The Eagle Huntress of Mongolia

Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia II Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia III Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia IV Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia V Ashol Pan, 13-year-old Eagle Huntress , Mongolia VI

This is Ashol-Pan, a 13-year-old Kazakh eagle huntress living in the rugged Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. The daughter of a famous hunter, she’s one of only 400 practicing eagle hunters, and the only known female to ever partake in the tradition in its 2,000-year history.

The Kazakhs of the Altai mountains are the only people that hunt with golden eagles, which are taken from nests at a young age. Females are chosen due to their larger size — the typical adult is around 15 pounds, with a wingspan of over 90 inches. Hunts occur in winter, when the temperatures can drop to -40F. Hunters work in teams, trekking on horseback for days in order to reach a mountain or ridge for a better view. When an animal is spotted, riders charge towards it to flush it into the open, and an eagle is released. If the eagle fails to make a kill, another is released.

After years of service, a hunter releases his mature eagle once and for all during the spring, leaving a slaughtered sheep as a farewell present. This ensures that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for both their future and those of the hunters that depend on them.

Source: BBC

The Top 10 Places to Be an Artist

It’s not easy being an artist. Most of those who try to make a living from their creative pursuits either never pull it off, or just barely squeak by (ultimately requiring supplemental income from a different job altogether). But depending on where you live, you might have an easier time dedicating yourself fully to your craft without sacrificing your standard of living. Consider the following ten countries or regions listed by AlterNet as some of the most artist-friendly in the world.

1. Germany: Germany’s cultural budget was approximately $1.63 billion USD in 2013. According to Ian Moss, research director of Fractured Atlas, Germany’s art funding in 2007 equated to roughly $20 per German citizen, which “dwarfs the 41 cents per red-blooded American provided by the NEA. What artist wouldn’t want to live there?” Moss told Huffington Post. Since the 1970s, Germany has implemented a federal program for art purchases and the collection of contemporary art in a bid to support artist organizations and bodies. In fact, publicly funded cultural institutions are used to educate people to promote interest in art. In 2013, the German culture budget rose by 8 percent even despite an overall federal budget decrease by 3.1 percent.

2. Northern Ireland: The Arts Council of Northern Ireland announced it will award over £13 million ($21 million USD) to arts projects through northern Ireland, including theater and literature for its tiny 1.8 million population. The Arts Council is the development and funding agency for the arts in Northern Ireland. It distributes public money and National Lottery funds to develop art projects and events throughout the country for both individual international artists to perform in Ireland as well as organizations.

3. France: France has always had a vast appreciation for art and culture, which it considers almost holy. Home to some of the most prominent art displays in the world, French museums generate over 20 million viewers a year. The budget of the French Ministry of Culture for 2013 was close to €7.4 billion ($10 billion USD) with €3.5 billion ($4.73 billion USD) dedicated to the cultural field alone.  Despite such a large distribution, these figures actually represent a 2.3 percent drop in art, which has prompted protests and strikes across the country in recent times.

4. Sweden: The Swedish Arts Council is a government authority that implements national cultural policy by allocating generous funding to performing arts, music and literature. Every year, huge sums of public money are dished out to punk rock and indie music bands, which AmericanRepublicans have criticized. In 2011, the Swedish government spent 2.60% of its central government spending on culture alone. The Swedish Arts Grant Committee allocates approximately 100 million SEK to the arts ($15 million USD) for its modest 9 million people. Moreover, the Nordic Culture Fund supports artistic and cultural cooperation between all the Nordic countries. The fund goes a step further, even supporting architecture, design, visual arts, performing arts, film, literature, music and multicultural projects.

5. Australia: In Australia, government expenditure for the arts and cultural activities in 2011-2012 period was estimated to be approximately $7 billion for a population of only 22 million. In 2013, the Australia government confirmed an additional $75.3 million in funding over four years to support Australian artists and art organizations. The government supports the arts in Australia through a number of programs including arts training bodies, music, film festivals and also includes radio and television. Each state in Australia has an Arts Council that provides the majority of funding. In 2008–’09, cultural funding by all three tiers of government averaged $311.77 per person in Australia.

