The Casual Blog

Snow geese and tundra swans, Roman history, and another wall problem

Tundra swans at Pungo Lake

Each winter thousands of migrating tundra swans and snow geese stop in eastern North Carolina for a while to collect themselves and eat what’s left in the farm fields.  For a human, all that bird life is a thrilling sight.

In addition to the thrill, I was hoping to capture some images of the birds in flight.  In preparation, I did some research on optimal settings and customized some of my camera buttons.  This process was involved and confusing, and I thought it possible I would end up with a hard-to-repair mess.  I also decided to try wielding my Sigma 150-500mm, a beastly large lens, free hand (no tripod).

Pungo Lake, where I saw most of snow geese and most of the tundra swans, is about 2.5 hours east of Raleigh.  For part of the time I traveled with other members of the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, including some friendly and very well-traveled shutterbugs.  I got to hear some of their stories and picked up some helpful tips.

I saw thousands of big white birds, as well as several species of ducks, waders, and one black bear.  We had good weather until Saturday afternoon, when the rain came in and the temperature started to drop.  I was happy with some of the shots I got before then.

On an ordinary day, I check the digital news headlines frequently, which  rarely puts me in a more relaxed, pleasurable state of mind. So it was good to unplug for the weekend and concentrate on the beauty of the natural world.  

I also spent some of the driving time learning about the classical world.  I finished listening to a series of lectures titled The Rise of Rome, by Gregory Aldrete, from the Great Courses series.  It traces the rise of Rome from a settlement to the Western world’s first superpower.

Aldrete is a good teacher and a good story teller, and mixes broad themes with interesting anecdotes.  The Romans were certainly great engineers and organizers, as well as fearsome warriors. In the late Roman Republic, the levels of corruption, extreme inequality, and political dysfunction were even worse than our own, which I found somewhat comforting.  Leaving aside the lives and civilizations destroyed by Rome, life went on.

Snow geese coming in for a landing near Pungo Lake

I’ve been trying to avoid spending too much time obsessing over the latest Trump conflagration, since it does little or no good.  But I have been keeping a sharp eye on the presidential approval poll numbers, hoping to see a change in the national mood, and possibly our direction.  Even though Trump has been generally unpopular almost since day 1, his Republican base has been mostly steadfast.

I know some sane, well-informed, thoughtful, kind and generous Republicans, and have found it hard to understand how people like them could support a President with none of those virtues.  Trump, it seemed, might have been right when he said that no matter how crazy or heinous his acts, his base would never abandon him. But in the latest polling, after his reckless government shut down and non-stop nonsense about the Wall, the polls indicate some of his loyalists may be rethinking their position.

Although Trump has a gift for bringing out the worst in people, at times he inadvertently brings out better things.  For example, his racist language encourages the no-holds-barred racists, but it also makes others think more and talk more about the hard-to-see realities of our longstanding, everyday privileging of whiteness.  His climate change denialism is getting harder for the base to swallow as they face more frequent droughts, floods, fires, hurricanes, and other storms.

Even the Wall discussion seems to have crossed a threshold.  For many, it seems to have gone from being primarily a fun slogan to yell at a Trump rally to looking like a nutty and wasteful boondoggle.  There’s an aspect of the Wall idea that hasn’t gotten much attention, which I was glad to see noted in the  news  recently: the harmful effects on non-human life. The 650 miles of wall already in existence is very bad for the hundreds of species of animals and plants that live in the vicinity. Many of these need to travel north and south for food, water, and mating.  We need to take their needs into account.

Chilly birds, a friendly fish in hot water, and a successful cell phone repair

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Saturday morning was overcast and chilly.  I put on some layers and warm gloves and went up to Shelley Lake to check on the birds and take some pictures.

Ring-billed gull

  There were a few dozen ring-billed gulls that mostly bobbed on the lake, but occasionally took to the air for some fast acrobatic flying.  Back home, when I looked at my pictures, I saw a pattern: when there were groups of gulls, they were usually chasing a gull that had some food.  That seems mean! A friendly passerby pointed out a couple of eagles sitting in a tree on the other side of the lake. I also enjoyed seeing the double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, and great blue herons.  The shots here were taken with big heavy lenses (Nikkor 80-400mm, and Sigma 150-500mm), and no tripod.

