didactic, regardless of their initial purpose, and I can't think of a more engaging way to learn. 

A very generous guest of mine in the last bushwalk guiding season sent me a number of books in April of this year. Among them was a book that we'd talked about over the six days. Marion had told me that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown had fundamentally shifted the axis on which she lived her life. And I could tell by the way she spoke those words that it had profoundly impacted her life. Now I must confess that I actually only read half the book. The reason I stopped was because every chapter, which told the story of a different clan in the American West, followed the same disastrous formula as two conflicting cultures clashed. It was not an uplifting book, but it is a book that needs to be read (and I need to finish it). Turning the first pages of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, i began the introduction and was suddenly aware of an overwhelming sensation as goose bumps appeared across my body — a feeling that's incredibly hard to put into words. It was these words from Brown that had caused the reaction:

"This is not a cheerful book, but history has a way of intruding upon the present, and perhaps those who read it will have a clearer understanding of what the American Indian is, by knowing what he was. They may be surprised to hear words of gentle reasonableness coming from the mouths of Indians stereotyped in the American myth as ruthless savages. They may learn something about their own relationship to the earth from a people who were true conservationists. The Indians knew that life was a paradise, and they could not comprehend why the intruders from the East were determined to destroy all that was Indian as well as America itself.

And if the readers of this book should ever chance to see the poverty, hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation, they may find it possible to truly understand the reasons why."

The book was written in 1970, but I don't believe it has lost much significance in the course of the forty or so years since its publication. The reason the book is not cheerful is because it is only a small fraction of a very rich history. It is a horrific history that needs to be told and, most importantly, to be genuinely acknowledged. The same applies back home.

In my preparation time before the trip, I'd also given a lot of thought to undertaking a project where I'd try to look at Indigenous cultures across the entire Americas and the ways in which they were surviving and thriving in the present day. After much consideration, I decided that if I was to undertake an endeavour of this magnitude, it made more sense to do it in the place where I felt most strongly connected to place and country: Australia. That's not to say I haven't been learning magnitudes about the Indigenous cultures of the area, because I have, but after wrangling with the idea I concluded that my voice may not have been the most suitable.  

A few weeks ago I was in the museum of Northern British Colombia in Prince Rupert looking at an exhibition that celebrated Canada 150. Much like Australia Day and the Bicentennial of Captain Cook's arrival in Botany Bay, celebrating one hundred and fifty years of Canada's history can deliver mixed feelings depending on who you are. In a gallery exhibiting art from of Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Kwakwakawakw peoples there stood a small placard on a blank white wall. This is what it said:

"As we begin the next 150 years, let's learn to acknowledge the suffering inflicted on First Nations during Canada's 150 years, and to honour and respect the wisdom of peoples who have sustained themselves and their land for millennia."

I took a photo of that phrase because I'd never seen anything like it in a publicly funded institution in Australia. The words struck me. It was such a simple acknowledgement, but I think it means so much. I believe that the best way to address issues like these is to focus on a shared understanding of our modern nations, because as they say, sharing is caring. 

One of the many great luxuries of this trip for me has been the ability to draw parallels from the experiences of Indigenous people where I've been, and consider these experiences in light of what I have been lucky enough to learn from Indigenous brothers and sisters in Australia. These parallels stand at both ends of the spectrum; on one hand I've seen the beauty and wisdom of creation stories and the intimate knowing of one's environment. On the other side, there's an uneasy familiarity that accompanies accounts of despair and hopelessness during the colonial eras. Our histories are vastly different, but there is much that is the same.

Above all else, what continues to amaze me is the willingness of the first peoples to share their wisdom and culture. The humility and dignity with which people carry themselves during this process usually leaves me scrambling for words to describe it. It takes a lot of strength and courage to offer to share your culture with the descendants of the people who tried to systematically destroy it.

We are seeing a resurgence in the presence and importance of Indigenous story across the globe, through visual arts, literature, theatre, film, the list goes on... I'm currently reading Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk. The book gives subtle insights into Indigenous knowledge and belief systems (Wagamese is an Ojibwe from Northwestern Ontario) through a modern father-son relationship. It is but one example of Indigenous culture and knowledge existing, and thriving, in the modern multicultural settings that we find ourselves in. 

