I took this photo; it needs no explanation.
Abandoned buildings have long held intrigue for me. Who built them and why did they leave? Where did the builders come from and how did they get there – were they escaping hardship elsewhere or pursuing the dream of their own land? Did they arrive by wagon train or on foot? Where did they go? Did they die in some tragic pioneer episode – botulism or a massacre? Did the wind or the loneliness drive someone mad enough to murder their family and walk off into the winter? Perhaps a more pleasant scenario, a bachelor farmer married the love of his life and moved to town. Or the family outgrew the honeymoon house and built a new home closer to water or in a more protected location. The possibilities are endless.
Then, of course, there is Monty Python. Yes, I know this sounds like a non-sequitur. Remember in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when they arrive at the cave where the Grail’s location is written on the wall? The cave is guarded by a most horrible monster with huge teeth.
As the knights sneak up to the cave and look upon the entrance they see a rabbit quietly grazing. The knight, aghast at the idea of fearing a rabbit, berates his squire, “You bloody tit! It’s a bunny rabbit.” The assault on the cave does not go well but eventually the knights prevail, the rabbit is slain, and the final words of the dying man who wrote the location of the grail are revealed. “The holy grail is in the castle of Aaaaaaaaaaah.” Unable to complete the sentence before dying, the man merely wrote his last gasp rather than the castle’s name.
This still makes me laugh. And I still quote this movie more often than I care to admit. I mean, sometimes it’s just necessary to exclaim, “She turned me into a newt!”
Right. Abandoned buildings. I often trespass. It’s not always intentional and it’s certainly never in the form of walking up to someone’s house and peering through the windows. Unless, of course, the house happens to be abandoned.
I’m fascinated by the construction, by the things left behind, the things that have moved in, the sounds, the views through the missing windows or the leaning doors, even the smells. I’ve found whole barn owl families, pack rats, phoebes, barn swallows, cows, horses, and trees living in abandoned houses, stoves with pots on them, closets with clothes still hanging, curtains at the windows, and pantries with dishes, bottles, and tins.
As I debated whether this particular building was too far from the road for relatively unobtrusive trespassing, a pickup stopped, the driver rolled down the window and told me I was welcome to take a look. Dilemma solved.
It was built with logs and had been expanded, the stacked logs of one structure butted against the cut logs of the addition. The roof had mostly collapsed and an elderberry shrub grew in the middle of a room up through the roof joists. Shreds of wallpaper hung in a few ragged sections – it was cloth with frayed edges and a delicate, pale green leafy pattern still visible.
There was a door between the old section with the log cabin-style stacked corners and the more recent addition. Picking my way through the litter on the floor and ducking under the fallen logs, I stepped through the door and slowly turned to view the whole room, to look out of the windows, to look back into the old house.
And then I saw that I was not alone.
A shiny black bunny eye and twitchy nose were the only giveaways. Perfectly colored and absolutely still, there was no display of huge teeth or horrible monsterness. Just a bunny hanging out above a door in an abandoned house. But… how did it get there? Where did it come from? Did its family get too big and expand into this new home? Maybe it was a bachelor bunny courting a cute girl bunny in a downstairs condo. And who knew rabbits could climb walls?
I took this photo for the sheer delight – it is not often you find a rabbit watching from above a door frame. There was no evidence of rabbit viciousness but, sadly, also no scrawled note telling me who the people were or where they had gone.
The US yoga industry has exploded in recent years: hot yoga, power yoga, radiant flow, restorative, aerial, zen bootcamp (huh?). As the yoga possibilities have expanded, so too have the clothing opportunities. From its perhaps simplistic origins to a $27 billion industry in 5000 short years. No, wait. That should be 4990 years of yoga and 10 years of booming industry.
Being outdoors all day, in one place, in the cold requires warm clothing, a massive quantity of fuel to stay warm (hot chocolate with heavy cream and butter, please), and enough movement to create heat without sweating.
