Chilling with Robert Frost and a new camera

by Rob Tiller

The hot weather finally broke last week, after setting a temperature record here in Raleigh for most consecutive days over 100 (6) and tying the all time high of 105. Most of the time, I’m in air-conditioned environments, but still, I usually try to spend some time in unprocessed air. During the recent heat wave, though, the idea of communion with the natural world seemed rash. The brutality of nature was in full display.

To cool off mentally, I refreshed on The Wood-Pile, a poem by Robert Frost. I memorized this chilly thing a while back for no good reason other than its stark strangeness. It begins, “Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day, I …” The narrator at first sees nothing but “tall slim trees.” It seems matter of fact, but it’s completely strange! Who goes walking in a frozen swamp? Especially when the sky is gray and gloomy?

As with other great poems by Frost, what seems at first to be simple factual reporting turns out to raise question after question. The nominal focus of the poem is on a well-formed cord of wood incongruously left in the middle of the snowy swamp. The narrator has personal knowledge of the hard work required to cut so much maple with an ax, and is baffled and offended that anyone could invest such effort in a fine wood pile and leave it “far from a useful fireplace.” He speculates that such a person must be someone who “lived in turning to fresh tasks.” This is, from the narrator’s viewpoint, a strange and disturbing thing. And so we wonder more about the flinty narrator.

A woodchuck near the Buckeye Trail

Is it a bad thing to turn to fresh tasks? The poem make us wonder, but still I think, generally not. New challenges are, more often than not, good. I undertook one last week and bought my first digital SLR camera with the thought that I’d like to engage with the visual world a little differently and take better pictures. I’ve been drawn by photography since I was a kid, but in the pre-digital era was discouraged by the difficulty of working with film (dark rooms, chemicals, and so forth) and the expense.

I also worried about that the camera sometimes shuts off the photographer from experience. Think of gaggles of tourists taking snaps of the Grand Canyon — and forgetting to look at it. Direct experience of beautiful things, or even not-so-beautiful things, is a terrible thing to waste.

Balancing that risk, though, is the possibility of finding a different way of seeing, and also a different pathway for communication. I’ve enjoyed using my little point-and-shoot to share images with friends, and noticed that at times taking a picture created an interesting shift in my own visual perspective. A photograph is an abstraction from a larger visual reality, but being conscious of this can focus attention on the larger reality. Deciding whether something is worth snapping and how to snap can open things up.

Anyhow, I got a Nikon D3200 with two Nikon lenses (an 18-55 zoom and a 55-300 zoom). Although the D3200 is an entry-level SLR, it is, to me, amazing technology. 24 million pixels! Four shots per second! ISO 100-6,400! Fast autofocus! A vibration reduction system! HD video with sound! And it fits my hands perfectly. All that it requires is knowledge, experience, and creativity.

I was thinking that it would be fun to photograph wildlife, and especially birds. I’m also interested in trying to look at human-built places that are not intended for show, places that happen as a by-product of other objectives, to see what we might be missing. Above and below are some of my first efforts.

Mallard ducklings at Lake Johnson