Dec. Week 2 – mushrooms can be a sacred symbol for us!

Russula - a Mycorrhizal

Russula – a Mycorrhizal

Winter in Northern California means rain, and recently the winter skies have been releasing buckets of it.  On a single day 6 inches had fallen in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and several creeks in the North Bay surpassed their flood levels spilling onto surrounding streets. With our rains come the greening of the hills, the forests floors and the slopes that face the coast. All this tells us that the recycling of life is under way.

Jelly-Drops - A decomposer

Jelly-Drops – A decomposer

During these wintry days I love to photograph what becomes prolific during and after the rain,  especially beneath the oak, pine and redwood trees – the fruit bodies of the fungi world, wild mushrooms.  Currently there are over 10,000 known types of mushrooms. That may seem like a large number, but mycologists suspect that this is only a fraction of what’s out there! Each mushroom falls into one of four categories: mycorrhizal, saprotrophic, parasitic, and endophytic.

Mycorrhizal mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with trees and other plants. Their underground “fiber-optic-like” network of mycelia enters into a beneficial union with the roots of plants and trees, bringing additional moisture, phosphorous, and other nutrients to their hosts. In return they gain access to sugars produced by the hosts.

Mycorrhizal mushrooms help plants to grow bigger, faster, and stronger, and so it’s no wonder that an estimated 95% of plants form partnerships with this type of fungi. Because they are difficult to cultivate, these mushrooms are found almost exclusively in nature.

Mycena - Decomposing a fallen tree limb

Mycena – Decomposing a fallen tree limb

Saprotrophic mushrooms are decomposers.  They release acids and enzymes that break down the dead tissue around them, turning it into compost and rich soil.

Parasitic mushrooms also take plant hosts, although in this case the relationship is one-sided. These fungi will infect the host and eventually kill it. Most parasitic fungi do not produce mushrooms and are too small to be noticed on a tree until it’s too late.

Endophytic fungi partner with plants by invading the host tissue. However, unlike parasitic fungi, the host remains healthy and seems to benefit by increased nutrient absorption.

Greening Coral Fungi

Greening Coral Fungi

Obviously, some of these mushrooms offer relationship models that could help us humans get along with nature, raising awareness of our need to create policies and practices that will keep our world sustainable.

Recently I woke up in the middle of the night.  Unable to fall back asleep, I turned on the TV, and Channel 9.3 was showing the documentary, “Green Burial,” produced by Denise Schreiner.  It is the story of psychiatrist Clark Wang who, like most of us, didn’t think much about death.  When he did, he wanted to be buried next to his mother in Michigan, but, he thought, that would be at a time far in the future. Then he found out he had an inoperable fast-growing cancerous tumor.

Blood Red Russulas grow under Pine Trees

Blood Red Russulas grow under Pine Trees

Wanting his death to have as much meaning as his life, Wang became an advocate for the growing movement in the United States called green or natural burial. Instead of burial in an expensive space-consuming metal casket sealed in a vault – or cremation which spews contaminated dust residue into the air, Clark opted for a biodegradable coffin made from salvaged wood. He was buried in a forested area newly set aside as a memorial garden, and, as planned, his decomposing and un-embalmed body would, in a short amount of time, be adding nutrients to the roses above him and the trees around him.  Wang created a wonderful symbiotic relationship that will help weave a healthy web of life.

dec-2-death-caps-web

Don’t eat me — I am a “Death Cap”

In some cultures, mushrooms are seen as reminders that there is growth during the dark times in our lives – out of darkness comes life.  In other cultures, it is considered to be a symbol of immortality and eccentricity. In China, the mushroom symbolizes long life, happiness and rebirth. Some African and Siberian tribes regard mushrooms as symbolic of the human soul. In Mexico, the sacred mushroom signifies knowledge and enlightenment.

Is it possible that the mushroom can be a sacred symbol for you? As for me, I like to get on the ground and touch and smell and photograph the mushroom as art and as a partner in the greening of the earth.  It feels symbiotic.

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Dec. week 1 – malleable and beautiful – that’s my line today!