The point I keep coming back to over and over again is simply this: what have we, as a collective and diverse group of human beings, got to lose from sharing with each other?

And I believe the answer is nothing. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Dee Brown mentions that the First Peoples of the American West could not comprehend why these newcomers to their land wanted to destroy everything they knew. It seems as though even today, a lot of us are still grappling with that question. 

Back when I was in Victoria, I was watching a video at the Royal BC Museum called Our Living Language. It was a short feature that captured some insights into Indigenous people who are resurrecting, or continuing, the practice of speaking their native language. Cindy, who was in the process of learning an old language of the land from her aunty Barbara, touched on the profound complexity and subtle nuance involved in translating between English and this ancient language. The definition of a single word could take her mentor five minutes to explain, and often English was not sufficient to capture the essence or true meaning. 

In the same video, Clyde Tallio tells us that in his language there is a vitally important word: putl'lt

putl'lt translates in English to "everything belongs to those not yet born".

I think it's one of the most beautiful sentiments I've ever come across. Maybe, if we considered putl'lt every day, and in everything we did, we as humans would live a little differently, and think hard about the way we treat each other and the planet that sustains us.

THE COMMON THEME

I remember something Richard Flanagan, the Tasmanian writer, said in an interview with Richard Fidler some years ago. He was speaking about the nature of writing novels and that when a book is written, the writer leaves a part of themselves in those words forever. I think it’s a beautiful idea, and it relates well to how I feel about this trip so far.

I haven’t written any books, but I do feel as though I’ve left small parts of myself scattered across North America. I’ve left pieces with people who have been generous and gracious beyond belief and I’m richer for it. This generosity and kindness has come in many forms. People have fed me, housed me and gone very far out of their way to provide help or assistance when I’ve needed it (and even when I haven’t). For this I am indebted to them.

Most importantly, the people I’ve met on this trip have allowed me a window into their diverse lives. They have trusted me enough to allow me into their world. They have provided me with a wealth of insight, wisdom and knowledge of the kind you won’t find in any book or other medium. At times they’ve confided in me, and me in them. Some have allowed themselves to feel vulnerable in front of some strange guy they met only a few days earlier. I only hope that at these times, I was able to be someone they could depend on.

I realise in writing this that there’s a common theme to all these acts of kindness. And the common theme is love. All the people I’ve met have showered me with love and have not asked for anything in return. I’ve done my best to try and repay this love with love of my own, and maybe that’s why I feel like there’s pieces of me across the continent. Little pieces of love that I’ve tried my very best to provide. And hopefully I’ve contributed some insight and knowledge that has been of some use to them. I’d like to think so, at least.

The love I've received is an unconditional love. It’s a unique kind of love that is hard to define, which makes sense because I find that the things that are hardest to define are usually the most important facets of what it is to be human. To give and receive love is to partake in one of the most basic human interactions. It renders you truly humble and always richer for having had that experience. It reminds us that we're not that different after all, and that love — when given unconditionally and sincerely — has the power to transcend all of our politics, gender, race or any other characteristics by which we choose to define ourselves. It gives us hope that things can be better, and sometimes it bestows upon us an ability to trust in the fact that the world really isn't all bad. So I guess what I'm saying is that it's pretty bloody important, ya know?

To anyone who happens to read this, for there are many of you and you all know who you are, I would like to express my gratitude from the bottom of my heart. I hope, some day in the future, to repay all this love to all of you. That might be setting somewhat of a challenge, but I’ll give it a red-hot go.

WE'RE STRIPPING HER BARE

A patchwork of stars filled the night sky above us as waves slowly eased their way across the rocks on the shore of Masset Inlet. The fire crackled softly, our eyes all drawn to the flickering flames. I've always felt that when you look into a fire you're somehow connected to all those lives who've come before you — a human history through fire.

"If there's one thing I've learned from tree planting it's that it's incredibly easy to break something, but it's very difficult to fix it later on. It's kinda like a vase, you know. You can smash the thing into a million pieces pretty quickly and easily, but it will take you a real long time to super glue all those pieces back together."

