While we can argue about the truth of this statement in an age when anyone can create videos, there is no denying the power of the still image.
The most shocking photo – and about the most shocking thing I had ever seen as a teenager, happened on this day, February 1, 1968. It was Adams’ photograph of the killing of Nguyễn Văn Lém (code name: Bảy Lốp) on a street in Saigon. Lém, a Viet Cong captain suspected of murdering South Vietnamese Lt. Col. Nguyen Tuan and his family, was made to stand before brigadier general Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, chief of the national police, who summarily executed him with a swift shot to the the head using his personal Smith & Wesson .38 Special. (Gen. Loan later said, “If you hesitate, if you didn’t do your duty, the men won’t follow you.”)
In 2019 I was fortunate to meet and talk to Adams’ widow, Alyssa Adkins, Deputy Editor of TV Guide, and buy the great photo book she had helped put together with a large number of Adams’ images.
Edward Thomas Adams (12 June 1933 – 19 September 2004) was a combat photographer in the Korean War while serving in the United States Marine Corps. From 1962 to 1980 he worked two stints for AP (Associated Press). His photographs made more than 350 covers for TIME and Parade magazines.
On that fated day in February 1968, just a couple days after the beginning of the Tet Offensive, he and NBC News television cameraman Võ Sửu were walking the streets of Saigon and saw what they thought might be a street interrogation as a prisoner was pulled out of a building. Both raised their cameras and began to photograph and film. As they did, Gen. Loan walked up, raised his pistol and summarily fired a bullet into Lem’s head.
Both the resulting photograph and Võ Sửu’s film coverage became indelibly linked to the brutal truth of a war that had become staple evening fare on television sets throughout the United States: our South Vietnamese ally engaged in the same terrible behaviors as the North Vietnamese they fought. It was something I thought of often as I approached my 18th birthday with an impending, subsequent draft lottery. The stills photo went on to win the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and the pronouncement from TIME magazine declaring it, “one of history’s 100 most influential photos.”
Was this the photograph of which Adams’ was most proud? No. That honor goes to his photograph “Boat of No Smiles” (1979) showing a 30-foot fishing boat loaded with Vietnamese fleeing their homeland. Like the photo subject of this post, it was influential: it eventually led Congress and President Jimmy Carter to open immigration to more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees.
Over time Adams became sorry the Saigon shot came to be known as his most famous image:
“Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. … What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?”…. This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time. … I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote, “I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.”
– Eddie Adams. “Eulogy: General Nguyen Ngoc Loan”. Time Magazine; July 27, 1998.
There are so many interesting side notes to this story.
Similar to the idea in science that the very act of an individual viewing an event affects the event itself, Susan Sontag wrote about Gen. Loan, “he would not have carried out the summary execution there had they [journalists] not been available to witness it.” In 1978 there was an attempt to revoke Loan’s permanent residence ‘green card’ and Adams’ spoke in his defense with President Jimmy Carter halting the deportation, writing, “such historical revisionism was folly”.
Proving that no matter where you live it’s who you know that can shape your life, Loan studied pharmacy at university before entering the army where he was a classmate of Nguyễn Cao Kỳ. Kỳ became head of the air force (where Loan flew as his wing-man) and then, after a coup, the Prime Minister. Loan opened a pizzeria in Burke, Virginia outside Washington, DC. from the late 1970s until 1991.
Elements of connection in this story keep coming right up to the present. South Vietnamese Lt. Col. Nguyen Tuan who, along with his family, had been killed by Nguyễn Văn Lém, had a 10-year old son, Huan Nguyen. Huan did not die in that 1968 attack despite being shot three times and laying for hours next to his dying mother. Huan came to the United States and in 2019 became the first Vietnamese American to reach the rank of U.S Navy Rear Admiral.
I have tried to track down the NBC cameraman Võ Sửu without success. I will update this post if I ever find out more about him (tho the NBC site on the footage does not add more information.)
First Full Moon of the Third Decade of the 21st Century, 29 December 2020
(Some, in error, might call it the last full moon of the second decade.)
Regardless… however you want to call it… it’s Beautiful!
Somewhere in my slides I have a pic of this full moon north of the Arctic Circle. Since, in December, it is directly opposite the sun, it ‘bookends’ the polar June sun, bearing a resemblance of sorts to the famous mid-summer midnight sun.
DO NOT FORGET to go out tonight, Winter Solstice evening Monday the 21st, and see the much-talked-about conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. They have not been in this alignment (that is visible to us Earthlings) for 800 years! This treat will be visible in the Southwest for a couple hours after sunset. It might take a little time identify these two with the naked eye as they will be very close together and may look like ONE star instead of two close together planets! Binoculars will be a big help.
In my photos from the previous two nights Jupiter is on the bottom of its pairing but will switch positions with Saturn after tonight.
Jupiter’s four largest moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, in order of distance from Jupiter. They are faintly visible in my top photo stretching out from the 11:00 o’clock position (Io and Europa are almost on top of each other.) At latest count Jupiter has 67 moons but the big four were discovered by Galileo in 1610 and are called, fittingly, the Galilean moons.
