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?
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! “
For the last 16 years I have traveled to a remote woodland site in Pennsylvania where timber rattlesnakes gather to bask in the sun, and give birth to their young, en masse, in a reptilian version of a crèche. I have seen as many as 40 females give birth to dozens of young, which the females collectively oversee for the first few weeks of the newborn’s lives. It is a scene rarely witnessed by humans and I consider it my obligation to document these events in photos and video. I have loved snakes since childhood and the snake-lover in me hopes that by showing the public these unexpectedly tender scenes it can help raise awareness of and appreciation for these oft misunderstood and maligned creatures. Whether my motives are virtuous or not, I am passionate in this pursuit and have been known to suffer for the cause. As I write, I am nursing a shattered shin and numerous cuts, bruises, insect bites and stings, a touch of poison ivy as well as a bit of exhaustion from my most recent trip.
I guard the exact location of this and other sites zealously, lest some rattlesnake hunter or other thrill seeker catch wind of the location and disturb the animals that have become like family to me. What I can say is that it lies on a ridge created by the collision of two massive tectonic plates which gave rise to the Appalachians many millions of years ago. This collision caused a buckling of the formerly level strata and formed a series of ridges and valleys. Today harder sandstone, which is resistant to erosion is found on the ridges and softer shales in the valleys. The geology is important to me because it created the South-facing slope that the rattlers seek for optimal sun-bathing. The same geology conveniently left behind a huge sandstone slab under which the rattlers shelter and which is my rattlesnake Mecca to which I make my yearly quasi-religious pilgrimage.
The vegetation is a mixed hardwood, oak woodland, with a few conifers. What is important for the sun-seeking snakes is that there are some openings in this forest. I won’t leave the subject of vegetation until I talk about the understory, which is primarily mountain laurel, which is a shrub with beautiful flowers. That is where the appeal of this species ends for me. Turns out that they can grow in dense thickets which are affectionately know as “laurel hells” and have been described as “nearly impossible to pass through”. I can now say with authority that they are not impossible to pass through, but my present physical condition, described above, shows that it a’int easy.
I could cut a trail through this brush, but for the aforementioned reason of secrecy, I prefer to travel like the local bears do. There are faint trails at points , but I sometimes loose these trails and that is where the dreaded laurel-bashing comes in. Even though I have gone there so many times I still wonder how I find the place, so thick is the vegetation in places and devoid of any discernible landmarks, except the bent over tree at the beginning and dead tree at the end. Why don’t I use a GPS?, you might ask. I did at first, then it ceased working. I have been there so often that I thought, who needs a GPS? I now know the answer to that question and I will be the proud owner of a new one before venturing forth again. Getting to the site is one thing, but returning to the camp is another. As I approach the snakes, I try to use different routes so as not to form a decernable trail. To be more honest, because I don’t cut a trail, I often wander aimlessly before I reach my destination. To my credit, I always find it in what, at times, seems like a miracle. When I leave, sans GPS, I almost always have difficulty meeting up with the faint trail, closer to camp, that I used to get there. At this point I often find myself, once again, in laurel hell, wondering what I did to deserve this fate. Fortunately, what I lack in intelligence and technological aids, I make up with sheer determination and a degree of physical strength which get me where I need to go after the requisite shin-smashing, camera-dumping and somersaulting along the way. Its like an extreme workout from Hell… laurel hell.
