This Land (Review)

I came across a great big, heavy book of photographs this week and brought it home.  I wanted to view its contents, because I knew it would not be just another coffee table book full of “picture perfect” photography.

Photographer Jack Spencer offers a book full of his emotional interpretations of the “lower 48” in This Land: An American Portrait.  This is a book filled with art. Art that tugs at the heartstrings of nostalgia. It’s the nostalgia for what we know is part of our world…an ethereal vision we have longed for…a dream that lies just beyond our grasp.

This viewer noticed that most of the photographs did not contain humans.  Those that did, treated people as abstract parts of the rest of the landscape.  The images are very soulful art. Many of the photographs look more like oil paintings, not art photography.

I thought a few of the images tried too hard to be “artsy”, the degree of their lack of focus brought too much attention to the fact of mechanical manipulation.  I reminded myself that these photos represented the emotional output of Mr. Spencer’s reaction to his subjects. Thankfully, the radically unfocused images are very few in number.

This Land is a book that is best viewed on a tabletop. It’s the kind of book you pull up a chair and ponder.  In this way, you can study and contemplate each image as if you’re viewing it at an art gallery. I got lost in wordless emotions when viewing decrepit or mundane architecture presented as a main subject in some of the pictures.

There are two beach photographs that best achieve a painterly quality. I kept going back to them to enjoy their subtle neuances. I hope the beach photographs are included in Spencer’s gallery shows at art venues. They are the ones I’d most like to own and display in my living room.

My positive opinion about the beach pictures should not overshadow the positive feelings I have about the rest of the photographs in this beautiful, luxurious book. Most of them are worthy of long periods of contemplation.

If you love art photography, This Land: An American Portrait is a book you should seriously consider seeing.

{ This Land: An American Portrait photographed by Jack Spencer; 284 pages published March 2017,  by University of Texas Press; ISBN:  978-1-4773-1189-9 }

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Henry David Thoreau. “This world is but a canvas to our imagination.”

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The Attrocities In Chechnya

In times like these, we have to stand up for the safety and well-being of our brothers and sisters.  There is little constructive concern in official United States reaction to the ongoing human rights violations in Chechnya.

The Chechen Republic in the North Caucasian District of the Russian Federation has been a hotbed of ultra-right-wing political activity ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ever since 2007, the Republic has been ruled by strongman Ramzan Kakyrov.  Due to a cult of personality surrounding Kakyrov, he has been able to get away with a high level of corruption and an alarming number of human rights violations.

There has never been any pretence of tolerance for LGBT citizens in Chechnya. The present regime is the most homophobic one in recent history. Political actions against the LGBT community intensified earlier this year when the gay rights organization from Moscow,, applied for permits to hold rallies in the Muslim-majority North Caucasian District.

As expected the permits were denied. Unfortunately just the act of requesting permits triggered antigay demonstrations in Chechnya. Soon adult and teen males started to disappear.

Government leadership emboldened the disappearances by commanding a “prophylactic sweep” of the area. At that time reports surfaced about abductions, torture, and murders of gay men and incarceration of gay men and those perceived as gay in “concentration camps”.

After news of the round-ups made its way into the international media, a spokesman for Kadyrov claimed the reports were false because “there are no gay men in the republic. You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic.” The spokesman went on to say, “If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”

Sadly, the LGBT community in Chechnya cannot expect any genuine help from Russian Federation officialdom. Russian President Vladimir Putin has frequently expressed strong homophobic views about LGBT people and anyone who has a “nontraditional” sexual orientation. That said, Putin stated he will intervene over the Chechnya reports.

Any statements or reprimands from Putin will likely be as superficial as those made ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Those statements only came about after negative world reaction to so-called “gay propaganda” prohibitions coming from the Kremlin. There are no signs that Putin has changed his homophobic opinions about the Russian LGBT community.

The present culture of persecution and murder of gay men in Chechnya will probably continue and even grow more insidious as time goes on, due to the lack of genuine prohibitions coming out of the Kremlin. The expression of official Russian investigation came about only after German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the negative reports when she visited Putin in Moscow earlier this month.

Since then, the foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden have communicated with their Russian counterpart to strongly denounce the persecution. Conspicuosly absent was any early formal statement from Washington.

With the news media being distracted by historical domestic developements in our own federal government, the purge of gay men in Chechnya will receive little, if any, mention in the mainstream media sources. Add to this the fact that the US is being governed by the most homophobic administration in decades, the Chechnyan LGBT community cannot realistically expect any help from the American government.

