Where on Earth?!

With a sweeping gesture that seemed to encompass all the sky that lorded above the reaches of the lagoon, the boatman blurted out “the land where the sky was born!”  Since he was mostly busy with navigating narrow channels of mangrove and churning across the expansive aquamarine waters, his few spoken words carried an extra weight that grabbed everyone’s attention.  Indeed, row after row of a subtle and light cloud cast extended far into the distance and brushed every horizon.  The flat jungle plain beyond the lagoon seemed to extend the horizons, and the elements of the distant sea at our backs completed this surreal realm of sky birthing.

In Mayan lore, there were specific gods tasked with raising the heavens, and four deities called ”sky bearers” hold up the sky at each corner.  Ancient Mesoamerican inscriptions denote the sky with a segmented sky- band glyph, with celestial objects sometimes added into the band.  These sky bands appear in some murals painted in the nearby site of Tulum.

Ethnic pride of a deep Mayan heritage beamed from our guide as he continued maneuvering our small craft along the marine routes once navigated by the ancients.  My wife and I, the boatman and a guide, and a young couple that had been seeking remote Mayan ruins were the lucky ones lost in this world of lagoons and sky bequeathed by the ancients, at least for this tropical afternoon.

As we drifted along these canals engineered in millenniums past one of their ancient temples suddenly appeared on a jungle encrusted spit of land.  A stop to explore this small edifice was initiated, and I found myself backing away from a large hornet nest hidden in its dank and dark interior.   For one mile- long section of  canal, which began at the temple, we simply floated with life vests, carried by the cool current while enjoying the resplendent life both below and above the water.

It had taken a long jungle trail to arrive at the lagoon launching point, and along the way we traversed a step back into the time of the Mayan empires, strolling among their temples and sculptures of stone at a site called Chunyaxche [also known as Muyil].   This was a tranquil place, with pathways interconnecting building sites with the main plaza.  Rock rubble scattered around the edges and half walls appearing and disappearing in the verdant blanket of jungle growth.  All around was a feeling of stillness, yet a soft background hum of birds and insects was ever present.  One section of trail hosted a sudden convergence of noisy Chachalacas, a pigeon like bird with an extra long tail.

Meandering along, we explored the main plaza or civic center, where special rites and community gatherings occurred in the ancient city [settlements date back to 300 BC, the city peaked in 700 AD].  After passing a few more remnants of early habitation, the trail lead us to the cities’ majestic pyramid, ”El Castillo”, the castle.   A temple topped this edifice, jutting above the highest layer of trees in this flat, sylvan world.

Heron images, temple in ancient Mayan ruins.

To my delight, two heron figures carved in relief graced the base of the temple high above the ground.  “El Castillo” supported what could have been the temple of the herons.  In this moment, I felt a special connection to this temple, since my most successful carving to date was a pair of herons.

An original stone track known as a scabe, roads that connected many Mayan cities, continued through the jungle from the ruin site to the boat launch.   These Mayan roads originally connected this site of Chunyaxche with the more well- known ruined cities of Tulum and Coba, Tulum being a main seaport.  The scabe that we were following once connected with trade routes that used ocean going canoes, navigating this same lagoon and sometimes landing on a beautiful sandy beach nestled beneath the templed cliffs of Tulum.  Chunyaxche ‘s access to the sea  was a myriad of waterways dotted with mangrove islands, including man made canals, lagoons, lakes and cenotes that immersed the jungle lowland and sprawled for miles until finally reaching the sea.  This is the Sian Ka’an, land where the sky is born.

Temple of Herons, Chunyaxche, Mexico

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Up the road a ways lie the ruins of Tulum, a sight I had dreamed about seeing when in high school.  One magazine photo set my dreams alive with the most alluring ancient ruin I had ever chanced upon, an idyllic Mayan temple set on cliffs directly above a turquoise sea.  And the day came that the dream materialized like heat waves creating a mirage.

There was no town of Tulum then, like there is today, only the temples and scattered stone buildings, the cenote, and a stone wall encircling the site.  It was not on the way to anywhere, on an isolated edge of the vast Quintana Roo jungle plain.  One string of two lane pavement ran parallel to the sea and connected one end of this flat jungle plain to the other, from the lively Caribbean flavored seaport of Chetumal bordering Belize in the south, to the empty, far northeastern corner of the Yucatan Peninsula that would one day harbor the resort city of Cancun.  In this time of my youthful exploration there were only a few tiny fishing villages, isolated as much from each other as they were from the rest of the world.

We were four youths out for adventure, a band of backpacking brothers, two Americans and two Mexican Nationals.  Back in that day, the Mayan ruins of Tulum, which means “City of Dawn”, sat forlorn and mostly forgotten, but they were the main target of my odyssey through Mesoamerica’s past.

“Could this be it?”  One backpacker exclaimed with great reservation.  A passing truck had deposited us at an intersecting dirt road.  Off the dirt track an abandoned guard shack the size of a school bus shelter sat sinking into the sandy terrain, and there was no signage to be seen.

“Must be, let’s see what’s down the road,” I responded.  Within a mile we were rewarded by a high stone wall with an opening leading to a fantasy realm of cultures past.  We thoroughly explored the ruins, crawling into the Temple of the Frescoes and admiring the faded mural of warriors, climbing to the top of El Castillo and enjoying its magnificent view of the Caribbean Sea.  We swam in the sea below the cliffs where El Castillo perched, nosing among small caves and ledges with their sea life, and watched as a small shark swam about.

