"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Dogwoods and Dog-Soccer

From 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells:

“How it became ‘dogwood‘ has to do with its edible and medicinal qualities….

Cornus sanguinea, or English dogwood, was called by John Parkinson ‘the Doggeberry tree, because the berries are not fit to be eaten, or to be given to a dogge.’ The Victorian garden writer John Loudon said that it was named because a decoction of its leaves was used to wash fleas from dogs, and L. H. Bailey said in 1922 that it was used to bathe ‘mangy dogs.’

“At different times, dogwood leaves, berries, and bark have been used to intoxicate fish, make gunpowder, soap, and dye (used to color the Turkish fez), make ink, and clean teeth…. Bark of the dogwood tree contains small amounts of quinine and ‘it is possible to ward off fevers by merely chewing the twigs’ (Bailey)….

“According to Peter Kalm, American settlers believed so strongly in the power of the dogwood that when cattle fell down for want of strength the settlers would ‘tie a branch of this tree on their neck, thinking it [would] help them.’ He does not comment on whether this helped or not, but he does say that ‘It is a pleasure to travel through the woods, so much are they beautified by the blossom of this tree.’ That, at least, is still true.”

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

“A simple game of fetch … is a dance of call and response. We enjoy the game because of the dog’s reactive readiness to respond to our actions…. Dogs participate in a kind of communion with their owners around the ball, with each responding at a conversational pace: in seconds, not hours. The dogs are acting like very cooperative humans…. As wolves hunt together collaboratively, this ability to act with others, matching their behavior, might come from their ancestry. To have your play-slap matched by a dog’s is to feel suddenly in communication with another species.

“We experience the dog’s responsiveness as expressive of a mutual understanding: we’re on this walk together; we’re playing together. Researchers who have looked at the temporal pattern of interactions with our dogs find that it is similar to the timing patterns… among soccer players as they move down the field….

“There are hidden sequences of paired behaviors that repeat in interaction: a dog looking at the owner’s face before picking up a stick, a person pointing and a dog following the point to what it’s directed. The sequences are repeated, and they are reliable, so we begin to get the feeling, over time, that there is a shared covenant of interaction between us. None of the sequences is itself profound, but none is random, and together they have a cumulative result.”

My favorite thing about dogwoods is that they’re named after dogs.

Well, not named after dogs, exactly….

Until digging around this morning, I would have thought I made that up, then was surprised to learn that there’s a nexus to dogs in the history of the name “dogwood” — see the quote at the top of this post. Take that, cats!

I took the photos in the first gallery in late March, on a lovely overcast day that helped me capture some of the tiny detail in the flower petals without excess shadows or glare. The transition from the first to the last photo in this gallery mimics my movement around the tree, from its shadier side to the side that would normally get a lot of mid-day sun.

I went back a couple of weeks later and the dogwood blooms were even jazzier, so on this sunny day I decided to try a few backlit photos for practice.

Dealing with strong sun-lighting can be a challenge for nature photography, and backlighting takes that to another level because the sun is in your eyes, and the glare affects your ability to assess the image in the camera’s viewfinder — but it also encourages (!!) you to rely on what the camera is saying about exposure, focus, and depth of field. Nevertheless, there’s a good chance some images are seriously overexposed or contain blown-out whites that can’t be recovered in post-processing — and I throw out many more backlit experiments than I keep. But there are other photos, like these, that can be corrected by reducing highlights in Lightroom through the use of multiple graduated filters over the entire image, and then making adjustments to whites, shadows, and saturation to restore the color and detail in the main subject.

These pink and red dogwood blooms were plentiful on the same day, and I used similar techniques to get adequately exposed photos at the depth of field I wanted, so that some flowers and branches on each tree were isolated from the rest.

There were dozens of birds in the dogwood trees during both of my photoshoots — as there always are at the cemetery gardens, since it’s so dense with places for such creatures to hang their feathers. Yet there aren’t any birds in my photos because… because… I suck at taking pictures of birds! Well, humbly, I can do owls pretty well, but that’s possible since they’re not too bothered by the movements of humans and they tend to pose for their photoshoots. Robins, cardinals, sparrows, finches — I see them all when I’m at the gardens, but I’ve spent so much time taking pictures of stationary (or mostly stationary) plants and flowers that I barely know how to use my camera when the subject doesn’t sit still.

I was talking to my dog about this dilemma the other day and he correctly pointed out that, like birds, he doesn’t sit still much either … and he would be happy to help me out. So one morning — after he finished his tap-dancing lessons and helping me with the laundry — we designed an experiment so I could practice moving my camera into position as an object (the dog!) came running toward me, to get a feel for how the camera responded when using auto-focus and continuous shooting to capture things that are expressing themselves with speed.

