Mallard drake

This image (a cropped version of this original) is one of the first pictures I took with my new camera several weeks ago. J and I had walked to Cold Springs Park in Newton, we saw a pair of mallards swimming in bright sunlight at close range, and I zoomed in for an extreme closeup of his iridescent head dripping with pond water. Wonderful!

Eurasian teal

This was the kind of image I was lusting for, then, when I heard that a Eurasian teal has been spotted in Newton. If I could get as close to the teal as I had to the mallard, I thought, and if the light and my luck were just as good, I could snap a picture-perfect image. Instead, when J and I spotted a small duck dabbling with a pair of noticeably larger mallards at Cold Spring Park this afternoon, the light was all wrong for an extreme closeup. It didn’t help, either, that both the teal and mallards were feeding, so much of the time I found myself looking at a headless teal:

The headless dabbler!

If you snap enough pictures, however, eventually even a headless duck might be inspired to step out of the water to make himself ready for his closeup.

Preening

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Extreme Closeup; you can click here to see my complete photo-set of Eurasian teal images. Only after we’d begun to walk toward home did J and I learn that we’d missed seeing the wood ducks that have also been dabbling at Cold Spring Park. I guess we’ll have to try to take their closeups some other sunny day.

Landscape with tower

It probably sounds strange to admit it, but some of my favorite places are cemeteries. On Saturday, my friend A (not her real initial) and I met to take a sunny, almost-spring stroll at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as we’ve done before, and I fell in love all over again with the garden park that is Mount Auburn.

Tower

I’d suggested Mount Auburn as a walking destination in part because of its proximity to the Watertown Diner, where A and I could conclude our walk with afternoon pancakes as a mid-semester root beer reward. Pancakes and root beer weren’t the only things I had in mind when I suggested we go walking at Mount Auburn Cemetery this weekend, however. Although the first snowdrops and crocuses are blooming in Boston-area gardens, it’s still too early for wildflowers, so the woods are sprouting mostly mud these days. At Mount Auburn, walkers rule the paved roads and gravel paths, and planted perennials cheer the eye. Although the evergreen-shrouded Dell was still snow-covered, elsewhere in the cemetery it was easy to believe that “almost-spring” was spring indeed.

English woodbine

Although I’d had enough presence of mind to bring my binoculars on our walk, I left my new ultra-zoom camera at home, thinking A and I would be walking rather than stopping to take pictures. So imagine my chagrin when, upon parking at the foot of the tower where we’d decided to start our walk, A and I encountered a throng of photographers armed with tripods and zoom lenses.

“Did you see where he landed?” one of the photographers asked me as I got out of my car.

“Uh, who?” I asked dumbly, guessing the answer before I heard it. For years there has been at least one pair of red-tailed hawks nesting at Mount Auburn, and hawks are large, photogenic, and slow-moving enough to merit the use of a tripod. When a hawk finds a sunny perch from which to scope out the territory, he or she is likely to sit there long enough to allow photographers their fill of shots.

Red-tailed hawk

And indeed, on Saturday there were two (and by some reports three) red-tailed hawks flying around the Mount Auburn tower, which was still closed for the season. So while birders, photographers, and Saturday strollers alike bustled around the base of the tower, enjoying a sunny, hilltop view of the Boston and Cambridge skylines, one sun-worshipping redtail perched at the very top of the tower, which is open to birds year-round. If birders and photographers alike are going to ogle you, you might as well ogle back, and this is one hawk-eyed observer who had a truly bird’s-eye view.

Red-tailed hawk

I took these pictures with my old, beat-up, purse-sized digital camera, having left my new ultra-zoom at home. I can only imagine how nice a shot I could have gotten with an 18x rather than 10x optical zoom…

Sign of spring?

Shall we file this one under “Goes without saying?”

Finally, crocuses!

Some folks carefully tend their own gardens; as for me, I watch the leaves of others. After spotting the season’s first snowdrops several weeks ago, I’ve been stalking crocus buds, vowing to be on hand the moment they opened. Sure enough, yesterday’s sun was enough to push these petals toward blooming…and just as surely, today’s gray has forced them to fold. Such is the nature of spring’s ephemera: here yesterday, gone today.

Once again, the picture illustrating today’s blog-post was the inspiration for today’s Tweet, illustrating the way these two media (blogging in both micro and macro modes) can feed one another.

The time-traveler in me also wants to note that this year’s first crocuses appeared a few days before last year’s.

A certain slant of light

It took me all of Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, to figure out what the title referred to. Life doesn’t show much mercy on the tragic characters who people Morrison’s narrative, set in early America, when life’s cruelties were bleakly unforgiving. I initially assumed Morrison’s title was ironic, like that of Annie Dillard’s The Living, which seems to feature more deaths than it does lives. But Morrison’s novel is not a piece of irony, and neither is its title. There is a poignant mercy in A Mercy, even if it takes the entire novel for readers to realize it.

Mud season

Morrison’s novel opens with Florens, a lovesick teenage slave, setting off to find the object of her affection, a freeborn African-American blacksmith who had been hired by her master to construct an iron gate at the entrance of his palatial new home. Despite her infatuation, Florens’ mission is dire. Her master, a trader named Jacob Vaark, has succumbed to infection before occupying the new home he built with a fortune amassed from speculation in the slave trade, and now his wife–Florens’ mistress, Rebekka–is dying of the same illness. Believing the blacksmith who wrought the gate at the entrance to her husband’s doomed mansion will be able to heal her sickness, Rebekka sends Florens on a solitary errand to fetch him.

