Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Forest Unseen. Read This Book.

It's been a while now since I read The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell cover to cover, and then immediately started again at the beginning. It's not a long book. As with a very special and rich fruit you eat slowly with a spoon - I relished every word.

If you're like me, and find everything about nature fascinating, everything about natural communities, including those within the tiniest of organisms, and how everything is connected -- read this book. You are in for a treat.

Haskell, a professor of biology in Tennessee,  picked out a square meter in an old-growth forest in Tennessee and sat there for around an hour each day, just observing his "mandala" - what occurred in it, under it, over it, and as a result of what happened in it. Each chapter in the book is a short essay or meditation on something he observed during one period of observation.

Here's a taste of this scientist-poet's descriptive powers - but you have to know that the surface descriptions are just the start....

“August 8th — Earthstar. Summer’s heat has coaxed another flush of fungi from the mandala’s core. Orange confetti covers twigs and litter. Striated bracket fungi jut from downed branches. A jellylike orange waxy cap and three types of brown gilled mushroom poke from crevices in the leaf litter. The most arresting member of this death bouquet is the earthstar lodged between rafts of leaves. Its leathery outer coat has peeled back in six segments, each segment folded out like a flower’s petal. At the center of this brown star sits a partly deflated ball with a black orifice at its peak.”

Then he opens up the topic, not to dissect it, but to heighten our perception and deepen our understanding. Occasionally he leaves the ground for a comment, as when a golf ball lands in the mandala.

Do I gush too much? I'm in thrall to this new source of deep entertainment in my life!

I wish I had the book with me but I couldn't resist lending it out already to a neighbor. I'd love to give you quotes about circling vultures being guided by plumes of odor to the next meal, or the way waves of alarm pass from animal to animal and take such a long time to calm down, or the mechanism that makes glowworms glow or... well, you get the idea.

You can hear the author read extracts from the book, while sitting in or near the mandala area here. They are wonderful. There's a lot of other info about the book and its author here too. Haskell blogs marvellously too - here.

I'm so glad to spread the word about this book! I hope you enjoy reading and listening to the extracts, enough to purchase it - and share it with your friends.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Country Mouse photos from Saxon Holt class

Photography in the wild - or wild garden
Ms Town shared her pictures and experiences of the class she treated me to last month - a photography class with Saxon Holt, the well known garden photographer, a treat indeed. Saxon has a genial and easy going personality that encourages beginners to boldly try out ideas they've never tried out before.

I recorded my "take-aways" from the class in the August "First Views" post. But I'll gladly share a few pictures below - to enable you to hone your skills by doing your own personal compositional critique of my amateur efforts. You can also see a somewhat larger set on this flickr set.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Photographical Outing

A little while ago, Ms. Country Mouse and I had the great pleasure of participating in a photography class at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. And, as luck could have it, the scheduled instructor had to cancel and Saxon Holt, who we both admire very much, ended up teaching the class.

It was a very small class and we had the best time! So here's a little report of our outing.

We started near the main entrance and stopped fairly soon for our first lesson, which was about seeing shapes and using depth of field properly. Saxon encouraged us to include more than just flowers in our photos of gardens - after all, it's the path, the bench, the wall that say "garden".

He let us play with different angles, moving in close or taking our distance.

Visual interest is created by composing the photo - how often do I just hold up my little point and shoot and hope for the best? This took a little more doing - a bright red poppy in front of a bench.

While we worked in the area, the light was suffused, drifts of fog hiding the bright early afternoon sun. None of my photos were quite perfect - garden photography is not a still life, you can't move the plants and even less the path or the fountain. But I enjoyed playing with the idea of shape. Especially interesting was an exercise where each of us walked along a park and visualized the frame that the camera might catch. I had to hold my viewfinder in front of my eye to see what the camera would catch - but how interesting! Part of the picture that the eye sees is completely gone! -- Well, I knew that, of course, but I also don't know it. So much to learn.

We moved on to the area close by where miniature conifers surround a little lake. Here, Saxon encouraged us to see color blocks as shapes. Bright greens, reds, dark greens, even some white and blue from flowers gave us many opportunities for practice. Unfortunately, the sun had come out and the possibilities for a presentable photo were more limited.

