What do the Amish, the nickel, 10 acres of slag and the current U.S. president have in common? I will attempt to make that clear.
It was friendship with an Amish family that took me to visit them at their home, just outside of Nickel Mine Pennsylvania. Knowing of my interest in things geological they took me to see something that they thought might interest me. As we walked through the quiet woods near their house, we came to a clearing revealing thousands of bathtub-shaped, massive, slag chunks strewn about as far as I could see, in a scene that seemed post-apocalyptically surreal.
What lay before me was the slag, or unusable waste, from a mine and smelter that once supplied 25% of the world’s nickel. In the 1850’s nickel was discovered in an area previously mined, somewhat unsuccessfully, for copper since its discovery in 1732. Between 1862 and 1893 the Gap nickel mine produced 4.5 million pounds of nickel. In 1862 the mine was aquired by the industrialist Joseph Wharton. The mine proved very productive and its new owner was very industrious. The ambitious Wharton, by pulling a few strings with his buddies in Congress, had the U.S. government minting a new five cent coin, named after one of its principal constituents, the Nickel. Since the Gap mine monopolized U.S. nickel production, Wharton was to provide all the nickel used in the metallugically epomymous new coin. The original proposed weight of the coin was increased, making it one of the heaviest per unit of value, presumably, so Wharton could sell more nickel.
Eventually the nickel at the Gap mine petered out and Wharton was forced to get his nickel from Canada. But Wharton had other enterprises, not the least of which was Bethlehem steel. Using his wealth Wharton formed the world famous Wharton school of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Among the many graduates of this prestigious institution is the current president of the United States. As promised, I have now connected all the dots from my lead sentence.
If you are a Yogi Berra fan like me then you probably remember his ” A Nickel A’int Worth a Dime Anymore” Yogism. Turns out he was right, but not in the way that he intended. During the war, between 1942 and 1945, the composition of the Nickel was changed from 75% copper and 25% nickel to 56% copper, 35% silver and 9% manganese. This was done in order to conserve the nickel which was used in armour-plating. Had Yogi been referring to these “war nickels”, by yesterday’s prices the melt value would be $.9130635622, a lot more than a measly dime Yogi! Perhaps it was Yogi that alerted the government, since in 2006 it became illegal to melt down nickels in America or to carry more than five dollars worth out of the country. I always thought that Yogi was smarter than he sounded.
The slag itself is, to me, an amazing geological art form with fluid patterns and colors, reminding me of abstract art. So impressed was I that I spent an entire day loading vast quantities of my avant-garde geo-art into my car, which became overburdened, like the rail cars that came from the smelter to dump these things in what might have been their final resting place. Who, including Wharton, could have imagined that his slag would be sought after by the likes of me, over a hundred years after it was laid to rest by the miners. As the saying goes, (sort of) “One man’s slag is another man’s treasure”. My slag collection now lies proudly displayed at the entrance to my house. I’m sure nobody has a clue what it is, much less the story behind it. I plan to go back to visit my Amish friends and take them some photographic prints of my new artform.
Last summer, I photographed burrowing owls for several weeks in an agricultural area in Southern Arizona. One day my efforts had been thwarted by a number of events including a crop duster flying directly overhead, seemingly close enough to touch. I stayed patient and then the gloriously unexpected happened. Desert rains can be extremely spotty, and suddenly the owls and I had our own private rainstorm. The magic continued to unfold when my owls began to do something I have never seen or even heard of before… a rain dance! With wings-spread, they performed what looked like a native American dance. My cameras whirred and the rain stopped as did the dancing and I was left with goosebumps and tears of joy from the utter, unexpected perfection of what just happened. So often in life, the best bits can take you by surprise. As with all perfection or near perfection that I have witnessed, the rain dance was sadly fleeting, and thus bittersweet. I went back many times to see it again, but never had the same luck. What a priveledge it was to witness this rare event!
Yesterday I was at the lake below my house to photograph the last of the amazing ice formations that had formed as a result of very high winds and very low temperatures. An amazing world known only to a few, that happens once a year with luck. To get these photos and videos I had to bust through the ice and get chest deep in the frigid water. Fortunately I had a good pair of chest waders on, although they allowed water to enter at the feet and at one point over the top. As the temperatures rose above freezing the ice began melting and I was determined to video this process on a series of superb, unusually shaped icicles hanging from a frozen log. I was already cold to begin with so the 45 minutes or so that it took, pushed my limits. Swans, geese and ducks flew over as the time passed slowly. I felt the raw force of nature as if I were in a wilderness. By the time that I came out of the water my legs weren’t as legs should be, but I managed to make my way up to the house, all the while marveling at my suburban adventure, that seemed more appropriate for the Yukon than Washington D.C.. Unlike in the Yukon wilderness, I was able to hobble to the shower where I stayed for an hour or so, wondering if I had done serious damage. A day later and it is now raining, leaving no trace of the magical ice world from yesterday other than the chill that still grips me at times.
