Tag Archives: Travel

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

A Curious Absence of Saints

I have wandered the hills and valleys of Ireland, driven along its rocky coasts and roamed the quiet midlands.  In my travels, I have stopped to explore every monument of stone and ruined churchyard to be found along my path, often altering that path considerably in the hope of encountering some new mystery to explore.

Along the way, I have taken several thousands of pictures.

While I am careful that the photography not intrude upon my more visceral experience of a place, I strive to document each location to the best of my ability.  The photos are touchstones, reminders of places I fear I may never see again.  And in that spirit I try to be as thorough and faithful to the place and time as possible.

I was therefore, quite surprised to learn, as I went scanning through my photos just the other day, that my collection suffered from a curious absence of saints.

Saint Patrick?Saint Patrick, in particular, was nowhere to be found.

I only went looking because I noticed that my next blog post, the one you are reading now, was due to publish on March 17th, and it occurred to me that I really should write something about St. Patrick’s Day.

Not feeling particularly motivated, I thought I would dig up some of the photos I’d taken of his various statues in Ireland, and use those for inspiration.

Click…click…click…scroll…scroll…scroll…, nothing!

I sat back from my screen, perplexed.  That couldn’t be right.  I mean, I know for a fact that there is a statue of St. Patrick standing near the entrance to the Hill of Tara.  I’d photographed every inch of that ancient seat of kings, as well as the little churchyard that sits next to it, during my first visit in 2005.  I remembered walking past that stark white statue with the little metal fence around it, not once, but twice!

And so I checked again: hills, grass, tower, graves, passage tomb, sheep, standing stone, circling ravens…, no statue.

Church at Tara

Okay, so then where else?  I searched my memory for other encounters with Ireland’s patron saint…, a-ha!  there was Saint Patrick’s Cross which stands among the mighty ruins on the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary.  Surely I had a photo of that, and even if it’s not really a statue, it would give me something to work with…,

Scroll…scroll…scroll…, nothing.

View from Rock of Cashel

“How,” I wondered aloud to myself, “can this be.”

I tried to think back to all the other cathedrals, graveyards and ruins that I have visited.  Surely there had to be…, I know that one had a statue…, Maybe there was a plaque…,

Nothing.

The Rock of Cashel

There are no monuments to Saint Patrick, no statues or shrines, recorded anywhere in my camera-rolls.  And I think the reason for this must be because I just don’t see him.

I’ve heard his story again and again, since childhood, but it has never really made any lasting impression upon me.  

I was taught that I should like St. Patrick because he was ‘the’ Irish saint.

But was he, really?

There is nothing in the mythology surrounding Pádraig that touches me or even rings true to my ears.

I have tried to see the young man, captured, bound and sold into slavery, only to give himself over to Christianity and escape his captors, led across the wilds of Ireland and back to the sea by a mysterious voice.  Yet it seems as if I have heard that story before, attached to other names and places.

And then there is the great teacher, who is said to have stood upon the Hill of Tara among both the greatest kings and wisest Druids of that land, and explained to them the mystery of the Christian Trinity through the example of the wild shamrock which grew unnoticed underfoot.  Strange, that they should be so easily won over, these wise men, when triplicate gods and goddesses were already known throughout the land, and the shamrock already known for both its symbolic and medicinal qualities.

Then, of course, there is the mighty “warrior for god” who appears in the later tales.  No meek teacher this Patrick, he duels his enemies with holy magic, tossing them into the air like some midichlorian pumped Jedi Knight.  

Let’s not even mention the thing with the snakes.

Over the years I have seen him first as a saint, then as a villain, and now he hardly seems important at all.  From what little we truly do know of him, it seems clear that almost nothing which has been believed about him is true.

So why then, should we celebrate the anniversary of his death (if indeed we even have that detail correct)?

More than once, I have been told that celebrating Patrick’s Holy Day is an important part of my Irish heritage, and that, as a grandchild of the diaspora, I should do whatever I can to maintain those cultural links with my distant kin.

How much honor do I bring to my ancestors by pretending to celebrate a Catholic feast day?  None, I think.

The truth is, I don’t need Saint Patrick, whoever he was, to help me celebrate my Irish heritage.  I do that every day.

I think I’ll get by just fine without the silly parades and the mass inebriation, which have become the American standard in holiday celebrations.

Yeah, I’ll wear the green – but I do that once a week (at least) anyway.  I like green.

