Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part V: Bash-Your-Own Shark Stew

We now continue where we left off, with Gretchen’s intrepid parents, Martha and Peter Klopfer, voluntarily marooned on Aldabra Island, back in 1976. In this section of their journals, Mom and Dad began taking turns narrating. I can easily tell one’s written voice from the other–can you? Enjoy…

19 December

The long delayed rainy season has arrived.  First we had a short shower, with lots of wind.  During the night we thought we might emulate Dorothy’s trip to the Land of Oz, but luckily our tent was well moored and canvas strong.  Lots of lightning activity, too, scary on an open island. [Having been terrified of lightning as a child, this part of their story paralyzed me with fear back then.]

Today’s goat walk had us along the beach at high tide, so we were able to see Aldabra’s famous blow holes in action. Very dramatic. The holes are often some distance back from the cliff edge, as much as 20 meters or so, and the great roars or hisses and the towers of spray and mist they emit, often to heights of 3-4 meters, seem unrelated to the sea’s movements. Better spectacle than the geysers of Yellowstone!

Our campmates have now all departed, except for Meg and Harry, our Seychellois factotum. It’s rather pleasant to have the island more or less to ourselves. Tomorrow, first thing, we will depart, too, moving to Meg’s second study site, on the island called Dune Jean Louis. We still hope we can return to Main Station in time for the turkey dinner planned for Christmas, the turkey having accompanied us on the Nordvaer [the rusty freighter they journeyed in on].

20 December

We’re now sitting in the shade of the thatched hut at Dune Jean Louis, an extensive expanse of sandy dunes, trying not to disturb a sunbird whose nest hangs from a piece of thatching about a meter over our heads. We reached the camp here from Middle Camp by puttering across the lagoon in a small rowboat equipped with outboard. One can hike around the eastern of Aldabra and get here on foot, but that takes a couple of days, while the boat ride takes but an hour, provided one calculates the tide correctly, there’s enough water in the lagoon, and the engine does not malfunction. The longtimers here all of tales of times when they had to hoist shirts on an oar to sail by, or to to row. Wading in water that is too murky to allow a lookout for the many sharks while pulling a heavy boat is not an option. [So…have you noticed the lack of spelling-bee words and Latin phrases? This is Mom narrating. 🙂 ]

Their hut–complete with tortoises, who also appear to enjoy the shade. You can see Martha’s back inside.

DJL [Dune Jean Louis] is one big sand dune. It’s the highest point on Aldabra, though that’s only about 20 meters. From the lagoon side of the dune one can see the the mass of coral against which the southeast trade winds have built the dunes, quite different from the densely vegetated Middle Camp. Upon crossing the lagoon from Middle Camp, we cruised through a wide band of mangrove, a tidal area that becomes a mud flat at low tide. When the tide is out, the substrate appears as fine white clay.  It looks as if it would make excellent chinaware.This is followed by a narrow band of Pemphis, then a stretch of flattened coral and assorted scattered shrubs.  It’s an open area, that allows sight of goats from some distance. Our thatched shelter sits on a patch of closely trimmed grass, the lawn mowers being the numerous tortoises that inhabit this area. Just now, with the sun high in the sky, the tortoises are lined up along the shady side of our hut, dozing under the edge of the thatch. The hut has a stout fence across it’s open side, to bar them from entering. Sunbirds, yes, but no tortoises.  There are no flightless rails on this section of Aldabra, though we do have some flightless ibis, who generally share our breakfast with us. They do like oatmeal. [I mean, who doesn’t? Also, this blog has gone on long enough without recipes–time to remedy that. Back to you, Mom.]

Late in the day, Harry and P. went hunting for dinner. The hunt began with the collection of a couple of burgher crabs, which were then pulverized and mixed with with sand, excepting for a few of the larger bits. This mixture was formed into balls which were cast into the surf, reached by wading through rocky shallows swarming with moray eels – not for the fainthearted. The larger bits were used to bait hooks, which were launched once the sharks, blacktipped sharks mostly, had been attracted. After the first shark snapped up the bait and cut the line, the fishermen retreated. They then chased a school of tide pool fish, 20-30 centimeters long, into a corner of a tidepool, built a coral dam of loose bits there were at hand, and used the dull side of a pongo to stun and collect their prey.  It made for a good stew.

Harry prepping his delicious stew.

21 December

Goat watching at DJL is of the stationary sort, often from an elevated platform, so it does not entail much exercise.  What with Harry’s good stews to work off, we jogged some length along the coast, though there were intervals where we had to crawl and stumble across the jagged coral. Upon our return, the tide was out, allowing us to cut across exposed sand flats, though after several brushes with fair-sized moray eels, we took the cowardly, slower path on the heights. [I’ve never met a moray except behind aquarium glass, but after these descriptions, I never wanted to.]