When I reach my sacred, lichen covered, sandstone snake slab, a fluid, organic, natural tranquility and focus overtakes me. That is unless its a bad year and not many snakes are there or I’m too late and they have already departed for their winter denning sites. On a good year, such as this year, I am greeted by a dozen or more adults and dozens of newborn babies, intertwined at times, like a huge plate of serpentine spaghetti. The females, which are somewhat related, arrive at these traditional sites after they emerge from their winter dens, which are usually not too far away. They spend the summer lounging around and basking in the sun. By so doing they are heating up their bodies. The young which are developing inside are thereby cooking faster and will be born alive by summer’s end. The snakes are not always out. If it is too cold, they stay sheltered under the slab, which has many nooks and crannies underground. Conversely, when it is too hot and sunny they also go to ground. The trick for photography is to be there when the right conditions for the rattlesnakes and for photography coincide, which isn’t all that often. The rattlers will often share these sites with other snakes including copperheads, black rat snakes and garter snakes. At “my” site, I have photographed rattlers intimately intertwined with eastern garter snakes, their heads resting next to each other for hours of peaceful repose. I only recently read that timber rattlesnakes have been known to eat other snakes, especially garter snakes. I assume that the interspecific rapport that I have observed can only be explained by the fact that gravid rattlers generally don’t feed while gestating.
People often ask me “aren’t you afraid?”, “aren’t you in danger?”. The answers are absolutely not and almost certainly not. These snakes are large, possess potent venom and are potentially one of the most dangerous snakes in North America. However, contrary to popular belief, when it comes to humans, they prefer to be left alone. I have trouble with sensationalistic snake heroes that play up the danger aspect to either increase ratings or their egos. When I am with these snakes I am far more worried about me disturbing them than the other way around. Since they can be long-lived, and since I have been there for so many years, I would like to think that they might even recognize me, although most of the time I am hidden in a hide.
I while away many hours, waiting on the snakes and or the weather, and I devote this time to nourishing the local mosquitos and gnats which are a constant presence. Last trip, while laying in wait, I devised a brilliant scheme to even the score with the insects. I saw what I thought was a large horsefly flying around me and noticed that it sometimes passed between my spread legs. In a plan that can only be hatched after hours of boredom, I planned to use my catlike reflexes to squash the quick but unsuspecting insect between my knees. After a couple of hours, my chance arrived and I sprung my trap. Much to my surprise, I actually caught my prey. Trouble was that wasn’t the only surprise. Turns out my horsefly was some kind of big bomber, horsefly-like hornet, which stung me the instant that my legs closed, and yes, it hurt like hell. The marks still remain more than a week later.
At this point you are probably wondering what Elton John has to do with this story and I understand your natural curiosity. Believe it or not, he does play a role in our saga. Last year, a representative of Sir Elton was contacting me to buy a signed copy of one of my photos for his famous photography collection. I had been very busy in the field in Arizona and they had contacted me a number of times and I hadn’t replied. I came back East with little time to spare to visit my rattlesnake maternity site. Just as I was about out the door, to leave for my pilgrimage, I got an e-mail saying how Elton was there now and we needed to make a decision about the photograph. I quickly replied that I must travel immediately to my rattlesnake site but would contact them later. Since there is no phone coverage in the hills, it had to wait several days. I contacted them later but never heard back. Apparently not everyone appreciates the passion that I feel for these snakes, and I bet that this was the first and only time that Sir Elton played second fiddle to a group of venomous reptiles. Turns out that it wasn’t a good year anyway, and I completely missed whatever birthing happened as the snakes had dispersed by the time I arrived.
I have involved my son in this project since he was very young. I took him up clad in hockey shin guards and he valiantly stayed for days, braving the rugged conditions. I gave him the camera and tripod once and he proceeded to take photos that, at the ripe old age of six, won him a prize in the prestigious British Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. I on the other hand , have yet to be so recognized for my efforts. I know that he has the bug. Now 22, he met me on location last week, having just returned from his adventures in South America. On our last day, I was just about to let him use the camera, when a turkey vulture swooped right over us and the snakes bolted for cover under the rock. That vulture brought an end to the day and this season. I have a feeling that my son is on his way to becoming a second generation rattlesnake whisperer, which suits me just fine.
