The small city of Victoria, on the south end of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, passed from summer to fall since I came here a week ago. A misty rain shrouded the city yesterday, on the opening day of the World Seabird Conference. It is the first international gathering of people who are working on the conservation of seabird populations. Over 800 participants from forty countries are here at the Victoria Conference Centre to discuss the state of conservation of seabirds around the globe. No other creature crosses political boundaries and ecological zones, linking land and water and sky, as much as seabirds do. Yet very little is known. Birds such as albatrosses and puffins are born on land, but when they fledge, they fly out to sea and don’t return to land until they are ready to mate, years later. Experts are discussing the major conservation issues facing pelagic birds: how climate change is affecting populations, the consequences of marine debris on seabird mortality, the creation of protected areas, the impact of fisheries, and more. I’ll post some highlights while I’m here.
I confess. I’ve been seeing another blog. Since I’ve only gotten a smattering of words and pictures from Kenya up here, you’ll just have to visit it — ConservationMedia in Kenya — to see what I was up to in June, running around the horn of East Africa with a biologist, a photographer, and a group of undergraduate students from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.
The safari is over. For eleven days, we were allowed to be voyeurs into a world still wild with life and death in East Africa. Up before dawn, my brain was in a continual state of reprogramming, each new creature spotted depositing a search image in my mind’s databank, undoubtedly pushing out some other piece of useful information: the number of my bus line in Brooklyn, the name of a person I still consider a friend. But now I know, for the moment, the fingered contours of a vulture’s wing, the black-backed ears of a lion hidden in tall grass, the way the white on the leopard’s long striped tail flick back and forth as she shoos away flies. But listen. There is an auditory search image as well. The two-tone call of the rufous-naped lark, the gentle upward whoop of a hyena that defies its savageness, the maddening ceaselessness of the red-breasted cuckoo.
But here is one day. We’re in the Mara in southern Kenya, looking south to the mountains of Tanzania with the Serengeti beyond. We’ve already seen leopards on the bank of the Ewaso Ng’iro, a martial eagle eating breakfast, and been surrounded by a herd of elephants in Samburu further north. We’ve touched the rough-hewn hide of Baraka, a blind black rhino at Ol Pejeta Conservancy and then watched as two wild black rhinos moved across the plain, stopping to eat creepers growing upon the grave of another rhino that was once a park favorite. We watched a lioness sleep on a log that arced up out of the undergrowth near Lake Nakuru, which was rimmed with the pink of flamingos. And then, as we sat in the still afternoon light, we noticed that there was another lioness…and then that there was a cub, two cubs, three cubs, just two months old.
But the call of the Mara in July is about the wildebeests. They come with their spring calves in one of the largest migrations on earth. When I was here with the students a few weeks ago, we witnessed the first wave, arriving early and perplexing the locals. Now, they remain mysterious. No more have arrived and no one seems sure where the thousands we saw before have gone. There are crossings strung along points of the Mara River and this is where the jeeps cruise in search of witnessing something spectacular. We come across a small herd of fifty beesties, but they stare at the water, unconvinced. Approach. Withdraw. They could do this for hours. Or days.
Teeku, our guide, was raised on this land and has a sense of it that few people have of their surroundings no matter where they grew up. He loves this landscape, returning to it over and over, but he can also gauge the loss even while we see abundance. He knows there are fewer lions on the move, more Maasai cows illegally grazing, very few Egyptian vultures overhead. Now, watching the “bewilderbeests” pause, he scans the horizon, sees movement elsewhere and leads us on.
Farther upstream, at a place called Cul-de-Sac Crossing, zebras are amassing, thousands of them, each unique with its own set of stripes that trail up off a hefty body into a cropped mane alternating black and white. Some are sidled with foals, fuzzy brown with cream. A winding funnel of a passage leads to the river, surrounded by scrubby forest on both sides. We approach and sit quietly. Like wind vanes, their noses all point toward the river and their braying has begun, a cacophony of trumped up gumption, urgent and scared. Unlike last year, when the drought left the riverbeds close to dry, there have been six months of rains this year. The grass is thick, and every living creature is copulating, procreating, bearing their young and savagely trying to see that young one up to adulthood. And the river is a torrent of rough brown liquid seventy-five feet across. Hit the wrong spot on the far side, and an animal will face a sheer wall of earth twice its height, its hooves useless.
