One of my favorite films growing up as a child was Disney’s The Jungle Book. Not only was this film full of animals and some pretty jazzy music (Bare Necessities never fails to bring a smile to my face), but the idea of a little boy being adopted and raised by wolves had always fascinated me. I consider wolves to be such beautiful creatures, but wary of their reputation (think of Red Riding Hood or Aesop’s Fables).
Earlier this year, we bumped into BBC’s Ingenious Animals. In Episode 3 (See a clip here), they delve into the world of animal communication. Specifically, they discuss communication amongst wolves. Previously, it had always been thought that the wolf pack was held together by the aggressive and domineering alpha male. With further research, they found that this was not necessarily the case. During experiments where they took turns removing different members from the pack, the rest of the pack would howl for their missing family member. It was discovered that the wolves would utilize a different call depending on who was missing. They realized that these calls changed depending on the closeness they felt for the missing wolf, in the same way that you would feel different if an acquaintance left the room or your best friend. Thus, this was not necessarily a top-down hierarchy in the traditional sense.
Furthermore, in experiments where they were comparing differences between wolves and domesticated dogs, they found some fascinating results. They performed experiments in which they observed the difference between how wolves share food versus dogs, thus measuring the animals’ tolerance. What they found was that dogs don’t share their food. Whoever is the alpha dog, goes in and eats everything, while the subordinate dog does not even attempt to get a bite. There’s no dinner for the underdog. In all the experiments where the wolf alpha male was released with a subordinate, the wolves always shared their food.
The reasoning behind this behavior? Dogs are scavengers and less likely to share. Wolves have always hunted in packs to bring down their prey, thus they have a need for tolerance, communication, partnership, and friendship, ensuring their success and survival. We could learn a lot from these fascinating and marvelous creatures, don’t you think?
So, why am I telling you this?
Firstly, because we cannot assume that our postulations or the knowledge we have is correct. This is something I am definitely working on :)
Secondly, because this past September we had the incredible privilege of visiting The Wolf Conservation Association in Belgium. Although almost extinct in Europe at one point in time, the wolf has slowly been making a comeback.
This association rescues wolves from private citizens, animal parks, and zoos that no longer wish to keep them. They are often mistreated and when they are no longer wanted are euthanized. It’s heartbreaking to hear of their mistreatment and that once the entertainment value dissipates many of these animals are killed. This association believes that this is not responsible behavior neither does it show love or fair treatment for the animals in question. They champion the cause of wolves by rescuing them, educating the public and making sure that these wolves live in nature or in the very least semi-natural conditions. It’s not just about the protection and preservation of the species but also of the ecosystem. They apply pressure on public authorities for changes in laws for the protection of animals in Belgium and Europe. Wolves aren’t pets.
And if you ever doubted their role within the ecosystem, take a peek at this incredible video which explains what happened to the natural environment once wolves were reintroduced at Yellowstone National Park in the USA.
Our day at the association was wonderful. We were able to see all different types of wolves from all over Europe. We even saw some beautiful Hudson Bay wolves which are native to Canada. All these were semi-wild and very wary of us.
However, we had the amazing privilege to enter into one of the massive enclosures where we were allowed to interact with two Swiss wolves (a brother and sister) that had been hand-reared and were unable to be released into the wild. It was incredible and I’ve been reliving it in my mind and heart ever since. It was like receiving the most loving greeting from your best friend or a wonderful relative you haven’t seen in years. I don’t know if it was the pregnancy hormones that endeared me to them, but I was so moved by their affection. I almost started to feel guilty, as the brother wolf barely left my side. They of course made their rounds to all the guests who had entered in the enclosure, but the brother wolf stayed with me most of the time allowing me to pet him, talk to him, and even feel the pads under his feet as he cuddled with me and sat or laid by my side. I know this wouldn’t happen in the wild and neither should it, but it made me imagine how a perfect world would be without fear. The sister wolf would of course come around, say hi, give a short cuddle, make sure she wasn’t missing anything too exciting, and then would be off on her way.
