Unreal Nature

June 30, 2008

Complicating the World

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:49 am

… I always define poetry for my students as a language adequate to our experience — to our full experience, taking into account the interior valleys, the peaks, the broad plains. It gives voice to tiny thoughts, to what the Scottish poet and scholar Alastair Reid, in a lovely poem, calls “Oddments Inklings Omens Moments.” One does not hope for poetry to change the world. Auden noted when he wrote in his elegy for Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.” That is, it doesn’t shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn’t usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.

— from Why Poetry Matters   by Jay Parini

I think the above statement also applies nicely to fine art photography. Especially the last bit, ” adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.”

Two wonderfully written essays from The Sun magazine illustrate some of those complications. [ They’re not about photography but they are really good stories. I highly recommend them both. ]

First, here’s a taste of The Thousand Peso Suit   by Poe Ballantine:

My wife, Cristina, is convinced I am not happy on this so-called summer vacation in her somnolent hometown in the mountains of Zacatecas, the Colorado of Mexico. We’ve been married for three years now and have a young son, Tom. She’s thirty; I’m forty-eight. (I know, I know.) We’re staying with her parents, and this is the first time she has seen her family since I plucked her from the instituto  four blocks from here, where she was a student of English and I was her teacher, and hauled her up to the United States to make all her dreams come true. Whether or not I’ve fulfilled my role as the Magic Gringo Fairy has been rendered immaterial by the fact that we haven’t been getting along for a while.

… and later in the middle of the story:

My wife is acutely aware of what others think; she frets over appearances, has high expectations, puts a lot of pressure on herself, and controls her disappointment by predicting that nothing will work. She moves from doubt to distrust to complaint to worry in a predictable cycle that often erupts into a fight — and I’ve discovered that my sweet, mild-mannered wife likes  to fight. Having no shortage of subjects we disagree on, we might do battle as many as three times a day. We have argued so much that the real source of our conflicts has grown too large and distorted to confront or even recognize, so we hiss and snarl at each other over trifles, each hoping to land that final, deciding blow of blame.

I do hope you’ll read the full online version of the story. [ link to story] If you like it, you might want to read the sad subsequent story, These Dark Woods,  in this month’s edition of The Sun.

My second highly recommended essay is Stories for an Unborn Son  by Bonnie J. Rough. (Her bio includes this: “She teaches at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and walks around the neighborhood lake almost every day, no matter what the weather.” I like her already.):

It began with a hiccup as one cell tried to transfer its data to another. It began long before I, your mother, was born. A gene mutation, carried invisibly by women and passed to sons, snakes through our family tree. It is a fragment of history we can trace, a tiny bundle of stories floating in our blood.

In males the primary symptoms of this genetic condition — hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, or hed — are sparse hair, peg- or cone-shaped teeth, and the inability to sweat. At every moment, a normal human body engages in a struggle against death from overheating, releasing at least a quart of perspiration a day and up to several gallons in extreme conditions. But a body without sweat glands flies on faith.

The secondary traits of hed include certain distinctive facial features, such as dark circles around the eyes and a saddle-nose deformity: a deep depression in the bridge of the nose. Sufferers have trouble breathing, so they have trouble sleeping, and in turn they have trouble staying awake. Because of their hollow-eyed appearance and sallow skin, they look ill even when they feel fine. On the other hand, they often are ill. An immunodeficiency associated with the disorder may lead to a lifetime of respiratory infections. The older a man with this disorder gets, the less his body may respond to medication, and the worse he may feel. Despite the fact that hed is said not to limit life expectancy, I have learned that the pain a sufferer feels may make him wish to die.

As I tell you this, you are nothing but a phantom, a presence, a spirit. Though you have not yet taken up a place in my womb, one day you could.

Toward the end of the story:

 The question is not about what is. It is about what might have been.

So often the case … The full essay is beautifully written. [ link to full story ]





June 29, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 9:13 am


I used to see and photograph snakes all the time. But since I got the Jack Russells, I rarely get the chance. This little fellow was snapped in the ten seconds before the dogs noticed him/her. After that, I was busy running interference until the snake could get into a hole in the ground. The dogs go psychotic when they see one. It’s a shame because snakes are beautiful — and helpful for controlling varmints like rats and rabbits of which I have zillions.

