Just playing around the other evening while the holiday lights are up, trying a bunch of experiments. The raindrop on the lights was a subtle touch – while I’d like to do some shots against a nice layer of snow, that’s always an iffy thing at this latitude. I may annoy about half of the people in the country with this, but I was shooting in just a t-shirt (or is that tee-shirt?) Thursday night as I got this, and it was even warmer Friday. If it helps, The Girlfriend would have had at least a sweater on – it was 19°c (66°f) at 1 a.m.
The above shot required a little paying around; the soft globes are the neighbor’s lights across the road, rendered as round (and not hexagons) by using maximum aperture. They were significantly dimmer than the blue one of ours in the foreground, so this is a 1.3 second exposure, triggered with a long remote cord as I flipped the light switch so ours would be on for only part of the exposure. Any slight breeze would shake the wire and blur the closer blue one, and getting the right ratio of light levels was a timing thing, so I made several exposures. I even waited for a car to go past on the road, which would have painted some streaks across the bottom of the frame, but our road sees few cars at that time of night, and while I was waiting the neighbors shut their lights off for the evening.
I also did lots of other night experiments, but none of them turned out quite the way I wanted; getting the light balanced for night exposures can be tricky, and the LCD on the camera is only partially useful in that regard – it doesn’t give a very good idea of exposure levels, especially not subtleties. During this I was trying to figure out why some of the images seemed to be coming up blurred, almost in a fog, while others were sharp without changing focus at all, until I realized my breath was sometimes fogging up the LCD ;-)
Some of my ideas required sitting down on the wet front steps, or shooting from ground level out in the yard, which meant I got more than a little damp, and still had nothing to show for it. I tried again on Friday evening, but by then the gentle breeze had become raging winds and nothing was going to hold still for a time exposure, plus we no longer had the wet conditions that provided raindrops and shiny surfaces. So, they’ll wait for another time.
Which brings us to these images from earlier in the day Thursday. When light is getting this dim from heavy overcast, it’s definitely recommended that you use a tripod. I’m sometimes as annoyed over fussing with them as anyone else, so I wasn’t using one here, and thus this is the only frame of five that was sharp enough. Had I wanted a little more depth-of-field I would have been out of luck, or forced to use the tripod, but even then it might have been difficult, since my position in among several trees was not exactly conducive to the wide leg spread. My primary tripod is a model that can mount the center column sideways as a horizontal arm, allowing a bit more flexibility, but this doesn’t fix every problem; the weight of the camera limits how far you can extend without some kind of counterbalance, and the arm works strictly horizontally. Often it’s easier to simply shoot a lot of frames and hope I was steady enough in at least one of them.
A tripod would have been no real help with this one – it wasn’t the movement of the camera that was the biggest problem, but the gentle bobbing of the saturated plants in the breeze, so the “take lots of frames” technique was the only thing I could count on. In the foreground are the remains of the dog fennel plants, once towering over my head but now drooping from their age and burden of water, while in the lower background is one patch of pampas grass, still bright green but topped with their feathery gold fronds. The camera’s white balance for all of these was set for sunlight, which is essentially no compensation for the color of light. This keeps the blue-grey conditions accurate, which is what we expect to see with the rain; using Auto White Balance or the setting for overcast would have produced more neutral, warmer colors that reduced the atmosphere of the image.
When I selected the dripping tips as a subject, I shifted around a bit to see what background was going to work; I had the choice of open sky, bare tree branches, deep shade down below those branches, the lawn, and the pampas grass (not to mention a road and the neighbors’ houses, ruled out pretty quickly.) While I took a few different ones, this is the one that worked the best for me – there’s a hint of a hand reaching down, so the pampas grass had to represent an “object” as a target of the hand, which is another way of looking at the framing. Or you could just consider it as minimal interference between the dominant colors of the image, if that works. Any of these involved tiny shifts of position, and the belief that the background should work with the subject. The same holds true with both images above: the position of the lights at top required careful adjustments of the tripod, and the ivy leaves were specifically framed to extend across the corners, as well as giving a face-on aspect to the dominant leaf that used the short depth-of-field to advantage, preventing any part of it from going out of focus. The light angle also had to be a certain way to demonstrate the wetness of the ivy while not getting too much reflection that would wash out the colors and detail, something faintly visible in the third leaf. Even the dog fennel pic required finding a group of drops roughly in the same plane so the focus would be sharp for most of them, though one could also select a single drop to concentrate on, making it the focal point of the image by being the only sharp one.
But yes, hard work – exhausting, even ;-)
It is that season, and despite watching virtually no television at all, I still peripherally see many of the advertisements that spring up in vast numbers this time of year. One type in particular goes beyond annoying into the realm of criminally reprehensible, and if you think I’m being overly dramatic, read on.
No buildup here: I’m talking about diamonds. It still isn’t common-enough knowledge just how vicious the diamond trade really is, despite the efforts of many, and my own post won’t reach more than a tiny fraction of the people who need to hear it, but hopefully, I can spur a little greater awareness, and encourage everyone to help the spread.
Diamonds are mined almost exclusively in various countries in Africa, and while there are a few major industrial diamond mines, there is also a lot of mining that is done by local labor, often isolated tribes in underdeveloped parts of the countries. The dynamic that the price of diamonds puts upon these areas is overwhelming and horrendous – without regulation or even law enforcement, local overlords control the activities of peasant laborers and the territories where diamonds can be found, and the methods are just as bad, if not worse, than the worst of the slave owners from past US history. One of the fear tactics used to keep the workers and townspeople in line is to grab a child and chop off a limb with a machete, to demonstrate the consequences of failing to yield to the overlords’ demands. The conditions in such mining camps are appalling, and its safe to say that the ‘trickle-down’ economic plan is not in operation here – the ridiculous price that consumers pay for diamonds does not reflect a commensurate amount of income into these areas. Even if it did, I think we can safely say that mutilation and murder aren’t really justifiable with any economic stimulus.