And still there were no other people around—not another soul.  The four of us took the solitude for granted, for it was an abandoned ruin that was uninhabited for many centuries, and the quiet demeanor seemed as it should be.

Today, the archeological site of Tulum hosts, on average, 3,000 visitors;  per day.  A disneyesque entry of restaurants, tour bus parking lots, performance areas, gift shops, and photo ops spreading out for acres has replaced the forlorn guard shack and dirt road.

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This land where the sky was born inspired me to think of my own land where my own sky was born everyday—above the Pacific coastline and the bay of Coos with its border of towering sand dunes.

“Where the sky was Born” could take on many meanings, and I thought that every day could be a new birth of the sky.  One late winter morning came to mind, a morning sky that generated the most incredible rainbow of all my life memories.  It came over the bay, a bay bordered by a horizon of sand dunes rolling and rising to varying heights. This rainbow formed in tandem with the rising sun, which bathed all the roiling clouds in a pink glow over the soft blue expanse of bay waters and the undulating sand hills.

It seemed to be the most beautiful rainbow ever, in tandem with and bathed by a glowing pink sunrise, stretching from the bay to the dunes—a full arch with an unbelievable color band of soft pink pastels, like no other color bands commonly seen in a rainbow.  The mighty perpetuator of these weather events, the Pacific Ocean, lay beyond the bay and line of dunes, and out over this ocean other rainbows of the same hue appeared, dropping straight down out of the clouded, turbulent sky in short, wide bands with no arching.  Of course, if this sublime vista of a pastel rainbow were the norm, and a brilliant rainbow of true colors was the rare oddity, then the brightly colored rainbow could be considered the most beautiful ever.  It’s just a matter of perception.

Where on Earth?!  Sian Ka’an Biosphere

Muyil, Mexico, March 2019 — Tulum, Mexico, Summer of 1971 – Coos Bay, Oregon, USA

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Where on Earth?!? Madrid, Spain

Sometimes there’s all good, sometimes there’s all bad, and sometimes it’s good and bad.  I was elated at being selected for a “Wildlife Artist of the Year” finalist, which included showing my work at the exhibit in the Mall Galleries, London.  The cost of shipping the bronze sculpture that was in the show was more than an airplane ticket, so I opted to fly with the bronze and attend the exhibit.

In the same time frame, the story of Jose [my foreign exchange student- brother from high school] took a downward turn. I learned about his dire situation shortly after buying a ticket to London.  When I received a photo of him in his current condition, it was immediately obvious that the lights weren’t on.   I added on a short round trip flight from London to Madrid.

Upon arriving on my poignant mission to Madrid, I was directed to Jose’s office with its overnight accommodations by Esther and Pablo, his adult children and immediate caretakers. The “office” of Jose was a basement in a high rise apartment complex, which obviously served as his personal man cave as well.  Upon entering, a spacious great room opened up bordered by a small kitchenette, with a stoic  dining table extending just beyond the entry way.  To the left was a tall poster depicting the cathedral of Vitoria that was labeled with the architectural office of Jose’s grandfather, who had designed this monumental edifice.  Beyond was a pool table, overstuffed chairs and random antique furnishings, some ancient and crude.  The walls were hung with portraits and scenes of another time that looked like prizes from an antique market, but were not.  They were actual portraits of Jose’s ancestors, and one pasture scene was painted by an uncle on a sheet of metal framed in painted wood.  The designated office nook with desk and couches was set prominently amidst the paintings.

One end of the grand dining table was strewn with bills and paper work, as if Jose had just stepped out from his daily routines; the other end was spotless except for  a round and leathery keepsake box that sat all by itself at the head of the table. It was begging to be opened, and with little hesitation I peered inside Jose’s guardian of treasures and froze. For there, at the very top of its contents, was a fuzzy wool mascot, the type that typically adorns high school letterman jackets. This, a Trojan warrior head, was the mascot of our high school and was only presented for the very top sports and special achievement awards.  To think that this was the top prize in his treasure box, a high school relic from almost fifty years ago, astonished me, especially considering his long career that took him all over Europe and to China, and his hundreds of friends along the way.  A multitude of buttons from a military jacket of long ago, presumably from one of Jose’s family patriarchs, were the only other keepsakes of top ranking found within.

Jose’s presence draped the large room like a loose fitting shroud, a shroud of welcome and warmth.  In his true fashion, a cookie jar on the counter of the kitchenette proclaimed “To the home of a friend the road is never long.”   But Jose was not home, due to one unfortunate event on a winter day in busy city traffic.  While on his motorcycle, a taxi swerved without seeing him, which threw him onto the windshield and ricocheted him into a steel fence that served as a guard rail beside the busy highway.  When doctors were through saving his life, it was learned that much of his mental capacity was gone, that he could not use his arms again, and would be wheel chair bound indefinitely. The ultimate prognosis was that in one year’s time he would either gain back his mental faculties, or not.

My introductory visit late in the day of my arrival was with Esther by car, and she showed me the route by metro for my solo visits.  She guided me to an old nunnery that was converted into a soulful and pastoral long term care facility. Esther constantly talked to Jose, played classical music well into his long nights, and did everything she could to soothe his hidden soul.  Needless to say, I was emotionally distraught by this first visit.

