Connections!!

Today I leave Knoxville at 12:05 pm and arrive in Nairobi at 9:20 pm Thursday. Doubly excited (if possible) because with the help of my friend, Dee White, I am going to be able to visit the Mara Hyena Research Project camp where she volunteers during the summer each year. WOW!

Below is an article I wrote about Dee and the hyenas of the Masai Mara which was published by KnoxZine in 2014. I am reprinting it with their permission.

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Getting the Last Laugh In

“Hyenas aren’t sexy,” says Dee White, from her charming Holston Hills cottage.

White, close to retiring after over 25 years as a social worker and Coordinator of New Born Screening in the Genetics Center at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, was finally able to return to her first love, animals.

She became involved in hyena research on the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya.

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“I grew up with animals around and have always had a keen interest in animal behavior.  I’m not sure when I first dreamed of going to Africa. The desire seems to have always been with me.

A Long, Strange Trip Begins

“As child of the ’60s my life took a few turns before I settled down.

“In 1965 I attended UT for two years.

I wanted to become a veterinarian but was strongly discouraged from pursuing that goal by professors who said I was just taking up space in pre vet courses.

“This was before the UT College of Veterinary Medicine was opened. They said there was not a vet school in the country that would admit me, a female.

“When my fiancé was drafted, I quit school and joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). After he was killed in Vietnam I went to Mexico for a while and then ended up in St. Louis where I found a job at the Missouri Botanical Garden.”

St. Louis Zoo

While working there, White had the chance to apply for a job at the St. Louis Zoo. Her timing was excellent. Women had never been hired as keepers before, but a nursery—the first for the zoo, was being created in the basement of the reptile house. Soon a Children’s Zoo was built and populated with small exotic animals. More animal births occurred. In the busy summer months students helped out as volunteers.

One outstanding high school student volunteer was eventually hired at $1.25 an hour. That student was Kay Holekamp. White said Holekamp had an understanding of the animals’ needs and a gift for working with the sensitive charges in the nursery.

After a few years in the nursery, White wanted to work with large animals in the main zoo.

The mind set at the time was that women wouldn’t be able to handle the labor involved.

Dee White, overcoming sexism at the St. Louis Zoo, and working  with a Bengal Tiger.

She eventually worked in all animal areas, proving that women could do the job. Today the majority of zoo keepers are female. She also was the first female union shop steward at the St. Louis Zoo.

Realizing she needed to finish her education, White returned to the University of Tennessee. “I was in my thirties and knew what I needed to do to finish my education. I was by far the oldest in any of my classes.” She finished her BS and went on to get a Master’s Degree in clinical social work.

Finally, Africa

In 2008, at a St. Louis Zoo employees’ reunion, White tracked down Kay Holekamp, her favorite former employee.  Holekamp was now a Distinguished Professor at  Michigan State University. Her research team focuses on behavioral ecology and evolution. They have been studying spotted hyenas in the wild for 26 years. This is the longest on-going research of larger mammals.

As the two women renewed their old friendship, Dr. Holekamp remembered White’s dream of going to Africa. Five years ago, Holekamp invited White to visit the research team in Kenya.

“I burst into tears and went to the bank, cleaned out my savings account, and bought an airplane ticket. The first year was just to unite with an old friend and to fulfill an old dream that I thought was lost. I was there for 2 weeks and fell in love with the country and the animals.

It turned out I could do something to help the project so Kay hired me.

Dr. Kay Holekamp with research assistants in the field.

White is now Field Notes Coordinator for the western Mara. She has been to Kenya five times and her retirement from UT allowed her to stay two months this year.

Working in the Field

“When we are working in the field, we live in tents, use pit toilets, eat two meals a day, and live a pretty Spartan life. We are in a remote field camp guarded by Masai askaris (soldiers) at night. Many wild animals use our paths to get to and from the river at night and sometimes during the day.

(l-r) Benson, Masai Research Assistant; Stephen, a soldier; and Wilson, a Masai Research Assistant.