Crabs were around us by the hundreds, and this morning there were also flocks of plovers, along with other shorebirds we were unable to identify: we had no binoculars along.  Also spotted a cat, thin and black.  We were wishing we had a firearm so as to shoot it. There are but a few left on the islands, dropped off by passing fishermen in past decades, and they have devastated the populations of flightless birds.  Every effort is being made to make the island cat-free.  Norway rats are another imported pest, but they are so numerous that their eradication is out of the question.  Presumably they’ve been here for so long as to have attained some sort of equilibrium with the other species with whom they interact.

We also came upon some green turtle nests, though as yet no hatchlings.   These turtles evidently nest all year around, to the evident delight of the pied crows, master scavengers, who are able to totally wipe out a nestfull of hatchlings that make the mistake of emerging in daylight.  But, of the goats we were seeking, no sign.  After lunch, we’ll head inland towards the lagoon so see if we can evidence of them there.

22 December

Still no goats to be seen. We hiked west after our watch, and found lots of feces, some fairly fresh, so tonight we’ll move down the coast.  There’s lots else to watch.  Last night we came upon a mammoth green turtle digging her egg pit in the sand, and this morning a second fresh pit was in evidence as well. Meg then found some green hatchlings emerging and rescued them from the pied crows that were awaiting them.  Very likely the sharks off shore ate them instead – very few young survive.

This PM Meg saw two green turtles copulating, after which the male was stranded, the price of amoureux [are you kidding me, Dad? Not just French, but plural?!] on a receding tide.  With all three of us straining, we succeeded in hoisting the hind end of the 200 kilogram beast and wheel-barrowed him into a tide pool. There, we covered him with seaweed for insulation from the sun until rising waters should bring him release.  We can now have a cup or two of green turtle soup with a clear conscience, as we’ve saved several this way – (turtles are a forbidden food). [Okay, this rationalizing is almost as hilarious to me as the wheelbarrow turtle image.]

And then we found a newly hatched giant tortoise, all of four centimeters long!  It looks ridiculous alongside the one and a half meter long adults that litter our camp ground.  And, yes, they can be ridden. [Ah, such joy at this thought!]

Our assistant, Harry, today introduced us to the latest in gourmet specialties, Aldabra style. Herewith the recipe for “satinee”: [ooh, another recipe! This blog’s getting downright mainstream.]

Remove shoes; enter surf to knee depth (not more!), kicking vigorously and keeping a sharp watch. The highly aggressive white-tipped sharks will soon appear.  As they close in, bash 1 or 2 with a heavy knife, such as a pongo, grab the stunned animal by the tail and flee the surf. Then, filet the sharks, cutting the meat into 4-6 centimeter chunks, wash several times, boil till the meat falls apart, then wash in fresh water and press dry. Fry the meat lightly with freshly pounded pepper, caraway, vinegar and curry.  Serve with rice. The meat is light in color, fine in texture, and as mild as the best white tuna, once the urea has been washed out. [I was with you until the urea part.] Marvelous!

It’s a good thing that Harry is a competent provider, for we are running out of provisions: the last of the rice was used today, so we’re now reduced to British army “ration biscuits” and tea, with a small serving of tinned corned beef once each day. The last party at this site neglected to report the inventory, so we had expected full food lockers, which was not the case. We also had to spend more time here than planned due to the lack of goat sightings. Travel is complicated by the extremely high tides at this site, up to 3 and ½ meters, so the channel on which we can cross the lagoon is often bone dry for a distance of over a kilometer.

Unfortunately, no pics of turtle-wheelbarrowing, so here’s another look at Harry.

Do Peter and Martha run out of food? Do they get tired of satinee? Does Harry get tired of cooking it for them? Do they rescue more tortoises stranded by sex? Tune in next week…

Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part IV: Tortoise Tickling

Yep, you read that right. In 1976 my parents flew halfway around the world, then survived passage on a rickety freighter to be marooned on a tiny coral atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean in order to…tickle tortoises?

Y’know, I can’t possibly explain it better than Peter. So once again…it’s all yours, Dad.

17 December

This day was devoted to tickling tortoises.  Meg had called our attention to the fact that the huge tortoises (similar to those on the Galapagos Islands) would respond to the presence of a flightless rail approaching from behind by rising up on all fours.  A similar response would occur if one took a straw and gently tickled the inside of a hind leg.  There is a controversy here as to whether this is to be viewed as a sexual response, or whether it is akin to the behavior seen among cleaner fish and their hosts, or crocodiles and the birds that clean food particles from between their teeth. Ectoparasites on the skin of the leg have been noted, so this is not unreasonable.  However, it is also possible, that the response is purely defensive.

