Wherein I Light Up A Voracious Swarm of Tent Caterpillars With a Flaming Can of Whoop-Ass.
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?
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Juan & Prudenso work behind the scenes to help keep things beautiful at Albers Vista Gardens.
Gardens can be an immense amount of work, especially gardens measured in acres rather than fractions of acres. And often the wonderful people who work so hard to keep these larger gardens looking their best are shy, practical souls, seldom seen and almost never heard or publicly acknowledged, despite their important roles. Which is exactly how many of them would like to keep it, by the way.
I feel lucky to be invited into so many beautiful gardens during the course of a year, to spend such intentional, contemplative time picturing and understanding them. I feel pretty lucky too to be able to count as friends some amazingly talented landscape and garden designers, in addition to that larger group of folks who garden merely for their own food and soulful edification. And though these garden makers’ unique stories and philosophies continually stir my imagination and burnish my respect for them, I must admit that there is also something mysterious and wonderful about those shy, behind the scenes garden folk, workers Iike Juan and Prudenso who in this particular case take their marching orders from Dr. John Albers, mastermind and creator of Albers Vista Gardens, a ferry ride away in Bremerton, WA.
One morning last month I spent several hours photographing autumn colors and stunning plant relationships in Albers Vista Gardens, beginning at first light. I heard Juan and Prudenso arrive about an hour after me and for the rest of my time shooting there, these two diligent gentlemen kept busy digging and moving, and weeding and planting. And no matter where I moved within that multi-roomed, multi-acre garden I could hear occasional snippets of their musical laughter and unfolding conversations (in Spanish), floating upward from amongst the trees and through the colorful shrubs.
It made me smile.
Chances are you will never meet or even see Juan or Prudenso during a visit to Albers’ wonderful garden, but you would most certainly glimpse their handiwork as you wandered, room to room, if you did visit. And at least some the lush fruits of John’s vision and planning, magical glimpses that you could not help but appreciate would have been realized partly because of the carefully tended labors of these men and the help of others like them. This is true with so very many fine gardens.
So I thought maybe you’d enjoy meeting them, if only virtually. Of course, they smile more when there are no cameras pointed their direction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
What observant student could fail to understand a garden better, having been able to look into the eyes of its maker or caretaker?
Every great garden has layers not immediately apparent, whether layers of experience or of history, or texture, or the delicious play of light at particular times of day. And strangely, though these gardens will readily give up their secrets, they do so only to the degree that their visitors grant them something valuable in return: time
I like to imagine each garden I visit as if I had come upon a wise old man or woman sitting in the woods telling a beautiful, meandering story that began long before I arrived and that will still be unfolding long after I leave. Most visitors would readily sense such stories as boons, feeling wonder and insight flowing freely outward to any who would tarry and listen but these days so few can imagine sitting still for more than three or four minutes to hear what can be heard and learn what can be learned before growing restless and feeling the need to move on. Not surprisingly, this is just long enough to record a Vine or attempt to capture some hip, shareable essence of the scene in an Instagram, either of which might prove to all of one’s cool virtual friends that “Hey, I was there“, and later allow you to regale them with tales of how “TOTALLY UHHH-MAZING!” it all was.
But how much of the storyteller’s wise tale can one truly glean like that?
When I hang out with gardeners in the gardens they tend, seeing them sitting or standing, or simply thinking and breathing within those deliberate spaces and surrounded by the ‘blended families’ of plants they live and work with provides me a small but unique glimpse beneath the outer surface of the garden. And it occurs to me that such glimpses might afford others who would love a bit more insight or story, or to tarry just a moment longer, to see deeper into the garden as well.
To that end, meet Gavin, the deft and soft-spoken caretaker of this private estate garden, this sumptuous textural feast of a place that lives and breathes all around him.
I’ll continue to introduce you to other gardeners here over time but today, because he said yes to my daybreak request despite never having posed for a portrait before, and because his work is exquisitely beautiful, it is his turn. I thank you, kind sir.
Now, just try to imagine this garden without him.
(Please click on each image to view a much larger version of it.)
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.
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.
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)
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.
…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.