For these shots, I sat on the floor in my office and threw Soccer (we call it “Soccer” because if we call it “Ball” he searches the house for the first ball he had and still remembers (from nearly three years ago!), that was so pierced with puppy-teeth holes I had to replace it) out of the office, across the hallway, and into the living room — a distance of about seventy feet. That gave me time to pick up the camera, aim at the charging beast, and hold the shutter button down until he made it back into the office and dropped the ball for the next throw. It took me about twenty minutes to get the hang of it and to get a feel for how to handle the camera when my subject was moving (fast!) — but this series does come from a single press-and-hold of the shutter, not from individually framed and focused stills.

The focus is not great on some of these (I need more practice) and I kept the fifth photo in the series because it made me laugh — but I was intrigued by how the camera handled his movement, and how well it exposed the variations in light and shadow from the bright but distant living room, through the darker hallway, to the sunlight in my office. I did make some adjustments in Lightroom (brightening shadows, a bit of straightening, and spot-removing some dust bunnies from the floor), but they didn’t require much more post-processing than that.

Now I’m ready to try birds! or maybe a safari!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Krabappel Blooms and Cherry Blossoms

From The Quotable Krabappel: 20 Great Lines from Bart’s Beleaguered Teacher (from The Simpsons):

“[The] only way to survive a deadly blaze is…. Oh, heck. Life’s too short for fire safety! Let’s go out and pick wildflowers!”

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

“American gardens have been greatly enriched by ancient and modern Chinese horticulture. The Chinese were the first to import and develop fruit trees (cherries, pears, peaches, and plums) from Persia (now Iran) or other Mediterranean countries. These trees were imported by caravans along the famous Silk Road, extending four thousand miles from China to the Mediterranean, especially during the Han Dynasty (206 BC — AD 220). The Chinese turned these fruit and timber trees, once used to make furniture, into blossoming ornamentals….

“We have also benefited from the Chinese love of early-flowering native trees and shrubs…. It’s the Chinese who gave the world the moutan, or tree peony, flowering crab apple, daylily, camellia, and daphne as domesticated plants.”

I think I watched The Simpsons for a decade before it dawned on me that the last name of Bart Simpson’s teacher — Edna Krabappel (pronounced “kruh-bopple”) — was a play on the word “crabapple” (or “crab apple” if you prefer). Once I realized it, though, “krabappel” got stuck in my head and I could no longer refer to the tree by its proper name. “Krabappel trees”, “krabappel blossoms”, inedible krabappel apples (!!) — these terms have filled in for “crabapple” ever since. My browser just tried to set me straight, though, by actually auto-correcting “krabappel” to “crabapple” — wtf! — an obvious internet conspiracy to mess with my brain. The conspiracy has failed: the first gallery below features a series of krabappel flowers I found poking their way into spring, on a recent Oakland Cemetery gardens photo-shoot.

Like many of the residents of fictional Springfield, characters like Mrs. Krabappel — who passed away in 2013 — achieve iconic status because they’re so relatable, as reflections of real people we’ve known, or, as often, a composite blend of real people that the character represents. Mrs. Krabappel reminded me of at least three teachers I had growing up: one of unlimited energy with a boisterous laugh who taught me to love reading; one who was notorious for tossing blackboard erasers at inattentive students and eating bananas while lecturing the class; and one whose infamy matched Krabappel’s in her tendency to drink too much, drape herself over barstools at a local dive bar, and live in blissful oblivion of the reputation she had earned. Lessons learned: read as many books as you can (and laugh a lot); paying attention matters (and bananas are good for you); and live as if it doesn’t matter what people think of you (because it doesn’t).

Best of luck now referring to krabappel trees, krabappel blossoms, and krabappel fruit by their proper name, should you come across some in real life. 🙂

While I was working on post-processing the photos below, I thought they, too, were krabappel blossoms. But then I noticed that the colors didn’t seem to match, nor did the structure of the opening flowers. PlantNet to the rescue: it identified these as cherry blossoms, with a slim possibility that they’re almond tree blossoms instead. They’re definitely not krabappels.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Easter Sunday 2021: Yellow Daffodils and White Lilies

From “Ceremony for Completing a Poetry Reading” by Chrystos (Christina Smith) in When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, edited by Joy Harjo:

You’ve come gathering 
made a circle with me 
of the places I’ve wandered

I give you 
the first daffodil opening 
from earth I’ve sown.