[Ohhhkayyy…]

In case you suspect I might be making this up: here’s my mom, tortoise-tickling.

Our plan was to determine whether both males and females respond similarly, reasoning that if this was a sexual response, only females would display it.  So, Martha spent several hours tickling hind legs of mature individuals.  The first problem was to approach them without causing alarm, which leads to their withdrawing within their carapace altogether.  A second was to avoid having fingers rasped by their sudden movement, the solution to which was a longer tickling stick.  Finally, we had to determine the animal’s sex.  Males have a larger and fatter tail, and a more concave lower shell, presumably to aid in balancing on the the female’s back.  But, these traits are relative and, among the smaller, younger animals, not pronounced.  Many of the animals had identification numbers engraved ventrally, with their sex, as determined by tortoise specialists, entered in a log, but most of the animals were too heavy for us to invert so their sex remained a mystery.  However, given the proportion that responded to her tickles, we surmise the behavior is not sex-dependent.

[Aha! Science!!]

Visualize this ancient coral as you read the next paragraph. Ouchie!

Moving across the coral is hazardous, though the old-timers do develop a remarkable facility, so with time we, too, have become more more daring and are able to move fairly rapidly across the uneven terrain.  Just how competent we have come may be gleaned from the fact that last night we caught several goats for ear-tagging, which is done by cornering the animals on coral ledges overhanging the ocean.  These ledges are several meters above the shark filled ocean, and are composed of razor-sharp coral, with narrow pinnacles separated by deep, foot-grabbing crevices.  This is done in the dark, of course.  We survived unscathed, and scored a total of a half dozen goats, marked and measured.

[Oh, right…goats! The real reason for their long journey was goat study. So, tune in next week when we actually get back to goats.]

Parents Gone Feral: Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part III

Welcome back to the next installment of my parents’ goat-research adventures in the winter of 1976-77. When we last left Martha & Peter, they had just been dropped onto the tiny island of Aldabra, one of the Seychelles, a coral atoll in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean. The research crew already in place were happy to see them, as they’d heard their freighter had been lost at sea. I’m throwing in this Wikimedia Commons map to help you visualize.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

So now…take it away, Dad. (Just a reminder for those of you new to Wing’s World, or Peter Klopfer: the man is a walking thesaurus.) 

14 December

We’re now settled in a small, airy cell, next door to Meg (Meg Gould, a Phd student from P.’s lab, who is here for a year). The housing conditions are simple, but clean and adequate, along with decent quarters for scientific work, including air conditioning. There are 18 scientists and technicians (including a couple of meteorologists) aboard, along with about two dozen Seychellois laborers and their families.  Half of the scientific staff are at the two field camps on the far side of the atoll, sites that are difficult to reach because of the high tides and reefs, so travel from one side to the other is only possible at intervals of several days and at particular times. The Seychellois have their own village a few hundred meters distant from the main station, which includes several small wooden buildings, principally a dining and assembly hall and the laboratory building. Usually the techs are in the majority, a situation which, with our arrival, has now been changed.  Meg is hoping that table-talk will now revolve about topics other than auto races. 🙂

The birds here are incredibly tame, and several species have become flightless. Of the three dozen or so endemic species, we’ve already, in our first few hours, encountered about a third, including a kestrel nesting by the door to our room, coucals, drongos, fodys and sunbirds. Avian photography could not be easier: the birds all but pose for their pictures.

Or let you grab them to take their picture!

As to our plans for the days to follow: we will leave tomorrow to Middle Island for a week or two of goat tracking, hoping to return to Main Camp for Christmas. At this time, tides don’t allow us to simply cross the lagoon, so we will need to use a large dinghy with outboard motor, pass seaward of the reef that surrounds the atoll, and hope for calm seas during the several hour trip to the far side of Aldabra.  After Christmas, we’ll head for another of Meg’s sites, on South Island.

The main problem everywhere on Aldabra is water shortage. There is a solar still at the Main Station, but it has not been functioning for some reason, and the rain catchments are empty: lots of rain all around the atoll, but none on shore. Bathing must be done in the sea, for which we’ve been issued saltwater soap, and hydration depends largely on beer.  Since the staff here are largely Scots, there is fortunately no shortage of beer and other spirits (and, as we noted when the supplies were unloaded, alcohol comprised almost half the cargo).  The problem is serious, however, as there is absolutely no alternative water supply.