With the early morning rise of the next day, I poked around the kitchenette for coffee and found a simple manual French press that resulted in concentrated espresso.  Milk in the fridge seemed fresh enough and the countertop provided a crystal sugar bowl complete with a spoon, from which I added two heaping teaspoons to the aromatic brew.  Pleased to start the day at full velocity, I gulped at the hot beverage with delight; and immediately gagged and choked and hurled into the sink!  How on earth did this go so badly?  I searched for clues, sniffed the milk in the fridge again, and finally discovered that the sugar bowl was actually salt!  Which goes to show, no matter how familiar you are with friends of other countries, some cultural differences can take you by surprise.

The whole episode of this short weekend in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula was like a dream that I was floating through.  Here was my “Spanish brother” and close friend in an extreme state of distress and mostly oblivious to the world around him. I spent a full day in a one sided conversation, talking a constant stream of memories and hope for his future as I pushed him around the serene grounds of the old nunnery in his wheelchair. Mostly he maintained the same pose of head bent down and kicking his restless legs.  Only twice did he lift his head and gaze into my eyes with a faint glimmer of hope and recognition.

When in an abnormal and emotionally strained situation, the events and interactions around you can seem unusually strange as well.  Late that last evening, on a hot summer night in a sweltering city, I took a long stroll seeking Spanish wine and cuisine.  The grand Plaza Castilla and its traffic circle opened up before me, and two matching skyscrapers leaned crazily over the boulevard as if they were in need of a cantilever.

Disregarding the flashy restaurants around the grand plaza, I found a quiet sidewalk cafe down a side street that had a superb offering of authentic plates.  After the red wine was poured, I glanced about my surrounding.  Windows lined the street side where busy outdoor tables were set, and the interior followed clean lines of pine tables and shelves and light polished tile.  It was not overly crowded inside, and I watched as the sun began to set with an amber glow against the city skyline.

Suddenly a disk of metal flew off one of the high shelves and clattered across the floor, startling two women patrons a few tables away.  The shelving was in my line of vision and I saw the source of the action, a lineup of various dispensers. I retrieved the rolling metal and discovered it to be the lid of a salt shaker.  Salt again!  There were no earthquake tremors, no trucks rumbling by, and no extra vibrations to detach the lid from the dormant salt shaker on the high shelf.  It simply flew off.

I was reminded of that juvenile prank of middle school where the lid is removed and lightly set in place on the shaker, so the next user would have a generous portion dumped onto his meal. I also pondered over the mystery of these two encounters with salt at the beginning and end of the same day, and all the old sayings spun through my mind;

“Take it with a grain of salt”  “pour salt on the wound”  “Worth his salt” “Salt of the Earth”  “back to the salt mine”.

To satisfy my curiosity, some later research revealed salt superstitions from cultures around the world.

“If you spill salt, you must throw a pinch over your left shoulder to cancel out the bad luck of spilling salt”.   {Ancient Rome}

The use of salt to ward off evil:  “Evil cannot abide salt”. {Shinto}

Salt would also be thrown on a fire, and would pop and crackle to ward off spirits. {Celtic}

And appropriately:  spilled salt is an omen, “every grain of salt will turn into a tear”.

After leaving the restaurant the surreal evening continued with faint notes of music that increased in volume somewhere ahead in the dimly lit streets. It was approaching midnight and I assumed a party was gaining momentum in the neighborhoods up ahead.  As I walked on towards Jose’s “office” the crescendo arose well beyond the level of a private party.  What could this be?  Eventually I came to edge of a large park, and, unbelievably, in the middle of this greenway was a full symphony orchestra, playing at full tilt.

Filling the park were five thousand chairs set before an expansive stage, and standing room only included crowds lined up along the street to enjoy the late night performance.  I indulged in the classical notes with the street crowd well past midnight.  Imagine, in my short two day visit of this city that on this night a full symphony orchestra would be in full swing directly at the end of Jose’s street, only a long block away from his office.  It was as if it were a timely and welcome salute to my endearing Spanish brother.

I turned up his street as the crescendo continued unabated, my mind swirling from the sensory bombardment of the last forty eight hours.  Retiring to his office apartment, I shot a few solo rounds at the pool table, and spent the rest of the night without sleep. At seven the next morning I was on a plane flying out of Madrid.

The constant attention and support Jose received from immediate family is a classic example of objective reality changed by subjective persuasions.   I am convinced that if Jose was abandoned in the old nunnery he would never regain his mental faculties and would remain in the same state indefinitely.  As it were, the constant coaxing from his family exercised his brain back into a normal state of cognitive abilities.  Within ten months of the accident, by that Christmas, he got to go home to his family and his lights were back on.

Where on Earth?!?  Madrid, Spain, 2017

 

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Where on Earth?! Segovia and Madrid, Spain; Brockway, Oregon

I remember, I remember; a heady spring day when the pasture grass climaxed in the balmy air and the stout oaks cast their shadows over rolling hills.  A quiet country road meandered through these hills which my Spanish brother Jose and I navigated on a random outing typical of the young in the springtime of their lives.

As we pedaled the tandem bike in unison, a song, also in unison, bellowed from the carefree lungs of our zestful youth, and it went like this:

“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they would never end, those were the days, oh yes, those were the days, la la la—la la la”  [1968 hit song by Mary Hopkin]

The oak trees seemed ancient, and near a rickety barn board corral one tree trunk championed a sizable oval burl, its normally rough bark polished smooth by a century of bovine hide using it as a rubbing stone. A flock of sheep were milling about the aging stockade, and a white haired oldster was coaxing the animals into a semblance of order.

