Shri Jasnath Asan, Rajasthan, India
Photo © Shri Jasnath Asan, 2016
I was out for a short walk just after breakfast just in the field behind the fortress to enjoy the bright morning sunshine. I saw something in the hedgerows, a bird that was pretty big , clambering clumsily along through the tangle of dry brush and grass. It was apparently hunting things on the ground and now and then it cocked its tail up in a pose reminecent of the roadrunners found in the desert of the U.S.
It was very wary, and from a long distance half hidden in the bushes, it looked like a really chubby roadrunner that someone had spray painted black and rust. What I was stalking was a beautiful greater coucal wa member of the cuckoo family; the very same family as our beloved southwest greater roadrunner.
The photos I took don't do it justice. The coucal was stunning, with a glossy black-purple head and body, wings a rich deep copper, and a long graduated tail that shone, almost glimmered, a glossy dark black green. Its head sported a strong, heavy black bill and then to add that bit of showmanship and pizzazz it had a brilliant ruby red eye. And for all you birdwatchers the coucal just like our roadrunner, has zygodactylous feet (two toes forward and two back) a characteristic of the cuckoo family.
At 48 cm they are a big bird again about the same as our roadrunner. I have since learned that they are, indeed, weak fliers, and prefer walking on the ground as they forage for insects, small lizards and vipers, eggs and nestlings of other birds - much the same life style and diet as our roadrunners.
I know its a common bird found in wide range of habitats from jungle to cultivation and urban gardens, from Asia,to India, south China, Nepal and Indonesia. But it was the first one I had seen…
… and what a beauty it was.
27 DEC 2016
Just in case if you wondered what a fire dancer does on his down time...
A few weeks ago when we were starting to scatter after Puja, friend and fire dancer, Jogesh Beniwal, sauntered over to a pile of red-hot coals, carefully picked through them and then popped one in his mouth. He then tilted his head up and started blowing out red hot sparks. I saw him do it at the Fire Dance last month but to see it up close was unbelievable. I did the best to capture the event but an iPhone only can do so much.
What do you do after you put scoarching red-hot burning coals in your mouth and spout sparks? Well you take a selfie of course. I just love this place.
To learn more about famous Jasnathi fire dancers see my November 13th post on my blog at http://skydanceblog.weebly.com/ or visit YouTube at https://youtu.be/7EvWXThm98A to view a short film made at the ashram by Quark Films in collaboration with Shri Jasnath Asan.
Don’t worry, I will introduce you to more of the dedicated, talented staff in the next few weeks. You will meet some wonderful people I promise.
23 DEC 2016
On Friday night, 23 Dec, I was outside in a beautiful garden, under a crystal clear, and very very cold, Rajasthani sky giving a program to 100 villagers and students with a Bisnoi botanist and Guruji translating my words into Hindi. I clearly remeber thinking of the words of Dorthy in the Wizard of Oz - “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”
I believe in global environmental education … and I am here to tell you, it works. I began with “Southern Nevada Student Photography,” a 5-minute multimedia program compiled of images taken by students in southern Nevada while on field trips to Red Rock Canyon, Desert Refuge, and Lake Mead. The audience loved them and gave our U.S. kids a great round of applause.
Next up was a much anticipated 5-minute clip I made from photos the Rajasthani students took on our field trip to Karmlai Pond. It was the first time they had seen the photos they had taken. There was a huge round of applause for the home town kids, and as I had them stand, applause continued and increased in volume.
The next 5-minute presentation was of my own photographs that I have taken during my stay at the ashram. There was much talking, generous applause and discussion, as the more unusual images made it on screen. They were so kind with their applause, and I loved that they were so engaged.
Afterwards I was told that one person said, “I have never seen all those birds around here.” That statement demonstrates the power of environmental education. By taking people out and asking them to really look at their surroundings, in this case using the activity of bird watching and photography, they expand their ability to see. Then by teaching them about the environment it then gives a framework to categorize and a logical structure to help recall and appreciate what they have seen. The person that said "I have never seen those birds around here" didn't lie, he just hadn’t seen them. In reality those birds had been all around him many times, but had been bind to the bird’s presence as well as their subtle beauty and intricate differences. He had not been taught to see them.
Now that we opened eyes of our program audience to the wild beauty and diversity of the region with the first three short multimedia programs, the final program of the evening was a PowerPoint discussion about the local environmental challenges facing Panchla village. We posed the question: “How do we save the beauty and diversity of this place?” The discussion touched lightly on air, water, and soil pollution but expanded upon the growing problem of noise pollution. However, that is fodder for another blog post on another day.
