Woodears #2

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Woodear mushrooms (genus Polypore) are some of my favorites.  As I’ve shared an earlier post, they release a protein which breaks down wood, thus any tree that you see with wood years on them are goners.  Although this is a bit depressing, it is an amazing testament to the cycle of nature.

I found these two little polypore mushrooms on a picnic bench on a friend’s property in Brevard, North Carolina, where my parents have stayed for seven years, and where we have visited numerous times.  The bench was not particularly old, but it was beginning to get weathered in these two little woodear mushrooms appeared to be a bit confused as to the medium on which they chose to grow.

In nature, as in life, it pays to be adaptable.  When I was younger, I was adaptable.  Not too much fazed me.  As I grew older my anxiety grew, and I began to be much less adaptable.  I would get grumpy when plans changed, much to the chagrin of Anna and her family.  I think this change was brought about by my extended blue period, which I am thankful to say I am on the other side of these days.  What once came so easily to me when I was younger, I now have to work for.  Adaptability as an adult is a learned skill, and once lost it is hard to relearn.

Weathered

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I love the textures of this photograph.  It was taken with a telephoto lens, not a macro, as I did not own one at this point.  Still, the detail came out perfectly, even the little snail tucked under one of the crevices in the broken trunk of the live oak.  There is a subtle, yet almost violent movement in the lines, which lead to the center, but the many fissures and cracks scatter one’s attention.

“Boneyard Beach” on Big Talbot Island just north of Jacksonville, Florida is aptly named because of the many skeletons of driftwood trees left behind by hurricanes and time.  This one must’ve fallen a number of years ago, because even the jagged edges had been smoothed, and I could run my hands over the wood without fear of splinters.  The diameter of the trunk was about 6 inches at its widest, which made it a rather small live oak.

The gradients and ribboned-patterns in the wood are beautiful, and they were what drew me to woodworking and turning bowls on the lathe (another one of my hobbies) in the first place.  Although these would have been enough to make and interesting composition, it is that little tulip snail that is almost hidden in plain sight that makes the photograph.  When I first took the photograph, I didn’t notice the little snail.  Now, however, I cannot draw my eyes away from it.  It is a subtle sign of life clinging to the underside of the long dead tree.

I can’t put my finger precisely on what feeling it evokes in me, but I sense a certain kinship with the snail.  It is a survivor amongst a powerful and rough-hewn backdrop, yet a part of it is anchored to something that was destroyed by a power greater than it can ever possibly conceive.  Perhaps, also, it is because the snail is alone, whether by choice or fate.  Whether it is a hermit or in exile, I can only venture to guess, but I cannot help anthropomorphizing the little tulip snail whatever its true reason for being there.

Verdigris

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Sometimes the loveliest composition is the most simple.  This photograph of the mossy trunk of a fallen water oak (Quercus Nigra) was taken in the Nocatee Preserve south of Jacksonville, Florida.  The day was extremely overcast, and the photographs that I came to take were not turning out as I had hoped.

I saw this tree lying astride the path, and I took a dozen or so photographs of it from various angles.  As I was leaving, I decided to put my macro lens on to see what I could capture with the lens and ring light setup that I use.  I took a few test shots of the tree, with the aperture as far open as it could go, and I did not think anything of them until I returned home to see what had turned out.

Life is often like this, recognizing the beauty only in hindsight.  This is by no means my most treasured photograph, but it is special insofar as it was a happy accident that reminds me never to dismiss even the most mundane subject.  With the right angle and eye, most anything can turn into art, even a dime-a-dozen fallen water oak in the middle of a North Florida swamp.

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Deer Moss

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This lichen (Cladonia Evansii) is a familiar one.  Known mistakenly as “deer moss” this fungus is a lichen, not moss.  As the name suggests, this fruiticose lichen is important forage for whitetail deer in the eastern states.  Though not as plentiful amongst the trees as the usnea lichen that seems to attache to the branches and trunks of even the youngest saplings, among the rocky hills, the light ash-gray clumps of lichen are visible from long distances, interspersed between the darker slate-gray stones.   The lichen grows extremely slowly, only three to ten millimeters per year.

The patch that Kemper and I found on our walk down the driveway was decades old and thick with a radius of lichen stretching out ten feet from the center in all directions.  The thalli (branches) are interwoven, and the result is a springy, spongy mass.   This type of lichen (Cladonia) can be found all over the world, and its name varies as the animals that forage on it change.  In the northernmost reaches, it is known as reindeer moss, and further south it is known as caribou moss.  Kemper and I even found some in a Jacksonville swamp during a hike, and sure enough, cast in the mud was a hoof print of a small whitetail deer.