For me, this week’s visual-spiritual subjects were all about lines. What is a line? Geometrically, a line connects two points, or, from another perspective, it is a path traced by a moving point, i.e. a pencil point or a paintbrush. Lines are all around us, vital elements in every work of art, way of seeing, and moving into the “new.”

dec-1-vinestree-webWhile snowfall pummels the Midwest and other areas of the country are experiencing frigid temperatures, our winter rains are beginning to green our hills and fields.  The grapes in the vineyards of the Sonoma and Napa valleys were harvested in the months of August through October, but now, well after the harvesting, the grape leaves change to vibrant fall colors.  These colors, with our first “winter rains,” are producing carpets of green under the lines of vines.

Occasionally I choose an area to photograph without any preconceived notion of what images I will be coming home with, and this week I did that.  Although I had been to the location before, this time my mindset was different.  Park the car, look around, and don’t drive off until I have two or three printable/blog-able images. I decided to look for every kind of line I could find in the landscapes around me.

dec-1-wire-webWhat is a line? Often we limit the definition of lines to Geometric lines which are mathematically determined; they have regularity and hard or sharp edges. True geometric lines are rarely found in nature, but often found in things we humans have constructed. These lines convey a sense of order, conformity, and reliability.  They can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal.  But lines are also curved, jagged, implied, irregular, and even fluid.

The curve of a line can convey energy. Soft, shallow curves recall the curves of the human body and often have a pleasing, sensual quality and a softening effect on the composition. My image of the row of vines on a gentle slope creates a curve that leads us into the distance and to the grand oak tree someone planted many years ago.

What is a line? A line is an identifiable path. It is one-dimensional and can vary in width, direction, and length. Lines often define the edges of a form. Lines can be short, long, thick, thin, smooth, textured, broken, flowing, erratic, dark, light, heavy, soft, hard, playful, ordered, even, variable, calligraphic, authoritative, tentative, irregular, smudged, uneven, straight, crooked, choppy, ghostly, and graceful — the variety is endless.

dec-1-pipes-webUsing shallow depth-of-field I captured a small segment of a jumbled and discarded wire fence (pictured above). The sharp lines of the foreground wires are contrasted with the feel of the unfocused soft lines in the background.  Originally the wires were joined together to create an impenetrable fence.  But, by photographically reducing the fencing to lines, the fence is transformed into something malleable and beautiful.

dec-1-grapesleaf-webI hope, in the new year, we use all these formats of “lines” to point us to new paths that will connect us to each other, to hope and peace, to justice and the honoring of all peoples, and to the earth’s creatures with which we share this sacred planetary space. That’s my line today – malleable and beautiful.

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Thanksgiving 2016 – adding orange and black to the trees.

nov-4-tbay-crircle-webThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in 2007: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global sea level.”  As I wander along our central California coast I wonder and worry about the future of the flora and fauna that so enthralls me personally and photographically.

What will become of the harbor seals, marshlands, pelicans and butterflies – just to mention a few of the splendid sights captured by my camera lens this past week?

nov-4-harbor-seal-webOn a typical day, pacific harbor seals spend about half their time on the sand and half in the water. They tend to forage at night, and play and sleep during the day – as on the spit at the mouth of the Russian River. With the changing of the ocean temperatures, the food sources for these adorable creatures may quickly disappear, and, with the food sources, the seals themselves.

Autumn in Santa Cruz means pumpkins, great waves for surfing and spiced lattés. But the fall tradition that tops them all is the one that goes back well before the advent of sweet flavored drinks: It’s the return of the monarch butterflies from their summer home in the Rocky Mountains. The monarchs’ 1,500-mile journey ends at the West Coast, and Santa Cruz is lucky to have a comfy grove of eucalyptus and cypress trees at Natural Bridges State Beach and another near the lighthouse, both perfect roosts for the monarchs.  It is amazing how each new generation is able to make a leg of the migratory route never having lived at the beginning or end of the journey!

nov-4-monarchs-webDuring Thanksgiving Week the monarch butterflies in the Santa Cruz area are counted.  The population of monarchs overwintering in Santa Cruz was estimated at 120,000 in 1997 and has been declining steadily, bottoming out in the dismal 2012 season with only 500-2000 butterflies. Thankfully, there is hope for some recovery this year.  For me, as for many others, it is a euphoric experience to watch them fluttering among the eucalyptus and cypress trees, adding orange and black color to the tree canopies.

