Red Egg Jewelry

Red Egg prayer beads and jewelry

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Mallikjuag Island, Nunavut

You have to read the tides right if you want to cross on foot to Mallikjuag Island.

So Pootoojoo Elee had called the elder to get the best estimate of when low tide would be.

Still when we arrived where we could cross, the tide was already coming in.

And Pootoojoo thought it was too late to cross.

“C’mon,” I called back, hurrying ahead. “We can still make it, can’t we?” I felt like I was rockhopping up San Carpoforo Creek, back home in the Sur.

But north and south mean something different here.

We did make it across, but by now the tide had come up so high that we couldn’t entirely follow along the shore. We had to scramble up the rocky slope. If you click on the photo above, you’ll be able to make out the thin pencil-line of stones where we crossed. Though stones are still visible, had we crossed even ten minutes later, Pootoojoo said we’d have been stuck in places where water would’ve already been rushing above our knees.

While on Mallikjuag Island, the tracks we saw ahead of ours were an Arctic silver fox’s, most likely stalking collared lemmings, like the one we saw dart into rocks quicker than a camera click.

And the skeleton of a beached beluga whale.

Pootoojoo saw in the vertebrae the possibility of two or three carved owls.

Several times before and after we had arrived in Nunavut, people who knew told us pointedly to be aware of polar bears.

It was not meant as an idle injunction. This bear was killed near town just a couple days before we arrived. “A small one,” Pootoojoo said. “Probably only seven and a half feet or so.” He has friends who have been mauled.

So I asked the obvious question.

“Are you carrying a sidearm in that bag?”

“Something like that,” Pootoojoo said.

“Is it enough to stop a bear?”

“Let’s hope we won’t have to find out,” he said.

Isaci Etidloi calls this sculpture a man could die at any time.

There are other beings in this land as well. And I was astonished to learn a precise word for them.

Ijjigait, they are called. The word means those fleeting glimpses you might get out of the corner of your eye -- too fleeting for you to recognize, but they leave you with the vague feeling that one of the old ones might have just appeared.

I shouldn’t speak of them.

But we were approaching the rim of a small lake…

…ringed with the depressions of sod and stone homes built perhaps two millennia ago.

They’d crib roofs from whale bones and then cover them with skins and sod.

People have lived in the Arctic for at least 10,000 years, crossing from Siberia in migrations of a pan-Arctic culture. Thule people, ancestors of the Inuit, arrived during a warming trend a thousand years ago. They hunted bowhead whales and other large sea-mammals from open boats and gradually displaced the earlier Paleoeskimo Dorset culture.

The Thule and Inuit have been nomadic people living in seasonal camps and hunting sea mammals and following caribou migrations in their qamutiik (dog-sleds) and qajait (skin-covered hunting canoes).

Inuits' nomadic hunting life in camps ended only fifty years ago. It’s hard to think of a more accelerated change in a culture.

Pauta Saila has lived in both worlds. He was born in a caribou hunting camp in 1916. His father took him everywhere with him, and Pauta learned how to survive out on the land. His father taught him never to rush – but always to wait for the weather. By the time he was sixteen, Pauta was driving a dog-team on his own.

His first wife is in the center of this photograph.

As a carver, Pauta’s signature is the dancing polar bear. He has an affinity for polar bears. If you do not bother them, they will not bother you, he thinks.

One day as Pauta sat on his porch smoking, people inside the church across from him suddenly began gesticulating wildly to him. Pauta turned around and saw a polar bear right behind him. Figuring that the bear was interested in the walrus meat being stored outside, Pauta took a piece, reached down, and handed it to the bear. The bear waited patiently, took the walrus meat gently, and wandered off.

Pauta and his current wife, the printmaker and carver Pitaloosie Pudlat Saila, and their great grand-daughter.

In Pauta and Pitaloosie’s kitchen hang these ulus. They serve many functions, including cutting muqtaaq from a whale.

They are also used for scraping clean sealskin.

Pauta is the oldest member of his community and hopes to do one more carving.

Pootoojoo had more he wanted to show us on Mallikjuag Island.