We stopped the double bike at this point of interest, and Jose immediately ventured a dialogue, which quickly became an animated conversation in a language that I did not understand.  The old shepherd was from a land called Euskadi, and Jose’s ancestry was also tied to this land, as his grandfather was the architect for designing and constructing the cathedral of Euskadi’s capital, Vitoria. The always friendly Jose spoke in the Basque tongue with the shepherd as if they were in their homeland, which was at least five thousand miles away, for this road led to a rural Oregon crossing that was known as Brockway.

The crossroads at Brockway harbored one of those old general stores with a false front looming over the entry with “Brockway Store” painted in large blocky letters.  Inside was the ubiquitous wood stove where the old timers were posted to broadcast the farm reports, spin yarns and chew tabaccy.  At this juncture, we turned the bicycle built for two around and cruised back to my boyhood home.

Watercolor by Mel Vincent ©

When we were both sixteen, Jose came to our household as a foreign exchange student sponsored by the American Field Service, and I have yet to meet a more amiable and gregarious personality.  We were almost denied the opportunity of knowing this character, as AFS was skeptical of our household abilities for hosting a student due to the size and young age of our family.  But my mother went on the warpath and would not quit.  All through that summer of 1968 she battled, until AFS finally gave in and assigned us a student barely before the school year started.

It was such a last minute placement that we did not even have a photograph of our student, and he had only one photo, that of my father.  After traveling three hours north to Portland International Airport, my family gathered at his crowded gate in a state of excited apprehension and curiosity.  As the plane spilled out its cargo of international travelers, we looked and looked, trying to second guess our students identity, but to no avail.

“Mister Woodall, Mister Woodall!” A short, round faced boy with over size glasses was tugging on my father’s shirtsleeve. “I am Jose!” he exclaimed. “He was like an owl peering up at me!” my father humorously recounted from that day.

Leaping ahead half a lifetime, I received a very special invitation.  In the Spanish culture, a fiftieth birthday is a major event and worthy of great celebration, and my wife and I were invited to Jose’s party.  In January 2002, after a sobering walk around ground zero New York City, we found ourselves relishing a lively Madrid tapas bar with Jose and friends.  We were there among other early arrivals, mainly Jose’s rugby chums from Harvard, and there would be many more to come, from Sweden, Germany, England, America and all of Jose’s hometown Spanish friends and relatives.

In between all the festivities, my wife and I ventured into the Spanish countryside, and found ourselves in a small town with a big history.   We followed colossal arching aqueducts, which were built by the Romans in the first century AD, to an enchanting castle perched on a hill overlooking the town.

Well into the twentieth century, water was transported eleven miles from a mountain stream into the heart of Segovia via this aqueduct, which was actually an “aqueduct bridge” that towered ninety feet above us. This marvel of engineering of 167 arches was built with tight fitting stones and no mortar, and is the finest roman aqueduct remaining in Europe.

However, the highlight of the afternoon came from exploring that hilltop castle named Alcazar.  “Wow, where could I find a more enchanted castle!” my wife exclaimed.  It seems she was not alone with that opinion, since the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle was in part modeled after this one by Walt Disney for the centerpiece of his magic kingdom.  Here the lady of my life had some childhood fantasies fulfilled as we climbed and explored hidden staircases with small widows, great halls for royal courts, and soaked in amazing vistas from high in the turret towers.

Jose’s fiftieth birthday party was a lavish affair, and after the main presentations and stupendous dining, everyone was whisked away to the evening entertainment.  After filling up three full sized charter buses, we nearly filled up a broadway theater of Madrid to enjoy its presentation of “Hello Dolly.”

After the show, the leading lady and a top starlet of the Madrid theater scene sought out Jose in the crowded lobby, teetering there with one hand full of roses and scribbling autographs with the other, all the while basking in open admiration and in a constant discussion with Jose.  As I stood there enjoying the scene with Jose at the top of his game, I reminisced of a different time with the tune “those were the days” playing in my head.

Where on Earth?!  Brockway, Oregon;  Segovia, Spain;  Madrid, Spain.

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Where on Earth?! Pinnacles of Central California

At a very early hour in the rosy ambience of a half- moon dawn, I found myself alone on an empty highway and watched as the rising sun cast shadows over corrugated hills that had felt those first rays of the day for millions of years.  Rearranged from periodic burps of the earth, the rounded hills soared to abrupt heights and spread for miles in all directions, preventing any straight lengths of this road, which twisted and climbed and dropped like corduroy pleats in a heap of disheveled laundry.  Vast sheets of rippling grass covered the vertical terrain, while trees and brush clustered along the occasional deep canyons.

After ten miles in this terrain, the road climbed to cross a high ridge, and at the top I approached one of the very few vehicles that were transiting this route, some lost soul that wobbled to the shoulder and let me pass.  The other side of this ridge opened to a vast panorama of coastal mountains that blocked a view that would otherwise reach the Pacific Ocean.  Gifted with flowing streams, the abrupt drop down the other side became more wooded, and in the early morning light I spied a roosting owl securely nestled deep in the tangled branches of a tree.

I had a destination, but it was still far off in the distance; one, two, four layers of ridges away at a minimum.  Winding downward from the mountain top, wide valleys of pasture opened up, and I spied a lone elk with a swath of pasture all to himself.  As the miles clicked by, I mused over the likelihood of finding the wild creatures that I sought at the end of this drive, since it is never a given that nature will reveal her secrets.

