“There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and in a sailor’s dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchant men, than all the press gangs of Europe. I have known a young man with such a passion for the sea, that the very creaking of a block stirred up his imagination so that he could hardly keep his feet on dry ground …”

Two Years Before the Mast

Richard Henry Dana ... about 8 years after his voyage on the Pilgrim

Richard Henry Dana ... about 8 years after his voyage on the Pilgrim

One of the great joys of being a free range blogger is the wide latitude in selecting topics. So if I get the urge to write about a book that was published over 170 years ago then, by God, nobody can stop me. But I wouldn’t review the book in the traditional sense. It would only be blog worthy if it sparked a particular memory, or struck a profound chord somewhere in the recesses of the heart. The memory was stirred and the chord was sounded when I re-read Richard Henry Dana’s classic “Two Years Before The Mast” last month.

I doubt that very many people read books like “Two Years Before the Mast” these days. There are just too many other options. If a reader is looking for seagoing adventure in the days of sail, Patrick O’Brian’s inconsistent but occasionally excellent Master and Commander series seems to be the most popular choice. But Dana’s book is a legitimate classic for several reasons. It is more than a superbly written narrative of life at sea in the first half of the 19th century … it’s also an absorbing piece of eyewitness history. That history includes a compelling account of life on America’s west coast in the days when San Francisco was nothing more than a dirty hamlet.

“Before the Mast” is a straightforward memoir from a well-bred, well-educated son of a prominent New England family who chose to abandon his comfortable home in response to the “witchery” of the sea. He signed on to a merchant vessel not as a passenger or an officer in training, but as an able seaman, or “jack” … to spend his time at sea “before the mast.” A sailing ship’s officers were quartered in the aft part of the vessel, but the deck seamen lived in a cramped hold forward, or “before the mast,” where the motion of the waves is more profoundly felt and the salt spray from the bow is a permanent part of their existence. Dana’s desire to live, albeit temporarily, the hard life of a sailor was fueled by the same impulse that has sent young people with restless spirits to the ends of the earth since the dawn of recorded history. He actually defines the attraction in reverse terms — in his not so complimentary description of an acquaintance …

“He is one of those cases which are more numerous than those suppose, who have never lived anywhere but in their own houses, and never walked in but one line from the cradle to their graves. We must come down from our heights and leave our straight paths, for the byways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought upon our fellow creatures by accident, hardship or vice.”

20th Century replica of Dana's ship

20th Century replica of Dana's ship

But the price for gratifying Dana’s disproportionate case of wanderlust was a level of physical hardship far beyond anything in his previous experience. His reservations became real with the weighing of his little trading vessel’s anchor. The unpleasantness began — predictably — with the ship still within sight of Cape Cod.

“I laid out on the yards and held on with all my strength. I could not have been of much service, for I remember having been sick several times before I left the topsail yard, making wild vomits into the black night, to leeward … I had often read of the nautical experiences of others, but I felt as though there could be none worse than mine; for in addition to every other evil, I could not but remember that this was only the first night of a two year’s voyage.”

Dana eventually adjusted to the unpredictable motion of the sea, and by his own account, became a competent or even better than average sailor. By mid-voyage, he was immersed in the language of his trade, and spewed it prolifically throughout the narrative. He leaves the modern reader hopelessly lost in his wake in passages like the following:

“As soon as each sail was hauled up and the bunt made, the jigger was bent on the slack of the buntlines, and the bunt triced up, on deck. The mate then took his place between the knightheads to “twig” the fore, on the windlass to twig the main, and at the foot of the mainmast, for the mizzen; and if anything was wrong, — too much bunt on one side, clews too taught or too slack, or any sail abaft the yard — the whole must be dropped again. When all was right, the bunts were triced well up, the yard-arm gaskets passed, so as not to leave a wrinkle forward of the yard — short gaskets with turns close together.”

The romance of the lifestyle and the glories of sea, sky and stars notwithstanding, Dana punctuates his memoir with brutal reminiscences of a confined existence with an omnipotent master … and the consequences of crossing an authoritarian who is deficient in both judgment and humanity. He recalls a slow-witted but hard working sailor who his Captain had taken a set against, and could do nothing right in the eyes of the powerful man who expected perfection. The sailor was shifting stores in the hold and had painfully injured his hand. The Captain inquired about the work stoppage, and the sailor, whose injured hand exacerbated his permanent speech impediment, did not respond with the alacrity expected. Minutes later …

“Sam by this time was seized up, as it is called, that is, placed against the shrouds, with his wrists made fast to the shrouds, his jacket off, and his back exposed. The Captain stood on the break of the deck, a few feet from him, and a little raised, so as to have a good swing at him, and held in his hand the bight of a thick, strong rope. The officers stood round, and the crew grouped together in the waist. All these preparations made me feel sick and almost faint, angry and excited as I was. A man — a human being made in God’s likeness — fastened up and flogged like a beast. A man too, whom I had lived with and eaten with for months, and knew almost as well as a brother. The first and almost uncontrollable impulse was resistance. But what was to be done? The time for it had gone by.”