When he gets going on the physical description, however, my dad loses the scientific tone and waxes downright poetic:

Apart from a lack of water, this place appears to us to be a replica of Eden. After unpacking, we jogged a kilometer or so down the pebble strewn beach from Main Station, where we found a 20 meter swath of pure white sand, while the tide was out. It was slow going in the soft, deep sand, but we persevered to the end of the strand where the beach gave way to a 2 meter high coral cliff that had been undercut by wave action and whose face, at low tide, was full of small caves filled with marine creatures. From there seaward, to a fringing reef, was a shallow lagoon, less than a meter deep, crystal clear, except when an occasional wave breasted the reef and broke onto it.  We stripped off our clothes and sported about like a pair of porpoises in the warm (30C) water, savoring the white sand, black coral cliffs and, all around us, tiny fish, some transparent, others brightly hued.  We did have to keep a sharp lookout for the moray eels, which abound, for though we’d been told that they were not dangerous their appearance and behavior seem to say otherwise. Overhead, a frigate bird attacked a booby, while a group of pied crows chorused from behind the coral cliff.

The vegetation here is exotic to our eyes, but still bears some familiarity to that which we know from home. There is a grove of what appear to be pine trees above the coral cliff, but are actually casuarinas, an ancient plant related to the horsetails. The ground beneath the trees is covered with needles and cones, and, except for the absence of pine scent, could be a pine forest. The wind sounds the same in the casuarina’s jointed needles as it  does in pines. The scrubby growth elsewhere on the island has much the same quality as western chaparral, but there’s no manzanita or sage brush here, just lots of other plants that look similar but we’ve never seen before nor heard of. All of it is thorny and sharp!

15 December

We’ve just completed our first 24 hours in the field, which has led to our developing enormous respect for Meg.  Work began at 5 am, and did not end until after 8 pm, and involved climbing through the roughest terrain in the hottest clime imaginable. [Yes, he really does use words like “clime”. Welcome to my world.] The landscape is entirely composed of old, dry, emergent coral, knife-sharp edges ready to slice through shoes (and skin), and covered with a thick scrubby vegetation, the notorious Aldabran pemphis. But, now, the next morning, we are relaxing while awaiting for the teapot to boil, watching several dozen sharks cruising about the lagoon, some 10 meters distant. Swimming does not appeal.

Yesterday, we did take a short run down the beach and followed it with a brief dunk in the ocean, breakfasted, and then towed our gear in a large dore [dory?] for the 2 ½ hour ride to Middle Island.  Except for the push through the reefside surf, the trip was smooth, enlivened by schools of porpoises, with frigates and boobies accompanying us overhead.  We cast fishing lines astern, and, after a half dozen barracuda, began hooking a great variety of brightly colored beauties. “c’est bon”, said our creole boatman, smacking his lips, and “c’est tres bon” for one particular one.  Two tuna were also landed, but our prize was a 40-50 kilogram kingfish, over a meter long!

A storm enveloped us as we beached, first rain, badly needed, which was captured in a large tarp and fed into an old drum cistern.  In a few hours time all was clear again, and we had a stewpot bubbling away with a fine creole fishstew.  Mid-afternoon we left the others (our companions included a pair of ornithologists, an assistant, and two laborers) and, together with Meg, commenced a goat stalk, which continued until dark.  Supper was not until after 8 pm, and was immediately followed by an exhausted, and much too brief, sleep.

Our field camp here consists of a 3’sided corrugated tin shed, 2 x 4 meters, where food and gear are stored and whose roof provides a water catchment.  Tents on the small sand beach in front of the shed serve as our bedrooms, which are surrounded by coral and mangrove.

From ocean to lagoon there are four distinct zones into which the 800 meters of the islands’s width can be divided.  The shore at this end of Middle Island (the shoreline differs greatly from one area to the next) is marked by casuarina trees, thus resembling a temperate pine grove, with needles on the ground, clear trails and cool breezes.  Crabs scurry everywhere and grunting tortoises are also everywhere one looks.  Early and late each day, the trees are festooned with awkward looking frigates, like oversized Christmas tree ornaments. [I love this.] But 20 meters further inward inward, the “Platen” beings, flat, weathered coral, with fairly open 1-3 meter high vegetation, allowing for moderately easy walking.  But, then comes the Pemphis, a wall of shrub 3-4 meters high, and so dense as to be totally impenetrable without a machete (known here as a ‘pongo”).  Visibility is less than one goat length. [🙂 !!!!!!!] Meg has had a single trail cut through this forest, and is building a second, our only hope of accessing the interior.

The final zone is the mangrove, only a few meters wide, a tangle of roots arched by broad-leafed crowns, beyond which lies the lagoon, some 15-20 kilometers wide,  with its mushroom coral columns.

Mushroom coral. Or coral mushroom.

In next week’s episode: Tortoise Tickling! See you then.