And I thought about the miles I had left behind, with relief, since those miles were in the congested realm of freeways and crowded cities.  I had been in crowds for four days of showing art work, and the solitude of this early hour on the long homeward journey was welcome. Those city miles were well worth it, for I had been honored with a permanent sculpture installation in a public sculpture garden and park.  The large eagle pair that I had carved in white cedar was well received in its new location, and I had reunited with past collectors of my work at the weekend art exhibition that coincided with the dedication ceremony of my sculpture.

Finally, I found the turn off that I was seeking on this remote highway, and after four more miles I arrived at the open gates guarding one of our national parks.  Curiously, the admissions booth was unmanned, though that was understandable early on a Monday morning.  I drove on through to the parking area of the trailhead that I had chosen to explore, which was also absent of cars or people.

Elated by the promise of solitude on these wilderness trails, I trekked up through the escarpments without hesitation, eager for a chance to observe one of the rarities of nature that had drawn me to this place.  Within half a mile of hiking, I paused at an unusual hollow tree formation dominating the trail, and as if it were an omen pointing the way, I glanced up at the skyline– a California Condor was sprawled atop a pinnacle of rock!  Preening and rustling his feathers about, he ignored my close presence as I quietly crept up the steep hillside to the base of his rock.  In one thrilling moment I was within fifty feet of the condor, a quiet victory after traveling many miles uncertain if any glimpses of these monolithic birds would actually occur.

After waiting patiently to see him soar with no results, I continued up a narrow ravine that gained altitude and eventually opened up into a wide canyon lined with cliffs and stark pinnacles reaching for the sky. This was the “High Peaks” region of the park, and it was here that I hoped for a glimpse of more condor action.  Just seeing the one fulfilled my endeavor, but true to human nature, I wanted more, and my next desire was to see the magnificent birds in flight, soaring freely in the wild.

I was not to be disappointed. Patiently scanning the escarpments with my binoculars, bumps of black appeared silhouetted against the blue sky at the ridge tops.  I spied three separate groups of condors on three separate cliff tops, and as I watched, random individuals dived from their perches and glided over the canyons.  At one point at least six birds were soaring at once, dipping low over gorges and sweeping high and circling out of sight over the highest crags, and returning to alight on their favored ledges.  The entire time, two kingly elders held their positions at the very peak of two different monoliths with full wingspans stretched out and held in place to absorb the sun’s warmth, a common pose among coastal cormorants.

As an afterthought, I was perplexed that the condor that I first viewed perched on a precipice was not startled into flight.  A wild turkey vulture would never have allowed a human to approach within the same distance without taking flight.  The well- being of wild animals includes a security zone that cannot be breached, with many species intolerant of any human presence.  This encounter of the condor languishing on his pinnacle proved the obvious, that he was familiar with people handlers and although living in the wilds, was not nearly as wild as his turkey vulture cousins.  That degree of “wild” could take many generations of fledglings hatched in the wild to achieve.

Fortunately these carrion seeking birds are heading in that direction, as I discovered later that somewhere up in the High Peaks, up in those rocks pocked with small caves, was a nest with a newly hatched chick.  This boosted the Central California flock to ninety one birds, and most importantly, a newcomer that was not raised and trained in captivity. He [it’s a boy!] is condor number 912.

California Condor, work in progress, free form myrtlewood 18 x 12 x 30 ©Terry Woodall

In many cases, my approach to carving wildlife individuals is to follow a “celebrate the species” mindset, and to acknowledge recovering species by doing so.  The condor recovery program fits this mold perfectly.  It is on the backs of many biologists and ornithologists that we are able to see this endangered species up close and personal in the wild.  In creating art with a “Celebrate the Species” mindset, I am currently sculpting a “celebrate the species” condor in tribute to their dedication and outstanding achievements that has reversed the certain extinction of the California Condor.

Where on Earth?!  Pinnacles National Park, Central California, May 2018

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Carved Eagles Dedication Ceremony

“Winged Companions”  cedar driftwood sculpture, 44″ x 36″

The Fallbrook Art Center recently concluded its landmark 25th annual “Reflections of Nature” wildlife art exhibition and combined the art show with a sculpture dedication ceremony in their nature conservancy sculpture garden.  A special dedication of a Terry Woodall sculpture highlighted the ceremony as “Winged Companions,” an outdoor cedar sculpture of two eagles in Woodall’s signature free form style, was installed in the  sculpture garden.  The sculpture event was followed by the weekend long wildlife art exhibition at the Fallbrook Art Center.  This exhibition has consistently drawn top artists from around the nation, and was founded by wildlife artist Gamini Ratnavira, who spoke about the history of the event at the dedication ceremony.

This sculpture dedication served as a tribute to the many wildlife artists who have attended the show over the past 25 years, and to the collaboration of the Fallbrook Land Conservancy and Fallbrook’s Art in Public Places program.  Over the past 15 years, many sculptures depicting animals of the region have been installed in this Palomares House Park and Sculpture Garden.  At the dedication of his sculpture,  Woodall spoke of his gratitude on the selection of his sculpture and his connections to the Fallbrook community, the merits of the program, and his personal art.

The Fallbrook Land Conservancy’s mission is to bring awareness to the importance of conservation and preservation, and the Art in Public Places program presents art as a means of communication.

Photo credits:  Maria Schaeffer

“Winged Companions”  in their permanent placement at the ceremony.

 

An admirer of the outdoor sculpture.

Terry Woodall with Vince Ross at left, patron of Fallbrook arts and a sponsor of the installation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artist Terry Woodall with his art and the dedication plaque.

