Sunday, November 28, 2010

Witch trial locations

I wrote about a visit to Salem in an earlier post.

Salem Village

It was a surprised to learn that Salem Village was a long distance from the port of Salem which claims now to be the Witch town.  The Meeting House where the trials took place can be found in the town of Danvers (then known as Salem Village) which is about a 15min drive from the cemetery in Salem where the commemorative stones for the Witch Trial victims can be found.

View Larger Map

The site of the meeting house is now a memorial which was built across the road from where the original Meeting House stood and was dedicated in 1992.

I visited the site in 2009 and copied the inscription on the commemorative plaque.

Salem Witch trial memorial1672 Salem Village Meeting House

Directly across from this site was located the original Salem Village Meeting House where Civil and Military meetings were held, and ministers including George Burroughs (hanged August 19, 1692), Deodat Lawson, and Samuel Parris preached.
The infamous 1692 witchcraft hysteria began in this neighborhood. On March 1 accused witches Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn and Tituba were interrogated in the Meeting House amidst the horrific fits of the "Afflicted Ones". Thereafter numerous others were examined including Martha Cory, Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Giles Cory and Mary Esty. Many dire, as well as heroic deeds transpired in the meeting house.

In 1702 the Meeting House was abandoned, dismantled and removed to this site until the lumber "decayed and became mixed with the soil".

In 1992 a memorial was erected here to honor the witchcraft victims and to remind us that we must forever confront intolerance and "witch-hunts" with integrity, clear vision and courage.

Danvers preservation commission, 1992

Hawthorne Hill
I also discovered that the site Hawthorne Hill (now a collection of upmarket condominiums) was once the location of the home of the Salem Witch trial judge (this hill is about a mile from the site of the original Meeting House).

Hathorne Hill, Danvers StateNow a residential property, the building on this site was planned by a famous psychiatrist (Thomas Kirkbridge) in the late 1800's. This was a centerpiece of huge wings that spread out on either side - giving the building a bat-like appearance from far.

Called the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers, it was built in 1878 on land that was the site of the home of John Hathorne, one of the Salem Witch trial judges.

It gained notoriety as the place where the full frontal lobotomy was perfected and frequently used (along with shock therapy) - especially as the hospital became more overcrowded in the 40's and 50's.

It is believed to be the inspiration for HP Lovecraft's Arkham asylum which was also used in Batman comics.

The last patients were moved from there in 1970.

In 2001 it was the location for filming a Horror/Thriller called called Session 9 and is the setting for a spooky novel called Project 17.

Gallows Hill 
The hangings of the victims of the Witch Trials took place on a hill called Gallows Hill.  I came across a very detailed description of one writer's search for the actual location of the hill.  There is a hill near the port of Salem that has a water tower with a witch logo on it.  Signs and directions claim that it is Gallows Hill

Daniel found when he walked up the hill now known as Gallows Hill that the location didn't sit very well with what he had read about it.  After several attempts and a great deal of research he was able to settle on a location nearby that holds up better to the written record.

He uncovered research by a Historian called Sidney Perley which led him to a nondescript little hill below the water tower location.  This hill was just over what was the boundary line of the Port of Salem (across a bridge called Town Bridge that existed on the site) and close to where the water was.  Benjamin Nurse was said to have rowed a boat from the Nurse homestead to the foot of Gallows Hill to retrieve his mother's body from the site.   Daniel's account includes some photographs of what he thinks might be the crevice in which the bodies of the dead were "buried" when they were taken down.

Burial Site
Oral history describes how some of the families of the victims came at night to retrieve their bodies so that they could be buried properly.  Some may not have been as fortunate.

Even though the official record says that they were buried in a crevice on Gallows Hill, we do know that Rebecca Nurse's body was probably retrieved for proper burial.  It is possible that some of the others who were hanged with her were similarly removed.  Elizabeth Howe was from Ipswich which is a good distance (about a 30min drive) from both the port of Salem and from Danvers (Salem Village).  Her husband was blind and she had small children, but her father-in-law - although in his 90's - was bold enough to speak in her defense and may have been able to arrange to retrieve her.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Acapella on the North Shore

I have presented acapella here before in the form of a great performance of a Toto song "Rain in Africa".

Over the last 18 months we have been enjoying our son's participation in a very talented school acapella group at the Manchester Essex Regional High School.  We went to a concert that featured them among 7 acapella choirs from around Boston.

What a treat this concert turned out to be with singers ranging from very young girls at a private primary school on Boston's North Shore to a choir with some aged members that reminded me of the Young at Heart chorus from Florence out in Western Massachusetts.  By the way, if you haven't seen the amazing documentary of this choir, you are in for a treat.

One of the choirs performing that night was a very talented group called The Works who bid farewell that night two two long standing members.  They sang a moving rendition of Desperado as a send off and tribute to these two singers.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cross Orb Weaver

Cross Orb Weaver
Originally uploaded by bowtoo
Experiments in macro photography have been frustrating for me because focus is a real challenge and getting adequate lighting is next to impossible if you get too close to your subject.

