The Casual Blog

Tag: great egret

Flying and fishing egrets, the possible survival of nature, and two books — Falter and the Evolution of Religion

It turned cooler here last week, and the leaves were starting to glow at Shelley Lake.  One day I saw three great egrets together at the other side of the lake.  Usually, at least around here, these are solitary creatures. One looked smaller, and I wondered if they were a family. Anyhow, they were too far away to photograph well. Then one decided to fly right towards me, and the others soon followed.  They spent some time standing in the water near me and did some fishing.

For me, these images are about a moment, never to be repeated, in the lives of particular birds.  At the same time, they open a little window into a larger world of nature, where there’s always more to be discovered.   For me they speak of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.

Though I guess it’s possible to see only odd creatures.  Indeed, that may be the typical view. Our traditional attitude toward nature treats it as irrelevant, or else an antagonist to be exploited.  The concept of nature as foundational, as the ground for everything, is still far from mainstream, and needs more development and support.

Perhaps because of increasing weather emergencies, we seemed to have recently turned a corner on climate change, with some former climate change denialists finally acknowledging that our environmental situation is not good.  But the full weight of the dire reality still hasn’t sunk in.  

Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  How the Human Game Has Begun to Play Itself Out, may help. It’s a well-written, well-thought-through book that somehow manages to talk about the frightening reality we face without panicking, and instead thinking constructively about our mitigation options. 

McKibben does a great job of piecing together some of the elements of the storms we currently face, including individual greed, corporate rapaciousness, and libertarian idealism.  One thing he doesn’t examine is the central assumption underlying our heedless exploitation of nature, which is that humans are ultimately more important than anything else in the world.  

The assumption that at the end of the day humans are the only species that matters is so deeply embedded that it’s hard even to get a good look at it, much less have a serious discussion about it.  (It may be even more embedded than our assumptions about race.) But that discussion needs to be part of our survival strategy.  

Our failure to appreciate the significance of other living things and our own relationship to the complex web of life accounts in significant part for our current dire predicament.  On the other hand, embracing the natural world with empathy and gratitude would point us away from fossil fuels, agribusiness, runaway consumerism, and the other drivers of global warming.

There’s a lot to be said about long-held assumptions about human psychology and culture that are now looking like they need reexamination.  For now, I’ll mention just one thought-provoking books: The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, which I just finished reading for the second time. 

Wright takes on the ambitious task of addressing the functionality of religion for the earliest humans through to us.  He views the development of religious beliefs as a progression, starting with hunter-gatherer animism, continuing through the polytheism of early agricultural civilizations, and then on to monotheism.  

He gives a really helpful overview of the historical roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and shows how their central concepts are closely related.  Along with that, he addresses the psychological and economic factors that led societies toward variations on these main ideas.  

 

In the end, Wright disclaims having a view on whether there actually is a God, while arguing that the idea of God has been good for humanity.  Like McKibben, he doesn’t consider whether benefits to humans should be considered the highest good, and doesn’t address whether religion reinforces assumptions of human superiority and entitlement that have destroyed much of the natural world.  I found his argument on moral progress to be vague and unconvincing. But I still found the book tremendously valuable in providing a framework for considering varieties of religion.

Birds at Shelley Lake

A great egret at Shelley Lake

As occasionally happens, earlier this week I had my doubts about whether I’d be able to come up with any new images or words to post on The Casual Blog.  It felt like maybe the well had finally run dry.  

The cure turned out to be simple:  just spending more time with nature.  I drove up to Shelley Lake early on several mornings.  I did some walking, but mostly I just stood looking out over the water.  It was quiet, except for animal sounds. Of course, there was also a bit of traffic noise, but it wasn’t bad.  

Canada geese

The Canada geese were the noisiest creatures at the lake, and did plenty of honking.  They used to be rare around here, but now are common, and considered by most an unwelcome nuisance.  But I think they’re handsome.  

I noticed that, along with their big honks, they make some barely audible sounds, which clearly have meaning to them.  As I watched, they made sounds and gestures as they swam slowly and organized themselves into small groups. The groups took flight for short intervals.  I’m guessing they’re practicing for the fall migration.  