San Francisco a few years after the Pilgrim's visit

San Francisco a few years after the Pilgrim's visit

Dana’s voyage ultimately delivered him to the unsettled and sparsely populated west coast, where his ship anchored in a small bay near an empty and desolate stretch of coast that is now San Diego. Eventually the ship moved further north toward San Francisco Bay. The potential of the topography and the quality of the anchorage there were obvious even to a youth of less than 25 years of age. The seismic dangers would, of course, have been unknowable …

“If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water, the extreme fertility of its shores, the excellence of its climate … its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance.”

Dana’s journey served his purpose many times over. He did indeed learn his truths by strong contrasts, and recorded the experience in an extraordinary book that has withstood the test of time.

It’s my belief that, as people advance in age, their thoughts and memories gravitate with increasing frequency to the most profound experiences in their lives. I’ve spent weeks and months in the bush and on the incomparable African plain photographing nature in its unsurpassed glory. But in my mind, those days have yet to supersede the time I spent at sea as a young man. The beauty of it is difficult to capture in words, but certain experiences have earned a spot on the nearest and most accessible shelves in the archives of the memory …

  • Steel gray, horizonless dawns when sea and sky are merged to perfection … a slate colored world with no allowances for time and depth
  • A wide turn in a heavy sea, when the ship drifts into the trough and rolls like a drunken goose before plowing straight into the waves … the nose lifting out of the water before pounding down, salt spray splattering the pilothouse windows and the entire vessel shivering like a drenched dog on a cold morning
  • A crimson sunset on a rocky shoreline … in my mind … the ruggedly elegant Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia with the boulders on the north shore glowing soft and scarlet in the last rays of a summer day
  • The brief spasms of terror … a gargantuan container ship emerging from  the gloom just a few thousand yards out, and the quick and decisive reactions needed to avert disaster
  • The distant hills, mountains and lighthouses from unvisited but mysterious and romantically named shores … the Faroes, the Crimean peninsula, Navassa Island, and thousands more

Shipboard life has changed dramatically since Dana’s two year stint aboard the Pilgrim. In my years afloat I never witnessed a flogging, I didn’t go aloft to furl a frozen sail in the Straits of Magellan and I never had the pleasure of blowing the contents of my stomach into a powerful breeze in the dark of night. But there are parallels. One of the most notable is the occasional despair at being so far from home and family, the breathless hope of a letter or package and the curiosity about the simple day to day routine of those left behind who are leading “normal” lives. From Dana …

“No one who has ever been on distant voyages, and after a long absence received a newspaper from home, who cannot understand the delight that they give one. I read every part of them — the houses to let; things lost or stolen; auction sales and all. Nothing carries you so entirely to a place, and makes you feel so perfectly at home, as a newspaper. The very name of “Boston Daily Advertiser” sounded hospitably upon the ear.”

Another constant is the spirit of the sailor. During the course of many hours as officer of the deck during the wee hours of the night, a young signalman would sneak unobserved into the pilothouse and smear bearing grease on the receiver of my internal telephone set. Then he’d give me a call … I’d answer the phone and get an earful of bearing grease. You’d think I’d have learned after the first couple of events … but no. It was reassuring to read Dana’s account of a small boat ride from beach to ship, with several Spanish settlers as passengers. My signalman would have been a worthy member of that boat crew.

“We went ashore in the gig to bring them off with their baggage, and found them waiting on the beach, and a little afraid about going off, as the surf was running very high. This was nuts to us; for we liked to have a Spaniard wet with salt water; and then the agent was very much disliked by the crew, one and all; and we hoped, as there was no officer in the boat, to have a chance to duck them; for as we knew that they were such “marines” that they would not know whether it was our fault or not. Accordingly, we kept the boat so far from shore as to oblige them to wet their feet in getting into her; and then waited for a good high comber, and letting the head slue a little round, sent the whole force of the sea into the stern-sheets, drenching them from head to feet.”

Ah, it’s the little things …

Life at sea is the ultimate illustration of the love-hate concept … and this has not changed across the decades. Sailors count the days until they part company from their ships, and then miss them almost as much as family after a month or so on terra firma. Life ashore can be drudgery, a boring and mundane existence compared to the sights, smells and warm brotherhood found within the confines of an oceangoing vessel. And the memories are profound and permanent. Many years after sailing on the Pilgrim, a by then famous Dana returned to the California coast to try to recover the feel of his days as a jack,

“I wished only to be alone, so I let the other passengers go up to the town, and was quietly pulled ashore in a boat, and left to myself. The recollections and the emotions were all sad, and only sad. The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellant … where were they all? Why should I care for them — poor sailors, the refuse of civilization, the outlaws and beach combers of the Pacific! Time and death seemed to transfigure them. Doubtless nearly all were dead; but how had they died, and where? In hospitals, in fever-climes, in dens of vice, or falling from the mast, or dropping exhausted from the wreck —

When for a moment, like a drop of rain,

He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,

Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.”

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Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

It’s been my habit for some time to set the television to record all programs that even remotely relate to Africa or its wildlife. So I generally finish the week with many episodes of Big Cat Diary, Wild Kingdom, and Nature in the queue for possible weekend viewing. Sometimes I’m able to see a few of the shows, most of the time I’m not. Too much to do and way too little time, which I suspect is the story for most of us.

During this past week one of the old movie channels aired the 1950 film “King Solomon’s Mines,” which was based on the H. Rider Haggard novel of the same name. The story was set in East Africa, starred Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr … and its plot was wrapped around the search for a mythical diamond mine in uncharted territory to the west of an undisclosed Swahili speaking nation. I thought it might be interesting to evaluate the film as a piece of history … to see and assess its treatment of wildlife and indigenous peoples.


As it turns out, there was no reason to sit through the entire picture. The dismissive attitude toward the African people transcended the film’s turn of the century setting. The “natives” existed solely for the use of the westerners, and the tone of superiority throughout the picture was absolutely pervasive … it represented far more than simple Victorian era arrogance. It was clear enough to me that the 1950 producers of the movie also viewed the dehumanized depiction of the African people as the right and natural way of things.

The treatment of the animals was far worse. In one of the movie’s early scenes, a procession of adventurers and porters en route to the illusory mine crossed paths with an elephant family in the bush. The animals were peacefully stripping acacia bark when they caught sight of the intruders. The matriarch feigned a charge and the humans reacted in the expected way. The round from the elephant gun struck the matriarch high on the forehead and she instantly collapsed. The other family members immediately formed a protective perimeter around their stricken leader. In panic and confusion, they repeatedly attempted to lift her to her feet, but she was far beyond help and hope. The entire sequence, including the matriarch’s death convulsions, was captured in the film. In fairness to the makers of “King Solomon’s Mines,” I don’t believe the animal was destroyed for the sole and specific purpose of incorporating the footage into the movie. It appeared to be a filmed hunt that was spliced into the scene for dramatic effect. Regardless, its inclusion was unnecessary, gratuitous and disturbing.

The damaged elephant family, which was small to begin with (perhaps eight to ten animals), probably depended very heavily on the experience of the matriarch for its continued existence in the wild. The matriarch would have been her family’s corporate memory. She would have known the best places to locate nutritious food through the changing seasons and where to find water during the severest of droughts. One wonders how the family might have fared after the mindless destruction of its leader. Times must have been challenging indeed.

Difficult days continue to be the norm for far too many of East Africa’s elephant families. Poaching is on the rise in many parts of Kenya, as evidenced by the constant flow of new orphans into Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage on the outskirts of Nairobi. Each passing week brings new inmates to the compound … and all of them have been traumatized to one degree or another. Their stories, which are posted on the Sheldrick website, are powerful and moving. Here’s an extract from the profile of the young orphan named Sities:

“An unusual visitor walked into the Mgeno Ranch Headquarters, within the Tsavo Conservation Area during the morning of 22nd March 2010. This unusual visitor was a bellowing baby elephant, desperate for company and who sent all the Staff scuttling for safety, fearful that the baby’s mother might turn up to claim it. Eventually they ventured out, their sudden appearance frightening the little calf, who ran off a short distance, but then returned, desperate for company. Too young to know fear, being only about 1 ½ months old, the Staff tied it to a tree, and then called Dr. David Ndeereh of the Trust’s Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, who in turn alerted our Voi Elephant Keepers that an elephant rescue was needed.

It is suspected that this baby is a poaching victim, although human/wildlife conflict cannot be ruled out since the Ranch has a lot of livestock and herdsmen. The Trust’s De-Snaring anti-poaching team has been sent to scour the area to confirm any evidence of possible poaching.

The calf, a beautiful female, responded well to the arrival of the Keepers who fed her a bottle of milk and rehydration water before loading her into their Pickup and driving it to the Voi Stockades. Once there she remained close to the Keepers following them around, until the Rescue Plane arrived from Nairobi to airlift her back to the Trust’s Nairobi Elephant Nursery.”

Sities was a fortunate young lady indeed. For every orphan recovered there are surely dozens left parentless to meet a lonely and agonizing death in the bush.

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

If poachers and hunters represent the worst in our nature, then the dedicated souls at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust must surely reflect the last precious vestiges of nobility in the human spirit. It was my pleasure to visit their orphanage recently. And I have to think that even the hardest heart would be touched by the love and care the orphans receive. The elephants they so meticulously nurture are slowly re-introduced to the wild when their keepers deem them ready. Anyone who reads through the orphan profiles on their webpage would surely agree that they’ve already produced a number of miracles with some of the more severely traumatized animals (please see the story of orphan Murka).

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

More buddies ...

More buddies ...

Like most conservation organizations, the Sheldrick orphanage depends exclusively on donations for its operations and continued existence. Their need is immediate and pressing, however, because orphaned elephants must eat every day. And they must eat large quantities. I would encourage anyone who visits Nairobi to spend some time at this sanctuary and observe the orphans as they visit the mud wallow for their morning feeding. It’s much more than an opportunity to see these extraordinary young animals … now so fortuitously blessed with a second chance to live, love and thrive. It also validates the possibility that there may actually exist some small measure of hope for our own species. The orphanage’s website is here …


Young orphan with keeper.  Image taken from DSWT webpage.