A Letter from Mary Robinette Kowal, President of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America:
Have you written anything for Disney or its subsidiaries and stopped receiving royalties? SFWA has become aware of several members in this position.
Last year, Alan Dean Foster came to SFWA’s Grievance Committee because he had written novels and was not being paid the royalties that were specified in his contract. With his permission, we have made this dispute public because the core of it affects more than just Mr. Foster.
It has the potential to affect every writer. Disney made the argument that they had purchased the rights but not the obligations of his contract. In other words, they believe they have the right to publish work, but are not obligated to pay the writer no matter what the contract says.
If we let this stand, it could set precedent to fundamentally alter the way copyright and contracts operate in the United States. All a publisher would have to do to break a contract would be to sell it to a sibling company.
We are currently in talks with Disney about Mr. Foster’s royalties and are looking forward to a speedy resolution. They have told us that they want to talk to any writers who have a belief that they are owed money.
Disney seems to believe that he is a unique example. We know that he is not. We have heard from enough authors to see a pattern.
If you are a writer experiencing non-payment of royalties, or missing royalty statements, with Disney or its subsidiaries, please report your circumstances to us via this form. We guarantee your anonymity.
If you are not directly affected but wish to help, please use the hashtag #DisneyMustPay to discuss the value of writers and the problems with their position on contracts. You may also donate to SFWA’s legal fund, which helps authors with legal fees in situations like this.
We are committed to continuing conversations with Disney until these contractual issues are satisfactorily resolved.
Mary Robinette Kowal, President, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
The photo above was taken with a Leica-R 280mm f4 telephoto manual lens, with a 1.4x Extender and an R-to-M adapter, all mounted on a Leica M10-R.
It was such a beautiful day I took off from a Zoom meeting and drove the 50 miles to look for bighorn sheep head butting during the rut. No battles found, just a quiet small group.
One youngster is very hard to see unless you know he is laying down with only his head showing. In the photo above I have circled him. He has rudimentary horns, unlike the youngster at upper left.
This second photo, above, is what the area looks like with a lens that mimics the field-of-view of human eyes (that is, a 40mm lens) versus the 280mm telephoto setup used for photo #1. Believe it or not, three of the sheep (within the circle) are visible to the naked eye because of their white butts. Admittedly, I have 20-10 corrected eyesight but most people with normal vision ought to be able to do as well.
For those out looking for sheep on your own I think the most helpful advice I can offer is to look for the white butts of the sheep. I just use my eyesight as I always forget to take binoculars with which to glass the slopes.
On this day in 1731 Benjamin Banneker (died 19 October 1806), free African-American man of science, author, surveyor and grandson of Bannaka, an African prince, was born in Baltimore County, Maryland. He produced commercially successful almanacs in the 1790s, and his knowledge of astronomy helped him be a part of Andrew Ellicott’s team that Thomas Jefferson ordered to survey land for the young nation’s capital city, Washington, DC.
Banneker, an older contemporary of my 6th generation grandfather, Bazil Norman (who fought in six military campaigns of the American Revolution) never married or had children. But, I am an 11th generation descendant of his sister Jemima. (In 11 generations of Banneker descendants the long-lived Normans only had 6; we marry late and, usually, live long!)
And Jemima begat Meslach who begat Mary who begat Sophia who begat Mary Elizabeth who begat George who begat James ‘Blind Jim’ who begat Mary ‘Polly’ who begat William Franklin who begat my father who begat ME!
Alas, on the day of Banneker’s funeral his cabin burned to the ground destroying almost all his papers and belongings. One journal and some rescued furniture were kept until recently by the Ellicott family, descendants of those original DC surveyors and also founders of Ellicott City, Maryland. A few items are at The Maryland Historical Society tho a Virginia collector bought most of the extant material at a 1996 auction.
I make a valiant attempt to honor my great grandmother Mary Polly’s dictum written on the sheet of paper holding her portrait: “If you don’t remember us grandchild. Who Will?” Polly was Jemima Banneker’s 8th generation grand daughter.
Photo Credits: a page from Benjamin Banneker’s journal (courtesy American Antiquarian Society) and Mary Polly Norris-Norman (1 May 1844 – 12 March 1941) (courtesy Norman Family Archive).
“Mixing business with pleasure since 1965.” – Baron Wolman, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Small in stature and large in heart, Baron Wolman (25 June 1937 – 2 November 2020) died yesterday, 3 November 2000, at the age of 83.
Tho born years apart we both hailed from “The Great Midwest” and were born near each other. Lest you wonder if you ever saw his pictures let me write – ‘Yes! You most certainly have – even tho you may not have known it!’ He was at Woodstock with cameras in hand and was the first photographer at Rolling Stone Magazine (1967-1970) where Jan Wenner has said Baron set the look for the magazine. Photographing The Grateful Dead band was Baron’s job for the first issue of the magazine. Not too shabby!
Baron sold his first photo, the construction of the Berlin Wall, to The Columbus Dispatch Newspaper for $50, a pic from a gig not many probably knew he had: counterintelligence in Berlin for Uncle Sam as a volunteer in the U.S. Army!