“We have to be hyper vigilant so as not to spook any animal who might run us down. We have to watch where we put our feet and keep an eye to the trees for snakes. Baboons and vervet monkeys are a constant nuisance, as they will steal anything that looks interesting. A particularly rowdy group took my tent all the way to the ground this year.

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“Hyenas are most active just before dawn and just before dusk so we leave camp by 5:30 in the morning, in the dark, and track animals who are wearing radio collars. We usually find them at a communal den or on a kill. Then the behavioral observations begin. Everything is recorded and then transcribed and eventually entered into a massive database.

Collard spotted hyena.

“Mid-day is very hot and is spent transcribing notes, repairing tents or solar panels, getting water, running errands, or teaching at local schools and giving lectures at tourist lodges. At 5 in the evening we go back out again and follow hyenas till 8 or so. Then it’s back to camp for dinner and bed. Then we get up the next morning and start all over, 7 days a week 52 weeks a year.

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“This year local drought situations created a competitive situation between the Masai cattle and the wild herbivores on the Mara. Twenty four hyenas of our clan were lost because they ate from poisoned carcasses put out by herdsmen. The mothers died and their babies (all but one) starved to death at the dens waiting for moms that never came back. Because dominate animals feed first at a carcass some of the dead were high ranking females.

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“We are going to be watching closely to see how the clan re-ranks the surviving members. There is a possibility that lower ranking females may form a collation and take over leadership of the clan.  Another possibility is that the clan could split in half. It is all fascinating and exciting and I can’t wait to go back next spring.”

Retirees can take it easy or they can be open to new opportunities that come their way. White says, “I am not done, not done at all.”

Dee White with a sedated spotted hyena.

To learn more about spotted hyenas and the MSU Hyena project in the Masai Mara visit The Kay Holekamp Lab. Her students maintain a blog, Notes from Kenya, with stories and photos of the hyenas, camp life, and research news. Also enjoy the amazing photography on the Mara Hyena Project page on Facebook.

Photographs courtesy of MSU Masai Mara Hyena Project.

http://www.Knoxzine.com

© Judy S. Blackstock, 2014.

Return

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” 
                                                                        ― Pascal MercierNight Train to Lisbon

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When I was nine years old, my mother received the book I Married Adventure as a monthly book club selection. The zebra-striped cloth cover intrigued me. I opened the book and that began my love affair with Kenya.

Growing up in East Tennessee in the fifties, without much television and no internet,  our world was much more isolated than today.  Reading the book, poring over the pictures of the exotic animals and people of Africa fired my imagination and became part of me.

Fifty years later my two children gave me the surprise of a lifetime with a birthday gift of a two-week safari in Kenya.

I was handed a dream and its reality was better than the dream itself.

  • Arriving at Jomo Kenyetta Airport and climbing into a van with five unknown women, later fast friends known as the African Queens.
  • Crossing a dry river bed going to Amboseli with the snow-capped Mt Kilimanjaro in full view
  • First day of game drives producing gazelle, gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, elephants bathing in the Ewaso Nyirio River, cheetah, sleeping lions
  • Sleeping under mosquito netting in a four-postered bed
  • Balloon ride above the Masai Mara, skidding over termite mounds upon landing

Animals, or saving souls, are often the reasons for coming to Africa. For me, it was the opportunity to see exotic animals in their home environment. I returned two more times by the end of 2003 because of the atmosphere and the people.

Now I am going again. The trips before were planned out well in advance with a set itinerary and touring with other people. This time is almost spur of the moment, and less than two weeks stay.  I am going by myself,  staying with Mbuthia, my driver on the other trips, and his family.

I look forward to taking a safari to the place I fell in love with so many years before –Lake Paradise in the Marsabit National Reserve.  I am blessed to be able to complete my circle.

 

 

 

 

Life at it fullest

Today I am living life to it fullest.

I spent time in bed with fresh coffee and the day’s newspaper.

I pulled weeds at a leisurely pace in the warm sun.

I clucked over and watered my zinnias and plants of tomatoes and potential broccoli.

I lost a game of Scrabble online to a very worthy opponent.

I visited a friend at NHC to hear her laughter.

I started searching the internet for an airplane ticket to Kenya.

