Back to Basics vs the Power of Progress

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It seems that nowadays many of us are trying to simplify our lives.  Downsizing, going green, eating organic – in general trying to get back to our roots, live naturally and have less of a negative impact on this beautiful planet we call home.  I applaud all of this awareness and back to nature stuff.  What I don’t get is the irony of how photography seems to have gone in the opposite direction.  With digital cameras and computer programs, the ability to manipulate and alter photos has gone a little crazy.  From landscapes that have an eerie ethereal glow to overly processed images pushed to the point of breakage and beyond, people seem to have gotten a little carried away. Bigger, brighter and bolder obviously must be better. 

With all of this post processing craziness, I started to wonder how my photography stacked up.  Was I out of control as well?  I try my best not to over process my images, but us humans seem to be attracted to bright shiny things.

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This whole thought process brought about an idea for a new project.  I thought it might be fun to get some film and see just how different the results would be when compared to my normal routine of post-processing digital images.  Just how far have I strayed from the basics? So I headed to the upstairs closet to dig out and dust off my old 35mm camera and then to the camera store for batteries and film. 

ha ha tonka 1(s)Once I heard the snap of the shutter and whirl of the film advancing, it brought back so many good memories I couldn’t help but smile to myself. But it also brought back memories of just how limiting it is to shoot with film.  I can store hundreds of images on my SD card, but there are only 24 exposures per roll of film.  We really had to think about what we were shooting back in the day.  Luckily I had my digital camera along for the ride to pick up the slack. 

In the end, I shot two rolls of film at two separate state parks, for a whopping total of 48 shots. After finding out that local drug stores no longer return your negatives, I made my way back to the camera store for development. Here’s the kicker, I paid $12 for 4 rolls of color film, and it cost $18/roll to get prints, negatives and a cd.  Now I feel much more justified having bought a pricey digital camera.  It basically pays for itself since you no longer have the ongoing expense of film and developing.  IMG_3271

After a couple days, I returned to the camera store to pick up my prize.  Mixed emotions ran through my mind as I contemplated the feeling of holding the unknown in my hand, anxious to open up those envelopes of never before seen prints.  The excitement, the apprehension – was it worth all the time, effort and money?  I hurried to the car and began shuffling through the photos.  There they were in all their glory … and really not half bad.  I went home, pulled up my previously edited digital images and compared them to the prints.  I was pleased to see that they were actually pretty similar.  Nothing crazy or weird, no overly sharpened “HDR’ishness” or exceedingly saturated bluer than blue skies.  I believe I can rest assured that I haven’t fallen victim to the curse of the Photoshop generation.  My images still resembled photographs!creek film and digital 1.jpg

 

ha ha tonka 3(s).jpgAs much as there will always be a special place in my heart for the joy of shooting film, I realized I had learned another important lesson. Going back to basics does not always go hand in hand with going green, or saving green for that matter.  Aside from the obvious toll on your wallet, old school photography also involves harsh chemicals and by products that need to be safely disposed of.  Digital photography has none of these adverse side effects.  Now I know I can remain true to my photography roots without poisoning the earth in the process.  Despite all the hi-tech bells and whistles, digital photography and online editing are definitely the greener alternative. 

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In all my attempts to live a more natural and simple life, I have to remind myself from time to time that less is more. Just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should; the most important part of any endeavor is knowing when it’s time to stop. Even a painter knows when he has added the last brush stroke.  After all, nature is the ultimate artist; she should be celebrated and revered for all her perfect imperfections.

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Note:  All landscape photos were taken with Fuji 400 speed color film and retouching was limited to the adjustments available in a darkroom setting only.

 

 

 

Celebrate the Little Things

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There’s a great big world out there. So many beautiful and exciting things to see and experience – awe-inspiring landscapes, exotic animals, amazing feats of architecture – the list goes on and on.  But sometimes the most interesting things can be found right outside our own door.  When we walk outside we step over, around and into a much smaller world.  A world that creeps, crawls and buzzes right beneath our noses, inhabited by creatures so tiny we hardly even notice their presence.  This is the wonderful world of bugs.  Where everything is on a scale so disproportionate from ours that we are reminded of classic old horror movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

 

Little bug 1(s).jpgI never paid much attention to these little guys before, unless I was scratching at their bites, being annoyed by their buzzes or trying to outrun their stingers.  Then I got a macro lens.  The idea was to do super close up shots of pretty things, like flowers.  As I started playing around with it, I was trying to focus on the cutest tiniest little flower ever, when suddenly an even tinier bug crawled up and sat down right on top of the flower.  It was amazing to see something so tiny, so close up.

