Earlier this week, on a hot and sunny morning, I wanted to find out what I would see if I stuck my head and my macro lens into the interior of a Catawba Grapevine, behind the broad leaves and long stems twisted throughout an old iron obelisk trellis in one corner of my garden. The Catawba Grapevine is one of two I planted years ago as an experiment; the other is a Concord Grapevine, growing in a four-foot tall ceramic pot, winding up and through the bars of a fan-shaped trellis. Neither one produces grapes any more, but the Catawba has been returning every year for four years, and the Concord has grown back each spring and summer for eight years. In their first couple of years they both produced grapes, though the grapes never matured beyond the size of a pea: birds loved the tiny grapes and it was common for me to see a flurry of wings and beaks jabbing at the grape clusters until they were picked clean.
Both vines continue to grow and develop new leaves, stems, and tendrils until cooler fall weather sets in, when the leaves turn pale yellow, light orange, then brown as they begin to fall off. I looked for some of the tinier subjects to photograph; the photos below show some of the emerging leaves and the lines and curves of the tendrils as they search for places to attach. Sunlight, while very bright when I took these pictures, was filtered through the leaves, caused some harshness and clipping that I adjusted out of the photos as much as possible. At the same time, the sunlight also created some interesting background shapes and colors. Where you see a lot of white in the new leaves, that’s because they’re white on the bottom and shades of green and yellow on the top side.
The tendrils were a challenge to photograph, as the slightest breeze pushed them out of focus, and I’ll likely make another attempt at similar shots on a calmer day. The white clipping on the last photo was driving me crazy: I kept trying to de-emphasize it but couldn’t get it right without creating distracting artifacts in the image. I ended out emphasizing it instead by blurring and darkening the background, so it looks like a little flame instead of a … flameout.
These tendrils seem delicate but in reality are quite strong. The Catawba attaches itself tightly to the iron bars, and frequently latches onto the branches of Chinese fringe flower bushes that are growing nearby. I always thought it was just wind, coincidence, and a bit of stickiness that prompted the tendrils to attach to something, but I learned while researching this article that the plant follows a chemical and physiological process called thigmotropism to seek out and hook to attachment points. The tendrils can discriminate between the plant itself and other attachment points, favoring external attachments over self-attachment. This process can occur quickly: according to The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird:
“When the tendril … finds a perch, within twenty seconds it starts to curve around the object, and within the hour has wound itself so firmly it is hard to tear away. The tendril then curls itself like a corkscrew and in so doing raises the vine to itself.”
This is the second post in a series I started last week, featuring quotations from books in my library. The sections below include quotations about exploring urban landscapes on foot, the significance of stories and storytelling in our lives, and the relationships between people and their dogs.
With the guidance of John Stilgoe’s book Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, a walk through your neighborhood will never be the same. From sights as deceptively simple as changes in the material used to lay sidewalks or build fences, or as complex as the construction of streets and nearby interstates, railways, and bridges, Stilgoe illuminates elements of the landscape that you almost never notice by car and may often pass by without a second glance on foot. Embedded history is everywhere (or history is embedded everywhere), and Stilgoe can help you unearth it as you walk.
Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby includes a wide variety of essays and a wide range of topics, but story and metaphor are threaded throughout as uniting themes. The quotes from The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall highlight and echo — in a couple of short sentences about how we fictionalize our own life stories — something Solnit is also saying.
In the months before my pup Lobo came to live with me and become my writing and photography partner, I read lots of books about dogs. LOTS of books, about two dozen. The ones I liked best explore the unique nature of our relationships with dogs, and examine the science and neuroscience of how dogs think. Some of the books quoted below also discuss training a bit, but what I really gained from them (I think, I hope) was a better understanding of how to relate to my dog; that is, how to relate to the consciousness of another species that is certainly communicating with me, yet without words. Lobo’s not my first dog, but the experience of raising him from eight weeks old has been different because these books taught me to be deliberate about paying attention and about the kind of guidance I can provide as he learns and experiences so many things for the first time. Animal minds are amazing, and I didn’t realize how much until I read some of these books.
“GET OUT NOW. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people…. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run…. Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now, and seek out the resting place of a technology almost forgotten. Go outside and walk a bit … long enough to take in and record new surroundings….”
“The whole concatenation of wild and artificial things, the natural ecosystem as modified by people over the centuries, the built environment layered over layers, the eerie mix of sounds and smells and glimpses neither natural nor crafted — all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it, take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces, and above all expands any mind focused on it. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies unprogrammed awareness…. Outside lies magic.”
“Any explorer learning to look soon discovers the astounding interplay of light, shadow, and color, a gorgeous interplay that never ceases to amaze.”
“Explorers quickly learn that exploring means sharpening all the senses, especially sight.”
“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice…. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed?”
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck….”
“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.”
“Before you get a dog, you can’t quite imagine what living with one might be like; afterward, you can’t imagine living any other way.”
“Living with a dog — trying to understand a dog, to read his or her behavior and emotional state — is such a complex blend of reality and imagination, such a daily mix of hard truths and wild stabs in the dark.”
“Dogs possess a quality that’s rare among humans — the ability to make you feel valued just by being you — and it was something of a miracle to me to be on the receiving end of all that acceptance. The dog didn’t care what I looked like, or what I did for a living, or what a train wreck of a life I’d led before I got her, or what we did from day to day.”
“What a strange sensation, to look down and remember that you’re talking and interacting with an animal, a member of a different species: it drives home their otherness. The dog is not a creature who experiences communication and connection the same way I do. She is not a being with access to language or human constructs, and she is not a perfectly attuned, cleverly disguised version of a person in the backseat with a clear, knowable, or even remotely human agenda. The dog is, in fact, the dog.”
