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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Cored

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This old pignut hickory (Carya Glabra) has seen better seasons, but the beak of a red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides Borealis) has extensively excavated the trunk, reaching through the growth rings of those seasons for the tunneling larvae of hickory bark beetles (Scolytus Quadrispinosus).  Although I only captured two of the woodpecker’s cavities in this photograph, the length of the trunk of the dead pignut hickory was pocked with them on every side.  I had hoped to capture the guilty woodpeckers in flagrante delicto, but I was only able to capture the evidence of their tenacious, voracious nature.

The black and white captures the deep shadows of the holes, and gives the bark an almost tessellated appearance, which is true to form.  The gray lichen on the bark just to the right of the lower cavity is almost inconspicuous, but I would be remiss to not note the thin layer of crustose lichen, perhaps Pertusaria Epixantha, which gives a more complete vision of this small ecosystem with tree, and bird, and insect, and fungi within millimeters of each other–coexisting in harmony, even after the tree has lost its sap and vigor.  Nothing in the woods of North Carolina goes to waste.  Even the autumnal leaves that fall by the wayside eventually feed the very trees that shed them, not to mention the other fauna and flora that feast upon them.  Thus, even in the hollowed, cored trunk of this long dead tree, I saw embodied a brief arc of the circle of life.

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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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Posted

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The provenance of this post is unknown.  I took the photograph right as I began to become serious about my photography.  The post is within the ruins of what used to be a gym for a boys camp in North Carolina, but the property was also a hippie commune, which the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie graced with their presence.   The photograph is a simple composition, and if I would have taken it now, this one would likely have found itself on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, the photograph is nostalgic, and as my posts have shown, this is a flaw of mine.

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Worth

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How I arrived at the top of this particular moor, I don’t really care to recount.  It suffices to say, that in a land of paths cut by more intrepid travelers over the centuries, there were no paths at the top of this moor, as we were, apparently, four of the only masochists to decide that it was prudent to visit the rock in the left foreground of the photograph.  I would have grumbled the entire way, as I am wont to do, but I had no breath.  Thus, the grumbling was internal–albeit vociferous.  Nevertheless, when we reached the apex of this last moor (we had already traversed at least four), my grumbling ceased.  I even managed to catch my breath, and yet I did not utter a discouraging word.  How could I at such a magnificent sight.  The purple heather that I disregarded with certain animosity as I trapsed through it was gorgeous, and gave the moors on the horizon an almost surreal violet hue in patches.

Three miles or so down in the Worth Valley is where Anna’s grandfather build their house, stone by stone, from the ruins of an ostler barn.  It is where Anna’s mother grew up, and where I proposed to her in a field across the valley from the house–but in a line of sight from the kitchen window, so that we could always look over to the field when we were at the house.  Looking further into the horizon, you can make out a pinpoint landmark, which is the rock outcropping that we came to mount.  This is where the Brontë sisters wrote their novels, and in fact Top Withens, the inspiration for Heathcliff’s home in Wuthering Heights, sat only minutes away atop an adjacent moor.  A steam train runs through the middle of the valley, on which tracks Anna’s great-great-grandfather was an engineer.  The valley is of another time, and it affects me like no other place I have visited in the world.

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Fire in the Highlands / Smoke on the Water

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In classical mythology, Eurus and Apeliotes, interchangeably, were the gods of the easterly winds, though Eurus was favored by the poets such as Homer and later Ovid.  Homer, in naming the Anemoi (the winds) noted that Poseidon was the master of the winds, and after the blinding of his son Polyphemus (and Odysseus’ subsequent boasting), “Poseidon massed the clouds, clutched his trident and churned the ocean up; he roused all the blasts of all the Anemoi and swathed earth and sea alike in clouds; down from the sky rushed the dark.  Eurus, the east wind, and Notus, the south wind, clashed together, stormy Zephyrus, the west wind, and sky-born billow-driving Boreas, the north wind.”  Ovid, placing the Anemoi’s parent Aeolus at their charge, noted that “Fierce as Aeolus is, far harsher than his own sons, surely, something comes from a life with savage winds; his temper is like that of his subjects.  It is Notus and Zephyrus, and Sithonian Boreas, over whom he rules, and over the pinions, wanton Eurus.  He rules the winds.”

This photograph was taken on Spanish Beach just off of  17 Mile Drive in Monterey, California, near Pebble Beach.  The natural sepia tone of the photograph is derived not through the use of any filters or post-processing, but from the thick, cloying smoke that hung in the air from the raging Soberanes Fire then burning through the highlands south of Carmel, California.  As I mentioned in my post of the Lone Cypress, taken at the same time as this, I was off-put at first by the way the photograph turned out.  I have numerous panoramas of the coastline of Carmel, strewn with stones and shattered boulders, and this photograph offered nothing new.  Further, the smoke bled any detail from the scene.  I boosted the detail with post-processing software, but eventually I came back to the unedited version, finding a certain nostalgia with the memory of the smoke, poured out to sea by Zephryus, the west wind, and then wafted back to shore laconically by Eurus, the wanton east wind.  What is not captured in the photograph is the utter, lifeless silence of the coastline, aside from the ever-present sluice of the capped waves on the rocks.  The shore, always buoyed to life by crows and sparrows of every type, was abandoned in the smoke.  Perhaps the birds knew better to seek higher ground to the west, where the smoke had not yet permeated.

