“It is more and more evident, I think, that Nature adapts her gifts, not simply to the necessities, but more largely to the desires, of her creatures. The force and influence of that intense desire — more intense because usually each animal has but one — we have not yet learned to measure…. The owl has a silent wing, not simply because he needs it — for his need is no greater than that of the hawk, who has no silent wing — but, more probably, because of his whole-hearted desire for silence as he glides through the silent twilight. And so with the panther’s foot; and so with the deer’s eye, and the wolf’s nose, whose one idea of bliss is a good smell; and so with every other strongly marked gift which the wild things have won from nature, chiefly by wanting it, in the long years of their development.”
Owls have been here before — and by “here” I mean both in my back yard and on this blog — see Owl on the Prowl, where I included three pictures of their first appearance as babes over a decade ago. They sometimes visit my garden as a pair — roosting among the branches of Japanese Cypress trees that tower over my pond — and after a while I was able to differentiate one from the other, partly by their appearance and partly by their behavior. One is slightly smaller and lighter in color than the other; and that smaller one is more reticent, likely to fly off to higher branches if I approach. In the earlier post, I showed the larger owl; the photos below are the smaller one — which often hides out of sight in the treetops.
I knew an owl was visiting even before laying eyes on it: the cacophony from smaller birds in the same trees takes on a distinct sound of little flyers warning other little flyers that there’s an extra-large, possibly dangerous threat in the area. If there are enough squirrels around at the owl’s arrival, they’ll join in too; it’s almost funny how you get to know wildlife in your yard so well that you can tell when they sound alarmed. Watching through the glass door leading to my back yard, I saw three squirrels hauling-ass in multiple directions, increasing their distance while keeping their balance as they raced to the ends of thin branches them jumped to an elm tree on the property next door.
Recognizing this as the more bashful of the two Barred Owls, I took most of these pictures through the back door, or from the steps leading to my courtyard. Owls don’t do that much when they’re roosting — except to turn their head and scope out potential snacks — so the photos are a bit repetitious, I suppose. But in the last two, notice the owl’s eyes: they’ve widened a bit because I moved in closer to try for better shots … but, as I expected, off it flew without making a sound.
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…
… 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!
This absolutely gorgeous barred owl has been a regular visitor to my back yard for nearly a decade, making its debut in the summer of 2008 as a youngster. The first time I saw it, it was perched on my Japanese Maple but quickly moved to the fence separating my property from my neighbor’s after getting flashed by the camera. For the first few years, it came back often, but these were the only photos I got until it was large enough and steadfast enough to remain mostly indifferent to my presence in its adopted garden.
Fast forward a few years and here’s what the owl looked like last summer. In all but two of these photos, it’s sitting on what’s become its favorite branch on the cypress trees behind my pond. Its downcast eyes — in the first two photos — are trained on the carp in the pond, and it will watch them for hours until I either shoo it away, or it manages (though it rarely does) to snag one of the fish (which are not intended as owl-snacks!) and fly off.
I haven’t seen it yet this year, but early in the evenings for the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard it — not too far away — as its very distinctive call is unmistakeable. Hearing the call again reminded me of these photos — a couple of which appeared here in 2018 when I first started blogging again and was re-learning how to use WordPress. I went through my archives and reprocessed these thirteen photos to share with this post. I think the last one’s my favorite, and, while I did use a zoom lens to get so close in, the owl was only about ten feet away: we’ve gotten used to each other, and it no longer soars off when I walk toward it with the camera. I expect I’ll get a chance to pose it in a new photo-shoot within the next few weeks.
“Photographs led me to cameras, and over the years the camera became an object I could think with. I could think about light and shadow, about composing the frame, and about what it meant to live in a certain way, to make decisions at many levels, and to document the world.” — from the essay “Salvaged Photographs” by Glorianna Davenport in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, edited by Sherry Turkle
One of the reasons I’ve always liked photography – and why I’m often drawn to closeup or macro photography – is that viewing the world through a camera creates an opportunity to focus on sights that might otherwise remain unseen. Looking through the camera restricts my view to what fits within the frame, letting distractions fall away, and that remains true if I zoom in or out, or pan horizontally or vertically: what I see through the lens becomes what I choose to see at that moment, and most of what’s outside the frame slides from awareness as I make those choices. I might add to or subtract from that view by manipulating the camera or the lens; but when I take the photo, I’ve selected something that’s captured my interest, or struck me as aesthetically pleasing, or has frozen an instant of time that seems to matter subjectively.
After taking the shots, what I do with them now includes a set of additional (and for me, recently learned) choices that give me the chance to further refine the images toward this deceptively simple idea: this is what I saw and this is what I want to show you.
I assembled the gallery of images below from those I’ve been working on for my Flickr Reboot project; they were all taken at Point Au Roche Interpretive Center or near the city of Plattsburgh in northern New York. While I’ve been posting quite a few similar images (see Autumn Close Up: A Photo Gallery), I set these aside for a couple of reasons. First, as I was reviewing my archived photos, I had flagged every one of these (and quite a few others) to be deleted. Second, I didn’t actually delete any of them and decided to take another look once I got more experience with the tools I was learning, to see what I might do with them even though I originally thought they should be deleted. Other than being on the chopping block for a while, these images had something else in common: they were all hidden bits of autumn, subjects tucked away behind tree trunks, barely visible among shrubs, or nearly buried under fallen logs. Because they were all so hidden – and it was an overcast day as well – the exposures were pretty poor and most of the original images were very dark. I remember crawling on the ground at times to get some of these shots and was disappointed that they ended out being so badly exposed, but I kept them anyway from some vague notion that one day I would figure out what, if anything, to do with them.
With the help of new skills, I wanted to find out if I could recover each of these well enough to create an acceptable image, and simultaneously learn more about how to think about image post-processing. It can be quite a challenge to convey the thought process involved in work like this – words fail and the images help resolve the ambiguity – yet here are a few things, technically and otherwise, that I think I’ve learned:
There are limitations to what you can do with an image that is out of focus and most of the tools emphasize rather than reduce the out-of-focus condition. Yet still, if the composition and content of the image seem to matter, those tools that intentionally render the image with special effects (blur, softening, and grain, for example) may help you produce something that is creatively satisfying.
Digital cameras capture so much detail that even an under-exposed image may have embedded surprises hidden in the dark. One technique I use often is to over-adjust the image in Lightroom (setting exposure, contrast, highlights, and shadows to an upper or lower extreme) to get a look at what I might easily miss, then dial back the settings to something more subtle.
Composition and content rule. Spot removal helps eliminate distractions and shift a viewer’s focus to key elements of the image. And I’ve also seen how replacement of foreground elements (for example, removing a stray branch or stem of grass that seems to intrude on the frame) or blending colors in background elements to improve their consistency, both change the image to help direct the eye toward the intended subject. Changes like this also reduce the amount of information a viewer’s mind has to comprehend when looking at the image, something I think is especially appropriate for closeup or macro shots.
Knowing what options you will have in post-processing changes how you compose on a photo shoot. But that can be a double-edged sword and it’s a good idea to take the best image you can, regardless of what you might do with it later. It’s better, for me anyway, to think of post-processing as a way to enhance a vision or point-of-view on what I’m trying to convey, rather than assume I’ll be fixing things I did poorly while toting around the camera. This isn’t an argument against post-processing; it’s recognition that learning those techniques is as important as understanding the camera’s settings and buttons, and that the creative arc of photography extends through all the technology and tools you might use to produce your images.
The first gallery below includes my final versions of these seventeen images. The second gallery shows the before and after versions of each one, where hopefully you can see by comparison how I’ve used some of the ideas described above.