Individual snakes have a different personalities. Some will run off no matter what you do, but many, if caught in the open, and if you tickle them gently with a stick, will coil into a defensive attitude and pose for you for quite a while. I used to like to get down on my stomach and shoot them on their own level. Can’t do that anymore because of the dogs.

I believe the snake in the picture above is an immature black snake (non-poisonous and very common in the US). Black racer or black rat? I should know but I don’t without looking in one of my books.





Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:47 am

“No pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.” — Epicurus

Costs. Penalties. Judgements. Punishments. So many annoyances. So little time.

A 12th-century bishop wrote that “the world is filled with Epicureans for the simple reason that in its great multitude of men there are few who are not slaves to lust.” Attacks on Epicurus were common in his own time, too. One disgruntled ex-follower said that Epicurus vomited twice a day from over-eating, and engaged in “notorious midnight philosophisings” in his garden with four women called Hedeia (“Sweety-Pie”), Erotion (“Lovie”), Nikidion (“Little Victory”) and Mammarion (“Big Tits”).

Exactly what Epicurus got up to in the undergrowth will never be known. Yet there is every reason to disbelieve his bad press. He espoused a revolutionary and irreligious theory of the universe that would have ensured his notoriety even if he had been a sober eunuch on a diet. The world consists, according to Epicurus, of tiny material atoms careering around in space until they randomly collide and form the things and creatures we see. When our atoms disperse and we die, that is the end of us. Even the gods are just collections of atoms, with no serious tasks to perform in the universe, and could not care less what people do with themselves or to each other. The aim of philosophy, Epicurus maintained, is to make people happy, and one of its biggest tasks is to quieten the unnecessary terrors caused by religion.

— from Epicurus Exonerated: Hedonism with Its Head On  by Anthony Gottlieb from More Intelligent Life   magazine; Autumn 2007

There always seem to be some annoying people trying to stop you from doing what you want to do. Watching your every move. Following you wherever you go:

If you must check for surveillance, don’t keep glancing over your shoulder. Appearing to suspect you’re being followed suggests you’re doing something to merit it. Anyway, if you’re being tailed by a serious outfit they won’t only be behind you, but ahead and to the side as well; there won’t just be one or two people on your case, but a whole team, with others in reserve. Maybe the whole street is following you. And your followers will keep changing their appearances in ways you won’t notice–women particularly can use a scarf, a shopping bag or a coat to alter themselves in seconds.

If you want to identify a tail, look at their shoes: they are hard to change. Move frequently between crowded and empty places: this forces them to keep closing for fear of losing you, drawing back, then closing again. This makes them conspicuous. But don’t jump on or off trains just before the doors close–that’s for the movies; and anyway, a good surveillance team will already have someone on the train, as well as on the platform. Remember they’re not trying to catch or chase you, just to “house” you–to see where you live, where you’re going, or whom you’re meeting.

— from  Someone to Watch Over Me  by Alan Judd

[ The above article made me laugh. If you knew where I live … Clearly the author has never been far from the big city. ]

The two articles linked above have absolutely nothing to do with one another. I hope you appreciate the effort needed to contrive a connection so I could use them here just because I like them both.

And now, to further connect them to photography …

Consider the annoyance photographers feel when friends, family and other animals don’t want to be looked at; aren’t happy about being photographed or won’t pose for the five hundredth time (photographers: note the advice above about changing your shoes).

Then the inverse annoyance when friends, family and other animals don’t want to look at  the pictures after they have been made.  If, “appearing to suspect you’re being followed suggests you’re doing something to merit it” is true, then perhaps doing the inverse of the advice given above will make people appreciate the merit of your photos: try glancing repeatedly over your shoulder and jumping on and off trains. And don’t  change your shoes. Soon your pictures will be in all the best galleries.




June 28, 2008

Mother Deer

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 9:17 am

This doe is keeping her fawn next to my driveway. When I took this photo (yesterday) she had just chased Cookie up the road and only stopped because, on rounding the curve, I was standing right in front of her. Cookie and Munch got behind me and shouted insults at her. A few weeks ago, when I wasn’t with the dogs, the doe chased Cookie down into the woods below the road. Took me a while to put two and two together –the missing Cookie and the doe standing in the road stamping her feet angrily.  That’s also what she was doing yesterday while I took this photo.



Whitetail deer are a real nuisance. They eat everything, they multiply like rabbits, and they are dumb as a box of rocks. Look at this deer’s face. Those stupid eyes … and her ears are bigger than her brain.



They’re pretty when they’re running. Away.




Lack of Imagination

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:01 am

The following quotes are taken from an article, Hedonic Man   by Alan Wolfe in The New Republic (July 9, 2008). It’s a review of Bruno S. Frey’s book, Happiness: A Revolution in Economics  and Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.  Wolfe starts off with a review of the current theories of economics, then delves into Frey’s topic, happiness:

… Happiness, of course, is anything but a new idea in Western thought. It is, for one thing, the core principle of utilitarianism, the philosophical outlook associated with James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, according to which the most accurate description of human beings is that they seek pleasure and avoid pain. Dickens rather brutally satirized the utilitarians with the unforgettable character of Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times, and ever since the notion of human beings as calculators of pain and pleasure has been subject to the withering criticism of philosophers, who have shown that utilitarianism pays inadequate attention to the full complexity of human decision-making, particularly in the moral sphere.

But the new economics proceeds in perfect indifference to Gradgrind and the philosophers. It is, in fact, a revival of utilitarianism.

Later, commenting on Frey’s assumption that happiness is everything, Wolfe says:

… But are democratic societies happy because they are composed of satisfied fools? Utilitarianism cannot answer that question. It can demand that societies ought to be evaluated for the happiness that they produce, but it cannot tell us, at least not without being tautological, why we ought to prefer happiness in the first place. For Frey it is simply self-evident that we should prefer happiness to unhappiness. But Mill, for one, was not convinced that this would always be the case. The remarkable chapter on the “Crisis In My Mental History” in his Autobiography hauntingly documents his disillusionment with the enshrining of happiness as the highest human goal. And in his brilliant and affecting essays on Bentham and Coleridge, he made his preference for the latter unmistakable. What was lacking in Bentham, Mill argued, was a full humanity, which must include a tragic sense of life. Poets, by contrast, when they peer deeply into the nature of things, do not reveal much that is pleasant; but for all their melancholy, they shed light on what it means to be human. In art, in philosophy, in religion, in all the inquiries into the meaning of human life, an unhappy consciousness may take us further toward understanding than a Bovary-like contentment.

On Ariely’s Predictably Irrational:

… Of all the Victorians, it is not Edgeworth or Mill who should have the last word on Ariely. That honor falls to the mathematician Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean, nothing more, nothing less.” The same is true of Ariely. Our shortcomings are “inherent,” but we can nonetheless overcome them. Our irrationalities are “predictable,” but they are also correctable. Our brains are “wired,” but we still have free will. We are “pawns” in a game of chess, but we can also act, if not like queens, then at least like bishops. By the time I finished Predictably Irrational I had pretty much the same view of human beings as when I began: imperfect creatures, but also quite capable of improving on their condition by learning from their mistakes. Some revolution.


… Human beings are indeed charming and perverse and altogether fascinating creatures, and the study of ourselves is among the richest of intellectual endeavors. We ought to give ourselves a bit more credit than the revolutionists of the social sciences extend to us: we pursue many goals at the same time, and we do so in all kinds of predictable and unpredictable ways.

I’ve hacked these quotes out of a very good article. I hope you’ll read the full piece  to get it in coherent form.

Though it’s not directly the subject of Wolfe’s discussion, I frequently have problems with the experiments set up to demonstrate the point being made, the conclusions drawn — by economists, psychologists, philosophers and, lately, neurobiologists. They always seem to lack imagination both in the setup and the interpretation of the feedback they get.

For example, from Wolfe’s piece, his description of the chocolate kiss experiment:

Ariely and his colleagues set up a stand and offer Lindt truffles for 15 cents and Hershey’s Kisses for a penny: 73 percent of their customers choose the former, 27 percent the latter. Then they lower the price of the truffle to 14 cents and offer the Hershey Kiss for free, and now 69 percent choose the Kiss and only 31 percent the truffle. Calculating utility cannot explain this result. In both cases, the cost difference is identical. So it seems that we attach an almost mystical meaning to the idea of getting something for nothing. Zero is not just another number.

To me, it would not be about the money. Who cares about the 14 cents? Here’s how my mind would be working: if I have to pay to get either chocolate, I will always take the one I like better (some people like chocolate kisses better than truffles). Cost difference doesn’t matter; the aggravation of paying does. Because in order to pay whatever amount, I have to stand in a line, interact with a cashier, open my shoulder bag, get out my wallet, unzip the change purse, sort through the coinage and find whatever is required. If offered one that is free and one that is not, I will always take the free one because, not only do I not have to do any of the above (deal with the cashier and dig out the change), I don’t even have to come to a full stop. I can grab it on the fly.

To take it one step further, if they offered me a free chocolate kiss, or they would pay me 10 cents along with the same chocolate kiss, I would take the free one and skip the 10 cent payment just so I wouldn’t have to stand and wait in line. A dime is just a nuisance.

Not in the article, but a perennial favorite in multiple fields is the runaway trolley car.  Can someone please think up a better, at least remotely realistic scenario than this one? As if I, an average female, could hurl a massive fat man onto the tracks so that he was perfectly aligned to stop a train? The same train that I have seen, many times in the movies, push multiple full size automobiles without even slowing in the least?  Assuming the fat man doesn’t fail to fall, get justifiably pissed off, grab me and throw me onto the tracks, which has no effect at all on the train thereby killing six people instead of five? Where are the studies to show that throwing fat men onto tracks is ever capable of working? Why don’t I just throw some chocolate kisses onto the tracks thereby making them slippery so the train derails and everybody  is saved ?




June 27, 2008

Cukes and Maters

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:17 am

Baby peaches. They’ll be ripe in September. Picked this morning from trees that I grew from seed. The seeds came from a lone peach tree that grows on top of High Top Mountain. I gathered the seeds from the ground,  where they had been left by animals who had eaten the fruit. I filled the pockets of my loose nylon hiking pants — so much so that when running home, down the mountain, they made my pants fall down … but that’s another story.

That peach tree is sort of a marvel. It’s been there for at least thirty years, uncultivated, unsprayed, unpruned, uncared for by anybody. The top of the mountain is windy and cold. Nevertheless, every year it self-pollinates and produces a good crop of healthy little peaches that taste better than any from the store.

Getting large, hard, tree seeds like those from a peach to germinate is tricky. You have to get the hard shell to break, and the seed also has to undergo a long simulated-winter period of chilling. Without going into the details, I’ll just say it took several years to get some to grow.

There is something fantastic about getting a plant from a seed. If you’ve ever grown garden vegetables from seed — put them one by one in little sterile pots and then watched, counting the days that the seed packet said it would take to germinate — until the little green loop of the new plant bursts out of the soil … you know how cool it is.

The trouble is, it’s so much fun to grow the little things that you always start too many. Nobody in the history of the world ever grew too few tomatoes or cucumbers. Or, as they are called around here, cukes and ‘maters. In this rural county, it’s a running joke (that is also often true) that if you leave you car unlocked anywhere, when you return there will be a bag of  cukes and/or ‘maters in your back seat. People are desperate to get rid of the overflow. Or people who have been given them are desperately trying to pass them off on someone else.

Which is what I am going to have to do with my peaches. Having successfully started trees from seed, I gave away the baby plants to anybody who would have them, then, being unwilling to kill the rest, planted five of them myself. I don’t even like peaches that much. (I’ll be busy eating the apples and pears that I also planted too much of and that I like better.)

[ Now for the tie-in to photography… ]

Before digital cameras, in order to make your photos “from seed,” you needed a darkroom. Space, running water, blackened windows, chemicals, paper, equipment — it was beyond what many people could manage. But now, with digital, anybody with a computer and a brain can germinate their own. The fun of making a picture from scratch is probably the most unproblematic, uncontroversial aspect of digital. But, like tomatoes and cucumbers, we have just a slight  overflow of product … Too many people having too much fun making too many pictures that they then don’t have the heart to just delete or throw on the compost heap.

How long before we start seeing bags of digital images appearing in the backseats of unlocked cars?




June 26, 2008

Doom and Gloom

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:36 am

[The quote below and the linked full article are old (2005 ), and cover no new ground. However, I think the author does the subject well and thoroughly. And I completely disagree with what she has to say. ]

… Americans love images. We love the democratizing power of technologies—such as digital cameras, video cameras, Photoshop, and PowerPoint—that give us the capability to make and manipulate images. What we are less eager to consider are the broader cultural effects of a society devoted to the image. Historians and anthropologists have explored the story of mankind’s movement from an oral-based culture to a written culture, and later to a printed one. But it is only in the past several decades that we have begun to assimilate the effects of the move from a culture based on the printed word to one based largely on images. In making images rather than texts our guide, are we opening up new vistas for understanding and expression, creating a form of communication that is “better than print,” as New York University communications professor Mitchell Stephens has argued? Or are we merely making a peculiar and unwelcome return to forms of communication once ascendant in preliterate societies—perhaps creating a world of hieroglyphics and ideograms (albeit technologically sophisticated ones)—and in the process becoming, as the late Daniel Boorstin argued, slavishly devoted to the enchanting and superficial image at the expense of the deeper truths that the written word alone can convey?

Two things in particular are at stake in our contemporary confrontation with an image-based culture: First, technology has considerably undermined our ability to trust what we see, yet we have not adequately grappled with the effects of this on our notions of truth. Second, if we are indeed moving from the era of the printed word to an era dominated by the image, what impact will this have on culture, broadly speaking, and its institutions? What will art, literature, and music look like in the age of the image? And will we, in the age of the image, become too easily accustomed to verisimilar rather than true things, preferring appearance to reality and in the process rejecting the demands of discipline and patience that true things often require of us if we are to understand their meaning and describe it with precision? The potential costs of moving from the printed word to the image are immense. We may find ourselves in a world where our ability to communicate is stunted, our understanding and acceptance of what we see questionable, and our desire to transmit culture from one generation to the next seriously compromised.

The two paragraphs above are from the middle of an article, The Image Culture   by Christine Rosen that appeared in The New Atlantis’s Fall 2005 issue. Later in the same article, she concludes:

As its boosters suggest, it is here to stay, and likely to grow more powerful as time goes on, making all of us virtual flâneurs strolling down boulevards filled with digital images and moving pictures. We will, of course, be enormously entertained by these images, and many of them will tell us stories in new and exciting ways. At the same time, however, we will have lost something profound: the ability to marshal words to describe the ambiguities of life and the sources of our ideas; the possibility of conveying to others, with the subtlety, precision, and poetry of the written word, why particular events or people affect us as they do; and the capacity, through language, to distill the deeper meaning of common experience. We will become a society of a million pictures without much memory, a society that looks forward every second to an immediate replication of what it has just done, but one that does not sustain the difficult labor of transmitting culture from one generation to the next.

Read the full article here.

Responses in a forum discussion about the above quoted article at metafilter.com that took place when it first appeared (2005 ) closely parallel my own reaction to the piece:

… we’ve always been an image culture. It’s not like everyone was wonderfully literate before the television came. I think we’re reaching people who wouldn’t have read Pride and Prejudice, who wouldn’t have listened to classical music, who wouldn’t have paid attention to world events without this image-laden society. Is it the best of worlds? Of course not; no one can deny the easily manipulative way an image grabs the emotional brain faster than the word. But was the previous world really as awesome as she’s making it out to be? — posted by Maxson

I see that Christine Rosen is also the author of My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood, ‘a touching memoir of growing up in a household, school and town of flourishing Biblical literalism’. I think that may explain the position she takes in this essay. Having been brought up in a strongly Protestant culture where the Word was paramount, she can’t rid herself of the suspicion that any reliance on images is going to undermine the authority of the written word. — posted by verstegan

I find myself siding with the classical musician who is disturbed by people going to hear Stravinsky and watch the orchestra playing the music and then facing Jumbotron images of the bassoon player. That’s just wrong. And it comes from the phenomenon the author alludes to: the near worship of image over everything else. I like to think of myself as a body existing in space and time, not an image consumer/processor. — posted by kozad

She’s just as right when she rhetorically asks “Does every cultural trend make a culture genuinely better?” as she’s wrong when she assumes the opposite to be the case.

“It is possible, in other words, to see too much, and in the seeing lose our grasp on what is real”, she says. This could just as well be an argument against her medium of choice (or so it seems), words. Words can take you places just like images can, and words can just as easily be used for manipulation and deception. A sentence is a statement, but so is an image. If we don’t like the symbols, blame the message and not the medium. — posted by hasund

… are more people in general reachable now that imagery is all over the place? I think we have greater overall mindshare with an image culture, and not just because we have more minds to go around- people just likepictures. Regardless, the author’s willingness to make any loss of readership a death knell for literacy- something that’ll make all readers a tiny elite- remains too alarmist for me to accept. Maybe fewer people will read trashy novels, but maybe the golden prose she exalts doesn’t need those clay feet anyway. — posted by Maxson

“We will become a society of a million pictures without much memory, (…) one that does not sustain the difficult labor of transmitting culture from one generation to the next.”

I am always shocked when I discover that people don’t see the world that is just there: we have never had so much memory, and it’s expanding faster that we can use it; and we never had so many tools to search this memory, and these tools themselves evolve at an astounding pace.

Never before in the whole history of mankind so much memory has been transmitted to so many people from one generation to the next. These are hard facts. So, what is she talking about? A fantasy of doom?

I would be the first interested to read something about the present and future use of images in communications, but I’ll wait for somebody willing to use data and facts. — posted by bru

Images are usually used for vapid entertainment, just like words and music were (and still are). However, I think more people overall view images, lowbrow or not, than words, lowbrow or not, so more people are on the receiving end of this culture, even if they’re just getting bad TV shows.

I think that reaching more people in general is inherently a good thing. Others may understandably disagree, but there are other benefits to exposing people to all these images: people are losing the “omg” factor images create. We aren’t amazed/scared by scenes that dazzled/frightened us years ago. The author laments the loss of wonder; I see it as a loss of gullibility. If everyone’s seen a Worth1000 photoshop contest, fewer people will blindly believe the next photo they see.

Of course, we’ll always have more gullible people than we’d like. But more people will begin to say “that’s just a picture, prove it actually happened.” A higher standard of proof would change a lot of things for society. — posted by Maxson

A well-written, competently defended article — though I must admit I’m enjoying the discussion here more. Maybe it’s because I’m an old-fashioned academic shitkicker, and can’t stand swallowing intellectual propaganda (call off the dogs — all critical theory is propaganda of one kind or another) outside of a seminar-like environment.

Now, here comes the complaint. As I said, it was a well-written article: but far, far, FAR from original. Adorno. Barthes. McLuhan. Hell, I’ll chuck in some Derrida, ‘cos all the kids seem to love him so much. Another postmodern critique of a postmodern phenomena that means very little to those us — no, I won’t say that. The truth is, to me: a good ol’ fashioned materialist who doesn’t have much time for debating Katrina’s meaning re: “The Image Culture” when, really, we should STILL be debating Katrina’s meaning re: race and class in our country. [Rosen’s article begins with a reference to images of the devastation of hurricane Katrina. ]

Appropriation of tragedy for academic exercises is a well-worn technique. Elicit strong emotions, put the reader in a doubting state of mind, and use this state of mind to plant the seed of your thesis. I find it distasteful. — posted by ford and the prefects

Find the full forum discussion here.




June 25, 2008

Warning Off

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:37 am

June means it’s time to carry a bell when I hike. The bell lets mother bears know that I am passing through. If they hear you coming, they (usually) will get out of the way. Why June? Because their cubs have gotten big enough to start getting into trouble and because the blackberries that line many of the trails and logging roads ripen. Bears love blackberries.

Last year I forgot to carry the bell and I got into trouble because of it (see my account of that here and a more genaral post about bears, here ).

When carrying (and ringing) a bell, you don’t see the bears, so you really don’t know if they were ever there. The whole point is to have them leave or make way for you before you ever pass by.

Once, many years ago, I was coming home from a long hike, tired and late. I was walking on a old unused logging road that had thigh-high grass growing on it and thick underbrush on both sides. Right in front of me, in the center of the road, this little bitty bear cub suddenly stood up and looked at me. It was incredibly small, fuzzy, and all-around cute. After a good thirty seconds, it ran off the left side of the road. I couldn’t tell if it went up  a tree, the bushes were so thick. (I did not have a dog with me. This was before I got the Jack Russell Terriers.)

I stood there in the road for a long, long time, alternatively yelling and clapping my hands, then stopping and listening carefully. Cardinal rule when dealing with bears is (aside from avoiding them altogether) don’t ever go between a mother and her cub. This baby had been exactly in the middle of the road. It had run off to the left. If the mother was also on the left, all was well and I could continue down the road. If the mother was on the right, I should, on no account  continue on the road.

Finally, because it was late and I was tired and the other ways out were long and hard — and because I thought surely the mother would have reacted by now if she were on the right side apart from her cub … I tip-toed very fast onward down the road. I have no idea why I thought tip-toeing would help.

If I had had a bell or if the mother bear would have made some noise to tell me where she was, both of us would have been happier.

The big trouble that I had last year  with a mother bear was certainly because she didn’t hear me coming. Yesterday, while walking through the woods making more noise than some deranged Santa Claus, because I couldn’t think of much of anything else for all the noise, I started thinking about whether there is any ingredient of photography that would be like my warning bell.

While I can’t think of any purely “warning off” photography (after all, you always want someone   to look at them) I do think that there is frequently a degree of bell-ringing or claxon-sounding in many pictures. The photographer saying, “this matters to me,” “I am here, like me or not,” a claiming of space, or a right of passage. An element in the pictures that is not aesthetic, not moral, not revelatory but simply and purely a “get back!” and claim to exist — that is for those who you suspect or know will disagree, dislike, or actively oppose what or where or why you made the pictures.

The same as me ringing the bell. I don’t want to see the bears. I don’t want the bears to see me. I don’t want to interact with them at all beyond asserting my presence and my right to be there . I am claiming space from a hostile audience. People who don’t care about my land, don’t care about my people, don’t care about what I care about. Even if they don’t look at my pictures, the pictures claim  those subjects as mine. I’m here. Get back!

I do see a degree of this in many photographs and it’s something I had not realized before.




June 24, 2008

Looking Glass

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:12 am

For about an hour each morning through the winter months, I sit on a chair behind a painter’s dropcloth hung over a glass-windowed door, and, through a hole in that cloth, shoot pictures of birds to use in my composites. Almost every bird has, reflected in its eyes, the reflection of the clerestory — high vertical windows inset into the roof — of my house.



In the room below and slightly to the right of those clerestory windows is the computer on which, now, in the summer, I make my composite images using the birds photographed in the winter.

A bird, a male indigo bunting, has recently begun attacking the glass in those clerestory windows. He sees his reflection and mistakes it for a rival male. Clickity-clackity-clickity-clack. Sporadically, all day long, beating against the glass with claws, beak and wings. For about twenty minutes in the afternoon, the sun comes tangentially through those high windows so that a bright spot falls on the desk to the left of where I am working. In that bright sun, the bird’s shadow capers madly.

Yesterday morning I was struggling to choose the birds for the composite I am now setting up. Trying to imagine the birds from one picture on the computer interacting with the birds already in the layout of the group setting. I could not concentrate with the bird above beating on the glass, attacking his reflection. So I got a chair from the hall — the one I sit on all winter when shooting the birds for my composites. I brought it into the room, got my camera, and stood on the chair for a better angle at the high window. The bird saw me. When he was standing on the bottom of the window, I could just see the top of his head and his eyes. He cocked his head this way and that, changed position, craned his neck and looked a little more, then saw his reflection and went back to attacking the glass. He’s very fast, like a jack-in-the-box, so I had to stand there, ready, with the camera to my right eye, left eye squeezed shut, trying to get him as he popped up and down. Periodically he left for five minutes or so, but he always comes back. I shoot, wait, shoot, wait, shoot, wait. How many will be enough?



I waited with the camera on my face. My left eye got tired of being squeezed shut. I opened it. On the wall below the high window, is a framed photo of an aerial view of my house. With my left eye, I noticed, reflected in the glass of that picture, a strange person standing on a chair with a camera stuck to her face.




Swimming and Frogging

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:04 am

Hot. Summer. Fun.











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