NatureTravel

Communing With Pandas in Chengdu, China

I’ll admit it. I’ve always had a thing for bears. These furry – and seemingly cuddly – creatures have held a special fascination for me since I was a child. I remember my excitement the first time I laid eyes on an American black bear mother and her cub resting beside the main highway that traverses the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While it’s sad to realize now that the mother bear, with cub in tow, was lured there in search of human food from the tourists gawking from the safety of their cars, at that moment it was pure magic.

Over the years, I became more accustomed to seeing bears on hikes and backpacking trips while living in the US Pacific Northwest. My time spent in wilderness areas gave me a healthy respect for the keen sense of smell and great power of these creatures, and I was always lucky enough to leisurely view individuals from a comfortable distance. This included watching a large and beautiful honey-brown specimen for over an hour while it foraged for berries on a mountainside slope in Washington State’s North Cascades National Park.

Let’s Go See The Pandas!

More than a decade later while traveling in China, I had the good fortune of visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the country’s south central Sichuan Province. The research center has been ground zero in the fight to save this unique member of the bear family (Ursidae) from extinction.

Is there any human alive today whose heart doesn’t melt at the site of these adorable creatures? Photo: Henry Lewis

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PoliticsVisual Arts

Celebrating Berlin’s East Side Gallery

A mural on Berlin’s outdoor East Side Gallery. International artists have created more than 118 murals on a section of the former Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany during the decade’s long Cold War. Photo: Henry Lewis

This week Berliners have been celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This concrete barrier, which split the city into a West Berlin – controlled by the USA and its allies, and an East Berlin- where the Soviet Union dictated all aspects of daily life, was one of the most poignant symbols of the decades-long Cold War.

A series of events across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe earlier in 1989 led to the eventual breaching of the Wall in central Berlin, allowing throngs of East Berliners to stream freely through the broken barrier and into the streets of West Berlin on the evening of November 9th, 1989. It was a pivotal moment in history that sent shock waves around the world and set the stage for peaceful revolutions all across Eastern Europe, finally leading to the break-up and decline of the Soviet Union.

Berlin’s open-air East Side Gallery has become a huge draw for tourists visiting the reunified German capital. Photo: Henry Lewis

A young Iranian immigrant and artist, Kani Alavi, watched that evening’s jubilant chaos in the streets from his apartment window, just opposite the famous central Berlin border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie. What the young artist witnessed that night, and on those that followed, moved him to spear-head an effort to preserve a portion of the wall in order to create an open air gallery where artists could celebrate the triumph of freedom over oppression.

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ArchitectureVisual Arts

Mosaics of the Byzantine Empire

My journey to learn the secrets of mosaics began while I was working in Los Angeles in 1990. At the time, a contemporary revival of mosaic art was taking place in LA due to its creative vibe, great number of artists and the dry Mediterranean climate which is perfect for the preservation of outdoor mosaics.

I began creating my own mosaic works as I delved more deeply into the materials and techniques used in producing traditional mosaics, an art form that stretches back to ancient Greece and Rome. Like any poor artist, I collected materials wherever I could afford–asking inside retail tile stores and dumpster-diving near design centers. Having always had an affinity for the beauty, luster and durability of tile, I fell in love with this medium as a means of creative expression.

Byzantine mosaic artists built upon the mosaic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. Two gladiators (c. 1st century CE) are depicted in this mosaic from the Roman archaeological site of Kourion on the island of Cyprus. Photo: Henry Lewis

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CultureTravel

The Muisca and the Search for El Dorado

Gold makes monsters of men.

Erin Bowman, Vengeance Road

Gold, glory and God

The origins of the quest for El Dorado can be traced back to the early 16th century when a story about a place containing vast golden treasures began spreading from one Spanish settlement to another along the Caribbean coast of South America. In contemporary times, the name has been exploited in fiction and film, and has long carried the connotation of a search for riches.

