The Art of War

If you read my last post, you’ll know that a few weeks ago I visited The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside of Denver, Colorado.

A big part of what that facility does is to rehabilitate animals that have been mistreated, many of whom have been raised in isolation, away from members of their own kind.  The goal of the Sanctuary is for their resident lions to roam in prides as they would naturally, but many of these creatures must first be acclimated to the presence of other lions.

Toward this goal, one of the two enclosures where the residents are visible to visitors at close range is the purpose built Lion House, a roofed and climate controlled facility where individual cats may be kept temporarily in close quarters with their neighbors, until they are ready to join one of the many prides on site.

And that brings us to our little drama.

Access to the Lion House is via the same high catwalk as the rest of the facility, where visitors are elevated to a distance above the lions which is safe for the humans and non-threatening for the lions.

Unfortunately, no one appeared to have explained these rules to this pigeon.

Lion curious about pigeon

The interested lioness in this photo was very VERY invested in figuring a way to get that bird out from between the wire enclosure and outer wall of the structure.

Less interested in the avian intruder was this fine lady, who I think was just wanting a nice bit of a nap.

resting lion

Seconds later the exuberance of the one lioness sent her bounding into the personal space of her roommate, and for a few seconds all manner of hell broke loose.

Somehow, as these powerful creatures spun and rolled and leapt into each other, I managed to keep shooting, not knowing if I was getting anything at all, given the low level of available light and the sudden speed of action.

lion leaping into fight

And what I got definitely wasn’t something you’d see in National Geographic…,

two lions fighting

But honestly, I think these shots tell the story better than perfectly lit, tack sharp exposures could ever have done.  This is as much about what it looked like, as how it felt, when these two powerful forces of nature clashed.

No one was injured, by the way, except perhaps the pride of the pigeon hunter.

And maybe the pigeon.

I didn’t see him at all when we swung back by a couple hours later.

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Filed under Art, Nature, Photography

…like Animals.

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“Look at those children, behaving like animals!”

“You wouldn’t believe the filth in that place, they were living like animals.”

“These aren’t people.  These are animals.”

I often find myself becoming irritated with the way in which the word “animal” is so frequently used as a slight against people who’s presence or behaviors we might find objectionable.

This sort of insult, I feel, says more about the feelings which people hold toward our animal kin, than it does about the people so labeled.  These feelings, so pervasive within our society, must surely display themselves in the ways in which we treat the animals around us: our “pets”, our livestock, and most especially those animals which are still considered “wild” (another word frequently used in a disparaging manner – uncivilized, untamed, undomesticated, etc…,).

Each of those insults which I quoted above calls to my mind a corresponding question.

How do animals behave?

How do they live?

What are people, if not animals? 

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I have been to several zoos over the years, and driven through a few of those “Wild Animal” parks where you feed handfuls of grey pellets to the giraffes and the water buffalo, all the while hoping they won’t do anything expensive to your car in the process.  Never, however, have I experienced anything quite like my recent visit to The Wild Animal Sanctuary, situated in the plains just east of Denver, Colorado.

Firstly, I have never see quite so many animals in any single facility.  Lions, tigers, and yes bears, along with foxes, wolves, coyotes, pumas, lynx and a host of others reside here in numbers that would overwhelm any zoo I’ve ever seen.

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But this is most definitely not a zoo, and the animals are not on exhibit.

They do not appear in carefully curated little vignettes, framed in post-card images of their natural habitat, say a mountain pool, or untamed jungle.  If anything, it is the visiting humans who are on display, exposed up high on a catwalk, easily viewed by any of the animals inhabiting the facility…, if only they cared to look.

Most of them seem…, shall we say disinterested, in the folks admiring them from above.

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And that alone probably wouldn’t sit well with some folks.  We want the animals to be as interested in us as we are in them.  We want them to be mystified by us, curious about our ways, and envious of our progress.

Probably, I think, the animals at the Sanctuary just know better.

Most of them have been abused by humans at some point in their lives.  They’ve been kept on chains or in small filthy cages as a “pet” in someone’s backyard, or cramped together in some ramshackle zoo.  Some have been declawed, their teeth either filed down or removed altogether, and made to perform in some circus or roadside attraction.  They’ve been starved, or beaten, or bred relentlessly, only to have their offspring taken from them again and again, and sold to the highest bidder.

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But in the Sanctuary these magnificent creatures are able to live out the rest of their lives in peace and comfort, mostly free from human interference.  They roam huge fenced enclosures, acres upon acres of grass prairie with nice cool underground dens in which they may shelter during the hottest parts of the day, or during inclement weather.