When naming my reasons for being thankful this season, I am beginning with the harbor seals, the marshlands, the pelicans, the butterflies, and you, my readers/friends.

nov-4-tbay-creek-web

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Nov. week 1 – precious and endangered natural resources.

Given the presidential election results I am feeling disappointed, baffled, frustrated and angry. How about you?  I realize that, in the long run, holding onto these feelings by ourselves or for very long will not serve the goals we so earnestly pray for:  shared hopefulness, inclusion, empowerment for women, the dismantling of racism, and the creation of just, diverse and peaceful communities throughout our country.

nov-1-reflect-tbBut sometimes we need time to mourn the setbacks in our journey toward our goals and not too quickly dismiss our pain.  I know for myself, that, having mourned, I eventually enter a stronger and healthier resolve to take stock of my core values and lead a life that reflects them.

nov-1-jumping-waterEach of you may have different ways of mourning and regenerative healing.  I am offering you a few images for meditative reflection.  I created these images this past week while thinking about water, one of our most precious and endangered natural resources.  May these photos reflect the graciousness of the divine feminine for your journey this week.

The remainder of the words in this post is from Hilary Clinton’s concession speech:

“This is not the outcome we wanted or we worked so hard for, and I’m sorry we did not win this election for the values we share and the vision we hold for our country.

I know how disappointed you feel, because I feel it too. And so do tens of millions of Americans who invested their hopes and dreams in this effort. This is painful, and it will be for a long time. But I want you to remember this: Our campaign was never about one person or even one election. It was about the country we love — and about building an America that’s hopeful, inclusive, and big-hearted.

nov-1-grapesWe’ve spent a year and a half bringing together millions of people from every corner of our country to say with one voice that we believe that the American Dream is big enough for everyone — for people of all races and religions, for men and women, for immigrants, for LGBT people, and people with disabilities.

Our responsibility as citizens is to keep doing our part to build that better, stronger, fairer America we seek. And I know you will.”

+++++++++++++++++++++

Let us harvest hopefulness watered by our resolve to move forward and rise anew!  Blessings.

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Oct week 4 – That bird brought joy back into my life!

Himba girl sings with joy!

Namibian Himba girl sings with joy!

In September a CBS news story reported that, regardless of how they will vote, most women are glad a woman is a major party nominee for president.   The same poll showed that 80 percent of Democratic women and 58 percent of Independent women felt this way. On the other hand, most Republican women, 54 percent, do not share this sentiment. In case you are wondering, most men voters are also glad a woman is a major party presidential nominee.

I am saddened and frustrated by these statistics.  I would love it if 100% of the women and almost that many men were celebrating and planning to vote for all the women candidates, from school boards to the presidency!

oct-4-stow-copy

When first lady Michelle Obama spoke at a Clinton rally in New Hampshire on Thursday, October 13,  she implored voters repulsed by the coarseness of the presidential campaign to consider the impact a Trump presidency would have on young girls and boys – and the message it would send to the world.  “If you vote for someone other than Hillary, or you don’t vote, you are helping to elect her opponent,” she said. “Imagine how that will feel.”

With these words swirling in my head and heart these past weeks I have been finding it difficult to experience joy for more than a few moments at a time. Then, all of a sudden, a hummingbird dive-bombed right in front of me on my morning walk.  That bird brought joy back into my life!

oct-4-humming-bird-01-copyThe hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world, known for its beautiful plumage.  This bird has a high heart rate and wing flap rate and is the only bird that can fly backwards.  Amazing!  But then I thought,  “Moving backwards is the last thing we want for the rights of women!”  Realizing my emotions had gone into reverse, I reminded myself that the hummingbird symbolizes joy, playfulness, and adaptability.

oct-4-humming-bird-02-copyThe call of the hummingbird totem will guide us to embrace love and lightness in our emotional life and encourage us to open up our hearts and expose ourselves more fully to joy and friendly affection.  Affinity with the hummingbird motivates us to develop our adaptability and resiliency. If the hummingbird shows up in your life as your spirit guide, it may remind you to enjoy life’s simple pleasures and take time to enjoy yourself. The hummingbird’s wisdom carries an invitation to take part in and draw to yourself life’s sweetness.

