May 31, 2011

I will not stop for petrol in Uis

I will not stop for petrol in Uis.

Uis ("wees"), Namibia is an old mining town with one petrol station.

Uis has its tin mine and it has the fact that 13 soccer players, traveling through, were buried in its cemetery after using a poisonous plant to stoke their camp fire.

And, while I feel sorry for the 13 boys who had one last ill-fated night under the moonlit Namibian sky, I feel most for the grave digger who was told to dig 13 graves in the rocky soil that is Uis.  Thirteen graves is more than his annual average, I am sure, and finding 13 spots where you can dig deep without hitting bedrock must have seem an impossibility.

Beyond the mine and the graves, Uis is mostly known for being a town with a petrol station, because no matter where you start from, or where you are going, you will have to stop for petrol in Uis. 

It is a geographical phenomenon.

When you stop for petrol, you car is immediately surrounded by guys with crystals from the nearby Brandberg.  Tourmaline, amethyst, smoky quartz.  Citrine and fluorite.  The crystals are the size of peanuts and golf balls, and they are bunched on cardboard or styrofoam display trays, covered in dust.

"Sir the mine is closed.  You must buy so we can have bread."

"Sir, you bought from him.  I am hungry, too."

In your face.  Arms through the window that you left down a split second too long.

Ironically, the stones are actually pretty and they catch the sun in magical ways.  You might have considered buying if the guys didn't descend on you like a butterfly finding the last dew drop in a desert.  Tourists, it seems, are a valuable resource.

"Sir, maybe two small stones so I can feed my daughter?"

The guy pumping petrol appears to be in on the push, because he is taking way too long to fill my tank!

"Sir, do you have coins for me?  I will tell you a funny story?"

Odd, but somehow it is hard to think you might laugh after this assault on your sanity, but it turns out to not be a problem---his story is not funny.   But, it earns him coins.  His gambit, that you will eventually give in, pays off.  The fact that a bad joke is more appealing than the rocks they are selling says something about their marketing strategy.

And so, I tell myself, I will not stop for petrol in Uis.  Never again.

I will fill up at the last possible town before Uis, or I will risk running empty as I go past Uis at 80 km/hr.

The next town offers protection.  Petrol stations where the owners have security to keep the pumps clear of these guys.  Protection that balances the risk of running out of petrol in the desert by skipping Uis.

Protection.  So that I can ignore them and their hunger.  So I don't have to decide whose story is the saddest or who is just a con man.  So I can concentrate on my trip, and get out to purchase a Coke without being mobbed.

"Sir, can you also buy me bread when you go in the store?"

There is no need to call me "Sir" while I am ignoring you.  I am not going to stop to buy petrol in Uis.

30 May 2011
L. Powell, in Windhoek (realizing it is fine to be uncomfortable at having successfully skipped the petrol station in Uis; sometimes, you just have to allow yourself to feel uncomfortable, I think)

May 30, 2011

Lost image

The moment every photographer fears

is when the river,
winding through grass as tall as your head, points
directly to the setting sun

or when the lion,
standing cross-wise in a warm
patch of light,
meets your gaze only for a moment

or when the woman,
dusty and out-of-breath from a
hard day in the field,
turns and smiles with white teeth,
full lips, and calm, dark eyes

or when cool days cause leaves
to fall on rocky paths in
stochastic sets of color
before you walk on a frosted morning.

that the camera is not at
hand, or the lens cap is on,
or there is nowhere to stop the
car, or that the settings are one
stop off, or that the focus will suffer.

because there is no
bringing back the sun from dusk,
and lions only look once, and it is
not possible to ask her to smile again
in the same way.  And, frost melts.

Moments such as these can be reconstructed by poets
and relived by storytellers
and even enhanced by painters.
But, for the camera, they are gone.

Now, you realize that you collect
moments with the lens,
and you use images
to invite others
to stand by the river
or seek landscapes with lions
or look for beauty in dusty fields,
or be the first down forest paths.

This is photography.
The art that arises from perpetual fear.

29 May 2011
L. Powell, near Uis, Namibia

Home again

It was while I was shaving
that the mountain burst into flames.
Granite ignited by the sunrise, and
I was home again.

It was while I pulled into their gate,
with the familiar sign and dusty lane
that the fields turned green.
Grass and bush transformed by familiarity, and
I was home again.

I was while we were talking
about old times and stories
that I smiled.
Two people brought together, and
I was home again.

It was while I was driving
down the long road
and crested the hill to see the valley.
Ridges and grassscapes and horizons brought once more into focus, and
I was home again.

It was when I was walking
on paths that went where I told them to go
that the way seemed sure.
Clarity spawned from not worrying about where to put my feet, and
I was home again.

It was when I was leaving
that I knew.
I had been home again.

28 May 2011
L. Powell 
At the Brandberg.  At home.

Zebra snake mathematics

There is a zebra snake in my bathroom!

Without first seeing its coils,
striped crossways as if
instructions of where to
hack it to bits,
I would have not given the
risk so high a measure.

But now, with visions of
slithering, heat-seeking, camouflaged stealth,
no other thoughts cross my mind.

Awareness of danger is a
discontinuous function,
jumping from 'empty' to 'full'
as the result of one casual glance.