Chasing gulls

Why are some birds so beautiful?  This weekend I read a really good piece in the NY Times on this by Ferris Jabr:  How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.  Some birds, like peacocks, are extravagantly gorgeous, with colors and shapes that seem to make them easy targets for predators.   This seems to contradict some of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”), and after 150 years scientists have still not agreed on an explanation.

But there’s modern support for the view that natural selection is supplemented by sexual selection (usually, females preferring males that look or sound better).   This implies that the animals have preferences that aren’t purely functional — that is, aesthetic preferences. Jabr’s piece gives a sense of the strong passions of the scientists involved. It’s well worth reading.

Double-crested cormorants

Speaking of animal intelligence, I want to make a note about a particular fish who captured my heart when we were scuba diving in the Bahamas.  As we prepared for a dive onto a ship wreck, our leader recommended we look around for a friendly grouper they called Binks, who she said liked to be petted.  Near the end of the dive, I looked over the top edge of the wreck and saw a little grouper (perhaps 18 inches) watching me. I extended my arm, and he came up and nuzzled my hand.  I petted him with gentle strokes, like a dog. Binks was such a sweet little fish!

I was startled at Washington Post’s report this week that recent studies have found oceans are warming significantly faster than had been thought.  Oceans cover 70 percent of the earth.  Warmer oceans mean rising sea levels, more severe weather disasters (hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, etc.). This is terrible for many living creatures, including humans, and fish, including Binks.

The Sierra Club magazine this month had an encouraging piece titled There Is No Planet B:  It’s Up to Us to Craft the Shape of the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson.   Robinson acknowledges the possibility of mass extinction, but outlines the possibility that we can still reverse course.  He notes that need to rethink some of our traditional capitalist assumptions, which will not be easy. But those assumptions were created by humans, and they can be changed.  

Two bald eagles on the far side of the lake

Finally, I need to give a shout out to CPR — that is, Cell Phone Repair, a local business at Holly Park, off Wake Forest Road.  I discovered last week that I’d broken the camera in my Samsung Galaxy S7 device. The guys at CPR said they could get it fixed in 3 hours.  I asked if there was anything to be done about my weakening battery, and they said, sure, they could help me out with a new battery. They got it done in 2 hours, and everything worked great!  

 

Some yoga, being more present, nature photographers, Fiction Kitchen, the dances of Shen Yun

Sunrise in Raleigh this morning looking southeast

I was congested and sniffly for the first week of 2019, but still managed to get up early for some exercise every morning.  On Friday, I went to Flywheel for a spinning (stationary bike) class, and had a pretty good result: 317 points, and second place in the class.  After that I went down to O2 fitness and did some upper body resistance and core work, plus stretching.

I also made it to my first yoga class of the year.  I like the Early Bird classes at Blue Lotus, just across the street from us, which are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.  Each class is different, but the system always combines flexibility, strength, and balance. I like moving as part of a group, and I like the teachers, Andrea and Glenda.  I don’t have much interest in New Age ideas, which fortunately they do not emphasize.   

Last Thursday Glenda was an excellent form, and gave a lot more than an ordinary exercise class.  She always has a great mixture of cheerfulness, supportiveness, and demandingness. But this time she helped me tune into to tiny details of sensation and investigate connections of distant parts of the body.  She encouraged us to move into the present moment in a way that made it seem both easy and marvelous.

This is my prime New Year’s resolution:  to be more present. I’m hoping to spend less energy in unproductive worrying and the like and more in the present moment.  On the Waking Up podcast last week, Sam Harris spoke about meditation and its benefits. Harris pointed up that most of us could improve the overall quality of our lives enormously just by cutting out useless mental loops of fear, anger, or craving.  Just dropping the pointless emotional junk would allow a lot more room for fulfillment.

I also resolved to get to some of the Carolina Nature Photographers meetings.  I joined the group a couple of years back, and have gone to some of their outings, but until this week I hadn’t been to  single one of their monthly meetings. Part of me always thought it would be great to talk shop with other nature photographers, and I decided to start this week.   

But part of me was resistant.  I generally dread meeting people I don’t know.  Based on my reading in evolutionary biology, I’d guess this dread  has ancient roots: our ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years ago living in small bands seldom encountered others of their species, and when they did it usually meant trouble, and possibly a violent death.  So they too probably avoided it when possible, and passed this strategy along to their successors. Anyhow, for whatever reason, I’ve got a mild phobia of strangers.

