Thursday, July 23, 2015

Unexpected Garden Glamour: Runway Monardas

I am fickle when it comes to plants. One year it was Polemoniums, the next Astilbes, then Pieris, and Penstemons.  I shopped for them as though I'd just discovered a rare beauty and needed to populate my gardens with my new obsessions before the world caught on.  But soon I'd tire of my favorites and find my eye wandering to a newer cultivar, a more appealing hue, a plant with a truer sense of style.

It never occurred to me that the feathery, bee-laden Monardas happily populating the sunnier patches of my landscape were the stuff of Haute Horticouture.  Too common. Too artless. Too friendly.
 But then I noticed the dynamic pose struck by this young Bee Balm.  One leaf gestures with confidence, arrow-head straight, while the other is gently rounded, pointing earthwards.  The red, tubular flowers reveal themselves gradually, with just the suggestion of a double emerging from its crown.  How could I have missed this!?

Not long after, this other specimen took center stage, and could hardly be more alluring.  Here was a more mature sense of self-possession, knowing how much (or how little) to reveal.  How much stem to show in order to balance out the sly tilt of the double (veiled by the artfully veined sepals).  She even knew which way to turn for the most flattering light.  My admiration knew no bounds.

However, all this flash and attitude has its limits.  I was beginning to ache for a quieter, more subtle expression.  And, on the other side of my propane tank, I found the soft beauty I was looking for.

Monarda didyma 'Blaustrumpf'

These two charming 'Blaustrumpf's glowed with an innocent yet powerful grace.  They drew me to the shade, to the subtlety of flat, even light, to a more natural look.  No artifice here.  A pose without posing.  Naked existence as elegance.  With the tank providing a nice, neutral backdrop, I'd even discovered a new approach to domestic landscape photography:  
Industrial Chic for the Garden

Alas, I find I have a limited tolerance for youth's scrubbed, pretty face and admit to a weakness for the more theatrical side of nature.  (And the propane guy had just arrived to fill the tank).  So this jester's hat of a Bee Balm bloom brought me back into the sun.  No secrets here, just the generous eruption of scarlet petals in a sea of unfocused green.

But I am no shallow photographer.  I can appreciate the wisdom, complexity, and, yes, the prickly peace of age.  This Monarda seedhead has one last red petal hanging on as a reminder of earlier days--a week or so before.  What remains is Nature's ultimate sculpture, the repository of future generations.  Too soon powdery mildew will leave my once buoyant models beyond  even Photoshop's rejuvenative skills.  And, once again, I am left to haunt the nurseries for fresh faces and new inspirations. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Intimations of Forgotten Worlds: Plant Design Without a Decoder Ring

The Los Angeles neighborhood of my childhood was not my true home; I was certain of it. That's not to say that I felt/hoped/believed myself to have been adopted. No, I was certain I was disguised (against my will) as human.  
So everyday I searched for signs in the garden, convinced my real lineage was seared here and there into the flesh of this earth, in this dimension. And one day those clues would be revealed, and I would know and in that instant be transported home to my real family in my true form.  Sometimes the message would be in a massing of petals in the cracks between middle-class patio stones. 

Other times I'd notice the way bare shrub branches curved against a mossy wall.

As I grew a bit older, the messages became more complicated, the syntax of limbs and lichen, rigid  stone and flowing wood confounding my best efforts to decipher the code surely left for me.

Even simple tree trunks drew yet resisted my attention.

The years passed and the evidence that I was simply a human female gained credibility, while the symbols promising a more genuine sense of myself remained inscrutable.  I didn't even have a superpower; and tree bark became just tree bark.

However, once I picked up a camera, plant portraits soon took the place of family vacation snapshots.   Studying these silent images through a lens seemed to bring something into focus. 

Water drops became worlds and leaf surfaces were dark matter revealed.

And even flower petals hinted at an ancient writing system. 

   Or they're just a way of attracting pollinators.  And rain that beads up on leaves says more about surface tension and texture than interstellar mapping.  And tree bark is the skin of tree guts.  I know this.  

But I also know that imagination sometimes feels like memory.  And memories can shape the deepest parts of ourselves.

