Tag Archives: Nature

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

Inconvenient, not Evil

Did you see the story last week about the raccoon who spent his day climbing a 25-story office building in Minnesota?

Little fellow became an internet sensation for a few hours, with millions checking in on his progress and wishing him a safe climb in perilous conditions.

In the comments sections that followed the coverage, I noticed how some thought it odd that a creature whom many think of as a filthy pest, suddenly had his own cheering section.

“Trash Panda…,”

“Vermin…,”

“Scavenger…,”

Strange choice of words, it seems to me, as we are blaming the raccoon for something the WE did. We built the cities and neighborhoods in what used to be their habitat. We killed off most of the stuff that they’d normally gather to sustain themselves, and then we get upset when they are forced to root through out trash for scraps.

That little critter in the YouTube videos wasn’t climbing a building to make a point and he wasn’t in it for the adventure. He was terrified of all the humans wandering around at street level.

Also last week, my Facebook feed lit up with posts from a friend of mine at work. He was having a problem with a mouse that had turned up in his apartment. Little critter was eating his bread and making all the standard mousey scurrying sounds as it moved to and fro.

Following along post after post, I read about the snap-traps and glue traps, all of which failed to undo a rodent of such size and cunning, that I began to wonder if NIMH weren’t missing another of its test subjects.

I surmised from the follow up posts that the critter was eventually cornered, and quite possibly bludgeoned to death.

Now, in the days leading up to the creatures demise, I must admit I was somewhat amused by the frequent and desperate nature of my friend’s posts. You’d have thought, from the tone, that his home had been taken over by a pack of angry badgers, rather than by a single rodent.

“City people,” I caught myself thinking with a wry smile.

But as this saga dragged on I began to pay more attention to the language used, in both his posts and by some of the people who left supportive comments…,

“Disgusting,”

“Filthy,”

“Vermin,”

“Evil,”

“Straight out of Hell!”

All this hate, earned for nothing more than trying to survive in a world we built.

***

The raccoon in Minnesota became an internet sensation because he was never really in anyone’s way. The mouse in the house is a different story.

I know that a lot of what I read last week was hyperbole.

That’s kinda what the internet is for.

But I can’t help but worry when I see good people equating inconvenience with evil.

And I have been seeing that kind of thing a great deal as of late.

And no, I’m not talking about rodents.

The species may vary, but the circumstances are really pretty similar.

Living beings, just trying to survive in a world we built.

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Filed under Modern Life, Nature, Philosophy, Politics

The Nature of the Message

We’ve all seen those solitary blades of grass reaching up from the cracks in a sidewalk, or maybe a bit of green clinging to the side of a wall where a bit of wind blown soil and seed found purchase amongst crumbling bricks.

It’s common enough to see these things as a sign of the impermanence of mankind’s imposition upon the natural world. The earth shifts, concrete falters, and the green world which was hiding just below the surface asserts itself with a vengeance.

I’ve shared that same feeling, and found some comfort in it.

Nothing we do, truly lasts forever.

But sometimes, I wonder if we haven’t misinterpreted the nature of the message.

Near my workplace there is a No Parking sign imbedded in the sidewalk, standing no less then seven feet above the roadway, and crowned, amazingly, with a healthy shock of leaves, waving in the breeze.

Upon closer examination, the base of the signpost is imbedded firmly within the pristine pavement. There are no cracks or gaps, no place for the earth beneath to show through. But there is a long thin vine, reaching up through the middle of the post, climbing all the way up into the light at the very top.

Sometimes, when I’m outside taking a break from work, find myself looking at that single, impossible plant, and I wonder about the people who pour the concrete, who build the sidewalks, the buildings, the streets, the systems, and the institutions that surround us.

Sometimes I wonder about myself.

We’ve put so much effort into reshaping the world…, giving it an order and a purpose and forcing it to adhere to some common vision of how we think the world should be, of how it can best serve us.

And we keep getting it wrong.

That sprig of green poking out of the pavement may not be a warning sign at all. It may instead be the sound of a trumpet, rousing us to action, calling us to break through the concrete and the metal that is even now closing over our heads.

Maybe it’s time to serve the world, rather than trying to force it to serve us.

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Filed under Modern Life, Nature, Philosophy, Spiritual Journey

Chasing that hole in the sky.

“So, is this a religious thing, or do you just think it’s cool?”

We were sitting in the office at work, one of my managers and I, and I was making arrangements to leave a little early for the evening.  One of my co-workers had agreed to finish out my shift, and when my manager asked me what the occasion was, I’d told her that the wife and I were planning on driving straight through to Tennessee to secure our campsite for Monday’s eclipse.

