Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Saskatoon Storytelling

Friday night is storytelling night in Saskatoon. Or at least the 3rd Friday of every month. That is when storytellers gather for an informal session that usually runs about two and a half hours. The core, the driving force, behind the group (we call ourselves the Saskatoon Storytellers Guild) are a small group of half-a-dozen or so professional tellers who have been involved for a long time.  Many of us are members of the Storytellers of Canada, Conteurs duCanada. Chris Lindgren keeps the books and runs the group email list. Other regulars who tell in libraries and schools are Kathy Bennett, Judith Benninger, Russ Frith, Bonnie Logan, and Garry Tisdale. Balladeer Paddy Tutty brings her dulcimer and contributes. Sometimes other professionals also manage to be in the city on the right day. Last week it was Kevin Mackenzie from Regina who joined us. Occasionally teller, musician and actor Joseph Naytowhow is in the city and drops by, much to the delight of all. The there are a few who might be classed as semi-professional. Wayne and Shirley Handley probably fit this bill as do I. There is woodwork to do, grand children to visit, fish to catch and writing to finish, or maybe start. 

Then there are the more-or-less regulars who come out to enjoy an evening of stories and share experiences. We are usually a group of about twenty who gather at 7.30 of an evening. Our venue of late has been the Unitarian Centre on 2nd street, which is a friendly spot with comfortable chairs.

Each time we meet one of us acts as “host.” This is not an arduous task as it just means that the host has to choose a theme for the evening and make sure that the tea and coffee supplies arrive at the same time as the people. 
Here Kevin and Christine share a moment during the break. The coffee and tea supplies are at the back.  Those who can do so bring some sort of goodies, for the break. Home-made muffins, oatmeal cookies, some sort of chocolate delight. It’s all good.

Last week Rhonda was our host. She chose an open-ended theme of birds or flight and as usual the theme stories were the first to be told in the story circle as brief anecdotes. In storytelling tradition some sort of object is passed around the circle and is held by the teller. It shows who has the floor. It is often a stick, but can be a hat or a stone. That’s up to the host. Rhonda chose to use a sculpture of a small duck—probably a teal.

Highly appropriate, and here she is at the right of the circle starting the proceedings off.

All nineteen of us gave a short account of some sort of bird, or near-bird encounter. It was fun to listen to the variety of stories that emerged. We had naturally had stories from Canada, but also from Kenya, Ecuador and France. The Canadian ones included accounts of humming birds in Tofino, LBJs (unidentified Little Brown Jobs) south of Moose Jaw, a successful killdeer nest on a driveway and the disadvantages of winning a duckling in a raffle. For those who have never had such luck, it is definitely a two-edged sword. 
As teller Bonnie put it, a duckling’s output is somehow greater than its intake, which can be a disadvantage if the pet is sitting on your head. The wooden teal in Bonnie’s hands is definitely not the pet one.

Rob told us how he and his family went birding at North America’s oldest bird sanctuary at Last Mountain Lake but instead watched as 1900 head of cattle crossed the road, mustered by just three cowboys. It took a long time and not much bird watching occurred. We heard about an escaped budgie that eventually came back, and a blue and gold macaw that cleaned its handler’s ears near the Arc de Triomphe. Kevin must have thought he was at a liar’s contest. His anecdote started out as being more-or-less believable, but soon morphed into a fantasmagoric account of a swan’s broken wing, surgery, a famous film star, a sauna bath and an unusual tissue transplant for the patient with the wing of a rare Central American duck. Of course he has to wring the duck’s neck to steal the wing. He had us all in stitches.

The session after the break is always for prepared stories that can be on any theme. They always range across the full gamut and at least one is likely to involve the third son of an impoverished family succeeding when his brothers have failed. In this case it was not only the third son but he had to complete three seemingly impossible tasks. Of course he got the girl–what else would you expect?  There were folk tales, a Maasai animal story, stories from a time before time and stories with a moral.

A typical storytelling evening, and a good time was had by all. We don’t know if everyone will live happily ever after.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Maasai Stories

In December I was with my family in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. We stayed at Game Watchers delightful Porini Camp in the Selenkay Conservancy and of course saw a range of neat things. Our grand daughters had a truly grand time, as did our daughter and her husband and it was a delight to share with them some of the things we so love about Kenya.

Our tour guide as we drove around was a young Maasai named Ben ole Tongoyo, who has already passed his Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association silver level tour guide test and is working towards the highest level of certificate – a gold. He was very knowledgeable about many things, but it was nice to be able to share a few things that he had not picked up on.

