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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

You want the short version or the long one?

Oh, this is just ridiculous. It's been two weeks since my latest hike and I've spent at least twice as long trying to write about it than I spent on the hike itself. So here goes.

Short version:
I walked from Nelson Road to Cottons Road and had a great time taking lots of closeup pictures of plants and insects and arachnids and such. I put my favorite shots in a Picasaweb album here.

Long version:
On my previous hike I covered thirty miles partly because I wasn't encumbered with a camera. On this hike I took over nine hundred digital photos but never got more than a mile from my car. Apparently I need to get the extremes out of the way before I can find a happy medium. I fall into the first extreme easily enough, losing myself in the ryhthm of pumping legs and heart as I strive for distance. It's harder for me to remember my need for hikes like this that are short on walking and long on looking - where I lose myself in tiny things. The camera helps.

I parked at the Nelson Road trailhead and walked west. The trail was full of bittersweet signs of seasonal change, reminding me that summer is old news and fall is around the corner. Late blossoms bloomed. Seed pods swelled where earlier blossoms had withered and fallen. Riots of vines twined around every standing plant, many giving up their strength to their reddening berries.

I'd intended to get five or ten miles of brisk hiking in, only stopping occasionally for some quick photos. Within ten minutes that plan had already gotten shaky. After failing to get a good shot of the dragonflies flitting about, I found a much more willing subject: a ladybug poised on a sumac leaf. Ten minutes later I got entranced by a weevil gathering nectar from a daisy fleabane blossom, and it was clear that the plan was in serious danger. Ten minutes after that the wheels came off the plan entirely. I'd already worked up a sweat trying to keep the camera steady while chasing and snapping away at the bees pollinating the white sweet clover. When my eye caught the snails climbing up those same plants - apparently to get to the choice leaves - I gave up on the idea of a long hike. I didn't mind too much. To explain why, I have to go back about fifteen years.

After college I spent lots of time walking along roadsides and through fields with my Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers. At first I just wanted to see some pretty flowers, increase my knowledge, and have a full journal to show for it. To identify a flower, though, I had to focus all my attention on it, and with that shift in focus came a shift in perception. One oxeye daisy stopped being one more white splotch among ten thousand other white splotches and became something singularly complex and beautiful. One moth mullein became a breathtaking dance of color, texture and form. One more periwinkle blossom became the first first periwinkle blossom I'd ever seen; after all, how could I say I'd seen it if I hadn't noticed that graceful spiral in the petals? In bringing my senses to bear totally on something outside myself I was bringing me outside myself: for a moment not everything was about me. I was seeing, and it was changing me.

Sometimes when I go on a walk I get lost in the act of finding and photographing subjects. After this last one I realized that it brings me the same sense of peace that wildflower identification brought me fifteen years ago. To take decent pictures I first have to slow down and look around for a good subject, so right off the bat I'm seeing my surroundings in a way I usually don't. Then in order to make the shot anything more than decent I have to figure out from what angle I want to view the subject, how I want to frame it, how the light falls on it and whether the lens barrel is shading it. Finally I have to hold my breath and pay extremely close attention to a detail on the subject as I turn the focus ring so that I can get the focus I want right down to the millimeter. Just like the act of identifying something, taking a good picture of something forces you to give it your complete attention. And I've come to understand that complete attention is not separable from love.

I moved on past the surprisingly acrobatic snails and came to another sign of the changing season. Two weeks earlier the small cluster of mullein had not begun to blossom, and the moth mullein right next to it were in late bloom. Now the yellow mullein blossoms were popping out of the stems and attracting ants, and the moth mullein blossoms had withered and all but fallen off while their seed pods had swelled and begun to split.

By this point I was beginning to think that good photo subjects were everywhere - if I looked closely enough at most any interesting plant I'd probably find some sort of interesting creature on it. I don't know whether I was right or I just got very lucky, but within moments I looked at some photogenically ripening berries and saw a daddy longlegs on the leaves right next to them. I'm afraid I aggravated it quite a bit, trying to coax it into position with my hand. Once I got my shots I left it in peace.

I moved on between the shrubs and vines, getting some nice shots of a fetching little bee I've not identified yet. Then I got the big payoff. If I hadn't spent the entire hike soaking up the tiny details of the trail I never would have spotted the fantastically well camouflaged moth that I just identified as a Virginia creeper sphinx.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to remember the joys of taking a long time for a short hike. I won't always have the chance to look so closely, but the next time I go on a thirty mile hike I'll have a better sense of the wonders filling every inch of those thirty miles.

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