Seven Reasons To Take The Nature Photography Challenge

 

Post your original nature photos seven days in a row, then tag others to do the same. These are the reasons I’m enjoying the challenge. What about you?img_8153

  1. You have photos in your camera (or phone) you haven’t even downloaded yet. You deserve a little time to look at those photos and assess what you have. I can almost guarantee you have some gems in there.
  2. You’ll enjoy a review of how much time you’ve spent observing the natural world. Yes, humans are natural, too, but there’s something ineffable about interacting with a tree that no human planted, or a bird who no one has tamed, or a mammal who’s nobody’s pet. Even urban wildernesses have these wild spaces and untamed creatures.
  3. You might get inspired to make some resolutions. I know I have. I resolve to get outside more next year, and to share my photos in a more timely manner, including on iNaturalist. (I spent a lot of time indoors this summer after giving birth… understandable, but still! Don’t want that to become the new norm.)
  4. You’ll learn about your photographic strengths and weaknesses, as well as your interests and habits. I discovered that my photos aren’t as in focus as I’d like, or I’m pushing the limits of my Canon PowerShot SX50 too far (or I need to read the manual)… I’ve discovered I could justify buying equipment to do macro photography, since I would actually use it. My photo cache shows the pattern clearly: I enjoy tiny details like the veins of leaves and the texture of a mushrooms.
  5. You’ll relive fun outdoor memories! And who knows better than you how much fun you had? I think the original idea was to post anything from the previous 12 months, but I’ve stretched that a little bit. You could also challenge yourself to post a photo from each current day. THAT would give you a lot to choose from for Field Notes Friday!
  6. You get to inspire your friends. Not only do people get to see the cool things you’ve seen, at the end of your week of photos you tag your friends to challenge and encourage them to do the same thing!
  7. You’ll flood social media with cool nature photos rather than (insert whatever current fad or trending topic is just. too. much.) I love going to Instagram because I have filled my Instagram feed with high quality nature photographers. I look at their photos and I breathe more calmly and feel my face relax. You can do that for others, whatever social media platforms you use. [I’ve been posting my photos on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Find me there!]

What reasons am I missing? Let me know!

Whatever inspires you to get out there, be observant, and commune with the wilds – just do it. Get out there. [And believe me, I will take my own advice!]

 

Step Closer

What draws you in, entices you to step closer?

There’s a Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica) in my neighborhood I’ve never, ever noticed before, and this Fall it’s multi-colored. I suspect, though I haven’t taken careful note, that Blackjack Oak  leaves usually turn paper bag brown like the leaves of Post Oaks (Quercus stellata), my favorite trees. But not this year, not in my neighborhood. There are delicate shades of turning in these remnants from ancient Cross Timbers forests.

This tree captured my attention so thoroughly on recent a drive home that I turned the car around, parked, and hopped out to get a photo.

And here’s the photo.

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This photo is an unpoetic, unskilled, simple copy of my view – what my eyes could take in. But it in no way captured what my mind focused on. The criss-crossing power (or telephone?) lines detract, the pavement dominates, and only the barest hint of color shimmers in the leaves. I was surprised with the result, and disappointed. So I stepped closer.

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The second photo is more like it – the pavement and power lines are relegated to the background where they belong, the azure sky frames much of the tree, and the color of the leaves is starting to tantalize. But I really, really wanted to capture that rare color, and I hadn’t yet. So I stepped closer.

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And, look! I got some color. There are golds in them thar leaves! But, I thought, the grandeur I see in this tree just isn’t showing. It looks the tree is pushing you away with a suddenly raised branch, or trying to distract you by dangling a confusing mass of leaves in your face. You can’t see the scale of the tree; the trunk looks scrawny. So I stepped closer.

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Now I looked up. The leaves were illuminated by the warm sunshine and contrasted with the dark bark (which I presume gives the tree its name). I wanted to scale the tree like a spirit squirrel and revel in the dappled light and lounge on the branch hammocks all day. But the picture didn’t quite portray that longing. So I stepped closer.

