New Year’s Eve at a Zoo

Cougars and tigers and spectacled bears, oh my! The Nashville Zoo is small but fun, especially around holidays.

Nashville, Tennessee is a great place to be for the Christmas season; I’ve highlighted some of their special events in a previous post (A year of light). There’s always lots of entertainment and wonderful food to round off your experience. We travelled down there once again on December 27th, for the first time since the COVID pandemic closed borders just a few short weeks after our previous visit. Usually we go in time for Christmas, but the massive winter storm that blanketed much of North America kept us housebound for the big day, watching the snow fly past and hoping our power didn’t go out (it didn’t). By Boxing Day the entire Buffalo area was still closed and digging out, so we went through Windsor/Detroit instead. The roads were clear and dry, but hundreds of other people were doing the same as we were, making up for lost time, so the border crossing from Canada into the US was extremely busy.

Nevertheless, we made it to our cousin’s in good time, and spent New Year’s Eve with him instead. I could live in Tennessee, I think. The weather and landscape looked like late Autumn here in Ontario — lots of dried leaves on the trees and around the sidewalks, and mild temperatures that required just a light jacket. Living in Fall conditions from October to March would make me a very happy camper 😀

We tried several new restaurants during this visit. Two that really stood out were 1) Hogwood BBQ in Franklin — fabulous Colorado Sandwich (“Certified Angus Beef Brisket, fresh jalapenos, pepper jack cheese, Spicy Red Sauce, and house-made cheese sauce on a grilled potato roll”) followed by Nana’s Banana Pudding (very creamy and rich)…

and Edessa Restaurant in Nashville, almost right across from the entrance to the Zoo. It serves very delicious Turkish & Kurdish food, and is hugely popular as a result. We didn’t have to wait long to get seated though, and the staff are extremely helpful and friendly. We all had the Chicken Noodle Soup to warm up after a cooler-than-expected afternoon visit to the Zoo, and I followed with the Iskender Kabob, with shaved pieces of meat (shawarma) in a rich tomato sauce over buttered bread that soaks up the delicious juices, and thick yogurt to go with it all.

Just what we needed to fortify us for a return to the Zoo for the night-time event! We were glad we’d toured most of the zoo during daylight, though — it allowed us to orient ourselves when we went back later.

The Nashville Zoo emphasizes naturalistic habitats for its denizens. While nothing can replace the wild for the animals, so many species on our planet are critically endangered that zoos may be the last refuge for them. The section called Gibbon Island is a little slice of woody heaven for the siamangs (below) and gibbons, who were in fine singing form.

The meerkats were adorable, either digging in the dirt or sitting in their characteristic sentry pose.

The red pandas, which aren’t actually pandas, but more closely related to weasels and raccoons, were one of the prettiest creatures there…

as was a magnificent Sumatran tiger.

I think the raucous pink flamingos got the most attention, constantly following each other around their enclosure and picking fights. They weren’t bothered at all by the proximity of the visitors, even though we were able to get close enough to see their very beautiful plumage.

Paths throughout are quite lovely, and although relatively small, the zoo is a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

But at night, the grounds are completely transformed by Zoolumination, running from November 18th, 2022 to February 4, 2023. Over a thousand stunning custom-made silk ‘lanterns’ in a myriad of shapes and vignettes, light up the darkness, illustrating Chinese lore and legend.

There are illuminated signs describing each scene.

The lighted shapes are incredibly detailed and gorgeous. Here’s a close-up look at two of the cranes.

Even the wooded paths between scenes are decorated.

All the scenes are full of colour and life, glowing vividly against the darkness.

Winged tigers look you in the eye…

silken peach blossoms guide you along,

and sea creatures cavort both above and below the water of a small lake.

A massive Chinese dragon…

leads the way to a breathtaking replica of a 9th-10th century Lantern Festival in Chang ‘an, the ancient capital of the Tang Dynasty. According to the description, on Shang Yuan night, people would stroll the city, “admiring the lanterns, eating sweet rice dumplings, guessing lantern riddles, shooting off fireworks…dancing, stilt walking…and enjoying other folk performances”. Walking the path past the brilliantly-lit scenes was like stepping back in time to a glittering festival.

How wonderful it would have been to enjoy the festival live, centuries ago, amid the grace and culture of the Tang Dynasty.

Beyond the festival, our path continued into North Pole Village, where we enjoyed lovely and traditional scenes to wrap up the season.

