Spring 2020: Easter Sunday

From “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” in Selected Poetry of William Wordsworth:

With an eye made quiet
by the power of harmony,
and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.


From Dutch orchestra performs ‘Ode to Joy’ from self-isolation:

“Musicians in the Netherlands who are self-isolating due to the Covid-19 pandemic have recorded a virtual version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy‘. Members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra performed the Anthem of Europe from their homes. Each individual part was then added to a final mix, along with an archive recording of a choir segment. The song, part of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, has been adopted by the EU as the European anthem.” 


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The Red and the Black, and the Red-and-Black Ant

From The Red and the Black by Stendahl:

A hunter fires a gun shot in the forest, his quarry falls, he hastens forward to seize it. His foot knocks against a two-foot anthill, knocks down the dwelling place of the ants, and scatters the ants and their eggs far and wide. The most philosophic among the ants will never be able to understand that black, gigantic and terrifying body, the hunter’s boot, which suddenly invaded their home with incredible rapidity, preceded by a frightful noise, and accompanied by flashes of reddish fire.

The protagonist of Stendahl’s 1830 novel The Red and the Black speaks these words aloud toward the end of the story. He’s learned that his attempt to inject himself into the upper strata of French society — using deceit, political maneuvering, and coattail relationships to try and hide his poor background — has led to failure and, worse, it’s turned him into a hypocritical, manipulated tool of the aristocracy. His social experiment didn’t end well, in other words; and he’s left with only those kicked-down, empty-husk feelings of being somebody else’s fool.

I read the novel back in the 1990s, when I had just started working toward a degree in philosophy (a degree I later converted to history), and remembered nearly three decades later that the book contained references to ants in a pivotal bit of dialogue. The original context of the quote is cultural, a statement of the character’s failed effort to penetrate the upper crust of a society entrenched in aristocratic concrete. The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism are alleged to have swept all that concrete away, of course; but it may be more accurate to say that aristocracy has simply changed forms while using revised theories to explain itself. Unintentionally, I suspect, the quotation also expresses human anxieties about our relationship with nature, since we’ve barely progressed from acting as commanders and manipulators of nature to understanding our connections to a complex set of natural environments. Kicking out the ant’s nest — in a moment of indifference — may seem like a single, unsurprising, largely irrelevant act; but its implications (even as a social and cultural metaphor) are consequential. The natural environments we don’t understand and protect will eventually fail and take us down with them.

With the most recent weeks of head-spinning political news in the United States — which I’ve spent way too much distracted time trolling — it’s easy to overlook so many of the other stories that don’t get nearly enough attention, mostly because media coverage of the antics of our highly impeachable president and his cohorts drown them all out. Of interest here — because I like to puzzle about our place in the natural world — are the continued efforts by the current administration to roll back environmental regulations, reduce wildlife protections, and open public lands for private development. I found that the New York Times is tracking the rollback attempts — some successful, many legally challenged multiple times — here…

85 Environmental Rules Being Rolled Back Under Trump

… with links to background articles and frequently-updated information about the rollbacks. The New York Times page also references two other sites…

Harvard Law School’s Regulatory Rollback Tracker

Columbia Law School’s Climate Deregulation Tracker

… both of which provide a lot of detail on individual regulations and the impacts of reducing or eliminating them. I discovered these sites after reading about the administration’s challenge to California’s automobile emissions standards — which got me wondering what other climate and environmental regulations were being targeted for reversal. These sites are good ones to keep tabs on — because someday, somehow, someone will need to begin rolling back some of the rollbacks.

Ants, however, have their own less blatantly political concerns. Almost every late summer or early fall, I’ll see an entire colony relocating from one section of my garden to another. Most typically, the ants move from tunnels underneath a large pot or some barely visible spot in my English ivy to a location they consider more desirable. Earlier this year, I watched, fascinated, while hundreds of ants — most moving triple-file in one direction with many carrying their egg-luggage while a few sentries kept things under linear control — marched away from one side of the garden. They followed the outline of my brick courtyard, past stairs at the back door, along one of the hydrangea beds, up one side of a Japanese Maple, then down the other side of the same tree, to finally disappear beneath a thick section of ivy and into the ground.

