Yggdrasil, in Newbury.

Once upon a time, when the line between myth and history was even thinner than today, there was a tree called Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Nordic myth tells us that Yggdrasil was the nucleus that connected the 9 worlds: the world of the humans (Midgard) and those worlds of the two tribes of Norse gods (Asgard and Vanaheim), the world of the giants (Jotunheim), the primordial worlds of fire (Muspelheim) and ice (Niflheim), the worlds of Alfheim (elves) and Svartalfheim (dwarves), and Hel (well…).

Yggdrasil’s roots held the underworld down, and kept Midgard (land of mere mortals) at a neutral place, where prankster-gods like Loki couldn’t cause (as much) mischief from his perch on the upper Asgardian branches. That said, according to legend, he did his fair share. Yggdrasil was the home to myriad woodland creatures and a dragon, and was the epicenter of woodland resources. I paraphrase (and probably get some of it wrong), but if Yggdrasil were to fall, this would signal the end of days.

Oh, the irony.

So yesterday, when I wandered along a new trail and came out of the forest into a meadow on a hilltop, where this gleaming green giant simultaneously welcomed one into, graced, and held dominion over the space, I was awed. Yggdrasil is merely a symbol, of course, because gods and dwarfs and elves and giants don’t really exist. But the World Tree, whose roots tether the real world in all its fragility to the stories, and reach down into the well of Mimir, whose waters hold the depths of knowledge (sought by Odin for which he sacrificed an eye, but that’s another story), stands tall and solid and proud nonetheless.

Trees hold the keys to the wisdom of the land. One must be kind to nature (or trade an eye?) to drink from its well. But, I digress…

Norse Mythology is especially fascinating to me because if you look at it in parallel to the other polytheistic belief systems and their pantheon of gods and goddesses (Hindu, Greek, Roman, etc.), there are striking connections between their symbols and stories and philosophies, yet the Scandinavian relationship with the natural world is much more deeply-pronounced, as evidenced in their folklore (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface!).

I’m spending more time on local trails in these dragging Corona months, hunting egrets for marshy photoshoots, seeking refuge in quiet, wilder spaces (nearby, with safe social distancing and the fewer people the better); escaping the trappings of Zoom meetings and over-blocked Outlook calendars, daydreaming of the day I can hop a flight and head East. If I’m honest, where is of less concern to me right now than when.

But before I wander down a forest path and get lost in a macramé of Indra and Zeus and Thor and Jupiter, I’ll come back to my quiet present, walking these trails with flamboyant ancient characters spinning their stories in my mind, blue skies holding any thunderstorms at bay. Thanks to Surya or Freyr or Ra or Apollo or Sol for the skies on this brilliant afternoon!

So before me stands Yggdrasil, or a simple Oak (or beech or ??) standing tall, surrounded by a ring of boulders. Mind wanders to covens or whatever the collective noun is for philosophers, scholars, arborists, students or, like me, curious photographers that have stumbled upon this wonder… The tree, and its empty auditorium, stands in a meadow whose ridge overlooks the overbuilt town below. The clear day enables me to see beyond the rooftops towards the sandy shores of Plum Island, and from there, out to the Atlantic, only a few miles away as the osprey flies.

I sit in the embrace of Yggdrasil’s shade for minutes, or maybe half an hour, contemplating what, I can’t now remember. But the shriek of a quite small but very insistent human (read: petulant) refusing to move any further “or else” jolts me out of my quiet reverie and back into the real world of he who yells loudest gets the snacks. I get a “he does this all the time” look from the mother and Damien gets rewarded in the form of a juice box and cheese crackers, the bright orange ones whose cello packaging I often see littering the beach. Practice is stopping there: you don’t know her circumstances, I remind myself, and wish them happy trails as I traipse onwards.

I look to the tree as if it could understand my dismay with the world as it is, envisioning the irony of a tree offering a hug to a human, understanding its precarious footing these days.

