Category Archives: Geography and environment

How does the remarkable geographical diversity of this country shape its culture? What are Morocco’s environmental challenges, strengths, and strategies?

Volcano craters, wildflowers, and farewells

For anyone who still thinks of Morocco as a desert land, it must be said that the spring wildflowers just keep coming here.
P1030449 P1030448The colors are astounding at times.  And while some of these flowers are vaguely familiar, there are others that startle with unexpected forms or heights.
This little beauty pops up in parking lots and on the edges of paths.  I keep thinking that someone has scattered petals on the ground when I suddenly realize that the splash of color is a living, low-lying plant.

Last weekend, our friends the Dyes led a group of us on a walk into a volcanic crater; this weekend, we missed them so much we had to do the trip over again ourselves.

Jeremy and I tried to claim the landscape, but then Zoë had to show us how it’s really done.
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We stopped by the bouncing fallen tree,
whereupon James experimented with his camera until Zoë grew two heads.
Can you believe that’s clover?
I promise I’ll stop with the wildflowers soon.
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We ate our picnic on the side of the volcano this time.

Then James insisted on climbing up to the lip of the crater to look over the desolate plain to another crater, one that another friend later informed us was actually a sinkhole in this karst geology.
The cliff behind Zoë’s head and the rockslide below her right (stage left) shoulder are both more impressive in real life than in photos.

Part of what was so oddly evocative about the sinkhole was the way trees (even this lightning-struck wreck) seemed to rise out of nowhere.
Climbing back across the floor of the larger crater (sinkhole?), we met our Amazigh friends, once again digging up more bags of dandelion root (or dandelion related root).  The filled burlap bags are loaded on donkeys and sold abroad, perhaps for homeopathic preparations?  Perhaps for drinks? My poor Darija boggled at trying to understand what drinks would come out of the squeezing of juice from these roots.  I didn’t have the nerve to ask to take another photo, so I’ll have to beg the one from our friend’s camera at some later date.P1030520

Back at the house, Demon was soaking in the sun.  Just another couple of days before we all part ways: us back to Omar’s house, Demon to a new home.
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So many departures.  So much to miss.




A Day of Storytelling at ALIF Riad

SONY DSCJess Stephens and Alice Barnsdale helped arrange a “day of storytelling” at the ALIF riad near the Batha square.  ALIF (Arabic language institute in Fès) let us use the gorgeous riad free of charge.  I used some Fulbright funds and Alice got her sister-in-law to produce and serve a traditional Fassi couscous for Friday lunch, plus tea and cookies in both the morning and the afternoon.
I borrowed Al Akhawayn tripods from Charles (rough but better than nothing), and we tried to set up four interview stations around the courtyard of the riad.

Cameras varied in quality, as did the Darija capabilities of the volunteers.  (Hearing my voice on the videos afterwards, I’m repulsed:  “ugly American” and “infantile” are the words that come to mind.)  The Fès university students were held up, arriving only after lunch, which meant that the early story sessions were a little choppy–and Alice was pressed into listening for most of the morning.  The birds drowned out some of our speakers, and in the afternoon, there were competing voices.  Not ideal audio conditions.  But the storytellers themselves were amazing, as were their stories!

Here’s a quick roll call.

Si Mohamed, master-braider: maker of Schlueh (Berber) finery.Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 5.23.10 PM

Abbas, master woodworker and the last carpenter in Carpenter’s Square.

Zin Abidin, master plaster-carver.
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Hajj, blgha (men’s slipper) maker.  A master of the craft for 70 years.
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Driss, his son Nouredine and nephew Azdeen, master ironmongers (knife and scissor-sharpeners; tool-creators)
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Mohamed Féris, a coppersmith in Seffarine Place
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Abdelkader, master dyer in one of the two remaining shops that work with sabra (vegetable silk) and other raw material.
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Plus a group of six carpet-knotters from the Ensemble Artisanal, who did not want to be photographed on that particular day.

The amount of footage to be watched, translated, edited, subtitled, and so forth is truly daunting–but the stories and the storytellers were so inspiring that I must and will find a way to make this all happen.  Insh’allah.

From Ait Bougomez to Ifrane

James got up early the next morning to climb to the nearer ribat while I stayed and held the fort (or held Jeremy, to be more precise).  In fact, he discovered that we were locked in overnight, so he had to wait until Brahim arrived before he could leave to go on his little trek.
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It was still early enough that the valley was misty, softening the views from the ruined ribat.
P1030138 P1030137Knowing my love of storks, he shot this lovely sequence for me:P1030123 P1030125P1030127
And then it was time to get back on the road for the long drive home.

