Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Vulture

Like it or not, the end of an year always smells a bit like the end of a cycle: something older than us which somehow makes all look ahead and follow the necessary transformation.

I had the luck to conclude my 2013, at least photographically speaking, sitting on a high rock in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia with ravens, vultures and several other birds of prey soaring in front of me in the crystalline mountain light.

When the most awaited one, the bearded vulture, finally came and slowly circled around my head, my eyes met its: I could perfectly see the famous "cercle rouge" around its orbits (please read the great Robert Hainard on this). Although being an atheist, by admiring the majestic lightness of this species (the "bone breaker") which arrives at the very end of an animal's life, I could not stop reflecting on the perfection of Nature when it comes to cycles. Materials (atoms!) that smoothly move from one creature to another - for ever. Nothing being wasted. Everything transformed. Endless life.

And so, I thought once again of the magic words of Robinson Jeffers in his poem "The vulture" and by thinking of death, I didn't feel sad, but instead it gave me more energies for the times ahead. 

My best wishes for a great New Year to all of you!

"The Vulture"
I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight- feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, 'My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.' But how
beautiful he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death. (Robinson Jeffers)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

My little "heart of darkness" – part one

Images and words ©Bruno D’Amicis/www.brunodamicis.com

Who knows why but I never dreamed of meeting a lion. Bears and wolves, oh yes, many times, and even tigers, pumas, jaguars and leopards; but no, a lion, just no. Is the indigestion of documentaries about savannah that I had as a child or perhaps the hundreds of stunning images taken almost daily in the most famous areas of Africa, but the lions have never stimulated my curiosity. And hence my vision and my photographic projects naturally developed in other climates and around other subjects. I swear, I never had plans to photograph a lion. Ever. Or at least until January of the past year...

After having previously worked there in December 2008, in the early 2012 I went back to Ethiopia, and more precisely in the remote region of Kafa, on behalf of the German NGO NABU to document landscapes and biodiversity of newly formed UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve. In addition to photographing an incredibly rich wildlife and the cultural sites of the region, I had been sent there with a precise "top secret" mission: to look for possible signs of lions in the lush mountain cloud forests, where rumors about sightings and attacks on livestock reported by the local population raised hope to find a small but possible core of individuals living in an environment and an elevation somewhat unusual.

As the name might suggest, Kafa, the legendary kingdom that endured until 1879 when it was overthrown by the Emperor Menelik II, is universally regarded as the birthplace of coffee. For centuries, protected by steep and misty mountains and wide chocolate-colored rivers, coffee plants of the wild variety, Coffea arabica, grew in virgin forests of the region, providing valuable benefits to local people, long before the Western world would discover the black beverage. But the current rate of population growth combined with an exponential increase of poverty has led to a rapid deforestation: with the axe and fire people are forced to turn the rainforest into agricultural areas or to sell off their land to foreign investors. Where once, Ethiopian forests used to cover more than 30% of the country, now they do not arrive at 3%. Much of what is left of these is in Kafa and represents the threatened biome of the afromontane evergreen forests, which beside the latest wild coffee plants hides many more treasures. Although it would take perhaps a few dozen pages or a monologue of a couple of hours to tell all what you can see in that place and make you understand what really these forests are, is nevertheless worth a try ...

After the pink color of dawn has abandoned the fog that covers the forests of Boginda, a new day in Kafa is announced by the harsh cries of guereza colobus monkey echoing along the valleys, while the hornbills, always in pairs as the police, fly slow by. Along the Gojeb river, the rare black crowned cranes leave a huge skeletal tree on which they spent the night together with elusive De Brazza's monkeys; chug the hippos in the water and scare dozens of giant and colorful butterflies. Troops of bushpigs and sketchy baboons patrol the forest floor at the feet of tall dracenae. In Mankira, beautiful turacos, green, red and blue, run quickly along the silvery branches of the coffee bushes, more like squirrels than birds. Calls, flights, jumps and whispers wake up the rare bamboo woods, so beautiful and perfect that seem to come out of a movie by Ang Lee and utterly out of place in this little piece of Africa. The light finally dissolves nocturnal feline shadows, which have concealed from terrified eyes the spotted mantle of a leopard, the scales of mamba and the jaws of hyenas. With more than 210 species of birds, 60 species of mammals and a ever-growing checklist of reptiles, amphibians, fish and plants, this kaleidoscopic ecosystem does not seem to miss anything. Yet until the early 1900s there were even elephants, perhaps the last true masters of these lands. But the lion? Possible that in such a diorama made of vines and giant ferns, epiphytes and fig trees, which grow up to 2500 meters above sea level, does roam the King of the savannah?

