Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mr. Burns Gift By Shirley A. Blair Keller ©2011

Kaweah River Road walk was beautiful that morning. It was July and the mornings are barely cool, enough to get out early before the summer heat hits. The river was flowing quietly, river rocks glistening under the cover of water.

I see Mr. Burns old VW bus coming up the road. I also noticed a couple walking a big dog toward me. Both vehicle and the couple reach me at the same time.

“Get in the car, Shirley,” Mr. Burns commands. “Scottie and Eddie, you too. I have something wonderful to show all of you.” There is a back and forth about the dog fitting in such a small space with all of us, but Mr. Burns exuberance overcame all objections and we piled in the back of the vehicle. Eddie, Scottie and I made introductions. They are new in town, built a house not far up the road from me, and have been walking the dog daily. That is how they met Mr. Burns. Turns out they are birdwatchers, too.

Mr. Burns drives over the bumpy dirt road to the Catfish Farm and parks. He wants the dog left in the car because he will chase the wonderful surprise away. We walk quickly behind Mr. Burns into the Catfish Farm, past one pond after another. He points out birds along the way, but does not stop. That’s unusual for him. He is so full of information that every step he has knowledge to pass, and as Eddie, Scottie and I have been doing since meeting him on the road, was to listen, to watch, to learn. He barely knows us, but we feel like best friends and it amazes us.

We get to the last pond on the left. He puts his fingers to his lips to tell us to be quiet. He whispers, “I sure hope it’s still here, after dragging you all this way.”  Then his face lights up. He points. 

A White-faced Ibis is hunting in the pond. Mr. Burns assures us this is a very unusual event. The bird is not known for coming this far inland. Why is it alone? They usually are in flocks.

“I didn’t want you to miss this,” Mr. Burns smiled.

My legs began to give me trouble, thus my walking had to stop. Diagnosed with warn out knees I am in line to have them replaced. In the few months that I didn’t walk daily on Kaweah River Drive, Mr. Burn’s age began to catch up with him. And finally, he died a couple of months ago. He is missed every day.

When I think of next year at this time, both knees fixed, and I will resume my daily walks, checking out the birds, critters and plants, all learned about from Mr. Burns, it is hard to imagine he won’t meet me on the road, to share one adventure or another with. And no longer is the Catfish Farm a place with ponds filled with water that attracted different birds every season. The owners have been trying to sell to a developer and let the ponds dry up. So all we have left are the photos that captured the wonders.

In memory of Mr. Burns I will walk, listen, look, to witness the changes as they emerge, and if I am lucky capture them on camera. Hopefully, the critters and birds will figure out a way to continue to live here in Three Rivers, while we humans change the environment, sometimes for good, and sometimes not.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Another Memory of Richard Burns

"Return" Clay Mono Print by Shirley A. Blair Keller

I didn't start out with Mr. Burns in mind as I painted on the layers of colored slip onto to the clay slab. But once I picked up the swallow stencil the memory of him floated up and he was with me the rest of the afternoon.

Each year, on our walk along Kaweah River Drive, we'd get to a certain string of telephone poles. He'd point up and say, "Well, any day they might appear." "Who," I asked. "The swallows," he'd say. It was September, if my memory serves correct, or maybe even October. Summer was slipping away, and some days felt like Fall. He told me the swallows that we have been enjoying since Spring will be gathering soon to make their trek south for the winter, flying maybe up to 1,000 miles in some cases. His admiration of this species of bird very obvious. He'd been teaching me about them from the moment they showed up, gathering mud from the river, and building mud nests under the bridges. Barn swallows, Tree swallows, Violet-green swallows (his favorite), and Cliff swallows, all looking the same to me, as they flew past so fast I could only see the pointed tips of wings, and notched tails. Over time I began to see the colors and differences as I learned to use the binoculars. And on the bridges, I could get close views of the Barn swallows at least, because they were still, on or by, the nests. 

He was right. A couple of days later when we arrived at the telephone poles with two or three lines hanging from them, a handful of swallows were sitting on the wires. The next day twice or more of them lined up from pole to pole. And with in days, hundreds swung on the wire in the breeze. I counted up to 500, give or take a few, by the end of the week. "Soon they will take off. No one really knows how they know the right time to go. But we will come one morning and they will be gone," said Mr. Burns.

