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Food Features Lifestyle

Kimbal Musk Is Cooking Up Innovation

Imagine spending 18 months at one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the world, and the first assignment you get after graduating is peeling potatoes in a volunteer kitchen.

But that’s only part of an unusual story that includes a near-death experience, a message from God, and a terrorist attack that led one man to a career dedicated to bringing local, sustainable food to Americans.

Then again, you wouldn’t expect anything less from someone with the last name of Musk. In this case, the tale belongs to Elon’s brother, Kimbal. While the more famous sibling is launching rockets and electric cars, Kimbal Musk is cooking up innovations in the kitchen. The former tech entrepreneur has dedicated his life to his nonprofit, Big Green, which supports sustainable farming, educating children about growing food, and expanding home, school, and community gardens.

He also owns several farm-to-table restaurants in Colorado and Chicago, with a forthcoming location in Austin, Texas. “The kitchen is truly where I have so much passion,” he said. “I love … walking into my restaurant and feeling the energy of the community.” He recently wrote a cookbook, “The Kitchen Cookbook: Cooking for Your Community,” in the hopes that everyone can experience the joy of sharing the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor; he feels that cooking a meal for someone is the ultimate act of sharing.

How he came to this point in his life is a story in itself.

Mr. Kimbal Musk with a copy of his cookbook, “The Kitchen Cookbook.” (Samira Bouaou for American Essence)

From Tech to Social Entrepreneurship

Already successful and financially secure at age 27 when he and his brother sold Zip2, the tech company they founded together, Mr. Musk decided to pursue cooking. He enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York, thinking that the experience would be an exotic endeavor. Instead, it was a lot like the high-stress cooking shows on television.

“I thought of going in and it being somewhat romantic. And it was like the movie ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ It was screaming at you, all the time, breaking you down, in a boot camp kind of mentality.” Of the 25 students who enrolled in that class, only six made it through the year-and-a-half course, he recalled.

Mr. Musk bakes a cake in New York, in 2000. (Maye Musk)

Timing is often everything in life, and this case was no different. Shortly after Mr. Musk completed his training, the 9/11 terrorist attack devastated New York. The city needed its firefighters, police, and first responders more than ever; it also needed people to cook for them as they worked around the clock in rescue and relief efforts. “It started out with me peeling potatoes, and I was there for six weeks, through the end of October.” Top chefs from around the world gathered to cook meals for the rescue workers. Eventually, Mr. Musk worked his way up to the point where he was preparing the dishes.

He enjoyed serving firefighters dishes they probably didn’t get on a regular basis, like sautéed salmon in a creamy dill sauce. During this time, he saw the effect good food had on people as he watched the exhausted, emotionally spent rescue workers renew their spirits as they ate. “We would feed them some of the best foods I think they’d ever eaten in their lives. … We were putting so much love into the food. And the color was circling back to their faces. They never stopped talking to each other. And by the end of that 45-minute break, the room would be full of energy and joy.” His immediate thought: “Wow. I can’t imagine a life without this. I have to do a restaurant.”

Mr. Musk knew that the best quality ingredients come from local growers, so around 2004, he started working with farmers to supply his first restaurant, The Kitchen in Boulder, Colorado. At about the same time, he wanted to do something to change the trend in America whereby “your average 10-year-old wouldn’t be able to tell you what a tomato looks like.” He provided financial support for school gardens, so children could learn the value and science of growing food. But he was a “checkbook philanthropist,” he said, basically letting others do the work.

Mr. Musk opened his first restaurant in Boulder, Colo., in March 2004. For the first year, he was sous-chef in the kitchen, working the line 5 to 7 days a week. (Maye Musk)

A ski slope changed all that. Along with a voice.

In 2010, Mr. Musk slid down a ski hill on an inner tube and landed on his head. He ended up with a ruptured spinal column that paralyzed the left side of his body. He thought he was going to die. While waiting for surgery, he heard a voice that led him to his current calling.

“I really had this profound voice in my head that I can only describe as God. … And it told me that I would go work on kids and food. It wasn’t specific instructions. It wasn’t like, you’re going to do school gardens, you’re going to do restaurants. It’s just kids—you’re going to help kids connect to food. And I was going to be fine.”

Surgery was successful. “I also got my movement back in my body. And the voice didn’t go away. It wasn’t like a flash of light or anything like that. It was a beautiful, clear voice.”

That experience led to the creation of more than 650 “learning gardens” in schools around the country through Big Green. Teachers can incorporate gardening into the science and math lessons that are part of their curriculum, allowing students to learn outdoors. Mr. Musk hopes that every American will eventually learn to grow food. “You’re going to get a whole new appreciation for the flavor of things, the seasons of things,” he said.

Mr. Musk teaches students at Eucalyptus Elementary School to plant a vegetable garden in preparation for Plant a Seed Day in Hawthorne, Calif., March 13, 2019. (David Mcnew/AFP/Getty Images)

The Future of Food

Mr. Musk is already seeing the trend of American farming changing toward becoming more sustainable. More farmers are embracing regenerative farming, which is designed to improve the quality and health of the soil. It’s not a new concept, as Native Americans have applied regenerative farming principles for centuries.

A farmer might plant corn and beans together: The corn provides a natural trellis for the beans, while the beans put nitrogen into the soil, which helps the corn grow. A rancher might move cattle around and let grazed land “rest” for a while. Periodically rotating the land on which crops are grown can reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides and fertilizer, on which many farms have become reliant.

While many farmers still need time to learn and adapt to these concepts—“it’s a very risk-averse community,” he said—it is catching on around the country. “It grows food better and more nutritionally. And then the farmer can also charge more for their product. So that’s a win for them, too.”

Looking toward the distant future, his vision lies with his Square Roots company, which has nothing to do with math, but focuses on growing food indoors with less energy, such as through hydroponic systems inside upcycled shipping containers. That will become useful if, say, humanity starts living on Mars. The red planet will have less sunlight and fertile ground than Earth. Technology to grow food with fewer resources “will be critical for our expansion on Mars,” he said.