For the last year I have had the privilege to do my photography on an 80 square mile ranch in Southern Arizona, North of Tucson. That’s 80 square miles, not acres. Since Texas is often used for size comparisons, the ranch is over half the size of the smallest county in Texas, Rockwall. Coincidentally, Rockwall county is almost the same size as Rutland, the smallest county in England. Since I have also been given permission to work on an adjoining ranch of 60 square miles, my total room to roam is roughly equal with to the entire Texan or English county. The only humans that I am likely to encounter on this vast expanse of Sonoran desert are the owners, who have become like family, but are rarely in residence, or the Peruvian vaquero hired to take care of the several hundred head of cattle that roam the property. This poor guy, Cenin, is overworked, having to cover so much ground by himself. We will get back to him later.
This Spring I was at the ranch to photograph owls nesting in saguaro cactus. I was lucky to find several nests and set up a hide on the nest that was best for photography. Normally when I set up a hide on a nest in a saguaro, I must build high towers to put the hide at the same level as the birds. This time I was lucky that one of the nests was located on a hill, so I was able to place my hide on the ground, and still be able to see into the nest, from a safe distance so as not to disturb the birds. This was the easiest setup that I had ever had on a nest in a saguaro. I went into this hide in the pre-dawn for several weeks running. The parents were very attentive to the young and I was waiting for the right combination of light and behavior to capture the photos and video that I was looking for. On one day, as a storm approached, the winds threatened to blow me and the hide away. Then came the lightning. Should I bail out or stay and risk electrocution? I took the risk and survived, although there were some dicey moments as lightening strikes come way too close for comfort. The storm passed, and the wind, rain and lightning subsided. I was able to record one of the three chicks stretching its wings and being tenderly preened by its parent, as they dried off from the dousing they just got. It was well worth weathering the storm for owls and photographer alike. Of course the owls had no choice.
It was a very wet and cool Spring this year and plants were growing more luxuriantly, by desert standards, than normal. I remember seeing a plant that I recognized from my days in Colorado, scorpion weed or Phacelia. About that time I began noticing a growing rash on my legs, which got increasingly, ugly and itched intensely. It took me a few weeks to connect the dots and figure out that it was this scorpion weed that gave me the reaction, something that I had never experienced in all my years in the desert.
After working on the owls in May, I left the desert and went back East for a couple of months, sporting my tan face and rash-covered legs, intent upon returning in late July to photograph the yearly monsoon rains, that bring the desert to life. I honored my commitment to return, this time with my wife, but the monsoon was, for the most part, a no-show. The cool, wet Spring was long gone, leaving the unrelenting, dry heat in its wake.
There are several buildings on the ranch. One is straight from an authentic Western movie. Authentic in that it has no electricity. It does have a solar system installed, but it was in need of repair, and didn’t work. One of the smaller buildings had solar power that worked, which translated to enough energy to run a very small air-conditioner for about 30 minutes on a very sunny day. After about 10 AM our days were therefore more devoted to survival than photography, until late in the afternoon. It was quite a shock to be so exposed without the instant relief that we have grown used to in the modern world. We took a few showers during the day and I walked around with a wet rag on my head. We slept in a tent outside of the house, but even sleep was difficult until late in the night when it cooled below 90 or so. There was a pool there, but I wouldn’t like your chances of surviving a dip. However, bats, poor wills and other birds skimmed its waters regularly. Near the pool, a spectacular blooming sotol provided a perch for white-winged doves and house finches which I was able to photograph. I also found a gila woodpecker nest in a saguaro nearby and was able to photograph the parents coming and going for one day, before the young fledged.
There were lots of creatures hanging around the house: tarantulas, scorpions, giant centipedes, rattlesnakes, and huge Sonoran desert toads.
One night I was in luck, when, in spite of the lack of rains, one of the male toads began calling and I began rolling around in the weeds photographing the crooning anuran. I got some nice shots, but noticed the next morning that the weeds that I was rolling around in the night before were none other than my old friend scorpion weed and this time I knew what was going to happen. I still have the remnants of the rash that began that fateful evening. Fortunately, the next day I was able to photograph several pairs of Sonoran desert toads mating in the abandoned swimming pool, this time without having to roll around in scorpion weed.
