Tag Archive | Bird Feeders

Two Hummingbirds

IMG_7167 (2) (800x534)There are two hummingbirds who have been nourishing themselves on the feeder outside my living room window in the past few weeks.  One is absolutely gorgeous.  The ruby of his throat is a deep, vibrant, fire-engine jewel tone.  The green on his wings and his back match the red in its tone.  He is a little bit smaller than the other one, as if his colors are made more intense by concentration.  It seems like every time I look out the window, he is zipping around the feeder.  First he sticks his beak into the hole in the middle of one of the small, aluminum flower petals, reaching his proboscis all the way down to the sugar-water in the dish which is secured underneath the hole.  Then, he jumps back and hovers in the air for a minute as if he has to let the sweet lubricant settle into the deepest part of his being before finding his way to another of the aluminum-petaled flowers.  I am reluctant to tell him that each flower leads to the same reservoir of sweetness; I guess he will figure out the physics of it all on his own if it becomes important to him.  Sometimes he rests his wings for a minute as he drinks; most of the time, though, he remains suspended in air, using some of that intense, sugar-fueled energy even as he sucks it into his tiny body.

I would love to get a photograph of him.  If I could get the light just right, his ruby throat and his emerald back and even his pearly belly and face would practically glow.  So every time I see him taking a meal, I quickly pull out the camera and quietly head outside.  But immediately, as soon as he sees me or hears me or uses whatever sense he uses to perceive my presence, he flies away.  It does not matter how quietly I open and close the door, or how slowly I put the view finder on the camera to my eye, or how steadily, almost imperceptibly, I step around the corner to get a clear shot.  He will not stick around long enough for me to take his photo.  And he refuses to return as long as I sit there.  I can pull out my folding canvas chair, prop my camera on my lap, and sit still for what seems like hours.  Something has told him to be afraid of me, and he will not return.

But as I sit there on my patio, I am frequently able to see the other hummingbird which hangs around my feeder.  She is much, much friendlier than the other one.  She might wait for a few minutes to let me settle in, but then I hear her buzzing vibrations in the air, and she comes flitting about the feeder.  Like the other, she goes from this aluminum-petal-framed hole to that one, stopping between sips to let her meal settle a bit, sometimes resting on the edge of the feeder and sometimes continuing to let her wings beat as she takes her high-calorie nourishment.  While she sometimes prefers to drink from the hole on the opposite side of the feeder from where I sit, she will almost always spend at least some time on my side, with a clear view from my camera.  She even helpfully steps back from the feeder for a second or two so the auto-focus on the camera can capture her, rather than the feeder itself, making the photos come out much more clear.  She is the one in the photo above.

There is only one problem: this hummingbird is nowhere near as beautiful as the other one.  She doesn’t have much of a ruby throat; only one, small patch on her throat is red at all, and it lacks the vibrancy of the others.  It is a bit off-center, too, making it look more like a blemish than a feature of her complexion.  And the green on her back is a bit dull, too; it is more of a brown, really, and even the white of her chest and head seems to have a grayish tint.  So I find myself greeting her kindly, but not moving as eagerly to take her photograph.  She’s nice and all, but what I really want to capture in my lens is the other, more beautiful one.

It is hard for me to even admit this.  To say this publicly requires to admit just how shallow I am.  I assign a greater value to the more attractive one.  And I easily dismiss the other, less attractive one as friendly enough, but not really worthy of my best photographic attention.  Why do I do this to myself?  Is it simply because I put too much value on the judgements of others?  If I could just get a photograph of the prettier bird, people would want to look at my photograph; they would place a greater value on the product I produce, and maybe even a greater value on me, too.  Is it that kind of pride?  Or is it something else?  Is it some primal impulse within me that I cannot control?  Is it because I am naturally drawn to the more attractive one, as if anything that is stronger or prettier will help me to conceive a more attractive offspring, who will be more likely to find his or her own mate and carry my genetic material well into the future?  Is this some kind of survival of the fittest instinct, spilling all over my backyard?

Or am I really just a shallow person?

