[Dis]information

Definition of disinformation:

False information deliberately and often covertly spread, in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth (according to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary).

What thoughts go through your mind when viewing these photographs? Do you find them beautiful? Interesting and intriguing? Romantic and dreamy? Peaceful and serene?

How about stylized and stilted?

All of these impressions might coexist when looking at portraits of Native Americans, taken by photographer Roland Reed (1864-1934) at the beginning of the 20th century. He was genuinely interested in American Indians, even living with and photographing the Ojibwe on their Minnesota reservation for two years, but his pictorialist style of photography interpreted his subjects in a certain way, by staging scenes with props and artifice, rather than documenting their actual lives and reality.

Roland Reed’s idealized art represents the core of a seminal and challenging exhibit, “[Dis]information,” which opened at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum in the spring of 2019. Co-curated by Native American Gregg Deal, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and by Leah Davis Witherow, the museum’s Curator of History, it attempts to raise awareness of how Native Americans were depicted through a white lens, how these photographs presented a version of native life that no longer existed, by pigeonholing the people portrayed, and by implying that they were part of America’s past, and not of its present, or its future. With this problematic characterization American Indians take issue, as they are very much alive and part of America today. While Roland Reed might have been well-intentioned, his oeuvre is yet one more bitterly ironic example of the way in which the same nation, that killed or confined the First Americans on reservations, began to romanticize them not long after expelling them from their ancestral lands.

Photojournalist Viki Eagle’s portraits of American Indian students at University of Denver

In contrast to Roland Reed’s problematic images, Native American photographer, Vicki Eagle, presents fellow Native Americans, all of them students at Denver University, in the manner of their choosing, without artificial setting or attire. Each portrait is accompanied by a short biographical sketch, each poignant in its own right. I have chosen to share two.

Alexis writes: “I attend the University of Denver, where the mascot is the ‘Pioneers’ and the founder is John Evans [former Governor of Colorado Territory, and responsible for the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which hundreds of peaceful American Indians were killed by Colorado militia in cold blood, despite having been assured protection]. Every day I see the words ‘Pioneers’ and 1864 plastered everywhere. Seeing these things is a constant reminder that I am not meant to be on this campus. Instead of letting it bring me down, I stay resilient and ensure that I make my mark on campus. I am not afraid or ashamed to embrace my Native identity because I know every day I walk on campus I am breaking the stereotype and making my family, community and tribe proud.”

Taylor says: “ I’m sure I made John Evans, founder of the University of Denver, turn in his grave knowing that an indigenous female is thriving in this institution. Being a Pueblo woman, I have defied all the odds just being here in college. The statistics will say that I’m a drug addict, an alcoholic, dropout, victim of abuse, missing, and even murdered. I’m blessed to say I’m NONE of those things. I am thankful to receive education and the opportunities it has given me for a better future, so that I can go back home and give back to my people. I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. Sincerely, A Future Native Female Lawyer in the making.”

Wet-plate photographs of Northern Plains Native Americans by North Dakota photographer Shane Balkowitsch

A collection of wet-plate images completes the exhibit. Self-taught North Dakota artist Shane Balkowitsch, with his project Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective, aspires to obtain portraits of 1.000 Native Americans. As with Vicki Eagle, his models choose in which way they want to be depicted, many of them opting for traditional apparel.

Native American Nations, circa 1590 through 1850 (pre-reservation period).

Native American land holdings today, representing about 3% of the contiguous United States.

Despite repeated attempts to integrate and assimilate indigenous Americans and to eradicate their native language and traditions, and despite the near-complete loss of their homelands, many American Indians continue to cherish and celebrate their legacy and heritage. 573 federally recognized tribes exist in the United States as of 2019. About 2.9 million individuals identify as American Indian or Alaska Native alone, and 2.3 million do so in combination with one or two more races (2010 US Census data). Most live off reservations and are our friends, our colleagues, and our neighbors. The portrayal of Native Americans in still and moving pictures, in commercials, and as sports mascots has engendered hard-to-break stereotypes and prejudice in the American psyche, but Native America and Native Americans are infinitely more complex than Hollywood ever allowed, and have their own version of history to tell.

Whimsical Birds

Ornithophilia seems to be as old as human consciousness itself. Ever since we have had the faculty to wrap our thoughts into words, we have expressed our fascination and even love for creatures who are in their element not only on land, but also in the water and sky. Their presence across a vast range of habitats, their ability to take to the air, their myriad shades, shapes, and sizes, as well as their nearly preternatural gift to create sublime sounds have made them the favored subjects not only of composers, poets, and painters, but of sculptors alike.

Here are some of their whimsical bird creations I have been touched by.

