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

Collecting raindrops

Rain in a dish

I took a dish outside, stood under the front stoop, and collected rainwater. I was tempted to gather it quickly from the gutter spout and go back indoors. To stand with my arm extended into the rain a few minutes was something completely different, closer to what I needed.

Two cars drove past. Embarrassed, I tried to hide behind the tomato vine and purple-flowered sweet-peas.

“How long must I wait?” I asked myself.

“Until the rain covers the bottom of the dish. In processing old sorrow, this will be a lesson in waiting patiently for everything to unfold.”

But the slowly growing puddle revealed an invisible, resistant convexity in the bottom. The rain, at first serious, began to mellow.

A young man in the duplex across the street came outside. He was wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt and nothing on his feet. He carried what appeared to be a small, lime-green pizza box in one hand and was talking to himself or on a phone, I couldn’t tell which. He darted across the lawn, tiptoed through the water sloshing down the driveway, opened the passenger door of his car and climbed in.

Perhaps someone was waiting to pick him up? But no, the car remained in place and did not appear to have a driver. He remained enclosed with his pizza box, his conversation now inaudible while the rain dwindled. I’m not the only person in the neighbourhood behaving inexplicably.

The rain couldn’t cover the bottom today but I was satisfied. Doing this had opened a small door for unexpected joy. It had a slight mineral taste reminding me of the spring where we collect drinking water for the cottage. A few drops of rain is enough to irrigate the soul. The droplets on my arm, forehead, and the front of my shirt are collateral blessings.

Sometimes joy and sadness are nearly the same. The path of grief is not what we expect.

Why cicadas are important to me

Neotibicen canicularis, dog day cicada

Cicadas hold particular meaning for me. We hear them a lot more often than we see them, so I took the unusual opportunity for a photograph today. This one was lying dead on the bicycle path, somewhat the worse for wear. It has gouges on its head and thorax. One of my earliest memories involves a cicada.

I am 3 or 4, running barefoot on stubby legs through the grass at Poplar Bluff where I grew up. Summer sunlight flashes on Lake Erie below the bluff. Suddenly I hear a loud noise overhead that stops me in my tracks. I look up at the sky. It’s an electric drone like a saw. It comes from the direction of some silver poplars and a hydro pole at the edge of our yard.

With this memory, I associate the drone with the electric wires instead of the trees. It is a common sound at Poplar Bluff on hot days in July and August. For a few years I believe hydro lines buzz when heated by the summer sun.

I found out about cicadas later. We had a big mulberry tree outside our door, loved by birds and cecropia moths. Our cats would climb like monkeys through the sprawling branches. It also attracted cicadas. I would find a few skins on the trunk every summer.

2008 08 27

Rarely I observed an adult emerge from the nymph skin and cling to the bark while its wings and body changed. From an insect field guide, I learned cicada nymphs live underground for years, sucking nutrition from tree roots. During warm summer weather they crawl up the trunk, break out of their skins and become adults for a few days to breed and restart the life cycle. Later I realized that noise from the sky on hot summer days wasn’t electrical wires but the song of male cicadas summoning their mates.

Cicadas are notorious in Eastern North America for swarms that emerge every 13 or 17 years depending on the species. However, this species is Neotibicen canicularis, the dog day cicada, so-named because it sings during the dog days of summer. The species name canicularis is a reference to Sirius, the dog star, part of the constellation Canis major, the greater dog. Greek and Roman astrology associated Sirius rising in summer with drought, lethargy and mad dogs. Nymphs of the genus Neotibicen spend only two to five years underground. The adults appear every summer, rather than in cycles.

Cicadas have three simple eyes called ocelli between their large compound eyes. These are thought to detect light and movement. In the detail below they are visible as three amber spots forming a triangle.

Through my office window I hear cicadas droning all day long in Twin Oaks Woods on hot summer days. They bring back that early memory of running barefoot, the simple joy of childhood, the awakening of curiosity, and a humbling reminder that mistaken beliefs can last a long time.

Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we need more information. Sometimes the natural explanation is more wonderful than what we think we know about the world.

Review: A classic in creative career design

Creating a Life Worth LivingCreating a Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most valuable things I’ve ever read, Creating a Life Worth Living, provides practical exercises for building a creative life. One size does not fit all, and this book illuminates the different kinds of people who want to make art. Becoming a creative person is itself an act of creativity, and calls us to think beyond normal. It’s subtitled: A practical course in career design for artists, innovators, and others aspiring to a creative life.

