The Casual Blog

Dodging the hurricane, music therapy, and photo processing

A tiny lizard last week at Durant Park

Hurricane Florence got our full attention in Raleigh this week.  I usually take storm warnings with a large grain of salt, since there’s usually a lot of media hype in a feedback loop with people’s tendency to exaggerate certain kinds of danger.  But early projections showed a storm big enough to cover North Carolina with powerful winds and massive amounts of water, with the eye headed right towards here. We got extra food, charged our batteries, and filled the bathtub with water.  Sally’s sister Ann, who lives in Wilmington, heeded the official calls to evacuate, and came to stay with us.

The storm hit Wilmington hard, but then turned south and west, dumping record amounts of rain and causing widespread flooding.  In Raleigh, we got rain, but not in dramatic quantities. We had time to talk and do indoorsy things.

Like playing the piano — some Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and Bartok.  Why I enjoy this isn’t so clear.  There’s close to zero chance that making music will improve my economic or social status.  And there are negatives — periods of social isolation, time lost for other things, and possibly annoying the neighbors.

Part of the answer was suggested in a podcast I heard a while back about music therapy, which was being used in hospices to help dying people.  Most days just by playing I give myself some music therapy, relieving stress and anxiety, finding comfort and peace. But at the same time it’s challenging and energizing. Also, at times there are new discoveries, leaps across space and time, engaging with great musical minds of times past.  

Lately I’ve also been learning to play by ear.  This was not a part of my early musical training, and with so much else to learn about the written language of music and technique, I just didn’t get around to it.  But it turns out to be fun. There are large quantities of children’s songs, hymns, and assorted pop tunes rattling around in my head, and it’s entertaining to try them in different keys and styles.  I’m looking forward to sharing the songs of my childhood with my future grandchildren.

Because of the rain this weekend, I did not get outside with my camera, but I spent some time looking at and refining recent images.  These last few weeks I’ve been getting help from D.A. Wagner, a/k/a The Lightroom Guy, in getting my digital photo files organized and improving my Lightroom and Photoshop processing skills.   My processing typically involves cropping and experimenting with small variations in exposure, tone, and color in different parts of the image.  D.A. recently gave me some helpful ways to approach spot removal and similar edits, some of which I used with these pictures.  

 

Getting overheated, and looking around New York

Our air conditioning was out again for several days, and it was a tough, with temperatures in the 90s.  Our first repair guy said our unit was dead, and proposed to sell us a new one he had in stock. We finally got a second AC guy out late this week for a second opinion, and he got it going in twenty minutes, and advised us we could either do a pricey repair or buy a new unit — for about $10,000 less.  We concluded with sadness that the first guy was a scam artist. He seemed really nice. But he may have figured we would get so hot and desperate that we’d go for his story — which we nearly did.

We escaped to New York  last weekend (Labor Day), where we stayed on the lower east side, a short walk from Jocelyn and Kyle’s place.  It’s a lively, funky neighborhood, with colorful graffiti. I got up early to walk along the East River, where there were good views of the bridges, and people fishing and doing exercises.  I also poked around Chinatown, Little Italy, and nearby areas. There were guys working hard unloading trucks full of carrots, potatoes, and onions.

I’d planned to look in the lower east side and Chelsea galleries, but most were closed for vacation.  I got the Guggenheim to see the Alberto Giacometti exhibit and One Hand Clapping, an exhibit of mostly Chinese artists.  At some point I’d formed the view that a little Giacometti went a long way, but I found more than I expected to think about in his work.  And I particularly liked the video work of Cao Fei about automation and artificial intelligence in Chinese factories. 

 I made a stop at the Neue Galerie to look at their collection of German Expressionism, and a joint exhibit of Gustav Klimt and Egon Shiele.   I also got over to the Whitney to see retrospective of the work of David Wajnarowicz.  

Jocelyn found us some fun bars and restaurants.  She also organized a brunch for us with Kyle and his mom, Debbie, and we really enjoyed getting to know her.  Joc also got us tickets to The Band’s Visit, a Broadway show about a small Israeli town that gets visited by mistake by a group of Egyptian musicians.  The musicians could really play! We liked the show.