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Lion’s Teeth

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I am a philologist, a lover of words.  As an English and Latin double major in college, I pursued my love of language (even through the trials of reading Beowulf in its original Old English).  As you have seen in many of my previous posts on nature, I like to include the taxonomic name of the plants, not because I want to show off my knowledge of nature – it’s a notch above rudimentary, at best – but because I love the Latin names.  A white oak is so much more august as a Quercus Alba, or the sweet-gum tree as Liquidambar Styraciflua, which literally means a tree flowing with amber liquid (referring to the gum that exudes from the tree when it is cut).

In this vein, I give you a (false) dent de lion, a lion’s-tooth flower, better known as a dandelion.  Although the appellation refers to the coarsely toothed leaves, this photograph – one of my early macro lens experiments – focuses on the petals and the pseudanthium, or false flower head in the middle, which is actually a small cluster of tiny flowers grouped together.  The pictured flower is actually a false dandelion, or a Carolina desert chicory flower (Pyrrhopappus Carolinianus).

The simplicity of the composition is appealing to me on the one hand, and on the other, I have always been troubled by the dead center focus on the flower.  Unfortunately, when I was first taking my macro shots, I was more concerned with aperture and focus than I was with composition.  I have sincerely amended my ways.  Nevertheless, the clarity and the stark contrast of the petals and the void behind them have always been pleasing to me.

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Tulips at Noon

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The main draw to Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida, is the driftwood beach, commonly referred to as “Boneyard Beach.”  The first time I went to Boneyard Beach with my camera, I was so focused on the gorgeous shells of the trees scattered across the beach, some of them with full root systems intact, as if they just had been uprooted the day before, I failed to notice the smaller elements around me, such as these gorgeous tulip snails, which I featured in one of my first posts to this page – and still one of my favorite photographs, “Three Hermits.”

It was not until I bought a good macro lens and began avidly looking for the beauty of the minutiae that I first discovered the snails, and their unique patterns of verdigris and Tyrian purple.  The ancient Romans valued the murex shell for its dying purposes, and purple robes dyed with the tint were reserved for royalty (and during the Republic, for senators and upper statesmen).  The murex snail was found only in Carthage, the capital of which was Tyre, hence the appellation of the deep purple hue.

The deep saturation of the shells only shows up when the light hits them just right (or in some minor post-processing of the photographs), and I was lucky enough to catch them early on a sunny Florida afternoon.  They congregate on the trunks and branches of the driftwood trees, often in the crooks and interstices that are too small for even barnacles to have taken hold.  They must live in such crevasses for months, perhaps years, because their shells are too large to have found their way into them fully grown.  These two were on the top of a lower branch of a white oak (Quercus Alba), which was drying out from the ever more distant ebb and flow of the tide.

The patterns and gradients of the shells are almost abstractly perfect.  Looking at them that day, and again as I began to write this post, reminds me of the divinity of nature.  Although Darwin explained the evolution of creatures in his Origin of the Species, he did not (to my knowledge) opine on the divine proportions of the carapace of the Galapagos tortoise.  It took me many years to accept that there was a divinity common in all living things, but now that I have seen it, it cannot be unseen.  God, as you understand Him, is present in these snails – you just have to find the trees in the forest and look a little closer.

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Lichen

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This little lichen (Usnea Florida) hung from the limb of a eastern red cedar (Juniperus Virginiana – not to be confused with the live oak (Quercus Virginiana)) dithering ever so slightly in the wind that had been left over from the storm the day prior.  I chronicled the Sunday walks I take through the swamp in Nocatee Preserve in an earlier post, and this day was no different, save for a different lens.   Instead of capturing the hidden beauty of the swamp in a macroscopic, wide angle tilt, I opted to only bring along my macro lens and lighting apparatus, which makes for a very serious looking photography setup to the uninitiated.  Few people passed me this day, on bike or foot, as the paths were still muddy from the day before.  The epiphytes, like this lichen, were bright and renewed from the downpour.  This particular varietal reminded me of the microscopic pictures of neural pathways and ganglia in the brain.  The common pattern, I am certain, is no coincidence of nature.

Interestingly, I later found out that usnea lichen contain potent antibiotics which can halt infection and are broad spectrum and effective against even tuberculosis. Usnic acid (C18H16O7), a potent antibiotic and antifungal agent, is found in most species, including this Usnea Florida.  This, combined with the hairlike structure of the lichen, means that Usnea lent itself well to treating surface wounds before sterile gauze and modern antibiotics.  It is also edible and very high in vitamin C.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not confident enough in my sight identification of mushrooms or lichen to test the medicinal properties of either, though there are no lichens nicknamed “Death Angel” or anything so nefarious, so I might be more willing to nibble on the ganglia of this lichen than an anonymous mushroom–if push came to absolute shove.