Over the years, the fashionable yoga set has moved away from the simple, but ever elegant, loin cloth. Today’s yoga togs (such a good word too often unused) are something to behold. Strappy tops that require a Ph.D. and schematics to put on properly rule the current scene. Leggings of all lengths and body-hugging forms are standard. Fabulous colors, incredible patterns, material cutouts, and built-in multi-layers compete across the studio for attention.
The common comment that my fashion sense elicits is that I always look put together. To me, this implies that each of my body parts is in its proper place and covered with the appropriate and corresponding clothing items. That seems the least (and apparently the most) I can do in the realm of fashion. So be it.
Ski pants, insulated boots, gaiters, a down coat, binoculars (with harness), and a hard hat seem well beyond the height of yoga fashion. I took this photo for the seeming incongruity of the activity and my clothing. I only have a Master’s degree; I couldn’t get into the strappy things.
Custom Built Crosses. All Sizes. The Cross Guys.
If I lived in Texas I would be angry also.
I took this photo in Texas. I guess that’s all I have to say about that.
It is not common to find a perfectly good set of stairs in the clouds on the side of a mountain. Ready to assist any passersby, they stood steady and firm on the landscape.
It was raining but the day was bright and the air mild. Western Oregon is rarely a dry place. I don’t melt. I hiked into the cool, dripping coastal range, eventually climbing high enough that the trees became more scattered, more wind-beaten. The trail, slick with mud, occasionally crossed rock or split around washouts and pools.
I came upon the stairs not far from the mountain peak. Another half mile up a rock face and through twisted semi-alpine plants was the open summit, a granite bald with tortured metal-pipe railing, fully enveloped in cloud.
But the stairs? They were wooden, two by fours and four by eights. There were two sections with a landing and a turn in the middle. The upper section had a handrail on the downslope side, the lower stairs on both sides. The trail by-passed them completely, as if a displeased giant plucked them up, and set them again six feet out of line, but parallel, with the trail.
For 50 years, I was on a known path. It had mud and rocks and unexpected by-passes and washouts but it was well-worn and followed by many. I took this photo the day after my 50th birthday. Since then, I expect stairs in the clouds because they lead to the most amazing of places.
You never really know what you’re going to get. Central South Dakota is not exactly a hotspot. I blew through it a few times on the interstate. If you can call five and a half hours blowing through. It was just a necessity of moving from point A to point B. They raised the speed limit to 80 recently. That helps.
For a month one autumn I drove around in circles in central South Dakota. I wasn’t lost or stuck. I was looking for migrating birds. I didn’t find what I was looking for. And that was a good thing. It seems I was the one who should have been migrating.
One evening there was a horde of Franklin’s gulls, on Crow Lake. Naturally. It was dusk, the light was beautiful. In my endless circling, I saw the flocks, pushed by the wind, accumulating in the southern bay. In the air and on the water, they were everywhere.
I took this photo for the light, the motion, and the fluidity of the scene. I returned at dawn, better prepared to photograph the migrating mass, but, in the air or on the water, there were no birds anywhere.
There were two signs on the front of the building. The more prominent sign did not declare 2 7/8 as the name of the bar, but, rather, said, “ZERO TOLERANCE TO FIGHTING ON 2 7/8 PREMISES.” Welcome to fracking-boomtown North Dakota. I drove by.
That evening a massive thunderstorm piled up along the horizon, clouds towering above open plains, building strength, collecting moisture. Until, in the deepest dark of a moonless night, they had enough and let loose.
The Great Plains create some pretty vivid thunderstorms; this was a beauty. Lightning exploded across town in so many consecutive flashes I could see the length of the main street clearly for several seconds. Not just the blink of an eye that leaves you blinded and wondering if the light had been there at all, these flashes lingered. Clearly jumping from cloud to cloud and ground to cloud, there was constant light. The thunder kept pace, a steady rumble in the background with skull-crushing claps in between.
Then the rain came, pounding on the roof two stories above. The parking lot under my window disappeared behind the downpour, truck tires several inches deep in standing rain, as the drains overloaded.