One was the business of why hippos mark their territory by shaking their tails as they defecate. This behaviour is only done by dominant males and I showed the girls, and Ben, a spot where a hippo has marked his exit trail to deter would-be challengers.

The business of tail wagging has led to the wonderful story, that I told Ben and the family, about the desperate desire of all hippos to live in the water and escape the sun’s burning rays. After their king’s repeated conversations with Ngai (the great god who lives in the mountains), they were allowed to do so, but only during daylight hours and under strict conditions. I’m sure you know it, so I won’t repeat it.

What I will share are the skeletons of three stories that Ben gifted me as we swapped animal stories about creatures he knew well. He is not a storyteller as such, but he gave me enough to build upon. As far as I know none of these stories has ever been published.

The first was about a time a long time ago when Maasai women had cows which were wildebeest. It does show some attitudes that would not be considered PC in today’s culture, but it is an ancient story. Basically the women failed to care for their charges because of the heavy and persistent rains. After many days of neglect the cows wandered off and went on along trek, returning once a year to check things out, but never again being domesticated. Instead the women had concentrate of their other tasks, hauling wood and caring for the children. Here you can see the Maasai manyatta beyond the trees and the scattered wildebeest in the foreground. Are they waiting for attention?

The second story was about the theft of ostrich chicks by lion and how none of the animals would stand up for the upset parents until ground squirrel showed them all up.

I’m working that one up with pictures right now. Might try and publish it. 


The third one was how tortoise escaped his impending execution. All the other animals hated and feared him and had decided by a vote to get rid of him once and for all . That too needs a work-up.

As we departed I left my copy of the Jonathan Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals with Ben. Let’s hope it helps him in his efforts towards that gold certificate.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lion Guardians Good news

Last December I was with my family in Kenya’s Maasai Mara and had a wonderful time. We saw all sorts of wild animals and of course my grand daughters thrilled to the sight of lions. I asked out guide, a young Maasai moran named Ben, if he had ever had to kill a lion. “Yes, three times” was his brief reply. I did not press further as he seemed somewhat embarrassed about it. He would have done it for one of two reasons.

In 2006, Leelah Hazzah, then a PhD candidate working for the Lion Guardian program on the Mbirikani group ranch beneath the majestic peaks of Mt. Kilimanjaro, wrote in her thesis that there are two basic reasons why Maasai hunt lions.  The best known is their ritualized Olimayio ceremony, when young men pass into manhood. The other is for revenge, and is called Olkiyioi.

It is a really nice change to be able to write a positive report about an African conservation issue. In The Trouble With Lions (TTWL) I expressed tentative hope that the Lion Guardians program in Kenya’s Maasailand would reverse the long trend of lion killing, by spear or poison, that has been going on for far too long. A hundred and more years ago, when lions ruled the roost and terrorized humans throughout sub-Saharan Africa the Masai, Nandi and other cattle herding tribes had little choice but to try and control the depredation wreaked upon their livestock. They did it with spears in ritualized hunts that “blooded”, sometimes literally, the young men whose initiation involved a lion hunt. They were the warriors sent out to fight the enemy.

The sort of outcome that occurred was recorded by Teddy Roosevelt’s cameraman in the very early part of the 20th century. A group of Nandi had surrounded a lion and speared it The attached picture, scanned from the book’s pages, show the results.

In TTWL I recorded the information gleaned by several scientists about the decline in lion numbers throughout Africa since about 1950, when there were about half a million on the continent. By 1975 there were about 200,000. By the end of 2006 there may have been 28,000.

Since those spearing events new ways to kill lions have emerged. Of course “white hunters” took their trophy toll with heavy rifles, but these were by no means the only methods. The most insidious are snares and poison. These two lions, poisoned with Furadan, a compound banned in the USA and Europe, were photographed by Amy Howard after the killers had stripped their manes. I have blogged before about Furadan and you can find those stories by going to the index at right.

A typical snaring may take a lot longer to kill a lion, or any other victim. This one had been snared in the Serengeti NP when veterinarian, friend and former student Dr. Patrick Garcia came across it and watched its death throes. 

The good news is that in parts of Maasailand the killing has stopped and young men are now actively engaged in lion conservation. You can read all about it, and a whole lot more, in the Lion Guardian’s annual report here, and I urge you to take a look at it, even at the risk of taking you away from my own page. Check out the 2011 report to see how things have changed. This is an important stuff!