Tdesi and Georgia were driving around BC after their seasonal work tree planting when we met on Haida Gwaii. Both veterans of a few seasons, they'd seen their fair share of "cutblocks" across Canada. In fact, I've met vast swathes of tree planters ever since I left Anchorage. It's a job that lures people from all walks of life, but there's a common trait among them that I can't quite put my finger on. From all I've heard tree planting can be damn hard work, but it pays well, you get to work outdoors and many people enjoy the flexibility of the seasonal employment.

They say you only get once chance at a first impression, and my first impression of Vancouver Island was tied up in an unflinching paradox; the sheer beauty of Pacific Northwestern forests was undeniable. But what was also undeniable was the utter decimation of huge areas of these old growth forests. From my vantage point on the Pearl Sea I was able to gaze upon the contours of the north-eastern end of the island with an intoxicating mix of horror and amazement. Horror at the destruction and amazement at the sheer scale of it all. River valleys without a single tree left standing. The sides of mountains stripped bare all the way to the top of the tree line. It was as if some giant was playing with a jigsaw puzzle, and there were still a whole lot of deep green pieces that hadn't been put into place.

I think a lot of us like to tell ourselves that the era of exploitation is over and that forestry practices are much more "sustainable" now. And I suppose there is a truth to that. Forestry will be sustainable if it continues the way it is, but the forests that we leave our children will be a shadow of their former selves. They will be devoid of life, of diversity and of any recognisable soul.

As I crossed the island from the more populated east coast to the less populated west, I passed through an area known as Cathedral Grove. Cars were lined along the highway as I approached the area, leapfrogging the traffic to park my bike close to the start of the trail. The air was notably cooler as goosebumps slowly appeared across my arms, the minute hairs mimicking the trees of the forest I was about to enter as they all stood on end. The sound of traffic was quickly absorbed by the thick layers of bark on tree trunks. With each step further away from the road, I was slowly stepping back in time.

Cathedral Grove, and other remnant stands of old growth forest across the world, are a window into the past. They show us the majesty and irrefutable beauty of our forest ecosystems as they once were. They allow us to feel humble by revealing our insignificance in the vast scheme of things. They have seen more than we will ever see in one lifetime. These trees have weathered fire, rain, storms, wind, and most crucially— for whatever reason — they have evaded the axes and chainsaws of our voracious hunger for timber. In the Grove there were some Douglas Fir that stood higher than eighty metres and have lived for over eight hundred years. The wisdom stored in those trunks is impossible to place value upon.

The next day Erin, Emily and I — having traversed the island to the western side —  spent some time wandering through Avatar Grove, another tract of old forest that had survived the onslaught of logging. This time we got to marvel at giants of a different kind —  majestic and towering Western Red Cedars. I've spent the last few months trying to become familiar with plants of the Pacific Northwest, and Red Cedar was one of the first I felt comfortable in being able to recognise. The bark is indented with lots of long vertical slits of bark, and the bark itself has an undeniable reddish tinge to it. The way the branches slope down before reaching back towards the sun at their extremities add a lot to their overall character. Tdesi even introduced me to a tea made from the leaves of the Western Red Cedar, a pungent brew that was apparently crucial for a healthy immune system in Indigenous communities. Unknowingly, Western Red Cedar had become the most important plant of my journey so far.

 

It is true that modern science is giving us a deeper understanding of the nature of forest ecosystems; of their interconnectivity and interdependence. We are now learning that trees communicate through vast underground networks of mycelium and that "mother" trees will support fledging trees by providing a transmission of nutrients to support them in their infancy. But I think we as humans already knew these things. Maybe we couldn't explain it in scientific terms, but walking through those majestic trees in Cathedral Grove, you can feel it. You can feel that unyielding strength of the forest community just as you can in strong human communities. You can't articulate it or explain it, but if you give yourself the chance you can most certainly feel it. Most Indigenous story and song is based on this understanding of the interconnectedness of all life, and what better place to see it in action than in an ancient forest?

 

But the forests keep disappearing.

