A Québec City Moment

Québec City, view of the Château Frontenac

Québec City, view of the Château Frontenac

There are places in Québec City where you can briefly forget the 21st century. Views, buildings, streets that feel of old in ways that are hard to come by in North America. At some level, history is a sense not unlike our senses of smell and sight. It may be more subtle, but sometimes you can feel history in and around your whole body, and you can wade through its thick and mysterious complexities.

At twilight in Québec, in the dim, warm light, you begin to travel backwards. And if you wait a little longer, until dark, the sound of tourists die down, and the cars and artificial lighting are absorbed by the ancient stones. Finally, the city is yours and the present is gone, but the river is still there like it always has been.


An archaeology moment


An epic battle between wasp and spider. The spider lost.

Within an archaeology site, an epic battle between wasp and spider. The spider lost. French Guiana, 2006.

When you spend your day in the dirt, digging, moving rocks, you begin to merge with your environment. You observe the details, the tiny bits of life around you as they interact in ways never before noticed. The insect realm starts to feel oddly close and familiar, because for once you are sharing their space, their world; you are at their level.   The goal of archaeology may be to learn about ancient people, but its practice brings you closer to earth in more ways than one.

In this age of conspiracy…

With the ubiquitous presence of the Internet in our lives, misinformation, conspiracy, frauds, and pseudoscience have gained power and carved out a significant place in our society. Even for very smart, critical people, it can at times be difficult to distinguish between legitimate and questionable sources. In just the past few years, it seems that conspiracies have multiplied and gained traction. One of the most notable was the promise of the 2012 apocalypse as supposedly predicted by the Maya. The Maya never really predicted any such thing –the truth, like most truths, is more nuanced and not nearly as sensational– but it’s more exciting to think the world will explode, am I right?!

As an archaeologist this drove me a little crazy, but to make things worse, I have family members who manage to believe in dozens of sometimes conflicting conspiracies at the same time. I have come to understand that sometimes the blind belief in the strange replaces traditional religion. This inspired me to write (and publish) a short fiction piece that explores the madness behind certain conspiracy theories. Misinformation is not just harmless fun; we have seen time and time again that this can lead unstable individuals to commit terrible acts in the name of…who exactly?

The Countdown

(originally published in print in The Watermark, 2013)

 by Natasha L.

The clock had been ticking for as long as he could remember. As a small child Michael heard the tick tock as he entertained himself in the living room, lying on the thick red rug, waiting. He stared at the room and its individual objects, inventing a story for each. The clock did not bother him then, but sometimes it sounded more like a tsk, the tsk, tsk of a mother scolding her child. The rhythm became urgent, as though time had sped up. This he heard in the night, awake or dreaming, when he walked by the cellar door or when his father stirred the cubes in his evening booze.

“Toward the end of Time the world will grow ill, truly worse than it is now. Wretched things will be heaped upon us, and the planet will no longer be safe, at least until December 21st when all will come to a halt. The 12th planet will finally appear in the night sky, and alignment will be achieved. The end will seem nigh, and yet the people will become calm and hopeful during the last minutes of respite –the Earth will give off a sense of peace,” intones Michael. He smiles to himself, enjoying the power of his own words.

That is how Michael imagines things will unravel, near the end of the calendar. And who better to know this than the clock himself? He had long come to the conclusion that he was time impersonated, his innards wiring and his heart the beating timepiece.

When the worst is expected, hopeful fools will always be lulled by the calm before the storm. With their guns, underground shelters and canned goods, they will believe themselves prepared. But when the earth does not immediately shatter and engulf all things living, the wicked will think themselves spared, the good will think themselves chosen. But Michael knows better; there will be no escape, and the final countdown will have just begun.

