PHOTOGRAPHY BEARING WITNESS

Late April snow on our back yard Buddha, a parting gift from dear friends who moved to Montana.

Today we find ourselves in a world overwhelmed with visual images. Our eyes make sense of our planet and the news of our complex societies by ordering and classifying visually the photos and videos that bombard our senses. And now during this pandemic, the worst health crisis in over 100 years, it occurs to me, as it has certainly occurred to others, that we who have not experienced the coronavirus firsthand, are not truly seeing the patients’ suffering. We see stunning images of the care givers and emergency teams, the long front-line of others who serve behind the scene in hospitals, or serve the public in their myriad important ways (and many of these people are dying), but for valid privacy reasons we never see the faces of the very ill, terrified patients themselves. As we read about the symptoms of Covid-19, each of us can only “see” in our mind’s eye a vague but nightmarish image of what it must look like to be feverish, coughing, short of breath and sick enough to require intensive care.

In March when some of the first Covid-19 patients were being treated at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, CA, a non-treating doctor visiting the hospital and observing the patients from behind glass, later told his cousin, my friend, “You would not believe what I saw.” Upon arriving home that evening he tore off his scrubs, threw them in the washer and immediately showered. My friend said she had never seen him so upset, so frightened.

Ever since photography became indispensable to journalism, outstanding photographs have focused attention and informed popular memory on defining moments during wars, conflicts or humanitarian disasters. Remember The Falling Soldier photo by Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War in 1936; or the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by John Filo taken 50 years ago today, on May 4, 1970, of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffery Miller, both students at Kent State University among 1000 students protesting the war in Vietnam? Four students were gunned down and killed that day by the Ohio National Guard.

Remember the June 8, 1972 Pulitzer Prize photo by AP photographer Nick Ut of children running from the effects of a napalm bomb dropped on their South Vietnam village? A naked female child, Phan Thi Kim Phúc (in center) is facing the camera, burned by napalm and her younger brother, Phan Thanh Tam (left foreground) is screaming in pain. In my memory, the photograph is burned, a defining image of the Vietnam War. Even so, it took three more years for the war to end in 1975.

The Falling Soldier, by Robert Capa, 1936

Kent State shooting, May 4, 1970, photo by John Paul Filo

The Terror of War, photo by Nick Ut, 1972

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the medical field understood cigarette smoking caused cancer, they used photographs of cancerous lungs to convince nicotine addicts to quit smoking. To convince drivers to adopt safe speeds, safety officials showed photographs of appalling auto wrecks.

If we could actually see photos of people who say they feel like they are “drowning”, gasping for breath, neck muscles and sinews stretched, we might not see other photos of people swarming together on beaches or storming city halls, some with assault weapons, demanding freedom from restrictions, and sending death threats to governors and mayors. Calvin Munerlyn, 43, a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan and father of eight children, might not have been shot dead on May 1, 2020 for having instructed a customer to put a face mask on her child.

Eventually, I suppose there will be more than one photograph etched in our minds of this terrible time. I expect at least one will be an individual who fell ill from coronavirus, in extremis, one who gave permission to be fully seen. Though there are many victims, we must not look away from the very saddest face of this historical pandemic. Fear of the worst case scenario might alter behavior. Photographs can cause change, or hasten the speed of society more fully understanding and moving forward from catastrophe.

 

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Sometimes I work out my joys and fears in poetry, my own, or others’.

This one is mine.

 

How I Want to Go

Not subdued, intubated, opiated

Not manipulated by ravaged, fearful

Caregivers costumed for war of the worlds

Not meeting eyes with them at the end

Instead of loved human beings

Not hearing familiar voices via device

Lungs reduced to ground-glass opacities

Not gasping for my last painful

Breath in the ICU

 

Let me be walking by a quiet lake

On a spring or summer afternoon

Let there be palmate birds

Teal, Grebe, or Gadwall,

Goose, Shoveler, or Loon

Let their webbed toes move them

Silently, gracefully forward

Let them be accustomed to me

Eyes on their mates and young

 

Storm clouds will appear, darkness

Positive and negative particles struggling for supremacy

Drops will caress the water

The air will change to ozone, petrichor

The leaves by the trail will moisten and drip

Lightning will strike, and all I will see is light

Life and laughter crisped together

Out with a bang

Would be electrifying

GH 4/18/20

 

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Photography as Solace

 

In our neighborhood a bridge over an arroyo in early morning light

I am becoming more aware that, when I carry my camera while traveling near or far, my eye is more alert to the photographic potential of the natural world. I think I observe more than I would if I didn’t have the camera. After a decision to take a shot is made, and an image is taken, I can later reflect back on what I saw, how I felt upon seeing it, and how the image relates to others that stimulated me to snap the shutter. It’s a delicate balance between being fully present in my surroundings and being absorbed in the creative decisions of recording an image of those surroundings. I like to think the camera becomes a mindfulness tool rather than a distraction.