Why am I unable to look at even something as inconsequential as my hummingbird feeder and avoid getting swept up into the myth of beauty?  Why am I incapable of turning off my evaluation of physical features, even if just for a moment of lounging in my backyard?  Why does it seem like I can only direct my viewfinder toward that which is most vivacious, most sexy, most bold in its beauty?  Why do I judge like that?

I’ve been working my way through Henri Nouwen’s book, Here and Now:  Living in the Spirit.  It is one of those books of short pieces which you have to read slowly and savor or you will become quickly overwhelmed with introspection. In one short essay entitled “The Burden of Judgement,” Nouwen cites anonymous fourth-century desert fathers, who simply and truthfully pointed out that “‘judging others is a heavy burden.'”  And Nouwen invites the reader to imagine “having no need at all to judge anybody.”  “Wouldn’t that be true inner freedom?” he asks (p. 60).

And I realize as I imagine that I long for that freedom.  I don’t know the origin of it, but I have heard of a greeting that is shared by some Christians that goes, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.”  It’s a bit of an awkward phrase, but it acknowledges that something deep inside of each of us bears the image of God.  If I could overcome the impulse to judge; if I could look past the shallow evaluations of appearances; if I could cease putting one person or one creature beside another, or putting all creatures beside myself, in order to point out the flaws in each one, then I would be free of something which, now that the desert fathers mention it, really does feel like a heavy burden.  That freedom would open my soul to receive every person, every creature, as a unique gift which bears a reflection of nothing less than God.

I sat on my patio for almost an hour this afternoon, simply reading a magazine and enjoying what was going on around me.  With an almost-seven-year-old boy in the house, I don’t get a chance to sit like that very often; I even had to spend some of the time ignoring the scratches of our resident chocolate lab on the back door.  As I sat, I saw all kinds of beauty around me.  Blue jays flew in and out of the trees.  A young squirrel perched on a branch of the dying oak by the fence.  First one tufted titmouse, and then another, came along to get an afternoon snack on the bird feeder.  Then, a brilliant cardinal wanted a turn, but he was chased away by some other bird.  And I saw my friends the hummingbirds.  The more outgoing one took her turn on the feeder and went to a tree branch to watch for a while.  A little while later, two others flew in over the roof from the front yard, but the strangers couldn’t even make it to the aluminum-petaled flowers before the other two swooped out of the trees and chased them away.  The whole time I was out there, it was difficult for me to resist the urge to go inside and get my camera.  But because I resisted the urge, I didn’t gaze at what was going on around me through the lens of my own judgements.  I didn’t have to decide which of the creatures I was watching was more beautiful than the others.  I could simply enjoy them all, each one filled with its own reflection of the beauty of its Creator.

I felt so free that the Christ in me almost sang a doxology:  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!


IMG_6991 (800x532) Our summer has been full of travel, and in each place we visited, we have seen some fascinating wildlife.  In Canada, there was the moose wandering the woods near our friends’ home, the mother grizzly bear and her three cubs alongside the Trans-Canada Highway, and the Great Gray Owl perched on a fence post at the foot of the Rockies.  In the Colorado Rockies, it was the beaver dams and the fish swimming in mountain streams.  In Pennsylvania, a distant stag caught my eye while I was walking alone one evening.  Even the fireflies that hovered above the lawns in Indiana and Ohio were fascinating; we don’t get fireflies around our home for some reason.  Every place we went gave us experiences of fauna we just don’t see at home in coastal Georgia.

But in the week and a half since we came home, as we have settled back into the routines of work and school, I can’t seem to escape the wildlife in my own yard.  A hummingbird has taken possession of our feeder; we have watched him chase away the rest of his species any time another comes near.  Throughout the day, even in the middle of a rain storm, his ruby throat and emerald back hovers as he snacks on the diluted simple syrup we offer. The larger kinds of birds came back quickly when I filled our bird feeder, too, and have stuck around to see what else they can get out of me.  Blue jays and cardinals come and go as they please; the mourning doves bob their way across the lawn; house sparrows and other small birds rush in and out.  The squirrels have gratefully come back to the feeder, too, and even a pudgy brown rat draped his long, bare tail over the side the other day as he munched on the seed.  Unfortunately, it is because of him that the bird feeder will have to remain empty for a while.  We know from experience that the one brown rat will bring his friends, and we really don’t want them that close to our house.  The only way to discourage them is to take away the food.  Still, the birds hang around, and it is good to see them again.