And you can be sure that I’ll raise a glass, to you and to yours, and to bridging the miles that lie between myself and the one place I’ve ever known that truly feels like home.

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Filed under About this Blog, Holidays, Ireland, Photography, Religion, Spiritual Journey, Traditions, Travel

Elsewhere!

Sorry this post is late, I was elsewhere.

Sometimes you just need to take a step away from the everyday.

The brain needs, if not a rest, then to find something unimportant to occupy it’s attentions.  The body, likewise, grows every bit as weary of our daily routine, as the grey matter that drives it.  The muscles yearn to bend some other way, the lungs are wanting for different airs.

And so we leave.

We pack up the car and we drive until we find something that will take our minds away from troubles, chores, duties and drudgery.  We travel until the air feels different and the substance of sight and sound bring with them a hint of the unfamiliar.

We go elsewhere.

Elsewhere can be found in any number of places, but this weekend we found it in the woods north of Houston, at the Texas Renaissance Festival.

Wait, why do I always end up looking like a drunken idiot in these pictures. The Sangria/Margarita Swirls notwithstanding, this is why I never want to “smile for the camera.”

Think of it as a vacation within a vacation.  I’ve taken two weeks off to deal with everything from Samhain festivities to chores that have run behind to getting a new start on some old remodeling projects that have begin to go quite stagnate.

Work, work, and more work!

However nice it will feel to be finally caught up on a few projects, I could not deny a deep need for some genuine leisure time.  And so, a hastily planned trip down to Lake Conroe and a day spent wandering around the Faire: eating, drinking, shopping, watching shows, and otherwise doing as much nothing as humanly possible.

Good music, assorted crafts and the occasional creepy living statue — what more could you want?

I promise, the ‘Ded Bob Sho’ (left) is among the best and funniest at the Faire. Hrothgar, son of Healfdene, however, seems unamused.

It’s been several years since I’ve walked those grounds and a lot has changed in my absence.  For one thing the Faire is open much later into the evening now and is capped off with a nightly fireworks show more impressive then any I have seen in some years.

The slogan of the place (or is it a motto?) is “Lift up your cares”.

I’m not sure about “lifting them up” but walking around those grounds, it is certainly easier to set them aside for a little while.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in the stuff of the everyday.  One thing stacks up atop another until you can’t see your way out.

My advice.

Take some time…,

No…,

MAKE some time.  Push the stacks of “stuff” over, step over the resulting heap (eyes front, don’t look down), and get away for a day or two (or more, if you can manage).

Find your Elsewhere.

Go!

The Fireworks at TRF

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Filed under Culture, Modern Life, Travel

Sunrise and the Forest Lord

Sometimes I think that we are, all of us, hunters of time.

We stand on some lonesome plateau, small temporary things with spears at the ready, and the moments go stampeding past us in their infinite multitude.  They pass us by without so much as a glance in our direction.  We are no threat to them.

They are forever, and we shall soon be gone.

Once in a while though, if we are careful…,

and quiet…,

and lucky…,

we may just take down a few of those passing moments.

I am taking a bit of a break from the blogging this week and instead I’m thinking back to my vacation to the Pacific Northwest back in September.  It is difficult for me to believe that it has already been a couple months since I was hiking those high trails.  Time is fleeting and the moments move very quickly this time of year.

I have yet to fully examine all the photos I took while there, but I thought I would share these with you.  Sunrise on the slopes of Mt. Rainier.

Moments stolen, which I am willing to share, but will never willingly give back.

And then there was this moment.

Finding myself face to face with a great elk and not more than a dozen yards of open ground between us.  He turned to look at me just as I released the shutter, capturing the moment but not the feeling of awe in my heart.

As I lowered the camera he held my gaze for a moment more and pawed at the earth, warning me to approach no closer.  Saying a silent prayer to the Forest Lord who’s very image seemed to stand before me, I backed away, quietly.

Moments like these are rare.  We must savor them while we can.
And then be watchful for those that will follow.

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Wild Things Revisited

Sometimes you just need to hit the pause button on the everyday and tune in something a little more soothing. This week I am taking a break from work, remodeling, blogging and many other projects that constantly cry out for my time and attention.

For the past several days I’ve been hiding out in a cabin near Mt. Rainer, in Washington State. I’ve been greeted in the mornings by wandering elk and have spent my days listening to the music of the wilderness while hiking through old-growth forest.