Common Mimetes - a swirl of joy!

Common Mimetes – a swirl of JOY!

Jamie Sams in her book “Medicine Cards” says “If Hummingbird has flown into your cards (or path), get ready to laugh musically and enjoy Creator’s many gifts. Drop your judgmental attitude and relax. Hummingbird will no doubt give you a flash of the spirit, darting here, there, and everywhere. Get ready for a strange new burst of energy which may send your senses reeling.”

We need to move on from our shock, depression, frustration and fear at the negativity toward women that is being expressed in this election, and do what women have always done in this country. We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  Claim affinity with the hummingbird and joyfully live with strength, positive hope and resiliency.

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Oct. week 3 – Seasonal change revives a treasured memory.

oct-3-donner-pass-copySometimes it just takes a little seasonal change to revive a treasured memory from the past. That happened for me this week as I was driving interstate 80 on my way to a Lutheran pastors’  conference at Squaw Valley’s Olympic Village.  I remembered how, as a child in New York State, I eagerly awaited the first snow on the fall foliage, and here it was, unfolding before me, as I approached Donner Pass. It was only noon, but the temperature had dropped from the 65° of San Francisco to below freezing.

oct-3-moonpines-copyThe Donner Party, sometimes called the Donner-Reed Party, was a group of American pioneers who, in May, 1846, set out in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois, for the 2,500 mile journey to California. The journey west usually took between four and six months, but the group was slowed by following a new, untested route.

Squaw Valley - Olympic Village

Squaw Valley Ski Area – Olympic Village

After six tumultuous months the pioneers had reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains where they became trapped by an early, heavy snowfall near what is now the town of Truckee and the lake that became called Donner Lake. The rugged terrain and difficulties they had encountered on the journey resulted in the loss of many cattle and wagons, and even split the group.  In mid-December, with their oxen and cattle gone and their food supplies running low, some of the group set out on foot to obtain help. At the same time, rescuers from California were trying to reach the settlers, but, sadly, the first relief party did not arrive until the middle of February, 1847, almost four months after the wagon train had become trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived to reach Sutter’s Fort (now Sacramento), many of them having eaten their dead companions for survival. The dreams these folks had of building a new empire ended up as one of the great tragedies in the history of westward migration.

Black Cotton Reflect Yellow in Truckee River

Cottonwood Trees Reflect Yellow in Truckee River

With the Donner party in mind, I approached the summit named after them.  Despite having remembered their tragic story, I was hoping, like in my childhood, for a dusting of snow on the trees while the fall foliage was still in full and blazing color.  And indeed it happened – the pines were majestically dressed in white evening gowns as in lace made of snowflakes.

Every once in a while, even an ocean lover like myself needs to go to the mountains. John Muir once said, “When you go to the mountains, it is like going home.”  And so it was.  When I pulled into the rest stop at Donner summit, opened the car door and allowed the white flakes to blow against my skin with their cold refreshment, I began to sing my prayer to the Mountain Mother:

Mountain Mother, in the winds you are calling
as you decorate the blue-vaulted heavens
with moon and sun and stars
and dress the trees that stretch limbs in praise
with snowflake linens of mystery,
as you fill the land with beauty and peace.
Breathe your vitality into our journeys
and every day activities that we may
find in our contemplation your luminous love.
Together with the cosmos we sing
the joy of your ever-creative powers.
Mountain Mother, Nurturer,
and the One Who Brings Us Home,
we rest and rise in your wholeness.

