I remember the scene vividly: We were barreling southward, along the narrow highway, bound for Ecuador, in a small bus in the high Andes of Colombia.  The driver was going way too fast for the conditions. I gazed in awe at the incredibly steep valley that descended precipitously from the road to a river a mile or so below. Then I heard a loud noise, I think that we hit a rock in the road. Suddenly we were sailing off the road, rolling over again and again, people flying everywhere, headed to what I thought was certain death. What I believed to be my final thought in this Earthly realm, was a vision of souls uniting, the ultimate expression of human unity. I reached out to my fellow passengers with unfiltered, raw love in an acute realization of our common plight…the human condition. I drew great comfort from the  stunning image of our shared predicament. As I prepared to meet my maker, suddenly and unexpectedly, the bus stopped rolling. It had miraculously come to rest on a narrow ledge, the only ledge before oblivion. I had been given a second life and I was resolved to make the most of it. 

That day in Colombia I saw that embracing all humans as equals is at the very core of my soul, and perhaps because of my near-death experience, that feeling has grown even stronger over the years. That is why I feel so deeply troubled by the current racial tensions in our country, where people are pitted against each other on the basis of skin color. I find this practice unnatural and abhorrent and I can assure you that on my way to what I thought was my own end, I didn’t stop to think that I was “white” and the other people on the bus were ”people of color.” Therefore, I now feel a compelling urgency to speak out against the increasingly common, hateful practice of artificially dividing people in this way. 

Having lived in a “white” world for decades and now married to an African woman and living amongst “people of color,” in the most diverse community in America, I can now report what we all know anyway: humility, joy, hope, forgiveness, gratitude, disappointment, faith, empathy, passion and everything else human come in only one flavor. There is no chocolate forgiveness or vanilla gratitude. 

Recently, I became involved in volunteering at a 150 year-old rural Black church near my home. I took an African American friend and his family to see the church the other day. Then something special happened. His 91 year old mother, Miss Ann, was overcome with joy to the point of tears by the church and the antique relicts on display. It brought her back to happy times. She spoke of family, community and song. Suddenly she started singing “Old Time Religion.” Years ago, I had been drawn to that very song as a youth on a tape of Negro spirituals that I uncovered in the college library. I joined in and we performed a duet that was decades in the making and represents the work of one of the most unlikely duos imaginable. Although Miss Ann had experienced race-based hatred in the bad old days, she had emerged with her strength and dignity intact. That day a strong connection was formed that cut effortlessly across race, age and gender differences, because they didn’t matter to either of us. Why should they?

Unlike the real chasm that my bus was headed down, this pigment-based chasm between people is a man-made, imaginary abomination. I proved this point to myself again recently when, after church, an adorable, four-year-old African American girl appeared at my feet and looked up at me. I couldn’t resist her charm and lifted her and tossed her up in the air. She was overcome with glee so I did it a couple more times to the sound of uproarious laughter. When I set her down she looked up again and studied me intently. I was sure that she noticed our different color and was going to tell me about it. I was in part right about her thoughts. She did notice a difference, however instead of commenting on our respective skin pigmentation, she looked me in the eyes, put her hand on her head and asked earnestly,“where is your hair?” “Mine is here,” she offered instructively. Then she calmly walked away with her hand still atop her head and a smile on her face. I treasure that experience. That little girl knew that skin pigmentation is of no consequence, at least not compared to the amount of hair on your head.