I have been enthralled with nature since childhood. It never occurred to me to do anything career-wise that didn’t involve animals. If you could see me as a young child ardently searching for frogs, turtles salamanders and snakes, it would be easy to imagine how, with luck, I might one day find myself involved with such creatures as an adult. By choosing wildlife photography as a career, I never really had to “grow up” and have been able to follow my childhood passions largely uninterrupted. An endless pursuit of visual beauty has been my guiding light and my eyes serve as a compass steering my lens in the right direction. Just like Alice and her looking glass, my “looking glass”, the lens, has transported me to some of the world’s greatest places, where I have met many amazing and sometimes strange people and creatures along the way. Hopefully, the photos that I have created can help others feel my own love of nature and respect the myriad lifeforms with which we share our planet.
Given my childhood enthusiasm for cold-blooded creatures, it should come as no surprise that I love photographing rattlesnakes. For years I have followed the birthing of Timber rattlesnakes in a remote mountain forest in Pennsylvania. In the summer, gravid females gather to bask and bring their bodies to optimum temperatures for their young to develop. When conditions warrant, they form intertwined piles of serpentine spaghetti, and calmly retreat under their rock shelter if it gets too hot or too cold. It is a scene of great tranquility. For the first few weeks after their young are born alive in late summer, the mothers even share babysitting duties. I am never in fear during these long weeks in the field with these rattlesnakes. Not because they are harmless or I am a fearless hero or just plain stupid, but because there is nothing to be afraid of. My years of photographing timber rattlers has taught me that they are not the aggressive serpents that they are sometimes made out to be. I see them as tolerant, sociable, devoted mothers. There are two predominant color phases of this species, yellow and black. They don’t discriminate on the basis of color and they live in perfect harmony. I’ve even seen them coiled up with other species like this garter snake. If only all species, including our own could be so nonjudgemental about different levels of melanin in their peers.
Photography has shown me that there is magic in this world. One winter morning I saw a raccoon walking across my porch. I followed it and it climbed a large maple tree next to the house. I spent most of the morning watching and photographing my unexpected visitor. I absolutely couldn’t believe my luck, as my raccoon posed beautifully! he finally descended the tree and wandered off and I began walking to an appointment that I was late for. I was thinking of my good fortune as I passed by a feed and pet store. Not having much time and not needing anything likely to be found there, it was strange that I decided to pop in. When I walked in things got even stranger. There before me was a hollow cat tree with a raccoon doll inside a hole exactly like the scene that I had just photographed. If this doesn’t prove the existence of God it, at least proves that life contains delightful surprises!
A real metamorhosis began when my photographer’s eyes turned toward rocks and minerals.
Their visual appeal is unmistakable. However, it wasn’t until I learned more about them, that I had an awakening. From the days when the first humans fashioned scrapers, knives and projectile points from flint, to the present day human civilization is completely dependant on these fruits of the Earth. This absolute dependency is most dramatic in the modern world. Look around you most of what you see, if not farmed, was mined from the Earth. The computer with which I project these images is made with no less than 65 minerals or elements, your mobile phone is the same and our cars might as well be known as mineral mobiles. I, like many people, didn’t realize this at first. This awakening came to me originally through my lens,and now occupies my time in an ongoing project to photograph these mineral treasures on which we depend.
So passionate have I become about rocks and minerals that my house is now full of them and I am constantly collecting more. I have learned not just about geology from these pursuits. Over time it has become more like an obsession resulting in many collecting trips in the field, with a passion that only a fellow rockhound would understand. One of the types of rocks that has attracted much of my attention is known as conglomerate. Conglomerate is a sedimentary rock composed of weathered rounded bits of other rocks cemented together. As you would expect, it was ,once again, my eyes that drew me to conglomerate as they are often quite beautiful. My conglomerate quest has led to me scouring farm fields in England, befriending illegal hispanic immigrants and long-bearded hillbillies on the outskirts of our nations capitol, as well hauling huge boulders off of Arizona hillsides in 110 degree heat. On one occasion, I found what could only be described as the Mona Lisa of conglomerates, a big and beautiful chunk of geology. Trouble was, that I had to carry it over two miles to the car. I tried valiantly, but moved it but a few feet and left it. No way could I make it to the car with this monster rock. I left it where it lay and I will leave this story as well for now and we will pick up both later.