I write today of the need to keep the tragedy of Chechnya in the hearts and minds of my readers. I can only hope that other like-minded people who love freedom and human rights will join in the efforts to halt Chechnya human rights violations. I also want to salute the ongoing efforts of individuals in Europe and North America to provide refuge for gays and their families escaping from the evil horrors of Chechnya.

The silence of most of the world can only work to the benefit of the tyrants. The most vulnerable minorities, the LGBT community, will be subjected to persecution, torture, imprisonment, and murder. It is important that fair-minded people everywhere speak and act against these attrocities.

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes British author George Eliot. “You should read history and look at ostracism, persecution, martyrdom, and that kind of thing. They always happen to the best men, you know.”

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Non-Self-Governing Territories

How much sleep have you lost lately by worrying over the fate of Montserrat? Do those hours of tossing and turning also give you pause over the people of Tokelau? Are you more perturbed about American Samoa?  Most of us would answer either “no” or “huh?” Could you even find these places on a map? We give less attention to such places than we get frustrated or troubled over North Dakota.

The civilized world contains several political entities officially categorized as non-self-governing territories.  They are considered colonies or some sort of dependency.  Their ultimate governing body is located in a self-governing nation. For instance, the people of American Samoa live under the rule of the United States.

What about Montserrat?  Well, it’s a tiny island in the Carribean in the British West Indies. Montserrat is officially a British Overseas Territory. The Island is about ten miles long and seven miles wide. More than half of the place is an “Exclusion Zone” due to the potential for violent volcanic activity. Approximately 5,000 Montserratans live on the Island.

Environmentalists might have heard of Tokelau, even if they’re not sure where in the world it’s located. Tokelau is the first completely solar powered country anywhere. The 3.9 square mile combination of three atolls lies far to the east of New Zealand and is a dependent territory of New Zealand.  An additional small area, Swains Island” is governed as a portion of American Samoa. Altogether, some 1,500 people live in Tokelau.

American Samoa might be better known because it is under the jurisdiction of the USA.  It’s an unincorporated territory of five islands and two atolls in the neighborhood of the previously mentioned territory of Tokelau. Its approximately 56,000 people live as American citizens. American Samoa should not be confused with the neighboring independent nation of Samoa. American Samoan government is similar to that of US States in that it has a territorial governor, a bicameral territorial legislative body, and a territorial judicial system.

These are only a few of the many non-self-governing territories around the world. Larger, more powerful nations administer the territories. The larger nations need to recognize and care for the interests and well-being of people living in the territories. In many instances the territorial inhabitants have little or no say as to their own ultimate leadership. An ironic comparison might be to the governance of Washington DC. Washington is effectively a US Territory that falls under the jurisdiction of the US Congress.

There is one unusually noteworthy non-self-governing area, the Falkland Islands. Argentina and the United Kingdom both claim ultimate sovereignty over the territory.

As is the case everywhere, inhabitants of non-self-governing territories want to enjoy social, educational, economic, and political advancement. They want to be assured of protection against abusive treatment. Many of them want progressive development and free political autonomy.

As the category’s name implies, non-self-governing territories do not have full independence nor are they equal partners in the world community of nations. These territories do contribute to their benefactor nations’ economic and military institutions.  For example, American Samoa has the highest rate, per capita, of its citizens enlisting in the US military. Their rate is higher than any US State or other territory.

Non-self-governing territories must rely upon their administering “parent” nations for military defense and promotion of national well-being in economic and social matters. To help ensure that the best interests of the inhabitants, non-governmental organizations, mainly the United Nations, monitor the territories.

The Blue Jay of Happiness notes a thought from Filipino writer F. Sionil Jose.  “Colonialism subdues in many dulcet guises. It conquered under the pretext of spreading Christianity, civilization, law and order, to make the world safe for democracy.”

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The last day trip I took to the Black Hills of South Dakota I noticed several fellow tourists who seemed more interested in taking selfies than actually pausing to enjoy the views. A vehicle stopped at a scenic overlook, the occupants rushed out, noisily posed together with the scene at their backs, took turns shooting a few frames, then piled back into the truck and sped away.

This happened quite often and was so disruptive to the peace and calm that I jotted it down in my trip diary in an effort to get it out of my mind. Yet, I wondered why these tourists bothered to drive from long distances only to overlook the glorious natural beauty they supposedly came to see.

