24 March 2009

AFRICA - Part VI

2009-02-20
Departure day of the SAAB conference, and these early mornings remind one that this is not a vacation; in keeping with that schedule, the crew piles into the land cruisers for a trek to Lake Nakuru Nature Center for a short game drive. Nakuru is famous for its flamingos and pelicans, and less so, for the pollution from the local industries which overflows from the sewers, making its way into the Lake. It’s certainly not unique to Kenya that natural wonders are being corroded by our negligence and overpopulation demands on resources and infrastructure.

Getting ahead of myself here, it was such a pleasure to ride in a vehicle with a crew of environmental experts that could fill me in on facts about everything from fertilizer (they were very patient with my relentless interest in this topic) plant uptake and release of nitrogen, etc. Nakuru was magnificent, pelicans are so cool, flamingos so weird, and the guarantee of seeing rhinos very exciting. It is the dry season, and the dust (a mixture of a fine igneous ash, guano and pollution) kicked up by the circling cars is so irritating that it robs some of the pleasure of being in this magnificent place. We are planning to stay on in the lodge; as most of the SAAB crew is flying out of Nairobi, haste is suddenly in order, and our caravan rushes into the compound in a cloud of dust, hasty goodbyes are exchanged, and the group is off.

Our plan had been to do an afternoon game drive, but fatigue, heat, and desire for a bit of time off convince us to spend an afternoon of leisure. (And did I mention they had a decent internet connection?) So it’s pool time for those willing to brave the equatorial radiation, and reading in the shade for those of fair skin. Meals prove to be very good: lots of vegetable dishes with good variety- mediocre desserts, but who needs all that sugar, right? Interesting that in this lodge, the guides are not segregated as has been the case in other facilities, so we ask Dennis to join us. He is the second guide we have had from Nature Expeditions, http://natureexpeditions.com/, and as good as Chris- very sharp eyes, which is essential, and knows every animal we see. The SAAB tour was run by a different operation, and that guide, though likable, was definitely not as observant. It’s so easy to miss the animals if you don’t know the indicators.

2009-02-21
Lake Nakura
Early morning game drive begins with a martial eagle, followed by some baboons with babies. Chimpanzees and gorillas interest me more, but it’s hard not to feel close with other hominids. Finally, we get to see white rhinos, so named because as grazers they have wide mouths, as opposed to the black rhino, a leaf browser, with a narrow mouth. In the distance, a pair of lions make their way across the plain, causing the inevitable caravan of safari vehicles, and we are not far behind. It’s a pair of brothers with a fresh warthog kill. The warthog ("Kenyan Express") has a short memory (or so the guides all tell us) and will often forget that it was just being stalked. So, it will reappear from the burrows it has appropriated from the mongoose, only to be grabbed by the waiting lion. Very exciting to see them so close, and we follow their tangent until they cross the road right in front of us.A poor jackal also trails them hopefully, but they ignore him completely, and he finally sits down in abject frustration. For me, the only thing better would be actually seeing the process of a kill- having studied wolves and the trickle-down effect of their dance with prey, seeing the process in this ecosystem would be fascinating. Without the top predators, the whole system falls apart, as was evidenced by the rejuvenation of Yellowstone with the return of el lobo. (Almost anyone who lives in suburbia in the USA wishes they had a few wolves around to control the deer population.) After the kings had disappeared to feast on a little pig, we returned to see the rhinos we were watching, magnificent, though not as exciting, especially since they kept their mouths to the ground. Hard to eat enough grass to sustain that much body mass.

After lunch we take a different route around the Lake, and see a colobus monkey in a tree; we then proceed toward the Lake, where a couple of rhinos are peacefully munching the grass. Despite my exhortations, they refuse to lift there heads, so we move over to the water's edge where innumerable flamingos and a few other species are congregating. Suddenly, we here a giant roar of 1000 birds ascending from the water’s surface, and the rhinos are running toward us (but not aggressively.) Apparently an inconsiderate safari car had driven too close to the birds and rhinos and startled them, but what a great opportunity to get shots of the rhinos in motion. They are so fascinatingly prehistoric.And speaking of fascinating, after milling around a bit, a group of about 8 flamingos form a line like a group of square dancers and start a ritual squawking, then repeatedly look left and right in unison, then all flash the colored patterns on their wings. Some of them proceeded to wave their endless necks and heads at each other, sometimes knocking heads. It was hilarious and bizarre, one of the strangest rituals I have ever seen. I was even able to capture some video, which will be uploaded in the near future. Stay tuned...