Unfortunately, time was limited within the enclosure (I think that was the fastest 35-40min ever) and we were not allowed to bring our camera equipment, but I trust that these images we captured with our phones can give you a sense of what happened.
When I think back to that day, I have tears in my eyes, because it’s what I imagine heaven would be like—no fear, only perfect peace where, “the wolf...shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion… together; and a little child shall lead them," (Isaiah 11:6).
It's a memory that I will treasure for the rest of my life. And one which encourages me to keep the discussion going on how we look at, think of, and treat our world around us whether it be how we treat each other, nature or wildlife. Please remember that when you invest in a piece of fine art with us or any product you purchase in our online shop, a percentage of all proceeds will be donated to one of three organizations whose sole mission is: wildlife and habitat conservation, offering medical care to displaced persons in war torn countries, or rescuing children from the sex trafficking industry (You can read more about it here and here).
I’ll leave you with Jane Goodall’s extraordinary words,” Let us develop respect for all living things. Let us try to replace violence and intolerance with understanding and compassion. And love.”
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Hi! My name is Mona Elisa and I’m a total #plantlady (I feel that it sounds a little better than #planthoarder).
Just a few months ago I was praising the benefits of creating and cultivating one’s own sacred space (You can read about it here). And there, in bold letters, my first tip was to reduce the clutter. I’m still on that journey, and one area where we are not making much progress is the number of plants we currently own, and the number of plants we are dreaming of incorporating in our little piece of paradise (or jungle) which we call home. I say “we” because, it’s a mutual obsession between my husband and I.
Why the big deal? I’m not quite sure. There’s something about their beauty – all the different colours, textures, shapes, smells, designs, and all the intricate details that speak volumes to us. They’re alive, they grow, and keep growing. I’m still in awe when I think of our prayer plants (maranta leuconeura) that open in the morning with the first rays of the sun, and close in the evening when we make our way to bed. You literally hear and see their lush leaves splay open and then close.
And we get so excited when one of our cacti begins to flower, or when one of the fiddleheads from our fern decides to unfurl, or when we see new shoots coming up from the ground. We marvel at the way they’ve been secretly growing underneath the earth until the day you see a tiny speck of green making its way above the surface. As each day passes it continues to grow until it’s ready to say, “Hello world! Here I am!”
It’s amazing to think that all this starts as a tiny seed or from a spore. With the right conditions and environment, anything can happen. Nature is such an incredible teacher.
We’ve been growing our very own little bud from seed. As I write this, I am 37 weeks pregnant and can hardly believe it. This process has been so surreal. At first, we doubted as we could not see any physical evidence in those first few weeks and months (except from all the morning sickness). Similarly to when you plant a seed in your garden whether it be for a flower or a delicious ripe tomato; you have faith, hope and trust that this seed will come to life in its own time and within the right conditions. And under the cover of darkness it begins to grow.
And just like the little shoots that we marvel at as we see them emerge from the soil, we have been marveling at how without much effort on our part, this baby has grown with a little faith and hope. It’s incredible how your body completely rearranges itself for this tiny human to develop in secret.
We’re excited for this new adventure!
We’ll still be running business as usual, although you may see less of us on social media for the next few months as we acclimatize to all the various changes that parenthood brings. :)
At the beginning of September, we added some beautiful fine art prints to both of our collections: Into the Tropics & Arid Flora. Please take a peek if you haven’t already done so. They are gorgeous!
We look forward to introducing you to our lil’ sapling in the coming months.
When I first started dreaming about the relaunch of Mona Elisa Fine Art Photography this year, my hope was not only to provide beautiful botanical inspired fine art, or to build an online community focused on appreciating and marvelling at the beauty of nature, but it was also essential to me that it would somehow be a conduit for good in this world.
As I contemplated on how that would look like in the beginning stages of the relaunch, I pinpointed the causes that touched my heart: wildlife and habitat conservation, and PEOPLE! Specifically, rescuing children from sex trafficking.
