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?

A QUINTESSENTIAL RHODE(-y) TRIP

A WINTER VISIT TO THE WEYERHAUSER RHODODENDRON SPECIES BOTANICAL GARDEN

January 18, 2014: “There was something profound about the light today, the tint of it, warm and yet cool, a haze that seemed as if it might be practicing to become fog, someday, but was perhaps still not quite up to the task.”

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Today’s visit to the Weyerhauser Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden moved me a long, long way toward recovery from that strange, lingering malaise I’ve felt toward rhodies after decades of witnessing their torture and abuse, via those tens of thousands of spindly, garish-flowered, root-weevil-infested, mass produced, Home Depot-looking specimens I’ve driven past, each demeaningly planted right next to the bare concrete foundations of thousands of pastel-painted, cedar-sided, seventies-vintage, split-entry homes and bungalows in Northwest suburbia. There, I’ve said it.

“Ohh, thank you, thank you,” I whisper, “you wonderful garden creators, you amazing plant collectors and you painstaking gardeners who have each labored so carefully to create and maintain this wonderful botanic sanctuary! Visiting your garden is like being invited to bite into a dozen, no hundreds of different hued and shaped, delicious, amazing, old school, classic apples after years of mealy, flavorless, zombie-like, red delicious.”

20140118-DPP-609s What a wonder! What a humbling, quieting experience to walk through this botanical masterpiece, painted with more than 700 species of rhododendrons from all over the world, to see them clustered together and mingled with myriad other woodland plants upon a forested canvas, especially here in the chill and oft-rainy Northwest, in mid-January. What treasure to share this space with a large, confident, thick winter-coated coyote (Thank you Mary for making sure I didn’t miss him silently crossing that dew-laden meadow), and with those expansive, fragrant, backlit witch hazel trees (see the yellow one in the photo below?), in full pungent bloom, and practically no one else in the entire 22 acre preserve. Every one of my awed senses swirled and sighed in grateful overload.

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The air was hazy and cold, but the low-angled sun found ways to weave its cheering rays between the tree trunks and to pierce the winter-lush vegetation, warming pools of pungent, forest air and warming our faces, as well whenever we stepped into one of them. I surrendered, quite happily, dozens of appreciative gasps and muffled chuckles of recognition and delight, and I also discovered a new plant crush. Rhododendron arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum (below). Who knew?

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20140118-DPP-634I suppose it could have been the combination of that romantic light and the chill of the thick, witch-hazel-pregnant air. Or maybe it was something they put in the water fountain, but I’m telling you, Rhododendron arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum shot an arrow deep into my awareness today, looking like a million bucks with those long, elegant, jewel-toned leaves and their mysterious, dark, matte, cinnamon undersides, all strangely aglow. Va va Voom! And hooray for January, when we’re not so blinded by the beauties of  lush rhododendron blooms and other flowers that we can concentrate on their exquisite, if much quieter foliage!

For those of you who’ve never been, or if you just haven’t been lately, I highly recommend this botanic wonderland of gravelled paths and earthy smells to help realign what you 20140118-DPP-613sthink you know and feel about rhododendrons, and maybe, just maybe flush some of those scraggly, sick-rhodie visions from your own tortured consciousness, as well.  The eight dollar admission fee seems a worthy investment in oneself, even in January, especially when you consider the costs of developing and maintaining such a magnificent, world-class collection and keeping it open to the public, year round.

And as a total, extra super bonus, be sure to allow time to take in the wonders of  the adjoining, Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection which is mind bogglingly beautiful, wonderfully educational, and free.

Take the 320th Ave Exit off I-5 between Seattle and Tacoma, and follow the signs.

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Namasté

How To Shoot Yourself While Standing In A River:

Taking the selfie to the next level…

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The last sliver of sunlight on the canyon’s walls. Deschutes River Canyon, Oregon. (Click on any image to see it larger)

I have made dozens of pilgrimages to this sacred, riverine wilderness over the past twenty years. And within the delicious, unfolding hours that those magical days have afforded me, I have found myself, again and again, knee deep, balanced upon some submerged rock, fly rod in hand, asking for two simple gifts: trout willing to dance and a healing swirl of currents to pull and prod, and tug at the edges of my soul until, finally, I can release my grip on all those perceived slights and frets I have carefully gathered and kept score with during the months prior. This is big work. Thankfully, the river is even bigger.