My parents taught me down-hill skiing when I was three years old. I loved those times on the “mountains” in upstate New York and Vermont, but it wasn’t until years later, when I arrived on the West Coast to finish seminary, that I realized what a real mountain looked like. Certainly the Adirondacks were tall and grand, but they weren’t like the Sierras whose summits touch the edge of the heavens.

oct-3-aspen-reflected-copyTravel is much easier these days.  We jump in a car or on an airplane, but the ancient call remains the same:  Come to the mountains and dance and play and be refreshed by the great mother of us all.  At times there are still travel challenges, but blessings also abound in the journey.

Images and prayer ©Stacy Boorn

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Rivets, Rust and Rope: Remembering Our Rosies

oct-1-revits-webI ran my hand over the rusting rivets as a ritual of remembrance and reverence for the women, the “Rosies,”  that changed the course of history in the Kaiser shipyards of Richmond and San Francisco as well as in many munitions factories throughout the country.  One of the last remaining Victory Ships, the Red Oak, is docked at Richmond’s port #3 while it is slowly and lovingly being restored by volunteers, some of whom had actually served years ago as crew on the Red Oak or one of the other wartime ships.  They remember vividly how, after the ships’ “champagne baptism,” they headed out to Europe or the South Pacific.

oct-1-rust-2-webThe Red Oak, like other remaining relics from that era, is now dressed in rust, fraying rope, and rivets decorated with multiple layers of pealing paint.  As the very informative visitor center  reminds us, every rusting hinge and aging anchor testifies to the fact that more than six million female workers helped to build the ships, planes, bombs, tanks and other weapons that would eventually win World War II.

These women stepped up to the plate without wavering and gave up their home lives to accomplish the jobs previously identified as “men’s work.”  Every day during the war, women, both young and old, black and white, would punch into work at the shipyards, factories and munitions plants, breaking gender and racial barriers and increasing the workforce by 50 percent. An entirely new image of women in American society was created, setting the stage for upcoming generations.

Rosie the Riveter’s first mention was in a song written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb in 1942. The lyrics were being sung throughout the country and told the true story: “That little frail girl can do more than a man can do.” Yes, some were actually better at certain tasks, although women war-workers were paid only 60 percent of male wages.  The PR front for the government propaganda machine “Rosie the Riveter” was modeled after a real person.  Her name was Rosie Will Monroe who helped build B24 bombers.

oct-1-rope-detail-webI met my first group of Rosie the Riveters in 1989 when I moved to Richmond, California, to be the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church. These women came alone or with families from Minnesota, South Dakota and Arkansas, and I wish now that I had recorded their stories.

By the time I talked with Matilda she wasn’t quite sure what she had for lunch the day before, but she recalled the minute details of a particular day in February, 1943 — the smells, the sounds of the swelling sea, and the cool fingers of the fog as it rolled in at 4:59 PM.. She was welding high up on a liberty ship, and the end-of-the-shift whistle blew as it always did, a few seconds early “so we could put away our tools, gather up our lunch boxes and head for the bus stop to return to downtown Richmond to make dinner for our children.”

oct-1-rust-1-webMatilda’s women workmates, for safety’s sake, had tied her in place in the late afternoon for the last welding job high above the ship’s master quarters. But when that whistle blew they forgot to retrieve her. Matilda watched them as they walked out of the shipyard gate. From her perch she shouted, “Hey, get me down from here.” But there she stayed until one of her friends, already on the homeward bound bus, missed her and asked her companions, “Is Matilda still tied into the welding hold?”  Even though it would cost them extra bus money, a couple of them returned to rescue her.  Matilda told me that she loved her job – despite the occasional mishaps, sexual harassment and the very hard work.  She welded together some 20 different liberty ships, boasting that she and the girls “won the war and changed the world.”