6. Finland: In Finland, the Ministry of Education oversees arts and cultural funding and directly supports individual artists through extensive cultural and professional training schemes supported by the central government. In 2011, government expenditure on culture was €33 million ($44.61 million USD) for its 5.3 million citizens with €14 million ($18.93 million USD) spend on individual artists alone. Remarkably, Finnish visual artists are entitled to receive a five-year salary paid by the Finnish Art Council.

7. England: The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is responsible for the arts in the United Kingdom, funding art through Arts Council England, which merged with other arts boards to distribute grants and National Lottery funds to support “good causes” in the arts. At present, the National Lottery has provided a benefit of £165 per person ($269 USD) in London compared to £47 per person ($76.64 USD) for the rest of England, which has angered British residents about unfair regional distributions. In 2012-2013 alone, DCMS funded 16 major national museums and galleries totaling £447 million ($728 million USD) according to The Conversation.

8. Uzbekistan: In 2004, the Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation was established and is the largest public organization in Uzbekistan dedicated to reviving and funding the arts. The Forum provides financial support for young talent and craft dynasties and has generated increased international support with offices all over the world including Moscow, Beijing and Paris. The group organizes annual festivals like the Youth of Uzbekistan Festival of Fine Arts and joint opera concerts, which generate major public participation. Even during the Soviet period, the government gave extensive support to the arts, built cultural centers and paid the salaries of professional artists. Unfortunately, government censorship issues have impacted various art projects, which have restricted most art festivals to the capital of Tashkent. Nonetheless, the fund continues to organize state-endorsed exhibitions and support its artists.

9. Mexico: Mexican artists can pay their taxes with artwork in an “art-for-amnesty” type exchange, according to USA Today. Since 1957, the Mexican government has offered artists a deal where if they are able to sell five artworks in a year, they can offer the government artwork in lieu of tax payments. Under the scheme, the government displays the art in museums and government offices and loans them out for special exhibitions. Participants must register with the Tax Administration Service and submit their work to a jury to prove they have actually shown or sold artwork. To date, there are around 700 artists registered and the Mexican government has amassed 8,000 works of art.

10. The Balkans: The Balkans Arts and Culture Fund (BAC) provides funding for the arts with a view to strengthening and promoting artistic cultural development in the Western Balkans specifically to bridge broken relationships in the former Yugoslavia. BAC is financially supported by the European Cultural Foundation and the Open Society Foundations as well a number of other European cities like Amsterdam and Budapest which largely back the arts in their own countries.

Minus Uzbekistan, whose government is notoriously authoritarian, most of these countries aren’t bad places to live overall.  Perhaps it’s no coincide that most of them have long cultural heritages that make preserving and encouraging artistic expression vital. In fact, in many cultures art is seen a universal birthright to be cultivated by society as a whole through public funds, rather than as a private or market commodity.

If you’re wondering how the U.S. fares for artists by comparison, consider that three years ago, funding for the arts hit a record low, constituting only 0.28 percent of the government’s non-military budget; in that same span of time, local government spending on art also dropped by 21 percent. Private funding has always declined by around nine percent, albeit let dramatically but nonetheless troubling given the lack of alternative support elsewhere.

What do you think? Are the arts a public good that the deserve government funding? Or should their funding be left up to the market?


The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

This is going to be the first of many posts that highlight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cultural and natural landmarks that are identified for their incredible value for humanity. 

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras — which span five sites — was the first property to be included in the cultural landscape category of the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

Built 2,000 years ago and passed on from generation to generation, the Ifugao Rice Terraces are a marvel of engineering, built on steeper slopes and reaching a higher altitude than most other terraces. The terrace pond fields were created using stone or mud walls, and were carved carefully to follow the natural contours of the hills and mountains. They’re irrigated through an intricate system that harvests water from the forests of the mountain tops. The rice terraces are incorporated almost seamlessly into nature.The maintenance of these living rice terraces require a cooperative approach among the entire community. They rely on detailed knowledge of the rich diversity of biological resources existing in the Ifugao ecosystem, a finely tuned annual system respecting lunar cycles, meticulous zoning and planning, extensive soil conservation, and mastery of a complex pest control based on the careful processing of a variety of herbs, all accompanied by religious rituals.

Archaeological evidence reveals that these techniques have been used in the region virtually unchanged for 2,000 years. Because they illustrate the persistence of cultural traditions and remarkable continuity and endurance, they were included in a list reserved for sites of profound global importance to humanity — rightfully so, in my opinion.