We don’t sit long. One brave zebra steps in and a key is unlocked. They all crash in behind it, swimming against the current to reach the bank that’s low enough to clamor out. A few wildebeests are in their midst, and the oddly proportioned animals seem to all find their way to the sheer spot, collecting one upon the other as they panic to find footing. On the incoming bank where we sit, we are surrounded by a dust storm kicked up by the zebras, and on the far side, they soak the soil with the muddy water of their exit.
The stampede sends reverberations through the earth and water and the crocodiles respond. They have been in a semi-dormant state for much of the year and it’s early in the migration. They are hungry, and they are huge. Several wait downstream but one that looks to measure twelve feet long and a yard across comes in from the right, moving fast. We watch, our bodies reaching out of the open roof of the jeep, baking in the sun, cameras clicking, as the crocodiles cruise in and begin their attack, taking – we lost count – maybe ten zebras down, most quickly and mercilessly with a quick nab of the throat and then dragged down below the waters, except for that one.
God, that one zebra that the first croc went after its rump, then there were two, then three prehistoric reptilian beasts coming at it from all sides except its head which rose above the water hoping for air and escape. The zebra paddled hard, fighting for a life it couldn’t have anymore as they ate it alive, one swallowing the intestines it had pulled from the baying drowning dying creature while a good five feet away from it, and meanwhile, a lioness has moved in and sits for a short spell watching the blur of black and white until she leaps and takes down one in a microsecond, dragging it into the brush.
The zebras panic back and forth, surges into and out of the water, making their loud winneying and crying out to their separated offspring, to their parents or young across the waters, in a rhythmic, pulsing braying beat, and this goes one for an hour, more. I am breathless. Several escape the crocs, only to be caught by the lion. There is a second lion kill, by perhaps a second lion. Who can keep track? The crocs gorge.
One zebra, injured on ass and head, steals away and we come across her a kilometer from the river bank, standing on the savanna – how did she even make it this far? We pull up to her and watch as she teeters, unsteady legs buckling, and falls to the ground, and we watch her die, there, before us, watch as her legs burst into one last full gallop as she lies on her side in the tall tan grass, watch as her struggling mouth and eyes let go and relax in her blood-drenched face. We watch.
I was asking where the owls were. Even as the hippos snuffled outside my cabin, leopards roamed around the parking lot, and the moon waned then waxed, I never heard the hooting call of wild darkness. I listened and watched as the light drained from the sky in the Mara, as the polluted water lapped on the shores of Lake Naivasha, as the fire was lit at the GRL ranch an hour from Nairobi. Nothing. But back here in the heart of Nairobi, home comes Munir from a tennis game with his son – seven year old, just today! – with four baby barn owls. Their feet were tethered with twine, but at least they were alive, swept from a building site, parents long gone, delivered in a flimsy cardboard box on the back of a motorcycle to Nairobi’s raptor guy, Dr. Munir Virani of The Peregrine Fund.
I know barn owls from my escapades in another city that seems far away, New York. Around this time for the past few years, I have climbed upon a boat captained by Don Riepe,official guardian of Jamaica Bay, with NYC DEP biologist Chris Nadareski and a handful of dedicated volunteers, to find the barn owls in their boxes in that precious window of time in which they are big enough to ring with a leg band but small enough to not have fledged from their box. Sometimes, as we sneak up to the sites, through poison ivy and fields littered with gull nests, we catch an unsuspecting adult. Chris holds her delicately, even as she dips a fierce talon into his palm, gauzy delicate wings the color of dappled honey and snow extending out into the sunlight.
The four African cousins in the cardboard box are smaller. We can see the gradations like days of a calendar marked in down. The oldest is nearly fully feathered with its adult plumage, perhaps three weeks old, I’m estimating. Its dark eyes are alert and it sways its head back and forth in a hypnotic movement, on guard as we humans surround it. In New York, I have witnessed the siblings doing this motion in synch, hissing a strange reptilian sound in defense. But Number One.moves alone. Its three siblings aren’t nearly as strong or active. They fall one upon the other, each one more downy than the last.
We pick them up and unwind the string from their talons, opening their beaks to drop in water. I clutch the smallest and can feel the sharpness of its breastbone against my forefingers, a tiny thing nearly weightless. Closer inspection reveals a wound; something has punctured it in its throat in this already catastrophic day, left motherless and homeless, a refuge at the whim of a human world both brutal and caring. Munir applies antibiotic powder to the wound in hopes of keeping infection away. They refuse the raw meat we offer, and we don’t press them for now. Let them settle into the towel-lined wash basin and rest under a warm light.