It was a truly magical way to spend part of New Year’s Eve, especially for families. The paths are almost completely handicapped-accessible, although one rope-and-plank bridge proved to be a bit tricky for someone in a motorized wheelchair. Standard wheelchairs and motorized scooters are available to rent for a low fee on site, and although they can’t be reserved in advance, there were quite a few in stock.

The photos I’ve posted are just a small handful of all the things to see during this time at the zoo. If you’re looking for a great place to spend some of the December holidays in the future, I highly recommend Nashville. Stay at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center if you can — it’s a special holiday destination all on its own. Maybe a resolution to make for 2023 that’s going to be a lot more fun than most New Year resolutions 😉

All photos were taken by me, are posted at a lower resolution and may not be used without my express permission. E. Jurus

Working hard, so a little sharing

The month of November has almost drawn to a close, and those of us trying to produce 50,000 words of a new novel for National Novel Writing Month re writing frantically by now. This year I’m working on Book 3, the final chapter of my Chaos Roads urban fantasy/sci-fi trilogy. Even though I’m still setting up Book 1, Through the Monster-glass, for Kindle publication (soon, check back for more info!), the last part of the story is taking wonderful shape and I want to finish the month with it well along its way. For this week’s blog, then, I’m sending any interested readers over to my Author Blog, where you can read about a movie-inspired visit to Carlsbad Caverns, where some of the underground scenes in 1959’s classic A Journey to the Centre of the Earth was filmed. My hubby and I spent some time in New Mexico recently, and the Caverns were one of the highlights! I hope you enjoy reading about them, and I’ll catch up with you in two weeks. In future posts I’ll also share more of the wonders of a state that everyone, to a person, asked why we were going to visit. Oh, so many great reasons!

Cheers, Erica

3 great reasons to love Autumn

Fall colours in the Niagara Gorge October 2022

Colours, cooler temperatures and lots of leaves to crunch underfoot — these are some of my favourite things about autumn. I don’t do well in the hot and humid summers we typically get, although this year’s wasn’t bad at all, to my great relief. When the thermometer’s hitting 32 degrees Celsius or 90 Fahrenheit, and the humidity’s also that high, summer can be like walking around in a steam bath. A lot of people become ill in those summers, and I’m invariably hiding inside to avoid throbbing migraines brought on by the blazing sunshine and heat. I start to relax when Autumn sets in.

There’s something so cozy about our Autumns, snuggling into a toasty sweater or hoodie and strolling along hiking trails or through farm markets. As soon as pumpkins show up, I’m bringing home four or five in different colours to decorate our front porch, and I start cooking hearty stews and baking cakes to have with a cup of hot tea.

Southern Ontario has been blessed with glorious fall colours this year. That isn’t always the case; what’s needed are

  • cold snaps (without frost, according to experts) to tell the trees that winter’s coming and it’s time to stop producing the green chlorophyll pigment which produces energy from sunlight and settle into their dormant winter state, and
  • enough rainfall to nourish the trees so that they keep their leaves long enough for the other pigments to shine once the chlorophyll disappears.

Normally we southerners have to go farther north in our province to see such vivid colours, and in many years the leaves are all on the ground by Halloween, which is fun to walk around in but a little depressing. We’re not guaranteed such splendour, and when I was out taking these photos, a lot of other people were out making the most of the beauty as well.

This October, Mother Nature had her entire palette out.

Moving into November, the trees were about half-bare, creating a fabulous carpet of crisp fallen leaves to walk around on. It’s a simple pleasure, but a profound one, and the first few leaves on the ground every year are a harbinger of autumn pleasures.

Once the leaves start to fall, we get to appreciate the sculptural art of the plants themselves. The mottled bark of some trees…

…the colours and shapes of giant leaves as they pack up for the winter…

…ripened berries offering food for birds and animals that winter here…

…the mellower autumn sun highlighting the shapes of plants getting ready for sleep…

So for those of you who don’t have the magic of Autumn on your doorstep, I hope these images will give you a little virtual taste of it.

All photos are by me and all rights are reserved. A selection of my best photos are available for purchase in a number of formats on my site at Fine Art America.

Exploring Niagara Falls from different viewpoints

A full rainbow forms in the mists churned up by Niagara Falls

What happens when you explore in (more or less) your ‘own backyard’?

You find amazing things that have been around much longer than you thought, and new attractions that celebrate history.

Niagara Falls, the longtime honeymoon cliche that was made even more famous by two movies, Niagara (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe, and Superman II (1980), is a natural wonder that has been reinventing itself for almost 11,000 years. At that time, the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three falls in the cluster, and which forms the border between Canada and the U.S., was about six miles downstream, stretching between the towns of Queenston on the Canadian side and Lewiston on the U.S. side. and started as a small arch.