From the cellar he often heard voices, men and women, laughing hysterically. He was always left out and could only wonder at the white, paint-chipped door. He would sit on the cold, dirty linoleum of the kitchen floor, imagining the fun he must be missing. His father assumed he was too young to understand, but Michael was always listening to the adults, interpreting their words as best he could. Once, his father had compared the neighbor’s dog to his mother; Michael understood this was no laughing matter. That day, long ago, he opened the white door –he would share in this joke– and in doing so brought up a waft of incense and cold sweat, and laughter that turned into screams as they reached his ears.

free stockphoto_starsMichael believes that as all gaze upon the firmament, waiting for their demise to come from above, this is when the dead will reach out from their graves and tickle the unsuspecting feet of the living. As they wrestle the dirt to reach the light, they will remember their hunger. This part is not in the Popol Vuh; the ancient Maya had not seen “Dawn of the Dead.” Young Michael had, and something similar, in the cellar. They were not truly zombies, and after seeing a documentary on Santeria he later learned they had been drugged. But if the living could become zombie-like, then why not the dead?

Then will come the solar flares, so that living flesh sizzles and bone crumbles. Earth will become a marshmallow, melting and white with heat. The last few survivors will hear the wind above; it must be a storm. It is nothing but fire. Fire like the ball of heat that flowed from Michael’s mouth to his stomach the time he stole a taste from his father’s glass. His mother disapproved of alcohol, as she disapproved of most things beyond breathing and praying. She did not tolerate her husband and his pagan practices, she feared them, and prayed harder, counting her prayer beads out loud.

Michael suspects the last few to survive, atheists and religious fanatics alike, will have simultaneous epiphanies in which they fancy themselves filled with grace.

“We must be the Ones, the survivors of Armageddon that will inherit the Earth and repopulate it with acts of kindness. The World has been cleansed,” chants Michael. “And of course they would think this, since near the end, society will have taken a turn for the worst: murder, disease, war, economic and moral degradation!” Michael laughs and beams at his audience.

His daughters, small blond children of two and four, smile back. They are nervous and confused, but even now they trust him; he has always been a gentle, loving father. At bedtime he tells stories, wonderful magical stories of talking animals, hidden gardens and enchanted fruit.

“Then tell me, why did the world not end with Nazi Germany? Were those not trying times?” he continues, gesticulating wildly. His wife jerks her head, nods, as tears stream down her cheeks, wetting the duct tape that holds her mouth shut. But her eyes are pleading and full of questions.

“I know what you are thinking, love. For a time I wasn’t worried, but then the clock started ticking faster…tsk, tsk, tsk, and everything was pointing towards 2012. It’s all over the media! Websites, documentaries, even the ancient texts! The Maya themselves predicted it,” he explains, as he smoothes out her hair, removing a few strands from her trembling brow.

When the ground starts to shake, Michael knows it will not be the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, despite all that his mother said. The earthquakes will sound more like beating drums, the ones his father used to play. The tectonic plates will shake and bend as the poles reverse, the plates will shift, free from the magnetic field that he thinks holds them in place. The Earth’s crust will collapse like a soggy cracker as the oceans wash over it.

“Do you understand? It’s not about good or evil. It will simply be the End; no new beginning after December 21st. How could there be? The calendar ends,” says Michael, hands held together in gentle supplication. “This is for the best, trust me.”

He starts counting the pills; the dosage must be exact. The sound they make as they fall from the bottle to the countertop matches the ticking in his head.

“Now open your mouths.”

He feeds them to his daughters. He waits to ensure they have swallowed and then unties his wife’s bonds. It is too late to fight; defeated she willingly takes the pills and hurries over to her children.  Michael leads them to the sofa and grabs a thick, leather-bound book from the shelf. Before they go to sleep, he will read them one last fairytale, his favorite of all.

“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth…”



An Ancient Quarry on a Mountain Desert (Mauna Kea, Hawaii or the Big Island)

Imagine ascending a dormant monster, a volcano whose summit reaches beyond the clouds. You are on foot, weighed down by life sustaining necessities such as fuel, water, and food. Your home base has already disappeared in the distance, and you have much farther to go. The air is thin and as dry as an old biscuit, because oxygen is scarcer as you ascend, and due to the accelerated evaporation in high altitude, dehydration sets in. You will be camping at this height for some time; you must acclimate.