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This one. This one is framed like I wanted, and draws me upward into its branches. It makes me want to reach toward that rare gold which shines like a beacon above the darkness of the writhing, rippled bark. I had to hug the tree, lean against it to get this shot. I experimented with framing, with attempting to capture the fractal-lightning branches silhouetted against the sky.

There is a wildness in this untamed, untrimmed remnant of ancient Cross Timbers forest. Maybe that’s what drew me in after the splash of color caught my attention.

I had to get closer to capture the feeling that drew me in from afar.

If you want to see something better, step closer. If you want to understand something better, step closer. Of course, there’s a time to step back, and a time to step away. To everything there is a season. But right now, in life, there are a lot of things that puzzle me, and I’m choosing to step closer to get a better look.

The next time you want to step closer, will you?

 

These photos were taken with my husband’s iPhone 6 and are completely unedited. If I learn photo editing it will be to help my photos better convey the feelings of longing and appreciation each subject inspires in me.

Field Notes Friday: Outdoor Meditation

Yes, I still do #FieldNotesFriday, and so should you! As my parents would say, “It’s good for what ails ya.” This entry is an example of exactly that: reflective time outdoors calming the mind. Lately for Field Notes Friday I’ve been posting photographs to my other social media sites (Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr), but today I’m sharing a nature-focused entry from my personal journal.

Thursday.

I have a beautiful view. Yes, the soundscape is urban – traffic, landfill trucks, buzzing power lines overhead – but at least the trees & grasses are rustling & there are crickets chirping. The sun & clouds tousle over who will win the day. The dragonflies hunt. Sagan is asleep in the carseat, which I’m leaned against as I face out the car door, East, toward water towers & buildings far away on the horizon, but forest & field between them & me. And power lines & their obligate gangly structures. Trees rustle. Leaves turn color. Grass bows. A fly searches.

It’s hard to make sense of the events of the past few weeks, some of which I share with the nation & world & some for which only a few close to me have endured. I seek solace in these moments, but I’m not open to it – not yet. Right now I feel raw & negative & aimless. I need to settle my mind with some meditation! That will help me sort out what needs doing, & appreciate the beauty before me, rolling toward me like the moments of life. I can either appreciate the moments, the view, the sounds, the smell, the sensations — or I will miss the whole thing.

After I wrote the above, I put on my headphones and listened to this guided meditation: Sam Harris Guided Meditation With Atmospheric Music

This was my view. Not the Grand Canyon, but it did the trick. I needed a long vista, both physically and mentally. img_7957

This is the original handwritten entry…img_7967 …and a detail from the page which reflects my mental state, not what I was seeing.img_7967

You should also think on paper and with your camera, and share with the rest of the online nature community! Here’s how to #FieldNotesFriday.

Field Notes Friday: Emulate Others’ Art

You know sketching is good for you, and you already know why: it’s good for your field notes, it hones your observation skills, a picture is worth a thousand words, yadda yadda yadda. So what are you waiting for?  You can do it! 

I recently had the pleasure of being re-inspired by an artist and friend, so I’m trying to pay it forward and for others. Jump in there! You won’t be sorry. 

Here are a few tips:

  • Start by emulating another artist’s sketches. Pick something you like that appeals to your interests and style. (As your skills mature, you can graduate to photos and then live subjects. Or so I hear.) 
  • Just start with a little piece of the sketch at a time. Maybe just do a leaf, or a nose, or a wing. Grow from there.
  • It doesn’t have to be perfect. A rough outline gets you further than paralyzing perfectionism. 

Here’s a sketch I made recently based on an illustration from Botany in a Day.

    Notice that the picture morphed as I changed things along the way. There are no mistakes in art. Stems bent. Petals shifted. Veins disappeared. I darkened some spots inadvertently, but knew I could change it when I added color. 
  Adding color is another time to exercise your creativity. In this case, the sketch I was emulating was black and white, so I searched the Internet for colors to use on this species. The sky blue background was an artsy touch I was nervous to add (what if I ruin it???), but worth the risk. And of course, because I’m a natural science nerd, I had to label the species. And below you’ll see that I kept track of the colors I used. 