This has spurred at least some response, in that many people are now aware of the phrases, “conflict diamond,” or “blood diamond,” meaning ones that are produced in such conditions, and there are efforts to identify ‘legitimate’ diamonds, ones that, supposedly, have originated from acceptable practices. There are two primary problems with this. The first is, it’s not exactly hard to forge any of these identifiers, since there is no regulatory agency in place that can enforce them. The second is, this isn’t solving the problem, which is not how diamonds are obtained as much as why they are in the first place. And that why is solely, inarguably, and crassly, marketing. Nothing more.
Everyone in this country, and I think throughout Europe and most of Asia, recognizes the tradition of diamond engagement rings, and the phrase, “diamonds are forever.” We all know that diamonds are the hardest substance known to man, and various folklore about their quality and sparkle and all that. Which is all complete and utter bullshit. There is no tradition of diamond rings – this concept did not exist before 1938, when it was introduced as a marketing campaign. Moreover, take a moment and think about why doing anything as a ‘tradition’ makes any sense at all – I’ve tackled the subject before. Why should we care in the slightest what anyone before us did? Should we believe they were smarter, or that we’re carrying on a ritual that accomplishes something?
Yet, there’s far more to it than that. Diamonds are hard, but not the hardest substance known (otherwise they couldn’t be shaped, could they?) They can actually be produced industrially, without any mining at all, since they’re simply refined, high-pressure examples of the most abundant element on Earth; this is, in fact, how numerous tools are made, since industrial diamonds are produced routinely. True enough, those are typically colored, mostly because there’s no reason to keep tool-grade diamonds perfectly clear, but also because there’s no market for it. More on that in a second.
Diamonds are, let’s be blunt, completely boring without the stories behind them. They’re indistinguishable from glass, except by experts, and don’t even sparkle half as nicely as crystal treated with some common chemicals, routinely used to coat whatever someone wants to make pretty. There are hundreds of other gems that look much better, that actually indicate to someone else what they are without having to be explained. In fact, the only real value of diamonds is in the explaining, since not only does anyone need to be told that it really is a diamond, but just how big it is or what purity it possesses. It’s not the stone itself, but the story that serves the purpose. This is reflected in all the nonsense about the cut and facets and blather, but also in the whole engagement ring horseshit as well. “A good guide on how much to spend is two months salary.” So the potential bride not only is showing off her bauble, but how much money her beau makes – and he might realize this too, and spend even more just to look more prosperous. Yet, think about how idiotic it is to finance a ring. We’re supposed to believe this is a reflection of love, but isn’t that the crassest thing ever? What kind of man thinks money is somehow affectionate, and what kind of woman demands that? How fucking shallow can we be, and how badly can we misunderstand what love is about?
Even worse, how badly can we be played? Diamonds are a commodity through the efforts of just one monopoly cartel, and that’s De Beers. They’re the ones that created all of the mythology of diamonds, including the sayings, the fake traditions, and the handy guides. They own most of the diamond producing areas in Africa, and control the vast majority of the diamond trade. Through their lobbying, the have prevented ‘industrial’ (manmade) diamonds from being used for jewelry – otherwise their value would have plummeted drastically, and yes, perfectly clear diamonds can be manufactured with only a little more effort than currently being used routinely. De Beers even maintains a stockpile of diamonds that can be dumped on the market to drop the trade value, should any other source of gem-grade diamonds be discovered in the world and someone not under their control try to market them. Diamonds are not anywhere near as rare as many other gems; the price is rigidly fixed, and way out of proportion to the efforts needed to obtain, shape, or distribute them. When we talk about monopoly companies and strangleholds and such, we never even come close to what De Beers has accomplished, and the horseshit that they’ve sold to the public.
I haven’t provided any links, and it’s for a specific reason: all of this is remarkably easy to discover on your own, and I encourage you to do so. That way, you won’t feel like I’m feeding you biased information. If you’re skeptical (and I encourage this,) you should see for yourself how much information is out there. It’s far more than I could feature in a post.
But here’s another thing to consider. Jewelry is fine if you like it – it’s for attracting attention and looking nicer, but that’s really all it does. Possession of something expensive that doesn’t serve any other function is solely about bragging, and how much do we really need that? I know it’s an old saw, but should we really seek to impress someone whose sense of value comes from how expensive something is? How much of this is classism, and snobbery, and an attempt to provoke jealousy? Most especially, is there a good reason to mistake this for any form of affection, or use this to manipulate those we claim to love?
Why not simply find something appropriate, not from the standpoint of society, but from the standpoint of personal feelings? Find something that demonstrates how well you know the recipient, or even make something yourself – wouldn’t those express your feelings better? But seriously, if nothing else, stop playing puppet to the most manipulative, reprehensible trade on the planet, and don’t fall for the bullshit.
When you spend all spring and summer tracking the praying mantids that have hatched and taken up residence locally, naturally you want to see the whole cycle, and that means the production of the egg sac as well. Of course, they’re not inclined to do this for an audience, so a bit of luck is involved, luck that I did not have this year. I watched one particular female molt into reproducing adult phase, growing fatter with her meals, and knew from her girth that she would be laying eggs soon. I tried to keep an eye on her, but spotted her only sporadically.
Then she reappeared with a much more trim figure, and I knew I had missed it. In the days leading up to this, she had been found newly molted on one of the front patches of pampas grass (there are three, of two different species,) then spotted on the butterfly bush, a tomato plant, the rosemary bush (where she likely ate one of the green lynx spider moms,) and finally here on the larger patch of pampas grass closest to the porch, which is a favorite haunt of the adult mantids. This led me to believe she had placed her egg sac in the pampas grass, and since this gets cut back every year, I was determined to locate it before this happened. However, on a whim today I started poking around in the azalea bush where the young had first appeared this past spring, and found the sac immediately. The azalea is not three meters from the pampas grass – it’s not like she had a ways to go. The sac is in a fairly easy location to view, so I should be able to keep an eye on it, though we’ll have to see what happens in the spring when the bush starts to leaf out and flower. I may end up cutting a little channel through the branches where I can lie underneath the bush and photograph the nymphs emerging. I could always cut the branch and keep the sac in a terrarium until the young hatched, but I’d rather leave it where it is.