When I say they they are not on display, I mean that they are visible when and only when they care to be.  Or more accurately, when they don’t care if they are seen or not.

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We passed entire enclosures which at first inspection seemed entirely devoid of animal life, only to return later, with dusk approaching, to see lions or tigers suddenly appearing out of the tall grass.

It is one thing to look into the bored eyes of some great tiger on display at a zoo, but it is another thing entirely to watch her vanish as if by magic into a stand of bamboo, or to try and keep pace with her, walking quickly along the catwalk as she parallels your path along the fence below, only to realize she is stalking your shadow through the tall grass, as the sun dips toward the horizon.  Short of actually viewing them in the wild, I can’t imagine a better way to dip ever so slightly into their world.

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Because this IS their world, as surely as it is ours.

We try to own them like we try to own everything.

And we fail them, and ourselves in the process.

And so I come one again to my initial questions…,

How do animals behave?

Better than we do I think, in most circumstances.  They do not hunt or kill except for survival.  They do not burn down their forests, or despoil their land in the name resource extraction, or money, or politics.

How do animals live?

These days, mostly where we permit them to live, or where we don’t notice them, or haven’t found a way to reach them yet.  But always, they live the best they can.

And what are people?

We are the animals who have forgotten how to BE animals.

And I think we all know this, on some level.  Otherwise, there would not be the fascination, the curiosity, the need to control, to dominate, and to prove our manifest superiority over them.  We, as a species have lost something vital.  And I think that this loss inspires both our best and our worst inclinations where these creatures are concerned.

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The dominate religions of our time tell us that their god is separate from the creation, and that mankind was set above the animals, was imbued with a soul and a destiny that the other ‘things’ which move upon the earth are lacking.

And I understand the appeal, the desire to feel important, to be of central importance in some grand scheme.

But the old religions knew better.

We are OF this world.

We should learn to accept that before it’s too late for them, and for us.

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Stalking this tiger with my camera, only to realize that she was stalking my shadow through the tall grass.

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What a feeling to watch her stroll away into the distance once she lost interest in the “hunt”. No bars and no faux stone walls to keep her where we could see her.

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Filed under Modern Life, Nature, Philosophy, Photography, Spiritual Journey, Travel

The risk in giving

The cathedral was burning.

It seemed like it was burning all day.

The images, when I could bring myself to look at them, were heartbreaking.

It seemed as if the whole thing were about to collapse. Indeed, memories of September 11th running through my mind, of that impossible moment when the first tower began to collapse in on itself, I could already feel the crushing weight of it coming down in flame and smoke.

Then…, it didn’t.

And the first images from inside came with a glimmer of hope.

She could be rebuilt, this thing of immense age and beauty.

She could be saved.

And almost as quickly, there was the rush of donations, most notably from the super rich, but from common folks too. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to help.

But then something else started to happen.

Judgement and scorn began to creep in.

What about the black churches, burned down in Louisiana?!

What about the drinking water in Flint?!?

You are donating to the WRONG cause, and if all of these rich fat-cats wanted to help, well there’s plenty of people going hungry all around them!

And suddenly we’ve got the “Cause Police” out there serving the public and making sure society knows which causes are worthy of their disposable income.

The Polar Bears are starving…, “Isn’t there a homeless vet you could feed?”

Doctors Without Borders? “Aren’t there any sick people in America you care about?”

What if I contribute to Public Radio? “FLINT FREAKING MICHIGAN!”

The Arbor Day Foundation? “I swear on all that is holy that WE will find you and punch you in the face if WE find out you’re giving it up for some shitty trees!”

What…is…happening?

Look, here’s the thing…,

It is good that people care about things. It’s absolutely vital, I’d say.

They do not have to care about the things that are important to me, or to you. And if they do care about those things, and it IS possible to care about more than one thing at a time, they don’t have to care about those things as much.

I’ve never been to Notre Dame de Paris, and I may never get the chance. Certainly, it seems unlikely that I’ll ever step foot through her doors, but I studied her during Art History classes, I’ve sketched her and painted her and poured over images of her. She’s an eight hundred and fifty year old marvel of art and architecture, and if I want to contribute to her preservation that’s MY business, requiring neither permission nor judgement from anyone.

And please spare me the diatribe against the Catholic Church.

I’m bloody PAGAN. I literally couldn’t care less if they ever hold another mass in the thing. I am never going to donate anything to a Christian church (and that includes those that got burned down in Louisiana, by the way).

The Church just leases the building, if you wondered. They don’t own it.

What I care about is irreplaceable art and architecture, handed down to us all, Christian and Infidel alike, which can still be preserved for generations to come, if enough people are willing to act.

If that’s not good enough for you, you’re welcome to f*ck off.

What’s more, if you want to get bent out of shape because some billionaire decided to spend money to preserve something beautiful, instead of throwing cash where YOU think they should, that’s time and energy better spent picking litter up off the side of the freeway.

Or don’t you care about the environment?!

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Shut up, Linus!

Several years ago now I thought it would be a neat idea to write a post which used the Peanuts characters, specifically excerpts from the animated Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special, to illustrate what seemed a very simple point…,

That Thanksgiving is a holiday that does not belong to any particular group.

At the time I wrote it, I think I’d seen a few too many evangelical types trying to claim the holiday as their own, and felt the need to push back a bit.

Looking back on it now, I feel like it’s one of my more cringe worthy efforts.

It is too long, too clumsy, and…, well, it’s too popular.

Seriously!

That damn throw-away thanksgiving post from six years ago is consistently the most frequently read thing on this blog. Mostly, I am in no doubt, due to the work of search engine algorithms coughing it up to folks looking for links to the Holiday Special itself.

But I suppose I should be…, thankful.

After all, if only a fraction of the folks who stumble across it stick around to read anything else I’ve written, and maybe inspired to think about things in a way that they hadn’t previously…, then it’s worth every misplaced click.

My message this Thanksgiving is a bit more concise: “Shut up, Linus.”

Sure, the preachy kid is always there to yammer on, but the only one at that entire party who knows what’s really going on is that girl Marcy.

Oh, we’d all do well to thank our gods for the bounty of the harvest, but these days I think we’d do better to concentrate on thanking each other. Not just on the one day but every day.

And not just our family and friends either.

Thank our teachers, both the professionals, and those who teach us by example. Thank the warriors back from trenches past and present, and thank the desperate retail employees, fighting their own yearly war of attrition. Thank the neighbors, the strangers, the doctors, sanitation workers and bureaucrats that you encounter throughout your day. Even thank that preachy kid, once he finally pipes down and lets everyone get back to their meal.

Because we all touch each other’s lives, and the actions of a stranger we pass on the street can have every bit as much power over our personal prosperity as that of any deity.

A simple expression of genuine gratitude can make a difference that pays us back a thousand fold.

Give thanks where thanks is due.

And have a Happy Holiday.

And thank YOU for stopping by!

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Filed under About this Blog, Holidays, Modern Life, Traditions

Turn by Turn Directions

Imagine for a moment, that from the moment of your birth, there was a singular destination to which you were bound, and that the journey to that destination would occupy all the time and energy of your life.

Imagine further, that taking a wrong turn on that journey could have eternally dire and inescapable consequences.

That would suck.

Now imagine, once more, that as is often the case for us in this modern world of wonders, there were an App for that.

Sweet!

Life Directions

In this scenario, the algorithm behind the app is programmed in such a way that it not only knows where you are now and what direction you are heading, it knows about every obstacle and side street you will ever encounter.  It knows about all the other drivers, where they are heading, and when you will interact with them.  It knows about the traffic and weather conditions you will experience today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of your life.

All of which would be profoundly handy, if the app could be expected to relay even a fraction of this information to you.

But that’s not how it works.

There’s no glowing blue dot on a map that moves when you move, and no artificially soothing voice badgering you to turn left in 300 feet.

The information is there, but by design it doesn’t display.

And there are no ‘In App’ purchases that will make it do so.

Seems a bit less convenient now, doesn’t it?

It gets worse.

The reason the algorithm knows about all the traffic holdups and twisting side streets to nowhere, is because it put them there.  What’s more, rather than directing you along the most direct and speedy route to your destination, the algorithm is designed to offer up vague guidelines and suggestions while purposely directing you through bad neighborhoods and into bumper to bumper traffic jams, all as a way to test your willingness to continue using the app.

You might think that the other drivers could provide some assistance, but you’d be wrong.  Most of them are too busy arguing about which version of the app you should be using and on which platform.  The dedicated UserGroups are typically more interested in increasing their own numbers, and less so with actual troubleshooting.

But the one thing they will all tell you, fervently, is that you’ve got to TRUST the APP.  If you don’t trust the app, you will never arrive at your destination.  At least, not the one you were hoping for.

And who’s fault would that be?

The other users will let you know, and with absolute certainty, that if you take a wrong turn along the way, or maybe you get sideswiped by a bus, you only have yourself to blame.  Obviously you couldn’t have been using the app correctly.

If, on the other hand, you navigate your way through some bad situation unscathed, that’s just the app doing its thing, and not something you should be taking any credit for.

Probably, you should think about making a contribution to the developer.

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Occasionally, I feel the need to construct these little “What If’s” when trying to understand how Monotheists see the world.

