Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Not the best year for red grouse

Female red grouse - the moors of the peak district are just starting to turn purple now.

It’s not a great year for red grouse.  Reports that their numbers are down due to bad weather earlier in the year are certainly playing out in my experience.  Meanwhile, those grouse I have been able to find have been a great deal more timid and difficult to approach than usual.  I’ve had two grouse trips in the last few weeks alone, and two more planned, and I’ve come away with only one photograph (usually I can expect several hundred from a single trip). 

But the moors of the peak district are as fine as ever (there are many, many other things to photograph up there), and the heather is just starting to turn purple now – this is a time of year which I find really exciting.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Pond Skaters at dusk

Nature is unpredictable (that’s 99% of the fun – you never know what’s going to happen).  Last night I went out to a local lake to photograph ducks, swans and gulls – the usual, everyday normal stuff in the park.  There was lots going on around me, a woodpecker in the tree right behind me, a tree-creeper creeping along the branch over my head, and the crimson bullet of a kingfisher that shot past, steering out into the middle of the water and circling a few times, before coming into land somewhere across the water from me.

But as the light grew dim at the close of the evening, the best thing around was the pond skaters right in front of me.  I love the little dimples they make on the water, and the patters of ripples when they move.  Having a good selection of kit with me, I was able to switch lenses and go macro.  I tried to use the half dusky light to accentuate the contrast of the clear water and the ripples, also moving around to let the reflections of the trees on the opposite bank create an arc of shadow at the top of the images.

Pond skaters on the water are Good News – since they go off to hibernate in the autumn, this means that it must still be summer, although I know I’m not the only one who’s noticed the trees starting to turn Autumnal over the last week or so.  So look out for the pond skaters – if you find them hibernating in your shed, you’ll know autumn has really arrived, but while they’re on the water, you can still get out and enjoy an ice cream.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Tube Strike! In praise of walking.

The claustrophobic descent to the tube.

Last Saturday I walked over 15 miles across London.  There was no tube strike, I hadn’t intended to walk any particular distance, and I would never have counted the miles were it not that my phone does this for me automatically.  I can’t say I gave much thought to the distance, either; it was simply the route I needed to walk from A to B. 

I got to London almost every week as part of my work and I almost never use the tube.  Walking is a much richer experience and full of health benefits, mental and physical, and some of these are not immediately obvious (more on those studies in a bit).  I hope that those some of those who are forced out of their routine with the tube strikes today might discover something very enriching in the act of walking to work.  And since my continuing summer project is to photograph nature within walking distance of my house, I thought I would chip in here about some of the benefits.

We’ve all heard the advice about getting off the bus one or two stops early to get some extra exercise, but it’s not just the exercise that benefits you – walking is a very natural pace not just for our bodies but also for our senses to take in the things around us. 

Discovering the benefits of walking - the benefits of discovering

I give here two examples of people who dismounted from their transport in order to explore the sensory benefits of walking.  The first, one of London’s most famous fictional inhabitants, the great detective Sherlock Holmes: the first time we find Holmes at work on a case, in A Study in Scarlet (1886), we see that he insists on getting out of the cab and approaching the crime scene on foot.  Dr Watson tells us of how he points out the Brixton Road to Holmes whilst travelling in the cab (drawn by genuine horsepower, of course).  Holmes replies:

'So it is.  Stop, driver, stop!' We were still a hundred yards or so from it, but he insisted upon our alighting, and we finished our journey upon foot.

The importance of approaching the scene on foot is spelled out towards the end of the book, when Holmes talks Watson through the ‘steps’ in his reasoning, for how he solved the case:

I approached the house, as you known, on foot, and with my mind entirely free from all impressions.  I naturally began by examining the roadway, and there, as I have already explained to you, I saw clearly the marks of a cab, which, I ascertained by inquiry, must have been there during the night.

Walking, for Holmes, allowed him to look keenly and perceptively on the details of the world around him, working carefully not to disturb it.

However, it’s not just our external senses that we explore when we leave our transport and walk, but the inner senses of reflection and memory, the mode of contemplation rather than examination.  In Goethe’s great German Romantic Novel, Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werther, 1774), the young Werther, battling the pains of unrequited love, writes in his diary of his visit to a linden tree in the town where he grew up.  In making the journey, Werther stops the coach and completes the final stage of the journey on foot in order to allow his memories of childhood to return more vividly:

May 9
I have completed the pilgrimage to my hometown with all a pilgrim’s devotion, and have been overcome by many unexpected feelings.  I had the coach stop at the great linden tree that stands a quarter of an hour before the town, got out, and bade the postilion go on, in order to taste on foot to my heart’s content every newly revived and vivid memory. 