His last post to Facebook in October was typically self-effacing:
“Just as the sun sets over the Pacific, so, too, is it about to set over my life. A few of you know that a year ago I was give[n] the formal diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a disease for which there is no cure. Sad to say I’m now in the final sprint to the end. I go forward with a huge amount of gratitude for the many blessings bestowed upon me (family, friends, travels and more), with no regrets and appreciation for how my photographs – my life’s work – have been received. Leave comments if you wish, but please don’t ask any questions or expect any further words from me – I am very, very weak. Because of Covid, like thousands of others, I will pass quietly and with very few people around me. It’s been a great life, with Love being my salvation always… #fotobaron#thefotobaron#vote#voteblue2020“
Baron was a class act to the end and I trust he will be surrounded by the same sentiments he wrote to me in one of his books: “Peace, Love & Music!”
Between 2008 and 2010 Taos Pueblo released 33 North American River Otters (Lontra canadensis) on the banks of the Rio Pueblo de Taos near its confluence with the Rio Grande. Otters were driven to extinction here thru trapping, pollution and habitat destruction. The last ones were seen in 1953.
We went out today to find out if the bighorn sheep rut had begun in the canyon of the Rio Grande. Big rams facing off, rearing up and charging at full speed to butt heads for the privilege of mating with females is an all-time big thrill. Another photographer heard one head butt echoing down the canyon but saw no sheep. It’s still a bit early in the season.
But!… we accidentally found a bevy of otters and followed them up-river as best we could. A group of otters is also called a “romp” and adequately describes the behavior of this most mischievous member of the weasel family!
The photo is not great but I was happy to even get it. I use a manual-everything Leica-M camera, in this case mated to a Leica-R 280mm f4 lens with an R-to-M adapter and an Apo 1.4x extender. This was shot wide-open so the depth-of-field was only a few feet deep.
After a 3-day occupation of the Santa Fe Plaza in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day (we no longer celebrate October 12 as Columbus Day here in New Mexico) the monument holding center stage on the Plaza has been brought down by a largely-white mob of protestors as police backed off and vacated the Plaza.
The obelisk was originally put up in 1867 to honor Civil War Union soldiers who stopped the advance of the Confederacy in the West but had a plaque added later, on one side, that read, ‘To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.’ The word ‘savages’ was chiseled off in 1974.
The mayor earlier this year had announced there would be a decision on the future of the monument but he and the city have dragged their feet on any decision-making, in part, no doubt, over causing offense to the large population of people of Spanish descent here who revere their conquistador roots and feel theirs is THE heritage that matters in this state.
It would be great if the city decided now to have an international competition to replace the obelisk with something that embraces all New Mexicans in this the oldest capital city in the United States.
I actually liked the obelisk and thought the addition of the plaque (done a few generations ago) was itself a defacing of the monument’s original Civil War reason for being. But, there is and was, no denying that many of the northern heroes of that war went on to become principal actors in the genocide enacted upon the Indians.
Chief among this group were generals Sherman and Sheridan, both born in 1831 and who both grew up not too far from where I was born; as local heroes they were valorized with prominent statues. Both were also capable of incredible brutality to the ‘enemy’. (Sheridan was one of the first men to use what we call ‘scorched-earth’ tactics when he razed the Shenandoah Valley and Sherman is well-noted for his March Through Georgia).
It is easy for the mob to forget (if it ever knew), that history is not changed by smashing the signposts of history. Rather, it is amplified and extended by its wider unveiling from the shadows – something that was not undertaken on a large scale until universities began graduating those who would research and write our stories from a far different perspective from that which we learned in our 5th grade reader in the early 1960s. That formal and institutionalized history was one of the consequences of promoting a national identity linked to an ignorance and purposeful ‘white-washing’ of our treatment of Indigenous people and all other people of color in the United States.
Many argue this was all in the past and it is time to move on. It is, of course, easy to move on when one is part of the dominant social structure; as far as such people are concerned, there has never been any noticeable problem.
Despite being born in the second half of the 20th century I actually traveled from Philadelphia to Florida to interview a man who had been born in Africa, captured by slavers as a child with other children (lured to a ship by corn fritters dipped in honey) and sold into slavery in the American South. To know that I met and spoke to a man who lived under the regimen of the United States’ ‘peculiar institution ‘ shows how recent, in historical terms, the wide disenfranchisement of a large swath of our countrymen really has been.
The destruction of our local Plaza monument shows that not every crowd chanting ‘progressive’ slogans and carrying placards with the ‘right’ words is necessarily going to do the ‘right’ thing. Nor does being on the wrong side of the law in civil disobedience necessarily mean one is on the right side of moral history.
I don’t have answers, only questions. Like all human interaction – it’s complicated.
The Notorious R.B.G. (15 March 1933 – 18 September 2020)
I have sent three Tweets in my life and one of them was to Justice Ginsburg. It was an inquiry asking if she was going to make the season at our great Opera here in Santa Fe. She visited in the summers and could be seen with her omnipresent Secret Service detail headed to her seat in the lower central section of the open air house.