And even if I miss the happy event, there will be plenty of tiny mantids running around afterwards, so I’ll have lots to photograph either way. If I were superstitious, I might have avoided saying anything at all, since too often on this blog I’ve announced something that I’m trying for that never pans out. This is nothing but confirmation bias, or negation bias if you prefer, since there are other circumstances where I have captured what I was after, and I’ve always got an ongoing list of things I’m chasing at any given time – some of them just won’t happen right away. If I fixated on them, I might get frustrated, but there are lots of other images I get in the meantime so I really can’t complain. To me, that’s the best approach to take – keep plenty of goals in mind and chase whatever presents itself. Do what you can to plan, but it’s not all in our control – just roll with it.
This year’s mantis saga, in chronological order:
Don’t mess with a nature photographer
Just a drop, please?
Not him again
A peek at the process
I had to
The stories go on (linked above)
A friend of mine in Kansas (you know, the one who won’t go to a water park,) wanted to one-up me on the frost pics, which is fine, since mine were extremely limited. We’ve always had this minor competition going on since he got into nature photography, a nice motivation to keep improving as long as your ego can weather it – it’s disturbing how many photographers I’ve come across who can’t handle that, believe it or not.
The image above is a little eye-bending because the line between ice and open water appears to be the edge of the water itself, with the bank and its own reflection being a curiously symmetrical rock face. It’s also easy to get the impression that the reflected sun has melted the ice, but I’m more inclined to think instead that the open water has better flow and never got the chance to freeze. The juxtaposition of blue ice and yellow sunlight is also cool. The shale, however, prompted me to research the geology of his area, and it turns out that it might be an excellent place to find fossils. 300 million years ago, that area was the edge of a tropical sea, one coast of the Pangaean supercontinent, and went through repeated depositions as the sea’s edge fluctuated over the centuries. Shale is remarkably easy to search for fossils within, so I’m presently trying to get him out there to look.
But let’s get to the frost pics. This time of year is virtually monochromatic in the mid-latitudes, primarily greys and browns, so a splash of color is exploited for everything it’s worth. This type of crystal formation is commonly called hoar frost, specifically air hoar, spiky crystals that sprout from surfaces when the surfaces drop below the humid air temperature.
Sometimes, the surface is as fine as a spider web, which are the best conditions to watch for because a frost-covered orb web is a great photo subject, as you might imagine. I have yet to find all those conditions in place myself – orb webs are often long gone by the time the frost conditions roll in – and to the best of my knowledge Jim hasn’t found them either.
As mentioned earlier, these conditions can be a little tricky. Direct sunlight will eradicate the frost in a hurry, so one either works very quickly or before the sunlight is present. The latter means much lower light levels, slowing the shutter speed, and of course much bluer light. This last bit is okay – we associate blue with cold, so it reinforces the conditions to the viewer, and overriding the white balance to keep this color in place can be quite effective. Normally you might use a white balance setting for open shade or even overcast in this kind of light (if you simply didn’t use auto white balance) – those conditions suffer from reduced yellow and red light, so these are increased in-camera to compensate and not leave the image looking too blue. So to keep the blue, you could use the setting for direct sunlight – this is pretty much white light and the camera makes no compensation. To really enhance it, go for the setting used for incandescent light; such light is very yellow, so the camera compensates by increasing the complementary color, which is of course blue. Experiment freely – the difference can be remarkable, and very expressive.
Which should make the conditions of this next image very obvious – I’m guessing that Jim was working just as the sun broke through, because there’s still frost visible and I imagine it didn’t last long. Either that or it was freakin’ cold. As indicated in the previous post, these are higher contrast conditions – note the bright highlights and distinctive shadows, giving some enhancement to the shape of this seed pod. It also made the bare branches in the background stand out a bit sharper, slightly distracting – much more and it would be working against the image too strongly. Ideally, this is where you try to find a dark background, like a patch of shade, to position behind the seed pod, using that contrast to really make it stand out, but such things can be hard to accomplish. Here’s a sneaky little trick, if you’re prepared: put the camera on a tripod, using a remote shutter release if necessary, and use your own shadow to provide the darker background.
It may seem nitpicky – there’s a certain number of people who never noticed the lines in the background until I mentioned them. If I have to point them out, are they really distracting? Yet, there’s a difference between conscious awareness of such details, and the subconscious effect of them. Nearly everyone is able to tell that this was taken in bright sunlight, but many cannot specifically tell why – their minds see the light qualities and automatically say “sunlight” without necessarily saying, “because yellow light, and higher contrast.” When it comes to distractions, there’s usually a certain number of them in any image, details that we might not include if we were painting the image, for instance. The goal is to keep these to a minimum, making the image have a stronger impression. While those lines aren’t anything bad, not having them is better.
[This how I get back at Jim for some of his insect shots with the MP E-65mm macro lens. I never said it didn't get petty... ;-) ]
This last one is curious. I’d suspected he was shooting in infra-red, but he told me it’s simply greyscale (the conditions were “pretty close to monochrome anyways”.) Nonetheless, there’s definitely a hint of color in there – look at the centers of the flowers – and it’s an RGB image when checked in an editing program. This was taken with a newer Canon EOS M body, and so I’m now guessing it was shot monochrome in the camera, rather than converted afterwards, and it’s not quite perfectly neutral. It also makes the file larger than it needs to be, because each color channel is simply mimicking two others (more or less, anyway.) I always shy away from in-camera effects, preferring the greater control from editing programs, and I think Jim does too, and was only trying it out to see how it fared.
So now, with all the talk about backgrounds, did you notice the little arms flanking the flowers, almost ‘holding them up’? It’s just another subtlety that enhances the subject, great when you can accomplish it.