The rust and the ropes and the rivets are witnesses to Matilda’s efforts and the efforts of millions of women who endured a misogynistic work culture, racial abuse and inequities to pave the way toward a new appreciation of American women.  There was growing hope among the 18 million women or more who entered the overall work force during the war that, when the war was over, life and society would never be the same again.

oct-1-propel-webOne day, they believed, women would be treated with respect, valued for their skilled work, and know the dignity that belongs to every human being.  In fact, Matilda confessed to me that she once prayed the war would not end so she could march off to work each morning and return with her head held high and a paycheck in her purse.  During those days she dreamed that eventually a woman would become president.  Her “we can do it” generation ended up being the “we have done it” icons of hope.

oct-1-rosieThe “Rosies” never faltered. They had changed the industry and left permanent effects.  By “permanent effects,” I don’t mean the rust, fraying ropes and discolored rivets of the Red Oak and similar ships.  We who follow in their steps and are alive today are part of the permanent effects as we step up to the plate knowing what we must do to honor and realize Matilda’s dream and the aspirations of our world-changing “Rosie Foremothers!”

All above images are details on the Red Oak Victory Ship.  The Rosie to the right is by Norman Rockwell for the May, 1943 Saturday Evening Post.

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flamingos teach us the art of cooperation and coexistence

Flamingos march in Walvis Bay, Namibia

Flamingos march in salt water lagoon near Walvis Bay, Namibia

I’d like to confess to a bit of wickedness I pulled off as a 10 year old.  On a balmy summer day in upstate New York I noticed that our neighbors were away on vacation.  I sauntered onto their front lawn, checked the street for potential witnesses and then did the deed:  I rearranged their tacky yard ornaments.  Those 7 plastic pink flamingos, which they considered precious art objects, had enjoyed a prominent place in their flower beds far too long.  At my command they lined up like lady soldiers at the end of their driveway.

flamingo-feeding-cTruth be told, I really admired those particular polyethylene flamingos even though they were readily available at the local five and dime.  For a buck you could come home with a piece of flaming pink tropical elegance that would transform your otherwise humdrum house.  Obviously, these were still the pre-Woodstock days before the twenty-somethings began to appreciate and romanticize nature and scorn all things plastics and mass-produced.

These fake birds are natives, not of Florida, but of Leominster, Massachusetts, which bills itself as the Plastics Capital of the World. Sculptor Don Featherstone was hired in 1957 by the Union Products plastics company, where his second assignment was to sculpt a pink flamingo. Since no live models were available, he copied a National Geographic photo.

flam-baths-copyThese famous pink birds, the live ones, can be found in warm, watery regions on many continents. They favor environments like estuaries and saline or alkaline lakes. Considering their appearance, flamingos are surprisingly apt swimmers, but their main habitat is on the mud flats where they breed and feed.

Much to my delight, I saw a colony of some thousand-plus flamingos while traveling in Namibia, at Walvis Bay.   Because we had a tight schedule, we could only take a few minutes to photograph the flamingos from the roadside.  Perhaps remembering my childhood, I wanted to run among them and regroup them into new patterns, or at least steal a brief eye-to-eye encounter.

10 day old chick, San Francisco Zoo

10 day old chick, San Francisco Zoo

I love the flamingos’ long, lean, curved necks and black-tipped bills with their distinctive downward bend.  These bills allow them to feed on small organisms—plankton, tiny fish, fly larvae, and the like in mud flats or shallow water.  They use their long legs and webbed feet to stir up the bottom, exposing their prey.

Often the flamingos bury their bills, or even their entire heads, and suck up both mud and water to access the tasty morsels within. A flamingo’s beak has a filter-like structure to remove food from the water before the liquid is expelled. Since shrimp-like crustaceans are responsible for the flamingos’ pink color, the birds grow pale in captivity unless their diet is supplemented.

This week I visited the San Francisco Zoo to see “our” nesting flamingos. A mated pair will bear only one chalky white egg each year, so I was fortunate to count five eggs and two chicks. American flamingos are monogamous birds and communal nesters, and it is not uncommon to have nests from different pairs only a few feet apart. The male and female take turns incubating the nest for 28-32 days.  The parents keep the chick under them and feed it there for 3-12 days until it joins a group of other recently hatched chicks for communal care.

Each time I see these beautiful birds, I can’t help but ask the question, Will we human beings ever learn from the flamingos the art of cooperation and coexistence?