© John Cancalosi

If anyone feels tempted to preach the gospel of racial division to that innocent young girl or my friend Miss Ann, on opposite ends of life’s journey, I suggest that you go outside at night and cast a glance skyward. Having gazed upon the firmament, ask yourself how can we not resign ourselves to the fact that we are all somersaulting together through a vast universe heading towards who-knows-where, just like my bus. If at that point human skin pigmentation still matters to you, then only God can help! Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Pearly Gates image is true. Do you really think that when its all over, and you get to heaven, there will be a line for “whites” and a line for “people of color”? That sounds more like hell to me! Jesus and Muhammad both spoke of human oneness shortly before they departed this Earth. I feel that it is no coincidence that their words, which were unknown to me at the time, exactly describe the vision that I had when I thought my time was up in Colombia. That day on the mountainside, I envisioned souls melting together, just as voices in a choir blend in perfect harmony. I long for the day when everyone can see the obvious truth that we are all equally important parts of the human choir and reach out to embrace their fellow choristers, whatever their color, as I found myself doing on that runaway bus years ago. 


Happy MLK Day!

Posted in John's Musings by john

As MLK espoused, may we judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Better yet, may we strive not to judge at all and view each other with mutual respect and understanding. 


Christmas 2020

Posted in John's Musings by john




I met Pauline and Ben on their ranch in Arizona. I sensed that in these two was the type of decency and true grit that is painfully rare these days. In short order I found myself staying on the ranch and feeling like I was part of the family. They were equally welcoming to my wife, who is from Africa, and we both have lasting memories of the ranch and Pauline. By the time that we met her, Pauline’s condition was challenging, and yet I never heard her complain. She only dealt in kindness.  She was always warm, always welcoming and always looking for ways to spread her warmth to people and puppies. Because of the purity of her own heart, she saw the good in everyone and sometimes overlooked the less noble traits in some.  I have always fantasized about being a rancher. Her intelligence was obvious when she shared her knowledge about the economics of ranching, which is a subject that fascinates me. Through discussions with Pauline and Ben I learned the sure-fired way to have a million dollars in the bank as a rancher….start with three million! 

As I think about her passing, songs lamenting the passing of the days of the Old West circulate in my head. To me the life of “Home Home on the Range” is but a fantasy, but it was her reality. Sadly, as “progress” marches on, this reality is becoming increasingly endangered. When I think of the madness engulfing our cities, I can take refuge in thoughts of being on the ranch with Pauline and Ben, with room to roam, surrounded by nature and the country comfort of decent people. Happy trails Pauline.. till we meet again.


Last summer I drove cross-country from Maryland to Southern Arizona and back again. By the time I was half way through the return trip I was very tired of driving and looking for any form of diversion to take away the boredom. Then I hit Kansas and things got even worse as far as areas of topographic and other scenic interest, so I searched for other ideas to break up the monotonous drive and have a bit of fun. It is easy to poke fun at Kansas as being a dull, flat state where the most exciting thing on offer is to watch the corn grow or visit the world’s largest ball of twine. A survey that I read calls Kansas the tenth most boring state in the Union. Somehow being the tenth most boring seems even more boring than being the most boring. When I hit Liberal, Kansas I had a choice, should I make a pilgrimage to the “International Pancake Day Hall of Fame”, or find something else to do. I chose the latter and, for a laugh, I went to the Liberal police station and somehow managed to talk them out of a Liberal Police patch. I’m not sure if I view this prize as representing police that are “liberal” or police policing “liberals”. Given the local political climate I would say that the latter is a more accurate interpretation. However, neither applies as Liberal got its name from an early settler named S.S.Rogers who gave water away for free to travelers passing through, who replied, “That is mighty Liberal of you”. Whatever meaning you might ascribe to it, my prize is proudly displayed on the refrigerator. Next to it is the the equally prized badge obtained in Galena, Kansas, whose meaning is unambiguous: galena is one of my favorite minerals.