Today those falls are a large curve 2,590 feet wide, tossing 85,000 cubic feet of water over the edge every second (on average). The cities that overlook the spectacle, both named after the falls, are thriving tourist meccas, and most people who live in easy driving distance, at least on the Canadian side, tend to avoid the area in peak tourist season because the traffic slows to a crawl. On our side, the city is a mix of party town, attractions ranging from cool to cheesy, decent restaurants, and some beautiful old homes (many of which have been turned into B&Bs). The falls themselves are surrounded by hotels, eateries and casinos, so it’s hard to get a sense of what they must have looked like when their full natural beauty could be appreciated.

But, like most tourist destinations, there are ways to see the sights that are more authentic. It’s fun to walk beside the falls, watching the water churn over like gallons upon gallons of green gelatin and getting damp from the far-reaching spray, but to truly appreciate the falls you need to see them from other points of view.

One of those is the White Water Walk, a boardwalk with viewing platforms right along the edge of the Niagara River below the falls, crashing and rushing through Class 6 rapids.

From 1876 to 1934 these views were accessible by a steam-powered incline railway. In 1934 the railway was destroyed by a fire. The Niagara Parks Commission leased the land to a private company, Niagara Concessions, and this enterprise built a 230-foot elevator shaft down to the floor of the valley the river cuts through, along with a 240-foot tunnel to get closer to the river through the rainforest-like profusion of trees and ferns that line the river banks. A boardwalk was built, but was frequently damaged by the raging waters and winter ice floes. However, in the mid 1900s a weir was built above the falls to control the flow for the power plants on either side of the border, and the lowered water flow allowed for a new boardwalk to be built.

I can only say that, if the pounding water that we saw when we did the White Water Walk recently is the reduced version of the river’s flow, the original flow must have been truly ferocious.

The boardwalk runs for 1/4 of a mile and is an easy walk. Good walking shoes or sandals are all that’s needed; there’s no spray from the water to worry about.

Take time to notice the lush vegetation on the other side of the boardwalk, like a scene out of 10,000 Years B.C.

Remnants of the old boardwalks are still visible, rusted monuments to our fascination with this magical piece of nature.

But the water is the biggest attraction, as it rides roughshod over everything in its path, like a green monster on a rampage. The colour of the water is a result of the dissolved salts and powdered rock dust that fills it.

The water is mesmerizing. Allow yourself some time to just watch it leap, curl, dive and crash its way through the chasm. There are viewing platforms that jut out from the boardwalk in a couple of places, allowing you to get even closer to the river (they’re not wheelchair accessible).

It didn’t take people long to realize what a fabulous source of power the falls presented. In 1892 the Niagara Falls Power Company began construction of the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant.

It was the first large-scale alternating current generating plant in the world, Westinghouse Electric built the 5,000 horsepower generators, which were based on designs by Nikola Tesla and Benjamin Lamme, an American electrical engineer.

What a fantastic and exciting enterprise that must have been. Touring the historic power plant today gives a small idea of the mammoth amount of construction, particularly walking through the 2,200-foot long, brick-lined tunnel that discharged the used water back into the Niagara River. It was excavated by lantern-light, using only shovels, pickaxes and dynamite. The new Tunnel attraction takes you from the floor of the plant, down and down in a glass-walled elevator, past the huge pipes and turbines, to the floor of the tunnel, where you can follow a self-guided excursion all the way to the river and the edge of the Horseshoe Falls.

The tunnel is huge, at least 12 to 15 feet wide, and maybe thirty feet high (just my own estimates, I haven’t been able to find actual stats), and runs for half a mile. Imagine the massive amount of water rushing through there in the plant’s heyday. The new floor is damp from water seepage, but textured enough that it’s not slippery. Thick walls and a depth of 180 feet below ground keep the air inside quite chilly, and the walk, if you want to read all the fascinating information kiosks, is long, so don’t go in shorts and a tank top.

If you don’t rush through to get to the prize at the end, where the tunnel opens up to the roar of the falls (as we saw some people do), you’ll notice interesting things like the funky trumpet-shaped fungi growing right out of the walls.

An arch of glowing daylight marks the end of the tunnel…

…and a unique view of all three falls (Horseshoe below), as well as the intrepid boats that take poncho-shrouded, awe-struck visitors as close to the base of the thundering waters as it’s safe to go. We did the boat ride several years ago, and the power of the falls has to be seen to be believed; if you’re visiting, the ride is one thing you absolutely shouldn’t miss.

