This last few months have been particularly difficult in the light of climate change induced bushfires here in Australia and now the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID 19). It would in the light of compulsory lockdowns, quarantines and restrictions on social gatherings and travel easy to be filled with dread and let feelings of hopelessness pervade our lives. I myself have had further restrictions imposed as I’m in the process of recovering from spinal surgery and am fighting off the temptation of feeling sorry for myself and collapsing in a heap.
There is an antidote to this. Firstly instead of just being passive and feeding our psyches with all the negative news we can find in the media endeavour to do something creative. Creativity is important, it feeds the soul, gives a sense of achievement and allows you to express yourself. All of this has a positive effect on your psychological well being. It doesn’t matter what it is – paint, draw, knit, cook, write, photograph, sing. Although singing could be problematic depending upon your living arrangements and how well you can sing. My partner has issued me with an ultimatum; if I sing Bohemian Rhapsody at full volume in my usual tone deaf manner then lockdown or not I will be looking for alternative accommodation which I think is a little harsh. Secondly reconnect with nature. This one could be a bit hard depending on what the local authorities are imposing, but it can be done. If confined to the house take time out in the garden, encourage wildlife to come into the garden and watch them. Plant things and watch them grow. If possible go a walk in the park or woods (maintaining correct social distancing of course), go bird watching, fungi spotting it doesn’t really matter. Bonus points if you can combine this with doing some creative as this will allow you to enter a flow state. Sounds poncey but “it is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time” (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, 1975). The benefits of this are that intense and focused concentration on the present moment that you become so totally engrossed in the experience to the extent that other needs or concerns become negligible and this makes you feel in control over a situation. Do this a few times a week and your mood will lift.
I’ve taken my own advice this week. As I said I’ve been laid up at home and not doing much so I hauled my carcass down to the Avon River a couple of times to photograph some birds in the dawn light. It was well worth it. Stalking birds and photographing them required too much concentration and I was able to forget about my own circumstances and the worries of the world and just enjoy being in the moment. It was so enjoyable that I’m going to get out and do some more over the next week.
Right that’s me done I’m off to try and bake a lumberjack cake.
Walking down by the Avon this morning there was a lot of commotion. A steady “prrrp-prrrp” sound followed by a flash of bright colour. Scanning the trees I found what I was looking for in the branches of a big old dead gum tree. A male rainbow bee eater bashing a large insect on the branch till it was dead so it could take it to its young brood. On further inspection I noticed that there was a holding pattern going on with mum and dad taking it in turns to take food to their ever demanding young.
A further shufti and I find the burrow and settle myself in to watch the parents fly in the food supplies. It was non stop, no let up at all. First off we see dad make a trip.
As soon as he is clear it’s mum turn.
All pictures taken with a Panasonic Lumix G85 with Panasonic Leica Vario Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 lens.
Below is a short video clip containing footage of the birds and some more stills.
The last few mornings dog walks have been spiced up by some very territorial brown goshawks. As we walk along the river and then down onto the river bed we can hear them calling and chattering. It then goes quiet for a second or so and then there is a loud whoosh as you are buzzed from behind. As the bird passes overhead you can feel the air current generated by its wings. At first I thought the birds were objecting to the dog but I and this pattern persisted for about a week. But then something happened that disabused me of that notion – my hat suddenly became the victim of a bird of prey. The last time it happened they managed to knock it off my head. I’m beginning to think my bicycle helmet may be more appropriate headwear.
The video is the short version of this article with a slide show of the best of this year’s orchids at the end.
It’s not for nothing that Western Australia is referred to as the “Wildflower State”. There are over 13,000 species of plant to be found, with new discoveries added every year. If we narrow it down to my particular area of interest – orchids – there are 394 species of terrestrial orchids in the South West Corner of the state. Some of these species are so specialised that are confined to very small areas and found nowhere else. Some species will not bloom unless there has been a bush fire the summer before, others if the winter rains are delayed or are insufficient will not put a show on either. This means that no two years are the same. An example of this is my favourite spot near where I live is prolific with the number of orchid species found there. When I first went I was simply amazed by the number of fringed mantis and white spider orchids that were flowering. Over the ensuing ten years I’ve seen such a display of those species since. This year there was a carpet of purple and pink enamels like I’ve never seen before. So this not knowing quite what you are going to find adds to the whole experience. On a few occasions I may be lucky enough to be able to access the flowers by car and a short walk, but most of the time I end up walking through the bush for anything up to four hours.