The above was written a month ago. Perhaps I felt I might jinx myself if I posted before I had my ticket in hand. Leaving in two weeks!!

 

The Invitation by Orian Mountain Dreamer

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to
know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of
meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if
you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream,
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your
moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of
your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s
betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from
fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own,
without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own;
if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill
you to the tips of your fingers and toes without
cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the
limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is
true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be
true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of
betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be
faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not
pretty every day. And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and
mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout
to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes.’

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how
much money you have. I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised
to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the
children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to
be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of
the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you
have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the
inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if
you truly like the company you keep in the empty
moments.

Thank you to Lansing King

Last Memories

IMG_1569-001This is the last photograph of my immediate family. It was made in May of 2001. My brother Lee, on the left was up from Austell, Georgia, and Larry, next to him, came by from Kodak. Our dad and mother and I lived together at the time. As happens, after documenting our group in early years, we hadn’t made one for  years.

Larry died in his sleep the night this picture was taken. It was unexpected and the shock was felt deeply because he was only 62, had not been sick, and was the first of the family to die.

My dad died in 2003 at the age of 94 and my mother in 2008 at the age of 96. Lee and I are the only two left. When talking to Lee recently it dawned on me that when either he or I pass on, there will be no one left with whom to share the exact recollections of our childhood, our upbringing, our family vacations, our steps towards adulthood.

Share what is important to you with kin and friends–write it down, record it, identify pictures. Reminiscing can make you laugh or cry and bring to mind the small as well as important happenings of the past. Memories can bring back a closeness that often has been lost over the years.

Do it while you can.IMG_1586

 

 

 

Baby & Me

IMG_1257 (2)Who would have thunk it? My new part-time job is babysitting with a curly-headed, energetic 13 month old precious Baby Boy.

My children were born in the 60s and my grandchildren in the 90s and the year 2000. Since then most of my exposure to little ones has been oohing over the grandbabies of friends.

After being interviewed by said Baby Boy, his parents, his dog and six cats, I was hired and reported to work the next day. I remembered to not wear jewelry or leave a cup of coffee unattended. I had forgotten the difficulties of interpreting a pointing finger and uuaghh sound.

This child is very, very active. He walks. He climbs higher and higher each day. He explores everything–the pantry, the shelves of collected glassware, the dog’s water bowl when I forget to put it up out of his reach.

He nods his head in time to Christian music and Fruit Loops commercials. He brings me the books of his choice to be looked at as many times as he wants. He rubs both sides of his curly head when he is really, really tired.

That first day, after waving goodbye to mommy, questions flooded my mind. How big a bite can he manage without getting choked? Did his mother say 2 ounces of warm water plus a scoop of formula into the bottle to then be filled with whole milk? Was that a 4 or 6 oz bottle? And one I never figured out with my own–Does he feel cold when I feel cold for him?

Then there is the new paraphernalia in baby land!  It took me three tries to successfully assemble a four-part baby bottle.

Gerber’s oatmeal and banana cereal?IMG_1362 Replaced by Earth’s Best sweet potato cinnamon quinoa, barley & oat pouch, made with flax, unsweetened & unsalted, vegan with no genetically engineered ingredients in non-BPA packaging.

Snacks are dehydrated puffs of fruits and vegetables. No soda crackers or even a goldfish to be seen.Yogurt is common ground in both our diets.

IMG_1287I love that the household includes pets. Chestnut the dog appears to think of himself as the older brother, one who took kindly to a baby and gladly shares toys. He is ecstatic to receive food dropped from the high chair. He howls in sympathy when Baby Boy gets upset.  Callie the Calico       IMG_1249 doesn’t like for Chestnut to get too close to her and emits a hiss every time that happens. I was holding the boy one day. Callie hissed, Chestnut barked, I jumped, baby clutched, I eeked, baby cried.

Many of yesterday’s toys remain favorites–Fisher Price, dump trucks, wooden puzzles and books. New ones have more bells and whistles, movements, and batteries.

FYI:  Barefoot Books, videos found on YouTube can mesmerize a little one.IMG_1388 Franchising merchandise is represented by a Star Wars sanctioned, stuffed, fluffy Chewbaca.

