Winter Through the Lens
Once each winter I like to walk out into the woods with the camera and the short lens and look around. No long macro, no insects about. Requires a different way of looking than my usual way. Less peripheral work, more central concentration. More light, less movement. If I could walk with the camera or two cameras affixed directly to my eyes while holding someoneís hand I would. Staggered by the framecuts of the winter world, oowing and ahhing as I went, I havenít found anyone willing to lead me this way. So, I just try to go slowly, peering frequently through the lens. I look for the contrasts that might stand alone without all the color added. Starkness and collision, hard edges and angles, winter is a dusky, gray season anyway. Bark and vine, leaf and water. Is that it? Is it this over here?
Barely out of the truck, the Titmice were scolding me. Must have been expecting me or something. Titmice are perfect subjects for gray scale photography but alas with the short lens they must simply be admired and remembered. I used to lure them into my open doors with little cups of sunflower seed in my parent's winter home. Stretched out on the carpet and unmoving, I watched them come in and perch nervously just a foot from my nose. No camera then, I can still see them. Nearby, I pish up a male and female Towhee. Broken color-patched things, excellent contrast birds, and really, Iíll say it again, for my money, one of the few birds of winter wherein the female is consistently lovelier than the black and orange male. They go back to scraping and I head for the swamp, where my favorite local winter bird is consistently abundant. Along the swamp edges in brush and brier, in dense stump top, I knew the little ones were out there mousing about.
Muted light through cypress trees and the echoes of Red-shouldered Hawks and Pileated Woodpeckers from across the still water. Pileateds must truly love swamps. Golden-crowned Kinglets work above the water flycatching where there may actually be some flying insects on this warm day. I hear a squeak and catch just the bottom fall-off of a Brown Creeper as he settles on the lower end of a new tree trunk. It seems to have caught something in the air on the way down. I have never witnessed such a thing as aerial feeding in a Brown Creeper. It cycles up the bark, probing in a more normal hunting manner. It is a pale creamy creeper. I only wish they were about ten inches long.
On the way over, I thought to myself, if I see one butterfly today then the day may be complete. Along the leafy path, one leaf fell with greater energy than the others, out of the corner of my eye, some kind of looping maneuver, a subtle shift at the end, right before it hit the litter something attracted me. It drew my attention. And there in place of just another leaf was a butterfly. It folded slowly open in the sun and exposed some orange inside. The back edges of the wings had been Januaried and Decembered. Or Decemberated? Anyway, it appeared they might not quite be up to a good stout Februarization. But here it was. It was an American Snout, the snoz himself, dropping in just for me. I saluted him and he disappeared high into the trees.
Every fifty paces the mousy ones, the Winter Wrens appeared. Sometimes in pairs, often talking, doing knee bends in the shadows of fallen trees, Ďchimp-chimpingí from brush tops. They are the one of the reasons I came. That and the light. Oh, for a long, long lens to shoot the tiny ones, to highlight the striped rumpiness of these active things. Lumpenwrendle. Puffenstuffs. Often I see many that seem to be of the dark western coloration. Iím not so sure of the accuracy of the racial divisions, even though the map shows them splitting southerly into our own great wintering eastern mass and the California basin as shelter for the western race. Some, it appears, just do not know the way.
A phoebe calls. A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers chase each other noisily, like an old married couple confined too long by winter and its hard-headed trees. I watch for contrasts and ahead I see a large patch of white. Like snow or some early white blossom has gone unwired in its timetables and little sun-engines. I walk closer and find the ground all aflutter with detritus. Someone has been rudely undressing ducks, dismantling them really of all their forms of coverage. Even without a breeze the downy stuff flutters unendingly. And then suddenly out of the middle of the blanket a Winter Wren emerges. Appears to actually coalesce, we might say, from the featherings. ďLet there be bird.Ē I think. I imagine this. But it seemed so.
From within the swamp, every now and then, Wood Ducks rise and scree. Perhaps it was a Woody who exploded here. Hard to say, it all looks white. Rusty Blackbirds jump up from the edge of the swamp farther down. They perch in the low brush over the water and look at me with that pale eye of theirs. One calls a two note call that is upturned and raspy and I start. I have to stop and think if I have ever heard the Rusty Blackbird call in its pure form, unadulterated by a throng of creaking and whistling Grackles. I donít believe I have. I pause to listen but he does not speak again. They stealthily fall back to the swamp tangles. This is where Rusty Blackbirds are supposed to stay, not in suburban yards and cow lots.
I turn to a tree that is catching the light just right. It is wispy with spiderwebs and white fingers that point to me with buds. It scintillates in odd geometries of silk. I move and try and take its picture but somehow I canít get the stark reaching whites to stand out like they do in my eye. In the finder the shimmer is dead. Flashes, shutters, angulations, they all fail to get me there. So I just have to stand and admire it for its own sake. Like the coming of a wren. The moment is elusive.
I try to shoot through the water surface to the leaves that steep there like tea leaves. Some sort of water life jitters microscopically below the tensile surface. A spider runs over the water weightlessly. Moving over submerged acorn and cypress leaf, she pauses. I may be her reason for going on the water. I loom. The White-breasted Nuthatches talk and talk. One nuthatch in the distance gets stuck on its one note and goes and goes. And a Golden-crowned Kinglet falls from the treetops and sits close. More flycatching. The occasional wheezy note emerges.
Winter is all thorn and fungal cup, gripping vine and rattling heads of grass, Resurrection Fern looking not quite resurrected. I try and make it beautiful square by square. Light strikes a Chasmanthium head and turns. Here and there it almost succeeds. Before I fall back again, bemused. This week I read about a creature that lives on the bellies of crabs. It is amorphous, pale and clingy and it extends its reaching parasitic tendrils into the body of the crab. It presses first towards the gonadal tissues, destroying them. I imagine salmon-like eggs being sucked through a straw. Crab caviar turned to a residue of gum and fine powder. This removal turns the crab away from all the amorous energies of all the other crabs. The crab gives up nature's desperately instilled need to make more and more just like itself. It makes the crab want to do nothing but eat and grow large. This makes the parasite happy. All and all, it is a very wintry thought, a very wintry story. Why? Why do people tell me these things?
I see my fourteenth or fifteenth Winter Wren. It is getting to be a blur of small brown goings. They must be here in the hundreds. If one could only pace off the whole edge of this great swampy place and count every one of them. With so many, who would care if I took one home? (This is in my head like a whisper.) I guess that one particular stolen bird would. And I, well, I would grow quickly guilty in the part of the ugly imprisoner Ė my contraband wren under glass, bobbing its sad questions in semaphore kneebends. Easier to come here in the quiet swamp and just think it closer. Stretch out in the leaf litter and go back to the times on my parents carpet counting close coup on those long gone titmice. Let me be the invader. I in the bell jar of this blue sky.
Tomorrow it is February. The hardest month. The hallucinatory month where we begin to imagine these places getting back their colors and their frogs. This trail will stay like this for another month: filtered light and long-fingered trees. It is hard. It is a hard thing. Though who can complain with all the sun-filled weeks we have had recently. Not I. (Who else?) Not I.
Not today anyway. Iíve been with the wrens and walked in the light. Small evidences but proof nonetheless. As I said, it is elusive. Seeing intently. So much easier to not see at all. Like hearing the heartbeat in your ears now and then. (Who's machine is that?) But we are alive, and today it did not happen without me. It did not happen without me. The quiet world may have been shocked by my attention. I was just another fool. But today I watched it closely and it still went by.
It still went by.