Yesterday, a tiny frog came leaping out of the folded lawn chair as I moved it to sweep away leaves that had gathered under it.  I was not surprised; I have come to expect these little guys who seem to appreciate the safety and comfort of the canvas.  A butterfly has flitted around our back yard for the past couple of afternoons.  If I have identified her right, she is a Gulf Fritillary.  She made an appearance this afternoon to snack on the nectar of our lantana in the back yard and stuck around long enough to pose for a few photos before she wandered her way into another yard.  Earlier, a proud robin with his pronounced rusty chest stopped for a little dip in our bird bath.  When I headed to the door with my camera to see if he would stick around, our dog decided he wanted to go out, too.  But I think the robin was done with his bath by then anyway, and he flew elsewhere.  And maybe it is because of our wet summer, or maybe it is just the time of year, but it seems that this is a good time for young anoles to come out.  I have adorable juveniles and gawky-looking teenagers of that species all over the yard.  Soon, they will grow big enough to become territorial, but tonight, I watched as at least two young ones climbed and dashed up and down and in and out all over the same bunch of black-eyed susans.  One was brown, another was bright green; they can switch back and forth depending on their mood.  These little creatures never had the care of a mother; she simply laid the eggs a few weeks back, and the lucky ones emerged to tackle life more or less on their own.

Most of this wildlife in my yard is unremarkable.  These are common species of birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, and reptiles whichIMG_7021 (535x800) share this little plot of land with us and with most of our neighbors along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts for a thousand miles.  But as I thought about all that wildlife in my yard this evening, I felt the presence of God in a way I didn’t when I saw the wildlife in other places.  The moose and grizzlies were remarkable.  The great gray owl and high-antlered deer were beautiful.  Even the midwestern fireflies and mountain stream fish were fascinating.  But none of them spoke to me of the presence of God in the same way as my familiar anoles, robins, butterflies, and tree frogs.

Seeing those grizzlies and moose in the wild was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But God is more like the anoles, which surround me all the time.  My photos of that enormous owl are worth showing off.  But God is more like the robin or the hummingbird, which everyone can see if they pay attention.  The fireflies and beaver dams cannot be found where I live.  But God is more like the squirrels and blue jays and mourning doves, which can be found everywhere.  I was wowed by the remarkable wildlife on our trips.  But God is more like the abiding presence of the familiar wildlife in my yard.  I don’t mean to domesticate God.  Just like the anoles and butterflies and frogs and robins in my yard have the ability to fascinate, surprise, and challenge me, there is much about God which is mysterious to me.  But God’s constant presence is a comfort.

I thank God that I got to experience the unique fauna of the mountains and plains this summer.  And I praise God for God’s presence which surrounds me all the time like the wildlife in my own yard.


IMG_4869 (800x533)My son gave me a new bird feeder for Christmas.  It was wrapped in a big box and shoved way back under the tree.  His mom used the paper that he picked out, and she tied a big bow around it.  He was very proud to show the gift to me on the day when I came home from work and it was under the tree.  And then, when I opened it on Christmas morning, he was pleased all over again.

The fact is that my son is really good at giving gifts.  He thinks carefully about the people who will receive the gifts he gives:  what they like and what they don’t like, their unique hobbies or tastes, and what is special about his relationship with them.  When he was about four, I asked him what he wanted to get his mom for her birthday.  We happened to be sitting at the kitchen table at the time.  He looked over my head to the racks on the wall above me which hold some interesting plates we have collected over time.  “I want to get her a plate,” he announced.  “Oh, great,” I thought, “he’s not even taking the question seriously.”  I figured he had just blurted out the first thing that his eyes landed on.  But a couple of days later, I asked again, and he said the same thing.  So off we went in search of a plate for his mom’s birthday present.