Young orphan with keeper. Image taken from DSWT webpage.

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William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

Back in the early 1980s I read a fascinating book called Blue Highways by a writer named William Least Heat Moon. It seems this pretentiously named gent’s wife had dumped him, and he’d done the only thing a person can do under those most trying circumstances. He’d hit the road in a lovelorn state in a Ford cargo van with a name as ostentatious as his own — Ghost Dancing. Blue Highways was a lovely tribute to the small towns and byways of America, but it was also a powerful and moving study of the human spirit. And it validated with the written word what music had been telling me since I was old enough to listen.

There’s no real cure that I know of for an utterly devastated heart. It’s almost as crushing as the death of a loved one, and only time can really take the edge off its misery. But I can imagine no better treatment for the pain than an extended, unplanned and meandering road trip. And based on the music I listen to, I’d say I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Over the past four or so decades there have been several tunes wrapped around this theme. I love Delaney Bramlett’s “Living On the Open Road,” … not just because Duane Allman does the guitar work on it. It’s an upbeat and compelling tribute to spiritual and physical freedom, and it retains a place of honor on my IPOD playlist. Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee” is a touching and poignant ballad, certainly one of the best of the genre. Janis Joplin set the bar … and she was fortunate indeed that the subject name in the song worked equally well for a male or female singer. But there are three road songs that move me more than all the others … and they will always and forever occupy a special corner of my heart.

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

There’s something about a lost love that seems to inspire beautiful music and haunting, heartfelt, and visually powerful lyrics. Such is the case with John Hartford’s gorgeous tune “Gentle On My Mind,” most popularly delivered by Glen Campbell in 1967. The lost soul speaks to the woman he loves almost apologetically, because he can’t seem to abandon his drifting existence long enough to commit …

“It’s knowing that your door is always open

And your path is free to walk

That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag

Rolled up and stashed behind your couch

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled

By forgotten words and bonds

And the ink stains that have dried upon some line

That keeps you in the backroads

By the rivers of my memory

That keeps you ever gentle on my mind”

As with so many road songs, the visuals are overwhelming. The listener can almost feel the scorching sun and feel the blowing grass along the highway.

“Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines

And the junkyards and the highways come between us

And some other woman crying to her mother

‘Cause she turned and I was gone

I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face

And the summer sun might burn me ’til I’m blind

But not to where I cannot see you walkin’ on the backroads

By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind”

And taking time the time in a trainyard (Chicago in my mind’s eye) to feel the wrenching consequences of choosing a life without strings:

“I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’

Cracklin’ cauldron in some train yard

My beard a roughening coal pile and

A dirty hat pulled low across my face

Through cupped hands ’round a tin can

I pretend I hold you to my breast and find

That you’re waving from the backroads

By the rivers of my mem’ry

Ever smilin’ ever gentle on my mind”

Gentle On My Mind is an up tempo song, with a beat and chord progression that would logically form in the mind of a banjo player, which its creator, John Hartford, was and is. It is lovely, with the minor chords placed perfectly for full impact. It is a bittersweet tune, simultaneously a toe-tapper and tear jerker.

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

One of the Allman Brothers Band’s most popular tunes, Melissa, was written by Gregg Allman while he was still in his teens. The story in this song closely parallels the plot in Gentle On My Mind, with the wandering singer basking in the full glory of itinerant freedom.

“Freight trains … each car looks the same

And no one knows the gypsy’s name

No one hears his lonely sigh

There are no blankets where he lies”

But there is again a deep and pained regret, elegantly understated with a heartfelt wisdom and world-weary voice that one would not normally associate with a teen-aged songwriter:

“Crossroads … will you ever let him go?

Or will you hide the dead man’s ghost?

Or will he lie beneath the clay?

And will his spirit float away?

But I know that he won’t stay …

Without Melissa”

Melissa is a classic tune that still rates frequent airtime on the oldies stations. This is entirely appropriate. Both music and message are timeless. My deep regret is that brother Duane didn’t live long enough to do the guitar work on the Eat a Peach album version. Melissa was Duane’s favorite of all his brother’s musical creations, and I can’t help but think he would have delivered a typically beautiful and majestic backing lead on it.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years.  Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years. Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night In Georgia has been sung by a number of artists, and I’ve never heard it done poorly. That’s because it’s a perfect blend of haunting melody and brooding lyrics. The standard, of course, is Brook Benton’s rendition from 1970. This ballad, which is delivered in a downpour from a rail car in an unnamed Georgia town (in my mind it’s Macon), fills the head of the listener with street scenes, raindrops and loneliness.

“Neon lights flashing

Taxi cabs and buses passing through the night

A distant moaning of a train

Seems to play a sad refrain

To the night”

In the closing verse, in lines similar to those in Gentle on My Mind, Benton’s voice breaks as he remembers his love …

“Late at night

When it’s hard to rest

I hold your picture to my chest

And I feel fine”

Of all the music discussed in this essay, this version of this song is my favorite. It is in every way impeccable. The musicianship is extraordinary, the unknown guitarist simulates the descending raindrops without interfering with the soul and emotion of this incomparable singer. And Tony Joe White has penned many extraordinary tunes, but this one must surely be his finest.

