Discovery channels

It was truly a Discovery Channel moment. Well, except for the fact that I was in the middle of taking a leak. After some twenty minutes of fruitless stalking, I had given up on getting a good picture of the sharp-shinned hawks screaming at me from various hidden vantage-points around the spruce grove at the top of the field. This is the third year in a row that they’ve raised a family there, and while extremely secretive as long as the young are in the nest, as soon as they fledge, the parents become quite vocal, even aggressive. Just about every morning for the past week, my mother had reported getting close views of them, but by the time I got up there in mid-afternoon, there was no sign of them. “They probably come back each night to the spruce grove, and hang out there in the morning before going off somewhere else to hunt,” she suggested.

Thus it was that around 9:30 on a beautiful, cool, Sunday morning I found myself in the narrow strip of field between the back of the spruce grove and the edge of the oak-cherry woods, engaged in contemplation of the wonders of nature. My bladder was only about half-empty I realized two things: a sharpie had landed in the black locust sapling right above me, and a large stick had just snapped at the edge of the woods about 50 feet away. It had to be either a human or a bear. I zipped up hastily, and a moment later caught a glimpse of a large, black form moving between the trees.

To tell the truth, I’ve never been quite sure that the kind of nature shows featured on the Discovery Channel or in National Geographic specials are entirely a good thing. I mean, if the goal is simply to entertain and to inspire, they’re great. But I worry that such shows raise false expectations about the sort of experiences people are likely to have when they go outside, where, let’s face it, your chances of seeing charismatic megafauna doing exciting things are pretty remote on a day-to-day basis — not least because most larger animals spend the majority of their time doing essentially nothing. Worse yet, the average person’s failure to see nature-show-worthy spectacles in his or her own neck of the woods might lead him or her to conclude, subconsciously at least, that preserving local wildlife habitat isn’t as important as, for example, Saving the Rainforest. How else to explain public silence in the face of runaway exurban envelopment, despite polls that consistently show widespread public support for Protecting the Environment?*

Those of us who have come to crave regular contact with wild nature have done so despite, or perhaps even because of, nature’s consistent failure to provide highly entertaining spectacles. There are lots of cheap thrills, if discovering a new wildflower or a fresh pile of coyote scat is your idea of a thrill. But really, wouldn’t you rather go geo-caching, or roar around on a mountain bike or an ATV? As one of my more urban visitors said one time when I tried to get him to go for a walk after several days of sitting around talking and listening to music, “I’ve seen trees before!”

Nevertheless, sometimes nature does — heeding the call of Oscar Wilde — imitate art, and this was one of those times. I snapped two quick photos of the sharpie before it flew over my head and landed on a taller locust tree a stone’s throw behind me. Then the bear reappeared at the edge of a milkweed patch an equal distance in the other direction. Jesus! Where to look?

Another thing about those nature shows: they’re culled from thousands of hours of film, taken by very talented photographers using very expensive equipment. My thrilling encounter with the black bear was fairly long by real-world standards — maybe a minute — and yielded one pretty good view, but the only picture I got was, as you can see, pretty darn lousy.

It was a medium-sided bear, possibly the same one my mom saw looking in her kitchen window last week. Mother black bears chase off their year-and-a-half-old cubs around midsummer, and these “teenaged” bears, like the one I was watching, haven’t yet developed the wariness of the adults. They’re still learning the ropes. As a result, this is always the busiest time of year for so-called nuisance bear incidents. You’ve just finished moving into your dream house in Ferne Hollow or Oak Pointe, and the next thing you know there’s a goddamn black bear going through your recycling bin like it owns the place. There goes the neighborhood!

This bear, however, seemed more interested in smelling the milkweed blossoms, which have a very sweet, almost cloying odor. It turned its head this way and that, as if breathing deep from a cornucopia of scent. Either that, or it had caught a whiff of Human, and was struggling to separate it from the powerful background soup.

I turned around to look at the sharpie, and realized it was sitting in full view for the first time all morning. I turned back toward the bear. It must’ve caught sight of the motion, because a moment later it was gone, crashing through the bottom corner of the spruce grove. In an agony of indecision, I snapped ten quick photos of the sharpie, then headed off after the bear, which I could still hear crashing around in the woods. I walked back along Laurel Ridge Trail hoping to cross paths with it again, but no luck.

