Astounding photography with a camera phone

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When the first camera phones appeared, I thought, “What a stupid idea!” I was wrong.

These days I walk in the woods primarily to connect with nature. A camera can get in the way – as I’ve written recently. I’m particularly drawn to macro photography, so it’s easy to let things on the ground distract me from the bigger picture.

I’ve begun leaving the DSLR camera at home most days. This feels like a sacrifice. It’s like the 20 minutes we might give up from whatever else we do in order to meditate. At first we encounter frustration, boredom, all the feelings that usually get ignored. But in facing them, we discover a richer world within.

Without the camera I pay more attention to the way the air feels, the sounds of rain or leaves falling or wind in the branches, the movement of the forest canopy. I pay more attention to clouds and light, rather than just worrying whether I have enough light for a photo, or whether it’s going to rain hard enough that I should return home. I prefer not to get the camera wet, but otherwise I’ll continue walking in the rain if dressed appropriately.

Ghost

However, I still use a camera phone whenever I want. These photos usually only record things I see and want to remember to write about later. They are spontaneous and quick, hardly disturbing the pace of exercise, hardly disturbing my experience with the forest. Light from the sky washes out the screen of the phone so I can hardly see the image. Composition doesn’t take much time or attention. If I find something particularly compelling, I can always return with the DSLR camera later. With the phone quickly deposited back in its pocket, I continue my stroll.

So this series of four photos is particularly magical. They were taken on the camera phone within a 15 minute period this morning. They were selected from 15 photos taken during that period. I also stopped to commune with a beech tree, study its bark, and look up at the canopy.

Digital technology makes it possible to take thousands of images at no cost and discard the vast majority. It still requires skill and creativity to produce a work of art. However, it’s a much different craft from when we shot a roll of film then toiled in the dark room to overcome our mistakes.

But photography also involves some luck of the draw. This morning with the phone I could not give thought to depth of field, the right light, sharpness. I just saw things I liked, spent a moment composing them, then shot. My phone offers the ability to manipulate f-stop, shutter speed, and other ways of finessing an image, but I rarely use them.

Today I drew four aces. Ok, face cards at least.

Turkey tail

They don’t appear here strictly as shot. Phone photography benefits from some simple adjustments in Lightroom, as does DSLR photography: cropping, adjustments to exposure and clarity, spot removal.

The images lack high enough resolution for an art print, but they’re wonderfully presentable online, so what’s the difference? That’s another discussion entirely.

I love the complex, subtle palette of autumn colours, crisp textures begging for a touch, the playfulness of light across surfaces, the right depth of field in the image of turkey tail fungus above. These shots prove we have a universe of beauty right outside our doors if only we look for it.

Camera phones have democratized photography. This presents some problems, like the sheer volume of bad images, and the invasion of privacy by billions of people who haven’t learned to weigh the consequences. I’ll admit to a prejudice against heavily manipulated images. Hopefully the opportunity in time will bring not only more artistic license but also literacy.

I get my phone free every two or three years with a service contract. These images show practically everyone has a tool to capture remarkable photos. In fact, a phone is a great camera to start with for anyone who wants to get into photography more seriously.

Constraints are good. They are a powerful stimulus to creativity. Limitations can also teach us patience. And patience and practice are prerequisites for excellence.

Late risers

Dream lines (a sestina)

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Mornings I walk forest paths always.
It helps focus the senses, calms my dread
of human necessity. Passing fallen trunks I dream
of stories to tell, a few hearty lines:
the wisdom of a woodland silence.
I greet my friends the kinglet, creek and beech.

My arms reach around the grey beech.
Its smooth, cool bark always
draws me bodily to thrumming silence.
It penetrates truths humanity must dread.
Rootlets thread their countless neural lines
to a sleeping god’s dream.

Millennia past, people left the dream
and walked upright from shelter of the beech.
Growing accustomed to open lines
of sight, they always
sought unnatural security. They dread
their own final, inscrutable silence.

Losing patience with nature’s supposed silence
they filled their heads with a louder dream
and armed with lightning dread
to split the heart of any beech.
They believe our minds superior, always
measuring the truth with bottom lines.

In dark soil under mushrooms I find the lines
of dialogue of roots in silence,
rich as rot, trading nutrients, connected always.
Trees brew chlorophyll when they dream.
A master engineer indwells the beech.
Ignorance of the plan should be our dread.