I approach photographing orchids as I would shooting a person’s portrait – using off camera flash and reflectors to fill shadows, separate from the background, bring out the shape and textures. Too many botanic studies show indistinct photos where the subject does not fill the frame and the background is intrusive. To that end I use a macro lens of around 100 -120mm (35mm equivalent). It’s not because I’m necessarily shooting at a 1:1 ratio, it’s just because I’ve found there are very few zoom lens that focus close enough and have a fast aperture to allow control of depth of field.I used to use a Canon DSLR with a Canon EF 100mm f2.8 IS L lens and carry around a Manfrotto 143 Magic Arm Kit to support the lights. I made a video about using that setup some 7 years ago and that can be seen just below. Since making that video I added a full frame 6d, the Canon macro lens, and extra light and a set of TTL wireless flash triggers and consequently found myself schlepping 10-12Kg of kit into the bush on longer and longer forays. Something had to give – and my back did! So fast forward 7 years and I’m now using an Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii with Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro lens. I’ve not given anything up in terms of image quality with this change because I’m generally working at a base ISO of 200 with lighting which means all the usual objections to m4/3 about excessive noise and poor dynamic range have been taken out of the equation. The Olympus 60mm f2.8 is easily the optical equal of Canon’s EF 100mm f2.8 IS macro L lens at less than 1/2 the price and about 1/3 of the weight. The Manfrotto Magic Arm got binned as it was very heavy at 2.7 Kg and replaced with a Manfrotto Table Top Tripod Kit 209, 492 Long which weighs 454g. As far as lighting goes I’m using a Metz 64AF – 1 and an Olympus FL-600R flash with small soft box, snoot and honeycomb grid. The only thing that I have given up is radio TTL triggers for the flash, I’m using a TTL flash sync cable at the moment. I prefer to use the Metz unit when doing a lot of high speed sync work as it is the more powerful of the two. This may change in the New Year, it may not.
Other things in the bag include an 80cm 5 in 1 reflector – I only use the white reflector as the silver is too strong, the gold too garish. Some times I use the diffuser over a plant to cut down on ambient light levels. A Vittorinox CyberTool L is there. It has a good selection of small screwdriver bits that can most screws on a camera body, a set of pliers, wood saw, metal saw and file and a host of other doodads. I once re-assembled my Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color-Skopar with it while in on holiday in Beijing. Water – this can be in a 1L bottle for shorter expeditions or a 3L water bladder for longer ones. Extra clothing if needed, sunscreen and insect repellent to avoid nasty encounters. Batteries for camera and flash. Wallet of memory cards. That’s it. The whole process is very simple.
We have at present three bob tailed lizards (Tiliqua rugosa) living in the back garden. There’s Big Bob – he’s big male who must be very old judging from the size of him. He’s been here the longest and when he got sick with bobtail lizard flu one winter a couple of years ago we had him inside the house to help him get over it and then tucked him up under a pile of leaves for the remainder of the winter. Just a couple of weeks ago I heard this thrashing about under the sofa on our back patio and when I went and looked it was Big Bob mating with a smaller sleeker female who I called Mrs Bob (hey I can’t be stunningly original all the time!). They are unlike other lizards monogamous and give birth to live young so we’re looking forward to the new arrivals. Little Bob made an appearance on the patio this morning, he’s significantly smaller than the other two so I guess he’s not very old. They are omnivores and very partial to fruit – strawberries being a favourite – so I sliced up a cherry tomato and he/she scoffed the lot very quickly. As they also eat snails and insects I’m hoping that having three of them will mean that they keep the garden pests down. There’s also a bit of an old wives tale that says if you have one in your garden it’ll keep snakes away. I dunno if it’s actually true or not, but having three has got to be good.
The Australian bush is a dangerous place for the intrepid orchid hunter. Poisonous snakes and spiders are the least of your worry. Nope the thing to worry about is the Kangaroo tick. Size is not an indication of dangerousness. At 4mm in length one of these horrid little beasties can cause a lot of pain and suffering. A lot! When we were away on our little jaunt to Nannup the other week unknowingly I picked up a couple of hitchhikers. Shortly after getting home they began to make their presence felt – quite literally. I woke up to find that my love spuds felt like they had been trapped in a vice and then set on fire. Very quickly it felt like I was walking around with a space hopper stuffed in me jocks.
Not for nothing are ticks referred to as “the dirty needles of the bush“. Each tick is like a little syringe loaded with all sorts of nasty toxic bacteria and unfortunately the process of removing them can inject even more of that horribleness into your bloodstream. Now after a few days of antibiotics and ibuprofen things are starting to improve. So if you are an orchid hunter let this be a salutary warning and please take precautions.
Funnily the word orchid comes from the Ancient Greek ὄρχις (órkhis), literally meaning “testicle”, because of the shape of the twin tubers in some species of Orchis. In England between the 11th and 15th century orchids were called bollockwort with bollock meaning testicle and wort meaning plant. In medical lingo inflammation of the testicles is orchitis.
Here are some recent pics from the suffering artist.
* Today’s song reference seemed very appropriate. It is of course Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”