Losing our air conditioning, and getting Gone With the Wind

Yates Mill Pond last Saturday, calm and warm

It was hot again this week, and our air conditioning failed again.  The AC repair person said the system was worn out and needed to be replaced, at a mind-boggling price.  Sally began work on getting another quote. Without thinking about it, we’ve gotten very used to AC, and it feels like a hardship not to have it. That’s privilege for you.  I wonder, would we be more motivated to address our warming climate if we weren’t insulated by AC?

We liked Spike Lee’s new movie, BlacKkKlansman.  It’s funny, in a way, and unsettling.  It shows us something about our society that is ultimately tough to look at.  

The movie starts with a famous scene from Gone With the Wind:  Scarlett at the train depot in Atlanta, looking for her man among the thousands of Confederate wounded and dead.  It’s a brilliant scene, with stunning photography. There’s no comment from Spike Lee about it, so you’re invited to think, why is he quoting it?  

When I first saw Gone With the Wind, my mom told it was the greatest movie ever made. This is a conventional view. It won several Oscars and was hugely successful financially. It’s romantic and exciting, and it has a great look. But since Spike Lee brought it up, I finally understood that it is deeply racist.

It is essentially about the importance and beauty of white supremacy.  The valiant struggles, both during the Civil War and afterwards, are for the purpose of subjugating black people.  Scarlett triumphs in the post-war period with a lumber business of re-enslaved black prisoners. Rhett and the men folk’s “political activities” are about KKK terrorizing of black people.

So my generation of white people (Boomers) learned that Gone With the Wind was a great movie, worth repeated viewings, and absorbed its message of the proper relations of whites and blacks.  This is how racism now works in America: we learn it without talking about it, or even consciously hearing about it. Like the air, it’s usually invisible, and white people hardly think about it as a thing.  White privilege seems natural.  Opposing this invisible (to white people) thing can seem odd, radical, or nutty.

One good thing about the Trump presidency is it is bringing racism and other ills out to where we can see them.  For all his ignorance, he understands the white fear of dark skin, and is brilliant at arousing, magnifying, and exploiting it.  It’s his gift, and the secret of his improbable political success.

We’re in the midst of an epic social psychology experiment. Like Stanley Milgram’s electric shock obedience experiment or Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, but so much bigger, Trump is testing the limits of power, “othering,” and ethics.  Some of what we’re learning in this experiment is discouraging.  There are a surprisingly large block of unapologetic hard-core racists.  But they are still a minority. Their vile hatred is inspiring a counterforce.  We’re reexamining themselves and this system.  We’re getting a new view of invisible racism, which is a step towards ending it.

Last week protesters just down the road in Chapel Hill pulled down “Silent Sam,” a Confederate memorial.  That’s progress.

Some butterflies, and bidding adieu to our local paper

I’ve been a big fan of newspapers since I was a kid with a paper route.  I’ve held it to be both valuable and pleasant to start each day with coffee and a printed newspaper.  And so it was with sadness that this month I dropped our subscription to our local paper, the News and Observer.  For several years, the paper has been wasting away, with less and less content, and when I got their last bill, I decided the value just wasn’t there any more.

I pay for both paper and electronic versions of the New York Times, and digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.  I also get the Economist, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic, and check on a number of free web-based news sites. So losing the N&O will not put me into an over all information deficit.

But there’s no good substitute for local journalists with knowledge of state and local politics.  Press scrutiny has traditionally constrained the state legislature, but now not so much. In NC, the ruling party is re-engineering the political system, with little scrutiny or thoughtful criticism.  

As we’ve needed better journalism, it’s been frustrating to see the N&O doing less and less of it.  But I don’t really blame it.  The internet has sucked away advertising dollars. Local papers all over the country are losing advertisers, money, and subscribers, laying off staff, and closing.  The traditional local newspaper model isn’t working any more. It’s a big problem, not just for journalism, but for American democracy.

Anyhow, I feel sorry for the N&O.  I’d like to say thanks to those writers and editors, ad sales folks, press people, and deliverers who in years past made it a good local paper, and those today who are still doing what they can under difficult market conditions.  

Speaking of good journalism and market and policy failures, two weeks ago the NY Times magazine had a special issue with a single article:  Losing Earth: the Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich. l  It took me a while, but I read the whole thing, and I recommend going all the way to the last sentence.  