Ornithophilie scheint so alt zu sein wie das menschliche Bewußtsein. Seit wir das Vermögen erwarben, unsere Gedanken in Worte zu fassen, haben wir unsere Faszination, wenn nicht sogar Liebe, für Kreaturen ausgedrückt, die nicht nur auf dem Land, sondern auch im Wasser und im Himmel in ihrem Element sind. Ihre Präsenz in einer Reihe von Lebensräumen, ihre Fähigkeit, sich in die Lüfte zu schwingen, ihre zahlreichen Farben, Formen, und Formate sowie ihre schier übernatürliche Gabe, unvergleichliche Töne hervorzubringen, hat sie nicht nur zu Lieblingen von Komponisten, Dichtern und Malern, sondern auch von Plastikern gemacht.

Hier sind einige ihrer skurrilen Vogelkreationen, die mich berührt haben.

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Colorado’s Most Precious Gold

Whereas Colorado might not paint much in autumnal reds and clarets, it is a masterful artist when it comes to applying golden brush strokes. Several trees belonging to the willow family grow exceedingly well in our Rocky Mountain state. Plains and Narrow-Leaf Cottonwoods thrive at slightly lower elevations and are no less gorgeous or colorful than their cousins of higher realms—aspen trees—but the latter tend to get most of the glory. And glorious they are, regardless of whether a gauzy green graces their limbs in springtime, or a palette of warmer hues during the fall, as if they were reflecting the different shades of sunshine: much yellow, some orange, little red.

Annually this autumnal pageant is celebrated by Coloradans and out-of-state visitors alike, as though it were nature’s premiere, as well as only performance. Forecasters, based on daylight hours, temperature, and moisture, try to predict the climax of the color change, tourists book hotels weeks, if not months, in advance, aspen lovers make pilgrimages to our montane and subalpine zones to coincide with the most golden glow and brilliant blaze, which usually happens between late September and the middle of October. I am not ashamed to admit that I am one of them, and I am happy to share some of the splendor my eyes have seen.

While you view these photos, visualize the leaves dancing in the wind. The tree’s full name is Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides). The tremors or trembling are a result of flattened petioles that attach at right angles to the leaves, which makes them quake and quiver in the slightest breeze. What wonderful performers are these aspens—concurrently with graceful pirouettes, their foliage creates music equally as pleasing to the ears. It should come as no surprise that I consider aspen trees Colorado’s most precious gold.

Auch wenn Colorado im Herbst nicht viel in Rot und Weinrot malt, ist es ein meisterhafter Künstler, was das Anbringen von goldenen Pinselstrichen angeht. Viele der Familie der Weiden zugehörigen Bäume gedeihen in unserem Rocky Mountain Staat, und auch wenn die in niederen Lagen wachsenden Pappeln nicht weniger spektakulär sind als Espenbäume, ihre Cousinen der höheren Lagen, bekommen letztere mehr Aufmerksamkeit. Und die verdienen sie, egal ob im Frühling, wenn ein zartes Grün ihre Äste überzieht, oder im Herbst, wenn wärmere Farbtöne überwiegen—fast so, als reflektierten sie die verschiedenen Schattierungen der Sonne: Viel Gelb, etwas Orange, wenig Rot.

Alljährlich feiern Bewohner und Besucher Colorados dieses herbstliche Bühnenspiel, als hätte die Natur eine Premiere und zugleich ihre einzige Vorführung. Beobachter versuchen aufgrund von Tageslänge, Temperatur und Feuchtigkeit den Höhepunkt der Verfärbung vorherzusagen, Touristen buchen Hotels Wochen wenn nicht Monate im Voraus, Espenliebhaber machen Wallfarten in montane und subalpine Zonen, um das güldenste Glühen und hellste Leuchten abzupassen. Ich schäme mich nicht einzugestehen, daß auch ich zu ihnen gehöre, und es macht mich froh, etwas von der Pracht, die ich gesehen haben, zu teilen.

Stell Dir beim Anschauen dieser Photos vor, wie die Blätter im Wind tanzen. Der komplette Name des Baumes ist Amerikanische Zitterpappel (Populus tremuloides). Der Tremor ist Resultat der flachen Blattstiele, die im rechten Winkel an den Blättern ansetzen, wodurch sie in der geringsten Brise zittern und zappeln. Welch großartigen Darsteller diese Espen sind—in den Momenten, in denen ihr Blattwerk grazile Pirouetten dreht, macht es zusätzlich wohlklingende Musik. Es dürfte keine Überraschung sein, daß Espen in meinen Augen Colorados wertvollstes Gold repräsentieren.

