Winter Blues

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February – the shortest month of the year. However, while we are in the midst of it, it seems to be never ending, lingering on and on, day after gloomy day.  Why is that?  Have we forgotten that daylight can extend past 5 pm?  Or maybe all those seed catalogs that begin arriving in the mail and piling up on the kitchen table make us grow ever more impatient for spring as they taunt us with their glossy rainbows of flowers, fruits and vegetables.  IMG_1091Reminding us that there are colors other than brown and gray, that the sun can warm the earth enough for green stuff to once again emerge from the currently frozen, barren soil.  Whatever causes this annoying phenomenon, I have long ago gotten in the habit of planning in advance for this end of winter funk.  Some time in the fall we make plans for a late winter weekend retreat. Not to a sunny tropical destination but to someplace semi-local where we can reaffirm our appreciation for the changing seasons and the beauty that can still be found even in the gloominess of winter’s final months.

This year the destination was the newly constructed lodge at Echo Bluff state park in Eminence, Missouri.  The park is in a beautiful area right in the middle of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the Mark Twain National Forest.  Needless to say, we were very excited to get out in the fresh air and do some hiking and sightseeing.

When we arrived at the lodge, we were greeted by the little band of wild horses that like to hang around the park.  I have heard these horses are descendants of once domesticated farm animals that were set free during the Great Depression.  They are now protected by law and are maintained by a local organization to prevent the herds from getting larger than 50 animals.  When this happens, some of the them are caught so they can be tamed and put up for adoption by local residents, where they rejoin their domestic ancestors.  I suppose you could argue that these creatures are really more “feral” then “wild”, but nonetheless there is something rather romantic and nostalgic about the notion of horses roaming freely throughout the countryside.  Yet, the bond that was broken nearly 100 years ago may not be quite so fragile and some of these animals still seem to trust us silly humans, at least a little bit.  I watched as they approached a group of people starting a campfire and was, of course, inspired to attempt a connection of my own. Collage I must admit they look a lot more impressive from a distance.  Up close you can see the ravages of surviving in this mountainous Missouri terrain.  Their manes and tails are tangled up with burs and leaves and they look like they could really use a full-blown spa day, complete with mani-pedi – unshod horses tend to have some pretty gnarly nails.  With freezing rain and ice predicted for the following evening, I couldn’t help but wonder where these poor creatures slept at night.

We were quite a bit luckier, we knew exactly where we would be sleeping.  The lodge is a gorgeous newIMG_0932 log and stone structure, cozy and warm with a giant fireplace in a two-story great room and amazing views of its namesake bluff and Sinking Creek. Our room was on the second floor, overlooking the bluff and creek.  Despite the impending winter storm, it was an unusually warm evening, so we sat on our little balcony, adult beverage in hand and enjoyed the view as the sun slowly sank in the sky and the horses meandered down the creek, wandering off into the night to wherever it is they go.

The next morning was exploration time and we needed to get an early start so we could be back at the lodge before the inclement weather hit.  Sometimes the best trips are the ones with no set plans – you just tend to go wherever the road leads.  This trip was no exception to that rule.  We started off in the general direction of Rocky Falls for no other reason than I saw a sign and it sounded interesting.  Along the way, we saw another sign for Alley Spring.  This I had heard of, so we decided to take a brief detour and check it out.  All I can say about this place is “WOW”!  It was like standing in the middle of a picture Mill 2(s)postcard.  It was so amazingly beautiful.  You don’t realize how color blind the winter gloom can make you until your eyes are once again acquainted with blue water and green plants. This has got to be the most colorful place that Missouri has to offer in these dark, dank months.  A bright red mill, reflected in a pool of naturally blue spring water with lush green plants!  There was even a slight mist floating just above the water. It was simply jaw dropping and pictures cannot do it justice.  I would love to come back here in the fall to see how the autumn color enhances it even further.

Mill 5(s)In the winter, daylight is a limited commodity, so we were forced to press on in our unscripted agenda and continue to Rocky Falls.  At this point, we realized we were truly “off the grid” because we had lost cell phone coverage and I had to rummage through the litter in the glove box and dust off the paper map of Missouri.  This moment always makes me a little elated.  I just love having to unfold that darn map and not have to rely on Siri to get us lost. Our misdirection now depended on my navigational prowess and the cartographical accuracy of Rand-McNally. Onward to Rocky Falls!