2009-02-22
Departure from Nakuru.
Dennis and I decide to go out early to hopefully see the elusive leopard. To shoot wildlife, one needs endless patience (short supply of that here), the proper equipment (mine is OK, not ideal), and quick reaction to the sudden event and conditions. And there is no knowing what will cross your path. This morning we were not lucky- a few birds I had not seen was the extent of our experience. Dennis, hoping for the grand finale, was disappointed; but you have to go out and be happy just to be there. Otherwise, it’s another stress, of which we all have too much. The dust I could have done without.

After a quick breakfast (one more crepe please) we are off to Nairobi, roads not too bad. Tensie must meet with the director of our safari company, Nature Expeditions, as Rainforest Alliance certifies eco-tourism. Here I should insert my plug for them: knowledgeable, friendly, prompt, and of course I had plugged the individual guides in previous posts. If you go to Kenya for safari I would highly recommend them.

That night we ate supper with the director of the United Nations Environmental Program, Achim Steiner and his wife Liz; a real treat to talk with people that are leading the fight and thinking about the big picture. They mentioned the Nairobi trash dump as a place of interest and my ears perked. Supposedly 10,000 people live and scavenge there, and interesting experiments in sustainability are being performed, such as a shower that is heated by methane, produced from the excrement of the residents. Nothing like a garbage dump to get me excited. Of course the urban myth is that you walk in and don’t walk out, but my experience has taught me that the people who live in these places are shy and decent, and when treated with respect, respond in kind. The Steiners knew a Dutch woman running a community group that works in the facility, and gave me the number so could call the next morning.

2009-02-23
I called Ms van Dijk at Sarakasi Trust, http://www.sarakasi.org/, which teaches performance arts to kids in the slums and provides a venue for presentation. She connected me with Maurice who teaches acrobatics in the Korogocho slum next to the Dandora Dump and agreed to go in with me, in spite of the horrible stories he had heard. The Nairobi River separates the dump from the slums, and a more polluted estuary you have never seen. Our first encounters were with people washing plastic bags in the River for resale.They forded the River like it was a pristine babbling brook, but I was determined not to wet my shoes in that sludge. So we walked along until we found a place we could hop from old tire to mound of unidentifiable plastic to other shore, and proceeded into Hades. Everywhere things were burning, the air filled with acrid smoke. Hideous giant Marabou Storks seemed to dwarf the humans next to them as they sifted through the garbage. An old lady used a piece of bent rebar to rake through the ashes of the never-ending fire to find any pieces of metal she could sell. Everything was shades of grey from the ashes to burnt pieces of metal to her coloration after so many years of being there. The smoke would suddenly envelope, obscuring everything, then clear to reveal people engaged in various foraging activities. But I never felt frightened or threatened. On return to New York I would discover that the Blacksmith Institute rates it as one of the most toxic places on Earth; it felt that way being there. What an intractable problem. I have been in similar places around the world- God knows why I would want to. Maybe my interest is because this is the bottom of the consumption chain, like the container of rubber duckies that fell into the sea and ended up in the bellies of the whales.

Return to New York via London meant two 8 hour flights; what a joy. Of course there is the time-zone issue, but more than that, there is a necessary readjustment of time/culture frame. In a way, life seems so much more real there: we are all panicked about the economic crisis, not that any of us really understand the credit default swaps that got us into this mess. And we keep throwing mountains of money at nebulous corporations which we know don’t deserve it, but we are afraid to let them fail, lest they take down our fragile boats in the wake. Meanwhile, in Kenya they are digging the dirt, growing the tea, protecting the animals for the tourists, and waiting for the influx of Obama fans who Kenyans hope will pay big money for a trip to the hometown of the father.

AFRICA - Part V

2009-02-17
An early rise to tour the plantation and have a presentation from the different departments. First is the field harvesting, led by Julius, in which he describes the life cycle of a mature tea plant, the plucking of the leaves, pruning, and of course, water management. Even though it’s 8am, the sun is brutal.Next stop: the eucalyptus stand, which they grow as sustainable fuel to dry the tea. One would think: 23 miles from the Equator, the sun could do the job, but apparently the process is too precise and sol too fickle. They are experimenting with other options, including bamboo, and of course, anything is better than using petrol. Off to the factory; what a process. We suit up in lab coats and disinfect before going in to see all of the steps. Suffice it to say those little leaves go through a lot before you drop them in your cup.

Unilever generates much of its power from hydro electricity, and seeing the power station was a treat. The generators are quite old, made in Britain in the 30s or 40s; both aesthetically and environmentally pleasing.Part of Unilever’s sustainability effort includes their own tree planting (endangered native species, of course) as a carbon offset against the travel miles to get here. Of course the USA contingent came the longest distance, and we each had to plant six trees. Fear not, dear Reader, this artist’s hands were hardly sullied: staff did all of the hard work leaving only the dropping of a seedling into a hole and backfilling to our uneducated selves. It always feels good to have planted a few seedlings, hoping they will mature into big trees; but I don’t really believe in carbon offsetting. We should just stay home (says the guy who came the most miles).