Three weeks into the job and we are both still standing. My muscles and joints have settled back down to their normal ache level. Ibuprofen, a hot shower and sleep are great restoratives.

What causes aggravation is my aging fingers struggling with those snaps on the legs of sleepers and pants. My lord, it takes me as much time to get them lined up correctly and fastened as it does to convince Baby Boy to take a nap.

Being a sitter is somewhat like being a grandparent. The job carries responsibilities but you can leave at the end of your shift happy to pass the torch back to the parents.

I love that at my age I have been given this amazing opportunity to watch a little one develop.IMG_1244

His eyes take in an action and you can almost see his brain turning it over until it is added to his memory bank.IMG_1304

Words are becoming important to him. Momma, Daddy, ba (for bottle), dog, cat, moo are on the tip of his tongue. When was the first time he heard “no” and turned with a measured look to see if you were serious?

His sense of humor shows as he anticipates the last page of the book where he sees himself in a mirror and starts chortling before we get there.

And that smile….which could be why one day I pranced around the kitchen doing a cheer leading routine, using colorful tights for pom poms, with a too small Spidyman cap on my head.

 

 

 

Atlantic Avenue

IMG_1200Atlantic Avenue is a song written by RB Morris local poet, songwriter and performer. Atlantic Avenue is a street in North Knoxville (not to be confused with Historic Old North Knoxville) where he lived several times.

RB does a good job of describing the familiar, often the scruffy, of our city–streets, venues, people–in both his songs and poetry. Accompanied by his guitar and usually a band, his presentation style is unique.

At first, not exactly sure how I felt about his breaking off a song lyric to recite lines from a poem, I stood back questioning. It didn’t take long to realize this was an honest performer, RB being RB.

I attended a home concert one evening where he performed and was glad to hear this song, a old favorite for many of his fans. After leaving the concert my friend, Karen, and I decided to cruise Atlantic Avenue to see if we could figure out where RB had lived. It was after midnight on a hot summer night. We didn’t have any luck but it was a nice way to hold onto the mood.

Lyrics from Atlantic Avenue

by RB Morris

“Windows in old homes, glowing rosy in the night…..”

“Alley cats and nightbirds playing in the shadows and the machines….”

“ And darkness falls forever on broken wheels and dreams…”

Can you see it?

Note from RB: I wrote all the lyrics to the song, as a song it is a co-write with the late Terry Hill who wrote the music.

More About Books

Here is a “book” report from Cathy Kodra who last year concentrated on reading memoirs:

I read: The Liars’ Club and Lit by Mary Karr
The Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto
The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith H. Beer
Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd
The Winged Seed: A Remembrance by Li-Young Lee
The Things We Carry by Tim O’Brien
Barefoot to Avalon by David Payne
The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

My favorites were those memoirs by Amy Tan, David Payne, Tim O’Brien, and Sue Monk Kidd.

The interesting thing that occurred was that as I began reading from my list of memoirs, I started being drawn to various other nonfiction titles–not memoir, but nevertheless nonfiction, which has not been a strong choice for me until 2014 / 2015 (except for writing craft books and some metaphysical publications).

I read:
The Grain Brain by David Perlmutter(not convinced), Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (not to be missed),          
The Age of Miracles by Marianne Williamson,
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin,             On Becoming an Artist by Ellen Langer (she’s become one of my favorite authors, and I’m currently reading another book of hers titled Mindfulness),
We Know Nothing by Tim Kreider(best and most honest book of personal essays I’ve ever read),
The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama XIV,     Bluebird:Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore,                                           The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rub,               Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin, and               One Mind by Larry Dossey.

 

IMG_9508-001C. Ann Kodra works as an independent editor in Knoxville, TN. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in journals and anthologies including Blueline, Cavalier Literary Couture, Common Ground Review, Cutthroat, drafthorse, MOTIF (vol. 1 & 3), New Millennium Writings, Now & Then, Prime Mincer, RHINO, Still: The Journal, Yemassee, and others. She is a contributing editor for New Millennium Writings and an associate editor for MSI Press, California.