Monday, November 11, 2019

Reading Nature

October Tam Cam

I was kind of surprised when I realized I'd gone a whole year without posting anything. I didn't know I had that much self-restraint! Ha ha. And now that two years have passed, I'm kind of champing at the bit again, although I have no clear idea of what I want to say or what I want to photograph, especially within the time restraints of work and trying to rationalize the carbon footprint of driving a motor vehicle to chase new inspiration, the same things that brought me to a halt two years ago.

What is a nature photographer to do when the human world has become a pot of frogs slowly bringing itself to a boil of environmental catastrophe?

I work for an environmental organization and am immersed in the bad news every day. The solace of photography used to help me cope with it all, but then the solace came to feel like futility. I figure that's just depression talking, but I haven't quite figured out the counter-argument.

Although I've been doing very little "serious" photography the last couple of years, I've been immersed in a great deal of inspiration through other means, sometimes nearly to overflowing. What I haven't been able to do is dye my photography in that basin of joy. The images always fall short of what I want to convey, even though nature herself always delivers.

One thing I've learned in the last couple of years is that if I want to lighten the load, I don't just need a smaller camera. I need to go into nature with no camera at all and enjoy even what can't be photographed, capturing images that only I will ever see, and which last only in my own brief memory. I accept that the images will fade. Fading away is just part of the beautiful sadness of being alive in this world, and renewal is always just around the next bend.

As photographers we venture forth into the vast and wild realm of potential to extract a single image, an essence. Maybe the image isn't even important as long as we capture the essence. Like the alchemists of old, we come to realize that the gold we seek is not the ordinary gold, but something of much greater value.

And I guess I'll just leave it at that.

A few months ago I was thinking about replacing a trail camera that had gone belly-up a year or so ago, at first just to see what the critters were up to these days when they'd come around my back yard here in San Francisco. I've long wanted to put more than one camera out there since no single placement could give me the angles I wanted, but even the cheapest trail cameras have run a couple hundred bucks.

Until now!

Now you can get a Foxelli trail camera (and maybe other brands), outfit it with rechargeable batteries (I use Panasonic high-capacity eneloop pros) and micro-SD card, for under a hundred bucks. All of a sudden I had four of these things, and I soon satisfied my curiosity about the back yard critters. My main gripe about these cameras is that the audio is completely useless since the microphone is muffled up against the battery compartment. I know from previous cameras that audio, while usually not important, can sometimes add significant interest to a trail cam's video capture. (The other gripe is micro-SD cards. Because they're too small to easily remove and grip with my fingers, I keep forceps in my kit bag when I go to swap cards.)

I got the cameras back in August and although I still like to put one in the back yard now and then, I mainly like to put them out in the wild. The trick is to put the camera somewhere unlikely to capture or be seen by humans, yet still in a place that will capture wild animals. In all the years I've used camera traps, I've accidentally caught people several times, but of the minority of those people who actually noticed the camera, only one has actually stolen it (I suspect it was too near someone's dope-growing site). Luckily it was one of these inexpensive Foxelli cameras. I was almost as disappointed to lose the pricey rechargeable batteries as the camera itself.

One of the things I've always liked about doing regular photography is just slowly poking around and looking for subjects and compositions to spark my interest. With trail cameras I slowly poke around looking for good placement spots. Either way, I get to enjoy stealthily skulking around in the woods, reading nature. And after a week or two have gone by I'm eager to get back up there to find my cameras (grateful they're still there), and to get the SD cards home so I can see what I captured.

I don't know if I'll feel drawn to get back into regular photography anytime soon, but until I am I'll settle for the vicarious enjoyment of being in the wild through my camera traps despite having to be at work all week.

One thing I've already noticed is how attached I've become to the places I've been setting the cams despite their not-very-photogenic ordinariness. When I'm up there in person I've spooked a great horned owl from an oak tree and realized it was probably the same owl that showed up in my camera trap. A deer that came out of the woods to check me out one morning is probably the same one that knocked over one of my cameras. I'm reminded to appreciate the fact that the mountain isn't just a place to see animals, but a place those animals call home, and somehow the camera traps let me share in that sense of belonging-with-the-land.