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Where on Earth?! Southern France

“My work had sold, mission accomplished, I could start for home at the end of the night.   But there were still a few things that I must do….”   continuing from previous story;

The sharp, conical peaks appeared like upside down tops in a slow spin as the plane rotated over them on its long, curving course.  One after another they bumped up through a soft blanket of fog that concealed the earth below.  They were the Cordillera Cantabrica, a mountain range creating a formidable wall between the sea we had crossed from London and the high plateau of Central Spain.

I was on a mission, actually a dual mission, which included a flight to Madrid, but the Madrid destination can wait for a more complete story of a dear friend’s life and time of need.  Next, I was over the Pyrenees, that ancient barrier between France and Spain that had harbored prehistoric humans beneath its pinnacles.  And those prehistoric remnants were part of my quest, a quest that had begun with The Educator.

The Educator read the entire book to the class, out loud, one chapter at a time.  On and on the story went, covering an era of mankind before there was a designation of “mankind”.  The dialogue explored the mysteries of people in a prehistoric world and how they lived, and I was fascinated by the paintings of animals on cave walls and how they were rendered.  That they were discovered by youths at play added to the intrigue, because, like everyone else in the classroom, I was nine and in the fourth grade. When the curriculum ended, I was so enthralled by these stories of an ancient and little known culture that I re-read the book over and over again.

That is how I became familiar with the term Cro-Magnon, and this interest from childhood overlapped with my current career as an accomplished wildlife artist, which led me to a spot called Cro-Magnon, a rock shelter where remains of modern humans were first found that proved to be 30,000 years old.  Hence, the place name of this original find was applied to the peoples of that Paleolithic era.

As a wildlife artist knowing and admiring many excellent wildlife artists around the world, I was driven to see the works of the first wildlife artists known to mankind.  There was no specific goal with this venture, only my romantic notion of reliving what had occurred, of absorbing and observing the bison and mammoths, horses and rhinos, cave bear and ibex, all painted on cave walls and ceilings. I wanted to stand where these first artists stood and did their work.  I wanted to breathe the cave air and follow their same paths meandering from one great work to another, to experience the feeling of the world’s first great art being performed.

Imagine the awesome timeline of these early artists, which goes back 40,000 years to the first cave paintings.  By comparison, the advent of agriculture until the present is 12,000 years, and civilization’s growth began 5000 years ago. These sanctuaries of art were used and reused, creating a cultural connection over millenniums, since new painting were added on the same cave walls as much as 10,000 years apart.   Some of the oldest paintings are also among the very finest, which indicates that there was not an evolution of skills or talent.

Once in Southern France, I headed straight for Pech Merle, a vast network of caverns with paintings dated at 29,000 years ago.  To find the grotto tucked into a rugged hillside, I first dropped down into a gorge of limestone cliffs that lined the verdant Lot River.  Impeccably quaint villages occasionally lined the road as it followed the river upstream through lush green valleys framed by escarpments, and the entire scene could easily be one of fairy tales.  As the elevation increased and the river narrowed, I stopped beside a huge, old gristmill at the river’s edge and cooled off in the fast moving, sparkling water.  When the Cele River joined the Lot, I left the rural road for an even rougher route along the Cele, and eventually climbed to the cave entrance.

When I left the hot summer air for the cool innards of the earth, I was immediately impacted by the narrow, tight corridors and the lengthy trek before me.  After the initial claustrophobic entrance passed, the scene opened into great grotto rooms complete with stalagmites and stalactites, a limestone cavern that was worthy of exploring even without the paintings.  But then a pair of mammoths appeared etched into the soft clay of one wall, and scratches by cave bear claws were pointed out by the guide.  A cave bear skeleton had been found nearby, and when we viewed an exquisite bear head engraved on the wall, the true impact of this venture began to hit home.  Following were beautifully rendered elk antlers in red and a shadow of the head almost erased by time, and on the same wall close by, a human hand print outlined with the same red ocher.  Nearby, footprints of youths embedded in clay had hardened into a permanent testimonial of human activity.

At the end of the extensive walk through time was the grand finale of two spotted horses painted on an upright, monolithic slab of rock over twelve feet in length.  Back to back and dappled with red and black spots, the horses filled the panel, along with outlines of five human hand prints around the perimeter.  The prints were made by placing a hand on the wall and blowing pigments around it using a slender, hollow bone.

At the upper right edge of the slab, the natural rock topography formed the shape of a horse head and could have helped inspire the paintings, since the use of natural shapes on cave walls to enhance the form of a subject was a common practice in Paleolithic rock art.  These type of features especially intrigued me, since I use those same concepts with my wood sculpture.

Stone Age Man–a modern day monument overlooking the main street of Les Eyzies.

After recovering from sensory overload, I drove another hour into the heart of stone- age antiquity.  The village of Les Eyzies is sandwiched between extensive limestone cliffs rife with caves and the Vezere River, and after a few blocks into the town, there I was, at that spot called Cro-Magnon.

Font de Gaume:  The next morning brought me to the Font de Gaume, a grotto at the edge of Les Eyzies.  After following a trail along the cliff edge, two round holes suddenly opened up in the limestone wall.  Among the many animal paintings encountered inside, the frieze of five bison is considered to be among the finest of all Paleolithic art.  Their contours were engraved, utilizing the natural forms of rock, and then were painted in black-brown and red.  One bison in particular is perhaps the most expressive of the five; details of the anatomy, fur texture, and facial expressions make this painting a remarkable example of the skills developed by these artists 16,000 years ago.

Cliffs over Les Eyzies; silhouette of stone age man monument in lower right hand corner.