Across the river, you can watch visitors on the American side get their own close-up views from the top of the Horseshoe Falls, while rainbows form in the mists at the bottom…

…and along platforms near the base of Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls.

One could easily, if it were available, spend an entire afternoon on the viewing platform, sipping drinks at a riverside table. Unfortunately, the platform would fill up quickly that way, but you can linger as long as you want. There’s much to be seen back up in the power plant, however, if, as I am, you’re fascinated by vintage machinery and architecture. You can walk around by yourself, poking around at your leisure, or take a guided tour.

There is an excellent gift shop as well, filled with well-thought out electricity-themed goods, not kitschy tourist junk.

I also recommend that you come back at night for the new sound-and-light show, Currents, which with wonderful light effects, music and narration tells the story of water and the power it has generated at Niagara Falls for over 100 years.

The interior space of the power plant is turned into an immersive, interactive journey. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

When patterns are projected onto the floor, you can even walk and jump around to make them follow your movement (kids in the audience, and quite a few adults, really got into that). There are a handful of benches that you can sit on if you need to be more sedentary.

The falls in Niagara aren’t the only wonder to behold — people’s ingenuity at creating an enduring source of power that feeds much of Ontario and New York State, as well as innovative ways to appreciate Nature’s artistry, have highlighted the core of what makes Niagara Falls special.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved. These photos may not be reproduced without my express permission. E. Jurus

Giving our brains a much needed rest

How often do you take a break from daily life? If you’re like most North Americans, probably not very often. And yet studies were showing, long before the pandemic, that not only our bodies, but especially our brains, need some down time. How much more do we need it now, bombarded by successive waves of the pandemic and political instability around the world?

Breaks throughout the day refresh our brains. When I was working in the counselling department of a college, lunch times were sacrosanct for all the staff, and knocking on an office door when it was closed had to be backed up with a damned good reason.

In the mid 1990s, studies demonstrated that our brains demand a lot of energy – 20 percent to make our bodies run, and even more when we’re doing mental work. Is it any wonder that we so often ‘hit a wall’ before the end of the work day?

The interesting thing, though, was that even when we’re at rest, perhaps just daydreaming, there was still considerable communication going on between certain regions of the brain, which the researchers called the default mode network. That’s an interesting name, including the word ‘default’. It turns out that letting our minds to drift into this basic state allows our brain to process all kinds of information that’s been accumulated but not dealt with. When our brains aren’t occupied with external pressures, they have time to make sense of everything, order it, imagine solutions and connect all the dots.

Some of our most creative moments occur when we’re not trying to find them. As a writer, I’ve found many times over that if I’ve reached a place in my novel’s plot where I’m not sure how to address a problem or move the story from one point to the next, the answer occurs to me when I’m lying in bed, essentially day-dreaming before I fall asleep, or first thing in the morning as I’m awakening but haven’t felt like getting out of bed yet. First thing in the morning is better; last thing at night requires me to tap a quick note into my phone lest I forget, unless it’s something so brilliant that the idea carries through to the next day.

And indeed studies have shown that the default mode network is more active in more creative people, not necessarily because those people have different brains but perhaps devote more time to getting out of the way of their own minds.

Try it out the next time you feel overwhelmed, like your brain is ‘fried’. Take a break and go for a walk, without your phone. It should preferably be in nature, whether it’s a park or even a path through a garden, and un-occupy your mind. Be alone with your own thoughts, and let them flow like the breezes around you. Notice the things going on all around you, from the butterflies flitting from flower to flower to the texture of the path beneath your feet and the colour of the sky. You’ll be amazed both by how refreshed you feel afterward, and by what interesting things your mind will come up with.

When I need to decompress, I love to take walks around our extensive local botanical garden. There’s always something interesting to see in every season, and the peace and quiet are soothing within the first few minutes.

For even better breaks, go on as long a vacation as you can, and make it a complete getaway. The modern penchant for managing your entire trip through a series of apps totally defeats the purpose of getting away from it all. You can check the day’s weather, or find a restaurant, but apart from that it’s important that you put away your electronic devices and just be in the moment. Take some photos if you like to do that, but only a few of yourself. What you should be noticing is the place you’re in and all its wonders, not worrying about how good you look for a series of selfies.

One of the best vacations my hubby and I ever had was our first safari in Africa. Deep in the wilds of Botswana, we spent days bouncing along sandy roads, feeling the wind ruffle our hair and keeping our eyes peeled for the next herd of zebras or elephants, gazing into the golden eyes of a lioness lying under a bush near the road, having morning tea while we watched antelopes graze by the river while hippos snorted in the water. We’d left all our problems at home and immersed ourselves in the hot African sun and the stillness of a place without the noise of other humans. At night we fell asleep to the chirping of tree frogs, woke up to the chatter of francolin birds. It rejuvenated us after a very challenging year, made us feel alive and whole again.