And thus began my new obsession – actively seeking out bugs all over my backyard and everywhere else I went. There were so many things I never noticed before, like the tiny black hairs on a fly’s back or the aphids the size of a pin head all over my purple cone flowers.

Up close they really weren’t as ugly or icky as I once thought them to be.  Some are dazzling and colorful, some are soft and fuzzy and others are so fragile and delicate it’s hard to imagine they are really alive.

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Dragonfly 1-1(s)For the past couple weeks, I have been learning to look more closely at their delicate little world. At first glance they seemed so much different from us, but are they really? Just like us they eat, sleep, multiply and eventually die. They are such an important part of the circle of life. They pollinate our gardens, fertilize the soil and provide food for the animals that we eat. We simply cannot survive without them.

Lady Bug 1(s)So the next time you walk out your door, take a few minutes to look more closely at the world that surrounds you.  Stop and smell the flowers, breathe in the fresh air and remember to be thankful for the little things in life.

 

–          A life is never so precious as when you hold it in the palm of your hand.

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The Cost of Captivity

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Zoos have come a long way from the days of barred cages housing large predators relentlessly pacing back and forth, monkeys swinging from metal trapezes and hippos standing in dirty concrete pools.  Zoos today make an earnest attempt at developing a more natural habitat for their charges.  However, they are pretty much limited to their own environment and confines.  It’s quite hard to recreate an Lion 4(s)African savanna or the Arctic tundra in the center of a Midwestern city. But try they must. Polar Bear 1(s) The animals are there and there’s nowhere else for most of them to go.  Like it or not, these animals have been born and bred in captivity for generations and would not stand a chance among their unfettered counterparts in the wild. 

YBird 1(s).jpget some of these animals do serve a purpose.  In this world there are species on the verge of extinction through no fault of their own. Many animals are still hunted and killed for nothing more than a body part coveted as a souvenir or trophy, or simply because they are considered to be a nuisance.  While people are becoming more aware and more humane, the poachers and the black markets still exist for a few of the more unenlightened, cruel and disgraceful members of our species.  For those of us who do care, these animals can be studied and bred in captivity in the hope that someday, in a more perfect world, they will be free to live their lives as nature intended and not be subject to the risk of being penned up or shot down. 

As controversial as they may be, our zoos remain a staple fixture in most large cities – a popular tourist Gorilla 5(s).jpgattraction and a typical family haunt during summer vacations.  A couple weeks ago, we made a trip to the St. Louis zoo to observe and photograph some of the animals in residence there.  This is one of the zoos that is constantly trying to improve the habitats and make the animals feel at least a little more at home.  In general, I like to spend some time observing each animal and trying to capture their activities Prairie Dog 2(s).jpgand emotions. Since it was spring and many of the birds were actively breeding, my main focus this time was going to be the free flight bird house.  However, the bird house is in the back of the zoo and I had to walk past many exhibits to get there and I got a little side tracked along the way, mostly by gorillas, flamingos and prairie dogs.

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After I returned home and started looking through the images, I noticed a common theme among the expressions on the animals faces.  When you take a closer look, you can tell they know something is Egret 5-1(s).jpgamiss; something is not quite right.  Call it melancholy, homesickness or the internal realization of a grave injustice.  This world that they were born into is not the one where they belong. They sense the limitations of their confines, the inability to choose their own mates, hunt their own food and keep a safe distance from predators – namely humans.  Some seem angry, some look sad or confused and others seem to be pleading with their eyes for a reprieve.  Their freedom has been sacrificed for our Saturday afternoon enjoyment.

Egret 3-1(s)Why should the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness be limited to human beings alone?  Shouldn’t these rights be extended to all of the earth’s creatures?  It seems to me that in our own pursuits there are many ways in which we have taken it upon ourselves to surrender these rights on their behalf.  For those of us who recognize the injustice, there are still many others who prefer to put their efforts into justifying and rationalizing their own selfish behavior.  Nevertheless, there will come a time in the future when the earth as a whole will have to pay the cost of captivity.