Despite the Spanish translation of ‘el dorado’ being ‘the golden’–an adjective meaning ‘the golden one’ and not denoting a city of gold–the legend quickly became embellished to refer to an entire city made of gold which was said to be located in the Valley of Dorado, a place hidden deep in the mountains of the continent’s northern Andes. It was this feverish quest to acquire gold in all its forms that drove numerous European expeditions–from which most adventurers would never return–over the high ranges of the Andes and through dense jungles filled with wild animals, deadly reptiles, unfriendly tribes and jungle fevers.

The first regional expeditions in search of gold were led by German and Spanish explorers traveling along the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela. Soon after, Spanish conquistadors stationed in the Caribbean port town of Santa Marta heard stories from wandering natives of an Indian chieftain living high in the mountains whose wealth in gold was so great that he covered his entire body in the precious mineral.

A mural depicting traditional Muiscan figurines rendered from gold and silver. Artist: Edgar Diaz.

Encountering the Muisca

In 1636, the news of this gold-laden chieftain led Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his army of 800 men to abandon their mission of finding an overland route to Peru, and instead head east and up into the Andes. There they encountered the Muisca people, a highly advanced civilization whose territories were divided into a confederation of states without a single centralized leader or ruler.

Physical map of Colombia indicating the approximate range of Musica territory along with the locations of the 3 main Muisca administrative centers in the eastern range of Colombia’s Andes Mountains.

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Human RightsPolitics

Kurds: “We have no friends but the mountains”

This week, following the Trump Administration’s betrayal of a long-time Middle East ally, I received a message containing these words from one of my former students in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Region.

We as “Kurds have no friends but the mountains“ history repeats itself!

Over the past 100 years, the Kurdish people–whose territory includes northern Iraq, northern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran–have been repeatedly lied to, stabbed in the back, gassed and violently murdered by successive regimes from both the West and the Middle East.

The US Government has called on the Kurdish people repeatedly for help and these loyal allies have at all times capitulated to Washington’s requests. In 1972, they were asked by the CIA and US-placed Shah of Iran to rise up against the Ba’athist Party-led government in Iraq. The Kurds were used and then left alone to suffer the wrath of the Iraqi military when Iran’s Shah make a back-door deal with the Iraqi government.

Still willing to trust the Americans, the Kurds in northern Iraq once again rose up against the Baghdad-based government of Saddam Huessein at the urging of George H. W. Bush’s administration during the Gulf War in Kuwait in 1991. While the Kurds did eventually receive US support in setting up a no-fly zone over their northern territory, other promises of oil wealth sharing and possible independence were not kept. Establishing border security was left to the Kurd’s very capable military, known as the Peshmerga, which created a safe haven in an otherwise extremely dangerous and chaotic country.

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EnvironmentHealth and Well-being

Coal and the Price of Prosperity

Working as a miner has long been one of the most perilous occupations on the planet. As the ancient Romans famously conquered lands near and far, they sentenced the slaves they took prisoner to a life of back-breaking labor in their mines. The hardships of such labor were famously portrayed in the Hollywood production of Spartacus, the story of a slave who worked in the mines, refused to submit to the torture of his captors and eventually led a rebellion against Roman tyranny.

Fast forward to mid-18th century Britain–the mining of coal produced the energy needed to power factories and run transport networks, bringing about what would later be known as the Industrial Revolution. As knowledge of new industrial technologies spread across Western Europe and then on to the Americas, countries rich in this relatively inexpensive resource developed into industrial powerhouses.

The advent of industrialization sparked an exodus of rural folks from the countryside to rapidly growing cities where they found employment in factories, and for the first time had wages which enabled them to purchase goods. Using abundant coal reserves as fuel allowed factory owners to produce more goods than were needed, thus introducing the concept of buying things as a sign of status. Later industrialists, such as Henry Ford, developed methods of mass production for goods which accelerated these emerging trends. Factory jobs, in turn, provided the steady incomes that built a middle class which could afford to consume more, and therefore, set the stage for contemporary economic systems based principally on the mass consumption of goods and services.