Happily, there were also a great number of tourists who parked their vehicles, stretched their muscles and walked to the overlooks then stood and pondered the amazing sights in front of them.  Many did take photographs, but not selfies.  It was easy to identify the serious photographers, even if they didn’t carry expensive gear. They seemed to be fully aware of the rare beauty to which they traveled for enjoyment.

A part of my visit to South Dakota was the specific act of people watching.  I spent about an hour at one particularly spectacular area where Mount Rushmore was visible in the distance. I saw people of all shapes and sizes from various levels of society and even from several different nations.  Many of the serious sightseers carried and used binoculars. Yet the “hit and run” selfie takers also made their presence felt.

Despite all the people watching and guessing about their motives, I realized that perhaps I was also sleepwalking at times.  Instead of contemplating the interplay of clouds with trees and mountains, I’d gotten off-track to wallow in judgementalism. I finally let go of all that in order to simply absorb the majestic beauty of the park.

You don’t have to drive to the Black Hills to observe sleepwalking. In fact, you don’t have to leave home to experience it.  Think of how often we get to the end of the day and wonder “where did the day go?” Sometimes this happens in regard to weeks, months, and years at a time. We might be casually aware of going through the motions and performing our required tasks, but we rarely pay full attention to what we’re doing at those times.

In a strictly legal sense, we are aware, but in a more profound sense, we are sleepwalking through life. The current trend of multitasking is an extreme version of sleepwalking. It’s impossible for us to pay full attention to one action while doing several others at the same time.

We’re walking and chewing gum at the same time. We might be trying to navigate a dark, unfamiliar path, we don’t remember we’re also chewing gum. Later, we notice that the gum has gone flat and tastes stale.  At that moment, we’re no longer paying full attention to walking.

To get out of sleepwalking mode we can simply follow the advice of ancient sages. “When you sit, just sit. When you walk, just walk, when you eat, just eat. When you love, just love.” That is traditional mindfulness training.

When you pay full attention to each activity you do, you know where the time goes. You don’t get to the end of the week and wonder what happened to it. When we switch off the technology we turn to in order to kill time, we utilize time in order to more fully live. If we put away the phones and take fewer selfies, we have more time to more fully look within.

If we take the time to curb our sleepwalking, we have more time to be completely alive in our ever precious world.

The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this request from writer/cartoonist James Thurber: “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around us in awareness.”

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1968 LIFE

I was a high school sophomore and a junior in 1968. That was what I first remembered when I stumbled across the “Life” magazine that was dated January 10, 1969. The “Special Issue” was a recap of one of the most momentous years in American History, 1968. The magazine was part of a cache of “Life” magazines that had been stashed in the attic of dad’s oldest house.

First of all, I was grateful they had not been stored in the basement, so there is no mold and mildew problem. The magazines can be enjoyed in their original form in the comfort of my easy chair.

The magazines were saved because dad believed they would be valued in the future. He was correct. The editors of the magazine also knew it. Inside the January 10, 1969 issue, they printed the claim, “1 out of 4 Americans will read this issue of LIFE…48 million people will be reading it with you…Which makes Life the single most powerful communications medium that ever existed.” That’s quite a boast.

Full blown nostalgia sets in when we ponder an actual artifact from the past.  This is especially true of newspapers and magazines published when we were still youths in high school.  So, 1968 was an incredible year for me, personally, and for the United States as a whole.

Our history books mention the shocking assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King by James Earl Ray, and that of Robert Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan. There is a photo essay of these events in the magazine.

There is the big photo story featuring images from the Apollo 8 mission–one of the “forgotten” missions that were overshadowed by Apollo 11 in July of 1969.

1968 was memorable for the major student uprisings that took place in Mexico, Paris, Berlin, New York, and in the hearts of many of us young boomers. These were coupled with the ever present reality of warfare, in this case, Vietnam. There was also much concern about a terrible famine in Biafra.

Still, the historical focus of 1968 was politics. This was also a watershed year for me. I worked as a volunteer for the Robert Kennedy for President campaign in our corner of Nebraska. Mr. Kennedy actually made a personal visit to our small college town and made a stop at our humble headquarters. Needless to say, it was an event to remember forever.

That year’s Presidential race was also split between the efforts of Eugene McCarthy, Alabama Governor George Wallace, and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon.

After RFK’s assassination, most of us Kennedy volunteers went over to the McCarthy campaign, only to experience disappointment again when Humphrey was selected as the Democratic candidate for the general election. The disappointment was compounded by Richard Nixon’s ultimate selection by the voters.

