Monday, December 15, 2014

REINDEER SEASON

Reindeer, Talkeetna, Alaska
Everyone knows that Santa’s sleigh is pulled by eight tiny reindeer that fly through the sky.  But in the real world, reindeer are large animals that live on the ground.  With sturdy bodies, thick coats, and broad feet that keep them from slipping on snow and ice, they are perfectly adapted to the harsh climate of the far north that is their native home. We had a chance to see a small herd of domestic reindeer on our trip to Alaska in 2002. It was summer and the reindeer were contentedly munching grass and leaves inside an enclosure.  (In the wild, reindeer feed on mosses and lichens that grow on the tundra.) So, even though the weather was mild, we could imagine what it might be like in winter.

Traditionally, the Sami of Lapland and other native peoples of the far north hunted wild reindeer and tamed them. They used them to pull sleds, as pack animals, and for meat and milk. They made clothes, shoes, blankets and tents from reindeer hides. They shaped reindeer bones and antlers into tools. They followed the herds of reindeer as they went between their summer and winter homes. Today, most Sami stay in one place year round. They no longer follow the reindeer herds but some keep reindeer on farms and raise them reindeer for their meat and hides.

If you live in Los Angeles you can see reindeer close-up at the Los Angeles Zoo during the holiday season at the annual Reindeer Romp.  This year the reindeer will be visiting from November 28 to January 4.


Monday, December 8, 2014

FESTIVALS OF MEXICO, A Mexican Christmas, Guest Post by Ann Stalcup

Procession with men carrying a platform with figures of Mary and Joseph
My friend and fellow author Ann Stalcup has been fascinated by Mexican customs and culture for many years. She has taken numerous photographs in the Mexican communities of Los Angeles where cultural events are celebrated frequently throughout the year. She has also visited areas of Mexico where she has observed many of the traditional festivals including the Blessing of the Animals, the Day of the Dead, and Christmas. Here are a few of her photos of Mexican Christmas celebrations.
Children dressed as angels
MEXICAN CHRISTMAS celebrations begin with parades held from December 16 to December 24 that re-enact how Mary and Joseph searched for a place to stay when Jesus' birth was imminent. Each night, costumed shepherds led by angels visit a different store in the community and plead in song for shelter. In Los Angeles, California, many people gather in Olvera Street to take part in the celebration.  After a short prayer, children dressed angels lead the way in the Las Posadas procession. On the last night of Las Posadas, the Baby Jesus will have been added to the manger scene or nacimiento.
Nacimiento
Three Kings Day is celebrated on January 6th, the traditional gift-giving day.  Two thousand years ago, the Three Kings journeyed to worship the baby Jesus and bring him gifts.  In memory of this, on Epiphany Eve (January 5th), children put their shoes on the ends of their beds, in their windows, or on their balcony.  In Mexico, as Los Tres Reyes pass through each village and town on the way to see the Christ Child in Bethlehem, they leave gifts in each child’s shoes.

Children dressed as the Three Kings
The Christmas festivities end with Candelaria, a day when Mexican families bring elaborately-dressed Jesus dolls to be blessed in church.  Choosing an outfit is not easy.  Some are embroidered, others are decorated with lace.  Some dolls have gold crowns and bishop’s hats and white doves. Not only does the baby need clothing, He needs a special chair too.  He will sit in it until the Christmas season starts again.
Jesus dolls

For more information about Ann and her published work, visit her at her website: www.annstalcup.com 
You can look for Ann's earlier posts on this blog on Mexican celebrations:  The Blessing of the Animals 9/8/14, and the Day of the Dead 10/27/14.

Monday, December 1, 2014

VISITING POLAR BEARS--NOT AT A ZOO! Guest post by Sara Louise Kras



Polar Bear, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
My friend and fellow writer Sara Louise Kras went to Hudson Bay to research her recent book, The Hunted: Polar Prey, and has graciously written this article about her trip.  You can find out more about Sara and her many other books and travels at her website, www.saralouisekras.com . All of the excellent photos of polar bears in this post are by Sara's husband, Joe Kras.