One morning we met on the road as usual, but we both were wearing jackets. The weather had taken a much colder turn, the first thoughts of winter brought to mind. And when we walked to the place of the poles, the wires were empty. Some time between our walk the day before, and this moment 24 hours later, the swallows made their decision, and off they flew, all 500 or more, south for the winter. 

Did they wait until the last swallow showed up? How did they know it was the last one, if that is true? Was it the cold chill in the air? Mr. Burns said that some say it is the bend of the light from the sun that triggers an internal clock. Who knows. They were gone. We stood and looked at the wire. I felt the loss. I suspect he did too. We both wished the swallows safe journey and he said, "They will return in Spring. Something to look forward to," and he smiled contentedly, as he did when talking about birds. We continued toward the Catfish Farm, but we knew there'd be no swallows this day. But some other special bird would show up. That was certain. Our steps sped up to see what wonders would show themselves to us this day.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Three Rivers Rocks


Nature Impinges: Surprise ©2011

In Memory of Mr. Richard Burns, Extraordinary Mentor

I grab the new digital camera and head off on the walk. Mr. Burns, retired Forest Service Ranger,  usually walks with me to the Catfish Farm, a private estate, to share the varied bird life and his knowledge of plants and other critters that live around Three Rivers. This day, though, I start out alone, to play with my new toy.

I follow a Domesticated Duck as it waddles toward a pond, taking pictures as we move along. Digital is so forgiving. If you do not like a shot the delete gets rid of it and you move on to the next one. It is great fun to experiment and since Mr. DD is so cooperative and used to having people close, I am able to learn about the camera.

I feel movement cross over my head and to the left. Since I have the camera up to my eye I turn and follow the sound. A Great Blue Heron lands into the pond. Click. Click. Click. No thought. I record the Heron’s movements as it hunts the fish in the pond.

Mr. Burns appears quietly behind me. I show him the new camera. He was a published photographer. Over the years he worked for the Forest Service in many places across the country, a camera always at hand. National Forest and wildlife magazines used his images. He is amazed at the idea of digital. Shoot, delete, shoot. After a while he reminds me I will run out of film if I am not careful and I remind him, there is no film. No stacks of unwanted prints to cull through and store. As much as he likes the idea of digital, there is no way he'd go out and by one of those things. He still carries the binoculars he has owned maybe 30 years. He even tried out the binoculars I bought at his insistence if I was serious about learning to identify birds, realizing how much binoculars have improved, but he wore his old pair until he died. 

At home I put the series on the computer. One image jumps out at me, the very first one.

When others see the image I am told it is a winner. I feel embarrassed. After all, it was the first shot, in a new camera, done with no real knowledge, just point and shoot. But after some pushing, especially from Mr. Burns, I enter the image in the Tulare County Fair.  

I am surprised twice: once when the Heron appeared, and again, when I win the red ribbon.

(When Mr. Burns saw the ribbon he beamed, and bragged about me to anyone who would listen on our walks together. Mr. Burns lead me on a discovery of an appreciation of how nature impinges on our lives here in Three Rivers. He is missed every day.)

A surprise captured
Reflection, an elegant
Morning at the pond.

Nature Impinges: Predator Preys ©2011

Noise outside the studio attracts my attention. I grab the camera. On the back hillside, behind the buildings, are seven deer grazing on the slips of new grasses. Males, just 1 year old, lock their new horns with spring fuzz on them. The two tussle back and forth, play and practice for the serious future when it is time to fight over the females. The three eat, and enjoy the sunny day.

Something is caught in my peripheral vision. A Great Blue Heron lands on the hillside, not ten yards from the deer. It is not concerned that I am below, clicking away with camera.

Heron is stalking across the hillside, away from the deer, moving in slow motion. Suddenly, it stops, head bent low, waiting. Pounce. Up, the head lifts. Dangling from the beak, a gopher. The Heron throws the critter up into the air and it falls into the open beak below. One swallow and it is gone.

The stalking begins again, this time the bird returns across the hill toward the deer, who by now settle at the edge of my property for what looks like a late afternoon nap. Five young deer, heads down, eyes closed, snuggle closely to one another. One female adult at the top of the crowd, head up, ears alert, but eyes closed. The male, a 4 pointer, on the ground, but eyes open, head up, alert, watching over his charges.