 

Falls 2(s)Rocky Falls was pretty much just that, a rocky waterfall.  There was indeed water and rocks and a fall, but it wasn’t running at full strength. Probably much more impressive in the spring when there’s a little more water.  We had a short amount of time between other visitors to get in a few pictures, but when a camo-attired horde came roaring up on a dozen or so ATV’s we figured that signaled the end of this particular photo shoot.

Just like that, it was back to the beloved paper map to see what other natural wonders this area had up its sleeve.  And there on the map, highlighted and bolded in blue as a “point of interest”, was Blue Spring.  What could that be? It must be worth checking out if it was truly a point of interest.  So off we drove in search of a blue spring, curving and winding through the back roads of rural Missouri. It was somewhere along this route that I learned how you know when you have actually reached Rural Missouri – it’s the moment when you see a dead, rotting coyote carcass impaled on fence post as a warning to all his pack mates and kin to stay the F*** out of Rural Missouri. Yikes…Doubt there are many PETA sympathizers in these parts.  

Blue Spring is another of Missouri’s natural wonders that lives up to its name by virtue of being both blue and a spring. In my experience, many of the springs in Missouri are blue, so what makes this one different?  Well the signage is happy to tell you!  This is the deepest spring in Missouri (over 300 feet), it IMG_1012.jpgis so blue that the native Americans called it the “Spring of the Summer Sky” and it discharges 90 million gallons of water a day!  It truly is quite an amazing shade of blue.  Blue Springs 2(s)On this, the grayest of all winter days, it was the bluest of any spring that has ever sprung.  The water is so clear, you can peer straight down into its azure depths, where the blueness seems to increase the deeper you try to stare. Even the fish shimmer like sapphires as they dart about in their beautiful little basin of blue.  Definitely another awe-inspiring photo destination to add to the lineup for the Eminence area.Blue Springs 4(s)

Time always seems to fly when you’re having fun. With no cell phone coverage, an outdated map of Missouri and inclement weather on the radar it was time to follow the trail of dead coyotes back to the sanctuary of the lodge where a special Valentines Day dinner was being prepared.

Later in the evening, after enjoying an overabundance of filet mignon, lobster tail and decadent desserts, we hunkered down by the massive stone fireplace to ride out the storm. As the ice began to tap against the windows, we reflected on the adventures of the day and how, with all the stunning and colorful natural wonders that this beautiful place had to offer, we had gained a whole new perspective on the concept of “winter blues.”

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The Boys of Summers’ Past

Brewmasters sepia 2-1 Last week marked the beginning of summer. At long last the season of heat, humidity and sunny summer fun is finally upon us and there always seems to be so much more to do than time allows.  Summer vacations are filled with all kinds of outdoor activities – swimming, camping, festivals and fairs to name a few.  The list can go on, but it wouldn’t be complete without those traditional ‘boys of summer’. Yes, baseball! It’s been almost 10 years since I moved to one of the greatest baseball cities in the country, and yet in all that time I have only managed to go to one Cardinal’s game. 

There was a time when baseball games were a staple of summer activity. I’m originally from the south side of Chicago and I grew up on White Sox baseball –  old Comiskey Park, cheap bleacher seats, an exploding scoreboard and a disdain for all things north side, especially the Cubs. But even as a St. Louis transplant, with a common rivalry and a team that seems to do a lot of winning, I just haven’t been able to enjoy the game the same way I did in my youth. 

Grinders 1(s)It’s easy to get nostalgic for those old times at the ball park, late summer afternoons spent in the bleachers cheering on the South Side Hit Men, chilly spring mornings enduring the wind off the lake high in the upper deck on opening day.  Sadly, the culmination of it all was announced quite loudly one afternoon. What was once the explosion of fireworks proclaiming another homerun for the Sox, was now an explosion foretelling the destruction of a park that held so many fond memories.  

I suppose that’s progress, out with the old and in with the new. While I attended many games at the ‘new Comiskey’ over the years, it was never really the same.  Nowadays it seems as though the expense for enjoying our national past time is likely to put you back an amount comparable to the national debt. When you add up the cost of tickets, parking, beers, hot dogs and a bucket of popcorn at the ballpark you realize you could have vacationed to a tropical island or fed a village full of starving children for about the same cost.

Brewmasters 6(s).jpgAs with many other aspects of our society, professional sports have become over commercialized and corrupted to the point where the casual observer has been priced right out of the market.  So how is the everyday American supposed to get his fix of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?  Well, last weekend this fair-weather fan got the rare opportunity to step back into a simpler time before sports were a multibillion dollar mega business. A time when baseball was in its infancy and was played for recreation and exercise.   