It was a very good night.
24 Dec 2016
SOLAR PANELS AND SMOKING POWER CORDS
I have been mostly offline and not posting to my blog due to a couple of unforeseen occurrences; 1.) I had a presentation due last night and was swamped with work, and 2.) About two weeks ago my surge protector and Apple power cord blew out and started billowing smoke due to a remarkably big power surge. The good news is that my computer made it out unscathed.
I was hanging on by one foot, struggling like mad to keep my computer powered up enough to work on my presentation with help from a solar panel and battery. Thanks to Amazon India, the replacement cord and surge protector came in and, for good or bad, I am back to posting regularly starting tomorrow, 25 Dec. (Barring any other unforeseen difficulties.)
15 DEC 2016
We traveled to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area last Thursday for a field trip with Ranger Kate. It was a beautiful day with stormy clouds and cool weather. Ranger Kate taught us about how plants and animals are adapted to our desert environment. The highlight of our day was when we stopped near a stream and a flock of Mountain Bluebirds came in to drink from the stream. We spent time watching them fly between the trees and the stream. Later we went to the visitor's center and looked at the exhibits about the Mojave Desert.
11 DEC 2016
Our next foray into the nexus of environmental education and art was a class to designed to help us become more aware of the myriad shapes of leaves. We first introduced our kids to the basics of leaf morphology and opened their eyes by giving names to, veination patterns, leaf shapes, and differences in leaf margins.
Then came the great tree safari … we packed up our cameras and our newly minted powers of observation and visited 5 sacred trees on the ashram grounds. (I’ll introduce you to those trees in a later post) We found each tree had leaves that were distinct. Each tree had its own personality and its own way it “made its living” in the world. We collected leaves from each and came back to record and draw what we found in our journals.
I loved showing the kids and opening their eyes to subtle differences in the trees that they had never noticed before. Seeing alone is not enough. The framework and structure that knowledge and experience provides, allows us to extend our vision far past what the eyes can see. It is a reciprocal process between the eyes and the mind; what the eyes see adds to our knowledge and knowledge sharpens our visual acuity.
The same was true when we were bird watching. I call it “gaining a super power.” Now what was once a small blurred bird in flight with a flash of white on its head and yellow beneath its tail, can suddenly be transformed by your "super power" of sight and knowledge into a perfect image of a White-eared Bulbul in our minds. This is the way we expand our ability to see the natural world. It is an amazing gift.
Terry tempest Williams once said:
“When you say there is nothing out there, what you are really saying is that I cannot see.”
Words worth considering.
09 DEC 2016
The last post, 8 Dec, was about the photos by Rajasthani students of their wildlands. This time it is about students of Southern Nevada photographing the beauty of their own wildlands. None of these photographs are mine. All are the work of southern Nevada participants in our 2016 STEAM Global_India. Just as with the Rajasthani students, their work shows an exceptional attention to detail, an amazing eye for color and composition, and a love and compassion for nature.
In the last post I said I couldn’t be prouder, but I guess I was wrong. Today I am now twice as proud, with superb students on two continents to admire.
Our international project has given students in southern Nevada a chance to explore and photograph their wild places and share the beauty and diversity of those lands with their counterparts in India. We are a group of southern Nevada refuge and park professionals, educators, artists, and student ambassadors that are working together with their peers in Panchla Siddha, India on related STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) projects. This initiative is commited to arid land environmental educaton and dedicated to fostering an understanding between cultures of our shared responsibilies to our fragile planet.
Read more about STEAM Global_India project at: http://skydanceblog.weebly.com/steam-global_india.html
8 DEC 2016
None of these photographs are mine. They were all taken by young students with borrowed cameras and no photographic instruction. All the work shows an exceptional attention to detail and an amazing eye for color and composition. I couldn’t be prouder.
There are certain days in your life that you know you are part of a really wonderful thing. These special days fill you to overflowing with joy, and puts a broad smile on your face. I am proud and pleased to present the photography of the students that joined me at 7am for their first birdwatching/photography experience at Karmlai Pond.
The whole point of me coming to Shri Jasnath Asan was to connect our kids in southern Nevada, USA with those in Rajasthan, India. I hoped it would be a unique way to provide students on both continents with project-based-learning on a global scale in an effort to help them gain an understanding of arid lands, not just the issues being faced in their own community, but also of similar issues and concerns across the world.