Here are some recent photos for those of you with the tenacity to read this far!

March 12 snow in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest

 

Spring flush of leaves and unknown stream at roadside stop in Arizona, March 12, 2020.

 

Cactus Wren, Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

 

Mountain Lion, Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

 

Diablo Canyon, a favorite hiking area just a half hour from our home in Santa Fe

 

Cedar Waxwing flock seen on early AM walk in my neighborhood

 

Desert Cottontail in our back yard

 

Claret Cup Cactus adhered to rock in Diablo Canyon

 

Spotted Towhee in our neighborhood

I thank my managing editor, my husband, for his invaluable suggestions and technical skills.

Be well. It would be nice to hear from you, if you feel like responding to my post. Here’s how to get in touch.

 

DESERT BIRDS OF ARIZONA

 

Chihuahuan Raven, Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

 

Chihuahuan Raven. Note rictal (nasal) bristles. Range: Sw. U.S. to central Mexico

For someone who has passed much of the last three decades in the humid, rainy tropics of Costa Rica, I have adapted quickly over the past year to New Mexico, where average annual rainfall is only 13.85 inches as opposed to 180 inches in San Vito. Wherever I have lived in my life, I have learned the joy of participating in the natural world, rather than treating it simply as an object of scrutiny. Gardening in desert sand became a passion last spring and summer, and among the perennials I put into the ground were six small cacti, all of which survived the winter. 

In mid-March, before the need for complete self-quarantining due to Covid-19 became clear to this part of the country, my husband Harry and I went forward with a long-planned short trip to Arizona. Over seven days in what is early spring here, we drove on scenic highways and visited national parks, monuments and forests, all the while practicing social distancing and mostly eating our own food. In Phoenix, we visited the Desert Botanical Garden, and in Tucson, we returned to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which we had enjoyed seventeen years ago when it was a less developed natural history attraction. We looked forward to observing spring in the desert, and I planned my target list of bird species to see and, with luck, to  photograph: the Elegant Trogon, the Elf Owl, and, just one, please, any Bunting. HA! There is an old expression, “Men plan, God laughs”. I’ll change that to “Women plan, the universe yawns”.

My affinity for lush tropical forests will be with me for life, but I find the desert plants to be extremely attractive and fascinating in their own right. I saw that cacti such as Cholla, Saguaro or Prickly pear dominate the landscapes in many areas we passed. Barrel cactus are not so common, but they command attention. Technically, only about half of Arizona is desert, but some research tells me that state has 83 species of cacti, second to Texas’ high count in the U.S. of 91 species; but still, coming in second in cacti is impressive. New Mexico, by comparison, boasts 56 species.

Spring in the Arizona Sonora Desert with Cholla, Prickly Pear and Saguaro cacti visible

I saw many birds using cacti for nests. A male Cactus Wren did a spectacular mating dance atop a Saguaro. Birds, bats and insects use former peck holes in Saguaro cacti for lodgings. Woodpeckers drill and peck the original nesting cavities in the stems and trunks; then after nesting, they abandon these cavities. Owls, European Starlings, insect-eating bats, mice or insects often take possession. In species of the cactus genus Cholla birds were coming and going, hoisting nesting material, or were already established in well protected nests. I saw starlings and doves nesting on the top of cacti or using small crevices and hollows between branches/arms. They don’t seem to know about Prairie Falcons!

Gila Woodpecker starting a nest cavity on Saguaro cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

When we returned home March 17, it was time to nest and quarantine ourselves. The current news of suffering and death is shocking and frightening, and I hope the birds, cacti and landscapes you see here will provide you with a pleasing respite from grim reality.