View from adze quarry, Mauna Kea

View from adze quarry, Mauna Kea

You climbed above the treeline some time ago, and now the world has turned into a cold desert. Vegetation has given way to a harsher environment, beautiful, earthy, remote. From hundreds of thousands of years of eruptions, accumulations of lava have created cinder cones of various sizes and colors: browns, reds, blacks. The sand is not sand, it is ash, scattered over the slopes and summit. But you and your fellow travelers will not be scaling the summit, you will be stopping at one of the natural basalt quarries to extract the stone that will permit you to make a most important tool, the adze.

Requiring considerable stamina, this is not an activity many would attempt today, and yet Native Hawaiians scaled this volcano for hundreds of years before European colonization. But Mauna Kea was not just any volcano, as the highest mountain on the island at 13,796 feet, it was a particularly sacred place. In the Hawaiian tongue, Mauna Kea means white mountain, which refers to its snow-capped summit in the winter months. The mountain is also known as Mauna o Wākea or Mountain of the deity Wākea.

Basalt flakes next to natural rock. Mauna Kea

Basalt flakes next to natural rock. Mauna Kea

On the volcano’s south flank, at an elevation of around 12,000 feet, Hawaiians quarried and flaked large pieces of basaltic rock. This was the first step in the complex art of manufacturing ground and polished adzes, which would in their final form be attached to wooden handles and used, among other things, to make canoes.

Today, these quarries are considered important archaeologically and culturally, and continue to be sacred for Native Hawaiians. They are visually arresting sites and worth visiting if you can find someone to guide you there. The blue-grey stones impacted by extraction and flaking can be found in huge piles, contrasting sharply with the reddish shades of the surrounding rocks. Many pieces left behind are tiny flakes, but over time their accumulation has created mounds reaching occasionally three meters in height. Other flaked stones are too large for one person to lift and show scars where smaller pieces of stone were removed by striking the hard surface.

Basalt flakes

Basalt flakes, Mauna Kea

The whole archaeological complex includes not only the remnants of lithic production, but shrines, trails, rock shelters, and petroglyphs. This is a case where close observation can be greatly rewarded, as what may at first glance appear to be nothing more than haphazard rock formations are in truth the remains of centuries of human activity reshaping a barren landscape. Sitting on these ancient stones, this ancient mountain deity, where many before you sat, you can gaze out over both land and sky. Stone never felt so alive.

Forgotten and Decaying: Îles du Salut Penal Colony (French Guiana Part 1)

When in 2006 I was informed I would be one of the crew members for an archaeology project in French Guiana, I thought “This is so exciting!…wait, where is French Guiana? Africa?” This coming from a perfectly intelligent person (in my humble opinion) with good knowledge of geography, but in my defense French Guiana is somewhat of a forgotten country. Situated above the northernmost tip of Brazil, along the Atlantic coast, French Guiana is technically not even a country, it is an overseas department and region of France. But between you and me, it is the closest thing to a real life colony I have ever seen. It is also a place with strong and complex local identities, and in that it is a true nation. Nonetheless, the colonial past is within easy reach; it is etched in the landscape, in the people, and in everyday life.

French Guiana is not tourist friendly and very limited government spending is allocated to highlighting local culture and history. If you love travelling off the beaten track, then you are in for a treat, because that’s all there is. There are not even that many roads to explore; look it up on Google maps. With a population of roughly 250 000, road expansions are not a priority. Speaking of population, some of the earliest European “settlers” in French Guiana were prisoners from France sentenced to work and die in horrifying conditions. Many were sent to the penal colony of the Îles du Salut archipelago, the most infamous of those islands being l’Île du Diable (Devil’s Island, if you hadn’t figured that out yet). From its inception as a penal colony in 1852 until its closure in 1953(!), the islands received over 80,000 inmates, only 10% of which survived their sentence.