Like this burial site that is perhaps a thousand years old.

The skeleton inside is of an enormous man, Pootoojoo points out. There are sites in Nunavut where such large stones have been moved that anthropologists conjecture that among the peoples who once lived here might have been people who were nearly giants.

Once young men from town disturbed these sites. In fact, one young man took two skulls and kept them in his room. Shortly afterwards he committed suicide, and the elders then returned the skulls where they belong.

The stone cairns on the right are for perching your qajaq off the ground.

If you do not do this, the dogs you’ve brought with you will eat through the sealskin of your canoe.

There are many theories about the purposes of these ancient inuksuit. The word means something like made to resemble someone. They can be seen for miles, and among other things, are likely directional markers.

This inuksuk points towards northern fishing camps. A collection of inuksuit gathered together likely indicates that you have come into a particularly powerful place.

In old Inuit stories, when you pass beyond inuksuit, you have truly entered a trackless, wild world.

And it was time for us to be heading back ourselves.

Much as we wanted to linger.

Much as there was to talk…

…and brood about.

We had come at the perfect time. It hadn’t gotten cold yet. It was only zero degrees out, and the inlet hadn’t frozen.

Pootoojoo thought he had arranged for a canoe to pick us up. But no boat was appearing.

And he thought there was a chance that a blizzard could be coming in. There had been a blizzard two nights before.

We could walk back the way we had come, but the tide wouldn’t be low enough for that for three or four hours more – and it would be plenty dark by then.

Finally, a canoe entered the inlet, coming from the fishing camps further north. Pootoojoo waved a blanket to call the canoe to shore.

And soon we were crossing the inlet again, this time by canoe.

Not only had the family had a successful weekend at the fishing camp, but the next day they discovered they had also caught a beluga whale in their fishing net tethered in the inlet. There would be a feast that night.

And we were back as well.



When we blog, the date that appears is the date the entry is posted. Our itinerary below gives the actual dates of where we are – or plan to be. For example, we're in Ottawa as we post this -- and soon will be on our way to Iceland.

Please send us your own experiences – and suggestions – for travel in these places.

Oct 7-8Atlanta
Oct 9-10Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Oct 11-12Atlanta
Oct 13-16Toronto
Oct 17-20Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut
Oct 21-23Ottawa
Oct 24-Nov1Iceland
Nov 2-7Scotland
Nov 8-17Liverpool and Wales
Nov 18-24Ireland
Nov 25-Dec 1London
Dec 2-17Italy (San Vicenzo, Camaldoli, Ravenna – and other places in the north)
Dec 18-Jan 6Poland (Krakow, Krosno, Czestochowa, Warsaw)

Up to this point, our itinerary is fairly firmly set. Below becomes a rough estimate of what we think might transpire.

Jan 7-12Istanbul
Jan 13-20Cairo and Luxor (Mt. Sinai?)
Jan 21-Feb 4Kenya (Red Rhino Orphanage)
Feb 5-Feb 11 Ethiopia
Feb 12-17Tanzania
Feb 18-23Niger
Feb 24-28India…
Feb 29-Mar 5 Dharamsala
Mar 6-13Kathmandu, Nepal
Mar 14-20Tamil Nada (Shantivanam)
Mar 21-26Laos
Mar 27-Apr 3Cambodia (Angkor Wat, Phnum Penh, Siem Reap)
Apr 4-11Viet Nam (Hoi An)
Apr 12-18Taipei, Taiwan

April 19- May 3Back to Big Sur?

May 4-14Australia
May 15-24New Zealand

May 25Back home.

Later in the summer...a road trip to the Southwest?


Mary Lee Bendolph - Gee's Bend, Alabama

When we found Mary Lee Bendolph, she was raking the wide cut field that stretches out in front of her home.

This is perhaps not the expected way to meet a major American artist.

But art wasn't a word that Mary Lee or other Gee's Bend quilters ever thought to apply to the work they do.

But what words do you have for work like this?

Mary Lee was forced to stop her schooling when she was fourteen. She deeply regrets this.