Parents Gone Feral: Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure, Part II

To catch y’all up…in my last post, I gave my parents’ narration of why they were abandoning leaving their daughters behind, in the winter of 1976, to have themselves dropped onto a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Here they are now, aboard a rusty old freighter on their way to their new island home. Know what? I’m just going to let them tell it. But I can’t resist adding a few of my own reactions along the way. 🙂

11 December – aboard the Nordvaer

Our crewmates appear to number about a dozen, of all possible shapes, ages, and hues, most from the Seychelles, some from Africa, one Indian. Their common language is a Seychellois French-Creole, though a few speak a bit of English. They and their ship , when not under charter to resupply the Royal Society station on Aldabra, mostly ply a route between East Africa to Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles.

The favored occupations of the crew appear to be fishing and drinking, and the condition of the Nordvaer attests to both sports. Shipshape is indeed a relative state.  🙂 At least the fish were biting this morning, Bonitas for the most part, which were then filleted, dried, and salted for later sale or consumption. For some hours the fish were hooked as quickly as lines were thrown overboard, but now the school seems to have passed, and all is quiet. Sad to say, we saw none of the catch at meals: the fare is English at its worst, mostly tinned stew. Even the coffee does not pass muster, being mostly water of a faintly brown color. Still, we’re enjoying the lazy, loafing seaboard routine, enlivened by the presence of lots of albatross, flying fish, and ever distracting cloud sculptures.

Our exercise is limited to running in place, much to the bemusement of the crew.  [They’re marathoners, remember?] Fortunately, our cabin is air-conditioned as the engine room heat below deck is fearsome. It’s breezy and pleasant above deck, but the available spots to perch are few and not conducive to long sojourns. The only chairs are on the aft-deck above the fantail, where the two lifeboats (whose davits are so rusted as to make it unlikely they can ever be launched) block the view of all but the fishing lines off the stern.

12 December

Flying fish in abundance this morning. We first thought them to be low-flying birds, they covered such great distances, changing the angles of their fins as they “flew” for up to 10 seconds at a time at a speed no less than ours.

Our shipboard lethargy is growing, with even arising for breakfast taking a major effort. And sight-seeing has become less interesting: no atolls to be seen, and very few birds other than an occasional Booby or Gannet. [yes, those are real bird names]

13 December

Breakfast had just ended when a deckhand beckoned to a distant horizon: Aldabra, visible a full day sooner than expected. The spirits consumed by the crew evidently had accelerated our progress. Or perhaps the absence of a First Mate increased efficiency. 🙂 At any rate, but two hours later, we were climbing down a rope ladder into a waiting dinghy and ten minutes after that were on our island home. The Aldabrans were as surprised by our premature arrival as were we. Somehow, they had gotten word that the Nordvaer had been lost at sea.

Home, sweet home…?

Tune in next week…

Parents Gone Feral: Peter and Martha’s Excellent Aldabra Adventure

Having colorful parents who raised you and your siblings in unorthodox ways is considered, these days, a piece of literary luck. Hey, look at you—you have memoir material! (Thinking Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, or, casting farther back, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell—which my own father read aloud to us.)

Don’t worry, this isn’t a pitch to buy my memoir; I’m not writing one. But if I did, the Aldabra Winter would fill a good chapter. And since it really is a good stand-alone story, what better place to share it?

I’ve blogged about my marathoning, Civil Rights activist, lemur-studying, poetry-writing, horse-riding, Quaker school-founding—oh, heck, colorful parents before. But I’ve never written about the Aldabra Winter of 1976-77, when my parents abandoned my sister and me for ten weeks to disappear into the Indian Ocean.

Okay, that was unnecessary drama. I just enjoy thinking of the story that way. In reality, I was 15, my sister was 17 (with the all-important driver’s license), and we had both a Duke student living with us and my grandmother living adjacent. Hardly “abandoned.” But still. These were the days LONG before internet, and Aldabra did not do phones.

So where is Aldabra, and what were Martha and Peter Klopfer doing there? For that I’ll turn to my parents’ Aldabra Journals, which they kept back then, written longhand, and which my dad is now digitizing one by one, a kind of 42-years-later blog. Take it away, Dad.

“Among students of animal behavior, it is commonly believed that if one concentrates ones studies on a particular species, one comes to resemble it.  Doesn’t Konrad Lorenz remind you of an arrogant gander, Niko Tinbergen of a graceful gull, and Karl von Frisch of a preoccupied honey bee?  Given such Noble [Nobel?] examples, we could be forgiven for accepting this belief and thus diversifying our interests so that, by switching from ducks to deer to damselfish, we could avoid a resemblance to the goats which had been our primary subjects.  However, insofar as the U.K.’s Royal Society was concerned, we were still goat-people, so when they and the Smithsonian decided to deal with the depredations of the goats on Aldabra Atoll, we were the ones they called.  The goat population on that isolated island had increased considerably in the past several decades and the fear was that this would adversely impact the large land tortoises, a threatened species, that shared the atoll.