I’ve been searching for the Wild Things. They live inside us all but sometimes we need to be reminded. Sometimes we need to find a place outside ourselves to rediscover what is truly inside.

It is almost time to come home.

Not quite yet though.

This little place holder will have to do until next week. Then we’ll be back to business as usual. Except, hopefully, I’ll still have a little of that mountain air oxygenating my blood. Maybe I will not have to look so hard to find the Wild Things when I want them.

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Filed under About this Blog, Nature, Spiritual Journey, Travel

The Mechanics of Flight

Vacation time is upon us and my girlfriend and I have been caught in a flurry of activity as we prepare for a few days hiking in the Cascades.  The bills have been paid, house sitters are arranged and pets have been seen to, but there are still many things to do before we catch our flight in a few days.

“Catch our flight?”

It seems like such a casual way of describing one of the true miracles of the modern age.

It is astounding to me sometimes, the things we take for granted.  We are captivated (however briefly) with the features of the newest smartphone but the ability to transport ourselves across landmasses and oceans has slipped almost beneath our notice.  No destination is too remote for us these days.  We’ll just “Catch a flight.”

We act as if we can simply will ourselves into the heavens like Kryptonians under the light of a yellow sun.

Have you ever wondered if this guy gets bugs in his teeth?

It’s not that easy.

There are some very real mechanics involved in the magic of flight.

Rituals, oft taken for granted, which must be followed.

“On a day Fotis came running to me in great fear, and said that her mistress, to work her sorceries on such as she loved, intended the night following to transform herself into a bird, and to fly whither she pleased. Wherefore she willed me privily to prepare myself to see the same. And when midnight came she led me softly into a high chamber, and bid me look through the chink of a door: where first I saw how she put off all her garments, and took out of a certain coffer sundry kinds of boxes, of the which she opened one, and tempered the ointment therein with her fingers, and then rubbed her body therewith from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head, and when she had spoken privily with her self, having the candle in her hand, she shaked parts of her body, and behold, I perceived a plume of feathers did burgen out, her nose waxed crooked and hard, her nails turned into claws, and so she became an owl. Then she cried and screeched like a bird of that kind, and willing to prove her force, moved her self from the ground by little and little, til at last she flew quite away.”

—Lucius Apuleius – Metamorphoses

Of course, Flying Ointment is harder to come by these days and transforming into a bird still leaves one with some pretty serious range limitations.  At least when we board an airliner we know that we can bring along a change of clothes in our carry-on luggage.

Why pay $10 for an inflight meal when mice are free and plentiful?

In lieu of arcane transmutation, we shall observe the modern rituals required for flight.

We begin with the indignity of the security pat-down from the ill-tempered man with the blue gloves.  This is followed by the headlong rush to the gate, only to discover that our flight has been delayed.  Soon thereafter will come the moments of trepidation as we watch other passengers boarding, wondering if we’ll be stuck next to the large sweaty fellow who has no concept of personal space, or the mother of the incessantly bawling infant.  And finally, we shall greet that moment when blood flows prickling into our legs once again as we walk on our own numb feet out of the plane and into the chaos of an unfamiliar terminal.

The ancient gods of Ireland are said to have arrived on a mountaintop in a white mist. Likely this is because they knew better than to try and navigate their way around Dublin Airport.

These rituals, however burdensome, are very necessary.  Should we fail to observe these rites and protocols, we would have almost nothing to say about the experience of flight at all.

It is not as if boarding a 150,000 pound aircraft with a 112 foot wingspan and being rocketed 30,000 feet into the air by engines producing more than 25,000 pounds of thrust is actually boring.  We simply “choose” to be bored by it.

Perception is reality and the reality in this case is that we WANT to be bored by flight.  The best kinds of flights are the uneventful ones where we never have to actually think about the insanity of what we are doing.  We do better when we focus on the tedium and leave the mechanics of flight to the pilots and engineers.

We are not birds who may take to the skies with so little effort.  For our kind, flight requires a blend of science, ritual and the communal effort to alter our perception of reality just long enough to arrive at our destination, sanity intact.

The most revealing moment of any flight comes after the plane has landed and taxied to the gate.  The seatbelt sign clicks off and everyone lurches upward as quickly as possible, wedging themselves uncomfortably into the isle.  The truth of human flight is exposed in that simple moment when all your fellow passengers reveal just how desperate they are to get out of that contraption.

Now, if you’d all please fasten your seat belts and return your seats to the upright position.  Thank you.

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Filed under Magic, Modern Life, Travel