2009-02-18
The KTDA (Kenya Tea Development Authority) is a governmental agency that organizes the smallholder producers that grow 62% of the tea grown in Kenya. They provide education about techniques and technologies, operate processing factories, and sell the tea at the weekly auction in Mombassa. Uniliever is the largest buyer of KTDA tea to provide the balance between what they produce and what they need for their brands.

Photography in the KTDA factories is prohibited, a stricture I have ignored in the past, but observed today as it was similar to the Kericho factory. The Momul Factory was older with less technology, but the staff was dedicated and friendly. After a short (by African standards) meeting, we shared the obligatory tea and caravanned a small tea farm, owned and operated by Simon and Esther Langiot.Our arrival was greeted by that wonderful African acapella singing of individual statement and group response followed by a tour of the farm in which the owner described the transition to Rainforest Alliance certified production methods, and the differences it had made. Unilever has been working with the KTDA in the move to certify all of the tea used in their products, and this farm was really a model of order and good practice. Alas, the tour was followed by a rather endless presentation in which the group of local farmers FFS (Farmer Field School) presented, in a bit to great a detail, all of their experimentation and findings. But the upshot was that the program is encouraging and rewarding them to continuously examine and modify their practices, thereby improving yields and reducing environmental impact. They were wonderful, warm people, and it’s fantastic to see their enthusiasm, motivation, and gratitude to Unilever and RA. Also nice to see “fist world” Companies and NGOs working cooperatively with communities instead of dictatorially, and I think the results are much more effective and long-lasting.

During the presentation, I slipped away on a bit of a walkabout, stumbling upon this absolutely gorgeous young woman plucking tea in her small plot.We chatted a bit, such as we were able with our different tongues, about our different lives and realities.

2009-02-19
SAAB meetings all day, and the patient reader knows how this scribe enjoys a good meeting. But in the spirit of sacrifice, it was off to find the perfect images to illustrate the making of tea. The hand-made aspect of the process seems the key, and the faces and smiles are so beautiful and natural; the mission was clear. I love the human face as subject matter: infinitely variable and interesting, and a window to the soul; I can shoot people endlessly. Actually, the SAAB crew, needing a bit of re√ęducation themselves, were sent to the fields at dawn to do a little plucking under the tutelage of the pros. [photo] Clearly this was not the perfect illustration of plucking, so off I went with Jeremiah (farm manager) in search of the grail.Another important aspect of tea horticulture is the pruning of the bush, done using a weed whacker with a blade, without which it becomes a tree. This forces the plant to "bush out" and keeps the leaves within reach of the pluckers. My determination for the perfect image came in direct conflict with Unilever’s obsession with safety. Fortunately, I had cleared my devil-may-care approach with one of the top executives, and the staff reluctantly allowed me to work without the armor normally worn on this job.

Next to the factory where Micha, the manager showed me around. In our brief group tour several days before, the concerned pr team, like mother hens, had immediately stopped me as I attempted to scale the vertiginous heights necessary to get the ideal images. Micha, proud of his team and operations, was happy to assist. Interesting the social differences in societies: in the west we keep our distance from each other, and are immediately suspicious of any unsanctioned contact (heaven forbid two men kiss or hug). Micha and I walked arm in arm through the factory chatting about this and that. Again I was struck at the complexity, cleanliness, and precision required in the making of tea.

Throughout the day I crossed paths with John, the British videographer chasing his version of the same story, trading friendly insults and barbs, and providing helpful tips. He mentioned that the breeding center was interesting, and I have always been fascinated with the idea of grafting: that we can take a root with desirable properties, attach it to a top and thus have our cake and eat it too. Margaret demonstrated the process, too simple to believe that it actually works.

After a quick lunch, it’s off to the Unilever sponsored school where the kids are so bright and enthusiastic and beautiful I just wanted to do a portrait of each one- problem is, as soon as I try to shoot one, 10 more crowd into the frame, all rushing toward the camera, making it impossible to focus.Of course whenever we media devils go to a school we gawk at the beautiful children, so I wanted to visit with the teachers. They were an inspiration, and we talked about our respective experiences, and I photographed them and promised to send a Wolf Center Calendar.

I love the fact that the tea factory generates 70% of its electricity from hydro power, so I had to go back by the station and do some abstracts of the machinery. The USA generates 50% of its power from coal, and the alternatives are abundant and free, and many of the technologies have been with us for a long time. I won’t go in to the devastating effects of coal- the patient reader has heard me rant on this subject before. We must demand change.