Six hours later, we return from our dinner, our nyama choma cooked and seasoned and swept down with Tusker, and it is time for the owls’ midnight feeding. These are raptors, and they need their protein if they are to survive. They are still alive, and we lift them one by one to push the flesh down their gullets. Number One stands, extending its wings, but the other three take the food and then collapse again. They are young, only hints of the powerful night hunters they could become. Anything is possible. Tomorrow we will drop them at woman’s house who cares for orphans like these. There are no rehab centers in Kenya. Everything is unofficial.
I have washed my hands but their smell lingers with me. It is a smell of feathers and blood and raw meat and duffy down. Of desire and connection to something addictive and unnameable. Of fear, maybe, or perhaps hope. Could they smell the same? It is late again, the only time I seem to find to write, and I hope that come morning there will still be four feathered creatures blinking at us when it comes time for the next feeding. If winged visitors visited in my dreams in the time between then and now, I wouldn’t mind at all.
My piece is just up in Discover Magazine, eco-art with a formerly finger-lickin’ twist.
Artist Christy Rupp is not afraid of death. She revels in it, and her latest work—”Extinct Birds Previously Consumed by Humans”—uses the remains of the recently dead to recreate long-gone creatures. Her morbid, provocative sculptures are part of the show “Dead and Alive,” currently on exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.
Check out the full photo gallery story here.
There are still places on earth where wild things happen. As we approached the Masai Mara in southern Kenya yesterday, the famed landscape reminded me too much of the worst of the overgrazed lands in America’s West. Masai moved across the open grasslands tending their cattle, goats and sheep. But when we entered the reserve this morning as first light brightened the sky, beating even the ticket taker to his post, I saw a sea of red-oat grass, shin-high, knee-high, thigh-high, rich with the rains, green and ready. Within moments we see two jackals, each with its own half of a small antelope. Around the bend, a cheetah sits poised, elegant, the form instantly recognizable, but REAL, there in front of me. A hunk of flesh and spotted fur within range of my camera lens and my binos, and — most importantly — my eyes that can capture the image and store it in some very special part of my cerebral matter. She stands, her belly hanging, and Teeku tells us she’s pregnant. She moves off into the grass, disappearing in perfect camouflage. She emerges and laps from a puddle. She retreats, an awesome arrogance, queen of land-bound speed.
It is just the beginning. We pass an elephant with a criss-crossed tusk. A male ostrich bright pink with lust. Herds of wildebeest moving in single file. By breakfast, as we crack hard-boiled eggs on our knees under an acacia tree, the vultures are soaring. They descend to a wildebeest carcass down the hill from us as we pack up and head down the road. And then in a flurry the scavengers are chased away. Lion! One, then another. But they’re too full to eat it seems. We watch them fifty feet from our jeep, close but seeming to not disturb them. Oh the muscles defined when she tries to pull the heavy body into the grass. Oh, her panting as she stands over the body, catching her breath. Oh, the vultures waiting in nearby trees, others kettling above, ten, twenty, forty, sixty. Oh, the way she passes off her guard to a second female, who emerges from the treeline, and how the second sits to eat off the rump of the fallen prey, her muzzle emerged saturated with blood. But together they have barely broken the hide. They are full, bellies hanging, disinterested. They leave, and we watch as the vultures return. In ten minutes they have gutted the creature. White-backs and lappet-faced vultures, and marabou storks fighting over the organs.
When the lions don’t return, Munir cautiously sets the trap as the students go on lion watch. Twenty minutes later, we’ve caught a white-backed vulture. Evan is out of the jeep in an instant with a blanket to cover her and loosen her talons from the noose, holds her calmly as she vomits bright red innards back out.
Forty minutes later, we’ve attached a GPS unit and set her free. Into the wild.
There is more. The wildebeests have begun the migration, though it is early in the season. There are thousands, grunting – humph! humph! There are warthogs, and a single mud-caked buffalo swarming with flies. There are giraffes, legs sprawled to bend down in reach of shrubs. More elephants. More wildebeest. More ostrich. More warthogs. Grey kestrels. Yellow-throated sand grouse. Crowned hornbill. Striped mongoose on their hind legs like meerkats. Lappet-faced vultures. Two tagged vulture resightings. Tawny eagles. Secretary birds. Superb starlings. Rufous-naped larks. Lesser grey shrikes. Antelope. Thomson’s gazelles. A studly impala trailed by his harem. Water buck. Topis nodding to us in agreement. More wildebeest. We pass seven carcasses in just a few kilometers. Food. Food. Food drives everything and it is either abundance or death at this moment in the Mara. Grass grows. Grass gets eaten. Calves are born. Mothers are hunted. Wildebeests cross the Mara River and crocs lie in wait. Jackals kill. Jackals are robbed. Everything is immediate. Everything is now and it is late but I can barely sleep. There are still places….
