Stepping Out of the Digital Sphere: Reviving Film, Reviving Ourselves

A fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond in Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

A fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond in Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut, where naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale spent the latter part of his life. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

By: Richard Telford

A photograph taken during the author's travel through Arizona's Painted Desert in the summer of 1995. Copyright Richard Telford, 1995.

A photograph taken during the author’s travel through Arizona’s Painted Desert in the summer of 1995. Copyright Richard Telford, 1995.

In June of 1995, several days after the last school day of my second year of teaching, I packed the capped bed of my 1988 Toyota 4×4 pickup with clothes, camping gear, books, and other necessities.  I shut off the utilities in my Connecticut apartment, paid all of my bills, made several phone calls, and left for the summer to see my native land and, with a little luck, return feeling renewed.  Using a newly-purchased Rand McNally North American Road Atlas, I set a loose course westward.  I drove along the northern border, out to Anacortes, Washington, then headed south to the Mexican border, eventually returning east along the southern border.  By the time I arrived home again, I had added 8,300 miles to my odometer and a flood of life experience to my twenty-five-year-young consciousness.  During that summer sojourn, I took with me a now-antiquated Nikon 4004s film camera and a pair of zoom lenses, along with a small cooler full of Kodak Kodachrome 64 and Ektachrome 100, two richly saturated slide films. I had no working knowledge of manual camera operation, so I kept the camera in the program mode, shooting nearly 1,000 frames.  To Nikon’s credit, nearly all of them came out well, but I found myself nagged by a slight sense of disconnection; while I had had the vision to see the potential image itself, I hadn’t the faintest notion of how the camera had negotiated the available light to capture it—at best a half victory.

The author as passenger in a Cessna light plane flying over the San Juan Islands, Washington State, in the summer of 1995.

The author as passenger in a Cessna light plane flying over the San Juan Islands, Washington State, in the summer of 1995.

Thus, during the following fall, I searched newspaper ads for a used, fully manual camera sans automation.  While in Michigan, my brother had introduced me to the 1994 McBroom’s Camera Bluebook, and, after dog-earing numerous pages and balancing features with price, I settled on the purchase of a first-generation 35mm Canon F-1n, manufactured from 1971-1981, a simple but nearly indestructible professional camera.  As I have written about elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange, with that purchase I began a photographic journey that has included shooting with nearly all commonly available film formats and camera types, including both 35mm and medium format SLRs and rangefinders, and even several 4×5 inch sheet film view cameras from the 1940s.  I became proficient in hand-developing and printing my own work, had several gallery shows, and even worked a two-year stint as a part-time photojournalist, from 1999 to 2001, when film was giving way to the early digital SLRs—a change which I lamented deeply.  Despite recognizing digital photography’s enormous potential, I mourned the loss of a form that had reached its apex, a feeling that has not altogether left me even now.

The front cover of Edwin Way Teale's 1937 book Grassroot Jungles.  From the collection of the author.

The front cover of Edwin Way Teale’s 1937 book Grassroot Jungles. From the collection of the author.

I eventually sold off most of my film equipment and stored the rest, shifting entirely to digital shooting.  Still, my love for film never waned, and, for many years I formulated and reformulated plans to return, at least in part, to film photography.  Recently, once again feeling a strong compulsion to do so, I began to research mail order developing companies that could likewise perform high-quality scans of medium format negatives.  I took my medium format equipment—a trio of 6x6cm Rolleiflex SLRs and three fixed focal length Carl Zeiss lenses out of storage after a nearly ten-year hiatus.  In doing so, I aimed to recapture the sense of wonder inherent in photography that, absent an LCD screen, is rooted in knowledge of the interplay of shutter speed and aperture and film speed, photography for which the shutter release is an act of faith in the latent, unseen image soon to emerge.  I hoped to shed the speed of the world around me, if only a little—to compose, to see, to allow a finite number of film frames to open my creativity in a way that a high-capacity memory card cannot.  For me, there was no better place for this reawakening than the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, the former private sanctuary of American naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale, which is now owned and managed by the Connecticut Audubon Society.  Teale pioneered insect photography shortly before and during World War II, astonishing the world with his close-up insect images in two books, Grassroot Jungles (1937) and Near Horizons (1943), winning the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing for the latter.  Teale himself had tramped the sanctuary grounds countless times with camera in hand, and, with his wife Nellie, had likewise cut the trails I would walk that morning.  Together, they created numerous names by which to delineate those Trails and their notable features, names that persist to this day.