I'm also someone who if (when?) she heard that distinctive Tardis wheeze, would SO turn around expecting to see Doctor Who. First I'd demand to know what took him so long, and then all those lost languages and unreadable texts would come into focus.  I'd remember who and what I was.  And I would be home.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Go For the Blur

  Photographers can get obsessed with sharpness and with good reason.  Eyes, in my experience, seem to want to concentrate on what takes the least amount of work. Staring at something that's blurry is tiring.  So eyes will search for a focal point (like autofocus in a camera), moving around the visual field, pulling in and out until they can achieve that place where seeing is effortless and the subject is clear.  No matter the depth of field (the distance between the closest and furthest objects that remain in focus), having the thing you want viewers to gravitate to completely in focus makes sense. Also, sharp photos just look nice.

It's definitely easier to get a subject in focus if that subject holds still.  Here's a picture of Bailey (note the shallow depth-of-field--cat eyes and nose sharp while flowers and cat body not so much).  He is not holding still for me; I believe he is focusing elsewhere, like on a vole or a bug.  So he is holding still so as not to scare off his potential prey.  No matter; he stopped moving long enough for me to take a sharp photo.

However, I mostly shoot pictures of plants, and shouting "stop moving" doesn't really work all that well (it doesn't work on cats either). So a crucial problem anyone who likes to shoot plants has is that they have a tendency to respond quite quickly to their immediate environment.  And as much as I enjoy breathing, air makes my job a lot harder. It just takes a whiff for my subject to shimmy. And all the tripods and remote shutter releases in the world won't help. If I can't use a fast shutter speed, I've got to sacrifice the depth of field I want, and if I up the ISO I'll have to deal with noise (sorry for the tech-speak--just trust me; it's a thing). This means I spend a lot of time waiting for the breezes to subside, which is pleasant, I admit. But it can get frustrating too.

Bellingham has been having a very unusual heat wave. And here in my little microclimate from hell, it's been oven-hot. NOT what I moved north from Los Angeles for. So standing outside in a breeze this morning was heaven . . . and then, not so much because I was trying to photograph flowers on stalks. No polite flutters and then the calm. These suckers just wave around like they're hailing a cab in a crowd after an Everly Brothers Reunion concert. After a lot of waiting, fidgeting, resetting settings, and more waiting, I decided toss my plans to the winds, use a slow shutter speed, and see what the blurs would look like.

Here's a Veronica spicata 'Ulster Blue Dwarf', also known as Speedwell.  No wind.  Sharp(ish) focus on the closest stalk.

Now, here comes the wind.  Yes, the focused one was taken earlier in the season, but let's not quibble. 

  This is what is known as "blur."  If you move your eyes back and forth, from the sharp one to the blurry one and back really quickly, the blurry one will start to look more like painting.  Or like a blurry photo.
OK.  Let's try again.  Below is a photo of another Veronica spicata but now a 'Giles van Hees'.
 And here comes the wind:

At this point I'm going to provide some information to distract you.  I did not know that Veronica wasn't the  common name, but the genus.  Although no one seems willing to go on record as being certain, most of the sources I consulted agreed that the name was probably associated with the Veronica who it was said gave Jesus her veil to wipe his forehead on his way to Calvary.  When he returned it, the cloth supposedly bore his likeness: vera icon = true image.  As for naming the plant after her or the cloth, that becomes a little less clear (yes, pun/reference intended here to show that this IS all connected to my topic).  Some sources say that the likeness on the veil resembled the flowers of the plant.  Sharp or blurry, I just don't quite see it.  Now the common name--Speedwell--makes a bit more sense.  As an medicinal herb, it is purported to have several healing qualities--much like an Christian icon might have for some believers.

So what I have taken away from my little experiment:  While some blurs can work artistically or can be used to convey a sense of motion, I think I'd rather wait out most breezes and attempt to catch the moment when my Speedwell holds still. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Doors of Reflection

Doors are welcoming, forbidding, challenging, simple,
and filled with potential.  Well, not the doors themselves.  It's what they lead to, or might lead to, or might not. And all those possibilities that lie on the other side of that door, all of them live in your head, occupying the same space at the same time (string theory, anyone?). Because you just don't know for sure.  Of course you could simply turn the handle and find out.  However, opening the door and stepping through stops that activity cold. You have your one and only answer.

Sometimes it's better to wait a few minutes, sit in imagination, and conjure up the rooms on the other side.  This lilac painted door below could open onto an elaborate garden shed filled with shelves of hand-painted pots and trays of herb seedlings, or it might reveal a converted barn, furnished tastefully (if austerely) in minimalist Tuscan. 


