Sophie is always listening.
Recently, Joe and I were sitting in a golf cart in the middle of a fairway when we saw a cloud of something approaching us. It was a swarm of honeybees. It was almost as if they passed through us because not one bee ran into us or our golf cart though for one, brief moment we were surrounded by them. Both Joe and I had goosebumps after they passed.
Today, I held a fledgling finch I found sitting alone on the backyard patio, looking a bit stunned. At first, I thought he had flown into the glass back doors. His beak opened and closed and his little chest was heaving. He had been sitting in the sun, so perhaps he was overheated. I gently scooped him up in my hands and sat with him in the shade. When he looked like he was perking up a bit, I opened my hands and he hopped onto my knee, looking at me quizzically. I could see some baby feathers still poking out of his chest. Eventually, he flew off into the thick vines that cover the fence along our driveway, a place where finches and sparrows often nest. Later in the day, he and his mom were back out there, the little guy doing his little guy bird dance, begging for his mom to feed him.
It’s always a gift, this rare, intimate connection with the backyard wildlife.
I never thought I’d have the chance to learn beekeeping, particularly in the Los Angeles area, but the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association offers classes on beekeeping. Who knew? For $10 per household, which procures membership in the association, you have free access to these classes, most of which are held at Bill’s Bees, Bill Lewis’s bee yard in the hills of the Angeles National Forest. I was amazed at how many people showed up for the class on the first day. Bill’s Bees is tucked back into a canyon, down a narrow, winding, partially paved road, and yet we found ourselves in a long convoy all heading for the same destination. After the cluster of chairs in a barn-like structure filled up, it was standing room only for everyone else, close to 100 people altogether.
Bill and his fellow beekeepers are experts on bees and there is much to learn. Many attendees took notes, including myself. The first two classes were mainly instructional with some demonstrations on how beehives are constructed. It was the third class that I was longing for, where we would have to wear bee suits as we’d be introduced to the bees themselves.
Mark Winston says in his book, Bee Time, “Walking into an apiary is intellectually challenging and emotionally rich, sensual and riveting.” He’s not kidding. It’s a full-body experience, walking up to an open hive where hundreds of bees fill the air with the vibrations of their buzzing, where you smell the thick, sweet aroma of wax and honey. It’s hypnotic, watching the intricacies of their flight patterns as they exit and enter the hive. They are all around, bumping into my netted hood, landing on my suit, although miraculously, they don’t bump into each other. It was hard to get close to one of the many hives for very long given how many people were there in their suits. One woman started hyperventilating with panic in the midst of so many bees. I wanted to sit down and let myself be lulled into a nap by their collective hum. When I was finally able to get close to one of the open hives, I got to hold one of the frames, covered with bees and wax. There were bees attending to newly emerging bees…..bees being born before my eyes. Leaning in closer, we got to hear the individual song of the queen deep in the hive.
Although it’s not practical to keep a hive on our own small property, it was worth it just to stand in the midst of so many bees, like being invited into an exclusive club. I’ve been able to do that, on a less numerous scale and with less fear of being stung, with hoards of hummingbirds flying in and around our backyard feeders. The bees are a more intense crowd, driven by a collective purpose. I was merely a privileged observer.
Most of the time, I work in black and white. For me, color can be a distraction and with black and white, a subject is reduced to its essence, to its light and shadows. This subject, however, demanded to be seen in all its resplended hues. Yesterday, this dragonfly landed on a leaf of our bird of paradise outside a living room window. He stayed there, clinging to its perch as the wind swayed the leaf back and forth in the strong afternoon light. During lulls in the breeze, I reached for my telephoto lens and took some shots. With the dark background, this already brilliantly colored being seemed to pop off the screen. The color feels extravagant, almost painful, even after I reduced some of the saturation. There’s an impulse to shade my eyes against this radiant red. Still, what a glittering, beautiful jewel…..