 

Beth was kind enough to let me use her office to do some writing. As I write the sun is jutting in on an angle and illuminating a big chunk of bench to my left. The room smells sickly sweet, almost honey-like. The computer rests on a huge slab of red cedar that's probably at least five metres long and two metres wide. That's where the smell comes from. I tried counting the age rings from the outside in and lost count at fifty-something. My guess is the tree has to be at least five to six hundred years old. Aesthetically the bench is stunning. Brown and red hues intermingle with yellow and golden shades to create a inanimate object that is, in fact, full of life.

Western Red Cedar (Thuja Plicata) is a prized timber for many reasons. It is frequently used because of it's high natural resistance to decay which make it particularly prized for boat building, even more so considering the fact it is lighter than many of its counterparts like mahogany. It was also known to be crucially important for Indigenous groups that inhabited the Pacific Northwest as it was used for practical purposes like houses and canoes and similarly for cultural use in the creation of totem poles and ceremonial objects. Not only was the timber highly valued, but the roots and bark were also utilised. The tree was felled in ceremony and respect was given to the life of the tree and what it would provide to the community. Most importantly of all, little or nothing was wasted.

"It's salvaged timber."

"It's what?!"

"Yep, it's salvaged."

I looked up in disbelief, my fingers dragging slowly across the smooth surface of the bench. An ancient tree, carelessly felled by modern machinery, was left to rot in a 'slash pile'. Until someone came along and rescued it. The bench has a newfound beauty and purpose. It may not be as breathtaking as when it stood proudly as a wise old tree, but I take solace in the fact that it did not die in vain. Because many others have, and I'm sure as I sit here there are thousands of other old trees being left to rot on this very island, and millions more the world over. Cutting down old growth forest is irreversible. But then to brazenly waste this most precious resource, and to waste it on such a large scale, is an insult and an utter tragedy. We are stripping Mother Earth bare. And when she's most vulnerable, we're rubbing salt in her wounds.

There is no question — timber is one of our most important resources. As many woodworkers and loggers will tell you, each timber has its own characteristics. I've even chatted to people who seem to attribute human qualities to trees, as if different trees have their own personality. Our connection to timber is one of the oldest relationships in human history. We have used it for basic survival, burning it in fires to heat ourselves for millennia. We have made our homes from trees, or even in the trees. We have built wooden boats and dugout canoes. Timber is an inherent part of who we are.

Our relationship was based on balance. But it seems balance has taken a back-seat as the pervasiveness of greed extends out like the roots of an ancient tree, reaching ever further in search of more sustenance. Greed is why the Amazon rainforest is disappearing. Greed has meant that the tropical rainforests of Indonesia have been wiped from the face of the earth to satiate our desire for palm oil. Greed almost took what's left of Tasmania's tallest trees and turned them into paper.

Greed disrupted the balance and balance needs to be restored. If we are to preserve any old growth forests for our grandchildren to marvel at, we know things must change. And they must change now. Forestry is necessary. More importantly, forestry is an inherently human activity. But it must be carried out in moderation and with the utmost respect and care. To clearfell a forest seems akin to ripping out someone's heart. The body might still be there, but it lies motionless and devoid of life. We know that the status quo is not working and yet we keep doing it?

I keep looking at these ancient trees, these windows into the past, only to discover the whole framework of the house has collapsed around them. The stark cut blocks stare down from the surrounding hills, an ominous warning to the last remaining giants of Avatar Grove. Mountains upon mountains of timber lies lifeless in a biological wasteland. Those trees all died in vain, and it's on our conscience whether we like it or not.

We smashed the vase a long time ago, but now it feels like we're just treading all over the pieces on the ground, grinding them into ever smaller pieces. The time has come to pick them up, we've just gotta find that damned super glue.

THE LIFEBLOOD OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

To be honest, I really didn't know much at all about Pacific salmon, or salmon generally, before I left Australia a few months ago. I knew that bears scooped them up from rivers as they headed upstream. I knew that the island I lived on — Bruny Island in Tasmania's Derwent River Estuary — was surrounded by tens of thousands of salmon, all cramped into what were, essentially, fish feed lots. So yeah, I didn't know a whole lot.

What I've learned over the past few months is that Pacific salmon really are the life blood of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Salmon are a keystone species in the fragile and complex ecosystems of the North Pacific oceans and the rivers and tributaries that flow into it. Not only are humans dependent on these amazing animals as a food source, but so are bears, eagles, orcas, many seabirds and — believe it or not — even trees. 