I choke on our dread
arrogance, persistently following the lines
of acquisition, betraying simplicity. The beech
trunk embraces my numb silence.
Earth citizens could still interpret the dream
to guide us safely always.

Have dread unless you fathom the conscious silence.
I walk the forest lines each day. Each night I dream
that beech and crow will speak there always.

A sestina is a poem using the same six words in a strict order to end the lines in each stanza. I was in a mood for wordplay today and used the poem to explore the idea of panpsychism, which I heard about recently on a segment on CBC Ideas. It’s based on the premise that consciousness is an inherent quality of the universe rather than a byproduct of complex neural physiology.

Grateful recovery from a frozen shoulder

Japanese maple

This week a painful arm condition threatened to limit my expression as a professional writer and amateur photographer. On Tuesday morning I went to emergency with some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. It was frozen shoulder, in which the connective tissue becomes inflamed and tightens on the joint. It is temporary, but I heard from friends that recovery could take months. Most patients regain about 90 percent of movement in the arm affected.

At emergency I took a steroid shot into the shoulder capsule. This in itself was hard on my body and mind because I’m squeamish about needles. With pain increasing at night and disrupting sleep, the next day it was even worse. By Thursday morning I still couldn’t lift the arm at all. I went for a walk but even the slight swinging of my arm made it painful and wore me out.

I didn’t become angry and afraid. I’m glad to say the experience brought out an edge of willpower, resourcefulness and patience I hardly recognize in myself. I wish I could say I face every trial so courageously. I kept trying different ways to gently move my favoured arm, keep it flexible, exercise the muscles. I explored the edge of pain but didn’t overdo anything. I read, listened to music, and spent more time than usual meditating. I felt frustration but didn’t take it out on my body. I wish I could say I’m always this kind to other people.

Friday morning I awoke without constant pain. I was able to lift my arm 60 degrees. I wielded a camera on the morning walk and took these celebratory photos. Now the arm only hurts when I make a wrong move or spend too much time in an uncomfortable position. I’ve been able to cut back on Advil. The shoulder is no longer tender to touch and I can lift the arm 90 degrees. I haven’t tried driving yet because reaching still hurts.

Although recovery will take time, today I’m grateful for a dramatic improvement, for being able to lift a camera to my eye, and for being able to write as much as I choose. Nothing lasts forever but for now writing is still my living, and my best connection to the healer within.

November green

Simple pleasures

Creeper

Caitlin Kelly at Broadside posted a list of simple pleasures. This is a good idea to spread around. Here are some of mine:

  • Fall leaves.
  • Preparing a daily pot of tea.
  • Interviewing passionate, intelligent people about what they know and do.
  • Hearing cedar waxwings.
  • Handspinning.

Tour de fleece day 11, finished skein 1 of 10 for a sweater.

Marian and Brenna size up a comb tooth

  • Listening to Classical music.
  • Swimming in a lake.
  • Writing a poem.

Cloud of birches

  • Fresh tarragon, lemon verbena, lavender – any herb from the garden.
  • Crawling into bed with a good book an hour before lights out.
  • The smell of a muddy March day.
  • Paying bills.
  • Sitting on the dock at the cottage.

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  • Eating a fresh Ontario peach.
  • The view from my office window.
  • Hearing forest sounds at night through my office window.
  • Washing my hands with cold water on a hot day.

What are some of your simple pleasures?

Delectable mushroom: chicken of the woods

Chicken-of-the-woods 2

Wild mushroom expert Patrick Louch said chicken of the woods was one of his favourites. I never had an opportunity to try it until this week. It’s a taste experience I won’t soon forget.

I interviewed Patrick for a story in Edible Toronto in 2014. He took me and my partner on a mushroom foraging excursion in Muskoka. He introduced us to black trumpets, hedgehog mushrooms and chanterelles, which he sautéed in the back of his truck for us to sample.

Patrick Louch

We didn’t find chicken of the woods that day. He mentioned it is one of his favourites, partly because it can be found in Southwestern Ontario, outside the rich myccorhizal mecca of cottage country. So I’ve kept my eyes open. Patrick’s photo of one appeared on the cover of Edible Toronto that issue.

I have to admit I wasn’t the one to find this clump in the woods outside my back door. On my Monday morning walk I saw a young man stepping gingerly out of the woods onto the trail. He had a camera phone in hand. We greeted one another. Passing the spot where he emerged, I glanced aside to see what he had found. A big clump of bracket fungi stuck out from a maple stump.