The Origin of April Fools’ Day

The origins of April Fools’ Day (also spelled April Fool’s Day and sometimes called All Fools’ Day) are somewhat obscure. The oldest known prank tradition in the world is Sizdah Bedar, an Iranian holiday that has been celebrated since the sixth century BC on the 13th day of the Persian New Year (Nowruz), which lies on April 1st or 2nd; however, there’s no clear link between this holiday and contemporary April Fools’ Day.

Other precursors or possible influences include the Roman festival of Hilaria, held March 25, and the Medieval Feast of Fools, held December 28 and in turn inspired by the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. There is reference to a French prank holiday being celebrated April 1st in the early 16th century called Poisson d’Avril (literally “April fish”), in which a paper fish is unknowingly attached to the victim’s back (it is still celebrated to some extent in French-speaking countries).

From the Early Middle Ages, up until the late 18th century, many European communities celebrated New Year’s Day on March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation), with some making it a week-long holiday that ended on April 1st. It’s been suggested that April Fools’ Day originated from those who celebrated the new year on January 1st making fun of those who celebrated the alternative festival.

Building With Compassion

As I was editing Wikipedia, I came across an update on the news section of its homepage: Shigeru Ban, a Japanese architect, just won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious award in the field. I’ve heard of the prize before, but never its newest recipient. After looking him up, I came across an excellent TED Talk he gave about creating emergency structures out of sustainable and recycled material (he’s apparently the only architect that works regularly with paper as a medium). It’s quite a treat, so check it out below.

Ban’s unique approach to structure and materials, as well as the humanitarian underpinnings of work, were cited in his recent prize. Personally, I think it’s well deserved.

Here is the sample work highlighted for his prize, the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a museum located in France and completed in 2010. Personally, I find it to be a striking and effective combination of elegance and functionality; what say you?



Happy Belated Holi!

In addition to St. Patrick’s Day, yesterday was also Holi, an ancient Hindu spring festival also known as the festival of colors and the festival of love. In addition to marking the beginning of spring (and for many the start of the new year), it also a day to cleanse oneself of past errors, end conflicts, meet new people, and pay or forgive wrongs. This holiday has also become increasingly popular internationally among non-Hindus, most notably manifested in events like the Color Run (a 5K that incorporates elements of Holi; I did it once and it was tremendous fun!).

Holi begins with a Holika bonfire the night before, where people gather, sing, and dance. The next morning is the characteristic “carnival of colors,” a free-for-all where everyone plays with, chases, and colors each other with dry powder and colored water (sometimes with water guns or water balloon). Anyone and everyone is fair game: friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman, children and elders. The event occurs in open streets, parks, and outside temples and buildings. Music and feasting is also part of the celebration, with people sharing in special Holi delicacies, food and drinks. The evening is often reserved for visiting friends and family.

Courtesy of National Geographic.

You can see more great photos, here, here, and here.

This seems like an incredibly fun and meaningful holiday. No wonder it has endured centuries of practice!

Ten Places You Wouldn’t Believe Are in Russia

This looks like something you would see in Tibet or China, right?

Well, this is the Ivolginsky Datsan, located in Buryatia, Russia. A datsan is a Buddhist university in the Tibetan tradition that is typically divided into a philosophical and medical department. This particular one was opened in 1945 and remained the only Buddhist spiritual center in the USSR. It hosts unique samples of old ethnic Buryat art, a collection of old Buddhist manuscripts written in Tibetan language on natural silk, and a greenhouse with a sacred Bodhi tree.

Buddhism has had a presence in Russia since the 17th century, and is now considered one of the nation’s traditional religions, with legal recognition as a part of its historical heritage. Aside from Buryatia, Budhissm has is a major faith in the regions of Kalmykia and Tuva, and is now widespread throughout Russia, with many ethnic Russian converts. As of 2012, anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million people profess Buddhism. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been a Buddhist revivalist movement and many schools and temples opening across the nation.

See more unlikely sites in Russia here.

Mexico’s Unknown African Heritage

The first known successful and self-governing black community in the Americas was the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo, which was established in Mexico in the 17th century by Gaspar Yanga, a leader of a slave rebellion. A former member of the royal family of Gabon, he successfully led a band of revolting slaves near Veracruz around 1570, fleeing to the difficult terrain of the highlands, where they built a small colony. The community grew for more than 30 years as a haven for other fugitive slaves, surviving off the land and by raiding caravans.