The magazine recounted some lesser notes of 1968 and jogged my memories of them, too. That was the year JFK’s widow, Jacqueline became “Jackie-O” when she married Aristotle Onassis. The event raised plenty of eyebrows including those in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

The other top stories of the year included a photo essay about people who survived heart transplants and another recounting the “Black is Beautiful” social movement.

After setting the magazine aside, I was again reminded that it is good to save a few important things  for posterity.  I’m glad dad saved the “Life” magazines for posterity. I’ll archive them, as well.  I wonder who will enjoy them when my time is done.

The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this quip from one of the Shuttle Challenger disaster victims, teacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe: “I have the Life magazine of the men walking on the Moon.”

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A Morel Mushroom In The Yard

One of my rugged, outdoorsy friends likes to tease me about going hunting.  He knows that the only wildlife I hunt are photographic subjects.  Instead of a firearm, I carry a camera. On the off chance that I hunt for food, it is the search for morel mushrooms that gives me a little thrill.

The morel mushroom is the only species of fungus that I dare to hunt because I’m not a mushroom expert or a botanist.  Also, the morel is the easiest to identify. Once you’ve seen a morel or a photo of one, you’ll know what to look for.

This very delicious mushroom is a sponge-like protuberance that is anywhere from one to six inches tall. The stems and caps of the plant are hollow, and the stem is attached at the base of the cap. Its distinctive shape makes the morel the simplest, safest mushroom to identify.

They are usually found on spring days when the temperature ranges from 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  In North America, morels pop up in springtime, just as the trees begin to bud.  The relatively unfiltered rays of sunlight warm the soil directly. Black morels are usually found in forests or groves of trees.

Natural clues to help lead you to morels are wildflowers. If you see Dutchman’s breeches, phlox, trout lily, trillium, wild violets, or wild strawberries, you’re in the right area.  The flowers don’t guarantee that morels will be nearby, they only indicate favorable conditions for the mushroom.

To find the black variety of morels, requires patience and mindfulness. They appear where wind patterns happened, by chance, to blow the spores to a favorable patch.  Seasoned morel hunters know to look for patterns.

In my experience the white morels are a bit easier to discover.  They are not exclusive to forests, even though they’re often found there. I’ve had good luck along fence rows, grazing meadows, floodplains and railroad tracks. Be mindful of tresspassing on railroad property and train traffic if you plan on searching along railroad tracks.

White morels tend to grow near large, old deciduous trees like ash, cottonwood, elm, or sycamore. They feed on decayed root systems of dead or dying trees.  Morels have a five-year growth cycle, so keep that fact in mind when you plan to return to the same location in subsequent years.

This year, I stumbled across a morel mushroom without even trying.  Each week, I mow the grassy weeds of the vacant city property next to my own yard.  There is a stand of old elms along the riverbank also on that lot.  I noticed a solitary morel while mowing the weeds. In fact, it was directly in front of the lawnmower’s path. I kept my eye out for others, but it turned out that it was the only one.

I took a few photographs of the morel, but didn’t harvest it. Hopefully, it will eventually eject spores and a new generation of morels will appear in the near future. At the very least, it was fun to accidentally find one of the mushrooms while taking care of a mundane chore.

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes violinist Itzhak Perlman. “I’m a mushroom freak. I make a mushroom soup where I use maybe six or seven varieties, not just portobello and shiitake, but dried porcini and morels.”

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Interpretations …Floral Friday

Long time viewers of Floral Friday understand that many of the arrangements pictured have been inspired by the containers I use.  That’s just how my mind works. I suppose this approach is similar to that used by some writers of instrumental only music.  Anyway, Floral Friday is just me sharing abstract, visual statements of thoughts that can’t be put into words.

I come across a container somewhere and it “speaks” to me. I feel compelled to interpret what it is saying.

Basic earthenware pottery has been enjoyed by people throughout the ages.  The sturdy canister vase says it needs balance with a softer, more nuanced aspect. You might say that balance is like Yin and Yang. Hence, the small, complex floral branches.

Why is it that it’s difficult to take ducks seriously?  Cartoonists have exploited ducky qualities with characters like Donald and Daffy.  The same can be said about this vintage, kitschy mallard duck planter. This was calling out for a multi-colored posy of blooms.

A simple but heavy studio vase begged for substantial complexity to fulfill its purpose.  An Asian inspired tropical treatment does the job.

The Blue Jay of Happiness enjoys this statement by best-selling author Yann Martel: “Reality is how we interpret it. Imagination and volition play a part in that interpretation. Which means that all reality is to some extent a fiction.”

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