Arriving to Trail Wood before dawn, I shouldered my tightly-packed bag and tripod and headed up The Lane, the dirt access road that leads to the Teales’ 1805 center-chimney Cape Cod home, which is pictured on the cover of his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm.  The weather report predicted a clear day, and I hoped to position myself to photograph the early sunlight that Robert Frost so aptly characterizes in his famous short poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  I considered as subjects one of the open pastures near the house:  Firefly Meadow or The Starfield or Monument Pasture. I likewise considered heading toward the Upper North Woods to capture the breaking light as it spread its arc across three-acre Beaver Pond, or heading eastward to capture the light rising over the nearly-frozen, south-flowing Hampton Brook. I momentarily chided myself for not having come with more of a plan but as quickly dismissed the feeling.  In our frenetic, technology-driven lives, we feel compelled to over-plan our fragments of “down time” so much that we render ourselves unable to enjoy them.  In our compulsive drive to infuse them with value, we risk devaluing them.  On that brisk morning, as I tromped up The Lane, my ears filled with the steady crunch of rime-coated soil and stones beneath my feet, I was determined not to do so.

The author's Rolleiflex 6006 Model 2, manufactured from 1989 to 1993.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

The author’s Rolleiflex 6006 Model 2, manufactured from 1989 to 1993. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

Shooting 120 roll film, which has remained largely unchanged since Kodak introduced it in 1901, imposes limits that are largely anachronistic to the digital majority of the present time.  Though it might seem ironic, this, I would argue, is its chief strength.  In a 6x6cm camera, a roll of 120 film will produce 12 images.  The finished roll must be removed from the camera, at which point the photographer must fold the paper backing, lick a strip of adhesive-backed paper attached at the roll’s end, and wrap the roll tightly to avoid exposure to stray light until the film can be processed.  To load another roll, the photographer reverses this process, opening the paper backing at the start of a new roll of film, threading the paper onto an empty spool, advancing it first by hand and then with the camera’s mechanism.  These processes form a kind of precursor and postscript to the taking of the images, which is itself a process made more deliberate and more meaningful precisely because of its seeming limitations.  Each frame is carefully composed and recomposed; ambient light is calculated and recalculated; focus and depth of field are checked and rechecked; the final composed shot is assessed; and, in the end, the shutter may or may not be tripped.  On that recent January morning at Trail Wood, I shot only twelve frames in three hours, and most of those were taken within a few short intervals.  I composed and left unrecorded far more shots than I took.

At daybreak, the sun did not, as it had been predicted to do, break through the low cloud cover, leaving the pasture light rather dull and unremarkable, so I took to the woods.  As I headed to the north and east, toward Beaver Pond, the sun did break through the low clouds for several minutes, only a few degrees above the horizon.  It bathed the upper branches of the mature canopy with fiery orange light, and, almost as quickly as I set my camera up and began to compose, I halted the process, immediately aware that I could not capture what I was seeing in the way that I wished.  That image, though not captured on film, will remain in my mind for many days to come.  For me, photographing nature is as much about seeing as it is about recording.  While a 32-gigabyte memory card loaded in a sophisticated digital SLR may enable one to shoot with abandon and hope for the best, film demands a different approach, a different impulse, a different, and to my mind deeper, way of seeing.  This is especially true when shooting with a simple array of fixed focal length lenses, as I was that morning.  Are these limits?  In a way.  Do they limit our vision?  I don’t think so.

Needle ice forming at the edge of Beaver Pond at Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut, where naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale spent the latter part of his life.