I wonder how dark this basement-level apartment to the right is.  All the light seems to be living outdoors with the plants, huddled against the walls of the subterranean courtyard.  I'd guess that the inhabitants might want to spend all their time outside, tending the flower pots, chatting with each other, but there aren't any chairs.

The climbing roses brighten and scent this entry, but the door looks like it would take not just a key but a pretty strong shove to open,  resisting all visitors (unless they came bearing cake).  And yet, the chair on the right might suggest that the owner likes spending time out front, welcoming company, but it could also say, "Wait here while I consider my options."

I've spent a lot of time behind closed doors in my life. I like my privacy. I like to feel quiet and safe.  I like wandering the halls of my mind, uninterrupted--unless someone is offering cake.

When you've spent years indoors, the out-of-doors can be a bit, well, unnerving because the outside, the stuff on the other-side of your side, is always changing. Indoors, unless someone likes redecorating, can stay exactly the same (except for the odd cake crumb). But outdoors changes with the season, time of day, and weather (a subset of the prior two). Open the door twice, three times, fifty times, and you'll always be surprised.
Then there are garden doors.
This wooden door on the right looks as strong and almost as forbidding as the one above.  Both have brick walls and plants softening the angles with their green curves.  But when one knows (or at least has a pretty good hunch) that this door opens onto more of the same, well then, the surprise is always a good one.  There might as well be no door at all, as with this archway below.  
Garden doors have this advantage; there is no inside and outside.  There is only this garden and that garden and the narrow space formed by the arch or doorway to huddle in when it rains.

But my favorite really is the heavy door that stands slightly ajar.  There is that moment of expectation experienced from that place of safety and imagination.  Possibilities exist, change, and grow, just a step or two away.

Okay.  Yes, I know this door is wide open, not "slightly ajar," but I like this photo, and you get the idea.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Benched: Rethinking Gardens, Photography, and Blogging

Bodnant Garden, North Wales

It's been nine months since my last blog post, and I confess (couldn't resist, sorry) that I didn't think I'd be coming back. But after reading some posts about the Toronto Garden Bloggers' Fling and especially about the talk Gayla Trail gave about resisting/rejecting the urge to make money and/or accrue followers, I felt the urge to rethink my approach. 

Garden Path at Snowshill Manor in The Cotswolds
Bodnant Garden
 Add to that the fact that I've been riding the photography roller-coaster known as microstock since January. This is the field where you get micro-pay for taking technically perfect (at the friggin' pixel level) photos of stuff other people might want to use to illustrate [fill in blank]. 

While I learned a lot and improved a lot, I found myself taking way too many shots of gravel, tree bark, doors, and hands planting flowers with lots of space to the left or right. I also spent too much time staring at noise, pixels, and things I had no names for and couldn't see at reasonable sizes.
Even my flower portraits were reduced to colored squares and fuzzy stuff. There were few real ideas and no love.  And I was rejecting shots that didn't fit the microstock commercial mold or meet the technical requirements.  But what about my requirements?  They receded--as did I--further and further into the background.

The Glades, Surrey, Canada
Maybe I'm approaching this all wrong. There are just too many people with too many cameras to "compete." Anyone can take a picture. Mine aren't the best or the worst, and the somewhere in between is too broad and varied a field to even begin discussing. But I still like to take pictures of things I like looking at.
I garden. Not well, not often enough for public display. But I like looking at plants and digging around in the dirt.  I enjoy growing things, and when I end up killing some of the things I tried to grow, I enjoy learning about why they died.
I can put words together better than some but not enough words or often enough.

So I have some skills, and I have some activities I sometimes let myself enjoy.  And I still have a blog--at least I still have the name and the space.

So I'm going to find a nice bench in a garden, sit awhile, and think my own thoughts.  And enjoy the view.

Hidcote Manor Garden, Gloucestershire

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cataract Surgery: It's REALLY BRIGHT out there!

I had no idea I had cataracts until about 2 years ago when my optometrist informed me that they were starting to show up. Since, for most people, cataracts grow slowly, he told me I'd have nothing to worry about for several years. However, I am not most people, and mine responded like Creeping Buttercup on MiracleGro. My surgeries were done in July.