The photo above is nice enough, but the color shapes really don't show. In contrast, this works better. It's also not too far away from the more ideal distribution of 1/3 by 2/3. The eye tends to find photos that are just half and half not very pleasing.

And I like this photo even better.

Here, the red maple in the foreground takes up maybe 1/3, and the background is exciting and layered, with different color blocks of different shades of green. Unfortunately, the light was too strong so the conifer on the right came out too dark.

Moving on, we talked more about foreground and background. The photo above already uses a foreground to show off the background. And many garden photos benefit from showing both.  Our final stop at the succulent garden gave opportunities to combine everything we had learned. Color shapes with foreground.

And playing with light and textures.

We were sorry to say good-bye to Saxon and to our fellow photographers - it had been so much fun to look, and explore, and photograph, to listen and to experiment.

Of course Ms. Country Mouse and I had to swing bye the California Native section before we got back in the car. Saxon had assured us that nothing was blooming, but we found a few little blossoms here and there.

In fact, that part of the garden was swimming in pink clarkias and yellow Oenothera, with butterflies and skippers, beautiful manzanitas (some of the blooming) and the heady fragrance of the salvias.

So we stayed a while, for a few more photos. Here, foreground flowers with a path. 

And a wall with  clarkia in the foreground. 

And a plaza surrounded by a wall, with more clarkia and conifers in the background.

Saxon also generously offered to critique some photos we had made during class. Unfortunately, I had to meet a deadline at work, before my trip to Vancouver. But maybe Ms. Country Mouse has something to share?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Watching - or photographing - birds in the country mouse garden

Most days, I sit out in the morning and take in the scene, with my first cup of coffee and a McVities. Lately I've been taking out my binocs and my camera and my notebook. I've gotten some good pics but - then I realize that in focusing on getting good pictures of birds, I've taken myself quite out of the loop, out of the scene - I'm not in an experiential mode any more.  I'm thinking about composing an image, sharing the photo, other photos I've taken and etc. I've decorated this post with some of those pictures.

I just came in from sitting outside with no acoutrements but the coffee and McVitie.

And Duncan. Though he is a (gigantic) rat terrier, he sits with me for a long time without running off to chase things. He is wonderfully attentive. Birds he is less interested in anyway - bunnies he can't resist. One time he did corner and kill a bunny and I think he got the depths of my distress about that. But he would do it again in a flash, I know. There are depths within his doggy brain that lie way below his relationship with his humans.

I enjoyed watching the thrasher drink from the bird bath, with his long strong downturned beak. He took several good drinks then hopped down to thrash about at the edge of the chaparral shrubs, and in the neighbor's orchard next to our fence.

Thrasher near birdbath

Then a tiny junco landed on the birdbath. He looked about this way and that for a good long time, his beak pale in contrast with his black hood, before assuring himself that the coast was clear enough to take many small sips.

The large coffeeberry that volunteered in our garden became filled with tiny twittering bushtits, who softly cheeped and infiltrated its branches, then flew off to the flowering cherry farther along the ridge.

Bushtits in the birdbath

In the elderberry along the fence I heard the bewick's wren buzzing. buzz. buzz buzz buzz. buzz. And saw him hopping in the lower branches, not clearly - but now I know his call, I could put the picture together.

Bewick's wren on manzanita

Another call - one I haven't put together with a bird yet. deedle DEEEE dum dum dum dum. where DEE is much higher kind of like ME DO FAAAAA RE RE RE RE, if you know the sol-fa way of notating pitch. or E C FFFF D D D D if you know the scale of C.  Just to give the relationship between the notes - maybe not exact.

I looked up at the sky periodically. It's cloudy this morning, but the clouds overhead are white and airy and fluffy in the sunrise blue. They are innocent and perfect and changing.  They made me think of my happy little granddaughter who is turning one this month.

And in the background constantly the sound of traffic on Highway 17 (dammit).

As I have mentioned before, the small road I live on bisects our property, on the south side, which I was facing. Along the road are strung the electric wires carrying modern life to the houses along the road. They are ugly. They do not beautify the view. But the birds don't care. The woodpeckers congregate on the top of the post (telegraph pole? is there a different name?)

And birds often sit on the wire. Mourning doves. Sparrows. Etc.

