Archive for May 2008

May 13, 2008 Mystery of the Misplaced Trilliums

May 26, 2008

This is a tale of that beloved wildflower family, the Trilliums.  Several years ago, while I was jogging along a floodplain trail in Battle Creek, Michigan, I noticed some pink flowers off to the side of the path.  Even without my standard issue baby boomer lineless bifocals, I could see that these blossoms were trilliums–those beautiful Midwestern spring wildflowers that start out as pure white, then fade through stages of pink into deep magenta.  Then I spotted a second variety of trillium–a yellow toadshade with leaves patterned in light and deep shades of green–that I had never seen before.  After getting off the trail, I drove back to my in-law’s home, where my wife and I were staying, then told my story and brought back reinforcements–my wife and her parents.  Together we found two more species of trilliums in the same vicinity.

Three years later, I’m back in Battle Creek, inhaling the rich aroma of corn flakes cooking at the Kelloggs factory.  It is the same time of year as before–that wonderful time in early May when Michigan reawakens from its long winter sleep in shades of bluebirds and blue skies and yellow warblers and green oak leaves newly emerging.  The same bunch, plus my mother, walked out to the trillium trail to see if the forest was as alive with trilliums as  it had been before.  It was!  We saw the same species as previously, plus we noticed enough variation that we felt there was probably some hybridizing going on among these related species.

Now for the mystery: why are these trilliums here?.  They are growing in a floodplain forest that includes such flood-loving woody species as Sycamore, Hackberry, Silver Maple, Cottonwood, Poison Ivy, and Box Elder.  When we looked at the range maps for the trillium species we identified, it appears that all could be here on their own, without any help from wildflower gardeners.  And some of these species seem to be little-known, except among botanists, because they grow in formidable habitats (as in, “watch for poison ivy!”).  But they are growing in a linear strip perhaps 20 feet wide, paralleling the trail for about 200 yards, and just off the mowed portion of trail.  The thing is, I can’t find a single trillium anywhere else along the trail.  Yet these trilliums are thriving on their own in this one location.  Were they planted as a garden club project?  Is this just the last surviving patch of the native spring flora?  I wish I had a botanist’s 911 number that I could call to help with this emergency!

The photographs below represent my best from about two hours of photography.  I used a digital SLR at ISO 400 (to help with a wind problem) and a ball-head tripod for all these shots.  In addition, I also variously used a 100mm macro lens, a 24-105mm zoom lens, a polarizing filter, and a diffusion screen to cut contrast on these sunny days.  And Adobe Bridge and Photoshop to clean up the leaves and petals.  You will notice that for some frames, I wanted every detail to be tack-sharp; for other pictures, only I wanted only the focal point to be sharp.

Like many originally Midwestern nature photographers, I started out my photography by photographing wildflowers, and I still return to the subject every year with renewed passion.  In the last decade, nature photography has fallen severely out-of-fashion, as the sophisticated crowd has moved on to European and exotic travel (think of traditional National Geographic portrayals of unfamiliar people) and still-life photography as being the oh-so-trendy subjects.  Even in outdoor magazines such as National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Audubon, photography that does not include people is considered too static–as if readers don’t have the imagination or creativity to see themselves in a wild scene.  I think this parallels American alienation from nature.  Many people call themselves environmentalists or love action sports in wild places–but few have developed a deep love of the very elements of those places.  Environmentalists too often think in abstractions and adventure sports enthusiasts too often look at wilderness as a challenging outdoor gym.  I prefer to move through the forest, camera in hand, with a sense of wonder at all that surrounds me.  And if that leaves me hopelessly unfashionable, so be it.

 

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with caption.

May 11, 2008 Homage to Edward Hopper

May 26, 2008

Today my wife Karen and I made a special trip to Chicago to see the last day of the Edward Hopper exhibit at the Chicago Institute of Arts.  Edward Hopper is among my favorite artists, and his paintings influenced my photography of classic old buildings.  He is most famous for his painting “Nighthawks,” in which late night patrons of a lonely urban diner are playing out some vague drama.  This painting is one of the best-known paintings in America and, as an icon, is much parodied.  I have a favorite Starbucks cup that features this painting–only the setting is a Starbucks coffee shop.  I also have a Christmas card that portrays Santa and his reindeer stopping for a 3:00 am coffee break in the same diner.