In 1609, the Spanish colonial government tried to retake the territory, but despite its superior numbers and weapons, failed in the face of the maroons’ effective guerrilla tactics and superior knowledge of the area. After seven years of stalemate, the Spanish agreed to Yanga’s terms: the community would remain part of the empire but be subject to self-rule, just as any other municipality. An independent community of blacks — let alone one of former slaves — was virtually unheard of at the time. This unique town was fully established by 1630, and remains to this day under the name of its founder, Yanga.

This wouldn’t be the last time that blacks played a prominent role in Mexican history. Several of the country’s revolutionary leaders and founding fathers, such as José María Morelos, were of African (and for that matter indigenous) descent. One of them, Vicente Guerrero, would actually serve as one of Mexico’s earliest presidents, and one of the Western Hemisphere’s first black heads of state. Though his term was brief, he managed to rebuff Spain’s efforts to reconquer Mexico, and issued a proclamation abolishing slavery on September 16, 1829.

To learn more about Mexico’s unique black heritage (and for that matter Peru’s), check out the following excellent documentary series from PBS:

Beyond Sochi: Photos of Russians, By Russians

Russia has always had an image problem in the West, even before it adopted communism and became a perennial rival during the Cold War. The Winter Olympics at Sochi have only confirmed or added to the existing biases of Russia as an austere, corrupt, and dour place. And while it’s true that the country is rife with political and social problems, like any society, there is more to them than we realize.

Thankfully, some Russians have become proactive about depicting a more nuanced and down-to-Earth view of their nation. NPR has reported on one enterprising photographer in particular who is leading the way:

Russian photographer Valeriy Klamm felt that foreign photojournalists who came to work in his country arrive with the pictures they want to send back home already in their head: Bleak images of a cold and desolate place where autocrats lord over drunks.

“They already know how to take pictures of Russia, and that’s how they arrive,” Klamm said. “It’s always a wild country that’s in some kind of difficult transition period.”

Klamm, himself, had never photographed much outside of his home city of Novosibirsk, where nearly 2 million people live on the banks of the Ob River in the middle of Siberia.

But in 2000, he started to visit these small towns, camera in hand. He began to ask his photographer friends, both foreign and local, to share images of simple life the rural Russian villages that dot the vast expanse from Europe to the Pacific Ocean.

And in 2009, Klamm started “Birthmarks on the Map,” a collective photo project and website that collects these images in one place.

“Life in the middle of nowhere has always been difficult,” he said. “But I see dignity in the difficulties of these people on the outskirts of our geography. Their patience and simple wisdom gives strength and hope. And this stuff is always necessary to mankind.”

Klamm wanted to fill his site with images of real Russia life, and the result is something closer to ethnography or anthropology than journalism. Klamm actually works with ethnographers who study these small communities to find untold stories.

More than 60 photographers, both award-winning professionals and hobbyists, have contributed. One photographer is a dentist with a massive collection of classic film cameras that he takes to the villages around his city, like Rossiyka, in his spare time.

Below is a small but rich sample of photographs. You can view more of them here.

A meeting of Cossacks in Nizhny Tagil, a town in the Ural Mountains.

A meeting of Cossacks in Nizhny Tagil, a town in the Ural Mountains. Fyodor Telkov, Yekaterinburg

On Trinity Day in the village of Biysk in Altai, grass and birch branches are  brought inside to decorate an Orthodox Church.

On Trinity Day in the village of Biysk in Altai, grass and birch branches are brought inside to decorate an Orthodox Church. Valeriy Klamm, Novosibirsk

An eighth-grade student plays in a pick-up soccer match with her girlfriends in the Mari El Republic between the Russian cities of Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod.

An eighth-grade student plays in a pick-up soccer match with her girlfriends in the Mari El Republic between the Russian cities of Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod. Fyodor Telkov, Yekaterinburg

A man places reindeer antlers on a shrine in the Murmansk region, a peninsula in the Arctic north of St. Petersburg where he and others keep herds of reindeer.