After several weeks on the ranch, my wife needed to return to work, and I planned to stay on to continue filming the monsoon. However, it appeared at the time, and still does weeks later, that this year’s monsoon is more of a nonsoon. I therefore decided to leave with my wife.
The night before we were to leave, the cattle around the house were sounding off continuously, in a pitiful way, and the coyotes were going crazy with their yipping and howling. It seemed as though they must have killed a calf. When I awoke before sunrise, wondering what was going on, I quickly discovered that the cattle were without water! The pipes supplying their drinking tanks had clogged and with temperatures to get to 110 that day, we were looking at a major bovine disaster, unless something was done immediately. I instantly dropped any hope of leaving and called my overworked Peruvian friend, Cenin, (remember him). Cenin was unaware of the situation and I told him to get over here pronto and we began an intensive, water-lift operation, carrying 20 gallon buckets of water, taken from the one working hose at the ranch, on his atv, to the desperate cattle waiting near the empty water tank up the hill. The poor 30 or so head inhaled the water, which was gone, by the time we got back with the next bucket. I drove and Cenin steadied the buckets, as we went up the hill, loaded down, water sloshing all over us, maybe 20 or 25 times, until the cattle stopped drinking. Finally, we could take time to see where the problem was with the waterline. While inspecting the cistern where the water was held uphill, I discovered that a rather large coachwhip snake was trapped inside. Coachwhips are nonvenomous but nasty and I could quickly see that it would take nothing less than total immersion to rescue the poor serpent. Fortunately, there was a long ladder leaning against an above ground water tank nearby, which I unhooked and placed into the cistern and climbed down into the chest deep water and swam over, grabbed the snake, swam back, climbed the ladder and released it successfully. I didn’t have any time to admire the snake as we still had to fix the water supply situation to the dry stock tank that started the crisis to begin with. I was able to unclog the water line, using my highly technical skills of bashing the pipe with a hammer. It worked and Cenin later put some high pressure gas into the line which further cleared it. Then it was time for Cenin and I to insure our own survival by drinking around a gallon each of whatever liquids we could find. My wife and I left the ranch that day, a half day behind schedule, but satisfied at having saved the cattle and snake. I have called Cenin several times since then just to check on him and the cattle. We formed a special friendship that day, having shared a very special experience. The only ones who were unhappy with the outcome were the coyotes.
I am a white male. Although, unlike others, I don’t apologize for this, I feel that it is necessary to let it be known to set the stage for the story that follows. I am married to a black, Kenyan woman named Irene. Now that we have the main characters and their respective melanin levels established, which seems so important these days, we can get to the story. We just returned to our home near Washington D.C. after a month on the road. As a biologist-geologist, wildlife photographer, I love the American countryside, so it should be no surprise that during our travels, we mostly took the more intimate backroads, rather than the impersonal and uninviting Interstate highways. Our destination was a remote ranch in Southern Arizona, where I could do my wildlife photography. The most direct route took us right across America’s heartland, the bible belt and the Southwest: rural West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, New Mexico and Arizona. I just looked up voting records from the last election, and not only did we travel only through red states, but as far as I can tell, we only visited red counties! This is hard to do given the length of our drive. If I had tried to plan a Republican route, (which I definitely didn’t), I couldn’t have done a better job, threading the needle precisely in New Mexico and splitting two big blue blocks in Arizona. It is easy to drive Republican in North Texas and Kansas, and you can’t do anything else in Oklahoma or West Virginia as every county was red in 2016. These are the kind of places that most people only fly over and are largely inhabited by conservative, supporters of you-know-who. We didn’t know what to expect as far as people’s reactions to my wife, but according to an oft-heard narrative, most of these people should be red-necked, bible and gun-toting, “deplorable”, racists, so we were on guard at first.
