PEOPLE 338 – WRITING A BOOK

 

 


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I used to be an highly enthusiastic birder.  School friends had awoken this interest in me in 1967, and 10 years later I left the UK for Kenya – to lecture on geology and to grab eyeful after eyefull of African birdlife.  And not just African birdlife, but Afrotropical birdlife, the Afrotropical Region being Africa to the south of the Sahara, one of the great biological regions of the world, with many unique or highly distinctive flora and fauna.

And the plan – ah, the plans of mice and men! – was to stay in Kenya for two or three years, do a lot of birdwatching, and then move on elsewhere.  Sure enough, I met up with other birders there, and went birding in many national parks and areas further off the beaten track.  But then, in 1981, a chance remark informed me that there was a project in hand to map the distributions of Kenya’s 1,000+ bird species – and from that moment on there was for simply nothing else worth doing in Life.

In a nutshell, I worked on A Bird Atlas of Kenya for over eight years – it really was a vast amount of hard but very often enthralling work, funded by the World Wildlife Fund and many others, and relying on hundreds of volunteers – and the book was published in 1989.  It was never going to be a best seller, it was not an identification guide (fieldguide), it was a fairly academic explanation of the distributions and seasonalities of Kenya’s (then) 1,065 bird species. My co-author was a zoology professor at Makerere University, in neighbouring Uganda.

And here I am, probably about 1983 or so, writing it.  The photo is an indifferent scan of a small print but it conveys the overall idea, that I was awash in a sea of paper.  For in the 1980s the developed world was developing IT technology apace, but here in the Third World it was a far rarer commodity, and especially so for those outside the world of business.  We had no email and no computers.  All correspondence was carried out by snail mail – and air letters, thousands of them, were the preferred thing because, since they could not contain anything, they were less prone to theft.  We did enquire re the cost of producing the book by word processing but, in those days, in Kenya, it was completely prohibitive.  In the end, an absolutely wonderful typist produced the whole thing, 600+ pages, on an electric golfball typewriter, ready to be photographed by our Dutch publishers.

So, here is the leafy Spring Valley suburb of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, around a mile or so above sea level.  The equatorial sun is beating down, the large window beside me is open to admit fresh, warm air, and the great mass of greenery seen vaguely through  the window are the tops of banana trees.  Also, local roads were some distance away, and there was nothing but the sounds of birds, the rustling, swaying trees and the breeze  – what better place to write a book?  And although I do seem to be awash in a sea of paper, there was a very simple design to it all – all the most useful texts, maps and notes were arranged in a circle  around me, all within instant, easy reach – it was a simple design that worked very well.

And as well as being enthralling, the bird atlas project had its exciting moments too.  Flights in small aircraft to record the birds of very poorly known areas of the country were exciting, yes, they held a real sense of exploration.  But my co-author was working in Uganda at just the time when the dictator Idi Amin was being ousted from Uganda by the present president, Yoweri Museveni.  As the fighting moved up towards Kampala, Uganda’s capital, I strongly urged my co-author to flee – and I can recall his comment that it was only “a bit of bush warfare”, and that there was nothing to worry about.  But, the fighting swept on through Kampala, he spent a long time on his floor of his house, sheltering from small arms fire, and a soldier was killed in his garden.  How writing a book on birds stacks up against all that (and other) violence, I have always been unsure.

Click onto the image to open a larger version in a separate window, and click onto that image to enlarge it yet again – recommended.
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KENYA 80 – THE LUSH FARMLANDS OF THE WEST

 

 


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This image is best viewed enlarged: click onto it to open a larger version in a separate window, and click onto that image to enlarge it yet again.

Farms between Kisumu and Kakamega in the lush and fertile, far west of Kenya; April 1979.

This western part of Kenya lies just to the east of Lake Victoria, and benefits from the big storms that form over the lake and then drift eastwards, bringing plentiful rain.  Add all this water to fertile soils and high, year-round temperatures, and this is wonderfully productive farming country.  But on the downside there is malaria here, and this is where it first got its claws into me.

The tall plants in the foreground are bananas – there were many varieties of bananas of all sizes and colours here, including simply delicious ones used for cooking.  It may be more a dish from Uganda, but I simply adored cooked banana – matoke, I think it was called – with groundnut sauce.

Some of the local people can just be seen, up to the left of the two houses with metal roofs in the foreground.