AFRICA - Part IV

2009-02-14
Today’s adventure is a full day safari. All cultures that I have known within the tropics come to a stop in the middle of the day, and that includes the animals. The sun rises to a cool morning, creating a wonderful contrast of warm light and blue shadows, then climbs up, obliterating any respite from its withering inspection, and seems to linger indefinitely, until suddenly evening is there with a sigh. As a photographer, this is the magic time, and it’s quite short (l’hora de bruja the Spanish TVE crew called it at Minas Rio Tinto). The Park closes at 18:30, which makes it even shorter. The advantage of a full day excursion is that one can go further into the Park. Fortune does not smile on our venture as it had in the past days; there are some female lions lying in the sun with hardly the energy to acknowledge our presence, a mother cheetah with three nine month old cubs escaping the sun under a tree, lifting their heads periodically to watch for lions, who guard their territory jealously, and will kill any interlopers. The cheetah has only fleetness of foot as defense, an escape the lions foil through encirclement, so the ever-watchful mother has reason for caution.Thanks to the watchful eye of James, a Maasai from the area, a glimpse of the elusive leopard is provided, one of probably 40 in the park. His Maasai name is Somoine, but with christening and education, he became James. The Maasai are allowed to graze their cattle in the Reserve during the dry season, and Somoine (James) asks if we could stop and check on his brother who is tending the herd. Interestingly, Sonkoi, his brother from a different mother in a polygamous family, was not christened or “educated,” and their different demeanors fascinate me. The “forbidden fruit” comes with a cost(more later on this).Elephants never cease to stir wonder, and there are several groups to see, their social dynamic and solicitation of the young are amazing to watch.

Back at the camp, a glass of wine and splash of water to revive, and then a chat with the guides and staff about the impact of the economy on them, and their views on conservation. The camp has a capacity of up to 45 people (my guess) and there are no other guests; so the current economic situation has a severe impact on the people here. Kenya has very little in the way of mineral resources, so tourism and agriculture are its main source of foreign revenue. Americans and Europeans come to Africa to view the animals, and a psychic “return to Eden.” The people here view the animals from a utilitarian perspective: Maasai kill the lions as a rite of passage, others kill the animals for food. As tourists came with money, and that money trickled out to rural people, they have slowly begun to see the animals as a resource of a different type. But if that income disappears, the view of animals as food or aspects of ritual will again predominate; and there are not so many lions left.
Supper was even better, the chefs preparing it in the dining tent tonight. Even for a vegetarian there was ample variety, and all delicious.After dinner, entertainment consisted of a performance of Maasai traditional dances performed by the staff. Handsome like gods, it was fascinating to see the rituals which address the same issues we face in our society: health, religion, welfare, and marriage. As one who refuses to even sing karaoke, I was fascinated at the lack of self-consciousness exhibited by James, who goes back and forth between the western world and that of his forebears.


2009-02-15
Departure from Nyumbu came too soon. The hospitality was genuine and touching; simply relaxing and reading would have been a welcome respite.But now we were to start the business segment of our trip: examination of Unilever’s sustainable tea production in Kericho. Tensie Whelan, ED of the Rainforest Alliance, is on the SAAB (Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Board). Unilever (Lipton Tea being its largest brand) buys 12% of the world’s tea, and has made a commitment to source all of its tea sustainably by 2015. The SAAB was established to help them examine every aspect of their supply chain to reduce their negative environmental impacts. Rainforest Alliance certifies their tea, a process that specifies all aspects of production from the planting and harvesting, worker housing, water and chemical use to the packaging. The Kericho Tea Estate is an old plantation, and we were housed in the original owner's house, built in the traditional British style. It was absolutely charming, and I must here issue a grateful thanks to Julius, the Kenyan man who addressed our needs before we were even aware of them. Much of the discussion was quite technical and above the head of your lowly artist narrator, but the upshot is Unilever has committed to great leaps forward in its environmental and worker stewardship with no guarantee of remuneration for the investment. I believe that society will soon stipulate that producers adhere to strict environmental standards, either as a reaction, or hopefully as an aversion, to cataclysm, and companies that have made the investment early will be paid back in spades. Unilever, in spite of the economic downturn, is staying the course, and I personally hope consumers will reward them. The industrial Scars project is predicated on the notion that real forward progress towards sustainability can only be driven by the purchase decisions of the consumer. If we continue to buy toilet paper made by cutting down old growth forests and polluting waterways with chlorine chemicals, the companies doing this have no immediate incentive to change.

The SAAB is composed of a variety of experts from agronomists to environmentalists to social welfare experts, and meeting them all was a real treat. I am continuously searching for answers to questions raised by my photographs, and the opportunity to chat with experts in various fields provides background and research direction. There is no escape from history, and much of life in Kenya is influenced by British Colonialism, for good and bad. The hospitality and accommodation at the estate was wonderfully genteel in a way I have not experienced since shooting the British military bands a number of years ago. Evening drinks on the veranda with the sun setting over the plantation owners' gardens was a treat. A wonderful anecdote as related by Richard Fairburn, the plantation manager: the original gardener that came with the estate, when asked by Unilever to stay on, said he would like a job description, which was then drafted. He studied it, and responded, saying that there was no mention of sustainability, fertilizer or chemical use, and wildlife corridors, and that these items must be included. Unilever promptly gave him a greatly expanded area to supervise.