We had been looking at the process by which newborn kids bonded to their mothers, a process that depended on events that were limited to a very short period of time: if bonding did not occur within 5-10 minutes after parturition it would not take place at all. We had reasons to believe these events were mediated by the pituitary hormone, oxytocin, but caprine oxytocin was not commercially available, and we were unwilling to sacrifice animals merely to obtain extracts from their glands.  But, if the goats of Aldabra were due to be slaughtered anyway, harvesting their pituitaries would be a sensible act.  The Royal Society proposed to allow this if, in return, we would document the impact of goats on the tortoises.  With Meg Gould (now Dr. Meg Burke), a doctoral student who was prepared to spend a year in the field, we agreed to undertake the task.

Aldabra is a fly speck in the Indian Ocean, some 400 kilometers northwest of the giant island of Madagascar.  The atoll resembles a flattened doughnut, 30 kilometers long, its width varying from 5 to 10 km.  Most of the interior, the doughnut hole, is a shallow lagoon that connects to the sea through three channels that dissect the rim of the doughnut, dividing it into 4 separate islets.”

Dad and Mom, ready for some serious goat-watching action

Let me take the mic back here to explain, in case you haven’t picked up on it: my dad is an academic, and both his speech and his writing tend toward the, shall we say, multi-syllabic. So let me zip through this next part to say that simply getting to Aldabra was an odyssey in itself. Starting in December of 1976, they left from L.A.–three hours after completing a marathon race!–flew to London, then Nairobi, and finally to Mahe, the main island of the Seychelles. Can you imagine how cramped and sore they must have been? Then they discovered their luggage was missing. OK, back to Dad.

“10 December. – Mahe

The day began with a desperate search for clothing to replace what was in our lost luggage, a search that was largely unsuccessful as local stores only offered sizes appropriate for the local population, who are considerably smaller than we.  But, miraculously, before the day was out, our wandering suitcase was located and we could turn our attention to confirming the arrangements for the final leg of our journey, a three day boatride on the freighter that, twice each year, resupplies the garrison on Aldabra.

The boat in question was an ancient 500 ton tub, the Nordvaer, which plies the Indian and South Pacific Oceans.  We clambered aboard and were escorted to the Captain.  “Sorry”, was how he greeted us, “my First Mate is sick and must be hospitalized.  Maritime law in the Seychelles forbids freighters lacking a Mate to carry passengers”. With the next available trip a full six months distant, we were stunned.  Somehow, in the lengthy discussions that followed, someone came upon the idea of enrolling us in the seamans’ union and then signing us on as members of the crew.  We dashed to the relevant maritime offices, signed various forms, and were officially listed as “supers” aboard the Nordvaer.  The title seemed a bit exalted to us, until, later, we learned “super” stands  for “supernumerary”, and meant we need not stand watches nor handle the engines, but at least we could ignore signs that read “no admission except for crew”.

Mom with the freighter Nordvaer

Stay tuned for the next installment of Aldabra Journals! (Or, as I like to call them, “Where In The World Are Peter And Martha Klopfer?”)

 

 

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Marathoners: Whoops, Too Late

I’m a child of marathon runners, and a distance runner myself. But I have managed to keep the marathon bug at bay my whole life–even the half-marathon! Without going into detail, let’s just say I watched my parents train and race enough to decide, at a young age, that this marathon thing did NOT look like fun.

My folks, in the 1970s, finishing a Ride and Tie—a kind of cross-country marathon with horses, and mountains. (Only the finish looked fun to me!)

The Mate’s and my sons are the children of non-marathoning distance runners. And we thought that they had inherited that particular set of genes. But we thought wrong. This coming weekend, Son Two will run his first marathon, at age 26. Apparently marathoning can skip generations. (Thanks, Mom & Dad.)

Son Two finishing a 5k a few years ago

Actually, I’m fine with the whole thing. Son Two is, admittedly, a tad under-trained, but he’s smart enough to take it easy and even quit at the threat of injury. I also admire the way he got into the race: not the usual “I must test myself” stuff, but “yeah, a friend asked me to keep him company, so I said yes.” And honestly? I’m a little bit proud of the family tradition asserting itself after all.

Not only were my parents marathoners, my mom in particular was a very GOOD one. In the 1970s, when the running craze first peaked, she set a national age-group record at 39. And therein lies a tale.

See, Mom chose the Buffalo to Niagara Marathon as her first–can’t remember why; maybe its lack of giant hills. Because Niagara Falls used to be considered the classic honeymoon spot, and because honeymoons USED to be when nice young women lost their virginity, she was struck with the parallel between running one’s first marathon and…you know. So she wrote a little story about it and sent it to Runner’s World.