When people talk about Pacific salmon they're actually talking about five different species — pink (humpies), sockeye (reds), chinook (kings or springs), chum (dogs) and silver (cohos). Each species varies in its appearance, distribution, behaviour and taste. So far on the trip I think I've treated to three of the five species — whether smoked, cooked, or eaten raw as sashimi. 

Countless communities across the entire region I've travelled live by the salmon. Virtually everyone I met knew whether the salmon were "running", and most knew whether the signalled a good year or a bad one. Basically, a salmon run refers to the annual migration of salmon upstreamwhere they move from saltwater to freshwater in order to spawn — a natural marvel if I've ever seen one. What's more, these fish which may have spent up to three of four years out in the ocean, return to the exact same stream in which they spawned. Nature sure knows how to impress.

Salmon became an integral part of my travels pretty much from the get go. I was gifted it on numerous occasions. I would watch in disbelief as these salmon, slowly but surely, made their way up rivers that I rode over or creeks that I stopped by. I struggled for weeks and months to remember the names and nicknames of all five species. I held my first salmon in Skagway, feeling the pure power in its muscular strength as it wriggled from my grasp. On the Alaskan public ferry from Juneau to Prince Rupert I met three sisters (and an adopted fourth) who were making a documentary about salmon and the threats of proposed mines in three river systems.  And, for the last five days, I was lucky enough to hitch a ride on a commercial fishing boat as I made my way south from Haida Gwaii to my current location on Quadra Island. The impression that these experiences have left on me is both a mixture of complete awe and undeniable fear. The awe stems from the complexity of ecosytems and foodwebs that nature has created. The fear emanates from observing our ability as humans to unravel the maze of threads that tie these complicated systems together. 

I met Alison, Hannah and Ilsa — along with their adopted sister for the project Cheyenne — as the Alaskan ferry slowly weaved its way through a maze of remote islands in Alaska's Southeast. The three sisters are all fishermen (or fisherwomen?) who have spent countless hours working in Southeast Alaska. With Cheyenne in tow, their intention is to create a documentary film called Sisters and Rivers about the threats posed to the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers — rivers that all originate in British Colombia and flow out into Southeast Alaskan waters — by proposed open-pit gold and copper mines. Their objective was to talk to communities and the industries that define many of them — namely commercial fishing — and consider the consequences and profound impacts of future decisions. The girls were a classic bunch, down to earth and friendly as they come. They'd been on the road for some time, all cooped up in a van together, and it sounded like they were having a really great time. I would have liked to spend a little more time with them to hear the stories they had gleaned so far, but their stop was only six hours away and so our time together was short lived.

A few weeks later, after strolling the docks of the marina in Masset, Haida Gwaii, I eventually found the man I was looking for. As it turned out, we even shared the same name. Tom Gray, a commercial fisherman for over forty five years, was generous enough to let me hitch a ride on the Pearl Sea on his return voyage home to Vancouver Island. The Pearl Sea was a beautiful old wooden fishing boat that had stood the test of time. "Because I had the benefit of patience and time, I was able to get the best materials I could possibly find to build her" Tom told me proudly. The boat was built by a friend of his and the attention to detail is undeniable. Comprised of red cedar, yellow cedar and some fir for good measure, the Pearl Sea has stood up to anything the Pacific Ocean has thrown its way. 

All I had to do in return for the five day trip was "Dress a few fish and drink a whole lotta coffee." I pretended to know what Tom meant when he talked about "dressing" a fish, making it clear I'd never even set foot on a commercial fishing boat before. "You'll be fine." replied an unphased Tom.

I awoke to the grumbling of the hardy diesel engine before the sun had poked its head up over the horizon. The Pearl Sea slowly glided away from the dock as the still, glassy water reflected our surroundings as well as any mirror I'd ever gazed into. The placid waters didn't last long. Before I knew it we were out in unprotected waters and I quickly started to feel like I was a little out of my depth. I've spent most of my life by the ocean and I feel it is an integral part of the person I am today. But all this time in saltwater has passed in close proximity to land — a few kilometres offshore and it feels like a different world. Choppy, short-period windswells bucked the boat back and forth violently. Tom, a veteran of these waters, was completely unphased. 