For many years I fantasized about seeing polar bears in their natural habitat.  But our travels took us to other places – mostly warm – to do research on the various book projects I had been hired to write.  Finally, in 2008, I decided to take the icy plunge and fly to the Arctic to see polar bears.  I was working on a fiction book about a polar bear, so I thought it would be great to see them firsthand.  After very little research, I realized that the most optimum place for viewing these elusive creatures was in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.  This tiny town bordering the Hudson Bay is inundated with polar bears from October and November.  Polar bears wait there for the Hudson Bay to freeze so they can go out on the frozen ice to hunt seals. 

Polar bears don’t eat much during the summer – just what they can scrounge up – so they are literally starving.  This hungry state actually makes it very dangerous for the people who live in Churchill, including children.  Polar bears don’t have a problem with eating humans.  To them, food is food.  Also, given that they are the largest bears in the world, at eight and a half feet long and more than two thousand pounds, these bears can cause some serious damage.  I heard stories of polar bears breaking down front doors and rearranging the furniture--including knocking over a refrigerator!  

Again, doing more research on the internet, I found two companies who seemed to have the same exact itinerary in Churchill – except one was about $1,000 cheaper per person.  The difference is one was based in the United States and the other was based in Canada.  After thoroughly interviewing the Canadian company, I decided to go with them.  The name of the company is Churchill Nature Tours.  

My husband and I normally do not travel with groups.  We are very independent travelers.  But traveling to Churchill is completely different.  You can’t rent a car and drive out to see the polar bears.  You must travel with other people in tundra buggies, bus-like vehicles with wheels six feet tall. 
 
Our package tour was five nights long.  The first and last nights were in Winnipeg, but the middle three nights were in Churchill.  When we arrived in Churchill in the early morning, I was shocked at the size of the airport.  It was only as big as a small house, but it was literally stuffed with tourists, all searching for their tour company or group.  Once we found ours, we were whisked away to the helicopter company and taken up to see polar bears from the air.  It was an amazing beginning.  We saw a polar bear with an elk kill.  We saw a moose slowly making its way through the deep snow.  We saw a mother and baby polar bear.  On Hudson Bay, icebergs floated, looking like giant chunks of Styrofoam.   Later we visited the Eskimo museum where I got an invaluable contact for my fiction book.  Several weeks after the trip, the owner answered many questions via email about the Inuit, which brought an interesting twist to my story. 



The next two days were spent out in the tundra buggy.  Because our tour company only allowed eighteen people on their tours, there were plenty of window seats for everyone.  We were on the buggy all day – both days.  For comfort, there was a toilet on the buggy and we also had piping hot lunches and snacks.  We saw many polar bears even though throughout the second day there was a blizzard!  I credit the wonderful guide who was in charge of our group.  He seemed to know where to look, even when there were few polar bears at times.  If you’d like to see polar bears, I highly recommend traveling with this company. 


By the end of my trip, I had a firsthand knowledge of the depth of cold in the Arctic.  I had firsthand knowledge of how to attach a carrybag to a helicopter to transport a polar bear.  I had firsthand knowledge of how polar bears move and swim.  All of this was used in my book.  Now my book, a fiction story, The Hunted: Polar Prey has been published through Speeding Star.  It is about a boy who has to save his mother.  She is floating on an iceberg and is being hunted by a polar bear.  It’s a quick read and plot driven.  If you’d like to check it out, you can get it at http://www.speedingstar.com/books/The_Hunted/4261#.VG-Ybcm6j2s

Monday, November 24, 2014

Piedmont Nature Trails at the North Carolina Botanical Garden

A year ago in November we traveled to North Carolina to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with our family in Chapel Hill.  On Thanksgiving day, the weather was crisp and clear, and while the turkey was cooking we decided to get some exercise and went for a walk along the Piedmont nature trails at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Following the marked trails through the forest, we took a circular route, crossing the Meeting-of-the-Waters Creek twice.  Although most of the leaves had already fallen, a few hardy remainders glowed in the afternoon sunlight.
A diversity of hardwood and evergreen trees, shrubs, and woodland wildflowers thrive in these woods. Interpretive brochures and a trail map are available at the entrance to the trail. The trail walk can take from 15 to 45 minutes or more, depending upon the path taken and your pace. We spent about an hour and went home with a healthy appetite for a delicious meal. For a trail map click here.
The Piedmont Nature Trails are open to the public every day of the year. 


