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!]

 

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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: 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 0036: Signs of Spring

Just a quick note today. Others have joyfully pointed out Trout Lilies and Spring Herald (or Elbow Bush) to me this week. But the King of Spring this week is a magnificent, stately elm tree (also pointed out to me – where has my head been??) that stood stately by the Green Dragon Trail at LLELA. Look at those buds/blooms!

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Field Notes Friday 0034: The Appearance of Destruction

Shocking as scenes after a fire may be, some fires are “good” (meaning they’re an essential part of some ecosystems). In a controlled burn, one of many goals is to burn often enough that raging, far-ranging fires aren’t a possibility in the future.

I imagine in the past, the swath of land a herd of thousands of bison had tread and munched might serve as a natural fire break – not enough fuel for the fire to continue. (I don’t have a source on that; just imagining.) In modern controlled/prescribed burns, at least the ones I’ve participated in, mow lines, water sprayers, and backfires do the job.

Here’s a before and after shot:

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It looks shocking. Like the land is devastated.

But it’s not. The fire burned through quickly and made way for native prairie species while making it harder for invasive woody species to encroach.

I hope to return and show a different “after” photo: one that’s full of the green and gold and reds of life, sprung anew from the ashes.

I’m posting this as part of my pledge that I will make it easier for myself to participate in Field Notes Friday. I’m taking my own advice: keep it simple! Just a photo and some thoughts are plenty.

Here’s a link to the photo and thoughts I shared on Facebook. I hope you’ll join me there as well as on WordPress (…and iNaturalist… And Instagram…)

Field Notes Friday 0027: Today I Felt a Prairie Fire

Is this what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands? Today I felt the heat of a prairie fire as I volunteered for a planned burn. It reminded me of the first prairie fire I ever witnessed, and an essay I wrote afterward in utter awe of the power. I’m taking liberties with my self-imposed 500-words-or-under rule to share this with you. The original publication was here in February 2011 (I was a guest blogger). There are great pictures at that link, and the other entries are well worth a read, especially for naturalists and prairie ecologists. The photos below are from Thursday, September 4, 2014.Today I Felt a Prairie Fire
Today I participated in a prairie burn at LLELA (the 2,000 acre wildlife preserve where I work). I now have a profound respect for the settlers who moved to the prairies and fought wildfires with their bare hands, with shirts and rags. They fought to help neighbors and themselves, to save houses, fields, and families.

I also gained a profound respect for fire fighters. Even several feet away from a blaze of waist-high plants engulfed in powerful, vibrant orange, I felt the skin on my upper arms burning and wondered if I’d walk away with blisters. How do fire fighters do it? How did settlers do it?

After work today I became aware of the bustling activity of a few LLELA employees and volunteers. The winds were right, the time was short, the plans were laid – it was time for a burn! Steady, slow winds and other factors expedient for a burn coalesce rarely, so when the time is right, action must always be swift (even though plans are made well in advance).

I was honored to be invited to watch my first ever prairie burn; I didn’t know I’d get to participate! I showed up to observe the pros at work, but instead was told to park my car nearby with the keys still in the ignition (so someone could start the car fast and get away if needed – yikes!). I was handed a big yellow bag full of water to wear on my back, and its accompanying hose and sprayer to douse unruly flames, and took turns with my boss Lisa using what looked like a mud flap from an 18-wheeler attached to a broom handle to slap little flames (or sometimes big flames) that strayed from their allotted zones.

Prairie Fire
It was serious work! My eyes would sting when the smoke thickened, my arms were burning, hot ash sometimes landed on my bare skin, my upper back muscles were sore, and the only shade available was from the smoke itself, and only when it became so thick and brown it blotted out the sun! In those eerie times, the glow around me would look alternately green, magenta, and even purple.

As I watched Lisa deftly handle the tools of the trade (the flapper, the hose, the igniter), and heard her conversing with Ken and Richard via radio, I realized how important communication is in such a situation. Teamwork is as essential as any of the other tools. A fire may be planned, but it is a raw, powerful, raging form of energy, and I kept thinking of the word force; it is a compelling, unavoidable, unrelenting Force of Nature which, once unleashed, is hard to contain.

And containing it was the art. The tools were never idle; used against a huge blaze, they may seem paltry, but they were deftly and strategically wielded. We were creating a fire break, an area that would be burned ahead of time so that the major fire would blaze toward it, get to the edge of it, run out of fuel, and subsequently die.

Our purpose was clear, but the method was subject to the caprices of weather. Our supposedly steady forecasted wind proved as fickle as a politician, and constantly shifted positions. Little flames seemed to be constantly testing their bounds, and when we turned our backs, they’d have created messes as toddlers with a new babysitter do.

And a new babysitter is exactly what I felt like! Experience is a grand teacher, and it was obvious that I had none. Lisa could see signs of fire where I saw only grass; she could see flames where I saw only wisps of smoke. When I first started helping, the scene would look placid right up until the point that there were multiple small fires out of my control. Gradually I became more aware of the patterns of the fire, and of the goal behind the smaller actions involved in keeping the fire in line.