It’s basically the story of how in the 1980s a small group of scientists and activists recognized the relationship of CO2 and global warming.  They succeeded in starting a social and political movement that grew to worldwide dimensions. Then that movement was neutralized by hubris, political opportunism, and the oil and gas lobby.  And the serious damage wrought by humans on the natural world continued and worsened. It is not a cheerful story. But we’re still in it — the last chapter hasn’t been written — and we can still do something about it.  

The pictures here are ones I took this weekend at Raulston Arboretum.  It was hot, but the butterflies seemed to like it.

After the fire, a big picture, and climate change denialism

 

Bee at work in Raulston Arboretum

As usual, Gabe and I got out for some golf this weekend, and it was hot and humid.  We’ve both been getting some better, but there’s still plenty of disappointment and frustration.  My five and six foot putts would not go in the hole. As Gabe said, after an errant shot, “I hate golf.”  But it’s good to have some father and son time. And we are hitting more good shots than we used to, and every now and again a wonderful one.       

 

Speaking of burning up, this past week one of my photos was on the side of the Raleigh Convention Center:  a shot of the huge construction site fire of last March. A few weeks ago, I got an email from the fire and rescue association asking for my permission to use the shot, which I gave happily.  I assumed it was going to be one of many little pictures, rather than becoming a giant. They kindly included a prominent credit line in the lower right corner, even though I’d forgotten to ask for one. It may not be my best picture, but it’s the biggest.  

Watching the fire from our balcony, we were close enough to feel the heat, and we’ve had a ringside seat to the reconstruction.  It’s going to be an apartment building called the Metropolitan. Lately they’ve been putting in the outer layer and glass. It’s looking like it will be an attractive addition to the neighborhood.  

It saddened me to learn this week that a neighbor of ours is a climate change denialist.  He doesn’t think humans are responsible for rising temperatures and associated problems, and he doesn’t buy that the scientific consensus that says otherwise is reliable.  He is a well-educated, intelligent person, and in other regards quite sensible, decent, and kind. His rejection of reality on climate change came as a shock.

There’s been a lot of news about extreme weather recently:  massive wildfires in California, violent storms, deadly heat waves in Japan and Europe, droughts in the Middle East, famines in Africa, disappearing polar ice caps, Pacific islands swallowed by rising seas — and so on.  Not long ago, it seemed like climate disaster would be very bad, but not until the distant future. Now it’s here.

Bad ideas are not all equally concerning.  None of us is free of bias, and we all have our unfounded assumptions, fantasies, and delusions.  But climate change denialism is different from wacky conspiracy theories, groundless superstitions, or any number of wrong-but-usually-harmless ideas.  It has consequences.

Our failure to address climate change has already caused enormous destruction, and the window for our preventing catastrophe is closing rapidly.  Practically all of us in the first world are complicit in some degree, since we almost all use electricity, run internal combustion engines, and eat food that’s produced on factory farms.  Our carbon footprints are big, and to be oblivious to the harm we’re doing is bad. But it’s worse to take the position that we’re doing no harm, and that there’s nothing to worry about.

If my house is burning down, I might understand if my neighbor wouldn’t help me fight the fire.  There could be reasonable explanations. Perhaps she’s ill, or frightened. But if my neighbor is telling others that there’s not really a serious danger that needs addressing, that’s a problem.   

Although it is hard to understand climate change denialism, it is important to try, because there are some denialists who are our neighbors, and we’ve got to live together.  My working theory is that denialism is not the result of reasoning, good or bad, but rather a badge of belonging to a certain community. It signals that you belong to a certain political/cultural group.  It’s tribal.

Staying with the tribe is important.  When our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors were hunting and gathering, they needed the tribe.  Without the tribe, all alone, you would die. It seems likely that our evolutionary success depended in part on brain wiring that made us stay with the group, and we’ve still got that wiring.  In any case, without some degree of conformity, social life, which humans cannot live without for long, would not be possible. So probably most of us are willing to go along with some dubious ideas to maintain the community.  