She was adjusting my schedule in the system, shifting the little bars that represent my comings and goings, when she glanced up and asked the question.

Most of the folks in leadership at my job are at least somewhat aware of my spiritual leanings, if only in the abstract.  I’m the guy who asks off for unusual days on the calendar, and marks them down as religious observance – often followed by an unpronounceable series of letters:

Imbolc…Beltane…Lughnasadh…Samhain…,

I’d been planning for the Eclipse trip for a while, but I’d only been able to secure three days off from work, Sunday thru Tuesday, during which we’d make the twelve hour trip to our chosen spot along the path of totality, set up camp, watch the big show, enjoy some nature, break the whole thing down and drive back again.

As the trip grew closer, I’d been fussing with the itinerary, worried that our campsite might be over crowded, about traffic congestion in the area, about arriving so late in the afternoon that I’d be setting up camp in the dark.  And finally, with only a week to spare, I’d come to the conclusion that the best course of action was to just drive in over night and through the morning.

“So, is this a religious thing, or do you just think it’s cool?”

One of the other managers, who is fairly new and doesn’t know me as well, glanced over at us with a confused look on his face.

“No, I just think it’s cool.”

It was an honest answer, I thought.

I had no rituals planned, neither prayer nor sacrifice was on the agenda.

This was about a maybe once in a lifetime chance to watch the moon completely obscure the sun.  It was about science, and timing, and prepping to get the best photo I could with the equipment I have.  It was about being in the right place at the right time and seeing something remarkable and rare.

As the date of the eclipse grew closer, I’d seen more and more discussion groups showing up online, asking what were the proper traditions and ceremonies for pagans to observe during the eclipse.  And I’d sigh and shake my head.  Because there are none, not really.

An eclipse is too random, too site specific, and never repeating at the same locations at the same intervals.  The ancients didn’t leave us any eclipse related traditions, at least none that I’ve ever heard of, because there are none.

If spirits that live in the rocks and trees of central Tennessee decided they wanted to speak to me, certainly I would listen.  But maybe, if they could just hold that thought for another 2-minutes and 32-seconds…, that would be fantastic.

I was there for the sun, and the moon, and to see the thing that I’d missed too many times before.

I’d seen five eclipses already in my lifetime, all of them partial.

When I was a kid and the other children in my class had their shoebox viewers at the ready, I came to class with my fathers telescope, sun-lens equipped, and ready to share a first hand look with the rest of the class.

I’d watched that yellow disk slowly consumed by the interposing body of the moon, and I’d watched that shadow slip away again, its mission unfulfilled.  I’d felt the strange cooling in the air, listened to the hush of bird and insect, and watched as daylight faded into the semi-twilight that a partial eclipse can bring.  All that I was missing was that elusive moment of totality.

“No, I just think it’s cool.”

You’d think, after all these years and misadventures, that it wouldn’t still be so humbling to discover that I am an idiot.

Totality.

It was like nothing I have ever experienced and yet powerfully familiar.

Watching the last vestiges of the sun slip away through a pair of solar binoculars, I was visually disconnected from the world around me in the last few minutes before it hit.  And while I was expecting a long, gradual progression, I was totally unprepared to feel the sudden and repeated shifts in the world around me, as layer after layer of the sun’s atmosphere was blocked from view.

And when totality struck, I was unprepared for the noise it made.  There WAS a noise, although I couldn’t tell you if it came from outside or from within, but it sounded to me like something that the sound editor of an effects ridden disaster flick would be compelled to add, because you can’t just have the sun whiff out on screen, without some auditory cue – something between a deep throb and a gasp.

I was unprepared for the glowing white ring in the sky, for the deep red clouds on the horizon, and for the overwhelming feeling that this, THIS, is what the otherworld must feel like: detached and superimposed over our own world, always there just beneath the surface, and yet almost entirely out of reach.

Of course it was a “religious thing.”

Or no, not a religious thing at all.  A spiritual quest, maybe.

Because religion implies organization and planning and ritual, and try as you might, I just don’t think you can plan on an eclipse.  We do rituals to try and find our way, if only partially, into the otherworld of the gods and the ancestors.

But from time to time the Earth conducts a ritual of her own, and if we are very lucky, or very privileged, we may just stumble upon her and her sister moon, as they weave and dance in and around the fire of the sun.

And why else would so many of us travel so far to share in a single event, except in pilgrimage?  Each and every one of us, chasing that hole in the sky, and finding ourselves forever changed by what we have seen and felt.

