Speak for the Trees

I remember the moment it occurred to me that trees could be older than me. I was eight years old, in my grandparents’ yard, marveling at a (to me) giant tree that had a swing hung from one of its branches. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but I remember it had grayish corrugated bark, and it was too big for me to throw my arms around. I had previously considered that adults had seen things that I hadn’t, but that was the first time I imagined a tree living through a different historical era.

Many years later, my husband and I visited Elizabethan Gardens in Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and saw an ancient live Oak that horticulturalists estimate to be over 400 years old. It’s at the back of the Great Lawn, near Roanoke Sound, and of fame because its life intersected with the arrival of the first (and subsequently “lost”) English colonists. Though the gardens are beautiful and tranquil, that ancient Oak is, for me, the highlight. It has witnessed and withstood so much and it reigns over the place where it’s planted.

I’m thinking about all this today because, this weekend, I did some photography work for my realtor husband, and it involved me taking photos of some land for an out-of-country investor client of his.

The land is not far from where we live; it once held a mansion, a carriage house, a pool, a sculpture garden…so many trees. It was the sort of place you could *just* glimpse from the main road and, if you’re a reader, complete a mental picture of by drawing from your exposure to The Secret Garden and The Great Gatsby. I could, anyway.

The mansion was abandoned, fell into disrepair, was looted, flooded… someone bought the land and razed the building. Razed everything, actually. With no care even for the marble statues, which were bulldozed into a heap and left for anyone with access to a backhoe to salvage and sell or transport to their own properties.

This made the place tragic enough for me already, from a distance; my husband, whose work had allowed him to go on-site at various points throughout the estate’s decay, warned me it would get worse.

And it did.

I don’t know how many trees were cut down, exactly. I expect some of them needed to be cut…but I can’t imagine SO MANY of them needed to come down. Maybe 100? It made me angry…and then, it pierced my heart. Towards the back of the property, we saw an enormous Oak stump that was well over 4 feet in diameter. Even a conservative estimate puts its age at around 250 years old; that means that tree was not only older than me, than us…but that it was older than the U.S. itself, and now it has been decimated into nothing.

I don’t know how someone sleeps at night after cutting down, or ordering cut, a tree like that. I don’t believe trees can be haunted…but this stump was morally haunting.

I don’t care if that sounds dramatic.

I know there are plenty of things to decry in the world…and this is still one of them. In the wise words of The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Lunch Break, with Chipmunks

While I was eating lunch yesterday, I noticed one of the chipmunks digging a shallow hole in the grout between two of our patio stones. Or, at least, I thought she was digging…really, she turned out to be uncovering a food cache she must have made some time before.

(A side note about chipmunk holes: what they dig up, they often re-cover…also, they’re aerating for free, so let them do their thing; chipmunk poisoning is terrible karma. *Ahem,* certain neighbors.)

Anyway, I watched the chipmunk unbury pieces of walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, and almonds; stuffing them in her cheek pouches and scurrying away to relocate them to another location. I remember seeing something similar last year, so I wonder if chipmunks engage in a sort of Fall pantry re-organizing?

This continued…

I grabbed my camera and knelt to take photos through the window. I focused on the hole at first, so it took me a few minutes to notice that the chipmunk was coming from two different directions. Because she was actually two chipmunks, not one!

I presume the first one was the original maker of the cache, and the second one- who I caught watching from a distance before darting in, once the first one ran off- was a little thief.

The second chipmunk alternated turns with the first, who it seems didn’t notice she wasn’t the only one re-pantrying…until she made one last trip…and found her cache already empty!

Her reaction? A deep-dive into the small hole, probably checking that everything was, in fact, gone; and then, a righteously indignant question-mark tail!

It was a lovely way to spend a lunch break.

Weekend Getaway in Three Landscapes

We spent a long weekend in the Laurel Highlands, where the palette for this time of year is made up of shades of green and gold. I packed three books for three days (Well Met, Talking to Strangers, and The Dearly Beloved, in case you’re curious) but, sitting outside beside my coffee and my little stack of books, I couldn’t help but look out rather than down. I don’t normally shoot landscape photos because I’m usually drawn to the intimate rather than the bigger picture…but these views demanded an exception.

A Charm of Hummingbirds

Last year, at a bird banding at our friends’ home, I had the experience of hearing a hummingbird heartbeat against my ear. It was (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime experience and so awe-inspiring that I haven’t found the perfect words to convey all my feelings about it yet.

What I can say is that that moment sparked a great interest in hummingbirds…in learning more about them, in feeding them, and in photographing them.

This last bit is the hardest. It’s not just that they’re incredibly fast, it’s also that they’re small, and iridescent…and so fairy-like that they cast a spell of reverie on me; it’s hard to switch from eye to camera as fast as I need to because I’m just…so…entranced.

We had one hummingbird visit the garden occasionally from the end of May on, but recently, we’ve had two visiting regularly. They sip nectar from the feeder and the flowers (especially the butterfly bush and the lilies), and they call and chirp to each other while they flit and dive and whirl through the air.

I hunch beside our above-ground pool and wait, eyes on the feeder, listening for the buzz of their wings. And when one shows up, I count. So far, the time they hover at the feeder is between 15 and 35 seconds. Long minutes pass between appearances.

