Coastal Oregon in the spring is wet, cold, miserable, and beautiful. I loved it. I lived there once upon a time as a field technician on a seabird project, a job which did not require shoes nor a shirt. Living in feral bliss, my daily commute was a sandy and soggy walk from my tent through a driftwood labyrinth to a bird blind about 1/2 mile away. While walking to the blind one day, I unexpectedly came face-to-face with this furry harbor seal pup alone on the beach. Seal pups are often stashed onshore by their mothers while they forage just offshore, so this seal was quite safe. Legislation also protects these beached pinnipeds, so I snapped a quick shot before backing off and climbing over the driftwood berms to circumvent the cached seal on my way to the terns. By evening, it had retreated into the tides back amongst the anadromous fish.
I often think about this image.
Today is a day to reflect on love and love takes many forms.
I took this photo on a shitty camera phone in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem sometime during 2012. I was walking through the park on the way back to my brownstone apartment and this stump totally floored me. I sat and contemplated it for almost an hour thinking about the entwined narratives of this tree’s existence. I thought about this life of the tree in that somewhat underserved city park. Marcus Garvey (a fascinating Civil Rights activist and Pan Africanist of whom I was shamefully ignorant until I lived in Harlem) Park lacks the grandeur of Central Park or Fort Tryon Park – in the years I lived there, it was ranked as the worst park in Manhattan - but it is an invaluable green space for the residents of central Harlem. Although I frequently found syringes and condoms on the upper level, the lower level was a place for children swinging on playgrounds, basketball, drum circles, dog walking, and chess. It was a place for community. This tree was most likely planted by some municipal worker as it was a small sapling. It was potentially neglected by maintenance crews but still managed to grow in the shadows of the offices and housing projects surrounding the park. As it grew, it somehow found a special place in the heart of at least one of the area’s residents. In an environment of constant motion like that in Manhattan, I can appreciate solace of constant constants. Storytelling is a crucial component of humanity and it is often rooted in experience and attachment to place. We tell stories about the things we know and things we love, and this tree was a familiar life in denizens of this neighborhood. It was a life that could be reliable in the high paced environment of urban living and I love how others acknowledged its existence and its struggle for survival.
At lot has happened in Harlem since the 1950’s. It is a place that has been the cultural center of a political and racial movement that has played a key role in African American culture. And -if the date sharpied into the stump is to be believed – this tree witnessed a huge shift in that movement. Not long after this tree sprouted, it would have seen the turmoil of this neighborhood in riotous days after Martin Luther King was assassinated. This tree would have been but a sapling when tens of thousands of people descended on what was then known as Mount Morris Park to celebrate the culture of this neighborhood in Harlem’s Summer of Soul in 1969. This tree remained a strong presence through the darkest days of the crack epidemic that plagued this area for over a decade starting in the mid 1980’s. And in a post 9/11 and post Giuliani NYC, this tree experienced the quiet and abrupt gentrification of a Manhattan north of Central Park.
Beyond all of these culturally iconic moments, my most visceral reaction to this stump was rooted in my appreciation for an emotional connection to another being, a sense of sadness when that connection is lost, and a need to memorialize that relationship to grieve that loss. I love that someone was able to find solace in a plant that was hopefully able to give them some sense of peace in the frenetic pace of Manhattan. I love that someone loved this tree.
I once read that hartebeest (or rather the tribe Ancelaphinae) are among the most evolutionarily derived bovids. I don’t really know if it’s true (subsequent investigations into bovid phylogenies make me think I’m not too crazy for remembering this bit of trivia) but I do know that they are remarkable animals blessed with goofy long face, an efficient loping gait, and remarkable hooked horns. In watching the males fight, they jostle for a lower position, often resting their metacarpals in the mud to give themselves better leverage. They then force themselves into their opponents and lock those hooked horns in a violent embrace. It’s loud and it’s raw
These two particular male Jackson’s hartebeest in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park fought for well over 5 minutes, and the exhaustion was evident in their heavy breathing fatigued charges.
This trek was only meant to be a 3 hour jaunt, but I didn’t curl up in my sleeping bag until 2 am. Earlier that afternoon, I had arrived in New Zealand’s Aoraki National Park and was looking to stretch my legs in the area around my basecamp before heading out on what I thought would be some more ambitious treks in the following days. Having arrived on the South Island a few days earlier, the chill of the southern hemisphere late winter was new and refreshing. Layered up in my down, I headed on a quick sunset hike to some nearby glacial lakes. As the last of the rosy hues reflected off the snowy mountain peaks, I donned my headlight and made my way back towards my tent. As the red sky turned dark, though, my pace slowed to a near crawl. The heavens over the mountains were lit up with more stars than I knew existed. The combination of crisp mountain air, a novel environment, a stunning sunset, a sense of freedom, and an unimaginable stellarscape led me to a near a near euphoric bliss. We all experience these moments when circumstance meets mindset and we are able to appreciate the beauty around us. Often, it takes a grand landscape to jar me into the spectacular reality, but on my best days, it can be experienced through intentional focus on surroundings and experiences. On this symbolic day of thoughtful self-improvement, I aspire to appreciate and foster for others more moments of bliss in nature, community, and self. I hope that 2022 will be a more blissful year for everyone.