A foggy morning for flying

I also saw a number of other good looking birds — great blue herons, great egrets, kingfishers, and mallards.  These are all pretty common here, but still fun to watch, and the fast-flying kingfishers and mallards are challenging to photograph. I also saw a Cooper’s hawk (at least I think it was a Cooper’s) and one bald eagle — the first one at Shelley Lake for a while. 

A kingfisher fishing

Just standing still is not something that I’ve done a lot of.  It seemed at first like I might be wasting time, which I hate to do.  But I found it soothing and nourishing to be near the water with the animals.  I had my camera with my big lens mounted and ready to go, and my senses were on high alert for possible photographic opportunities.  But for extended periods, not much happened, at least at the human scale. And that was ok.  

Mallards

This week I listened to a good podcast about animal intelligence, including communication systems and emotions, on the Ted Radio Hour.    This podcast summarizes several Ted Talks, which are already highly boiled down versions of bigger ideas, which I guess is for those with short attention spans.

In any case, simplified ideas are better than none, and of course, you can always go back to the longer versions.  I was particularly interested in hearing the voices of Carl Safina and Frans de Waal, whose recent books on animal emotions I thought were worthwhile.  As one of the speakers said (in effect), in understanding non-human animals better, we understand ourselves better.  

A Cooper’s hawk (I think)

I also pushed forward in Martin Hagglund’s new book. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom.  Hagglund’s conception of secular faith is profound, and somewhat involved. He argues that all religious conceptions of value place their primary emphasis on achieving an unchanging, eternal state, which is involves an inherent contradiction.  

As the Talking Heads once waggishly observed, “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”  Not such an interesting place, much less an ideal. For there to be meaning and value in our lives, life must be finite — fragile and subject to loss.  Hagglund thinks the real source of hope and meaning in our lives is misidentified by conventional religions, and is inseparable from time and our finite existence.

Hagglund’s ideas are truly iconoclastic, and worth engaging.  They aren’t easy to engage in his book, which at times seems lacking in forward motion.  I suspect that their most natural format would be not a whole book but rather something like one of Plato’s dialogues.  Fortunately, Hagglund sums up some of his key ideas in a recent interview in Jacobin

Big birds at Crabtree Swamp, and a first spin class at Flywheel

14 09 28_2902There’s a wide-but-shallow wide body of water to one side of Raleigh Boulevard which is fed by Crabtree Creek. It has no official name that I can find, so I’m hereby naming it Crabtree Swamp. CS is worth knowing about if you enjoy seeing birds, turtles, dragonflies, and other creatures. There isn’t usually much drama, though I once saw a doe leaping and splashing in desperate flight from a pursuing buck. It has a long boardwalk over it that allows for good views into the woods and out over the water.
14 09 28_2865_edited-1

Sally had mentioned to me that she’d taken Stuart (our dog) for a walk up there recently, and seen a great blue heron and a great egret. They were still around fishing when I got there with my equipment last weekend. I used my long Sigma zoom lens (150-500 mm) with a 2x tele converter, a heavy set up that required a tripod.
14 09 28_3032_edited-1

Both birds would stand frozen, watching, for periods, and then move almost imperceptibly, and then, suddenly, they would radically change shape and position. A hundred yards or so away, I stood on the boardwalk for well over an hour, watching them, working hard to get them in focus with proper exposure, trying to anticipate their next phase shift. It was absorbing.
14 09 28_3193_edited-1

Happy as I was watching these brilliant creatures, later that day, when I downloaded the 423 new images, I wasn’t thrilled with the quality. Alas, I’d forgotten to switch on the lens’s image stabilization system. In any case, there were a few photos I liked enough to share.
14 09 28_3145_edited-1