Tasting on foot to your heart’s content – there are some things that travelling by tube just can’t give you.
Whatever your mode of transport, getting down and feeling the ground beneath
your feet will create a feast for your senses as you slow down and take in the detail.

To your good health

Naturally (very naturally) all of this spending time pacing around the great outdoors is very good for you, as has been proven time and time again.  A number of studies over the last few years have demonstrated that urban dwellers who live in a greener areas experience sustained benefits to their mental health (read more here, here and here).  It’s no coincidence that the streets of London are lined with trees, and spending time in that greenery is clearly very good for you.

Sunshine through the trees, Birdcage Walk, London.
No matter where, these green spaces are proven to improve your mental health.

The benefits of walking to physical health also tie in nicely with the mental health benefits.  A 2012 study showed that stressed supervisors who took regular exercise were less likely to given vent to their anger by aiming it at their employees. 

Don’t tell me that doesn’t appeal to you! Is it any wonder Holmes was able to remain composed in such trying circumstances?

Tube strike!

Many people whose working day has been altered by the tube strike today might well find themselves walking around the capital earlier and later than they would otherwise have to experience.  Charles Dickens, one of London’s great walkers, used walks around the capital at various times of day and night in order to meet the people and encounter the thoughts that inspired much of his fiction.  After contemplating the muddy streets at the beginning of Bleak House he goes on to talk of the morning fog:

Fog everywhere.  Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits [islets in the Thames] and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping...Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.

Dickens’ greatest experiences, however, were probably his night-time walks around the city, on which he wrote the essay ‘Night Walks’ in 1860 (the same year in which he started work on Great Expectations).  During a period of insomnia in March, Dickens tells us, he went out walking the streets at about half-past 12 each night.  He used these walks mainly to educate himself about the experience of the homeless (or ‘houseless’ as he calls them, since the streets are their home).  Dickens’ love of humanity and human nature shine through from the heart of this essay, as he writes,

My principal object being to get through the night, the pursuit of it brought me into sympathetic relations with people who have no other object every night in the year.

And it isn’t simply the encounters that walking the city streets brought Dickens’; the gentle pace of the walk and these discoveries excited his imagination and dreams (as it also did for Sherlock Holmes and for Goethe):

The walk on to the bank, lamenting the good old times and bemoaning the present evil period, would be an easy next step, so I would take it, and would make my houseless circuit of the Bank, and give a thought to the treasure within; likewise to the guard of soldiers passing the night there, and nodding over the fire.

The Bank of today invites the modes of contemplation unchanged from Dickens' era - if only you have time to stop and think.

Slowing down

But for those simply pushed out of routine, it might be a good opportunity to bring new discoveries into your routine day.  It can bring great change gradually.  The Chinese proverb about the journey of 1000 miles is often quoted, but for finding green spaces amongst the skyscrapers on your city walks, the larger quotation from chapter 64 of Lao Tzu’s great Tao Teh Ching is perhaps more meaningful:

A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout.
A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

A thousand mile walk is not a journey that can be made quickly, especially not in August.  But we can learn to enjoy the walk for our health and slow down.  As the great father of medicine, Hippocrates, wrote in the 5th century BC,

In winter a man should walk quickly, in summer in more leisurely fashion.

Perfect for an August day like today.  Try walking for leisure, ‘tasting on foot’ everything around you ‘with a mind entirely free’.  It’s good for you (and you don’t need me to tell you that you’re worth it).

More on this soon...

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Da Worsley Code

Foxglove at sunset - Peak District National Park, UK
(Click for larger image)
I have a confession to make: I’ve failed.  The truth is, I’m not really a very good nature photographer, I’m just pretending I am.  I fail all the time, but I’ve just learnt how to cover it up.

Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo! Howl. Sob.

(and if Claudia Schiffer happens to be reading this, yes please, a hug would help).

Anyway, I thought you should know about this, because you’ve been good to me – and so I have a reward for you.  Since the numbers of people reading the blog are really soaring now, and I’m really grateful for all who read this blog (that’s you) and who add to those (at times eye-watering) numbers.    We’re a special little group, I think, so I’ve invented a secret code for us, we the people who inhabit this blog – it’s like a little secret society, except it’s online so it’s possible that none of our society will ever meet.  And the SECRET CODE is: foxglove. 