The Heron continues its slow motion stalk across the hill, and a sudden stop. The neck leans forward, so slowly it is hard to detect motion, and then, with lightening speed, lunges. Up comes the beak with a mouse hanging by the tale. The predator swings its prey into the air by the tale, opens the beak and he crunches down. Blood squirts out of the beak, spraying the feathers on its face and on the leg feathers below. The mouse disappears down his throat.
The bird walks above the herd of deer, lifts one of its legs in repose, closes its eyes, and naps. The male deer, now watches over not only his own charges, but the Great Blue Heron, too.

Predator Preys, blood
A sign of sacrifice
Satiated fluff

Nature Impinges: Egret Flying ©2011

We park the vehicle at the entrance to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at the end of Skyline Drive, Three Rivers. 8 year-old Drake, and 6 year-old Annie, run through the gate, taking only a minute to figure out the tricky latch system.

“Whoa,” says Mother. “If you find a gate closed, what are you supposed to do?”
“Close it,” says Annie.
“But Mama, you and Dad and Granny have to come through,” says Drake.
True. And we do.

We used to take the main trail, more like a road a jeep might use. The BLM folks maintain it and display signs that we are really walking through private property on our way to BLM land. This is an access road and we are warned to stay on it. But as you walk along you see side trails, made by cattle, then warn by dirt bicycles, deer, horses, other wild critters and hikers, with and without dogs. The main road takes 30 or more minutes to wind up and over, around and down, to the ponds. A metal plank, balanced between granite, secure enough for bikes, crosses the creek. Today, though, we discover a side trail, told to us by a friend, and within 10 minutes we are unloading fishing gear.

As a young woman I fished many a pier, pond, river, and the sea. But now, I prefer to watch the birds, people and fish, through my binoculars, and the catches are with the camera.

As we approach the ponds I teach the grand kids to walk silently up over the bank.  They are excited and find the discipline difficult. “Keep your eyes open and your ears alert. You never know what you will see and hear around these ponds.” They try.

Across the pond, perches a Great Egret a top an Oak on the cliff. As we move to the picnic table, the bird takes flight. We are too close for comfort.

I follow the white bird with my camera. Click, click and click again.

“Good,” my son says. “The competition is gone.” I laugh. Today an Egret, other days the Great Blue Heron is fishing along the edges of the pond. Sometimes the Black-belted Kingfisher squawks noisily at us. I imagine he is yelling, “What are you doing here? I’m not done eating yet?” Or the Green-backed Heron that is barely seen unless you know to look carefully in the backdrop of the dirt, algae, and rocks, a perfect blend at the edge of the pond. It stays longer than the other birds, a little braver because camouflage is safety, as long as we are on this side of the pond. He waits for fish or frog.

“Catch and release” is the standard my son teaches his children. “The fish will be here when we return kids,” he explains. I admit to feeling queasy. It must hurt to be hooked, then hung in the air while photos are being taken to prove prowess, then finally, a toss and you are surrounded by blessed water, reprieve. You are not lunch, this time. Unless Great Blue Heron captures you and with one gulp you are gone. My son and GBH, competitors: one for fun, the other for survival. Do the fish have consciousness? No way to know. Deep in my heart I feel they do. I say nothing. Just snap my pictures while I enjoy the beauty of old oaks, wildlife, the land and my family.

Azure deep sky
Treetops bereft of leaves
Wings a flurry

Sunday, June 19, 2011

National Geographic Geotourism Website


National Geographic and the National Parks Service joined together to set up a website for tourists. They call it Geotourism, a way to find not only places of interest, but to add information as you travel to and from your destinations. For instance, on the way to Sequoia National Parks you have to pass through the town of Three Rivers, a true Gateway to the National Park. This has been an artist colony almost since the beginning and yet, how does one find the artists if you wish too? Each studio, or gallery have sites now, easily accessible to tourists. Restaurants, motels, and more are clearly available, photographs to entice visitors. Quite exciting. A very fancy "business card" to pass out for all of us!

If you go to the site, please feel free to check out the LIKE button, and even make a comment. It adds energy to the experience and we appreciate your efforts.

National Geographic Geotourism Site

Spirit Hill Studio is now displayed on this website along with the rest of Three Rivers. This is a project in conjunction with the National Parks Services and National Geographic to promote tourism throughout the United States. They began with the Sierra Mountains, dividing into four sections. We are the Southern Sierras.