My favorite Hopper works are his studies of light on classic old buildings; the psychodramas that make up much of his later work are interesting, but they don’t add that much meaning for me.  I think a great deal can be implied simply by the human details (without the humans).  Besides, I think he was better at rendering buildings than humans.  

The Chicago exhibit was among the best art exhibitions we have seen.  It is over, but you can review some of Hopper’s work at the following websites.

http://www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/exhibition/hopper

http://www.artchive.com/artchive/H/hopper.html

On the return trip from Chicago on the South Shore Line, an interurban railroad, I photographed a woman sitting alone on the passenger seat across from me.  I think it shows how I was channelling Edward Hopper on this wonderful day.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photograph below to see a larger version.

May 23, 2008 Main Street USA

May 26, 2008

For those who think American small towns died soon after “It’s a Wonderful Life” was filmed, it’s a surprise to see that there are beautiful small towns all over the Midwest that look for all the world like Bedford Falls.  These towns have two or three story well-proportioned brick buildings lining Main Street, and these days the drygoods stores and mom-and-pop groceries of a hundred years ago have been replaced by antique shops, styling salons, and lawyers’ offices.  In many cases the old storefronts have been restored to something near their original look, and the space-age aluminum facades of the 1950s and 1960s have been removed.

I visited two such towns this week:  Marshall, Michigan and Madison, Indiana.  In each town I gave myself the assignment of walking around town for an hour or so and seeing if I could come up with any interesting pictures that would help illustrate life in these quaint places.  I used a camera with one lens and a polarizing filter, and to keep it spontaneous I chose not to use a tripod.  You can see my favorite results in the gallery below.

 

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

May 13, 2008 My Memorial Day

May 26, 2008

My father, Robert (Bob) Lewis Rentz, died in early January of 2007.  A World War II veteran, his life was disrupted by service in the South Pacific.  Actually, “disrupted” is too strong a word, because I think he enjoyed his experience in the Signal Corps based on all those dinner table war stories when I was young.  He returned home in 1945, and resumed normal life in the Detroit area, soon marrying, raising a family, and having a long career as a draftsman and engineer at General Motors.  A normal, wonderful life, filled with vacations, friends, family outings, and all the other parts of post-war America.

My Dad’s uncle wasn’t so fortunate.  Although technically he was an uncle, Philip (Dude) Taliaferro was almost the same age as my father and was raised essentially as his brother in the same household by my Dad’s mother.  In early 1945, near the end of the war, Dude’s plane went down in the jungles of New Guinea or in the vast Pacific Ocean and was never found.  So he never got to experience the rest of life through the booming ’50s and 60’s and subsequent turbulent decades.  My mother knew Dude too (she grew up next door to her eventual husband (Bob Rentz) and Dude).  She described him as a handsome young man who had that quality of looking into a girl’s eyes and making her feel like she was the only person in the world.

When my parents were thinking about where they wanted to be buried, they agreed that Fort Custer National Cemetery, near Battle Creek, Michigan, would be a fine place.  My mother also looked into having a memorial for Philip Taliaferro placed in the missing-in-action section of the Fort Custer Cemetery, because she felt that his name might otherwise be forgotten.  Independently, and at nearly the same time, the army contacted my mother, and through her, found Dude’s closest living relatives and obtained DNA samples from them in case the missing plane should ever be found.

So, my Dad and Dude ended up with memorials in the same cemetery, which you can see in the accompanying pictures.  They are among graves of (mostly) men who served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the Mideast wars.  This was my first time back to Fort Custer since the year-earlier ceremony when Dad’s ashes were placed in the sacred ground, and it was a beautiful day in a beautiful place.  Tears flowed freely in memory of my wonderful Dad and in memory of all the others who gave so much..

Photography is my passion, and even on this sad day of memories I wanted to take some technically proficient pictures of the gravestones and the setting.  I hope you get a sense of the reverence I feel for all these old soldiers and their sacrifices.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

 

FIRE ANTS: Getting Up Close and Personal

May 8, 2008

While driving part of the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi on April 19, I spotted a box turtle crossing the road.  Since I didn’t have any photographs of this species, I drove on a few miles to find a safe place to turn around, then went back.  The turtle was still crossing the road.  So I helped out the slowpoke by lifting the turtle up and moving it to the road’s shoulder, for which the reptile thanked me with a hiss.  Then I proceeded to make a nuisance of myself by photographing the turtle up close and personal.

First I photographed the turtle from a human perspective, looking down at the creature from a high angle.  This is the way we normally see turtles, so it is a good approach for showing identification cues.  But I like to get in close and show creatures from an eye-level perspective, so I laid down on the ground and with a macro lens, began photographing the turtle’s face.