Lagoon slat waters among dunes in Walvis Bay, Namibia

14 Lesser Flamingos among 14,000 in lagoons at Sandwich Harbor south of Walvis Bay, Namibia

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Namibia #5 – its vastness leaves you feeling alone…

dunes-edge-001-copyThe Desert, for me, is a vast, barren land where the extremes of nature are found.  As the wind blows, one can quickly be lost in wilderness wanderings, hopefully to emerge with new insights and dreams.

One of the largest Namibian dune areas is called Sossusvlei. It is characterized by enormous sand dunes of vivid pink-to-orange color, an indication of a high concentration of oxidized iron in the sand.  The oldest dunes are more intensely reddish and are among the highest in the world, most above 200 meters.  The tallest, about 380 meters high, is nicknamed Big Daddy.  Although the dune area is a major tourist attraction, its vastness leaves you feeling alone in a formidable land – that is, until you reach “Big Daddy” and “Great Mama” with their  international hordes of youth and hikers making their way up the steep sand mountains.

dunes-dunes-2-copySossusvlei is actually a salt and clay pan surrounded by hundreds of connected sand dunes in the southern part of the Namib Desert. “Vlei” is the Afrikaans word for “marsh”, while “sossus” is Nama for “no return” or “dead end”.  This area was once a drainage basin for the Tsauchab River.

Notice helicopter in center at top edge!

Notice helicopter in center at top edge!

When we helicoptered over this wilderness, the notion of being lost and wandering in the desert for 40 years became plausible.  Drop me down there and I would, shy of divine intervention, never find my way out!

The highest and more stable dunes are partially covered with vegetation, watered not only by underground rivers that occasionally flood the pans, but also by the daily morning fog that enters the desert from the Atlantic Ocean. When dry, these pans with their high concentration of salt look almost white in color.  The dunes, however, when bathed in the golden light at the edges of day and night, turn bright orange with the shadowed side turning nearly jet black.

Oryx last for weeks without water.

Oryx last for weeks without water.

Animal and insect life in the Sossusvlei area is relatively abundant. It is mostly comprised of small creatures that can survive with little water, including a number of arthropods, small reptiles and petite mammals such as rodents or jackals; bigger animals include oryxes, springboks and ostriches. Strangely, “fog beetles” have developed a technique for collecting water from early morning fogs through the bumps in their back.

At the base of “Big Daddy” and “Great Mama” one finds Deadvlei, a white clay pan that used to be an oasis hosting several varieties of acacia trees. Centuries ago, when the climate changed and drought hit the area, sand dunes encroached on the pan, blocking the river that watered the oasis.  The trees died, leaving the white salty floor of the pan punctuated by the blackened, dead acacia trees.

dunes-deadvlei-copyThe remaining skeletons of the trees, which are believed to have died between 1340- 1430 CE, are now black because the intense light and heat of the sun has scorched them.  Strangely enough, these blackened trees are not petrified, for the wood is so dry it does not decompose. The white pan, the blackened trees, and the intense orange of the surrounding dunes create a particularly fascinating and surrealistic landscape that appears in innumerable pictures and has been used as a setting for films and videos.

Eager to add these recognizable shots to our stock portfolios, we hiked in before sunrise to see the first light illuminate the dunes, but the whole area was socked in with heavy fog.  We had no idea that there were even sand dunes surrounding the eerie waterless lake.  The mist was mystical, but eventually it gave way to the sun that was by then already fairly high in the sky.  Not only were there huge dunes surrounding us, but dozens of people hiking on their berms!

White Lady Spider lives under the sand

White Lady Spider lives under the sand

I saw no burning bush but still felt the presence of the Divine One, whispering with the blowing red sands, “I shall be who I shall be.”  The Namib Desert has been dancing for over 43 million years, and, although we didn’t do our desert wandering for 40 years or even 40 days, my 40 hours in that environment was still, for me, a vision-filled healing quest from which I emerged into a “promised land.”  Don’t skip over your desert journeys, they eventually bring great blessings!

Deadvlei after the fog lifted.

Deadvlei after the fog lifted.

