Sierra Nevada: The Heart of the World

sierraBlitz Magazine, November 2002

According to Colombian legend, the snow-capped mountain known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was created at the centre of the world, and at the beginning of time, by Shibalauneuman (the Mother of All Things).

Located at the northwestern tip of South America, in the Republic of Colombia, only 42 km from the shore, the peak of the Sierra Nevada reaches 5,775 meters (18, 948 feet) above sea level, making it the highest coastal mountain in the world.

Centuries ago, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was a place where diverse human groups flourished; one of them, the Tayrona civilization, reached the highest level of development without deteriorating its environment. The European conquest destroyed that nation; today, all that remains of the Tayrona peoples are some gold, stone and shell carvings, and the intricate lithic (rock) pathways they carved into the landscape to link hundreds of their ancient towns and city-sites to terraced farms and water sources. The mountain is now inhabited by aboriginal communities that proudly preserve their complex religious, social and political societies.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the world’s most important ethnic, ecological, archaeological and cultural patrimonies, and is internationally recognized as a ‘Man & Biosphere Reserve’. Its environs are typical of tropical America, containing an extraordinary variety of climates and habitats with great biological diversity. Its fauna and flora are abundant and several of its species are to date still unknown to science.

Vancouver-based Colombian photographer, naturalist and educator Diego Samper, who has lived in the Sierra Nevada, has worked with the Museum of Anthropology to create an exhibit, and unique public programming, focused on the living cultures of ancient lands, issues of sustainability and the complex continuing relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. The 26-panel exhibit of images, words and soundscapes offers rare insight into aspects of a country so often overshadowed by news reports focusing on drugs, corruption and social decay. It also gives us an opportunity to learn more about the crucial role of the photographer as cultural and historical documentarian.

 

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Bears, The Movie

Blitz Magazine, September 2002

If you talk to the animals, they will talk to you, and you will know each other.

If you do not talk to them, you will not know them, and what you do not know

you will fear.

What one fears, one destroys.

Chief Dan George

Bears

Bears have one enemy—humans. Human ignorance has always been their greatest threat. There are still men in Asia who believe that ingesting bear parts improves virility, which is why, in a scenario too horrible to imagine, Black Bears are permanently caged. In Europe, it’s still the dream of many to trek into the Canadian wilderness to shoot bears. Just for the manly-man thrill of it.

The world has eight bear species: the Spectacled Bear of South America, which is considered a pest; the Sloth Bear of the Asian subcontinent (numbers unknown); the Black Bear; the Sun Bear of southeast Asia (the smallest); the Panda, which is nearing extinction, and the three North American bears: the Polar Bear (the world’s largest land predator), the Black Bear and the Grizzly, or Brown, Bear (listed as Threatened).

For centuries, bears have been misunderstood and persecuted (the tide began to turn when Theodore Roosevelt spared a cub while hunting—hence the Teddy bear). People have always been terrified of bears. But bear attacks on humans are rare. When they do occur, the bears aren’t to blame. They do not seek human contact; they seek food (except the Polar Bear, to which all things are food. If you see one, run).

A male polar bear

A male polar bear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over-development has led to loss of habitat and, with eco-tourism, more tourists come across bears in the wild. People become afraid, bears get shot. Global Warming is causing such drastic climate changes that food supplies are disrupted, bringing more bears into populated areas. Because of reduced ice floes, which Polar Bears need for seal hunting, their weight and reproductive levels have dropped. ‘Not good. As an Umbrella Species, bears control moose, caribou and deer populations, thus helping protect lynx, wolverine and wolves—and all plants and animals that depend on them. Bears are, therefore, essential to the health and balance of the wild places they inhabit.

In the US, unchecked hunting, trapping and development has eliminated Grizzlies from 98% of their range and reduced their numbers from 50,000 to 1,000. The National Wildlife Federation is working to restore bears to Montana and Idaho (opposed, of course, by special interest groups and Dubya). To help the process, the NWF has invested significant funds in large-format film production, believing that films are one of the best ways to educate people and inspire them to take action.

The NWF’s latest release, Bears, was shot in one of the few places where Grizzly populations are stable—Alaska’s Katmai National Park, home to 2,000 Grizzlies. The theme of Bears, which was co-produced by Primesco and Ontario’s Science North, and directed by Science North’s David Lickley, is survival. The film, offered in 400-foot surround-sound glory, with music by Lyle Lovett, blends education and entertainment, illustrating that bears are the spirit of the wilderness and that they have the right to live, unharrassed, in fully-functioning ecosystems.

 

The Light Fantastic

Blitz Magazine, January 2001

It’s Man’s most natural instinct: if you don’t understand it, fear it. And since the beginning of time, residents of the Earth’s far north have been tormented by one of nature’s most glorious displays: Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights.

English: The aurora borealis, or northern ligh...