Gila Woodpecker cavity nest on Saguaro Cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Resident sw U.S. to central Mexico

 

Cactus Wren with nesting material on Cholla Cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

 

Male Cactus Wren in full mating display, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Sw. U.S. to cen. Mexico

 

Cactus Wren emerging from nest in Cholla Cactus, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

 

Curve-billed Thrasher nesting in Cholla Cactus. Range sw U.S. to s Mexico

 

European Starling and chick on top of Saguaro Cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

 

White-winged Dove nesting on Saguaro Cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Range sw U.S. to n Chile

 

Barrel Cactus, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

 

Inca Dove, Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, Gilbert, AZ (just southeast of Phoenix). Range sw U.S. to nw Costa Rica 

 

 

Gambel’s Quail, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Resident sw U.S. to nw Mexico

 

Saguaro Cactus habitat, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

 

Female Great-tailed Grackle. Ranges from Sw. U.S. to Peru

 

 

Prickly Pear Cactus habitat amidst California Poppies, March 16, 2020 on Highway 191 near Buena Vista, AZ

 

 

 

BOSQUE DEL APACHE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Sandhill Cranes feeding in flooded grasslands

As some of the readers of Foto Diarist already know, “Georgie”, my mother, passed away at the end of last October,  just short of her 99th birthday. It was a peaceful passing, with help from Hospice care, and my sister and I were fortunate to be by her side at home at the end of her long and mostly healthy life. 

After Georgie’s death, Harry and I made our first New Mexican overnight getaway in mid-November. We drove about 90 miles south of Albuquerque to a refuge renown for migrating waterfowl in the Middle Rio Grande Valley: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (the “Bosque”, as it’s often referred to by New Mexicans). We spent two nights at a cozy and well-managed B&B named Casa Blanca in the tiny town of San Antonio, just minutes north of the Refuge entrance.

 

Casa Blanca Bed & Breakfast, San Antonio, NM

Over two days we saw javelina (white-collared peccary) unafraid of us, striped skunks with black tails held high above the golden grasses as their bodies remained hidden, many bird species, and the unforgettable flight and feeding activities of Sandhill Cranes overwintering at the refuge. With their wingspans of up to seven feet, these grey birds 40″-48″ high are a sight to behold. The Snow Geese were our first sightings of these birds, and they seem to migrate and have affinity with the cranes.

Male Sandhill Crane

Not very long ago the cranes were in severe decline, but now they are considered to have relatively stable populations, thanks to the efforts of many environmental organizations including Audubon, National Geographic, BirdLife International and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, along with community partners along migration routes. Having just joined Audubon NM, I am learning about its statewide efforts to restore sections of the Rio Grande and Gila Rivers for the benefit of birds like Sandhill Cranes. The futures of these and other aquatic birds are not at all secure if rivers continue to be drained, diverted and dried-up because of agriculture and the climate crisis in already-arid areas like New Mexico.

Mixed flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese with Chupadera Mountains backdrop

 

Chupadera Mountains with late fall foliage

The Bosque del Apache Refuge’s wetlands are aggressively managed to ensure there is enough food and water for the large variety of migratory and non-migratory wildlife. The infrastructure employed of channels, watergates and dams to mimic natural wetlands is impressive. The thousands of cranes and Snow Geese are seen feeding by day in large fields of sweet corn and alfalfa in the region around and in the refuge itself. At sunset visitors are enthralled as the birds return, honking raucously in mixed-sized flocks, landing gracefully in the flooded areas of the refuge. My heart was pounding at the primordial spectacle. Floating in the wetlands while sleeping, the cranes, geese, ducks, mallards, coots, grebes, scaups and other aquatic birds are safe from predators like wildcats, foxes and coyotes.

 

Sunset in the Refuge as cranes return to roost

Curious visitors as well as passionate birders also assemble in the cold of the dawn and its dramatic early light to observe the tremendously moving display–repeated daily in winter for millions of years ?–of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese lifting off almost in unison and communicating with each other noisily as they instinctively head out for new feeding grounds. None of the glowing reports I’d heard beforehand did justice to the experience. You just have to be there! 

 

Dawn, as birds are preparing to take off

 

Dawn light before mass exodus for daytime feeding in local fields

 

Canadian Geese resting at mid-day

References: Literature received at very helpful visitor center at Bosque del Apache NWR; Birds of New Mexico Field Guide by Stan Tekiela; Southwestern Forests by Roger Tory Peterson Field Guides; and www article of Audubon, “New Mexico: Consider the Sandhill Crane”.

Helpful hint: Don’t forget to wear warm clothes!

 

Jose Pablo Castillo

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