HobbyWeek: a little world rarely seen …

We are often told to “think big.” (It’s a formula for success, apparently.)

I choose to think small. As small as possible. That’s my hobby: Bringing to larger life the world of the small. I’ve been doing that for a very long time. In the past year, I have rededicated myself to finding the beautiful and the bizarre in a tiny universe.

My hobby is macro photography. Using a lens designed for the purpose — magnifying the small — I photograph not merely flowers but the interiors of flowers, their styles, stigmas, anthers, filaments, and stamens. (Yes, I suppose the petals of the flowers manage to get into the image, too.)

I photograph water in liquid and solid states. I particularly like to shoot in winter. I’ve captured frost in numerous incarnations. I’ve found round water — dew or rain drops held in spherical shape by surface tension. Often, the background of the photograph is lensed through the drops of water. Or the sun is a starry pinprick in a reflection on the drop’s surface.

Frost is a demanding shoot. Hoar frost forms during very cold, absolutely windless nights next to the stream downhill from my house. I have to time it well: Late enough for the just-risen sun to backlight the frost; early enough so the sun’s rays do not wither and disintegrate the crystals.

It’s always fun shooting fire. And odd things, too: One image accompanying this post is something you eat for breakfast.

Often, after I download the images from my Canon into Photoshop, I’m surprised at what I find. I wear trifocals; my eyes have a collection of floaters. Combine those with staring through a tiny viewfinder to focus and, well, you don’t see every little thing the lens does.

I discovered the world of insects. Now, mind you, I do not like insects. Ick. Bugs. Spiders. Bees, hornets, and wasp, those stinging little bastards. But I bought a guide to insects to try to identify them. (I’m failing miserably; I’m not very good at it.) I still don’t like bugs, but I’m less … frightened … by them. (I have a spider who lives in my office. I now tolerate it.)

And trees! Who knew trees — bark, leaves, stems, seeds, insect inhabitants — could be so wonderfully interesting and beautiful? Last fall, I photographed leaves (often, just fragments of leaves) as they withered and fell. This spring, I choose one leaf bud on a red maple in my yard to photograph from birth to death.

As a macro photographer, I don’t have to travel to dramatic scenic vistas to find landscapes to shoot. Most of images I’ve shot in the past year were in my back yard, at a fishing hole next to a stream in the valley downhill from my house, and on trails in a patch of woods behind a residence hall at my university. I often spend an hour or two inside no more than a hundred square feet of forest or field. Such seemingly limited space is alive with life waiting to be captured.

Such photographic efforts have lent me needed creative and artistic satisfaction. I have longed to create beauty but failed in other media. But the skills and equipment I have now have allowed me to capture beauty in places most people rarely look — in a small world well beyond their daily consciousness.

I discovered grass (no, no, not that kind) this spring. I’ve photographed blades of grass — and found a world of really small insects and seeds through which grass propagates. Grass, it turns out, isn’t actually green (well, I cheated a few times, and over-saturated the color; sue me).

I am a university professor. I teach (or try to) undergraduates how to write and otherwise mature into good, kind, decent, gentle human beings. The kiddies often frustrate me, and I occasionally chafe at their less-than-their best attitudes toward their studies. They require my patience be Job-like. (Well, my patience is usually tested to the point of failure.)

But macro photography reminds me of the need for patience and rewards me when I achieve it. In nature, nothing stands still. Wind moves leaves, flowers, and grass. Clouds obscure sunlight needed for better exposure. Rain defeats all efforts to keep equipment dry. The sun needs an hour to move so a shadow is removed or introduced.

Patience and solace are the rewards of macro photography as much as the satisfaction of the finished images. So, too, is the change of focus from large-scale usual to the small-scale unusual.

It is a wonderful hobby, learning how to see anew even as my vision ages and becomes less acute. Even now, I see more and better than I have in decades.

Try it. You might see better, too.

(Below is more of my work. View my archive at 5280 Lens Mafia.)

Uganda Journal: a walk to the well

The well at Nakagongo sits in a low valley, with a web of trails that lead down to it from the surrounding hillsides. It’s not an especially grueling walk and not especially steep, but it’s a five-minute hike downhill from the road. On days like today, when it rained for a couple hours in the morning, the dirt path gets muddy. We also have to step over a pretty angry stream of ants.

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About three hundred adults and eight hundred children are serviced by the well, which is nothing more than a clean natural spring surrounded by a cement basin. The basin seems to be draining well today–the water at the bottom is only ankle deep, although Deb has seen it back up almost to the output pipe. The ground around is a mucky mess.

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Families have to walk from as far as forty-five minutes a day to collect water in five-gallon plastic containers. Once someone arrives, he or she might have to wait as long as half an hour before they have the chance to fill up. The villagers may then balance the jugs on their heads so they can carry jugs in each hand, too. Enterprising boys have set up a business where they’ll load their bikes with water and take them to the houses of people who can afford to pay for delivery.

At home, villagers use the water for cooking, cleaning, and bathing.

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During the dry season, when the well dries up, villagers have to walk to another water source that’s an additional hour away.