When we look at her quilts, we regret that our own schooling didn't end then, too.

I've cut alot of brush in Big Sur. Mary Lee's son has just cut and cleared this beautiful open field.

So we had alot to talk about.

This is one of Arthur Rothstein's photographs that he took in Gee's Bend in 1937. Mary Lee was born two years earlier. Her future husband Rubin is one of the small boys in the right center of the photo.

Mary Lee's own Roosevelt home is in the background behind her. It was built in the very spot of that clapboard cabin that Rothstein photographed above. When he took the photograph, he wasn't standing far from where Mary Lee is now.

And Mary Lee's current home is also the same spot where Rothstein took this iconic photograph of young Artelia Bendolph.

One blustery rainy night in February 1965, a preacher drove up slowly in a caravan of cars along the mud roads of Gee's Bend. "They had a little prayer," Mary Lee says. "They sung a song. And then they turned it over to him." The preacher had a virus and had been losing his voice for days. It was after midnight by the time he spoke. But that night, he made the walls of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church shake.

Mary Lee had never heard anyone speak like this before.

"He told her that she might not speak with perfect grammar, might not own more than one dress, might not be more than a dirt farmer descended from slaves, but she was every bit as good as those white folks across the river. Tears filled his eyes as he shouted, 'I come over here to Gee's Bend to tell you--you are somebody.'

"No one had ever said that to Mary Lee before."

Mary Lee met the preacher again across the river in Camden and gave him a big hug. She saw him in Selma, too, and watched in awe as he drank from a "whites only" drinking fountain.


"I never saw a black person do a thing like that!" she says. "I was so glad. I said, 'I'm going to get me a taste my own self.'"

Mary Lee has dreams of the future that she always trusts. So when she kept hearing the preacher say that he had a dream, Mary Lee understood.

"I have them too," Mary Lee thought.

Many Gee's Benders were in Selma when the Voting Rights march began on "Bloody Sunday" in March 1965. Marchers stopped and knelt and prayed when they came to a phalanx of state police who blocked their way at the foot of Edmund Pettus bridge.

Then the police rushed at them and beat and drove them back.

And Gee's Benders were again among the marchers three weeks later when an outraged America forced Lyndon Johnson to send federal troops to protect the march.

When you drive from Atlanta to Gee's Bend, you re-trace that same journey through Selma and Montgomery yourself.

You can stand on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery yourself.

You can remember when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.

And you can re-commit yourself even if you haven't yet paid the price that others have.

When the preacher was killed, they found two mules to pull his hearse, as symbols of the man's humility and commitment to the poor.

They found the mules in Gee's Bend.

Sometimes in Mary Lee's dreams, God visits her.

Wait until you meet her before giving assurance to your skepticism about that.


Gee’s Bend, Alabama

“I do not know much about gods,” T.S. Eliot writes in “The Dry Salvages,” “but I think the river / Is a strong brown god…”

The Alabama River curls and winds and unwinds itself. It’s got a mind of its own, “sullen, untamed, and intractable.”

“My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” Langston Hughes says.

And then at one point, the Alabama River decided to bow itself into a great U-shape just so that it could enclose a bulb of land on three sides and create a virtual river-island that would come to be called Gee’s Bend after an early plantation owner.

Mary Ann Pettway had invited us to come stay with her. We slept beneath one of her own quilts. She made breakfasts of grits, sausages, bacon, eggs, coffee for us – and regaled us with stories and photos of her family. That is, she laid out before us, like in the piecework of a quilt, the history of Gee’s Bend.

That history is too complex for us to piece together for you here. But that’s already been well done anyway – and we highly recommend to you J.R. Moehringer’s series on Gee’s Bend that he wrote for the L.A. Times in 1999. The series received a Pulitzer Prize, and it’s also a portrait of Mary Lee Bendolph, whom we’ll introduce to you tomorrow.

Mary Ann Pettway is the president of the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective. The quilters were having a meeting our second day in Gee’s Bend.