Although the etymology of the word 'giraffe' is a bit ambiguous, one of my favorite explanations of the name is that it is partially rooted in the Arabic word 'zarafa' which roughly translates to 'fast walker'. For these desert and savannah wanderers, covering substantial ground is often a requisite to find sufficient resources. With their long legs and graceful gate, they are supremely adapted to meet this challenge.
In the otherworldly landscapes of Namibia's ephemeral Hoanib, desert elephants saunter between water points, stripping the high branches of Fadherbia trees along the sandy dry river beds. They are giants in a barren land.
In the hyper-arid deserts of western Namibia, rainfall is an infrequent luxury. Fog represents the most reliable source of water and many of the ecosystem’s plants and animals have evolved ways to subsist on moisture from the air. As weather patterns become less predictable under different climate change scenarios, it remains uncertain how these specialized organisms can adapt to these changing conditions. Life on the edge is challenging and changing the rules of the game can have dramatic consequences for the area's inhabitants.
Check out the link below for some reading on the fog dependent wildlife of the Namib:
As and aside, the bottom of this image also features the delightfully mysterious fairy circles of the desert. If you're up for a good time on a Friday night, you should read about them too...
The Hoanib River Catchment embodied much of what I imagined Northwest Namibia to be: rugged, remote, and harsh. I was unprepared, however, for how stunningly beautiful it was. The early morning and evening light hit the canyon walls and mountain sides at oblique angles, painting the texture of the rocks with new shadows and colors, constantly changing the scenery. This evolving landscape supported an amazing diversity of wildlife and a relative abundance of giraffe.
We have been studying the movement ecology of giraffe in this area, and in the lower Hoanib, we encountered a few of the individuals sporting GPS units. These are the same giraffe that I have been monitoring from afar for the past 2 years and it was a privilege to finally share space with them and experience the rivers that support these desert wanders. Beyond analyzing remotely sensed data, an understanding of these beings requires more intimate perspective, and offered a valuable glimpse into how these giraffe navigate these arid environments
We first caught glimpse of the Haurosib River as we drove back inland from the barren Skeleton Coast. Descending into the river plain from the surrounding mountains, I was immediately struck by the wide and productive desert riparian zones. An oasis of greenery in an otherwise rusty and tawny landscape, this river system held relatively large numbers of giraffe and other animals tucked amongst the Salvadora persica and Acacia tress. We camped in one such area along the sandy riverbed and set up our tents in the shadow of a large bull giraffe.
The largest town in this area is Puros, which is an eclectic smattering of houses and trading posts on the flat desert along the banks of the ephemeral Huarsib river. In Puros, the river bed meanders across an open plain, but just upstream, it emerges from impressive canyons tucked in forbidding mountains, before branching and disappearing into similar mountains just downstream. Here, water is life but it is elusive, snaking its way in and out of impassable canyons, leaving just enough open area, woody vegetation, and water beneath the earth's surface to sustain the areas' wildlife and people, tucked amongst the dunes.
The diversity of environments that giraffe inhabit is not only apparent at the continental scale, but also at the intrapopulation level. I recently returned from a couple weeks in Northwest Namibia where I worked with colleagues to survey giraffe in three different ephemeral river systems that primarily drain into the Skeleton Coast. These tree-lined sandy depressions create arteries of vegetation through an otherwise barren landscape, sustaining life between the infrequent rains. Despite being separated by only a few kilometers - and some formidable mountains - each river system, and the surrounding areas had remarkably different ecological rhythms.
Our surveys began in the areas surrounding the hyper arid Khumib River Catchment, one of the drier and northerly river systems in western Namibia. From the crimson sands of the Marble plains to the barren expanses of the Ensengo and Gomatum, these Martian landscapes provided otherworldly backdrops for giraffe. Perhaps more impressive was the number the thriving Himba communities along these desiccated waterways. I have spent most of the last decade studying giraffe and other megaherbivores in the savannahs of east Africa, so these first few days of surveys in Northwest Namibia gave me a much more visceral appreciation the resilience of these incredible animals and their ability to thrive in some of the harshest landscapes I've experienced.