For me, these songs beautifully capture heartache, loss and the eternal conflict between love and freedom of the human spirit … and they deliver an unforgettable message from the depths of the tortured soul. And they gracefully illustrate the natural, painful and undeniable connection between the heart and the highway.

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As I write these words I’m sequestered away in Cabin 3 at Chippokes State Park, just across the James River from my home in Williamsburg, Virginia. The grand purpose of this getaway is solitude, and sufficient peace and quiet to generate many pages of writing for this blog and other purposes. I have in my possession one acoustic guitar, two cameras, four black ink pens and three legal pads.

Through the front door of cabin 3

Through the front door of cabin 3

The cabin has four rooms … there is a well-equipped kitchenette, a bathroom, a bedroom and a living room. The floors are wooden … pine, it appears … of a very aged and rough edged sort. They look to be original, dating to the 1930s, when the building was constructed as a tenant farmhouse. The front door stands open, and I’m looking at a gray spring morning through the latticed screen door. A green field stands directly in front of the house and a tree line less than a quarter mile away blocks the horizon. The bees have buzzed the front porch in droves for the past two days but on this morning they are silent. Strong storms are in today’s weather forecast and perhaps they’ve taken the initiative and sequestered a little themselves.

Storm moving in ... trees swaying in the strong wind.

Storm moving in ... trees swaying in the strong wind.

I suppose it’s only natural to sit quietly in archaic but idyllic surroundings like these and try to imagine what an average day was like for someone who may have lived in this cabin, or one like it, when it was new. At the risk of stating the egregiously obvious, it emphasizes, first and foremost, the centrality of family. Large screen TVs, internet, social networking and the usual-named distractions would not even have been considered as distant possibilities. Radio existed in its infancy, but the odds are that this technology would have been well outside the financial reach of anyone who would have called this cabin home. There may have been a library in the nearest town, but that wouldn’t necessarily have been accessible either. So what was there to stimulate the heart and brain in those pre-electric days besides the hard work that served as the foundation of a rural existence? It could only have been interaction with family, friends and neighbors … and in the grand scheme that lifestyle seems much more substantive than that of the present day. Looking out at the green fields, watching the tall trees sway in the rising breeze and considering family it seems reasonable to ask … does a person really need more than this? In the imagination it all seems too perfect, and perhaps it is.

My father, who passed away not so long ago at the age of 94, often reminisced about the good old days. His commentary was simple, straightforward and from the heart … “There was nothing good about the good old days.” He remembered long hours in the cotton fields, cold winters with a coal stove for heat and, most miserably, knocking on the doors of strangers begging for food in the darkest days of the depression.

So, with my father’s remembrances in mind, I’ll allow reality to intrude just this once, and acknowledge …. that for every lovely spring morning in a place like this there might have been an icy February midnight visit to the outhouse, a dry well in the August heat or a failed crop under a silver harvest moon. So maybe it’s sensible to make the best of what we have … and be thankful for whatever peace and solitude we can find without encumbering it with too much sentimentality.

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Mara giraffes ...

Mara giraffes ...

There are nine distinct subspecies of giraffe ranging throughout the African continent. With respect to pure numbers, none of the nine are in particularly good health, but at least three of the varieties are in extremis. The West African, or Nigerian giraffe, is numerically closest to extinction, with just over 200 animals residing in an isolated area near the city of Niamey, the capital of Niger. The Nubian giraffe population, which occupies a small range in western Ethiopia, is estimated at about 250 animals. The Rothschild’s giraffe inhabits the Lake Nakuru area of Kenya and parts of Uganda. Less than a thousand Rothschild’s exist in the wild.

The plight of the world’s tallest mammal is symptomatic of the larger challenges currently facing all of Africa’s wildlife. With mounting pressures from human encroachment and illegal poaching, the animals are confined to isolated pockets of ever-decreasing size. The World Wildlife Fund, the African Wildlife Foundation and a number of other organizations have done stellar work in the fields of conservation and education, but success can only be fully realized with constant vigilance and tireless exertion. The situation is sufficiently dire that many of the most endangered species merit their own support organizations. Such is the case with our long-legged friends.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) was established in 2009 by Dr. Julian Fennessy, who is widely recognized as one of African wildlife’s most stalwart defenders. The GCF’s vision statement is straightforward. It is:

“The Giraffe Conservation Foundation’s vision is that of a sustainable future where all giraffe populations and subspecies are protected and secure in the wild.”

The tenets of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation mission statement, taken from the GCF website, are listed below:

  • Promote the importance and profile of giraffe conservation on the international stage.
  • Secure viable, and protect existing, habitat for giraffe and other wildlife.
  • Support dedicated and innovative research to better understand giraffe ecology, conservation and management.
  • Establish the current status of all giraffe populations and subspecies to support and inform their conservation and management.
  • Identify key threats to giraffe and innovative ways to mitigate these.
  • Develop a world class network of individuals and organisations dedicated to securing the future of giraffe.
  • Provide a platform and forum for giraffe related research, conservation and management discussion.
  • Increase awareness about the plight of giraffe.
  • Promote and support giraffe conservation initiatives and work collaboratively with local communities to develop a sustainable future for both people and wildlife.
  • Establish GCF as the key focal organisation for giraffe conservation and management.
  • Maintain a close working relationship with the IGWG to provide comprehensive educational and technical support.
  • To be the leading international organisation for giraffe conservation and management.