Here’s the version that is now in my field notes. I’m proud of it!

 
Here is the original inspiration. 

  Not bad, huh? I love this book! It’s edifying and inspiring. 

Search for sketches of your favorite plants and animals, and just dive in. You’ll learn from whatever you do. 

Field Notes Friday 0035: Thoughts About Mushroooooooms

This is how obsession starts. It’s also how real learning happens.

I’m not sure exactly when it started, but it’s dawned on me that I’m interested in fungus. Very interested. I’ve been fascinated for years by how decomposers turn trash into treasure, especially into soil. Soil is more precious than gold. But lately I’ve become interested in the fruiting bodies of fungus (which we call “mushrooms”).

My awareness crystalized when I was supposed to be ordering one unrelated book online… but I wandered over to the field guides and… I ordered two field guides to mushrooms. Sight unseen.

The Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms has arrived, and I am reading it cover to cover (as noted on my Twitter account).

Happy Naturalist on Twitter

I’m learning a lot. Like, from the first page.

A First Page of Peterson's Field Guide to Mushrooms

Who knew I could learn to recognize fungus Orders so quickly! That’s thanks to Vera McKnights’ organized sketches.

But I had been paying attention even before nature-nerd-ing out over the field guide. In fact, I’d taken a few photos and posted them to iNaturalist. I was excited (and honored) to receive a response from LGPrice, the creator of the Texas Higher Fungi project on iNaturalist. I quickly learned that I need to take more photos, and perhaps even cut some mushrooms open (which I’m loathe to do).

I also need to take even more field notes. I know journaling is important, but in the case of mushroom edibility, noticing and recording details can be the difference between life and death! (Not that I’ll be eating wild mushrooms without an experienced mycologist any time soon… or ever…)

Here is just a sample of information that’s crucial in mushroom identification:

  • Cap size, shape color, thickness, and surface texture
  • Color and texture of the INSIDE of the cap (Cut it open!!?!)
  • Odor/aroma
  • How the color changes when the surface is pressed or scratched
  • Regarding the stalk: does any fibrous material connect to the cap? Is there a skirt-like structure?

(Currently I’d be happy just to identify to the right Order, let alone Species.)

I’m even using Vera McKnight’s illustrations as inspiration to get back into sketching! As an art teacher told me, a great way to learn to draw is to emulate good drawings. (Note the important quote.)

mushroom sketches compilation

My newest nature obsession even bubbled out during an iNaturalist social meeting – the first of its kind that I know of – wherein local naturalists who have also “gone digital” get together to support and encourage each other. I mentioned mushrooms twice, and quickly found other Fungi Friends! Oh, this could get geeky. And wonderful.

This is just the beginning of a fruitful obsession, and I’m so excited.

(I’m glad we’ve moved beyond the British influence which negatively associated mushrooms with witches and dark arts. Although if you look at the #mycology hashtag on Instagram you won’t just find beautiful photos of mushrooms… if yaknowhaddimean)

If you’d like to geek out over nature and share it with your friends and family, please participate in Field Notes Friday!

Field Notes Friday 0033: A Realization and Encouragement

This realization has already helped me, and may help you. So of course, I want to share.

Bird banding log

Bird banding log and restored savannah behind it

It started to dawn on me when I listened to Dr. Jim Bednarz speak to the Dallas Audubon Society this month. He detailed his research in the Galapagos, an exotic location I’d be honored just to visit. He focused on the Galapagos hawk and its unusual polyandrous breeding arrangement, including what evolutionary pressures could lead to such an arrangement and how the size of male harems affects each individual’s fitness (survival and reproduction).