Mr. Musk has ambitious plans to develop hydroponic farming for future food production on Mars. (Phynart Studio/Getty Images)

A Family Legacy

The creative spirit within the Musk family traces back to his grandfather, who moved the family from Canada to Africa in 1948. “My grandfather was a cartographer mapping Southern Africa. He mapped the Kalahari Desert, and pioneered understanding geography down there.” He tells of a unique family trip in family lore: On a single engine plane, his grandfather, his wife, and their daughter, Mr. Musk’s mother, went from South Africa to India, Indonesia, and down to Australia. Mr. Musk describes his grandfather as a real adventurer, and that the innovative spirit of the family is “in our bones. In America, that translates into being an entrepreneur, but whatever it is, it’s some sort of a pioneer breaking new ground.”

Maye Musk, mother of Mr. Musk, cooking in the Kalahari Desert, 1956. (Maye Musk)

Mr. Musk, who became an American citizen in 2004, talks about how grateful he is for this country, having lived through the apartheid era in South Africa. “My kids, I love them to death. They’ll critique America if we let them,” he said, but he often tells them, “Maybe you should try somewhere else first, before you dive in on the criticisms.”

Mr. Musk with his sister Tosca and mom Maye. (Laurie Smith)

Mr. Musk feels a need to give back to the country that has given him so much. It hit him five years ago during a family trip to the Rocky Mountains. “We were just going for a hike and spending a day in the mountains. And I just had this epiphany—that I have the American dream. I have my wife, I have a beautiful home. I’ve got wonderful kids, and built beautiful businesses that make a difference in this community.”

With reporting by Chris Lawson.

From July Issue, Volume IV

Categories
Features American Success

Entrepreneur Jamie Kern Lima Wants You To Be Unstoppable

Jamie Kern Lima is a pro at rejection—getting rejected, that is. Each time an investor or potential business partner said no, it felt like proof that her dreams were not worth it. But at her lowest moment, she realized that she could choose to celebrate those rejections instead.

With her company on the brink of bankruptcy, Ms. Kern Lima began doing research on successful entrepreneurs. “Every person I admired most, who’s built great businesses or changed the world or impacted humanity, … every single one of them has gone through so many rejections. They’re just the brave ones, willing to keep going forward anyways. And I decided to create this new definition of rejection,” she said. “I trained myself to celebrate … and go, ‘Oh, this is a reminder, I’m one of the brave ones willing to go for it. I’m not sitting on the sidelines of life, living in regret.’”

Today, she teaches others how to transcend their setbacks, drawing from her own experiences of building her cosmetics brand IT Cosmetics, which eventually got sold to L’Oreal for $1.2 billion in 2016, the French beauty behemoth’s largest acquisition at the time. Her forthcoming book to be released in February, “Worthy: How to Believe You Are Enough and Transform Your Life,” teaches concrete steps to build strong self-worth: something she believes can give people the ultimate sense of fulfillment. She wants to pass on these lessons so that people don’t miss out on valuable experiences.

(Courtesy of Jamie Kern Lima)

“What has self-doubt already cost you in your life? And go by category: in your career, in your relationships, in your joy of simply looking in the mirror? … We are worthy of love and belonging exactly as we are—not as we achieve, not as how much of the world’s definition of success we have, but exactly as we are,” she said.

What Is Self-Worth?

She illustrates the point with an anecdote. Years ago, after her company had already become successful, she had the opportunity to meet media personality Oprah Winfrey. After having lunch together, Oprah left her phone number and said to Ms. Kern Lima that she could call her anytime. But it took Ms. Kern Lima more than four years to get the courage to reach out to Oprah.

“I would tell myself stories like, once I think of the right thing to say, then I’m going to call her, or everyone probably just wants something from her, I’m going to prove I don’t need anything.” Then one day, she realized the real reason she hadn’t called her. “Deep down inside at my core, … I didn’t think I was worthy of being her friend. And so I sabotaged the opportunity,” she reflected. This was the moment she began digging deeper into the topic of self-worth.

(Courtesy of Jamie Kern Lima)

Don’t Let Mistakes Define You

Ms. Kern Lima outlines ways to reframe one’s thinking. Many people struggle with letting their past mistakes define them. “They’ve gone through past failures and rejections, and they’ve assigned a meaning to them that is so painful, they just stay stuck.” She urges people to remove that emotional association and instead look at each situation rationally. “What is the meaning we told it? What is the story we told ourselves about it? What’s actually the truth about it?” She suggests then finding a new definition to the meaning of rejection: something you must believe to be true. For Ms. Kern Lima, it was her belief that each rejection was just God’s way of protecting her from something that was not part of her destiny.

(This is a short preview of a story from the Jan. Issue, Volume 4.)

Categories
Features American Success Giving Back Kindness in Action

‘Wonder Years’ Actress Danica McKellar Wants To Inspire Goodness, Whether It’s Through Movies or Teaching Math

After a lifetime in southern California’s eternal sunshine, Danica McKellar made the move to rural Tennessee last year. It appears she’s taken a page right out of her Hallmark and Great American Family movies, which often take place in a small town filled with kindhearted people and blessed by seasonal beauty.

Since her move, the actress and producer has indeed been marveling at “the most amazing Bob Ross painting at every turn,” she said.

Ms. McKellar is widely known for playing the character of Winnie Cooper in “The Wonder Years.” The comedy-drama, which ran from 1988 to 1993, followed the highs and lows of young Kevin Arnold (played by Fred Savage). Set in suburban, middle-class America in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the series, and the messy and complex affairs of the heart it depicted, kept viewers coming back episode after episode. For many, their coming of age happened alongside the protagonists’—including McKellar’s character.

Etched onto the public consciousness, she became the epitome of the sweetness of first love. Late-night show host Jimmy Fallon once referred to Winnie Cooper as “the coolest girl in any TV show ever.” 