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Sightseeing Sundays – Upstate New York

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A Medley of Waterfalls, Gorges and Bluffs

One of the best parts of my job is getting to travel to places I ordinarily never would have gone.  Over the last four weeks I have been traveling back and forth to Rochester, NY. I tend to be adventurous by nature, so traveling and exploring are something I really enjoy.  If it also involves nature and photography, then that’s the icing on the cake!

On my Sunday journeys through the Empire State, I found four of the most scenic state parks that are within an hour and a half drive of Rochester.

Week 1 – Niagara Falls State Park, Niagara Falls NY

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This one was a no brainer. How could I not go here? Niagara Falls was the first State Park in America. I was originally thinking that it was one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but I guess it didn’t make the global cut.  However, it is one of the seven natural wonders of North America.  Not too shabby when you think of all the natural beauty we have in our neck of the woods. 

There was a bit of off season construction going on and there were fences that obscured some of theNiagara Falls 2(s) views. Despite all of that, this place is still incredibly awesome.  The best part and an absolute must-do, is the Maid of the Mist boat tour.  Wearing a one-size-does-not-fit-all blue plastic poncho, you descend down Niagara Falls 3-1(s)to the river via elevator and get aboard a sturdy sea-faring vessel that takes you right up to the most monstrous waterfalls I’ve ever seen.  Yes, you get wet but you also see beautiful rainbows, soaring seagulls and hear the crashing of the water as it spills over 100 feet into the Niagara River below.  Pictures alone cannot represent how cool this really is.  Well worth the $18 ticket!

 

Week 2 – Watkins Glen State Park, Watkins Glen NY

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During my first week in Rochester, I met lots of accommodating people who were more than willing to give me advice and ideas on where to go next.  A nice young couple in a local pub directed me to Watkins Glen and it did not disappoint.  It’s another waterfall, but completely different from Niagara Falls.  Glen Creek meanders through the park for two miles and descends 400 feet through a beautiful gorge.

Another old park, it was privately opened in 1863 and became a State Park in 1906.  There are lovely oldWatkins glen 1(s).jpg stone stairways, tunnels, paths and bridges which follow alongside the stream and blend in beautifully with the gorge’s landscape.  There’s even a part of the falls that go over the pathway so you can stand underneath and get a really unique view.  Watkins glen 2-1(s)

Since it’s old, the stone pathways are subject to erosion and are in need of regular maintenance.  One of the prettiest waterfalls I saw was just beyond a locked gate with a sign that warned of hazardous conditions.  It was obvious that the hazard existed in the eroding stairway going up the edge of the gorge and not on the landing on the other side of the gate. With the sunlight shining through the gorge and a picturesque stone bridge spanning the gap above the fall, this was the perfect shot.  So assuming the sign did not pertain to me and my intentions, I very carefully – yet slightly clumsily – made my way over to the landing to obtain this coveted shot.  Once again another Sunday well spent!

 

Week 3 – Letchworth State Park, Castile NY

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I read somewhere that this was called the “Grand Canyon of the East”, so I’m assuming there really aren’t many canyons in the east because it seemed more like a “grand gorge.”  But whether gorge or canyon, this was another winner. As a matter of fact, it was voted number 1 in USA Today’s Top 10 Best State Parks for 2016 (fyi Watkins Glen was number 3 and Missouri’s own Ha Ha Tonka was number 4).

Letchworth 2(s).jpgOnce again there were waterfalls and beautiful old stone walkways, bridges, stairs and walls. Craftsmanship and old world ambiance seem to abound in New York State Parks. This was the most expansive of the State Parks I went to and featured many more hiking trails and a very nice restaurant – which I ate at despite my muddiness from hiking said trails after a rain shower.  Letchworth 4(s).jpg

The best of the waterfalls I saw was the Middle Falls. They are right outside of the restaurant and are very accessible and photographable with large paved overlooks and unobstructed views.  The Lower Falls require a little hiking up and down a lot of stairs, but well worth the Letchworth 6(s)climb.  You can get very close and feel the spray as the water tumbles into the gorge below.  A short way downstream there is a stone bridge where you can view the falls and the river head on. The last waterfall I encountered was the Wolf Creek Cascade, this one wasn’t quite as visible from the trail and hard to get a clear shot of, but was beautiful none the less.

I ran short on time exploring the park due to flight delays.  This is one place I really want to get back to when I return to Rochester in the future.