There are lenses that you can buy that offer specialized optics for macro photography, but it turns out that you can achieve pretty good results with the standard kit lens and an attachment called an extension tube.

The extension tubes can be bought for about $100 (I got a kit of 3 of them). They don't have any glass in them and mostly just serve to move the lens forward from the sensor to allow you to get really close to your subject.

Getting close to the subject presents problems with focus and with light, but fortunately with modern SLRs (I have the Canon 50D) the ability to shoot in "live view" mode and focus using live view makes focusing a great deal easier than it was with the older SLRs.

Complicated Ring-Flash diffuserMost macro photographers end up finding specialized ring lights or getting some sort of off-camera flash arrangement to help solve the lighting  problem. The on-camera flash is not suitable because of the strong shadow you get from your lens itself when you are shooting really close.

I found some links to rather sophisticated looking home made ring diffusers and eventually settled for something as simple as the foam plates that you can buy at any supermarket (made from some sort of polystyrene).

All you have to do is cut a hole in the plate a little off-center. Make it just a little smaller than the width of your lens and then slide the plate over the lens so that the longer portion is in front of the popup flash. Because the plate is a white foam style, it will diffuse the light in a way that lights from pretty much all around the lens.

This spider was shot using this lighting technique.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sun damaged (a Carac experience)

Leopard skin
Having grown up in Kimberley, South Africa, I was exposed to the dry heat and sun for most of my youth.  I spent many blissful sunny days at the Karen Muir Public swimming pool (named after the 12 year old Kimberley girl who set the still unbroken world backstroke record at a junior national event in the UK in 1965) with my childhood friend and his brothers soaking up the sun.   We were of course always out and about on bicycles or walking with our faces exposed to the sun - I think that Kimberley had something like 350 sunny days a year!  Unlike the USA, there was no culture of children wearing the almost ubiquitous baseball cap so we had tanned faces almost all year round.

Sun screen had been around when I was young and I do remember the Coppertone Girl billboards when I was a teenager - but even so, I had managed to get myself burned badly enough to blister several times in my life.  We certainly didn't know about the connection between sunburn and cancer until much later.  I think the sun products were all about how to get even tans and how to avoid the acute sunburn experience rather than long term protection.

A couple of years ago this all caught up with me when a squamous cell carcinoma was discovered high on my forehead.  This cancer is not dangerous if discovered early and is the second most common form of skin cancer.  It shouldn't be treated lightly though - it is a cancer and there is concern if it isn't treated in good time.  Fatalities are tied to not treating these early and the pictures that you see on the Internet can be quite disturbing.  Mine was very small and unassuming but gave me a bit of a wake up call to pay attention to the marks on my skin.

As a follow up, this year I scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist.  In America (or perhaps just in this part of the US) these things require planning and patience.  You need a referral and have to wait several months for an opening for the screening which basically involves inspecting you from head to toe for signs of growths or moles that might be problematic.

The condition that I have, caused by sun-damaged skin, is called Actinic Keratosis and is essentially scaly rough patches that you get on your face as you age.  These are fairly easy to spot in the "before" photograph of me in the series below - slightly darker than the rest of my skin.

The presence of these are evidence of sustained sun damage and the likelihood of developing any of the skin cancers (including the very aggressive melanoma) is greatly increased by this condition.  In fact many believe that actinic keratosis is an early stage of squamous cell carcinoma.  Apparently about 10% of these patches are likely to develop into cancer.

One suggested preventative treatment is to use a cream that attacks the cells on the skin that have the potential to develop into cancer.  The cream is made from a chemotherapy drug called fluorouracil which is most quickly absorbed into cells that are dividing rapidly and inhibits their ability to synthesize DNA which essentially kills the cell.

The cream apparently affects people differently and the treatment time can vary from two to four weeks.  I was told that I'd have to use the cream for about two weeks and was warned that I would be astonished at how much of my face would react to the cream and that it would end up being increasingly irritated and red as the treatment progressed.

After a few days of use, I was not showing too many signs of redness - perhaps just enough to prompt me to create an image in black and white using the red filter in Lightroom to accentuate all the red places.  I called the image Leopard Face because of how it made me look.

The truth is, that my face was beginning to look pretty grim.  The raised spots were not quite painful, but certainly noticeable - I guess a little like how you feel a few days after you have had a bad graze, the tight not-quite-itchy slightly painful feeling you get as you are recovering.

I had to apply the cream once a day - I did it before going to bed each night - and after a few days of treatment I had a borderline headache by the end of the day and was pretty aware of all the irritated areas around my face.  It was entirely bearable, but fairly unpleasant.

As you can see from the second picture, the irritated area was enough to be noticeable but not that obvious - my colleagues at work told me that I was being over-sensitive to how obvious it was.

