Thursday, March 29, 2007

Article: Tombstone tales

Have you ever walked through a cemetery? There’s a special feeling in a cemetery, a connection with the past that you don’t get in museums. I think this is because people buried in cemeteries are ordinary people. Their lives mimic our own in ways the lives of the great and mighty do not. Although we may imagine our genealogy includes kings and queens, those lives don’t have the relevance to our own that the lives of common people do.

In western culture, most burial locations are marked with a stone. Walking through a cemetery, you might find yourself wondering about those interred below. What were they like? How did they live? Unfortunately, most tombstones give few clues. Frequently information is restricted to name, marital status, birth and death dates and religion. If there is an epitaph, it is usually generic or trite.

At one time, headstones were made of marble. Marble is a soft rock and easily chiseled, even so it took a skilled artisan many hours to make a truly unique stone. And over time, the words and art melted from the face of the rock, running with the rain into the soil below. You stop to stare at a child’s stone with a sleeping angel carved into it. You can see that it once displayed incredible detail. Now the fingers and nose are missing, the eyes filled with dark lichen.

As you meander through the newer section, you find a tombstone that includes a photo of the deceased etched on a ceramic oval. If you bend down, you can look into the photographed eyes to try to read them. You wonder why that particular photo was chosen. Did the deceased select it himself or did a bereft family member make the decision? Would the man, who died at 90, want that photo of his aged self or did he still identify with a dashing 20-something? You straighten your back and look down at the stone with its yellowed and already fading image. Why does this strike at immortality fall so short?

Then a shiny, dark stone catches your eye. You focus on it as you make your way along the narrow alley between the graves. There’s a color picture on it: a small ranch, a windmill, a barn and a family of deer. The field in front of the ranch house is filled with bluebonnets. The black stone shines behind the image. It is granite, a hard rock that will hold the etching for a very long time. These people were ranchers and the image is probably their own spread. You imagine they lived there many years and loved their land. A bit of personality has made it past the threshold of death.

If you’re like most people, you’ve been looking for your own family name on the stones. When you find it, you wonder if that person is some distant relative from a long-lost branch of a wide family tree. I do that too but my name is too unique. I have only found one this way and that was on my family’s home island in Greece. It was a beautiful piece with a mourning woman contemplating the names carved in marble. But my name was written in Greek and, while I recognized it, it did not make a real connection with me.

The only other tombstone I’ve seen with the name Typaldos on it is my brother’s. Stephen’s kids designed a black granite stone that should last nearly forever. My brother was a doctor and his children choose to prominently position the seal of the Fascial Distortion Model (FDM) on his stone. Stephen not only conceived and developed the FDM himself, he also designed the seal. His kids did a great job with a difficult task. The stone will always speak for him.

To learn more about the FDM go to:

Photo: A typical older generic tombstone from somewhere in Maine. Notice it contains only names and dates.
Photo: Another generic tombstone. This one is from Texas. I wonder if the grown children aren't also in graves marked "Mother" and "Father".
Photo: An angel statue on a child's grave in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Photo: A tombstone from Hamilton, Texas showing a ranch house.Photo: A Typaldos family tombstone in Lixouri, Kefalonia, Greece.
Photo: My brother Stephen's tombstone in Bangor, Maine. Note the seal of the FDM.
Photo: Stephen's tombstone on his 50th birthday.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Article: It's hard being a horse

Horses are one of the great loves of my life so it might be surprising to learn that I passed up an opportunity to ride while in Venezuela last month.

We were staying at a cattle ranch that also accommodates a few tourists near the town of San Fernando de Apure in central Venezuela. The hatos, as these ranches are called, typically encompass thousands of acres of grazing land and are patrolled by the Venezuelan version of the cowboy. The llaneros ride scrappy little horses that bear little resemblance to American Quarter Horses, their cowboy equivalent.

Life is hard for the llaneros and their horses. Half of the year, most of the land is flooded. All year round, caiman and crocodiles lurk along the edges of the water holes. Pumas and jaguars roam the land at night. Distances are vast and the few roads double as dams, ineffectively holding the marsh at bay. Moving cattle generally involves herding them along roadsides where the land is most likely to remain dry and passable.

There is an element of the romantic in the llanero. I’d read a lot about their solitary existence, their music and unusual dress that includes sandals instead of boots while riding. I was curious to see them in person and my first chance came at the hato. When we arrived we were told that we could go on to two excursions per day, and one of them could be a horseback trek through the ranch. It sounded interesting and fun but I’ve had bad experiences riding other people’s horses so I hesitated.

As we walked around the ranch house that first day, I saw a few Venezuelan horses up close. I’ve always said that all horses are beautiful but the first horse I saw proved me wrong. Its white coat was speckled with scars and bites, red skin ringed its nose and eyes, its knees were so low on its legs that it could have been walking on them. It wandered around the buildings, ugly and unkempt and looking for food.