Main light from the strobe, backlit by the sun. Notice how the edges are defined brightly, especially the antennae, which makes them stand out.
I find it hard to believe that I never actually tackled this in a separate post before – I guess I kept thinking I’d done it early on, and have certainly touched
on it in numerous posts. But it’s such an important part of photography that it really deserves its own specific, detailed treatment.
First and foremost, and something I teach my students right off the bat, is that photographs by nature have increased contrast over what we see through our eyes. They have a narrow dynamic range, a term that straddles the border between explanatory and pompous. We all know, for instance, that dogs can hear higher pitches than we can, and perhaps you know that we only see a narrow spectrum of light, unable to discern infra-red and ultra-violet ourselves, much less gamma rays or microwaves. Well, the camera’s much worse than we are, partially because of sensitivity, but mostly because of the limitations of the medium. You can aim right at the sun and get a shot (not recommended actually,) but printed on paper or glowing from a monitor, it will never make anyone look away in tears – it will simply be white. The image has to dump a lot of brightness levels just to work.
This means that it’s easy to have a photo where different parts are both too bright and too dark. Most especially, this occurs in bright sunlight, which reflects the most light right back to the camera, forcing the exposure meter to try and handle that and thus leaving behind the shadowy areas. Anyplace where a distinct shadow is visible can demonstrate the property too, and this is most noticeable when the shadow falls across someone’s face, from a tree branch or a hat brim. Generally, this means such bright conditions are, despite common belief, rather poor for photography and should be avoided, but there are uses for any kind of lighting conditions. More important is recognizing that the camera is going to increase contrast and being able to spot the situations where this will be bad for the image, which takes a little practice.
Another factor to note is that there is a specific level of light to bring out peak colors. Very dim light doesn’t produce vivid color, no shocks there, but beyond a certain brightness, colors start to bleach out and look too pale – this is very noticeable in the highlights on a shiny subject, which often go to pure white. Many digital sensors seem to have different sensitivities for different colors as well, meaning that a red jacket may become much brighter than a blue one in the exact same lighting conditions. Exposure meters are sometimes biased as well, failing to produce a proper exposure when the metering area is predominantly a problem color.
Hazy or overcast days produce very low contrast lighting, since the light is scattered by humidity and comes from many directions, producing very diffuse shadows to none at all, and subjects therefore gain fairly even illumination. While this means the light is dimmer, the shadows are often the same darkness as a sunny day while the highlights not nearly as bright, meaning that the two are closer together and, regardless of where exposure is obtained, can more easily fit within the dynamic range. The same scattered light effect can be done with artificial lighting, through the use of multiple lights, reflectors, or diffusers of some kind. The idea is to get light from more than one direction so highlights and shadows get reduced or eliminated. When doing this, especially with multiple lights, one can produce shadows of whatever intensity works best by varying the effective strength of the lights from different sides, often as easily as moving one light source further away from the subject.
A broad guideline is to match the subject matter to its opposite in light conditions: if the subject is high contrast in light or reflectivity (significant differences between bright and dark portions, but not necessarily color,) go with low-contrast light, and of course if the subject is low-contrast, that’s when a bright direct light source can bring out more detail. An example of the former is a flower garden in full bloom, varieties of bright petals and dark leaves or shadows – these typically benefit from soft diffuse light to prevent overexposure of the white petals or harsh black areas of shadow, and to keep the colors in the richest ranges. While on the opposite side, something as simple as a textured surface makes use of bright, high-contrast lighting to accentuate the shadows produced by the texture or shape – this is where black & white photography gains the greatest edge as well. This might mean coming back to a subject later on when the conditions are right, but a little planning can do a lot for the resulting image.
Both color and lighting – notice how the leaf is shaped by the shadows, which would have been far less visible on a hazy day.
But there are other uses of contrast. First off, it’s not just light but, as hinted above, contrasting colors too. Regardless of light quality the red flowers of the poinsettia stand out against the green leaves of the same plant, and white clouds against a rich blue sky. Our eyes often seek sharp contrast, so taking advantage of this in your subjects can help a lot. Whenever possible, place your point of focus (such as a model’s head) against a contrasting background for best effect – portrait photographers often select their backgrounds based on the color of their model’s hair or clothes, while I will look for the right foliage in the background, or even introduce something for macro work. While certain colors may ‘clash’ in a fashion sense, for photography this is rarely the case – such juxtapositions simply accentuate the difference between one area and another, and capture the eye irresistibly.
Which is sometimes not the best thing – as noted in previous composition posts, you want the viewer’s eye going to your subject, and not necessarily anything else; you must direct their attention. So contrast in the background itself, like a red soda can alongside the forest path, is to be avoided if you do not want the distraction from your main subject. Even well out of focus, prominent contrasts can detract from the image. Ideally, of course, your background should have virtually no contrast at all if you want to keep attention focused on your subject, but this can be hard to accomplish.
Then there’s contrast as the subject itself. Contrasting focus – sharp subject, blurry background – is what depth-of-field is all about, but there are also contrasting patterns and the break in pattern, the contrasting subject that appears different from the rest (one oddly-colored leaf on the tree,) and so on. Sharp contrast can provide a texture that the viewer can practically feel, while the subtle shadows from the shape of a cloud or an ocean wave may produce a pleasant, mellow effect.
The camera allows a limited amount of control on its own. Back in the olden days (and still today,) films had different levels of contrast and could be selected as the subject demanded, while digital cameras have the ability to change contrast settings on the fly. If your camera features multiple preset parameters, it’s often a good idea to have a neutral middle-of-the-road setting, then one for low contrast, and one for high contrast – this way you can pick what will work best for any particular subject, or even experiment to see if one works better than another. Again, you would use the reduced-contrast settings for a high-contrast subject, to offset the potential problems. These will not overcome the limited dynamic range of photography, but they can help mediate it a bit.
