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.
For many years, early Spring has been a season of love for me. I often find myself, immersed in gooey mud, while being feasted upon by giant blood-sucking leeches, surrounded by an orgy of ardent lovers. I have engaged in these activities from Britain to Hungary, Arizona, New York and most recently near our nation’s capitol in Maryland.
The aforementioned activities describe the annual mating rituals of toads and yours truly attempting to photograph the proceedings. For several days each Spring, toads descend upon local ponds and lakes in an effort to insure the continuation of their species. The males arrive first and begin calling in order to attract females. So ardent are they, that I have seen them grab ahold of virtually anything within their grasp including other males, my tripod and even a friend’s leg in one case! When the males are lucky enough to find a real female, their love knows no bounds and groups of males may hold on to her, or each other, in a behaviour known as amplexus, with reckless abandon, even to the point of drowning the female on some occasions. These mating balls are known as knots, not nots or naughts…but knots. Most toad mating proceeds in a more evolutionarily adaptive way, with a single male and female. The female lays a long string of eggs, often helped out of her body by a male’s hind legs, with the male fertilizing the eggs as they emerge. During these days of anuran passion, I often find myself laying in the mud with these creatures, observing and filming the amphibian antics. So distracted am I at times, that I have discovered later that huge leeches have been robbing me of my blood while I have been submerged, as evidenced by the streaks of blood running down my legs when I emerge from the water, the leech’s anticoagulants still having their effect.
In a couple of days the whole spectacle is over and the toads go about their more mundane duties and I have a chance to wipe the mud from my body and my equipment, ready to repeat the process the following Spring.
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.