An hour later, I had uploaded my photos to the computer and had just begun to go through them and realize how truly bad they were when my mom came back from her own walk down the hollow. She carried a large, orange and yellow moth on the end of twig, figuring I might want to photograph it. This turned out to be a royal walnut moth, the adult form of the famed hickory horned devil.

O.K., I take it all back: nature really is like the Discovery Channel — at least at the micro-level. Get a camera with a macro lens and you, too, can take eye-popping photos of wildlife in your own backyard: just ask Bev, or Cindy, or Rebecca. My mom was envious of my sightings up at the spruce grove, but her own find was the more interesting one, I thought. The royal walnut moth, like the hummingbird clearwing sphinx moth that came in to the bergamot in my front garden the previous afternoon, is not only easier to observe but also a great deal stranger than anything the furred or feathered tribes have to offer. And best of all, it’s not likely to flee if you stop to take a leak.


*Logically, an environment can never be destroyed. That’s the beauty of abstractions: they make horrors seem manageable by removing all traces of the real world: no land, no air, no water, no endangered species or ecosystems; no messy places or individual creatures. This is why I call myself a conservationist and not an environmentalist.

20 Replies to “Discovery channels”

  1. Actually, have you watched the Discovery or National Geographic Channels lately? At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy, I have to say that today’s nature shows are far more sensationalized than anything I remember watching as a child. The majority of today’s shows seem to focus on the “extreme” aspects of nature: Nature’s Deadliest Predators, for instance, or When Animals Attack. It’s as if TV producers want the most bang for their nature program buck, and that means showing things that are violent rather than mundane. I guess Wild Kingdom wasn’t exciting enough.

  2. Actually, I’d love to get a bear photo as “bad” as yours. It looks like a cutie!

    It’s not just nature shows that give people unatural perceptions of what they’re going to see outside. Photographs are notoriously photoshopped so even those don’t look like what’s really outside anymore. People want to hit between the eyes with something big and dramatic. Something small and beautiful that takes some looking for doesn’t seem to hold their interest. Apparently, saving the rainforest is a lot more interesting than saving the old farm next door.

    Carolyn H.

  3. Nice personal essay, Dave! I’m glad that you got to see a Royal Walnut Moth too; I thoroughly enjoyed my encounter with this lepidopteran tiger.

    I don’t even try to photograph mammals, or even birds, very often. Success in this endeavor requires either tedious sitting in blinds or sheer luck. Give me plants, lichens, fungi, or insects any day!

  4. Terrific photos of both of those moths, Dave! I often think that so many are missing out on seeing some of the coolest creatures of all because they are busy looking for the large stuff.

  5. I love the first photo, dave.

    The last one’s interesting, too, but somehow reminds me too much of an educational channel rather than an actual meeting with a real animal.

  6. Great post, Dave, and the moth photos are just wonderful. I would have liked to see any and all of the fauna you did, but I must admit I’m smiling most at the mental picture of you, trying to figure out what to look at! Not often we get as lucky as you did on this day.

  7. Then there are the people who go to Yellowstone and kick a grass-munching bison to get them to look up, only to get trampled to death.

    Love the moth photos, and I thought the bear shot was great! You can tell how close it was.

  8. Lorianne – Define “lately.” In the past couple of years, maybe, yeah. I remember something called “Great Escapes,” I think. I’m sure the producers of these shows would say that they’re just making what people want – and that the over-35 demographic is commercially irrelevant to them in any case.

    I have fond memories of watching “Wild Kingdom” with my grandparents when I was a wee lad. Now there was a show for fuddy-duddies!

    Carolyn – Guilty as charged! Almost every photo at Via Negativa has been heavily Photoshopped. I want readers to see what I saw, in all its drama and inaccuracy, not what the camera saw. But thanks for drawing attention to the fact that this is a more nuanced topic than my brief post acknowledges.

    Larry – Yeah, that’s another interesting wrinkle: in order to capture those hear-stopping moments on film that ultimately pander to the attention-deprived, the photographers have to spend many hours in boredom or meditation, sitting in their blinds.

    bev – Thanks. Yep, that was my thesis in a nutshell. And really, I have to thank digital photography for really focusing my attention on a part of the world I hadn’t spent as much time with before.

    loren – It does? Cool. Wish I could say I’d intended that!