An adult Kevin Arnold narrated:

Once upon a time there was a girl I knew, who lived across the street. Brown hair, brown eyes. When she smiled, I smiled. When she cried, I cried. Every single thing that happened to me that mattered, in some way, had to do with her. That day Winnie and I promised each other that no matter what, we’d always be together. … It was the kind of promise that can only come from the hearts of the very young.”

This Christmas season, Damon Runyon and Ms. McKellar star in “A Royal Christmas Romance” on the Great American Family cable network. (Rachel Luna/Stringer/Getty Images)

Math Whiz

On-screen Winnie Cooper was smart and sweet, and because Ms. McKellar knew that young people were looking up to her character, she felt the need to live up to being a role model. 

She went on to graduate summa cum laude from UCLA with a major in mathematics, with the distinction of co-authoring a mathematical physics theorem called the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem.

In 2000, she testified before a congressional subcommittee about the importance of women in math and science. When she read that young girls’ interest and confidence in math eroded significantly by the eighth grade, even though they performed as well as boys, she reflected on her own self-doubts while in college:

No one ever told me I couldn’t do math or science; I just saw it as inaccessible and foreign. The strange thing is, at the same time that I harbored all of these self-doubts and feelings of alienation in regards to math, I was graduating high school with really good grades in math. True, I had struggled in middle school to even get a ‘C’ in math, but now I was in the top 3 percent of my high school, graduating with honors and an A+ in the highest AP Calculus course offered in the U.S.

She went on to write 11 math books for kids spanning ages 0 to 16. She knew that she had to change the stereotype about math and make it not only accessible but also cool, initially targeting girls at the middle school stage, a time when math gets harder and new social factors also come into play. Because of this, her bestselling books incorporate confidence-boosting messages.

(This is a short preview of a story from the Dec. Issue, Volume 3.)

Categories
Features

Super Bowl Champion Eric Weddle Exemplifies Humility On and Off the Field

It was called everything from a male version of a Cinderella story to the greatest comeback in American sports history. It drew even those who are most uninterested in football to their television sets. Some football fanatics even couldn’t believe what they heard.

Just three weeks before Super Bowl LVI took place in February 2022, ex-NFL safety Eric Weddle got a phone call that sounded more like the neighborhood kids asking him to come out and play. And to some extent, it was.

Only it was the Los Angeles Rams, a little stunned themselves by their underdog status as an unlikely contender in the playoffs for the highly coveted Super Bowl. The California team found itself unexpectedly without either of its safeties, and so it turned to a former teammate, who had retired two years earlier after a 13-year-long career in the NFL.

(Heather Broomhall Photography)

“The first question they asked me, is what kind of shape I was in,” recalled Weddle. He admits he is still pinching himself, several months after helping to lead the Rams to victory.

The surprise invitation would create the ultimate in second chances and also turn Weddle into an even bigger role model off the field.

Redemption

Weddle, remembered mostly for his days with the Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers, retired after the 2019 season with the LA Rams without a Super Bowl win—a reality that was tough for him, he said, but something he just had to accept.

The six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro player thus settled into life as a full-time dad. Weddle soon became busy making school lunches and driving around his son and three daughters to their litany of activities: Brooklyn, the eldest, plays volleyball and soccer; Gaige, obviously football; Kamri is involved in acrobatic dance; and then there’s Silver, whom Weddle affectionately calls “our baby monster” because she’s into everything!

Then came the phone call. After Weddle’s return was announced to the press, Rams coach Sean McVay expressed this laudatory sentiment: “If there was anybody that was going to be able to do it, it would be him.” Not only did 37-year-old Weddle suit up, but his performance was bar none, completing five tackles—with a ruptured pec to boot—in what turned out to be one extra-glorious win against the Cincinnati Bengals. His tackle of Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd during the team’s final drive deprived it of one more chance to add points to the scoreboard, leaving the Rams’ lead of 23–20 as the final score at the Super Bowl.

Weddle with his family after the Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl. (Courtesy of Eric Weddle)

Weddle was the talk of the town with his storybook comeback, headlining ESPN, CBS Sports, and every other media outlet in between.

A ball-hawking safety who led the league in interceptions and was recently placed on the 2023 ballot for College Football Hall of Fame for his early days with the Utah Utes, Weddle was back in the game, and the NFL wanted him. Who wouldn’t cave to such temptation?

Football Lessons

But to Weddle, the choice was clear. This fall, Weddle hit the field as head coach of the Broncos—that is, the Rancho Bernardo High School Broncos in San Diego, a homespun venue far removed from the million dollar NFL clubhouses that Weddle is so well-acquainted with. It’s also where his 14-year-old son is now attending school.

“I had every opportunity, but in my mind, if I’m going to be involved in football, coach anyone, why not it be with my own son,” reflected Weddle—who, by the way, also loves to cook. “This is an opportunity for me too, to be a leader in a different way to my kids and the other kids.”

Leadership, he said, sometimes means not being afraid to go against the mainstream. And he sees football, as well as other sports, as an unsung teacher of leadership—both on and off the field. “You learn so much from sports, how to treat people, how to interact, how to work through problem solving, how to communicate, how to handle adversity, and competing,” he said. “You’re also trying to beat other people at a play. Sometimes it works in your favor and sometimes it doesn’t. Are you going to quit, or are you going to keep fighting and keep pushing?”

Weddle previously played for the San Diego Chargers. Here, he’s in a game against the Buffalo Bills. (Courtesy of Eric Weddle)

And if you’re not hooked on football yet, consider Weddle’s viewpoint on how it could mend the world through example. “Every football team has a great locker room,” he said. “Race, political views, where you’re from—that all doesn’t matter, because we’re there as a team with one common goal: to win.” This world, said Weddle, could unify, if people just started acting like a team.

Weddle is also a dedicated church leader. As a stake president in the Church of Latter Day Saints, he is actively involved in church fundraisers, youth camps, and coordinating speakers for the church’s radio fireside chats. During his NFL career, it was pretty common for Weddle to seek out a church near the stadium where the team was playing to attend service before the start of a game. His faith, he said, has kept him grounded and focused on what’s most important.