But I recognize it’s important to connect with others and so I usually manage to buck up and just do it.  Much more often than not, I enjoy a social chat once it gets started. At the meeting, not surprisingly, I found several nice people to chat with companionably about photography subjects, and enjoyed the presentation.  I thought some of the photography shown was really good, but not at all out of my league. I’d already resolved to take better pictures, and resolved this week to enter some of the contests.

I took the wildlife pictures here this weekend at Yates Mill Pond, Lake Lynn, and Shelley Lake.  I liked the reflections.  I was experimenting with some new settings in preparation for a trip with the Carolina Nature Photographers to Lake Mattamuskeet in a couple of weeks, where I expect to encounter thousands of water birds — snow geese, tundra swans, various ducks, and others.  

On Friday night we ate at one of our favorite restaurants, Fiction Kitchen.  We were happy to get a seat at the bar.  They’re popular and don’t take reservations, and we’ve been turned away more often than we’ve gotten in.  Fiction Kitchen is about delicious vegetarian and vegan food and a friendly artsy atmosphere. The core social vibe is distinctly lesbian, but all are welcome.  Sally had the veggie mock pork barbecue, and I had the mock sushi. Both were very tasty, and we had no room left for dessert.

Then we walked over to Memorial Auditorium to see Shen Yun, the Chinese dance troop.  They bill their art as part of an ancient Chinese tradition going back thousands of years, and contend that it is the root source of elements of western ballet and gymnastics.  Perhaps. What is certainly true is that they are very graceful and super athletic. The colorful flowing costumes are lovely, and the use of technology in the sets is creative.  There’s a degree of formality in the way the dancers present themselves, but that also is attractive.

Shen Yun’s beautiful dancers and lively stories emphasize the richness of Chinese culture, and at first I wondered if it was sponsored by the Chinese government.  But midway through the program, there were a couple of highly political segments that dramatize the brutality of Communist authoritarianism. The roots of Shen Yun seem to be in Falan Dafa, a/k/a Falan Gong, a movement involving meditation and qiqong exercises which continues to be persecuted by the CP.

Anyhow, we found the show stimulating and fun, and would go back again.  As I mentioned to Sally, the idea of China that was I got from American schooling turns out to have been a wild oversimplification.  The inhumanity of Chinese Communism is only one part of the picture. The China of real people turns out to be incredibly varied and interesting.  Without too much preaching, Shen Yun showed this.

Our scuba diving trip to the Bahamas

 

Sally and I got back on Saturday from a scuba diving trip aboard the Bahamas Aggressor.  After a week on the ship, our sea legs are still working — that is, the floor to our apartment has been rolling from side to side.  Our ears got a bit stopped up from a lot of time underwater, so we’re not hearing so well, and my poor toes have a couple of bad blisters from hours of kicking with fins. But it was wonderful to be at sea, seeing so many amazing creatures.  The pictures here were all taken by me during the trip, except the last one, which was by Brynne, one of our ship photographers.

The Bahamas Aggressor is a 100-foot vessel with a crew of 6 that sails out of Nassau.  The ship was, we learned, the oldest member of the Aggressor fleet.  It was a little cramped, but had all the necessities, and the various systems (water, electricity, AC, air compressor, etc.) worked fine.  Our only real disappointment was the hot tub, which looked inviting, but was unfortunately broken.    

Our dive sites were southeast of Nassau, in the Exuma and Eleuthera areas.  We had some spectacular sunsets, but it was mostly gray, and cooler and windier than expected.  The seas got a bit rough at times, and I was glad I took motion sickness pills. The water was generally around 79 degrees F, and I felt comfortable in a 5 mm wetsuit with a hooded vest.  The visibility was usually around 60 feet, though substantially less than that on a couple of dives.

