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!


Clematis, Preparing to Bloom: Gallery 1 of 2

From The Secret History by Donna Tartt:

“If I had grown up in that house I couldn’t have loved it more, couldn’t have been more familiar with the creak of the swing, or the pattern of the clematis vines on the trellis, or the velvety swell of land as it faded to gray on the horizon, and the strip of highway visible … beyond the trees. The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood….”

From The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde:

“In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars.”

From The Writer in the Garden by Jane Garvey:

“Stick a clematis in a sunny spot with its roots shaded and it will reward you for years.”

In early February, I assembled a small gallery that included the very first signs of spring appearing in my garden: a few tiny leaves from one of my three clematis vines. Since then, the plants have suffered through and survived a week of below freezing temperatures, gotten tangled by repeated windy days, gotten soaked by long rainstorms … and yet have started producing new vines at a frenetic pace while pushing out dozens of flower buds. It will be another month, probably, before the flowers start opening; but I’m as fascinated by the vines and buds at this stage as I will be by the flowers when they bloom.

Here are fifteen closeup images from two of the plants that I bought last year. I planted them in pots after flowering season, so I haven’t seen the flowers; and the plants came with a tag that identified them only as “clematis” — so I don’t know the variety. When the flowers do bloom, I’m sure I’ll take many new shots … and possibly get some help identifying the strain.

For several of these photos, I tried to isolate bits of the vine suspended in space, and emphasize the curves and detail in the leaves and buds. I’ll post a second gallery over the weekend, of a President Clematis that has a very different appearance from this one.

Select the first image to begin a slideshow … thanks for taking a look!


Before and After: Bradford Pear, Blooming in Black and White

From Black & White Photography: The Timeless Art of Monochrome by Michael Freeman:

At the risk of oversimplifying, subtracting colour from imagery allows the other graphic elements and dynamics to increase in importance….

Colour is so integral to our experience of the world, and of imagery, that most people (and most photographers) do not separate it in their mind’s eye from everything else that is going on. In order to understand what happens when we take it away and work in monochrome, we need to know how it fits in to the total range of image qualities; also, how it differs from the other elements in its effect. [Colour] elicits subjective and emotional responses in a way that other image qualities do not…. The subjective response to colour is powerful and pervasive, and as a result, takes over viewer response to many photographs. If the colour component in an image is strong, rich, unusual, or simply noticeable, there is a good chance that it will swamp the attention….

And because colour triggers emotional responses, there is also usually an unquestioned assumption that it works on a scale of beauty, or at least attractiveness. To say “what a spectacular sunset”, or “look at how blue the water is”, or “that gray really sets off the pink”, or any of the many other common value judgments on colour, is to acknowledge that the effect of colour can be likeable — and for most people should be likeable. This gut reaction to colour is by far the most common, and in this way it stands apart from the other formal graphic elements….

There are a number of ways of subdividing the graphic components of an image, but the most generally accepted are: point, line, shape, texture, and colour. In the way that these are used and interact, there is contrast, balance, and dynamics (or vectors). Subtracting colour enhances those remaining. In practice, this means that the components and qualities most affected are the graphic ones of shape, the graphic structure of the image, and the gradation along the gray tonal scale, as well as the three-dimensional ones of volume and texture.

One Wordless Wednesday back in January, I processed and posted a series of color photos of a vintage camera; then a couple of days later, converted the images to black and white and wrote about the workflow I used. That was my first attempt at color to black-and-white conversion with Lightroom or the Nik Collection, and it was fairly easy to get the results I wanted since the color images leaned toward monochrome and the primary subject was mostly black and silver.

After posting some photos of a Bradford Pear blooming in front of my house on last week’s Wordless Wednesday, I wondered how those multi-colored images would look if I turned them into black-and-white. The budding blooms are a key image element and they vary from light green to bright white, depending on how much the blooms had opened. I wanted to see if I could create black-and-white versions that emphasized the opening blossoms, reducing — but not eliminating — background elements that provided additional context (spring!) to the images. My goal was to elevate the quality of the photos by making the blooms, regardless of whether they were opened or not, “pop” out of the image in shiny bright white.

All of my adjustments to create these images were completed in Lightroom; this time, I didn’t use any Nik Collection filters at all. I’ve been trying to better understand where the two tools overlap, when to choose one over the other, and when to use both. For these images, I converted to black and white in Lightroom — which created the flat-looking versions you can see in the middle column of the second gallery below — then made basic image adjustments (to exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks) to emphasize the blossoms and fade the backgrounds. I then worked through the individual color channels in Lightroom’s Black and White Mix panel to balance the blacks, grays, and whites in each image, mostly by adjusting green, yellow, and red channels to create that balance.

I also applied quite a bit of sharpening to the images, which, surprisingly, didn’t create any apparent distortion but helped bring out the textures, patterns, and highlights of the individual blooms — probably because the sharpening tool mainly had whites and light grays to work with. As a final step I experimented with split-toning — a Lightroom tool I haven’t used very much but want to learn more about. For these photos, I used split-toning to shift gray in the shadows from a warm to slightly cooler color, which provided the silver-white brightness I was looking for when I started this workflow.

Select the first image to view larger versions; then, if you are interested, take a look at the second gallery showing the transitions.

Below are three steps in the transition of these photos from color to black and white. The first column shows the processed color image from my original blog post; the second column shows the color image after conversion to black and white but with no other adjustments; and the last column shows the final version, with adjustments to exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks, the individual color channels, sharpening, and split-toning.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


Winter Scenes: After the Storm (Set 3 of 3)

From the essay “House-Warming” in Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau:

“The snow had already covered the ground … and surrounded me suddenly with the scenery of winter. I withdrew yet farther into my shell, and endeavored to keep a bright fire both within my house and within my breast. My employment out of doors now was to collect the dead wood in the forest, bringing it in my hands or on my shoulders, or sometimes trailing a dead pine tree under each arm to my shed. An old forest fence which had seen its best days was a great haul for me….”

“At length the winter set in in good earnest … and the wind began to howl around the house as if it had not had permission to do so till then.”

The gallery below contains the last of three sets of photos I took in the days following a snowstorm in northern New York.

The previous sets in this series are here:

Winter Scenes: After the Storm (Set 2 of 3)

Winter Scenes: After the Storm (Set 1 of 3)

Enjoy the photos!

Bye for now……………….. 🙂


Winter Scenes: After the Storm (Set 2 of 3)

From The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones by Alfred Watkins:

“The winter, with its light of low elevation, and with an absence of leaves, is by far the best season, and the lovely December day … gave an opportunity long hoped for.”

“[The] absence of leaves on trees, winter is by far the best time of year for a certain type of exploration….  Sun shining on one side and very low down is an ideal condition.”

The gallery below contains the second of three sets of photos I took in the days following a snowstorm in northern New York.

The first set in this series is here: Winter Scenes: After the Storm (Set 1 of 3).

The irresistible Ford truck partly buried in the snow made an earlier appearance on this site, in a different season, here: Before and After: Swamp Things.

Thanks for taking a look!