So here is a collage of my face before, after a few days and after 2 weeks to show how the effect increased over time.   You can click on these pictures to see them in closer detail.  Because there were areas in my beard that began to react to the cream I ended up shaving my beard  - much to the alarm of the rest of my family - to give me better access to those areas.  The dermatologist had said that I didn't have to shave, but I felt more comfortable treating the skin with the beard off.

On the last day of the two week treatment I was told to use Vaseline to help the healing process.  Like a glaze, it makes the red areas appear even worse than before.  I was quite fortunate to be able to work from home during this process, because the bright red patches on my face are very distracting and it takes some getting used to.

I am told that it will take several days for the redness to back off and all of the dead skin will have to peel off my face.  Apparently after two weeks I will look at least like I did before the treatment and four weeks after the treatment my skin will be markedly better than it has been.  There may be a few persistent patches of actinic keratosis that will still have to be treated separately.

Most people who have this condition are able to treat each developing lesion by burning them off individually with liquid nitrogen.  This was an option that the dermatologist suggested to me as an alternative.  Considering though, how much of my face proved to be susceptible to this cream I am pleased to have used this more aggressive treatment despite the unpleasant view that I treated my family to as my face deteriorated over the course of the treatment.

Don't underestimate the importance of your appearance to people's impression of you.  It is an interesting experience going out looking like this.  I think that strangers assume that you have some facial pigmentation like port wine stains so you do get some looks - but mostly people ignore it.  We went out to lunch and had the waitress focus all of her attention on my wife for taking the order and checking on how we were enjoying the meal.  It is hard to ignore if you are face to face with a colleague or a customer so I would really recommend figuring out how to work from home if you can during the 2nd and 3rd weeks of treatment.

I have read on some of the forums for cancer treatment (I was prescribed Carac) that an option often exercised is to treat different parts of the face at different times.  Since some people end up having to have this treatment over 4 weeks it is hard to imagine avoiding going to work for that long.  From what I read these are for severe cases and also where the skin doesn't react as quickly as mine did.  I suppose fair people burn more easily and respond more readily to this treatment.  Either way, the longer treatments might only get unsightly after a much longer period.

A week on (6 nights after I stopped the treatment) my skin is looking a lot less angry.  My face is showing some peeling and the vaseline that I have to use to help the healing does make it look more pronounced but it is bearable.  I assume that I'll have a lot less to show for this in another week.

After 4 weeks there is still some evidence of the red below my eyes and some of the darker spots that were more inflamed than others, but overall I think that the skin on my face is quite a bit better than it was before I even started the treatment.  I have to say that I haven't noticed peeling excepting in some of the very badly affected areas.  I suspect that the peeling has not been very noticeable on my forehead for example where the skin looks very much better.

---- Feb 2012 update
I have been asked to add a photograph as an update 15 months later.  I am a little overdue for a checkup on my skin.  There are still a few noticeable sun damaged spots on the top of my forehead but as I said before these will be treated when they begin to transform.   Other than that, just more white in my beard :-)

Nov 2012 Update
One of the people who followed this Blog sent images of how he looked at the end of treatment.  Hopefully we'll also see an image in a few weeks as your skin returns to normal.  Thanks, Jim!

One week later...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Epic hikes: Half Dome

The past year has not been a good year for hiking for me.  Other than a few quick trips up Monadnock with some colleagues and a hike up Moose Mountain to look for Moose I haven't done any good hikes since the big one to Bigelow just before we visited South Africa in 2008.

So when a business trip to San Jose was in the offing and my hiking colleague (who had planned the Bigelow trip) suggested that we stay a couple of days extra to visit Yosemite, it took very little to get me to agree.

Now I am not in great shape, unfortunately. The motivation to exercise has a very low pulse in me so when John described the hike (and sent me a video link) I thought it would be likely that I'd stop somewhere along the way and hang out to wait for him.

The trail guide describes it as an 8.2mi (13km) long hike to the top of Half Dome with an elevation gain of 5000ft (1542m).  Of course in my mental preparation I fixated on the 8.2 and the 5000ft and knew it would be tough - without really taking account of the fact that this is a there and back trail so the total distance is 16.4mi (with almost another mile added in for the walk from the car to the trailhead.  (John sent me this GPS elevation graph and the detailed trail after the trip).

The guidebook for the Appalachian trail on the East Coast has a rule of thumb for the distance that you can cover when you are hiking.  The rule is half an hour per mile and add half an hour per mile for each 1000 ft gain in elevation.  By this calculation the total hike is estimated at 10.5hours without stops.  The Yosemite guide book recommends 12hours.

We set off at 6am and made it to the trail head at 6:30.  It was still dark, but light enough by that time to see the trail.  The first 2 miles or so are more or less paved with tar and were pretty easy going.  What was astonishing about this trail was that every turn presented the most beautiful views of the monolithic granite extrusions and rock faces with amazing features.  It was hard not to stop every few feet to take a photograph and you can see right away how people were inspired to climb in this valley.