And right now, that is coaching the Rancho Bernardo Broncos to a championship, something Weddle talks as passionately about as his NFL career. With a pride-filled motto of “Blue In, Blue Out,” the blue-and-white-uniformed Broncos seem just tailored for Weddle. Already well-versed on the team’s stats, Weddle already has some game strategies in mind for his new team.

Of course, he might have a little extra inspiration on hand, or that is, on his hand: a big, shiny Super Bowl ring, for one shining star.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Categories
Features National Parks The Great Outdoors

From Ashes to Beauty

Nature has always been at the forefront of photographer Colin Tyler Bogucki’s life. Growing up, he and his family lived in Outing—a small town in “Lake Country” in Northern Minnesota. Surrounded by woodland and lakes, he felt it was the perfect place to grow up. “I was outside all the time and always connected to nature,” he said. Swimming, fishing, and hunting were a few of his passions. In 1991, Tyler attended college, studying psychology. After completing his coursework in 1995, he traveled to Alaska for an internship at a counseling center, where he immediately fell in love with the untamed wilderness.

Journey to Alaska

December Sunrise, Eagle River Nature Center, Alaska. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Equipped with a Minolta point-and-shoot film camera, he drove all the way to “the last frontier” in his little Toyota pickup truck. Tyler considers that trip as the greatest journey of his life. Struck by the natural beauty and scenery, he was hit with newfound inspiration. Words flew from his pen onto paper, taking the form of elaborate poems. “And I just had to keep pulling over and writing all these lines that were coming to me as I was driving,” he said. Tyler would go on to spend many days capturing the many wonders of wildlife through pictures and poems. “I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to arrive in Anchorage—I just wanted to keep journeying because it was so inspiring,” he said.

After finishing his internship, Tyler decided to stay as a substance abuse assessment counselor. However, he was far from happy. “It just wasn’t for me,” he said. Outside of work, he would take every opportunity to practice his photography skills. It was not until a few grueling years that he decided to take the plunge and leave his job to work on his art. In 1996, after being gifted his first professional camera for Christmas—a Nikon SLR film camera—Tyler had one of his photos published in the Anchorage Daily News. Even when offered a lucrative career opportunity with the federal probation system in Alaska, Tyler instead chose to follow his heart. “I knew I was walking away from financial stability,” he admitted. “But I could not bring myself to do that work.”

Struggles and Setbacks

Tyler spent the next few years in Minnesota, juggling between bartending and manual labor jobs while honing his photography skills. Finally, in 2007, Tyler moved back to Alaska and found work in a small portrait studio where he learned portrait photography and studio lighting. “I ran that for about five or six years in the little town of Eagle River, which is where I live now,” he said. While Tyler enjoyed the skills and techniques he learned while working at the portrait studio, he primarily sees himself as “a nature and wildlife guy.” After leaving the studio in 2013, he was once again at a crossroads, battling for financial stability. He fought off many moments of regret for not going on to graduate school or seeking what he called a “professional career.” Despite many things seeming hopeless, Tyler was very grateful to be renting a small cabin on two acres of land in the woods of Alaska, located on the end of a road, with a creek running in the back of it. Tyler and his cat, Spike, lived a life that many would only dream of. In the summer, wildflowers and strawberries would grow all around the house. “There was also a deck out back where I could play my guitar and listen to the creek,” he said.

Tyler playing guitar in Akaroa, New Zealand. (Joshua Dean West)

April 22, 2013—Earth Day—Tyler was awoken to smoke alarms screaming. The cabin was on fire. “And I did everything I could. I had a couple of fire extinguishers and I started in the front,” he told me. “I emptied the extinguishers, I threw snow at it from outside. I couldn’t control it.” At some point, Tyler ran out of the back door but then attempted to go back in for his cat, who had gotten into the basement; however, a blast of smoke and heat nearly knocked him over. This was the point when it dawned on him that he would probably not be able to rescue his beloved friend. “I stood there and yelled and yelled for him,” he said, his voice breaking.

He spent the next few hours in his neighbor’s house, who had called the fire department after waking up early and witnessing the horrific event. Tyler explained that where he was living, there were no official firefighters—only volunteers. “So it was more than an hour before they were there spraying; then a tree came down, power lines came down and blocked their path so they couldn’t get near it because of the live power lines,” he said. As the fire got bigger and bigger, Tyler’s hopes became smaller. “I was at my neighbor’s, watching, thinking okay, they get here soon, maybe the house can be salvaged. Okay, maybe not. Maybe my cat can be saved, maybe not.” By the time the firefighters were done battling the fire and smoke, the cabin had been reduced to rubble. Spike had also passed away due to smoke inhalation. This event left Tyler pondering the reasons for such a catastrophe during a time when he was already experiencing so many setbacks. Today, he realizes that he had to go through this to discover his life’s true purpose.

Double rainbow, Eagle River Valley, Alaska. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Rising From the Ashes

Tyler always expressed a deep desire to travel and explore the world. He was often approached by friends asking him to accompany them on their photography travels. He would always decline. In 2012—the year before the house fire—a good friend of his from Montana invited him to explore India with him for two months. “I said, man, I’d love to join you but I can’t. I have this house, I have a cat—I can’t leave for two months,” he explained. A year later, after the house fire, Tyler was reminded of his friend’s offer and realized there was no longer anything stopping him. He had kept important documents in a file cabinet, but most of the contents in it had been destroyed in the fire—except for his passport. Firefighters found the document on top of the snow, completely intact. “I didn’t realize how significant of a sign that was until a few weeks later. I called my friend and said, well, you know, if the invite is still open, I want to join you. I want to go to Asia and India with you.”

A Bengal tiger on the trail of a tigress in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

The pair traveled to Thailand and Cambodia before spending a whole month in India photographing tigers in various national parks. Tyler considers his trip to India as an inspiring, transformational journey that allowed him a means to express himself through his photography like never before. In India, they visited four parks and only managed to spot a tiger in their third park. During this time, he found that many people on social media waited eagerly for new updates on his journey. “People were following my story with anticipation. They would learn on Facebook every day and see what happened next,” he said.

