In my 20's, having successfully survived my scholarship-funded undergraduate career and embarked on my first couple of real jobs, I was excited to start giving back to the world.
I picked a couple of charitable operations that I thought would make an actual difference –– right away.
The Nature Conservancy got the nod –– partly because of the romance of it: a bunch of business people taking a scientific approach to saving wild land and wild life –– and partly because I saw its work close to home.
The Chaumont Barrens, an eerie bit of landscape from my childhood, is currently stewarded and championed by The Nature Conservancy.
We used to picnic there, little knowing that the weird rocks and odd plants were remnants from the time of the last ice age.
How the years do click by...My contributions aren't exactly princely, but I continue to fund the organizations I like. The Nature Conservancy rewards its donors with a newsletter, and I remember reading about the effort in 1989 to preserve a large tract of undeveloped tallgrass prairie in the middle of the country.
It was a huge project, involving local ranchers and a whole consortium of foundations and philanthropists.
The idea caught my imagination. I sent my modest donation and felt a sense of ownership when they bought the 29,000-acre Barnard Ranch, which has since become the 40,000-acre Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.
Restoration biologists searched high and low for some of the nearly-extinct plant species, finding some forgotten in the unmowed corners of old country cemeteries. Locating a few patches of those 6-foot-tall grasses that used to stretch across 142 million square acres of the Great Plains. The mind boggles.
I imagined the scientists gathering handfuls of seed heads and nursing them to germination with that single-minded fervor known to any gardener.
I kept sending my modest checks, noting with pleasure in 1993 when the first bison were reintroduced to the prairie. 300 of the large beasties were donated by a local rancher.
Imagine that –– bison roaming nearly free!
It was almost as if we didn't have to pave ALL of paradise and put up a parking lot.
The herd has grown to around 2400 head of bison. Careful use of prescribed burns and herd management has meant that the prairie has continued to rebound, sheltering prairie chickens and bunches of the usual mammals in solid numbers.
So when Captain Winnebago and I realized that we were able to make The Big Park Trip, I put Pawhuska, Oklahoma (home to The Pioneer Woman's Mercantile. Go figure.) on the list.
It's not the vast stretches of unspoiled wilderness that our pioneer forbearers found, but after three and a half hours of driving through the property –– it's a reminder of how great the Great Plains were.
And if anyone doubts that truth, go on and continue driving north to the Badlands.
I spent my first years as an adult in Manhattan. This meant putting aside my hayseed discomfort with seething masses of humanity and suppressing a powerful native impulse to avoid conflict.
And –– the more important bit of immigrating to the Big City –– transforming my near-constant uneasiness (oh, call it fear!) into bravado and a solid grasp of the island's geography. The zeal of the new convert in action gave me a passionate opinion about Katz's deli, the Old Town vs. the Cedar Taverns, street dogs, knishes, the best route to the softball fields at the East River, and every other New York City thing.
I was a broke young creature with a super-cool job, and I knew that NYC was probably the best metropolis in the universe. I mean -- Korean salad bars open at 3 am? The Met? Central Park? Subways and monasteries and amazing retail?
But then I went a little farther afield. Bella Roma!
At seven in the morning, at least on this day, the Fountain of Trevi gets cleaned. City of Rome workers sporting the ubiquitous Romulus-and-Remus-suckling-from-a-wolf logo drain the water, sweep the coins into buckets. (It goes to charity), and scrub away the algae. The square is empty, the gelatarias shuttered, just the one tourist in attendance.
New York has a sewer museum. New York has Broadway and a eye-popping number of celebrities-per-square yard of sidewalk.
But it lacks enormous classical statuary being scrubbed –– with typical Roman aplomb and nonchalance (Tota va bene!) –– by a team of rubber-booted workers on a regular basis.
Boom! Advantage Rome.
Pariediolia is the name for the native human tendency to construct faces out of random patterns. Like Arcimaboldo's work, but by chance rather than art.
The word comes from the Greek for something like "wrong image." Spotting the face of St. Lucia on your flatbread pizza –– mental illness notwithstanding –– is bonus in our evolutionary heritage of pattern recognition.
It's related to the way that when confronted with a paper plate decorated with bull's eyes, a wee bitty baby serves up the same charming goo-goo eyes for the plate as he gives to actual human faces. Survival of the most charming.
Which tells me that the point of imagination is to actually and genuinely save your life.
But what's it called when you spot horses everywhere?
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