Before leaving, I diligently did my homework and researched about the species. But, apart from the famous paintings by Henri Rousseau, a song by the Evening Birds ("in the jungle ... the mighty jungle ... the lion sleeps tonight ...") and perhaps Disney's cartoons, honestly I did not find much more in the literature confirming a possible presence of Panthera leo in mountain cloud forests. I was really skeptical, but I would have still given it a try: there was nothing to lose and I had a couple of aces in the hole...

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The gift of the Bear

A day in May
The other night He has come. It had been already five or six afternoons that I was there waiting, lurking under a juniper in the anonymous valley at the border of the beech forest. I was feeling the fatigue from the many hours of waiting, but I didn’t get bored. The first evening a wolf, perhaps lost in its thoughts, had passed less than ten meters from my position; I had closely followed the exciting dalliances of cuckoos, and every afternoon I had fun searching with my binoculars for deer, wild boars, hares, and foxes in the surrounding meadows. That day, cool from the downpours of the previous days, was now drawing to a close and a sunset still different from the previous ones casted spots of lights on the mountain tops in the distance. After the sun had dropped behind the line of the hills and the nightjar began to sing, I realized that even that day He would not have come, and so I disassembled the camera equipment, stalled for hours on the tripod. Too bad: I really needed Him.
So, I stood up and loaded the backpack on my shoulders, turning back only to give a last glance at the valley. And then, as tradition dictates, I have seen Him. He was moving slowly through the old junipers, with the muzzle down and the fur golden and shiny, beautiful and perfect like all the good things of this world.
With sweaty hands and drumming heart, I crouched down again, slowly unloading the backpack and trying to quickly replace the equipment with all necessary precautions to minimize noise. In twenty seconds, the camera and telephoto lens were ready and I, on tiptoe, approached Him. My legs were shaking, but He was busy sniffing among rocks and shrubs and the wind was blowing towards me. Seventy meters ... fifty ... forty ... I so wanted to spend that evening with Him.
More out of habit than actual need, I hid under a blackthorn. I then placed the tripod, framed the picture and pressed the shutter button. He heard it and stopped immediately, turning His great head toward me: I was too close. The ears pointed in my direction, the nose up to sniff the wind (I could hear the sound of it) and the two little brown eyes that seemed rather perplexed in the advancing darkness. I remained still and holding my breath, waiting for His inevitable escape; furious with myself for my unseemly hybris and impatience. But, instead of running away, He sat down, continuing to look in my direction. And, for once, in His presence I felt something that I could define like an ancient and healthy fear. I felt so small and useless, while He was so big in the viewfinder of my camera! Dark brown, almost chocolate-colored on the flanks and abdomen, with cappuccino-colored spots on the head and back, which at times tinged with cream for a twist of the twilight.
And even in that moment of magic, all I could think of was to take another, stupid picture. He turned to the side, trying in any way not to look at me. Then, I understood and so lowered my gaze and the telephoto lens to the ground. Something like a light electric wave passed between us and immediately vanished.
Soon after, He got up and started to search for food, moving slowly, but with that special way at the same time naïve and determined that distinguishes Him. I followed at a distance, sparing the camera shots not to bother Him further and also because the light was almost gone. He ignored, perhaps accepted me. And so, once again, it was just me and Him in these humble Apennines: all for me, my dear old Marsican Brown bear!
Finally I was able to live again the true Italian miracle; perhaps, one of the best things that are left in this world. Full of gratitude and respect, in my heart I felt I had to solemnly bless those sacred moments and wondered why I was not allowed to live them every day.
The Bear, probably unaware of such clumsy mysticism, slowly climbed up the slope in front of me, elegantly reversing the gigantic stones He found on his path, and, when either my eyes or my camera could no longer make out His outline, I waved Him goodbye, heading rapidly in the opposite direction. My legs were flying over the rocks, as my head was elsewhere. I still had some way to go in the dark and reach my car.