Let me say again that I hadn't a clue that my eyesight was impaired more than needing distance glasses and reading glasses . . . and computer glasses (that also doubled as my "cooking glasses" for chopping and measuring, etc.). But after the first surgery (on the particularly bad left eye), trite or not, a whole new world opened up! My eyes became a kind of toy: I'd go around covering up one eye and then switching. The difference was stunning! My "new" left eye beheld a bright--almost too bright--world with whites whiter than I remembered. Colors popped, especially pinks, reds, and blues. When I changed and looked through my right eye alone it was as if a dull, brownish haze had settled over everything. I walked around shifting hands and eyes and laughing like some sort of demented eye-chart patient.

For this blog, I'd wanted to find images for before-and-after examples of my pre- and post-surgical light and color vision, but that wasn't really possible. Although I shoot a lot of my macro pictures in manual, I still rely on at least some exposure information from my camera. And later, when I did post-processing in Lightroom, the Histogram (a graph display of brightness levels) kept me from blowing out (over-exposing and washing out) the whites when I tried to increase the exposure of images that looked awfully dark to me. As for color, I guess I mostly just accepted what I saw.


What I've done here is use images I took between the two surgeries (yes, I had to go back and forth between my eyes) to attempt to give you an idea of the change. A little extreme, maybe, but not too terribly far off the mark.

As mentioned above, blues and reds, pinks and purples all popped. Greens didn't change that much. But everything was brighter, MUCH brighter.

While I am ecstatic about the almost psychedelic world I'm now seeing (I really do walk around saying "oh wow, like wow"), I'd opted for vision correction in addition to cataract removal. So one less pair of glasses is one or two more procedures away, and, right now, none of my glasses work. The world is bright, colorful, but not as clear as it will be.  
Something more to look forward to.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Winter Flowering: Pink Dawn Viburnum

My three Pink Dawn Viburnums (Viburnum x bodnantense 'Pink Dawn') started to bud on December 24, 2013, but didn't get around to letting a flower peak through until mid-February. 

I figured I'd write a blog about them as soon as I had a range of photos, but what to write? I researched (Googled and went through all my books) trying to find something odd or interesting or, at least, oddly interesting, but no luck. 

  Early to flower, light fragrance, zones 5-7, 8 or 9--depending on the source--nice fall color, cross between V. farreri and V. grandiflorum, etc. Fine, all fine, but why post photos and info when the info was everywhere? This isn't what I wanted my blog to be.

As I was doing the dishes today, I realized what I could say (this sort of thing always seems to happen when I'm washing the dishes or in the shower. Something about water? Difficulty in holding a pen and dousing a notepad suggests inspiration?) And what I could say is the following:

I love to walk into mature gardens filled with open flowers. All those shapes and all that color is just one enormous, loud "Hi there!" All those "faces" are like friends of-the-moment, made at an especially fun party. The kind of effortless, immediate camaraderie that feels like an unexpected gift.
Yeah.  Well.  I love those moments, I do.  But there's something in me--as mostly a Macro photographer--that needs to plan, work ( and suffer ) for longer, perhaps deeper relationships.  I like to take time, get as close as possible to individual plants, destroy my knees, and photograph that conversation.

 So these photos, taken from early bud to last sagging flowers, reflect my relationship with my Pink Dawns over these last few months. 

The buds, with all their fuzzy bits and pink bits and green bits, intrigued and excited me at first.  It was hard to tell what would unfold where.  But the weeks went on and on and my impatience and frustration grew.  Would they never open?  Would they just dry up and just fall off in the cold?

Then one morning in February when I walked out into the garden for a bud-check, the fuzzy bits had peeled back and the pink bits had pushed out and open.  Just a few, but enough to give me hope (and a few shots).

However, not longer after, we got slammed by 18 inches of snow (see my March 3rd post for what that looked like).  I couldn't even locate the plants much less the fragile blooms.

But when the snow finally melted and the sun came back, the flowers quickly multiplied, with the wind rarely letting them hold still long enough for decent shots! 


When the little trumpet blooms were so much paler than the buds it all seemed pointless, until they multiplied and scented the air (if you stuck your nose right into them--easy enough to do when you're on your knees, inches from them). And lastly--at this point--all the buds opened to a sigh and a sag. All that effort. Surely it was worth it.
But don't get me wrong. In the right mood, I can definitely enjoy a big, crazy party with lots of superficial relationships!