Then all hell broke loose!  I stuck my elbow into a Fire Ant nest, and within two seconds it felt like there was a strong electric current running through my elbow.  I leaped up, frantically brushing ants from my arm and dancing on the roadside.  Later, I counted 22 pustules on and around my right elbow and the spots itched for days.  Fire Ants swarm, then use pheromones (communicative scents) to tell each other when to sting, and it all comes at once.  Meanwhile, I swear the turtle was laughing at me.

On the other hand (or elbow), my close-up photograph showing the face and red eyes of the creature is a winner, and is much more engaging than the higher level shot.  This is what I mean by getting up close and personal with animals, and it usually works well in photography.  Later, I identified the turtle, using Google on my iPhone, as a Three-toed Box Turtle.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

NEW JERSEY: The Jersey Bears

May 8, 2008

Everyone has seen Jersey barriers along the highway, but today I actually saw Jersey bears (and no, it’s not a minor league baseball team)!

While visiting the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border, I stopped at the Kaiser Trailhead in New Jersey’s Worthington State Forest.  The Flowering Dogwood trees were at their peak of bloom, so the woods were filled with that wonderful white frost of blossoms, which contrasted with the spring green haze of emerging maple and oak leaves.  After I finished my dogwood photography, I was putting away my gear and preparing to drive away when I looked into the forest again and saw an American Black Bear foraging in a forest opening about 100 yards away.  Excited, I stopped stashing my equipment and instead pulled out the 500mm lens and 1.4x extender [this is a photographer’s blog, so I have to mention my equipment!].  Then I set about observing and taking a few photographs when the bear was most visible in the forest.

Then, much to my surprise, two young cubs appeared in the brush—they were accompanying their mother.  The mother was well aware of my presence, and I dared not get too close to her.  The cubs were more skittish, and I was unable to get any photographs of them.  The mother was keeping them on a long leash, so to speak, so they were not cuddling up to her but instead were foraging on their own.  I found the mother bear’s feeding behavior fascinating; she would walk up to a rock on the forest floor, and use her front feet and claws to lift the edge of it–looking underneath for any grubs or ants or anything else edible that might be hiding there.  There were plenty of rocks, as this trailhead was at the base of Kittatinny Mountain, which has a backbone of crumbly rock.  I observed one of the young bears working the rocks the same way–mother had already taught these young cubs well.  Eventually the bears ambled up the mountain and out of sight, but I was left with a thrilling and completely unexpected experience.

Earlier, a young man who I suspect is a recent immigrant from Russia, stopped to ask directions.  Accompanied by his mother, he had left the interstate looking for a gas station and instead ended up on this remote forest road.  He was from Ottawa, Canada, and was returning to Canada from a New York City road trip.  As we were talking, I pointed over his shoulder at the mother bear, which had gotten unexpectedly close.  He was startled and amazed, and said it was the first wild bear he had ever seen.  I think his mother, who remained in the car, was scared to death!

After I left that area, I stopped at Dunnfield Creek Natural Area and walked the Appalachian Trail–or at least 50 yards of it!  This is one of the access points along the great trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia.  Dunnfield Creek is noted for its crystal clear waters that support the fussy native Brook Trout, who are known for demanding clean water and refuse to inhabit anything else.  Some fish, and some people, demand only the best!

When I was visiting the campground at Worthington State Forest, I saw a petition to save the campground from the budget axe.  It seems that the governor of New Jersey plans to close nine of these state forest campgrounds around the state to save money.  The implication was that the state intends to privatize some of these campgrounds, and that would be a shame.

For several federal administrations I have seen the U.S. Forest Service steadily privatizing the operation of its campgrounds, and I’m not happy with the results.  The price immediately goes up (to cover the profit of the operator) and the service goes down.  At one such campground in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I found the bathrooms filthy and the water not turned on and the garbage cans removed, yet the price had gone up.  Why should we accept this?

When I visited Grand Teton National Park two years ago, I learned that they had privatized the national park campground where I normally stay.  I always enjoyed registering for camping and having informative conversations with the park rangers who staffed the office.  But with privatization the price had gone up and the people staffing the front desk could not answer my questions about the park.  Then one of their cell phones rang with one of those ugly musical ringtones and destroyed whatever good mood I had left.  Hey people, this is a national park, not a mall!  Learn about it so you can answer my questions and treat it with respect!

