What Can We Agree On?

It’s pretty obvious that there’s little we all agree on. In politics, science, religion, news reporting, moral issues, the role of government in our society.  Today, one person’s facts are just an opinion to someone else. 

Well, a little research on google suggests there’s one thing we all like – universally across all cultures and throughout millennia – flowers.

And perhaps one of the most remarkable specimens is the Iris.  The image below was captured at the Presby Iris Garden in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.



Iris comes from the Greek word for rainbow.  Some other colors in the Iris spectrum can be seen here:

OK, flowers smell good and are pretty to look at.  But sometimes the things we most take for granted, and the reasons we accept for their being, hide the real question: in this case why do flowers appeal to us in sight and fragrance and why do they make us happy so universally. 

Maybe it’s just that flowers are perfect and our lives aren’t?  Such speculations tend to generate more opinion than fact, more heat than light, etc.

There’s another intriguing theory that flowers are the harbingers of fruit, as in sustenance and survival. For that idea to resonate one has to accept two other possibilities.   That eons ago in our pre-supermarket hunter-gatherer days, we associated flowers and blossoms with sustaining fruit to come.  And that such ancestral memories, laid down deep in our brainstems, survive today, bubbling up in delight from the unconscious in the presence of blooms and blossoms.

Still another possibility is that flowers remind us of a strong procreative force.  During pollination, there’s a lot of sex going on in the flower world of carpels and stamens.  Birds and the Bees, etc.  Valentine’s Day.  I’ll stop there since my blog is PG rated.

Here’s some floral history.  Flowers have been around for about 130 million years, a long time but not so long in the grand scheme of things.  Scientists believe that in an hour of earth’s geologic existence, flowering plants have only lived in the last 90 seconds.  One geneticist suggests humans have been cultivating flowers for about the last 5000 years, beginning with sparing them as they cleared the land for agriculture. Another plant historian goes back further some 14 thousand years, claiming ancient burial pits in Israel show evidence of stems and flowers.  Egyptians placed them in vases while Greeks and Romans wore them in garlands and wreathes.

Now, specifically about Irises – there are some 300 species of these complex beauties.  And most are specifically designed vis a vis their fertilization structure to avoid self-pollination.  That is, the flower’s apparatus only allows the deposit of new pollen from the carrier insect while entering, and the removal of the host’s pollen when leaving.  Ingenious.

Some Irises have been used to clean up ponds and streams because their roots absorb pollutants but at the same time they can be so invasive as to be banned from this purpose.

There is some controversy about whether or not the Iris or the Lilly (two different flowers) is the source of inspiration for the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis symbol in coats of arms, country and state flags, or even as part of the scouting traditional attire.

Irises have been used in perfume and medicine and most importantly for martini aficionados, in Bombay Sapphire Gin. 

Finally, as most art lovers know Irises were a favorite subject of Vincent Van Gogh, the most famous of which was painted in 1889 just before he died while in an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. 

I think we can get pretty much total agreement that this is a beautiful work of art.





Moving in Closer: Marcescence and Mother Nature's Modern Art

Unless you’re a botanist you’ve probably never heard of marcescence. Well, it’s a fancy, somewhat unpronounceable word to describe deciduous trees that keep their leaves normally shed in the Fall.  Here’s an example below from a recent walkabout in Pound Ridge Reservation. You might ask yourself, as I did, why this happens – or doesn’t happen. Maybe it’s just the exception that proves the rule: Fall is when leaves fall?  Apparently, no one really knows the reason for marcescence but some experts speculate that keeping dead leaves is a defensive measure to deter hungry deer from a meal of soft twigs and buds.  Who knew trees were so smart?

Speaking of rules, photography teachers suggest that the better image is often had by moving in closer to the subject.  I do agree and must own up to the fact that, sometimes in post image capture processing (sharpening, cropping, etc.), I find that part of the picture I took is more interesting than the original.  Like the one below which moves in closer by cropping, i.e. using software rather than footsteps.  I prefer the second image but it’s debatable which best illustrates the marvel of marcescence.  What do you think?

I also mentioned Modern Art at the outset of this ramble.  What’s the connection? 

A bit indirect but it turns out my marcescent tree was growing next to a stream which, while not strongly coursing, was flowing along nicely and rolling over some semi-submerged rocks.  How about shooting a close-up image here?  Since walking on water is not one of my talents, the answer was a long telephoto lens, 400 mm to be precise.  

The object of moving in with the big lens here was to let Nature attempt some art on her own – modern, abstract art, something nonrepresentational, where no one need ask: “What is this a picture of?”   Mother Nature just wanted to capture some shapes, colors, textures and lines into a composition independent of things in the real world.  I assisted by turning a few camera dials and getting in tight with the telephoto. With apologies to Mr. Pollock, Mother Nature especially liked this result below:

More of her work can be found here: 



Photographic Serendipity -- the 7 % Solution

Found this nice photo image unexpectedly.  Story below.

Hadlock Falls

Hadlock Falls


Taking photos is often a very studied process for me.