Although it was hard to outdo these police patch adventures, I somehow managed.  East of Liberal the road crosses the mighty Cimarron river. I parked the car and set off  under the long bridge to have a look. Unfortunately the only water that I found in the Cimarron was in the depression formed by a lone cowprint. I was so desparate for stimulation that I  stood transfixed while  photographing and videoing this little puddle for an entire afternoon. I can say without doubt that it wasn’t abject boredom or too much summer sun that had me staring at this puddle so intently. It was what I saw happening in this micro-lacustrine world that still has me amazed. When I first saw this track I noticed a few grasshoppers swimming in it. This didn’t instantly set my curiousity ablaze until I noticed other grasshoppers coming to these already orthopteran-laden waters and themselves diving in. Could it be that the grasshoppers, like me, were desperate for entertainment in these dog days of Kansas? But, cheap anthropomorphism acknowledged, it didn’t seem to be recreational in nature. The hoppers took the plunge, struggled a while and then died. The longer I watched, the more my little puddle filled up with hapless drowning hoppers. I had never seen anything like this and had no idea about what was going on in this bizarre scene.

Months later, I did some research and figured out what must have been happening that day. Turns out larval, parasitic nematode worms sometimes reside in the gut of grasshoppers and crickets. It has been shown that when the worms mature inside their hosts they begin producing proteins that mimic grasshopper nuerochemicals and apparently drive the alien-possessed insects to water where the worms emerge as adults, mate and lay their eggs. These worms have their way with each other with the husks of their former hosts littering the scene. It doesn’t sound like the most romantic scene but the worms don’t seem to mind. By the time adult worms are ready to emerge they must veritably explode from their host’s now useless bodies as they are many times larger than their poor victims. Since I didn’t have a clue what I was witnessing as I photographed this scene, I didn’t notice any worms in the murky puddle-water at the time.  It wasn’t until I wrote this account that I looked closely at the photos that I took that fateful day and Eureka… I think that I can just make out the faint, ghostly outline of one of these bizarre parasites in the muddy water!

 Although it might appear otherwise, I actually love the people, places and natural history of Kansas. Where else could you go to find tornados carrying houses away to the Land of OZ, police friendly enough to indulge a flight of fancy or, more significantly, suicidal, alien-possessed grasshoppers plunging into cow print puddles?

Anne Cancalosi, my mother, passed away four years ago today at the ripe old age of 96, in the company of myself, (her son), her daughter and her closest niece, (her surrogate daughter). She was a coal miner’s daughter from a large family raised in the rural hill country of central Pennsylvania. Her mother was a multi-lingual, no-nonsense Ukrainian immigrant who lived to nearly 102 and made the best poppy seed rolls on the planet. My mother was a devoted wife, mother and grandmother. She had many friends and extended family mambers, most of whom she long out-lived. These are the normal types of things to say about someone after their passing, but she was beyond normal in many ways. When I arrived at her hospital bedside four years ago, having traveled from out of state, I could see that she was at death’s door.  I will never forget the way that her face lit up when she saw me. Before I could say much, she asked me if I had eaten yet, like a true mother. She retained her sharp mind until the end. During her final days, some unforgettable words came from her as she sunk in and out of consciousness. Her humor shone through on many occasions. She joked about getting her hair done and traveling to Hawaii. One of my favorite moments came when I innocently asked a rather attractive nurse to step outside to discuss my mom’s care. As I got up to leave the room she told me, as clear as a bell, that I better be careful or she would tell Irene, (my wife). She later told me the dire consequences that would have awaited her husband of 62 years had his attentions wandered to another woman. She had been a heavy smoker for 80 plus years and lamented that she was leaving four packs of cigarettes behind, which I triumphantly threw in the trash immediately upon my return from the hospital, the end of a decades long battle to get her to quit, which I finally won! Although she had difficulty speaking, we had some amazingly frank discussions. She expressed her concerns about her grandson and only half-jokingly asked if I loved her or her pocketbook. Although it wasn’t always easy to understand her, she told me in half intelligible words that I could be a pain in the ass sometimes followed shortly after with a clear-toned message of how good it was to see me. When I told her how much I appreciated all that she had done for me, she told me that it wasn’t all good… she did have a bit of a mean streak. She never became delusional or incoherent in any way. That is what makes one of the final discussions that we had all the more chilling. As I held her hand, she asked if I had seen “mom”. When I asked whose mom, she said her mom, who has been dead for years. Then her face lit up again, “she’s been asking so many questions about you!” I could have dismissed this as the effect of the drugs that she was receiving or that she was finally losing it. Yet I never saw a hint of delusional thinking before or after this and my best, hair-raising guess is that she had already had a glimpse of the “other side”. She was aware that she was dying, more than welcomed it, and let her wishes be known. Mercifully, after her struggles to break free of this Earthly realm, she finally succeeded. Just as a butterfly struggles to break free of its chrysalis, I am convinced that her spirit is flying, like that newly emerged butterfly, somewhere in this universe.