A day in June
Once again happily lost among the benevolent limestone peaks of the Apennines, I was following an ancient path that climbed among centuries-old beech trees. Out of the woods, the clearing appeared to me in all its radiant beauty, the deep-green grass was dotted here and there with huge boulders overturned, all blinding white in the summer afternoon. In some places the grass had been trampled by a large animal; the stems browsed on top. Then, a big black turd, fresh and full of vegetable fragments, has opened a world of possibilities. Once again I felt I was on His steps in His territory and I knew I was privileged. I had two more hours before sunset.
I sat between two large rocks and waited: my shape confused with the shadows, my smell hopefully brought away by the wind. Small clouds flowed fast in the sky; in the woods, a collared pigeon could not stop cooing and distracted me from my thoughts. A male roe deer, all proud in his beautiful summer coat, came timidly out to my right and now was nervously grazing not far from me.
Every now and then he suddenly raised his nose from the grass, pointing his ears to the treeline at the end of the valley, as in alarm. Hopeful, I followed with anxiety and mild adrenaline rush those sudden movements and stared at the woods along with the deer. In my heart, I was looking forward to the appearance of that unmistakable shape and the strong and healthy emotion that always accompanied it.

Waiting, thoughts, weariness, hope. Meanwhile, the light faded and a sylark was singing the end of that day, so small in the azure sky, and higher than any eagle. I was grateful that very lark had escaped the hunters last fall. It was all so beautiful, but it was late and I had to go home.
I got up and, not without regret, I did flee the roe deer, which already was barking away. While loading the backpack, I followed with the gaze how the trail entered the woods, dark as the mouth of a large animal. A slight shiver went along my back. It was certainly not the first time I went through the beech woods alone at night!
I left the clearing and entered the trees. As these thickened, my eyes could barely make out the outlines and the shadows seemed more a projection of my mind than real things. I was forced to keep my eyes fixed on the stones of the path, still visible, but I was reluctant to turn on the flashlight, indulging in that black and white world, devoid of any references.

Steps, rustling, the wind in the leaves and the squeak of dormice: the beech forest came alive. At every noise my heart was sinking; every curve of the path was a barrier to overcome. The air was fresh and, above my head, the black shapes of twisted beech trees were silhouetted against the first stars of the night. Rehearsing next to an old tree stump, which I had seen on the way up and that a bear in search of insects had completely destroyed with its paws, I thought back to the overturned stones in the clearing and I felt the power of that presence and, again, that electric wave. It was not fear, but a very strong and primitive feeling, which perhaps I could describe as a mix of sharp attention, increased sensorial capacity, intense communication with the environment and a profound sense of humility.
I felt so small and the world around me didn’t see anymore so obvious. It was strange, but I liked it. Step by step, it was clear to me thar it was something important, rare and which came from afar. And so I indulged in it: it was the gift of the Bear. 
It was its mere presence, in fact, to establish the limits of those places: vast and timeless as the story they were telling. I wondered what would happen to the beech forest, to those mountains, if there would have been no longer bears. Who else would have allowed us, people of the third millennium, to experience those emotions like Pleistocene hunters? What else could have re-established the link between us and the wilderness?
One hundred, fifty, or just one, it does not matter: if there is still the Bear.
It would be nice, I said to myself, to share those feelings with others, even with those hungry "developers" of these mountains, or with whom can make major decisions but does not. It would be nice, yes, but I fear few would understand, because I know that the gift of the Bear is sadly outdated.
An hour and a half later I finally got to my car, woods and wilderness locked out of the vehicle. Later, in my bed, I thought back of the Bear. Maybe He was out that night, roaming under the stars as He always did, I thought, and so I slept peacefully, knowing that it was not a dream.

Text and pictures© Bruno D’Amicis – www.brunodamicis.com. All rights reserved worldwide.