Saying farewell to 2013 and Ahoy to 2014


My old, wise friend 2013 was so gallant as to accompany me on the last days of his visit. Wishing him well, wherever he goes. 

Out with the Old and in with the New.
The young year arrives on his pony, and welcomes and wishes all a Happy and Healthy New Year

Henri van Bentum


Encounters with "Wildlife" continued: Part Seven, Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

One of the 37 ports-of-call we experienced on our millennium circumnavigation, where I was aboard ship as guest artist and lecturer, was Colombo on the island of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). 
We humans are not the only species that has orphans.  We thought, as part of this “Encounters with Wildlife” series, to post our experience during a visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which has the largest herd of captive animals in the world. 
This marked my fourth visit to this island of tea, textiles and rice  with a long and rich, documented history going back over 3,000 years. Sri Lanka has the highest biodiversity density in Asia. Before docking in Colombo, we’d heard there was now an Elephant Orphanage, established to feed, nurse and house young elephants found abandoned by their mothers, or who had fallen into pits and ravines in their quest for water during drought period. Other orphans have been displaced from their wild habitat by development projects or have been found abandoned before weaning, diseased or wounded.
 To get there, we took a scenic train ride through this beautiful island. Vans drove us to the site, located northwest of Kegalla and halfway between Colombo and the ancient royal residence of Kandy.  Established in 1975, the property is large and covers 24 acres.  Elephants from a few weeks to five years and now the Orphanage includes a breeding section.
Mahout giving a bath to his elephant
There are 48 mahouts who take care of the elephants. The female and young elephants in Pinnawala range freely as a herd during the day in an area of a few acres. They are herded about .5 km twice a day to drink and be bathed in the river. At night, the females are individually chained in stalls. Adult males are do some light work such as transporting feed. They are chained and managed individually. 

Feeding Time

The majority of calves born in Pinnawala are not bottle fed, but a few are bottle fed as a tourist attraction. The elephants eat mostly cut-up coconut cane, banana, bamboo and palm tree leaves.  Visitors can feed the baby elephants but from behind a fence. All others – the ‘elder’ ones, wander about under guidance of their mamout and bathe in the Maha Oya River where a viewing area was constructed.  The very young ones are taken to the river to bathe as well, under close supervision. The Sri Lankan elephants are smaller than their African cousins.   

 Elephants from Orphanage bathing in the Maha Oya River
We wandered amongst them and also observed a large group of working elephants bathing in the river. “Most of the elephants at Pinnawala are healthy and once attaining adulthood, will be sold or donated or retained for breeding.

A few disabled elephants are given residential care. One tusker, Raja is blind, and one female, named Sama, lost her front right leg to a land mine”. Recently the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage has come under some scrutiny by the Born Free Foundation and apparently quality of care of elephants who are donated or sold away from Pinnawala has been a big public issue. In 2012 The Sri Lanka Environment Trust spoke out against authorities who continue to 'donate' tamed elephants to people who had 'poor' past records of taking care of animals.”

Henri van Bentum


Rudolph Unveiled

An essay of my interpretation of the Rudolph story can be found under the original lyrics (below). Comments welcome!

Original Lyrics:

"You know Dasher, Dancer,
Prancer and Vixen,
Cupid, Donner and Blitzen,
but do you recall
the most famous reindeer of all?
Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
had a very shiny nose.
And if you ever saw him,
you would even say it glows.
All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolph
join in any reindeer games.
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say:
"Rudolph with your nose so bright,
won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
Then all the reindeer loved him
as they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
you'll go down in history!"

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Unveiled

When “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” came out in 1938, sung by the legendary Singing Cowboy Gene Autrey, I still lived in Holland and heard the music on Radio Luxembourg, the US Army network in 1946.  
Much later I began to see this evergreen song in a different light.  Could it be Robert May, who wrote the lyrics, had a hidden meaning? (The music was composed by Johnny Marks.) 

Robert May was an American advertising executive.  I am not sure how well he knew the Bohemian heartbeat and environment in which most artists dwell, but I feel this song is pure poetry.  Over the years, this message never left me.  
Now, deep in the winter of my life, and many years after hearing that happy tune, the flash of intuition from long ago has been distilled in me. But especially the lyrics.

During a recent gathering at friends, we were having a lively conversation about the origin and meaning of Christmas.  The consensus was Christmas evolved from a combination of pagan traditions, ancient mythologies and historic facts, blended together.

Seventeenth century pilgrims brought to the New World their tradition of Sint Niklaas. In 1823, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem “The Night before Christmas” which, so the story goes, heralded Santa Claus in America.

Much earlier, Bishop Nicolas, 280-342 AD and who loved children, handed out presents to needy youngsters on December 6th, his birthday. He later became Saint Nicolas or Sint Niklaas.  The British accent morphed this into the “Santa” Claus we know today.
When I mentioned to my friends of all the Christmas songs, my favourite was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, their reaction was one of surprise. “Why that one?”