We generally did four or five dives per day, including a night dive.  Most dives were a little under an hour. The dive sites were mostly either walls or coral reef structures, with a couple of wrecks thrown in.  We saw a lot of interesting sea life, large and small. To name a few, there were Caribbean reef sharks, southern sting rays, groupers, barricuda, jacks, Atlantic spadefish, filefish, queen triggerfish, porcupine fish, grunts, striped burrfish, and various types of parrotfish, along with various angelfish (gray, queen, French), butterflyfish, and lots of other small tropicals.  There were, unfortunately, a lot of destructive lionfish. We also saw several green sea turtles, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, and conchs, and various tinier creatures. A few people saw a solitary hammerhead shark, but we missed that one. There was also one octopus sighting, but sadly, we didn’t get that one either.

There was beautiful coral in places, but a number of the dive sites did not look healthy.  There was some serious coral bleaching, and also a lot of green algae. We’d been well aware that coral reefs have been dying in many places, but had hoped they would be healthier here.  Over all, I found the conditions worrisome.

But we found many beautiful inspiring areas of life.  The crew, led by Captain Christy, was young, cheery, and supportive, and our eight fellow passengers were good diving and dining companions.  Five were of Chinese or Singaporean origin, and we very much enjoyed getting to know them and something of their culture. Caleb the cook fed his two vegetarians (us) well, and made particularly wonderful desserts.

On some dives we stayed close to the guide, but on most we explored on our own.  We had one major navigation snafu. After miscalculating the direction, we found ourselves almost out of air and surfaced a couple of hundred yards from the boat, and so had to be picked up by the Zodiac pontoon boat.  Also, on our very last dive, the plan was for a drift dive in strong current, with divers jumping in quickly one after the other off the side from the moving boat. I was the last in the line, and when my turn came, in I went.

Once in the water, I found the visibility very limited (perhaps 10 feet), and I could not see anyone.  I assumed the group must be a short way ahead, just beyond visual range, and so I let myself be carried along quickly by the current. It was fun to drift, but after a few minutes, I started to get worried.  I finally decided to call it and surfaced after 15 minutes.   Rob, the mate manning the Zodiac, quickly spotted me and picked me up, and back we went to the boat. It turned out that everyone else had surfaced 3 or 4 minutes after the start of the dive, and they were getting worried about me. As happens at times, I had marched to a different drummer.  It was good to be back.

Between diving, eating, and sleeping, there wasn’t a lot of time for other activity, but I did finish an interesting book, The Social Leap, by William von Hippel.  It’s a science-for-non-scientists account of how evolution shaped homo sapiens and their social systems. Von Hippel explores differences between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, and brings into focus simultaneous opposing strong forces of cooperation and competition.  I wish he’d  been clearer about what was well-established science (which much of it was) as opposed to creative speculation, but he throws out a lot of intriguing ideas. He suggests looking at fear and unhappiness as essential to our species, in that they keep us alert to danger and lead to progress.  He views our inability to live in the present as both a gift and a problem, and notes the usefulness of meditation.

On Saturday, we had a direct flight from Nassau to Charlotte, and then drove home to Raleigh.  We talked a lot about the week, and started to kick around where to go for our next big diving trip.  Maybe the Red Sea. We also enjoyed listening to a new-to-us podcast called Aria Code.   Hosted by Rhiannon Giddens, each episode has a panel discussing a famous opera aria from musical, historical, and psychological points of view.  We especially liked the episode on love at first sight in Puccini’s La Boheme.

My weekend in New York

I took a trip to New York City last weekend to see some old and new friends, take in some art, eat, and hear some opera.  And that’s what I did.

Saks Fifth Avenue, at Christmas

New York gets dressed up for the December holidays, and I enjoyed the decorations at Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue.  The windows at Saks were decadent and sumptuous

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Rockefeller Center skaters

On the art front, I visited several museums and galleries, and the following five particularly struck me.  

Eugene Richards at the International Center for Photography.   Richards’s subjects are mostly people in dire circumstances (poverty, war, mental illness, drug addiction).  He gets so close to them it’s unsettling, but he seem empathetic, rather than exploitative. Some of the work is very painful and poignant.

Sarah Lucas at the New Museum.    Lucas is a British artist born in 1962.  The title of the show, Au Naturel, is both fitting and ironic; since it’s both accepting human sexuality and making it the subject of fantasies that are sometimes humorous and sometimes disturbing.  She seems to like cigarettes, though she knows they’re not good for you, and she puts them in places they ought never to go. This is not a show for young children.

