Tag Archive | Photography

Mushrooms

IMG_1770 (800x533)Where I live, we’ve had a lot of rain recently, so now, we have a lot of mushrooms in our community. They are growing in all the neighbors’ lawns. Some look like perfect toadstools, with a skinny stem and a wide top, shaped so that a small mouse caught in a Disney movie could find shelter during a sudden storm. Some are tall and thin with a narrow, pointed top which are best described as, um, erect. Some are oddly shaped, with tops that are wavy and irregular and almost no stem to raise them off the ground. Many are a creamy eggshell color on the top, but others are brown or yellow or gray or green or even a dusty but vivid orange-red. Some have spots or streaks that look like shadows, while others are smooth and constant.

Every time I see the mushrooms as I take the family dog on our daily walk through our neighborhood, I feel compelled to run home, grab my camera, and retrace my steps to try to capture some photos of the neighborhood fungi. Lately, I have paused before acting on that impulse because I am not sure why I have it. They are not beautiful. Even with the best of camera settings, with high-contrast lighting, saturated colors, and blurry backgrounds to make the resulting photos as dramatic as possible, they are still just mushrooms. They are plain at best and disgusting at worst. They are certainly not the subjects for the kind of photos one would want to hang on one’s wall. So why do I feel driven to photograph them?

The mushrooms are not beautiful, but they are fascinating. I think it is the similarity between those two evaluations which compels me to get my camera, and I think it is difference between them which has lately made me pause before using up more precious megapixels. Just think about the words themselves. Both beauty and fascination are nouns, and both can be expressed as adjectives, too: beautiful and fascinating. But when you try to make them verbs, things go awry. Something can fascinate, although it will require a direct object which is willing to be fascinated. But to be transformed into an action, beauty needs a little help. Although one can beautify, it sounds a bit awkward; one would be better off making beauty, or creating beauty, and then beauty itself becomes the object and the action gets put elsewhere.

Both beauty and fascination are subjective; one person might find something beautiful or fascinating or both, while someone else may not. Both beauty and fascination are a part of the equation of beholding, but they come at it differently. Beauty is something intrinsic to the object itself: a beautiful flower bears its beauty whether someone is looking at it or not. Fascination, on the other hand, happens inside the observer: an object is not considered fascinating until someone notices it, studies it, and allows it to evoke wonder or curiosity.

Besides our neighborhood mushrooms, how else might that distinction between evaluating some things as “beautiful” and others as “fascinating” be applied? Objects in nature can be either; as a gardener, I have encountered and planted specimens in my yard that were beautiful but not fascinating, as well as ones that are fascinating but not beautiful. Visual arts have a more clear purpose which can allow a judgment of either beauty or fascination; a piece might be created to communicate beauty, but it also might be designed to communicate other messages which make it fascinating, even if the piece itself is not considered terribly beautiful. Similar things could be said about writing. But what about sounds? Music can be beautiful, whether it is from a bird or an orchestra; it can also be fascinating, although only the most academic of critics would sit through a symphony or a song that is fascinating but not beautiful. And what about food, or odors, or textures? We add other senses, so that something can have a pleasing taste or smell or feel in addition to its visual beauty. And, at the same time, its flavors, odors, textures, and appearance might also be fascinating.

So what about people? I’m not sure more could be said of the myths of human beauty and the mysteries of human attraction, so I will only say this. One of the pieces of the Christian way of seeing the world I treasure most deeply is the affirmation that all people are loved by their Creator, and through that love, every person is made beautiful, no matter what he or she looks like. As with a flower, human beauty is intrinsic, and I find that truth to be one of the most beautiful. Fascination, on the other hand, happens in the mind of the beholder, and I think it is in there somewhere that we can understand such phenomena as attraction, tolerance, kinship, jealousy, pity, empathy, and a whole lot of others.

The window of opportunity to photograph mushrooms is very small. After only a few hours of sunshine, they start to shrivel, to shrink, and to fall, and no matter what colors they displayed when they were at their peak, they all turn to a mushy, slimy brown. At that stage, I do not find them fascinating any more, and I am not even tempted to take a photograph; their value to me is simply that they will decompose and add their minerals, fibers, water, and other nutrients to the soil underneath. Still, we had some rain this evening, so when I go on my walk tomorrow morning, shall I take my camera along with me?

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The Compassion of Nature

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I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Last Sunday afternoon, I was fiddling around in the flower bed in front of my house when I saw yet another anole.  We have had a bunch of these little chameleon-like creatures in our yard this summer; I think the wet weather has led to an abundance of greenery, which has led to an abundance of insects, which supports a larger population of predators who eat primarily insects, including anoles.  I have seen many anoles in the past few weeks which were quite small, as if there was a baby boom among the reptilian crowd in my yard.  I don’t mind; did I mention that they eat bugs?  And they’re kind of cute and fascinating and quite photogenic.