I heard an interesting podcast interview last week with Lilliana Mason, and immediately bought her book, Uncivil Agreement.  She’s a political science professor who has been working on understanding political polarization, and one of her ideas struck me powerfully.  Mason contends that our political opinions are essentially products of our political groups, rather than our own reasoning. That is, we don’t decide to become a Democrat, Republican, or Other based on our own political positions.  Instead, we learn what our positions are after we identify with a party. What generally determines our views there is a community, rather than reasoning.

Looked at this way, my neighbor’s denialism seems a little more understandable and forgivable, though still disturbing.  It’s unlikely that I or any single person could talk him out of his view. Still, we should keep talking. There’s always a possibility that view could change.  That’s happened with other widely accepted terrible ideas before, like slavery, whaling, child labor, and smoking. We can’t give up hope.

My first electric scooter ride

 

I took some close-ups of Sally’s new orchid on Saturday morning, and then went for my first electric scooter ride.  The little scooters arrived in Raleigh recently, and I’ve been thinking they might be a good solution for my commute, which is too short for a car, but not a pleasant walk when it’s hot and humid.  So I downloaded the Bird app, which indicated there was free machine two blocks from me.

I unlocked the scooter with my cell phone with no problem.  It didn’t do anything at first when I pushed the throttle, but I eventually figured out that you need to push off with a foot before the motor will engage.  I was a little wobbly for the first minute.  But I soon got the hang of it, and it wasn’t long before i was going full throttle (about 15 MPH).  

It was fun!  On my first ride, I scooted quietly through the Cameron Park and Oakwood, and the trees smelled wonderful.  I also went downtown and stopped near the Convention Center, where the Supercon convention had drawn a lot of young people in fantastic costumes.  

 

Not diving, flowers, meditating, and watching 13th

Happy flowers at Raulston Arboretum, July 21, 2018

We’d scheduled a diving trip this weekend out of Wrightsville, but it got cancelled because of bad weather.  We’d been looking forward to seeing some wrecks and fish, but so it goes. Instead we had some pleasantly uncommitted and uncrowded hours.

Yesterday morning I stopped by Raulston Arboretum with my camera to see what was blooming and buzzing.  I was surprised at how many new flowers were there, including these. The rain has stopped and it was cloudy — good photography weather.

I also took a little extra time for meditating.  Lately I’ve been practicing sitting still for 15 minutes first thing in the morning, and focusing on the breath.  I find it’s helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, of which there is no shortage these days. It also unmasks some of the odd and funny things the mind will do.  I took a little refresher course on basic meditation techniques using an app called Calm, which was helpful.

We had a good dinner at La Santa, a relatively new Mexican restaurant a short walk from our apartment.  The place has a brash festive air, with murals of Santa Muerte, and current Mexican music. The menu doesn’t have a lot of vegetarian  offerings, but they had no problem making their fajitas without meat, which were tasty.

That night on Netflix we watched 13th, a documentary about the relationship of slavery and mass incarceration.  It notes that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population, and a disproportionate percentage of those prisoners are black.  The film also explores how politicians have encouraged and exploited fear of black people, with the wars on crime and drugs. I thought the editing was overly lively, but it was definitely worth seeing and thinking about.  

 

Our cruise on the Danube, toilets, facism, and Fred Rogers

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Budapest, Parliament

We just got back from taking a cruise along the Danube River, Budapest to Passau, five countries in seven days.  We saw castles, palaces, and cathedrals, art and technology, and some beautiful countryside.  It was stimulating and fun.  

Unfortunately, our air conditioner died.  When we got back on July 4, it was really hot (in the 90s), and our apartment was stifling.   Our cat and plants were still alive, but struggling. Sally got a qualified technician to check it the next day, and he diagnosed a failed motor. He ordered the part, which is expected in tomorrow.       

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It was pleasantly cool when we were in Europe (high 60s to low 70s), and things looked to be working well.   They appeared to be trying to address climate change, as we saw lots of electric trams, solar panels and wind turbines.    

But I was particularly impressed with their toilet systems.  Unlike in U.S. cities, we found that there were usually clean well-functioning public restrooms conveniently located. They charge for admission (up to one Euro), but it’s totally worth it. As a tourist spending hours poking down their lovely winding streets, I was so grateful.  

