June 27, 2008 Straight-line Winds Rip Omaha Artists

For the past decade I have traveled extensively across America, selling my photography at art shows and photographing details of the landscape between shows.  During this time it has been the Great Plains that have made me the most nervous because the weather can be so intense.  During one show in Fort Worth, Texas, I remember seeing a skyscraper that had all of its windows blown out by a tornado, leaving small shards of glass in every garden downtown.  That storm didn’t occur on an art show weekend, but the cars around Texas deeply dented by grapefruit-sized hail were a reminder of what could happen.  So it was with some trepidation that I came to Omaha for the Omaha Summer Arts Festival in the stormy early summer of 2008, and set up my booth with about 130 other artists.

The first day of the show started nicely, with warm temperatures and mild gusts, but there were just a few clouds in the sky.  Then, in late afternoon when the weather was still pleasant, a tornado siren started blaring continuously nearby.  Soon a staff member came to each booth and said that 70 mph winds were about 25 miles out and were headed our way–and to get ready for the storm.  I didn’t hesitate; I hauled all my boxes and other gear inside the tent and “battened down the hatches” (I had been hit by straight line winds in Omaha several years ago, and knew what they could do).  Then the staff person said to take refuge in the Landmark Building immediately, so I headed that way, snapping a few cell phone pictures of the oncoming storm.  The dark clouds were ominous.

Inside, we were herded (or as much as artists can be herded!) down into the basement of the building, where we waited, and waited, for the storm to pass overhead.  We heard reports of 90 mph winds and golf ball-sized hail nearby, then someone said the huge beer tent outside had toppled.  One artist said he had gone up and looked out and his booth had been destroyed.  I called my wife on my iPhone and told her the situation, and virtually everyone else was chatting with family and friends on their cell phones.  

Finally, after about an hour, and rumors of another storm approaching, we trooped outside to assess the damage.  It was extensive in some areas of the show, with a great many artists losing weeks or months of work.  Tent poles were twisted and display panels collapsed and tents torn up and artwork soggy and broken.  It was so sad.  Most of the artists have insurance that will cover the broken display structures, but generally it only covers the cost of art materials rather than the retail price of the works of art, so the cost of labor is not compensated.  For those artists who lost nearly everything at the show, it means a major loss of income.  Those of us in this profession live on the edge, often unable to afford some of the benefits that most workers are accustomed to, so a storm like this can be devastating.

By the way, I was lucky; my booth survived, mostly because the location was perhaps a bit less windy.  The straight-line winds from the thunderstorm were clocked at 80 mph.

The staff and administration and volunteers at this art show did an excellent job of warning people of the incoming storm.  They had plans in place for bad weather and executed those plans well.  After the storm they had a meeting with the artists and laid out the plan for the night and the next day.  They handled it well, and I thank them.  Nobody at the show was hurt, thank God.

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.

June 12, 2008 Prehistoric Moments with a Living Fossil


There are sights that take you back millions of years in a moment.  Today I was looking for photographs along a trail to Willow Falls in Willow River State Park near Hudson, Wisconsin.  When I walked around a bend, I saw a huge turtle in the trail.  I had not seen a Snapping Turtle so big since I worked at Beaver Lake Nature Center in upstate New York, and this was a monster.  The shell would have measured about a foot long, had I dared to lay a ruler along its back.  I didn’t, because these turtles have much quicker reflexes than you might think, and their bite is reputed to be able to remove a finger.  I’d rather not find out the hard way!  Female Snapping Turtles emerge from slow rivers and lakes in June to lay their eggs.  Cumbersome on land, a snapper lumbers along with difficulty until it finds just the right soft patch of earth to dig a hole for the eggs, which are roughly the size, shape, and color of ping pong balls.  The tail is about as long as the shell, and has big plates reminiscent of the Stegosaurus dinosaur.  The head is massive, and has patterns that probably act as underwater camouflage.   The claws are long and sharp–reminding me of bear claws–and are used for digging.

Fear necessitated longer lenses, so I photographed with a 100 mm macro lens (perhaps a bit too short for safety), a 24-105 mm zoom, and a 70-200 mm zoom with an extension tube to allow closer focusing.  This turtle stayed in one spot for nearly an hour, but then started moving up the trail, which gave me opportunities to photograph it in different light and with varied backgrounds.  I took a few pictures from above, to record the human perspective, but my most evocative pictures are those where I laid down on the ground, viewing the creature’s face from eye level.  I’m still dirty from head to toe as a result, but the photographs are good.  

There is one rule of wildlife photography that even a rule-breaker like me feels obliged to obey, and that is to get the creature’s eye in sharp focus, whether it is a reptile, mammal, bird, or insect.  Humans and many other species look at eyes as windows on the soul of intent (remember when President Bush looked into the eyes of Russian President Putin and proclaimed that “I looked the man in the eye … I was able to get a sense of his soul”), so a view of the eyes is crucial to our perceived relationship to another individual or an animal.  Turtle shells, mammal hair, bird feathers, and other details can be out of focus, but the photographer had better remember to get those eyes as sharp as possible!

A young family with four children came up to me while I was photographing; I explained what the Snapping Turtle was doing and suggested that they could safely walk around it at a distance of about five feet.  One little boy, perhaps seven years old, had big and fearful eyes.  He wouldn’t walk past the turtle until I and his Dad escorted him safely past.  He will remember that moment, and how his older brother said the turtle looked like a dinosaur.  The family had just seen another wonderful sight–a deer wading in the river, its summer coat beautifully lit by the low sun, eating water plants.  What a wonderful and evocative hike for these children!  [Please, parents, spend a great deal of quality time outdoors with your children and it will pay them back with a lifetime of love for their world].

I encountered a second Snapping Turtle as big as the first along the same trail.  It had just emerged from the river and was still glistening wet; it even still had a bloodsucker clinging to its shell.  There was a water weed draped over the shell that I knew would be unsightly in a photograph, so I approached the turtle from behind and pulled the weed off.  This turtle instantly reacted, turning around and lunging at my hand.  Fortunately I was quicker.  This turtle would not stand still for a portrait, so I grabbed a few shots before it galloped away (if you can imagine a big turtle galloping!) and splashed into the wetland pond across the trail.

Other prehistoric moments along the trail included hearing Gray Treefrogs warbling like birds in the trees and shrubs all around me–perhaps half-a-dozen at once.  And Bullfrogs rumbling with resonant tones.  And Green Frogs with their calls that naturalists describe as being like “plucked banjo strings.”  A Painted Turtle sunned its chilled body on a log.  A Great Egret waded patiently in the river shallows.  These species have all survived millions upon millions of years in strings of slow and endless evolution.  

Earlier in the day, I passed through some low hills in Wisconsin that have been mined for iron ore.  These remnant mountains and their ore deposits are said to be 2.5 billion years old–talk about a prehistoric moment!  But nothing brought home a link to the distant past as seeing that living fossil–the Snapping 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.