Since I was about ten years old, the words and melody of the Kingston trio’s version of the Irish folksong “Mountains of Mourne” have been affectionately lodged in my brain. I had wanted to go to Ireland for years having liked every Irish person that met. Therefore, it seems inevitable that one day, I would make my way to the Emerald Isle. When I heard that my friend Will Watson, an eccentric English naturalist, was going to Ireland, and could use a field assistant, I jumped at the chance to tag along. Will had been awarded a contract to study saproxylic beetles in Castlewellan Forest Park. As everyone knows, saproxylic beetles feed on dead and rotting wood. In the long history of Irish-American relations, I was probably the only American to visit Ireland on a trip undertaken with the express purpose of studying saproxylic beetles. As fate would have it, Castlewellan Forest Park is near the base of the very Mountains of Mourne that inspired my beloved song. While searching for saproxylic beetles, singing the “Mountains of Mourne” to myself, I began stripping bark off rotten logs. I uncovered the motherlode, a handful of the rather attractive longhorn beetles known as  Rhagium mordax or the Black-spotted longhorn beetle. Having found and photographed the gold standard of Irish saproxylic beetles, I began wondering the gardens in search other photographic prey. Since we were there in October it was pretty slim pickings, but I did manage to locate some photogenic green shield bugs which presented themselves in some rather pleasing arrangements.  Having located several groups of bugs I returned to the same spots hoping for the right combination of weather, light and bug arrangement. 






With photos of saproxylic beetles and green sheild bugs under my belt, meeting the Irish people became my focus. The first person that I met was Alwyn Sinnamon, the head gardener of the Annesley gardens, located within the park.  Adopting my ignorant American abroad mode, I  asked Alwin about the habits of the local leprechauns.  I thought of my questioning as  a bit of whimsical  nonsense, but Alwin told me that there are serious superstitions that influence the locals regarding leprechauns. He told me that Leprechauns are believed by some to dance below hawthorn trees, locally known as  “fairy trees.” I was told in all seriousness that cutting down these trees leads to bad luck. I later met an elderly gentleman walking through the park who gave me a  lengthy recitation of examples of such luck brought on by felling fairy trees.  His examples ranged from being impaled by the falling branches to sudden deaths in the family. I saw fairy trees left in the middle of fields which require special negotiating when plowing time comes. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence that I heard about regarding this superstition was the time when a major highway was rerouted in order to avoid cutting down a fairy tree.


During my conversations with Alwin about Irish culture, I was reminded of the long-standing history of economic disparity and civil strife in the country. He showed me a  photograph of an obviously poor, barefoot, young woman, heavily laden with firewood. The photograph was taken in the 1890’s, on the Annesly estate, (what would become Castlewellan Forest Park), by Hugh Annesley, the resident Anglo-Irish Earl. I couldn’t stop staring at the photograph. Her intense stare somehow pierced my soul and, without words, spoke to me about what it was like to be on the wrong side of the injustice and oppression that dominated Irish history throughout the centuries. I wonder if Annesly was troubled by the vast difference between his opulent life and the palpably hardscrabble life of his subject, living on the same estate.