There’s also the simple trick of fill flash. When natural light is bright but casting deep shadows, firing off the camera strobe can illuminate these shadows a bit and lessen the contrast. The strobe will never get as bright as sunlight, and the range is limited, but it can soften the shadows to a point where they look acceptable. A reflector to bounce sunlight in from the far side can do much the same, but of course it has to be aimed, hard to do without an assistant or fancy stands. In the image at the top of this post, I was aiming up from underneath the beetle, where natural light had produced mostly shadow, so the flash provided necessary detail. Note the shadows underneath the insect, and the highlights on the legs, pincers, and eye.
Then there are the few manipulations which can be used after the image has been captured. Saving the image in RAW mode (in camera) sometimes gives an edge on handling contrast, but not to any great extent that I’ve found, and the increased memory usage can slow down both actually getting the image (from internal processing time) and downloading and editing – personally I stopped using RAW and stuck with JPEG at no compression, and concentrate on using the right light. High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques, which combine multiple images exposed for at least highlights and shadows separately, can overcome the media-induced contrast, with two caveats: all images should be taken from the same vantage point, focal length, and position (usually meaning a tripod is required,) and experienced photographers and editors can usually spot an HDR image a mile away – light simply doesn’t behave like that. Take note, too, that both of these approaches can do nothing for portions of the image that have exceeded the limits; once the highlights have gone to pure white, or the shadows to pure black, nothing is going to bring them back.
So pay attention to the light and shadows, and with experience, you’ll know what conditions will work best for any given subject, and gain the control you really want.
A few years ago, I would have skipped doing any reviews of this nature, because the books I refer to had a limited run from American publishers and are nearly all out of print now; some of them never actually had a US publication, since the author is British and they were primarily published in England. With the internet, however, it is now possible to find just about any book, given a little patience and search skills, and have it shipped to you from nearly any continent. So I can’t feel bad about making any such recommendations now.
I’ll also note that I don’t like over-generalizations; I think as a species we seek patterns and simple answers, and thus often force things to fit some overall category in which they do not reasonably belong. Much as I like many authors, there are also bad examples of their work, and much the same can be said of musicians, so I usually aim for specific works to review instead.
Gerald Durrell is an exception, primarily because he’s produced far more great works than dismal ones, but also because I cannot bring myself to choose just one book to review. There are too many gems to think selecting one is doing justice (and one should not take the image at right to be a guide – it was dictated by aesthetics, not favoritism.)
Nearly all of Durrell’s works are semi-autobiographical, in that they chronicle his experiences in naturalism and conservation, from a boy growing up on the Greek island of Corfu to establishing his own zoo and endangered wildlife trust in Great Britain. And I admit to some suspicion about embellishment (stung by much of James Herriot’s work,) since he relates a large number of peculiar characters and unique situations, which brings up a curious aspect within the genre. Authors working on pure fiction can freely use such things, since there is a suspension of disbelief when one reads those works. But non-fiction is expected to maintain accuracy, and the tales of peculiar individuals or situations within capture our attention because of their outrageousness. Few authors can resist adorning their work with not-strictly-accurate representations of encounters, conversations, and personalities, but how much is allowable?
In most of the stories within Durrell’s books, it probably doesn’t matter. Because the charm of the books isn’t solely the appeal to the animal lover, or conservationist, or naturalist, but also the distinctive way he relates his subject matter. Durrell is one of the very few writers I’ve ever come across who can describe a species not just succinctly, but accurately enough that years later, I could see a photo of an animal for the first time and confidently say, “That’s an agouti.” Nor does he limit his descriptive powers to animal identification, as he paints the landscapes and expressions of his experiences in a manner that straddles the line between illustration and poetry. From The Whispering Land, on his chance encounter with a guanaco while sleeping under their Land Rover in Argentina:
He turned his head, sniffing the breeze, and I could see his profile against the sky. He wore the supercilious expression of his race, a faint aristocratic sneer, as if he knew I had slept in my clothes for the past three nights. He lifted one forefoot daintily, and peered down at me closely. Whether, at that moment, the breeze carried my scent to him I don’t know, but he suddenly stiffened and, after a pause for meditation, he belched.
It was not an accidental gurk, the minute breach of good manners that we are all liable to at times. This was a premeditated, rich and prolonged belch, with all the fervour of the Orient in it. He paused for a moment, glaring at me, to make sure this comment on my worth had made me feel properly humble, and then he turned and disappeared as suddenly as he had come, and I could hear the faint whisper of his legs brushing through the little bushes.
That passage also illustrates his sardonic humor, as much a part of his writing (and, one would guess, his life) as naturalism. On reading the books about his youth in Corfu, it’s easy to see that he was raised in this environment, most especially courtesy of his older brother Larry, better known as the author Lawrence Durrell. It is entirely possible that his brother’s interest in literature fostered his own writing skills, though his accounts of profound resistance to any education that did not include animals seems to belie that notion. But since biting commentary is the trait of his brother’s most emphasized in those stories, one can be excused for believing this was the prime influence.
Most of Durrell’s books chronicle his efforts to collect animals for zoos in the 1950s through 1970s – after that time, obtaining animals from the wild was on the wane and endangered species programs were coming into their prime, largely due to Durrell’s own influence, and he also had a zoo of his own that he had established. But those earlier collecting trips reflect a fascinating period in many of these areas, touched only lightly by industry and technology, not yet affected by the globalization that was to come. Entire camps were transported to their destinations by ancient trains, Land Rovers, horses, and native porters, many of whom accepted cigarettes or shots of whiskey as tips. Durrell’s observations of not just the local wildlife and scenery, but the native customs (including, too often, the Customs procedures themselves,) paint exotic cultures that are next to impossible to find anymore.