The day they had their first encounter with a tiger, Tyler said that he could almost feel it nearby. “It was like I was hunting again, waiting for something. I just had this feeling in my gut that my cat was there with me and that today was the day.” When attempting to locate tigers, one should try to listen out for any warning calls from other animals. Sure enough, the call from a nearby deer confirmed his instincts. “We drove up the road, and there was this giant male Bengal tiger right in front of the jeep,” he said. The pair of friends were ecstatic by their discovery after all their effort. By the time Tyler sat back down in the jeep, he was trembling, and his eyes were watering. “We went all this way for this reason,” he said. Tyler had brought some of his cat’s ashes to India in a little container that he carried with him inside his camera bag. The day after spotting his first tiger, he returned and left his companion’s remains in a watering hole close to where he had spotted the tiger. That same day, either through fate or a stroke of luck, he had a rare encounter with another big cat, this time a leopard.

Spotted leopard in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Before the fire, Tyler admitted that he never would have thought about traveling around the world, but “life changes really quickly.” After his trip around Asia, he spent a brief amount of time back home in Minnesota before embarking on yet another extended trip to New Zealand. There, he took part in a program designed to connect willing workers with organic farms around the country, in exchange for food and lodging. “Sometimes it’s just a home with very elaborate gardens and landscaping. Others are actual farms or wineries,” said Tyler. He noted that it was a great way to meet locals and other travelers and that none of this would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the fire.

From Hunter to Photographer

After a summer in Valdez, Tyler decided to move to Eagle River Nature Center in Alaska—close to where he had been living before—in October 2014, as a resident volunteer. He has since been living there as a resident staff member and has acquired the position of Assistant Manager. His backyard now consists of the beautiful Chugach State Park with its abundance of wildlife.

Living in Alaska and observing the wondrous wildlife caused Tyler to view animals through a different lens. Hunting with family used to be one of his favorite pastimes; however, through photographing animals, Tyler developed a new admiration for them, and a softer, more compassionate side of him was awoken. Having the opportunity to express himself through various creative outlets played a great role in this transformation. “I had an English composition writing instructor who really inspired me with poetry. And that was in high school. He had a profound influence on me,” he said. Years later, Tyler sent him copies of his poetry, and the pair stayed in touch for a brief period. After the fire, he was pleased to discover that his little book of poems, which he had worked on during his first drive up to Alaska, had remained intact. “I thought they were gone forever,” he said. “I was just so overwhelmed that I was in tears.”

Some of his first wildlife photographs took place in the late ‘90s in the vast natural plains of Alaska, particularly in Denali National Park. He was just starting to learn about composition and lighting—which were all new to him. A significant turning point for Tyler was when he traveled to Katmai National Park and Preserve in 1999 to photograph bears. “I just had a wonderful time because there was beautiful scenery and just bears all around,” he said. He loved photographing those bears and felt very connected to them. “I just gained a great appreciation and respect for them.” To this day, Tyler considers this experience pivotal in helping him establish his passion for wildlife photography. 

Alaskan brown bear looking for salmon in autumn. Eagle River Nature Center/Chugach State Park, Alaska. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Photographing wildlife helped Tyler experience a greater connection to nature than ever before. Through collecting pictures, rather than trophies, he began to appreciate nature for what it truly was. By appreciating smaller aspects of the scenery, smaller animals, and even insects, he has developed a keen interest in animal behavior, and his relationship with wildlife has only increased. “I’ve learned to read their body language, and just developed such a different appreciation for the natural world because it’s no longer just a target.” Now, he simply wishes to capture these brief magical encounters with wildlife through his photos, and share them with the rest of the world. What initially started as a hobby has blossomed into a full-time career, a passion, and a goal. “People appreciate what I do and what I share as it brings them joy, inspiration, and a sense of serenity,” he added. For this reason, exploring, creating, and sharing his photography with the world has become a central focus of Tyler’s life; it is in these moments when he truly feels he is accomplishing what he was born to do.

Male Bengal tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. Recognized by National Geographic editors and placed in the Top 10 out of nearly 12,000 images. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Tyler’s work has often been recognized in National Geographic, where he won numerous photography competitions over the years. His image of a male Bengal tiger was selected as one of the winning images in National Geographic’s “My Shot” photo contest, out of a total of 12,000 entries. His Northern Lights photography also captured the attention of the United States Postal Service and was featured in one of their commemorative stamp sheets as part of a collaborative arctic climate research project.

Sharing the Magic of Wildlife

With the successful sales of his photography prints, Tyler managed to travel again. He visited Australia for a few weeks, and then Cuba, where he provided photography tours to keen wildlife enthusiasts. This new endeavor brought Tyler newfound joy and inspiration. Traveling to different parts of the world and photographing wildlife had become his passion, so he and a photographer friend decided on creating Nat Expo Tours. According to their website, their mission is to share the amazing natural wonders of the planet while offering photo tips and techniques to touring participants. Future tours are planned to take place in three exotic locations: Iceland, Cuba, and Namibia.

The tours allowed Tyler to look inward and share his knowledge and appreciation of photography with others. “Seeing them grasp the concepts and start to understand things is a great feeling,” he said. Tyler believes the best feeling for him is when people attend the tours and come away with something that they wouldn’t have otherwise captured. “It’s just wonderful.”

Tyler photographing the Fagradalsfjall Volcano in Iceland. (Courtesy of Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Tyler enjoys exploring different creative media to express his art, with videography being his newest venture. In late 2021, he released a mini-documentary featuring the active Fagradalsfjall Volcano near Reykjavik, Iceland, during one of his photo tours. Tyler looks forward to incorporating this new form of storytelling into his art.

Tyler and his cat, Spike, in front of their cabin in 2007. (Michael Gandolfo)

Constantly on the move, traveling from one location to the next and photographing stunning wildlife while meeting people from all cultures and backgrounds, Tyler has established lasting connections with the world around him. Pursuing a career in wildlife photography has led to each day being different from the last.