We passed a group of people building a pisé addition to a house:

And the signs of spring were everywhere, fields of wildflowers on all sides.


Wandering through “the happy valley”

The gite was beautiful,
as were the surroundings,
P1020954 P1020961and we were a little slow to get started the next morning.

Ahmed arrived with a mule for Jeremy to ride,
and we set off,
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past irrigation gates, sheep grazing around an oven built into the ground,

shepherds with their sheep,
P1020985 P1020987or riding off into the far distance,
houses with fruit trees blooming like a puff of smoke from an invisible chimney,
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children playing, women washing clothes,
chicken on rooftops that look like fields,
baby burros and bee boxes,
spring blooms,
and who knows what all else?

James asked if he could photograph a bunch of boys we met along the road, and then he showed them the photo and a video as well.  When we saw that they had an old board with Qur’anic verses written on both sides–just as we had seen in the Nejjarine fondouq in Fès–we asked if they would read it to us, and they did!

Here’s the link to the video on Vimeo:
Boys reciting the Qur’an

Brahim and Ahmed wanted to stop for lunch at about 11:30, but we had just had breakfast at 9, so we wanted to push on.  Later, when we stopped for lunch, we understood the timing better: they had brought the ubiquitous pressure-cooker and tea kettle and proceeded to make first tea and then a bit of a feast while we lay about.
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All very imperial luxury: we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves.  Then Ahmed needed to go off to the souq across the river,
so we set off with Brahim to climb up to one of the ribats on the mountain-tops through the valley. But first there was quite a lengthy walk back along the valley floor, over the creek, past the sheep, the drying laundry, the stork…
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The ribat was still occupied by a single elderly guardian, set up as a quasi-museum as to how life there used to be lived.
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The central living space included a gas stove with the necessary kettle, a kerosene lamp, food basket, an old couscousier…
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plus a hand mill, with a water-bag and some long underwear hanging from the wall.P1030048 P1030051
The “rooms” were a little claustrophobic, to say the least, but the corridor seemed to wind around forever, and you could climb this “ladder”

and find yourself on the roof looking over the amazing valley.P1030061



Brahim took a picture for us, then Jeremy wanted to take a photo of Brahim…P1030063P1030071SONY DSC

On the way out, Jeremy experimented with what it would feel like to be on guard duty, sleeping by the door.

Then we climbed back down the mountain to meet up with Ahmed and the mule
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and take the long walk back along the valley floor to the gite.

It’s a little hard to see in the photos, but these depressions in the rock are dinosaur footprints (Jeremy’s crouching in one footprint).SONY DSC P1030096I like the way the dinosaurs seem to have stepped off the rock into thin air.

We also passed some women spinning, using something like a drop spindle without the drop–a spindle spun on the ground.
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When they saw how fascinated I was (and we tried to explain that I spin with a wheel but can’t work a drop spindle), they let me take a video of the process (screenshot above).

The evening light was quite magical, even if we were tired.SONY DSC SONY DSCJeremy was drooping, so I got up on the mule and he fell asleep leaning back against me, but he woke up in time for a triumphal return to the gite, leading the mule himself.

And after all this, Brahim fixed us tea and supper and a warm fire.  Such an extravagant experience, all around.
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Ait Bougomez: arrival

We went back to Rabia Qdima for breakfast that last morning in Marrakesh.
First, we were too early, so we started in a different cafe that wiped off a table for us and brought us tea.
We just loved watching the conversations, and the ongoing creation and commerce:
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On the way out, a herborist wanted to show Jeremy a little chameleon.  Jem didn’t want to hold it, so I did.
We lingered a little longer than James liked.  He had looked at the map, so he had a clearer idea of how long the road ahead of us was going to be.
The day was overcast: lowring clouds and sudden shafts of sun made for dramatic views of the mountains and valleys,
of traditional homes built into the hillsides, of terraced fields supporting those homes.
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At one point, we had to ford a river flowing over the road, which made us wonder if we’d be able to get back out after the rain came.  (Spoiler: no problem.)
We arrived while Brahim, who would be our guide, was out–so his mother welcomed us, and his wife fed us fresh hot bread and sweet tea.
  Then Brahim arrived to lead us to the Gite Imarin, on the far side of the river.
We had to pass through a small village in the gathering dusk, and they had been busy digging up the road to lay pipe through it.  It took a welcoming committee of about ten to help us get the car over, but finally, about 10 hours after leaving Marrakesh (and after a too-close encounter with a grand taxi that took out the wing mirror on the car) we had arrived.