Sarah Lucas sculptures

Andy Warhol at the Whitney Museum.    This is a big retrospective.  My take on Warhol back in the 80s was that he was completely superficial and embodied the worst, most materialistic aspects of American art and and culture.  I’ve been reconsidering that view in recent years, and this show made me drop it completely. He’s not my favorite artist, but a lot of his work is eye-catchingly fun to look at, and thought-provoking on multiple levels.  His silk screen work made me think about photography from new angles, as he transformed mediocre celebrity head shots into world-famous icons. Work that at first seemed all on the surface turns out to be surprisingly tricky and elusive.  I found myself thinking about thinking about what made art art.

Edward Burtynsky at the Bryce Wolkowitz (505 W. 24th St.).  These large-scale photographs cover industrial agriculture, mining, logging, and other large-scale activities around the globe.  The aerial views are weirdly beautiful, drawing you in and repelling at the same time.

Edward Burtynski, Russian potash mine

Anna Atkins at the New York Public Library.  In 1847, Atkins published the first printed book to be illustrated with photography.  The title was Photographs of British Algae, Cyanotype Impressions. The images are spare blue and white seaweed shapes, reminding us how the simplest, commonest things in nature can be beautiful.  I was moved by Atkins’s story — her passionate devotion to plants and to her project with brand new photographic technology. It must have been lonely out there for her, a woman in Victorian England, on the frontiers of knowledge.  

I stayed at the Mansfield Hotel on 44th at 5th Avenue.  The location was super-convenient. The room was really small, and there were no delightful little touches, or even little touches.  No view, no pads, no pens, no cups. But the bed was very comfortable, and the shower was great.

On Friday after I’d checked out the Anna Atkins exhibit, I started walking down to Chelsea.  I had some trouble with my Nikon camera. B&H Photo, my favorite non-local photo equipment place, which sold me my D850, was on the way, so I decided to stop in and ask for help.  The store is crammed full of every kind of photographic and electronic gadgetry, and crowds of people. But I found a young guy who knew Nikon and who quickly solved the problem without making me feel bad about not buying something.  Of course, since I was there, I looked about, and eventually found myself talking with the friendly sales guy about small audio recording devices, which I’d been thinking about for a while. I told him my budget was $200.  He sold me a little Zoom recorder for $79.95. I don’t know how they make it work, downselling rather than upselling, but I like B&H!  

The Eno at the end of fall, meditating, a piano lesson, and a list of thought-provoking books

With a big winter storm on the way, on Saturday I drove over to Durham and hiked along the Eno River on the Cole Mill trail. The colors were muted, and I was reminded of that melancholy tune by the Mamas and the Papas:  “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.”  It was quiet, except for the noise of the fast-moving water.  

I’d brought along my camera equipment, planning to make some landscape images, but struggled to get inspired.  Things didn’t seem at all scenic, and in fact seemed kind of sad. But after a bit I slowed down and started noticing spots of unusual energy, like tree roots and branches, decaying stumps and pale lichens on boulders.  The shots here are what developed.

Taking in smaller wonders is one of the lessons I’ve taken from my efforts at mindfulness meditation.  Over the last few months, my 15 minutes of daily sitting have helped with managing stress, and also has given me some meaningful, though humbling, insights into my own unruly thinking processes.  I’m looking forward to learning more.

On Saturday afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina over at the N.C. State music department.  As I’ve noted before, I usually think of my piano playing as music therapy, providing personal balance, flow, and happiness, without many connections to my professional or social life.  But Olga always reminds me that piano playing is also a serious undertaking, with long traditions, deep musical questions, and technical challenges that are not easily surmounted, as well as the potential for personal expression, communicating feelings, and transcendent beauty.  

This week I played a well-loved Chopin waltz (c# minor, Op. 64, no. 2).  I arrived with a good mastery of the notes and a decent understanding of the architecture.  She wanted me to incorporate some new gestural elements to improve the sound, and explained to me how she uses the legs and core for fine keyboard control.  I also played Debussy’s beautiful Bruyeres from Preludes, book 2. We talked about varying tone colors and voicing (both horizontally and vertically), and specialized pedaling challenges.  The lesson was almost two hours, and I was exhausted at the end, but also inspired.

Last week I was telling a friend about rereading (actually, re-listening to) Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He noted that in the last couple of years I’d mentioned several books that relate to his interests in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy, and asked if I’d mind making a list of favorites.  

