Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Smoky Mountain Rain

A gentle rain fell most of Monday morning in the Smoky Mountains, so we slept in for all of 30 minutes, and got to eat breakfast sitting down before heading out to Cades Cove. The Cove is one of the most photographed locations in the Park, without a doubt, so I was eager to see if my shots would look as good as others. The light qualified as both "soft" and "wet", and the mountaintops were often hidden behind the low clouds.
The Oliver Cabin is the first structure on the 11 mile driving loop. We had to watch carefully to avoid taking pictures of other photographers taking pictures of the cabin.
I liked the end of this log on a cabin. You can still see the ax marks made when the tree was felled almost 200 years ago.
We practiced the elements of composition in our photos this weekend. A curve or diagonal line to draw the viewer's eye into the shot is always a plus. The Rule of Thirds says to avoid putting the subject of the shot into the middle of the frame, but offset it a bit. My camera has a tic-tac-toe grid to display in the view finder to help line things up. When composing the shot, always consider the background as well. Avoid any distractions, such as twigs or seeds where they don't belong. Move some sticks out of the way, if necessary. Give the subject's "face" room to look into, and yes, even flowers "face" in some direction. If there is a tip of something else protruding, decide whether to include more of it, or to eliminate it all together. If you pay attention, you can do this on site, otherwise Photoshop comes to the rescue.
Some photographers spend a lot of money on macro lenses to get close-ups. I often use my zoom lens for the same purpose, but have to back away more than six feet for the zoom to focus. I love the delicate details in a flower.
Maindenhair ferns grow along the roadsides, and fortunately the Park leaves lots of pull-offs so you don't get run over when going back for a shot you saw in passing.
The low clouds and rain required special attention when setting the camera for a shot. Automatic programs might have compensated, but we were trying to do everything with manual settings as much as possible. (Get ready, I'm going to explain the technical side of photography. If you already know this, feel free to jump down.) Three settings can be adjusted to allow just the amount of light you need into the camera lens. The first is the Aperture - the hole that allows light to enter the lens. The Shutter controls how long that hole is open, and thus the amount of light entering the lens. The third item is the ISO setting. In film days, the ISO was a part of the film, and controlled how sensitive the film was to light. In digital photography, this is a setting that can be changed as desired. The darker the light, the higher your ISO goes to compensate. The first turkey picture was taken with ISO 200, and the second with ISO 400. No other settings were changed, but look at the difference this makes. I was proud of myself for remembering it!
Landscapes and flowers make terrific non-moving subjects for a photograph, but I love animals, especially birds. Somehow, the park rangers have trained all the animals on how to avoid having your photo taken, or at least a good photo. Number one lesson, stand between two trees so that your whole body cannot be seen. Extra points are awarded to animals that keep their head hidden, showing only the side or rump.
Lesson two, always stand behind brush, sticks or leaves, so that at least one of these prevents a clear shot of the animal without resorting to Photoshop to clone out the impediment. Lesson three, keep your head to the ground as much as possible. Do not look up so the photographer can see your eyes, or you will be followed around for a much longer time. Lesson four, no many how many people point cameras at you, stay cool and just ignore them. This bear had at least 25-30 people with cameras pointed at him, but he just continued grazing. This tactic teaches the photographers patience. Lesson five, keep moving. The turkeys are great at this. If the photographer doesn't know how to change settings quickly, all their photos will be blurred. Extra points also are awarded to the animals who created blurry photos. Just think how silly photographers look running down a road, tripod legs fully extended, splashing in puddles because they aren't watching where they step. These three Toms walked down the field together, stretching out their head in unison every time they gobbled. It looks like a Turkey Lake ballet!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Let There Be Light!