Ait Benhaddou and the Tizi n Tischka pass

The view from the road in Morocco is almost always fascinating.
  But famous filming sites are often the places one finds tour busses lined up, and the simulacrum of the place seems to turn tourists and Moroccans alike into simulacra of themselves.

This is not to say we didn’t enjoy Ait Benhaddou, just that what we enjoyed most were the little surprises.
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Jeremy loved crossing the river on the sandbags serving as stepping stones.
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Rugs drying on a rooftop are not exactly surprising in Morocco, but they’re a sign that real life still goes on underneath the tourist spectacle.  And I like storks in any context.
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We went up the cliff instead of the path, pretending to be invaders attacking the fortress–at least until Jeremy got too hot and bothered.
I swear this man’s single-stringed instrument sounded unbelievably like a jazz trumpet. He didn’t seem to have a large repertoire, but the one song he kept playing was really compelling.
P1020747 P1020741HFM: happy family moment.

Jeremy made friends with this puppy, who then liked us so much–and wanted attention so much–that he leapt at me repeatedly and ripped a hole in my trousers with his teeth.  So I chucked a stone at him (in his general direction, being careful not to hit him), and a group of young German-looking tourists promptly surrounded him with love to compensate for the ugly American.  I was tempted to wait and watch what happened when they tried to leave.

The view from the agadir or granary on the top of the hill really is quite spectacular.

But then so was the Tizi n’ Tischka pass.  Just past Ait Benhaddou, the earth itself turned the most amazing colors,
then coming over the pass, the climate changed and the landscape turned a stunning green.
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On to Marrakesh…


Tamnougalt overnight

We enjoyed many things about Chez Yacob–talking to Yacob, wandering the palmerie, eating the yummy supper–but probably the best part of the evening was the nightly jam session the men held after dinner.  The music was enjoyable, but even better than the music was the enjoyment of the musicians.  Yacob tried to get Jeremy to play, but an attack of unexpected shyness interfered.  Here’s just one clip of many:

Jam session Chez Yacob

The next morning, Jeremy and I went out to wander the palmerie some more.  Jeremy made friends with a couple of local dogs.
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We watched the sun come up through the palms.
We mused together over the magical weave of the palm bark…

and the pattern of the spider’s web in the spaces of the wall:
We watched the water run through channels that lay quiet and almost dry the previous afternoon…
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…and we watched the women working in the early morning fields.
Then, after breakfast and a bout of storytelling (see Moroccan storytelling, Chez Yacob), IMG_1995
we took to the road again, picking up an elderly hitchhiker along the way.
On the road to another ancient kasbah-cum-movie-set: Ait Benhaddou.

Tamnougalt; or, The road to Marrakesh


People kept telling us that the southern route from Erfoud to Ouarzazate or Marrakesh was much slower than the northern route (don’t trust Googlemap times in Morocco!), but we’d been on that stretch from Tinghir through Kelaâ M’Gouna and Skoura too many times, so we decided to test out the alternative for ourselves.
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The road was fine to start with, lulling us into a false sense of speed.  Then we hit kilometer upon kilometer of potholes.  But the landscape was so stark and compelling, we almost didn’t mind.
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Ruined ksour on a cliff above a palmerie; solitary figures walking or riding through a barren landscape–almost too stereotypically Moroccan–but very striking.
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We had decided to break the journey in Tamnougalt, just shy of Agdz, at Chez Yacob.  Yacob himself turned out to be a major highlight of the journey (see next post): fluent in English, a long-ago collector of traditional tales (back in 1992), a superb and delightful host, and a key figure in a nightly jam session of traditional music.

We arrived mid-afternoon and started with a tour of the still-inhabited mellah of Tamnagoult.  Texture, texture, texture: surfaces were rich and evocative everywhere we turned.  From the carefully detailed brick mantel over the entryway…
SONY DSCto the stark simplicity of corridor walls, the nearly crumbling pisé construction of an inner courtyard or the arch of that entry…
to the eloquent surfaces of daily objects,
or the architectural imagination that turns a brief glance into a (re)framing of the sky.
IMG_1538 IMG_1519Because the mellah is still inhabited, there were signs of daily life: water bottles, mouths covered with lace to keep with water clean, and people working on the roof.
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One courtyard seemed to feature more Andalusian style arches; another had lower arches and presumably ceilings:
At the chef’s room, where local court cases would be heard, the walls were tadelakt, burnished with egg whites, and the ceiling was in Berber style:
J was intrigued by the traditional lock, all made from wood:
P1020618 P1020621 There was a small museum, with examples of a pisé construction frame (with tampers),SONY DSC
and other items, like wooden supports for donkey saddlebags, a large-scale mortar and pestle,  a “treasure chest” that delighted Jeremy, and a rather gruesome goat-skin used for making butter (someone would swing it back and forth to churn the cream into butter).