Here are three photos of one of the ants, one that broke from the ant-pack and made its way out of the formation and up a wisteria vine:

I tried to find a music video to accompany the ant photos; you know, something like Flight of the Bumblebee, but more like March of the Ants. No luck, unfortunately; but I did find this one, a mesmerizing hour of ant motion and birdsong:


While searching YouTube, I came across this fine interpretation of the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, often referred to as the Pastoral Symphony. Beethoven wrote it as a nature study — not intending necessarily to imitate nature with music, but to express his feelings about nature in the framework of a symphony. The fifth movement follows evocation of a thunderstorm in the fourth movement, and musically represents the emergence of sunshine and peaceful feelings following the storm, combined with the appearance of birds and wildlife on the scene as clouds subsided. Even if you aren’t accustomed to listening to symphonies, give this bit a shot, and here are a few thoughts on enjoying it.

Regardless of your personal musical preferences, your appreciation of music relies, at least partly, on your memory of the melodies and how they evolve as the music progresses. For this piece, note how the melody changes at three minute-markers: 2:10, 4:00, and 7:30. Now listen again, but this time pay attention to how a few seconds of the preceding melody lead to these same three minute markers. On subsequent listenings, you can expand how much of the leading melodies you focus your attention on, resulting in a deeper understanding of what you just heard. Segregating bits of melody to hear how they relate to the rest of the performance becomes more automatic with practice, and can be swapped for following one or more instruments as their melodies travel through the piece — through a single movement, or even across the movements of an entire symphony.

I often use this trick to get accustomed to music I’m not familiar with, and it works equally well with symphonies, other forms of orchestral music, rock music, jazz, or any other kind. With vocal music — a song, a ballad, or an opera — the words tend to pull your mind forward through the music; the approach I describe here simply replaces the momentum you experience hearing the words of a ballad, for example, with focus on a snippet of melody or an instrument. The key to the trick is to let your mind latch onto something you can easily follow, then let your brain’s natural ability to organize concepts over time create an integrated musical experience.

Here is the piece:


Okay, now, just for fun, try this:

Start the first video of the birds and ants at a high volume; then start the video of the symphony — turning the volume down to about half. While playing both at the same time, you won’t hear the ant sounds that much, but — especially in softer moments of the symphony — the bird calls will come through clearly, and they’ll seem to line up with the symphony’s melodies. An audio illusion, possibly; or maybe a reflection of Beethoven’s genius: he constructed a series of melodies and rhythms that so accurately reflected an abstract feeling about nature, that they align indistinguishably with (what we think are random) natural sounds.

So … there you have it. In about a thousand words, we’ve traveled from 19th century literature, to a bit of environmentalism, to a poke at politics, to gardening and insect behavior, to classical music, then to (a version of) music appreciation. I think my work is done here for now, and autumn photo-blogging begins in earnest in a few days. Unlike last fall — when we were soaked by days of rain that quickly stripped away most of the fall color — the trees are full and only about 20% turned in my neighborhood, yet I already have about 500 photos (eeks!) to work through. Urban Atlanta has a reputation for its tree canopy (see Atlanta Tree Canopy by Trees Atlanta for a neat interactive tool), a nice sample of which you can see in this map image covering areas within walking distance of my house….

Imagine this neighborhood now, in the yellow, red, and golden orange colors of autumn!

I’m gonna need more film! 🙂

Thanks for reading!

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Quotes from My Library: Transitions

This is the third post in a series I started earlier this year, featuring quotations from books in my library.

The section below includes quotations about making life transitions — movement from any one life stage to another or to several others — as discussed in Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career by Herminia Ibarra. For me, the strength of Ibarra’s book lies not as much in its career advice as in its focus on the psychological aspects of making any transition or life change. Ibarra elaborates on how transitions occur in terms of practical experience, and how this experience will feel over time — as an exploration of “possible selves” even in the absence of an explicitly identified end result. For Ibarra, planning and introspection must take a back seat to experimentation and reframing our stories as we move toward newly defined identities.

Ibarra rounds out the book with comprehensive practical advice, and the cumulative effect of the book is to create a safer and more comfortable personal space for engaging with and working through any life transition. Highly recommended: Ibarra’s writing repays study of its substantial and unique ideas that have value well beyond what can be represented in a few quotations.


From Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career by Herminia Ibarra:

“Many of us feel a tug between well-paid, challenging, or stable jobs and the vocations we have practiced on the side, in some cases for the whole of our professional lives. Becoming a musician, a writer, an artist, a photographer, or a fashion designer at midcareer entails big personal sacrifices and typically dumbfounds the people around us, who fail to see why we don’t simply keep our passions safely on the side.”

“Since we are many selves, changing is not a process of swapping one identity for another but rather a transition process in which we reconfigure the full set of possibilities.”