I duly stepped aside to grab an image on my phone, too. The young man turned back and asked me about it. He had taken a photo to identify it. I said honestly I didn’t know what it was. We compared notes about finding giant puffballs in the same woods. Last fall I found one the size of a soccer ball, dried most of it, and crumbled it into soups through the winter. But giant puffballs aren’t as tasty as many wild mushrooms.

Calvatea gigantica, Giant puffball

Back home the Lone Pine field guide, Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada led quickly to chicken of the woods, Laetiporus. Surprised, I checked other images and websites online for confirmation.

If you decide to forage for edible wild mushrooms, I strongly advise learning from an expert. The wrong mushroom can cause a painful death. Don’t try anything new until you’ve checked it with somebody who knows their fungi.

Chicken of the woods grows on wounded wood, stumps or trunks of dying or recently dead trees. It prefers hardwoods such as cherries, oaks, or in this case a maple that was cut down by the park crew because it was overhanging the path.

I wouldn’t taste this mushroom if there was any doubt in my mind. It’s also advisable to sample a small amount at first to make sure it doesn’t disagree with you.

I was afraid the young man would return before me and harvest all of it. He would have been in his rights to do so, even though the clump was large enough to serve a feast to several families.

Tuesday morning it was raining, so I didn’t go for my habitual walk. But the sun started to poke out around noon. I gathered my camera and tripod and returned to the maple stump.

The entire growth was still there. No one had touched it. I spent a pleasant while photographing it.

Then I harvested less than a quarter of the clump. It was enough for several meals for us. I left enough for the young man to find lots if he returned, and for anyone else who knows their mushrooms.

The peach colour of the fungus was more evident once the top surfaces were exposed. The underside is a sulphur colour. The underside can also be white.

Chicken-of-the-woods 7

I simply fried the pieces in butter in a cast-iron skillet. The Internet offers several interesting recipes for chicken of the woods. It is clearly regarded as a delicacy. However, I prefer to enjoy wild mushrooms untainted by other ingredients, to appreciate their inherent flavour.

Chicken of the woods is drier than other wild mushrooms I’ve eaten. It retained its firm texture after sautéing. It had a distinct chicken flavour with a smoky barbecue quality from the cast-iron. The edges were even crispy. It reminded me of jerky but without the toughness, or flatbread with amazing flavour.

It was positively the most delicious wild mushroom I’ve tasted yet. My thanks go out to Patrick for the recommendation, and to the stranger in the woods who inspired me to look aside.

This morning the whole thing was still there. Nobody else has touched it. If it’s still there tomorrow I might collect more before it goes to waste. I want to try roasting some for a main course.

Seeing with and without cameras

Maple footprint

I’m questioning again how (and how much) to use cameras. One of my favourite naturalists, Barry Lopez, has written about why he gave up photography. He recalls being so busy fussing with f-stops he almost missed experiencing what it was like to see a polar bear up close.

As a connoisseur of textures and colours, I can relate. When I walk with photography in mind I look for certain things: a particular object of beauty, contrasts in light and shadow, a line in the landscape to draw the eye. I become preoccupied with composition. The challenge of creating an image that will please viewers requires my own attention.

When I find something to photograph I become absorbed in technical aspects. Often I need a tripod to stabilize the camera. I must balance perspective, exposure, depth of field, and other desirable qualities. An absorbing conversation begins between the focal point, camera, and my eyes, hands, and brain. To photograph small things on the ground, my whole body must do macro yoga.

This point of view has drawbacks, not only the risk of overlooking unusual wildlife like a polar bear. With digital single-lens reflex camera, macro lens mounted, and a tripod in hand, I seldom walk far before something captures my attention. Then it’s easy to spend 20 minutes in one place observing the same thing without thinking about it much beyond how it looks. This is rewarding enough in its own way.

Same place next year

But it serves other purposes for going on a walk less well. As a naturalist I want to see the bigger picture. I need to notice more than just the handsomest objects. While focused on one flower, it’s easy to miss a butterfly landing on the next one over. The camera can obscure my senses of smell and hearing.

In a spiritual journey, photography plays an even more complicated part. I enjoy finding remarkable images, executing them well, and sharing them with you. However it distracts the soul from meditation, and entering a more profound conversation with nature.

I’m also striving for a healthier body (inextricable from the soul, I believe). Photography invariably means less time for exercise. Back in the office I’ll spend more time processing these careful images in Lightroom, less time writing.