Last summer I managed several consecutive days alone here, wading and fishing, harvesting wild currants and mint, making pictures of the river’s changing moods and falling into ever deeper states of calm with first-light awakenings and mid-afternoon naps beneath rustling trees. Slowly the chattering monkeys in my head quieted and I found myself thinking about a somewhat different kind of picture, one that might explain what a fly fisherman feels while lost utterly within ‘the pregnant moment’ of fishing. I haven’t had words to explain that experience, so profoundly moving to me and others, but I’ve longed to be able to share it,  to explain the strange, calming effect of the water and light, and the dances with fish to those who inquire.

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And so, five full days into my solo adventure, after an early dinner in camp I packed my heavy tripod and camera gear, grabbed my fly rod and donned my fishing vest, then headed off through heavy brush and a tangled thicket of trees toward a particularly picturesque and braided stretch of river.

In my mind I had begun to form an image that flowed with motion, with the hush of fading, midsummer light and with a fisherman’s calm, purposeful concentration. I was not envisioning a picture about catching a fish, but rather a picture about the search for fish. Anyone experienced with a fly rod knows that far more moments are spent searching for fish than playing fish, that it is the search that is the real gift, the meditation, the repeated koan. But how? How would one manage to record the beauty inherent within that lonely quest while standing there at the edge of the river all alone?

I had an idea.

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One of the coolest new features of the new Canon 6D, at least to this photographer’s mind is the built-in wi-fi capability its thoughtful makers have embedded within it, and those subsequent conversations now possible between a high quality, full frame SLR camera and an iPhone. Here, another dusk practice session, this one two days before standing in the river to shoot. I was intent on learning to make all the pieces work together seamlessly, but hadn’t even begun to imagine the fishing shot yet.

I had not attempted anything quite like what I was imagining nor did I know of anyone who had, but it occurred to me that maybe I could use Canon’s groovy new EOS Remote iPhone app to visualize and position myself perfectly within a framed-up image, then trigger the camera to capture my photograph, a selfie if you will, of the only possible fisherman in the vicinity intently exploring a stretch of pocket water in search of rainbow trout, at dusk. Undoubtedly, this was going to be more complicated than a simple, eyes-to-camera selfie, but figuring out how to do even that remotely was something I needed to master before attempting additional layers of complexity.

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iPhone screen captures, pictured side by side, showing how the app interface appears to the viewer as the phone and camera find one another.

As you can imagine, I was apprehensive about placing my brand new camera and L series wide-angle lens on a tripod in the river and then walking away from it, no matter how carefully I’d situated the tripod’s feet among those slippery rocks in shin-deep water. I could just imagine the setup slowly tipping over and disappearing beneath the surface as I walked away, or accidentally kicking it over as I tried to move around from behind it. I double and then triple-checked my setup for stability, carefully attached and leveled my camera, zooming out and framing up my shot in a way that would allow the viewer’s eye to move naturally through the scene from watery foreground to silhouetted fisherman, to eventually, pastel-colored dusky sky. Ever so slowly then I moved away from the camera itself and into the camera’s frame. When I was approximately where I thought I needed to be as the focal point of the shot, I activated the EOS Remote app on my phone’s screen and ‘looked’ through the camera’s viewfinder to see exactly what the camera was seeing.

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Obviously, I was still too close. And my back was turned too much to the camera. I moved two steps further toward the river’s center and a step to my right, tucking in behind a few leafy branches within the frame, then turned my body slightly more profile to the camera. I checked the screen again to see how the camera was seeing it. Much better.

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From the phone’s touchscreen then I manipulated my camera’s controls, dialing the shutter speed way down to allow the water in the foreground to blur out as it flowed through the scene during a long exposure, but discovered that there was still far too much light in the sky to slow my shutter speed suitably, even when shooting at low ISO and tiny apertures. I fired off a few frames, experimenting with the way I should hold my fly rod and where I should point it, but couldn’t yet manage the moody image I wanted. Even though the sun had dipped below the canyon rim on the far horizon, it was still too high and the sky far too bright, so guessing the light would probably be problematic for at least another half hour, I decided to go fishing.

Once my iPhone 5 was safely sealed back into its ziplock bag and tucked it into a pocket I carefully made my way back to the Canon 6D on the tripod, switched it off to save battery power and worked my way upstream. Hello there, fishies.

Between 7:58 and 8:39PM, as the light faded and the skies colored up, I caught and released three eager rainbow trout that were feeding in the “pocket water” upstream from my photo setup, then carefully worked my way back down to that sheltered stretch where my camera sat unattended within the swirling river. Whew! Still there. And dry. After switching the  Canon 6D back on and reconnecting with my iPhone via it’s internal wifi network, I waded back out to that picture-perfect little spot I’d earlier identified as ideal and began refining my position.