As I researched different NGOs and organizations, it was vital for me that the organization in question had a) principles I could stand behind, b) received a high charity rating, c) had a good reputation, and d) transparency. In my research, I bumped into Agape International Missions (AIM) and was blown away by the work that they do in Cambodia. Their mission is to prevent, rescue, restore, and reintegrate survivors of sex trafficking. One aspect that highly impressed me was that they work in conjunction with the Cambodian government and local officials to conduct investigations, perform raids, make arrests and rescue victims of sex trafficking. In 2016 alone, the AIM SWAT team successfully performed 40 raids on local brothels and rescued more than 600 people, 100 of which were children!
Image courtesy of agapewebsite.com
Once rescued, these children are sent to Restoration Homes (under 18) or Transitional Homes (18+) where they can be safe and where they are prepared for successful reintegration into society. How do they do this? By meeting their physical, psychosocial, educational, vocational and spiritual needs. A totally holistic approach. An approach that some believe, "should be scaled and replicated on a global level." (Watch Mira Sorvino talk about AIM.)
As I looked more into AIM, somehow, I couldn’t shake off this feeling that it sounded familiar. I soon discovered that a friend from high school was working as the principal at one of AIM’s schools in Cambodia! After reconnecting, and hearing about her journey, I was convinced.
So, it is with the utmost pleasure, joy, and with the deepest respect that I introduce you to Shauna Weir, who has graciously allowed me to interview her for this post to give us a behind-the-scenes look at what she does within the AIM organization.
Hello Shauna! Thank you so much for joining us here and sharing some of your experiences with us. Tell us a little bit about you and what you do.
My name is Shauna Weir, and I’m an 80’s born Canadian (yup, we will leave it at “80’s born”), who grew up in Toronto, Canada but took off to Seoul, Korea after finishing my undergraduate degree. I taught Elementary expat. students at a fabulous International School for 7 years, and during that time began learning about the world wide epidemic of human trafficking. During my time in Korea, God really grabbed ahold of my heart for this cause and began directing my path toward serving in an anti-trafficking ministry. At the same time, He also called me to complete a Masters of Education degree in Administration. I didn’t particularly see the way the two would go hand in hand until I was finishing up my degree and He guided me to apply to serve with Agape International Missions (AIM); an anti-trafficking NGO in Cambodia that needed an Elementary Principal. I have now been serving with AIM for just over a year a few kilometers outside of Phnom Penh.
For those who don’t know very much about Agape International Missions (AIM) can you tell us a little bit about the organization, and how you and your team fit within the organization?
AIM was founded on the ground in Cambodia in 1988 as a humanitarian aid and church planting organization. Since 2005, our programs have focused on ending the evil of child sexual slavery that is prevalent in Cambodia. AIM takes a holistic approach to fighting trafficking, restoring victims and transforming communities, in order to defeat trafficking. Our projects and programs Prevent, Rescue, Restore, and Reintegrate. One of our main prevention programs is our Elementary School in Svay Pak, a village that was once the worst spot in the entire country for child trafficking but continues to significantly improve. I am the Elementary Principal of this school and we exist to give the kids of Svay Pak the opportunity to receive a well-rounded education and greatly decrease their risk of being trafficked.
What do you find the most fulfilling about your life and role there? What have you found to be the most challenging, both personally and as a school?
By far the most fulfilling aspect is the people. The Khmer people are absolutely incredible and awe-inspiring. They are full of life, senses of humor and love; a true illustration of their resiliency since the Khmer Rouge. It has been an absolute honor to build relationships with so many of them this year, and to be able to pour into them the blessings that have been poured out upon me. As a school principal in Svay Pak, I have had the chance to get to know the stories of my teachers, students and the community at large, and their un-relenting attitude to keep going and hold onto hope in adversity is positively compelling. There are many challenges to serving in Cambodia, but they do pale in comparison to the blessings. Personally, the poverty, brokenness, crazy traffic and intense year-round heat tend to be the things that most drain me. It’s also a challenge to keep focused on what I would call, “the one.” That no matter how big the problems at hand may be and how many are affected by them, it's worth helping "the one" and keeping my eyes fixed on that.
Images courtesy of Shauna Weir
What are your hopes and objectives as a school?