  9. beth – Glad you liked. Although in all honesty this is a good example of the kind of thing I write on days when I am in no mood to write whatsoever.

    I’ve had other such moments of two or more great wildlife sightings in quick succession, but months or years can go by between them.

    leslee – Or then there was the guy who spread peanut butter on his child’s face so he could get a picture of the Yellowstone bear licking it off… Treating nature as pure spectacle and playground can actually be fatal, you bet. Thanks for the reminder.

    I do hope to get better bear photos. Hopefully without resorting to peanut butter.

  10. Amen to the Conservationist, I heartedly agree. And to the digital camera! Your pictures are wonderful. I trek our small parcel looking for wonders also, and I’m never disappointed. Much of my wonder is found through the eyes of a six-year old… he keeps me young, tired! and honest.

  11. Wow, fun encounters! (I would have been impressed with the new wildflower or the steaming scat as well.)

    Are black bears really as non-dangerous as they seem on your blog? They are no longer in this part of Alabama, but I’ve always been warned that I should steer clear of them. (In case I’m in the Smokies, for example.)

  12. Beau – Welcome, and thanks for commenting. That’s another good point I neglected to mention (at least in this post): seeing the outdoors in the company of a child is another excellent way to make the mundane exciting, for sure. You’re lucky.

    Hi Ivy – I’m glad.

    Karen – Well, they’re about as dangerous as timber rattlers, I think. (Whereas grizzlies, or western black bears, are more like diamondbacks.) You’d have to almost step on them to provoke an attack — and even then, 95% of the time, they’d probably flee. I still wouldn’t want to get between a mother and her cubs, of course. And big males can weigh more than 500 pounds in PA; one swipe with a paw could put you in the hospital.

  13. “Lately” means the last six months or so, which is how long I’ve had access to a TV after not watching for several years. Coming off a TV-fast, I’m surprised at how everything on TV seems faster and flashier than what I’d remembered.

    Years ago I revisited Walt Disney’s Bambi as an adult, and I was surprised at how tranquil the animation, music, and mood seemed compared to today’s fast-paced, quick-edit animation features seem. In the good old days, you could get a kid to watch something that required an attention span. Nowadays, if a scene lingers for more than a few seconds, people (kids & adults alike) presumably flip channels.

    But I’m ranting again. If it’s too fast-paced, I must be too old…

  14. Gorgeous, gorgeous photos and “narration.” We came across a baby black bear once on a hike in Grand Teton. Of course, I was enamored of this baby, rolling around in the tall grass only about five feet off the path, until I remembered that the mother wouldn’t be too far away…

  15. Lorianne – Do you think it’s just your age and lack of continuous immersion in TV culture, or might your Zen practice also be affecting your perception, I wonder?

    Angie – Thanks for stopping by. That sounds like a great sighting.

  16. Dave, I’m with you in your photoshop philosophy. I want images to convey the whole of the experience, not just the pixels captured by the camera’s CCD. Though here, I don’t see you’ve done much more than ramped the saturation up a bit perhaps.

    Photoshop is my palette. Using a little more burnt umber to express what I see in the images I “paint” seems a legitimate part of my creative rendition. If I were a strict photojournalist, on the other hand, WYSIWYG.

  17. Thanks for the thoughts, Fred. You’re way more skilled than I am at both photography and photoshoppery, I think. And I do tend to restrict myself to adjustments of brightness/contrast, color balance, and saturation – “digital darkroom” stuff. I suspect that Carolyn had more drastic alterations in mind, like adding or removing things from the picture, but I’m not opposed to that either – I’m just not very good at it, and not enough of a perfectionist to bother most of the time. I do enjoy playing around with the filters and effects – lately the fresco and ink outline effects; sometimes also a slight diffuse glow. And once and a while unsharp mask. It’s fun to take an image straight form the camera and slowly try to make it resemble the image in my mind’s eye.

  18. In the UK we have a few nature programmes that are deliberately non sensationalist, such as Spring Watch. They are hugely popular and hopefully are causing people to appreciate the small and/or ordinary happenings in the natural world around them. It’s Big Brother for nature in one sense but if it gets people free from the notion that nature has to be spectacular I’m all for it.

  19. That sounds great. I like slow movies in which not very much happens – the mind feels freer, less manipulated. Kind of like reading poetry as opposed to a fast-paced novel.

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