Needle ice forming at the edge of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

As I walked alongside the diminutive Hyla Pond—named by the Teales for its breeding population of Hyla crucifer, the spring peeper—a barred owl (Strix varia) crossed the trail before me and roosted in a venerable red oak (Quercus rubra) near the trail’s edge.  Although we frequently hear the calling of barred owls around our old farmhouse, I have seen them only a handful of times, and here again was a photograph of the mind never to be recorded on film, though not lessened by that fact.  Reaching Beaver Pond, I composed numerous images but shot only a few.  Even those did not seem to me to be fully realized.  Some images are final destinations, while others are necessary steps along the way.  Both are equally important.

A second view of the fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

A second view of the fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

Upon my return, not far from where I saw the barred owl, I noticed another venerable red oak, this one toppled by wind or disease.  Its broken form, running parallel to Beaver Pond to the west, cut across the living lines of forest that unfolded in dense succession to the east.  The oak’s exposed red sinews flowed in liquid form, seeming to burst from its deeply furrowed bark.  At the center of the break, splintered points formed jagged fans that followed the arc of the canopy above and of the earth itself.  I spent nearly an hour working my way around the fallen giant, framing one image after another, only rarely tripping the shutter.  I mostly worked along the Beaver Pond side of the trunk, but, upon circling the fragmented root mass to examine the other side, I found the image I wanted.  After composing and recomposing, moving my tripod near and away, raising and lowering its height, I shot my twelfth frame and listened to the hum of the camera’s motor drive as it pulled the last of the paper backing off the starter spool.  Though I had more film with me, I chose not to load another roll.  Three hours and twelve frames later, I veered off from the path I had taken to Beaver Pond and cut through The Starfield to head for home.

My simple in-home darkroom was dismantled long ago, and I have no plans to recreate it. Nor do I plan to walk away from digital photography, as I am deeply grateful for what it offers me in terms of production speed, ease of publication, and the capacity for wide dissemination of my images. It has creative benefits as well.  For example, my digital camera work in macro photography, a technique laden with lighting and exposure challenges, has opened up new worlds for me.  This has been especially true in my photo-documentation and identification of the dragonflies that frequent our property, which I have written about elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange.  No single photographic format or medium has ever been or will ever be ideal for all subjects.  By the latter half of the twentieth century, the 4×5-inch Graflex view camera and the 6×6-centimeter Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, formerly journalistic mainstays, had been largely superseded by a new generation of faster, lighter 35mm cameras, just as the latter have been superseded in kind by their digital counterparts.  This is, perhaps, the trajectory of all technologies that we develop to automate the processes in which we engage, artistic and otherwise.  The inherent danger of this trajectory is that we become more and more alienated from the processes facilitated by those new technologies as more is done for us and less is required of us, both in thought and action.  In many ways, our detachment from the processes that govern our daily lives likewise fosters a corresponding detachment both from the natural world and from our role in it.  Perhaps in choosing to view nature through a simpler lens, both literally and figuratively, we are given a clearer view both of nature and of ourselves, allowing us to value each more fully.

Dragonflies, Humility, and the Conservation of Biodiversity

A female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa).  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa). Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

By:  Richard Telford

In 1970, Roger Tory Peterson wrote, “Entomologists fall into two categories:  those who find insects endlessly fascinating and those who would get rid of them.”  Reflecting the controversy at that time over the indiscriminate use of DDT (for which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would subsequently issue a cancellation order in 1972) and other pesticides, Peterson suggested that the latter group of entomologists might “eventually wind up working for chemical companies, devising more sophisticated techniques of annihilation.”   The dualism that Peterson notes above, though necessarily oversimplified, is nonetheless reflective of a pattern that extends far beyond the world of entomologists.  Insects have a remarkable capacity to evoke in their human observers both fear (largely irrational and unfounded) and wonder (quite rational and well founded).  In his ground-breaking books on the insect world, Grassroot Jungles (1937) and Near Horizons (1942), Edwin Way Teale extolled the immeasurable value of the latter response; it required, he argued, only the willingness to slow the pace of our hectic lives long enough to observe a complex and remarkable world we largely overlook.