Week 4 – Chimney Bluffs State Park, Wolcott NY

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Rounding out my four choices was Chimney Bluff State Park along the shore of Lake Ontario.  I know this is going to be hard to believe, but there were no waterfalls here!  Since I had pretty much had my fill of waterfalls over the last three weeks, it was kind of a pleasant change.  Chimney Bluffs 1-1(s).jpg

Instead of falling water there were rising spires.  You can hike along a trail at the top of the bluff and look down on the formations, or walk along the stony beach and look up at them.  But be warned, the trails are not very well maintained and there are numerous signs warning you about the dangers of erosion. Sometimes you are precariously balanced on the edge of the bluff with a steep drop off just a step away.  One glance down and you see the large trees who have had the ground worn away beneath their roots and have fallen to their demise in the hollows below.  Despite the perils, the vistas from up there are really quite amazing.  The rain clouds rolling in over Lake Ontario offset the ruddy browns of the chimney spires and the recently emerged blossoms of the late northern spring gave a glimpse of sunny summer days to come. 

Chimney Bluffs 2-1(s).jpgA walk along the lake shore was equally as hazardous. The shore was covered in stones worn smooth and slick over time by the tide. Large pieces of debris were scattered about.  This provided for lots of unsure footing and the need to climb over tangles of driftwood. As you clamber along this rocky shoreline there are some places where there isn’t much room between the incoming tide and the bluff wall, making you hope not to get caught off guard during high tide. With the waves crashing in over the large boulders, the spires towering overhead and the storm clouds rolling in over the lake it was quite a powerful scene. Chimney Bluffs 5-2(s).jpgSo I decided to take this opportunity to use the travel tripod I have been carting around with me and try some long exposure shots before the rain came in. As usual, I got caught up in the moment and my time management skills fell short. But thanks to a helpful grad student, I managed to make it back to my car just as the first drops began to fall and I avoided having to hike back along the treacherous Bluff Trail in a torrential downpour. 

The adventure continues

Even though I came to the Rochester area for work, I’m really glad I took the opportunity to go out and explore while I had the chance.  I never cease to be amazed at the beauty and diversity that surrounds me everywhere I go.  I think it’s so important for our bodies, minds and souls to get out of the ordinary and explore nature. The world we live in is an amazing place, so take every opportunity that comes your way to learn, explore and enjoy!

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Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.

 -John Ruskin

 

The Eyes Have It

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Animals are really not so different from us. They think and feel, love and hate, rejoice in happiness and suffer in sorrow.  They communicate with us in an unspoken language.  Anyone who has ever had a pet would agree.  One look into a soulful pair of eyes and you know there’s more behind them than the instinct to pee on your newly planted garden or scratch the stuffing out of your favorite living room chair.

sheep 1-2Although photographing animals can be difficult, it also can be very rewarding. We have all seen those portraits of animals that make you stop dead in your tracks and say “Wow!” Something is so compelling that you just can’t take your eyes away. And often, it’s the eyes that draw us in. If we are given the opportunity to look into their eyes, we can begin to see the very essence of their soul.  There’s no underlying agenda, no lies or deceit; they live the most basic of lives.

Of course, pets are the most obvious victims for our cameras. They live in our homes, we hang with them every day and they will succumb to just about any torture we can put them through for no more than a cookie and a pat on the head. So we force them to pose, do tricks, sit still and stop drooling just so we can post their pictures on our Facebook page and show them off to all our friends.  Because, let’s face it, every pet parent believes their furry little ball of fluffy love is the cutest of them all.

But what about animals who aren’t domesticated? It’s hard to get up close and personal with creatures that we are not on a first name basis with.  Even when we encounter them in zoos, sanctuaries and wildlife parks where we can get a little closDeer 3-3(s)er than we would in the wild, how do we know what they are thinking and feeling?  Whenever we have our cameras out, we spend more time studying our subject waiting for the right moment. We are still, we are quiet, we let our guard down and maybe, just for an instant, our eyes meet and there’s a mutual sense of kinship and respect.   All it takes is the release of the shutter at just the right moment, a fraction of a second, and with luck we will capture their unique inner beauty.

As humans, we are really not so different from other animals. On the outside we appear to be much more complicated, yet once you strip away all the baggage we carry around – our daily routine of errands and chores, the possessions and status symbols we work so hard to achieve, the amount of stress it all creates – beneath all the things we define ourselves by, we too are made of flesh and blood. But without our fancy gadgets and our trendy clothes to hide behind, how will we know what to think of one another, what each one of us is really all about?  The answer is easy, it lies within us all – it is the unencumbered beauty, the reflection of our soul, which can be found simply by looking into each other’s eyes.