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Postscriptum:

A succession of storms has since shrunken, separated, and scattered all but the most stubborn foliage, revealing a singular, skeletal kind of arboreal splendor. Incidentally, it has snowed 10+ inches in the course of last week!

Eine Reihe von Herbststürmen hat inzwischen alle bis auf die störrischsten Blätter erfroren, abgerissen und verstreut, und dabei eine bemerkenswerte skelettartige Baumkunst freigelegt. Und nebenbei bemerkt hat es in der letzten Woche mindestens 25 Zentimeter geschneit!

Keep Looking Up

When I’m out in nature, my attention is primarily directed towards winged creatures, but I equally enjoy encountering others. I tend to avoid locales crowded with humans, preferring the company of wild beasts instead, though they frequent busy places surprisingly often.

While “keep looking up” is a rallying cry typically employed by nighttime stargazers, it is just as applicable for observers of the daytime skies. What follows is a selection of my most memorable moments with non-avian animals in trees, discovered because I followed the above advice.

Wenn ich in der Natur unterwegs bin, gilt meine Aufmerksamkeit hauptsächlich gefiederten Kreaturen, aber genauso gerne begegne ich anderen. Ich tendiere dazu, mit Menschenmassen gefüllte Orte zu vermeiden, da ich den Umgang mit wilden Tieren bevorzuge, obwohl sich diese erstaunlich oft in belebten Gegenden aufhalten.

Wenn sich der Rat „schau nach oben“ typischerweise auf nächtliche Sterngucker bezieht, gilt er ebenso für Beobachter des Tageshimmels. Was folgt ist eine Auswahl meiner denkwürdigsten Momente mit Tieren in Bäumen, die keine Vögel waren. Ihre Entdeckung habe ich der Befolgung des obigen Rats zu verdanken.

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Birding Highs And Lows

So little divides utter joy from abject sadness.

Like many Colorado bird lovers, I made a September pilgrimage to a Denver suburb, where a perspicacious birder had discovered an uncommon avian species. As the rare bird reports poured into my Email inbox for four successive days, I tried to suppress the little voice in my head that told me I might be missing the chance of a lifetime. Why did I wait? If I don’t have to drive to and in Denver, I won’t—the traffic is awful. I made a pact with myself: If still reported on day five, I would take it as a hint to try my luck. It was, and I set my alarm for 4:15 for the following morning.

My anticipation woke me at 3 AM. My earlier departure time enabled me to make it to my destination before the worst of the rush-hour, even though columns of cars were already jammed along stretches of the Interstate at 5:30 in the morning. It was still dark when I arrived, and once the first light colored the horizon, I strolled along the creek bed, where the bird in question had been sighted repeatedly. Right around 7 AM, I heard an unusual vocalization, recognizable to me from recordings. A few minutes afterward, the subject of my desire appeared from its nocturnal hidey-hole and assumed a prominent position on a tree branch suffused by sunshine.

If it’s possible to fall in love with a being one knows only from photographs, it had happened to me. Laying eyes on the actual bird, I was swept off my feet. Long-tailed, with radiant jetblack feathers and a massive beak, its gentle gaze and relaxed attitude have captured my imagination ever since. Until about a week before, I had never even heard of a Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris), but now I relished my first date with this unusual creature. At first glance, it resembles a corvid or grackle, but it is actually related to cuckoos. I spent about 40 minutes with Black Beauty then, and returned again after exploring the vicinity. It was still near that original tree, and seemed to enjoy basking in the sun’s warm rays. Maybe it also enjoyed basking in the attention from me and others who had come to make the acquaintance of what can only be called a celebrity.

Groove-billed Anis hail from Mexico, but make occasional excursions into Texas and sporadic visits to other states (click here for its Cornell Lab of Ornithology bio). There had been four previous sightings in Colorado, most recently in 1982. How did this lone avian end up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains? Speculations range from having escaped a cage to having been trapped in a truck or train car, but chances are that it came under its own power.

I share my fellow birders’ concern for the bird’s well-being. What will the future hold? Will it fly south to escape what could be a very harsh Colorado winter? Will someone try to capture and transport it, if not to Mexico, then at least to Texas? There are more questions than answers when it comes to these types of rare occurrences. As hundreds of us add this bird to our life lists, do we assume a special responsibility, or do we let nature take its course?

It is one of life’s certainties that what goes up must come down. Only a few days after experiencing this high, the results of a comprehensive longitudinal study published by the journal Science brought me back to earth—a much impoverished earth. The report concluded that the bird population of the United States and Canada has suffered a dreadful 29% decline since 1970, resulting in the heart-rending loss of nearly 3 BILLION birds. Some sub-populations are even more severely affected. Grassland birds, for example, have experienced a devastating 53% drop. The various reasons are mostly human-induced: destruction of habitat, toxic chemicals, climate change, house and feral cats…(read more about it here).