When you’re standing in the magnificent ruins of ancient Machu Picchu in Peru, dazzled by the remarkable stonework somehow built on the top of a mountain surrounded by other blue-green peaks as far as the eye can see, your mind imagines what life must have been like all those hundreds of years ago, waking up with the dawn, walking along paths that overlooked the silvery Urubamba River far below, gathering food from the steep terraces just below the city and feeling the spirituality of the many sacred huaca stones all around you. You’re far, far away from the daily grind, breathing in the crisp, fresh mountain air, watching a lizard skitter across the intricately laid stones right next to you.

Taking down time is essential to our well-being. Make sure you use it well.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved.

Step away from your screen(s)

An African sunset, truly magical

Since March 2022 I’ve been a local explorer. During the autumn preceding the COVID pandemic, my hubby and I had visited Ireland, and over the December holidays we’d spent time with a relative outside Nashville, TN, so at least we had those under our belts to hold us while we waited to see how the global disease was going to play out.

Some of our friends and relatives decided to travel outside the country, bucking the requests and advice of our government; we chose to stay within our province for the greater good. So if you’ve been following this blog during that time, you’ll have seen memories from all the local adventures I’ve been embarking on. On those journeys, there has been so much history and local culture to discover, and plenty of local beauty as well. Most of my, and our, best moments have happened out and about.

We have spectacular ornamental cherry blossoms in our area each spring, but hardly anyone goes out to see them

I was intrigued to see what advice a 100-year old traveller – someone who’s reached a milestone most of us never will – would have to offer, in a recent article posted on AFAR Magazine, and wasn’t really surprised to see that it dovetails with my own philosophy.

Both Deborah Szekely and I (and most of my friends) grew up in the decades before smartphones, tablets or even the internet existed. We had no other option than to really embrace the world around us and be in the moment all the time. It was a great time to travel, sometimes by the seat of our pants, and without the benefit of GPS, online city guides, or any kind of convenient app. That meant that we had to think on our feet, pay attention to our surroundings and form our own opinions.

Now, I see all kinds of travellers with their faces buried in their screens, completely missing what’s going on around them. They base their choices on the opinions of influencers who offer no guarantee that they know what they’re talking about, and often present false fronts on their media sites. People destroy popular tourist sites so they can take a photo of themselves looking cool, thus being a general nuisance and often ruining the site for any visitors that try to come after them.

This beautiful iris in the cloud forest of Peru only blooms one day a year; exploring by myself, I was the only person in our tour group to see it

According to the article about Szekely, her philosophy is “to find our own inner peace by looking away from our screens and immersing ourselves in the beauty of the world. And sometimes, the best antidote to doom scrolling is by going on a walk—not on the treadmill, but in nature—and by focusing our awareness on the birds and other wildlife around us, we’ll find “all kinds of answers.” “ 1

Building on that, if you look through history, political clashes come and go and the human race goes on. Devastating epidemics have occurred over the centuries – the Black Death killed 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, the Spanish Flu anywhere from 17 million to possibly 100 million worldwide – and humanity survived those with far less medical advances than we have today. Many people are working hard to save species and our planet.

Things you see on the side of the road deep in the African bush: an elephant refreshing itself in the hot afternoon sun

It’s important for us to stay informed enough to remain safe, but not to drive ourselves crazy with it. Conspiracy theories count on fear to help them spread, but wouldn’t you rather feel good about life and stop worrying that everyone’s out to get you? Sure, there’s bad in the world, but there’s a lot of good also, and that’s the kind of news I want to look at.

My advice builds on what Szekely has to say: stop living your life through an electronic device. Get out and actually live! The world is still very beautiful and there are plenty of wonderful people in it. But you’ll only experience all of that when you look up. Go someplace, see what it has to offer without any preconceived ideas, and make up your own mind about it. Learn to rely on your own opinions and judgements. Travel locally or travel abroad, safely and with full awareness of where you are. And then let me know what you found 😊

Look up, look down, look all around — you’ll be amazed at what you see

All photos are by me and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

1After Living, Traveling, and Learning Her Way to 100, Deborah Szekely Has Some Advice for You, byChloe Arrojado for AFAR Magazine, May 10, 2022, www.afar.com/magazine/wellness-tips-from-100-year-old-legend-deborah-szekely