A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


"Your recent blog about the tender return of your loved ones to the earth was moving, graceful in words and inspiration. Your words always come from the heart and intellect. A rare and insightful combination." Rolland Smith, former news anchor for WCBS-TV in New York, recipient of 11 Emmy Awards

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Behind the Chutes: Filmmaker Ann Lukacs On the Art of Storytelling

Ann Lukacs shooting from helicopter
I first met award-winning filmmaker Ann Lukacs in Gunnison, Colorado back in 2004 when I was speaking at a Writing the Rockies conference.  My topic, "Embracing Passion: In Our Stories and In Our Lives," seems to be a guiding motto for Ann, too. Last Tuesday, she was the keynote speaker at Dr. Ellie Greenberg's Feminist luncheon in Denver (Greenberg is the co-author of In Our Fifties: Men and Women Reinventing Their Lives and of A Time of Our Own: In Celebration of Women Over Sixty), where she shared with us her journey as a filmmaker, and her devotion to the story beneath the photos.
A Time Of Our Own

A few of Ann's professional credits as a cinematographer include Pirates of the Caribbean, The Bucket List, Honeysuckle Rose, Blues Brothers, and Coal Minor's Daughter.  Check out the New York Times for a list of movies featuring more of Ann's work behind the camera.
photo by Ann Lukacs

But the movie that seems closest to Ann's heart is the documentary Behind the Chutes. 

"This is a project of the heart which has been inspired by one reason only," Ann says, "the passion of these cowboys..."  In Behind the Chutes, Ann follows several professional bareback riders on the rodeo circuit, meeting their families, learning their stories, becoming their friends.  "What is it about these men that makes them want to devote so much of their life to an eight second ride?" Ann asks.  "What is it about the ride that creates such an addictive passion? And what makes a man, years later, get that sparkle in his eye when he reminisces about his rodeo days? Why do you put it all on the line for eight seconds?" 

Brent Kilmer, Vee Bar co-owner, at
Page's 2009 Literature & Landscape
of the Horse retreat, Wyoming
These were the questions that motivated Ann to perch precariously atop bucking chutes, or lie belly-down in the dirt, propping her camera up with her elbows. "Rodeo is a very misunderstood sport yet it is involves the traditions of our western American heritage--cowboys. Life on the ranch led to competition and a sport evolved using actual skills required in a work situation. It still embodies the uniqueness of a cowboy's life."

Some argue that keeping alive the cowboy legend is perpetuating a myth.  But this photo of a mother cow and calf, with Brent Kilmer of the Vee Bar coiling up his rope after ear-tagging the newborn calf and iodining its umbilical cord, is not about myth, it is about the gritty reality of making a life, and a living, on the land.  Not all rodeo cowboys come from working ranches, but they all have a story. 

Boot-race fundraiser at college rodeo, Guyman, Oklahoma, 2010
Look closely at this photo, taken a year ago at a college rodeo in Oklahoma.  You'll notice a bunch of cowboy boots piled up in the middle of the arena.  And the cowboys are riding in their socks.  This "boot race" Calcutta fundraiser was for a young girl with cancer - first cowboy to dismount, find his boots, pull 'em on, remount, and make it across the finish line, wins, and the spectator who "bought him" wins too. But the real winner is the fund to wish the proceeds will be donated.  The event suddenly has far more meaning because we now know the story behind the photo.

 "The art of storytelling," Ann tells us, "isn't confined to pages in a book.  We have become a media driven society with immediate access to visual content.  But no matter what the format, the basics of any good production remain the story structure and concept."  Ann's newest project, There Are No Milk Runs, a story of WWII B-17 aviators has a fascinating synchronistic aspect in both structure and concept, so stay tuned for updates.

Human beings are natural storytellers.  We seek out metaphor and meaning in our own personal narratives, and in the stories of our families and our communities. It is how we make meaning of our lives.  And thanks to amazing filmmakers like Ann Lukacs, we can see these stories unfold not only on the page, but on the screen - in beautiful, living color.