It's 5:00 am at the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont, and alarms ring in the darkness, awakening the women asleep in the dormitory. We struggle into clothes and stagger to get on the van. Stars shine by the billions in the black sky. By 6:30 we are at the pull-off on the Foothills Parkway, yawning as we set up tripods and wait for the dawn. "Coffee is ready!" calls Josh, and we all rush for a cup, followed by breakfast from the back of the van.
Finally, someone shouts, "Here comes the sun! Get ready for some great shots!" Click, click, click, click, click echo the shutters. Oh, wow! After yesterday morning's clouds and flat light, I am jumping up and down in excitement. Yesterday, the sunrise was covered by clouds, which cleared up later in the morning, but it stormed most of the afternoon and all night. Today, we reap the photographic benefit of the passing storm front. Now I understand why people worshipped the Sun God.
This is the Photography Workshop at the Institute, attended by photographers varying in skill from beginning through intermediate to professionals. We all expressed interest in learning about light and composition. The leaders encouraged us wimps to get off the built-in program, and use manual settings and a tripod, neither of which I usually do of course.
We learned that there is soft light and hard light, wet light and dry light, adjectives that I normally would not apply to light. But it makes sense the way the instructor explained it. He likes light on an angle, at sunrise or sunset, backlighting, and wet light during a fog or rain. Well, we certainly had plenty of that wet light! He further recommends that we learn to interpret the weather forcast for ourselves, to know whether it will be worthwhile to get up at 5:00 in the morning or not. I didn't think there was enough light at all, under the trees, and had little to no luck focusing because it was too dark. But aha! I later learned that I can crank the ISO up to 400 to make a difference in all the settings. Full of despair, I donned my raincoat, put a shower cap over my camera, and with tripod over my shoulder, headed up the Waterfall Trail behind the Institute. As I puff and pant towards the top of the ridge, the wind blows at gale force, or so it sounds to me. Ford those creeks! A tripod also makes a pretty good hiking stick, and can be used as a monopod on a narrow trail. At one point, the Park Service stretched a log with small steps carved in it across a steep part in the trail. Gulp! There's a lot of down on this trail! Be brave, I tell myself, you can do this, and I forge on. The waterfall is worth the effort, and a Northern Water Thrush sings his congratulations for my courage.
Today, the sun and clouds are perfect! After last night's storms, everything is saturated, so fog and mist rise as the sun warms the earth. The spring trees have color too. You don't have to wait till fall in the Smokies to see color.
It's just like all the photos our instructors showed us last night! The birds are excited too, singing from trees and brush along the road. A Whippoorwill starts, joined by a Brown Thrush, Northern Cardinal and Carolina Wren. A Black and White Warbler sings a high weesa, weesa, weesa, to counter the deep gobble, gobble, gobble of Turkeys down the hill from us. It is just too cool!
The last of the clouds speed away over distant ridges, made clear and distinct by the low angle of the sunlight. By golly, he's right when he talks about soft light!
Spring in the Smoky Mountains is full of wildflowers, of course. Yellow Trilliums bloom in abundance right outside the dining hall. Dwarf Crested Iris carpet the hillsides.
As the sun rises, and the shadows move, I glance behind to see a small flash of pink among the trees. What's that? Pink Azaleas! How wonderful, since the Rhododendrons haven't even started to bud yet.
I spend the late morning sorting through about 300 photos from the morning's shoot, trying to edit and choose only THREE for the class critique this afternoon. Then I hope we will go out again. Cades Cove? Haven't been there for years and years. Tomorrow before I leave, I want to take another trail with Trilliums. Then Gabby the GPS will direct me home again.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

'Tis the Gift to be Simple

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, 'twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained to bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed, to turn, turn, will be our delight till by turning, turning we come round right.