Our objective as a school is first and foremost to provide protection and the love of Christ for all of our students. We want to provide our students a quality education with teachers who care about their well-being not only academically, but physically, emotionally and spiritually. We want these kids to experience the freedom to learn and dream without fear. Our hope is that with the education they are receiving, that they will go on to be leaders in Cambodia that stand for things that are just, true, and right.
What do you do in those moments where things don’t make sense – when you see suffering, injustice, heartbreak, and/or cruelty, etc? How do you re-center and pick up the pieces?
I’d love to say that I just take it in, swallow it, and move along with joy, but most of the time it looks more like wrestling with God as Jacob did. This past year, I’ve personally realized how crucial preventative health and self-care is in my life for combatting this. If I am not…finding pockets of time to rest and do things that fill my soul back up, those moments I experience suffering, injustice and heartbreak that don’t make sense, can quickly take over. They can create a lot of bitterness, anger, and hopelessness...I have been really blessed to receive regular encouragement from my pastor, a counselor, and some close friends who are very intentional in providing me regular reminders to stop and take care. I can only pour out from an overflow, so it’s crucial to take the time and find rest in Jesus to be filled.
This blog shares a lot about appreciating the beauty of nature, conservation, and taking care of our earthly home for ourselves and for future generations. Is there any natural wonder or place that you found that touched you deeply? Perhaps on your travels, or in the many countries where you’ve lived? And how did that natural wonder make you feel?
I could probably write pages upon pages for this question, but to keep it short, the Sea of Galilee in Israel is the first natural wonder that popped into my head that deeply touched me in a personal way. I’ve seen countless man-made wonders of the world that left me completely speechless when considering their intricacies and grandiose architecture, but nothing touched my soul like the natural wonder of the Sea of Galilee. When I was there, I was so overcome with how much of Jesus’ ministry occurred there: recruiting apostles, the Sermon on the Mount was given on the hill just overlooking the body of water, miracle upon miracle occurring directly in that sea including Jesus walking on water, calming the storm, and feeding the five thousand close by. Knowing all the powerful work Christ had done there, right by that unassuming and untouched body of water, left me with such a deep sense of peace and assurance.
What are the best ways that we can support AIM as an organization, as well as, your school, and you personally?
Pray. I know that seems like a buzzword or very cliché, but we thrive on the prayers and encouragement of friends, supporters, and churches. Also, I am personally so encouraged by letters or notes that are sent to me, as they show me that people are intentionally going out of their way to try and communicate with me and let me know that I’m not forgotten. Sometimes life in Cambodia can feel a bit lonely and isolating, and it’s such a gift to feel remembered and loved from afar. If you feel led, you can financially support our AIM programs by making a donation on our website. Your donations and generosity are what allow all of our programs to run and are so crucial to the ground work that is done here.
As I read Shauna’s words and the impact that she is making in Cambodia it reminds me again about how important it is for me to leave the space in which I inhabit on this earth (hopefully) better than the way I leave it. And how I want it to be a part of my business model, without question.
When you invest in a piece of fine art with us or any product you purchase in our online shop, a percentage of all proceeds will be donated to one of three organizations whose sole mission is: wildlife and habitat conservation, offering medical care to displaced persons in war torn countries, or rescuing children of sex trafficking. One of which is AIM and the incredible work that they do in Cambodia. You can choose who you wish the proceeds to go to at the checkout.
I encourage you to visit their website and get more acquainted with their programs, their mission, and the work they do. You can also follow them on Instagram where you can see updates and amazing rescue stories.
Whether you support AIM directly by making a donation at their website or indirectly by purchasing an item from our webstore or both, we hope to inspire you to make a difference in the lives of these children.
We had the amazing privilege to go Croatia this past May. It’s been on our bucket list the last couple of years after seeing photographs of its breathtaking landscape.