The GCF may be a fledgling organization but its goals are ambitious, and in my estimation, extremely worthwhile. The superbly led Foundation already has a number of initiatives in the works. Included among these (excerpts taken from the GCF website):

The Kenya Giraffe Project. This project intends to establish a baseline ecological and conservation “health” assessment of key giraffe populations of Kenya’s three distinct subspecies.  Working with the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), key NGOs, e. g. KLCT and African Wildlife Foundation, and private landowners and communities, the project hopes to build robust ecological assessments of the populations.  The collaborative efforts seek to provide capacity building and ongoing information gathering to facilitate the long-term success of the project and understanding of the giraffe as a keystone species.

The Rothschild’s Giraffe Project. This effort involves a comprehensive scientific review of this vanishing subspecies. The project will report on the ecology, behavior and distribution of the Rothschild’s giraffe and investigate the effects the remaining populations are having on their environments. The data collected will be employed to develop conservation strategies to preserve and propagate the animals.

The Reticulated Giraffe Project. The Reticulated giraffe is not the least numerous, but with a decrease in numbers of at least 80% – from 30,000 to perhaps 5,000 – over the past 10 years alone, it is probably the subspecies in most rapid decline. By comparison with other megafaunal taxa, giraffes have been relatively little studied and most investigations have focused on the southern of two major clades. There are no published studies of the biology or ecology of reticulated giraffes, which may represent the northern clade’s earliest discrete lineage. The Reticulated Giraffe Project aims to address this paucity of information by investigating aspects of the animals’ behavioral ecology and of the population processes operating upon them. Social network studies will be coupled with analysis of DNA and reproductive hormones to interpret dispersion patterns; bioacoustics will be employed to investigate the possible use of infrasound as a medium of communication; movements, behavior, energy expenditure and environmental parameters will be measured using remote-sensing devices; and a combination of telemetry, direct sampling and a collaborative network of observers will be used to explore the demography of the population as a whole. The results will inform the conservation and management strategies for the remaining reticulated giraffes.

There are more projects ongoing and in the works. From my personal perspective, it’s gratifying to see a dedicated conservation effort fully focused on protecting this elegant, uniquely beautiful but often ignored animal. The giraffe holds an iconic place in the pantheon of Africa’s wildlife, and no effort should be spared to ensure its long term survival. To know more about the GCF, have a look at their website at the address below.


Maasai giraffe trio in the Mara

Maasai giraffe trio in the Mara

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In past blog posts I’ve written exhaustively about elephants, which I’ve repeatedly identified as my favorite animal. I also have a favorite photographic subject, which is the plains zebra. My blog post dated April 18th of this year describes my strategies for photographing their extraordinary range of behaviors. But there is another species that holds a special place in my heart for deeply personal and historic reasons. That would be the elegant and beautiful, but highly implausible Maasai Giraffe. Here’s why …

In 2001 I traveled to Tanzania with a couple of friends to climb Kilimanjaro. Thinking our trip would be a “once in a lifetime” expedition, we programmed a few extra days into the itinerary to see Africa’s wildlife. Understanding perfectly well that one cannot travel to East Africa without a camera, I purchased my first SLR … the lowest end Canon edition with a ludicrously cheap kit lens. Before leaving Tanzania my friends and I visited a very damp Arusha National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and the dry and dusty plains of the Serengeti. During the course of that initial 15 day trip I captured about 780 photographs, which at the time seemed an astronomical total (that figure now represents about a half day’s work). I was completely captivated by Tanzania’s landscapes and wildlife and spent a disproportionate amount of time looking through my photos after returning home. The months marched on but the desire to return never dissipated, and I became obsessed with finding a way to do that – often – without being consigned to debtor’s prison. I’d received some warm praise for those first photographs I’d shot, and it’s just possible that some of it may have been sincere. There was one particular image – which happened to be my favorite from the trip – that elicited a stronger response than all the others. Because of the encouragement and feedback I received on that one picture I began to study the art and science of photography. Here’s the shot:

First ever morning in Africa with a camera.  Sometime in mid-July of 2001.  Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

First ever morning in Africa with a camera. Sometime in mid-July of 2001. Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

And voila … by 2007 my images were not only fully subsidizing my travel, they’d enabled me to purchase a world-class arsenal of Nikon photo gear. So the giraffe, from my perspective, is in a class of its own. That’s because I’m deeply indebted to the animal for a life-changing encounter on a gray and rainy morning at Arusha National Park in July of 2001. And it’s about damned time I started making payments.

More to follow on this …

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Grant's gazelle and young one ... southern Serengeti.

Grant's gazelle and young one ... southern Serengeti.