 The trail eases out of the valley and splits into two alternatives - a very steep "Misty Trail" which we fortunately only discovered on the way back and the "Nevada Falls" trail - both of which take you past the most spectacular falls. I say fortunately because I think we would have been tempted to go up that way if we knew that it is a shorter route to the Nevada Falls. The gradient is brutal and I appreciated going down it more than I would have going up.

The guide book warned us that some of the waterfalls along these trails are only really running strong in the spring and are a mere trickle at other times of the year. I don't think we found a fall that was not impressive. The Yosemite web site boasts that no other place on earth has as high a concentration of waterfalls as Yosemite does.

The Nevada falls are really impressive and visible from quite far off along the trail.  At the top of the falls is a wonderful pool which is apparently too tempting for some hikers.  Almost every year a hiker is swept over the falls.  A sign up there warns: "IF YOU SLIP AND GO OVER THE WATERFALL YOU WILL DIE"

These falls are half way to the top of the hike along this route and you can walk right to the edge and look down this impressive drop with a metal fence preventing you from teetering over the edge.

 Once you are over the falls you have a short climb to get past the Liberty Dome on the left and you are in Little Yosemite Valley - a relatively flat area in which Ponderosa Pines and these wonderful large Sequoia trees grow.  By the time you get here, you can see the rounded back of the Half Dome and it's partner Sub Dome through the trees.  The hike takes you all the way around these two rounded shoulders to the right and then up a surprisingly even trail to a flat-topped area below the two Domes.

The views from the top are breathtaking.  You can see the Sierra Nevada mountains and all of the prominent features of Yosemite valley from there, standing on this bald, rounded top.

The trail up Sub Dome begins with rocks hewn and stacked to form steps in the most impressive way.  At 8836ft above sea level, the effort required to move and stack rocks like this must be incredible.

After a 100 ft or so you scramble up slabs of rock at an angle steep enough to make your next footing a thoughtful exercise.  At this point I was tired enough that I really didn't trust my footing enough to move confidently forward.  John carried on until he reached the top of Sub Dome (a few hundred feet higher) and was able to survey the very steep stretch to the top.

In the summer, chains are erected with slats at even intervals to help hikers move up the steep terrain.  These chains are taken down in the Fall and left to lie flat on the dome.  When we arrived there, a French hiker was making his way down the mountain and told us exuberantly that the chains were still up there.  We discovered that he had used the "decoupled" chains as supports to help him make it to the summit.

The total hike was 17.2mi and we took 10 and a half hours all told.

If you haven't been to Yosemite - or any of the other National Parks, you may not be aware of how well equipped they are.  Yosemite Valley boasts a swimming pool and a big complex with a large barn-like eating hall where you can eat a buffet dinner for about $13.

We feasted that night and drank beer to celebrate.  Aching feet and joints that took me a couple of days to recover from reminding me of the day's effort.

What a cool trip!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Not so Privy

The Appalachian trail has shelters dotted along its length in intervals ranging from 1 mile to 18 miles depending on how easy the walking is.  The average is probably close to 6 miles in the White Mountains of New England where the hiking terrain can be pretty tough.

I have been on a few hikes along the AT in New England and stayed at the shelters where possible.  The shelters are quite big, with  3 walls and a roof and could probably sleep about 7 people.  Near to the shelter there is one or more outhouse (what we descriptively call a "long-drop" in South Africa). 

At Kingsman in the White Mountains (mile 1801.6 of the 2178 mile/3505 km
trail) the outhouse has stairs up to the entrance and advises you to "Pee in the woods" because the higher the water content in the compost is, the harder it is for bacteria to process it.

A little further north in Maine in the Bigelow range (mi 2006.6), the outhouses are built with the most beautiful view as a backdrop - but for some reason, rather than face them over the view, you sit with your back to it.  I can't quite fathom that - with a view as impressive as this, why not allow people to enjoy it while they have their morning ablutions?

A through hiker (the term for someone who does the whole trail in one go over several months) told us of a spectacular outhouse at one of the shelters that is right on the edge of a cliff and overlooks a beautiful valley.  Now THAT is my idea of a great location.

My most recent hike was up Moose Mountain.  I have a colleague who loves to hike and I have mentioned to him several times that I am looking to photograph moose (I carry my heavy lens with me in the hope of finding wildlife).  He found a link to a trail that looked pretty promising on the AT over a mountain called Moose Mountain with the following description in it:

Moose Mountain is aptly named. The entire trail is prime moose habitat, with numerous swampy areas to the sides of the trail, although the trail itself is generally dry, soft dirt. Fresh moose tracks are virtually guaranteed, and moose sightings are common on the Moose Mountain Trail, part of the Appalachian Trail.