Technique: OM-1 with 28mm Zuiko lens; Agfa CT18 colour slide, rated at 64 ISO; Lightroom.
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KENYA 79 – YOUNG WOMAN FROM UGANDA (MONO)

 

 


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Young woman from Uganda, living in Nairobi; 1978/9.

Click onto the image to open another version in a separate window, and click onto that image to enlarge it.

Technique: OM-2 with 75-150 Zuiko lens; Agfa CT18 colour slide, rated at 64 ISO; Lightroom; Silver Efex Pro 2, starting at the Warm Tone Paper preset.
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KENYA 78 – WARBLER AMONGST ACACIA THORNS

 

 


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Small warbler – perhaps a Cisticola – amongst fearsome Acacia thorns, any one of which could so easily transfix it; probably in Nairobi National Park, in the late 1970s.

The Cisticolas are a group of small warblers that that all look very similar to each other; they are the archetypal “small brown birds”.

Click onto the image to open a larger version in a separate window – recommended.

Technique: OM-1 with a Vivitar 400mm telephoto; Agfa CT18 colour slide rated at 64 ISO; Lightroom.  This would have been taken from the window of my car, from one of the tracks in the National Park.
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KENYA 77 – MT KENYA: NELION AT SUNRISE

 

 


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Looking up at sunrise from Top Hut on Mt Kenya towards Nelion, one of the twin peaks of Mt Kenya; August 1978.

Almost the roof of Africa!  Nelion stands at 17,021 feet, while the other peak, Batian, rises to 17,057 feet.  These two peaks are separated by the wonderfully named Gate of the Mists, and they are the tallest peaks in Africa second only to Mt Kilimanjaro, which is nearby in neighbouring Tanzania, and which soars to over 19,000 feet.

What was it like being up there on Mt Kenya?  Well, taking this photo, it was extremely cold – I remember having trouble changing the lenses on my Olympus OM-1 SLR; they were very stiff to twist off, presumably due to the intense cold having slightly contracted the metal.  Getting up to this altitude on the mountain required no rock climbing skills, it was simply a long walk, made more strenuous in its later stages by the decreasing oxygen content of the air – but after a day or so at these altitudes, breathing became easier.  We were up there for several nights, sleeping in the various mountaineering huts around the peaks; and my abiding memories of those huts concern the rats which ran over and around us every night as we slept!

Click onto the image to open another copy in a separate window, and click onto that image to enlarge it.

Technique: OM-1 with 28mm Zuiko lens; Agfa CT18 colour slide, rated at 64 ISO; Lightroom.
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KENYA 76 – IN THE DIDA GALGALLA DESERT

 

 


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The view south in the rocky Dida Galgalla Desert of northern Kenya, with the volcanic highlands of Mt Marsabit on the horizon – each one of those far off peaks is a volcano – the picture can be clicked on and enlarged to show these a little more clearly.  Photographed in the late 1970s.

Having worked as a geologist in Arabia, and also being a naturalist, I have a great affinity for deserts – their often harsh and desolate emptiness, the huge skies, the intriguing wildlife.  Those familiar with pictures of the sand seas of the Sahara will find none of that here – this is a rocky desert – and its more of a semi-desert >>> sparse and bleached plant life can be seen, and after rains the whole area will briefly become green, but briefly is the operative word here, most of the time it looks like this.

One other thing to mention.  Look at the small rock outcrop close to the camera, and just above the centre of the picture – and then look just to the left of it.  That glimpse of a far off, twisting, sandy (and rocky too!) track is in fact the A2, the main road through this part of northern Kenya up to the Ethiopian border at Moyale.  How I remember bouncing and crashing around on that road, as we went north looking for desert birds on fascinating and exciting journeys.  But I never drove the whole way to Moyale.  Instead, intent on gathering data for a bird atlas, we flew in, twice, from Nairobi I think.  And I seem to remember our little aircraft landing in Ethiopia but coming to a halt in Kenya – but that may just be a fanciful thought from long ago.

Click onto the image to open a larger version in a separate window, and click onto that image to enlarge it further – recommended – except that this is a very old colour slide that has spent years in the tropics >>> and parts of the sky in particular say as much!!! 🙂

Technique: OM-1 with 28mm Zuiko lens; Agfa CT18 colour slide, rated at 64 ISO; Lightroom.
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KENYA 75 – GRANT’S GAZELLE (MONO)

 

 


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Grant’s Gazelle, in the blazing overhead light of the equatorial midday; Nairobi National Park, Kenya; the late 1970s.