Through loss and grief, he has discovered adventure. His travels have taught him more about himself and led him into discovering his true purpose in life, and while he often misses his furry companion, he believes that he was liberated from a life of fear and uncertainty to one full of excitement and creativity. “As long as I’m exploring, creating, and sharing, then I feel like I’m where I need to be,” he said. Today, he proudly displays a tattoo of Spike’s paw print on his right shoulder—a tribute to their everlasting friendship.

 

Categories
Features

Home Sweet Home in Oklahoma

Out in this part of America that is not quite the South and not quite the Ozarks, where the land is flat and the people free-spirited, Kelly and Brad Claggett are finally fulfilling their longtime dream after years of hard work.

When they first moved to this 60-acre property in Grove, Oklahoma, around 2009, Kelly recalled telling her husband that she could imagine hosting weddings and events on the bucolic grounds. “The space is beautiful and I don’t want to enjoy it on my own,” she had said, as they looked out onto a small pond.

(Jennifer Houseman)

At the time, she could sense that the property could be turned into a space that was welcoming and safe. More than a decade later, the dream has come true. In the fall of 2020, the couple opened The Local Farm to Table, allowing guests to book lunch and dinner parties on its premises, with Kelly cooking up family recipes and her takes on comfort food. Ingredients and meats are sourced locally whenever possible. Meals are always served family-style, with guests encouraged to disconnect from their phones. In a small town, word travels fast. This fall, bookings were already full through the end of the year.

As Kelly was thinking about the family members and friends who supported her and Brad throughout the years, tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m so grateful,” she said. 

(Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)
(Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)

Coming Together

Kelly grew up in Minnesota, learning to cook and bake from “very confident women” in her family who showed her the ropes, she said. It was a “traditional, generational thing” to pass on those skills. She recalls big family gatherings nearly every weekend—her grandmothers had a total of 20 children. When the family went out camping, the men hunted game and brought back the kill; then the women butchered the animal and cooked the meat over an open flame. Family dinners were boisterous affairs, with the men talking and laughing as the women prepared dishes in the kitchen and children played. Men and women performed their duties “out of love,” Kelly said, “not because it was an expectation.”

She wanted to re-create that experience for people: to provide a place where people could gather with family and loved ones and cherish their time together. In 2018, Kelly invited a group of her best friends—all who shaped her in some way—to the property for a dinner party. Brad had built two wooden tables, while Kelly strung up lights and decorated the space. They sat by the fire, drank wine, and took photos. After that, Kelly told Brad, “This is where my heart is.” But finances, schooling, and other ventures—including raising poultry and running a food truck that traveled to local events serving burgers, tacos, and other light fare—indicated that the timing wasn’t quite right yet. 

 

Melissa Hunter and the Smiths—Stefany, Reid, and Mason— provided the furniture and design for Local Farm to Table.(Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it allowed the Claggetts to reflect on what they really wanted to do with their time. During the pandemic, people were told they couldn’t be together with loved ones, and they feared social gatherings, Kelly said. She felt she needed to create “an inviting place during a super-scary time,” where “people can feel safe and enjoy each other again.”

The Local Farm to Table was thus born. 

Brad, who teaches at a local college, always wanted to create a business together with Kelly. From the time they met at 22 and 19, respectively, he was enamored with the way Kelly worked confidently around the kitchen. Nearly 18 years later, Brad is ecstatic that he can help Kelly realize her passion—while raising their 2-year-old daughter, Autumn.

“It takes sacrifice, time, persistence—as with everything,” Brad reflected. He thinks back to the years of struggling through the financial crisis, of juggling grad school and running a day care business with Kelly, of naysayers who doubted them. “You have to overcome people who are against you. … It forces you to choose to love those people too,” he said.

(Jennifer Houseman)

A Community

The Local Farm to Table started with just a dozen people gathered at the table on the Claggetts’ deck. Then, to accommodate growing demand—date nights, birthday parties, movie nights, and weddings, ranging from groups of 2 to 40 people—the couple began setting up yurts on the property. They soon outgrew the yurts too, especially as inclement weather sometimes forced them to cancel bookings. So they decided to remodel a barn that existed on the original property when Brad’s father, affectionately called “Pop” by all who know him, purchased it. Brad is excited to soon start creating new furniture in his woodworking shop for the expansion. They’re thinking of building a pavilion, possibly getting a pizza oven, and maybe setting up overnight stays on the property one day.

Kelly and Brad’s group of friends who helped make The Local Farm to Table a reality. (Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)

A group of friends and local producers make the experience possible: Brecka, who operates a kitchen store in the downtown area of Grove, supplies the tableware. Kim, who arranges flowers and Kelly says is able to know what she wants “like she’s in my brain,” Kelly said. Holly, a baker who caters special desserts for Local Farm to Table, has known Kelly for over 15 years; while Reed and Stephany, who are the contractors who helped design the space, are “like family.” There’s also an Amish friend from whom Kelly regularly buys pantry samples and gets baking tips. Small-scale farmers like Bobby Alfaro supply the meat—she swears that giving her pigs belly rubs makes the meat taste better.

(Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)

Love

It can be hard to balance work and family while running a small business. But it’s clear that the Claggetts’ love for each other keeps them going. They named their daughter after their favorite season because they got closer in the fall of 2002, while hanging out on a pumpkin farm where Brad worked at the time. They plan to name the farm on the property Autumn Acres, where they currently raise several Scottish Highland cows and a horse named Scarlet.

While reminiscing about their wedding, which took place in 2007 in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, they had an epiphany. The couple had invited a small group of family and friends to a cabin in the woods and held a party underneath a covered deck—just like the dinners they’re currently hosting. “It was exactly like this!” Kelly said, with a similar array of hodgepodge chairs. Amid the chaos of wedding day, no one went to pick up the catered food. So Kelly and Brad drove to the caterer in their wedding dress and tux. They laughed at the memory.

“We had no idea 15 years later that we’d be doing this,” Brad said. 