The first time we met her, however, was a big surprise. It was September 27, 2000 and we were at a conference in Ottawa, Canada with a group from The World Bank Ethics Office. Being interested in circumpolar artifacts, Donna and I took some time to visit a shop that specialized in Inuit art. While browsing the great wares a guy with an ear bud attached to a spiraling line came in, stopped and gave a slow survey to the store. He reminded me of the Secret Service executive protection guys we would always see around Washington, DC and it made sense as we were in the capital of Canada. Just the day before I had taken a really atmospheric portrait of Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien, 20th Prime Minister of Canada.
Suddenly a second ear-bud guy came in. Then in walked a diminutive woman who was unmistakably Ruth Bader Ginsburg followed by yet another agent. My first impulse was to go to her and simply say how I admired her and the work she had always done. So, of course, I stepped toward her. Immediately the Secret Service guys took alert positions and the front one moved to block my advance. I quickly realized how stupid I was to make such a sudden move so made an apology and had my say from where I stood. She graciously acknowledged my fandom and we all went about looking at the art in the shop.
“She had this uncanny ability to be very much in the weeds, if you will, of the intellectual legal arguments and yet never lose sight of the human impact of her decisions,” was a description Former President Clinton used to describe Ginsburg.
No doubt part of her common-sense nature came from being a mother before she went to law school and having a difficult time getting a job with a top-flight firm even after graduating first (shared with another graduate) in her class. My wife has reminded me that when she was a young woman she needed a man’s signature to open a bank account and it was also impossible for most unmarried women to get a home mortgage. The Dean of Harvard Law reportedly invited the female law students (only 9 in a class of nearly 500) to dinner at his family home and asked the female law students, including Ginsburg, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?
We have Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with a host of other talented and determined women, to thank for leading the way to necessary and long-overdue changes in the way we men handle affairs that affect everyone. Alas, we are just not that good at sharing.
The Notorious R.G.B.* will be sorely missed.
* a law student bestowed this moniker on Ginsburg that is take-off on the nickname of the late (also) Brooklyn-born rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
The oldest living, and earliest surviving, Academy Award winner (until her death July 26, 2020).
Below: Daniel Martinez Owns One of Errol Flynn’s 1930s Tunics (From a Movie With De Havilland) and Wears It With Panache! Photo Copyright Wilbur Norman 2017.
[NOTE: I thought I had published this at the same time as I posted it on Facebook, but it did not… So, herewith… a little late!]
Some people really do lead storied lives – long ones at that. When I read the de Havilland died three weeks ago at the age of 104 I began to recall those eight great movies she did with Errol Flynn in the 1930s and 40s. And, she was perfectly cogent the last time we saw her when she was interviewed at her 100 mark.
I thought about writing something when she passed but did not. Then today I was reminded that her daughter has a home here, as does her niece – the daughter of another legend: the actress Joan Fontaine. De Havilland and Fontaine were the only sisters to win Best Actress Academy Awards.
The de Havillands were quite a family: cousin Captain Sir Geoffrey was an aviation pioneer along with his brothers Hereward and Ivon. Some of my favorite aircraft were/are de Havillands and I have flown in many over the years, especially the Beaver and Twin Otter. Take-off and landing on water is such a thrill! And, I’ve always thought the Comet one of the most beautiful planes ever, tho I’ve not had the pleasure of flying in one.
When I was a kid I was totally enthralled by those early swashbuckling movies she did with that Tasmanian devil of an actor, Errol Flynn, especially 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, the most expensive film Warner Bros. had made at the time (it took a lot of 25-cents-per-entry movie-goers to re-coup the budget of $2 million – altho my father was pretty sure it was only 10 cents in his hometown in Malta!) The ensemble cast were great actors all: Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Alan Hale, Sr. and, yes! the horse ‘Golden Cloud’ who so impressed Roy Rogers (born Leonard Franklin Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio) that he bought him and renamed him ‘Trigger’!
I still remember the initial meeting between Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Rathbone) and SIr Robin of Locksley (Flynn) in Sherwood Forest. It went something like,
Sir Guy: “You know the penalty for poaching deer in the King’s forest is death!”
Sir Robin (mounting an arrow and aiming at Sir Guy’s chest): “Are there are no exceptions?” (As one of Norman descent I suppose I ought to have been on the side of smarmy Prince John (Claude Rains) but the Saxon underdogs were more sympathetic!)
In real life South African born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone was one of the best, if not the best, swordsman in Hollywood, having twice been the British Army Fencing Champion in WWI where he served in the London Scottish Regiment with Claude Rains and Ronald Colman. Those sword-fighting scenes are terrific, tho Rathbone, as a superior fencer, had to tone it down.
In 1940 de Havilland and Flynn made their sixth movie together, ‘Santa Fe Trail’, also starring Ronald Reagan. The world premier was here at our beautifully restored Lensic Theater and saw 60,000 fans hanging out around the theater striving to catch a look at the stars. I cannot imagine the chaos: even today we have less than 85,000 folks in this, the oldest and highest (2,194 meters/7,199 feet) state capital city in the U.S. (Founded by the Spanish in 1610 as ‘La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís’ but occupied for at least the last several thousand years by indigenous Tanoan peoples.)