Dr. Bednarz did a stellar job making his research come alive; striking photos and interesting anecdotes wrapped around the scientific steps of creating a hypothesis, gathering data, celebrating being wrong and revising hypotheses… and gathering more data. Data, data, data. As the photos flashed before my eyes, I saw similarities with another study I’m occasionally able to participate in (and which Dr. Bednarz consistently does): the Winter Sparrow Site Fidelity Study at LLELA. In the Galapagos, the researchers caught, banded, measured, measured, and measured the hawks again. Data. And the researchers returned, year after year. I think the study spanned 6-8 years. Data, and more data, and details, and time.

And at LLELA, I’ve felt the excitement of flushing sparrows toward mist nets in the prairie, the pressure of writing data for multiple birds simultaneously, as well as the monotony of making the rounds to find empty nets. I’ve seen the enlivened team when there are multiple catches, and disappointed participants when the ‘pickins are slim’. And I realize: a successful researcher is tenacious. There is a process. There are steps. There is information to be gathered, there are good days and bad days, and one must persevere.

I’ve long admired the brilliant insight of naturalists like Darwin and Wallace, the adventurings and pluck of Mireya Mayor, and the discoveries and positive influence of Jane Goodall. But all I’ve gotten to see or study are the highlights of their lives: the big ideas, the results of their influence, the excitement and danger of travel… the director’s cut, really. I forget that there were hours spent with a magnifying lens or microscope, crawling at (truly) a snail’s pace on hands and knees to get a closer look at something, hours poring over books and maps. Hours of journal time, noting the tiniest changes in the subject. Hours of staring at the subject. Hours, probably, of recording seemingly unimportant numbers. Data.

So I revisited the sparrow study and took this photo.

And in my journal, I wrote:

MAYBE

SCIENCE

is a slow process

made of tiny mundane steps

leading to short, rare bursts of insight.

I need to adjust my desires and expectations.

I find this new perspective uplifting and affirming. The little moments you and I spend in detail work, perhaps feeling like we’re making no progress or not contributing to humanity’s knowledge, all add up. Keep on keepin’ on.

KeepOnTruckin

For more info about Field Notes Friday and how you can participate: http://bit.ly/FieldNotesFriday

Please join me on Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, and iNaturalist. Let’s keep in touch!

Field Notes Friday 0029: Sisters of the Eclipse

The clouds low on the Southern horizon were like a gathering army, visible only once illuminated by the premonition of sun. They invaded when the sun rose, never spoiling the view.

One of my latest Field Notes entries was more flowery than usual. The florid words were inspired by an early, chill morning, an amazing astronomical sight, and being graced by the company of like-minded naturalists who were dedicated to seeing something powerful in nature… regardless of losing sleep, enduring a tough climb (not to mention the descent), and facing the unknowns of a new location and the dynamics of a group of people who are just starting to know each other. We were watching the October 8 eclipse, which was awe-inspiring. I’m grateful for their company and glad to share my experience here.Sisters of the Eclipse

Continuing from my field journal:

My spirit bird* soared over us after the sun lightened the Eastern sky, but hadn’t yet appeared… (turkey vulture)

Int the dark turning dusk, a ladybug landed on my spread sleeping bag…. I was surprised to see it so early.

The air was still and warm till 6am, when a stiff breeze whipped the warmth away from my body… even though the breeze was warm.

We bonded on top of that tall climb, wanted to dance and sing at full eclipse, raised our arms to the wind and the rising sun…

And Cynthia says her name means moon.

As we stood on top of the dam, 125 feet up after a long climb, a dark morning, feeling like dancing and singing to the moon and finally seeing the sky turn bright and colorful, Susie said she feels the world would be a calmer, better place if more people saw something of this awe and beauty every day. Kris ventured ISIS as a juxtaposition… and I wondered if [ISIS members would] be where they are today if someone had shown them the beauty of calm and surrender and loving this world and its creatures. Maybe I can help make the world a better place – by helping people be more calm and introspective.