Some of these portions may strike the reader as somewhat racist, especially Durrell’s renditions of local languages or his casual callousness at times – we have now grown hypersensitive to such issues. Yet his sarcasm is not restricted to natives, imparted equally to even his wife, and these aspects should be viewed through the perspectives of the time. Some of his destinations in Africa, for example, were in the last vestiges of British colonialism, and the natives really did speak pidgin English and refer to all whites as “massa.” Contrasted against Durrell’s distaste of arrogant classism, and his delight in native dances and songs, any discomfort over such passages is likely more a product of our current attitudes rather than an indication of Durrell’s.
It must be said, these are all animal books, first and foremost, and the accounts split their time equally with the rigors of caring for so many different species, and Durrell’s observations of their traits and personalities. Moreover, I need to emphasize his approach from a practical, objective standpoint – these are not books of spirituality, ‘communication,’ or seeking some connection with any particular species; those are all human traits, and nonsense ones at that. Durrell may describe animals, as above, in terms we relate to, but does not even faintly ascribe our traits to any other species, offering keen observations in place of imagined qualities – the books, even of his childhood, are from the perspective of a scientist, not a spirit guide, and he takes pains at times to correct the impressions of those who fail to understand what animal work is truly about. I was about to remark, as a wildlife rehabilitator, how appropriate I find this approach, before realizing that these books are a large part of why I become involved in rehab. And thus, for anyone interested in pursing that, or any other animal-related field, I can say that the perspective given in the books, especially those of his collecting trips and establishing his own zoo, provides an accurate expectation of the tasks and effort involved.
(As a brief aside, reminded by the ‘spirit guide’ comment, his chapter in Birds, Beast, and Relatives on attending a séance in London is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and even delightful from a skeptic’s standpoint.)
Durrell also penned several tomes on his youth, a few collections of short stories from various points in his life, and even some works of fiction aimed at both adults and kids. Only sporadic chapters have little to do with animals, but more than a few concentrate on his interactions with family, friends, and random characters, often giving the impression that he wades through an ocean of eccentricity as the only one who can see the absurdity of it all (and relate it hilariously as well.) However, it is also not hard to find the tongue-in-cheek references to his own view on things, knowing full well that his overriding interests in animals is hardly considered normal. Yet this never takes on the appearance of obsession; Durrell is accomplished at highlighting what’s interesting about other species, and why, and it’s easy to identify with his attitudes, even when we recognize that dissecting a decaying sea turtle on the porch as a child was probably not his brightest idea.
There is no particular order one should read his books within – the progression of events is minimal – but just to see the development of his writing skills, I might suggest starting with The Bafut Beagles or Three Tickets to Adventure (named in Britain as Three Singles to Adventure,) then through either The Whispering Land or The Drunken Forest, tackling the books of his childhood – My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (in that order) – in there somewhere. In A Zoo in My Luggage, he begins the saga of his own zoo, which leads to Menagerie Manor and Beasts in My Belfry. However, starting with any book that you lay your hands on is fine.
Durrell also started the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, one of the leading organizations devoted to endangered species, and the zoo he created in A Zoo in My Luggage lives on as the Durrell Wildlife Park – there are, certainly, worse organizations to make donations to. Part of his legacy is also expressed by the existence of eight separate species named in his honor. Despite the predictions of his brothers, Durrell’s interest in animals was not something that he grew out of, thankfully, because it produced a remarkable amount of lasting impact.
A friend of mine has maintained a saltwater aquarium off-and-on for several years now, and she tends to find some pretty cool species to occupy it. She related this story to me a couple of years ago, and having been reminded of it recently, I’m obligated to feature it here.
She had, not long before she related this tale, obtained an exotic crab species for her tank, a colorful addition, and was inordinately pleased with it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very long before she looked in the tank one day to find it sprawled on the bottom, quite motionless. She was heartbroken, because she had already grown fond of the little guy – crabs, as we all know, bond devotedly to their owners and soon learn tricks, even snuggling up just for company. Maybe I’m thinking of something else here…
Anyway, she carried the poor lifeless husk out to the backyard and buried it – flushing simply wasn’t appropriate for her little friend. She did not tell me if any eulogy was delivered or not, but she made it clear she was pretty upset…
… to find, the following day, that the crab was still in the tank and perfectly healthy. It seems she had forgotten that crabs molt their exoskeletons routinely, and this was of course what she had found.
I simply find it delightful that she held a funeral for crustacean dandruff. I’m trying to imagine if the crab felt honored at its mere castoffs receiving such high honors, or slighted that it wasn’t invited to the ceremony.
“It was a lovely shell, protecting its owner against all threats while yet remaining fashionable, sprightly if you will. Those who knew it will not soon forget its articulation, its vibrancy, its keratinous embrace. But girth grows ever greater, and we must bid adieu to the past and back away from our fetters, too tight now in the cephalic groove, and free our chelipeds for bigger things…”
After about 36 hours of rain, the clouds cleared yesterday evening and the temperature plummeted, so early this morning was “crisp,” as they say when they don’t want to say, “goddamn cold.” It meant I finally had the chance to do some more frost pics, though the winds had carried many of my preferred subjects away. Most of the moisture left by the rains had vanished surprisingly quickly, but this leaf, probably sandwiched with another until being uncovered by squirrels, retained enough moisture for the beads to freeze on the surface. Most other places, the leaves on top were dry, but moist air drifting up from under the piles froze to the edges and created long needles of frost.
I thought to check on my green lynx spiders, who had weathered the chill with aplomb (go ahead, picture a spider with aplomb.) This is the first time I never saw mama – she had been looking so decrepit that I was always surprised to find her still around, up until now – but the younguns ventured out as soon as the sun warmed their little chitins. Leaves blown by the wind into the protective cluster of weblines around the former egg sac get incorporated into the shelter, tacked down (I think entirely by accident) with the draglines left by the spiderlings swarming all over them. Still, it’s not much of a shelter when the temperatures drop this far, and I’m impressed with the spiders’ ability to endure the sub-freezing conditions and bounce right back with a little sunlight. There’s fewer of them now, at least some having dispersed by ballooning, but the other two hatchings that I’d observed have vanished almost entirely, so this one has been curiously stable. I plan to keep an eye on it and see what happens – I’m pretty sure these are the offspring of the hatching I observed last year, so they have to do something for the winter.