Grinders 3(s)Miraculously, the original form of ‘base ball’ as it was played between the days of the Civil War and the turn of the century is still alive and well in fields, parks and green spaces across this great country of ours.  Groups of dedicated Americans don old style uniforms, gather up homemade balls and bats and head out to play the game as it was meant to be played – as a gentlemen’s game.  Respect, sportsmanship and comradery, values that were once the backbone of a great nation, but now seem to be lacking in our everyday interactions with fellow humans.

The rules and regulations have changed quite a bit since its inception.  Originally, it was the pitcher’s job to throw the ball in the most convenient location for the batter, the ball was meant to be hit and fielded.  There were no called balls or strikes, protective equipment like baseball gloves and batting helmets had not come about yet. The ball could be caught on one bounce and the batter still be called out. The lone umpire was the ultimate source of all decisions and held the right to fine players for ‘ungentlemanly’ behavior.  Certainly, as a reenactment this is something that needs to be witnessed and is truly a piece of living history. The players seem to be stepping into alter egos from a bygone era and the crowd can’t help but join in on the fun.

CollageSo how was it that I managed to come across this cultural phenomenon? My son, being very active in his community, wanted to put on a benefit for his local historical society. He wanted to host an event that Brewmasters 22(s)had historical significance but also would be enjoyable for a wide range of patrons. So, he organized a vintage base ball tournament.  He contacted a local team and then pulled together a group of friends and residents to form a new team of their own – the Blue Island Brewmasters.  With uniforms inspired by those seen in an old photograph from the archives of the historical society, the team set out to learn the rules of the game as it was played in 1858 and, of course – practice, practice, practice. 

He located an empty lot along the canal that once housed a gas factory and was now owned by a utilityBrewmasters 7(s).jpg company.  He worked with the city and a local sports field designer to cut the grass, remove overgrown brush and turn this once overlooked space into a regulation base ball diamond worthy of the origins of our national past time.  And so he built it – this old-fashioned field of dreams – but did they come? You bet they did!  They came from near and far, carrying picnic baskets, blankets and folding chairs. Families, friends and local politicians gathered on the freshly mowed grass.  Children played, fans cheered and neighbors shared their latest news as the game unfolded inning by exciting inning. By the end of the day the crowd was caught up in the turn of the century fanfare and mighty Huzzahs! could be heard from both sides. 

 

The game ended with a victory for the rookie Brewmasters.  There was some good-hearted ribbing, team captains gave speeches of thanks and handshakes were shared all around.  The event wound down with a potluck feast on the lawn of the historical society hosted by the home team, complete with homemade dishes and an amazing spread of desserts.  It was the perfect finish to the perfect day and plans were already being made for next years game.

Brewmasters 35(s)As Americans, there’s something about a good ball game that will always tug at our heartstrings. But it’s more than just “the game”, it’s about a day spent enjoying each others company on a sunny summer afternoon, cheering local heroes on to victory. Baseball has been a part of our culture for over 150 years. Yet in the beginning it wasn’t about money, fortune or fame.  It was played for community, fellowship and fun but most of all it was played simply for the love of the game. 

Huzzah!  Gentlemen, Huzzah!

Brewmasters 16(s)1858 base ball

When Worlds ‘Kaleid’

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Feelings vs. facts.  Originality vs. rationality.  Right vs. left.  There’s a theory that each hemisphere of our brain controls certain aspects of how we think and who we are.  It suggests that each one of us has a more dominant hemisphere.  Right-brainers are generally more creative and artistic, while left-brainers are analytical and logical.  Of course, since the two sides are in such close proximity, there is always the possibility of a little cross over here and there.

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In theory, I tend to be the classic left-brainer. So, when a new call for entries was announced and the theme was “Geometric by Design” I figured I had this one nailed. With degrees in mathematics and a career of writing computer code, plus a creative hobby like photography, I should have no problem with this one.

Yet, amid all the landscapes, portraits, flora and fauna that ‘righty’ spent hours creatively capturing and ‘lefty’ spent even more hours perfecting in Lightroom and Photoshop, nothing seemed to quite qualify as geometric. Were the two hemispheres of my brain incommunicado? On the one hand, I had creative images, on the other I had organized images.  I basically had organized creative images but no creatively organized images. In other words, nothing that satisfied my left brain as being “Geometric by Design”.

Leaves kaleidoscope border 14x14(s)Logically the only solution to this problem was to get righty and lefty to call a truce and collaborate.  I needed something analytical yet artistic; methodically structured yet innovative.   There was going to have to be a meeting of the minds.