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Have You Hugged a Tree Today?

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In the beginning there was a tree, there couldn’t have been an apple without one.  Trees were here long before us and will remain long after we are gone.  Standing their ground, reaching to the sky and changing with the seasons, creating a beautiful mosaic of texture and hue. Providing shade in the summer, fruit in the fall, hope in the winter and the promise of renewal in the spring.

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They outlive us, outgrow us and outsmart us.  Their pollen is scattered on the wind, SNR snow 2their seeds carried  by the inhabitants of the land.  They move about and yet their roots remain steadfastly anchored to the earth. Pine Savannah at Hawn SP

They are the backbone of the environment; towering above us all they complete the circle of life.  They support all of god’s creatures with the most basic of needs – food, shelter and the very air we breathe. So when you go outside today, take a moment and thank a tree.

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Eden Gone Awry

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A Journey through time in the Historic Pullman District

Once upon a time there was a perfect little community. A place where fathers earned an honest wage for a hard day’s work, children came home after school not to an empty house, but to a loving mother. Yards, parks and green spaces were all clean, safe and well maintained. Homes were equipped with modern conveniences and all the amenities were within reach – library, church, shopping and theater – just a short walk from home. In all, the very embodiment of the American dream.

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This was the vision of George Pullman – his model industrial town.  Anchoring it all would be the bread and butter of the community as a whole, his factory – The Pullman Palace Car Company.

In his vision, Pullman conceptualized that happy workers would be hard workers. By putting the comfort and convenience of his workers and their families at the forefront, he hoped to avoid the labor strikes and uprisings that were becoming the theme of the day in the latter half of the 19th century.

In 1884 his vision became a reality.  An award winning community recognized and accredited for its cleanliness and beauty at a time when cities were overcrowded and living conditions were unsanitary.  From the outside looking in this was truly a success, but things are not always as they appear. Amidst the immaculate facilities, sunshine and fresh country air, in 1894 Pullman’s loyal workforce went on strike.

Pullman 5-2(s)Despite all of its accolades and awards, Pullman could not keep his dream intact.  Behind the scenes he was hardly the benefactor he appeared to be. The town was in reality just another business investment. It turned a profit just as the factory did.  What he didn’t seem to realize was that you can’t manufacture a community the way you can construct a train car.  Communities are not made of brick and mortar alone, they are made of people and people cannot be forced into place like rivets, bolts and gears.

church collage(s)To keep appearances up, he enforced his own ideas of the perfect utopian society.  From books in the library to plays in the theater; speeches, newspapers and public events, everything had to meet with his approval. Houses were randomly inspected for cleanliness and evictions could occur with little notice. There was only one church to attend. A single hotel housed one bar, but libations were offered to visitors only.

When the depression of 1893 hit, Pullman had to cut back on production. So in turn, he cut the worker’s wages but rents remained unchanged, leaving families with little left over for other necessities.  Appeals to reduce the rent were met with deaf ears.  With a common cause to rally around, and a new found sense of camaraderie, the residents banded together in rebellion to incite what would become a nationwide railroad strike and lead to the end of Pullman’s oppressive reign and the creation of Labor Day as a national holiday.

Soon after his death in 1897, the supreme court ordered the non-industrial property to be sold, the land was annexed to Chicago and Pullman`s utopia followed in his wake.

Last June, my son and I paid a visit to the historic Pullman District. We strolled the tree lined streets and photographed the buildings in different stages of inhabitance. Many properties were meticulously maintained, while some were in the process of restoration and still others had been ravaged by the effects of time and were now beyond salvage. As Pulman 21(s)we explored the remaining community and learned its history, we also had the opportunity to chat with some residents. We found what was most prevalent, despite the diversity that had transformed the area, was an overwhelming sense of community and pride.

I learned that in 1960 plans were made to demolish the neighborhood and replace it with an industrial park. Once again the residents banded together, this time to preserve their homes and the history they represented. Thanks to their efforts, the district is now a National Landmark. The restoration and renovation continues as the area is slowly returned to its once award winning grandeur.

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For me, the take away from this photo adventure was that Pullman’s vision contained a fatal flaw – we all need a sense of belonging, a sense of place and a true sense of community which transcends our physical needs. Whether we choose to seek our personal utopia in the city, the suburbs or the windswept plains, in the end it’s our free will that determines what Eden means to us. It’s the perseverance of our human spirit that motivates us to join together to make that dream come true and create our own “happily ever after”.