I was dressed in a pair of waterproof overalls — typical fishing gear — and did my best to focus on the horizon. We were on a troll boat — a type of fishing that instead of using large nets uses multiple lines with many lures attached to tempt fish to bite. That day we were chasing silver salmon, or cohos, for Tom's winter food supply. Having finished the commercial end of the season, it was time for Tom to fill his own freezer. 

Before long the first coho was off the line and into the back of the boat. Trolling is arguably one of the most humane ways to fish commercially. Instead of being choked to death by a gillnet boat, or crush in a seine boat's net, fish on troll boats are basically beaten over the head once they're taken off the line, resulting in a quick death. Sure it ain't the most glamorous way to kill something, but for someone like me who's mostly removed from the processing of animals that I eat, I gained a lot from the experience. 

In between bouts of fairly violent seasickness, it was my job to dress the fish. Dressing involves removing the innards of the fish so it's ready to be put on ice, delivering the best possible product to consumers with ever-greater expectations. After taking a filleting knife, I would first remove the gills, before making a cut in the underside of the salmon to remove its inner workings and the remaining blood. This ensures a longer shelf-life in the ice and prevents the fish from rotting. What I noticed, and what we later discussed, was the remarkable colours on the salmon's body, particularly up near the dorsal fin. Vivid blues, purples and greens contrasted wonderfully with the silver scales of the coho salmon. As I dressed these fish, these colours were again balanced by the bright orange flesh that comprised the interior of the animal. We bagged about thirty fish that day, and I can safely say that I was wrecked — the recently vacant stomach didn't really help either.

The fishing completed, we still had another four days left on our journey south. With my bike safely strapped to the roof of the boat, I played countless games of solitaire, read all Tom's National Geographics from cover to cover, watched Orcas surface alongside the boat and bears stroll along vacant beaches and took shifts steering the boat — "just don't hit anything, ok?" The Pearl Sea darted its way in and out of a labyrinth of straits, passages, sounds and narrows that comprised Canada's section of what's generally known as the Inside Passage. These waters were, for the most part, very well protected and we only had small sections in exposed waters. I was pretty bloody thankful for that. 

When I wasn't entertaining myself, I leaped at the opportunity to learn as much as I could about salmon in my time with an old, wise sea dog. As it turned out I couldn't have picked a better captain. As well as being a commerical fisherman, or perhaps more accurately because of it, Tom has spent many winters teaching a course on Salmon and the related ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver. A self described "loose cannon", Tom has never been to university and hence his course is technically not an accredited one. But if forty five years out fishing doesn't teach you a lot about salmon and their behaviour, then I don't know what does. 

Tom's rogue status has meant that wherever he goes — fisheries meetings, guest appearances at conferences run by the David Suzuki foundation or university lecturing — there's "always someone there to keep an eye on me". Tom prides himself on telling people the truth, even if it's not what they want to hear. 

Here's a question for you:

"Why are salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest undergoing a serious decline?"

You probably don't know the answer, but if you had to take a shot in the dark what would you guess?

A few months ago I probably would have gone with over-fishing — makes sense, right?

Turns out, in this case, that I would have been wrong. It's this dominant myth — at least in Pacific Northwest salmon populations — that has plagued the commercial fishing industry for decades. Fisherman like Tom have defied environmentalists on this point by using the comparison between fisheries in the Pacific Northwest — which are in severe decline — and the Alaskan fisheries, which are having record runs in recent years. The Alaskan fleet is much, much larger than that of the Pacific Northwest, yet salmon populations are as strong as ever? Tom Gray, along with many other fisherman, have argued ad nauseum that environmentalists ignored what is arguably the most important factor: habitat. 

Alaska has made signficant inroads into protecting vast swathes of land under strict wilderness conditions. That means no mines and no clearfelling of forests. Salmon populations in these areas are, by all accounts, flourishing. Coincidence? Tom was ready to tell me why he didn't think so. 