In contrast to the subtle joys of trying to capture the essence of the big birds, also last weekend I tried a new spinning experience — Flywheel, at Cameron Village. I liked it. Whenever I try to describe spinning to a non-spinner, I realize it sounds a little crazy. The basic situation is, you ride on a stationary bike as ordered by an outrageously fit teacher to thumping club music. What’s to like? Well, it’s an amazing workout. You quit thinking, just follow orders, listen to the music, sweat, become one with the class, and feel the endorphins.
14 09 28_3113_edited-1

The new Flywheel operation has been successful in New York and other cities, and I can see why. They let you pre-register and reserve a bike. They figure out if you’re new the moment you walk in and take care to show you the ropes. They provide special shoes, towels, lockers, and (a great idea – it’s loud) earplugs. The bikes are set on risers, stadium style, and they’re nice, heavy non-vehicles that have digital read outs showing the amount of effort you’re putting in.
14 09 28_3155_edited-1
Once the class starts, the room is dark. You can see the teacher at the front (very fit) and also a screen that lists (if you opt in) your units of effort relative to those of others. Yes, there’s a kind of race – who can spin the hardest? At the end of the 45 minutes, I managed, barely, to come in second (one unit ahead of the next male down). I felt tired but good.
14 09 28_3140_edited-1

A new Firebird, and a great egret

14 09 14_2576_edited-1
Whew! We finally made it to the start of the new Carolina Ballet season. After a long summer without any dance, I was particularly looking forward to the CB’s first program, with The Firebird as the featured work. And I was particularly excited to see Alyssa Pilger make her debut in the role of Firebird.

Full disclosure: based on a donation to the company, we were invited to be the pointe shoe sponsor of a dancer, and we picked Alyssa. She was then in her second season with the company, and struck us as especially talented. It’s been fun getting to know her. The Firebird is a big, difficult part, and not usually (maybe never) danced by such a junior member of the company. I went over to see her first performance of the role at yesterday’s Saturday matinee, and felt a few butterflies, like an anxious parent.
14 09 14_2539_edited-1

Fortunately, she was fabulous! I’ve seen Weiss’s ballet to the great Stravinsky score at least twice before, and always enjoyed the solos for the magical sparkling red bird. The creature flits, darts and dashes, with sudden quickness and sudden stillness. Alyssa’s creation was a firebird of elegant exoticism and power. Out at the end of her long arms, her hands seemed almost like individual creatures, sending their own strange messages. With some of the extreme stretches and twists, it was easy to believe she was part bird. I found her performance completely transporting. It gave me goosebumps.
14 09 14_2562_edited-1

I also really enjoyed Zalman Raffael’s new ballet, Brahms’ Violin Sonata No 3. I’m a Brahms man from way back, and know this great piece very well, but it never occurred to me that it could be a ballet. If it had occurred to me, I wouldn’t have guessed that a young choreographer would grasp and know what to do with its complex romantic pleasures. Indeed, I don’t know many people who care much for this music, which sometimes makes me wistful.
14 09 14_2558_edited-1

Raffael, however, left no doubt of his grasp of Brahms. I found the ballet faithful to the spirit of the music, while managing to push against it and find new aspects. Jan Burkhard’s pas de deux with Yevgeny Shlapko showed tremendous emotional range. She was lovely and languid in the slow movement, as well as fiery in the finale. Jan has always had a lot of vivacious charm, but she seems to have extended her range into the darker modes in recent seasons. Yevgeny also looked great (he must have spent some time in the gym this summer).
14 09 14_2582_edited-1

The other piece on the program was a new ballet by Robert Weiss called Les Saltimbanques. The music, Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, was Weiss’s primary inspiration. The piece, which I was not familiar with, is not as tuneful and romantic as The Firebird, but instead is more polytonal with irregular accents. Here too, I thought the choreography was faithful to and illuminating of the music. The organizing idea of the ballet is street performers (acrobats, clowns, and the like) filtered through a Picasso-esque vision. I found it bright and involving, and look forward to seeing it again next week.

These pictures were taken this morning (September 14, 2014) at Yates Mill Pond in Raleigh. The great egret is a bird we don’t see every day around here. I watched this one hunting for a half hour or so, and was enraptured.
14 09 14_2596_edited-1