A few decades back from Carl Sagan …

“Memories of events late in the first year of life are not extremely rare, and there are possible examples of even earlier recollections. At age three, my son Nicholas was asked for the earliest event he could recall and he replied in a hushed tone while staring into middle distance, ‘It was red and I was very cold.’ He was born by Caesarean section. It is probably very unlikely, but I wonder whether this could just possibly be a true birth memory.”

from “Dragons of Eden”

For reasons I would never try to explain, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to comprehend what the world must look and feel like to a newborn. I was in the delivery room for the birth of my youngest son and witnessed firsthand what must have been a very rude shock to his system … to pass from the warmth and security of his mother’s womb to the bright lights and controlled climate of the operatory. He was fortunate in many ways. A platoon of expert medical technicians was on hand to receive him and he was expeditiously cleaned, swathed in blankets and placed next to an exhausted but loving mother. He was safe from immediate physical harm and, unlike Sagan’s progeny, certainly has no memory of what must have been a less than pleasant accession to life on planet earth.

A newborn animal in the wild must surely be similarly bewildered and overwhelmed in the first few minutes of life. Spilling from complete maternal darkness to the powerful sunshine and pungent African earth must be a harrowing experience indeed. I suspect that the newborn initially sees nothing but blinding white light and hears a wild cacophony of strange and incomprehensible sounds. Within seconds, however, it would feel its mother’s presence and the quest for survival would begin in earnest.

An impala mother welcomes her daughter, just minutes old, to South Luangwa, Zambia and the world.

An impala mother welcomes her daughter, just minutes old, to South Luangwa, Zambia and the world.

Just beginning to try the new legs ... hope they work.

Just beginning to try the new legs ... hope they work. Notice the colors in the area mother selected for delivery ... a near perfect match to camouflage the newborn.

So far so good ... looking for Mom's teat.  This series of photos was taken by my son Joe.  One of the most special of many precious moments I've witnessed in the wild.

So far so good ... looking for Mom's teat. This series of photos was taken by my son Joe. One of the most special of many precious moments I've witnessed in the wild.

Unlike human offspring, animals born on the savanna are at risk for their very lives from the instant of their arrival. In addition to the inherent difficulties of adjusting to a new and hostile environment, a newborn’s challenges are compounded by the existence of other species that would view it as a quick and easy meal. Consequently, each animal has evolved protective mechanisms for the very young, but the effectiveness of these strategies varies widely from one species to the next.

The baby elephant is certainly vulnerable to lion attack, but the strength and size of its family are formidable obstacles against any and all potential predators. An elephant mother, aggressively supported by sisters and matriarch, is a determined and fearless protectress. This unique combination of family, size, strength and maternal love is usually sufficient to convince a hungry lioness to search for easier prey. For these reasons, elephant youngsters have a much higher survival rate than most species.

Elephant family steadying a new arrival.  The little guy was having difficulty navigating the uneven ground, but he had much love and help from a supportive family.

Elephant family steadying a new arrival. The little guy was having difficulty navigating the uneven ground, but he had much love and help from a supportive family.

More Amboseli elephants ... notice who's tucked away under the legs of the larger animals.

More Amboseli elephants ... notice who's tucked away under the legs of the larger animals.

The offspring of the great cats are in no way exempt from Africa’s trials. Mother cheetahs produce the cutest (and most photogenic) young of any African animal in my opinion, but those little ones are fragile, and susceptible to destruction by any number of natural enemies. Young leopards are subject to the predations of hyenas, pythons and even baboons. Lion cubs are also threatened by hyenas … and they are actively pursued by Cape Buffalo, who bear a hatred for lions that’s very nearly unprecedented in the animal world. And invading male lions always kill the young cubs when they assume control of an existing pride. This brings the females into estrus and enables the new leadership to mate almost immediately.

A lioness with her very young daughter at Amboseli.

A lioness with her very young daughter at Amboseli.

Tiny cubs in the Maasai Mara ... giving the nipple one hell of a workout.

Tiny cubs in the Maasai Mara ... giving the nipple one hell of a workout.

Survival is even more problematic for an ungulate offspring. A wildebeest calf must stand within minutes of birth and be able to maintain pace with the greater herd within three or four days. Baby gazelles have evolved an innovative survival strategy. They are virtually scentless at birth and instinctively become motionless when in the vicinity of a threat. Because their colors so closely match the savanna grass they are all but invisible and just barely detectable.

Another impala mom with little one in the central Serengeti.

Another impala mom with little one in the central Serengeti.

But none of these protective measures is perfect. Every birthing season is witness to the destruction of innumerable new arrivals. Nowhere on earth are the dual miracles of life and survival more visible than on the plains of the Mara and Serengeti. The birth, predator and prey cycle is one of East Africa’s most fundamental realities … and one of its most enduring fascinations.

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Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

I mentioned in a long ago blog post (July 31, 2009) that elephants are my favorite animals. The logic offered in that article was exhaustive, but at the heart of it all was my sincere belief that the depth of their feelings and power of their love make them unique in the animal world. But elephants are overwhelming … and for me that can make them difficult to photograph at times. Zebras, on the other hand, are eminently beautiful and forever entertaining. They are an impeccable combination of aggression and vulnerability, most beautifully parceled in black and white. For these and a succession of other reasons, they are far and away my favorite species to photograph – and have been since my first visit to Africa many years ago. And as with the giraffe, I’ve subconsciously evolved specific strategies for photographing them.