“The faces of dogs are like living, breathing, fur-covered emotions, with none of the masking and censoring made possible by the rational cortex of mature adult humans. The expressiveness of dogs gives them a direct line to the primitive and powerful emotional centers of our brains, and connects us in ways that nothing else ever could. When we look at dogs, we’re looking into a mirror. That they express happiness so well, and that happiness is contagious, is just icing on the cake.”
“[Dogs] want more than just to hang out with us; they seem to want to understand us, and to want us to understand them. They watch our faces all the time for information, just as humans do when they’re unsure of what another person is trying to communicate.”
“A dog’s desire to communicate with people fits within the bounds of a dog’s evolutionary baggage, in which pack members hunted together, raised their young together, and fought to the death to keep the group together. You can’t coordinate your efforts as a group without some kind of communication, so it’s no wonder that dogs are as obsessed with social communication as we are. But dogs’ desire and ability to communicate, and their formation of attachments, transcend species boundaries.”
“Our dogs need us to understand that they are dogs, and that they don’t come speaking English. They’re not born reading our minds or understanding what we want just because we want it. Without question, their thought processes are profoundly different from ours. We can’t, on the one hand, say that our dogs are special because, unlike us, they always live in the present, and then turn around and expect them to think like us at other times. We have to find a balance here, one that acknowledges that dogs are different from us and at the same time celebrate what we share with them. What we share, without question, is a rich emotional life.”
“All dogs are brilliant at perceiving the slightest movement that we make, and they assume that each tiny motion has meaning. So do we humans, if you think about it. Remember that minuscule turn of the head that caught your attention when you were dating? Think about how little someone’s lips have to move to change a sweet smile into a smirk. How far does an eyebrow have to rise to change the message we read from the face it’s on — a tenth of an inch?”
“So here we have two species, humans and dogs, sharing the tendencies to be highly visual, highly social, and hardwired to pay attention to how someone in our social group is moving, even if the movement is minuscule. What we don’t seem to share is this: dogs are more aware of our subtle movements than we are of our own. It makes sense if you think about it. While both dogs and humans automatically attend to the visual signals of our own species, dogs need to spend additional energy translating the signals of a foreigner. Besides, we are always expecting dogs to do what we ask of them, so they have compelling reasons to try to translate our movements and postures. But it’s very much to our own advantage to pay more attention to how we move around our dogs, and how they move around us, because whether we mean to or not, we’re always communicating with our bodies.”
“Once you learn to focus on the visual signals between you and your dog, the impact of even tiny movements will become overwhelmingly obvious.”
“Dogs, like so many non-human animals, have evolved innumerable, non-language-driven methods to communicate with one another. Human facility at communication is unquestionable. We converse with an elaborate, symbol-driven language, quite unlike anything seen in other animals. But we sometimes forget that even non-language-using creatures might be talking up a storm.”
“There are three essential behavioral means by which we maintain, and feel rewarded by, bonding with dogs. The first is contact: the touch of an animal goes far beyond the mere stimulation of nerves in the skin. The second is a greeting ritual: this celebration of encountering one another serves as recognition and acknowledgment. The third is timing: the pace of our interactions with each other is part of what can make them succeed or fail. Together, they combine to bond us irrevocably.”
“The bond changes us. Most fundamentally, it nearly instantly makes us someone who can commune with animals — with this animal, this dog. A large component of our attachment to dogs is our enjoyment of being seen by them. They have impressions of us; they see us in their eyes, they smell us. They know about us, and are poignantly and indelibly attached to us.”
This is true: I often buy plants for my garden based on how I think they’ll look in photographs.
When I saw these Landmark Citrus Lantana at a nearby garden center and knew I had a couple of open medium-sized pots on my back-yard steps, I snapped them up and gave them a good home. I figured their flowers would start opening within a few days – given that the steps get plenty of sunlight during the day – and they didn’t disappoint. The overall shape of the flower is very similar to the Chapel Hill Yellow Lantana, of course, but in addition to variations of yellow and orange colors, these flowers also show purple and magenta in the emerging and center buds, surrounded by yellow and orange petals as the flowers open.
I followed a similar process for selecting images for this post, choosing these sixteen from about 80 that I took and reviewed for adequate exposure and focus. On most of the photos, I used several Lightroom graduated filters – tools that are now among my favorites to apply during closeup and macro work. In those photos showing a single flower bud, for example, I created separate graduated filters from all four sides of the photo through to the center, adjusting exposure and reducing clarity on each of the four filters to dim and soften the background.
I then emphasized the flowers as focal points by increasing overall exposure slightly, adding a touch of light, and increasing saturation and luminance for purple, magenta, and orange to pop those colors. For some of the photos that show wide-open buds in bright yellow, I dropped yellow saturation a bit, as the yellow caught a lot of light and looked a little harsh and over-exposed with raggedy edges. The light was pretty good when I took these shots – which helped with depth-of-field and focus – but I did apply additional sharpening to give some of the flowers a bit of extra punch. As a final step before exporting the images from Lightroom, I removed a few spots where pollen on the leaves caught a sharp jab of sunlight, though there wasn’t much of that kind of spot removal to do since recent rains left the leaves sparkly clean.
Before uploading the images, I always rename them with sequence numbers at the beginning of the names (like 01-DSC04636.jpg, 02-DSC04549.jpg, etc.) so that they’re names represent the order I want them to appear in the blog post or slideshow. That way I can preview the slideshow before uploading – using Adobe Bridge or another photo viewer – simply by having the viewer display the images in file name order. This always saves me some time when creating a media gallery for the blog post, since I’ve already decided on a sequence for the slideshow images and I can easily add the images to the gallery by file name.
This slideshow is loosely arranged by similarity, and you can select any of the photos below to begin viewing larger versions. My previous lantana slideshow is here: Lantana Bonanza!