Some of my pictures are here on my Facebook page (although don’t expect astro-images until I get permission from friends to share their photos. Mine are much more earthly).

* I feel the need to explain that this is not an animal that came to me in a vision after a spiritual quest; I use “spirit bird” to mean the animal that makes me feel elated, makes my “spirits soar” every time I see it.

If you’d like to participate in Field Notes Friday, it’s as easy as using a hashtag on your favorite social media and sharing your unique perspective on nature. Learn more here: http://bit.ly/FieldNotesFriday

P.S. One of the Eclipse Sisters herself just shared this photo! This is totally how I felt.Eclipse sisters from Diane

A Conversation About Litter (From a Dream)

The first words I ever said to him were, “Sir, please don’t litter.” The first words he said to me were “F**k you.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful conversation.

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I was at a conference for the Environment & Urban Societies. I was sitting in the shade of one of those blue pop-up tents you see hovering over tables and volunteers and vendors at races and festivals. The sun was beating down, albeit at a late afternoon slant, onto the short-clipped grass, outdated concrete plaza fountain, and crowded street around the rows of tents. People from the conference were pressing in to hear the announcement we’d just learned would be made shortly about some detail of the conference. City traffic – cars and pedestrians – added to the throng.

I had thought he was one of those pedestrians, and thought the handful of whatever he had flung to his left, just out of my sight, was wrappers or a Styrofoam to-go box or who knows what. I was sitting there stewing in the heat thinking about – and had been musing all day about – the litter issue: why some cultures in some times seem more likely to litter, what the real threats of litter are, and the impact on humans, wildlife, and the ecosystem. As an interpreter and educator I like to learn, puzzle things out, see patterns, and use education as one way to help reverse problems. Litter had been in my mental microscope for the conference thus far, and my obsession carried through to this brief break before we jumped back into lectures, networking, and expanding our ideas and knowledge. Buoyed and blinded by this obsession, I uncharacteristically spoke a brazen rebuke to a stranger before examining the situation, and that was the source of the strife, and the curse.

After our sweet little exchange, I took a mental split-second to look again. His words hadn’t seemed malicious – just a ‘get off my back’ or ‘give me a break’ tone. For some reason I was in touch with my confidence and compassion enough that I was only momentarily offended and angered, and quickly realized I needed to take a breath and a step backward. It also helped that the crowd wasn’t moving and he wasn’t in a hurry to get out of my presence.

His demeanor wasn’t any more agitated than someone waiting in line, which I took to be a sign of some calm good-naturedness. As he shifted his weight, standing blocked by the crowd, I saw what he had tossed onto the grass was a binder full of papers. Not typical litter. Oops.

He was of average height and weight – taller than me but not imposingly so, slightly stocky with middle-aged roundness around the gut. He had leathery, mottled skin and the overall hoary appearance common among heavy smokers, or maybe someone who used to smoke a lot.

But what tipped the balance in favor of another exchange was that he had looked back at me, too, not angrily, and at the same time we realized we were wearing the same shirt from the conference. Then we seemed to both recognize each other from, of all things, a choir rehearsal associated with the conference. (Yes, some musically-inclined soul had the idea that music was a good venue to share environmental messages, and thankfully had the conducting and composing expertise to make it happen. So this was the second Environment & Urban Societies conference that had had a volunteer choir, and we were both in it.)

That little bit of commonality emboldened me to say, “I’m sorry. I really thought you were littering–” but before I finished he waved me off and in a gruff voice said, “Forget it.”

“I work at a nature preserve,” I pressed on, “so I’m so used to dealing with…” Words failed me – should I say ‘litter’ again? In the same conversation – the second or third sentence I was saying to the guy? I gestured vaguely at what I’d thought was his trash, which I’d realized was a binder, and now it was dawning on me that the binder was probably the music from rehearsal. Yeesh, did I feel unobservant and gun-shy about jumping to conclusions.

