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Veolia Wildlife Photography

Now in its 48th year, the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is an international showcase for the very best nature photography. The competition is owned by the British Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide. The web gallery of top photos is well worth a look. I found the photo below arresting and hilarious:

Midnight snack by Alexander Badyaev 

Badyaev’s research cabin in the Blackfoot Valley, Montana, US, is permanently occupied. But not by him. He just goes there every so often to work. Instead a range of forest creatures makes full use of the shelter and food remains. He doesn’t see much of them, but there are always signs, particularly in the kitchen. ‘I had long suspected that a family of mice was living under my cooker and tasting my food,’ he says. ‘Then, late one evening, I returned to retrieve a peanut-buttered slice of bread I’d left briefly in the kitchen and discovered a deer mouse sampling it. When it disappeared into the hob, I grabbed my camera, quickly put a flash on the shelf behind the cooker, and when the mouse popped up again, shot a single frame. It took much longer to convince myself to finish my snack.’

Photograph: Alexander Badyaev /Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012

Isn’t It Time We Talked About It?

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for WETA magazine several years ago in connection with a PBS series on end-of-life care hosted by Bill Moyers. I was prompted to bring this up again after the father in law of a good friend went into hospice care last week. My husband’s parents both died under hospice care, and I was so glad to have that support. I also found moving Bill Keller’s recent story in the NY Times about hospice care in Britain. I wish more people knew that peace is possible even at such difficult times.

How do you begin to talk about dying? Our youth-worshipping culture refuses to discuss the subject, and many of us seem happy to pretend that deaths will never happen to us or to our loved ones. But that denial robs us of the chance to make the inevitable end-of-life process less traumatic. Indeed, other cultures see potential joy as well as grief in the passage. Perhaps we can too, if we’re not afraid to reach out to each other.

Working at a hospice, as I do, gives on a unique perspective on the way in which individuals face death. Our patients all know that their time is limited. They make the most of it. Watching them use that time to communicate with their families and reach spiritual peace has been a revelation to me. After the deaths of a patient who ended his life at home surrounded by his family, one of our nurses spoke of her respect for him. “He ate from the garden he grew,” she said. “His daughters loved him and were glad to be with him at the end.”

Although a majority of people say they hope to die at home in familiar surroundings with their loved ones nearby, most of us still die in hospitals and nursing homes. Although our culture values control and choice, many patients say they fear losing control over the end of their lives and suffering a death they never would have wanted. Families often struggle through the death of a loved one without adequate support at this time of crisis.

All that is changing, however. Beginning with the hospice movement in the 1970s and continuing with the development of palliative care as a recognized medical specialty, we are on the cusp of a new era in end-of-life care. Many liken the current environment to the beginning of the childbirth reform movement of 10 to 15 years ago, when consumer demand forced improvements in the healthcare system. The result was a more humanized childbirth experience with family-friendly delivery options and better care for both mother and baby. Now, advocates are trying to do for the end of life what was done for the beginning: to treat dying as a natural event while offering the highest quality of care possible under modern medicine.

Modern in Principle

Vanity Fair Ad from October 1929This ad is from the October 1929 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. I seized this copy in a junk shop years ago, and have treasured it ever since. Knowing what happened at the end of that pivotal month, I read the articles and advertisements with fascination for a vanished moment of prosperity and modern aspiration. It also intrigues me by raising the question, what is modern?

In some ways the content of the magazine is surprisingly familiar. Vanity Fair was a magazine with a mixture of coverage of the arts and popular entertainment. There are photos of film stars, including Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Conrad Veidt and others. Whereas now Vanity Fair relies on Annie Leibovitz and Herb Ritts as house photographers, the luminaries of those days were captured by Edward Steichen. Their styles are not at all dissimilar. Steichen created dramatically posed portraits with studio lighting and few props. Liebovitz uses more props, but the drama and artificiality of her photos have very similar effect.

But there are other, higher-culture elements that don’t seem so familiar. New York stage stars receive the same adulation as movie actors. The literary contributions seem to have aged the most noticeably. Essays from Aldous Huxley, Sherwood Anderson and Harold Nicolson are dated in both style and subject. A piece by Paul Geraldy includes the aphorism, “You ask everything from your wife. But do not ask too much…I have been happy in love since I realized that a woman could never be an intellectual comrade.”

The advertisements are the best part. They are gorgeous things, with lavish illustrations and carefully composed typography. They sell with a combination of snobbery and style. Most of the high-end brands are very familiar: Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany, Johnston and Murphy shoes, Gorham silver, Abercrombie & Fitch, Guerlain perfumes. There are many ads for “modern” electric tools and conveniences, with technology easily recognizable even eighty years later. The desirable gadgets include clocks, radios, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, cameras and telephones.