I had to think for a while about where to find open stock dinnerware, but we eventually found our way to that wall of shelves along the left-hand side of the store as you enter Pier 1.  You know the ones:  raw wood nailed together and carefully designed to look like crude shipping crates.  There were plenty of options there.  And my concern that he was not taking the project of finding his mom a good birthday present was misguided.  He looked very seriously at all of the options.  He was like Goldilocks in his quest for the perfect plate for his beloved mother, except that he could not put into words the reason for rejecting so many.  They just weren’t right.

Finally, he found one that was right.  It had a nice, green leaf on it, not unlike the one which finally satisfied the cravings of the very hungry caterpillar.  Perched on top of the green leaf was a bright, red ladybug; a perfect touch to tease his mama a bit, since she makes it abundantly clear at every opportunity that she does not like bugs of any sort.  It had a unique size and rectangular shape (I believe it is actually a spoon rest), which made it all the more perfect.  We paid the nice lady in the store, took it home, and wrapped it up to be proudly and excitedly given to mama on her Big Day.

Later that year, all of our close family again received plates for Christmas.  I believe mine is the one with the poppies on it:  breezy, bright, stylized flowers on a cream-colored, square dish, not as big as a dinner plate, but a little too large to serve dessert.  He knows I like flowers, and bright colors, and I think he saw me admire it when we were in the store one day.  It now sits proudly on the shelf beside the others, above my head as we eat our family supper.

This year, we were trying to steer him away from the plates, since the shelves are getting full, and we are trying not to accumulate too much stuff that has little practical use.  But he was ready to move on from his plate-giving stage anyway.  I think his mom coached him a bit by asking what he thinks daddy really likes.  Whatever the preparation, he was very thoughtful about his gift.  He knows daddy likes working outside in the garden, and he knows his daddy likes it when the birds come to our back yard.  Ever since he was old enough to walk, I have invited him to help me fill the bird feeders.  When he was really young, he loved to help.  He would dig the scoop into the big bag of bird seed, bring it out of the bag, and aim for the top of the bird feeder.  Usually, the process got more bird seed on the ground than in the feeder, but we didn’t mind; we just moved the whole operation to the lawn, and the squirrels got some extra nourishment after we had finished.  Lately, he has not been so interested in scooping and dumping; he would rather keep battling whatever dinosaurs or bad guys are occupying his imagination when I invite him to help fill the feeders.  But he is supportive of me as I tell him I am about to undertake the project each weekend, he still likes to look at the birds eating what we put out for them, and he especially likes encouraging his dog to run out the back door full-tilt after the squirrels who take advantage of the free lunch we offer, too.  Over time, the feeder closest to the house started to rust on the top, and a detail like that does not get past my son.  So he made up his mind that the bird feeder would be the perfect gift.  When his mom showed him the selection in the bird feeder aisle at the big box store (please don’t judge us), he picked the one with the big sunshine on it because he thought that one would make me smile. He was right.

It makes me smile that my son is so careful about picking out gifts.  It makes me smile that he is so thoughtful.  It makes me smile that he values the people in his life and the unique relationship he has with each of them.  It makes me smile that he is a sweet and sensitive little boy.  As he gets older, I know he will feel pressure to be less sweet, less sensitive, and more assertive; to play rough and fight back and hide behind a tough exterior and be masculine in all of those other ways the culture will tell him are more appropriate.  So it makes me smile, too, that I have the chance to subvert those messages and encourage him in every way I can to just be himself.

Mostly, it makes me smile that I get to be one of the recipients of his gifts.

Limited Good

This summer at my church, I have been leading a Bible study on Amos.  Amos is one of the most focused of the Old Testament prophets; for Amos, the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and the systems that support that disparity, are fodder for God’s wrath.  And he has little else to say.

As I was leading our discussion the other day, my mind suddenly flashed back to my Intro to Old Testament class in college.  My professor, the Rev. Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh, took something of an historical-anthropological approach to the text.  One of the concepts he introduced us to was the world view of “limited good.”  I remember him explaining the concept to us, using a xeroxed handout with a circle on it that was supposed to represent a pie (this was the early 1990s, long before the glories of full-color, three-dimensional PowerPoint pies).  Someone with a limited good world view assumes that there are only so many material goods to go around.  In an agrarian economy, that means there is a limit to the amount of food, building materials, and other necessities which can be produced from the land and distributed to the people of the community.  In a money economy, it means there is a limit to the amount of money which can be held by all of the people.  Therefore, if some people have more than their share of the goods, then other people have less than their share.  The concept was illustrated by the pie picture; if one piece is too big, then all the other pieces must be smaller.