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In the wee hours of the morning my brain must be a little more evenly balanced, because I always manage to do my most rational yet inspired thinking around 3 am.  So one night, during a brief episode of insomnia, my mind started to wander. As I lay in the darkness pondering this new dilemma, I began to envision some of my images in a more logical fashion. I saw them rearranged and projected in organized geometric patterns on the blank canvas of the ceiling above me.  It wasn’t long before I realized what my mind’s eye had conjured up for what it truly was, something I hadn’t laid eyes on since I was a child – a kaleidoscope!   Symmetrical reflections of colorful objects.  Immediately left brain became intrigued and right brain was enthusiastic.  One half of my head was busy engineering Photoshop techniques while the other was mentally perusing its library of favorite images in search of likely candidates.

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It’s no surprise that I was up bright and early the next morning. With a common sense of purpose, both left and right hemispheres were now ready to combine forces and create symmetry out of chaos. I sat down at the computer and let them run the show. Right brain offered up her favorite images and watched in amazement as left brain transformed them into geometric wonders.  

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It was an inspiring mental workout, with synapses firing across the gaps. The joint effort equally fulfilling for both sides.  I doubt that the results of this corroboration are any great works of art, but I can say that the enjoyment my entire brain had during the process was worth its weight in gold. Left and right reached across that great mental divide, shook hands, compromised, collaborated and came up with a solution that satisfied them both.  Together they created colorful kaleidoscopic images out of bits of butterflies, bridges, autumn leaves and other random objects.  Soulard Market 2k(s)

It just goes to show, that when opposing camps combine forces and communicate effectively the result can be a wonderfully unique perspective.  Drawing from both our imagination and our intellect, we can take the best that each has to offer and design something that celebrates our own inner diversity. Despite all the personal struggles and conflicts we endure in our lives, it will always take both a left and right wing to fly.

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It Isn’t Always Black and White

 

angel-bw-3-1When we strip an image of its color, we leave behind only its most basic elements.  Devoid of color, at the onset we are afraid something essential is missing, that we have removed a vital piece of the puzzle, the piece that made it vibrant and gave it strength. But when we take a step back and study the image in its entirety, the subtle nuances we missed before become obvious as we are compelled to see the reality that had been camouflaged by the myriad of colors.    

shoes-1-3sAs we study further, the absolutes of black and white begin to take precedence. These shades are unwavering – black is black and white is white. We can desire what has been lost in the darkness or search in vain for what lies beyond the light, but they are either absent or unattainable.  We can no more alter something we do not possess than we can create something where nothing exists.

What remains are the subtle nuances and details incorporated within the countless shades of gray.  Within the variations of shadow and light, the influence of the underlying hues remains. These are the elements under our control.  Here is where our power lies; here is where we can begin to shape the overall tone of the message we hope our final image will convey.  We can foster a sense of peace and tranquility or fixate on the underlying drama and turmoil.Collage 1.jpg

Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in all the details, to lose the forest for the trees.   Luckily, we have tools at our disposal. Tools that allow us to experiment and take chances. We can make our initial edits, evaluate and modify accordingly. We can remove the changes that don’t work and keep the ones that do.  Through trial and error, we navigate through the process of working towards our final goal. Sometimes there are surprises along the way. Unexpected results that add their own unique interpretation to the overall image .  Other times, we know exactly what to do and we find the perfect balance without too much trouble. It all depends on what we started with, what we have to work with and where we hope to be at the end.  

Lily 2-2(s).jpgThrough experience and growth, we become more adept at making the transformation. Still there is always the chance that a different and unique situation will arise and we will be forced to disregard everything we know and start the process over again from scratch.  Oftentimes, these are the situations that yield the most profound results. The ones we never saw coming, yet we can be overjoyed, amazed or in absolute awe with the power the outcome possesses.  This is what keeps us going, and keeps us coming back for more. These are the moments that bring meaning to our lives and joy to our hearts.  They mean so much more because the journey was a long, arduous one. SNR 3-1(s).jpg

When at last we achieve our goal, we can sit back, relax, reflect and appreciate the final product. Although, it may seem as if we have been manipulating only shades of gray, we cannot lose sight of the fact that all along we were really influencing the original colors concealed beneath the surface. Every once in a while, if we are lucky and the conditions are just right, the rarest circumstance of all may arise.  One by one, we may be able to carefully allow those colors to slowly make their way back to the surface.