But he was unfazed by my fumbling and said, ‘Hey, I know. I tell crapheads to pick up their shit all the time. And it’s not even my job – I don’t work for an environmental place.” He paused, perhaps calculating the value of continuing our exchange, or the intensity of whatever he was feeling at the time, weighing whether he wanted to say more. He seemed to unwind slightly as he looked around and continued, “I’m tired of people who treat everywhere like it’s a trashcan, like the earth is one big trash can.”

He was indicating the space around us but I could tell his mental reach with that gesture encompassed the globe, maybe even the space around the globe, where thousands of pounds of our human-made satellite debris orbits even now… and maybe it included companies who leave trails of trash and environmental damage like they own the earth – the whole earth – or worse, like no one owns it, so no one inherits it, and it has no inherent value.

I’d been nodding as he spoke as a conciliatory gesture and to show my support for the sentiment. I even said something lame like, “Yeah, totally” just to be sure he knew I felt we were on the same side.

I figured it was time to wrap up this exchange with this middle-aged stranger on a positive note. “Well, I didn’t realize you were with the conference,” I began, but again he spoke over me in that gravelly voice which probably served him well in the bass section.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean jack. I’ve seen people in there walking in with Styrofoam cups, or throwing away those stupid-ass plastic water bottles. Throwing them away. At an environmental thing. People are clueless. Even when they care. So just being in this conference–” he shrugged and shook his head– “people just don’t know.”

It’s hard to pinopoint the mental calculus involved in any human exchange. Below the level of consciousness, we evaluate all sorts of factors: the value of our interaction with the person, his or her honesty or intentions, subtle cues about health and attractiveness or repulsion, thoughts of other things to do, social fears and morés and consequences. Somewhere in this brief exchange, I decided I liked the guy. And I dared to engage.

“Even if they do know,” I continued for us both, “you’re never sure if they care at all. There are too many people who know, on some level, that littering is bad and they just don’t care. Or it’s an inconvenience to have to deal with it, and they don’t want to be inconvenienced.”

I figured I’d prattled too much for a typical stranger exchange, but he hadn’t lost interest; on the contrary, he seemed to be digging in.

He answered, “Yeah. Ethics can be inconvenient. Look, I’m an atheist, and people think that means I have no ethics, but that’s not true, that’s not what it means. I have strong morals and they’re based on observation and trying to make things better. And I observe that humans make a lot of stuff worse. It’s just what we do – it’s natural, not intentional.” He took a deep ragged breath like he was sucking air through a cigarette, like this way of thinking made him tired and wired at the same time. “We’ve never had to change our behavior before, because up until now we couldn’t have much impact on the globe. There were too few of us, we didn’t have the technology then. Now, we have to totally re-steer our species to do what’s NOT natural, to do what’s NOT convenient, so we don’t ruin what we’ve got.”

I had noticed other people standing around were starting to get interested, to turn toward us subtly and lean in slightly. I was happy to see this could potentially blossom into a philosophical conversation among new acquaintances.

A woman standing near the man chimed in sardonically, “Like, we have to act like our future depends on sharing the planet?” A lovely, wry statement – obvious to conservationists, hard to swallow for the average human when she or he realizes the implications for business and personal life.

In only a few minutes, the conversation had turned from an affront to a pleasant camaraderie. I could feel the warmth of growing respect blooming in my smile.

The aforementioned announcement served as an interruption, after which our group disbanded, but I knew I’d be seeing the man and the other people throughout the conference. Some in rehearsal. Ours is a small, though growing, world of people who care enough about the environment to take time off work to go to conferences like these and gripe and grow and learn and lead. We’d run into each other again, and after a few fumbling, awkward exchanges, we’d delve back into sharing ideas and groping toward changing the world for the better.

 

If you’ve read this far, I thank you for sharing this experience with me, and apologize for going over my self-imposed 500 words limit. Those who know me well know that my dreams are vivid, and I didn’t want to break this one into a series or boil it down past its subtlety, which I hope I’ve conveyed. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this trip into one of the worlds my brain conjured during sleep.