I am in Kenya! The heavy droughts that decimated livestock last year have been followed by heavy rains that have carried on through the dry season. The landscape is green and rainy and cool. Each day – and there has only been one full one so far – is christmas, a bounty of the unexpected. It is a new country. A new part of the world. It has been 21 years since I have even stepped foot on the continent – even then, only a moment in Egypt, barely a week in Morocco – and 30 years since I experienced the go-slow market of Lagos, Nigeria. And, really, how long since I’ve been somewhere completely new? Return trips to India are a strange form of going home. Panama had the familiarity of Costa Rica. Was it Thailand? Eight years ago? Definitely too long. I revel in the firm futon mattress in a strange place, the fresh papaya, the fact that is is called popo. Each word is new. I have to pay attention, trying to figure the unspoken communication when the words are beyond me. Each moment there is a chance, once again, to discover the unknown that has always been. Just not for me. It is why I travel.
Munir and I drive to meet Teeku. I look out the window of the vehicle as we travel through the city, observing my mild apprehension that is trying to match what I see to the scary stories about “Nairobbery.” We are in a nice section of town, granted, but even the ride from the airport, down the Uhuru Highway, just shows me people going about their lives. Most are moving from here to there and back, laden with packages, on foot, in their cars. They plaster walls, dig road-side ditches, sell newspapers or posters of chickens or a large yellow antennae that looks like a ray gun from a ’60s sci-fi movie. Drivers stay on their side of the road. Some wear seatbelts. Some do not. Some drive with their windows open. Some do not. I notice single white women with sunglasses and shorts talking on their mobiles as they walk alone down a busy street, or a white couple with a small child buying rosewood furniture from a roadside stand. I learn of the KCs – Kenyan cowboys, the naturalized white people left over from a colonial past, like cricket and tea time.
In the afternoon, I go to the National Museum and smell the rich, almost tasty, smell of human sweat in the un-air conditioned halls. The dim lighting of the Hall of Mammals – an homage and tiny echo of the American Museum of Natural History – illuminates the giant elephant, the towering giraffe. I see Ahmed of Marsabit, the elephant with tusks that swooped to the ground, such a spectacle of tuskiness that Kenyans rallied the government to grant him singular protection in 1970. He spent his days with armed guards around him till he died one day of old age during his 55th year. And another display tells me that the hippo is related to the dolphin! Who knew such things? How can such creatures exist! Will I really see them, live, running, a spotted long-necked impossibility reaching up to graze on trees or a round monster lying in wait amid the lake reeds, nostrils like a submarine’s spyglass?
But humble as the few rooms of the museum are,, New York cannot come close to claiming the skeletons that lie in one room, found so close by in the Great Rift Valley. Fragments of bone dug out of the earth and pieced together with pinchers and glue and an insane patience to unlock some secret story about the way that we – upright, omnivorous, speaking, playing, murdering, ruminating, singing, loving, planet-seeking, planet-destroying – bipedals came to be.
Hordes of school children fill the hall with their echoing calls, the universal cacophony of youth. But each group is a cha-cha-line of organization, a single file with each child in contact with the one before them. They only swarm as they crowd in around each exhibit, or as they pass me, looking up from dark faces with beaming open smiles, “Hello? How are you?!” But their gaze is as fixated when it falls upon the warthog, four times as big as them, or the the harrior hawk within the glass case in the bird room, where the scent of formaldehyde fills the head and takes away the breath.
Outside in the courtyard, workers cover chairs with white fabric and arrange bouquets of blue and orange birds of paradise. Tonight, someone is getting married! Back inside, more men set up speaker systems in a great room filled with displays of gourds and maps of Kenya made out of butterfly wings. When they test the system, the music is alive, leaping across the room and infecting school boys who begin to dance with the beat. Upstairs, after the music is off again, another boy in a school group picks up the mallets and starts to play a traditional xylophone instrument as his teacher leads the others in an impromptu song about happiness that weaves between English and Swahili. I look at circumcision knives behind the glass, imagine their task, but also robes made of animal skins, slings to carry babies and charms to string around their waistlines to protect them from evil spirits, and staffs and hats and skirts and all the humdrum of daily life, from a long ago then to now, from birth till death.