Note:  Click HERE to read about the regulations governing the use of livestock during PRCA sanctioned professional rodeos.  Click HERE for details on the 2011 Literature & Landscape of the Horse retreat at the Vee Bar Guest Ranch in Wyoming.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Moral Dilemma of My Mother's Mink: Earning Our Place in the World

My mother’s mink stole and two fur collars, one sable, one white, have been hanging in the back of my closet since she died five years ago.  I remember how beautiful she looked to me as a child when she wore her mink—how the soft fur graced her bare sloping shoulders and showed off her own mother’s strand of pearls—how proud my father looked as he offered my mother his arm. The mink stole symbolized to my father his ability and desire to provide for my mother (not unlike what his grandfather must have felt when he dragged a deer back to his waiting wife).
Old Fugate Sawmill, Stringtown, OK
read essay
My grandmother never wore a mink stole, though.  She had been born in Indian Territory—the child of a laboring, mixed-blood family that logged for the railroad companies as they laid track from Arkansas and Kentucky and Oklahoma west to Washington.  Judging from old family photos, they ate a lot of deer meat—and rabbit.  Members of the weasel family, no doubt, provided food and fur and oil.  Families of old had far more intimate relationships with the weasel family than our family ever did.  My mother (like millions of other modern women) used medical and cosmetic products that included mink oil, which has been a coveted oil since the paths of man and mink first crossed—intimate uses but without intimate knowledge.

Old Mink traps, Lookout Mountain
It’s unlikely that the minks that gave their lives for my mother’s fur stole ever swam in a river or frolicked in a creek.  More likely, the mink were some of the hundreds or thousands raised in mink farms (post Civil War enterprises), perhaps even on a mink farm here in Colorado.  There used to be a mink farm in the foothills community where I grew up, which I remember visiting once.  I do not remember seeing injured animals (though you’ll see a lot of those on undercover YouTube videos now).  But I do remember the trapped look in their eyes, the anxious pacing in some, the resignation in others.  The remnants of those mink cages lie in a draw beside one of my favorite hiking trails.

Mink: Colorado Division of Wildlife
In the wild, mink travel.  Constantly.  They have large territories.  More than fifty percent of all mink deaths in the wild happen in fights over territory.  Less than half will live beyond their first year.  At least these mink, even as they fight “like wolverines” for the right to claim a certain stretch of river, die fighting for something they love. Anthropomorphism?  Perhaps, and it’s about time.

AICF Gala, Denver, Colorado
Last winter, during a blizzard in Denver (much like what the rest of the country is experiencing now), I attended an elegant fundraising gala hosted by the American Indian College Fund.  As I was getting dressed, and as the storm raged, I thought about wearing my mother’s mink stole. The fact that it had been shoved to the back of my closet for five years, along with the fur collars, and hadn’t been worn for at least twenty years prior to that, seemed like the final affront to the dignity of the animals that had given their lives. 

As I reached into the back of my closet and stroked the soft fur, this question reared its head:  If an animal has already died, and if that animal’s fur has already been made into a coat, does one not dishonor the animal by not wearing the coat?  I’m not asking whether it’s moral to farm animals for their fur; or immoral to know so little about where the clothing on your back comes from.  I’m asking about the morality of not letting something go to waste.  If a deer is killed by a car, should the meat be taken to a raptor rehab facility? 

Tracks in the Snow
I wish I had known these mink—seen them roaming the woods around our house, watched them snag trout from a mountain stream, glimpsed their new litters of kits each spring, perhaps seen them grow one last winter coat before being lured into a trap.  If I had been the one to check the trap, to know the feel of every bone beneath every inch of fur, then perhaps this intimacy would have somehow lent balance to the taking.  But I wasn’t, and I didn’t.  I inherited the furs without this deeper knowing. 

How do we earn our place
in the world?
Perhaps all this shadowy introspection, this search for meaning and healing “in the blood of the wound itself,” is really a search for relationship.  What is my relationship with the earth that sustains me?  How do I sustain the earth?  What covenant can I forge with all the things that live because of me, and all the things that die because of me?  And if heartfelt relationship isn’t enough to earn us our place in the world, then what is?

Note from Page: CLICK HERE for information on how to donate used furs to help in the rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wildlife (“Coats for Cubs” program, The Humane Society of the United States).

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