A Bear Story

I did something I’ve never done before: I went hiking alone in Grizzly country.

I took my camera and, with no other hikers pushing me onward, my hike was pretty much doomed. Rather than hiking the 5 miles I’d planned, I spent about 3 hours loosing myself to photography without covering much ground.

At one point, I found myself panning with a flower that was whipping around in the wind, shooting a fly acting shockingly like a bee. I suddenly realized I’d been sitting there for more than 45 minutes.

That’s when I decided I needed to make some tracks. No sooner than I’d gotten some momentum going, I ran into a man hiking the opposite direction who told me he’d seen a grizzly about 10 minutes back on the trail (or 2 hours in photographer time).

I was both excited and worried. I was alone and had no bear spray. Neither condition is recommended in grizzly country. But, the man said the bear was far from the trail and distracted by the huckleberries that were in peak season.

I went on. Minutes later, I encountered a couple singing loudly. A sure sign of a bear sighting! Sure enough, they too had seen a grizzly a few minutes back. The moment they shared this information, I looked up and said, “Oh, look, there’s one now!” A grizzly had just crested the ridge above us and was headed in our general direction, although still 200 yards away.

I immediately did what any photographer does and grabbed the camera with my longest lens on it and started firing. Except, I was so excited I failed to read my meter and had to readjust and shoot again. As I fired off 3 more shots at good exposure (but with a heck of a lot more motion shake than usual), the bear started running towards us.
“And now he’s running towards us,” I said to the couple. The woman immediately asked her husband if the safety was off their bear spray can. I suggested we start backing up slowly.

The bear was closing the distance at a pace fast enough to scare the life out of anyone experiencing a grizzly running towards them for the first time.

We moved slowly for a few steps, and then more quickly, soon walking at a fast clip while glancing over our shoulders and talking loudly. When we passed trees that were between us and him, we lost sight of him (which was almost scarier).

We never saw him again. I suspect he was running towards a huckleberry bush that happened to be in our direction. However, it was scary enough that I decided to hike out with the couple and call it a day.

It took us 20 minutes to cover the distance that took me 3 hours on the way in.

My only regret is that I didn’t stay long enough to get a better shot.

Meet Tom Turkey

Meet Tom.  Tom is a Bourbon Red heritage turkey who is free-ranging it on a farm in Wildwood Georgia where the grass is green, the sun is bright, and the hens are . . . well . . . at the moment, scarce.  Tom’s Tinas are off sitting on about 20 eggs they laid in a secret hiding spot where the two hens share incubation duties of a combined nest.

What’s remarkable about this story is that Tom and his Tinas participated in the act of procreation without assistance from humans.  That happens to be one of the criteria for a breed of turkey to be considered “heritage”–they have to be able to breed on their own.

But what exactly is a “heritage” turkey?  Perhaps the best way to define a heritage turkey is to say that it is a traditional turkey from back before tradition became to factory raise turkeys who can barely walk, let alone breed.

The criteria to be a heritage turkey are:  mate naturally, have a long productive lifespan, and grow slowly.  By “long” and “slowly,” I presume what is really meant is “longer than” and “slower than” the dominant breed of turkeys used by factory farms.  You can read about it from a better resource at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website, which I was paraphrasing.

Tom takes the first item on that list quite seriously.  However, after spending about 15 minutes trying to convince Tom that I am not a turkey hen and only being able to divert his attention by offering the distraction of my husband, I wonder if there might be a criteria missing?  I suppose the approach of attempting to mate with anyone and anything until one of those things turns out to be a turkey hen will work as long as the hens are close, but it seems a bit inefficient.

It also made Tom a challenging model when I was trying to get pictures.  It’s hard to hold a DSLR with a heavy lens and press the shutter button with one hand while holding back a horny turkey with the other.  When I squatted down to try to get an eye-level shot, Tom rushed me.  Thankfully, Tom is persistent but not violent.  He just keeps pushing his puffed chest up against whomever has attracted his attention over and over again in this crazy dance of you pushing him back and him pushing forward.  It’s a dance with only one step in two directions.

When we got ready to leave, we pulled an empty Styrofoam egg carton out of the car only to have Tom pull it out of our hands, drop it on the ground, and proceeded to jump on top of it as if it were a Tina.  It was the most remarkable display of species confusion I’ve ever seen.  I guess it’s a good thing that how many attempts it takes a turkey to figure out who to breed with isn’t part of the heritage criteria.

Play

Last weekend, Pat hauled Tisen and me up to Signal Point park for a short walk to the overlook. I figured it was a good time to do some shooting.

The trouble with overlooks is the limited options for landscape shots. I’ve shot from the Signal Point overlook so many times that I’ve run out of landscape options. When the sky doesn’t do anything spectacular, it doesn’t help.

This time, I decided to play a bit. I’ve decided that’s what I need more of: play. Not just for photography, but for life in general. When I say “play,” I don’t mean playing structured games with rules that one applies so that one “wins.” That’s not play. That’s competition.