“We wouldn’t change a thing about it,” quipped Kelly.

(Jennifer Houseman)
Categories
Features History

A Secret Language That Helped End World War II

In war, information can be more valuable than tanks, planes, ships, or soldiers. Information sent and received without detection can mean the difference between victory and defeat, even between life and death.

Protecting information means developing elaborate codes. One code, which Native Americans developed and used, played a pivotal role in helping the United States win the Pacific front during World War II and bring the conflict to an end.

In the process, it became the only spoken code in military history never to have been deciphered.

Members of the Navajo tribe combined with the Marine Corps to create a code using the Navajo language. The Navajo Marines who employed that code became known as “Navajo Code Talkers” and participated in every Marine assault in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

The code “saved hundreds of thousands of lives and helped win the war in the Pacific,” said Peter MacDonald Sr., a 93-year-old Marine veteran and one of only four Code Talkers still living.

At Iwo Jima, six Code Talkers sent and received more than 800 messages without making a mistake.

“Were it not for the Navajos,” 5th Marine Division signals officer Major Howard Connor once said, “the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

A Spark of Genius

The idea to use Navajo came to a civil engineer in Los Angeles. Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary, grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and maintained contacts with Navajo friends. Johnston, who fought in World War I, had learned that the U.S. Army used the language spoken by the Comanche tribe for military communications during field maneuvers.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Johnston contacted the Marines and presented his idea in 1942. The Marines asked him to organize a demonstration, so Johnston chose four Navajos who were working in Los Angeles’ shipyards at the time.

The demonstration succeeded. The Navajos decoded and transmitted three lines within 20 seconds.

MacDonald Sr. with his veteran insignia. (Tom Brownold for American Essence)

So the Marines approved Johnston’s plan and recruited 29 Navajos to write a code book. But since Navajo was only spoken, not written, the authors devised an alphabet for written communication and colorful descriptions for military terms.

For example, the Code Talkers used the Navajo word for chickenhawk to describe a dive bomber.

“We had a lot of chickenhawks on the reservation,” MacDonald said. “They fly high, but when they see a raven down below, they dive real fast, and they have a nice lunch. So by using the action of the bird and the action of the airplane, we can help us memorize what those code words are.

“Code words were not very difficult to remember because they were all based on something that we’re all familiar with. All the names of different airplanes took the names of different birds that we are very familiar with on the reservation.”

Breaking New Ground

The armed forces used other Native American languages as codes during World War II, but Navajo provided several advantages. First, it remained an unwritten language. Second, only about 30 non-Navajo Americans understood the language when the program began. Third, Navajo’s grammar and syntax differ dramatically from other languages.

Though the program began in 1942, MacDonald had no idea it existed when he joined the Marines in 1944.

“It was top secret to begin with,” he said. “None of us knew that there was such a program until after we passed boot camp, combat training, and communication school. Only after that were we then introduced to a very private, top secret, confidential, Navajo code school.”

At that school, instructors who served overseas taught the students how to use and pronounce code words, how to use the new alphabet, how to write legibly on a special tablet for the code, and how to practice their new skills.

Working Under Fire

The Code Talkers who graduated became as indispensable as rifles or mess kits.

“Every ship used in the landing—battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, aircraft carriers—all had Navajo Code Talkers along with the English [language] network guys,” MacDonald said. “Every Marine air wing, Marine tank unit, and Marine artillery unit also had Navajo Code Talkers assigned to them.”

So how did the whole system work under fire?

“There are two tables [where Marines worked], one for the Navajo communication network, a second table for the English communication network,” MacDonald said. “As soon as the first shot is fired, messages are coming in Navajo as well as in English. All Navajo messages are received by Navajo Code Talkers.

“The message comes in, you write it down in English, and hand it over your shoulder to the runner standing behind us. He takes it up to the bridge and gives it to the general or the admiral. He reads it, he answers, and the runner brings it back down to us.”

The runner had his own special way to determine a communication’s importance.

“If he says ‘Nevada,’ ‘New Mexico,’ or ‘Arizona,’ we send a message back out in Navajo code,” indicating the message was important, MacDonald said. “If there is a top secret or confidential message that needs to be sent to another unit or another location, it’s given to a Navajo Code Talker.”

By the time World War II ended, more than 400 Marines served as Navajo Code Talkers. Their secret vocabulary grew from 260 code words used during Guadalcanal, the Code Talkers’ first battle, to more than 600, MacDonald said.

Preserving a Legacy

Yet not until 1968, when the government declassified the program, did Americans know about the Navajo Code Talkers. Now, 80 years after serving, the surviving Code Talkers are trying to preserve their legacy for future generations.

“We have been going across the country, via invitations, to tell our story,” MacDonald said, “and we are making headway to get American people to know this legacy.”

MacDonald Sr. with his grandchildren. (Tom Brownold for American Essence)

Part of that campaign involves plans for building a museum dedicated to that legacy.

“We found that many Americans and foreign nations didn’t know anything about this unique World War II legacy,” said MacDonald, who is spearheading the project. “The museum will tell the story of who we are, our heritage, our culture, our language, and the sacrifices we’ve made like so many other peoples.”

Those sacrifices enabled the United States to help protect the world from tyrants, he added.

Joseph D’Hippolito is a freelance writer based in Fullerton, California. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Federalist, The Guardian, The New York Times, and the Jerusalem Post, among other outlets.

Categories
Arts & Letters Features

An Artistic Mission

Growing up in Salzburg, Austria, Johanna Schwaiger was constantly surrounded by beautiful art—from the city’s Baroque architecture to majestic fountains and public gardens. “I always thought the masters of these works were of a distant past, … had magical skills, and I thought if I could only learn a little bit of what they knew, I would be so happy,” she said.

Her father, an art teacher, taught her basic drawing and sculpting techniques. Working in clay gave her true joy. “It became my world to retreat to, whenever I felt I needed to escape somewhere, like Alice entering her wonderland,” she said. Today, Schwaiger has not only achieved her childhood dream of becoming a sculptor but also seeks to inspire the next generation of artists to create the kind of art that so moved her.