I decided to see what other kinds of critters could be found, and started turning over rocks in various places. I was considerably surprised to find my next subject – I figured they’d all be long buried by now:
I didn’t get enough details to positively identify this little sprog, but I think it’s a pine woods treefrog (Hyla femoralis.) Only about 30mm long, and definitely more sluggish than the lynx spiders; until it warmed a little in the sun, the most it managed was some feeble paddling like an infant – notice that it hasn’t even straightened its toes. After a couple of minutes while I was getting pics, it became active enough to hop away, and I nudged it back against the rock so it could crawl underneath – though when I went back out a short while later, seeking identifying characteristics, it had taken itself somewhere else and couldn’t be found.
Under the same rock were a few snail shells – some occupied, some not. I picked up one, perhaps a centimeter across, and noticed another tiny one adhering to it, no more than 2mm in diameter.
Another shell nearby sprouted its occupant, who began meandering around looking to get back under shelter, and its path led it up onto the larger shell and right across the smaller one in a collision of pathetic slowness.
Not surprisingly, the smaller shell simply adhered to the foot of the snail and was carried away, the wind of its passage whistling through the shell mouth – okay, I might be exaggerating a little. The smaller shell revealed itself to be occupied as the inhabitant erupted from within and grasped desperately for purchase. It was truly an exhilarating drama to behold, and I watched with great trepidation to see how events would play out.
After a frantic ride of perhaps 10mm, the smaller one was eventually dislodged and tumbled to a stop, miraculously unharmed, as the larger snail thundered away blithely. I waited for a short while to get some pics of the smaller one emerging and toddling off, if only to ensure that it was not limping (picture that if you will.) If you look closely at this image, you can just see the eyestalks emerging to the far right, but after its traumatic ride the snail was understandably cautious and taking its own sweet time about it, which I will leave you to imagine. The sun was bright today and this isn’t ideal conditions for snails, so after a quick spritz of water, I soon returned them all to the shelter of the rocks whence they came, where I’m sure the stories will be traded this evening over long draughts of whatever it is that snails quaff.
However, I have to close with this image, because the effect of the macro depth-of-field was particularly unique, helped to no small degree by the light reflecting from the rock beneath. If you think I was being overly dramatic above, just look into this eye and tell me that’s the look of a sane snail. Of course I was worried – wouldn’t you be?
Taken back in August, I was playing with the perspective of the dewdrops up close and going unfocused into the ‘distance.’ I knew I would get the spider in the pic, but didn’t know the metalwork of the porch risers would show up in the flash as well. Since it continues the curves started by the web, this is an accidental composition that probably worked out better than if I had actually planned it.
I missed posting this on Halloween, but since that spiral reminds me of The Nightmare Before Christmas, I figure splitting the difference in the holidays is acceptable. That may not make sense to you, but it does to me, and it’s my blog, so there…
[The location: A dark room somewhere deep in officialdom, drifting smoke obscuring the light from a single table lamp because, if you're going to do something like this, you have to do it right.]
Shadowy Figure #1: You know something? This president is really a pain in the ass!
Shadowy Figure #2: Boy, you said it! It would be so much better with him out of the way, because he’s the sole force operating in government, and once he’s gone we’ll be able to do whatever we want.
SF1: So let’s kill him!
SF2: Why didn’t I think of that? How should we do it, though?
SF1: Well, let’s see. We have tons of resources at our disposal, the ability to create false news reports and stage elaborate scenarios, so my thinking is, we do it in a ridiculously public place with tons of witnesses, likely with cameras.
SF2: Wouldn’t it be better to make it look like an accident?
SF1: [disparaging sound] That would only arouse suspicion! No, we just need to set up someone to look like a solitary nutjob, and get rid of him quickly before he can prove he’s innocent. A bomb along a motorcade route would be perfect, easy to place ahead of time and next to untraceable.
SF2: Hmmmmm. I like the patsy idea, but a bomb sounds much too risky. How about if we do it by rifle? Witnesses would be much more likely to follow the sound of the shots and find the patsy.
SF1: Yeah, you’re right, why produce a patsy that we’re going to have to get rid of quickly and then make it too hard to find him? That would be stupid.
SF2: So let’s see, we’ll need to find a guy, and plant lots of incriminating evidence on him – a history of frustration, anger, and anti-nationalist sentiments, time spent in the Soviet Union, and maybe Cuba, employment alongside the motorcade route, bills of sale for the rifle, people who have seen him with it… how about film of him handing out pro-Cuban literature?
SF1: Dandy! Do we want to find a foreigner with no records in this country, and no family ties or anything?
SF2: No, that’s unnecessary, and probably expensive. We’ll just create some FBI files to build his entire adult history. And make sure his wife can admit to taking the photos of him posing with the gun.
SF1: One complete brainwashing – check. What else? I imagine there’s going to be cops all over the place, so we’ll need agents on hand to control their actions. What do you think, will fifty be enough?
SF2: Go with a hundred – otherwise we’d have to coach the police ahead of time to direct attention away from the wonky bits. Just make them swear not to reveal anything.
SF1: Okay, so, we send our assassin up to the top of a building during normal business hours, leaning out a window in plain sight of the crowds below. He takes his shot, then vanishes, and the cops arrest the patsy. Make sure patsy’s fingerprints can be found on the gun, but our guy manages not to obliterate them, got it?
SF1: No problem. Now, this lone gunman thing, it seems a little risky. Should we have backup?
SF2: Yeeeaahhhh, let’s put another gunman at ground level, at the very edge of the crowd, right where his shot can be easily spoiled.
SF1: I don’t like it. What if he’s spotted? What about the additional rifle sounds? And how will he get away?