Many of the hallways were dark, but that made them feel all the more atmospheric, at least in the short term:

And the detailing of the windows at and near the exit was quite extraordinary.    If you look closely, you can see a little hand at the top of the window on the right.

Our guide had his own collection of historical items: grindstones, oil lamps, sandals, platters, and so on–plus photos of the old community and of films that were made here:

After our tour of the mellah, we went wandering in the lovely palmerie.
I was struck by the wealth (a wealth of water, coming from the river visible in the top half of the photo) that meant pomegranates could be left unharvested, P1020636 P1020638with the result that songbirds were feasting, and filling the air with their song.

Spring crops seemed to include peas and wild asparagus.
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Fields of forage were also full of wildflowers, the air was scented with fruit blossoms, and the fresh leaves, especially of the fig, were incredibly green.
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In the hour before dinner, I stayed with the children while James wandered up to the old kasbah, passing women and children and donkeys all carrying food and supplies back home.
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As promised, the kasbah was an empty shell, but impressive nonetheless.
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The palm-tree lintels seem to have been dug out for re-use, except in the long hallway where they’re still doing important structural work.
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Overall, an interesting, but slightly spooky place, in which to watch the night come on.P1020690 P1020697

Fossilizing around Rissani

I realize the word “fossilizing” refers to the process of becoming a fossil, but a day of fossil-hunting left us feeling (almost) desiccated and condensed enough to qualify.

We started out at Brahim Tahiri’s fossil museum where we met Abdelali, our guide for the day. “Today, you’re going into the Devonian and Ordovician,” Brahim told us.  Zoë and I grinned at each other, enjoying the thought of traveling into geologic time periods.   I had hoped for an English-speaking guide who could drill us in the differences between Ordovician and Devonian (for instance), but Abdelali had hardly any English or even much French, and he preferred to speak to James, often not hearing when I tried to ask a question in Darija.  So here’s what I’ve dug up since our trip:

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The Ordovician period precedes the Devonian.  According to this USC website, the Ordovician period lasted from about 510 million years BCE until about 439 million years BCE; it was marked by a huge increase in biological diversity, during a time when all life remained in the oceans.  Life flourished and developed in a warm climate, with reefs providing niche conditions favoring diversity.  The end of the period is marked by a mass extinction in which over 100 families went extinct, probably due to earth cooling beyond the comfort range of organisms that preferred warmth.

One of the most remarkable things about the Ordovidian period is that North Africa was located over the south pole at this time:
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Wacky.  Whose idea was that?  Points to them for thinking outside the box.

The Devonian
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The Devonian was the beginning of the world we know: the first seeds, first land vertebrates, the first time life emerged from the oceans. But there was still a lot of life in the ocean–life that registers now in the fossils remaining in this section of Morocco.  Note the mass extinction defining the end of the Devonian, like the mass extinction defining the end of the Ordovician.  We’re in the middle of a mass extinction today as well.  What new period is coming our way?

After loading up Abdelali’s 4×4 with some water, bread, and oranges, and La vache qui rit (packaged cheese), we drove out into the hammada, also known as the “black desert.”  We turned off the road out of Rissani along this long line of peaks, a place where the earth looks like a breaking wave.SONY DSC

Along that piste through the hammada, there are two distinct veins of fossils, running parallel to one another.  In the first, fossil miners have dug cave after cave in order to excavate plates of fossils from a layer of sediment some 10-20 feet under the surface.

Once the plates of fossils have been identified and chipped out of the substrate, they are assembled, a little like a jigsaw puzzle, on the surface near the mining pit.

These fossil plates seem to feature  crinoids: creatures that in a fossilized state look vaguely like octopi.  Or, as Zoë noted, trees.
IMG_1492 IMG_1491 (photo Zoë)
According to the Bonnachere Natural History Museum,

“The Crinoids’ soft body was protected by several hard plates which formed in a bowl-like shape.  From this came tentacle-like arms, which were used to gather food.  It was fixed to the sea floor by a long flexible stem consisting of many discs.  Once the crinoid died, the discs were scattered over the sea floor.”

There are also lots of little pieces of something that might be cephalopods?  SONY DSC
Abdelali kept using darija words that seemed to mean tentacles or branches, and every time I started talking with one of the miners (most of them had some English), Abdelali wanted to hustle us away, probably for monetary reasons…

The work is daunting.  In the deeper pits, or those with stronger sides, miners dig ladders into the side of the pit.  Elsewhere, they seem to rely on a rope held by a colleague.  Notice the miner’s feet and back tucked into the passage on the right.  Talk about claustrophobia!
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Earth is removed from the pit by means of a pulley system, in some cases run off a solar panel.

Down in the mine: all the comforts of home?

We went down into one of the mines: one with a collapsing set of steps down the side instead of a vertical ladder.
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Hard to imagine working down here with any kind of precision.  Imagine the endurance, the psychological strength, required to crouch here, chipping away in solitude day after day.
You have to look past Zoë’s hat to see me, down at the rock face.  And the light comes from a camera flash, so imagine the normal conditions.  We were glad to come out again.P1020509

But the miners themselves don’t have any such quick and easy exit.  It’s cooler beneath the surface during the heat of the day, but it’s parched out there.  Workers bicycle along the rough piste; some seem to live next to the mines, in a couple of rough huts, perhaps as  night guards?  No one seems to mind us scrabbling around in the slag heaps, looking for fossils…
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We walk over to the second vein of fossils–featuring orthoceras!–where we pick through more slag heaps left by what looked like earth moving equipment.  Instead of carefully constructed pits or caves, there seemed to be large scoops dug out of the earth, and piled alongside the worked vein.

Orthceras were a little like the squid of the Ordovician world.  We find both (nearly) complete creatures, and little cross-sections.
SONY DSC IMG_1497In the black or grey stone, they make me think of shooting stars, as if the residue of this little squid were a path through the stone, light through the darkness.

Jeremy found a lock, which he enjoyed flinging through the desert air; his parents loaded up with fossil finds…

It was hot out there, even though spring is still a week away.  After a few oranges (too many seeds!  we’ve been spoiled by tangerine season!), some water and a few hunks of bread, we drive to a different fossil site.  This is on the scree slope just under the crest of a small mountain.  We’re looking for trilobites, one dominant species of the ancient ancient world.

Let’s face it: we’re wimps.  Jeremy was wanting to go back to the hotel, even before he fell and scraped both knee and elbow.  James fell also and scraped his arm, though he didn’t notice the damage till a few days later.  And the trilobites were harder to find: tiny points of evidence suggesting a larger creature buried in a rock.  James eventually got enthused, finding possible trilobite geodes just under the rocky outcropping capping the hill, and Abdelali clearly knew what he was doing, but I went back to the car with the children for another drink and nibble and a look at the Erg Chebbi dunes not too far away.
We persuaded a reluctant Jeremy to hang on for one more site: this involved driving past what appeared to be a local garbage dump, complete with goats and birds.  We think the goats must know better than to eat plastic–or else they have very strong constitutions and the plastic doesn’t bother them.
Past the goats and the garbage, we climbed a slight elevation with the desert stretching out below in both directions.
Jeremy perked up when he got to hold a hammer.  Finally, a real paleontologist’s tool!
J looked like he was having fun, too:

But then we were pretty well done for the day.  We went back to the Tahiri museum, where we took another look at the process of preparing the fossils for museums and private collectors.  The reconstruction of a large plate of fossils:
The first pass at chipping away the stone surrounding a trilobite:P1020548 P1020550
Closer detail work:
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The finished product:

Trilobites were amazing!  Such a range of forms, improvisations on a single basic shape.  Eyes made out of something like shale.  Impossible curvatures, impossible protuberances.  And the world they came from is almost unimaginable to me–though the world we’re heading into may be almost as unfamiliar.

Still, the thing I learned most clearly today was how hard it is to be a fossil miner.  What I may remember most vividly (other than the heat, the thirst, the isolation) is the extent of the desert as seen from our little elevation–or the way the hills we drove along at the start of the day seemed to remember the waves of the ocean that once covered them.

Celebrating international women’s day in Fès

We were about to head south for another travel adventure, but we decided to hold off for a day so that Zoë and I could take part in a jewelry-making workshop Jess Stephens was holding both to celebrate the international day of women and to support the Exposé Artisanal project.  SONY DSCJames and Jeremy went for their own wander around the medina, while Zoë and I followed Jess through the medina’s highways and byways, looking for found art. My favorite area was the haberdashery (British word): the part of the medina filled with thread and trim and buttons.

What more could one ask?


As Moroccan shopkeepers are wont to tell you, it’s a feast for the eyes!

The jewelry workshop itself was lots of fun: when Camilla arrived, she was willing to take on the rather large necklace and ear-rings I produced:
It takes a certain amount of flair to carry that off.

James and Jeremy, meanwhile, had been feasting their eyes in different ways, visiting with a nice man in a repair/restoration shop,
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chatting with the bucket maker on the Talaa Kbira,P1020482

and eventually, in Jeremy’s case, joining in the workshop.