The birdsong resumes, as does my walk. I spot a scarlet tanager, a fleeting flicker of blood-red in the lush green treetops, and I remind myself to log these outings as I do each of my dives. When we log experiences, we are less likely to take them for granted, I suspect.

I end the day with egrets and an oriole (or was it an American redstart?) and big toads and slithery garter snakes; even a curious white-tailed deer who looked on, perhaps even entertained, as I was assaulted by greenheads (note to self: leap year or non, these f*ckers are always on time).

And there it is: another Day ticked. In the logbook of my mind, I note that as with the now-waning light, we are entering into the spring of the last half of this famously infamous year. I’ll look to the gods of humility and patience and tolerance and forgiveness and humour to guide me through these next trees.

Safari-in-Place: A Lockdown Safari Story.

There are so many places on this planet I’d rather be right now, and for so many reasons… I’ve missed my niece’s graduation and also a half-baked, not-yet-actually-planned hiking adventure with my favourite co-conspirator. I’ve put off summer plans for a photography expedition with said niece, and I’ve all but lost hope for fall intentions. I’m trying not to think more than a few weeks out right now; even that seems like a massive, whale-gray bank of fog I’m not prepared to chisel through as yet.

So to get out of my own house (and head) if only for a few hours this weekend, I made it a mission to go somewhere I’d never been.

There’s an obscure nature reserve across from a just slightly less obscure one*. I figured out how to get here last weekend, but it was high tide and I didn’t have the right boots to walk the tide-swamped chemin rocheux.

This was last weekend, and the impassable rocky path…see, it’s a little boggy in the middle?

So this weekend I decided to try again, first checking the tide tables and moon phase, which sounds like a fairly new-agey thing to do, but when a full moon can make or break an outing in these parts, it’s worth the effort. The Universe is working in my favour: I had two hours before high tide, and the moon an agreeable waxing crescent. I donned the correct footwear just to be safe**.

This place was deserted, and it was refreshing to be alone in nature, rather than alone in the bubble I’ve occupied for the past 3 months. It felt like I had an alien landscape all to myself. Actually, it reminded me of the Okavango Delta; so much so, that had an ele been foraging in the reeds, I might not have been entirely surprised. Except, of course, that this is New England, on the East Coast of the entirely wrong continent, so there’s that.

I’ll call it a Lockdown Safari; a much-needed escape from this weird hamster wheel we’ve been riding, and a reminder that it’s okay (read: necessary) to step off this merry-go-round if nothing else but to remember that there’s a “there” out there… and even though it’s not Norway or Turkey or Germany or Spain or East Africa or Indonesia or Greece or a dozen of the other places that were or would-have-been under consideration for a visit, it’s still a place I’d never been, full of vibrant springtime colours and resounding birdsong. And a field of poison ivy, the likes of which I’ve never seen…

Today I’m grateful to be able to take at least this small dose of vitamin N(ature), and I’m happy to report that my LightRoom catalogue is looking quite like a page from an Audubon book these days. I’m grateful for the technology that makes it feel like the rest of the world is still there, outside these little personal bubbles in which we’re all semi-trapped; I’m grateful for relative health and thankful for those working so hard to keep us safe. I’m thinking about my niece, whose graduation was a webcast, and my proud-aunt cheers were sadly sent via text and .gif. (Jules, I’m taking you on an adventure as soon as we are able to go!!)

My own recent Audubon collection: Red bellied woodpecker, yellow warbler, osprey, eastern bluebird, bobolink, eastern kingbird, brown-headed cowbird***

I went to sleep last night feeling that same mix of anxiety and hope and gratitude and quiet paranoia, that dull ache in the pit of my stomach I’ve felt each night of the past several months now. I know I’m not alone, but it’s vexing to fall asleep each night wondering what is this? When will it end? Is it just the beginning? What’s next?

What’s next indeed.


*This place is on the back side of a much less obscure place; that one, the more popular and now closed to car traffic one, is likely in that state because of some entitled individuals exercising their right to… to what exactly? But that’s an entirely separate rant!

