Two Must-See Conservation Films

I’ve added a couple of links to “Natural Heritage”, two films I saw recently and highly recommend. The first is Milking the Rhino which is a documentary about the “community conservation” practiced by the Massai and Himba communities in Kenya and Namibia. This film is tremendously thought-provoking. When I was doing research in Cebu a couple of years ago, I learned that fishermen from local barangay, villages, sometimes fought over fishing rights and raids while the reefs were being depleted. Their plight opened my eyes to the need for a kind of conservation that dealt practically and compassionately with people, animals, and sustainable economics. I once heard a journalist interviewing Native Americans on a Res who said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that they felt very hurt and bewildered at how American environmentalists cared more about the butterflies and animals, but never once lobbied for their community of people who live (on a subsistence level) on the land. I’d add that the land rights were originally theirs. It’s so complicated.

Milking the Rhino shows just how complicated it can all be — the tangle of race relations, colonial history, poverty, women’s place in traditional society, and conservation. This film is honest. It interviews Himba women, Massai men, European eco-tourism business owners, African conservationists like fiercely eloquent Helen Gichochi, European tourists, and an expatriot who started his own wildlife preserve. It shows all the rough edges and also shows people (from all parties) being challenged, undergoing transformation as they figure out how to change their relationship to the wild ecosystem and their natural resources. I really dig that it’s raw and that people, in the end, seem to learn how to work with each other despite not always agreeing. Can there be win-win-win solutions? Yes, I think Milking the Rhino shows there can.

The second documentary I’d recommend is Arctic Dance, narrated by Harrison Ford. (Okay, ya got me – I’m still an Indiana Jones fan at heart, pulpy and antiquated as it is.) This film chronicles the life and impact of Margaret (“Mardy”) Murie, who is known as the Grandmother of the American conservation movement. She and her husband, Olaus, worked tirelessly to establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She was riding dog sleds and trekking across Alaska’s tundra, punting on rivers (baby in tow) when it was unheard of for a woman to be doing these things. Mardy was the first woman to graduate from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She often worked as Olaus’ secretary, and seemed, by nature, to be a behind-the-scenes kind of person. But after he died, she gently took to the microphone to lobby in Washington, D.C. for the wilderness they both explored and loved. President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work.

What’s touching about Mardy is how humble she was about her own role making environmental history. It’s as much a love story as it is a piece of American history. She truly makes the personal political — it seems to me that she loved the land and terrain of Alaska where she grew up and she shared this with her dearest love, Olaus. There’s a solitude, and solid peacefulness to their existence. And the humility she shows is the mark of a truly great spirit. A gentle strength — I love that. Plus, come on, now, she shows that elder women rock. What a role model.

Milking the Rhino and Arctic Dance, two really different takes on conservation. Check them out if you can!


Earth Day Hawk Story

One of the things I love about being on assignment and covering conservation in Chicago is that I get to learn more about the prairies, savannas, riverways, and the conservationists working to save and restore them. These are often humble, tenacious people. They can be thorny, usually full of humor, ready to lobby local politicians, and always, always ready to get their hands dirty. My kind of people. They inspire me to do more.

Last week, on Earth Day, I took my son’s class on a nature hike. Where? Somewhere remote and pristine? Nope. Right in their own backyards, literally 1 block from their school. We’re near a freeway. We’ve got cars, we’ve got paved streets. And, yes, we’ve got some pollution. We can see the Sears (no, not ready to call it the Willis) Tower from our neighborhood bridge.

But we’ve also got 2 hawks nesting high in a tree-top near the school. I’ve seen loads of kids – grown-ups, too — walk right past the tree and never once look up while the hawks are lining their nest. Perhaps it’s better for the hawks that no one notices them. Certainly, they’d rather be under our radar. But this was also, I felt, a teachable moment. A great chance to teach some very sharp and naturally inquisitive 8-year-olds that there’s a little bit of wilderness in their own neighborhood.

Most everyone in our neighborhood walks to school. And this is a great chance for them to look up every once in a while. Or, while tree branches are still bare in the spring, they can catch a glimpse of the myriad nests — twiggy, feathered, encrusted with mud, abandoned and taken over by squirrels, papery wasps nests, nests in lamp posts. It’s an awesome opportunity.

So that’s what we did. We walked the neighborhood, sat quietly a safe distance away from the “hawk tree”. They managed to glimpse the male hawk swoop from tree to tree. They saw the female ensconced snugly in the nest. I introduced them to field guides and the idea of becoming stewards of the land and the prairie gardens that are springing up in our neighborhood. Kids nowadays hear so much about global warming and the loss of habitat, endangered species, melting polar ice caps, and drowning bears. They need a future they can connect to, care about, something they can see with their own eyes. Otherwise, saving the Earth is one big abstraction. But hawks nesting in their own hood? Yeah,  that’s something they can get with. So here’s what they saw, right where they live:

Hawk guarding nest from across street

Hawk guarding nest from across street

Their faces lit up. They began to look at their neighborhood in a whole new way. On the walk back, they were whistling for cardinals, excited (EXCITED!) about the American robins, looking for squirrel tracks in the concrete. In other words, nature didn’t seem so far away.