About this time I traveled to Africa, to Kenya’s Kakamega forest to be more precise. I went there to photograph monkeys which I prefer to refer to by the more dignified term of “branch managers”.
Blue monkeys have been studied for decades in the Kakamega forest. They live in extended matriarchal groups where the main function of the males, I was told by the researchers, was sex. As I walked the back roads in search of monkeys, I was thrust into a universe of human poverty, which at first overwhelmed me. Later, I became inspired by the indomitable spirit of the women and the irrepressible joy of the children. I followed these monkeys for a number of days but found my eyes shifting to the human activities. The children, who had little in a materialistic sense were almost always smiling, laughing playing and always ready for fun. About this time I assumed my African alter-ego and named myself Daktari Mzungu Mandazi. This roughly translates to Doctor White Man Doughnut. The kids loved this and they loved when I chased them monster style. I was amazed by the hardworking women. I photographed them picking tea on the edge of the forest until their hands turned green. The most jaw-dropping images came when I saw women carrying huge logs, to be used for firewood, on their heads for miles. This made a huge impression on me while photographing their Herculean efforts. I couldn’t understand how they could do this.
When I returned to he States I went to one of my rock collecting spots without any particular plan. I saw my monster, Mona Lisa rock, which I had long since forgotten, where I’d left it months ago. Then the image of those Kenyan log-toting women came to mind. The next thing I knew I had gone three miles carrying this stone which now resides in our home rock garden as a reminder of the fact that we are often capable of much more than we think. This inspiration only came to me through the intersecting photographic projects of rocks and Kenyan women.
So often, my photography projects, show how art imitates life and vice verse. Recently in Arizona I was told about a burrowing owl that would be good for photography. It was about 50 miles from where I was staying on agricultural land alongside the cotton field. Overcast light was the best for this project, which is sometimes hard to come by in Arizona. I was with my family on this trip, who for some reason didn’t see photographing burrowing owls as one of their priorities for our trip, so getting time for my work was met with a high level of resistance. Fortunateley, they aren’t early riser , so on a long-awaited cloudy day, I sped off in the pre-dawn, down some of my favorite desert roads, towards the owl nest. The nest was along a road so the owls were used to cars. When I arrived in the darkness, I pulled my car up into position to wait for the first light to come. Things were looking good, but as dawn approached, instead of sunlight, I was met with a crop-dusting plane, passing 10 feet over me and the owls, spewing insectiside instead of the light I was expecting. I decided to move off to avoid being sprayed and after a couple hours, the crop-duster left and I started to move back to my position near the owls. Just as I was going to move my car back in place, another photographer pulled in front of the owls, further thwarting my efforts. Not to be denied, I patiently waited for an hour, until the other photographer moved off. Finally in position with good light and no distractions, I began to get some nice images. Then the glorious unexpected happened. It began to rain right over the top of us. Desert rainstorms can be extremely spotty, and our rainstorm was essentailly just over us. Then magic happened.
The owls began to do something I have never seen or even heard of before; a rain dance! an amazing wings-spread event that looked like a native American pow wow dance. Just to add to the perfection, a pair of owls performed a duet on the only colorful patch of vegetation in an otherwise drab scene. My cameras whirred and the rain stopped as did the dancing and I was left with goosebumps and tears of joy from the utter, unexpected perfection of what just happened. Just like life, the best bits can take you by surprise. As is the case with all perfection or near perfection that I have witnessed, it is sadly fleeting and thus bittersweet.
Of all the photographs that I’ve taken there is one sequence that has attracted the most attention: a series of a European white stork trapped in a plastic bag at a landfill site southern Spain. While working on assignment for two years on this project, on one occasion I was lucky to stay at a friend’s flat on the ocean. Instead of basking on the beach, as any right-minded person would do, I drove 2 hours inland every day to wallow in a putrid dump where storks congregate to feed on food scraps. At first the odor was unbearable, but I soon got used to it. When pausing to eat, it somehow felt unnatural to throw the trash on the ground, even though I was smack in the middle of one of the biggest dumps in Andalucia!
After working at the dump for about a week, at the end of a long day, my jaw dropped open when there appeared before me, a hapless stork, perched on a tire, trapped in a plastic bag. Using my car as a hide, I was able to get close enough to take a series of photos as the poor creature struggled to release itself from its plastic prison. With sunset looming, I decided to try to help the bird. I left the car and started wading through the mess, edging toward the trapped bird. I was surprised that it didn’t move away as I closed-in. When I reached the bird’s side I was worried that it would lance me with its sword-like bill. I bent down to grab the bag at the stork’s feet, protecting my face with my other hand. It was a windy day and as I lifted the bag it filled with air and the stork suddenly flew up and was liberated! I will never forget how moved I felt as the snow-white stork rose up into the pure blue sky, free from the squalor below, getting a second chance at life.