**N.B.: Living in New England, I’ve noted that one needs at least 8 different genres of footwear (rain, snow, hot, cold, running, walking, mucky, working) and ditto outerwear, as seasons change haphazardly and frequently (and frequently haphazardly!) here.

***Also very cool for bird freaks, or even wanna-be bird-heads: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has put out a fantastic bird-finding app, called eBird, with photo ID, bird calls and a quick bird ID library for birds around the globe. Find it here: https://ebird.org/home.

Onwards through the fireswamp

Yep. Travel plans are pretty much in limbo for the foreseeable future. So any pipe dreams for diving in April or hiking in May are certainly dashed. Don’t even know if my niece’s graduation over Memorial Day Weekend is a possibility at this point, even a month and a half away. They’ve closed schools here until May. We’re on semi-lockdown and there is still a shortage of toilet paper and dry goods in the grocery stores. It’s madness. It’s weirdness. It’s an unsettled quiet like I’ve never known in my lifetime, even after 9/11. And my stepmother put it well the other night: those events, 9/11, the Marathon bombing, Paris, Brussels…they all were time-boxed. There was a thing, it happened, then it was over and we moved to the healing phase. This thing, it has tentacles and 6300 legs, and we don’t know who it will touch next, or where (or if it has already come… or gone).

So if you’re like me, you may be feeling antsy and anxious and cooped up and sad and worried and exasperated and exhausted and near-claustrophobic, over-worked, under-slept, and really very laden. I’m often the go-to person, but in all honesty I am out of ideas at this point. I’m simultaneously managing my own isolation, my dog’s demise (he has recently been diagnosed with lymphoma) and a work cadence/velocity/schedule that I never signed up for. I’m feeling more than a little broken. So I was thinking that since most of the things that keep me sane and keep me, me are in the realm of wandering and pondering and investigating and, yeah, travelling… instead of a travel blog post, I’d craft an inertia post.

Except I really don’t know how to write about inertia, unless it’s about ways to avoid it! This point in time feels like a game of hopscotch through a fireswamp where the rules are more or less arbitrary and are subject to change without notice. But here goes: my guide for surviving this Corona-lockdown-madness without actually succumbing to it or being eaten by monsters along the way.

In no particular order:

Move. My goal: 10-15,000 steps a day; 10+km on nice days. Walking the dog. Walking on the treadmill. Walking around the flat at 11:30 in a zombie state to clock those last 550 steps before bed. They all count. And when the dog only wants to walk to the end of the block and won’t poop when you want him to, the steps still need to be stepped. As an old Rollerblade friend used to say, “if you stop, you die.”

Stop. As important as activity is, being still and letting go of all the news, chatter, stuff you just cannot control is maybe even more-so. Stretch. Read. Hug the dog. Sit in a quiet corner under a blanket with a space heater pointed at yourself, listening to the Liquid Mind channel on Amazon Music; close your eyes and feel the warmth and the music and know that there is an “other side” to this worldwide hell we’ve collectively entered. We’ll come out into the vernal sunlight as new hatchlings with a clean slate to fill. Stop. Breathe. Cultivate hope.

Engage. This is perhaps surprising coming from a card-carrying introvert. Here’s the thing that is most shocking to me: we introverts have built a lifestyle around choosing when and with whom to interact. We make these choices carefully and deliberately, avoiding gatherings and social interaction unless absolutely necessary or with intentionally-selected others. Social Distancing is really one of our artforms. But here’s what I’m learning about myself in these strange days… because I am careful about how I spend my social time, it tends to be infrequent but of high-quality. So now that I’m not even allowed that, I feel boxed-in; even more imprisoned within my own existence than I’ve ever felt. I’m not craving parties and social events, I’m craving connection. More specifically, I’m feeling isolated from those who make me feel like a better version of myself. And more-so because I’m not allowed to see them. (N.B.: Introverts do not like rules imposed over their own social rules.)

So, yeah, engage. But now, electronically.