So I looked over what I’d read involving science topics and other big ideas in the last couple of years, and realized, it’s a lot!  For whatever it’s worth, here is a selection of books I found worthwhile and would be happy to discuss with other readers. I have not attempted to rank them, but they are roughly grouped by major subject.  

Science matters, mainly in the areas of physics, biology (including neuroscience), and psychology

The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far:  Why Are We Here? By Lawrence Krauss

Origin Story:  A Big History of Everything, by David Christian

The Big Picture:  On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll

I Contain Multitudes:  The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

The Moral Animal:  The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright

How Emotions Are Made:  The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Behave:  The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky

Before You Know It:  The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh

The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, by Jonathan Balcombe

Other Minds:  The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben

Half-Earth:  Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Assorted Other Interesting Ideas

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent

The Shape of the New:  Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder

The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg

Why Buddhism Is True:  The Science and Philosophy of  Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright

Connections, construction, climate change denialism, and the insect apocalypse

The new Publix, looking toward downtown Raleigh

We had a nice Thanksgiving weekend, with family visiting and catching us up. Jocelyn and Kyle, down from New York, had sworn off Alexa, and had interesting things to say about privacy and social media.  Among many other things, we talked about the epidemic of loneliness. Even with overwhelming digital connectedness, meaningful connections aren’t getting any easier.  Love takes some work.

The big construction projects in our neighborhood in downtown Raleigh are coming right along.  I took the Tiller drone up on Saturday morning and flew around the work site of our forthcoming Publix and the almost-complete Metro apartments for some fun and pictures.  It’s going to be so good to have a grocery store just down the street. I had a scare when my aircraft and I lost radio contact, but after I did a short walk to get out from behind a building we got back together.  

Sally and I went over to Durham that evening for some food and chamber music.  We ate at Viceroy, which features good British-style Indian food, which we finally figured out we like best on the milder side of spicy.  Then we heard the Calidore String Quartet play at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium. They’re a relatively young group that’s won a lost of prizes, and we thought they were excellent.  They played with passionate musicality and rare freedom. Their program was also inspired: Sergey Prokofiev, Caroline Shaw (an N.C. native born in 1982), and the brilliant Robert Schumann.  

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the Boylan Heights Art Walk.  Residents had lent their porches and front yards for the day to many artists and craftspeople, including potters, jewelers, wood workers, metal workers, weavers, glass blowers, printmakers, painters, and others.  The weather was mild.  We enjoyed looking over the work, and chatting with friends.

There’s been a lot of good journalism this week about climate change, including some addressing the puzzle of why climate change denialism persists.  Possible answers, as Paul Krugman recently noted,include ignorance, party tribalism, and corporate greed (similar to the cigarette industries’ disgraceful denial that their product caused cancer). Anyhow, there’s some good news with the bad: as we experience more and more catastrophic weather, like droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes, more people are recognizing that there’s a planetary emergency.

But most of the discussion is still about the disastrous effects of global warming on humans — their cities, housing, transportation networks, food supplies, and so forth.  I keep looking for more discussion of what is happening to the non-human natural world. These last few years as I’ve spent more time hiking in the woods, it’s seemed like fewer birds are singing.  Given my small sample size, I haven’t drawn any firm conclusions from my data, but I’ve been worried.

The almost complete Metro, restored after the big fire of last year

This week the NY Times published a strong piece by Brooke Jarvis titled The Insect Apocalypse Is Here:  What Will the Decline of Bugs Mean for the Rest of Life on Earth?  Jarvis summarizes a lot of data, and makes a convincing case that in recent decades insect life has collapsed on a massive scale.  Populations of monarch butterflies are down 90 percent, and other studies show reductions in flying insects of 75 percent and more.    

We hardly noticed, and we still don’t fully understand the causes.  Along with global warming, there have been pesticides and loss of habitat.  Monarchs aside, most insects aren’t particularly glamorous, and we seldom think about their role in the ecosystem.  But without enough insects, a lot of birds and other animals starve. In addition to their vital niche in the food chain, insects pollinate many plants and turn dead things and waste into soil.  

As alarming as the insect decline is, Jarvis’s article shows that there are people who care.  There’s a short profile of a group of passionate entomologists in Krefeld, Germany, who have kept detailed records of their bug watching since 1905.  Their main motivation seems to have been simple love of nature.