I went inside to get my camera.  I have taken plenty of photos of the anoles in my yard, but the light was nice, and I had a few minutes, and this one looked especially striking against the large, smooth texture of the leaves of the elephant ears.  I chose the long lens, thinking that I would get a better close-up with the greater zoom.  Once I got my equipment together, I stood the requisite three feet away to get the zoom lens and auto focus to work right together.  I looked through the viewfinder, and started snapping photos.

Then, I noticed something that made this particular anole unique.  At first, I didn’t believe it.  I had to do a double-take, and then look at the screen on my camera to see if it was real.  Maybe I was just looking from a funny angle; maybe it was hidden behind a leaf or an arm or something.  But no; it was just the way I saw it.

The anole was missing a hand.

He was, well, how would he like to be called?  Was he handicapped?  Or did he prefer disabled?  That didn’t make any sense.  Clearly, this animal was quite well-abled.  Before I knew he was, um, different, I had watched him easily climb up the long stem of the elephant ear leaf.  He was not especially thin, which would have indicated that he could not keep up with the bugs which make up his diet.  He looked more mature than many of the smaller anoles I have seen in my yard recently, which means he could run deftly enough to get away from whatever considers him prey.  He was just as able as any anole I have seen.  So what was he?  Was he “differently-abled?”  No; that sounds a little condescending.  How would I describe him?  He was simply missing a hand.

What I really wanted to do was to ask him some questions.  How did he lose his hand?  Was it a dramatic escape from one of the neighborhood cats?  Did he cross into some other anole’s territory and get into a fight?  Did he get trapped between a rock and a hard place and have to choose between his hand and his life?  Or was he just born that way, with some sort of genetic mix-up which missed the cue to grow what would otherwise be at the end of his arm while he was inside his egg?

I was too shy to ask him those questions, though.  I realized I really don’t know him at all, so it seemed somehow impolite to get so personal.  I hated the fact that I was staring at him for so long.  I didn’t want him to feel awkward.  But still, I was fascinated:  how did he walk?  Was it different than the way other anoles walk?  Could he lunge so he could take his prey by surprise?  Or did he have to learn a different way to hunt after his accident, or his fight, or whatever it was that caused him to lose his hand.  He seemed willing to have me take his portrait, so I thought to myself that it would be more polite to just look at the pictures later rather than to keep gawking and wondering in the moment.  Soon enough, he spotted something that had landed a few inches in front of him on the leaf, and we both moved on.

As I think about my encounter with this anole, however, I realized I am surprised at the grace of Nature this anole reveals.  I think of Nature as a harsh, rational, survival-of-the-fittest kind of power.  The Darwinians teach us that, right?  Only the strong, healthy, and fully able survive in Nature.  Those who are weak in body, mind, or spirit are picked off by predators or simply left to starve and die alone.  The struggle to survive is the only way each species remains strong enough to carry good genetic material on to future generations.  It seems cruel to us as sophisticated, self-reflective creatures, but that is just how Nature works.

But here was an animal who had faced some kind of trauma, either in his formation or in a fight, and that trauma hadn’t killed him.  His body healed itself:  his blood clotted to keep him from losing what little liquid life force he has inside him, his antibodies prevented infection without the help of Neosporin, his skin closed over the place where his hand used to be with no stitches or Band-Aids, the muscles in his shoulder and elbow and leg strengthened to compensate for the balance and coordination he would otherwise have from his hand.  His mind taught him how to adapt.  His surroundings nurtured him until he could get the food and the shelter he needed all on his own.  Anoles are notoriously lonely beings, aggressively territorial and unlikely to socialize with other anoles, even their own young, for any purpose other than to mate.  So I don’t assume that he had the care of a mother or a father or a kind neighbor or supportive teacher to help him figure out how he was going to get along without his hand.  I doubt his insurance covered occupational therapy.  Still, Nature didn’t dispose of him like a strictly rational Darwinian would suppose.  Nature nurtured him so he could get along just fine, hand or no hand, fulfilling his function of keeping the population of insects in check in his little territory in the flower bed in front of my house.

And Nature doesn’t feel the need to put a label on this particular anole.  Nature doesn’t ask nosy questions about how he came to be so, well, abnormal.  Nature doesn’t gawk or stare at the injury or single him out in any way at all.  Nature just lets him go about his business.

I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Note:  I now have note cards with images of Anoles available for sale in my online shop, so you can share these fascinating creatures with your friends and family!  Click here to check them out!

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!

Fighting Anoles

Note:  I now have note cards with images of Anoles available for sale in my online shop, so you can share these fascinating creatures with your friends and family!  Click here to check them out!