Prairie Fire
At one point I saw flames brightly and colorfully reflected in big drops of water Lisa had just sprayed on the grass. So I knew that grass was wet and had no need of my attention, so I turned to other fires to swat. The next time I looked at the same area, it had become a bustling city of little flames, sprouted there as if by magic, or mischief! Vigilance is a must.

Little flames could also crouch unseen, hiding under small thickets of green grasses and plants. They seemed to watch with bright eyes until I turned away, then they’d suddenly burst forth and consume the towering goldenrod above them, as well as the shorter stems that had covered them. I could understand how ancient people might have attributed animate characteristics to fire.

The movement! The colors! The sound! The smell! The smell of a prairie fire is as homey to me as a campfire. Nothing was as unsettling, though, as the sound it made. Different plants burned with different sounds, but when many plants were burning inside of a wall of angry red and orange, the sound became cracking, popping, and a faint thrumming roar. I think it would have given me goosebumps if I hadn’t been so hot. If I heard that sound anywhere but in a controlled burn, my blood would to turn to ice in my veins. That’s the sound of death rushing straight at you.

And the animals noticed, too. We were only burning about 20 acres, so I’d guess that most of the animals we’d consider cuddly and cute were able to get away before they were in real danger. But the grasshoppers were caught by surprise. Some of them didn’t seem to be able to figure out which way to hop. Are they geriatric at the end of their season?

I had only a little time to contemplate the fate of some roasted grasshoppers, and wonder at the other animals who were (hopefully) making their escape. (In particular, I asked Lisa about snakes, her area of expertise. Could they slither fast enough?) But as I drove home, the implications of the power of fire wielded by human hands settled on me like heavy ashen dust.

Is this, then, what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands?

We decide when to burn; we decide when to plant. We decide what to kill; we decide what to preserve. We decide what to contain; we decide what to eradicate. Fire is the most blatant display of such powers I’ve ever seen. The scorched land we’d created with the use of fire recalled scenes or war, or descriptions of a hellish wasteland, a true gehenna. What will spring from these ashes, though, is a healthier prairie, covering the scars of fire with breathtaking greens, golds, reds, blues, browns, and purples in less than a year.

Fire kills, and fire brings life. It’s a heady experience to control a power like that, even just to see it. Maybe control is too strong a word; perhaps manipulate is better. Manipulate – is the root word related to hands? That would be appropriate. With our own hands, and our own brains, we choose how and when to use a power like fire.

Prairie Fire Preparation

Some tools of the trade: an igniter (the silver can) and water tank with pressure hose (the white container on the ATV)

Fighting that fire (for that was my role, though others had different roles) was tough and rewarding. Though I’m inspired by the prairie settlers’ tenacity, bravery, and toughness, I can see that they were fighting a perpetual battle against a force of nature. Prairies and fires are as inextricable as forests and leaves.

Restoration ecologists know this about North American prairies: you can’t have a thriving prairie ecosystem without bison… and fire. Fire, as destructive as it seems to humans, is necessary for the renewal of the prairies, and the removal of trees. Prairie Fire

Trees, yes – those symbols of restoration. “Plant a tree!” we’re told. But trees are the enemies of some ecosystems. Trees and grasses are ancient enemies; where one thrives, the other rarely survives. So, fire it must be to keep the prairies alive. Fire, bison, and now humans, for so much of the prairie is incarcerated behind concrete bars and barriers that we are the new bison; we are the new force of nature, and in our hands is the power to protect or destroy.

After the prairie fire

Part of the fire team reflects after the burn is over. Note the charred area behind us.

Field Notes Friday 0025: Patterns in Your Nature Collections

I’m totally into thigmotropism. I bet you are, too.

Into what?? Yeah, I hadn’t heard that word until recently. Very recently. But after learning the word, lots of things make sense.

Like collecting sticks like this…

and this… Thigmotropism_credit_HappyNaturalist

and this…Thigmotropism_credit_HappyNaturalist

and writing a post about this:

Snake or plant?

Snake or plant?

…and being called “Twisted Sister” by one of my botanist friends (Bob O’Kennon, one of the editors of the Flora of North Central Texas). Why does he call me Twisted Sister? Because I LOVE thigmotropism! I just didn’t know it, until a friend (Suzanne Barnard of the LISD Outdoor Learning Area) shared this worksheet (look at definition “c”):Thigmotropism

I knew about gravitropism and phototropism, but I’ve been a fan of thigmotropism for a long time without even knowing the name. I realize not everyone is a word nerd like I am, but isn’t it fun to learn there’s a word to describe something you’ve been enjoying for a long time? I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere about the human brain and how we learn.

At first it was hard to remember the strange word, but then I thought about the definition: plant growth in response to contact with another thing… thigmotropism… it’s like you’re saying “thing” but with a stuffy nose. (In other words, say “thing” without the ‘n’.) That’s my mnemonic device, anyway.