Well - I guess the moose were not co-operating and a local hiker told us she had been walking there for years and had never seen a moose, nor were their any prints or moose droppings in evidence along there.  We did see some swampy areas which I suppose might be a good place to wait for moose but it might be a long wait.

The outhouse on Moose Mountain was pretty impressive too.  A sign at the top of the junction to the outhouse boldly announces that the (not so) Privy is off to the right.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Slo mo dogs

Digital video technology has come a long way.

Top of the line high speed video at around 1500 frames per second in full 1080 HD resolution is quite an achievement in the Phantom camera.

I found this short video of dogs shot at 1000 fps using this camera.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Finding a tripod

I remember the discussion that I had with my auto mechanic about whether to buy a cheap replacement exhaust system for my car back when I was newly married and cash strapped.  I had just started to work, had student loans to pay and was trying (without good success) to keep ahead of my debt.

A regular exhaust was affordable (only just) and the stainless steel one was about 3 times the cost.  For me it was a "no-brainer".  Why would I pay 3 times the amount for stainless steel - particularly since my car was an old clunker anyway?

Roughly a year later I'd have the same conversation and after three years I'd have paid what the stainless steel exhaust would have cost me on cheap exhausts that were rusting out on me.  I never learned the lesson...

It is true that almost every photographer makes the same mistake - at least once - with their tripod.

Look at it this way.  You can get a regular tripod at a consumer store for around $160 or so.  It has all the moving parts and adjustments and is relatively light-weight.  It also does the job.  A good tripod costs around $500 and is accessorized so that you have to buy the "head" that attaches to the top for around $200.  Of course you can spend a lot more than this.  The problem is that this is very close to what it costs to buy a really good entry level digital SLR or a nice new lens!

My shopping list for my camera is:
  1. Body with stock lens (2004)
  2. Short zoom (portrait) (2005)
  3. Long zoom (wildlife) (2008)
  4. 50mm f1.8 (portrait and other cool images) (2009)
  5. new body with great low light  capabilities (2009)
  6. really wide angle lens (zoom or fisheye) (TBD)
  7. A faster (more expensive) zoom for wildlife (TBD)
I have worked my way to item #5 and you'll notice that the tripod doesn't even feature on this list.

I had a tripod to start with, an old video camera tripod made of aluminum with clip releases for the legs.  We bought it years ago and the connection that the camera screws into at the top was loose and wobbly and the leg clips were starting to slip.

I got a great tripod from my family for my birthday in 2008 and it went with me to Africa but after two years the entire center column assembly is wobbly even when properly tightened and it will not stay exended even when tightened down.  Plus (and this is a big deal) it vibrates badly in ways that I can't stabilize in wind.

I do own a Manfrotto monopod.  It was given to me as a gift by a good friend of ours who is also a passionate photographer.  It is fantastic for sports photography but as you can imagine doesn't hold up to low light even if it is standing on the built-in fold out legs (it vibrates very easily).  Its main purpose is to keep the weight of the big 100-400mm lens off me and stable enough for the high shutter speeds that you aim for in sport photography.

I guess I have to add in at number 5.5, a new tripod.

So - I am looking for suggestions!  I have a friend and colleague who is the most thorough researcher I know when it comes to what the next camera is to buy.  I am hoping that he is inspired to do some tripod research!

Here is what I have heard you need in a tripod at an NECCC conference presentation:
  • sturdy and light
  • buy a good one - it is one of the few things that you could keep for your photographic lifetime
  • forget about center columns, buy a tripod that can extend to at least your head height without a center column.
  • get a tripod head that allows you to rotate the camera through all planes (I have a video tripod head at the moment which only allows tilt forward and back - the only lens that works well on this is the one that has a rotating bezel that you can screw onto the tripod that allows a portrait to landscape rotation once it is mounted)
Today on my way to work I listened to the excellent podcast TWIP (this week in photography) and I think it was Ron Brinkmann who mentioned a make of tripod that is carbon fiber and not crazy expensive.  A quick look at their web site (the are called Feisol) is promising.

I think that I am going to have some trouble with height though.  Their longest extension for a Fisol tripod without a center column is around 4.5ft for the tournament class tripod but the prices look low compared to what I have come to expect.

What thoughts?

      Monday, March 1, 2010


      Great Blue Heron
      I was given a zoom lens by my family for a birthday present in 2006. The lens was not really a very long lens (by the standards of wildlife photographers) with 28-135mm range.  With digital cameras' sensors being a little smaller than the 35mm film that SLR cameras use, the lens was effectively the same as a 40-200mm zoom.

      Even with this zoom, wildlife is pretty inaccessible. I bought a camouflage mesh mosquito netting to drape over me so that I could lie near our bird feeder and get pictures of chipmunks, squirrels and birds, much to the amusement of my family.

      When we decided to go back to South Africa for a visit in 2008, I saved up and bought a 100-400mm zoom lens, one of those white Canon lenses that you see professional photographers lugging around. The lens is expensive, one of Canon's high-end lenses (although at $1400 it is about a third of the cost of the really high-end equivalent that sports photographers use).