English: The aurora borealis, or northern lights, decorate the night sky in Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before they knew better, the Northern Europeans, who were always a little more into war, figured that the dancing lights were the flames of battles happening on The Other Side. For Canada’s Inuit, it was more complicated and their ‘skylore’ was a big part of their culture.

There were several aspects to the Inuit beliefs concerning this multi-coloured light show. They believed that the spirit world was trying to communicate with them. They believed that the lights were the souls of the dead dancing to heaven. They even believed that the souls were playing soccer with walrus skulls (skulls being what Inuit children used to use for games). As walrus skulls are horned, it was feared that, if the lights came too low, the horns would slice people in half.

As the mortality rate in that part of the world was always high, it’s understandable that the lights engendered macabre thoughts. For example, when the predominant colour of the lights was red, it was attributed to the blood of the souls who had died violently or in childbirth. And, as people thought the lights were speaking to them, children were urged not to whistle or hoot at the sky—in case they made the lights angry. (Although people swear they ‘hear’ the lights, this is a psychological effect and there’s no evidence to suggest that the lights make any sound.)

lights

While the lights can’t do us physical harm, we can be inconvenienced. These solar storms can fry a communications satellite in a flash. And they can send a powerful surge to power grids and blow up transformers—the most famous case occurred in 1989, when Quebec’s entire power grid was out for 12 hours.

 The Aurora Borealis (and the Aurora Australis, which are seen over Antarctica), are created when atoms and molecules over Earth’s uppermost atmosphere are charged up to fluorescence by radiation from the sun. There’s a storm on the Sun, a cloud of charged particles races to earth. That cloud leaks in to where the Earth’s armour, the magnetic field, is thinnest—at the south and north poles. When the storms are especially powerful, we can see the fluorescent particles. And the storms run in cycles, which is why we see them in winter.

So now we know. Which is, in a way, a shame.

 

On Auks and Audubon

Blitz Magazine, January 1999

Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly,

And could only walk.

Consider man,

Who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk

And learned how to fly

Before he thinked.

                    Ogden Nash

 

          When we see a guy shooting birds out of the air, we say “That jerk’s needlessly killing wildlife to compensate for a lack of, er, something else.”

Two hundred years ago, people probably didn’t think that way, but they did note that James Audubon’s favourite hobby was shooting birds — hundreds at a time. He’d then select attractive corpses, wire them into life-like poses and paint pictures of them. People called him a ‘romantic figure’, likely not imagining that he would become history’s greatest wildlife painter.

          He was born Jean-Jacques Audubon, the bastard son of a French naval officer. In 1812, he dodged the Napoleonic draft and headed to the US, where he posed as the son of a Louisiana plantation owner. He blew all his wife’s money, did time in debtors’ prison and was running a Kentucky grocery store when he saw the work of nature artist Alexander Wilson. Audubon realized that his life-long habit of sketching wildlife produced far superior results.

          Off he went to paint birds, walking 50,000 North American miles. Along the way, he identified 35 new species and sub-species and revolutionized the way his world saw and portrayed nature. He respected birds as predators and gave them personality and character. While others had shown birds in life-like poses, or in their environmental context, or in their true sizes, he was the first to combine all elements. Although he was entirely self-taught, his work is highly-stylized and textured and exhibits the realism, scientific accuracy and artistic merit of a technically-disciplined painter.

          After completing 453 paintings, Audubon headed to Scotland in search of cash and production capabilities. In Edinburgh, then London, his work was engraved, printed and completed, by hand, with watercolours. It took 12 years but, in 1844, the 29” x 39” Birds of America became one of the greatest illustrated book of all time.

          Ever the hopeless entrepreneur, Audubon only sold 200 copies. But he created a huge market for wildlife art and, while he dressed up in buckskin to lecture at such august institutions as the University of Edinburgh (where Charles Darwin was in the audience), other people pirated his work and profited handsomely. The 11th Mayor of Toronto, however, bought an original, and it remains in the Toronto Reference Library. It includes the result of Audubon’s Canadian travels, the 100-plate Birds of Canada collection, and it can be seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 24th.

          Even if you’re not a bird lover, the exhibit is worth a look. Audubon left us a record of the New World as it was before humans got hold of it. In his time, there were 5 billion passenger pigeons and he recorded a flock so large that it took three days to pass. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. He reported a two-month period in which a Halifax man sold 400,000 auk eggs (at .25/doz.). The last auk died in Iceland in 1844; now, there are more Audubon auk prints than there are auk museum specimens.

          Humans hunted four Audubon subjects to extinction — there was also the Eskimo Curlew and the Labrador Duck. Some of his other subjects are now endangered, including the Whooping Crane, Peregrine Falcon, Harlequin Duck and Northern Bobwhite. So this may be your only chance to see what those birds look like. And the next time you see some guy using his shotgun to commune with nature, ask him if he can spell ‘Viagra’.

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