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Free to Bee You and Me

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Tapping away at my keyboard without a window in sight, I become oblivious to the passage of the sun across the sky.  The only glimmer of hope lies in the hint of sunlight peeking through the small skylight behind me.  So I wander out into the little hallway constructed of 4-foot-high partitions, peer up through the little porthole and there it is – a beautiful IMG_3954.JPGsunny day in Rochester, NY. I long to stop and stand there, basking in the refracted rays of the sun, soaking up some of that essential vitamin D. But the rational being in me doesn’t want to look like too much of an idiot and thoughts of a bottle of Copper Tone, a Pina Colada and a beach chair are gone just as quickly as they came. Like a dutiful little drone, I shuffle on back to my own desk, suffered to toiling away in this bleak “Dickensian” environment for another 8-10 hours.

As the workday wears on, daydreams become inevitable and my mind begins to drift away to a day last week when once agabutterfly-7sin the weather was beautiful, sunny and warm – the only difference was that this was the weekend and it belonged to me.   I was putzing around in my backyard surrounded by the golden summer sunshine; happily pruning shrubs and pulling weeds in my newly planted butterfly garden.  Of course it didn’t take very long for me to get distracted from this work, too.  In my own defense, it’s hard not to be distracted when dazzling displays of color are flying all around you.  There were actual butterflies in my butterfly garden! I immediately traded in my pruning shears for my macro lens and disappeared into my happy place.

Intently photographing all the little critters that were buzzing and flying around me – big fuzzy bees were bee-2lumbering from flower to flower, their legs coated with yellow pollen, gathering as much as possible to join the other drones stashing it away into the hundreds of little octagonal cubicles that make up their hive.  They were so focused on their work that they barely noticed me fearlessly getting within a couple inches of them.  I hadn’t forgotten about the butterflies; they were just much harder to capture.  Flitting around carelessly from flower to flower, opening and closing their gossamer wings, relishing the nectar without a care in the world.  No hive to return to, no queen to bow down to, no honey to prepare.  Like colorful gypsy caravans, their free-spirits drifting along on the vagabond breeze – the only thing to prepare for is a long winter vacation to a warmer climate.

butterfly-3-1sAs far as the flowers were concerned, the bee and butterfly were accomplishing the same task, bubutterfly-6st their approaches couldn’t be more different. I was struck by the dichotomy of lifestyle in such close proximity.  Does the bee ever get jealous of the butterfly? Does he ever wish he could kick the honey habit, channel his inner snowbird and fly south for the winter? And what about the butterfly? Are there any practically minded, homebody butterflies who wish they could just store up some pollen, get a Netflix subscription and tough out the winter at home on the couch instead of traveling thousands of miles on fragile little wings?

Bee 2(s)Such are the lives of these little creatures – stuck in the one circumstance they are born into.  Each performing a specific role, day in and day out.  The bee is much like the weekday worker in all of us.  Chained to the workaday world and seemingly never ending tasks.  The butterfly is the weekend warrior.  Dashing from one adventure to the next, spontaneously moving about her day with no plans or commitments.  Each one enjoying a simple serendipity; an easy, uncomplicated lifestyle. Innately knowing who they are and what they were born to do.   

As I think about them going about their day, haplessly content in their own fragile little kingdom, I realize that the advantage we possess is the power to choose. It is the gift of free will that makes us capable of guiding our own destiny.  We possess the freedom to be our own unique selves, to be both a butterfly and a bee and whatever else we choose to be. This is the miracle that makes us – us.

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Twilight at Tower Rock

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As if a fun filled day of hiking and picnicking near Cape Girardeau wasn’t enough, we decided we still needed one more adventure. So we took a chance and raced against daylight to try and reach Tower Rock by sunset.  Due to lack of GPS coverage and shoddy cartographical skills, my surefire shortcut turned into a dead end and we were forced to take the road more traveled as we scrambled to beat the onset of nightfall.

Turning off the main highway, racing headlong down gravel roads, daylight waning alongside us, we talked about abandoning the whole idea and just heading for home. But after coming this far, turning back was not an option – it couldn’t be too much farther, could it?  As the sun dipped deeper on the horizon, we were forced to come to grips with the fact that darkness was descending faster than we could cover ground.

As the last of the sunlight leached from the sky, we pulled in alongside the river, finally arriving at Tower Rock. Gazing out at the Mississippi as the night enfolded around us, a beautifully bright moon shone above.  Instead of sunset, I got moon glow.

The most cherished moments in life are often unforeseen, so I grabbed my camera and stepped out into the darkness.

To commemorate my lost sunset, I channeled my inner fourth grader and composed a little Haiku.

 

Reckless toward sunset

August embers burn to ash

Sapphire curtains close

If You Build It, Will They Come?