The big lake, Leonardo, and Blue Planet II

This week was raw and rainy, and I was sick with a cold.  But it brightened up for the weekend. On Saturday morning I went up to Umstead park and walked around the big lake.  At a certain point, I set up my tripod and took some pictures with various lenses and filters. As usual, my objective was to practice the craft and come up with a few new images that, if not masterworks, at least weren’t too embarrassing to share.  Which is what I did, as shown here.

On the drive back I neared the end of the audiobook version of Leonardo, the recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.  I’d gotten bogged down in a couple of sections where Isaacson describes and interprets particular paintings more than I found helpful. But I thought he did a good job over all of telling Leonardo’s story and bringing to life aspects of the early Renaissance.  

I’d known in a general way that Leonardo was a polymath, but I had not appreciated the full range of his interests and accomplishments.   He was a professional musician, theatrical producer, and writer, as well as an inventor, engineer, designer, architect, urban planner, and proto-scientist.  Not to mention a pretty good painter.

Leonardo was good-looking and convivial, though there was a dark side.  Isaacson notes some very disturbing behaviors, including probable sexual exploitation of minors and eagerly offering his services to murderous tyrants.  His reach frequently exceeded his grasp, and he started many more things than he finished. But it’s hard not to be inspired by his powerful curiosity and passionate attempts, sometimes successful, to see things that no one had seen before.  

This week we watched a several episodes of Blue Planet II, a BBC documentary about the life in the world’s oceans.  We’d gotten tired of waiting for it to show up on Netflix and decided to pay for it on Amazon. It was worth it!  The photography was just incredible. As scuba divers, we’ve swum in some of the places and seen some of the creatures, but many were new to us.  And we saw some almost unknown behaviors — fish playing, using tools, and working cooperatively with different species.

It’s exhilarating to experience such wonders, and troubling that the level of the threat to them is dire.  Rising ocean temperatures and acidification are killing the big coral reefs, and plastics and other chemicals are strangling and poisoning many creatures.  The reefs and underwater forests could be gone in a few decades. The question remains whether humans will get their act together and save our oceans.    

The case of the missing lake, making paintings out of photographs, fake videos, Harari’s 21 Lessons, and Stevenson’s Just Mercy

 

On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park to see how the leaves were doing.  It was a brisk 51 degrees, and the light was undramatic, without a cloud in the sky. I was sorry to find they’d drained the lower lake to repair the dam, and the mud in the lake bed wasn’t so pretty.  But the upper lake was still a lake, and it was good to be outdoors, smelling the fallen leaves.

I took a few pictures, including some with my 10 stop filter for long exposures that smoothed out the lake surface.  I wasn’t especially enamored of any of them, but I did enjoy experimenting on them with Topaz Studio. This software will turn photographs into many different styles of paintings.  A few of my initial efforts with the tool are paired here with their source photos.  

Is it OK to make an impressionist painting in a few minutes, without a paintbrush?  I say yes, with this qualification: we should be honest and forthright about what we’re doing.  We’re interacting with nature using our own imagination, aided by our DSLR cameras and our processing software, which draws on manifold technical and creative sources, including the artistic geniuses of times past.  That said, if the images work — touching us, moving us — they work.

There is certainly the possibility of artistic fraud, and it should give us pause.  This week we’ve seen the White House promoting fake video of a reporter assaulting a press office person.  It wasn’t a particularly good fake, so it was quickly detected. But it’s getting so easy to make reasonably convincing fake video that you and I could do it.  This technology will surely change the way we think about the images, and probably make us trust our eyes less. There’s a good piece by Joshua Rothman in this week’s New Yorker about the people who are advancing this technology, including some who worry about its implications.  

That said, photographers will continue to seek interesting subjects, and interesting things to do with those subjects.  On the way back from Durant, I stopped at Peace Camera. The store used to be on Peace Street, a couple of blocks from our building, but it’s now in north Raleigh.  I was sorry when it moved, but I really like the new store, and the sales people were friendly and helpful. I found a couple of new gadgets I liked, and enjoyed talking shop with one of the sales guys about practical photography challenges, like finding a good storage bag for circular filters.  

