Last Friday afternoon I walked around the garden and took a few photos. That may not sound like a momentous event, but it's the first time since college that this girl has gone out with an SLR in hand to capture an image. I haven't thought about an F-stop since I was last in a darkroom in the late 1960s. I've spent the better part of the last 20+ years working with newspaper staff photographers, freelancers and a husband who's supplied my column and blog with stunning images for as long as I can remember.
I'm used to ordering photogs around in the studio, on location, arranging portraits or ongoing news coverage. My job has been to come up with a rough concept, gather props and then sit back while a pro refines it all into an award-winning image. Now, suddenly, here I am having to think about taking my own photos.
It's all because I decided to join the UW-Madison Arboretum "Corps of Discovery," an intriguing series of four, day-long workshops designed to teach participants how to "communicate nature." This project, a joint effort between the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Arboretum, is based on the Lewis and Clark model re-interpreted for the 21st century. Each session is a full day from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. and includes a variety of hands-on activities designed to build one's skills in writing, sketching and drawing, and photography.
LEWIS AND CLARK JOURNALS / American Philosophical Society
The ultimate aim of the program is to create a group of local committed citizens who will aid the UW Arboretum in their work by helping staff document the Arboretum's biological and habitat diversity — using our newly discovered skills! Though the Arb is hoping we will sign on to help them, we can take the classes without making that commitment.
The program is intense, with instruction divvied up among three instructors from the Illinois Natural History Survey. Each one is a specialist in a given area: Susan Post in nature writing, Carie Nixon in drawing and illustration, and Michael Jeffords in photography. I've rarely seen a group of instructors who are so focussed and so prepared; they schlep tons of material from Illinois — handouts, books, tools, etc. — each session. They manage to visually and creatively present ideas and projects that can be difficult to convey, like how to write descriptively or how to employ various colored pencil drawing techniques. Though we're learning technical skills, they are in the service of aesthetic documentation. And it's all lively and mostly fun.
A pair of my journal pages where I literally compared the yellows in five leaves from trees in my front garden. I made a list of all the ways to say "yellow" on the facing page.
I say mostly because much of what we're doing is reminiscent of what Eleanor Roosevelt said, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do." So that means taking my own pictures for a start. It also means attempting to write in a different style than I've been using for the last 30 years as a journalist. I'm not throwing the baby out with the bathwater; but I'm using a lot more adjectives to capture the baby than I've done in the past.
Someone once described my newspaper writing style as "straightforward and lyrical," a compliment I've always treasured. Now Susan's got us writing poetry. I love reading poetry; but I'm not sure about writing it. Indeed I'm feeling my way with words as much as with the camera in these sessions. How I will integrate what I'm learning into my own nature journaling — or this blog — is still unclear.
What is clear is that what we're doing in these sessions — and in all of our many homework assignments — has already expanded my expressive toolbox.
My "cabinet of curiousities" (two images above) is based on the 18th and 19th century model of collecting specimens. These were mostly gathered from my garden with info on what each object is and when and where it was collected on the grid in the top of the box. Probably only curious and interesting to me.