From John Muir Ultimate Collection: Travel Memoirs, Wilderness Essays, Environmental Studies and Letters by John Muir:

The tall lilies are brought forward in all their glory … and the nearest of the trees with their whorled branches tower above you like larger lilies, and the sky seen through the garden opening seems one vast meadow of white lily stars.

Thanks for taking a look! and Happy Easter!

The Whites of March (2 of 2)

From Sacheverell Sitwell’s “Forward” to Irises: Their Culture and Selection by Gwendolyn Anley:

And now, having created the light and stillness that are needed, we will walk further and look for the first signs of the irises….

From Irises: Their Culture and Selection by Gwendolyn Anley:

There is no beauty in the world Today but had its birth in Yesterday, its cradle in the lap of Time. The modern iris with its amazing range of colour and its perfection of form is but a development of the primitive flower which graced the earth when the world was young.

There is a touch of romance in the fleeting glimpses we catch of the iris as it makes its occasional appearances in history, art and medicine down the ages. The modern botanist tells us that when we are bidden to ‘consider the lilies’ we should, in point of fact, consider the irises…. If we accept the botanist’s statement — and there is no reason why we should not do so — it is evident that two thousand years ago the iris was recognised as a type of perfection and even considered to transcend in beauty the resplendent trappings of a king….

This is the second of two posts featuring white blossoms from one of my photo-shoots at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The first post is The Whites of March (1 of 2).

There are quite a few iris varieties on the property, and while I would have expected to see plenty of unopened iris buds in March, these large whites in full-sized full bloom were a surprise. PlantNet identified this as Iris albicans — also known as a white cemetery iris, so it certainly belonged where I found it!

The dominance of so many white-bloomed flowers this March — pears, spirea, quinces, snowdrops, snowflakes, and early daffodils — prompted me to wonder whether or not white (or yellow) flowers typically bloomed earlier than others, and if so, why. Among my gardening and nature books, the question wasn’t addressed specifically, but I found this article about the phenomenon…

Why are the First Flowers of Spring Often White or Yellow?

… that explains that early seasonal pollinators are mostly flies, flies don’t detect color but do detect brightness and contrast, so many of the first spring flowers get their attention by being … bright white and bright yellow. Or, to adopt an early-bird-catching-worms metaphor: the early (white and yellow) bloom catches the flies!

As I often like to do — and this works especially well with irises because of their large blooms and petals — I used Lightroom’s brushes to remove backgrounds from a few photos of the same flowers.

Select any image to see larger versions in a slideshow (then select View Full Size if you would like to see more detail — definitely worth a look).

Thanks for taking a look!

The Whites of March (1 of 2)

From Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History by Diana Wells:

Some Asian pears, notably the Bradford pear, were cultivated in the West not for their fruit but as ornamentals. The Bradford pear was so popular it once threatened to dominate American streets, with its pyramid form, lovely fall foliage, and beautiful blossoms. It was planted everywhere, but the upright branches break easily, especially with snow on them, so it isn’t used as much now as it once was. It got the name Bradford from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s director.

From Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram:

[Meaningful] speech cannot … be restricted to the audible dimension of sounds and sighs. The animate earth expresses itself in so many other ways. Last night while I lay sleeping [the old tree] in front of the house quietly broke into blossom, and so when, in the morning and still unaware, I stepped outside to stretch my limbs, I was stunned into silence by the sudden resplendence….

The old tree was speaking to the space around it…. The whole yard was listening, transformed by the satin eloquence of the petals.

From Through the Garden Gate by Elizabeth Lawrence:

It has been more than ten years since I stood there and looked down on those white flowers growing gently among the green leaves.

In the first gallery below, I’ve isolated a few individual Bradford Pear blossoms from the hundreds that the tree in front of my house produces each year. Like Elizabeth Lawrence says in the quote above, I, too, have watched this tree for over a decade as it grew from a ten foot spray of a dozen spindly branches to a behemoth that shades half of my front yard. Bradford Pear fragility, however, is noteworthy: on this one, an telephone-pole-sized section of the tree split and slid down the trunk, then jammed against a few branches last summer — and had to be extracted with a crane by city workers. But maybe that’s what it needed; now that new branches have grown in and the short-lived blossoms have been replaced by leaves, you can’t even tell that a chunk of the tree disappeared.

These delightful little creatures are a variety of spirea, featuring delicate white flowers about a quarter inch in diameter, waving on thin branches in a mid-morning breeze.

Select any image to see larger versions in a slideshow (then select View Full Size if you would like to see more detail).

Thanks for taking a look!

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