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Gone Fishin’

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Somehow I have managed to survive on this planet for over half of a century never having known the thrill of catching a fish.  It’s not for a lack of trying or an aversion to worms.  I’ve sat in a boat and drank beer with the best of them, yet for reasons unknown the fish always seem to bypass my hook and move on to the next. 

But this past weekend I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to get schooled by some expert anglerHeron 6(s)s.  As is usual, instead of taking notes I took pictures.  These fishermen don’t need a trolling motor, spinners, lures or flies.  They rely solely on their long legs, keen eye and quick reflexes.  Without the aid of a tackle box or a trip to Bass Pro Shop, they pluck fish out of the water as Heron 5(s).jpgeasily as I pluck Doritos out of a bag. 

 

I’ve witnessed Great Blue Herons at work in the past, but what made this occasion so special is that it’s spring.  Usually they are pretty solitary birds, preferring to be loners and not share their fishing grounds with others.  However, in the spring a young man’s fancy tends to turn to thoughts of love, and his affairs are governed more by his heart than by his hunger.

Although Herons don’t normally mate for life, they do stay with one mate throughout the breeding season.  For the better part of the year it’s a little difficult to tell the males from the females, but during this season it’s the males turn to shine.  Whole flocks gather in groups at the local fishing hole and the menfolk do their best to impress the ladies – who in general, tend to remain rather aloof and indifferent to the whole display. 

 

At this pond there was one gentleman who was definitely the big man on campus.  With his chest puffed up and his long colorful plumage tousling about in the spring breeze, he strutted across the water like an avian Mick Jagger.  Surely, this guy could have his choice of all the lovely ladies, and he did seem to be intent on wooing one in particular.  However, she seemed more interested in catching fish than in courting.  I’m not sure if she was being coy and playing hard to get or maybe she was just hungry.  Most likely, it’s all part of the game of love. Yet even with moves like Jagger, she remained unimpressed by all his obvious charm and charisma. 

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The fishing and the flirting continued on throughout the evening.  At one point some Egrets stopped by to check out the local fishing scene, but they were soon carefully escorted from this exclusive club by a couple of male Herons on bouncer duty. 

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Before long, the sun started to drift lower on the horizon.  One by one the Herons retreated from the Heron 3(s)pond, flying back to their nests to contemplate and strategize their next maneuvers in the courtship dance. We decided it was time for us to fly, too.  But, like the Herons and the sportsmen, we’ll soon be back to try our luck at the fishing hole. Although I plan on getting my catch of the day with the snap of a shutter rather than the cast of a pole. Forever in pursuit of the one that got away.

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Spring Fever

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We finally made it. After a long and arduous winter, today was the first day of spring! So I sprang out of bed this morning and made my way to the window, only to be shocked when I realized that we had not sprung ahead at all.  Instead we had taken a giant step backward – right back into winter. There was at least an inch of snow on the ground and it was still coming down fast – those giant “hamster” sized snowflakes that are so infamous here in St. Louis. 

Cardinals 1(s)My beautiful Magnolia tree had been in full bloom and now its fragile flowers were drooping under a layer of sloppy wet snow.  The Bradford pears, daffodils, forsythias and pussy willows – blooming much too early than seemed necBlue Jay 2-1(s)essary – here they were, now trying to hold up under the weight of a fresh coating of heavy spring snow.   With plans of doing yard work this afternoon, I too was feeling a little under the weather. 

 

 

As I looked out into the backyard, I noticed that the local bird population wasn’t being deterred from their daily routine.  I have to admit, the late season snow was really quite lovely. The birds were all decked out in their spring plumage. With the backdrop of the gray mottled skies and the tree branches outlined in white, they appeared more vibrant than ever.  I quickly grabbed my camera and started snapping away.  These beautiful and lively birds are definitely the harbingers of spring, despite the onslaught of winter’s brief, but hopefully, final assault. 

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The snow had ended by lunchtime and was all melted by mid-afternoon. However, I still didn’t manage to get any yard work done. On the upside, I did manage to get some pretty nice bird shots. So I believe the snow had its advantages and I know there will always be plenty of time for pruning and planting in the months to come. After all, as a little bird once told me – hope springs eternal!

