Sunday, September 26, 2010

Kenya 2010: And They Descended from Dinosaurs

Now that summer has come and gone, I find that I spend the majority of my "free time" preparing lessons for my Advanced Placement Biology courses. You'd think that a guy with a B.S. in Ecology and Evolution, a Masters in Biology, and eighteen years of teaching experience would breeze through his lessons each day... nothing could be further from the truth. The A.P. Bio curriculum is so comprehensive, that I need to spend many hours a week studying, preparing and rewriting lessons. Sure I've taught this class for more than a decade, but look how much biology has changed in that time. 
Our knowledge of genes and genetics have been transformed as we've learned more about the genetic code. When I began my formal studies of biology in the 1980's, we described genes as discrete units that coded for specific proteins. We believed that humans were so complex, we assumed that our genome would be twice as large as a mouse. While we didn't know much about the mouse genome, scientists' believed that humans must have at least one-hundred thousand genes... this seemed like a big enough number. Biologist understood that genes had to be regulated... turned on and turned off, be we were clueless about the mechanism. 
Fast-forward thirty years... today we discuss the key regulatory sites on what were once called non-coding sequences of DNA, we've learned that epigenetics can result in short term inheritance of characteristics, and we now know that humans probably have fewer than thirty-thousand genes.
So what does all of this have to do with Kenya, Birds, and dinosaurs? Well having spent this weekend with my nose in books, thinking about metabolism, enzymes, and DNA, I couldn't help but recall a college lecture delivered by a stodgy old professor. We were studying patterns in evolution and comparative physiology when this prof said, "and you know, the dinosaurs didn't go extinct... today, we call them birds." This was the first time I heard the hypothesis and saw the anatomical evidence that changed the way I understood the connectedness between all living organisms on this planet. So, as I think about teaching my students about our current understanding of DNA and how it demonstrates the way life is intimately linked through billions of years of evolution, I offer you the opportunity to think about prehistoric times and the dinosaurs of our day. 
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Favorite Places: Tamarack Nature Center

This is the first in what promises to be a series of posts where I will share locations that have inspired me and my photography. I plan to pepper these stories and reflections of "Favorite Places" once a month throughout the year. 
Today, I'd like to introduce you to Tamarack Nature Center. Every nature photographer needs a place like Tamarack. Located less than fifteen miles from my home in Stillwater MN, I can role out of bed before sunrise, slam a cup of coffee and be at this sweet little spot before I am even awake. Just north of the Twin Cities, this 320 acre preserve lies in the heart of suburbia,... but you would never know it. Pulling into the parking lot, you can see the old oak forest in the distance. As you pass the interpretive/education center, you will be greeted by a small but biologically diverse prairie habitat. Bluestem and side-oat grasses are intermixed with wildflowers like lupine, milkweed, cone flower, bee balm and black-eyed susan. At the fringe of the prairie are tamarack trees with their delicate cones, and a few old and weathered jack pines. 

The prairie gives way to a wildlife viewing platform to the north and a lake to the south. Ringing the park is a boardwalk that includes miles of trails where you can wander through a cattail marsh, oak savanna, and tall-grass prairie. 
Tamarack is a creative outlet for me. Working full time as a teacher, I do not have the flexibility to jump on a plane, or take a road trip on a whim. Nonetheless, I feel the ever-present compulsion to take pictures, document moments, and tell a story.

Having this wild and diverse habitat so close to home has allowed me to experiment with my photography. While at Tamarack, I never feel as if I am missing a "once in a lifetime" shot, as a result, I am free to stretch and exercise my inner creativity. It is my belief that we all need our own little Tamarack... a place to wander, smell the earth, meditate, and live our passions.
I will be doing a talk and slide presentation at Tamarack Nature Center on Thursday September 30, and will exhibit an retrospective of nearly ten years of photography at the preserve from late October through November. If you would like to visit Tamarack Nature Center, please follow this link for directions to the preserve.
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kenya 2010: Lake Naivasha and Crescent Island

"I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills..."
So goes the opening line from Karen Blixen's memoir about her life in Kenya.
Made famous by Meryl Streep in the award winning movie "Out of Africa," Streep's Danish accent lingers in my head and reminds me of the racism that colonized East Africans were forced to endure. While Karen Blixen, might have been one the the "good ones," most Kenyans suffered the loss of their land and their culture under European oppression.
On December 12th, 1964 the Republic of Kenya was proclaimed to be an independent nation free of British colonial rule, and Jomo Kenyatta became the first president of the republic. Nearly fifty years later 67% of the Kenyan population voted to ratify a new constitution that redefined the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the government. The colony that once was, is no more... but its legacy continues to impact the populace today.
So, where does photography intersect with this geopolitical discourse? 
The past most definitely influences the present, and the actions of today determine what happens in the future. Traveling across Kenya from the arid north to its southern border with Tanzania, the influence of colonial rule was ever-present. Plantations still dot fertile mountain slopes, and while some of these farms are now the property of indigenous Kenyan families, others remain in the hands of a people who visited and never left. In Tanzania, the lyrical tones and inflections of Swahili ripple through the air, while the "King's English" seems to prevail in Nairobi and across the distant Kenyan countryside. 

