Getting Out

With my husband out of town for the week, I was left to my own devices.  I took the opportunity to get out and shoot a bit further from home than usual.

First there was a road trip to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, tucked in the Cherokee National Forest. To get there, I had to first see to the completion of the repair of our second car, which was in the shop after not having been driven for over a year.

I quickly realized how spoiled I am–my husband normally attends to car maintenance and repair. First I had to arrange with the shop for them to pick me up when the car was “done.” Then I had to take the car to another shop to get the battery replaced, which undid all the settings, including the computer that controls the idle speed, which resulted in the car revving the engine every time I stopped. I’m surprised no one attempted to race me off the starting line at traffic lights!

Then there was the little complication that the fan wasn’t running and I was advised not to go less than 35 mph to avoid overheating. I had visions of driving on sidewalks to avoid red lights. That took a second trip to the shop when the part arrived so I could drive to the mountains without having to take the sidewalks.

By the time I got out of the shop Saturday afternoon and drove to Joyce Kilmer, which turned out to be a 3 hour drive, I had only a half an hour to battle the mosquitos and grab a few shots before Tisen and I had to get back on the road to head home.

On Monday I pulled out my bicycle and stopped at Amnicola Marsh to discover what might have been a Great Egret. Of course, I did not have my camera with me, so back I went the next morning, when, of course, the bird did not appear.

Since the car’s idle speed didn’t reset over the weekend, I returned to the mechanic on Monday. Fortunately, they were able to greatly improve things.

Next I made the drive to the Blythe Ferry Osprey nest with a couple from the photography club who allowed me to drive, in spite of Tisen crowding the lucky passenger who got to sit in back with him. But on the way home, the coolant light came on and we discovered I was losing coolant. Fortunately, we made it home without a problem, but that put an end to my driving career (at least for a few days).

I stuck to my bicycle and made one more trip to Amnicola and Curtain Pole Road Marshes. No Great Egret, but I did meet another photographer and stayed far longer than I intended shooting at Curtain Pole–it’s amazing how much more you see when there are two of you looking.

All in all, I’d say I’m pretty good at entertaining myself.

Bearing Witness

I imagine I look odd walking through the park with my dog, me carrying whatever toy he’s dropped, my camera, a loupe, and a pair of binoculars.  Probably even odder when I suddenly and without warning drop the leash, step on it, pull up my camera and line a bird in my sights all while talking to the dog, encouraging him to stand still while I attempt to capture a bird that is probably backlit, behind layers of leaves, and likely perched on a tree limb blowing in the wind.

I asked myself the other day why I do this.  I mean, what is it about photography I find so appealing that it’s now been a consistent pursuit for enough years I’d rather not add them up?

I think it comes down to this: photography is a recreation of life. There is in any given image a combination of fact and fiction. A bird, for example, looks the way it looks in a final image based on an endless combination of variables. Some of them I control.  Many of them I don’t.  In the end, any image represents one interpretation of a single moment and the odds of getting an identical image ever again are minuscule–just like the rest of life.

In this act of controlling what can be controlled and dealing with what cannot, there are lessons photography offers.  For example, you can see the same thing a multitude of ways and they are all correct.  And then there’s the expansiveness that results from constraints:  you see more looking through the blinders of a camera frame–it’s as if restricting your view causes better vision.

There’s also the inherent paradox of time.  You capture a moment by being completely in the present with a vision of a future image.  But by transforming that moment into an image, creating that vision of the future, you’ve brought with you a moment from the past. It is the only actual form of time travel that I’m aware of.

Most importantly, when I shoot, I am listening, looking, feeling, tasting, and smelling with the concentration of a hound dog in the hope of gaining a clue about where my next subject will unfold. Thoughts about the past and future get pushed aside, making space for the possibility contained in the present.

Ultimately, photography is an act of gratitude.  Gratitude for having borne witness to something remarkable–whether it’s a weed being struck by the sun, a puffy cloud that happened to show up just when I was looking, or the sudden appearance of a rare bird.  The desire to capture each of those moments requires appreciation of them as subjects worthy of attention.

In this way, photography gives gifts.  It hands me moments I would not have noticed had I never picked up a camera. Never mind the endless struggles and failures at getting exactly what I envision.  Just having been there, fully there, to witness those moments is enough.

Showing Up

I remember once, many years ago when I was teaching for a community college prison program, having a conversation with another instructor who was telling me about advice he’d given a student.  He’d told the student, “Just show up.  Showing up is half the battle.”

I was reminded of a student in one of the classes I taught during my teaching certification field experience.  He showed up to class, sat down, put his head down on his desk, and promptly fell asleep.  I asked him if he was feeling OK and he told me he’d been up until 2AM that morning playing video games.  When I asked him how he expected to succeed in school if he didn’t sleep at night so he could stay awake during class, he replied, “I’m here, aren’t I?”

I think this requires considering what “showing up” means in this context.  It doesn’t mean physically moving your body from one point to another and not actually being there mentally.  Showing up means paying attention, watching and listening for opportunity to present itself.  It implies both an awareness and recognition of opportunity.