Would you believe they thought it was too risqué? (Can’t believe those editors missed the chance to call it “too racy.”) So it never got published (except by my folk’s local track club)…

…until now. Without further ado, in honor of marathoners and women everywhere, I present “Honeymoon At Niagara,” by Martha Klopfer:

They stood together by the railing and gazed at the falls. Entranced at the swirling ropes of falling water, she wondered how such continual motion could resolve itself into something so constant, so beautiful. She raised her eyes to his and he smiled and squeezed her hand. Softly her mind shifted from the mystery of Niagara Falls to that other mystery she was soon to encounter. She was aware of prickles of nervousness and wished she could shrug them off. It wasn’t that she was afraid or thought that she wasn’t ready. In fact, she had gone pretty far already, even if she hadn’t yet gone all the way. It was just that you couldn’t really know what it was like until you had done it.

She leaned closer against him and took comfort from his strength. It was easier for him because he had done it before, and besides, he was a man. What was she worrying about, anyway? Certainly, she had read enough about it. She knew all about the importance of timing, and things like that. He had told her that he had trouble holding himself back long enough, but she didn’t think she’d have that problem. She was more worried about just finishing. No! She didn’t want to start thinking about the mechanics now. The most important thing was to relax. After all, one was supposed to enjoy it.

She shivered in spite of herself, and he put his arm around her and suggested that they go back to the motel. This would not be the time to catch a cold, would it? She heard the nervousness in his laugh and felt a rush of love tinged with amusement. His prior experience didn’t make him immune to the jitters either!

At dinner it was even more obvious to her that he was as nervous as she was. They talked about all sorts of unrelated things, but he was playing with his spaghetti more than eating it. Their half-filled plates were carried away. No doubt the waiter was used to that in Niagara Falls, she thought. It amused her, knowing what hearty appetites they usually had.

Back in their own motel room, they quickly got ready for bed. She suggested watching TV for awhile, because it really was so early. She was glad enough to snuggle against him in bed, but she still sought the distraction of their electronic companion. Was she really ready, she wondered?

Then, firmly decisive, he reached over and turned out the TV and the light. Tenderly he kissed her, then said goodnight, and rolled over. They should both try to get a good night’s sleep before the Marathon tomorrow.

Note: She was 4th of 17 women, 125th of 420 starters overall, in a time of 3 hours, 22 minutes, 12 seconds; age 39. First marathon, and a North American age record.

Notice that last bit? Told you she was good, didn’t I?

Mom still runs. Here she is in 2015, celebrating her 80th birthday with a mile on the track.

Why couldn’t I have inherited those legs???

So here’s to you, son. And you, Mom & Dad. And to all of y’all with more grit than me, doing what’s hard for whatever reason, because you want to test yourself, because it’s there, or just because a friend asked you to. Thanks for your example. Now, GO!!!

Confessions of the Clueless, Part IV: NaNoWriMo Got You Down? Try WriBoYoWaWri!

You’ve heard of NaNoWriMo? (That’s National Novel Writing Month–an annual, Internet-based creative writing project that takes place during the month of November.)

Well, today this clueless author is celebrating something more personal: WriBoYoWaWri. That is… writing the book you (or I, in this case) wanted to write.

When I first published The Flying Burgowski, I told my writing group, “I wanted to write this book, and I did. I wanted people to read it, and they are.”

So later, when I ran into the brick wall fun challenges of marketing and book-selling, my writing buddy Iris Graville (whose memoir, Hiking Naked: a Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance was just published by Homebound Publications) reminded me of what I had said.

“You wanted to write this book, and you did. You wanted people to read it, and they are.”

Later still, when Book Two, Headwinds, came out and people would ask me that highly annoying perfectly innocent question, “So how’s your book selling?” I could always find my “happy place” by reminding myself about WriBoYoWaWri.

(Original photo: Abigail Porter)

You know: Write the Book You Want to Write.

These days, much to my surprise and DEEP gratification, both my sons are turning into novelists. And both are sharing their work, and their thoughts about their work, with me, their author-mama.

The other night, Son Two was stating his intention to end his book in a certain place. “That’ll make it very short,” I warned. “A novella. When I wrote mine, back in the nineties, all the agents I contacted told me they could never sell it.”

Son Two shrugged. “It’s what I…”

And I kicked myself and finished his sentence for him: “…wanted to write. Of COURSE. Do it. Don’t listen to me.” And I meant it.

Son One’s work will likely have the opposite challenge: length. Will I warn him about the difficulties of selling a long novel when your last name isn’t King or Stephenson?

No. No, I will not. I will joyfully chant, Write the Book You Want to Write. And I will MEAN it.