I heard so many stories about historical conflict in Ireland that I got confused. Was it the English against the Irish, the Protestants against the Catholics or the rich against the poor? My best synopsis is the rich English Protestants pitted against the poor Irish Catholics. Things got so bad that over a million starved and a million more fled the island during the famous Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1849, when the potato blight fungus wreaked havoc with the potato crop. Problems didn’t stop there and it is hard for me to imagine that just 20 years ago the Northern Irish were at each other’s throats in the most recent manifestation of this chronic conflict locally referred to as “the troubles”. The violence was at times stupifying. Neighbors killed neighbors, in brutal and cruel fashion.

 Given the tumultuous and often violent history of the Emerald Isle, you would think that the people would be warlike and aggressive. What I found was the exact opposite.  Although it is dangerous to generalize, I would go as far as to say that everyone I met on my trip was friendly and unpretentious. I had many pleasant conversations throughout my trip. Most people even laughed at my jokes which is always a plus to me, even if the jokes are often corny. In other words, I really seemed to click with almost everyone that I met. I spoke with many about the political problems of the past and the past is where all that I spoke to would like to leave these “troubles”.  I still don’t get how the warm, friendly nature of the people fits the troubled, violent history of the country.  Then again, injustice can bring out the survival instincts in anyone.

 I had the quintessential pleasant Irish experience when I met George Millar of the Irish Rovers, a famous folk group, in a pub in Bush Mills. George and the Irish rovers have traveled the world as  purveyors of Irish music for more than 50 years. He had plenty of stories to tell. One of his yarns that I found particularly interesting involved Nick Reynolds, the lead singer of the Kingston trio, whose voice introduced me to “The Mountains of Mourne”.   According to George, who often played in the same venues as the Kingston Trio, Reynolds was diminutive in stature. In spite of this he had a pugnacious nature, and would frequently initiate bar room brawls, many of which George had witnessed. 

I don’t normally frequent places frequented by masses of tourists. However, I made an exception for Northern Ireland. One of the main tourist draws were sites used in the filming of “Game of Thrones,” a television series that I never saw. One of the most popular “Game of Thrones” sites was the beech tree lined lane known as “Dark Hedges.” Northern Ireland also boasts one of the most popular geological attractions in the world, the columnar basalt pillars known as Giants Causeway. They were formed during an ancient lava flow. It was difficult photography this fantastic formation, since there were either hundreds of  people climbing all over the formation or there was torrental driving rain making photography next to impossible. I had my best luck right before dark when the place was strangely deserted and I had the magical scene to myself.

I was so moved by the feelings that the beauty of Ireland and its people envoked in me that I wondered if there was something more to this connection than met the eye. When I returned to the States, I did some geneological research. Unbeknownst to me, my great, great grandfather,  John Smith, was from Ardglass, a stone’s throw from Castlewellan!  Like so many others, he left Ireland for Liverpool during the potato famine. Smith later went to New Jersey where he met his future wife, Mary Kieron, whose family had also fled the famine in Ireland. When I told this news to my friend Alwin, he said that he knew all along that I had Irish blood. Although I never heard anything about Irish blood in my family, while in Ireland I certainly felt it , and now I know why.  

Some years ago I got involved in photographing the Dalai Lama when he came to Ithaca, New York, where I was living at the time. I didn’t know that much about him, but I could see that he meant the world to many, from the size of the crowds that lined up for what seemed like miles to hear his words of wisdom. From the priveledged position afforded me as an official photographer I listened to him for nearly a week speak of forgiveness, kindness and for a change a little more forgiveness. He was almost childlike and he seemed sincere. Although I was more focused on photography than his message, some of his words must have registered for reasons that I will now explain. 

Shortly before the Dalai Lama’s visit, I became involved in a rather nasty confrontation with a person in Ithaca. The level of animosity that I felt was considerable and might have even risen to the rarified atmosphere of hatred. The details aren’t important as long as you understand the intense negativity that thoughts of this person evoked in me. 