For the early artist palette, clay ochers containing iron and manganese oxides were used for red, yellow and brown, while ground calcite produced white and carbon made black.  Colorants were ground and mixed with a variety of liquids, and crayons were made from solid lumps of the material.  Extenders of crushed animal bone were also added to make the paint adhere and prevent cracking as it dried.

Another exemplary painting present in this grotto is the “licking reindeer”, a male reindeer licking the head of a kneeling female, both portrayed with fine sets of antlers.  The black tongue brushing the female forehead is fully visible in one of the more touching interactions portrayed by these people from a faraway time.

Abri Cap Blanc: My next destination was four miles away on an empty country road that passed through wooded hills, a drive that was interrupted only by a colorful partridge scooting along.  The parking area was rough, and the path to the rock shelter wound down a hillside and into a river valley, all heavily forested.  As I began down the path with the feeling of negotiating a remote canyon, a view opened up across the valley, and emerging high above the tree line was a blocky and weathered medieval castle!  The Castle of Commarque served as a gentle reminder of the foreign landscape that I was actually negotiating.

An immersion in limestone sculpture awaited at the bottom of the canyon. Beneath a rock overhang were magnificent carved horses in a full bas-relief spanning 27 feet, with fourteen figures identified in the overall mural.  Five horses, some over six feet long, along with bison and reindeer, were all carved into a limestone cliff.  Although the remnants were somewhat meager due to 15,000 years of erosion, enough detail remained to discern the animals and verify that they were masterworks of early man.  A grave site and numerous artifacts were also found in front of this sculpture ensemble, and a limestone relief carving of a female figure [the Venus of Laussel] dated at 25,000 BC was found under another rock overhang a few hundred yards away.

Although I stopped by the rock shelter harboring the oldest known fish carving on the planet, a highly detailed salmon, it was not accessible at that time.  What a thrill it would be, although it would never be allowed, to run my hands over that 3’ fish and see how it would relate to the many routine salmon that I carve!

La Grotte Rouffignac:  Finally, I ventured to a more distant cave complex, which is one of the largest in Europe.  The great hall of this cavern is called the Grand Plafond, and is so distant inside the grottos that an electric tram has been devised to take visitors to the site.   This Grand Ceiling includes 66 mammals outlined in black, all circling on an extensive cave ceiling.  The mammoths, horses and ibex were particularly impressive, as were a trio of rhinos marching on a wall nearby.

It was late evening by the time I left this cave complex and its last tour of the day.  That left a few hours to catch a plane back to London and the ongoing, twenty first century wildlife art show that required my presence.  With a panic drive of two and a half hours, I made the airport and found out that, luckily, the flight had been delayed.

Photos of cave art; see http://www.donsmaps.com/vezereclickarchaeology.html, click on site of interest.

Where on Earth?!  Southern France,  June, 2017

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Where on Earth?! London

On the longest day of the year, when the sun kept its northerly sweep across the horizon unchanged, the window seat at forty thousand feet fronted a blazing sky scape.  Greenland ice bergs dotted the sea far below as that fireball stayed apace with the big jet on its course to the northeast.  Although it was well past its time, that stubborn ole’ sun refused to set, and I refused to take my eyes away as it bobbed along at the very edge of the earth.

This went on for some time, when finally it began to sink below the horizon.  It’s actually going down, I thought, and as its final glimmer disappeared, something amazing suddenly appeared! The green flash! For only an instant, an envelope of gaseous green surrounded the spot vacated by the last sliver of the red disc.  Shortly after the occurrence of this rare phenomenon, the sun began to rise, and in those few short minutes of sunset to dawn the entire night had passed and the next day had begun.

Riding out the rest of the flight, I contemplated the prospects that awaited.  I didn’t know that I was on my way to a magical place called Crystal Palace.  I did not know that I would be walking up a road called Hamlet Street, to the top of a hill called Fox Hill.  It was on that very British flavored Fox Hill that Pablo and Maribel welcomed me into their home.  I did know that a sculpture I created would be exhibited in a major  art exhibition at my destination.

That was yet to come; meanwhile, many mixed apprehensions beset me, although I knew my bronze herons were set to be in the “Wildlife Artist of the Year” exhibition in the heart of London.  Literally in the heart; the Mall Galleries are next to Trafalgar Square on a road called “The Mall” that begins at the square and ends at Buckingham Palace.  Perhaps the gallery and its surroundings of stoic buildings sprinkled with towering monuments were not so impressive to the everyday Londoner going about their daily tasks, but for an artist from the foothills of North America’s Pacific coast, this location had overtones of a fairy tale. Part of the fairy tale was just being juried into such an exclusive art show in a fabled part of the city.

Opening night, Mall Galleries [left center] in the rain, in the summer, in London.

Leading up to my journey to the opening night of this art show, the city was beleaguered with misfortunes, including a spate of extremist attacks and the inferno of a high rise fire with many fatalities. Among my apprehensions, threats to my personal safety were not a concern, but on this mission to sell and show my art, I wondered if less people would be in circulation and venturing out to partake of summer events.  That thought was quickly put to rest when I arrived on the streets of London and mixed with the thousands upon thousands filling the cities’ main thoroughfares with no regard to undesirable events.  Transportation systems were like toothpaste tubes full of humanity steadily being squeezed onto the streets well into the long summer nights.