      When I first got the zoom lens I went off with two friends from our Camera Club to a local state reserve to try to photograph birds.

      In the meadow behind our house we had seen some wild deer. This meadow is linked to some open woods and reservation land between the highway and the next town and the deer roam freely there. They are very shy and it is almost impossible to come upon them without a snort and the sight of their white tails bounding off into the distance.

      They are called White-tailed deer and are indigenous to this area. Back in the day (when the European settlers first landed here) their numbers were contained by wolves and by being hunted by the Native Americans who lived here. Over the years, encroaching settlements and hunting thinned their numbers until in the early 1900's there were fewer than 1000 counted in Massachusetts.

      Of course since then, legislative efforts and a reduction in hunting (both as a result of the laws and a lower interest in the sport around urban areas) has seen a resurgence in their population.

      The deer population today is in the vicinity of 85 000 which makes them a problem. They have a tick that feeds on them called the deer tick.  This tick can carry a parasite that causes a disease called Lymes Disease.  It can be treated if found early enough but is debilitating if left to incubate in your body. After the initial symptoms if untreated it hangs about undetected and appears with severe symptoms (heart, central nervous system, arthritis etc.)

      The deer ticks in our meadow are enough to drive us out of there during the summer. Matt had the characteristic bulls eye that can be the early symptoms of lymes disease one year and had to be treated with a very strong course of antibiotics.

      I spent some days in our meadow with my mosquito netting draped over me waiting for an opportunity to photograph one of these animals. You can imagine how exciting it is to look up and see one standing no more than about 20m (60ft) away from you - usually staring intently at you because even though you may not be immediately visible, they can sense you.

      I happened upon a buck on a walk that I took in this meadow one day in the summer. This was purely by accident and I stopped dead when I saw it. I was behind it and it had not noticed me so I was able to get my camera ready in time to get a few shots of it as it noticed me, stared intently at me to try to figure out what I was and then decided to run.  The buck are magnificent animals. They grow these antlers that have a velvet covering on them over the course of the year and are far less frequently seen than the females.

      There is a nature reserve near my work that I visit occasionally. With the new lens I discovered two things about the deer that live in this reserve: they are not as shy as those in our meadow and you can learn how to spot them in the woods as you are walking despite their well disguised coloration. So after a few trips there, I have had good success in spotting and photographing the deer in this reserve. I happen upon them almost every time that I go there and have been able to get quite close to them on several occasions.

      This past week we had a tremendous storm that brought hurricane force winds to us. I decided to take a detour to the reserve on my way from work on Friday. I seemed to be the only person wandering around the reserve which was littered with fallen trees and broken branches. I came around a corner and saw a deer a few meters off the path with its ears pricked up looking at me. I stopped dead and saw that there were at least 5 more of them grazing off to the left. It watched me for a few seconds and bounded off without the rest of them taking note.

      I got my camera ready and walked as slowly as I could to a large tree off to the right. Once there I was able to get ready for them - I suspected that they would go off in the same direction as the first one had which would bring them into a direct line for me.

      In club competition there is a category for nature photography. In order to do well in this category you need to have extremely sharp images - particularly around the face and eyes - and you are given additional credit if the images tell a good nature story. The things that really count against you are objects that distract from the subject - for example branches that are too bright, or in the way. In the woods it is really hard to shoot a deer without having some branches between you and them.

      I stood still for a few minutes before the deer started to move. They are naturally fairly curious so if you are standing really still and they hear the sound of your camera shutter they will often look up, notice you and then stand and stare at you for a long time before making their minds up to bolt or simply move on.

      I was able to photograph just about each of them as they moved across in front of me over the path.

      Sunday, February 28, 2010

      9 Year retrospective

      Anne remembered that today is the 9th anniversary of our arrival in America.  It is astonishing how quickly time flies and hard to imagine how our naive assumptions about moving could have led us to where we are now.

      Through the 80's and 90's there was a steady exodus from South Africa of people who had the means either through ancestry or other connections to places like the UK, Australia and New Zealand.  We had toyed with the idea of leaving and of course it was a topic of many conversations at dinner tables in our home town of Grahamstown.

      If we had the means we would have left South Africa without a second thought in the mid 80's when the Government repression of anti-apartheid activists touched us personally or in 1992 when Anne narrowly escaped being killed by a mob of violent teens who pelted our VW Kombi with rocks as she was driving home from school.

      In the mid 90's with all the new hope of universal franchise and Mandela's release, talk about leaving was a tougher conversation but when the opportunity came to visit friends who had moved to America and the subsequent job offer in Boston, it seemed like a good idea.

      I remember going to the police station in Grahamstown to get a police clearance certificate and looking on the wall at the crime statistics.  It was the first week of the month and the numbers of rapes, murders and thefts amounted to around 5 a day each.