 

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Our legacy.  Our life’s work.  That one piece of ourselves we leave behind.  An undertaking we are so passionate about we can never put it to rest.  It doesn’t require willpower to motivate us, our visions have a power all their own. An unseen driving force that keeps us awake at night and gnaws at us during the day.  Where does this kind of motivation come from and why do we possess it? It seems that we are on this earth to do more than just merely survive.  We dream. We innovate. We create.  Some of our dreams may seem crazy or farfetched to others, yet to us they are our most cherished possessions and are worth all of the effort we can muster… and then maybe just a little bit more.

Grotto 5.jpgOut here in Missouri – in the foothills of the Ozarks – I came across the remains of the lifework of one man. A man with a lofty dream – a passion that relentlessly consumed him both day and night and led him on a labor of love and a journey of faith that continued throughout his life.

Grotto 33.jpgBrother Bronislaus Luszcz was a Franciscan monk who immigrated to the St. Louis area from Poland in 1927.  In his native country, he grew up watching pilgrims make their way to the Shrine of St. Mary.  These pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles on foot and sleep along the road to pay homage to the Queen of Peace. Brother Bronislaus developed a great devotion for Mary during his formative years, a devotion that never relented.

Grotto 34When Bronislaus came to the United States, he was one of several Brothers who were put to work establishing St. Joseph’s Hill Infirmary – a convalescent home for men, nestled back on a wooded hillside on the outskirts of the towns of Eureka and Pacific Missouri.  It was in this peaceful environment one day in 1937 that Brother Bronislaus embarked on what would be his life’s work – a series of stone grottoes built entirely by hand with nothing more than a sledgehammer and an axe. What remains now is a tribute to his faith and the culmination of over 20 years of backbreaking labor.

The stone for his monuments was locally quarried and dropped off on the site by the dump truck full.  Each grotto is uniquely decorated with trinkets that were donated for such a purpose by faithful followers and fans.  Pieces of old costume jewelry, sea shells, pottery, loose change, broken bottles, small porcelain statues and many other objects were all artistically arranged and set into the stone. The variety of items are amazing and endless.  Nothing went unused.

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At this time, the area was very remote and much of Bronislaus raw materials were limitedSt Francis Grotto.jpg to what was on the monastery grounds, so he became creative with his own unique construction and adornments. He raided the infirmary’s kitchen and confiscated pots and pans.  Cake pans shaped like lambs and rabbits became molds for the concrete animals that sit at the feet of St. Francis.  Jell-O molds, cupcake tins and discarded light fixtures were the basis for the floral decorations that embellish the corners of his tributes to St. Mary and St. Joseph.  Colored glass bottles set into recesses along the walls became makeshift stained glass windows.

grotto collage 2.jpgAnd so he toiled for 22 years. Clearing land, breaking stone, mitigating through trial and errGrotto 15.jpgor, honing his skill. A slave to his own labors, each monument became more elaborate and fantastic than the last. Then one day, just after his 66th birthday, Bronislaus was beginning construction on his newest grotto, in honor of Our Lady of Fatima.  It was a hot day in the summer of 1960 and Bronislaus was recovering from a bout with the flu when he was overcome by the heat.  He managed to make his way across the courtyard to where the statue of St. Mary stood sentinel in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Grotto.  Collapsing on the stones at her feet in the August afternoon sun, he lay gazing up at the statue of his beloved Madonna. Her outstretched hand reaching to take him back home where he would toil no longer. Later that day, when he did not return to the monastery for evening prayers, the other Brothers came to look for him, a trail of tools led them to his earthly remains. This very spot is now marked with a seashell, to honor his memory in the place of his own creation. His vision was now a reality, his accomplishment and his legacy.

Grotto 21.jpgHowever, the fact still remains that Bronislaus wasn’t finished, his accomplishments were not completed, nor would they ever be no matter how long he lived.  When you look around the rest of the grounds, you will see them dotting the landscape here and there.  Grotto-less statues of Saints awaiting their turn to be humbled by the unique creativity of one man.  In his mind there would never be a last grotto.  As long as he was still alive, the construction would have continued.  You see, once you find your life’s work the only thing that ends it is your death.  No matter what your passion – there will always be another animal to save, another mouth to feed, another picture to paint, another novel to write, another song to sing.  It’s not the completion of the job that is satisfying, it’s the doing.  Grotto 13.jpgWe climb the ladder one rung at a time but never reach the top.  It’s like a magical beanstalk that keeps growing as we climb. The end appears to be within reach, but we can’t quite get there.  No matter how much we do, it’s just not enough. There’s always something bigger, something better around the corner.  A new idea, another adventure and so we surrender ourselves to this work.  We just do it, for no other reason than doing it makes us feel fulfilled.