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Namibia #4 – drinking from the waterholes of life!

namib-a-giraffe-copyIt’s almost miraculous that so many African animals manage to eke out an existence in the arid, desert-like environment of Namibia — elephants, lions, cheetah, rhinos, oryx and wild horses to name a few. We can be sincerely thankful that Namibia’s progressive, community-based approach to conservation protects so much wildlife by providing hundreds of square miles of sanctuary and poaching-free zones.

In the vast flagship of the Namibian park system, Etosha National Park, you will find an out-and-out profusion of wildlife around the numerous waterholes. Here the magic happens, whether it’s a herd of elephants filling their trunks with water, a rhino reflected in the water by the light of a full moon, or a giraffe reaching down for a drink with its legs splayed like a circus performer.

namib-a-elephants-copyEtosha National Park is one of the world’s premier wildlife reserves.  The size of Switzerland, Etosha is a semi-arid savannah, with grassland and thorn scrub surrounding a flat saline desert pan, a calcium-rich, impermeable earthen crust.  The name Etosha is variously translated ‘Place of Mirages’, ‘Land of Dry Water’ or ‘Great White Place’.

namib-a-zebra-water-copyAlthough dry and dusty, Etosha Park is a haven for 114 kinds of mammals and 340 bird species. Some of the stars of Etosha are its endemic black-faced impala and elephants. These elephants are huge, the tallest in Africa, measuring up to 14 feet at the shoulder; they are awe-inspiring to see even though mineral deficiencies and their habit of digging for water result in short tusks. The resident giraffe belong to a subspecies found only in the park and in north-western Namibia.

To give a sense of just how easy it to escape from “the world” in Namibia, compare it with Germany, its former colonial ruler. Namibia is twice the size of Germany, but, while Germany has a total population in excess of 80 million, Namibia’s human population is just a tad over two million.

namib-a-rhino-night-copyOkaukuejo, the first tourist camp inside Etosha Park, was built beside a well-established waterhole, now the main feature of the camp.  All day and into the flood-lit early hours of the night, an orderly parade of animals come to the waterhole. Visitors can sit in comfort inside the camp with only a low wall between them and herds of elephants, rhinos and even a pride or two of  lions gulping the thirst-slaking liquid.

Shortly after dusk on our first evening we witnessed 10 elephants slowly marching toward the waterhole.  In the distance, other animals stood still and watched the elephants slurp and splash in the pool’s water for about 10 minutes before they finally sauntered off in the opposite direction.  Then, group by group, the other animals would take their turn, drinking only after spying out the horizon to check for possible danger.  It was like a slow-motion video – the zebras went to the water’s edge, then the giraffes followed by the rhinos.  Awesome!

namib-a-cheetah-and-cub-copyIt was as if I were standing some 50 feet away from a menagerie-carousel come alive, each row of animals slowly sliding off the revolving floor and finding its way to this pool of water, so unique and precious in the otherwise dry and rocky terrain.  No calliope was playing; there was only the sound of swooping birds, a few jackal grunts and the scuffling of soft-padded feet, but it was more magical and lovely than any orchestra could play, music of the night.

namib-a-lion-copyThe large mammals in Etosha National Park include lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, giraffe, wildebeest, cheetah, hyena, mountain and plains zebra, springbok, impala, kudu, oryx and eland. Among the smaller species one can find the dik-dik, black-back jackal, bat-eared fox, warthog, honey badger and ground squirrel.  Except for the leopard, hyena and honey badger, we saw all these and, of course, dozens of different birds.

If one needs concrete proof that human beings are not the center of the universe, a few days in Etosha will put things in perspective.  We need to learn from our fellow-inhabitants on this planet.  The straight and twisted antlers of the many “antelopes,” for instance, reach sun-ward and point our gaze in new directions!  The animals at the edge of the “Great White Place” grace us with a greater attitude of reverence and appreciation for all creatures large and small. (Image: Oryx calf tries out new legs)

namib-a-b-zebra-heads-copyWhat a life-enhancing delight it was to ride the carousel of creation in Namibia!

 

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