What I mean by “play” harkens back to the feeling of getting a brand new box of crayons as a child. Or, even better, when my mother used to make up a batch of play dough (she didn’t cook much that was edible, but she sure could make play dough). These were moments when possibility presented itself and possibility seemed infinite.
With no preconceived notions about what I was supposed to draw or mold and not worried about anyone judging my creation, possibility really was infinite.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown references research by Dr. Stuart Brown on the importance of play. Brene summarizes Dr. Brown’s research as finding “play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation.” She goes on to say that one of the properties of play identified by Dr. Brown is that it is purposeless.

When is the last time you did something purposeless? I look at the long list of activities I’ve engaged in over the past 20 years and I cannot help but notice that they all came with goals. Hang gliding was the first activity I pursued goalessly since before I went to college. Even at that, I still had a goal of flying off the training hills.

But last Sunday, I managed to set aside my desire to get “great” shots and flopped down on the ground next to the first daffodils I’ve seen this year. There is something fundamentally wonderful about rolling around on the ground and not worrying about getting dirty. When I have a camera in my hands, I feel like I have permission to get dirty. Sometimes I forget I haven’t actually dressed appropriately and come home with mud on the knees of expensive jeans. I think it’s worth it.

So, there I was, lying in the dirt with a sudden sense of exploration instead of pressure. Just like pulling a new color out of a box of Crayolas and seeing what it looks like on paper for the first time, I paid attention to what happened when I did different things instead of worrying about whether my images would stand up to anyone else’s critique. It was fun. Really fun.

A Bigger Small World

Some days, it feels like you’ve reached an end of sorts.  I had one of those days this week.  I sat on our balcony watching the sky change to a gentle gray as the sun came up somewhere out of sight.  I sat on the balcony overlooking the courtyard and Stringer’s Ridge and felt caged.  I sat on the balcony and thought, “This is not my life.”

It’s a paradoxical thought to have–after all, of course it is my life.  At least, I hope so.  It’s the only life I expect to have; I’d like it to be mine.

But sometimes life feels too small.  I don’t know exactly what that means, but I am sometimes overcome by the sensation that the world has shrunken to less than a half of a square mile.  Then, I go walk that half of a square mile listening to the birds and I smile.  It’s not such a bad ½ square mile.

Spotting a large flock of Cedar Waxwings while walking Tisen the following morning, I was surprised by how still they were.  I didn’t have my camera with me, but I decided to take a chance after getting inside, grabbed it and ran back down.

The whole flock remained.  Some were roosting.  Periodically, small groups would fly down to the wetland to drink.  The rest were content to watch me.  I wondered if the world had started to feel small to them, too.

It’s funny how the size of the world shrinks and expands based on who is part of the world with you.

I entertained them with my funny, long lens and they entertained me.  For the few moments I spent intensely focused on the birds, watching them and waiting for moments to shoot, my world was simultaneously microscopic and infinite.  That such creatures exist bend the mind.  With their bandit masks, neon-yellow dipped tails, and red-wax-tipped wings, they always make me imagine a bird super-hero.

In spite of how common they are, the Cedar Waxwing goes surprisingly unnoticed.  I did not see one for the first time until I was around 30 even though I knew what they were from bird books–most people overlook them because they don’t know they exist.  I’ve had numerous people ask me about seeing a small, gray cardinal, knowing I like birds and hoping I could tell them what they saw.  Like me, these are people who are well into adulthood, yet they had never seen a cedar waxwing before.

Perhaps that’s why a flock of birds can make life seem bigger.  That something can be right under our noses (or above our heads) and go unnoticed makes it seem possible that there are many other missed possibilities within the confines of whatever portion of the world we inhabit.  The potential to discover something new in the same half of a square mile suddenly makes the possibilities seem endless.

The Great Smoky Mountain Wildlife Shoot

Last weekend we went on a river cruise in search of Whooping Cranes (well, in honor of the Sandhills).  While there, two people advised me to go to the Cataloochee Valley to see elk.  On a complete whim, I talked Pat into spending the weekend in Asheville, North Carolina and getting up at 5:15AM on Saturday morning to go shoot some elk.

Let’s recap:  I looked up the Cataloochee Valley, determined how long it would take us to get there, looked up sunrise time to make sure we would get there for the best light (and at a time the elk were likely to be active), looked at the weather forecast to ensure I owned enough layers to possibly stay warm, carefully decided which gear I would carry, found a hotel that didn’t charge more to have a dog than to stay in the room, and determined where Tisen was allowed to go in the park.

Fast forwarding back to Saturday morning, we arrived at the designated intersection only to realize that was the entry to the park, not the entry to the actual valley.  We wound our way up through the mountains slowly, encountering more and more snow as the elevation increased.  Behind use, the sun started coming up.  We paused long enough for me to snap a shot with my iPhone–my “real” camera being out of reach without climbing out of the car on a 1 ½ lane mountain road with 2-way traffic.

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We made it to the Cataloochee valley gate before the light got too bright.  But alas, the gate was closed.  And locked.

Since dogs are not allowed on any trails in the Cataloochee area, we decided to take Tisen for a walk along the closed road.  Given that there was no one else there, we even cheated and let him off leash.  This may have been the first time he ever frolicked in snow.  He’s never run free in snow in the 2 years he’s been with us, at least.