This morning three little sparrow types sat on the wire They are I don't know - four-  five- hundred feet? I'm not good at distances. Small silhouettes anyway.  The one on the left edged up boldly to the one in the middle, who edged away towards the one on the right. They danced along. I thought - ah, a fledgling being ignored by mommy. But that wasn't it. The one on the left hopped over the indifferent one in the middle and tried edging up to the one on the right. Then it fluttered on top. After a brief negotiation, quite a few moments of apparent passion ensued. More moments than I associate with bird love. Then they both took off and flew together - right onto the manzanita to the left of the bird bath! They sat in the bush, one near the top where he (?) could keep a lookout, one lower down. The one near the top fluttered down into the bush for a while, and much fluttering could be insinuated by the shaking of the leaves, then he (?)  came back up for air.

But what kind of birds? The one I could see had an orange-ish tint to his breast, but was otherwise an LBB - little brown bird - as are most of the chaparral inhabitants and visitors. I heard that song again - deedle DEEE dum dum dum dum. Was it those birds? Or were they a bit bigger than I imagined - were they brown California towhees?

Man! There they are outside my window right now - I think - two towhees, eating the nodding needlegrass seeds - I think they are the love birds! Are they going to nest at this time of year? I didn't know birds did that.

California towhee, among needle grass (and lupine)

But I'm not sure. And I may be reading the story all wrong in any case. And why do the juncos nibbling the needlegrass seeds nearby have very white tail featherss - they didn't used to have those... did they?

If I keep sitting and observing, I'm pretty sure one day I'll figure more of it out. In the meantime, I'm enjoying it all, and the wonderfully calm feeling that taking it all in induces. I can't think of many better ways to start a day.

house finches at birdbath

Spotted towhee near birdbath

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

More sunny yellow flowers - Country Mouse GBBD

Here in California our gardens are yawning in the summer heat, curling up and going to sleep. Ms Town Mouse is sharing her sunflowers, grindelia, and rudbeckia - all sunny yellow blooms. Here on the ridge (6 miles inland on a ridge above Santa Cruz) I also have a flotilla of yellow blooms to share - and a few late blooming Clarkia rubicunda (they are growing in a more shaded area than the ones I cut down already to gather their seed). And naked buckwheat, and rough-leaved aster - all local natives. Not shown are heart leaf penstemon, cape honeysuckle, Mexican sage, and a baby mallow that I planted last fall -- all of which have a some sparse blooms.

A reprise of a photo I showed on the first of the month - the only one I have of the wonderful 'Winifred Gilman' sage.

Oh these little pretties are totally wild - rough leaved aster. I love them!

In the pool garden, with my "art project" behind - a spread of common madia.

Naked buckwheat as ever was.

Naked buckwheat closeup

I like this messy wild look!

Madia with a red sage whose name I forget - a nursery ornamental.

ACK!! I spent half a day recently getting rid of these! Italian thistle. Pretty color though...

As is this clarkia rubicunda. I think they are poking through some other plant's leaves - can't recall exactly.

And for my grand finale - a metallic green bee - I don't know its name. Do you?
I'll hop on over to May Dreams Garden to post my blooms - Thanks, Carol! - And now -- yawn - I'm off to curl up myself. I'll hope to look in on some other more bloomiferous gardens in the morning.

Please do read on to see my co-blogger's garden blooms...

Smiling Faces for GBBD (Town Mouse)

Right now, much of the garden is going to sleep. Yes, some bright blue Agapanthus is still beckoning the hummingbird, with Epilobium canum (California fuchsia) available for dessert. But the ferns and the rhododendron don't look happy at all, and the bright green of spring seems a distant memory.

All the more exciting to be welcomed by some big yellow faces in the garden. Above, a California native sunflower (Delta sunflower) has been blooming for six weeks and is still inviting happy bees. Another wonderful surprise is this.

Yes, Rudbeckia Californica lights up the shade. I planted this new arrival in May in a container because I knew that it would need a little more water than most of the garden gets. And a little soak once or twice a week has been richly rewarded with bright yellow flowers.

Finally, a new Grindelia stricta (western gumplant) is not blooming impressively but holding its own in a fairly dry part of the garden, and I'm hopeful that its smiling faces will multiply next year, welcoming me home after a long day at work.

And that's all the blooms I want to share today. Instead, I hope I'll find a little more time this month to visit other gardens. Tomorrow I hope to visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens and see how everyone else is faring with the hot summer we've been having.