Carol Lloyd does not rely on popular systems like the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator to reveal how you work. She has developed her own tools applicable to artists, through canny observation and thoughtful inquiry. As examples, each chapter profiles someone doing their thing.

My favourite section is a brief one highlighting the different ways artists approach their careers: the project nomad, the interdisciplinarian, the tightrope walker, the whirling dervish, the wood nymph. Although I’ve followed several patterns, the most natural one for a freelance writer is the monocled monk. Knowing this has helped me trust solitude while still valuing my social network and interactive aspects of my work.

I first read the book in 1998 when it was new. It was like having a coach or mentor who encouraged me not to follow their path but find my own. I wasn’t ready to follow through all the lessons. I’ve revisited the book several times over the years. Other books more specific to the craft of writing have guided me recently. However, Creating a Life Worth Living set the foundation, excavating my own values, desires, and ways of doing things. I have been more confident and better prepared to make choices when necessary.

I’ve become a connoisseur of self-help books. I have an entire shelf of them! This is the one I cherish most affectionately. I strongly recommend it for all creative people starting or changing careers, especially those who feel torn between what is expected and what seems meaningful for their lives.

Floral celebration

California poppy 2

I’d like to share this celebratory photo of the first California poppy in my garden ever. For many years I’ve admired this sunny, prolific flower from afar, but I’ve never grown one. This spring I planted some seeds. Yesterday I found the first bud, and this morning it bloomed for admiration. Already it’s attracting pollinators. When I first saw it, a tiny, iridescent insect was crawling in the cup.

I have limited space for gardening: one raised bed under the living room window and a few barrels. For the past three summers since we moved to this house I’ve grown as much food as possible in the available soil. However, I missed having flowers. We can buy an abundance of fresh, local produce from St. Jacobs Farmers Market every week, but flowers feel like a luxury we can rarely afford. Besides, vegetables demand lots of water and maintenance, becoming problematic when I want to escape to the cottage for a week.

This year the garden focus has changed to include mostly flowers for colour, fragrance, feeding pollinators, and even feeding us. Many are edible and delicious: violets and pansies, calendulas, begonias, and California poppies, to name a few.

I haven’t given up my favourite plants: the culinary herbs. Mediterranean herbs are well adapted for the hot, sunny exposure of the front yard. Their foliage adds a handsome, varied texture from big, shiny, lush-leaved basil to glaucous sage and the delicate lacework of thyme. A native herb, wild bergamot, has taken well to being let loose in the garden and will soon provide a profusion of light lilac blooms. Herbs do well in barrels, too.

But perhaps my favourite plant this year is my old boyfriend, ‘Abraham Darby’.

'Abraham Darby' rose

This is a popular variety of David Austen rose. I’m partial to yellow roses, emblems of friendship. It starts with apricot hues and opens to a soft yellow, with a light, delicious fragrance. I had one of these in a garden many years ago, and it’s nice to have him back again. I had qualms about planting it in the hot, dry soil at the foundation of the house. After an initial battle with opportunistic leaf-chewing bugs, the bush appears to be flourishing. This week the Abraham Darby rose opened a second wave of blooms.

A newfound benefit of flowers is they keep me enamoured of the garden. I don’t take the hot, humid summers of Ontario well. With vegetables I would perform my watering duty and then disappear inside as early as possible. This summer as delicate blossoms open their gentle, aqueous answer to the ravishment of fire, they persuade me to linger and admire. Might as well pull some bindweed while I’m there.

Awakening: images from a day in Prince Edward County

Lake Ontario, Prince Edward County

After posting a daily photo journal on Flickr for more than seven months in 2008 I seemed to burn out for one reason, and then another. Over the next few years I often took photos but did not process or share them. I have shared many on this blog since it began in 2011, but photography has often been secondary to the topic of discussion.

A landscape photography course with Rob Stimpson​ in 2013 reawakened my interest. The purchase of a good macro lens opened new vistas in 2015. However, I had difficulty doing photography during an episode of depression in 2015/16.

On one stage of the path to recovery I consciously chose not to take my camera on walks. Photography can provide ecstatic distraction. However, at times the camera impedes a naked, mystical, personal experience of nature I had been missing. The past 14 months have grounded me in a deeper sense of meaning and purpose that was previously lacking.