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), perched on the author's son's tricycle handlebar, consumes an insect taken on the wing.  Note a discarded appendage in the  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), perched on the author’s son’s tricycle handlebar, consumes an insect taken on the wing. Note a discarded appendage in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Few insects offer a more ready source of wonder than dragonflies, which are grouped with damselflies in the order Odonata.  The name Odonata is derived from the Greek odonto, meaning tooth—a reflection of their powerful, sharp-toothed mandibles and maxillae, the paired upper and lower jaws that facilitate quick, efficient consumption of prey.  Dragonflies, which form the suborder Anisoptera, take prey only in flight, often cupping their six barbed legs in a basket-like shape in order to entrap their target; smaller prey is often consumed without landing.  The maxillae contain a pronged inner piece that James G. Needham described in his classic 1929 A Manual of the Dragonflies of North America as “perfectly shaped for a meat fork, used for holding a captured insect and for turning it as the mandibles cut it up.”  The deftness of this process is readily apparent when observing a perched dragonfly speedily consume its prey.  This is just one of a host of evolutionary adaptions that have shaped the dragonfly into the unrivaled aerial predator of the insect world.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings  can create up to 3,000 isolated "cells" in the membrane of each individual wing,  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Dragonflies possess four wings, each of which can move independently of the others and can rotate on a forward and backward axis, yielding a supremely dynamic capacity for flight.  Dragonflies can fly in all geometric planes.  Helicopter-like, they can fly straight up and down or hover in place.  They can fly backward and forward, turn abruptly at acute angles, and repeatedly flip their bodies.  Harvard Biochemist Stacey Combes, leading a team of researchers who have studied dragonfly flight in a specially built enclosure at the Combes Laboratory in Bedford, Massachusetts, has noted that dragonflies can perform hundreds of such flips while hunting, seemingly without significant exertion.  Her team has also documented predation success rates as high as 90 percent in some dragonflies—a truly astonishing figure.  Equally astonishing is the speed with which dragonflies engage in these aerial acrobatics.  Dragonflies routinely fly at speeds of 15 to 30 miles per hour, with some species flying considerably faster.  Credible speed estimates for the Green Darner (Anax junius), for example, range between 35 and 55 miles per hour during straightaway flight.  This prompted Edwin Way Teale, in Grassroots Jungle, to title his dragonfly chapter “Winged Bullets.”

A close-up view of the compound eyes of a female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).  The ommatidia, or individual lenses,  are plainly visible.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A close-up view of the compound eyes of a female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). The ommatidia, or individual lenses, are plainly visible. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

One other adaption deserving special note is the dragonfly’s pair of bulbous compound eyes, each of which can contain up to 30,000 ommatidia, or individual lenses, each with its own cornea.  The extraordinary perceptive sensitivity of such a structure, in conjunction with the size and placement of the dragonfly’s compound eyes, yields a nearly 360-degree field of vision—a critical adaption that facilitates the flight patterns and the predation success rate outlined above.  The dragonfly’s acuity of sight likewise provides a critical defense against predation.  Furthermore, while the human eye contains three opsins, or light-sensing proteins, dragonfly eyes can possess up to five.  So, while we effectively perceive color through the RGB scale (Red, Blue, Green,) dragonflies can additionally perceive ultraviolet light invisible to humans as well as plane-polarized, or reflected, light.  This latter capacity is clearly valuable to a creature that begins its life in water and is destined to return there; both the female and the male return to the water, the former to lay eggs and the latter to protect her during that vulnerable process.