      We had friends who had been personally affected by violence on their farms (murders and robberies) and who had been carjacked at gunpoint.  To be clear these things had been going on in the bigger cities (Johannesburg and Cape Town) for a long time, but we lived in the small university town (Grahamstown) where this sort of thing had been very uncommon and it felt like we were somehow caught in a downward spiral.

      I had felt that rather than join the flock of people who were leaving because of their fears of what a black government might mean for the white minority, I'd prefer going to a country that was less popular a destination for South African emigrants.  Where being South African was not as big of a deal.

      We naively assumed that having grown up on American popular culture - I get teased at work because the TV programs we watched in the 80's were popular here sometimes a decade before - that we would be able to slide right into living here, but it isn't just driving that happens on the right.  We were surprised that Anne's paintings (several oil nudes) caused a bit of a stir in the neighborhood (one boy told the boys that they were so lucky because they have "porno" on the walls of their house).

      Some of our basic views that came from how government was perceived in South Africa and, for example, how you feel about weapons are not just hot topics here, they form the basis of entire political movements.

      Figuring out driving on the right hand side was not too hard.  You do have to watch yourself stepping out to cross a road because we were trained to look right first which is dangerous over here with the cars coming from your left. 

      The work environment was very different too, I went from a very safe job, one that was more or less guaranteed if I worked consistently - to an environment where 1 in 10 companies were destined to failure and the people working for them subject to retrenchment as the need to downsize arose.

      American immigration (if you do it properly) is not an easy process.  My work visa tied me to an employer whose sponsorship had to demonstrate that they had not been able to find a local person with my credentials.  This was easy when I first moved here because the high-tech bubble was just about to burst and qualified, capable people were hard to find.

      In September 2001 when the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center shook things up, a number of these high-tech start-up companies found bridge funding opportunities drying up and ours was hit hard.  We faced having to find our way back to South Africa if I wasn't able to find a new visa sponsor.  We had more or less committed all of our resources to getting here in the first place and this was something that weighed heavily on Anne and I.  Indeed the thought of not having work in this strange land with no family or other support was a preoccupation for me until the green card sponsored by my second employer (which took around 6 years with all the paperwork and other processes) came in 2007.

      All things considered we have been incredibly lucky.  The second company that sponsored me has been surviving well and the work (and some of the people that I have worked with) has made it interesting and rewarding.

      Our big regret (and it is something that I wish we could have foreseen) is that our daughters can't live in America.  One of them works in England and the other in South Africa so we get to see them far less frequently than we would like.

      I have come to understand American politics a little better and to value the skepticism that most American's feel about bureaucratic competence.  In particular I value the strong ethic that dictates that you find your own way in the world (work for what you want, don't assume that you are somehow entitled to it).  This is something that I value my sons learning here as they begin to make their way in the world themselves.

      Friday, February 26, 2010

      Crashing trees

      A storm moved through last night that had gusts of winds that reached 70mph in our town.

      The rain started in the afternoon and by night we could hear the wind picking up until at about 11:30pm when the lights began to flicker and Anne called me to tell me that she heard a tree crash outside.  She heard a few more crashing sounds before about 12:30am when it all quietened down.

      I went outside this morning and discovered that we had had a pretty close call.  There were 3 trees near our house that had snapped like twigs.  Large pine trees with a trunk diameter of at least a meter had been snapped clean in two.  In other places in the wood behind our house the roots were ripped from the ground that had been softened by the rain.

      At about 7:20am the boys were ecstatic to learn that school had been canceled.  I drove to work and stopped on the way to take some pictures of the scenes of destruction.

      The Ipswich River Audubon reserve near my office is a place that I sometimes sneak out to on the way to or from work.  The one road to the reserve was closed - I suppose because a downed tree had broken some electrical wires - and I had to drive around to approach it from the opposite side.  The people working there saw me get out my car with my camera gear and thought I was the insurance assessor come to take photos of the trees!

      There were a couple of hawks out hunting and I managed to get my first photograph of a Northern Flicker - it was pretty far away so is not much more than a record shot, but I was still pleased to get it!

      On my way to the office after a quick walk in the reserve I noticed a house with a tree lying squarely on the roof.   The owner was out taking a look at the damage so I felt a bit uncomfortable about stopping right then.  I took another trip to the reserve this afternoon after work and stopped to photograph the house.  By then the tree had been cut back off the roof and you can see the sagging dent where it lay.

      Monday, February 8, 2010


      Matt and Nick were in the district finals for the North Shore of Boston - about 6 schools in the Cape Ann League competed this past Sunday.

      Their school doesn't have a very strong swimming program and they finished at the bottom of the league after the season's competition. 

      They had an opportunity to compete once more against all the schools in a championship at Salem State College's swimming pool as a finale to the season.

      Nick's events are 100m butterfly and 100m Individual Medley and Matt competes in 100m backstroke and 100m freestyle.  The both did really well. 