She came to the United States in 2017 to work with New Masters Academy, a subscription-based online tutorial platform for people to learn fine arts techniques. To begin with, she was invited to teach a sculpture tutorial on video. Today, she is the academy’s program director. Similar to Netflix, people can stream videos of creative artists teaching their crafts from around the world. Even top art schools and entertainment studios, including the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Ringling College of Art and Design, and the National Sculpture Society, have signed up for courses.

A Journey

It would take some time before Schwaiger could fulfill her passion for arts education. At age 15, she enrolled in a local school for sculptors. But while the school taught wood and stone carving, she wanted to learn traditional figurative sculpture, like that of the Renaissance masters, together with training in ink drawing, clay sculpting, and bronze casting. After graduating from high school, Schwaiger searched ateliers and schools in Salzburg, Vienna, and other nearby European cities, but none taught these techniques.

Some in the arts world told Schwaiger that realism had become a thing of the past, so she decided to train herself by studying the works of old masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Schwaiger also majored in art history at the University of Salzburg, and soon picked up commissions to paint portraits and sculpt figures for churches and graveyards, but she still felt a need for more schooling. At age 26, she discovered that the Florence Academy of Art in Italy taught the traditional curriculum. After completing her training there, she returned to her high school alma mater and began teaching a course in traditional figurative art.

Schwaiger was inspired by the grace and strength exhibited by artists of classical Chinese dance. (Lux Aeterna Photography)

Schwaiger has since made it her mission to continue the lineage of the classical art tradition, through New Masters Academy, education initiatives, and her private art studio. “I try to inspire the younger generation to hone their craft and really focus on the craft as much as possible—and make them understand that if you get strong in your craft, that’s how you become free in your expression,” she said in a recent interview held at Fei Tian College in Middletown, New York, where she taught a four-week summer sculpting class.

Now 38, Schwaiger taught her Fei Tian College students human anatomy and how to draw from a live model. To her, it’s about respecting the process pioneered by the great classical artists of the Western tradition. “You need to honor the past, what the ancestors learned and what they brought out. It’s basically taking the torch and bringing the torch further. That’s what I believe in,” said Schwaiger.

Inspired by the East

In her latest project, Schwaiger took inspiration from a different culture. Several years ago, she and her husband attended a performance by Shen Yun Performing Arts, the world’s premier classical Chinese dance company. Based in New York, the company seeks to revive the 5,000 years of Chinese civilization through dance and music. Classical Chinese dance, in particular, has a lineage tracing back to imperial courts and ancient plays. Schwaiger was touched not only by the storytelling but also by the technical prowess of the dancers. “I could see that this is the kind of excellence … that artists in the past were aiming for. And it’s really moving people’s hearts with beauty, and with excellent techniques,” she said.

Schwaiger thought of capturing through sculpture the grace and strength of the dancers she saw on stage. “What amazed me so much was the variety of dance poses that the dancers can do in sync, and so the whole choreography seems to be a language that is told on stage,” she said.

Through a mutual artist friend, Schwaiger recently met Celine Ma, a 22-year-old instructor of classical Chinese dance at Northern Academy of the Arts, a private middle and high school in Middletown, New York. Together, they thought of possible poses that the figure could take on, with Ma occasionally modeling the movements. At first, Schwaiger found it challenging to translate dance, a moving art form, into the still form of sculpture—especially conveying the light, airy movements of classical Chinese dancers. “It’s a moment in time that you’re capturing, and so the pose I picked is not a resting pose. It’s more like she’s like a flower blossoming into her pose,” said Schwaiger.

The Sculpture

One of the dancer’s legs is grounded, but the rest of her body is twisted toward the viewer. Meanwhile, her extended arm is gesturing toward the sky. “I was trying to think of how plants grow. That helped me to bring that grace into the piece … like how a flower opens its petals. That’s the image I tried to keep in mind as I was sculpting this,” said Schwaiger.

Schwaiger said that she envisioned a flower blossoming while making the sculpture. (Lux Aeterna Photography)

Ma said of the hand gesture: “It’s reaching high, like giving people hope and aiming for something brighter and higher.” She was not only impressed by Schwaiger’s dedication to artistry but also thrilled to see classical Chinese dance represented in another art form. “Dancers in the past—we don’t have a lot of documented footage, and a lot of techniques are lost because there’s no way that someone is passing [them] down through thousands of years,” Ma said, noting that it was thrilling to see “a sculpture that can be everlasting.”

Through working on the sculpture project, Ma also gained a newfound understanding of how Western and Eastern arts can complement each other. And through discussing the posture of the sculpture, she became more aware of the muscles she was using while dancing, and “the beauty of the human form.”

The Role of Art in Society

Ma trained in classical Chinese dance for seven years, learning the inner meanings behind the art form. She said that the training helped her to embody values that were appreciated in ancient Chinese culture, such as self-discipline, being willing to endure hardships, and having an optimistic outlook. To master the art form, “you really have to build these values within you, and it’s something that comes with your heart,” said Ma.

Schwaiger similarly believes that artists must cultivate good values in order to create something beautiful. “The artist very much has to immerse themself with the idea of beauty to communicate it to somebody else. And if the artist is thinking of the audience, wanting the audience to connect with that beauty, the person who is looking at the art is going to feel that. So that’s why I think art has such importance for society,” she said.

She also firmly believes that art has the power to elevate people. “If you’re looking at graceful things, powerful things, it’s naturally helping you to connect with these virtues. … It’s reminding people of these qualities that you should have in yourself,” she said. That’s why she hopes to one day create public art that can inspire through beauty—whether it’s sculpture in schools, hospitals, or public squares.

Schwaiger plans to cast her dancer sculpture in bronze next, using an ancient technique known as lost-wax casting, and she hopes the sculpture can be placed in a public setting one day. With art beautifying its surrounding environment, “you like to spend time there, you’d like to sit down and be there together with others, and you feel the other people that are present—and that’s very essential for our civilization,” she said.