2009-02-16
SAAB orientation meetings today, and they certainly don’t need an uneducated opinionated troublemaker such as me to irritate and impede the dialog. As an alternative, a satellite internet connection is offered: drugs to a junkie. But wait: remember dialup? Imagine ten times worse. No twenty. Constant disconnections when it even works. The things we take for granted.

Time for some observations you say?
There seem to be two rainy seasons in much of the area we have visited- big rains in early spring, and small rains in the fall. They do not seem to be subject to the wild fluctuation I am seeing in the northeast of the USA where we go from spring to winter several times in the course of a week.

Kenya is a nation of many tribes, a composition that predisposes interpersonal relationships as well as politics.These are roadside dwellings of people that were displaced by the violence of last years’ disputed election and accompanying intertribal violence, which was centered in the Kericho Region. Several of the Unilever local staff were killed, and the company made a valiant effort to evacuate and protect its people. The consequence of the unrest is much population displacement, with many people refuging in the Mau Forest nearby, and of course cutting down trees for fuel. The ramifications are affecting rainfall at the plantation and we will hear about resulting water shortages far away at the next preserve we visit.

19 March 2009

AFRICA - Part III

2009-02-11
We start the day meeting with the Greenbelt Coalition, an organization founded by Wangari Mathai who won the Nobel Prize for her work planting trees across Africa. They have fantastic credibility, are very knowledgeable and pragmatic in their approach to saving Lake Naivasha, and are working on bringing all the stakeholders into dialog. After the obligatory compliments and group photo we break for lunch, after which we proceed to the Wildfire Flower Farm.A large industry has grown up in this area, supplying cut flowers to Europeans, who own most of the flower farms. Cut flowers are an environmental disaster of the first order: tremendous volumes of water, fertilizer, and pesticides are used to grow and process the flowers, lots of electricity for cooling and supplemental lighting, and then they are put on a plane and flown to market, producing a sizable carbon footprint. And then there is the issue of worker health: we heard reports of many people getting sick from chemical exposure. You want to do something good for the planet? Give fruit instead of flowers. That said, they are aware of the problem at Wildfire, and are attempting to address issues as much as an unregulated industry will do (meaning mostly to save money). And one cannot condemn- everyone changes by necessity, and all change is painful. We met with the manager, Kirigia Gitari, and the operation was as expected.

They are trying to reduce fertilizer use via compsting, pesticides with Integrated Pest Management (using one bug to kill another) and various other things. This is a shot of water on the road that runs along all of the flower farms-serious algae blooms there.


Next on the agenda was a meeting at town hall; the Mayor cancelled, so the Deputy Mayor and Town Clerk (who seemed to be the real power) met with us. It was a fascinating study in African personalities and politics. The requisite speeches and proclamations were made, and of course, status determines speaking order.

The Greenbelt contingent thanked he town officials for their attendance at the various events, and the functionaries evinced their support of the effort to save the Lake. Hard to know if this drive will arrive- as usual, the forces doing the most damage are the ones with the most money, and my experience is that politics always follows the money. Wangari Mathai and the Greenbelt have so much credibility and authority- one must hope for miracles. The finale of the meeting was a ceremonial tree planting, amusing to see officials in suits trying to get the young trees out of their containment bags and into the ground.The trees planted were acacia, a hardy species ideally suited for this dry harsh climate, armed with thorns and a nitrogen fixer, meaning it obtains the nitrogen it needs from the air and then replenishes the soil with that vital plant macro-nutrient.

After what seemed like endless officialdom, we finally made our departure, not before endless salutations -- naturally! On the other side of town is a geo-thermal power generation plant, which fascinates me-electricity with no pollution. Unfortunately a tour requires a 48-hour notice, impossible in our schedule, so we drove there to see it, but it looked like nothing, and we could not get close enough for a photo.

2009-02-12
Today’s destination is Maasai Mara Game Preserve, reputedly the most impressive in Kenya, unfortunately a back pounding 6 hours away. On the way we stop at Crescent Island Game Park, founded by Karen Blixen, who wrote "Out of Africa," to shoot the movie. Since there are no dangerous animals, this is one place visitors are allowed to walk around, which is a pleasure after so much driving. Our guide, though nice, has a teaching technique based on asking us the names of things we could not possibly know. The whole place seems sterile and man-made, essentially the movie set that it was created to be. Though our guide describes it as a paradise for the animals, an ecosystem without predators is one with diseases, malformities, overgrazing, and overpopulation.
The drive to Maasai Mara is as brutal as expected. We stop at Narok, a Maasai town, and are of course approached by people wanting to sell us souvenirs. But it is done in such a gentle, good humored way, and always with genuine curiosity about who we are and where we are from, that it’s not a problem.