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Filed under Nature, Religion, Science, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

Her Shadow in Wings

The sun, glaring down from a faded sky,
Finds me perched in a high place,
Hammer,
Nails,
Shingles,
Hot asphalt burning my knees,
As I kneel,
An unwitting pilgrim,
At the heel of a solar god.

Relief, unexpected and fleeting,
As shade passes over me,
Accompanied by a cool breeze,
My gaze drawn upward,
To a raven wheeling against the Sun,
The poetic impulse takes me,
And I am awash in a sudden flood of verse,
Until my balance wavers,
Dangerously…,

And the moment passes,
Eyes down and the sun on my back,
I return to the task at hand,
But a single phrase lingers still,
“Her shadow in wings.”

 

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Filed under Nature, Poetry, Spiritual Journey

Homeless

I’d just pulled out of the grocery store parking lot and into some mild traffic, this was early last week, when the passenger side window of the car in front of me opened and ejected what looked like a wadded up fast food bag, which came to rest on the grassy slope beyond the curb.

There was no way I could pull over to pick it up, and no way to properly express my outrage to the uncaring occupants of the vehicle in front of me.

The litter was just there, a little blot of ugliness in my both my rearview mirror and my stomach.

I found myself wondering in what sort of condition those people keep their home.

What, I wondered, was their problem?

Why not just dispose of the thing properly?

I called these folks “uncaring” a moment ago, but I don’t know that I believe that.  There has to have been some thought process, some mental calculation that would compel a person to open her car window and cast her refuse into the street.

I imagined these people as horrible slobs, leaving a trail of filth in their wake wherever they go.

But maybe they just didn’t want that trash in their car, they could, I supposed, be incredibly tidy, within their own four walls.

And there, in the midst of my conjecture, I think I may have hit upon the element that I was missing.

Home, for most people, is what we own, an area bounded by fence or walls that belongs to exclusively to us.  Everything beyond those walls is outside, outside of our control, outside of our responsibility.

I don’t really see things that way.  Walls and fences have their uses, sure, but they are temporary things, in the grand scheme, and land ownership even more so.  The land does not belong to us, we are only its caretakers.

It is, I think, far more realistic to say that we belong to the land.

And so, last Sunday when I saw garbage indiscriminately flung into the street, it felt like a blemish upon my home.

Two days later, nearly half our population flung garbage into the presidency, and for the first time in my life, I felt homeless.

In the days that have passed since that seemingly endless Tuesday night, my emotional state has shifted from anger to despondency and back again more times than I can count.  I’ve listened to the speculation about the why’s and how’s, I’ve looked through the sorry demographics of who did and didn’t, I’ve listened to the explanations from those who voted for him, and I keep coming up with the same calculation that accounts for that wadded up bag on the side of the roadway.

This society is infected with a strange breed of selfishness that prevents us from truly seeing and empathizing with the world beyond that little patch that we imagine we own.

The problems and concerns of others, their very real fears about the future…, well, that’s on them, isn’t it.

And I don’t know what we can do about that attitude.  I don’t know how we can broaden the perceptions of people beyond themselves, except to continue to be who WE are, to continue to live in their world, and to open their hearts, one by one.

I suppose it would be easier, if I could just shut my eyes to it, but I can’t.

I wouldn’t want to.  I remember when I saw the world like they do.  I remember that, although less painful, it was a pretty empty way to live.

The anger is still there, but it’s at low ebb now.

The despondency, I’ve mostly replaced that with determination.

But I worry for my friends, many of whom are likely facing hard times ahead.

I worry for those of us who practice alternative religions, now that the evangelical movement has friends in high places, who have already expressed profound misunderstandings about both the Non-Establishment Clause, and simple human decency.

Mostly though, I worry about the land.

My ancestors believed that we were all a part of the land, and that the land herself was divine.

When they chose a king, he was symbolically married to the goddess of the land.

The success or the failure of that marriage could be seen in both the fruitfulness of the land and the prosperity of the people.  A disrespectful king could bring blight to the land and ruin to the governed.

Although the actual rituals of this marriage have not been practiced in many centuries, and never on this continent (so far as I know), I do believe that some vestige of this relationship, however unknown to our leaders, must still remain.  And the thought of it, of that man in THAT spiritual role…, frankly, it makes me nauseous.

Somehow, I don’t think a man with a reputation for using women and a well documented disdain for environmental protections will be the font of a bountiful union.  And if things go too badly, the goddess of this land may very well blame the society that put him there.  We may find that we are all homeless.

Goddess Statue

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