The photos that I took that day have since taken on a life of their own and like the bird itself, they have taken flight. They have been used around the world, often without my permission, for everything from billboards to books, they have inspired artwork and have appeared in many magazines including National Geographic. They have been sought out by celebrities. In at least one case, they have changed the life of one California woman who upon seeing the image, decided to start a reusable bag company. You just never know who’s going to see your photos and what might result.
It isn’t often that life gives you the opportunity to do something to help the things that you love in a significant way. In the case of the stork trapped in a plastic bag, I was blessed to be able to help not just this single bird, but through my photographs, hopefully thousands of creatures that might be saved from similar predicaments, if these photos can help to raise awareness of the need to limit our plastic footprint on the planet. I once bought some reusable grocery bags and after paying for them the clerk actually asked me if I would like them in a plastic bag! We are creatures of habit and it’s time for our habits to change when it comes to plastic. This is a lesson that was made clear to me that day in Spain when the universe once again opened my eyes, by talking to me directly, through my lens.
By following my passion for photography, I have been led down many rabbitholes of discovery, where I have been learned hard-won lessons about nature, human nature and my own nature.
I have seen you grow from boy to man and loved you all along the way. What a way it has been. You have seen so much of the world for someone your age! You can now spread your wings even further and fly to the places where your heart calls you. It is all there for you to explore. Don’t be discouraged by the roadblocks that life puts in your way. Just be sure that they aren’t barriers of your own making. I have heard it said that your greatest happiness is on the other side of your greatest fear. Don’t expect perfection in life but know that it can be heaven or it can be hell, largely based on your own reactions to what life sends your way. You already know initiative and its rewards or you wouldn’t be where you are right now. I have tried to teach you the lessons that I have learned and I can assure you that the learning never ceases if you have the right attitude. Some of the basic lessons that have come my way are knowing that material possessions alone won’t bring joy nor will embracing anger. I am only recently coming closer to feeling the reality that lumping people by groups seems to lead down a very dark alley. You, like everyone, will have to learn your own lessons. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention love, which to me feels best when someone else’s happiness matters more than your own. I hope that you will find this type of love and the joy of being productive and creative with something that you really love doing. Of course there are limits to all good things in life, but I hope that you will find the courage to push those limits as far as you can. Finally, may you know the joy of raising a child as wonderful as mine! With love in my heart , Papa
When I traveled to some of the poorer parts of Kenya for the first time recently, I was immediately overwhelmed by the problems people face when compared to the lifestyle many of us lead in the developed world: poverty, lack of proper
sanitation and housing, rampant alcohol abuse, horrendous driving conditions… the list goes on. It was hard for me to put a positive spin on my experiences at first. After the dust of my initial impressions settled, I clearly saw two almost universal beacons of goodness: the hard-working, spirited nature of the women and the constant playful joy of the children. At Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, I saw women carry their children with a palpable dignity that shone above the squalor of their surroundings. In the country, women carried massive logs, to be used for firewood, on their heads for miles. Others picked tea until their hands turned green.That was only part of their day. There were still the children, the cooking, tending the crops and an unlimited number of other chores that awaited them at home. The mothers did their best for their families, but despite heroic efforts the children were often poorly clothed and hungry. Yet these same children were almost always smiling, laughing playing and always ready for fun. Many that I encountered had never seen a mzungu, (white man), before, so I would often start chasing them, monster-style, to the sound of uproarious laughter!
I loved photographing the women and children of Kenya and I hope that their goodness shines through in my photos.