I guess the real problem is that America is failing to adequately fund the national parks and forests, and we are gradually seeing the fallout from that.  It is a shame to see Theodore Roosevelt’s great national forests and our heritage of great national parks fall into mediocrity.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

May 1, 2008 North on the National Defense Highway System

May 6, 2008

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Today I am driving north from Tennessee through Virginia in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.  Everywhere, spring is upon the land on this sunny, perfect day.  Pastures are intense green with new spring grass; black cattle grazing on the hillsides look like silhouettes punched out of the green.  Along the road, the striking pink blossoms of Redbud—the most beautiful of spring-flowering trees—are at or just past their peak of bloom.  Awoke to the dawn chorus of cardinals and robins and the panoply of other breeding birds singing so loudly it would rival the roar of the truck traffic going by as I now sit at a rest area picnic table (and, yes, I much prefer the birds to the trucks!).

The night before last I took a series of night flights from Seattle to Minneapolis to Atlanta to Chattanooga, catching several hours of sleep sitting up in my cramped window seat, flying coach (of course).  Upon reaching Chattanooga I stowed my luggage in the van, then proceeded to drive 210 miles.  At which point I was nearly catatonic from lack of good sleep, so I stopped to camp for the night on a ridgetop in a Tennessee state park.  I lay down in my tent at 6:30 pm and proceeded to sleep 11.5 hours.  So I caught up enough to drive today’s 600 miles to my next show in New Jersey.

One problem with a beautiful day and 600 miles to go is that there is really no time to take pictures, except in my mind.  My favorite mind picture today was of an abandoned two-story farmhouse in the Virginia hills surrounded by a green meadow and hedgerows of blossoming Dogwood trees.  The paint on the house was all gone, leaving a weathered gray with black window openings and a rusting metal hip roof.  Simply a beautiful slice of Americana that contrasts sharply with the roadside chain fast-food places and truck stops with acres of asphalt.  

Driving up past Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, past Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters, past the Antietam battlefield of the Civil War, past Washington’s Revolutionary war headquarters, past Virginia Tech where so many young people were randomly slaughtered in 2007, past Harper’s Ferry where John Brown and his band of abolitionists captured a U.S. armory in 1859, past the Gettysburg battlefield.  The latter battlefield name has resonance in American history for Lincoln’s heartfelt address to the nation and as sacred ground, where the men of blue and gray fought so valiantly for the future.  

Gettysburg was later home to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, father of the National Defense Highway System, which was created by an act of Congress in 1956.  The National Defense Highways—now known as Interstate Highways—were created largely because General Eisenhower observed the efficiency of the German Autobahn during World War II, a system that enabled Germany to move tanks, soldiers, and supplies efficiently in wartime.  He envisioned a similar but necessarily vaster system for America, and the original 1956 plan called for 41,000 miles of interstate highways (we now have slightly more than that).  These highways would have limited access and acceleration lanes to make them faster for travelers.  Several defense considerations were important for design of the highways.  One mile in five (wherever possible) was to be straight so that it could be used as an airstrip in the event of a war or other national emergency.  These roads were to be the mass evacuation corridors from major cities in the event of a nuclear war (remember, war with the Soviets was considered possible—if not probable—in that Cold War era), so the design for speed was of critical importance.  I understand also that the design of separated roadways with a median was so that if the road was bombed with conventional weapons, at least one of the two corridors was likely to survive the bombing.  Similarly, large bridges combining all the lanes would have been more cost-efficient than the parallel bridges (for, say, the eastbound and westbound lanes), but would be less likely to survive an air attack.  Fascinating history; here is a place to start reading about it:  http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/ndhs.htm  

The Interstates dramatically changed life in America.  The interchanges proved to be great places for gas stations and fast food to serve the ever-increasing traffic.  Huge illuminated billboards cropped up to tell us of casinos and motels and attractions ahead.  Big box stores settled in along interstate corridors, using the benefits of proximity.  Downtown businesses struggled or died.  Blue highways became local instead of national routes and homespun roadside attractions became dinosaurs.  Route 66 became mostly a nostalgic memory of an earlier time.

The interstates allow me to travel rapidly from art show to art show (and indeed enabled the whole outdoor art show phenomenon), so I’m going to pause a moment and thank President Eisenhower for his vision in creating this national highway resource that has, in his words, “changed the face of America.”

At last I have arrived in New Jersey after traveling through six states today.