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On Easter Sunday, as we were trying to find the last of the eggs which a mischievous Bunny had so hidden in the shrubbery of our front yard, we spotted two green anoles on one of the posts of our front porch.  Anoles are small lizards native to the southeastern U. S. which change color from bright green to dull brown, depending on their level of stress.  The variety we have around here are Carolina anoles.  We are glad to share our yard with them because they are fascinating in their behavior, they are kind of cute, and they eat bugs.  In fact, one time I became worried my wife was being tempted to commit adultery in her heart when I told her I saw an anole in the back yard eating a palmetto bug (which is the classy name for the really big cockroaches which have also made themselves at home here in the south).

I was glad I had my camera handy, because we all knew what was going to IMG_5447 (535x800)happen when we saw the two anoles.  They are territorial creatures, living their lives mostly as loners in the small realms they inhabit.  So, these two could not share the post; they were about to get into a fight.  They circled each other for a few minutes.  They stared intently at one another.  Then, one launched his body at the other, and the other responded.  They pushed, they jumped, they sparred, and they attacked each other with their broad jaws open.  I don’t think they have much in the way of teeth, so I am not sure exactly what they were trying to accomplish with the open mouth thing.  But clearly, they were in a fight.  IMG_5453 (532x800)And the whole time, they were completely vertical, clinging with their fascinating toes to the post on our front porch.

One was on top, facing the ground, and the other was looking up at him.  Then, they switched places.  Finally, one of them lost his footing, grasped helplessly for something to hold, then slipped to the concrete floor.  He scurried away, uninjured, to find another territory to claim for his own.  The other remained on the post.  I swear he was gloating over his victory:  his skin turned just a little more green, he puffed up the muscles on his tiny neck, and he looked mighty satisfied with himself as I snapped a few more photos of him.  “No, no, come around here and get my good side,” he seemed to be saying proudly.IMG_5460 (533x800)

I recognize that what we witnessed was nothing remarkable.  All manner of creatures struggle with each other for territory all over the world all the time.  In fact, such behavior just seems natural.  Many very smart people in many different disciplines have said over many years that behavior like we saw on our front porch on Easter Sunday is simply the way the world works.  Survival of the fittest.  There can only be one superpower.  There have to be winners and losers.  A man (or woman, I suppose, though that’s not the way most people have said it) has to stake his claim, to stand his ground, and to be willing to defend it.

The thing is, I don’t buy it.  It might work for the anoles staking a claim on our porch post; it doesn’t work for me.  I have come of age during the culture wars.  Ever since I have been an adult, folks have fought over gay rights, abortion, fair ways to rectify racism and sexism, the role of government in providing social services, and tax p0licy.  Since I was a young boy, we have invaded, bombed, or otherwise intervened militarily in Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and any number of other places.  Each time, there have been hot arguments between anti-war liberals and pro-war conservatives.  In the church which I love, we have fought for decades not only over these social and political issues, but also over other theological issues.  A lot of energy, money, time, and other resources have been spent debating the mechanics of how we are saved in Jesus Christ, interfaith relations, and how to interpret the Bible.  When I was examined by a church council to be ordained, the questions I was asked included whether or not I think homosexuality is a sin and what I believe about substitutionary atonement.

The purpose of those questions was not to get to know me or my training or skills in theological thinking; the purpose was to figure out which side I was going to fight for.  And to many people in that room that night, the questions made sense because that is simply the way the world works.  Each time these debates come up, everyone lines up, with the conservatives on one side and the liberals on another, or the Republicans and the Democrats, or the hawks and the doves, or the 47% and all the rest.  And the activists from one side and the activists from the other side start circling around each other, and pushing and shoving, and lunging and leaping, and attacking each other with their broad mouths open.  Then the vote is taken, and someone is thrown to the floor while the other one gloats and preens and feels mighty satisfied with himself.

No one ever says that there is something wrong with the process.  No one ever asks if the porch post is really worth fighting for.  No one ever wonders why there is no way once the fight starts for either side to back off and save face.  And no one would dare to assert that we do not have to be territorial; everyone anticipates the that the label of “naive” will be thrown at the person who claims that we might all be more satisfied if we cooperate  and share resources rather than living as loners.  After all, you are supposed to claim your territory, stand your ground, and defend it; wise people know that is just the way the world works, right?

Several years ago, I was in a conversation with someone I know who has spent her career studying and honing her skills in political rhetoric.  If you were to ask both of us where we stand on a variety of political and social issues, we would probably agree on many of them.  But I was talking with her about strategies which I had learned and used in my work in community organizing.  Finally, I said that I was not comfortable with rhetorical argument as a way to solve the kinds of problems we both would like to solve because it doesn’t build community.  And she admitted:  she wasn’t interested in building community; she wanted to win arguments.  That was where our conversation stopped.

I am interested in building community.  I am interested in questions of process:  of how to respect and preserve dignity, of how to live satisfying lives together, of how to find shared goals that are really worth working for.  That may not be the way things work among the wild beasts on my front porch.  But I don’t want to be an anole.

Squirrels

(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.