The storm raged for what seemed hours, eventually tapering off as it moved across the open landscape. I fell back into fitful sleep for too few hours.
Many places become entirely inaccessible after a storm like this. Dirt roads turn to what we called Gumbo in Montana. Red dust, yellow dust, brown dirt, it’s all the same after a night like that, bacon-greased ball bearings. The collective hangover of too much.
Enter, the fracking industry, with its heavily graded and graveled roads that go everywhere, and took me where I needed to go that day. I don’t recall what I was surveying, plants or birds. I remember the landscape, wet and misty from the night’s excess. And, I remember repeatedly scraping mud from the bottom of my boots as I slid through the morning’s work. I took this photo when I realized I was wearing a large chunk of North Dakota. With my newly established fashion sense, I might fit in at the 2 7/8.
Three riders moved slowly across the landscape, deliberately but unhurriedly they paralleled my path in the opposite direction. I watched the horses with some envy as I continued on foot.
It was July in the Pueblo Mountains. It was hot. I had been walking since dawn; it was midday now. I was out of water, out of food, and out of patience with the shadeless glare of sun-soaked sagebrush.
From a long way off I could see the horse. Even from a distance, I could tell it was a big horse. The rider was just a red dot. Eventually, the red dot became a person, a boy. He rode a few loops, lazy figure eights. He backed up the horse, made it stand and side step. Then he just sat and watched me approach.
“Where’s your horse?” the boy asked with unaffected curiosity and genuine concern.
“I don’t have one.”
“How far did you walk?”
“I don’t know. Several miles. I started at sunrise.”
“That’s a long time without a horse.”
“Yes.” We stood a minute, he on his horse, me looking at the ground. Then, diverting him from my obvious failing, “That’s a big horse.”
“I know. 17 hands. My dad told me I had to grow enough to get on him by myself before I could ride him. I’m only 7. I can’t grow that fast.”
“But you’re riding him.”
“Yup. I told my dad he better build me a ladder.”
“I saw three riders earlier. Was your dad one of them?”
“Yup. And my mom and sister. They said I wasn’t big enough to muster so I had to sit here and wait for them to push the cows to me. Then I can circle and ride them down the hill. We’re moving them to water.”
“You’re not big enough to muster but you’re big enough to sit this giant horse out here by yourself for however many hours it takes for them to come back?”
“I know. That’s what I said. But I lost that argument. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have anything to do.”
“You need a book.”
I had miles yet to cover and parted company. He sat his horse and watched me walk on.
Later in the afternoon, I watched from a slope above as the cows came, moving ahead of the three riders. The boy rode to meet them, swinging far to one side of the cows and then falling in with the other riders. He waved as he passed below me. And I took this photo of him, his mom and sister, the dust, and the cows, a scene of the west.
Extirpated from the wild in most of Africa, I had the good fortune to see black rhinoceroses on a private preserve in Zimbabwe last year.
Finding them after dark, a spotlight illuminated a calf scampering about behind its placidly eating mother. Her horns were cut off to deter poaching and the animals are under 24-hour armed guard.
The black rhino population dropped from an estimate of several hundred thousand in the early 1900s to 2,410 by the late 1990s. The primary cause for this decline is poaching. Several subspecies are extinct.
These photos are fuzzy and full of nighttime darkness and shadows. At first, I was disappointed by them. A year later, they seem to appropriately suit their state in the world.
“’Merica. Fuck, yeah. God bless.” Quote (consciously) unattributed
Cynicism and sarcasm toward my country and its future are hard for me to get around these days; sometimes I trip over them in unexpected ways. This was clear recently when two European friends and I spent a month traveling together in the West. We discussed the current state of America – the political climate, gutting national healthcare, the disenfranchised majority, the “love it or leave it” attitude, the obvious homeless populations, and our vast resources.
At some point during our travels, one of my friends, in his extroverted and exuberant way, began saying, “’Merica! Fuck, yeah. God bless.” I was amused, of course. This epitomizes what is both great and not so great about America.