I like to walk a 1.3 km (0.8 mile) loop around the woods each day for health and inspiration. I’ve been taking the camera and macro lens every time. Consequently I often make it no further than the edge of the woods and there spend all the time available. I need more exercise and time to reflect. So now I’ve resolved not to take the camera on morning walks.

Last warm day

Unlike Lopez, I’m unwilling to give up photography but it will require more outings during the week. I want to reread his essay on the subject: “Learning to see,” in the memoir, About This Life.

This morning I went for a walk alone without the camera. The woods was moist, the elegant maples whispering with drops of falling water. It felt like sacred ground. My head was open, mindful, attentive, not working.

Several times I paused to capture photos on my phone. This is still allowed. It’s much less a task of creation, more a record of experiences to help me remember.

Included were the two images of the maple stump at the beginning and end of this post, and the maple leaf above. Back in the office, processing the photos, I noticed things I hadn’t while out in the woods. I pass that maple foot every day but have never bothered to photograph it before. Too many other lighter, livelier things vie for my attention.

Now I’m eager to go back with the camera and macro lens to capture more detail – or perhaps to sit with the laptop for an hour to write. The old tree fragment has more stories to tell. Now I’m ready to listen. A phone often proves useful in the hands of a naturalist, as it did this morning.

The eyes of these two cameras will not darken. Their voices will not be silent.

Dead or asleep

Macro photography and the value of curiosity

Symphiotrichum novae-angliae, New Englad aster

Curiosity can be an anodyne for our inner resistance to change, or new ideas. Curiosity about nature is the best motivation I have for exercise. It takes me outdoors and into the woods. All scientific discoveries arise from curiosity, often around why an experiment failed.

Does something about a news clip on Facebook seem dubious to you? Follow your curious instinct to get the full story.

Curiosity can lead to trouble. Remember Curious George? Have you ever broken something because you wanted to know how it worked, or wondered if you could make it work better?

Getting along with people requires respect for the privacy of neighbours and even those close to us. Have you ever offended someone by asking a personal question? Seeking too much information can lead to embarrassment, misunderstanding, and loss of trust. When we’re obsessed with answering the obvious questions, we may overlook more subtle but important clues. People who are suffering need comfort not interrogation.

Recently, I made the mistake of reading old journal entries when I was ill-prepared to revisit difficult memories. Although my younger self offered forgotten, challenging insights about his experiences, I shouldn’t try to relive them all at once. I’ll save those volumes for when I have appropriate time to consider them with mindfulness.

Moderation is a good philosophy where curiosity is concerned, as in all things. In my creative work, I’m learning to pair curiosity with patience. Ideas need time to evolve. So do grief and healing. Sometimes we resist thinking about things until we’re ready to reflect on them skillfully. This is wisdom.

Curiosity and a macro lens work excellently together. The lens reveals things invisible especially to my 54-year-old eyes. On the down side, macro photography might cause me to overlook something literally under my nose. A bumblebee might pollinate a flower while my eye is glued to the camera, snapping the next blossom over. It happened to me today.

Whatever this narrowness of vision is – a problem, an imperfection – I’m learning to accept it for a few minutes each day. It satisfies my curiosity about the hidden texture of things. It adds a layer of understanding when I stand back to appreciate the wonders of the universe.

Rose of sharon, Hibiscus syriacus

Memories of an outdoor cat

Grey longhair

I don’t often see cats on my daily rounds. She ambled desultorily down the sunny street in my direction, until something in a side yard caught her attention. She moved quickly then and crouched in the lawn, losing interest in me until the camera focus beeped.

She reminded me of a cat my family adopted when I was 3. Grey Shadow came from the litter of feral kittens born perennially on the bluff above the beach. Many were killed by raccoons. A girl in the neighbourhood found homes for all of them that year. I begged my mother to adopt one.

As a young cat “Grey-grey” commuted back and forth with us every week from our cottage on Lake Erie to our permanent home in Windsor. She played tirelessly with me. We would chase one another in circles from the kitchen to the living room to the dining room to the kitchen. Then she would disappear behind the couch and wait for me to dangle a curtain pull down the back for her to bat.

Me and Grey Shadow

But she hated the car and disliked the city. After we moved permanently to the place on Lake Erie when I was 8, she became a thoroughly outdoor cat by choice, an inveterate predator, no nonsense. Mom tied bells to her collar but it didn’t prevent her from killing all kinds of small creatures. Our younger cat, Smudge, was a monkey, a trickster, affectionate, but Grey Shadow barely tolerated the interloper. Curiously, she loved Christmas trees with their twinkling lights. Every year she would sleep underneath.