It doesn’t feel quite right and it’s not in any way solving my need to be free and adventuresome with those I care about, but I’m doing yoga online with my teacher of 12+ years. At work, even though my team is distributed across the globe, we’re super-connected. We’ve been doing more meetings with our webcams set to “on” these days, and it’s nice to see the faces of those I interact with so often (just have to do something about the quantity of meetings…). I’m still not talking on the phone because I hate it, but the WhatsApp calls with those closest to me are a bright light in my day.

I said this to a friend the other day: I feel like those that remain in our lives after this thing is done with us are the only ones that really matter.

Hope. Life is upside down right now for most of us, trying to bodge together some semblance of normal today and to figure out where to go next with this invisible thing that shatters the boundaries within which we feel safe. Work, friends, family, school… Fences have been erected between the different parts of our lives, forcing us to get creative, think differently, look at our social structures with a fresh lens, reassess priorities, act more humanely. These weeks, although stressful and overwhelming, I’ve observed more simple kindnesses, put more faces to names on those videoconferences, heard more please and thank yous, and seen collaboration like I’ve never seen before.

There’s a glimmer of hope. That we’ll emerge from our coccoons on tentative new wings, more careful and more kind and more aware of the fragility of the present.

Observe. Quiet times afford us the opportunity to watch and to really listen. I’d love to be in one of these madhouse places that have for the moment gone silent: Delhi, Istanbul, Bangkok even… A place where if you stop the modern madness it will take you back in time. Where the migratory birds can be heard and the blue skies dawn like a new era. The scent of spices and flowers and home cooking emerge from behind the smog. The green shoots of spring, visible in a quiet and locked-down new reality.

But I’m here, trying to mesh the sadness of my home with the frenzy of my work with the uncertainty of all That out there… I’m checking in: with myself to make sure I’m okay as I get up each quiet day; with my dog to make sure he’s breathing, and then that he’s enjoying these last weeks he’s got here; with those close to me (and those also slightly broken), because connecting with them these days helps me feel like there’s still an opportunity to make a difference even in a cattywampus world.


The croci have come, as have the daffs and the forsythia… the songbirds are making their way back, and the undertones of spring wafts in the air. There’s hope. There’s springtime haiku. Travel will happen. Projects will end. Hugs will be allowed once again.

The crazy thing in all this is the silver, or maybe green, lining. Fewer cars, less unnecessary air travel, more walking, ironically-less excess. There’s a glimmer of hope that maybe we’re injecting more peace or less ugliness into the world by coming together on such a universal level that the batshit crazy powers that be won’t be able to stop it.

Video interlude: All We Are/Matt Nathanson (Some Mad Hope)

Day by day we have to get through these things that feel like monstrous hurdles where regular life used to be. Onwards through the fireswamp, I say, because the alternative is unthinkable.

An introvert’s guide to solo travel: 5 rules to a successful adventure

I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!

There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.

It begins like this…

I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.

I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.

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Southeast Asia, Part VI: Bagan, a Sea of Ancient Relics

I’d seen photos of this place for years: its ancient temple-tops peering out over the jungle canopy, fog burning off across the landscape, a sea of relics strewn across a massive plain, a centuries-old board game interrupted by the future. Like something out of an adventure movie, Bagan called to me.

And so it was that I travelled from Inle Lake to Bagan to start this leg of the journey.

I arrive in the evening (a far less traumatic taxi ride than the last), my taxi depositing me at the hotel, a gardened temple replica tucked behind a tour bus-filled street thronging with supping masses. A pit of dread lodges in my stomach as I hope my experience here wouldn’t be this, erm, crowded. The staff: doting; the room: miniscule. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on spending much time inside anyway.

Bagan is an ancient sacred Burmese city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the summer of 2018. That means protection and restoration (and the climbing of temples now prohibited), but it also means it’s not an under-the-radar destination anymore. I’m glad I’m seeing it now.

Essentially, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is a minefield of temples and stupas and pagodas and monasteries strewn across a 100 sq km area, encompassing over 3500 complexes built between the 11th and 13th centuries. In its day, there were over 4000, and by some estimates there are/were over 10,000 individual structures here.