“To launch ourselves anew, we need to get out of our heads. We need to act.”

“We learn who we are — in practice, not in theory — by testing reality, not by looking inside. We discover the true possibilities by doing — trying out new activities, reaching out to new groups, finding new role models, and reworking our story as we tell it to those around us.”

“During the between-identities period, we feel torn in many different directions. Although there are many moments of reflection, this is not a quiet period: A multitude of selves — old and new, desired and dreaded — are coming to the surface, noisily coexisting.”

“[No] matter where we start, our ideas for change change along the way, as we change. Where we end up often surprises us. For these reasons, as much as we would like to, we simply cannot plan and program our way into our reinvention.”

“How do we create and test possible selves? We bring them to life by doing new things, making new connections, and retelling our stories. These reinvention practices ground us in direct experience, preventing the change process from remaining too abstract. New competencies and points of view take shape as we act and, as those around us react, help us narrow the gap between the imagined possible selves that exist only in our minds and the ‘real’ alternatives that can be known only in the doing.”

“Old possible selves are always more vivid than the new: They are attached to familiar routines, to people we trust, to well-rehearsed stories. The selves that have existed only in our minds as fantasies or that are grounded only in fleeting encounters with people who captured our imagination are much fuzzier, fragile, unformed…. Whether it takes months or years, living [these] contradictions is one of the toughest tasks of transition.”

“Change takes time because we usually have to cycle through identifying and testing possibilities a few times, asking better questions with each round of tests, crafting better experiments, and building on what we have learned before…. Which self we test hardly matters; small steps like embarking on a new project or going to a night course can ignite a process that changes everything….”

“Self-creation is a lifelong journey. Only by our actions do we learn who we want to become, how best to travel, and what else will need to change to ease the way.”

“We don’t find ourselves in a blinding flash of insight, and neither do we change overnight. We learn by doing, and each new experience is part answer and part question.”

“Once you head down the path of discovery, there is no going back.”


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Quotes from My Library: Exploring, Stories, and Dogs

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.


From Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John Stilgoe:

“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.”


From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

“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.”

From The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall:

“The human imperative to make and consume stories runs even more deeply than literature, dreams, and fantasy. We are soaked to the bone in story.”

“We tell some of the best stories to ourselves. Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized.”


From Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Caroline Knapp:

“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.”

From For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend by Patricia B. McConnell:

“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.”

From The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia B. McConnell:

“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.”

From Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz:

“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.”


And now … it’s time for a quick snooze…. : )

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Quotes from My Library

Hello. This is the first in a series of posts that will feature quotations from books in my library, accompanied by a few photographs. Today’s selections have something to say about photography and gardening: as creative processes and as ways of seeing and interacting with the world.


From the introduction to The Writer in the Garden by Jane Garvey:

“It’s amazing how much time one can spend in a garden doing nothing at all. I sometimes think, in fact, that the nicest part of gardening is walking around in a daze …  wondering where on earth to squeeze in yet another impulse buy…. Of course, gardening is time-consuming, repetitive, and, at times, quite discouraging. But precisely because making a garden means constantly making choices, it offers almost limitless possibilities for surprise and satisfaction.”

“Since nothing ever really gets finished in a garden and everything is always in a state of flux, it is usually the process itself that fascinates.”

From the introduction to Macro Photography for Gardeners and Nature Lovers by Alan L. Detrick:

“For anyone who loves nature, whether admiring the flowers in a garden, watching a butterfly, or examining nature’s patterns, the desire to capture these images is as natural as taking the next breath. Macro photography is the visual portal to a world most people walk by without a glance. Plants, animals, and parts of plants and animals never before imagined enter the camera’s viewfinder. Best of all, close-up photography does not require trips to Alaska, Africa, or any other exotic locale to capture visually compelling natural images. A walk in the backyard garden or a neighborhood park can provide a wealth of material to photograph close up.”

From On Photography by Susan Sontag:

“No one would dispute that photography gave a tremendous boost to the cognitive claims of sight, because — through close-up and remote sensing — it so greatly enlarged the realm of the visible.”

Quoted in On Photography by Susan Sontag:

“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” — Garry Winogrand

“Photography is a tool for dealing with things everybody knows about but isn’t attending to. My photographs are intended to represent something you don’t see.” — Emmet Gowin


Here are three views of an ostrich fern, from my garden — views that you wouldn’t necessarily see by casual observation, but only if you took a closer look:

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