The Casual Blog

Tag: Charles Glatzer

Fall colors in western North Carolina, our bodies, and immortality

Last week I was in western NC for a nature photography workshop, where I shot colorful forests, mountain streams, waterfalls, and elk.  The workshop was based near Brevard and led by Chas Glatzer, a superb wildlife photographer and inspiring teacher. He helped me in technical matters, like exposure calculation and white balance, and made me work harder on composition.

He also got our group out to some lovely spots for the fall colors, which were near their peak.  Trying to find some new perspectives, I sustained some minor discomfort — sprayed by waterfalls, slipping into streams, and kneeling on hard wet rocks.  I was sore when we finished, but pleased with some of the results, including those here.

But to give credit where credit is due:  the main creative work was nature’s.  Nature is a great artist — endlessly surprising.  Opening up to it can transform us.  We usually view ourselves as separate from and superior to it, but that’s a costly mistake.  We wreak a lot of havoc, and miss a lot of joy.

Elk at Cataloochee Park

On the drive out and back I listened to Bill Bryson’s new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants.   It’s an entertaining and thought-provoking compendium of what we know so far about how human bodies work.  Bryson clearly loves science. He covers a lot of ground, dividing it by body parts (hair, skin, eyes, ears, nose, throat, and on through the brain and the more obscure organs, like the pancreas) and systems, and straightens out a lot of widely held erroneous notions along the way.  He keeps things lively with accounts of great discoveries and oddities as he updates what we learned a little about in high school biology.  

 

Along the way, he corrects a major misunderstanding:  that we pretty much control our own bodies.  So much of the body’s essential work is completely beyond our conscious control (e.g. the circulatory system,  the digestive system, the immune system, the endocrine system). Indeed, the conscious part of our lives is a relatively minor part of what’s happening with us.   If our staying alive depended on our consciously running our bodies, we wouldn’t survive very long.  

 

As Bryson makes clear, there’s a lot science can’t yet explain about human bodies.  But it was fun and helpful to get an overview of current knowledge. Bryson helps us see ourselves differently — not as separate from nature, but as fundamentally part of it.

I also finished reading Immortality, The  Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave.  Cave, a philosopher, diplomat, and writer, contends that, even as we recognize the high probability we will eventually die, we are constitutionally unable to imagine our own deaths.  This paradox makes us susceptible to various bogus theories of how we can attain never-ending life.   

This is not entirely a bad thing, in Cave’s view, since it accounts for much of what we regard as civilization and progress.  But trying to imagine a life that’s eternal — being more or less the same not only for millions, or billions, or trillions of years, but more than all that  — is almost as disturbing as imagining death. It would eventually get so boring!

Cave points out that  our mortality is actually the source of value and meaning in life.  Plus, as he notes, assuming death is real (as it sure looks like it is), we won’t actually be present to experience it — we’ll be dead.  So what are we afraid of? I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his system of four different immortality templates to explain every civilization, but I did find the book stimulating and oddly cheering.

 

Birds and alligators, and our extinction problem

A snowy egret at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine

Week before last, Sally and I drove down to St. Augustine for the Florida Birding and Photo Festival.  We saw a lot of birds, and I took a lot of pictures, of which these are a few.

Tricolored heron with eggs

We were especially delighted by the Alligator Farm, a zoo that hosts nesting migrant wading birds.  Dozens of families of egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and storks build nests and hatch their chicks in trees above dozens of alligators.  There’s a boardwalk through the area, and some of the bird families are very close to it. The parents fly back and forth bringing nesting material and food for the noisy chicks.  

Wood stork

It was both beautiful and strange to see all those birds and reptiles together.  Apparently the birds like to nest there because the alligators protect their broods from predators.  Of course, there’s an inherent danger for those new chicks: if they fall out of the nests, it’s curtains.  

We also saw a lot of shorebirds during a couple of boat trips on the Intercoastal Waterway and hiking Anastasia State Park.  I attended nature photography workshops by some highly accomplished pros, including Charles Glatzer, Lewis Kemper, Roman Kurywczak, Scott Bourne, Jack Rogers, and Joe Brady, and learned a lot.  

A roseate spoonbill

The more time I spent with the birds at the Alligator Farm, the more I saw, and felt.  On the first day, I was excited just to get a good view of several species that weren’t familiar to me.  But after a few hours, I started keying into family relationships — expectant and new parents, nestlings, and fledglings.  The nests of different families and different species were close together, like high rise apartments, and I watched as the birds worked out conflicts over space.  They spent time grooming themselves, working on their nests, and flying out and back with food for the little ones. The nests were busy places.

The birds seemed not at all bothered by the humans watching them and taking their pictures.  They must be used to it.

A great egret family

It’s encouraging that there are places like the Alligator Farm where humans are devoting some resources for the benefit of non-human animals, and where we can learn about their world.  But we need to do a lot more. Last week I finished reading (actually, listening to) Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction.  I was glad to find it not all gloom and doom; there were various lively characters and stories.  But the overarching story of what homo sapiens have done, and are still doing, to the planet is deeply troubling.

Planetary destruction ought to be a big news story, though it seldom makes the front page, and I’m afraid there are a lot of people who still haven’t got the message.  Maybe that’s changing. Just yesterday, the leading newspapers reported at length on the new United Nations report on the global threats to biodiversity and the critical need for conservation efforts.  The full 1500 page report is not yet available, but the summary is out and the key findings were reported in the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal , the Washington Post, and the Guardian. As they all noted, the UN report says that more than one million species are at risk of extinction in the near future.  

The UN panel connected various interacting threats to biodiversity, including  habitat loss, water pollution, soil exhaustion, over-logging, overfishing, transportation of invasive species, and burning fossil fuels.  It emphasized that these human activities together are threatening the basic natural resources (like food and water) on which humans depend.

The report didn’t seem to give much weight to the inherent value of non-human species.  The idea that the only purpose of nature is to serve humankind is deep-seated, and arguing against it might sound strange, if not treasonous. So the report’s authors could well be hesitant to argue against the idea that humans have an inherent right to kill everything that’s not human.  Anyhow, if the only thing that will mobilize humans to stop destroying the natural world is raw self-interest, the report authors should be thanked for making an effective appeal to that self-interest.

I’ll just note briefly that there are alternative views.  Of course, we’re strongly conditioned to think of nature as our inferior and our enemy in a war for survival.  But it’s dawning on us that this line of thought has taken us to the brink of disaster, and that we ultimately rely on the natural world for life.  In place of a war footing, it’s possible for humans to regard themselves as connected to and part of nature.

It’s not easy to let go of the idea that we’re in all regards superior to nature and entitled to exploit it without limitation, but it can be done.  This opens up a vista of nature in its beautiful complexity and ourselves a part of that. The challenge is to discover balance and harmony within this constantly changing reality.  

Meanwhile, there’s the problem of eating.  I highly recommend checking out the Times’s recent feature on how our eating affects the environment.   It explains that our food system is an enormous contributing factor to our environmental problems, and that eating more plants and less meat would help.  

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.