Since there were no elk in sight, I practiced shooting my playful pup.

No elk appeared.  Pat was pretty sure we were still 10 miles from the prime viewing area when we turned around.  We we got back to the car, a Dark-eyed Junco was kind enough to pose for me, even in a wind strong enough to ruffle his feathers.

On the drive back down, we stopped to shoot some cattle.  They were quite curious about us.  Enough so that I found myself wondering if the feed truck happens to be a mini-van very similar to ours.  I started getting nervous when they all started walking toward me briskly–including a bull with a large ring in his nose glinting in the increasing light.  The fence between us was about 3-feet high and consisted of 3 flimsy strings of barb-wire.

With the exception of a Junco, I ended up with images of the domestic version of “wildlife.”

Black, White, and Shades of Gray

The world is not black and white.  Or so we tell ourselves.  If, of course, we were not endowed with whatever particular function of our brain tells us we see colors, the world would be black and white indeed.

Today I decided to conduct an experiment in black-and-white.  I re-processed a series of color images without the color.

It’s interesting we refer to it as black-and-white.  While I suppose in the purest sense, only black ink is used on white to create the shades of gray that lurk between pure black and pure white.

I like the metaphor.  Even when we have only black and white to work with, we still end up with shades of gray.  I am convinced that the essence of life comes in shades of gray.  It’s the shadows created by what we believe to be absolute truths that hold the real truth.

And that real truth is a paradox:  there is no real truth.

Someone recently asked me what a RAW image file looks like.  We cannot view the true RAW file as an image.  We can only view the subset of the RAW file indicated by the camera settings recorded along with the rest of the data or the version we create when we change those settings in software.

This is because the file contains the data for many possibilities and we have to choose which possibilities we want rendered into an actual image in order to view it.  The truth of the file is greater than what we are able to perceive at any given point in time.  I think this is exactly how all truth works.

Take, for example, the old story of the 3 blind men, each touching a different part of an elephant.  Each accurately describes the part they are touching, but each describes an elephant completely differently.  Each is correct, yet they are also wrong.

Today, we have more data available with less effort than anyone imagined possible just a few decades ago.  But we can only extract a small set of information based on our personal settings.  Our internal filters tell us what to notice, what to agree with and what to reject.  Ultimately, we come away mostly with what is consistent with everything we already believe or want to believe.

This is like using the camera settings to decide how to render an image.  It’s automatic and easy.  Peeking into the shadows and looking at what other possibilities we might be missing takes energy and intention.

What fascinates me is that even when I know I am uninformed, under-informed, misinformed, I rarely fail to form an opinion–usually a passionate one.  And I am not alone.  Without this human tendency, we would have nothing to argue about–we would all be too busy realizing we can never know who is really right.

Is it possible to decide what we think is best without believing we are right?

Cycle of Seasons

On Friday morning, the alarm woke me at 5:15AM, reminding me that on Friday, I start my day with yoga class at 6:30AM.  By 6:00AM, I was out in the park walking the dog, staring up, open-mouthed at a preternatural sky.  Surprisingly dark and yet brilliantly lit with a crescent moon hovering in the middle of a brilliant cluster of stars.

With the dawn coming noticeably later each morning, I find myself having a harder and harder time getting into first gear each morning.  I wonder if our ancestors noticed the difference.  Did they just get up with the sun and go to bed with the sun and not really notice if the days were longer or shorter?  One thing’s for sure–they didn’t wake up to the mamba as recreated by the iPhone.

As the days shorten, my desire to get out of bed shrinks proportionally.  Am I pulled by the forces of thousands of years before me when people didn’t set alarm clocks?  Or am I just over-worked and under-rested and more resentful of my alarm because the dark sky reminds me that I’ve spent far too few hours in bed?

As Tisen and I make our way around the star-lit park, leaves rustle above our heads and below our feet.  The young sycamores planted in the park have already given up on photosynthesis.  Their leaves have dried and shrunk into brown cocoons hanging precariously from branches or littering the sidewalk below.  The leaves on the sidewalk will be meticulously blown away by the park maintenance crew by the time we take our afternoon walk.  The effort of an entire growing season whisked away, leaving the trees nothing to show for their pain and preventing the nutrients locked in the web of leaves from returning to the soil.  A cycle broken.

Fall has always been my favorite season.  As cool winds become prevalent, humidity drops, and blindingly blue skies become common, I find it hard to resist crunching through leaves and looking for birds, many exposed for the first time since spring on bare branches offering little camouflage.

But on Friday morning, as I turned my face skyward and bathed in the feeble light from the stars, moon, and street lamps, melancholy swept over me.  It was a brief, passing moment.  The moment of realization that things are coming to an end, although I couldn’t name what those things were.

By Friday afternoon, when I stepped out with Tisen in overpowering sunshine with a crisp wind reminding me that 80 degrees doesn’t always feel warm, I felt hopeful again.  Heat and humidity are coming to an end.  The summer breeding season for the birds is coming to an end.  And this opens the door for new possibilities.  I felt myself welcoming the change in the weather.  The change in the birds.  The change in me.  A cycle working.