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So here remains the culmination of the life’s work of one man.  To me this place is an inspiration, it has a rustic beauty, an uncommon charm but also a hint of sadness.  Did Bronislaus expect pilgrims to come from hundreds of miles away to worship at the shrines he created?  Perhaps he did; perhaps they did at one time.  But now these architectural feats of local stone, loose change and random artifacts are falling into disrepair.  There is no funding to pay for their upkeep. The Archdiocese does not give money for repairs.  The only caretakers are the handful of remaining Franciscan Brothers who are still at the monastery just down the road.  The infirmary closed its doors in 2008.  How long before the monastery follows and no-one is left to oversee this hidden gem?

Grotto 32.jpgIn a way it’s quite bittersweet when you think about it, we spend our whole lives working on the things we love – gardens, artwork, music, poetry. Yet for all the joy these things bring us, for most of us when we go…these things will go with us.  They will be lost in time, succumb to the elements and be given back to the earth.  Maybe a few pieces will remain for a while with the people we loved, the lives we’ve touched.

As I stand back at a distance and survey this place on a Sunday morning in late July, I can see the sun rising through the trees just behind the very grotto where Bronislaus breathed his last breath.  I can envision him looking down through the sun’s rays and smiling at the beauty of it all.  The hills, the trees, the grottoes, the country side.  The essence of his soul will always remain in this place.

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In the end, I suppose it’s not really the creations that we leave behind that matters, it’s the inspiration we evoke in others when they come to understand the joy, the hope and the passion that we lived by. So will they come?  They may after all, maybe not in droves, but it only takes one spark to rekindle a long lost flame.

Grotto 27In memory of Brother Bronislaus Luszcz. August 4, 1894 – August 12, 1960.

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Urban Explorations – Soulard on a Saturday

Soulard Market 9(s)Hiking through the woods, observing and photographing all the beautiful flora and fauna is definitely my favorite past time, but sometimes it’s also fun to observe my fellow human creatures in their less than natural urban environment.  Like their woodland counterparts, these creatures must also forage for food and drink. What better place to observe this urban phenomenon than in the historic Soulard neighborhood, merely a hop, skip and jump from downtown St. Louis.

One of the main attractions here is the Soulard Farmer’s Market. Definitely a foraging hot spot, people Soulard Market 8(s).jpghave been buying and selling their goods and wares here for over 200 years. It’s one of the oldest farmer’s markets in the United States, dating back to 1779 when it was an open air market where local farmers gathered to sell their produce. The original building was erected in the 1840’s and was replaced in 1929 with a Renaissance style structure.  While colorful fresh produce abounds here, it’s not the only option. There is so much more to be had in this market – from baked goods to fresh meat, and handmade items like soaps and jewelry – the list goes on and on. 

There’s always something interesting to see. The sights, sounds and smells will keep you intrigued for hours. It’s impossible to leave this place with an empty stomach or an empty shopping bag.

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Brewery 2(s)Next we attempted to enjoy a short hike through the urban landscape, but the heat and humidity of a 90+ degree summer day in St. Louis got the better of us and it wasn’t long before we worked up quite a thirst. Lucky for us, this neighborhood also houses one of the most famous watering holes in the world. Actually, it’s the headwaters of an endless river of amber liquid that serves as the main artery to millions of other watering holes throBrewery 4(s).jpgughout the world.  Founded in 1852 this is the headquarters and original brewery of Anheuser Busch and the famous line of Budweiser beers.  There couldn’t be a more perfect way to beat the heat and conclude this urban adventure than by taking a free tour of the brewery and enjoying a complimentary sample of ice-cold brew.  

After a successful day of foraging in the urban environment, we came home feeling satiated and satisfied.  With all of its exciting sights and sounds, the occasional trip to the city can be a lot of fun. But I must admit, the hustle and bustle of the crowds and all the noisy traffic tends to wear me out, and at the end of the day it just feels so comforting to return to the more familiar flora and fauna of my peaceful little country home.