The Old Testament prophets spoke from a world view of limited good.  That reason alone was why they ranted over the systemic disparity between the rich and the poor, and, thus says the Lord, harangued the rich with the warning that they would be punished if they didn’t share their wealth with the poor.  They didn’t care whether or how the rich people came to possess their wealth, they didn’t care whether the poor were trying to get a job or do something else to earn a living, and they didn’t care exactly how the rich were going to give away some of what they had.  What mattered to them was the injustice of the skewed distribution of the limited good:  some had too much, which meant that others didn’t have enough of the limited resources in the world.

Modern capitalism has given us a different world view.  In modern capitalism, the assumption is that good is unlimited.  The boundaries of the pie picture do not make any sense.  New wealth can be created where it didn’t exist before.  New resources can continually be produced.  Therefore, to someone who holds the assumptions of modern capitalism, rich people haven’t taken more than their share of anything; they have earned their wealth by creating it.  And poor people have not been cheated out of anything, either; they simply have not been willing or able to to their part to participate in the creation of wealth.

This difference in world view is one difference between a naturalist and a gardener.  A naturalist looks at the world and sees limited resources.  The ecosystem can only sustain life to the limits of the available resources.  A desert environment, with limited water, cannot sustain a meadow.  A subarctic environment, with frequent and sustained freezes, cannot sustain poinsettias.  A mountaintop is beautiful in part because of its sparse flora, just like a rain forest is beautiful because of its density.  The naturalist appreciates a system balanced by the limits of the water, soil, light, air temperature, and other elements of the environment.

A gardener, on the other hand, looks at his or her plot of land and sees its potential based on a world view of unlimited good.  The hibiscus will thrive over there if I just water it regularly.  That little patch of hard clay will sustain a host of tightly-planted vegetables if I just till it well.  If it fails, I will truck in more topsoil from some other place.  And I can maintain a monoculture meadow of St. Augustine grass in Phoenix if I just program the automatic sprinkler system correctly.  Even a backyard bird feeder represents an effort to transcend the limits of a yard to welcome creatures which otherwise would not be there in any significant number.

Naturally, these are generalizations which serve to illustrate a concept.  There are naturalists who find ways to justify the engineering of nature to try to break through the limits of a system.  And there are gardeners who design xeriscapes or use other methods to make sure their gardens do not use more resources than their environment provides naturally.  But I hope you get the point.

My sudden recollection of the difference between a world view of limited good and a world view of unlimited good helped me to see why many of us in the Bible study this summer are feeling beaten down by Amos.  His poetic rants against the rich just don’t make much sense to those of us raised with the assumptions of modern capitalism.  We want answers to the questions we have been taught to ask:  how do we give to the poor in a way that doesn’t make them dependent on us?  How do we decide which of the poor deserve help and which do not?  And how do we make sense of the problem of poverty that seems to be so much bigger than our individual power to offer charity?

That same sudden recollection took me back, too, to the idealism of my college years.  Education challenges the assumptions which surround me.  Encounters with people who have lived in different times and places help me to see my God, the world, and my relationship with both in a whole new way.  My life will be better lived when I don’t simply ask the questions I have been taught to ask.

I really wonder:  what will happen if I just turn off the automatic sprinkler system?

Mosquitoes & Rats

One morning last week, I was getting ready to mow the back yard.  The first step in that labor, of course, is to find where the dog has done what dogs do and pick up the treasures hidden in the grass.  Equipped with my trowel and shopping bag, I headed to one of our canine’s recent favorite spots:  under the enormous fans of a low-growing palm tree, near the place where the lawn is cut out around a bird bath.