Even with this revision of the definition, I don’t know if I agree that just being there is 50% of the battle.  There’s also preparedness.  It doesn’t do much good to realize you have an opportunity if you’re not in a position to take advantage of it.

For example, I walk my dog in our neighborhood park 3-4x a day.  I spend this time mostly looking for birds.  I am aware, paying attention, watching and listening for the opportunity to see interesting birds present themselves.  However, I’d really like to get great images of these birds.  Yet, in spite of this desire, 9 times out of 10, I rush out the door with the dog but not my camera.

The opportunity to photograph birds presents itself nearly every time I walk, but only 10% of the time am I prepared to actually capture an image of a bird.

Yet, oddly, I seem to be less likely to see birds when I am most prepared.  This is like seeing that the weather forecast is for rain, taking an umbrella, a raincoat, and wearing waterproof boots only to have the weather turn sunny against all odds.

If we apply statistics to this equation, I think it comes down to this:  I’m going to see birds I could photograph 90% of the time I walk.  If I carry a camera only 10% of the time I walk, the odds that I will actually capture an image of a bird drops to 9 times out of 100.

Like everything else in life, showing up, being present, and being ready have to come together with luck.  The more frequently we do our part, the more frequently our readiness will connect with good fortune.  So, I guess that means I will be carrying my camera a lot more often in the future!

Mine Sweeping

We attempt to go for a walk this morning.  But it’s getting late by the time we leave so we are forced to do the short loop through the park.  We realize that someone new must have moved into the neighborhood because of the dog poop on the sidewalk.  There are three separate piles along the way.  Each one looks older than the last, like the piles are from three separate days.  I wonder if the new dog owner is French–they’re not allowed to pick up dog poop because it’s someone’s job.

Stopping short of doing forensics on the dog poop piles, we walk around cautiously, avoiding getting any on our shoes successfully.  Then, we are greeted by three women, each with a small dog.  We’ve met these women and their dogs before–these women pick up after their dogs.  The little dogs have fun racing around together, but they don’t stop for a pet.  Although one is willing to let you throw its ball.  Today, we let them go on by without attempting to pet them.

Convinced that there is no dog poop to step around in sight, my eyes go to the sky.  I am hoping to see the Red-Shouldered Hawks who hunt in the park, but instead, I spot a flock of much smaller birds hanging out in the tree tops where they are back lit and there is no hope of getting a good look at them.  From their size and shape, I would guess they were a group of Cedar Waxwings, but who knows.  The call of the White-Throated Sparrow catches my attention.  I point it out to Pat, but he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, having failed to notice a bird was singing.  I realize he is probably thinking about our dogs, long gone, and missing them.

I try to imagine having a dog again.  I feel certain that some day, a dog will walk into our lives and stick.  But, for now, we are dogless and content to remain so for a while.  In the meantime, we console ourselves by petting other people’s dogs.

We return home and I work.  Our walk seems to have been symbolic of what I will face during my work day–I seem to spend most of my day trying to avoid land mines.

At the end of the day, it’s getting late and we have nothing to eat in the house.  It’s been raining since mid-morning, but it’s not that cold.  We decide to walk over to the Japanese restaurant by Coolidge park.  I pull on a rain jacket with a hood and find an umbrella.  We make our way carefully, leaping over deep puddles that have formed, dodging the splash from cars, and peeking from under our hoods before crossing the street.  I can’t help but feel my entire day has been about avoiding traps and obstacles.

When we get to the Japanese place, we discover it’s not open on Mondays.

We head for the Italian place at the end of the street.  It’s the restaurant furthest from our place on this strip, which means another block of dodging puddles.  But, we are happy to learn that tonight there is a special.  Fat Tire for $2.50 a pint and 20% off all pizzas.  We decide to give their pizza a try.  At the end of our meal, we discover that we’ve just eaten the cheapest meal we’ve ever had in Chattanooga.  Since the Japanese place tends to be the most expensive, we’re happy that they were closed today.

Now that we are warm and full, it’s time to go back out into the rain.  I pull on my raincoat and steel myself mentally.  We rush through the darkness, holding the umbrella so that it partially covers both of us. When Pat tips the umbrella, the water runs off onto my shoulder and into my purse.  I straighten the umbrella in his hands several times before I finally take over holding it.

We run across the streets, black silhouettes against headlights.  I realize we should have worn something with reflective strips on it.  Instead of avoiding mines, now we are dodging bullets.  When we make it back to our building, a man with a backpack is sitting on the steps up to the entry.  The steps are sheltered.  We assume he is homeless and trying to get out of the rain.  We greet him and continue on by, entering the security code to get into the building and making sure no one follows us in.

We walk into our place dripping with rain.  I strip off my rain jacket and find a spot to set the umbrella so it can dry.  After shaking away the wet, I get myself ready for bed.  I feel as if I survived some sort of test today.  Walking in the rain, especially after dark, always feels like an adventure.  I wish the end of my work day gave me the same rush that walking in the rain does.