I took them to their school’s prairie garden, talked to them about how there are plants taller then their tallest teacher. And that the roots can go down 3X as deep as the plant is tall; how lightning and prairie fires actually rejuvenate the land. The ecosystem that’s in their own city — these glorious prairies and savannas and wetlands — are rare and to be treasured. No, we don’t have rainforests. But every ecosystem on Earth is unique, every home special and worth cherishing. At least that’s what I hope they took away from the walk.

Their teacher checked-in with me after school. What did they remember? What did they get out of it? Turns out the thing they liked best was when we whistled like cardinals. Cool. That’s a start.


Koan #5: Ted Stone Morning

Home, prairie-muck dried
onto the seams of my field pants,
hiking boots splattered with mud,
hair in pleasant disarray.
The scent of freedom
still clings to me.
Just an hour before,
by watch-time,
by two-legged time,
by analog hands or digital face,
I stood in a place
14,000 years in-the-making,
a glacier’s passing,
strewn with dolomite and limestone
crumbling, soft-edged rocks,
and the whimsy of a universe
where lands stretch, wrinkle,
move in slow motion.
Barbara gave me her tour
of this prairie she nurtures
which belongs to all Chicagoans.
(But really isn’t it clear by now –
all wild places
are God’s first?)
Gray praying mantis cocoon,
pasture rose topped by
a berry-looking ovary,
drooping little blue stem grass;
we met on sacred ground
where she pointed out
how females recreate nature,
how life goes on
through our tenacity.


Inspired by a morning at Ted Stone Preserve and an interview with Barbara Birmingham, site steward there with her husband George for 14 years. Reprinted in ‘City of Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.’ Ryan G. Van Cleave, Editor. 2012.

Greater Good Magazine

A new link on my site today: Greater Good Magazine.

Check it out under “Com.passion”.

I feel beyond fortunate to have friends who are interesting and insightful and dear, like my friend Elaine, who introduced me to this magazine, Greater Good. It’s published by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center which (according to its own copy) “promotes the study of human happiness, compassion, and altruism”.

This 5-year-old mag, which will go online in the spring, looks at human happiness through methodological scientific inquiry. In other words, it’s where science meets positive human emotion.

This month’s issue rocks. They feature the question “Why Make Art?”, look at the human history of making art; interview a writer, a rapper (KRS-1 !) , a photographer, a choreographer, and a filmmaker — all of whom have distinctly personal answers to the question; and look at the arts in public school education and the benefits of creativity and art in hospitals.

But the topic that’s blown my mind so far in this issue is their feature “Bhutan at the Crossroads”. Mirka Knaster writes about this amazing country where happiness is a governmental policy goal.  (Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical at first and wondered if it was like Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. Someone watching you all the time, rigid codes of conduct, punishment.) But it’s really fascinating…Bhutan has a policy on GNH. What is GNH? Gross National Happiness.

That’s right, GNH. They do still have GDP, Gross Domestic Product. They’re not a super rich country. But they do rank first in Asia and eighth in the world in the University of Leicester (UK) world map of happiness from 2007. It’s amazing what’s possible in this world, what ways of thinking we can create, improve, or change.

So if the spirit moves you, check out Greater Good and “Bhutan at the Crossroads”. It’s pretty happy-making.


“The Earth is Our Mother…”

For my birthday, I recently received a beautiful book I’d been longing for called THE WOMEN. It is filled with the haunting and evocative sepia photos of 19th century photographer Edward Curtis. Curtis spent 30 years of his life traveling North America photographing and recording the Native nations he met, documenting traditions, cermonies, languages, and songs. His photos of men were more famous and shaped the way Euro Americans saw the First People, particularly its warriors. But now, we can see photos of the women who — with skepticism, wariness, sometimes playfulness, and certainly a fierce strength in their eyes — allowed him to photograph them.

Here’s a quote from the book that I love:

The Great Spirit is our father, but the Earth is our mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground she returns to us, and healing plants she gives us likewise. If we are wounded, we go to our mother and seek to lay the wounded part against her, to be healed. – Big Thunder (Wabanaki Algonquin), late 19th century

One of things that tickles me about this book are the multiple perspectives. To its credit, there’s a forward by Louise Erdrich and an introduction by Anne Makepeace who help us readers understand with more depth, subtlety and humor the perceptions, misperceptions, and fictions created by Curtis’ photos. They talk about how Curtis had to gain the women’s trust – at a time just before American Indian women were having their babies taken from them and sent to boarding schools. They give voice to the descendents of the women who were photographed, and allow them to laugh at the way some of the photos (beautiful though they are) are contrived. Christopher Cardozo, who culled 100 of Curtis’ photos, to create this book, writes an essay that helps us to see Curtis’ work as a photographer and his contributions as an American ethnographer.

As for me, it’s really the soul of the book that draws me to it. The woman who stands alone beside her hulking canoe, looking out across the water. The shaman women, healers among their people. The mothers and their babies in swings and hand-made carriers. The textures of the clothing. Women, their eyes shining, their faces holding something back. Anger, the ability to laugh at what’s in front of them, the mundane tasks of gathering wood and grinding flour — the everyday stuff that keeps humanity alive.

See what you think for yourselves…