Sometimes they are helpful.

Sometimes they are just entertaining.

Sometimes they scare the crap out of me.

All I can say about this one, is save yourself the trouble and don’t download the app.

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Hollow Eyes and Hallow’s Eve

It is a curious tradition, the carving of Jack-o-lanterns.

There are plenty of articles out there sharing the actual history of the practice, some folks claiming it is a strictly Christian tradition, while others claim a more ancient past, but what it all boils down to is that somewhere along the way, someone decided that carving faces in vegetables (and later fruit, right? A squash is a fruit) would repel evil spirits.

Doesn’t seem to be working.

Bombings, shootings…, plenty of evil spirits out and about these days.

Then again, most folks seem to be buying plastic jack-o-lanterns from Target and Walmart, so maybe that’s why the effectiveness has worn off. ‘Cause the the power can’t be in the fruit, or the candle, or even the scary face. If there’s any power at all behind those hollow eyes, anything there watching and guarding, it has to have been placed there by us.

It is up to us to work the magic that wards our homes and our land from those who would cause us harm.

Plastic pumpkins are probably just another symptom of us falling down on the job.

I really don’t care who came up with the tradition, I truly enjoy the the few hours I set aside every October to carve a few jack-o-lanterns.

And I love the looks on the faces of the trick-or-treaters, even the littlest ones, who can tell the difference between something real and original, and something bought in a store.

The parents notice too. Often they will say something about not being all that good at it, or struggling to find the time. But I always encourage them to make the effort. Skill comes from practice and power from persistence.

And the gods well know, we could use more jack-o-lanterns in the world these days.

A blessed Samhain to you all. And a Happy Halloween!

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For God(s) and Country

I have, I feel I must confess, an unsavory fascination with watching Christians arguing amongst themselves about matters of morality and ethics.

I do try to stay away from these debates.

And mostly I am successful.

But occasionally I’ll find myself caught up in the tawdry spectacle.

And afterwards…,

I usually feel dirty, and a little disappointed with myself. The same sort of feeling I remember coming away with after watching an episode of Jerry Springer, when it first started to get popular and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Most recently, I found myself reading an article, the link to which had been posted by an old high school friend, in which a Christian minister was trying to convince his extended flock that they ought to stop criticizing Donald Trump. Because ‘the Donald’ is our president, which means he was put there, by God, as all leaders are, for a purpose, and all the philandering, the tax evasion and lying, the caging of children and constant stream of reprehensible comments, is all completely beside the point.  It is the moral duty of every good Christian, he suggests, to fully support the President and his agenda.

Obviously, it was not an article written for me or mine.

No, it was a missive from Christians, to Christians, extolling the current President as an instrument of God for whom any moral qualms should be set aside.

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And after I’d made sure that it wasn’t something published by The Onion, I read it again…,

…and double checked for signs of satire.

None.

Ooookay.

The President of the United States was placed in office by the Christian god.

They, the Christians, at least some of them, really believe this.

It seems unlikely, but it does bring up some interesting questions, like…,

How does that work with free will?

I mean, did God work his will upon just enough voters, in the right states, to sway the Electoral College? Should a vote even count if some random deity (who is not even an American citizen, by the way) has his way with your freedom of choice? Or did he work his dark miracle through the nimble fingers of Russian hackers and fake news accounts?

And what was the deal with Obama?

Did the Most High’s omnipotence come up short during those two elections?

Or did the Christian god decide to put the black guy in the Oval Office for those eight years. You know, the secret Muslim who wanted to destroy America, start a race war, throw all the republicans into FEMA Camps, cripple the economy, steal your money to pay for someone else’s healthcare…, THAT guy!

And if he DID put Obama into office, where was all that “He’s the instrument of God who’s failings you should ignore because it’s all part of God’s plan” bullshit that they trot out when it’s convenient for their agenda.

You’d have thought they wouldn’t have cared so much about a birth certificate, if he had a Biblical stamp of approval.

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Sometimes I wonder how it would be different if we treated leadership as we did with the Celtic kings during pagan times.

The king was chosen not by any particular god, but by the elders of the tribe.

And in assuming kingship over the land, he ceremonially took the goddess of that domain as his wife. And if he pleased her, if he treated her well, with all the proper respect and worship that was due a woman and goddess, the soil would be bountiful, his wars successful, and his people, prosperous.

It’s an interesting line of thought.

But when I begin to consider how those among our present leadership actually treat women, the things they say, the decisions they make…,

No, it’s probably best we leave the true gods out of modern politics. We’re obviously not sophisticated enough for them.  Not just yet.

The time may come, however.

A time for gods and country.

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