Fish Magic

Yesterday, after a long hiatus from fishing due to a broken collar bone, Felipe our caretaker, caught three fish. My dad and I were duly impressed that he hadn’t lost his touch with the fishing line. A friend of mine, who has a reputation for being a successful fisherman, says that it’s all about numbers. “You catch one fish for every thousand casts.” Felipe’s odds are more like three to ten. He’s a ringer. And unlike the guys who drive down here from Colorado, California and Portland, he uses nothing but a hand line.

Most of the local Mexicans use hand lines to fish. It is literally just fishing line, a weight and a hook with some bait, and in Felipe’s case he keeps the line organized and under control by wrapping it around a 4”x3” piece of wood. The weight is often makeshift, a stainless steel nut or other piece of heavy metal. Casting is a technique that takes some skill. He swings the line in a circle over his head as if it were a lariat and then throws it into the surf. The casting is critically timed with the surf action, so that the out-flowing water takes the line into deeper water rather than pushing it back to shore.

The fish Felipe caught yesterday were all what he calls pescado blanco (white fish). These are what other Mexican’s call “lisa” or white mullet. When I asked him what he did with them, he said he cooked one for the dogs that morning and that he’d eat one later that day. I asked him if he thought he might be able to catch a guatchinango (red snapper, my favorite fish) for me to share with my father. He looked at me confidently and said he would catch one the following day. He said he’d seen some in the waves that morning. I was a bit surprised by his confident declaration and didn’t put much faith in it.

The next morning upon rising I looked down the beach to see Felipe fishing with three of our dogs lying in the sand nearby. It was comforting to see him back in his usual position casting out into the surf. I went about my morning routine, but a couple hours later a knock came at the door.

“I have your guatchinango,” he said, nonplussed. “If you come to my house to get it in a few minutes, I will have it gutted and scaled for you.”

I thanked him, closed the door, and still not really believing it myself went out to the patio to my dad the news.

“No!” he said in utter disbelief.

Later when Felipe handed the fish to me, I noticed it was the perfect size for three people to share. My dad and I had a dinner date that evening with my friend the artist.

If you know anything about fishing, you know that this was a virtual miracle. I felt a bit like Captain Picard of the Star Ship Enterprise – it was as though I’d issued my command to Felipe, “Make it so.” My artist friend said it speaks to my ability to dictate my desires to the Universe, but I think it says more about Felipe’s ability as a fisherman.

The local ranchers have often commented to me about his ability to catch fish as though he has some kind of gift.

When the subject comes up more than once one of them has said, “Felipe is a good fisherman. He always catches fish even when others come home still hungry.”

I never put much stock in what they said and figured it had more to do with how often he fished than the results. They are ranchers after all and I guessed would be prone to making assumptions about his abilities. How could they know how good a fisher he was? I also imagined Felipe would, in his manner, smile shyly and not correct them when they said, “So Felipe you must be quite the fisherman?” But what I didn’t realize was that their knowledge was, in fact, first hand.

Yesterday, Felipe came to the house to tell me he was leaving to walk three miles to his friend Lloyd’s ranch.

“What for?” I asked, always wary of the potential for him to get fall-down drunk when he leaves the property.

He looked at me like I he was always beyond reproach and said, “I want to take the extra fish I caught to Lloyd.”

“Do you want a ride?” I offered.

“If you’re going to drive,” he said matter-of-factly, “why don’t you take it to them yourself?”

Lloyd’s ranch is a modest place, a concrete block home painted white with no stucco on the blocks. The ground around the house is bare sand with a few sprigs of dry grass, most of chewed short by the goats. I was greeted noisily by a couple of very skinny dogs, followed by Lloyd’s wife, Luisa.

When I pulled the fish out and handed it to her, she told me he often gives them his catch. I inquired further and discovered Felipe gives a great deal of the fish he catches away. To families who live in ramshackle houses with dirt floors, no electricity, no plumbing and often not much in the way of food. Families who are truly “dirt poor.”  They are right – he does have a gift.

Animal Insight

The day before I leave Mexico to go somewhere there are several preparations to be made. The packing must be done, the dog food moved to the bed of the pickup truck outside so that it is accessible, but not too accessible.

While I am gone, our caretaker, Felipe, will keep a large food bowl full, so the dogs can eat whenever they want to. Of course, what actually occurs is that the most dominant dogs eat to their hearts’ content and the lesser dogs must be content to steal a bite here and there when the others are not looking or are off hunting desert hare in the hills nearby.

Interestingly, even though I only just started preparations, yesterday the dogs already knew something is afoot. Normally, they are content, even happy throughout the day, lazing about near or in the house. Yesterday, this behavior changed and more time was spent hanging out at Felipe’s house. And today Zee, arguably the most intelligent of the group, lays in the garage looking quite depressed. Of course, as soon as they see the suitcase, they will all turn despondent and anxious.