The meeting began with a spiritual and a verse, led by China Pettway and Mary Lee Bendolph. The rhythms of their faith are as ever-present as the river. I’m listening to these rhythms right now as I type. It’s one small way to try to keep these people with us.

Gee’s Benders keep the dead with them, too. If you pay attention, you see commemorations everywhere.

“For generations, their secret art – created in slavery, perfected in solitude – had kept them warm…”

“…now it promised to set them free.”

Until recently, most quilts in Gee’s Bend were made from old, worn work clothes. In Gee’s Bend, these are the clothes of everyday life. Mary Lee Bendolph still works with this worn cloth, feeling the spirit and “warmth of lovely people” in her hands.

Our last morning in Gee’s Bend, we crashed through brush with Mary Ann and her sister Julia to find the nearly forgotten tombstones of slaveowner Mark Pettway’s family.

When Pettway bought the plantation in Gee’s Bend, he brought his hundred slaves from North Carolina with him. He made them walk all the way, except for his cook. He wanted her to be “fresh” to cook his family’s meals.

Solomon, Mark Pettway’s son, died as an infant in 1850.

Even though Gee’s Bend is a small place, Mary Ann had never been here before.

Like the North Carolina slaves he brought with him, the slaves Pettway acquired with the Gee’s Bend plantation took his last name. More than half the residents in Gee’s Bend still have this name.

The old Big House, Pettway’s plantation house, has been knocked down now and is buried in brush.

But the memorial to his two daughters, both of whom died at age 24, nine or ten months after their marriage, in turn, to the same John E. Jones, still stands.

Which left me feeling like Ike McCaslin reading old ledgers in Part IV of The Bear.

In the (last) Depression, cotton prices plummeted from 40 cents a pound to a nickel. Gee’s Bend sharecroppers and tenant farmers relied on credit to buy seeds and supplies, and the main creditor across the river in Camden warehoused their cotton until prices would rise again.

But he didn’t keep proper records, and when he died, his wife sent henchmen across the river to go from cabin to cabin to take everything they could: “tools, wagons, plows, furniture, eggs, hogs, mules.” Then the armed men “wended like a funeral procession back to the river,” taking with them everything a farming community needed for its survival.

That winter Gee’s Bend survived on plums and wildberries. They killed squirrels with slingshots. Fished some.

At times in its history, Gee’s Bend – and the whole of Wilcox County – has been recorded as being the poorest community in the United States.

But Roosevelt’s New Deal came to the rescue. The farm administration bought the land in Gee’s Bend and “granted 100 families in Gee's Bend low-interest loans to buy modest farms and build new houses, with real glass windows and hardwood floors, the first some Benders ever set foot on.”

And these poor sharecroppers in Gee’s Bend became that rarest entity: black landowners in rural Alabama.

These “Roosevelt houses” are the predominant architectural feature in Gee’s Bend. Here’s young Julia running out from her own Roosevelt house to greet us.

In Gee’s Bend you can’t help looking out on scenes like this and reflecting bitterly on how for fifty years Friedmanian “trickle down” economics has been trying to tear all this down.

Maybe now, though, we can see more clearly where these economics have gotten us.

But even if I think bitterly of the ravages of “trickle down” economics, Debi and I don’t see a hint of bitterness anywhere in Gee’s Bend. We’ve never been in a community of more spontaneously kind and lovely people.

Given the history of Gee’s Bend – and even taking into account the community’s deep, genuine faith – we don’t have any idea of how to explain this.

We weren’t savvy enough at the time to spend enough time with this old pickup truck or with other piles of old farming implements on this farm. But it’s quite possible, we realize now, that this is actually an “assemblage,” a deliberate commemoration to the father who once farmed here. You see the pine shoot growing right through the floorbed of the truck. This is actually a common theme: how from old, apparently discarded things, new life can come.

And this is Allie Pettway, Gee’s Bend’s oldest quiltmaker.

And one of Allie’s quilts.

Tomorrow we’ll tell you about Mary Lee Bendolph. Your homework assignment is to read Moehringer’s essay on Mary Lee and Gee’s Bend. If you can find the time, we promise you that you won’t regret it.