A Profusion of Irises: Lost Spring Edition

From The Reason For Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives by Stephen Buchmann:

With their beauty, flowers comfort us; they make us smile and ease our grief. They help us to heal and recover from losses and emotional wounds. This has always been true.”

From Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas:

“Much of what appears to be reform in our time is in fact the defense of stasis. When we see through the myths that foster this misperception, the path to genuine change will come into view. It will once again be possible to improve the world without permission slips from the powerful.”

From The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam:

Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.”

Uh … hello … is anybody out there??? All of a sudden … it’s summer!

This morning I noticed that two wall calendars in my house — one above the phone in the kitchen and one next to a bookcase in my office — were still on pages for May … which might have something to do with my-self getting sucked into the TV and watching too much news since a few days after my last post. I finally hacked my way out from inside the flat-screen this past weekend, slightly disoriented but not really confused or surprised by all that has happened. I then started wondering if I would write something that, despite inadequacies, might reflect on the moment we’re in — and decided that I would and could, but not quite yet, I’ve got some work to do first. It’s a little bit funny at times — sort of like writer’s block, or maybe that restless feeling I get when I do the same kinds of updates to my photos over and over again — to have a blog that I’ve focused almost exclusively on photography for a nearly two years, but feeling the urge to split off in other directions. Meanwhile, spring has marched on, summer’s already here … and even with afternoon humidity approaching 150% (exaggeration alert!) last week, I’ve still been spending some cooler mornings hunting down more irises, hydrangeas, lilies, and other fresh flowers making their way into the southern sun.

My adopted state of Georgia made national news a couple of weeks ago, with images and stories of long lines and day-long waits at voting locations for the twice-delayed June primary election — followed by finger-pointing and blame-slinging from people in various leadership positions who seem hard-pressed to recognize that the roles they were elected to or appointed for are supposed to mean that they’re actually responsible for doing something, not just talking about someone else doing something. Whether these failures represent intentional voter suppression or incompetent voter suppression doesn’t matter that much: the effect is to discourage and ultimately reduce voter participation, a problem getting more serious national attention in many states because of the challenges of voting during a pandemic. The fact that we’ve been here before is one of the many loops United States politics is always getting stuck in — where the only consistency we see is the conviction that problems like this are too big to be solved.

I mention this along with a polite suggestion: if you live in a U.S. state that permits you to vote by absentee ballot, it’s not too early to make sure you know how that process will work for the general election in November. I voted absentee in the Georgia’s June primary on purpose this year, because I wanted to learn the steps required. For Georgia, that included verifying that I was registered (on the Georgia My Voter Page); getting an absentee ballot request form; filling it out and submitting it by email; tracking it on the My Voter Page so I knew when it was received and that the actual ballot was mailed to me; then tracking that my completed and mailed ballot was received and accepted. Though thousands of people in several Georgia counties reported not receiving their ballot despite requesting it (which in part accounted for the long lines at polling locations), I did get mine — but with only a few days to spare before I needed to complete and return it. Check with your county government or your Secretary of State’s web site, or start with the National Conference of State Legislatures summary of states with absentee voting options. You might also try the ACLU in your state, which typically has detailed information on how voting (including absentee voting) works, what to expect, and even how to properly fill out and submit your ballot request or ballot. Also, I’ve found that Balletopedia is an excellent starting point for learning more about candidates, as it’s frequently updated with backgrounders on local and national elections.

Finally: keep an eye out for changes to voting procedures between now and the general election: despite (or because of? cynical me!) the successful primary, for example, Georgia will not automatically mail out absentee ballot requests for the November election (like it did for the primary), so I’ll need to ask for one, most likely from the same web site I mentioned above. On a personally hopeful note: despite the chaos, voting in Georgia’s June primary exceeded all previous records, pointing to a stronger (though not guaranteed) possibility that the state will flip from Republican to Democratic for the first time in nearly two decades, for the presidential election and for at least one of the two U.S. Senate seats currently held by David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Fingers crossed … and if that happens it would be historically pretty amazing.

The three galleries below feature many of the blue and purple irises from my spring photo-shoots, and may possibly contain a subliminal message about who you might vote for later this year. 🙂

The previous posts in this series are:

A Profusion of Irises: Backlit Blooms

A Profusion of Irises: Sun-Kissed Shades of Orange

A Profusion of Irises: White Blooms on Black Backgrounds

A Profusion of Irises: Black (Iris) Friday!

A Profusion of Irises: Iris No. 1

Thanks for taking a look!


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!