Last summer I went with my wife to her native Kenya. While we were there we traveled to the Kakamega forest in the Western province to photograph monkeys in this primate-rich rain forest. Kakamega is also home to the Luhya people, a colorful tribe who still practice a number of their ancient customs including music, dance, traditional herbal medicine, and wrestling. As a former wrestler, the last is what caught my attention. Every year on Boxing Day, (the day after Christmas), a wrestling tournament takes place where champions are crowned in several weight classes and cash prizes given to the winners. After a couple of weeks in the area, I became quite well known to the locals and I let it be known that I was interested in meeting some of the Luhya wrestlers. For a laugh, I assumed the identity of Daktari Mzungu Mandazi, which roughly translates to Dr. White-Man-Doughnut. People really seemed to love this moniker and often laughed uncontrollably. As I walked the backroads leading to the forest, greetings of Daktari Mandazi could be heard from the boys tending their cows, (ngombe). One day while visiting a local family on their remote homestead on the edge of the forest, a villager arrived with two “champion” wrestlers in tow. I don’t know how they knew that I was there but, like I said, we and our movements were apparently well known. When the larger of the two wrestlers entered the mud house, he began staring at me with a relentless gaze that was apparently meant to psych me out. You could tell that we were in the boonies because he spoke no English. We had half an hour of conversation in Swahili (which was translated by my wife), with his eyes riveted on me the whole time. We decided to go outside for some wrestling and with a powerful rainstorm brewing, if we were to wrestle, it needed to be done quickly. So we squared off and almost before I realized that we had started, my opponent was on his back with a rather alarmed look on his face. He didn’t want a second round. He told my wife that he had never touched a Mzungu, (white man), before and found the experience terrifying, which could have been a partial explanation for my sudden victory. Also, from the look in my opponent’s eyes one could see that he was no stranger to the local illegal home-brew call chang’aa which is often enriched with embalming fluid, jet fuel and/or battery acid… not the ideal training beverage for wrestling. In any case, I suggested that we put on a wrestling clinic in a few days time for the 30 or so wrestlers who were said to be part of the local wrestling club. On the appointed day we arrived at our arranged meeting place where no-one was to be found! We heard that people hadn’t arrived due to church and other obligations. We later left the area and forgot about the wrestling. Several weeks later we got a call from one of our contacts in Kakamega who sheepishly admitted to my wife that the real reason no-one appeared that day was that they were afraid to wrestle me! That was the end of my Kenyan wrestling career which probably lasted about 5 seconds … but what a 5 seconds it was. I think it now best to retire lest future results not be so favorable. Who knows, I might have to wrestle one of the women that I regularly saw carrying 100+ pound logs on their head for ten miles or so, a feat that I probably could have never done even in the height of my fitness!
I wish the Luyhas a happy boxing day wrestling tournament from the comfort of my American home and wonder if the name of Daktari Mzungu Mandazi will be mentioned this year?
Last summer I was fortunate to go to Kenya with my wife who is a farmer’s daughter from Kapkoi, Uasin Gishu County, in the Rift valley. While walking on the dusty roads near the family farm we came upon four young girls on their way to the nearby Kapkoi Primary School. They were going to pick up their books because they didn’t have enough money to pay the fees to take their end of term exam which would let them move on to the next semester. When I heard this and how little money was involved, I simply paid the fees for them.
The thought occurred to me that these probably aren’t the only kids at this school in need of help so I paid a visit to Kapkoi Primary School with my wife, who attended this school as a young child. Kenyan children are always ready for a laugh, so when I arrived at the school I began chasing them and spontaneous fun erupted as it always does in these situations in rural Kenya. I introduced myself as Dr. Mandazi, which roughly translates to Dr. Doughnut, to the sound of uproarious laughter.
Then things got more serious as we were introduced to different groups of children and we could see the gravity of the situation. We started with the underprivileged , then orphans and finally the students with disabilities. It was this last group that we spent most time with. On one hand you could say that their situation looked bleak, but at the same time their joyful spirit shone through. They loved my Dr. Mandazi joke and they roared with laughter!
My heart went out to them. I vowed to do something to help them and set up a modest donation through the teachers to be shared amongst this class of the most physically, emotionally and financially challenged children in the school.
Giving money is not without risk as far as where the money will end up. However, in this case, we were lucky to work with a group of teachers and a headmistress from a neighboring school who had herself already donated to the school. We received a complete accounting of how these initial funds were used as well as letters of thanks and a video expressing appreciation. We have since enlisted the help of other local overseers. I am asking the school to open an account where any donations can be sent so that they will be the only ones handling any donations that might arise.
While in Kenya my passion for wildlife also came to the fore. Although Kenya has many spectacular national parks, I also witnessed much deforestation. I therefore planted native trees on my wife’s family farm with the idea of one day providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. Then it occurred to me to combine my two passions of helping children and wildlife by having the children help plant the native trees on neighboring farms, while enlisting the aid of local farmers. By getting the children involved in tree-planting they are learning valuable lessons about biology, conservation, responsibility and community cooperation rather than just receiving, thus avoiding the social problems of dependency that can arise from simple handouts.
That is where things now stand and I am seeking advice and any other help that one might be moved to give. That help would not include donations just yet until I establish a mechanism for donating and a system for accounting for possible future donations.
What to name this budding program? Dr.Mandazi’s Kapkoi, Kids, Community and Conservation Program, what else? For more information please contact: John Cancalosi, (A.K.A. Dr. Mandazi), email@example.com