Finally, Maasai Mara: beautiful as expected. It must have rained recently, as it is wonderfully verdant. The campis on the other side of the park, and it is amazing: very low-key, solar-powered, unobtrusive tents with Maasai that welcome us with humor and gentility. They are obviously very concerned about our being attacked by wild animals and caution us repeatedly not to walk around without a guide. Doubtless they are overcautious, but we opt to heed if only to humor.

Before supper, we decide to take a walk and are escorted by two Maasai (who don’t speak English). It is beautiful: sun setting in the West, giraffe, zebra, and wildebeest around us. It occurs to me that there is a fantastic disparity of lifestyles: the Maasai must look at us as the Westerners, rich with material goods that fly in on jet planes (The Gods Must Be Crazy) and employ them as servants and guides. We look at them as a people living this elysian life: at one with nature, communing with God, not subject to the daily stresses we face. And of course, the nature of our respective stresses is so different: as a freelance artist, I will return to New York, worry about unreasonable client demands and deadlines, the source of the next job, overdue invoices, and whether I will produce on the next job (you are only as good as your last shoot). They, on the other hand, will worry (I imagine) about the source of the next meal, or being attacked by a lion. Neither of us has a clue about the realities the other faces, and idealizes the unknown lifestyle.

2009-02-13
The day starts before dawn and as the sun rises, we surprise a “newlywed” pair of lions, apart from the pride, mating repeatedly.It’s wonderful to be in this place the only sound being the soft roar of a lion trying to have sex. They ignore the presence of people completely. After watching a while, we decide to look for other “attractions.” Soon we see a bevy of Land Rovers, which can only mean some animal worth watching. Turns out to be a cheetah with cubs- gorgeous beyond telling. The comedy/tragedy of this mother, who must be on guard against the lions that would kill her for being in their territory, surrounded by gawking humans (that includes us) is hard to describe. Slowly they all become bored and disperse, leaving us.Of course, the best things happen for those with patience, and the cubs proceed to frolic on her, which she tolerates adoringly. The hippos we see in the river are cute, then it’s lunch time. Chris, ever wise, suggests we go out again at 4pm, but we push for 3:30, and of course he agrees. Guess what: nothing to see until 5pm. Smart ones in the tropics nap through the hot part of the day. Again drawn by the crowd of Rovers, we see a lion couple with cubs, but their position in the bushes and the setting sun prevent any good photos. The park closes at 6:30, and Chris clearly wants to be close to that curfew, proceed out, but see the usual grouping of safari vehicles that indicate worthy sightseeing, and it’s a cheetah with a cub over a kill. The setting sun (at the right angle to us) and the blood on their mouths make for fantastic shots.

Back to the camp, short constitutional, and another simple but yummy supper. In the evening I sat with three Maasai men, entertaining them with my “magic box,” we call a computer. You want to hear Rastaman Vibration, got it right here. Perhaps more amazing are the things we have in common. I show them pictures I shot today, they tell me what I see. Then I show them pictures of other things from my world literally the other side of the planet, but a universe away. Now it’s Rigoletto-imagine trying to explain opera to men who don’t speak your language, and share a totally different culture.

AFRICA - Part II

2009-02-09
In the shadow of Kilimanjaro, in the middle of nowhere, a Maasai man talks on a mobile phone. Something seems wrong with it. Not that he should not have a cell (any more than any of us) or that he should be talking on it in this place (I certainly sent SMS messages from the shadow of the Mountain), but perhaps that the pace of technology is beyond our ability to cope or comprehend, and that the consequences are coming at the same breakneck speed. Back in New York, where the temperature was bitter cold upon our departure, the forecast was to warm up to 50 degrees the following day. These wild fluctuations in weather are terrible for our health and everything around us, and partly, if not entirely, the result of our rush to haste. When it does actually snow (an increasingly rare event with the rise in temperature), we put massive volumes of salt on the roads so we can all rush out to wherever. This road salt has contaminated the groundwater, so the local schools must buy bottled water. Is this what we want? And ironically, with the temperature rise, there is more occurrence of slushy snow followed by freezing rain, making the roads far worse than regular snow and thus requiring more salt.

At the lodge, there is a Maasai man who gives talks after dinner about their culture. In an ideal world, of course, we would like to hear him and learn more, but in this one, we are on a tight schedule with very little sleep, and can think of little else but bed. At every meal he comes, interrupts the conversation and tries to browbeat us to attend his lecture.