A female Common Whitetail Skimmer (Plathemis lydia) at the day's end.  Unless disturbed, it will remain there until the warmth of the following day revives it.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) at rest behind the author’s compost pile at the day’s end. Unless disturbed, it will remain there until the warmth of the following day revives it. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Early this summer, toward dusk, I walked out to the compost pile located at the edge of our yard.  Just behind the compost pile, in an overgrown former strawberry garden, I spied a dragonfly suspended by its six legs, wings spread, where it would sleep for the night.  Prior to reading Edwin Way Teale’s Journey Into Summer (1960), I had never thought about the sleep of insects.  In his book, Teale on a number of occasions notes finding insects at rest at twilight or by flashlight during the night.  Teale’s observations of this phenomenon, which had persisted in my mind only in abstract form, took shape before my eyes.  The natural world reminds us that there is so much to learn, or at the least so much to which we can pay attention if we choose to do so.  I stood long at our compost pile, swarmed by mosquitoes and mesmerized by the beautiful symmetry of this extraordinary creature, which I would later identify as a female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia); its stillness at rest contrasted sharply with its swift, deliberate, predatory daytime flight.  I hastily fetched a camera and tripod and, with long exposure times, took several photographs.

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) perched in a group of bearded irises.  Copyright:  Richard Telford, 2014

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) perched in a group of bearded irises. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

From that moment, influenced in part by recent time spent reading the correspondence between Rachel Carson and Edwin Way Teale housed at the University of Connecticut’s Dodd Research Center, and in part simply by a sense of wonder and appreciation, I have spent the summer photographing the dragonflies that hunt the cleared half acre of our old farm property.  All of the photographs that accompany this writing are the product of that effort.  As I do summer chores and projects, I keep near at hand a tripod-mounted camera with macro lens affixed.  While I sense that I have seen a greater variety of dragonfly species this summer than I can recall seeing during any of the previous ten summers spent in our 1770 farmhouse, I suspect this is not true.  Instead, this perception may simply result from, in Teale’s words, my choice to “pause like [a] stooping giant to peer down into the grassroot jungle at [my] feet.”

This female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa) repeatedly return to this perch during a long sequence of hunting flights.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

This female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa) repeatedly returned to this perch during a long sequence of hunting flights. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Recently, our local state roads have been lined with advertising signs for a regional Mosquito Squad franchise.  The signs promise, “No Bugs. No Bites. No Kidding.”  It is an unfortunate echo of Roger Tory Peterson’s statement above.  Several years ago, Lynne Peeples, writing for the Huffington Post, reported on mounting criticism that Mosquito Squad’s marketing use of a superhero-like cartoon character, Dread Skeeter, targets children and obfuscates both the human health and environmental risks inherent in spraying neurotoxic chemicals for insect control.  At a time when pollinating insect populations are suffering catastrophic declines, so much so that the White House just today issued a press release outlining the problem and proposing a course of mitigating actions, we must rethink our relationship with the insect world.  A world with no bugs and no bites is likewise a world with no biodiversity, and that is a world in which even the human species cannot survive.  In 1937, Edwin Way Teale wrote, “We cannot ignore the insects; we cannot dismiss them as insignificant.”  In 1970, Roger Tory Peterson wrote, “[…] insects, because of their astronomical numbers, are undeniably important in our lives.  They cannot be ignored.”  Still, more than 50 years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, we struggle to accept the notion that our co-existence with the rest of the natural world cannot be negotiated on our terms alone.  Where Dread Skeeter succeeds, dragonflies, which rely principally on mosquitos and small gnats for survival, will vanish, and each loss of this kind precipitates a cascade of other such losses—another lesson that we have been slow to learn.

A female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the obelisk position.  Some dragonflies assume this position to reduce the percentage of body surface area that is exposed to the sun, effectively cooling them.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the obelisk position. Some dragonflies assume this position to reduce the percentage of body surface area that is exposed to the sun, effectively cooling them. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Recent research on dragonflies has revealed an extraordinary dimension to their hunting.  Rather than pursuing its prey, a dragonfly intercepts it, meaning that it must calculate the distance, speed, and direction of its target, adjusting its own speed and direction accordingly.  In this context, the predatory success rates of dragonflies documented at the Combes Laboratory are even more impressive. While its superb capacities for flight and vision certainly facilitate this action, it is a complex set of neurological functions that makes such sophisticated targeting possible.  This complexity, much of which we do not yet fully understand, should give us pause.  According to the fossil record, dragonflies have existed for nearly 300 million years, a fact which can perhaps begin to give us insight on this complexity.  Teale argued in 1937 that humans have “lived on earth but a single hour in comparison to the long history of the insects.”  The implicit humility of this statement is critical to the long-term preservation of the insect world and of biodiversity itself.