The adjacent Botanical Garden includes an Education Center and numerous display gardens featuring native plant borders, a native water garden, a fern collection and more.
Visiting hours to the Botanical Garden are:
Weekdays: 8 am - 5 pm (administrative offices, gift shop, exhibits open at 9 am);
Saturday: 9 am - 5 pm; Sunday: 1 - 5 pm (open to 6 on weekends June - August)
Admission is free.

Other gardens and natural areas managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden include the Coker Arboretum on the campus of the University of North Carolina. We have made many visits to the Coker Arboretum, which is especially beautiful in spring when the dogwoods and azaleas are in bloom.

Monday, November 17, 2014

DEGAS' Little Dancer and Works by ANDREW WYETH at the National Gallery, Washington, DC

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Original Wax Sculpture by Edgar Degas
On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I spent the morning at the National Gallery of Art, focusing on two of the current special exhibits, Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and a show of Andrew Wyeth paintings and drawings.  I have seen the Little Dancer by Degas several times before–in Paris, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and in another exhibit at the National Gallery–but they were all casts made after his death.  In this exhibit at the National Gallery is Degas’ original wax sculpture of the Little Dancer from which the casts were made so for the first time I could see how the surface was modeled.  The figure is made of wax over a metal armature to which the artist added wood, rope, and even old paintbrushes in the arms.  Then a wig of human hair was added as well as a cotton-and-silk tutu, a cotton faille bodice, and linen slippers. Her turned out toes, erect posture and raised chin seem to convey an inner determination. Little Dancer Aged Fourteen will be on view from October 5, 2014 to January 11, 2015.
Ballet Scene, Edgar Degas, Pastel
The Little Dancer was first exhibited in 1881 in Paris with other Impressionist works.  Fittingly, her surroundings at the National Gallery are paintings and drawings of other dancers by Degas, as well as works by other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists including Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. Many of the paintings are familiar from my art history classes but there were also some new ones such as Van Gogh's Green Wheat Fields, recently acquired by the museum. Van Gogh's characteristic layered brushstrokes pulsate across the surface of the painting.
Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890
Another featured exhibit currently at the National Gallery is Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In, which shows one of Wyeth’s  most famous paintings Wind from the Sea and explores his lifelong fascination with windows, a subject he depicted in more than three hundred works. Wyeth’s ability to paint the same subject over and over, each time seeing it in a new light and giving it new life is one of the pleasures of this exhibit.  Photographs were not allowed.  It will be on view until November 30, 2014.
Andrew Wyeth Exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
On our way to the two exhibits we passed many rooms of art that we didn’t have time to stop and view. The National Gallery is huge and impossible to see in one day. Our visit only encompassed the West Wing.  The East Wing galleries are currently closed for renovation.  On another trip we’ll go back to see more.
National Gallery of Art, West Wing

Monday, November 10, 2014

MARTHA, THE LAST PASSENGER PIGEON, at the Natural History Museum, Washington, DC

Illustration of a Passenger Pigeon by Mark Catesby, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, 1729-1747
Once there were billions.  Now there are none. One hundred and fifty years ago gigantic flocks of passenger pigeons blackened the skies of North America. However, due to indiscriminate hunting and habitat destruction, the flocks rapidly diminished, and by 1914 only one passenger pigeon remained alive. She was known as “Martha” and lived in the Cincinnati Zoo.  When she died one hundred years ago, the species became extinct.
Passenger Pigeons; Martha, #11, on left
Martha’s body was sent to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, where she was preserved and put in the research collection. She has been off of public view since the 1960's, but in this centenary of her demise, she is once again on view and is the center of a special exhibit, Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America.
Recently, I had a chance to visit the Natural History Museum and see Martha for myself, along with other now extinct birds including the Carolina Parakeet, Great Auk and the Heath Hen.  Martha is displayed with several other passenger pigeons from the museum collection and with historic illustrations from the archives of the Smithsonian library. Distinctive features of the passenger pigeon are warm pink breast feathers and soft grey feathers on the back and wings. (Passenger pigeons are related to another native American species, the band-tailed pigeon-- not the ubiquitous pigeons that inhabit our towns and cities, a non-native species imported from Europe.)
The passenger pigeon was among the many birds painted by John James Audubon for his book The Birds of America. In 1940, Norman Rockwell painted a picture for Look Magazine depicting a scene of Audubon observing passenger pigeons in flight.
Great Auk with Audubon print above
The Smithsonian’s Great Auk is one of about 80 museum specimens. Living in large colonies along North Atlantic shores, the birds were easily slaughtered for their meat, eggs, feathers, and oil.  They were extinct by the mid-1800's.
Heath Hen
In colonial times, Heath Hens flourished from Maine to Virginia, but they were tasty and easy to kill and their numbers quickly declined. The last heath hen, living in a sanctuary on Martha’s Vineyard, died in 1932.
Carolina Parakeets
Carolina Parakeets, prized as decorations for ladies’ hats, became extinct in the wild by 1904; the last one died in captivity in 1918.