As we are trying to come back to the Lodge at the end of the day, there is a bull elephant blocking the road. He charged the car in front of us, so we stop and wait while he pulls a tree into the middle of the road. I am reminded of Orwell’s story about shooting an elephant (though that is a story about imperialism and futility). There is an irony here: this animal is in our way, an inconvenience for us, but we are on the brink of destroying his kind. And they are so majestic in all respects: as individuals, family units, their culture and memory. Nice to see them with tusks. I had a client when I was shooting fashion that created jewelry from ivory; since I never know when to keep my mouth shut, I asked how she felt about the blood on her hands. She didn’t fire me immediately. But we all have blood on our hands, and look the other way. An example: the principal mineral in cell phones and other high-end electronics is called coltan. Google it. Mass rapes and murders (details too horrible to mention), wholesale slaughter of lowland gorillas and elephants, the list goes on. And all for our electronic toys. This is happening in the Congo, quite close to where I am now. I’m told I might be killed if I try to get in.

2009-02-10
We travel to Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley today. As we pass over a washed out bridge, Chris senses a flat tire and stops the Land Rover. Immediately that old air smell from a tire permeates the air. I offer to help change it and we proceed with the task. Everything is very dirty, but he has the proper tools and two spares, so there is no problem. As we work, two women approach and watch us work, the oldest and youngest wives of a Maasai man. I don’t usually pay people to take their photos, but I liked them, and broke down.
The Land Rover has two spares, but Chris is uneasy with only one, so we stop in Namanga where he drops us at Simon’s Curio Shop while he goes to fix it. Again, I am impressed at the level of awareness of the average Kenyan, far above that of the average American. There are many handicrafts, carvings of different animals, African masks, and musical instruments. They are made from a variety of woods, and being with the head of the Rainforest Alliance, we discuss the level of threat to each of these tree species according to Cites (Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species), ebony (endangered), teak (threatened), rosewood (threatened), and acacia (no problem). The carvers in the back are very talented, and being a woodworker, watching and chatting with them is a pleasure. I feel like I should buy something to support the local economy, but I have become such an anti-consumer, I just can't bring myself to do it.

Coming down into the Great Rift Valley, passing through localized rainstorms, the view is magnificent. Once in the Valley, there is a fierce wind from the east, and one just sees the topsoil blowing away. There are large plowed areas with tractors surrounded by clouds of dust.I see small tarps, steaked into the ground in a vain effort to reestablish some cover and windbreaks, but the wind has torn away the protective shields.

Tonight’s lodging is at Elsa Mere, the home of Joy and George Adamson, conservationists and creators of the “Born Free” book and movie. It is a beautiful location on the shore of Lake Naivasha that was formed into a foundation upon their deaths, and we have cottages that face the Lake. According to our guide, this is one of the greatest ornithological sites in Africa, but is under dire threat from a number of sources: livestock, human waste, and the flower industry, which we will tour tomorrow. I’m fascinated by the time capsule sense of the place. The house is maintained exactly as it was when the Adamsons were here, and meals are very British, presented by a servant, and George’s Land Rover is enshrined, polished every day. It all speaks to me of another era of conservation, which is really imperialism in disguise: making the undeveloped world accessible to the whim of the “first world.” We enjoy their animals, go home with the trophies and take their resources to supply our lifestyle. Am I too cynical? And this is not criticism of the Adamsons; they were far ahead of their time, and the work they did probably inspired a generation of environmentalists. But that model will no longer work, and the time has come for a radical environmentalism. As I write, Emmy Lou Harris comes up on iTunes singing Dylan’s “Every Grain Of Sand,” the message to me being that the time has come when every decision must be made based on the impact on our grandchildren. (oops, preaching again)

AFRICA - Part I


View Larger Map
2009-02-07
I flew BA through London, connecting to Nairobi. It was the first time in years I have had a whole row to myself, a small sign of the economic climate. I met a writer for Standard and Poors who covers derivatives, who said that 2009 was going to be bad…

I met Tensie Whelan at London Heathrow, ED of the Rainforest Alliance, and we boarded our flight to Nairobi, where we were met upon arrival by John, a guide with Nature Expeditions. It’s always nice to meet someone when you land in a new place. Rainforest Alliance certifies eco-tourism and works with this company, so we were lucky to have an inside connection. We arrived at the Panari Hotel in Nairobi, which was clean and well kept with a nice staff and decent food.

2009-02-08
The hotelier, seeing my International Wolf Center shirt, asked about it. I explained the precarious status of the wolf in the USA, not bothering to elaborate on the continued endangerment of the species, and he looked quizzical, saying that wildlife are not to be killed. “Here in Kenya,” he said, “wildlife is protected by law.” Wearily, I replied that Americans are stupid and don’t understand, again not bothering to elaborate on Palin and the wanton slaughter that is ongoing in Alaska. I fear we have not seen the last of this mad woman.