As an artist, biologist, and educator, I firmly believe that providing students with field experience and tools to see their world differently allows them to expand their knowledge and appreciation of nature. Birdwatching, photography, and sketching are three such important tools that all strengthen the student’s bond with the natural world. These valuable tools sharpen perception, heighten senses, and reveals a beautiful vibrant world that often goes unnoticed.
By slowing down to observe or photograph, it encourages us to take time to watch the behaviors of wildlife and explore the landscape in a new way. Done with quiet mindfulness it reminds us of our place in the complex web of life on earth and reaffirms of our responsibility to all he fragile life with which we share this planet.
This day filled me with joy.
26 NOV 2016
The champion that was having breakfast at the Rampura irrigation pond was not me, but rather a beautiful animal by the name of Halcyon smyrnensis, alias white-throated kingfisher, alias white-breasted kingfisher, alias Smyrna kingfisher or in Hindi it is called Kilkila. What ever you call it at 28 cm in length, it is a very large kingfisher. It excels not only in size but also in the color of his plumage. His head, shoulders, flanks, and lower belly are a rich deep auburn that contrasts strikingly with a white throat and breast. He has stunningly beautiful, bright turquoise blue back, tail, and wings. As though that were not enough to render a birdwatcher speechless with awe and amazement, this kingfisher also has an ostentatious, oversized, bright red bill. The flight of the kingfisher is rapid and direct, seemingly full of strength and purpose, and as he flies he flashes striking white and blue patches on his short rounded black wings.
This species of tree kingfisher not totally tied to fishing in streams and lakes, but is often found well away from water where it feeds on reptiles, amphibians, small rodents, and even birds.
On this morning, at the Rampura pond the white-breasted kingfisher spied his breakfast; a very large, very ugly, Indian waterbug. This bug was large enough to weave dreams into cold-sweat nightmares that would scare Tim Burton, and looked as though it could carry off a small cat or unattended child. Perhaps I am exaggerating just a bit, but at 12 cm the bug served as a gigantic breakfast challenge for the mighty hunter.
Once the bug was captured, it took the kingfisher 10 minutes of thumping the bug against everything he could to subdue it. First he tried the fence post and pounded it there, next he flew to a rock and continued smashing, and finally he flew to a iron weir gate and banged it against the steel over and over again until the bug was long dead and tenderized enough to eat. However, this led to another difficult delimna. The bug’s size was close to the size of the Kingfisher’s head. After many false starts and aborted attempts, the bug finally was choked down into the gaping red mouth of this extraordinary bird, and finally at long last, the bug became the satisfying breakfast of this champion hunter.
25 NOV 2016
On our brief road trip the last few days we visited Rampura, the ashram’s 35 acre orchard and the future home for Rajasthan’s first eco-retreat. It’s is a tranquil, peaceful place where one can relax and connect with nature. The trees are lovingly tended for and irrigated with a drip system from an on-site rainwater water storage tank that uses solar power to fill and maintain it.
At Rampura there is an impressive array of plants, including berries and other shady shrubs, as well as: 650 Israeli date palms, 435 Palm, 585 Lemon, 56 Gunda, 50 Sheesam, 1500 Pomegranate, 5 Bael, 35 Shade, Neem, Peeple, Kathala, and Khejari. If that weren’t enough there are plans for planting additional species of trees including papaya, mango, banana, avocado, ashwaganda, amla, cheekuas well as adding an extensive organic garden. Since the eco-camp has yet be realized, we camped out on cots under the stars on the dark night of a new moon.
I the pleasure of eating wonderful fresh cooked Rajasthani food with chapati cooked over an open fire. The perfecion of this night was completed by sleeping out under a massive array of stars that rival anyplace I have ever been. Being at nearly the same latitudes (Jodhpur at about 27.20˚N, 73.50˚E and Southern Nevada at 36.17˚N 115.24˚W) the stars looked pretty much like a Mojave night sky. I felt at home under such a familiar sky, though I was literally half way around the world from our desert southwest of the US.
I could have reached out and touch the milky way.
Panchla Siddha, India
Sharon K. Schafer
I paint, photograph, and speak about wild places in an act of reciprocity that is as vital to me as heartbeat or breath.
My interest in the magic and mystery of the natural world lies at the intersection of art and science.
Made possible through
the generosity of
Generous support and inspiration provided by
Shri Jasnath Asan