As I approached the first deposit I found, I noticed something:  hovering in the air, reflecting the rising morning light off of their whiny little wings, were scores of mosquitoes.  As I knelt down to address the dog’s business, I remembered reading somewhere that mosquitoes, like our ubiquitous sand gnats and all manner of other creatures which annoy me, are attracted to carbon dioxide.  I tried holding my breath for a moment, but I knew that was futile.  I let the contents of my lungs go, and sure enough, they found me.

The presence of the mosquitoes most immediately reminded me that I had not been vigilant in the previous week or two about changing the water in the bird bath.  In our sub-tropical climate, the water really has to be changed daily to keep it from becoming a cesspool of mosquito breeding.  I spent the obligatory moment chastising myself for my laziness, because every failure in the garden must reflect a fundamental flaw in my character, right?  But once I was finished with that, I started reflecting more on what was going on in my back yard that morning.

We keep the two bird bath, as well as two bird feeders and a hummingbird feeder, because we enjoy watching the birds.  My wife has one of those books which identifies the birds found in Georgia. It even provides a check list at the end of the book for her to mark when she sees a specimen of each variety.  She and my son have found great pleasure in seeing new and interesting birds take their repast at the feeders or a splash around the bird baths and looking them up in the book.  I am less scientific about the whole operation, but I just like sitting back and watching the wildlife as it plays outside the living room window.

But recently, we noticed something different eating on the feeder that is further from the house.  It was small, it was brown and furry, and it could fit inside the feeder to get a really good meal.  One night, there was only one; I took a closer look, and found that its long tail was bare.  My wife informed me that meant it was a rat.  The next night, there were two, and by the next night, there were four climbing up and around that far feeder.  We don’t want rats that near our house; in fact, we would rather pretend they don’t even live in our part of town.  I am almost embarrassed to admit that they came on our property.  We certainly do not want them multiplying exponentially as they find their sustenance at our bird feeders.  Through some research, I found out that there is no way to really get rid of the rats without risking collateral damage to the populations of squirrels, cats, dogs, and children which use our back yard for a variety of purposes.  The fact is that we had a mild winter, so the rat population is going to be larger than normal, and they will come closer to humans as they look for food.  The only safe solution was to stop filling the bird feeders.  I made sure the feeders were empty.  The bird baths and hummingbird feeder would have to suffice for some time, until the neighborhood cats help the rats find a new place to eat breakfast.

Then the mosquitoes made their early morning attack.  I felt the frustration rise:  I can’t fill the bird feeders because the food attracts rats.  I can’t fill the bird baths because the water is breeding ground for mosquitoes.  So how can we enjoy the wildlife without all the pests?

As a person of faith, I could have gone from there into those kinds of questions that pop up in our minds every now and then, like why did God make useless things like mosquitoes and rats?  But I didn’t want to because I am not sure those kinds of questions can be answered this side of our glory.  So I settled on a different reflection.

Gardening is one of many attempts by us humans to manipulate nature for our own pleasure.  I don’t believe there is anything intrinsically wrong with our attempts to manipulate nature for our pleasure, any more than there is anything wrong with manipulating nature to meet basic needs for food and shelter and the like.  But in nature, everything we do has consequences which are beyond our control.  The rats and the mosquitoes are among those consequences.  The rats and mosquitoes probably serve some great purpose in the larger scheme of creation.  My encounters with them function to remind me that, while there is nothing wrong with manipulating nature for my own pleasure, nature was not created solely for my pleasure.  The world does not revolve around the whims of my pleasures, or even around the persistence of my needs.  There is something much bigger than me operating in the world; I have the privilege of being a part of that something bigger, but it is not operating for me alone.  So if I try to attract birds and find myself with mosquitoes and rats too, there has not been some great failure of the way things ought to be.  In fact, the way things ought to be has worked itself out, and I can choose to either accept the consequences or stop leaving bird seed and standing water outside.

Having reluctantly removed myself from the center of the universe once again, I think I have decided what I will do.  I will leave the bird feeders empty for a while, perhaps even leaving the one farthest from the house empty until winter, when I hope the frost will do its job with the rats more completely this year.  But I will fill the bird bath again, with a commitment to fill it with fresh water daily.  Perhaps I can even find pleasure in the discipline of the nightly work in the back yard.