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The first shot in this trio shows me before I moved farther away from the camera and tucked in behind those leafy branches. In the second I’ve moved and turned a bit more sideways to the camera, but my posture feels too upright. In the third I’m in an attentive, low crouch, minimizing the chances that a nearby fish will spy me and spook.

The light levels had dropped substantially so I was now able to underexpose for mood while managing full, one second long exposures at f-20 rather than those 1/5 second exposures I’d needed earlier. In practical terms that allowed both for immense depth of focus and for that blurred, watery foreground, with literally five times as much movement as before, which certainly would add to the dreamy effect I was after.

With tripoded camera set on self-timer mode, shutter speed set to one second and exposure set to about one and a half stops underexposed, via the iPhone, I began to shoot in earnest, triggering the camera’s self-timer, then carefully pocketing my iPhone, assuming the position, flyrod extended and holding very still. I knew the camera would probably record some wiggle motion in me and my extended fly rod during such long exposures but also believed this might add to the integrity of the shot. (Imagine the fisherman in such a photograph frozen, perfectly still while the water moved all around him. It would  seem inauthentic and psychologically diminish the ‘truth’ of the shot.)

Each time I triggered the self-timer, I counted it down in my head, then waited in position for several more seconds, just to be sure. I did this fifteen times, selecting and zooming into each newly recorded image via my iPhone’s screen immediately after each capture, refining slightly as I went. With an aperture of f-20 on a 16mm lens, which I’d manually focused at about four feet distance, I knew the image would be sharp from the near foreground to a distance of infinity, so depth of field was not going to be an issue. And by viewing what my remotely triggered camera had recorded each time, via my phone, I knew my exposure was on target for the mood I was after and that my fisherman’s positions were improving aesthetically, bit by bit.

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The series of shots I made using the EOS Remote app that evening, as seen in a screen capture of my desktop computer’s Adobe Lightroom workspace.

Finally, confident I had a handful of images that worked as intended, I waded carefully back toward my camera, along the way pausing to prop my beloved fly rod ever so carefully on a rock in the foreground. With a simple swing of the camera to the left (upstream), I was able then to frame up another simpler shot, this time without the silhouetted fisherman.

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Selfies, digital self-portraits are boon to some minds and narcissistic bane to others. And regardless your opinion of their value to, or drag upon our collective psyche, they have been around in some form for as long as human beings have been curious and self-aware. Having once seen our reflections in the mirrored surface of a river at sunset, we could not help but wonder about the hidden depths of those fascinating persons reflected in the water. Our hungry imaginations demanded we ponder the implications of those eyes looking back at us, and that we try to see further into them. As we learned to draw, to carve, to rhyme, to paint, our explorations took on ever more elaborate and lasting dimensions. And so we artists of every age and medium since have found ways to explore the worlds we live in by examining  and picturing those unique physical vessels within which we breathe and move.

Self-portraits are an ancient and time-tested art form, and are without question here to stay.

This is the humble story of just one of them.

If you have questions about any aspect of this little project that I haven’t adequately covered here, please leave a comment and ask away. I’ll tell ya’ whatever I know. And once again, without you I’d just be standing here talking to myself, so my thanks once again for following along…

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I DREAMED THAT I AWAKENED WITHIN A DREAM

…then imagined yet another.

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It was still dark when I began driving but I really wanted to be in this garden as it awakened. Puget Sound ferries don’t run early enough for that, so I needed to drive south to Tacoma and then around. Without traffic, I made it to Bremerton in just an hour… legally. I keyed in the code on the gate and let myself in, then grabbed cameras and a tripod and quietly began that meditation of immersing my awareness within the larger awareness of this awakening garden.

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As the eastern sky lightened, all the fragrant moisture magically suspended within the cool morning air, coalesced, becoming a visible whisper, a calming, caressing fog, transforming the familiar into apparitions from a slightly different dimension. I sensed this blessing would be fleeting but resisted any temptation to hurry, simply waiting attentively for whatever might want to reveal itself to reveal itself, intuiting that was by far the surest path toward understanding.

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These photos were all made during an early morning shoot within Albers Vista Garden for a book project I’m currently working on with owner/designer John J. Albers. (Please click on each image to see it larger)

Witness to the Birth of a Dragon

There are never any guarantees for those who seek wisdom and inspiration in the world of nature, though some say that attentive eyes and a willingness to wait may yield unforeseen miracles, on occasion.