Bumblebee and a foxglove - Perthshire, UK
(Click for larger image)

The thing is, I’ve been photographing a lot of foxgloves recently simply because they seem to be out everywhere I go.  That much is normal.  But the fact is that I’ve had a lot of trips out recently where I’ve failed to photograph whatever it was that I’d set out to photograph, and so I’ve just ended up photographing foxgloves, because they’re there and quite pretty, and at least I can pretend that it’s what I actually meant to do.  But I can’t really say there are many times in my life I’ve actually gone out in order to photograph a foxglove.  My growing portfolio of foxglove images is a sign of my constant failure as a nature photographer.  Maybe there’s an upside – maybe next time some photo publication wants a picture of a foxglove, they’ll come my way, as I’ve got photos of them in all different habitats right across the UK now! Get me with my amazingly diverse foxglove portfolio!

Foxglove at sunset - Perthshire, UK
(Click for larger image)

So next time you see a foxglove image appear on my blog, you’ll know: it’s a sign that things haven’t gone as planned.  Those less committed followers who come here just look at the pictures and move on will never know, but we, the hard-core membership of this society, the ones who read and respond to this stuff, we will know; we’re special. 

But that’s how nature photography works – I always say that photographing nature isn’t something that you go out and do, but it’s a lifestyle that you live over the long term, and in the course of that lifestyle, some pictures turn up occasionally that you like, and help convince you that you’re doing the right thing and should carry on. 

So there we are - there’s thick and there’s thin.  Let’s stick together through both.  Please?

...now...has anyone found Claudia yet?

Foxglove at Sunset - Nottinghamshire, UK
(Click for larger image)

Foxglove at Sunset - Nottinghamshire, UK
(Click for larger image)

Foxglove and the full moon - Peak District National Park, UK
(Click for larger image)

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Seeing the Wood Pigeon fore the Trees

Wood Pigeon at sunset - Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire 

Evening in Sherwood Forest.  I’m out here because it’s been a bright, sunny day, and the evening light is set to be beautiful, and now that I’m here I’m not disappointed; not with the light at least.  But I’ve come here looking to see if I can silhouette birds against that light and in particular I’d like a tawny owl - I’ve seen (and heard) them around here many times before. 

Tonight I’ve heard an owl hoot once, and although I’ve worked my way over to find it, I never hear it hoot again.  The light fades to black, and just as I’m about to leave, a young fox cub comes out and sits in the middle of the path looking at me – it sits upright and motionless for about five minutes; it’s too dark for me to take picture, so I just wait until eventually it gets bored, picks itself up and wanders off.

But somewhere in the middle of all that, after the single hoot of the owl and before the fading of the light, I spy a common wood pigeon sitting on a branch; plump, grey and very, very common – a rugby ball with feathers.  In many ways I enjoy these challenges just as much as the more obscure and sensitive animals – I want to people to come away from my photos with a renewed sense of the extraordinary within the commonplace and the every day.  In short, I want them to leave my photos and head straight for the outdoors to look for themselves with new eyes.  

The pigeon has its eyes fixed on me, probably wondering if it is safe to stay put or if it should move away to a different part of the forest – there’s plenty of it to move to.  I see the orange light about 45 degrees to the right of the bird and I move round slowly into position to get the bird against it.  Bending down, I make sure I have some green foliage of the woodland, bracken and grasses, right in front of the lens to create and mystical, diffused look across the picture.   I make sure that the pigeon is positioned with a window of light behind it to highlight its round, heavy outline.  I can’t use a tripod in this situation – I have to work quickly and fluidly, and adjusting the legs and repositioning the thing until the composition is right would just be too disruptive – I need to be able to make minute adjustments to the composition with ease.  The camera and lens combination I’m using is just over six kilos and working handheld with it (always my preferred approach for the flexibility I gain), holding it out in front of me for minutes at a time, is quite a workout for which I need to keep fit.  It’s important that I train with free weights and (in particular) make sure that I have good core strength and strong abdominal muscles so I can hold the camera steady in such strange positions.  Even now, I can feel a faint tremble in my muscles as I’m holding an uncomfortable position for quite a while, adjusting the composition slightly, waiting to see if the pigeon will move or do something a little more interesting than just sit still. 

It doesn’t move or do anything interesting (they usually don't), so I start to play with my position, finding new windows of bright light around it to place it against, moving around to change its relationship with the structure and contours of the other trees in the wood.  I play for as long as I can before the orange light fades, I enjoy the silence, the fox cub comes and goes, and—finally—I decide to leave.  There’s nothing more to see tonight.