Abandoned farmhouse, Prince Edward County

This journey has included recovering a spark for creative writing that eluded me for the past decade. Since last year, much of my writing has focused inwardly out of necessity as I become more confident in my writing process, and what matters to me.

This practice in turn has encouraged me to use photography more often in recording experiences, inspirations, and simple beauty. I have begun posting photos more regularly on Flickr again.

I would also like to recover some images and memories that have lain hidden for a few years. Two evenings ago I reviewed a number of photos taken in Prince Edward County on October 25, 2011, a date and place chosen completely arbitrarily. I fell in love during that first visit to The County, which juts into Lake Ontario.

Prince Edward County shoreline

The only photo I ever posted on Flickr from that first day’s shoot was the one above, a bit of rocky shoreline somewhere around Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area. I took many photos that day. Apparently the others failed to inspire me at the time. However, I have learned a trick or two about processing in the past seven years. I saw potential in many other images. The five here plus two more also worthy of posting to Flickr come from that single solitary day.

During later trips to Prince Edward County I found an idea for a writing assignment in 2013 about a bed and breakfast. However, I have never blogged about it until now.

Self-portrait, Prince Edward County, 2011

The self-portrait above has a story attached. It was a fine day but windy and chilly. Moments after I took the photo, the wind snatched the beloved Outback hat I had bought during a road trip across Northern Ontario in 2010. It landed in the harbour, too far from the dock for me to reach with any implement at hand. It was off season and there was no one else around. The water was too cold and deep for me to go in. I found a stick long enough to try sweeping a current that would drag the hat toward me, to no avail. The wind seemed to carry it closer to shore. Then a current drifted it toward Lake Ontario again.

I must have spent an hour trying to retrieve the hat, but in the end I gave up. I wonder what became of it. I was not able to replace it until August 2016, when I purchased another Outback hat at Kingston Sheepdog Trials.

I still have many unprocessed photos from the intervening years. I will try to process more of them as time allows and see what stories they recall.

Henderson House, Prince Edward County

What gorillas and chimps can teach us about eating well

Adult female and infant wild chimpanzees feeding on Ficus sur

Adult female and infant wild chimpanzees feeding on Ficus sur fruits in Kibale National Park, Uganda.

A new study of chimpanzees and gorillas offers clues about how diet may affect human disease. The research was led by food scientists from Columbia University. Collecting feces from free-ranging apes in the Republic of Congo for three years, they investigated seasonal shifts in the microbiome, the bacterial community of the ape intestine.

While fruits are in season, they make up about 70 percent of the diet of western lowland gorillas. Fruits are rich in easily digested sugars but low in fibre. During the dry season gorillas switch to their regular fibre-rich diet of leaves and bark. Meanwhile, chimps are fruit specialists so their diet changes less. Analysis of microbial DNA from fecal samples showed that the bacteria shift in response to diet.

This study caught my attention because of my interest in wildlife. However some of my writing for Gluten-Free Living has focused on the microbiome and its likely role in autoimmune disease.

By now most of us know what we eat affects our risk for cancer. That probably relates to the microbiome, which helps digest our food and interacts with the immune system. New research is looking at the likely role of the microbiome in autoimmune diseases such as celiac and type 1 diabetes. Celiac disease involves an immune response to gluten in wheat, rye and barley. However, experts believe the rising prevalence of celiac disease relates to disturbances in the microbiome rather than an intrinsic human intolerance for gluten.

The ape story in Nature Communications points out the microbiome in hunter-gatherer societies, such as Hadza people of Tanzania, mirrors seasonal shifts observed in gorillas and chimps. This casts doubt on the notion of a static microbiome. The supermarket diet eliminates seasonal changes and makes foods available all year that are tasty but not necessarily healthy. In ScienceDaily, Brent Williams, PhD, an author of the study, comments many people may be living with constant fibre deficiency.

This research also highlights the importance of conserving threatened species and ecosystems. They deserve protection for their own sakes.

However, from a selfish standpoint, humans should protect creatures that can help us understand ourselves and how to survive. Science is breaking down the boundary between us and other organisms like our close cousins and the bacteria that help nourish us. Gorillas and chimpanzees are our closest living relatives and both are endangered.

They possess essential information about who we are and where we came from. Losing them would threaten our own chances of survival.