I was also somewhat annoyed by this antic. It was perplexing. Although I’m not patriotic, being an American citizen has brought many advantages for which I am grateful – among them, it allows me to freely write and publish this essay.
I swear a lot. This doesn’t offend me. I often say, “’Merica. Fuck, yeah,” when confronted with egregious Americanisms.
I never say, “God bless.” I don’t believe in a God, as long as people don’t dump their personal responsibility into God’s hands (or their God onto me), hearing it doesn’t concern me.
I think the phrase is overused. I hear it every day within the dysfunctional political system – the shysters peddling watches and bridges. More poignantly, I see it on the signs of homeless people asking for money, “Hungry, homeless, anything will help. God bless.”
I wonder how the most disenfranchised of our population has come to embrace the most privileged and those least apparently concerned with their fates. Is it an appeal to those they know have the most to give? Statistically, the less you have, the more you share. How is it, that in “the greatest country on Earth,” we have a staggering homeless and hungry population in the first place? Is this not a contradiction?
“Theology made no provision for evolution. The biblical authors had missed the most important revelation of all! Could it be that they were not really privy to the thoughts of God?” E. O. Wilson
As recently as 2014, 63% of Americans believe with absolute certainty that God exists (Pew Research Center). And, in 2013, only 21% of Americans believed that humans evolved without divine guidance (Huffington Post). Stated in the reverse, this means that 79% (79%!) believe that God created humans.
As an American, this embarrasses me. As a biologist, it frightens me.
“I tend to believe that religious dogma is a consequence of evolution.” E. O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson is one of the great biologists of our time. (Forgive me, Dr. Wilson, for dragging you into this.) He is an Alabaman, an Eagle Scout, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a New York Times bestselling author, and a forty-year Harvard University professor, now Emeritus. He was raised as a Christian and a Baptist – although, he says, “I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist and Christian no more.” If he is correct, we can potentially evolve past religious dogma.
Stopping for coffee and pastries in a seaside town on the fourth of July, my friend specifically bought a cupcake for the tiny American flag stuck in the top. He waved it at passing vehicles and held it up proudly at every opportunity. I shook my head.
To my knowledge, I have never waved an American flag. I find it odd that Americans are so dedicated to their flag and are so vehement about it as a symbol of our country. Should not deeds be the greater symbol of our strength and unity?
We continued north to a local brewery for a tour. On display was a beer glass –a pint glass the like of which is found in every pub, taproom, and brewery in the country – with the brewery’s name and an American flag printed on the side. Shortly after its release, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) confiscated every.last.glass (although apparently, they missed a few). It is illegal to portray the American flag in such (an undignified?) manner. How is it then, that we can wear clothing that puts American flags squarely on American Asses? I asked this but it seemed to offend everyone in the room. Have you noticed that car dealerships have the largest flags? (Be an American. Buy a car.)
Independence day progressed and it came time for the obligatory fireworks. We walked from the campsite along the jetty to the harbor bridge for viewing. Being a dead-end, there was one way onto the jetty and one way off. Both sides of the road were lined with vehicles pointed toward the anticipated display; most people were sitting in their cars with the engines idling. No one seemed concerned that at some point they had to get off the jetty.
My friends were astounded by this display of a quintessentially American way of doing things. It was a recipe for a long night of burning fuel and wasting time. I have long resisted these occasions because I foresee the end result. It is not something I enjoy.
“It’s the American way,” I said.
We continued walking, commenting on the scene. “I can’t believe all these people are just sitting in their cars,” my friend said again. Then, finally acquiescing, “I guess it’s the American way.” With this last statement, we passed a minivan. The passenger side window was down and the dashboard was lined with fireworks awaiting detonation. The man in the seat, cigarette in hand, inches from the fireworks, challenged, “What about America?”
My friend turned, flashed his most beautiful smile, and waved his tiny American flag.
He was rewarded with a thumbs-up.
If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. E. O. Wilson