Next I saw a little dun horse, just skin and bones, standing saddled under a tree. A llanero strode up, untied it and mounted. The horse acted almost as if it had never been ridden before. Only a severe bit provided any control to the rider who managed to straighten him out after taking a few spins on the haunches. Did these so-called “expert horsemen” not bother to train their horses at all?

As I watched the llanero ride off, I noticed the horse was gaited, possibly a smooth-riding relative of the Peruvian Paso horses so highly prized in the US. Although I was intrigued by the horse’s movement, I resolved not to ride. All of the horses near the ranch house were scraggly and skinny. It would be cruel to ride them.

A couple of days later we passed a pickup truck with two horses standing in the bed as it sped down the highway. Rails had been installed to provide some height to the walls. My driver laughed when he saw me take a photo. I explained that this would never happen in the United States, it would be against the law. He didn’t understand why. The horses seemed calm even though a stiff wind blew in their faces. I hoped they remained that way and that the driver never had a reason to brake suddenly.

On one excursion we stopped at the home of some llaneros, far from any paved road. A little gray horse stood saddled and tied to the fence outside the shack that housed the extended family. This horse was in better condition and his tack was both colorful and complex. Finally my vision of the romantic life of the llanero acquired some validation. Later as I watched three llaneros ride across the plain on their small horses, I thought that these men matched their animals, sculpted by the harsh life they lead together. Living much closer to their horses and relying on them for their livelihood, the remote llaneros cared for them better.

Everywhere I went in Los Llanos I saw this division: at some places the horses were thin and sickly looking with mangy coats lacking any shine or luster, in others, horses looked about with bright, inquisitive eyes, running across green pastures to investigate visitors. I guess this is what happens when there are no laws regulating the treatment of animals, horses like other pets and livestock suffer or thrive at the whim of their owners.

Although I enjoyed my stay at the hato, I will not go back. I can’t support an establishment that allows animals to suffer. There are other hatos in Los Llanos and if I return, I will stay at one of those.

Photo: Even the ugliest horse in the world should look better than this.

Photo: I wish I could take this horse home and feed it a good meal.
Photo: My horse Ribbon showing what a well-fed horse looks like from this angle. Notice that the backbone and hips do not protrude.
Photo: Safety last.
Photo: Please don't hit the brakes!
Photo: Horse in typical llanero tack.
Photo: Los tres llaneros!
Photo: A happy, healthy horse in a nice pasture

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Article: Spring clearing

At New Year’s I proclaimed 2007 “My Year of the Horse!” Like so many New Year’s resolutions, my proclamation has rung hollow these past two months. But as the weather warms and the days grow long, it becomes easier to live up to my vow. Last weekend, I actually got on one of my horses and rode for the first time this year. Buoyed by my success, I decided to tackle a major horse-related issue--a riding arena.

I’ve wanted an arena ever since we moved to Buda fifteen years ago. We have the land but it’s covered with juniper and mesquite. In some places this “forest” is so dense I have never been through it. It’s a fire hazard. The trees suck all the water from the soil and block the sun, stunting any grass that might provide grazing. Over the years I’ve tried and failed to contain this unsightly, exuberant growth. This year I conceded it was time to call a professional.

The idea of hiring someone to clear some land is not new. My husband, Rick, has put this idea forward every year. “Get someone out to cut some trails for you,” he’d say. “You can’t do it yourself. You’re not strong enough and you don’t have the time.” These seem like reasonable arguments but everyone knows you can’t win an argument with your spouse through reason. I steadfastly refused. No bulldozer was going to tear up my land and push down trees willy-nilly, leaving them lying on their sides, bare roots exposed to the sun. Still, this year I admitted the time had come.

I searched the web for land clearing and Central Texas. There were quite a few hits. When I began going through them, I realized there was an option I had never heard of. One of the first web sites I examined introduced me to the track mounted mulcher.

The track mounted mulcher is a miracle machine. Its caterpillar tracks allow it to travel over rough terrain. Its small size means it can squeeze between trees and through gates. Since it’s a mulcher, it gobbles up a tree and spits it out as mulch. The mulch can be left on the ground to protect against erosion. Since it is mulch, it eventually returns to the soil restoring lost nutrients. I still have piles of dead juniper from when we had the fence line cleared ten years ago so the transformation of brush into mulch particularly grabbed my attention.

I searched a few more web sites and found someone operating out of Austin. Within a couple of days, he was out examining the property. I was embarrassed by the state of things. Massive, multi-trunked junipers spread their horizontal branches until they almost touched. And the scraggly mesquite that grew in the narrow spaces between them clawed at us as we examined the task.

Carl nodded knowingly when I indicated where I’d like my arena. “You’ve got some nice land here,” he said, “but I wouldn’t put your arena right there. Those big junipers will either leave big stumps or big holes. It’d be better to move it back a little to this area that’s mostly mesquite.” I nodded. Of course he was right.