One of de Havilland’s most significant coups was her successful 1943 lawsuit against Warner Bros., known now as the ‘De Havilland Law’, a challenge to actor’s labor contracts with studios (it had been previously challenged by Bette Davis who lost.) When de Havilland won her suit it freed up actors tied to the Hollywood studio system but got her blackballed from any studio’s roles for two years (but allowed her to do WWII USO tours, including to the South Pacific.)
Despite having been cast with many leading men and having relationships with some: Howard Hughes, Jimmy Stewart and John Huston, she never, she said, had an affair with leading man Errol, ‘in like Flynn’!
De Havilland’s achievements and honors were many: her role in the classic ‘Gone With the Wind’, bestselling author, first female president of the Cannes Film Festival, Academy awards, National Medal of Arts, Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur (lived outside Paris since 1953(?), Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (she was born in the UK) and many others.
What I will always remember her for, however, are her roles in those classic movies of Hollywood’s Golden Years that brought entertainment and joy to people of my parent’s generation during The Great Depression and WWII and then, later, Boomers like me!
“Mary Ann Vecchio [a 14-year old runaway, as the world later learned] gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller, lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. On publication, the image was retouched to remove the fence post above Vecchio’s head.” The protest was against President Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Reacting to mass demonstrations on May 1st, Nixon he had called anti-war protestors ‘bums’.
Four students were killed and 9 wounded by the 67 shots fired by the Ohio National Guard that day. Two of the four killed were bystanders and none of the four was closer to the Guard than about a football field in distance. The Guard had been dispatched to Kent State by Governor James Rhodes, at the request of the town of Kent’s mayor, after an arson attack burned down the ROTC building on May 2.
Four million students (college and high school) went out on strike after the news of the shootings became public.
In New Mexico, where I now live, eleven people were bayonetted at the University of New Mexico by the New Mexico National Guard in a confrontation with student protesters on May 8th. The demonstrations in Washington, DC were so combative that Nixon was removed to Camp David for his safety and the 82nd Airborne was lodged in the basement of the Executive Office Building next to the White House. At Jackson State University, a historically black college, in Jackson, Mississippi, two students were killed (and 12 wounded) by police during a demonstration on May 14 – an event that did not receive the same attention as the shootings at Kent State.
I was in high school in Ohio and vividly remember those times – especially when my Draft Number turned out to be 99. For many years thereafter I never ate at Wendy’s because Ohio Governor Big Jim Rhodes (“part P.T. Barnum, part Elmer Gantry, part Norman Vincent Peale” – Dayton Daily News) was one of Wendy’s investors. There are memorial events at Kent State on May 4th every year and I have managed to make it to one (the 30th, I believe.)
There are still unanswered questions about the timing and personnel involved in the Kent State massacre. A prominent one involves the university- and FBI-informant Terrence Brooks Norman (no relation!), a student who appeared to be the only non-Guardsman individual who was armed at the demonstration.
Who knew that the world of camelids, an even-toed ungulate (Artiodactyla), was so fascinating? The answer, of course, is probably a third of the world’s population what with India, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa leading the way. In 1856 thirty-four were landed in Texas at the direction of U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to become the United States Camel Corps (a draft animal!) They were to be used to settle, and subdue, the West, an experiment put paid by lobbying military mule suppliers and that bugaboo, the American Civil War. (Jeff Davis, in case you forgot, changed his allegiance.) Even with a small population these camels and their descendants (plus some privately introduced commercial stock) managed to hang on until the 20th century. Living in my state of New Mexico a young, then unknown, Douglas MacArthur heard about a wild camel wandering near Fort Selden in 1885.
Imported as work animals into central Australia in the 19th century the now-feral dromedaries in the Land Down-Under reached a population of one million. Between 2009 and 2013 an extermination program reduced that number to 300,000. These stocks are the only wild dromedaries on the planet.
The framing of the question in my opening sentence (camelids) means we also have to include the southern hemisphere of the New World. Llamas, vicuñas, guanacos and alpacas are kith and kin to the standard camel most of us know – or think we know. Scientists have also created a cama, a camel-lama hybrid, using camel semen injected into a llama! They have no hump and are bigger than a llama and smaller than a camel. There was no practical purpose to this experiment, as such, more than to test if the Old World and New World denizens are, in fact, the same species.
Not more than two weeks before we left for India in February I was amused to hear that 12 contestants at the beauty contest at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rimah, Saudi Arabia had been ignominiously tossed from the competition. Owners were discovered to be cheats; their crime heinous beyond all understanding: they had been injecting their charges’ lips and eyelids with botox – yes, that’s right, the same chemical women use to enhance their looks for us menfolk, enhancing lips to bee-stung proportions and plumping up spaces to render goddess-like anatomies. Confused? Oh… did I forget to mention I am writing here of camel contestants, not the fairer sex of our own species. (I wonder if I can slightly enlarge my old camel hair overcoat with a judicious application of botox?)