The discovery and use of coal as a tool for rapid economic development not only changed the way people went about their daily lives, it also became a tool for political propaganda. According to Barbara Freese, author of Coal, A Human History:

In the 1800s, a lot of theologians who wrote about coal saw coal deposits as signs of God’s favor. And that’s why God gave America so much coal and gave England so much coal because he essentially wanted English-speaking countries to have a controlling influence over world affairs. So it was seen really as further evidence of our manifest destiny–Barbara Freese

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CultureTravel

Ancient Petra: The City of Stone

A narrow sandstone gorge known as the Siq serves as the main entrance to southern Jordan’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra. This 1.2 kilometer long canyon twists and turns, and then turns some more before finally opening up to reveal a stunning view of the rock-hewn Al Kazneh, more commonly known as The Treasury. Photo: Henry Lewis

As the coarse sand and scree crunched under the weight of my moving feet, I passed through one narrow bend after another as I entered the wonderland that is southern Jordan’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra. The sheer cliffs and warm rose hues of the 1.2 kilometer-long sandstone gorge known as the Siq, which is the main entrance to this vast archaeological site, enveloped me as if I was being embraced by Mother Earth herself.

The sun was rising and the play of light and shadow on the stone walls of the narrow passage was mesmerizing. My only worry was that another speeding horse carriage driven by one of the local Bedouin guides would come careening around a blind-curve and run me down as I daydreamed about ancient caravans navigating such narrow passages.

A horse and carriage speedily navigates through the narrow passage known as the Siq. Photo: Henry Lewis

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CulturePolitics

The ART of Politics

While the Trump era has provided endless opportunities for journalists to come up with fresh ways to report on domestic and international affairs, I think the real treasure trove of creative golden nuggets has been laid at the feet of political cartoonists.

In an era when truth is often elusive and fantasy thrives, cartoons seem to represent the most effective means of contextualizing the outrageous behavior taking place in Washington, D.C. and it’s always-on 24-hour cycle of institutional destruction.

Signe Wilkinson – Washington Post Writers Group and Cartoonist Group

Michael de Adder – Counterpoint

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Human RightsPolitics

And our STRUGGLE continues…

The message Sinead O’Conner delivered in her dramatic performance on Saturday Night Live back in 1992 is just as powerful today as it was then.

It seems little has changed in the hearts of mankind over the past three decades. The struggle remains the same–against war, inequality, abuse of power and the destruction of our very home, planet Earth.

Yes, we must FIGHT for justice for all sentient beings, as well as for the health of our planet. Can this fight be won through non-violent means? I hope so.

peace~henry

Header Photo: Library of Congress

 

CultureTravelVisual Arts

Amazing Bogotá Street Art #2

As I wrote in The Amazing Street Art Scene in Bogotá, Colombia’s sprawling, high-altitude capital is a veritable feast for the eyes of those who love exploring streetscapes lined with beautiful–as well as sobering–images, painted by some of the world’s top street artists. The fact that this scene is constantly expanding and changing has been confirmed during my current visit, my fourth to the city.

Street art might be viewed as a metaphor for our lives, since the only thing assured for us, and street art, is change. As the paints and top layers of a wall or building begin to fade and crumble due to the inevitable weathering process, so too does the image that was once so vivid. While a painting may be more vibrant, crisp and colorful when it’s young (or freshly painted), aging often instills an image with more character and depth as the layers of paint, plaster, brick or concrete–once hidden beneath the fresh paint–begin to reveal themselves. While I appreciate vibrant colors and sharp outlines, I savor texture and depth of perspective even more.

These street paintings are in no meaningful order. They’re simply a selection I recently shot in the La Candelaria and Chapinero neighborhoods of Bogotá. While most of the images are to be enjoyed without comment, I’ve made notes on a few. I also wish to apologize to the artists who aren’t credited–those whose signatures don’t appear on their work. I’m just not organized enough to do the research at the moment. Enjoy!

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