Gnarled tree

This is the linear narrative that underpins A Mercy. Florens starts her journey at novel’s beginning, and we follow her progress as the narrative continues. True to Morrison’s typically Faulknerian style, however, the narrative tells other stories, meandering from character to character and from present to past as it punctuates Florens’ journey with the back-stories of her compatriots. Florens tells her story in the first person, but a narrator tells the stories of her fellows. We see how Jacob Vaark became a reluctant participant in the slave trade. We see how Rebekka traveled to America specifically to marry Jacob, a man she’d never met. We meet Jacob’s other slaves: Lina, a Native American whose family and village were destroyed by smallpox, and Sorrow, a crazed and outcast orphan who survived the shipwreck that killed her father. We meet Williard and Scully, indentured servants who work on Jacob’s plantation, and we meet the freeborn blacksmith whom Florens is sent to find, hoping his mastery of medicinal herbs will save Rebekka.

Tombstones with trees

Meeting this disparate band of characters gives us an odd sort of insight into the nature of Jacob Vaark, a man who profits from the slave trade–and who owns slaves–without ever really condoning the practice. We want to believe that Jacob is a good man; we want to overlook the source of his fortune, the lavish way he decides to spend it, and the fact that he has surrounded himself with slaves and servants, most of them women, whom he has specifically chosen for their low likelihood of causing trouble. A house and plantation peopled by women, Jacob reasons, will be less rowdy and prone to riot than a plantation populated with randy young field slaves…and yet each of the orphans, outcasts, and survivors Jacob chooses carries her own hidden tragedies. There is no escape from trouble, Morrison suggests, regardless of who shares your story. This sharing of suffering is one of several subtle mercies that become beautifully apparent by novel’s end.

This is my long-overdue second review for the 2009 Audiobook Challenge, whereby I pledged to listen to (and review on-blog) twelve audiobooks in twelve months. If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, please visit J. Kaye’s Book Blog for details; you can access links to other participants’ audiobook reviews here.

It’s been more than two months since I reviewed my first audiobook of 2009 (Marilynne Robinson’s Home), and during that time I’ve listened to more than a half dozen audiobooks. In other words, I listen to books far faster than I review them! I figure I will have time to catch up with reviews this summer when this living is easier.

In the meantime, the photos illustrating today’s post are similarly “belated,” as I took them in Salem, Massachusetts last month. I previously blogged Salem’s Old Burying Point Cemetery in October, 2005; if you want to see what it looked like this February, you can view the entire photo-set here. Enjoy!

Spring training

It’s another cold, bright day, with tightly furled crocus buds emerging but not yet daring to open. The light still angles deep, as in winter, and it retains a cold, sharp, colorless intensity. But you can almost feel the looming fecundity of the earth underfoot, even in places where the bare mud has refrozen to concrete hardness. Even through the earth’s obdurate solidity, you can almost feel the subtle rumbling of a tangled universe of roots awakening: spring in training.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might recognize today’s photo as being the inspiration for this morning’s Tweet.

Jet with contrails

On this snowy and sloppy day-after-spring, it’s easy to think the past few days were an anomaly: an isolated fluke through which Newton, Massachusetts took a quick weekend trip from the wintry Northeast to somewhere sunny and warm.

Cast-off

On Saturday morning’s dog-walk, a neighbor joyfully proclaimed “It’s spring” as she jogged past in a light jacket. “It won’t last,” I laughed in response, in part to warn myself against getting my hopes too high. March is the season of spotty-springs: intermittent bursts of sun, warm, and mud that give year-round residents the hope to weather another month or more of snow showers, storms, and slush. Saturday was spring, and so was Sunday, but Monday lands us right back in winter, with an inch or so of new snow predicted in Boston and four to seven inches forecast for Keene. “Don’t put away your boots and sweaters,” Mother Nature seems to whisper. “This weekend was just a tease, so I hope you enjoyed it while it lasted.”

Left behind

And we did indeed try to enjoy it while it lasted. On Saturday, J and I left our coats at home while we ventured into Boston for an afternoon Bruins game, and it felt colder in the ice-cool arena than it did outside. On Sunday, we wore light jackets while taking a sun-drenched afternoon walk to Cold Spring Park and back, and we weren’t the only ones out for a Sunday stroll: along the way we passed dog-walkers, joggers, playground basketball players, and countless pedestrians who didn’t seem to mind getting their feet muddy.

“Did you get any good pictures,” one passerby asked upon seeing J’s and my cameras. “Not really,” J admitted; “Just pictures of mud,” I added. Under the spell of spotty-spring, even pictures of mud look wonderful: a mundane sight we’ve longed for over the seemingly interminable winter months. Mud season isn’t the loveliest time in New England, but we year-rounders relish it regardless.

Muddy fields

Spotty-spring is the season when abandoned objects emerge from months of isolation. Along our Sunday stroll, J and I saw a half-dozen weathered tennis balls that had overwintered in snow-drifts after having been dropped by neighborhood dogs; along muddy, melting curbs, we spotted sodden gloves, months-old newspapers, and other snow-soaked detritus. Knee-deep snowdrifts serve as a kind of time capsule, hoarding last year’s litter under a blanket of cold. These intermittent days of spotty-spring are when cast-off things and weather-worn humans alike come out of isolation, daring to bare themselves under the white-hot glare of an afternoon sun.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Isolation. Click here to see the complete photo-set from yesterday’s spotty-spring stroll. Enjoy!