Anyone who has spent enough time with animals will agree they are quite capable of feeling and expressing deep emotions. Thanks to people like Jane Goodall awareness is increasing that the intelligence and emotional capabilities of animals are far greater than the bulk of humans gives them credit for. It is actually pretty damned arrogant to think that we are the only ones capable of feeling emotion and possessing intelligence considering we all share a common ancestor.

Stacey O’Brien, in her best-selling book Wesley the Owl, explains that there is increasing evidence that animals use telepathy to communicate with and understand humans. She tested this theory when she realized she would have to trim the talons and beak of the owl she had raised from the time he was four days old. Due to years of prior experience with Wesley, Stacy knew that an owl, being incredibly sensitive to change and strange objects, wouldn’t submit to having ANY of its parts trimmed without a great struggle. The struggle, in turn, could lead to the death of the owl – anxiety can be deadly to these birds.

So, instead of using force, over the course of three weeks Stacey visualized what she wanted to do with the trimmers and beak file. She also demonstrated to him what they were for by using them on inanimate objects and herself (filing her nails for example). She reasoned that he had learned other behaviors from watching her, why not this one? At the end of the three weeks, when she approached him with the beak file, Wesley literally closed his eyes and let her go to work without a struggle. He remained calm throughout both procedures. Now anyone who has tried to trim their cat’s or dog’s nails knows what a feat this is, especially on an older animal who has never experienced it.

Afterwards, Stacey says that their bond had obviously deepened and he exhibited new behaviors indicating his increased trust in her. He even slept with his head tucked under her chin and his wings open and laid over her shoulders in a kind of “owl hug.”

In my personal experience, I have discovered that by talking to animals they gradually learn what the phrases mean. If I say “who wants chicken?!” they all come running, tails wagging, saliva running out the sides of their mouths. If I say “wanna go to the beach?” they similarly get excited and start heading out the door and down the path to the beach. On the other hand, if I say “watch the house puppies,” they know that I am leaving and they are supposed to stay home. The more I talk to them, the more they understand and the more mutually satisfying is our relationship. Treating animals with kindness and compassion, like the sentient beings they are, allows the depth of our relationship to grow.

Now I better get outside and explain to the dogs that I’m only leaving for a week.

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To buy a copy of Stacy O’Brien’s book Wesley the Owl CLICK HERE.

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Small Town Big Heart

I’m spending Christmas and New Years with my family in eastern Canada. In the snow and ice of a typical Canadian winter. The beauty of a Canadian winter is something to behold, particularly in the countryside where time is being spent. Snow and ice on tree boughs twinkle like diamonds and farmers’ fields lay quiet and expansive under their white shroud. Christmas lights on trees and homes are reflected on the glistening snow and ice. It all makes quite an impression.
Something else that is making an impression on me is the tiny town of Vankleek Hill, Ontario – the same town where I spent my childhood. It is apparent that this town’s people have a kindness and generosity of spirit not experienced elsewhere. Certainly, the expression about not being able to go home again wasn’t penned by anyone who grew up here.
Take for example the woman, the friend of my cousin, whom I just met while visiting at her lovely home: upon hearing that my winter parka had gone missing, she offered her daughter’s long and cozy winter coat. Her daughter, she explained, only needed it when she visited (much like in the current circumstance). At first I thought this too generous an offer to accept, but it was clear that she was genuine in her desire to be helpful. The coat is much appreciated and makes long walks on cold and snowy days possible and quite enjoyable.
A community member died recently. While at a gathering, I heard that one of the women was busy all morning making sandwiches for the mourners. When I said, “I didn’t know you were related to that family,” she clarified that she is not, but that a group of community members had done this beautiful thing as a matter of course, regardless of their relationship to the deceased.
Before this all starts to sound idyllic, it bears stating that there are misunderstandings and petty grievances here like there are anywhere. And in a town with less than 2000 residents, one also must get used to their business being a matter of public scrutiny more often than it would be in a larger community. But it certainly seems, as one travels from place to place in town, that the simple life being led by the majority of Vankleek Hillians, makes them a happier, more compassionate group.
Why might this be? Is there something that they are doing that makes them this way? Is it peculiar to this area, the province or this country?
Most of the people in this area are Scottish descendents who came here in the late 18th century when the land they had farmed for generations was “cleared” of its long-term resident farmers so that the presumed owners could practice increasingly profitable sheep farming.
Displaced from their homes, often without notice and violently, they made the long and arduous journey by ship to the growing colonies in the US and Canada in the hope of finding a better life. Upon their arrival, many discovered that there was land available, for free, from the fledgling Canadian government, on which they could settle and farm. Moreover, they could own the land – something that in Scotland had been denied them and their fore bearers.
For over 200 years the Scottish settlers and their descendents have farmed in eastern Canada. The area around Vankleek Hill is surrounded by farms owned by these Scots. The streets and surrounding villages bear their names and their dying language (Gaelic). They did indeed find what they were looking for in Canada, and rather than let a history of pain and dispossession consume them with anger, they have created an atmosphere full of care and respect – a better life for anyone who would live among them.
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More information on Vankleek Hill, Ontario, Canada
More information on the Scottish Highland Clearances
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