Tag Archives: A Photographers Garden Blog

Toasted To Perfection

Wherein I Light Up A Voracious Swarm of  Tent Caterpillars With a Flaming Can of Whoop-Ass.

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When viewed without an  understanding of their dining habits or that larger context of the apocalyptic damage left in their wake (in this case, just off camera), this tight little cluster of tent caterpillars looks almost pastoral, kind of serene, maybe even beautiful. Such cute, fuzzy little creatures. Not!

I’m uneasy with the notion of using poisons in my garden, uneasy about their manufacturers and that powerful corporate temptation to fib about the actual science of a product for the sake of its bottom line. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has proven true again and again, recently, in the name of market share and profits, and almost always lubricated by some cutesy, animated, bad-bug TV commercial with smiling, high-fiving fake-homeowners and promises that ‘you’ll be the envy of your neighborhood.’ I’ve seen enough of the unintended consequences of many garden products to be leary. I mean, doesn’t it stand to reason that if I poison whatever little out-of-control critters are currently chewing up some beautiful, beloved plant in my garden, that I will also be poisoning the songbirds I’ve worked so diligently to attract, those very garden partners that serenade me with songs and generally feed on such bugs, raise their families on them, and most of the time keep their populations in balance?

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This past week I had to (reluctantly), open up a can of whoop-ass on a voracious family of tent-caterpillars that had crossed the line, having grown far past the ability of any songbird family to reign them in.

As you can see from the video, they had begun to make a damaging spectacle of themselves that no reasonable gardener could continue to ignore and rather than let the problem grow or resort to that tempting siren song of ‘Better Living Through Chemistry,’ I opted for an orchard ladder, my trusty Felco pruners and a small, propane torch. Game on, Larvae Breath!

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Click to Enlarge and see all the crispy detail.

Ultimately, I did end up needing to cut out one small section of branch (about 18 inches long), that was so net-tented and chewed up that I thought it probably beyond recovery, but with the rest of the tree I simply gave a good toasting to each cluster of caterpillars, believing that in the long run the tree would recover faster, dropping those burned needles in time and then regrowing new ones in their place.

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And yes, I was tempted to taste one of these barbecued little morsels, just for aesthetic and educational purposes, and yet, somehow resisted. Hmmmmmmm. I wonder, might you have snacked on one with me if given the option?

Winter’s Exquisite Palette

We are but one week from the bottom of the trough, less than a week, actually from this year’s longest night. And though the momentum of these shortening days slows perceptibly while many of nature’s colors continue to bleed and fade, there is still enough beauty and texture, even within the rumpled ruins of these last few days of the year to settle a fretful mind and inspire wonder. What the heart hungers for is out there. Trust this. You will not find it in stores or on the web. And it will not fit within the production schedule of a network or the pixels of a television screen. But it is there just as surely as the stars are there, even when you cannot see them.

This morning, coffee in hand, I toured the raggedy perimeter of my garden simply to see and smell the damp, chill, outdoor world. I did not feel compelled to carry a fancy camera or trundle with a tripod. I did’t even bother to put a fresh battery in my point-and-shoot. I wanted to travel light, to pose a simple question and let the day answer as it would. “What have you got for me?” I asked.

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Turns out this day offered me the exquisite beauty of death; fallen soldiers, once green and upright, untouched and unappreciated since slumping ever so gracefully to Earth in my shade garden a few months back. Seeing them this morning quieted some much too busy part of me that has been scurrying and fretting in that crafty way the manufacturers and marketers want us all to scurry and fret this time of year as we try desperately to keep up, to measure up, to open our wallets up and buy, buy, buy that, ‘NEW’, ‘AMAZING,’ perfect ‘thing’ they want to sell us.

Having been practicing for decades now, a bumbling student learning to call my soul back toward center from the frayed edges of obsession and feelings that I am utterly lost, this humble jumble of decaying leaves was a faint beacon on the horizon helping me to navigate toward safety. I might easily have missed it looking for something much grander. A wet mat of decaying leaves? Seriously? Big whoop. What possible salve or redemption could they offer?

But here’s something you might not have guessed. Seeing those leaves and even recognizing them would have achieved little or nothing had I not stopped, pulled out my little iPhone camera and paid them the honor of my time and attention. It could have been any camera. Or a sketch pad. Or a the whispered first line of a poem. I could easily have kept moving, could easily have said “No. You’re just not that beautiful. You’re not that important. I’m gonna keep looking. I want something better than you. Prettier, maybe. More impressive.” Think how often we do just that. To decaying leaves, certainly and to myriad other minor miracles. And also to people, which really, are profoundly major miracles. Often, even to the very planet that is our mother and every manor of her children. We have been taught to think that there will be something better just ahead, so we foolishly try to live in that next moment rather than the one we have now. And the chase never ends. And we often feel lost. And in our mercurial, grasping wakes we leave trails of rejection and destruction. The world doesn’t need to be this lonely, but it is, because we are always, habitually looking for the next, even better thing.

In some delicious way, it was stopping and acknowledging them that transformed these leaves into something more. Into something magical. It was saying “You are enough. Your beauty is enough to get me to release my hold on all the petty little things I’ve been fretting over, and on those much grander things I often hope for. In these next few minutes, I am yours. You are what I choose to see, what I choose to bend deeply over, despite my achey back. You are what I will frame up ever so carefully in my little camera, what I honor with my attention in this moment and the one that follows.”

I give lectures and teach classes and workshops about such things. Some sense this essential, transformational secret before they ever enroll, hoping to become better practitioners while for others the light bulb comes on in some newly triggered ‘aha’ moment along the way. And there will always be some who listen to each lesson and complete each assignment, and still leave certain that the secret must be in the particular camera or iPhone app I am using. When a chef’s food is delicious do you credit the knife?

If you would like to find a family to practice your seeing with, if you’re achey for reminders of just how to find your own soulful north star, perhaps a class is just the ticket to help you define and explore your own visual path, or perhaps it would be a perfect gift for someone you love. My next class offering will be through Bellevue College, beginning on January 27 on their north campus. I also love to work with students individually either through coaching and reviews, or in guided shoots. Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

In the mean time, try grabbing something as simple as the camera within your phone (the less complicated the camera, the better), go outside and give your attention to something none of your friends could possibly be jealous of (see photo above). Showy, exotic, far-off locales and pictures of swankadoo foods in swankadoo restaurants that most of your friends will never have a chance to visit are fine, as far as they go, but these are not the subjects that will help you find your inner quiet. To accomplish that, begin by looking for the simplest, least impressive subjects. Give your eye and your attention permission to become fascinated with whatever little thing captures its fancy, not worrying for a minute what others will think. Do this just for you, considering only your contented sigh in that one moment you stand within. This may feel awkward at first, and that is as it should be. You’ll get better at it. Just as you get better at finding your breath when you practice yoga. Just as you get better at hearing the chords and the harmonies when you give yourself to music. You’ll learn that you can trust yourself. If you’re not there yet then trust me, for now. Budget ten minutes. No more. Now, deep cleansing breath. Quiet your mind by stepping out of it. Search for a pattern, an intersection, a texture, a color that pleases you, that intrigues you. It need not be much.  Matter of fact, less is generally better than more. A  wash of sky, a few faded leaves. The visual equivalent of a whisper. A single word. A sigh.

It’s there, I promise. And it wants you to find it.

 

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I’d love to hear from you if this simple practice helps you. Send me a note or leave a message here. Include a picture, but just one. Choosing is part of the assignment.