If you have ever been up close and personal (OK, maybe not that personal) with a camel you will see they have lovely eyes topped with hooded, come-hither lids rimmed with long lashes. I well remember this one female in Kenya… but I digress.
In my unfolding camelid geography above I did not mean to slight the largest of the species, Camelus Ferus, the wild Bactrian, but these magnificent beasts are not found in India, the focus of this essay to which I am slowly humping. Alas, wild Bactrians are scarce on the ground in their native habitat, too. The last time I was in Mongolia’s Gobi desert I was told there were only 400 wild ones remaining.
Additionally, there is the two-humped domesticated Bactrian (C. bactrianus with a population of two million). It is it’s own species making a total of three living species under the genus Camelus. Aside from slight, invisible genetic differences with this domesticated variety, wild Bactrians are able to drink very saline winter slushies from semi-frozen Gobi salt-pans. From this they seem to suffer no ill effect and it is something their more numerous domesticated cousins cannot do. Bactrians are also one of the few animals able to eat snow to provide their water needs when liquid fresh water or salt slushies are not available. They accomplish this feat using advanced physics – the principal of latent heat, the hidden energy supplied or extracted to change the state of a substance without changing its temperature. This means heat is taken from the camel to melt the snow into water they can then utilize. It is an energy-intensive process so they eat only a little snow at a time.
With your elementary camel knowledge now in order we may proceed to the story at hand: our visit to India’s National Research Centre on Camel, Bikaner. It is a slightly awkward name, true, but it is what is on the campus signs and letterhead so I defer to the Centre’s self-identification (tho the amply represented OCD in me desperately wanted to attack the signs and paint “the” between “on” and “Camel”. My failure to muster up the courage to do so is something that will haunt the rest of my days, no matter I had no ready coloring agent left behind my ears from the Holi Festival. A writer and traveler’s life is not an easy one, fraught as it is by encounters with lapses in grammar that can tear one’s heart out. Every time I read the signs I was sure I detected a disturbance in The Force.)
Be that as it may, at NRCC, the soothing acronym for the Centre, one will learn tons about our friend, C dromedarius, the Ship of the Desert. I would bet dollars-to-donuts that most of you did not know there are four kinds of camels in Rajasthan. They roughly correspond to our more familiar Percheron or Clydesdale horse, a Ferrari, the Holstein cow and, for the sake of a one-on-one comparison, the bovine we call a Jersey. The corresponding camels are the Bikaneri, Jaisalmeri, Kachchhi and Mewari. (And, by the by, there are, indeed, two ‘hs’ in the third type; I am disappointed you would think I could make such an error. Perhaps we cannot be pen pals after all.)
As we walked the camel world, absorbing minutiae such as a dry and thirsty camel may slurp down its 200 litres (53 gallons) in three minutes, an enormous male was indicated, standing in his outdoor stall. His legs were hobbled. Our guide said he was a particularly ornery and nasty bad boy. A big bastard he proved to be when I walked closer to take his portrait and he pivoted away facing west leaving me with only an eastern view. Several times I jockeyed for a better angle without getting too close but he deftly rotated away, giving me the stink eye as he continued to ruin a perfectly good shot. I believe I profaned god in a moment of pique.
Not being privy to the dromedary tongue, I could be wrong but I think he uttered something about Camelid Union, Local 666, suggesting he refuse to pose for the western infidel seeking to monetize his good studly looks for financial gain that will not be shared.
As one of the Centre’s remits is the selective breeding of a number of the 314 camels currently in its care, we were fortunate to be visiting during the rut. Camels, if you must know, are the only ungulates that mate in a sitting position and the female does not ovulate until semen is present in the vagina, a sort of cart-before-the-horse-scenario. Modesty prevents me from writing more. That, plus the fact that breeding is a man-controlled affair and, darn it all, we did not actually get to view any couplings, tho you would certainly be amazed at the size and length of the extremity our young and hip friends labelled a male camel’s junk.
We did get to hear many examples of the male mating call, to which the females were all ears, each pointing toward the sounds of particular males. I managed to get a recording of this remarkable sound and will try to figure out how to edit and post it in the future. It is an incredibly deep rumble that carries a great distance. The closer I stood to a braying male the more physically palpable the rumble. I was reminded of the low decibel notes of whales with their oceanic song moving through the vastness of their seas. It is said that the notes of a male singing off the coast of Maine can be picked up on the other side of the Atlantic! What I find extraordinary, and did not know until looking up camelids a moment ago to find out if I was correct in naming all seven members of the species, is that aquatic cetacea such as whales evolved from artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates, leading modern taxonomists to sometimes combine these as Cetartiodactyla. My brain leap about the power of the male camel’s voicing does, therefore, have a relationship to that of the whales. “Fascinating, Jim… highly logical.”
A male camel, let’s call him Joe for the sake of anthropomorphizing, does this auditory magic through his dulla, an inflatable sac in his throat. He projects this sac from his mouth during rut, moving air to create the sound. I did wonder why one male’s tongue looked so strange, swollen and pink lolling out the side of his mouth. It was , in fact, his dulla! The actual camel tongue is a barbarous affair able to eat leaves off acacia trees protected by two-inch thorns. They happily munch threw it all.