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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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Drifting Together

September hurricanes framed this photograph of three water oaks (Quercus Nigra) astride one another on the shore of Little Talbot Island.  I took this photograph three years ago, and it remains one of my favorites of the driftwood beaches of Northeast Florida.  I returned to this spot with Kemper in early September, three hurricanes later, and the topography of the beach had changed radically.  The hulking live oak (Quercus Virginiana) skeletons with their naked root clusters, ten feet in diameter, perched in the air remained, but the smaller water oaks had been scattered by the waves.  This arrangement of trunks and limbs was no more.  I was disappointed that I could not point out to Kemper where I had taken the photograph that is displayed on a canvas in our living room, but then my mind wandered to the Romantic poets (which happens more than I care to admit).  They found beauty in the ephemeral existence of objects and life.  This photograph is my Ode to the West Wind, which rent the trees asunder with its driving gales and its nautical forces.  Like Blake, and Wordsworth, and Shelley, and Keats, I captured something fleeting, though, admittedly, I did not think that these huge skeletons were mutable, even through the power of a glancing blow of a hurricane.  But nature is ever-changing, and I took this for granted three years prior when I framed the scene in my camera and released the shutter.  It is a lesson to me to not underestimate the power of the elements and to capture what I can, when I can, lest it be gone in another season.

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Symptoms

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These desiccated little smoky polypore mushrooms (Polyporus Adustus), like a resurrection fern, will spring back to life after a brief winter rain.  Unfortunately, for the hardwood trees that they are found on, the time for resurrection has long past.  The enzymes in the mushrooms help to speed the decay of dead and dying trees in forests all over the world, including this one in North Carolina, west of Asheville.  Interestingly, they also can eat away synthetic materials, such as synthetic dies in plastics, and research is being done to see what role these common little mushrooms can play in bioremediation.  This dwarf American Chestnut (Castanea Pumila) still bore leaves, and but for the polypores on its bark, the tree would have otherwise appeared healthy.  But alas, it is the beginning of the end for the august old tree.  The mushrooms are a symptom of death and disease, otherwise invisible until the tree succumbs.

I think of my favorite aunt on my dad’s side, Irene, who died of cancer when I was younger.  I had seen her soon before the cancer took over, and she appeared healthy on the outside — albeit crusty and sarcastic to the end.  I regret not knowing her better, as she was a huge influence on my dad’s life.  My dad and I went to Maine to visit her and my memere, who was in the throes of dementia, and I spent most of the time in the back of Irene’s house on the rocky outcroppings looking for moose and wild blueberries.  I told her that I would bring her a harvest of the blueberries, which grew low to the ground, rooted in the interstices of the rocks.  I failed in my mission, eating at least two-thirds of what would eventually make it into my small bucket.  I told her that I had not found as many as I had wanted (which, I suppose, was true), but my lips, stained a dark shade of purple, belied my foraging skills.  She laughed and smiled her ever present wry smile, and we had an understanding.  I was the chubby kid who was not to be trusted gathering fruit, and she was the understanding aunt, too kind to say anything cross.  Perhaps if there were outward signs, I would have stayed inside longer to hear her stories of my dad and uncle, Harvey, and perhaps I would have been more judicious with the blueberries I promised her.

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Kemper

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How my son has changed in the brief time since I took this candid portrait of him sitting on the parapets of his appropriated, improvised stone castle on the beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California…  This is my favorite picture of him at this age, then just four, and now about to turn six at the end of January.  I took a number of shots with him looking the camera dead to rights, but something, perhaps a wanton setter or retriever frolicking in the surf, caught his eye, and the shutter released at just the right moment to capture him as I see him often, wondering at the world, a younger version of me–for better or worse.

I have a distinct sense that he will eclipse me with photography.  His sensibilities and sensitivities are beyond his years, and he is patient and kind.  He is gregarious, unlike me, and perhaps he will be more comfortable approaching a stranger for a portrait.  Above all, he is curious.  He has not yet ceased to find awe in the smallest things, which it took me years and a good macro lens to rediscover from the bowers of my childhood.  We are going to North Carolina just after Christmas and for the New Year, and I will bring my old camera and kit lenses to see what he will be able to find through them.  His attention span is limited, but his wonder of nature will, I think, balance the scales appropriately…or it could be a quick introduction to a skill for which his maturity is not yet prepared.

Like the rock in this photograph, which he gravitated towards as if he were a satellite, he has a favorite stone perch in North Carolina, though it is not a castle there, but the great jutting precipice in the Lion King movie from which Simba was introduced to the kingdom.  The Lion King rock is on the property of a family friend where we stay, along the drive to the upper cabin, and scarcely will the wheels have stopped their revolutions before he is unbuckled and hastening towards it.  Perhaps this year he will be able to climb it by himself, a feat he has yet to master.  If so, I fear we will see little of him that first day.  I was like him as a child, happy to be within myself amongst nature and my own thoughts on any manner of subjects.  Perhaps this year, I will send him out with a camera in hand to find what he finds interesting or beautiful.  Photography has been a window into my psyche, and perhaps it will give me an even better view into his.

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