The story of the last Passenger Pigeon and the disappearance of the Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet and Heath Hen, illustrate the fragile connections between species and their environment.  This exhibit reminds us all that we need to pay attention to the natural world and the complex connections of all the living things in it.

Note: Audubon Magazine featured the story of the Passenger Pigeon in its June 2014 issue, which included a pull-out origami Passenger Pigeon and link to a website “Fold the Flock” designed to create awareness of the Passenger Pigeon's plight as the folded birds are added to the virtual flock.  For more, click HERE to see my post at my Caroline Arnold Art and Books blog.

Monday, November 3, 2014

FLAMINGOS, GIRAFFES, CONDORS AND MORE: Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara, CA

Chilean Flamingo, Santa Barbara, Zoo
Recently, on a trip to Santa Barbara, California, I decided to go to the zoo where I had not been for a long time. I stopped first at the large sundial on a plaza near the zoo entrance and stood on the marker for the month.  My shadow told me that it was 4:00–exactly the time on my watch! It was a great time to visit–the zoo was not crowded and the animals were up and about.

Sundial Shadow, 4:00
I then proceeded to the flamingo display, always a favorite, and watched these elegant and beautifully feathered birds. (They were Chilean flamingos, a species I had seen in the wild with my family on our trip to Patagonia in 1995.) After I left the flamingos and was walking down the trail to the next exhibit, I suddenly realized I was being followed.  I turned around and saw a group of flamingos (and their keepers) coming down the path!  I asked, and learned that the flamingos go out for a walk every day to get their exercise.

Flamingos Out for a Stroll
I took a circular path around the zoo past capybaras, some lively tamarin monkeys, and other animals, until I came to a sign that said “Giraffe Deck”. There I saw a group of children, under the supervision of a keeper, feeding treats to a very friendly giraffe.  As the giraffe stuck out its long blue tongue to grab the treats, the kids squealed with delight. (The cost for giraffe feeding is $6 or $5 for zoo members.) I learned from the sign that the blue color of the tongue is an adaptation that helps keep the tongue from becoming sunburned as giraffes feed in the wild.
Masai Giraffe
I then walked along the California Trails, which includes exhibits of a Channel Island fox, desert tortoises, and other animals native to the state.  I looked up and saw three condors sitting on their perches in their huge flight cage enjoying the afternoon sun. The Santa Barbara Zoo is one of only four zoos in the world to display California condors, along with Condor Ridge at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo, and the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City. I have seen wild condors in the California mountains and along the Big Sur coast, but never this close up.  A distinguishing feature both in the wild and at the zoo are the large numbered tags on the birds’ wings. There are so few of these birds left, that each one has an identifying number. I learned about condors and their extreme plight when I researched and wrote my book On The Brink of Extinction: The California Condor.  No other bird in North America has a wingspan as wide as a condor’s–a spread of more than nine feet from tip to tip.
California Condors
The Santa Barbara Zoo is a relatively small zoo, but well worth a visit.  Its impeccably landscaped trails and large, well designed exhibits make it a perfect place for an afternoon walk or for a longer visit, with or without children.  As the attendant at the ticket booth says when you come to the zoo: “Have a Zooper Day!”

Santa Barbara Zoo
500 NiƱos Drive
Santa Barbara, CA 93103
Main Phone: (805) 962-5339
Info Line: (805) 962-6310

Open every day 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.,  10:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.
Crocodile