During the Dalai Lama’s visit he took part in a panel discussion at a large theater and I was charged with photographing the event. I wanted to get a clear shot of His Holiness and positioned myself alone in one of the entrance halls on the second floor. I was quite far from the stage so I used my long 500 millimeter super telephoto lens, that I normally use to photograph wildlife. The auditorium was  abuzz as the packed crowd eagerly awaited the arrival of the honored guest. In spite of the distractions I readied my equipment then something amazing happened. When I trained my lens on the Dalai Lama I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was frozen in place as waves of electricity sweeped over me in a way that I will never forget. What happened next was the closest thing to a miracle that I have witnessed. Just thinking about that scene can bring back the chills. When I put my eye to the camera, who should appear in the viewfinder along with the world’s most noteworthy living Prince of Forgiveness, but the very person that I thought that I hated, the one person in the universe that I most needed to forgive!!!  In that moment I felt that the Universe, (and the Dalai Lama) called me by name and I had no choice but to listen, and it changed me forever. Instantly my anger left me and to this day I have nothing but fond feelings for the formerly despised individual. To add to my remarkable experience, I found out later that the person in question experienced a similar reaction towards me that very same day. 

Recently, a decade after my time with the Dalai Lama, I experienced another challenge with anger towards another person that I have butted heads with for years. This “frenemy” had said something that really offended me. I was hoping to avoid the toxic effects of a building anger which I learned the hard way, only hurts the person feeling the anger. I wrestled with the growing feelings of resentment and searched for a strategy to defeat them. Then came another personal message from the universe: who was it that got me involved in the Dalai Lama photo project? Why it was none other than the current recipient of my anger! So I reved up the  “Forgiveness Machine” and, remarkably, it still worked! Once again, although not as dramatic as the first time, forgiveness and relief came almost instantly using the “Forgiveness machine”! I don’t know if the machine will work on people not tied to the Dalai Lama, but fortunately, I’m running out of people that I need to forgive. 

The same week as the second coming of the “Forgiveness Machine”, I had some African friends over to my home and told them what to me were my amazing stories of how the Dalai Lama stepped in to help me to forgive. I was proud and considered myself a forgiveness meister of sorts. The conversation then turned to my friend’s childhood in Liberia. I asked her if she had experienced any of the ugliness during the wars over there. She calmly told stories of how, at the age of seven, she had seen people killed and had bullets passing through her family house on a regular basis. One one occasion one of her neighbors, turned self-proclaimed warlord, came to their house and demanded to be fed. He came looking for any members of the opposing tribe, the Krahn. He said that if he found the family harboring any of these people he would kill them and my friend’s family immediately. It turns out that they were indeed sheltering a group of Krahn people, who could be recognized by their lighter skin color. Before the nasty neighbor entered the house, all but one of the Krahn refugees had hidden. Then the only one that didn’t make into hiding, a young woman, had to serve the meal to the uninvited “guest”. For some reason he didn’t make the connection and they were all saved, at least for that day. The entire family soon fled to Ghana and eventually made their way to the  States.  Fittingly she later married a Ghanaian man. Through pure chance I met her and invited her, her husband, and another friend of theirs to my house. The woman that I found sitting in front of me that day had all the dignity and peaceful demeanor that a human being could muster. She seemed to have no signs of anger or bitterness after having suffered some of the worst atrocities known to humankind. It was me that drew the stories from her. She seemed fine telling them but, once again, I did not detect a shred of bitterness coming from her. Then it hit me. I’m here telling her the story of my heroic efforts of forgiveness. She who had seen hell and me who in the second case, had experienced  something as trivial as  critisism of my frog pond! That day I learned something more than forgiveness, I learned humility! I also learned the utter insignificance of “difficulties” that I have endured, compared to others. 

 It later occurred to me that my Liberian friend is a devout Christian. Could it be that her faith had armed her to cope with her difficult history in such a graceful way? As a Christian she was able to invoke the help of perhaps the heaviest hitter of all when it comes to the industrial strength forgiveness that she needed. Whatever the case may be, I will always treasure the gift of forgiveness that the Universe and the Dalai Lama gave me, and my Liberian friend for putting my experience in perspective. 