~Shaker Hymn, used in Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, near Harrodsburg, Ky, is America's largest restored Shaker community, and we spent a remarkable weekend there learning about this unusual group of people. I could get into history lecture mode, but will resist the urge. Instead, I encourage you to visit their website that goes into detail on the growth and decline of this religious group. The Shakers arrived in America from England just prior to the Revolutionary War. In 1805, a group of Shakers came to central Kentucky and established a village they named Pleasant Hill. Although the population peaked at almost 500 in the 1820s, the community thrived well past the mid-nineteenth century, acquiring over 4,000 acres of farmland. However, after the 1860s, changing social attitudes and the Industrial Revolution led to the community's decline.
Today we tend to think of religious sects or "cults" as being conservative in nature, eschewing modern conveniences and technology. The Shakers, however, were quite radical for the times. They practiced celibacy, pacifism, communal living, and the equality of women and men, recognizing the feminine side of God. They accepted all who asked to join them, although not all signed the covenant to live by all their practices, and would soon move on. They raised and educated any children who came their way, and taught each a trade. About a third of those children stayed on. They fed and cared for soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, and the Perryville battlefield (Kentucky's only) is not too far away.
In agrarian Kentucky, the Shakers could build a house large enough for 80 "family" members to live, with running water and iron stoves to heat the rooms, while most other frontier people felt themselves elite to have a wood floor instead of a dirt floor for their two room log cabins. The Shakers started about the same time Abraham Lincoln was born not too far away. They invented many devises, including the circular saw and the flat-sided broom.
One adage that summarized their lives is Hands to Work, Hearts to God. They viewed their work and crafts as prayer, and perfection in everything was their goal. Shaker architecture and furniture are well known, particularly in Kentucky. The spiral staircase in the Trustees House is enough to make you dizzy when taking a photo straight up! At Sunday Meeting, they sat in silence, until the spirit moved them. Then it was joyful song and dance - with the sexes carefully separate from each other, of course. Ken Burns has a wonderful video he did for PBS in 1985 about the Shakers. If you get an opportunity, I highly recommend it.
The Center Family House now holds the museum of Shaker life. Everything was designed to be simple and useful. The many pegs on the walls of each room could hold clothes or chairs so the floor could be kept perfectly clean. Only the floor in the cellar is a replacement. All others are original to the building's 1824-1834 construction. The community closed in 1910 and the property was sold to private holders. The Meeting House was used as an automotive garage for a while, and the other buildings had various uses, or just sat vacant, yet when restored, they maintained the structural integrity built in by the Shakers.
Historical interpreters and re-enactors bring the Shakers to life again, making us think hard about our own lives and beliefs. Most people laugh and shake their heads when they first learn that the Shakers were celibate. How in the world did they expect to establish a religion that would last without marriage and children? Isn't that suicidal for their beliefs? Yet, how much time and effort do people devote to pleasing the opposite sex, or dominating and manipulating them, when that time could be spent devoted to God? I can see that women in bad marriages especially would find this very attractive doctrine. Sometimes entire families would be converted. The adults dissolved their marriage and became brothers and sisters, while the children went to live in the children's dormitories.
The Inn at Shaker Village hosts 70 guest rooms in the restored buildings, full of Shaker charm and modern conveniences. Our bedroom here was enormous, and we laughed that the Shakers probably housed 12 people in it! You can easily picture a peaceful life in the 1800's, complete with agrarian aromas if the wind blows in the right direction. As a birder, I loved hearing the Bob Whites and Meadow Larks right outside our room!

I could probably go on and on about the Shakers, but I'll let this interpreter finish for me. Just click the Play button, and remember, 'Tis the Gift to be Simple.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Flower Bowl

Most birders have had a mountain-top experience while birding. You know, the kind where you see more cool birds than you've ever seen before, and you jump up and down in excitement. Well, I do that any way...Today I had one of those experiences, but with wildflowers!
Raven Run Nature Sanctuary contains over 700 acres on the palisades of the Kentucky River, operated by Lexington, Ky, Parks and Recreation in Fayette County. Most importantly, more wildflowers grow there than I have ever, ever, EVER seen in one spot in my life!! The Phlox have a fragrance similar to lilacs, so the entire trail smelled just wonderful. I have got to get Tavia the Flower Woman here before they finish blooming.
I suppose that this area has not been farmed or timbered for a long time, to have this many flowers and so few invasives. Is this what it looked like when the pioneers arrived? How spectacular! At the top of the hill, the trail went along more open fields, and the now familiar invasives started taking over again, to our dismay.
One spot is called the Flower Bowl, and wildflowers grow up and down the hillside for at least half a mile. Double click this photo to enlarge it and see how many different species of flowers you can find. I don't have any answer, and there's no prize for the highest number. Just give it a try and have fun!
One spot on the trail overlooks the palisades on the Kentucky River. Despite my fear of heights, we went out to the edge, and I found a Columbine in full bloom, hanging over the edge of the rocks. Straddling a convenient tree which also hung over the edge, I braced myself to lean over for a picture.
We also found huge ammonite fossils. The entire area of the Bluegrass in central Kentucky is known as the Cincinnati Arch to geologists and rock hounds. A strata of Ordovincian rock, far older than those at the Falls of the Ohio, has uplifted into visibility, so really old, ancient fossils are easy to find.
We picked up a list of wildflowers that bloom from February to April, and saw and identified 32 of 41 wildflowers, not including the non-native plants and leaves of those already finished blooming! I haven't started a life list for wildflowers yet, but maybe this is the time to begin!
I'm used to primarily white or yellow wildflowers in the spring, but these blue and purple flowers just blew me away!