Despite being mainly a birder, I shot thousands of photos – mainly colour slides (transparencies) – while living in Kenya.  Some years back now, around the time I was starting up this blog, I scanned many of these photos, and others too, into digital – and now, looking through the folders on my computer, I’m rather taken aback to discover just how many of these scans there are!

Many of these scans have already been posted, but here is one that has yet to see the light of cyberspace – Grant’s Gazelle, one of the common, smaller antelopes on the open plains of Kenya.

Click onto the image to open a larger version in a separate window, and clock onto that image to enlarge it still further.

Technique: OM-1 with 75-150 Zuiko lens at 150mm; Agfa CT18 colour slide; Silver Efex Pro 2, starting at the Cool Tones 2 preset.
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ARCHIVE 350 – MAASAI GIRAFFE (MONO)

 

 


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Maasai Giraffe, Nairobi National Park, Kenya; probably late 1970s.

Although this is a portrait of a wild animal, and so a representation of the natural world, it is also partly abstract.  The animal is (more or less!) in focus, but behind it, even close behind it, the landscape is only diffusely visible.  Looking at this very limited depth of focus, I think this must have been taken with an old Vivitar 400mm telephoto that I had in those far off days.

Composition: in terms of the “rule” of thirds, the giraffe occupies the right vertical third of the photo (i.e. the vertical line about one third of the way into the image from the right margin), which is a visually strong position in which to be.  The thornbushes immediately behind the giraffe are out of focus, and those further out towards the (just about visible) horizon are more diffuse still.  This gives a sense of distance and depth.

Technique:  use of Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro has added a slightly bluish tint to the image, and rendered the out of focus areas still more diffuse.  These effects are enhanced by the addition of a pale vignette, a quite thick zone of pale diffusion right around the image’s borders, the effects of which are best seen to the right of the bush immediately behind the giraffe, and on the distant bushes in the image’s top left corner.

Click onto the image to open a (slightly) larger version in a separate window.
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ARCHIVE 346 – KILIMANJARO (MONO)

 

 


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Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, seen from Kenya’s Amboseli Game Reserve; July 1978.

There is another Kilimanjaro image here .

Click onto the image to open a larger version in a separate window.

Technique: OM-1 with 75mm-150mm Zuiko lens; Agfa CT18 colour slide rated at 64 ISO; converted to mono in Silver Efex Pro 2.

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STILL LIFE 205 – LOOKING AT CHAIRS 15

 

 


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I usually post these Looking At Chairs images with only their original text but, in this case, because I’m looking at chairs, I’d like to add a little more.  The post’s original text is down below.

In a way, I suppose, this is a family arranged around a chair.  I don’t know if this is their best chair or if there are more like it in the house behind, but I had just photographed them with an elderly man, this man’s father I think, and this very solid chair had been brought out for him to sit on, whereas this man and his wife are sitting on humbler stools.  In Kenya, the family’s eldest male is accorded special respect, and having him seated on this particular chair no doubt reflected that.

I’m not a great one for symbolism, most of the time I fail to understand what symbols mean, but maybe there is something – intentional or unintentional – here, with the place of eldest male being then used for the youngest.

And, as always with these very valued images, I wonder where these individuals are now, 39 years later.  They have no doubt forgotten me and, were it not for this photo, I would no doubt have forgotten them – which says something very solid about the value of portraits in any medium.

THE ORIGINAL TEXT, AND THE USUAL LINKS, ARE BELOW

Luo family on a farm near Akala, in the far west of Kenya; April 1979.

The backdrop is the painted wall of a wattle and daub hut, the smooth surface layer of which is starting to flake off on the far right.  Minor points, maybe that I’ve only really appreciated now, after all these years, are the Vicks poster and the kitten.

The first post in this series on chairs, which contains context and an image, can be found hereSubsequent posts are here: 2 3 4 5 6 7 8  9  10  11 12 13 14 .  Each will open in a new window.

Click onto the image to open a larger version in a separate window.

Technique: OM-1 with 50mm Zuiko lens; Agfa CT18 colour slide, rated at 64 ISO.

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