Zebras are social animals, and as they interact with each other they exhibit an absorbing range of moods and behaviors. In peaceful groups they often use each other for headrests, or stand in rows, alternately facing opposite directions – a twofold strategy to (a) optimize the predator watch by expanding the field of view to 360 degrees, and (b) take advantage of the next door neighbor’s tail to swish flies from their respective faces. These positions and postures represent a cornucopia of opportunities for the observant photographer.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

The babies of all species are photogenic, even those of the most visually unappealing adults (e. g., the hyena). Zebra youngsters are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are wonderfully curious. They have been known to elude the protection of their mothers and bounce directly toward the camera for a close-up portrait. They also make excellent subjects when huddled close to Mom or bucking through a field, trying out the spindly new legs. Some samples:

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli.  Mom in the near distance.

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli. Mom in the near distance.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Peace and harmony are not universally practiced in zebra society. When observing a large herd spread across a hillside I usually set the camera down (but leaving it in the ready position) and take a few minutes to study the herd as a whole. The animals graze quietly but audibly, companions form tight groupings and mothers maintain a wary eye on their vulnerable offspring. But somewhere in the crowd there will unfailingly be a single animal bawling incessantly, prancing through the host with head elevated and ears pointed skyward. This zebra should be observed and tracked closely, because he is, in fact, a troublemaker. And he will almost certainly generate the raw behavioral material for many an interesting photograph. The action will begin when the rogue zebra physically intrudes on a peaceful group and harasses them to the limit of their collective endurance. Eventually, one of the imposed upon animals will stretch neck and head backward to his flank and touch noses with the intruder. The action then begins within seconds. By this time the viewfinder should be clamped against the head to capture the imminent sequence of bites and kicks.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot.  Central Maasai Mara.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot. Central Maasai Mara.

An all out zebra fight for mating rights can be a very serious matter. The wild-eyed animals grab sizable chunks of their opponents’ flesh and deliver powerful kicks that occasionally find their target. Most dangerously, they circle each other aggressively … attempting to clamp down on their rivals’ lower legs. A zebra with an injured leg, particularly a foreleg, is a doomed animal. East African predators have a natural instinct for identifying and eliminating the vulnerable.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Zebra fight at Ndutu.  Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

Zebra fight at Ndutu. Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

I don’t know of any African animal that isn’t photogenic in its way, but for me the plains zebra is the most consistently cooperative subject. Other opinions are, as always, very welcome.

Drinking in the Mara River.

Drinking in the Mara River.

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Bob Parsons, Mack Daddy of the web hosting company Go Daddy, recently generated a bit of a firestorm when he posted a video clip of himself executing a “musth bull problem elephant” in Zimbabwe. According to Parsons, the elephant was destroying crops, and the farmers were in desperate need of his assistance. Apparently, this is the second year in succession that Parsons has visited Africa to “help” the agrarian community in this way.

There are instances — more each day, sadly – when elephant and human contact results in tragedy in one direction or the other. I won’t pass judgment on the abjectly poor farmers who depend on their crops for their livelihood and survival. But I don’t mind passing a little judgment on Parsons. In the spirit of good will and friendship I offer him the following hints.

Notes to Bob:

– Don’t cast yourself as heroic. You’re precisely the opposite of that. There’s no glory whatsoever in killing an elephant. Hell, anyone who can lift a weapon could do it. You were well-armed … the elephant just wanted to eat. There may be people in this world who are ignorant enough to be impressed by what you did, but I doubt that anyone who’s reading this post would be among that number.

– Don’t claim that your motive for the destruction of the animal was in any way altruistic. You did not travel all the way to Zim at great personal expense to “help” anybody. If you actually wanted to benefit humanity there are quite literally countless ways to do this that don’t involve firearms. The fact is, nobody … I mean NOBODY … believes that your purpose and intent was to rid the farmers of a menace to their crops. The reality is … you wanted very badly to kill an elephant, so that’s what you did. To frame it any other way is a flat out lie.

– Be honest about what you shot. This is a cautionary admonition, because there’s just a little room for doubt about the gender of your “Bull” elephant. Based on the video you very generously shared with us, it’s doubtful that there’s enough physically remaining of the animal to ascertain its sex with 100% accuracy. But elephant researcher Joyce Poole has examined your video and stills, and she deems it highly likely that your “Bull” was a young female. I have considerably more faith in her best guess than I do in your integrity.

– If you want to perform an act that’s simultaneously destructive, dishonest, selfish and mindless, I recommend very strongly that you don’t videotape it and then post it for display like a badge of honor. Only a jackass would do that.

I’m always ready to help, Bob. If you’re ever again in need of my mentorship and guidance, by all means let me know.

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This blog has been offline for many weeks for a variety of weeks. Most significant among these was its recent transfer to a new web hosting company and a complete overhaul of the website to which it is appended. The blog is back now.