      Matt lost his goggles in the dive for the freestyle event and the distraction cost him time so this event didn't go well for him.  In backstroke he placed 7th in the district (there were 4 heats of eight swimmers each) and improved on his season's time by a second or so.

      Nick finished first in his heat for butterfly and was placed 6th overall - this event had about 3 heats of 8 swimmers altogether.  The freestyle 100m had many heats and Nick placed 7th overall there as well.

      They both swam in heats that they were strong in so it was cool to see them come in with times that placed them high in their heat and beat a couple of the competitors in the fastest heat.

      Monday, January 18, 2010

      Cooper's with Starling

      Cooper's with starling
      Originally uploaded by bowtoo

      I just learned that this image won image of the month at our photo club.

      I am very pleased.

      A day at the races

      There is a country club near to where we live that hosts some of traditional activities you'd expect from an exclusive English country club during the summer including Horse Jumping and Polo.

      On Thanksgiving day this year they hosted a traditional Fox Hunt complete with a Yorkshire man who was the Huntsman.  I had a great time photographing the hounds and the people in their jodhpurs and red jackets.

      A friend who is a horse riding instructor let me know last week that the club was going to host its first dog sled racing event.

      I had read about dogs pulling sleds when our boys went through reading Gary Paulson's books when we first came to America.

      I had read Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod and had been impressed with his description of the dogs and the relationship that the rider has with them.

      Although you most often associate this sport with Husky's there are several breeds that are used in the teams.  Huskies are such an incredibly interesting looking breed - at once attractive, with the thick fur and features that remind me of a wolf, and spooky with those intense blue eyes.

      So it was a great opportunity for me to go and take a look at people and dogs who compete in this sport!

      We had a storm a few weeks ago and it has been bitterly cold over here for days, but as the week leading up to the event drew to a close the temperatures soared to an uncharacteristic 46F (7C).  We had been dealing with 20F (-6C) since Christmas so it was a wonderful relief, but not so good for the dog sledding. They need snow to run.

      I met a friend from our camera club at the parking lot and we stood in the snow (your feet feel it even if the air is relatively warm) for about an hour and a half while the officials tried to figure out what to do with the sections of the course that were not doing so well.  There were 3 tracks of 4mi, 8mi and 11mi each and we had heard that the longer ones had areas on them that were not going to hold up.
      Eventually they decided to start with the very young contenders because they rand the length of the field - probably a 50 yard dash.

      It was really cute to see the children and the parents gearing up for the start.  Almost all the dogs were startled when the starter shouted to go and the parents had to push them forward to get them back into the moment.  Once the dogs realized what was happening they were off.  You can tell that they and the riders enjoy doing this and it reminded me of our dog when it sees a ball - from distracted to intense focus in a split second.

      Gary Paulsen describes this very well in his book.  The dogs will run themselves to a standstill if you ask them to.

      We moved to a different site for the longer runs and met up with a photographer from the Salem newspaper.  I had also seen the staff photographer from the Boston Globe hanging around at the beginning.  He had been at the Thanksgiving Day Hunt as well  and had published a remarkably similar set to the pictures to the ones that I had picked of my collection from that day.  I had really appreciated that we had seen similar scenes.  He told me that the pictures that had sold the most from that day were the ones he had taken of the spectators!

      From this new spot we were able to watch some of the adults skiers doing something called Skijoring.  You attach a line to your belt and have one or more dogs pull you on your skis.

      These riders went on the 4km run and took around 30min to complete it for each of them.  I heard that the teams of dogs that pull the sleds average about 3 minute miles which is pretty fast one dog and a skier not so fast.

      The light more or less behind the people we were photographing so we tried to find a different vantage point where we could get better light.  In the end the direction of light didn't matter that much.  If you know much about photography you will know that shooting in snow on a sunny day is not ideal.  The camera exposure meter compensates for the snow by darkening the entire scene which ends up making the people and dogs (particularly black dogs) impossible to see.  I had adjusted for this beforehand, telling the camera to overexpose so that it would compensate for this problem.

      A good thing about getting into the new position (aside from light) is that we got to see the dogs working hard on an uphill.  I got my best picture of the day here with a spread of dogs looking as pleased as anything and a very happy young rider egging them on.

      The other interesting thing we discovered is how obedient the dogs are.  One of the children fell off his sled and he shouted one word and the entire team stopped.  He shouted the word in mid-flight as he was falling so he just jumped back on and off they went.

      The last event that we watched was a multi-dog adult sled.  I was disappointed that I had to leave because they had professional teams geared up to run in the afternoon and it would have been good to photograph them but it was all a great deal of fun!

      Monday, January 4, 2010

      Finding photo opportunities

      A friend posted on facebook a link to the NOAA Solar Calculator.

      You can plug in a location and it will show you in which direction sunrise and sunset occurs for that time of year.

      Definitely cool and worth bookmarking.