Writers, readers–your thoughts? Will you join me in WriBoYoWaWri? Don’t worry about November. WriBoYoWaWri lasts all year long.

Aw, They Grow Up So Fast: My Lil’ Grandgarden Turns Three

I’m gonna have to stop calling it my Grandgarden. 

Three years ago, when Son Two hacked a couple of rows out of our backyard’s over-shaded, overgrown onetime raspberry patch and stuck a few seeds in, that’s what I called it. Didn’t take any responsibility beyond watering for a few days when he went off-island.

Fast-forward three years. Son Two’s long gone to the east coast. Last year I decided I could handle the responsibility of planting and watering my own seeds. So I did…full of trepidation about getting tied down to another 20 years of garden maintenance (which I thought I’d left behind when Son Two graduated and we moved to an island full of organic farms).

So it’s MY kid garden now.

Nothing ambitious–a few rows of greens. Some broccoli and potatoes. And some strawberries, originally planted by Son Two. Sure, I can handle that. Didn’t even get too bummed when the raccoons beat me to the ripened strawberries.

This year, I cleared a little more. Still didn’t plant anything I wasn’t sure could thrive in such shady conditions.

Secret to success: low standards!

Still didn’t commit myself to fertilizing, beyond a few shovelfulls of compost, or staking. Got too much going on to spend hours out there. But regular minutes, weeding, watering, harvesting? In MY garden, once more?

Yes. And I’m not even counting on those strawberries. The raccoons are even more committed to my garden than I am.

Try not to notice how big those berries are getting…

Thanks, Son Two, for getting me re-started. And my hat’s off to all you COMMITTED gardeners. This semi-committed one is glad you’re there. Got any strawberries, just in case?

Empty Nest vs. Emptiness: There’s A Difference. But It Needs A Name.

Is it only coincidence that “empty nest” sounds so much like “emptiness”?  

Look, Ma, no one to say “Look, Ma”!

Wing Son One left last week for the east coast…after being “home” for a whole five days…mostly, we suspect, because we had his car. J/K. Sort of. No, really, we had a sweet visit–which just made the jolt all the sharper when I came home from work the following day to the empty spot where his car had been parked since last summer.

And that’s when I realized there was no English word for what I was feeling: sweet and sad. NOT “bittersweet.” Bitter implies regret, disappointment, wishing things were otherwise–none of which applies to our feelings about our son. We’re thrilled he’s off on his own. We just miss him like hell. Isn’t that the way parenting is supposed to be?

At least, that’s what my parenting song is about:

It’s OK if you didn’t listen to the song–you’re busy people, and it’s also a terribly amateur recording of my second-ever concert. But here’s what I would like help with: a word for what I’m describing. 

[Note: it isn’t “Schadenfreude,” as some people mistakenly think. Schadenfreude means taking delight in the misfortunes of others.]

Sweet & sad = ? Help me out, readers. What you got? 

 

I spent my Mothers’ Day morning dragging brush to our burn pile. My neighbors, part-time islanders up for the weekend, waved to me from inside their cabin where they appeared to be having brunch. I imagined them shaking their heads over me: “Poor thing, no breakfast in bed for her, no restaurant? Out there working at nine in the morning…hope she got flowers at least.”

Truth is, I was in my element. With out disparate schedules, the Mate and I rarely get to do work projects together any more. On a lovely, sunny day, it feels like a gift. And it’s good marriage glue, besides.

So I was thinking about Mothers’ Day when I got to the burn pile and discovered what The Mate had found a day or two before when the last big pile of brush went up in flames:

Fresh-roasted free-range eggs, anyone?

Our neighbor’s chickens? Not the best parenting decisions.

That reminded me of the swallows we’re usually battling this year, trying to keep them from nesting in our garage–or, more accurately, from pooping all over our garage. The nesting ain’t the problem. But there’s no picture of that, ’cause they haven’t shown up this year. Could it be that we’ve finally terrorized the poor things sufficiently, knocking their nest attempts down with a broom and blocking their entry off with deer netting?

So, the swallows get an A in parenting this year. At least so far.

And then there’s the robin who built this nest on the ladder The Mate attached to the side of our house:

Cozy little fixer-upper, good schools nearby…

As you can see, we allowed this nest to stay. Clearly excellent choices on the part of those bird-parents. Right?

Secret to a great life: choose parents who make good choices.

Of course not. These parental ratings are all artificial constructs I’m applying in accordance with the rules I’m setting: THIS ground is for burning. THIS is for storage. THAT yard…yes, good. Good bird. Good choice.

Suddenly the parallel with people was overwhelming. Parents raising children in “bad neighborhoods”–how much choice do they have? In our society, who are the chickens, the swallows, the robins? Who’s in charge of the burn pile, the garage, the ladder on the side of the house?