To say I am thankful for indoor plumbing seems like a trite understatement. Seeing the well might be the most profound reminder of just how different life is for much of the world than it is for us in America and in other developed nations. This is everyday life for these villagers, and yet it is so far removed from my own life that it might well as be a different century or a different planet as a different continent and country.

Certainly America has its share of drought–I think of the summer of 2011 when much of the cornbelt baked–but water generally flows pretty freely…at least freely enough that most of us still take it for granted, although climatologists could offer some disheartening insight into that, I’m sure. I can walk into three rooms in my home that have running water, and that’s not counting the baseboard heat I have. Some of these people have to walk for forty-five minutes.

Think about that when you turn on the tap.

Nota Bene #124: I'm a Doctor, Not an Engineer

“I don’t believe in this fairy tale of staying together for ever. Ten years with somebody is enough.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #114: Big Star

“The radio makes hideous sounds.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #112: GOOOLLLLLLLL

“Freedom of any kind is the worst for creativity.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #111: Mmmmm… Beeeeeer

Sorry for the long absence. Let’s carry on, shall we? “If you listen to the guys up in the stands, pretty soon you’ll be up there sitting with them.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #110: WEHT SWK?

“In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #96: Saturn's Hexagon and the Bulava Spiral

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Continue reading

Waste not want not (Blog Action Day)

I have no doubt that the climate is changing, nor that it will continue to change.  It seems reasonably well established that  the Earth has gone through extreme climate swings in the past; on the basis of that i predict that it will do so again. Maybe humans are not responsible for climate change, and the planet would be warming in any case as it sheds the final remnants of the last ice age. Maybe it is entirely our fault. The truth usually falls between the two extremes. I do not believe that humans have the power to destroy the Earth or life. Suggesting that we do strikes me as the height of egocentricity: both preceded us by unimaginable lengths of time and will survive us for just as long. We do, however, have the power to destroy ourselves and most of the forms of life we know.

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The Weekly Carboholic: California report recommends changes to adapt to rising sea level

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Limit development in low-lying coastal areas. Consider abandoning existing development in coastal areas likely to be affected by sea level rise. Require structures built along the coast to be able to adapt to higher sea levels. Discontinue federally subsidized flood insurance for existing property in low-lying coastal areas. Those are some of the recommendations made last week in the first report by California’s Climate Action Team and reported by the LA Times. Continue reading

The Weekly Carboholic: Distributed nuclear a cheaper nuclear solution?

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It’s been just over a year since I launched the Weekly Carboholic in late 2008, and I had grand plans to write up something special to mark the anniversary and the new year. Instead I took three weeks off from writing the Carbo and dumped my time into writing about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal ash sludge spill. But we’re back as of this week, although we may be a little hit-and-miss through February. Continue reading

Meet Satan's towel boy, Ralph Nader, and other famous rabblerousers in a call for open debates

He’s the man who caused Sep. 11, war in the Gulf, a million Iraqi deaths and probably mad cow disease too, as you’ve no doubt heard from disgruntled Democrats. Of course I’m talking about Evil Incarnate, consumer advocate and political gadfly Ralph Nader.

As evidenced by the comments to my piece on him way back when, he’s still roundly feared and loathed by countless Dems for supposedly helping George W. Bush, no matter how indirectly, steal the 2000 election from Al Gore and allowing everything that followed to pass. Well, he’s running for president again, and his anti-bigwig rhetoric has grown more pointed and caustic, just as the general lefty revulsion for him and his supporters has. Continue reading

The Weekly Carboholic: Not a drop to drink…

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People without water will do anything – Wendon, The Ice Pirates (1984)

Deprived of water, people die within days of dehydration. So do livestock. Crops wither and, if the fields produce at all, the yields are cut dramatically from normal. And now we’re beginning to hear stern warnings about the availability of cheap potable water.

“We once assumed that water is free, air is free and power is cheap. The latter is clearly no longer true and we are increasingly realising the truth about water,” argued MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Sarah Slaughter in a May 2008 paper. Continue reading

Millions of Americans are drinking water tainted with drugs

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By Martin Bosworth

If you were grossed out by the generally reasonable idea of drinking recycled sewer water to preserve supplies, you’ll love this–as many as 41 million Americans have been drinking water tainted with trace elements of pharmaceuticals of all shapes, sizes, and effects:

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Would you like some sparkling clear sewer water with your meal?

glass of waterA new program in Orange County has the locals squicking out over a supposed “toilet-to-tap” program. The program takes treated sewer water, runs it through the same reverse osmosis process that bottled water companies use to purify their artesian (or tap) water, and then injects it into a deep aquifer that provides water for Orange County. The idea is to recycle as much of the water as possible and, in the process, reduce the water needs of a very arid and highly populated region of the country, southern California. The problem is that a lot of locals are going “ewwwwwww!” at the process of drinking water that was once in someone’s toilet.

What these residents don’t realize is that nearly every drop of water they’ve ever drank was once someone’s, or something’s, toilet. Continue reading