For the past several years I’ve been following two personal paths of discovery in two seemingly unrelated topics. This is a story of how these two paths unexpectedly intersected in a way that had a soul-stirring impact on me. 


One of my passion projects is learning how minerals and the metalic elements that they contain have been so fundamental to the building of human society and how so few seem to make this connection. I began photographing minerals due to their obvious eye appeal.  The more I learned, the more I realized that had we humans not developed the myriad ways to use minerals in our technology, we would be living in a way that would make the Flintstones look futuristic.  Somehow, many in modern society fail to make this basic connection and I determined that I would try to spread this message in a manner that I know best, namely through photography. I have begun creating a series of artworks, which I later photograph, that attempt to show the story visually and hopefully make clear the message of just how dependent human civilization is on minerals and the metallic elements that they contain. In order to find materials for my artwork I often find myself rummaging around antique shops. Here, I often spend inordinate amounts of time and money searching out picture perfect examples of “metallica”.

Another issue that I have been grappling with over the past several years is the relationship between the races, black and white, both historically and in the modern era. This subject became a prominent focus in my psyche rather abruptly seven years ago. Not coincidentally that is when I met the African woman that was to become my wife. At the time, she lived in a high-rise flat outside of Washington D.C. which was populated by about 99% pepper and a few grains of salt, of which I was one.  We begin going to a church that had very much the same racial mixture. At the same time, I began listening to “jazz and justice” radio station in DC, as well as other news sources and heard a not-so pretty picture of rascism that shocked me and challenged my beliefs on the subject. Thus, almost overnight, I was forced to deal with race relations at various intimate levels on a daily basis, and in retrospect, these new surroundings,  set me on a self-guided mission to see what it is, and was like being black in America.  I have been very priveledged that through the friendships that I have formed, dramatic “black history month” presentations at the church, travels to Africa with my wife and race relation discussions that I have hosted, to have gotten at least a vicarious idea of the difficulties faced by African Americans through the times of slavery, segregation, until the present day. 

I recently traveled to rural England, Ireland and Wales, I hardly saw any black people so my immediate interest in race relations took a welcome vacation. However, my interest in mining and the metal-human connection was very much alive and took me to Parys mountain in Wales. Here, copper has been mined for over 3000 years, from the Bronze age through World War Two. At a nearby museum I learned that from the 16th to the 19th centuries, much of the copper extracted from Parys mountain, was taken to Birmingham in England and used to make bracelet-like copper or bronze objects known as “manillas”. The copper-bearing manillas were then carried by ship to West Africa, where around 8 to 10 of these was enough to buy a human being. These enslaved people were transported on the same boats from Africa to the Caribbean where they were sold on to cotton and sugar cane plantations. The cotton and sugar produced by these slaves was then carried back to England, thus completing a rather efficient triangle of exploitation which functioned quite nicely for everyone involved except of course the poor slaves. Coming from America, this British version of the slavery story is something that I had never heard. As with many things that I see in museums, the story registered, but not in any profound way. Besides, the horror of it all didn’t have time to sink in before I went to photograph the Parys mountain pit, which I barely managed before the wind and rain forced me to abandon the site. 

After Parys mountain,I returned to England and resumed my antique shop metal prospecting. I found myself in a shop in Worchester, where I hit the mother-lode. The proprietor had spend 40 years collecting all manner of metal objects and as my luck would have it , he was trying to liquidate his inventory before closing his shop. I told him about my metal project and he was interested and willing to give me some bargains. Bingo…metal collector’s heaven!  I spent hours searching through hundreds of photogenic and historical British metal objects from 250 year old church keys, to things that I had never heard of like a chatelaine, (look it up). My eyes began to tire and my enthusiasm for metals, which normally knows no bounds, starting to show the slightest signs of weakening. It was then that through the 40 years of accumulated metalica, I spied not one, but two Manillas! I thought back to the museum and knew instantly that I had to have them both. When I first held a manilla in my hand I instantly had a visceral reaction. My hair, (what hair I have), stood on end as the reality of what that copper object represented, unexpectedly, touched my deepest soul. It was as if that manilla, sitting in my palm, opened a window through time and the righteous struggles of so many became real to me, in a way that it never had before. So much for my vacation from thoughts of race relations. 