It’s worth being patient though.

I keep saying I just want to take one “great” hummingbird photo this summer, and so I show up and shoot a hundred outtakes. With another subject, all these little failures might be discouraging; with the hummingbird, they’re addictive. Every little failure feels like I’m closer to really capturing their magic.

And what do I expect then? To be bestowed iridescence? Flight? A charm (their plural) of guardian hummingbirds? I don’t know…but something of great delight, certainly.

Summer Light Seeking

It’s the first week of July and it feels like summer has finally hit. After days and days of cool weather and rain, we went directly into oppressively hot days without hardly any transition. Everything is green and swollen with humidity.

We harvested the spring peas and carrots from the kitchen garden. The lilies, daisies, balloon flowers, and butterfly bushes are blooming. After only occasional sightings last month, the hummingbirds are regulars throughout the day now (also: two of them might be an item, stay tuned).

Every morning, in addition to setting out seeds and nuts in the feeders, my older daughter and I fill various bird baths and dishes with ice water, so the garden birds and animals have something to drink when the heat’s at its worst. We humans hydrate and eat ice cream and swim…but sometimes the only thing to do is retreat into the man-made shade and air conditioning. The least we can do for those who can’t is offer some water.

I’ve been taking photos and thinking about writing, but haven’t been doing much editing or blogging. I want to get things done (shot/edited/written/published), but there is something so restorative about just lying in the sunshine. And there are so many cloudy days the rest of the year…so I’ve been sun-seeking and sunbathing as much as possible.

My kids joke that, being named after a flower, I can’t help but require sun like this. But it does feel like an essential need to me, physically and psychologically…it has for as long as I can remember.

I think that’s one of the things that attracts me to photography: the way its magic hinges on the light; it’s ability to illuminate something, save and separate it from the shadows. Every frame’s purpose: light.

It lights me up even away from the summer sunshine.

People-Watching Animals

Recently, I’ve started collecting photos of backyard animals watching me watch them. I don’t mean our eyes meet across the yard as I’m photographing them going about their foraging/nesting/mating/romping activities; I mean I’m catching them chilling somewhere (usually on a branch or on the fence) expressly checking me out.

I spend a fair amount of time outside, sitting with my camera, trying to be quiet and emanate good energy and be aware of my surroundings. Animal watching is something I do for the purpose of education and enjoyment. It’s something I do daily, but as a choice, a hobby.

But if I were an animal, people watching would be a matter of survival. I’d have to be aware of where the humans were and what they were doing; if they were dangerous; if they had anything to eat… As humans encroach on animal habitats, and human-animal interactions become more frequent and common, people-watching becomes even more crucial for animals.

But let’s say an animal feels relatively safe in a backyard, and he has enough to eat and enough experience with the resident humans that he isn’t actively terrified of them…can people watching ever become fun for him? Is there a point at which a particular human can become better than benign?

In other words: am I imagining things or might any of these creatures find watching me entertaining?

And what do I look like to them?

A short list of what I have going for me as a potential people-watching target: my hair is drey-like; my skin coverings (also known as clothes) are often the colors of wildflowers; I sometimes smell like lavender; I emit a great variety of calls; I seem to have an additional arm (my camera) that I point and click at animals, but that’s otherwise harmless; I share food in the form of seeds and nuts (even better, sometimes I massively spill seeds and nuts while filling our feeders); I seem to have an alliance with a passel of dogs; I’m easy to spot; my burrow is large and above ground but I’m often just sitting outside it.

On the list of cons: I’m a person and maybe inherently suspicious.

And it’s because I’m a person that I think it’s important to remind myself that I can be watcher and watched one, that my time outdoors is a dialogue, that so much more than what I’m aware of is out there…that every day, I should open my eyes wider.

Annual Sheep & Fiber Fest Field Trip

Sometimes I like to put on my green gardening boots (with cartoon goats on them) and go out into the country for the day (especially if it involves actual farm animals). And so, last weekend, my husband, daughters, and I went to one of our state’s Sheep & Fiber Festivals.

It was a beautiful day— blue skies, puffy clouds, and shades of green everywhere.

We drove an hour and a half, first into the city, and then beyond— and I got to do one of my favorite things to do in the car when I’m not driving: take iPhone photos and edit them through a painting app. I love spending the drive looking for moments of beauty and then having these little mobile postcards.

Good friends of ours invited us last year, and we went with them this year as well. As should anyone who ever invites me on an agricultural excursion of any kind, these friends know that I will show up with great amounts of enthusiasm…but not a lot of savvy; I need guidance about what to wear, what to expect, and how not to wander towards the food tents (as a vegetarian).

We watched shearing and spinning, admired artisanal wares, shopped for yarn, petted sheep and goats, and watched sheep herding demonstrations.

Like last year, the festival filled me with appreciation for all that I don’t know how to do with my hands and shook me out of the rural fantasies I sometimes entertain. I may be able to crochet, but it’s good to be reminded that my family’s warmth does not depend on my skills. I love the company and inspiration of animals, but I don’t have the temperament for or inclination towards animal husbandry.

Basically, when in the country (as opposed to in the garden, or the capital W wild), I’m just a tourist with a camera. I always get some good photos though.

And a weekend in which you get to kiss a sheep is not a bad weekend at all.