Here, in Africa, if we are to trust the dusty skeletons, is where it all began. There was no boy named Adam. Maybe a boy whose name began with a Ng sound or M, the lips sealed tight. Or just a woman and man, with no need for names, coming together in union. A coupling born of an unanalyzed need, neither sin nor salvation, but an act of bodies, skin-on-skin, amid the savannah or the forest of East Africa. Part of a long story that hasn’t ended, that has no beginning. Why do we need the big story of the start, or the last big cataclysm, when everything that is happening in between is so damn interesting?
The next adventure begins. New York City – intoxicating, exhilarating – somehow doesn’t inspire me to peregrinate. It has become home, and so the days fill up and slip by. But I am about to head to Kenya for a two-month trip. The primary reason is to teach an environmental journalism class to a St. Lawrence University (Canton, NY) summer program. I’ll be co-teaching with Munir Virani, a raptor biologist with the Peregrine Fund and Teeku Patel, a wildlife photographer, both of whom are based in Nairobi. Together, we are leading a Conservation Media course. The goal is to teach students how to tell conservation stories through science, words and images. We’ll be spending our time out in the field around Lake Naivasha and the Masai Mara, counting African fish eagles and hippos, talking with local flower farmers, and learning about the conflict between predators and pastoralists.
Not one for short trips, I’ll stay on after the program is over, and loved ones from the States (my immediate family and a sweetheart) will join me for a safari into the Samburu and over to Lake Nakuru and back down into the Masai Mara. Unsure of the internet availability, I’ll try to return to these pages as I can. Hope you’ll join me.
The oil continues to spill. Here, I was thinking that by the time my op-ed got printed in USA Today, it would have been capped and we could move on to the next disaster. But, no. I write:
In the Gulf of Mexico, however, we may have found our infinite fount. This deep-water accident has no horizon. It isn’t an oil spill in the conventional sense, where a fixed amount of fuel escapes from the hull of a ship. When this rig sank, it left behind a severed umbilical cord that had tethered it to an oil borehole reaching deep into the earth’s crust a mile below the waves. We have tapped into something we quite literally can’t control.
And so I argue, that as Cape Cod succumbs to the an interrupted horizon in the form of the nation’s first off-shore wind farm, and oil fills the waters of the Gulf, that one byproduct of this could be that Americans start seeing their energy production for what it is — environmentally destructive and sometimes lethal, to humans and other forms of life. Everything, I repeat everything, comes at a cost, even the so-called green clean energies. Hybrid cars need batteries that need lithium mined in South America. Wind turbines kill birds. Conservation and consumption are the main issues, and if we can watch the meters rise and fall with our electrical use, see the turbine blades spinning on the horizon, kneel to separate sand from oil, if we can viscerally experience that power comes from somewhere other than the Land of Make Believe and West Virginia, a place most have never been and will never go, the better.
Read the whole piece here.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has engineers scrambling, environmentalists screaming through their tears, biologists getting their rubber gloves and cleaning supplies ready, the military finally being put to some good use, BP stockholders selling, fisherman learning how to be oil skimmers instead of shrimpers, and—over at Religion Dispatches, Peter Laarman asking, in “Our Lethal Lust for Money,” “Do we really even like the way we’re living?” It’s a Buddha-killing question. His inquiry inspired a few of my own.
What do you believe in? Do you believe that everything comes at a cost? How much are you willing to pay for a pound of shrimp? What about a gallon of gas? Two dollars? Five dollars? Ten dollars? Would you pay a bit more if you knew the goddamn safety valve would work to cap an underwater well in the unlikely event of an accident? Do you believe in rescue efforts, oil daubed from the wings of birds? Do you believe in science, the ability to sit upon the undulating waves and use remote controls to send robots a mile down with the goal of capping a well releasing thousands of barrels of crude oil per day? Do you think the rays of the sun can save us? Do you believe that Don Quixote really believed his windmills were anything but windmills? Do you believe that a broken soul can heal? A broken bayou? A broken planet? Do you think the planet is broken? Do you think it matters if humans as a species survive forever? If daughters no longer become mothers? Do you believe in wishes made with a coin toss? Do you believe in God? Who do you think is in control? Do you think anyone’s in control? Do you agree that we all have blood on our hands? Do you believe gravity is just another law that The Man invented to keep us down? Do you believe that blood is thicker than water? Oil lighter than love?
Tell me what you think over on Killing the Buddha.