Finally I asked the big question, how long would it take and how much would it cost. I was shocked when Carl said most likely it would be around two days at $1200 per day. That’s quite a bit of money but I’m sure it’s not worth spending fifteen years without an arena for.

This morning Carl started working on my land. In just an hour, the place was transformed. I stood on a carpet of mulch and gazed about me. Carl had left some trees as shelter for the horses and some to block the view of neighbors, some he had trimmed so they actually look like trees rather than monstrous bushes, others had gone through the mulcher never to be seen again. It was beautiful.

After the arena, Carl is going to make a few riding trails for me. “I’m an idiot,” I told him. “I should have listened to Rick years ago and had someone clear this land.” Carl informed me that the track mounted mulcher wasn’t available years ago. I smiled to myself. So I was right and Rick was wrong after all. Go figure.

This is the link to Trees Unlimited / Natural Texas, the company that cleared my land.

Photo: A row of large junipers (aka cedars) in the back pasture. You could hardly see the house from this location.

Photo: This enormous juniper was in the corner of the pasture closest to the cul-du-sac. We want to make a driveway through here some day.
Photo: This is the same juniper from the last photo! And the whole row of junipers from the first photo has been turned into the mulch you see on the ground. This took about two hours.
Photo: This section of the pasture was rife with mesquite. Behind the gate in the Back 18, was a solid wall of large, dense junipers. I once had a trail through these but it disappeared over the years.
Photo: This is looking back at the area in the previous photo. Before the mulching, I couldn't have gotten to this spot and even if I did I'd be in the middle of a mass of junipers.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Article: Anteaters

I’ve always been intrigued by giant anteaters. And who wouldn’t be? Even if you know nothing about them, the name alone is provocative. What kind of giant animal could eat something as small as ants? How giant is a giant anteater? How many ants would it take to feed one? So anteaters were high on my list of desired sightings when I went to Los Llanos, the great flood plane that spreads across thousands of square miles of the Venezuelan interior.

February is in the dry season in Los Llanos and the locals are somewhat confused by this. Although the country lies entirely north of the equator, they refer to this time of year as “summer.” They call the rainy season “winter” although it actually takes place in the summer. Stepping off the plane into the warm, dry air I gratefully accepted the reverse naming convention. It felt wonderful leave winter behind in Texas.

During the summer months the vast marshes of Los Llanos evaporate leaving a plane of grass punctuated by palm trees and dirt roads that form a cobweb of levies. We were driving along one of these roads just before sunset when I spotted my first giant anteater. It looked like a black smudge rising from the sea of green. I almost mistook it for an incongruously placed boulder. Then it moved.

As I clicked off my first few photos, another black smudge appeared. The new one was smaller and slightly closer. I had trouble making out its shape as it barely rose above the tall grass. The more distant anteater stopped, then back-tracked a little. The baby quickly climbed on its mother’s back getting a grip in her long, thick fur. In an instant she was in retreat again.

This was what I wanted to see, the giant anteater, Myrmecophaga tridactyla. The adults are about the size of German Shepard dogs. They look a bit like German Shepards too, except they’re hairier and have very, very long snouts that house their equally elongated tongues. They’re not related to dogs though, except that they’re mammals. And they don’t have big teeth like dogs. In fact, they don’t have any teeth.. They don’t need teeth since their food, which is mainly termites, doesn’t take much crunching.

What they have is impressive claws. They use them both for defense and to rip open termite nests which can be as hard as concrete. Once the nest is opened, the anteater sticks its long snout into the hole. It doesn’t suck up the termites as is popularly believed. Instead it uses its sticky tongue to lap up its prey. Anteaters eat around 30,000 termites each day.

Anteaters belong to the order Edentata, meaning toothless. They are most closely related to sloths and armadillos. Like sloths, they have a very slow metabolism that allows them to thrive on a low energy diet of termites and ants.

I felt pretty lucky to see several giant anteaters on my trip. Our driver even raced one as it ran through the scrub on the side of the road. I got luckier still when we spotted an elusive lesser anteater, Tamandua tetradactyla on a remote dirt road.

About a quarter of the size of its giant relative, the lesser anteater is mainly arboreal. It was fortunate to find one on the ground where it could be easily observed. Carlos, our guide, grabbed the little animal by the tail and temporarily captured it for us to get a closer view. It used its formidable claws to rip Carlos’ camera free from its strap around his neck.

Anteaters are some of the most fascinating and unique animals in the world. The range of all four species is restricted to Central and South America but if you can’t swing a trip, the San Antonio Zoo is a great place to see some. They have three species including the giant and lesser anteaters, only missing the squirrel-sized silky anteater.

Photo: A giant anteater running beside our car.Photo: Mother giant anteater waiting for baby.

Photo: Giant anteater
Photo: Lesser anteater. Note the big claws and prehensile tail. These anteaters are arboreal.
Photo: Lesser anteater attempting escape.
Photo: Lesser anteater hiding in some brush
Photo: Lesser anteater. The nose isn't as long as in the giant anteater but it's still pretty cute.