In the summer she only came indoors to eat, even when she became old, arthritic and deaf. She would lounge with us in front of the TV then go outside to sleep. She liked her people, but belonged to the land.

A stubborn old thing and too clever for raccoons, she defied the odds of life expectancy for an outdoor cat. She liked to nap in the sun in the middle of the lawn. Our dog, Tanya, would not allow other dogs into our yard when Grey Shadow was vulnerable.

Once a large hawk swooped down to pick her off. She leapt a metre in the air to meet it. I’ve never seen the cold eyes of a bird of prey look so surprised. It changed its mind and flew away.

Outdoor cats often simply disappear when the time comes. Grey Shadow was 19 the day she asked to come in. It was winter and she could barely stand on her hind legs. After spending some time indoors, she asked my mother for a final caress, then crawled behind the TV, yowled once and died.

The beauty of a spider web: overcoming prejudice

rain web

Even arachnophobes can admire the architecture of an orb web. However, I feel averse to other kinds of spider webs so much that I hardly ever look at them. I’ve seen sheet webs lying in a meadow on a dewy morning and steered far around them without a second thought. My guess is many people feel the same way, particularly photographers. It’s relatively hard to find good images of the other kinds of spider web online.

Walking this morning, I would have passed this web instinctively. The sight of a wet web in a yew hedge beside the path was repugnant. But with camera in hand, those glistening droplets pricked my conscience: “Just stop!”

I drew nearer. My perspective quickly changed. The macro lens revealed something that defies description.

I hardly knew anything about the different kinds of web until I got home and tried to figure out what kind of spider makes this one. Bay Nature from San Francisco offers good drawings of the basic types. I still don’t know much. Having failed to note the overall structure when I had my eye to the camera, I can’t tell whether this is a sheet web or a tangle web (also called a cobweb, the kind associated with black widows and their kin). There are also funnel webs, tunnel webs, and numerous variations on the basic themes.

I’ll take this as a reminder of how ignorant I am about things I don’t like. When we set aside arachnophobia or any kind of prejudice, beauty and wonder can lead to respect.

Mystery solved for a nettle look-alike

Laportea canadensis, Canada wood-nettle

I’ve been trying to identify this plant in the woods ever since we moved to the neighbourhood three years ago. It strongly resembles stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, but isn’t. Finally today doing a broad Google search I found unambiguous images that solved the mystery and introduced a new plant for foraging.

The plant is Laportea canadensis, Canada wood-nettle. It’s a more attractive, less coarse plant than stinging nettle, with broader, glossy leaves. It grows in wetlands or open, moist woods like the one in my neighbourhood. The flowers are whitish and a little showier than stinging nettle, reminiscent of astilbe. Late in the summer they produce the interesting seed heads shown above, which helped me identify the plant.

I had been stumped because the Peterson field guide (1968) I rely on for most wildflowers includes several close relatives of the stinging nettle, but not this one. This seems like an oversight. Canada wood-nettle is a member of the nettle family and occurs throughout Eastern North America. It’s included in Wetland Plants of Ontario (Lone Pine, 1997) but without a photo. Anyway, I would not have thought of it as a wetland plant because I’ve only seen it in the woods. Here’s a photo taken when the plants were in bloom in July 2015.

nettle look-alike

To add to my confusion, this plant doesn’t sting me. All the resources insist Canada wood-nettle has stinging hairs. I can see them. They look like stinging nettle hairs, but finer and softer. I’ve tried many times unsuccessfully to sting myself. Apparently I’m too thick-skinned.

I’m pleased to learn this plant is native; stinging nettle isn’t. As far as I can tell, it’s the only native species of Laportea. Several other members of the genus occur on other continents, often in tropical climates.

Like stinging nettle, Canada wood-nettle is reputedly edible, nutritious and delicious. This is good news considering it occurs in abundance a three-minute walk from the front door. Nettles are among the first herbs to emerge in spring, and are best eaten within the first two weeks. I’ve tried eating them later, after the stems become woody, and the leaves were impossibly bitter.

Avoid skin contact by harvesting with gloves. Cooking or drying destroys the sting. However, boiling quickly leaches nutrients and flavour. I’ll try steaming them in the microwave, as I do stinging nettle. Nettles make a good substitute in any recipe calling for cooked spinach.

Van foraging

Me foraging for nettles along the Eramosa River