 

Barbed Wire and Broken Dreams

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A Tour of the Missouri State Penitentiary

It’s been called the “Bloodiest 47 acres in America” by Time Magazine.  It’s been the subject of many paranormal investigations.  Its doors were open to inmates from 1836 to 2004, making it the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi River.  And now, the Missouri State Penitentiary has opened its doors once again – for tours.  Most importantly private photo tours.  When my friend Kathy and I heard this announced at our photo club meeting we were immediately intrigued.  Well, maybe a little more than intrigued, we were pretty much on a mission.  Halloween was approaching and the tours were filling up fast. Getting in on a private photo tour before they shut down for the winter was our number one priority.  I have to give Kathy kudos on this one, she took the lead on the event planning and did a fantastic job. 

On a crisp autumn morning, the week before Halloween we began our voyage to Jefferson City, the capital of the great state of Missouri, to see where some of the worst citizens society has ever known called home.  Pretty Boy Floyd and Sonny Liston were inmates at one time and James Earl Ray escaped the prison in a supply truck a year before assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. Forty of the inmates who died within those walls were put to death in the institution’s gas chamber.  Haunted or not, this place was going to be downright creepy.

We arrived on the Amtrak train in Jeff City several hours before our tour was scheduled, which was good because it was at least a mile uphill trek to the hotel and we were dragging all of our camera gear as well as our luggage.  We toyed with the idea of calling a cab but decided we probably could use the exercise and soldiered on. 

Prison Front 1Entrance to the Missouri State Penitentiary

Later that afternoon as we were walking towards the other side of town, we began to see the stone edifice of the prison off in the distance.  As we approached, it cast a very looming and imposing shadow.  I could never imagine what it would feel like to close that distance under different circumstances and be faced with a 30 year stay instead of just a three hour tour.

During our un-incarcerated stay, we were allowed into several different areas.  We started off in the women’s prison, photographing the catwalks and cells. We saw the dark chamber where unruly women had been put into solitary confinement. 

womans cells collage

Where the women were incarcerated at the Missouri State Penitentiary

 

Next we were brought to death row where we were introduced to a new guide.  Mike had worked at the prison for most of his life and ended his career there as the head warden.  Listening to his stories really brought the notorious past to life.  Riots, murders, suicides, escapes, executions – all the things that made prison life much less than a walk in the park. 

Prison 4-1

Death Row prison cells

 

Continuing on from death row, we went to A-hall which is the oldest building on the site, having been opened in 1868 to house post-Civil War criminals.  Inmates had painted over most of the windows in the cells in an attempt at climate control during the oppressive Missouri summers.  We seemed to be in this building the longest, and there came a point when I just needed to get out into the fresh air. It was depressing and dirty, certainly not a place made for lingering. The atmosphere and the air was dank and stale. How many pictures of cells that had once been occupied by murderers, rapists and thieves did I really need anyway?

A Hall collage

A-hall at the Missouri State Penitentiary

 

Our visit culminated, quite fittingly, at the gas chamber where 40 of the inmates made a more permanent departure.  This is a very uncool place with some of the worst juju ever. We saw the benches where the witnesses and members of the press watched as the condemned gasped his last breathe of lethal air.  We were even allowed to enter the chamber and sit in the chair if we so chose. I declined that invitation. There was no way I could do that without having nightmares for at least a week.

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Gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary

 

Since ours was a private tour, we had been allowed to walk around each building on our own.  While it was interesting, it was also quite disturbing.  There were times when we each went our separate ways, photographing different areas, and I found myself standing alone in the prison ruins.  Nothing will make me appreciate my freedom more than looking out of a grimy window at a now neglected and overgrown exercise yard, surrounded by high fences topped with coils of barbed wire, and being thankful that I could leave any time I chose.  I felt a cold chill wash over me when I wondered what it had been like when it was fully populated with prisoners behind all of the barred cell doors that now stand open. 

Prison 10

While I had gone into the penitentiary with the sole intention of getting super cool spooky prison pictures, I left with a new found appreciation for just how wonderful my life is and how fortunate I really am.  Being within those walls, roaming the buildings and the grounds, listening to the stories of the horrors that had occurred there, brought me up close and personal with an aspect of our society that I would have preferred to remain ignorant of.  This prison may now be an interesting piece of history to visit, but trust me there is not a soul on earth who ever wanted to live there.

Mike

Thanks to Mike!  Our tour guide and former head prison warden.