It’s funny to see how I’ve changed over the last 10 years. I had always been such a city girl, and my travels had constantly revolved around large cities with their interesting architecture, culture, busyness, and crowds of people, etc. I still have a fascination with culture, and love seeing how people live differently around the world. However, as time passes the appeal of a chaotic, rich and hectic city is lost on me. More and more, my heart feels hungry and thirsty for the beauty and stillness that nature offers, the details found in a natural landscape, and the wild and native flora.
About 130 km south of Zagreb you find Plitvice Lakes National Park close to the Bosnia and Herzegovina border in a mountainous area known as the Dinaric Alps. This mountain chain spans from Italy over Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. We spent 2 and a half glorious days there. We would arrive just before the park would open at 7AM. If you arrive the moment the park opens you have between 1 to 2 hours before people start trickling into the park. By 10AM the tourists arrive by the busloads. The park boasts 1.2 million visitors per year.
Waking up early was so worth it. We had a solid 2 hours of being completely alone to walk the trails before we would start to see other visitors. They have 7 hiking trails ranging from 18km to 3.5km. It’s a fairytale landscape of waterfalls, cascades, chutes, moss covered stones, rich forests, turquoise lakes, and winding rivers. The birds were our only companions and serenaded us each morning with their perfectly crafted songs during our hikes. Over 120 different bird species inhabit the forests of the park. Within the park, 16 pools constantly overflow one into the other, while a wooden narrow boardwalk twists and turns amidst the magnificent beauty allowing travellers to take it all in. The highest waterfall, Vikeli Slap, towers at 70 meters and is drenched in mist.
It reminded me again about the importance of marveling and the constant precious gifts that the earth bestows on us.
We also had the chance to visit Krka National Park (another wonderland of waterfalls and cascades), as well as a few cities like Split, Sibenik, and Zadar.
One of our last evenings was watching the sunset in Zadar. Zadar has what’s called a Sea Organ (Click to here to hear it!). Designed by Nikola Bašić, the sea organ is a set of stone stairs that descend into the sea. What looks like ordinary concrete steps is actually a system of pipes and whistles. As the sea pushes air through the pipes sound escapes—it’s melodic, hypnotic and a marriage between the beauty and force of nature and the artistic ingenuity of man. It’s ever changing depending on the force of the water and the direction of the wind. I mention this as I find it such a striking symbol of what man and nature can create together.
There is so much more to Croatia. We barely scratched the surface. It is truly a jewel with an incredibly rich history and culture, astonishing landscape, a warm people and some pretty delicious gelato (thanks to their Italian neighbors and Mediterranean influence). Hvala Croatia for the gift that you are!!!
Almost four years ago when we were faced with the prospect of changing our lives and moving overseas – it was an opportunity at a brand-new start. During this time of transition, I bumped into an amazing book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Although it mainly speaks about home organization and decluttering, I realized that many of the principles contained in this small book seemed to apply to other areas of my life. Not only my home, but also my mind, my thoughts and even values.
Clutter lurks everywhere. Traditionally, I had thought it was reserved for my junk drawer (you know, the drawer where you put everything you can’t be bothered to find a place for), or that section in my closet where I kept outfits that I knew I would never wear but felt too guilty to get rid of. I have discovered that clutter can be so much more than just the physical things that pile up in our lives. Negative emotions and thoughts, although invisible just as easily creep in. Even relationships, unrealistic to-do lists and obligations can undoubtedly encumber our lives. We can also have digital clutter – constant notifications from our e-mail or social media.
It’s important to create and cultivate a safe and sacred place where we can be ourselves, unwind, and find refuge from all that clutter and noise that demands our attention. To cultivate a place where we can take a break, regroup, find inspiration, encounter rest, nourish our spirits and from that place of rest reprioritize and move forward with purpose.
Here are some ideas for creating your own sacred space:
1) Reduce the Clutter
I learned how clutter affects me first hand when we moved to the Netherlands. Everything we owned was either sold or given away, and we arrived with four suitcases, and my sewing machine. For the first 5 months, we had no furniture apart from a bed, and a few items we were able to borrow from family. At first, it was challenging as it didn’t feel like our home was complete, but as time passed, the peace that came with not owning so many things and not feeling the constant need to “manage” all the things in my life was so freeing.