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Celebrate the Little Things

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There’s a great big world out there. So many beautiful and exciting things to see and experience – awe-inspiring landscapes, exotic animals, amazing feats of architecture – the list goes on and on.  But sometimes the most interesting things can be found right outside our own door.  When we walk outside we step over, around and into a much smaller world.  A world that creeps, crawls and buzzes right beneath our noses, inhabited by creatures so tiny we hardly even notice their presence.  This is the wonderful world of bugs.  Where everything is on a scale so disproportionate from ours that we are reminded of classic old horror movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

 

Little bug 1(s).jpgI never paid much attention to these little guys before, unless I was scratching at their bites, being annoyed by their buzzes or trying to outrun their stingers.  Then I got a macro lens.  The idea was to do super close up shots of pretty things, like flowers.  As I started playing around with it, I was trying to focus on the cutest tiniest little flower ever, when suddenly an even tinier bug crawled up and sat down right on top of the flower.  It was amazing to see something so tiny, so close up.

And thus began my new obsession – actively seeking out bugs all over my backyard and everywhere else I went. There were so many things I never noticed before, like the tiny black hairs on a fly’s back or the aphids the size of a pin head all over my purple cone flowers.

Up close they really weren’t as ugly or icky as I once thought them to be.  Some are dazzling and colorful, some are soft and fuzzy and others are so fragile and delicate it’s hard to imagine they are really alive.

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Dragonfly 1-1(s)For the past couple weeks, I have been learning to look more closely at their delicate little world. At first glance they seemed so much different from us, but are they really? Just like us they eat, sleep, multiply and eventually die. They are such an important part of the circle of life. They pollinate our gardens, fertilize the soil and provide food for the animals that we eat. We simply cannot survive without them.

Lady Bug 1(s)So the next time you walk out your door, take a few minutes to look more closely at the world that surrounds you.  Stop and smell the flowers, breathe in the fresh air and remember to be thankful for the little things in life.

 

–          A life is never so precious as when you hold it in the palm of your hand.

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The Cost of Captivity

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Zoos have come a long way from the days of barred cages housing large predators relentlessly pacing back and forth, monkeys swinging from metal trapezes and hippos standing in dirty concrete pools.  Zoos today make an earnest attempt at developing a more natural habitat for their charges.  However, they are pretty much limited to their own environment and confines.  It’s quite hard to recreate an Lion 4(s)African savanna or the Arctic tundra in the center of a Midwestern city. But try they must. Polar Bear 1(s) The animals are there and there’s nowhere else for most of them to go.  Like it or not, these animals have been born and bred in captivity for generations and would not stand a chance among their unfettered counterparts in the wild. 

YBird 1(s).jpget some of these animals do serve a purpose.  In this world there are species on the verge of extinction through no fault of their own. Many animals are still hunted and killed for nothing more than a body part coveted as a souvenir or trophy, or simply because they are considered to be a nuisance.  While people are becoming more aware and more humane, the poachers and the black markets still exist for a few of the more unenlightened, cruel and disgraceful members of our species.  For those of us who do care, these animals can be studied and bred in captivity in the hope that someday, in a more perfect world, they will be free to live their lives as nature intended and not be subject to the risk of being penned up or shot down. 

As controversial as they may be, our zoos remain a staple fixture in most large cities – a popular tourist Gorilla 5(s).jpgattraction and a typical family haunt during summer vacations.  A couple weeks ago, we made a trip to the St. Louis zoo to observe and photograph some of the animals in residence there.  This is one of the zoos that is constantly trying to improve the habitats and make the animals feel at least a little more at home.  In general, I like to spend some time observing each animal and trying to capture their activities Prairie Dog 2(s).jpgand emotions. Since it was spring and many of the birds were actively breeding, my main focus this time was going to be the free flight bird house.  However, the bird house is in the back of the zoo and I had to walk past many exhibits to get there and I got a little side tracked along the way, mostly by gorillas, flamingos and prairie dogs.

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After I returned home and started looking through the images, I noticed a common theme among the expressions on the animals faces.  When you take a closer look, you can tell they know something is Egret 5-1(s).jpgamiss; something is not quite right.  Call it melancholy, homesickness or the internal realization of a grave injustice.  This world that they were born into is not the one where they belong. They sense the limitations of their confines, the inability to choose their own mates, hunt their own food and keep a safe distance from predators – namely humans.  Some seem angry, some look sad or confused and others seem to be pleading with their eyes for a reprieve.  Their freedom has been sacrificed for our Saturday afternoon enjoyment.

Egret 3-1(s)Why should the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness be limited to human beings alone?  Shouldn’t these rights be extended to all of the earth’s creatures?  It seems to me that in our own pursuits there are many ways in which we have taken it upon ourselves to surrender these rights on their behalf.  For those of us who recognize the injustice, there are still many others who prefer to put their efforts into justifying and rationalizing their own selfish behavior.  Nevertheless, there will come a time in the future when the earth as a whole will have to pay the cost of captivity.

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