The people here are so beautiful, their faces so open, seemingly so innocent. Just the idealistic projections of a jaded Yankee, I’m sure.

Our Guide, Chris arrives to drive down to Amboseli National Park on a rutted dirt road, parallel to a nice paved one under endless construction. Sometimes there are machines working on it, sometimes people. We continue along the unpaved path. The land is wide open, but I feel that it was once forested, which Chris, our driver, confirms. Reforestation efforts with acacia trees are visible, but one senses that the demand for fuel undermines the success.

In Namanga, on the border of Tanzania and Kenya, we stop in a souvenir shop, obviously there to catch the tourist coin, but the people are so nice and genuine. I am always amazed when I go to the far reaches of the “uncivilized” world and meet people that are so much more educated, intelligent and aware than those in the “first world.” I had a very interesting conversation with Simon, who owns the shop, about symbolism, politics, the Kyoto Protocol, and handing the Bush cabal over to The Hague for justice.

From Namanga, we go south to Amboseli National Park and register at the Ol Tukai Lodge, a very nice place, with a view of Kilimanjaro from the room. After a spot of lunch, we go on a safari drive into the park where we see the African variety of animals. I have never been one to sit and watch animals (we saw several safari vehicles parked watching a pair of lions asleep under a bush, far away) but they are magnificent; especially the elephants. In a world where everything seems to be endangered, it is nice to have a spot of refuge for them. Of course, that is the whole point: we have decimated habitat such that there is none left, and this refuge, hopefully stable, is an island in a sea of man. Apparently, in the formation of the park, the Maasai were denied access to their traditional grazing lands, and in anger they slaughtered most of the lions and rhinos. In my mind this is unforgivable, but it does beg the question of the whims of the homogenized majority (in this case, the government’s desire for western tourist dollars) in conflict with indigenous groups. Usually these are either absorbed into the dominant culture or wiped out, leaving the world culturally impoverished. Interestingly, the Maasai call us “those who trap their farts” because we wear pants.

16 March 2009

CityDance presents "CARBON!"

2009-03-14

Upon return from Kenya, I received an email from one Christopher Morgan, representing himself as the choreographer for CityDance in Washington, DC. In his note, Christopher said that he had seen my work at Mass MoCA, and asked if would I be interested in a collaboration of sorts with CityDance.

Remember, Dear Reader, that I come from the music world. For a long time I have considered the possibilities and advantages of collaborative projects with other art forms. The premise of Industrial Scars is that beautiful images of the detritus of our consumption will inspire viewers to consider their involvement in this process that is desecrating our home. My idea is that art will move people in ways that words and statements do not. Of course, this pertains primarily to those with an inclination to visual art, and leaves others uninfluenced. So, for a while I have been exploring the idea of interaction with other artists to produce a sort of hybrid that would push the envelope and have the ability to reach different audiences. We are currently in discussion with the Bamberg Symphony about a multi-media piece using Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). More later as that develops. Suddenly, unbidden, came a new possibility, to which I, of course, said what any good artist in America might say: do you have a budget? (I would have participated either way, but Industrial Scars is an expensive project to support.) The debut was 10 days hence, so we started to discuss which images would work for them and the technical aspects we would need to consider.

Flash to debut day. I had proposed that we do a pre-performance symposium/discussion with the audience, a suggestion CityDance “jumped at.” Of course, the Amtrak train from NYC to DC was an hour late (amazing that stuff still works at all after 20 years of neglect). Time for a rant: why the f*$%& did we let those gangsters get in to power and rob the country blind? For years we will be paying for what Bush and his cronies stole from us. And, I just love it that Halliburton sucked the host dry and moved to Dubai. We deserve this “downturn,” and more. I digress…

Finally, I arrived in DC, and proceeded straight to the hall, where the crew was frantically finishing the setup. Having been involved in more productions than I can count, the last minute disarray did not worry me in the least. It is a good group- very dedicated and serious about the craft, and it was a pleasure to watch them work. The discussion before was a little casual, starting with the inspiration and conception of the project, Christopher’s “persistence of memory” in the recollection of the images he had seen in the previous year’s costume design, projection design- productions require a lot of input.

Of course, the thing about dance (you’ll see why I’m not a dancer) is how do you translate these complex concepts into expressive movement? I have a confession: I don’t really like poetry either. Feel free to disconnect and write me off. The audience loved it! And as a mission man, it therefore does not matter if I am a dance aficionado, as long as we reach another subset of the population. The important thing is that we all change our behavior, and whatever motivates that alteration is fine with me. It is quite possible that the attention garnered from this weekend’s SOLD OUT, limited run of “CARBON!” will translate into something more down the road. A tour, perhaps?