It is challenging not to give up hope in the face of these grim facts. I don’t like to be cynical, but I have lost faith in (wo)mankind. We are the most short-sighted and destructive creatures to have walked and altered the face of this magnificent planet, which is crying sad tears—as am I.

Welcome Autumn

As our globe gradually tilts farther from the sun, the days in the Northern hemisphere are growing noticeably shorter. The light appears more luminous, sunrise and sunset more vibrant, the nighttime air more crisp.

Leaves and grasses slip out of their summer attire. In what must be one of nature’s most congenial chemical cascades, chlorophyll, having diligently performed photosynthesis all summer long, goes on sabbatical, and the hitherto concealed yellow, orange, and red hues take a brief but boisterous bow on the autumnal stage, to everybody’s enthusiastic applause. Even the plumage of certain birds seems to emulate the flamboyant fall foliage.

Ripe fruit weighs down branches and fills hungry tummies. While many migrants take their leave in search of warmer climes with more abundant food, we resident creatures stay in place, and resign ourselves to nature’s rhythms. Next to spring, autumn is my second favorite season, and similar to spring, it has a tendency to hurry and hasten, when I want it to linger. But for now, instead of lamenting its all-too-soon departure, I welcome its arrival and the many wonders in its wake.

Jetzt, wo sich unser Erdball weiter von der Sonne weg neigt, werden die Tage auf der nördlichen Hemisphäre spürbar kürzer. Das Licht scheint leuchtender, Sonnenauf- und –untergang strahlender und die Nachtluft frischer.

Blätter und Gräser entledigen sich ihrer Sommerkleidung. In einer der sympathischsten chemischen Reaktionen der Natur nimmt sich Chlorophyll nach monatelanger Photosynthese eine Auszeit, und die bisher im Hintergrund versteckten Gelb-, Orange- und Rottöne haben einen kurzen aber ausgelassenen Auftritt auf der Herbstbühne, zu allgemeinem begeisterten Beifall. Selbst das Federkleid einiger Vögel scheint die farbenprächtigen Herbstfarben nachzuahmen.

Reife Früchte hängen an Zweigen und füllen hungrige Mägen. Während sich viele Durchzügler verabschieden, und sich in wärmere Gegenden mit reichhaltigerer Nahrung aufmachen, bleiben wir standortgebundenen Kreaturen an Ort und Stelle und finden uns mit den Zyklen von Mutter Natur ab. Nach dem Frühling ist der Herbst meine zweitliebste Jahreszeit, und ähnlich wie der Frühling hat er die Tendenz, davonzueilen, wenn ich mir auch wünsche, daß er verweilen möge. Aber anstatt seine baldigen Abreise zu bedauern, heiße ich ihn und die vielen Wunder in seinem Schlepptau herzlich willkommen.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover cursor over it.

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Some Like It Hot

Summer was hot in more ways than one. While most humans prefer privacy during their copulatory acts, many animals have no such compunctions. They do it in bright daylight, under the gaze of anyone not bothered by engaging in voyeurism. Even if one does not seek to be privy to these amorous alliances, one can’t help but stumble on them—or, as it were, nearly roll over them with one’s bike.

Der Sommer war in mehr als einer Hinsicht heiß. Wohingegen sich die meisten Menschen im Privaten paaren, haben viele Tiere keine solchen Hemmungen. Sie tun es am hellichten Tag unter den Blicken derer, denen es nichts ausmacht, Voyeurismus zu praktizieren. Selbst wenn man es nicht anstrebt, Einblicke in diese Liebesangelegenheiten zu gewinnen, ist es einem manchmal unmöglich, nicht über sie zu stolpern, bzw. sie fast mit seinem Rad zu überfahren.

To augment the heat of their loins, grasshoppers (in this case, pairs of Plains Lubber Grasshoppers) turn up the temperature of their lovemaking by absorbing additional warmth from the pavement that has been baked by the summer sun, and they become oblivious to anything and anyone in their surroundings.

Um die Hitze ihrer Lenden noch zu steigern, erhöhen Heuschrecken die Temperatur ihres Liebesspiels, indem sie zusätzliche Wärme vom Straßenpflaster absorbieren, das von der Sommersonne gebacken wurde, und werden dabei so selbstvergessen, daß sie nichts und niemanden in ihrer Umgebung wahrnehmen.

Did I mention that this summer was steaming hot? 😊

Habe ich bereits erwähnt, daß dieser Sommer besonders heiß war? 😊