Now back in the States, as I write these words, manillas by my side, I can hear the sounds of the slaves at their work, singing their way through the seemingly hopeless and endless oppression, immersed in a struggle that their descendants would finally win. 

The manilla is a reminder of how my passions for metals and humanity converged in an unexpected way that has changed me forever. So what we have here is another version of Yogi’s “fork in the road” rule: If you come to two forks in the road you should take them both and hope that they come together in the end, or something like that.  

After finishing the above story, I decided that once again, I needed to detach from manillas and the subject of race for a while. To unplug and relax I took a hike on the Appalachain trail and decided to stop at  an antique shop near the trailhead. I had been to this place several times but decided to see what new material might be on offer that could be useful for my metals project. While wondering up and down the endless aisles looking for metal objects, I saw something from the corner of my eye, but kept walking. It took a few seconds to sink in. What would a person, looking for metal objects, but wanting to avoid the sticky subject of racial oppresion least want to see? Believe it or not, fresh from Europe and writing about manillas as a symbol of oppression in Britain, I saw nothing less that a metal badge from the KKK! I was shaken, literally and figuratively. Once again, echos from a dark past shook my spirit. I seriously debated whether to buy this token of hate and even called my wife to get her opinion. I decided that the story that I could tell with this piece outweighed my natural inclination to run from it.  No sooner had I made the decision to buy the piece in question than the person who sold it to me told me a story of how he witness such an oblect being brandished in the ugliest of ways to intimidate an elderly African American couple some fifty years ago near the site of the present day antique store. The badge, which was awarded to high ranking members, was worn under a suit coat, on a vest, and revealed dramatically as it was to the couple who were peacefully eating their lunch. As much as I feel that I can feel the suffering of the oppressed, I have not been able to fathom what would motivate a member of the KKK to spread the casual, pointless, melanin-based hatred described to me that day.  Eerily, the badge was made  using copper, as were the manillas and in roughly the same shape. To add to the ominous feeling, when I placed the two together, it was as if they were made to fit! 

If you didn’t know what these objects represent, you would say that they are beautiful works of metalic art. We have been warned that beauty is only skin deep and I can’t think of a more fitting example than the manilla and the KKK badge, because what they represent is anything but beautiful. As if there weren’t enough evidence of bad juju contained in these artifacts, I have one more piece of evidence. When I first tried to upload the photo that I took of these two objects together to help illustrate this article on my website, the entire site crashed! I will try again, only because I believe, as has been said,  that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. If clan membership is any indication, according to the figures that I see, clan membership stands at roughly 5000 of the estimated 6 million members that it had in its heyday in the 20’s. That’s a reduction of 99.99916 %. Although I am assured that the problem still exists, these surprising figures, if they are correct, give me hope. Another reminder that there is a heightened awareness of these issues struck me this week when I tried to take my family to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and found that there were no tickets available due to the overwhelming popularity of this venue. 

As far as paths crossing goes, this story is not without some striking examples.  Two different cultures on two different continents design metal objects, in the same shape, made from the same material, which symbolize the same thing, namely racial oppression. Coincidentally, without intention, I stumble on these artifacts continents apart, and it looks like they were made to go together. Ironically, I discovered both the manilla and the KKK badge while wanting to step back from racial issues. However, the universe spoke and I listened and this story is my witness. I keep these momentos of oppression to remind myself, and others, of the history of oppression that they represent. Too bad Yogi isn’t around to sort out all the forks in the road that came together and brought me the serendipidous, intense personal epiphany about such an emotion-laden and topical issue. I can only hope that when it comes to manillas and the KKK , that  he was right when he said “the future a’int what it used to be! “