A man places reindeer antlers on a shrine in the Murmansk region, a peninsula in the Arctic north of St. Petersburg where he and others keep herds of reindeer. Alexander Stepanenko, Murmansk

Meyram Moldakimov takes care of a water pump facility in a village near Novosibirsk and washes under this pipe twice a week, no matter what the weather.

Meyram Moldakimov takes care of a water pump facility in a village near Novosibirsk and washes under this pipe twice a week, no matter what the weather. Valerik Klamm, Novosibirsk

A celebratory dinner for a funeral in Altai, a region that borders Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China.

A celebratory dinner for a funeral in Altai, a region that borders Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Igor Lagunov, Magnitigorsk

Swimmers enjoy a thermal spring with water that contains radon, a radioactive element. The locals revere the spring near the Mongolian border in Altai for its healing powers.

Swimmers enjoy a thermal spring with water that contains radon, a radioactive element. The locals revere the spring near the Mongolian border in Altai for its healing powers. Valeriy Klamm, Novosibirsk

A Cossack practices tricks on his horse in the Rostov region near Russia's border with Ukraine in 2010.

A Cossack practices tricks on his horse in the Rostov region near Russia’s border with Ukraine in 2010.Misha Maslennikov, Moscow

A boy named Zahar sits on an old car in a village called Rossiyka near Krasnoyarsk.

A boy named Zahar sits on an old car in a village called Rossiyka near Krasnoyarsk. Alexander Kustov, Krasnoyarsk

Over the past five years, Klamm has relied on this loose collective to build a massive collection of imagery that depicts a Russia you won’t see when you turn on the closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics this Saturday.

Grant Slater is in Siberia on a Social Expertise Exchange fellowship. He’ll be contributing to the “Birthmarks” project. You can follow along with his travels on Instagram.

A kitten loves on an old woman in the Cossack village of Velikopetrovskaya near Cheliyabinsk.

Valentine’s Day Stuff

Valentine’s Day was once better known as St. Valentine’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Valentine, a Christian holiday that commemorated one or more early saints named Valentinus. The are several martyrdom stories for the figure associated with the holiday, the most famous being that of Saint Valentine of Rome. There are many variations of this story that more or less have the same theme.

According to legend, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for performing weddings for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. While in prison, he healed the daughter of his jailer, Asterius, whom he fell in love with. Before his execution he wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell, which presumably inspired the tradition of sending cards to loved ones. While it has no historical basis — for example, soldiers were never forbidden to marry — it was nonetheless an engaging story. (Valentine’s Day is still celebrated among some Christian sects and circles.)

February 14th was was first associated with romantic love during the High Middle Ages, as first recorded in the Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer. During this time, the practice of courtly love became popular; this was a presumably chivalrous expression of love and admiration that was usually practiced in secret between members of the nobility (note that it was generally not practiced between husband and wife).

Like most holidays, it was during the Industrial Era — namely 18th-century England — that modern Valentine Day as we know it emerge. By then, it had evolved into an occasion in which people expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as “valentines”). Many of the symbols used today — such as heart-shaped outline, doves, and the figure of the winged Cupid — became popular around know. While handwritten notes were once the norm, they soon gave way to mass-produced valentines cards, which were first produced and sold in the United States in 1847 by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts (they were made of embossed paper lace).

According to a 2010 study by the U.S. Greeting Card Association (yes, that’s a real thing) approximately 190 million valentines are sent annually in the U.S., half of which are given to family members other than a husband or wife, usually to children. If you include the valentine-exchange cards made in school activities, the number goes up to 1 billion, with teachers receiving the most valentines.

As for the iconic heart shape associated with Valentine’s Day (and love in general), that too seems to have its earliest origins in the High Middle Ages, beginning in the 15th century and becoming popular in the 16th century onward. Here’s the first known depiction of the heart shape, from the mid-13th century French manuscript, Roman de la poire:

There are various theories as to the origin of the shape, none of which are definitive: hypotheses include that it’s the shape of the seed of the silphium plant, used in ancient times as an herbal contraceptive; or stylized depictions of features of the human female body, such as the female’s buttocks, pubic mound, or spread vulva.

Anyway, you all have a happy Valentine’s Day. I’ve got no significant other to spend it with, but I do have a great singles-party to enjoy, complete with a party bus and nightclub destination! :D Whatever your plans, have a great one my loyal readers.