On the trip home, I listened to the latter part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli history professor, and also a vegan and dedicated meditator. The title is unfortunate, since it sounds like it might be a self-help or text book.  In fact, it’s a bracing discussion of serious global problems, including racism, authoritarianism, robotics and AI, genetic engineering, economic dislocation, climate change, and nuclear war.

Harari takes a very long historical view, starting prior to homo sapiens, and has broad geographic and intellectual scope.  He moves along quickly (sometimes too quickly), but of course, some of the issues he addresses are existential, with short deadlines.  Among other minor points, he notes that there is nothing new about fake news. The earliest civilizations were organized around animating myths with no factual basis, and generally speaking this is true of us as individuals.  This could be viewed as depressing, but I prefer to take it as a foundation for humility and tolerance.

I finally finished Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, and has spent decades seeking justice for row inmates and others.  He provides new perspectives on the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racial bias in the American legal system.  He has a really big heart. Given the brutality of his chosen for his battleground and the long odds against success, it’s remarkable that he has not given in to cynicism and despair.   I found his book an inspiring source of hope.

Sunrise this morning, looking northeast toward Raleigh, with the new Metropolitan apartment building in the foreground nearing completion

Learning photography in western N.C., and saving the wild places

Last week I went to the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina for a photography workshop.  I was hoping to improve my camera and processing skills, take in some natural beauty, and meet some nice people.  That all happened, and I also made these pictures.

The workshop was led by Chas Glatzer, a master nature photographer and gifted teacher.  He was friendly, patient, and nonjudgmental. He got our group to good vantage points for sunrise and sunset and tried to make sure we didn’t slip on the rocks near waterfalls or get mauled by a herd of elk.  

Chas coached us individually on composition and camera settings.  He also explained the work behind some of his stunning animal shots in harsh and remote places.  He was ably assisted by Dave Kelly, who taught us some good Lightroom processing techniques, and helped me figure out more about my Nikon D850, which he also uses.    

We stayed in the Hampton Inn in Pisgah Forest, Brevard County, N.C.  Brevard bills itself as the U.S. mecca for waterfalls, with 250 of them, and the ones we saw were beautiful  The trees were changing colors, though the colors were muted this year. We also saw an impressive herd of elk (28) and a flock of wild turkeys. 

The majority of our group was older, with several retirees, and most were quite knowledgeable and experienced in photography.  We talked a lot about equipment and techniques. I got some good tips, and also enjoyed hearing about their lives. Some were dealing with serious health conditions and other tough circumstances, but they seemed absorbed and happy in their efforts to make better photos.  There’s a lesson there on dealing with personal adversity.

The mountains of western NC, with their dense forests and wildlife, are special for me:  I always feel my head getting clearer and my heart expanding there. I remember visiting these forests as a kid and assuming they and their inhabitants would last forever, but now I’m very conscious of their fragility.  Trying to catch part of their essence in photographs and share it with others seems more urgent than in times past.

The NY Times reported on a scientific study this week on the dire situation of the world’s remaining wilderness areas.  The scientists found that humans had modified 77 percent of the earth’s surface, and the remaining wild areas could disappear in a matter of decades.  They pointed out that these areas “provide a lot of life support systems for the planet,” including storing carbon dioxide. The scientists called for urgent action to save these remaining wild areas.

This week that Hansjorg Wyss, a Swiss businessman and philanthropist, announced that he is donating $1 billion for a conservation effort aimed at protecting 30 percent of the planet’s surface.  Wyss wrote a short essay explaining that preserving wild places is necessary to prevent the extinction of a majority of plant and animal species.   

Hats off to Wyss.  Of course, most of us don’t have an extra billion dollars to contribute to the cause, but there are some things we can do.  One timely one is to vote this week in favor of politicians who recognize the urgency of our climate crisis, and oppose those who deny or equivocate on the issue.  Neither of our major political parties has been as strong as needed on behalf of environment, but one has been much worse than the other. Please let me know if you need any help in figuring out which is which.  

I learned this week about the iNaturalist project , which involves citizen-naturalists posting photographs of wildlife and plants on a site, expanding the base of knowledge and getting help in identifying the subjects.  It’s the brainchild of Dr. Rob Dunn of N.C. State. The account the project in the Times focused on the project’s work in the wonderful world of indoor insects.  I downloaded the app and am looking forward to making some observations.