My hosts Pablo and Maribel were particularly proud of one of their Spanish brethren turned hero in the recent London Bridge terrorist attacks.  A young skateboarder lad from Spain came upon a policeman being stabbed, and immediately began pounding on the assailant with his skateboard.  As he gained the upper hand protecting the officer, he was knifed from behind by another jihadist accomplice.  As I strolled by a makeshift memorial on that bridge, the skated board stood high above the flowers, honoring the heroic act and eulogizing both its former owner and the policeman.

Pablo, an architect in a London firm, was very much intrigued by the many outstanding architectural feats of his adopted city.  He was proud to show me the sweeping lines of the Tate Modern and explained the construction and its visual attributes.  After admiring the museum exterior we climbed to the top floor lounge and found a seat at the long countertop running down a wall of windows looming over the city skyline.  St. Paul’s Cathedral with its huge dome towered over the Thames River directly below and front, while modern skyscrapers filled the view to the right.

As I marveled at the view, Pablo explained the many buildings and we debated their architectural merits, the contrast of modern and old gothic, and their composition along the fabled river bank below us.  Rising above all else was the Shard building, tallest in the European Union.  I thought that some of the odd shaped modern high rises skirting around the Shard seemed out of place in the city skyline, and Pablo agreed.  One was egg shaped and one leaned at a precarious angle.  “The building designs could stand alone as exceptional architecture, but don’t seem to compliment the overall city skyline,” he stated, and went on to describe a funny misstep in the leaning building’s design.  “The unintentional flaw showed up after it was unveiled and functioning.  The super modern design with its angular and concave wall of glass had the detrimental effect of focusing the sun’s rays like a magnifying glass.  The extra heat channeled to the streets below was genuinely uncomfortable, to the extent that things were being melted, and alterations to the building were quickly put in place.”

Every day I passed endless rooftops as I sped from central London to the train’s Crystal Palace Station, a half hour commute to the home of my gracious hosts.  Crystal Palace once was the site of a huge exhibition hall constructed almost entirely of glass, which gave it the appearance of a giant art deco greenhouse.  There were acres and acres of landscaped grounds, complete with replicas of the Egyptian sphinx and other monumental figures.  Extensive retaining walls and stairways surrounded the main hall of this early twentieth century extravaganza.  After a mid-century fire razed the main building, the statues and stone works remain today in an expansive city park that includes a soccer stadium.  Nearby pathways wind through a series of waterways in a lush, wooded area that is a delight for children of all ages because of the life size, cement dinosaurs dwelling there.

Foreign and familiar realities can mix in a surprising brew when you find yourself out in the world.  Once upon a time my homeland was known as the timber capital of the world, so much so that the defining tree of that title was known worldwide as the “Oregon Pine.”  Endless forests of that tree, the stalwart Douglas fir, cover the western third of Oregon, and it is only native to western North America.  Imagine my surprise as I strolled through a main thoroughfare lined with Crystal Palace shops and came across the “Douglas Fir” bar.  Ducking into the doorway, I came to a large countertop bar proudly constructed from Doug fir planks, along with other rustic furnishings.  After some discussion with the bar keep, I learned that the trees are planted in the UK, one being the tallest tree of the British Isles, and the wood for the bar came from a tree cut in the nearby countryside.

Wildlife Artist of the Year art exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London

The opening night of the gallery exhibition came soon enough, and it was packed beyond my wildest expectations.  Champagne was served at the door to a full house of patrons looking forward to the presentation of the Wildlife Artist of the Year Award and browsing the incredible worldwide art on display.

Although working artists seek collectors, many easy associations and friendships occur with fellow artists as well.  Standing in line for admission to the gallery, I met a very friendly and gregarious artist from Germany, Tom Lazic, who traveled to Africa often for studying and painting his favorite wildlife subjects.  A close neighbor to my work on the gallery floor was the work of Pascal Chesneau, a former Wildlife Artist of the Year, whose rugged interpretive sculptures seemed like expressions that would come from a French artist.  Although he spoke very little English and I knew less French, we got along famously.

Besides honoring the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s “Wildlife Artist of the Year”, approximately nine other cash award were presented at this art opening, including David Shepherds personal choice.  That award went to Karen Laurence-Rowe for her serenely beautiful painting of elephants wading in a flooded plain.  Incidentally, both Karen and David were recipients of the Artists for Conservation’s annual Simon Combes Award for wildlife conservation, David being the very first at the AFC’s inaugural event, with Karen’s award presented in 2015.

Midway through the lively buzz of the opening, a gentleman seemed overly interested in the label attached to the pedestal of my bronze sculpture, so much so that he kneeled down close and photographed the label with his I-phone.  I politely inquired if I could answer any questions he may have, and he explained that he needed the photo to identify the piece when he made the purchase at the sales counter.  “I want to buy it before someone else does,” he explained.   Experience has taught me to use restraint when faced with wild optimisms that don’t always become a reality, so I retreated as he continued to admire my sculpture.

Sure enough, a short time later an attendant attached a red dot, and the English gentleman had secured his art piece.  My work had sold, mission accomplished, I could start for home at the end of the night.   But there were still a few things that I must do….

Where on Earth?!  London, England   June of 2017

Footnote:  As it turned out, this was to be the last show for David Shepherd, the mentor of this exhibition and a foremost leader of wildlife protection worldwide.  While writing this account of the tenth annual Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition,  the news came that he had passed away at the age of 86, a few short months after presiding over his final wildlife art exhibition. Beginning in 1973, as an artist and conservationist, he had led an aggressive campaign to protect wildlife worldwide, which evolved into the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation in 1984.  Funds raised by this art show support progressive wildlife conservation programs of the DSWF.

 

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