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…and so we deliberately get down low, our ears and our hearts closer to the ground, we ask the gods of mud and thunder cloud, and river otter and garter snake for insight. We seek wisdom in sun glare and woodland shadow, even in mosquito bite. We try to remember what our soul’s truth looked like before all those screeching monkeys and tempting offers of importance, if only we could…

We journey outward into a world that measures success differently, if it measures it at all, and there we sit quietly, praying to be cleansed, healed maybe, whispering our earnest requests to each passing bird and cloud, and breeze that we might absorb, once again, some measure of life’s innocence and wonder.

 

And we do this knowing there are no guarantees…

Namasté

Love Note To A Beautiful Stranger

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“…and just when that outer edge of my heart begins to curl inward, into a ball of despair, thinking that the whole world has forgotten the notion of simple generosity and the utterly transforming power of creating beauty for beauty’s sake, having instead gone mad with their own, ‘Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps!’ obsessions and “I’m gonna make sure I get my fair share!” agendas, I find myself driving along a ratty looking street in a financially forlorn neighborhood and suddenly, nearly choke with gratitude for the single human soul who silently got down on hands and knees, again and again to plant seeds and pull weeds, to pick up litter and tilt a watering can, effectively saying ‘no’ to all that ‘tit for tat’ soul commerce, making time instead to plant and tend flowers that add such beauty to an otherwise bleak landscape, asking nothing in return.”

I need to say this aloud; Thank you!

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Perhaps I am deeply flawed. I am left achey some days by the purity of selfishness and greed, the situational ethics and ‘hard-times’ trends I see on so many fronts. I watch others, pummeled by a world where everything comes with a price tag, a hook and a self-serving motive. So many people, even within my near purview have become hucksters of one form or another, many seeming finally to believe that their self-appointed, self-aggrandizing need to turn everything they do into some form of ‘branding’ and/or marketing ploy is exactly the thing that is needed in order for them to step briskly along that pathway to personal security, fulfillment and success. Damn anyone who questions this or says otherwise. And they preach it to others whose fates, at least for today, appear less sunny than their own with a smugness and fervor that nearly feels religious. As if being true and doing good work are just not enough.

And I ask myself with a shudder, what if they are right?

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On a quiet street just a handful of concreted-over blocks from the heart of Seattle’s vibrant International District, someone has made a very personal case for acts of kindness and beauty by sharing a generous vision with passers-by that he, (or is it she?), will certainly never meet and cannot possibly hope to profit from.

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How refreshing. How utterly nostalgic. How very wonderful!

20130617_DPP-44I cannot know about the others who have passed by here, but you and your generous, flowering candles have found their mark here, have touched me, this one humble, bumbler and student at life, this complete stranger. And they have made me determined to loosen my own grip, to tear away some of those strings that I so often attach to the things I give.

Thank you, whoever you are. And may the God of your generous spirit bless you.

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With Roses, Like People:

 It was definitely love at first sight!

In the first moment that I saw her, Rosa ‘Francois Juranville’ shot a rose-thorned arrow through my heart, capturing both it and my imagination completely. Eight years of careful observation and appreciative encounters have done nothing to diminish that. What a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

Rosa 'Francois Juranville' grows lavishly along the front of the houseA crush at first blush may seem awesome, but true love takes time. One often needs, after all to see the object of one’s affections at a quarter past midnight in order to truly begin to understand its deeper nature. Doesn’t this botanic creature look marvelous within the cool/warm mix of porch light and moonlight? (Be sure to click on the image to see it larger.)

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One may also need to see one’s new ‘crush’ caged in by life’s circumstances, before really knowing whether it is merely a fair-weather rose or instead, a generous magician and true font of beauty.

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When life’s inevitable rain squalls descend, no rose so finely featured could ever hope to disguise its true stamina and character. Gratefully, this one doesn’t need to.

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Without question, some roses, just like some people are fussy and demanding, prone to pouting and never quite up to the stresses and struggles of the day at hand. Certainly, one may think one has found truest love in that heady, first moment of meeting, but time often proves just how different initial appearances may seem from the true character of things which cannot help but reveal themselves over time.

When you think about the roses in your own garden and the people in your life, don’t some of them, a few perhaps, consistently enrich your world and prove themselves magical, again and again? If you’re lucky, the keepers will continue to enlarge your view of them even as you see them in stormy days and weighed down with bouts of sickness and hardship. Crushes inevitably fade, but true love grows, especially when both give generously, proving themselves worthy of another’s best affections.

…lessons gleaned and refined from time in the garden. Namasté.

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