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Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

As we looked at very old cities, I was struck by the multiple levels of culture that existed side by side, like distinct layers in sedimentary rock, or a slice of linzer torte.  In places we could see bits of ancient Rome, medieval culture, Renaissance, Baroque, neo-classical, and other influences all in the same church or castle, or street.

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Matthias Church, Budapest

 

The cathedral building efforts involved multiple generations of humans cooperating.  Each one is unique, an expression of a specific local culture, and some of them are really beautiful. How did they organize themselves and then keep on going for many decades? The pay can’t have been very good. And they didn’t have any power tools! For all the Church’s problems,  I give it credit for animating so much creativity.

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Passau, Germany

Our cruise on the Danube was on the Viking Legend.  The Viking staff was friendly and very competent, and organized the trip in a way that made a lot of sense for a first time visitor.  We would typically cruise to a new destination in the evening, have breakfast, and then have a guided tour in the morning. We’d then have lunch either in town or on the boat, and explore on our own in the afternoon.   Then, back to the boat for a cocktail, dinner, and after dinner entertainment.

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A cafe in Passau

 

The guided tours were by local folks who were knowledgeable and good-humored.  We were not especially knowledgeable about the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, and other political history of the area, and got an introduction that made us want to learn more.  We got better at distinguishing baroque, rococo, and Neo-classical styles.

It was also interesting to hear personal stories of the guides who’d grown up in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic under the Communist system.  Our Czech guide mentioned that after the fall of the Berlin wall, he was the first kid in his school to visit the west and get Legos. Back home, the other kids were wild for those Legos!

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Bratislava, Slovakia

There were about 180 guests on our ship.  Most of them were “seniors,” though there were a few younger families with kids, and one cute pair of honeymooners.  At meal time, most people we shared a table with were pleasant enough to chat with, and there were a few we quite enjoyed.

We had one afternoon of cruising the Danube between Krems and Vienna.  The weather was cloudy and threatening to rain, but it was lovely seeing the the mountains and villages shrouded in fog, and the ruins of ancient castles.

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As there was so much impressive architecture built over hundreds of years, it took some time to understand how much was pointlessly destroyed by British and U.S. bombing in WWII.  While killing more than 400,000 German and Austrian civilians, we all so took a terrible toll on these civilizations’ cultural treasures. There’s a good, though painful, account of this terror bombing in Daniel Ellsberg’s recent book, the Doomsday Machine.  But I’m happy to say that the Germans and Austrians we met didn’t seem bitter about this, or to be expecting an apology.  They’d rebuilt with loving and obsessive precision some of their most treasured buildings, and moved on.

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Passau, Germany

There were several guides who said interesting things about Hitler.  They seemed to view him as evil, but also viewed their forefathers as in part his victims. It’s hard for most of us to understand the appeal of Antisemitism, but there’s no denying it really excited some Europeans.  The idea that the Jews were a threat to society was, of course, completely crazy, but having an enemy group gave them a sense of purpose. It brought them a kind of unity and provided a simple (but wrong) way to address their social problems    

At any rate, our own recent experience with ascendant racism and xenophobia made me much more understanding and forgiving towards those who supported or failed to stop Hitler.  Here, as elsewhere, Trump is teaching us some true but sad lessons. Words that draw us together as a tribe by pretending to racial superiority are extremely appealing to many. At the same time, those same words, dehumanizing those who are physically or culturally different, make some of us fearful and suggestible.  And politicians who figure this out can manipulate these excited and fearful people. Those of us who aren’t so fearful can hardly believe it’s happening, or that we have to actively oppose it.

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Sally in Salzburg

On Saturday we went out to an air-conditioned movie  theater (the Rialto) to see the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers.  I remember trying to watch his show with my children when they were small, and finding it so slow that it was literally impossible to sit through.  But of course, I was not part of the target audience. Rogers took the needs and fears of small children very seriously, and addressed them with uncanny respect and love.    The film was really touching, and a welcome reminder that there is goodness in the world.  