Snake mathematics,
where 1 may as well equal
100 or 1000.

Soon, a major distraction,
such as breakfast or a sunrise,
resets my concern
to zero.
Some may argue that
apathy is where the real danger lies...

It is a binomial landscape
that I walk.
"Snakes" or "no snakes" serving
as a guide to my primordial instincts.

There is a zebra snake in my bathroom!

L. Powell
27 May 2011
Brandberg, near Uis, Namibia

Written after changing rooms when a zebra snake (spitting cobra) showed itself in my first chalet.  It was later re-identified as a harmless tiger snake, but the former identification was the most interesting.

May 26, 2011

Namibia study abroad trip

Just a quick note and toss to another blog...I've been enjoying a study abroad trip with students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Namibia, where my family spent a year in 2009.  It's been great to see former friends and stay with people we met during our year abroad.  Check out the students' blogs and photos here.

Here's a photo to get you in the mood--students dancing with Himbas (one of Namibia's indigenous groups).  With the Himba people, who cover themselves with red ochre, "Go Big Red" takes on a new meaning!

May 8, 2011

And, back to Namibia: follow along if you like

If you'd like to follow along with eight University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, the intrepid Dr. Mark Pegg, and me, who will soon be tripping through Namibia, here is a blog for our adventure.  Here's to leaving spring for fall, in the southern hemisphere!

May 5, 2011

Understanding farm families: conservation on private lands

In a previous post, regarding the loss of CRP acres as corn prices soar, I commented that wildlife biologists were going to have to find new ways to work in this new paradigm--and that "Farm Bill biologists" might need to re-tool.  Some courses in ecotourism and entrepreneurism might be in order, as one example.

I do feel, strongly, that many conservation-minded urbanites don't understand farmers--especially the fact that their land purchase represents an investment, for which they need economic return.  Just like purchasing a store-front property at the mall.  Somehow, we forget that land is a private resource, and perhaps the confusion comes from that fact that wildlife on the land is a public resource.  The pairing of public/private can get tricky.

My Wildlife Ecology and Management course just finished their habitat management unit, in which we focus on Farm Bill programs.  There are no textbooks that cover the topic well, so I provide the students with a study guide.  In the study guide, as I did on my previous post, I discuss our pheasant research on CRP in eastern Nebraska--and the fact that within a few years, most of the land had been plowed back up for corn/soybeans.  But, I add this encouragement for students to consider:

"We should emphasize—these decisions are made by landowners who are supporting their families.  Every one of the landowners on our study site also liked wildlife, but when you can make more money by changing the way you do business, any sane person would make the same decision.  We shouldn’t expect anything else—farmers compared costs and benefits!  As wildlife biologists, we have to figure out how to do our job in this environment."

As an instructor in the era of texts and tweets, you're never quite sure if your ideas make it into the milieu of things that students continue to think about.  So, I enjoyed getting this spontaneous email today, from one of my students:

"I come from a farming background and I really appreciate the inclusion of this paragraph because it sees the issue from both standpoints.  Too often it seems farmers get bashed for not doing what is good for wildlife and the environment, but it doesn't mean we don't care, because I certainly do, it's just sometimes difficult to live that lifestyle and make enough of a profit when supporting a family."
I just hope that a couple of students with urban backgrounds also read that paragraph in the study guide twice!

May 2, 2011

A sonnet to a house sparrow

Oh, for a sparrow's dream to build a nest
When Spring comes forth to claim a feathered heart.
This take of space and hole and tree is test
Of purpose keen when speed is want ov'r art.

Sings loud the male to cheer his busy mate,
As tattered shreds of blades of old are teased
Into a bowl to rest and incubate,
Then feed and grow and fledge, last pause, well pleased.

But for the will of hands of mine, intent
To save said nest for birds of sheen more blue.
Our sparrow starts once ov'r to pay the rent
Of love besought, but not denied, so true.

A plain brown blur in bush and nest reminds
Love of blue birds may cause to miss Divine.

L. Powell, Lincoln, NE   
Watching house sparrows take over a nest box intended for bluebirds or chickadees.  After one attempt to clear the box, I decided to let birds do what birds do.  

Image courtesy of the Texas Bluebird Society, which captioned it "this non-native bird must not be allowed to nest." 

A side note: my PhD co-advisor, Dr. David Krementz is well-known for his support of sparrows in bluebird boxes.  As the Omaha Audubon newsletter writes, regarding the practice of removing sparrows from nest boxs intended for bluebirds:   "Still, there are those--such as David Krementz, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Athens, Ga.--who believe house sparrows have as much right to live as bluebirds. Bluebird enthusiasts are "playing God," says [D]r. Krementz, who studied house sparrows for his Ph.D. thesis and learned to "like everything about them." He adds that house sparrows have subtle but interesting coloration, animated mating behavior and feed on Japanese beetles, moths, wasps, crab grass and ragweed.

"[D]r. Krementz has infuriated bluebird lovers by setting out nesting boxes to attract house sparrows and starlings, which he uses in his field research. But he practices a live-and-let-live philosophy that he thinks bluebird devotees might well follow. "When I got bluebirds in my starling boxes, I let them be," he says. "I didn't pull their heads off or gas them." "