Automobiles are more of a mixed bag. While survivors such as Cadillac, Ford and Buick are represented, so are others that are familiar only because they are associated with bygone luxury: Pierce Arrow, Packard, Deusenberg. And clothes have changed so much that whole categories of garment are now gone. While magazines today still advertise scarves, shoes and coats, I am charmed by the ads in here for the vanished elegance of spats, suspenders and hats.

Most things are advertised with a strong whiff of snob appeal, which can have laughable results when the modern reader hits some unfamiliar product names: “A long run and a fast fox…then back for coffee and bacon, talk and Spud cigarettes!” No, I’m not making this up—look here:

Seven years after this issue, the magazine folded. The market for these pricey consumer goods had shrunk during the depression and the public’s interest in this kind of frothy mixture of art and literature had waned. Vanity Fair as a title was dead until 1983, when it was successfully revived for readers enjoying the prosperity and pretension of the Reagan years.


Desire and Attachment

I had an interesting exchange with a student last week. He was asking about desire:

I’m really curious how we can, in this modern world, purify things so simply down to renunciation of all desires and attachments to attain true freedom.  Didn’t I see you zip away after class in a plum colored convertible?

Here’s my response:

Eradicating desire is so difficult, perhaps only truly an option for the most realized of souls here on earth. To my mind, the trick is rather to avoid attachment. By “attachment” I mean over-identification with what is not the true self. That does not mean you cannot or should not enjoy the pleasures of life. One can love one’s family and fulfill our obligations as householders without feeling that a parent’s or child’s every action reflects upon us. Same thing goes with objects. So one can enjoy the little plum convertibles of life without feeling that they are part of one’s identity.

We love our family members and do our duty by them while we are with them, and we realize that all things are transitory, including our own lives. Do what’s right, then let go of the result, says the Bhagavad Gita. That, to me, is freedom.

These are ideas that have brought some serenity to my life, but we all have many lifetimes to go before we escape the wheel. Best wishes in your own search for freedom.

Double Rainbow

Last year there was a goofy YouTube video of a guy going OFF over a double rainbow. I think this one is even more impressive than the one in that video:

The Tsunami Gate

Tsunami gate in Iwate, 1989

Tsunami gate in Iwate, 1989

Like everyone else, I’ve been following the news from Japan with dismay and sadness. In 1989, I traveled to northeast Honshu, the part of Japan most affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Iwate, the province where this photograph was taken, was considered remote and fairly exotic back in the 1980s, even by Tokyo-ites. I took this shot of a tsunami gate in a small town on the coast where the major industry was processing seaweed for culinary purposes. At that time, I couldn’t imagine a wave so large that this imposing gate would be needed. Now having read reports that the tsunami wave was more than 30 feet high, I wonder if this little gate helped at all.

My prayers go out to the survivors, as they struggle to make it through each day.

Year of the Rabbit

Canada's new stamp for Year of the RabbitChinese new year falls on February 3 this year, and I’m told we are moving into the Year of the Rabbit. According to the Chinese zodiac, rabbit years are peaceful years, oriented toward home and stability. It should be much more peaceful than 2010’s Year of the Tiger. Here’s hoping.

Perhaps in sympathy with the coming year, I’ve been reading a lot about rabbits lately. It started over the Christmas holiday when I re-read Watership Down, by Richard Adams. It had been at least ten years since I last read it. The novel tells the story of a group of English rabbits that leave their home warren right before it gets destroyed by bulldozers. They head out across the countryside looking for a new home. The story is unique in the way that Adams portrays the rabbits as real rabbits. Unlike the animals in The Wind in the Willows, these rabbits don’t make tea or drive motor cars. However they are humanized enough for the rabbits to become strong individual characters, with attributes like courage, humor, and leadership. In fact, over the course of their many adventures (some quite violent), Adams uses the rabbits’ story to look at the nature of leadership, and how different kinds of leaders inspire and affect their followers. I may have enjoyed the book even more on this second reading than I did the first time.

Just this week I finished reading another book featuring a rabbit, Arto Paasilinna’s Finnish best seller, The Year of the Hare. I was intrigued by Pico Iyer’s review of the book, published in The Wall Street Journal on New Year’s Eve. He described it as a book that could change your life. The book’s main character, Vatanen, walks away from his unsatisfying urban life on the spur of the moment. Adopting a wild hare as a pet and companion, he wanders deeper into the forest, and farther and farther north as the book progresses. As he moves away from civilized life, he finds a new satisfaction in hard physical work and simple food, always with the faithful companionship of the hare. I can’t say I feel my life has been changed, but I did enjoy this episodic adventure.

Wishing you all a peaceful and harmonious year.

New Year’s 2011

It’s kind of sad this has taken me so long to post, but here goes. This is a short clip from the moment of midnight, January 1, 2011. Mark and I were in the grand foyer of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Mark had been producing the NPR new year’s eve broadcast out of the Kennedy Center earlier in the evening, but he was able to come out to join me for a kiss and a toast at midnight. There are more photos from the same evening in my Flickr photostream.