Amazing how often my imaginal mind-in-the-moment zooms off – given the slightest cue – on flights of memory to exotic locales I have know and loved. At the Prajna Mountain Refuge, an Upaya Zen Center upcountry inholding tucked into a soft grassy valley in Northern New Mexico, I was asked to fetch water from the Abbot’s cabin. Hauling a multi-gallon bucket of water up to the main kitchen to be boiled for the perfect Putanesca seemed, at first, a simple enough task.
My tweaky back and computer neck were out of sync with the uneven uphill terrain at altitude. The bucket instinctively ended up on my head with a dish towel donut as a buffer. My body scanned for a symmetrical balance. The bucket slopped over until I got the fluctuating fluid flat enough with my chin tucked under, posture plumbed, and stride smoothed out.
Images of loads balanced on elegant heads, my mind tripped to Mali. Memories emerged of market-bound women from Dogon Country with humongous bundles of produce atop their elegant heads. They lithely ascended the steep sidewinding trail up from the verdant valley below to the arid flats of the Bandiagara Escarpment. On the Prajna Refuge trail, this exotic flashback was nearly as harsh as the West African landscape I was hiking through. In Mali along the Niger River, I was surrounded by the cliff dwelling prehistoric Dogon people who dwell in adobe huts with animated conical thatched roofs. In this context, I experienced a career-altering leadership meltdown, as well as a vision-shift in my intentionality around my own destination photography.
Hotter than the hinges in the Dogon valley, I sought refuge inside my tent, a bolt-hole which became my Heartbreak Hotel – having nothing to do with Elvis. I considered why this trip – this country – was so challenging for my client photographers. In those days, I was a newby at meditation, attempting to sit zazen, breathe hot air, and to take stock of the mutiny from the hands of discomfited Silicon Valley wannabe adventure travelers entrusted to me on this ill-fated trip in a deep African culture. For openers, the Malians were not especially receptive to tourist photographers. Unlike, say India, which has a mostly bright atmosphere – at least before the pandemic – abundant photogenic color, and willing subjects, Mali is, well, dark and uncooperative.
On a school visit, I spotted broken pot shards under a tree. Chatting with an experienced teacher in our group, I asked if there was anything I could do to make the others feel more secure within their Mali misadventure. “Nothing,” he replied. “The vessel is broken. You just have to wait for the semester to be over.” A bit of empathetic wisdom was welcomed.
So was the gift of viewing the shards settled into the desert sand. StoryShards, I thought. From then on, StoryShards became the branding of my work – articles, lectures, seminars – and StoryShards Publishing Projects LLC.
MUNGO & ME
The drama and details of my Malian meltdown would fill a book not unlike T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Water Music” (Little Brown, 1982). This semi-fictional hysterical account of the Scottish surgeon turned explorer Mungo Park, who, in 1796, first discovered the Niger River at Segou. Sponsored by the Scottish Explorers Society, Mungo Park in flamboyant military mufti was not a target out of range. Suffering all the expected mis-adventures and illnesses common to early African exploration, Mungo came to an unsavory demise with bugs in wrong places downstream on the Niger at Bussa.
I, too, got into trouble in Mali – up to my gunwales on the Niger. As an award winning paid panjandrum of socially and creatively engaged travel photography, I’d been contracted by a high-end adventure travel company. What can be told in this context of my sorry saga are the consequences of my own leadership flamboyance. The toxic atmospheres of my putting out a hifalutin intellectual-field mixed with a pretentious Buddha-field, to-boot. Yikes! At the outset of our journey in Bamako, I quoted to the bewildered group from Susan Sontag’s bestseller “On Photography.” Sontag challenges, ”To take photographs is to take possession of space in which one feels insecure.” There were no comments; this flip line sunk into the collective unconscious of the group, and it came back to spook me.
Our first photo field trip in Bamako was spooky. On the itinerary, we were guided to the murky labyrinth of the recycle metal market. The dismemberment of cars and defunct appliances made for clanking, buzzing, and rancidity. My deal for the trip was to do set-up demo situations, and discuss my creative thought process. So, thinking of Louise Nevelson’s monochromatic wooded wall pieces and outdoor sculpture, with camera on tripod, I framed a modernist composition of tortured steel. The group walked right on by me – this did not augur well. Worse was the fruit and vegetable market. Dark skinned vendors rebuffed photographers’ advances. I got spooked myself. From the get-go in Bamako, we could’ve used some good gris-gris.