My first day’s mission was to see some of the larger sites. I hired an e-bike and set off. You pay the equivalent of about $5 for a day’s rental of a silent scooter to shuttle you about Bagan. It’s necessary, I soon learn, as the place is enormous, and the air is hot and dry. If nothing else, the breeze is refreshing as the red dust nestles, well, everywhere!

I make it to the Shwezigon Paya early-ish, and the market is not yet in full swing. A pushy but not unfriendly woman points out a good place to park my scooter, and duly notes a good place to leave my shoes while I wander the site. She comments that I should come visit her shop in the market on my way out. Similar to Shwedagon in Yangon, this paya is thronged with tourists even at this early hour, so once I’m done, I bee-line it out of there to get to some of the other sites before the mobs do. The experience walking through the gallery on the way out of the pagoda made me feel not unlike a piece of meat: vendors, like dogs, drooling and nipping at me to get me to buy something; some more rabid than others.

Annoyed by the time I get to the door where I left my shoes, I was verging on incensed when I realised they weren’t there. The lady at the shop has them I was informed. My shoes are being held ransom I thought. After gathering my shoes from the woman, at the risk of being hexed for not making a purchase, I hastily make my way out of there.

I was not enjoying Bagan at all as yet.

The thing about Bagan is that there is a temple of some sort pretty much every 20 feet. So I head down the main road towards Old Bagan, joining the melange of motorbikes, horse-drawn buggies, taxis and e-scooters going my way. In the process, I found some pretty amazing sites. I also tracked down the only Hindu temple in Bagan, which is also said to be the oldest here, built in the 10th or 11th century. It is a temple to Vishnu and houses statues and wall paintings not only of Vishnu, but also of Brahma, Shiva and Ganesha.

I spend the rest of the day alternately cursing tour buses (and their occupants) and gaping wide-mouthed at the temples large and small, as I maneuver around the sites on my e-bike. It is really no wonder they’re here (the tourists, that is), but the crowds also make for a less-than wonderful experience. The afternoon wanes, and in trying to escape the throngs and hawkers and sleazy tour mongers (want to see the sunset? … want to buy this [trinket/bauble/blanket/hat/postcard/painting]?…want to go to a secret spot to climb a temple?), I finally find a hilltop from which to watch the sunset (empty when I arrive but full as the sun dips below the horizon).

I end the day not overly impressed with the Bagan experience thus far, while being simultaneously floored by the architectural wonders around me.

My goal for Day 2 is to avoid the swarms and visit only sites that have no parking lots, no tourist buses, no mobs of people milling about. Before I embark on this mission, my morning starts with one of the 2 or 3 splurgiest things I’ve ever done: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan.

It was a surreal hour, beginning as the sun came up, and ending with us landed in a field, drinking a glass of champagne (as one does).

Hedonistic as it was, the flight really helped put the scale of this place into perspective! Each temple, pagoda, stupa, or monastery feels like it ought to be an historic site on its own, so seeing this (collective) wonder from above was just an amazing experience. Highly recommended!

I spend the rest of the day scooting around the city, taking interesting-looking and/or less-travelled dirt roads (one even led me into someone’s yard!!), then wandering down bramble-lined paths among and between the ancient structures… I explored large temples and small, even stumbled upon a spectacular monastic complex hiding in plain sight.

This day ended with me feeling fuller, and more fulfilled, than I did the day before. I even took in a traditional puppet show at dinner.

In a nutshell, I spent two very long but very different days amongst these ruins at Bagan, seeing the well-known and the, well, not-so-much. Some of the sites clearly generated something like magnetism for me, drawing me in through their stone archways and ancient doors. And some made me want to forget that I’d ever been there. There is certainly energy afoot, and it’s not surprising that each of the structures calls to different people differently: what I find fascinating might be a dull pile of old brick to the next wanderer-by; the ghosts of each temple chanting centuries of silence to those who listen carefully.

I said goodbye to Bagan before dawn this morning and boarded a boat to Mandalay, hoping one day to be back.


Read More: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV] [Part V]