When I was on Haida Gwaii I bore witness to the decimation of old growth forests. If I thought Haida Gwaii was bad, yesterday's journey down the Johnson Strait alongside Vancouver Island was a real eye-opener. The utter devastation wreaked on endless valleys and hillsides was immense. Forests had been, and continue to be decimated. Everywhere I looked I could see recent clearcuts or regrowth from clearcut. Not only has this destroyed complex terrestrial ecosystems, I was beginning to learn about the effects it was having on marine life.

When you cut down trees that have stood for hundreds and hundreds of years, you greatly impact what they stand upon: soil. Much of Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and the rest of the Pacific Northwest has very steep terrain — picture mountains dropping off straight into the ocean. Soil stabilisation occurs of hundreds of years, as old trees bury roots deeper into the ground, essentially providing the foundations for study soil. When you cut old trees down where does the soil go? Gravity takes its course and soil migrates downhill. The problem here is that sediment eventually runs off into creeks, streams and tributaries, smothering salmon eggs that are yet to spawn. It also affects nutrient exchange, the temperature and water flow of creeks and rivers, and a whole lot of other crucial factors no doubt. 

Earlier I mentioned that trees depend on salmon. "How does that work?" I wondered. A big salmon is packed full of nutrients, and when a bear walks off into the forest with a recent catch chances are he might drop a bit of salmon here or there. An eagle might accidentally do the same. In addition, not all salmon that enter the streams have enough stamina to make the whole migration — natural selection chimes in. All these dead carcasses contribute to nutrient input in these ecosystems, and there's been studies that highlight the profound impact salmon populations have on the health of surrounding forest ecosystems. So even if you don't clearfell the whole damn hill, you're condemning that ecosystem to a bleak and uncertain future. 

The threads extend further. I was lucky enough to meet Oriana, and after chatting to her about her job at an expedition company, she excitedly showed me some incredible videos she'd filmed with some scientists that were on one of the expeditions. One interview with an orca biologist discussed his ability to identify many different orcas individually, just by the calls they make. He went into great detail about their complex communication systems and social structures. On the Pearl Sea I was lucky enough to see some of these magnificent creatures up close, and their tendency for play and their innate curiosity about we humans was incredible to watch. These animals too are threatened by collapsing salmon populations. Different pods of orcas specialise in hunting different prey. Some target seals, but the southern pods around BC tend to have a preference for salmon. And Tom's years of observation in these waters tell him that they're struggling. Walking through a clearfell forest, never in my wildest dreams would I have considered the affect it was having on a cetacean hunting kilometres offshore. 

Small fishing communities in BC, Tom tells me, have been stripped bare. Subject to vicitimisation by countless governments and environmental organisations, there were attempts to guilt-trip them out of jobs. Now there's no fish left. And no fishing boats either. Tom used to fish around Vancouver Island, but now makes the five day journey north to Haida Gwaii every summer to Area F, where he is allocated a licence. Haida Gwaii's fisheries have also been severely affected, but not to the catastrophic levels further south. These days Tom, and his partner Pete on Blaze fish for the love of it. They're financially stable enough not to need to anymore, but they can't seem to stop. Pete's getting close to eighty years old and he still pulls fifteen hour days on the boat. Something tells me these guys won't stop until they're physically incapable of continuing. It reminds me of those old tyre covers I used to see back home: "Fish to Live, Live to Fish".

Environmentalism is a funny thing in a lot of ways. It's also a fairly new "discipline" of study, if you call it that. But there's problems here. Why don't we pay more attention to the man who's been observing these salmon and their habitat for forty five years? Because he doesn't have a university degree? People like Tom are frequently ignored for the dominant environmental theme of the day. And quite often it amounts to tunnel vision. It's in the interests of people like Pete and Tom for salmon populations to flourish, not decline. Why would they want to jeopardise their livelihood? 

I don't seek to criticise environmentalism per se. But more to consider the implications of what happens when we all jump on a bandwagon and decide to figuratively beat the crap out of a certain group or commerical interest. These issues are nuanced, and deserve some sort of balance. Academic scientific analysis has it's merits, but so too does years and years of careful observation. Tom and Pete have that in spades, and when it comes to trusting anyone on how to solve this immense problem facing the Pacific Northwest, this time I'm listening the trusty old timers. 

Read more about Sisters and Rivers here.