I learned to become a minimalist (and am still learning). Moving taught me so much about the significance of things and how we impose so much value on items that don’t have an impact on the quality of our life. I must confess, we strive to be minimalists in most things except two: food and our love of plants. :)
The Princeton University Neoroscience Institute conducted a study that found that if your environment is cluttered, it inhibits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter becomes a source of constant distraction as it competes for your attention. I can completely verify that this is and was true in my own life. Decluttering gives the gift of focus in an environment where there is so much competition for our attention.
2) Does it Spark Joy?
I take this directly from Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” This is her criteria for decluttering her life, and I love it. So often I keep things because I feel guilty or if it ceases to be functional (i.e. the item in question is broken). She writes that the, “best way to figuring out what has most value to us is to ask: Does this spark joy?”
Her reason? I’ll let her tell you in her own words: “After all, what is the point in tidying? If it’s not so that our space and the things in it can bring us happiness, then I think there is no point at all. Therefore, the best criterion for choosing what to keep and what to discard is whether keeping it will make you happy, whether it will bring you joy. Are you happy wearing clothes that don’t give pleasure? Do you feel joy when surrounded by piles of unread books that don’t touch your heart? The answer to these questions should be no. Now imagine yourself living in a space that contains only things that spark joy. Isn’t this the lifestyle you dream of? Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”
I love this philosophy and feel like it can apply to so many aspects of our lives. When have negative thoughts about ourselves or others ever brought us joy, or filled us with love? When have hurtful relationships in our lives ever brought us pleasure?
Let’s choose joy.
3) Engage your Senses
We are multi-faceted beings and are equipped with a myriad of senses to discover and process the world around us. I believe that activating those very same senses that we have used during the day to deal with our environment can also be used to help us find rest and respite from it. Our sacred space can involve all our senses and helps us find inspiration and rest. Whatever that looks like, it’s creating a space where you engage with what refuels you. Diffusing essential oils, looking at art that inspires you, listening to music that you enjoy, reading, getting outside and feeling the elements—the sunshine against your back, or the breeze against your skin, hanging out with your own tribe, movement whether that be dance, yoga or sport, expressing your creativity, working with your hands, preparing a culinary feast of tastes and flavors, etc. This obviously will look and feel different for everyone.
4) Take the Time to Rest and Marvel
This is so important and something I am constantly learning. I have to learn to stop and rest. So often, I have an unending list of things to do and tasks I am anxious to complete. I mean, I get a thrill adding something on my list that I’ve already done, just so that I can cross it out. Please, someone tell me I’m not the only who does this!!!!
My husband has been instrumental in teaching me how to rest. We’ve made a gallery wall in our living room with some of our favorite images from the Into the Tropics Collection. Most evenings, while I get my foot massage (it’s the only moment in the day where my husband can get me to sit still, LOL) I gaze at those images and marvel. I marvel at the beauty of nature, at the different tones of greens, textures, patterns, and we chat. I’ve found that looking at those photographs, and taking the time to enjoy nature truly refuels me.
Certainly, there such a different sensorial experience when I’m walking through the forest, and my senses engage with all the sounds, scents, sensations, and textures that nature provides versus gazing at my gallery wall. But life and time doesn’t always allow for forest escapes, or getaways. So, we have to cultivate our own sacred spaces that reconnect us with some of those experiences that give us peace and cause us to marvel (Read more on the importance of marvelling).
5) It’s a Process.
My friend and I have an inside joke around the word “process”. Whenever we’re sharing about life, our perspectives, frustrations, etc. and feeling impatient at the speed in which things are moving along we remind each other, “IT’S AAAAA PROOOOOOCEEEEEEEESS”. It’s in this process what we discover and rediscover who we are and what are the things that are truly important to us.
Discovering what brings us peace and relief and incorporating that in our sacred space can take time as we learn who we are outside of what we think we “should” be or outside of the definitions others have imposed on us.
What is most important is making that decision to create and cultivate a space for your own enrichment, where you nourish yourself with what sparks joy in you, engages your senses, and gives you the space to rest and marvel.