(Then again, as I ruminate, I realize camels are always chewing because they have cuds they regurgitate from their four-chambered stomachs. Chewing a cud puts Camel Joe on my ritually clean list, as a possible meal, but this is negated by the fact that his feet, thank Yahweh, are not possessed of the all-important split, or cloven, hoof. Leviticus, for us, the Chosen, is nothing if not thorough: pigs, cloven but no cud; rabbits, cud but not cloven. And so it goes. When I went to college I left these laws and crossed over to the dark side. Muslims, notably, do eat camel meat and justify it by pointing to the New Testament saying Jesus and Paul made all foods edible, something the Chinese and Japanese have perfected.)
As a keeper placed an in-hand bridle or halter, on handsome stud Joe to lead him to water, every resident in the female pen about 200 feet away, even the yearlings lying in sternal recumbency, came to rapt attention, heads and eyes moving in locked unison. Befitting his star turn, Camel Joe seemed to add a little extra oomph to his strutting pace (not trotting – look it up!); his smokin’ chance on the runway of life. With all the testosterone in the air I did not notice if the keeper actually made Joe drink, thus barring me from coining an unforgettable phrase that some long-ago sage beat me to when it comes to horses.
If you visit NRCC most of the place is off-limits as it really is a research station. But there are a few obligatory rooms of tourist merchandise facing a walkway, all watched over by a few desultory vendors. There is also a little museum and, outside the main gate, next to the admissions window, a place to buy kulfi on a stick, a frozen dairy dessert more dense and creamier than our ice cream. Here, of course, it is made from camel milk. It is divine and the serving size is on the parsimonious side. At $.77 each why not buy two! I tend to avoid dairy products in less hygienic environments (read: the countryside of India) but the NRCC runs a clean food operation. Plus camel milk can be left out without refrigeration for 8 to 9 hours without spoiling.
(The King of Legend, not General Douglas Mac)
It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.
The kulfi must be perfect, all the whole-long year.
Although India ought to be on the list of world cultures that one visits in a lifetime of travel, it is probably not for all travelers. Well, let me modify that with a caveat. If one includes the category of luxury travel where one essentially floats through an environment in an air-conditioned, antiseptic bubble with your personal Jeeves at the beck and call… if that is your cup of Darjeeling them yes, Incredible India may be for you, too.
One of the Must-Do’s not on my India Bucket List, however, was the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan. It draws Indian pilgrims from far and wide with a smattering of tourists thrown in (I saw one, presumably non-Indian, European while I visited.) But there are about 25,000 kabbas resident here (give or take; I saw a dead one on my exploration.)
A Wikipedia entry, taken from the Lonely Planet travel guide, explains the place best:
“Legend has it that Laxman, Karni Mata’s stepson (or the son of one of her storytellers), drowned in a pond… while he was attempting to drink from it. Karni Mata implored Yama, the god of death, to revive him. First refusing, Yama eventually relented, permitting Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats.”
Yes, you read that correctly; a kabba is a rat. Specifically, it is a member of the species Rattus rattus, the lovable black rat, every child’s idea of the perfect pet and not to be confused with its more malleable cousin, Rattus norvegicus, the brown, better known as the Norway, or Sewer, rat. Everyone on the planet knows this latter beastie because it is the staple of research laboratories, pet stores and is, alas, the most successful and common mammal on the planet – with the notable exception of humans. Only Antarctica has been spared (for now).
While I was looking up at the acre of wire mesh that covers the mostly open-air compound and thinking of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague, a kabba, scurrying to a destination unknown to me, ran over my right foot. This is considered especially lucky, bestowing only good things upon one so blessed. To my credit I did not scream.
I think the overhead wire mesh is to keep out the large numbers of Columbidae livia, rock doves, whose planetary feral populations have exploded. (I will go out on a limb right now and hazard that they are number three on the list of earth’s most cosmopolitan mammals.) You and I, and everyone else we know, simply call this bird a pigeon. It is a certainty that these rats-on-wings would dive in and settle down to eat the ample food stores spread around for the kabbas, for India, as elsewhere, is profoundly inundated with pigeons. The wire screen roof also keeps out India’s many birds of prey. It would be bad form to let any of the temple’s 25,000 holy inhabitants end up as meals-that-squeals.
Naturally, there is a distinct odor to the complex, one that might charitably be called barnyardy. I suppose it is a combination of the mammal residents, the food spread around by visitors and the excrement left after the food is eaten. As if to get even for their exclusion, there is also an unfair amount of pigeon poop because the wire screening cannot, of course, keep it from dropping in to pay its respects to the unfairly favored King Rat.