I mean there’s finding the right subject — I’ve always loved waterfalls — and choosing the right perspective, the direction and type of lighting, and not to mention a zillion possible combinations of settings on my camera.  But mostly I think composition is the key factor in a successful, pleasing image.  Where you balance the elements of a scene, consider the colors, textures, lines, shapes and, with waterfalls, the implied movement. 

A few years back, shooting in my favorite place on earth (Acadia National Park), I spent an afternoon capturing many images of Hadlock Falls, a good sized waterfall in the park beside one of Rockefeller’s carriage trails.  I was very pleased with the shoot and one of those photos wound up being selected for a juried exhibit at the Hammond Museum in North Salem, NY.  Here's the photo.

Hadlock Falls Original

Hadlock Falls Original


But here’s the kicker.  Today I was trying to do some organizing of my collection of some 30 thousand! photographs, trying to create some sense and order through cataloging and key wording.  And, as usually happens when I attempt such tedious work, I was easily distracted — the original Hadlock Falls photo caught my eye and I tried to tighten it up a bit with some minimal cropping.  I won’t bore you with the details but the editing program I use sometimes has a mind of its own as you push and pull with the mouse, at the same time grabbing and locking in on a “handle” at the border of the photo.  Some digital clumsiness on my part caused me to lock onto a tiny portion in the middle of the photo and mistakenly hit return.  Surprised but fascinated, I moved the tiny selected window around until it revealed the image above, and I finalized the crop.   Because the trimmed image accounted for only about seven per cent of the area of the original, the visual result was very pixelated (grainy, losing a great deal of detail through over enlargement) and it magnified the lack of sharpness caused by a little camera shake and very slow shutter speed (1/8th of a second).  The “incorrectly" cropped image had a nice painterly quality of color and brush texture that I really liked.

So who is responsible for this pleasing impressionistic rendering?  The camera, the enlarged pixels, the cropping software?  Me?

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it and maybe you might want to see if you can locate this tiny selection from within the original image?

Or take a moment to check to check out some other what I call "Image-inations" here: 


One final observation: there’s something a little weird about this Seven Percent Solution image.  Do you see a mysterious figure in the top right section of the image?  Do you think it might be Professor Moriarty, that “Napoleon of Crime," peering out from behind his watery cloak while menacingly outstretching his right hand?

Might have to call Sherlock in on the case.

How to Train Your Hummingbird

Perhaps more to the point: How my Hummingbird Trained Me.

Some of you may recall last year about this time I told my story about trying to capture backyard images of this lovely little creature whose wings beat at 80 times a second, whose heart beats at 20 times a second and who, in order to keep up with a metabolism which is the highest of any warm blooded creature, has to consume her body weight in nectar every day.

In any event I think I prevailed in this battle of bird brains with bigger, brighter pictures this year.

And the three most important secrets for capturing close-up images of Hummingbirds: Patience, Patience, and more Patience.  

These birds are very shy with incredible evasive maneuvers: hovering, flying forwards, backwards and diving at 60 mph.  But I was determined to get closer shots this year, while stopping her aerial antics in mid flight.  I knew from previous years to move my chair closer and closer to the Bee Balm patch over a period of days.  Each day moving up 2 feet and sitting with the camera for an hour or so to get her used to my presence.  But the Bee Balm patch was about 8 feet wide and maybe four feet deep this summer.  And, initially my target was very cagey feeding at the back of the patch where I could get no clear shot.  This was no stationery hanging-hardware-store nectar feeder.

It became a balancing act.  I’d move up – she’d stay back.  Sometimes she’d stay away for ½ an hour rather than her usual 7 to 10 minute intervals. Eventually she started coming to the front of the patch where I could try for a clear shot – is it possible she completely drained the nectar from the flowers in the back of the patch?  Long story short, over three days, I discovered that she felt safe only within an 8 foot Charlie-free zone.  Soon as I moved closer to 6 feet, she totally gave up feeding and stayed away.  Back at 8 feet she would come in for nectar at her usual 7 to 8 minute intervals.  Wonder if I’d waited her out for 6 days whether she'd have let me move in closer.

So who’s training whom here?  In the end we came to an understanding of sorts.  I stayed outside her comfort zone and she spent more and more time putting on her show for me, about 20 to 30 seconds, but always taking 7 to 10 minute breaks, landing high in trees 40 or 50 feet away.  While I learned a little bit of the meaning of patience, I also got a trial and error education about the proper camera settings for shooting this fast and unpredictable subject.

I used a monopod to steady the camera and I used a longer but slower lens this time  But it was was still another balancing act, experimenting with combinations of shutter speed (needed at least 1/1000th sec to stop her in motion), ISO settings (like a high film speed of 6400 to produce an acceptable level of image noise), and aperture settings (5.6 to 6.3 to get enough depth of field for enough of her body to in focus).  In addition my camera has a zillion modes of automatic focus – you didn’t think I was manually doing that with her laser-like movements, did you?

Anyway she came to tolerate me and I learned to be patient during her absences. Maybe the best part about waiting for her periodic returns was ruminating about this man bird standoff.  No, it was more than that.  She gained acceptance of a foreign being in her world by interacting and moving to a comfortable level of trust.  I moved slowly into her realm and let her know I posed no danger, respecting her space and really appreciating her different and wonderous qualities.  Kind of like a negotiated peace agreement with Nature.