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Crescent

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The whirls of the driftwood on Big Talbot Island, just north of Jacksonville, Florida, are peculiarly wonderful to me.  My father is a woodworker in his spare time, and throughout the years, we have made scores of pieces of furniture, boxes, and we have even turned a number of bowls on the lathe.  As such, I am a constant admirer of wood and its natural beauty.  I have turned beautifully featured bowls from a pecan log wrought with worm holes, and ambrosia maple, and spalted sweetgum, but the oak bowls I have turned are lovely, but plain, almost like Shaker furniture.  They have a very ordinary grain, and little about them is exceptional.  The fallen oaks on Big Talbot Island, however, have fantastic patterns, some like the ornamentation of a medieval Celtic manuscript.

I do not know how these patterns came to be, though I speculate that it has something to do with the effect of the sea air on the tree’s formation, both nurturing and stunting the growth at the same time.  Some of the trees must have been tall and vast when they stood decades, or perhaps centuries, ago, but it is the smaller ones that have the more intricate patterns like this one.  To capture the perspective of this photograph, I set the aperture (depth of field) quite low, so that only a piece of the limb was in total tack focus.  The foreground and background are blurred, and the focused piece catches your attention, not only because of its placement in the composition (according to the rule of thirds), but also because of its contrasting sharpness.  I would have loved to turn a bowl from this tree, if only to see whether the patterns on the surface came through onto the finished product.  But now I have turned my artistic attention away from woodworking to photography, and so I must satisfy myself with capturing the beauty of the wood rather than pulling it from an unfinished block.  It is a different approach, but no less satisfying when the photographs turn out like this.

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Dreamcatchers

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This photograph of the achenes or diaspores of a “horrible” thistle (Cirsium Horridulum) was captured two summers ago with my macro lens.  The diaspores have evolved over millions of years to to be light and airy, with tendrils that catch the air for dispersal far afield of their mother plant.  Though not the best composition, I was struck by the symmetry of the achenes and their simple utility.  The swampy path I was walking when I came upon them during the summer was littered with thistles for miles.  The evolution, though perhaps not complete, had certainly served its purpose well.  The most recognizable achenes are those of the dandelion clock, which children gather up with some eagerness only to blow the diaspores unwittingly throughout their parents’ front yard.

I wish Kemper had been old enough to accompany me when I took this photograph.  He finds great sport in blowing the silky white seeds from their presently denuded and spent host.  He was three then, and not quite up to a long jaunt in the summer heat.  The mosquitoes were particularly bad this day, and to be honest, I am surprised that I did not capture one in this photograph–they were so thick.  But this is Florida, and the beauty of nature invariably carries with it some danger, whether an alligator lurking silently beneath the surface of a calm fishing pond, or a rattlesnake blending in with the underbrush.  Having grown up here, these are calculated risks, and readily mitigated.  For the uninitiated, however, Florida is as wild as the outback of Australia.  This results, I think, in a fair bit of pride for us native Floridians who would as soon approach a four foot long gator, knowing full well it will quickly shy away, as a New Yorker would cross a busy intersection at the height of the noon-day traffic.  I do not begrudge the out-of-towners the novelty of seeing an alligator in the wild for the first time, but to us they are quotidian and predictable.  Yet, as this photograph shows, even the most commonplace native objects, when viewed with a different perspective, yield beauty.

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Post & Lintel

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Though I do not take many abstract shots, this one came rather organically.  Taken at Big Talbot Island, just north of Jacksonville, Florida, I had fixed my macro lens on my camera halfway through the long walk down the driftwood-strewn beach.  I had already taken many photos of the fossil-like trees, languishing and bleaching in the hot sun, and so I set out to capture the little elements that required me to look closer and actually observe the microcosms of barnacles and tulip snails and patterns in the grains of the wood.  The day was cut short by the heat, which beaded down my forehead into my eyes, making the very act of photography an unpleasant task.

As I walked back the mile or so to my car, I left the lens cap off of my camera in case anything small, otherwise insignificant, caught my eyes, which burned with the sweat.  Near my car, there was a rickety old circular wooden handrail.  I cannot say why, but the way the rough-hewn logs stretched horizontally around, propped up by a glorified dock piling, reminded me of Stonehenge.  I’ve never been, though I did see a large stone circle in the Lake District years ago.  I scrunched up to where the post met the lintels, and manually focused my lens on the dark interstice between them.  I thought nothing of the photograph until I got home and began editing the photographs which I had taken that day.  There was something appealing about the abstract composition of the capture that pleased me, and, what’s more, intrigued me.

Photography has a way of elevating the mundane to art.  Whether that was achieved here, I leave up to you, but in this particular perspective, the photograph seems to create something far more significant than a fence and its post.  It is, itself, a simile without words.  By giving it a title, I was able to ascribe significance to it–it was no longer simply pressure treated lumber bolted together.  It was like Stonehenge.  This photograph taught me a lesson, which I carry with me to this day.  What may seem insignificant may be given artistic meaning, sometimes simply by capturing it with the camera, and other times simply by giving it a name, an identity.  In this way, photography is kin to poetry, revealing the beauty and grace within the quotidian.

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