Prison structures, Îles du Salut, French Guiana, 2006

Prison structures, Îles du Salut, French Guiana, 2006

These islands of death are now open to tourists, but they are not your traditional attractions. Facilities are basic, and there are little efforts to preserve buildings or provide an educational experience. Simply put, this is still a prison, but an empty one filled presumably with 80,000 harried souls.

Prison cells in decay, Îles du Salut, French Guiana, 2006

Prison cells in decay, Îles du Salut, French Guiana, 2006

You can stroll through the overgrown island jungle and step across the decaying remnants of cell walls, doors, and chains. This is ruin porn at its best, if you are into that kind of thing. From behind barred windows you can gaze out on the beautiful ocean famed for being so filled with flesh hungry creatures that escape was impossible. And yet, visitors consisting mainly of locals swim in these waters, jumping off old docks and other unidentifiable structures. I myself ventured out and retained all my limbs.

But for those visitors who have an ounce of empathy, the lush foliage and exotic monkeys cannot hide the pain and sorrow that resonate from within the broken walls, hinted at in remnant scribblings. In the book Papillon (1970), published as a memoir by former prisoner Henri Charrière, the penal colony and its harsh realities are prominently featured. Violence, unsanitary conditions, and tropical diseases made these beautiful islands a living hell. And while many of these convicts were depraved murderers, thousands were merely political prisoners shipped off due to their inconvenience. That is something to keep in mind when wandering guideless along the dirt pathways. When contemplating the beauty do not forget the seeds of ugliness it grew from, and your experience will be that much more meaningful.

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Beauty beyond the ugliness

Lament of the Gas Station: Why Do We Expect So Little From Our Food? (Part 1)

Think of a place that you associate with bad food, with a plethora of disgusting, old, tasteless crap. It’s a place we all visit out of necessity when traveling and where we often find ourselves buying such food, despite our better judgement. That three day old doughnut sure looks beautiful, and that old package of beef jerky smells salty underneath its layer of dust. Like tired, hungry sailors on shore leave we are drawn to these ugly, but cheap wenches. You’ve got it…the Gas Station! Ah! But has it not always been so? Bad gas station food is a time-honored tradition. I’m here to say no, it does not have to be this way!

North America has a long, long, love story with junk food, but it goes beyond junk. Many of the foods available to us are of surprisingly poor quality, full of preservatives, and with not an ounce of integrity. However, this post is not about food empowerment or about the evils of large industries. I simply wish to highlight the fact that we, as a culture, expect and accept the worst. Do I care if you, the individual currently reading this, enjoys an occasional burger from a big chain or has an infatuation with Twinkies? Nope. Personally, I really like Butterfingers, but that does not define me or my diet.

A few years ago I vacationed in France, driving around the Loire Valley. France is of course famous for its culinary traditions, but little did I know that it extended to gas stations and rest stops.

Eating in France

Eating in France

They had bakery counters that served a range of baguette sandwiches and baked goods that would put most American sandwich shops to shame. Instead of 12 hour old coffee sitting in a dirty pot, they had futuristic vending machines that for one euro served decent expresso, cappuccinos, and lattes. Now I’m sure France also has some mediocre gas stations and the US and Canada have a handful of good ones, so please don’t yell at me. The junk food was still there in France, but it did not have the monopoly. Yet, most of Europe is dominated by the same big chains and multinationals as in North America, and these gas stations were part of a chain, but chains don’t have to serve bad food and provide bathrooms scented with eau de urine.

I think these differences are an expression of our tastes and expectations; pure capitalism at work, supply and demand, those opportunist bastards. This isn’t really about scale or about supporting local foods. If we set aside food politics it comes down to cultural differences and it leads to my question: Why do we expect and accept so little? In studies and discussions of food and health, I feel this is a forgotten angle, maybe because it is so subjective. It also goes beyond issues of poverty and education, although they are obviously relevant. In later posts I will highlight how eating good, simple, real foods is often cheap and these are available in regions considerably less privileged than our own. So has eating junk become the privilege of the privileged?