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Me and my beer, Hofbrauhaus, Munich

Dragonflies, our N.C. Courage, and pride

 

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Yesterday morning I went dragonfly hunting with my camera, and got these shots.  These apex predators of the insect world are both beautiful and unsettling — like little aliens.  Photographing them takes patience and gumption, since their workdays are mostly about fast flying, not stopping and posing.  They like places that are hot and swampy.    Woods-5

On Saturday evening we got out to see the N.C. Courage, our professional women’s soccer team, play the Utah Royals.  The Courage’s play was excellent — quick, precise, creative, and energized. They were dominant throughout, though I credit Utah for a strong defense.  At the end of regulation the score was tied at 0-0. Then in the last of minute of additional time, Utah scored. It ended an undefeated start of the season for the Courage — a tough loss.   

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The game was publicized as a pride event, and the gay population might have been slightly more identifiable than usual.   It’s encouraging that we’ve gotten over some of our fears and prejudices, and made progress in recognizing the dignity and worth of gay people.  It shows that minds can change.

 

 

Our 36th anniversary, Jane, nature photography, and a hopeful suicide

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At Grandfather Mountain last week, with wind and rain

This week Sally and I had our 36th wedding anniversary.  It seems not so long ago that we were feeding each other wedding cake and dancing that first dance, but there it is, a large set of years.  I feel extremely grateful for our happy marriage. We had a celebratory dinner at Vidrio, a wonderful restaurant in our neighborhood, where we shared the delicious burrata, green chickpea hummus, mushroom polenta, black rice risotto, and roasted cauliflower socca.

On Saturday night we had Sally’s spaghetti with red pepper sauce and watched Jane, a new documentary about Jane Goodall, on Amazon Prime.  Goodall is most famous for her groundbreaking research on wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. Until I saw the documentary, I hadn’t appreciated how remarkable her achievement was:  being the first known human to closely observe our closest primate cousins in the wild, and then overturn much of the conventional wisdom about them. It took amazing courage, originality, and empathy.   The documentary was really beautiful and moving, with video of the young Jane almost alone in the jungle with the chimpanzees who could easily have killed her, but accepted her. I highly recommend it.

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Speaking of nature photography, last weekend I went to western North Carolina for the Grandfather Mountain Nature Photography Weekend.  The weather was  very windy and rainy at times, and so I didn’t do as much hiking about and photographing as I’d hoped.  But the program included lectures by some very accomplished photographers, who had inspiring images and intriguing ideas. I photographed some raptors that had been injured and taken into an education program, and saw the bears and other animals at the relatively benign zoo.  

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This was my second year at the conference.  I got a lot out of it last year, but kept mostly to myself.  I don’t mind making small talk, which can sometimes lead to larger talk, but I don’t find it easy to start a conversation with a stranger, and I also don’t particularly mind not talking.  But this year I made a point to speak to those who sat next to me, and was glad I made an effort. I had several enjoyable chats about cameras, lenses, processing software, good spots for shooting wildflowers, and other matters of interest to fellow photog nerds.  

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A red tailed hawk

I enjoy the gear-head aspects of nature photography, but the more fundamental and rewarding part of the experience is nature.  The camera gets me outdoors and looking hard at the non-human world. There are times I just take the gear out in the woods and walk, and end up not taking any pictures, without feeling disappointed.  The natural world is rewarding in and of itself.  It is also in many places and ways at risk of destruction by humans.  It needs our support and attention.  

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A screech owl

A few weeks ago, a non-famous guy of about my age named David Buckel burned himself to death in Brooklyn as an environmental protest, like the Buddhist monks who opposed the Vietnam war.  Buckel was deeply worried about the harm that humans are doing to the planet, and his disturbing act was apparently intended to communicate that.  

Annie Correal wrote a long piece in the New York Times about Buckel that referred to a lengthy suicide letter that he sent to the Times.  I sent her an email of appreciation, and also asked if she could let me have access to his entire message. She said the Times had a policy against that, and I didn’t manage to persuade her to make an exception.

So, except for the few journalists who got to see Buckel’s letter, we don’t know the details of what he intended to express. But it seems clear that he felt a sense of desperation at our heedlessness in the face of climate change and other environmental misdeeds, and wanted to make us address those issues.  He must have also had a sense of hope, or he wouldn’t have bothered to raise the environmental issues as he sacrificed his life.  It’s a sad and shocking thing that he did, but perhaps his death will have resonance.

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