Today, I transformed this being into black and white. It’s not the same image, but something more delicate and surprisingly ethereal. For me, there is something about black and white images (barring extremely high key processing) that provides respite for the eye from the daily bombardment of a rioting world of color.
Eight years ago, we adopted two ex-racing greyhounds. Sophie, our first greyhound, was two-and-a-half, extremely shy, and spent her first couple months with us in a fetal position. She wouldn’t eat unless we left the room. She’d tremble violently when she was around people she didn’t know, but she slowly started getting used to us.
When we took her to a greyhound fundraiser, thinking she’d like being around other greyhounds, we met Charlotte, a year-and-a-half and just off the track with a broken foot. Charlotte’s exuberance was a sharp contrast with Sophie’s nearly pathological introversion, but Sophie felt an immediate bond with Charlotte, which she demonstrated by draping her neck over Charlotte’s neck in a neck-to-neck hug. We knew we had to adopt Charlotte. Six months later, her broken foot healed, Charlotte came to live with us and taught Sophie how to be a dog, how to play, how to be happy, how to enjoy naps on the sofa, and how to trust a few humans.
When Sophie was lost 4 years ago (the gardeners left the gate to the yard open and we searched for Sophie for two agonizing weeks before we found her), Charlotte was always part of the effort to find her and happy when she was reunited with our family. They are a continuous, wonderful part of our lives beyond being frequent subjects for my photography. They are our greyhound girls, our hounds of the heart, our family.
On Christmas Eve, we found out Sophie has lymphoma, and a week later, the lab results from the lump on Charlotte’s head indicated she has sarcoma, after having had a malignant melanoma removed from her chest two months ago. Needless to say, we were reeling from this awful news. We’re getting them the treatments they need to fight this, combining both traditional protocols with alternative approaches. And then we take it a day at a time.
A friend with greyhounds who has been through this said to try and stay calm around the girls so they’re not stressing out like their humans. I try. I’m not sure I’m that good at compartmentalization, even though I understand what my friend means. But the hounds know. They follow me around the house, having to be in whatever room I’m in. So we continue going for walks, we continue showering them with love and treats.
Ultimately all time is borrowed time….for all of us, which the head may acknowledge, but never the heart.
I always have mixed feelings when visiting the zoo. On one hand, I get to see an array of amazing species, but on the other hand, they are locked behind bars. In the aviary of the L.A. Zoo, I spotted this Spoonbill in an enclosure with a couple Sacred Ibises. He (she) was hunkered over, emitting an occasional wheeze. I stood next to him for quite a long time and then snapped his picture, hoping to capture some of his dignity, his beauty, his misery. His eyes were rivetting. I’ve been taking a home study course in bird languages from the ravens, the blue jays, the mockingbirds, the mourning doves, the sparrows, and finches in my back yard. I’m still a novice, but I do notice how much they say with their eyes, speaking paragraphs through blinks and dilations. If I could, I would have told this magnificent bird, “You are beautiful,” and “I’m sorry.”
I lament the fraught relationship between humans and animals. We’re not so different from one another, and yet we humans act as if an opposable thumb grants us an oppressive dominion over everything, having the right to do what we will with other living beings. Heartbreaking stories abound resulting from abuses of that dominion.
In the research I’m doing for my doctoral dissertation on the influences between early twentieth-century women photographers and women writers, I’ve spent some time reading and thinking about the notion of an ethics of seeing, a topic Susan Sontag introduces at the beginning of her seminal book, On Photography. She writes: “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” I certainly believe that aside from the prurient, exploitative, commercial value some photographs contain, a photograph can also be a witness, find beauty that’s overlooked, and stir our compassion for beings other than ourselves.
My own animal photos are inspired by the work of Isa Leshko. I am humbled and moved by the haunting beauty of her images of animals. In particular, her images of elderly animals are incredibly poignant and compelling. If there was ever a photographer practicing the ethics of seeing, she is. She has certainly changed the way I view other beings through my lens.