(c) 2012, Eric Beene

We have plenty of squirrels around here.  Lately, the darn things have been eating all of the food out of the bird feeders.  Of course, squirrels on the bird feeders is nothing new to anyone who has ever kept a bird feeder in an average neighborhood like ours.  But the piggish little fiends don’t know when to stop.  It would be one thing if they just came for a little snack now and then.  Maybe they could pick up some of the little seeds off the ground that the cardinals and blue jays and other birds don’t like so much.  But that is not what the rascals do.  Instead, they crawl up the poles the bird feeders hang from, they jump on the feeders, they knock seed hither and yon, they do all sorts of contortions to fit in a space that was not designed for them, and they camp out there for hours, happily munching away as if the rest of the world owes them the courtesy of leaving them alone while they drive away the prettier creatures.

You can see I have feelings about the squirrels.  They really are just rats with fluffy tails and better PR.

In our house, we have found a new favorite way to deal with the problem.  Our chocolate lab, the story goes, once had to live in the wilds of rural Georgia and hunt for his own food before he was rescued and became a part of our family.  When we got him, a woman who has more money to spend on animals than we do had hired a trainer to teach him basic commands.  Uncle Skip, as our trainer is affectionately known in our house, loves our dog, and he told us that a dog like him needs to have short bursts of intense activity to really stay in shape.

So it doesn’t take an engineer to put it all together.  The squirrels camp out on the bird feeders.  The squirrels annoy me.  The dog knows how to hunt.  The dog needs bursts of activity.  All we have to do is get him excited, quietly open the back door, and in a flurry of dog energy and squirrel fright, the dog chases the squirrels up the nearest tree and returns, gleefully accepting our praise.  And then, because the squirrels don’t seem to be the brightest bulbs in the backyard chandelier, they come back, and our faithful canine gets to put every fiber of his being into action as he rushes out hunting another time.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I decided to take my camera into the back yard to practice taking wildlife shots.  I know, I know; the purple finches and house sparrows which frequent our back yard can hardly be considered good subjects for wildlife shots.  I would rather be photographing grizzly bears catching fish in their jaws in the misty spray of mountain rivers, but some book I read said that taking photos in the back yard is good practice.  So I was watching the trees, and I found a couple of squirrels running around.  I took some pictures of them, including the one you see above.

As I was looking at the photo later, I realized what I had done.  I took a portrait of this animal.  The photo let me look in his eyes, and see the shape of his face and the line of his jaw.  I could see how he was holding his mouth closed, and the brightness of his ears as he held them alert, and his relaxed brow which let his eyes enjoy the view from up in the tree.  An expression almost emerged.  And we know from looking at really good portraits of people that behind the expression on the subject’s face is a story.  I started to imagine this squirrel’s story:  what he was planning to do in the tree that day, what he had been through to get to that tree, where he had eaten his breakfast, what his friend in the next tree had told him just a few minutes before.  It gets a little ridiculous, but you can look at him and wonder what his family life is like, whether he might really be older than he looks, what good and bad choices he had made in the past which led him to that moment in that tree in my back yard.

These are the reasons why, despite my interest in photography as a way to preserve and share beauty, I am not comfortable taking many close-up photos of people outside my immediate family.  There is a deep intimacy to good close-up portraits.  In a good close-up, you can see the creases in a person’s face, and the shape of their brow, and the glistening depths of their eyes.  Their expression tells something about their story, and if you look at the portrait closely, you start to feel like you might even be reading details of their story they have never spoken to anyone.  I have several photography books which give good advice on how to create portraits like that:  how to angle the lighting, how to set up the camera, how to frame the shot, and how to zoom and crop so that there are no distracting details but only the person’s expression.  I think photos like that are beautiful in a way that I’m not sure I can express in words.  But every time I try to take a photo like that, I jump back in fright.  There is too much intimacy in the act of taking a photo like that.

Maybe for now I can stick with “wildlife” photos like the one above.  They might be just what I need.  If I am not careful with them, they might even teach me sympathy, or even empathy, for the fiendish squirrels who thwart my ideas of what kinds of creatures are worthy to be called beautiful.