SF2: We put him behind a fence, see? No one will know a thing. And there won’t be enough witnesses to pinpoint whether the rifle sounds came from the top of the building or right behind their fucking heads. Then he’ll just scamper off through the throngs of police converging on the scene. If anyone stops him he’ll just flash a badge – cops won’t bother questioning him then.
SF1: [Nodding] I can see how that would work. Let’s get cracking!
[On the fateful day]
SF1: Bad news, 2! The patsy walked past the cops and wasn’t arrested!
SF2: Can’t have that – we’d have wasted all this effort. Let’s see, let’s see… [long pause] Okay, shoot a cop, about a mile from the patsy’s house – make sure there are witnesses, so get a guy that looks exactly like our patsy, same jacket he just put on ten minutes ago and everything. Then find the patsy and plant the gun on him, so he has it when he’s arrested – even though he’s perfectly innocent, he’ll brandish the damn thing in front of dozens of witnesses and try to fight with the cops.
SF1: I like it! But he can still talk, so we still have to get rid of him, or the entire thing’s blown. Is our other agent in place?
SF2: Yep! He’ll go wandering all over town running errands to create his alibi, then step up right as the patsy is being transferred and pop him one in the gut, in front of dozens of police officers who could ruin the whole damn thing. It’s perfect!
[A day later]
SF2: This isn’t good. Somebody got movie film of our second gunman finishing the job, right from an ideal vantage point. Should we have it confiscated as evidence?
SF1: No, you idiot! That’s just what they’d expect us to do! Just make a couple of copies of it and let him sell it to a major news company.
SF2: But… it shows our target’s head snapping back, and to the left – back, and to the left. Won’t that arouse suspicion?
SF1: What do you want us to do, bury it? It’s the one thing that every armchair sleuth would seize onto as evidence the shot came from the front! Of course it has to go public!
SF2: Okay, now you’re not making sense.
SF1: [Rolls eyes behind sunglasses] If everything goes so smoothly that no one suspects a thing, that will be suspicious in itself, see? So we do something so incredibly stupid, something that could ruin hundreds of little details that we’ve worked so hard on, that it’ll throw everyone off – logically, we’d never let something as incriminating as that go past, so there must not be a conspiracy.
SF2: That’s… that’s just brilliant!
SF1: You have to understand how people’s minds work. No one would believe we’d miss the most obvious problem in the world.
[Some weeks later]
SF1: So, how’s it going?
SF2: Excellent! While witnesses claim at least three shots, sometimes four, our guys on the report are going with one bullet unaccounted for, and the kill shot lost as well, leaving just one that went through the target, through the seat, and gave multiple wounds to the governor. Ballistics experts and doctors who specialize in gunshot wounds are all vouching that the kill shot came from the rear, and the pesky exit wound from our guy on the rise was eliminated with CGI. We’ve hidden the extra bullet holes in the seat – lucky for us no one heard all the extra shots – and not one witness standing right in front of our backup assassin heard the discharges behind them.
SF1: Now, see? Isn’t this so much better than a bomb or a plane crash? Much less planning, that’s for sure.
SF2: You said it!
* * * * *
While I admit to feeling a little annoyed with myself for jumping on the bandwagon, at least this isn’t a post having anything to do with Meleagris gallopavo. And far be it from me to let an opportunity for elaborate sarcasm slide…
Yet, the point is perfectly serious, and something that is very frequently missed by those who seem intent on examining every tiny detail. Almost no one sits back and examines their conspiracy scenario from the standpoint of plausibility, and how likely it is that anyone would actually plan something in this manner, especially something as elaborate as the Kennedy assassination or World Trade Center collapse. If someone really wanted to stage any such event and make it look like something else, there are millions of easier ways to do it. Why involve several dozen to hundreds of confederates when you could use a small handful looking the other way while the car was doctored?
There’s a curious trait at work herein, too. All it takes is just one factor that seems off – in this case, Kennedy’s head snapping in a seemingly unnatural direction (you have to hand it to the Zapruder film, which in 26 seconds created thousands of ballistics and forensics experts.) Once someone seizes on this as suspicious, they then start to look for other suspicious factors as well – and the bare truth is, if we want to see them, they can be found anywhere. And every one becomes fodder for the contrivance [none of them deserve the word 'theory'], fed by our innate delight in puzzles. My favorite Suspicious Detail is the “Umbrella Man,” some guy who opened his umbrella as the motorcade went past, in protest of Kennedy’s appeasement practices with the Soviet Union – it’s a Neville Chamberlain reference. Of course, this was promoted as a signal to the assassin(s), as if they would need a signal of, what? The car reaching a certain spot? Kennedy being in a clear line of fire? Is there something that somehow wouldn’t be plainly visible to the guy behind the rifle? It serves no purpose, but it’s curious, so it means something.
(Even better, Umbrella Man has also been accused of firing a poison dart, because of course this makes perfect sense.)
Most times, no suspicious factor ties in with any other in a coherent way, instead requiring another explanation, another piece of speculation, to support it. That’s not solving a puzzle, however – it’s building an edifice, finding ways to shore up a foregone conclusion instead of seeing what direction the evidence, all of the evidence, leads. And the edifice that results is usually a rickety, swaying thing that stands on faith alone, because there’s nothing solid beneath it.
Undoubtedly, a lot of the more fervent conspiracy mongers could tear apart my conversation above, claiming I didn’t disprove their cherished little plot (there’s only a million of them, and curiously, none of them in agreement,) but of course that misses the point. The point is, is any explanation logically sound, and by extension more sound than Oswald acting alone? If any of the hundreds of parties who had Sufficient Motive had actually plotted to assassinate the President, what would make them settle on such a Rube Goldberg design involving thousands of details and elaborate planning?
And then, there’s one little question I have for all those who insist that there’s a conspiracy, anywhere: What are you suggesting we do about it? Let’s assume the moon landings were all faked. Fine – what now? Bin Laden wasn’t killed when we were told he was. Okay – so? I mean, you do have a plan of action that you worked out in all the time spent on this, and aren’t simply trying to find some way to feel superior… right?
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