Here is the picture taken by Leelah Hazzah of a moran named Mokoi using a telemetry receive to track one of the lions on the ranch.

Leelah, now more properly known as Dr. Hazzah, after receiving her PhD, is now the Lion Guardians Director, but of course the credit for initiating all the work goes to Dr. Laurence Frank of the University of California, Berkeley who has worked on large predators for over 40 years and is the Living With Lions Project Director.

As I said, a happy story. Long may it continue!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Of Moose and Men - Covers

Exciting development for me today as I just received the final version of the cover pages of my new books. Of course they appear here with the back cover (and me seeming to stroke a moose’s nose) on the left.

I’m going to quote the “blurbs” written by two well-known Canadians because the photo may not enlarge enough to be legible, but before I do that here are the chapter headings for the first few chapters.

1. A Breathtaking Start
2. What’s in a Name?
3. A Trip to Banff
4. Of Moose and Men
5. Petruska
6. Simplicity
7. Scales and Weights
8. Capture Problems
9. Moose at the Zoo
10.Moose Invader
11. Moose in a Front-end Loader
12. Where Men Walk With Moose

The last one on this list (there are more chapters, which I’ll deal with later) is a story about the folks at Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and work we did with Marlin Perkins and his film crew in the Saskatchewan River Delta. Professional photographer Peter Drowne, who was the dirctor of the show took this picture of us with Marlin. I have the DVD and even the old 16mm film of the show.

Here is one of the “blurbs,” this one written by Myrna Kostash, award winning author from Edmonton and co-founder and first president of the Canadian Non-Fiction Collective.

I have never been in the presence of a moose — I’m a city-dweller through and through — but now that I’ve read Jerry Haigh’s vividly observed veterinarian’s memoir of his own encounters, Of Moose and Men, I feel that I’ve been up close and personal to the whole species myself. Haigh is an energetic and entertaining storyteller who provides his reader that most delightful of sport: the armchair big game spotter.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Encounters with Fish Eagles

African Fish Eagles, close relatives and almost look-alikes of the American Bald Eagle are in many ways a symbol of African wildlife, and certainly of African bird life. They exist in many areas south of the Sahara and can be found almost anywhere where there is water. The sound of a fish eagle calling is so evocative that one can more-or-less see them when one hears them. I tried to find web links to that evocative sound to add here, but the one I tried did not work. Sorry 'bout that.

Here are a couple of series of pics from encounters with these beautiful birds.

The first ones came from the Okavango Delta in Botswana where our boatman showed us how it is that so many wonderful pictures of eagles “at the moment of grasp” are seen grabbing a fish from the surface of the water. He purchased a few fish from a local market, none more than about 18 cm in length, and then proceeded to make two small cuts, one near each end, in the side of the fish. We had wondered what the lengths of papyrus in the bottom of the boat were for. Now we found out. The boatman threaded about 15 cm of the reed into one of the cuts, and made sure it just emerged from the other. As we approached yet another bank-side tree with its resident eagle he began to make a call sounding just like the bird. He had had lots of practice and the bird at once paid attention.
“Where do you want it thrown?” he asked me. The first time I didn’t cotton on, but after that I pointed to a spot on the water surface that would best suit the light and background and he proceeded to wave the fish around his head a couple of times and, as the eagle launched he threw the “bait”, which landed and, because of the papyrus, floated.
Of course the eagle, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, knew exactly what was coming and at once obliged, swooping down to pluck its dinner from the surface. Off it flew with its reward.

We had other amusing and not so amusing (at least for the birds) encounters. The flagship spot for tourists to bird watch and enjoy a two-hour boat ride in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park is a trip down the Kasinga Channel.
I saw this hammerkop try and indulge in some parasitic kleptomania as he edged near an eagle that was tucking into a fish. We were in sight for about ten minutes, and he did not succeed in that time slot. Wise bird. Those talons would have inflicted some serious damage, had they been deployed, and I’m sure he knew it.
Perhaps the most amazing encounter occurred when our boat in Lake Mburo National Park rounded a clump of papyrus as a pair of fish eagles decided that they did not appreciate the goliath heron that was hunting in the lilies nearby. They attacked, not just once, but several times. The heron knew who was boss. His frantic efforts to escape and head for the reeds would have been better captured on video, but all I had was my still camera. These two pictures give some sense of how the heron felt.