So, years ago, as these various trees and vines grew together in dappled shade, and touched each other and began an epic battle-dance for height and sunshine and space, I was developing an affinity for all things twisty, winding, and coiled. As these plants responded, each to the presence of the other, and allocated resources to the tussle, I was collecting sticks and stones and shells. And I started to refine my collections of sticks, leaning toward the twisted, the mangled, the beautifully bent. Some of these plants, or parts of them, died, and fell upon my future path, where I found them and treasured them and took them home. These events made a perfect nest in my mind for the word (and the concept of) thigmotropism.

I can understand why some people ascribe to synchronicity – some series of events seem laid out just for us!

Lessons I take from this turn of events (see what I did there?):

  • There’s always something unexpected to be learned.
  • Generous teacher friends are the best.
  • Encourage people to collect natural items (ethically and sustainably, of course). Patterns will emerge, and there are  wonderful lessons to be learned.

What patterns do you see in your collections?

Field Notes Friday 0021: Homo sapiens var. photographensis

I’m studying Homo sapiens var. photographensis. How does this subspecies take such excellent photographs? Let’s observe this one in particular.

Homo sapiens var. photographensis

He crouches. He stands. He reflects. He shades his eyes. He adjusts his tripod. No good; he shakes his head and moves to another location. He leans in. He zooms in. He seems to freeze for several moments. The breeze blows. He waits.

Suddenly, his finger deftly presses a button. Click!

He repeats this process. Several times.

Inexplicably (to the uninitiated photographer), he goes to his car to get another lens. He returns and continues to repeat the previous process, relocating, moving, pausing. He seems to ponder something unseen to this observer.

Homo sapiens var. photographensis

His clothes and hat show he is prepared for long hours outdoors. His conversation is full of species names and descriptions, which can also be heard when conversing with H. sapiens var. entomologista, botanista, forestris and others… but conversation with individuals of the subspecies photographensis often reflect a depth of observation not found among the impatient or collectors. He can describe butterfly dances, bird parades, and other secret behind-the-scenes shows of nature.

I’ve been observing this individual for almost 30 minutes now, and the blazing sun, high humidity, and 80 degree temperature seems not to have an effect. Truly, this is a hardy variety of Homo sapiens.

(With apologies to the highly esteemed photographer in these photographs. These are my actual field notes from Tuesday.)

Homo sapiens var. photographensis

 

Field Notes Friday 0020: Star Milkvine (Matelea biflora)

DISCOVERED: starfish alien flower life form!

I ecstatically soaked up information and enthusiasm at the 5th Annual the State of the Prairie Conference. I’m beyond glad that the Coastal Prairie Partnership decided to host the conference in Fort Worth, the Prairie Queen City of Texas. I might never have heard of the conference otherwise, and would be truly impoverished if I never met this group of knowledgeable, engaged, and proactive biologists, conservationists, land owners, and practitioners.

One of many great features of the conference was the field trips. My chosen trip was to the McFarland and Hilmont ranches. Jason Singhurst of Texas Parks and Wildlife and Dana Wilson were along, and their wealth of plant knowledge was as useful as it was stunning. I saw and touched plants I’ve never even heard of before. One of them was Matelea biflora, a vine I’ve never seen. LOOK at this thing!

Matelea Biflora

Notice the hairyness. Also, did you see the reason it’s called biflora (two flower)? There’s a green bud in the frame. These plants usually have two flowers together – no more, no less. (I’ve heard Star Milkvine is also called two-flower milkvine. Have you heard something like “two-flower milk weed vine” as its common name? I couldn’t find any references to that name online, but I only made a cursory search.)

Out of context, this plant may seem weird, or perhaps even wonderful, but it’s as disjunct as a factoid on a cereal box.

Only when you climb a hilltop in a generational ranch which is ecologically managed, and see this plant in its full range of life stages, scattered amongst other glorious flowers and inconspicuous green life, and take in the air and clouds and breadth of view – and realize you’re standing in a precious ecosystem that we have the power to save or wipe out – do you realize any plant’s significance. Star Milkvine is a harbinger of habitat, an ecological beacon. Whether it’s on the Floristic Quality Index or not, this plant is associated with good prairie, and if you live in the DFW metroplex (or any other urban area in the central US which is bursting at the seams) you understand how vanishingly rare that is.

McFarland Ranch

Star Milkvine in context at the McFarland Ranch

I’m proud to have ‘discovered’ this weird life form and to have documented it. I’ve been re-introduced to iNaturalist.org by Michael Fox, and I think I’ve finally got the impetus to fully participate, so I’ll be uploading my finds from this conference to iNaturalist soon. I’ll also be sharing more photos via my Facebook and Tumblr page, so stay tuned.

Thank you for participating in Field Notes Friday by reading my observations and and by sharing yours. We make a difference in others’ lives when we share our field notes; we’re educating and enchanting our friends and the public with the otherwise unnoticed life all around them.