Many that we encountered were indeed Christians, owned guns and had red necks, (they work outside after all). I hate to disappoint those that might be invested in the view that there is unabated racism seething through the hateful, Caucasian veins of every inhabitant of this cultural wasteland, but our experience was that of warm, kind, unpretentious people that often doted on my wife, who was always the only black person in sight, and probably the only one for the next hundred miles or so. Despite what we had been led to believe, people obviously loved her. At times they fawned over her, “ I want your lips, I want your nose, I want your skin,” effused a lady in an antique store in Galena, Kansas. No, I don’t think that she or others were being patronizing. A drunk in Quemado, New Mexico, held nothing back from his new found “Mama”, “I don’t care about skin”, he proclaimed, as he held his palm against hers for comparison. She was described as a “gem”, “beautiful”, (many times), and elicited innumerable hugs and kisses. We were invited to stay over at a farm, and a museum was closed on her behalf to try to find another Kenyan living in the small Kansas town of Meade. People loved her not in spite of her race, but because of it. I have traveled these backroads by myself and with white friends, and never experienced anything like the kind of kind attention that came our way, or more accurately Irene’s way. Perhaps the most revealing episodes came when a young boy spontaneously ran to her and grabbed her leg and held on obviously seeking comfort and protection. If this child was growing up in a racist household, he obviously wouldn’t behave in this manner. On another occasion, an old lady held her hand throughout the course of a long conversation at a restaurant, talked about my wife’s beautiful skin, and begged her to come over for some of her homemade plum jam. When she wasn’t being treated as royalty she was treated as respectfully as any other person in homes that often harbored guns, bibles and MAGA paraphernalia.
One good thing about this trip is that I largely unplugged from news. The few times that I watched television, most of what I heard were white people being called racist, often by those in search of votes, including other whites. I must admit that in the few minutes that I listened to radio while driving, besides hearing about pork belly futures and the like, I heard a woman,(from where I don’t know), tell Rush Limbaugh that she felt that the President had thrown her “under the bus”, by denouncing racism and white supremacy. This caller only momentarily disrupted our vibe but served as an unpleasant reminder that racism is still alive and well amongst some, thankfully few, mostly older folks. In any case, I quickly turned the radio off, and our own little “Peace Train” was again sailing across the prairie. That was the end of the “news” until we arrived home. Having returned and connected to the news again, one of the first things that I heard was the notion that anyone that would vote Republican is, by definition, a racist. Having seen all the positive attention and affection heaped upon my wife during our trip through the heart of Republican country, this type of rhetoric rings hollow. Throughout our travels through rural “red” America, whites and hispanics alike were drawn to my black wife like a love magnet and if this is racist country then they sure fooled us.
Irene has since related these stories to her black friends in D.C., who have universally tried to invalidate her experiences: “They were just thinking about the election.”, “They would have been different if your (white) husband wasn’t there.” We both disagree. Although contact was mostly superficial, the sincerity was palpable, and I have seldom known children, drunks or old ladies to put on airs. I was interested in getting feedback to my story from from a white, left-leaning person, so I showed the piece to one such person at a party. As she read on her phone while I watched, her comments suggested that she believed that I was writing about how racist these people were! Unfortunately, or fortunately, she was interrupted and I wasn’t around to see her reaction after reading the whole piece. I did see enough to know that some people’s views are so well ingrained that they are seemingly blind to any evidence that might conflict with existing dogma.
So corrosive has the dialogue around race become in our country, that we feel obliged to let our stories be known to anyone that would care to listen. Although our trip could be seen as a sort of “sociological transect” across the Mid and Southwest, it obviously does not represent a scientific study, but rather a series of anectdotal samples. Nevertheless, from our experience, the broad brush used to paint bible-wheat belt Republicans as being universally, incorrigible racists, needs to be filed forthwith in the trash bin of history, along with the few real racist dinosaurs still surviving. If truth matters, then we feel a new vision of rural “red” Americans must be put out there, in light of the reality that my wife and I experienced on our recent trip. Time after time we saw Afro-infatuated people that were not what either of us would have expected. A very pleasant surprise and a very positive American reality that we feel needs to be recognized and acknowledged.
© John Cancalosi- Not to be reprinted without express written permission.