As with all India’s sacred spaces, shoes are verboten! 99% of pilgrims leave theirs helter-skelter in the street-cum-public-square in front of the temple, tho there is an official concession for footwear storage just a few meters beyond. The attendants looked lonely so I used it. (No, that’s a lie: they were not lonely; so many people had looked Keenly at my sandals I was worried about some less-than-honest pilgrim waddling off in them so checked my sandals properly.) The shoe storage sits at one end of the row of kitschy concessions lining two sides of the square. All sell sweets, snacks and every tacky knick-knack known to rat-dom (don’t groan, I could have written ‘ratty’ instead of ‘tacky’.) The atmosphere would not be out of place as the Midway of a 1960s circus with touts trying to snare passers-by one and all. I, in thoughtful foresight, wore a pair of those little hospital socks with grippy pads on the soles as an ensemble with my sandals. Lord (Krishna) knows if I would have had the fortitude to cross the street and enter the temple with feet unclad by sox once I checked my Keens into official care.
On a highbrow note, there is excellent architecture to indulge in and a set of solid silver doors, even if the bulk of the temple is painted Pepto-Bismol pink. My one complaint is that the large marble lions outside really ought to have been over-sized King Rats. Attendees may cast this as a matter of little consequence; the lions are rarely visible because of the hordes of Indians who lounge over them executing self-portraits. The European visitor and myself were the only ones I saw actually taking pictures of the temple; everyone else simply used the temple and its parts as their selfie back-drop, as is the case at every other site in India. At least Karni Mata is on flat, solid ground. The railings at the battlements of forts and palaces have oftentimes been installed after someone forgets they are hundreds of meters in the air and leans back for a better facial photo extension. I am not making this up.
For you early birds Karna Mata opens at 4:00 am. It is dark then so for the squeamish maybe that would be the best time to go. As there is so much food about, and rats are easily distracted, there is ample tucker for one and all, including you, dear visitor. It is said that eating food nibbled on by the rats is a high honor. If you will, please let me know how that works out. Also let me know if you see one of the rare white rats. You guessed it: that is also an auspicious honor. In this particular quest I failed. I thought to dash out and cross the square to find a flute (probably available as one is always shown with Krishna in a playing posture) and I’m sure a pied suit could have been procured, as well. Then I came to my senses and ended this line of reverie. Who wants to end up as a fatality statistic after luring all the rats out of Karni Mata just to sight a white one?
Some of you reading this may take my tone amiss, as a bit of unenlightened, agnostic snark. Please do not interpret my remarks this way: for those who travel, if you do not go to India you will have missed a precious and wonderful chapter of the human novel!
Well, that about sums up this installment except to write that while there are many monkey temples in India, Karna Mata is unique, as far as I know. And I am satisfied to report: Been there! Done that!
(with apologies to Miss Freeman, my 8th grade English teacher, from whom I learned the proper setup of an octave and a sestet for the Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnet forms. First know the artistic rules and then feel free to break them.)
Welcome to Mother India
Wellspring of Religions galore
You’ve probably Tech-Talked to us
Way down in Bangalore
East meets West – We’ve all the Best
Paintings with Class; our Jewelry – a Blast
Music and Dance; Textiles that Prance
Stone sculptures of Schist; Ah… feelings of bliss.
But, as in any form of living thing, mi’ lad
Good lives not unalloyed with the bad.
Meditate on this,
Hurriedly or at Ease:
Enter India if you Please
At some small personal Risk.
Photographer-Filmmaker Fan Ho / 何藩
(8 October 1937, Shanghai – 19 June 2016, San Jose, CA)
As Evening Hurries By. One of the photographer’s own favorites.
Somehow I missed the notice that one of my handful of favorite photographers, Fan Ho, passed to that darkroom in the sky in June of this year at the age of 78. (Many biographies list his birth as 1931.)
In the 1950s and the 1960s, Fan Ho stalked the streets, alleys, tenements, waterways and markets of Hong Kong with his Rollei Twin Lens Reflex, possessed of a deft compositional sense and a patient* eye for light and shadow. In so doing he inadvertently documented a city that would morph into the great metropolis it is today. His poignant, compassionate and artful portfolio from this time relates a humanist sentiment highlighted by a geometric touch salted with intriguing chiaroscuro. He was able, equally, to portray Hong Kong as a hive of activity or as a nearly deserted monument to the individual.
It is unfortunate today that many young photographers are not familiar with his work. For those who are, one of the facts they know is that the Photographic Society of America consistently listed Ho as one of the world’s top ten photographers every year from 1958 to 1965. He was the recipient of some 300 photography awards over a long career and also directed 27 films (also acting in a few!) His diversity sprung, no doubt, from his feeling that, “I hate to repeat myself.”
What is probably less known is that Fan Ho had a self-deprecating and very refined sense of humour; his wit was infectious and ever-present.
Fan Ho was about the last of a generation of image-makers who made photography the modern expression we see today.
He will be missed.
* Approaching Shadow (1954). For many years I marveled at this photograph and thought of it as one of the small number of decisive moment masterpieces. Now that I know more about it I still find it entirely captivating as, apparently, did the buyer at Bonhams (Hong Kong) in 2015 who purchased it for HK$375,000 (US$48,000), a Fan Ho record. In fact, Ho used his niece for the model against the wall and a draughtsman’s triangle in the darkroom to create that dramatic edge of shadow! To me the artist’s darkroom manipulation makes this image no less great.