A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).  Copyright:  Richard Telford, 2014

A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

 

Exploring the Near at Hand

An Arrow-shaped Micrathena spider (Micrathena sagittata) backlit in a web it wove between two of our front porch columns.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012

An Arrow-shaped Micrathena spider (Micrathena sagittata) backlit in late day sun in a web spanning two front porch columns of the author’s home. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012

By:  Richard Telford

Living in Baldwin, New York on western Long Island in 1936, American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale lacked wilderness.  At least, to the casual observer it might seem so.  Teale, however, was not the casual observer.  He had for several months searched for a site with sufficiently varied habitat to support the widest possible variety of insect life, finally chancing upon an abandoned apple orchard just fifteen minutes from his home.  As he later noted in his 1942 book Near Horizons, the site included “a line of slender cedars, a weedlot, […] interlacing row[s] of apple trees, [… a] margin of solid ground along the swampedge, […and] a spur of land [that] juts out into the brown water of the swamp stream where slope and swamp meet at […] a great mound of wild-cherry trees [that] lifts its green bulk above the level of the cattails.”

Walking in the footsteps of French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, whom he admired deeply, Teale rented the old orchard for ten dollars annually and, as Fabre had done at the Harmas de Sérignan in Provence, France beginning in 1879, worked deliberately to convert the site into an insect garden that would provide “the habitat of nearly every kind of insect found in the region.”  In this insect garden, Teale conducted intensive observations for six years while, for most of that time, maintaining his day job as a staff writer and photographer for Popular Science magazine, a job he came to loathe due both to the sense of confinement it imposed upon him and to the capriciously brutal politics of the magazine editorial room.  For Teale, the insect garden was not just a place for observation but a place for escape from the modern world’s “well-grooved path remote from the Enchanted Ponds and Mad Rivers of the open world.”

An Eastern Forktail damselfly photographed in the author's backyard.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2013

An Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura ramburii) photographed in the author’s backyard. Copyright Richard Telford, 2013

In 1937, Teale published Grassroot Jungles, a book that compiled 130 macro photographs of insects, taken mostly at his insect garden, with accompanying text that expounded the life history of many featured specimens.  Teale’s photography was astounding for its day, and the book was featured in a full front-page review in The New York Times Book Review on December 19, 1937.  Reviewer Anita Moffett wrote, “Mr. Teale is well known for his insect photography, and these pictures combine fact with imaginative power in depicting the beauty and goblinlike [sic] grotesqueness of the fascinating and almost unknown world to which the reader is introduced.”  She noted that Teale’s book demonstrated that the study of insects could “be pursued in one’s own backyard as well as at the ends of the earth.”  Here, Moffett simply echoed Teale’s premise in Grassroot Jungles that “At our feet, often unnoticed in the rush of daily events, is the wonder world of insects,” the exploration of which “is a back-yard hobby open to all, […which] can begin a few feet from your own doorstep.”

The egalitarian quality of backyard nature study was not a trivial consideration in 1937 America, still largely in the economic throes of the Great Depression and four years away from a war-driven recovery.  Though the economic landscape has largely changed, the openness to all of backyard nature study is no less significant for a host of reasons that extend far beyond simple economics.  In fact, Teale’s premise is arguably more salient in the present age of widespread habitat fragmentation, rapid development, increasing privatization of large wilderness parcels, the alarming disconnection of so many children from the natural world, and a social media-blitzed society that makes Teale’s “rush of daily events” seem pastoral by comparison.

A male American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author's back door.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A male American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author’s back door. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

In a time when we feel increasingly disconnected not just from the natural world but from ourselves, it is perhaps more important than ever that we “pause like stooping giants to peer down into the grassroot jungle at our feet,” that we re-attune ourselves to the magnificent complexities of the natural world that go largely overlooked in the jumble of our daily lives.