The past has influenced the present, but it is not all bad. The European sensibility that embraces a natural landscape, is now an important part of the Kenyan psyche and culture. The Kenyan people recognize the importance and value of their wild resources, and they work to actively protect the landscape and participate the ecotourism that visitors travel so far to enjoy. 

Located at an altitude of 1,884m is Lake Naivasha. This freshwater lake has a surface area of nearly 140km², and is an important aquatic ecosystem that supports a diverse array of avian and mammalian fauna. Over 400 species of birds have been reported in this Rift Valley Lake and it is a great place to enjoy a boat safari. Our captain piloted our questionably seaworthy skiff with ease as he maneuvered us near nests, fish eagles, and groups of hippopotami. Having the opportunity to see and photograph these unique species at eye level from the water was an unexpected treat.
Located at the southeast edge of Lake Naivasha is Crescent Island. More accurately described as a peninsula, Crescent Islands juts into the lake and offers photographers the opportunity to participate in a walking safari. This island is home to zebra, giraffe, bushbuck, impala, waterbuck, gnu and numerous other prey species. The island lacks predators, so it is easy to navigate within and among animals that are normally quite wary of us. As we walked in and among these exotic giants our guide explained that Meryl Streep and Robert Redford were here. You see, it turns out that Karen Blixen's life, made famous by the movie "Out of Africa," was filmed on Crescent Island. This little peninsula within a Rift Valley lake is now a game sanctuary, that serves to protect Kenya's wild heritage that its people fought to reclaim.
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Torrents of Gooseberry Falls

Traveling north on Hwy 35 out of Minneapolis - St. Paul, you can't help but notice the profound changes in the landscape. The brief Minnesota fall is ablaze with its red, orange and gold deciduous woods; it's a band of forests that extend south and west along the river valley. There is no monotony on this four-lane slab of asphalt. Technicolor trees entertain the eyes for miles on end. In the Midwest we bask in the cornucopia that is Fall. We embrace all of its beauty... we know that a stark cold winter approaches.  
The north road climbs the remnants of an ancient mountain chain, and our vehicle crests high above Duluth and its infamous Great Lake to the east. Sugar maples and oaks give way to birch, aspen, and pine; we are entering the southern edge of the boreal ecosystem. The valley and its great lake are reminders of glaciers that once were, forces of nature that shaped the landscape that now seduce us with its beauty.

Summer and Fall rains pool in rivers and valleys, the flood surges east towards the greatest of lakes. Tributaries and creeks merge, they cascade down the ancient Sawtooth Mountains. Water jumps, splashes and fills the air with a fine mist. This is Gooseberry Falls and it is a Minnesota icon.
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Friday, September 3, 2010

Kenya 2010: Seeing with Intuition

Whenever intuition intersects with cognition, my photographic productivity suffers. 
I am drawn towards nature because I feel it, think it, and understand it. The complexities inherent in the natural world are not complexities to me; they are models based on interactions that coincide with my world view. To me, the patterns I observe in nature make sense, are logical, and form the basis in which I understand the world. To me, nature is intuitive. Because I have both an emotional and intellectual connection with the natural world, I see patterns and light in the environment in ways that I do not see anywhere else. This is why I am drawn to nature photography.

In contrast, when I over think the photographic process, I lose my ability to see. 
Photographers often claim to pre-visualize an image prior to shooting, and this is a skill on which I depend. However, this is not a cognitive exercise, it is intuitive... I am there, I feel my surrounding, and I know my goal. When I leave my comfort zone, my reflexive ability to see and to be in the moment dissipates. On these occasions my photography must evolve or it suffers. 
Here in lies the great challenge. I love to travel, explore our world, and interact with an environment that defines "the place." However, as soon as that place is defined by its human inhabitants, I lose my vision. It's not an irrational fear of humans, it's my discomfort with the voyeur in us all.
Voyeur... watcher... describer... interpreter... 
I do not like to be watched, nor do I want others to define me, yet this is what we do when we travel. We see their lives in their place and try to make sense of how they live. And I, with my camera, am the voyeur... the watcher... the describer... the interpreter. 
To some, the ability to mingle among our own is a source of comfort. These gifted photographers can wander through a crowd, relax their subjects and elicit a smile or capture that magic moment. This is their comfort zone, and when they are in the zone,... their photography is not cognitive... it is intuitive.
Today's images are of the Samburu people, and they are the indigenous inhabitants of Northern Kenya. The Samburu are a lesser known ethnic group whose connections point back to the Masai. Like their relatives to the south, the Samburu are semi-nomadic shepherds. Cattle is their currency, their measure of wealth, and their livelihood. These proud warriors wander among the lions, live off the land, and survive unimaginable hardships. The day we visited these people we learned about the drought, the collapse of their economy, and the challenges of their lives. 
I could not escape that feeling that haunts me when I travel among other humans... How can they be so happy when they have so little? I try not to be the voyeur, the watcher, the interpreter... I try to live in the moment, but I can't escape from my thoughts... they have so little and I have so much. I was not in the moment, I was thinking too much. In contrast, Tamy was there... she was in that intuitive place; you can see it in the girl's eyes above and the smirk below. My images are compelling, but I do not have what it takes to produce the image you see below. I am lucky to have a partner who can mingle among our own... I think I'll stick with nature.
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission