The Casual Blog

Getting ready for bears, finding butterflies, more mass shootings, and how racism affects us


Next week I’ll be going to Klemtu, British Columbia for a photography workshop involving bears.  I’m excited, but also a little daunted, since there’s a lot I don’t know about bears. This week I’ve been shopping for expedition clothing and equipment.  I’d like to thank Peace Camera, my local photo shop, for their patience and good advice, and REI, Great Outdoor Provision Co., and L.L. Bean for their high quality products and friendly service.    

Trying to get ready for the bears, I got outside a few times with my camera, but the only photogenic animals I saw were butterflies.  Those here were in Raulston Arboretum, where they were working hard in the flowers. Though they had no interest in posing for me, they didn’t seem to mind my shooting them.  Anyhow, there were many shots I didn’t get, but I did get these which I liked.  

I’m generally hesitant to refer to taking pictures as shooting, because the term is ambiguous, and I’m definitely not referring to using guns.  Mass shootings were once again in the news this week, causing fresh horror and renewed calls for reasonable gun control. It is sad and remarkable that our politics prevents fixing this relatively simple problem.   

I’ve been reading a lot lately about racial bias and wondering how much of our gun proliferation problem relates to our racism problem.  There’s a lot of evidence that white people unthinkingly and wrongly associate black people with negative qualities, including criminality.  How much of the drive to own firearms comes from an irrational fear of black criminals? A goodly amount, I’d wager. To judge from the crowds at Trump rallies, the folks most enthusiastic about guns are the ones that are most supportive of Trump’s racism.  They may well think they need guns to fend off black criminals.  

I think it’s a mistake to blame Trump for our racism.  His incitement of racist violence is revolting and scary, but the American system of white supremacy was in place long before he was born. And to fathom it requires looking well beyond the President’s outrages.  I even give Trump credit for a possible silver lining: his grotesque and overt racism takes the issue out from under the covers and makes it somewhat easier to see and work on.  

I used to think that the main problem with white racism was the disadvantages it created for black people.  Those disadvantages, from limiting job, housing, and educational opportunities on down to emotional and physical violence, are wrong, and we need to fix them.  But our traditional racism has ripple effects that are related to a host of other problems.  

The meta problem is our political polarization, which makes it almost impossible to work on other major problems (like gun control, population control, deindustrialization, fair elections, the social safety net, health care, and climate change).  This polarization is in large part a product of our racism.  

Nixon’s “southern strategy” in 1968 was to use racist dog whistles and fearmongering to get southern Democrats to vote Republican, and succeeding generations of Republican politicians have followed the same playbook with varying degrees of subtlety.  As Sahil Chinoy pointed out in the NY Times this week, race and attitudes toward race are a strong predictor of whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats.

Unless you just arrived here from outer space or Honduras, you probably know that Republicans are a mostly white party, and Democrats are a more racially mixed party.  This division wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we viewed race as merely a physical difference, like height or eye color.  But we’re deeply conditioned to associate blackness with fearsome things. The political party that doesn’t much care for blacks not only disagrees with the other party; it believes it to be dangerous.  It’s hard to work cooperatively with people you think are a threat to peace and order.  

So a lot of our political disagreements that seem to have nothing to do with race are the progeny of racism.  I should note that I’m talking here about systems and tendencies. I don’t at all mean to suggest that all Republican individuals are racists, or that all Democrats are not.  On the contrary, I think a lot of us in both parties think that racism is wrong and want to end it.  But not a lot of us fully appreciate how thoroughly our racist culture has conditioned us, how much our lives today are affected by that culture, and how much work we have to do, both as individuals and as a society, for real change.      

By way of advancing the discussion, I’ve been reading, and hope others will read, White Fragility:  Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo’s message is particularly important and helpful for white people who consciously support racial equality but don’t realize how they too have been deeply conditioned by a racist system.  She pulls no punches, and makes a convincing case that those of us who consider ourselves progressives as to racial matters still have a lot of interior work to do.  

I’m also reading and recommending Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, by Jennifer Eberhardt.  Eberhardt is a black social psychologist whose work involves studying racial bias. The book is part autobiography and part science. With moving and personal stories, she shows how deeply seated racism is in our culture, and how much work it will take to undo it. 

Putting some art in artificial intelligence, cheering debate points, and some helpful English history

 

Sunflowers--6It’s well and truly summer in North Carolina, and plenty hot and humid.  If I have a nature photography project or want to practice golf, I try to finish up by 10:00 a.m. to avoid the full-on heat.  Back in the air conditioning, I’ve been spending more time at the computer with my photo processing software.

I made these images using my own recent photos and Topaz Impressions.  TI has numerous templates for getting started, and then you can modify the virtual brushes, brushstrokes, amount of paint, and other parameters.  Figuring out the basics for working it takes just a few minutes, though I’m sure achieving mastery takes a good deal more.

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I’m not sure whether I’ll be committing long term to this kind of image making, but it’s fun to experiment with it.  It’s hard to believe that a relatively inexpensive consumer software product can persuasively reproduce artistic effects that once took years of training.  This artificial intelligence is empowering and exciting.  

There are, of course, other aspects of AI that are worrisome, including automated warfare and elimination of large swathes of human employment, along with the associated economic activity (like the ability to buy groceries).  I’ve been reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, which includes a surprisingly dispassionate appraisal of the likelihood that our AI will in due course far outstrip our intellectual abilities, and the dark implications of that fundamental change.  There is, of course, a reasonable possibility that we will blow ourselves up or otherwise destroy civilization as we know it before we reach the AI tipping point, but in case we don’t, we need to be figuring out how to contain the AI risks.

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I was pleased to see the issue of AI’s eliminating jobs getting attention at the Democratic presidential candidate debate this week.  Andrew Yang was really impressive in explaining in simple terms how our amazing technology is transforming our economy to produce increasing inequality.  His proposed solution of a universal basic income is sensible, though I very much doubt it will be adequate.  

I was also happy to see most of the Democratic candidates talking seriously about some of our other tough problems, including the climate crisis (global warming and environmental destruction), pervasive racism, pervasive sexism, mass incarceration, militarism and arms racing, and the corruption of a political system dominated by corporations and the super wealthy.  These issues have been festering for a long time, and addressing them won’t be easy. But they were hardly mentioned in the last presidential election cycle, or several before that. It’s encouraging that at least now they’re on the discussion agenda.  

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For some perspective on living in a time of great social upheaval and numerous dire problems, I recommend Robert Morrison’s new book, The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern.  As the full title indicates, Morrison examines a small slice of the history of a small country, and finds transformational developments in the business, war, and culture.

The Regency refers to England’s government between 1811 and 1820.  It was still early in the industrial revolution, which produced both great wealth and massive social dislocations.  Inequality was extreme, with wealth and political power highly concentrated, and the poor in dire straits. Crime was rampant.  The Luddites were destroying factories, while Napoleon seemed to be taking over Europe.

Then Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, and the British imperial project took off.  There were new fashions (Dandyism), sports, and broadening sexual mores, with venereal diseases running rife. It was a time of remarkable achievements in science (Babbage, Davy, and Faraday), engineering (Telford), social reform (Frye and Owen), literature (Keats, Shelley, and Byron), and painting (Constable and Turner). 

Perhaps the most influential writer from that time for our time was Jane Austen.  As Morrison notes, her great novels (such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma) treat issues of romance and domesticity in a way that barely suggests the numerous intellectual and social revolutions that surrounded her.  She was in many ways conservative. Yet she called into question traditional assumptions about the role of women and the larger social order. At the same time, she distilled, with insight, elegance, and humor, timeless truths about human emotions and relations.  

Looking through Morrison’s lens reminded me of what history at its best can do.  What we see in the past depends on where we look and how carefully, and what we know and care about at a given moment.  That is, history changes over time as we (as societies and as individuals) change. It is never a completed project, because the knowledge we bring to research is always a work in progress, and in any case, we can never know everything.  But when we carefully examine the past with good faith, we can better understand both the past and the present.  

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Keeping in focus both the vast sweep of the industrial revolution and Austen’s brilliant tiny dramas is tricky.  But we have just that kind of problem every day. How much energy should we spend addressing our climate catastrophe and other huge problems, and how much about the completely personal, like improving a golf shot or piece of music or having a pleasant Saturday night dinner with friends?  Of course, we need to do both, and do.   

I had a piano lesson last week with the fabulous Dr. Olga Kleiankina, and was again reminded of the big commitment great music requires.  When I lamented my struggles to get control of Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2, she pointed out that it would take a professional concert pianist months to prepare the piece for performance.  And of course, I’m not looking to play at Carnegie Hall. I’m just hoping to understand the music better, enjoy it more, and give some healthy musical nourishment to myself and interested friends.  

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But even achieving that takes sustained commitment, which means certain other worthwhile endeavors will not get done.  I occasionally ask myself whether using a meaningful portion of my finite life energy on music is the sanest, most responsible choice.  Though without it, I’d probably be somewhat less sane and happy.  

Anyhow, I am completely unconflicted about one new project:  learning to cook with a slow cooker. With encouragement from Jocelyn, I bought a Crock Pot a few weeks ago, and have been improving my slicing and spicing skills.  Yesterday I made a vegetarian coconut quinoa curry, which simmered for 7 hours. Sally pronounced it delicious! And though I did a lot of cubing of veggies, I managed not to cut myself!Sunflowers--5.jpg

Considering sunflowers, and a proposal for survival: population control

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This week I spent some more time with the sunflowers at Dix Park.  There were a lot of pretty ones, including some at least eight feet tall, and others that had passed their prime.  I learned from signs there that sunflowers are the only flowers with flower in their name, and that they point themselves toward the sun during the day.  

Dix Park was formerly the site of Dorothea Dix Hospital, North Carolina’s first institution for the mentally ill, which was progressive when it was opened in 1856 and not so much so when it was finally closed in 2012.  The sunflower field is on top of a former garbage dump (officially, a “landfill”). The sunflowers are grown as an industrial crop that provides fuel for city vehicles.  

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The connections between mental illness, institutions, garbage, and urban transport take us in one direction, but sunflowers take us in another.  They stand up tall and shine, and without any effort, cheer us up.  I put one on my phone for a new screen saver.

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Last night Sally and I watched The Inventor, a documentary about Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos.  Holmes recruited investors with promises of revolutionizing medical testing with new technology. It turned out that the technology was not actually in existence.  There were hundreds of employees, including some trying to build a testing machine that corresponded to Holmes’s idea, but they never made a successful model.  

In the documentary, we see Holmes presenting herself and her idea, and she’s undeniably attractive and impressive.  It’s easy to see how a lot of successful and sophisticated people believed in her.  It isn’t altogether clear what she herself was thinking. The human mind has an amazing capacity for self delusion, so Holmes may have believed a lot of her own baloney.  It may be that she started out as a cockeyed big dreamer and, as the impossibility of the dream became clear, ended up as a wanton fraudster.    It’s an interesting psychological puzzle.Sunflowers-0431Speaking of puzzles, I finished Christine Korsgaard’s important  but sometimes difficult book, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals.  Korsgaard is a brave soul. She challenges the almost-never-questioned assumption that humans have a right to do whatever they want to non-human life.  If there is no such right, what humans are doing to non-human life is monstrously evil.  For example, we kill more than 50 billion farm animals a year.  It’s not an easy subject.

Korsgaard suggests that the earth would be much better off without so many humans, which is almost certainly true.  I was surprised, though, that she doesn’t press more on the issue of restraining population growth as a bridge to a less broken world.  

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Our politicians’ ridiculous fearmongering over immigrant invasions is a distorted-mirror reflection of a real problem:  there are too many people on the earth, and many more are coming soon. There are not enough natural resources to sustain all the people that are here with their existing and hoped for consumption patterns.  Those consumption patterns are already disrupting non-human life on a massive scale, including widespread extinction of entire species. At the same time, resource conflicts are disrupting various countries, creating millions of refugees, and undermining governments.

And the problems are getting worse.  The population, which is now around 7 billion, is still growing.  For all our current global population to have the American level of consumption would require the resources of 4 earths.  And we’re expecting 4 billion more humans by the end of this century, so we’ll be needing almost two additional earths.  

But we only have the one.  Climate change and other environmental problems, such as air pollution, fresh water loss, and soil erosion are all exacerbated by increasing populations in a negative feedback loop.  

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Here’s a simple example:  as there are more people who need more food, a changing climate and environmental degradation will make it harder or impossible to grow enough food for all.  And industrialized agriculture, already a major contributor to climate change, in attempting to produce more food, will likely further degrade the environment.  For a fuller accounting of very possible near term environmental destruction mechanisms, read The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells.

At present, our default mode for addressing this population problem is to pretend it doesn’t exist.  There is, to be sure, a sense in which it could take care of itself: people in excess of the earth’s carrying capacity will likely die by the millions or billions.  However, adopting this solution would be horrible, not only for humans, but for all the non-human life that the desperate humans would extinguish in their losing struggle to survive.  

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Beginning with better education on family planning, we could slow the pace of population growth, and eventually arrive at a population that could exist without irreversible planetary destruction.  Korsgaard suggests the possibility that reproduction might be regulated with some sort of licensing scheme. As she notes, we don’t let people drive cars without demonstrating the necessary skill set, but we have no skills requirement for parenting.  

Any change like that would be controversial, of course, and perhaps we’d conclude that’s not a good approach.  But if we’re hoping to avoid horrendous destruction of human and non-human life,  we need to get creative and get to work; there’s no time to waste.  At present, our governments aren’t working on the population problem, or even talking about working on it.  How can that be OK?

 

The beautiful Blue Ridge, and our racism, continued

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Last week I went to the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains  of western North Carolina, where I took a photography workshop with Les and Janet Saucier.  The main subject was macro photography, and we shot a lot of wildflowers. We also did some vistas off the Parkway and a particularly gorgeous waterfall called Eastatoe.  I was standing in ankle deep in chilly water for my waterfall shots, and it was totally worth it.  

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Les and Janet were good teachers.  Les had a kind of zen master vibe — not saying too much, but somehow making us look and think harder.  We shot in some tough conditions at times, including rain and wind, which Les encouraged us to appreciate as opportunities for new perspectives.  

To find macro subjects, he advised that we pay attention to what caught our eye and made us feel something.  This mapped well onto my mindfulness meditation practice, part of which involves learning to pay better attention to what’s going on in your head and heart.  

 

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I did one hike on my own from the Parkway up to the top of Mount Pisgah.  It turned out to be steeper and longer than expected, and I was in quite a lather when I got to the top.  There was a good view of the mountains and valleys, as well as a plug ugly communications equipment tower.  

Just as I started back down the trail, I heard a loud thunder clap, and soon after it started to rain.  I’d brought my trusty Nikon D850 camera, but no rain gear, and I was very worried that the camera would get damaged.  I put it under my sweaty tee shirt and scurried downward. Fortunately, it didn’t rain too hard, and my beloved D850 weathered the storm.  

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Along with a lot of natural beauty, from our beaches to our  mountains, North Carolina has some old and stubborn problems.  While I was at the workshop in Brevard, Trump held a rally in Greenville, NC, where the ralliers chanted “Send her back.” The code wasn’t hard to decipher:  they were saying this country is for white people, and minorities and women who get uppity will not be tolerated. This is ugly, ignorant, and sad, but also interesting.  It could serve as a kind of an acid test for just how racist a country we are now.  

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Jamelle Bouie wrote a perceptive essay in the NY Times about how our racial caste system has historically used public violence, including lynchings, to intimidate minorities, which at the same time reinforces the concept of white supremacy.   Trump’s rallies aren’t lynchings, of course, but the threat of violence at his rallies keeps getting more obvious.  Bouie highlights how such raucous gatherings not only scare minorities but also build a sense of white supremacist community.  For these folks, expressing high intensity hate involves ecstatic joy, as the crowd feels united against the Other and reaffirmed in their traditional white identity.

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This is pathetic and ignorant, but it’s exciting, at least for a particular subpopulation.  Trump appears to have made a judgment that scapegoating minorities with raucous circuses will distract from his personal and policy shortcomings, like his incompetence,  dishonesty, cruelty, and corruption;  his failure to deliver on most of his promised domestic programs; his stupid and dangerous blundering in international relations; and his driving us headlong towards environmental catastrophe.   

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Here in North Carolina, there’s no denying that we’ve got some 100-proof racists, who truly hate black people, and who believe that white people are both superior and wronged victims.  We’ve also got a lot of people who are appalled at such notions and are committed to the values of tolerance, diversity, and equality.  And there are many people, including some of us who support racial justice, who also carry around a strain of subtle racism that they don’t even realize they’ve got.  

American racism is  part of the air we breathe, and those accustomed to white privilege can go for periods without even noticing it.  One good thing about Trump and his true believers is that their bold expressions of hate make it harder to ignore. They should make us less complacent, and inspire us to be more honest in recognizing and fixing our own prejudices.  And they should make us take a closer look at our politicians to see which are aligned with our better angels for a fairer, more just society, and for those who are not, stop playing footsie and firmly give them the boot.  

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My new Trailhawk, sandcrabs, sunflowers, and busing

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My new slightly used ride down the hill from the sunflowers at Dorothea Dix park

When I was in Maine at the and of June, I had a rental car I really liked:  a 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. It was about the same size as my Mazda CX-5, and drove similarly on the highway.  But there were things I liked more about the Trailhawk: its seats, which fit me well, and its instrumentation, including a big touchscreen.  I liked its off-road capabilities, including a locking rear differential and towhooks to get pulled out of the mud. Also, I really liked the color:  velvet red pearlcoat. 

So I read some reviews and did some market research, and the day after I got home I traded in my Mazda for a red Trailhawk.  Later that week we took it to the Outer Banks to visit sister Jane and her family. We watched the 4th of July fireworks at the Currituck lighthouse from their deck, and shot off a few Roman candles.  I got up before sunrise with a plan to take pictures of sanderlings and other shorebirds at first light, but didn’t find the necessary birds.  

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Sandcrabs at Corolla, NC

I did, however, see a lot of sandcrabs.  They’re small and well camouflaged, and they can skitter quickly.  In places where I glimpsed a couple, I got down on my belly with my large zoom, and waited for them to get comfortable with me.   

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I’m sure the families walking by  on the beach thought I was a strange bird as I lay there.  But it was worth it. Eventually the tiny crabs came out of their holes, and I saw them working on different projects, like finding food and scaring off their enemies.  Though I wouldn’t call them beautiful, they are fascinatingly complex.  

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I was reminded of a sweet essay in the Times a few weeks ago my Margaret Renki titled Praise Song for the Unloved Animals.  Renki writes of the hard work by some of nature’s relatively unphotogenic pest controllers and garbagemen, like opossums, vultures, bats, and field mice.  She even finds a kind word for mosquitoes who are food for chimney swifts and tree swallows. She appreciates the complex interconnectedness of life. I’m sure she’d be happy to add sandcrabs into her list.  Yates-3812.jpg

We took the Trailhawk up to the beach area where cars are permitted, and verified that it will go on the sand without getting stuck.  We hunted for the wild horses that live there, and managed to spot eight of them.  

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Back in Raleigh, I got up early three mornings this week to check on the sunflowers at Dorothea Dix park.  There were many of them! I tried to look at them in different ways. These pictures were my favorites.   I also got a shot of a little fawn on the edge of the sunflower field.  It was bleating loudly for its mommy.   It watched me for a long moment, then started to run towards me, perhaps thinking I could help find her.  I waved my arms and told it I didn’t know where mommy was, and the fawn turned and ran into the woods.  

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I never particularly thought of myself as a sunflower person.  And definitely never thought of myself as a Jeep person, or a person who liked red cars.  But if we’re attentive, we sometimes discover things about ourselves we didn’t know, and get past our prejudices.  

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Speaking of prejudices, there was a very fine essay in the Times yesterday  by Nikole Hannah-Jones about school busing.   Hannah-Jones has a great short summary of US system of separating black kids from white ones in our schools, which we still haven’t fixed.  She also decodes the political language. Back in the sixties, and now, Instead of saying, we don’t want our white kids going to school with black ones, we said, we don’t like school busing.  Using the language of “busing” allowed us to conceal from ourselves our racial prejudice, of which we are — and should be — ashamed.

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Hannah-Jones points up that busing was pretty effective in places and at times in undoing some of our legacy of segregation.  I think schools are only one part of repairing the damage of that system. Facing up to extreme inequality in income, jobs, housing, and health care are still on the to-do list.  But desegregating our schools is important, and doable. It is likely to involve buses.   

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Puffins

 

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An Atlantic puffin

I took these pictures of Atlantic puffins week before last at Machias Seal Island off the northern coast of Maine.  Puffins nest there for a few weeks every year, and spend the rest of their lives at sea.  It’s not easy to get to the island to see them: permits are required, and there are not a lot of permits.  Even with a permit, the seas are often too rough to get there safely.  One of our two planned trips to the island was cancelled on account of weather. But for our second trip, the skies cleared up and the seas calmed down, and we got to see the famous birds.  

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With the puffins on Machias were a lot of nesting razorbills and murres.  Both are gorgeous, though of course not as photogenic as the puffins — who is?  It was a real thrill to spend time with all these amazing birds.

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A common murre, also known as a common guillemot

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Razorbills, which are the closest living relatives to the extinct great auk

The puffins are fast fliers and skilled fishermen.  And they’re incredibly cute! We stood in small wooden blinds to photograph them.  At times the birds were so close that I couldn’t get them in focus with my big zoom lens.  

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Our group was organized by the Georgia Nature Photographers Association, which I joined to participate in this trip.  I enjoyed meeting the Georgians, who were all very nice and very experienced in nature photography. With Bill and Ken, I explored some of the area parks, and started to fall in love with the Maine.  There were lovely harbors, big forests, and many wildflowers.  The weather was mostly cool and rainy.  

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Thinking about animals: puffins and other wild things

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Last week I was notified that I had a spot on a nature photography trip to Lubec, Maine, after waiting for some months on the wait list.  The trip, sponsored by the Georgia Nature Photographers Association, has as a prime objective shooting Atlantic puffins, which nest on nearby Machias Seal Island. They’re comically beautiful little birds. With only a week to get organized, I joined the GNPA, booked a room,  bought a plane ticket, arranged for a rental car, and started cramming on Maine and puffins.  

On Saturday, Sally did a hike at Yates Mill Pond park, and saw a family of 5 red-headed woodpeckers.  I took my equipment there on Sunday, and couldn’t spot the woodpeckers, although I’m pretty sure I heard them.  With our hardwood trees now fully leafed in, it’s hard to see birds, but there were plenty singing there on Sunday.  I’ve been refreshing on my bird song ID skills, and recognized perhaps a dozen familiar songs and calls. There were perhaps a dozen more that I couldn’t identify, so I’ve got a lot to learn.  I also took some pictures there of a great blue heron.

A great blue heron

Also last week, I went out to Anderson Point park east of Raleigh on the Neuse River.  It had been a long time since my last visit. The place used to be one of the best places to hear and see birds in Raleigh.  But, as I discovered, the park is now completely gone, replaced by single family homes. It made me very sad to think of the wild creatures that used to thrive there which lost their habitat and their lives.  

Humans are extremely dangerous to non-human animals.  Even when we’re not killing them to eat or just for the fun of it, we hardly give a thought to eradicating them by taking their territory.  This is bad for humans, inasmuch as it makes our world less varied and beautiful, but, obviously, worse for the victims.   

We’re taught from an early age to regard humans as inherently superior to other beings, and as somehow having an unlimited right to exploit and murder those beings.  But the support for this position is dubious.  We tolerate this situation because we’ve been deeply conditioned  to avoid and ignore it.  But it doesn’t take a moral genius to see there’s something not right here.  Once you see it, it’s hard to unsee, and also hard to know how to address it. 

Christine Korsgaard has a go at it in her recent book, Fellow Creatures:  Our Obligations to the Other Animals, which I’ve been working my way through.  Korsgaard, an eminent philosophy professor at Harvard, comes out of the Kantian tradition, but disagrees with Kant’s view that non-human animals are not entitled to moral recognition.  After a multi-stage analysis, she concludes that there is no principled justification for treating the lives of non-human animals as having less value than homo sapiens’ lives. The great Thomas Nagel gives a good summary and endorsement of Korsgaard’s book in The New York Review of Books (subscription required).  

Some photography, a piano lesson, and the pain of golf

The weather here is getting hotter, but the last few days have been pleasantly mild.  I’ve been getting out early with my camera most mornings to see what’s going on in our local parks and gardens.   In the last few days I’ve been to Shelley Lake, Durant Park, Lake Johnson, Lake Wheeler, and Yates Mill Pond, as well as Raulston Arboretum and Duke Gardens. I didn’t see any uncommon animal or plant life, but I thought some of the dying flowers looked pretty.  As is my usual procedure, I’m sharing here photos I made this week that were my favorites for the week.

I had my first post-retirement piano lesson with Professor Olga Kleiankina at her studio at NC State on Sunday.  I’ve been working on Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2, with its thundering intensity and exotic lyricism. Olga coached me on touch and sound production, including more use of the back muscles, but she also diagnosed a fundamental problem: I was hearing things as I imagined them rather than as they were.  She thought I had failed to completely and fully listen. She noted that this is sometimes true of professional musicians, and further observed that if ever I learned to truly listen, I would no longer need a teacher.

As I told her, the idea of full on listening reminded me of a central aspiration of mindfulness — being fully present and attentive — which is also difficult to achieve.  Anyhow, I found helpful her ideas around listening and practicing slowly and carefully. She suggested that rather than a two hour lesson once a month, we meet for an hour every other week.  I was grateful that she doesn’t think it’s hopeless to try to help me, and am looking forward to climbing up to the next level.

I also took a golf lesson with Mike Sullivan at 401 Par Golf.  I hadn’t seen Mike since last fall, and in the meantime had developed a fairly bad case of the yips in trying delicate shots close to the green.  Mike is a very upbeat guy and knows a lot about golf.  He had some good ideas for chipping, and I’m hoping to see improvement now that I have a more time to practice.

My feelings about golf are certainly mixed. It is, of course, associated with privilege and elitism, and so sits uncomfortably with my concerns for fairness and social justice.  It is far from eco-friendly. It is generally expensive. It’s frustrating. And it sounds like a sad cliche for a guy to be retiring to play golf.

But, that said, there are things about the game that are worth defending.  Like every sport, it has its moments of drama and humor. Unlike most sports, it has as an essential component the values of honesty and integrity.  It can help build friendships and cooperation. It is beautiful, both in its landscapes and kinetic arcs.

And at every level of play, it demands of the player a mix of intellectual, physical, and moral qualities.   It poses challenges that potentially make us better. It’s unfortunate for the game that the current American President is such a golf lover and super-sized example of dishonesty, immorality, and stupidity, but let’s just consider him the exception that proves the rule. 

Gabe and I have been getting out for a game most weekends, and it’s been inspiring to see him dramatically improve his game.  With some putting improvements, he may soon be breaking 80.  For me it will be a longer, tougher journey, but still, I look forward to it.

Canoes at Umstead Park

 

Resetting in retirement, new animal photos, new music, and reading The Uninhabitable Earth

A white-tailed deer at Lake Wheeler

My transition from a corporate schedule to a non-corporate one has been fairly undramatic.  I find myself smiling more and carrying around less stress. But it’s been sudden, and a little disorienting.  On Sunday night, I found myself starting to think about getting up early to get to the gym for the start of a new corporate work week, when there wasn’t going to be one.  Old habits die hard.

But I’m starting to develop some new routines that I like.  Instead of rushing out early to the gym, most days I’m starting with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation.  Then I head out to one of our local forests and lakes with my camera and look about for animals and plants in the gentle early light.  After a couple of hours of looking, I head to the gym for various types of cardio activity, resistance training, core work, and stretching.  If it’s not a swimming day, I either read or listen to podcasts while I sweat.

Back home, I get a shower and make a green smoothie for a late breakfast.  Then I’ll download and process my latest photographs. I’m experimenting with various software tools, including especially Lightroom and Photoshop, and also Topaz, Nik, Aurora, and Helicon Focus.  

When my eyes and neck start to ache from photo processing, I usually practice the piano.  Currently on the workbench are Chopin’s first Impromptu and the Op. 27, No. 1 Nocturne, Liszt’s third Consolation, and Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2.  

I’ve also been working on a couple of dozen jazz standards, like Misty, Stardust, and All the Things You Are.  I got reasonably proficient at playing some of the great American songbook before law school, but afterwards put that music it in storage for most of the last 30 years.  Now I’m getting the dust and cobwebs off and enjoying it again.

A gray squirrel with a hot dog at Lake Wheeler

Speaking of music, I finished reading the new biography of the Robert Schumann by Judith Chernaik, which I found worthwhile.  Schumann (1810-1849) was a great composer, who adored and married Clara Schumann, a great pianist, and had several children. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life, but left an enduring legacy.

I also finished reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me.  It’s a sometimes funny but ultimately serious book set in the recent past but with a futuristic premise:  the protagonist buys an expensive new home gadget, which is a completely realistic super intelligent humanoid robot.  There are various practical problems with having this device, and even more moral problems. I find the trajectory of advancing artificial intelligence fairly worrisome, and McEwan gave me some new grounds for worry. 

Although I finished The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, I immediately began re-reading it.   I would not recommend this book to anyone struggling with depression. The unvarnished accounting of the global-scale disasters that, to a high degree of probability, are coming our way are hard to process.  But I’m hoping there are many healthy people who will read it and be inspired to action. As much as Wallace-Wells makes vivid and real the possibility of cascading climate disasters, he also explains that, just as this is a situation that humans have created, it is one that humans have it in their power to address.

A great blue heron at Crabtree swamp

This week there was a good Ted Radio Hour podcast on this same subject.   It was inspiring to hear 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and get some ideas about carbon capture, animal agricultural redirection, and addressing climate change denial.  I’d like to think the dire reality of our situation is starting to sink in to public consciousness, and we may be starting to pull out of our death spiral.

In E.O.Wilson’s recent book Half Earth, on preventing more species extinctions (which I’m also re-reading), he points out another possible name for the coming era.  Instead of the Anthropocene, which emphasizes a biological world existing “almost exclusively by, for, and of ourselves,” he suggests calling it “the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness.”   On our current trajectory, the earth will have fewer and fewer non-human species. This is, of course, disastrous for non-domesticated animals and plants, but also tragic for the humans who remain.

Carolina wren at Yates Mill Pond

It’s always seemed to me a simple thing to enjoy being outside in nature, but it’s starting to seem less common and more worthy of attention.  Now that I have more time to get out to our local parks, I’m spending more time with our still common animal neighbors, like deer, squirrels, and birds.  The ones here are from the past week. The deer at Lake Wheeler seemed shy but interested in having a good look at me. The squirrels there were having an after-picnic picnic.  The great blue heron at Crabtree swamp spent a long time hunting, standing still for periods, moving slowly, and striking quickly. It had several little fish for breakfast.

Retiring, learning nature photography, and reprioritizing, with a lesson from my mom

 

Barred owl in a cypress tree with Spanish moss

Last Friday was the one-week anniversary of my retirement, and the start of the next phase of my education in  nature and photography. I drove down to Charleston, SC for a workshop sponsored by the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  The workshop included two one-day courses, with one led by Jamie Konarski Davidson on garden and macro photography, and the other led by Eric Horan on bird photography.  With Jamie’s group at Magnolia Plantation I battled heat and mosquitos, and with Eric’s I hand held a big lens on a rocking boat in Charleston Bay. It was challenging. I took many not-very-good pictures along with a few that I liked, including the ones here.  

Oystercatcher parent and child in Charleston Bay

My plan for the next several months is to learn a lot about nature photography and see if I can make better pictures.  I’ll be traveling both in and out of state and getting coaching from some master photographers. I’ll also be reading and watching videos on post-processing techniques, and doing a lot of trial-and-error experimenting.  We’ll see how it goes.

Osprey in Charleston Bay

Anyhow, I enjoyed the Charleston trip and got some good tips.  I traveled with Barry Wheeler, a fellow retiree with a long resume and the same camera as me (the extraordinary Nikon D850).  He posts some of his nature photography on his blog, Travels of an Old Guy, which I find well worth following.  During the drive, we had some great conversation on camera equipment and life in general.  

Great egret on a shrimp boat

As I told Barry, as I’ve started my post wage-earning life, I’ve been reflecting on some important things I learned from my mother, Zola Tiller.  She had a major hand in directing me toward the life of an intellectual, though of course I didn’t perceive that at the time, and also for a long time afterwards.   She often spoke admiringly about Albert Schweitzer, a French theologian, philosopher, humanitarian, musician, and physician. She must have read his biography.  I assumed from her account he was extremely famous, though I doubt I’ve even heard his name for at least 40 years.  

Black skimmer

Anyhow, according to mom, he was a good role model.  From these and other examples I absorbed a value system that placed great weight on high intelligence and professional achievement.  For most of my career, I did business where smartness was the coin of the realm, with other human qualities valued much less. And my mom was never an intellectual.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I was a young man this bothered me.

It wasn’t until near the end of her life that I realized she was exceptionally gifted in another way, which was relating to people with kindness, compassion, generosity, and love.  I used to think that those qualities were common, but I’ve come to see them as relatively rare, and worth noting and extolling. I suppose it would be good to be a Schweitzer, a formerly famous humanitarian.  But it would also be good to be a Zola Tiller — a person who gave warmth and caring to those in her circle and others fortunate enough to cross paths with her.

Hydrangea at Magnolia Plantation

On Wednesday, Sally and I celebrated our anniversary — the 37th!  She has made me the happiest of men! She gave me a very sweet card, and we had a good dinner at Bloomsbury Bistro.

Orchid at Magnolia Plantation