To begin with, for me the song has a deeper meaning. We know that of all the reindeer - Dasher, Pranzer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen, the most famous of them all was Rudolph

And Rudolph had a shiny red nose.  And if you’d come a bit closer, you would even say it glows.   He was not included in playing any reindeer games. 

Rudolph was different.  He stood out from the herd.  Just like anyone who is different is often left out, considered eccentric or not taken seriously. (Not an unfamiliar story for many artists throughout history.)

When Santa notices this particular reindeer with a red and shiny nose that glowed, he figured Rudolph would be perfect to guide Santa through the foggy night with his sleigh loaded with treasures.

Rudolph appears with his illuminating nose, and becomes a pathfinder, a shining light in the darkness.  Then, all the other reindeer love him.  Just like today, when we “love” the works by great artists long after they have left us. 

Vincent van Gogh and here in Canada, Emily Carr, are perfect example of artists who were called names and ostracized during their lifetime

It was Santa who noticed the talent and worth of Rudolph so that he could be the guiding light in space, through the fog and darkness, enabling him to bring those gifts and treasures for all to enjoy. 

Rudolph is a symbol.  He represents those who leave a legacy, a treasure-trove of Music, Letters and Art.   Santa? Well, he is Space & Time of course, for only through time, greatness is recognized.

Rudolph not only pulls a sleigh loaded with treasures, but guides  other reindeer (the Human Family, the flock) from the darkness of ignorance into the Light.

So that’s why Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is my favourite song of the holiday season.  It has now become universal, like “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night” and many more, together with the hymns and great choral works which brighten the hearts of us all. Still, the glowing red nose of Rudolph stands out.

And as the song goes, “He is the most famous of them all!”
Henri van Bentum

 Rudolph also has his own site:  Click here to visit.


The Galapagos, "Crucible of Life": Part Six - Encounters with Wildlife

Most visitors nowadays come to these “Enchanted” volcanic isles aboard large boats, or some take land-based organized tours.

 Renowned underwater expert Valerie Taylor
Our expedition, several years ago, was very different.  Ron and Valerie Taylor, pioneering underwater photographers from Australia, were special guests aboard the first small-boat expedition (apart from Jacques Cousteau’s trip aboard “Calypso” decades earlier.)

It was a dive-snorkel trip that included shore visits to the major islands. Since I don’t dive, I opted for snorkeling instead.  There were only 10 of us, not like the large numbers who travel by ship nowadays.
Each island is different.  Fierce currents surround the islands:  most well-known is the Humboldt current, which brings cold waters from the Southern Ocean, but the Cromwell and the Panama Flow are not friendly to snorkelers either.
Although the Galapagos are located right on the Equator, the water can be very cold - the Galapagos Penguin is evidence. But ashore it’s a different story - very hot, especially when walking on the lava rocks and beaches.
While snorkeling we witnessed schools of fish speeding by, suddenly changing direction. Quite a sight to see! Then there are Barracuda, Hammerhead Shark, Golden Rays, Big-Eyed Jacks, Damselfish, Barber Fish, Yellow-tailed Surgeon fish, Pacific Reef turtles, Sea Lions, Fur Seals and Elephant Seals, just to name a few.

And you can’t forget the prehistoric-looking Marine Iguana grazing on the sea algae.  I mentioned the strong currents, these are the reason each island has a different kind of Marine Iguana. 

They cannot swim from island to island and through eons of evolution have each developed unique characteristics. On one island, they are skinny.  On another, they’re green, on another, fat and grey.  And so forth.

The Galapagos Islands are part of the Ring of Fire and have active volcanoes.  Even now, the Fernandina Island volcano has erupted 24 times in the past two years alone.

One day while enjoying a leisurely snorkel amongst a group of ‘lady’ seals – who are curious and come right up to you while performing what looks like an aqua ballet, suddenly I felt a nudge against my fins.  Then another.
Bull Sea Lion shows me who's boss.
Before I knew it, I landed on the lava rocks!  The cause?  A sea lion bull had literally tossed me out of the water.  Needless to say I was stunned.  I realized what had happened – he’d been protecting his ‘harem’ and showed me who was boss!

Charles Darwin demonstrated how all the Finches of the different islands are different.  There are giant tortoises, some born when Napoleon was alive, land iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, frigate birds, owls, cormorants (who continue to ‘dry their wings’ even though they don’t have wings anymore), and of course the different kinds of Boobies.
Boobie comes from the Spanish word for clown, “Bobo”.  The blue-footed ones surely honour that name, when you see them stepping dapper, lifting their pastel-blue feet up for all to see!

The Galapagos are an archipelago, a ‘crucible’ for Life, a microcosm of planet Earth, and one of the most pristine areas in the world.  Let us take good care of these Enchanted Isles and do our very upmost to protect this precious realm.

To be continued, Part Seven (coming soon).

Henri van Bentum