Teale consciously manipulated the environment of his insect garden to maximize habitat, and thus the site’s inhabitant variety.  His manipulations included “an ageing pie-tin holding dabs of honey and syrup to provide a treacle-trough for ants and flies and wild bees” and “bits of decaying meat to bring carrion beetles from afar.”  However, such manipulations are not necessary for the back-yard naturalist.  The fecundity of the insect world, to our senses, seems to know no bounds, even in the smallest of natural landscapes.  Consider the fruit fly explosion that occurs when fruit is left a few days too long on the kitchen countertop.  It is perhaps a dangerous byproduct of that fecundity that we largely overlook the reality that many insects presently face potential extinction.  As of this writing, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, for example, lists nearly 150 insect species as endangered, threatened, or of special concern.  Still, there are abundant insects to be seen on nearly any plot, even the most encroached upon or inhospitable.  This fact was illustrated for me this past summer during a trip to the local building supply store.

Exiting with a cart full of lumber, an odd green shape on the brick-facing of the store caught my attention, a large female praying mantis vertically perched with at least 200 yards of asphalt separating her from any floral retreat.  I went to my car, emptied my lunch cooler, and, as nonchalantly as possible, trapped her, self-conscious of the piqued curiosity of several passersby.  I recalled the story of Edwin Way Teale’s domesticated praying mantis Dinah, whom he brought to the Brooklyn Entomological Society and, during a side trip to the New York Public Library, lost and eventually recovered on Broadway, near Times Square.  While I was tempted to drive the displaced mantis home to unleash her predatory powers in our garden, I worried about her survival of the trip and instead drove her to the far end of the parking lot where a long strip of dense thicket masked a long stretch of highway on the hillside above.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella)landing in the author's default insect garden.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella)landing in the author’s default insect garden. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

The previous summer, largely as a product of neglect, I had made a brief foray into the creation of an insect garden.  It was a busy summer, and with no conscious design I effectively relinquished our small backyard, surrounded by wooded acres, to the natural world. The resultant floral explosion included several species of goldenrod, common burdock, waist-high perennial ryegrass, jewel weed, and many other rapid colonizers.  By far the most prolific of these was daisy fleabane.  With this impromptu insect garden came insects of numerous species, including a host of damselflies and dragonflies attracted by the newly abundant prey stock.  These skilled aerial predators would sweep methodically above the canopy of our own “grassroot jungle” and reap the good living of summer.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella)having landed in the author's default insect garden.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella) having just landed in the author’s default insect garden. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

Interestingly, the dragonfly’s tightly grouped legs, effectively useless for locomotion on the ground, are held in a basket shape in flight, scooping up prey that is largely consumed on the wing. The daisy fleabane explosion had the additional effect of attracting a large cadre of American goldfinches, who rode the bobbing, fragile stalks on even the windiest days, plucking linear white petals by the mouthful, not ten feet from our kitchen windows.  Here, as Teale noted in Near Horizons, we could be “explorer[s] who stayed at home, […] voyager[s] within the near horizons of a hillside.”

Teale’s ten dollars per annum was money well spent.  His insect garden truly altered the course of his life.  The commercial success of Grassroot Jungles afforded him both an income and national recognition, allowing him to quit his job at Popular Science.  In notes he compiled for an autobiography titled The Long Way Home, which was neither finished nor published, Teale writes, “Remember sitting in Insect Garden in evening after hot day and coming to a final decision to quit.”

A female American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author's back door.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A female American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane(Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author’s back door. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

Thus, the site provided a space both for outward observation as well as introspection.  Jumping time in his notes, he continues, “I pack my books etc.  Leave on chill rainy day.  But my heart was bounding.  I was on my own.”  Teale would go on to publish Near Horizons in 1942, for which he would subsequently win the 1943 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing, a recognition he prized greatly even up until the time of his death in 1980.  For us, too, the rewards of exploring the near at hand are plentiful.  Such exploration affords us opportunities for observation, for contemplation, for renewal of our sense of wonder, for appreciation of the complex world around us, and for humble acceptance of our small place in that world.